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Hunter's Blood

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Welcome to Camelot, dear readers. A land of bliss and contentment – of a sort. A land free from magic and the people who wield it – not quite. A land with creatures of fantasy, kings and queens and princes and servants. Where knights partake of epic quests and battle dangerous evil doers. Where destiny can take a man to the ends of the world and back again. Where a prince and his manservant can be joined by fate – both kicking and screaming along the way. Allow me to introduce you to Prince Arthur Pendragon and his mostly-faithful manservant, Merlin. Two sides of the same coin – or so they say. Prince Arthur – blond, blue-eyed and a particularly tasty portrayal of the male gender. His chivalry only matched by his utter prattishness and absolute loyalty to those who may or may not deserve it. Merlin – dark haired, blue-eyed and lean in a graceful way. His loyalty met in equal measures by his stubbornness and belief in the good of man, even when there is none to find. Both men joined by fate, destiny and a love of chicken – here we begin our tale. I hope, dear readers, that you find yourself content in the web being woven for you as you peek into the lives of young Arthur and Merlin...

~

"Stop squirming, Merlin."

"I'm not squirming. I'm avoiding being stabbed to death." Merlin protested.

Arthur rolled his eyes. "It's a pin, Merlin. I hardly think it's anywhere in the realm of a 'lethal weapon'. Besides, I'm not poking you."

"Not poking me?! I feel like I've run naked through a briar patch!"

Arthur grinned around the pin in his mouth. "I'm sorry, what was that? I couldn't make that out. You'll have to speak up."

Merlin's arms flailed through the seemingly endless yards of fabric that were muffling his protests and insults. He flinched as another pin jabbed him near the top of his leg. "OW! You did that on purpose!"

"I did no such thing, Merlin. Such actions are below me. Now hold still or I might do it again."

Merlin stilled, barely able to make out the shape of Arthur who was somewhere in front of him with the miniature swords. "I don't see why I'm doing this anyway. This is an absolutely ridiculous idea."

"It's a brilliant idea." Arthur leaned over and threaded another pin through the fabric surrounding his irate manservant.

"You're only saying that because it's your idea."

"True. That doesn't make it any less of a brilliant idea." Arthur guided the final pin in and stood back to survey his progress. "Right, I think that about does it. You can take it off now. Gently. I don't want any of the pins to fall out."

Merlin tried to figure out the gentlest way to emerge from the prickly mass of material without further injuring himself. "I uh, don't suppose you could help a little, sire? Please?" Merlin wasn't above begging to avoid further injury. Especially when there was a large concentration of vicious looking pins around a part of Merlin that seemed to be retracting of its own volition, as though it knew it was in danger and was attempting to hide. Merlin wished he had the same ability. He felt a hand grasp his leg and looked down to see Arthur slowly and carefully bunching up the fabric. Merlin heaved a silent sigh of relief when Arthur's hands finally edged over his hips, the majority of the danger passing with them. He moved his own hands down to help, but yelped when one was slapped.

"Don't touch anything. You'll ruin it. Just stand there and wait until I get you out," Arthur sniped and resumed peeling Merlin from his prison.

Merlin grumped, "I don't see how girls do this all the time. It's torture."

"That, Merlin, is because most girls have more sense than you. And all of them are capable of standing still for longer than three seconds without squirming like some animal's run loose in their breeches." Arthur smiled in triumph as he lifted the last layer off Merlin and carefully made his way over to the table, which was strewn with snippets of lace and frills.

"Most girls don't wear breeches," Merlin mumbled as he took stock of his injuries. Arthur pretended to ignore him and went to lay the bundle down, only there didn't seem to be a clear spot. He looked expectantly over at Merlin, who was examining his midriff and the speckling of red dots over it in dismay.

"Didn't poke me, huh?" Merlin glared over at Arthur, who was still looking at him with raised eyebrows. "What?"

"The table, Merlin. Clear it, so I can put this down." Arthur shook his head at Merlin, who started clearing a spot for Arthur's burden. Arthur gently placed the bundle of fabric on the table and stood back, a proud smile on his face.

"Doesn't look like much, does it?" Merlin rubbed absently at his stomach with a tilted head as he tried to see what Arthur meant by 'finished'.

"It will when it's sewn." Arthur glared over at Merlin.

"Really? That's going to magically turn from a pile of mismatched fabric and… I don't even know what that is… into a dress?" Merlin gestured derisively at said 'dress'.

Arthur folded his arms and put a little more heat behind his glare. "Yes, Merlin. That is going to be a dress. Your dress."

Merlin's shoulders dropped and he looked resignedly over at his master. "I think I hate you."

Merlin's obvious discomfort with Arthur's brilliant plan brightened the prince's mood. "I believe you've stated that, quite emphatically. Nonetheless, you're still wearing it." Arthur's smile widened at Merlin's groan.

"Why can't you get one of your knights to wear this? I'm sure they'd be happy to assist you with this 'brilliant' plan of yours," Merlin asked hopefully.

"And I've told you, none of them would be able to pass as a girl. They'd all look like a man wearing a dress. You're the only one… small enough to get away with it." Arthur quickly hid his smirk behind a serious expression.

Merlin wasn't fooled. "Something tells me 'small' isn't the word you're looking for."

Arthur struggled to maintain a serious expression. "Well, you have to admit it. You are a bit… dainty."

Merlin's mouth gaped in an 'o' of outrage as he glared at Arthur, who promptly burst into laughter. "I am not bloody dainty," Merlin huffed. "At least I'm not the one who needs to parade around in a ridiculous amount of clothing in pretty colours." Merlin stalked over to the table and started cleaning up the unused bits.

"Oh come on, Merlin. I know you're manly… ish." Arthur ducked the bob of lace tossed at his head. "You throw like a girl, though."

Merlin switched tactics to ignoring the extremely annoying and prattish prince who continued to giggle behind him, which Merlin considered to be very girlish. He swept the snips of material and loose threads into a basket with his arm and stomped over to pick up the lace bob that unfortunately missed smiting the still-snickering brat. Then this plan would never have to happen and Merlin wouldn't have to humiliate himself by wearing a dress. Not that he'd call the mangled heap of cloth a dress. He hoped Arthur nicked a vein while sewing and bled to death all over his 'pretty dress'. That'd teach him. Sewing wasn't a very manly hobby, if you asked him. Merlin suddenly imagined borrowing some of Morgana's cosmetics and sneaking into Arthur's chamber while he slept and painting his face garishly. He stifled a snort at that and went back to tidying. Arthur glanced over at him suspiciously. Merlin ignored him and picked up the last of the extras. "I'll leave you to your sewing then, sire." Merlin grinned as he left Arthur's chambers.

Arthur frowned at his suddenly cheerful servant as he left and suppressed a desire to shudder. It was ridiculous to be afraid of the scrawny idiot, but sometimes there was a mischievous gleam in Merlin's eye that worried him. Arthur shook off his imagined dread and turned to his masterpiece. Merlin was obviously blind as well as mentally afflicted if he couldn't see how wonderful this dress would be when he'd finished with it.

Arthur had picked up sewing in his early teens when he'd been out on extended hunting trips with his father and Morgana. He'd torn his breeches and had made the mistake of dropping them in Morgana's lap and telling her to 'do what girls do' and sew them for him. Taking his bow and going off into the forest to catch some small game for their dinner, he'd come back with two pheasants and a hare only to discover that Morgana had cut out the stitching of every garment he wasn't wearing. After Uther had stopped laughing, which Arthur thought took far too long considering the seriousness of the situation, he'd meted out his 'punishment'. Morgana and Arthur were to stay at camp the next day and miss out on the hunt. Morgana, for her part, was to teach Arthur to sew by mending his ripped breeches. Arthur, for his, was to learn to sew and mend his own garments, minus the breeches Morgana was mending. When Uther had come back to camp late that afternoon and seen Arthur sitting miserably in possibly the worst stitched pair of breeches and tunic, he'd burst out laughing again. Arthur was forced to wear his horribly assembled outfit back to Camelot, his cheeks burning the entire way. As soon as he was in his chambers, he'd ripped off the offending clothes and stood naked and humiliated, glaring at the discarded pile. It was at that moment that Arthur first showed the tenacity that he exudes along with his confidence. He refused to be beaten by something a girl could easily do. Wrapping himself in a robe, he had called for a servant to bring him a sewing kit. For two weeks, Arthur stayed in his chambers, stitching and unstitching the tunic and breeches. At the end of it, he could barely tell the difference between his stitching and that of any of his other clothing. Proudly, he'd put the outfit back on and had gone to dinner in it. Uther had raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Morgana had smirked, but nodded in acknowledgement.

Arthur grinned at the memory. He may have learned the hard way, but he'd bloody well learned. He was doing this himself to avoid Morgana somehow finding out. He knew she'd pester him to be involved; possibly as the bait, and that just wasn't going to happen. Putting Merlin in peril was already grating at Arthur's brain. If Arthur thought he could have feasibly passed as female, he would have been the bait himself, but as he'd stated to Merlin; he would just look like a man in a dress, albeit a very pretty man in a dress. Threading a needle, he set about creating his 'masterpiece', his mind already trying to figure out how best to hide Merlin's face and where one could possibly purchase a wig in Camelot. Arthur had serious doubts there was a wig made in all of Albion that would be able to hide Merlin's ears. They'd have to make do with what was available.

~

"Get that stuff away from me!" Merlin blocked Arthur's arm with his own as he hastily backed away.

Arthur proceeded to corner Merlin beside his wardrobe. "If you don't stop flailing, I'm going to dump most of this on you."

"It smells like a dung heap!" Merlin cringed, trying to edge himself behind the wardrobe.

"It does not! I paid good money for this." Arthur frowned, bringing the bottle to his nose and giving it a small sniff. It was rather pungent, but the merchant he'd purchased it from assured him that after a small amount of time, the harshness wore off and it smelled like a field of flowers. Arthur had never smelled a field quite like this, but since he didn't run around randomly sniffing meadows, he'd taken the merchant at his word. The horrified and disgusted look on Merlin's face told him he may have been cheated. "It's supposed to smell like wildflowers."

Merlin snorted. "Sure, a whole field of wild manure flowers."

Arthur's frown deepened as he took in his manservant, who had managed to utilize his scrawniness and was now mostly crammed between the large wardrobe and the wall. "I hope you get stuck."

"You'd get me out. Who else would you get to humiliate if I waste away to nothing back here?"

Arthur's frown lifted as he put the stopper back in the bottle and placed it on a table. "To say that you would waste away implies that you have anything to waste, Merlin." He walked over to stand with arms crossed as he studied Merlin, who had almost managed to come out the other side. "You're unbelievable. You do know that, right?"

Merlin wriggled out from the other side of the wardrobe, catching his foot and tripping to land by Arthur's foot with an 'oomph'. "I believe it's been made clear to me before, sire." Merlin grinned cheekily up at Arthur, who fought the urge to answer with his own grin. "I'll borrow some of Morgana's… if I even need it at all."

"I'm trying to avoid her finding out what we're doing, Merlin. She's wound up about this enough. If she knew what we had planned, she'd lead the bloody charge out in nothing but her knickers." Arthur cringed at the thought. Morgana was a lovely woman, but over the last couple years his interest had gone from admiring her as a female to feeling as though she was part of his family. And this wasn't Northumbria. You don't do those sorts of things to your family members in Camelot. He had it on good authority that the current King and Queen of Northumbria were first cousins. It explained, in Arthur's mind, why most of the Northumbrian nobility looked as though they were related to a horse. Or possibly a Wilderen.

"She's just worried about Gwen." Merlin's grin dimmed. Thankfully, nothing had happened to Guinevere. Yet. But with some unknown entity wandering the streets of the lower town of Camelot during the dark hours and stealing its women, there was always a possibility that Guinevere could be next. Morgana had taken to requesting her maid to stay at the castle under the guise of needing someone to ease her nightmares. No one was fooled by the thinly veiled excuse, but no one was willing to contest it and deal with Morgana's wrath.

"As am I. Which is why this plan needs to work. Seven girls have been abducted within a fortnight. Every second night, one goes missing. There've been whispers that it's foreign slavers. Tonight's the second night, Merlin. Whatever or whoever they are, this is going to end." Arthur's face was lined with resolve. Resolve to not let down his people, his kingdom. True, it wasn't his yet, but Arthur considered that a triviality. You don't start to care about your people when a crown is placed on your head. His responsibility wasn't a convenience, and he refused to treat it as such. He heaved a sigh and glanced over at Merlin, who had pulled himself to his feet and was picking cobwebs out of his hair. "Seems you've been remiss in your cleaning duties, eh Merlin?"

Merlin blinked at Arthur. "Who cleans behind wardrobes? No one goes back there."

Arthur smirked. "Mostly no one. Only scrawny, disobedient manservants."

"I'm not scrawny," Merlin huffed. "I'm just… lean."

Arthur covered his mouth and muffled 'dainty' with a cough. From the heated glare being directed at him, he didn't think he'd done a very good job of camouflaging it. "There are a few hours before dark. Go grab some dinner for us both while I put the finishing touches on your dress. We'll get you outfitted after." Merlin stalked off, muttering something about prats and princes with overly large heads as he went to do as he was ordered. Arthur unrolled the dress he'd been working on, a flutter of pride in his chest. It was one thing to stitch things together that had already been stitched. It was a completely different thing to make something from nothing. He doubted he'd win any prizes for fashion, but it would serve its purpose. Its purpose being disguising his gangly manservant as a gangly female. Shaking it out, he settled on the corner of his bed and set about finishing what needed to be finished so that it would be ready for Merlin to go out and be bait tonight. Another flutter went through Arthur's chest, completely separate from the emotion of pride. Arthur refused to name it as fear.

~

"Don't laugh."

Arthur rolled his eyes at the figure hidden behind the changing screen. "Oh come on, Merlin. As previously stated, it's my brilliant idea. You can't look that ridiculo-…" Arthur's words trailed off as Merlin emerged from behind the screen, face and eyes lowered and a blush blazing across his cheeks and up to his ears. Which, Arthur was right, were not hidden by the wig, although with the surplus of hair, they looked less enlarged and more... elfin. They'd gone with a dark one, similar to the colour of Merlin's own hair in case there were any escaping wisps. It was long and soft and curled into soft rings at the ends. The sheer amount of it brought out the milky paleness of Merlin's skin, making his eyes seem like they held different depths of blue, making them more noticeable than they normally were – when Merlin finally raised them to gauge Arthur's reaction. The dress helped, being a medley of dark and light blues, to bring out small spots of a light blue Arthur hadn't noticed in Merlin's eyes before. The fabric was light, but plentiful; the bodice hugging curves Arthur hadn't noticed either. The sleeves were long and belled, trailing against Merlin's fingers, adding to their delicate appearance. The skirt was panelled, the lighter blue layered over the darker and adding length to Merlin's already tall frame. The waist was cinched by the bodice, letting the skirt ripple outward as he moved. When he stopped, it settled softly against his legs. Merlin had obviously been worrying his lips, since they were both rosy and plump looking. Arthur's tongue flicked out to wet his own as he struggled for something to say. Anything. "You're actually quite pretty." Arthur groaned internally, since that was the wrong anything to say. "For a boy dressed up like a girl." There, that was better.

Merlin smirked, making his lips look entirely too enticing. "And the dress is actually quite nice," he paused as he ran slender fingers down the material, "for having been made by you. I expected more glitter and stones. Maybe some feathers."

Arthur twitched his lips and gave Merlin a wicked grin. "It's not too late to add a few things."

Merlin paled, eyes widening as he held out both hands. "No, no. It's good. Very pretty. Just the way it is, sire."

"You're supposed to be passing as a townswoman. When have you seen any of them wearing anything with gemstones and feathers? Although, if it was winter, I might have added some fur trim…" Arthur mused, ignoring Merlin's indignant snort. Arthur smiled and lifted his hand to twirl his finger around. Merlin stared at him in confusion. "Turn around, Merlin. I want to see what it's like all the way around."

Merlin did some eye-rolling of his own as he moved in a slow circle for Arthur to see the full effect. Arthur refused to acknowledge that in a dress, Merlin had a rather nice looking arse. He blamed it on the material and his amazing sewing abilities. He also refused to admit that Merlin made a rather pretty girl. It was, of course, due to him being a ridiculous parody of a male, or so Arthur told himself. He was most certainly not noticing how Merlin seemed more graceful when his limbs were hidden by material that brought out his definitely-not-lovely eyes. "Satisfied?"

Arthur nodded, then went over to the chair and grabbed the cloak Merlin was to use while wandering the lower streets. "Here you are, Marie." He was amused by how differently Merlin's glare looked when surrounded by long hair. It seemed both less and more, if that made any sense. They'd decided that Merlin needed a female's name; in case anyone in town conversed with him or if Arthur or one of the knights had to interact with him while they were incognito. Arthur and a small contingent of his knights would be dressed as labourers, rough clothes and cloaks hiding their light armour and weaponry. They'd be trailing Merlin as he wandered the streets, trying to draw the attention of whoever had been nabbing the females.

Merlin snatched the cloak and swung it about to settle over his shoulders. "Have I mentioned how much I hate you?"

"I believe that's come up before, yes. Now stop frowning, Marie. You'll get wrinkles." Arthur laughed as he ducked the blow aimed at him and grabbed his own cloak. Walking over to his chamber door, he opened it and swept a low bow, "After you, milady."

Two spots of colour burned on Merlin's face as he stomped over to the open door. "I don't know how and I don't know when, but I will get you back for this… sire." Merlin glared down his nose at a still laughing Arthur before storming out of the room and down the hall. Arthur thought Merlin might have been taking lessons from Morgana on dramatic exits.

~

They managed to leave the castle and make their way to town without being noticed by anyone, Arthur meeting up with his knights at a predefined location. Merlin split off from the group and started wandering through the town by himself, stopping at certain shops to look over trinkets he thought girls would probably look over. As the sun began to set, the merchants and citizens that frightened easily were already packing up and heading home to bar themselves in. The veteran merchants brazenly kept their shops and stalls open after night fell in open defiance of the fear lacing the town. Arthur and his knights spread out over the streets on either side of Merlin, conversing with the more brave residents who were adamantly trying not to let fear alter their routines. Arthur noticed the only women that braved the streets were well into their prime, not concerned in the slightest that they'd be of any interest to any slavers or creatures. Merlin ducked into and out of some of the more respectable taverns, keeping sure to avoid the less reputable areas of Camelot. Considering how strictly Arthur enforced the guards and patrolling of Camelot, it was hard pressed to be the mire of scum and poverty that most large cities boasted. They passed the next few hours in this way, Merlin stopping at a tavern and talking with the townspeople while Arthur and his knights kept an eye out for anything suspicious. A few times, Arthur or one of his knights had had to come to 'Marie's' aid when one of the townsfolk would insist a little too hard on escorting 'her' home. For her safety, of course. Usually while he was gripping Merlin's waist a little too hard or too low for the actual meaning to be lost. At which point a member of Arthur's group would come strolling along and rescue 'Marie', thanking the man for attempting to aid his 'sister', but that they could take it from there. Merlin shuddered at the look of undisguised lust in the faces of some of his would-be rescuers and thanked every deity that existed that he'd been born a man. He wondered what the look on their faces would be if they found out they'd been hitting on the prince's manservant. He snorted, drawing a look from Sir Leon, who had just finished sending another 'good Samaritan' on his way.

"You know, Marie, this would be a lot easier if you weren't enticing so much 'assistance'." Leon grinned.

Merlin sniffed, glowering over at him. "I'm not enticing anyone. I'm just talking. I'm of the sound belief that the men of Camelot are all perverted letches who need a lesson in manners."

This earned him a laugh from the usually stoic Sir Leon. "I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit. You make an absolutely lovely and convincing woman."

Merlin frowned and turned away from Leon. "I'm not dainty."

"I never said you were." Leon raised an eyebrow.

"You were thinking it." Folding his arms across his chest, Merlin tossed his head, causing the longer strands of hair to fly over his shoulder in a particularly feminine way. Changing the subject, Merlin looked up at Leon from under long lashes, "Do you think whatever's taking the women will fall for me as bait?"

Leon blinked at the almost coy look Merlin was giving him, then mentally shook himself as he realised Merlin was just being Merlin. No flirtation intended. "I think you've fooled half the town into believing you're female – and a desirable one at that. I don't see why you wouldn't be an adequate target for our foe."

The smile that lit up Merlin's face seemed brighter than it did when he wasn't playing a girl. "Well, as long as some good comes out of this humiliation, I suppose I can live with it." Merlin sighed overdramatically.

Leon smirked and patted him on the shoulder. "Think of it this way – it's for the good of Camelot." Ignoring the indignant snort, Leon made his way back to his seemingly aimless wanderings about town.

~

It was coming up to midnight when it happened. One minute Merlin was walking along a deserted street, grumbling unhappily to himself about pig-headed princes and dresses that didn't keep one nearly warm enough – the next, he felt himself jerked into the shadows between two shops. A hand was over his mouth to keep any screams from leaving it and Merlin almost gagged at the smell coming from it. The flesh on the fingers was a rancid brown colour, mottled with dark spots and carrying a decaying sweet smell reminiscent of corpses. The fingers seemed cadaverously skeletal, but the fragility of their appearance was belied by the strength with which they held Merlin. Another arm was wrapped tightly around Merlin's waist, holding him rigidly. Merlin struggled and kicked at the body behind him, but it was like kicking a stone wall and just as effective. He heard a hissing in his ear and felt something cold burrow through the wig to rest on his neck. A second later he realised whatever had hold of him was smelling him. And if the tightening of the body behind him or the almost contended sigh it gave was any indication, it liked what it smelled. For a brief moment, Merlin wished he'd let Arthur douse him with that repulsive perfume. Merlin struggled harder, his yells muffled by the unmoving hand. He knew Arthur and the knights would be coming, since it had probably looked like he'd disappeared into thin air, but since he wasn't sure what held him, let alone what it wanted, that thought did little to comfort him. Merlin felt himself dragged further into the shadows as one of the knights passed them, obviously searching for Merlin. Something scraped on his neck, dragging painfully before Merlin felt icy trickles of fear down his spine as the realisation that he might not be found in time hit him. Running out of time and ideas, he did what came naturally to him; he used his magic. Fuelled by fear and desperation, it may have come out a bit stronger than he'd intended, but it certainly did the trick. Both he and his captor were suddenly catapulted out of the shadows and into the almost empty street; almost empty but for the seven worried knights and the one irate and frantic prince.

There were exclamations of surprise as the duo landed roughly on the ground, Merlin feeling the crush of whatever held him as it stayed fixed to his back. One of the knights, Sir Gawain, had a torch and from Merlin's view, which was from the ground and at an angle, it seemed like Gawain was brandishing it at him. "Oi!" Merlin squirmed to try to get away from both the body on top of him and the fiery brand being prodded in his direction. Leon moved close enough to reach down and grab his arm, pulling Merlin away from what had attacked him. The knights had formed a circle around Merlin and their prey, now tightening it as Merlin was removed from harm's way. Brushing hair out of his face, Merlin peered around Leon's shoulder, finally getting a look at what had grabbed him. He couldn't stop the startled gasp that left his mouth. The creature – for he refused to compare it to a person – was standing upright, hunched into the tattered rags that covered it. The mottled, parchment skin Merlin had noted on the hand covering his mouth wasn't confined to that appendage. Through gaps in the rags and the visible skin on the face and arms, the sickly brown covered it, blotches of rotted mottling speckling it. No hair covered its head, its gauntness displayed in the skeletal features of its face. It hissed at the men encircling it, showing a set of fangs that would make a cobra proud. Spittle flew from its mouth as it continued hissing, using an arm to shield its eyes from the glare of the torch. Eyes that were red and black; red irises with black replacing the whites of a person's eyes. Arthur had his sword drawn – as did all the knights – and he made a feint for the creature. It lashed out with a lightning fast swipe of its hand, fingers curled and baring wicked claws to match its teeth.

Drawing the circle in closer, the knights held their swords at the ready, waiting for the command from their leader. They didn't have to wait long. Each knight plunged their sword into the tattered creature before them. Each knight let out a sound of surprise as they had to pull hastily back to avoid skewering one another. The creature had dissipated, reforming out of the circle; and close to Merlin. Its eyes fastened on Merlin, who was back-peddling away without noticing – until he hit the wall of the shop behind him. The knights moved into a half circle, the shop and Merlin keeping them from completing their circle. "Merlin," Arthur called softly, "don't make any sudden movements."

Merlin turned wide-eyes to Arthur. "Wasn't on my list of things-to-do, sire." Keeping his back against the wall, Merlin bent down slowly, locking his eyes on the creature in front of him.

"What are you doing, you idiot! I said don't move!" Arthur hissed, causing the creature to turn to him and answer with a hiss of its own.

Merlin stretched his fingers out until they caught the wood of the still-burning torch that Sir Gawain had dropped when he'd pulled his sword. Inching it over, he finally pulled it close enough to grasp, feeling slightly better with the torch than without it. "No, sire, you said 'no sudden movements'. That was anything but sudden." Merlin braced his back on the stone and used it to lever himself up again. Standing there, armed only with a measly stick that was on fire, Merlin felt slightly better about his situation.

The creature flicked its eyes between Merlin's face and the fire in his hand. Merlin suddenly clued in to the fact that while it may scoff swords and be all but unaffected by them, it seemed to have an issue with fire. Merlin waved it tentatively in its direction, satisfied when it cringed back. "What is it?" Gawain asked.

"I don't have the slightest. But the odds of there being two things nabbing the women lead me to believe this is our culprit. I say we kill it." Arthur twirled his sword, placing himself at a better angle for a heart-blow.

"Your swords don't seem to have that much of an effect... sire." Merlin kept waving the torch between himself and the creature, which still seemed intent on Merlin and only Merlin.

"You have a suggestion, Marie?" Arthur asked sweetly, grinning at the scowl that crawled on Merlin's face as most of the knight's snorted in amusement.

"As a matter of fact, sire, I do." And with that, he tossed the flaming torch at the creature.

It held out one frail-looking arm to ward off the blow, but that only deflected it down to its tattered robes; which promptly burst into flame. The creature gave off a shriek of pain and rage, arms flailing madly as it tried to put out the fire. Merlin used its distraction to sidle along the wall and back over to the knights, noticing the relief on Arthur's face as he was no longer cut off from him and his men. Another horrible screeching wail came from the creature's mouth before it moved faster than thought – there one moment, then fleeing through the streets the next. The speed it travelled at was impossible to match, causing Arthur and the knights to discontinue their chase a mere two streets into it. They caught brief flickers of it exiting the town and entering the forest, its screams echoing through the empty streets of the sleeping town. Sword still out, Arthur turned and strode back to Merlin. He eyed up his servant for a moment before asking what had been on his mind since he'd seen Merlin falling out of the shadows with that thing clinging to his back like an overgrown leech. "Are you alright?"

Merlin blinked, taking a moment to mentally assess himself. He'd probably have bruises on his stomach from being clung to so tightly while they fell, but otherwise he felt fine. He started to nod when Arthur reached out a hand and brought it to Merlin's neck. Merlin felt Arthur's fingers graze over his neck, which seemed sensitised for some reason – a brief brush of fingers shouldn't feel like that. He noticed the concern on Arthur's face as he looked at his fingers. Pulling them away, he turned his wrist to show them to Merlin. That's when Merlin noticed the blood staining them. Frowning in confusion, he lifted his own hand to touch wounds that caused him no pain. Staring at the blood dripping from his fingers blankly, he finally raised his eyes to Arthur's. "Oh..." Merlin said softly before promptly passing out.

~

Arthur paced mentally, since he couldn't afford to physically show his concern over a mere servant. Even if that servant had somehow managed to become his friend and confidant. He was perched on a rickety stool in the corner of Gaius's workshop, hovering without actually hovering. Arthur had experienced a harder, sharper flutter of fear when Merlin had collapsed. His knights had quickly gathered him up and they'd made for the castle at a good speed. Gaius was asleep – as anyone should be in the middle of the night – but had quickly come alert at the sight of Merlin's unconscious form. He'd made the knights who weren't carrying him drag his bed into the centre of the room so he could examine Merlin properly. He blinked in surprised confusion as he took in the fact that Merlin appeared to be wearing a dress, complete with a long wig. Raising an eyebrow at Arthur, he knelt beside the bed. Running his hands swiftly over the unconscious boy, he ascertained there were no broken bones or internal injuries. Seeing the blood peeking through strands of the wig, Gaius shifted it aside to seek the source. "What happened?"

"We were trying to put an end to the abductions. We'd decided on using Merlin as bait to draw the culprit out. It worked. Only, the thing wasn't human. I think... I think it bit him." Arthur frowned as he gazed down at Merlin, watching Gaius probe the angry looking punctures. Needing something to distract himself, he turned to his still-waiting and concerned looking knights. "Leon, inform the night-watch about this... creature. I want patrols in Camelot doubled. Each pair is to have a torch with them at all times while on duty. Kay, take Gawain and Tristan and make the castle rounds to ensure all the current watch know of the new orders. Gavin, Hector and Broderick, you've done well. You're dismissed for the night. I'll expect all of you to be at the Great Hall to debrief with my father first thing in the morning." Finishing his orders, he turned his attention back to Gaius, who was dabbing lightly at the wounds.

"When you say that you don't think it was human, sire, what do you mean exactly?"

"Just that, Gaius. It was definitely not human. It was like a flesh-covered skeleton with black and red eyes and fangs. Humans do not have fangs like a snake. It moved faster than we could see. One moment, Merlin was walking in our sights, the next he was just gone." Arthur's eyes refused to move from the form of his friend. A small smile flitted on his face, "It didn't seem all that happy when Merlin threw a torch at it. It has some aversion to fire."

Gaius's eyebrows did an intricate dance of sorts as he took this all in. "And the reason Merlin's wearing a dress?"

Arthur blushed. "It was taking girls. We needed a 'girl' as bait. I certainly wasn't going to ask any of the serving maids to volunteer. Besides, it worked." Arthur hated feeling like he had to justify his actions, especially to the elderly physician. He realised that Gaius's concern for Merlin came from a place of love, therefore he felt obligated to explain. "He'll be alright... won't he?"

Gaius used the frame of the bed to help lever himself up. "I don't know, sire. The wounds don't look grievous, but he seems paler; indicating blood loss. I'm reminded of something..." Gaius trailed off as he went over to his books, finger skipping over several titles before an exclamation signified he'd found what he was looking for. Pulling the book out, he went over to the table and opened it. He put his glasses on, sliding them up so they settled comfortably before he began to flip through the brittle pages. The flipping stopped and he began to skim with his finger again, frowning as he read further. "Was this it, sire?" Turning the book so that Arthur could see, he pointed at the picture which depicted a duplicate of what Arthur had seen earlier.

"Yes," Arthur said excitedly. "What is it?"

The heavy sigh that followed his affirmation let him know he wouldn't like what was coming. "It's a vampyre, sire. An undead creature of the darkest arts. They are the end result of necromancers, sorcerers that work with death magic. Over the years of working with such dark and tainted magic, it seeps into the flesh and soul of the person wielding it. When one dies, they rise from their graves as a vampyre. The more powerful the necromancer, the more powerful the vampyre. They are predators, feasting on the blood of the living. The sun is deadly to them, making them nocturnal hunters. Being creatures of dark arts, they cannot be in the presence of religious artefacts. Holy water will wound them. They also cannot bear the touch of pure silver. It says here that a vampyre will make a nest, somewhere enclosed from the light of day. They hunt after dark, abducting and feasting on humans. If their victim dies from the infection a vampyre injects with its bite, they will then rise from the graves themselves as thralls; minions of the vampyre that made them. Thralls also need to feed on the blood of the living." Gaius lifted his eyes to Arthur's. "If there is a vampyre close to Camelot, it will need to be destroyed before the entire town falls prey to it and the children it creates."

Arthur turned to look at Merlin. "It bit him. What does that mean for him?"

Gaius skimmed the next page, brows lifting as he found what he sought. "Since Merlin was not the victim of a true feeding – more of a sampling, the infection has not been properly injected into him. We have time to cleanse the wound."

"What do you need?" Arthur had to do something, anything to keep him busy. To make him feel like he was doing something to help.

"A silver cross from the chapel, as well as a large dose of holy water, sire. I will need to wash the wound with holy water. The wound's reaction to the silver will tell when the infection has been removed successfully." Gaius went back over to the bed, reaching down to tug off the wig that had somehow miraculously stayed put. Giving the wig his best admonishment-by-eyebrow, Gaius set about removing Merlin from the rest of his disguise. Arthur turned to leave, feeling another flutter in his stomach as Gaius started peeling the dress from Merlin.

~

"Hold him down, sire!" Gaius kept a steady stream of holy water flowing over the bubbling wound.

Arthur was using his whole body to hold down Merlin; who still managed to half-lift Arthur off him as he screamed and struggled in an attempt to get away from the pain the holy water was causing him. Tears fell down Merlin's face to mix with the sweat and water that soaked the pillow and bedding. "The scrawny twit is stronger than he looks," Arthur panted out as he grabbed one of Merlin's flailing hands and pinned it beneath him. They had been at this for a good hour, alternating between dousing the wounds with holy water and testing with the cross. The taint of the vampyre had the cross making a sick sizzle when it came into contact with Merlin's torn skin. Merlin had regained consciousness when the first drop of water had hit him. He had screamed himself hoarse after the first fifteen minutes. Arthur thought the pain-filled whimpers and childish begging were almost worse than the screaming. "How much longer, Gaius?" Arthur's stomach was a knot of nausea and guilt at what Merlin was going through. At what Arthur's plan had resulted in. Regardless of the fact that they now knew what they were dealing with, Arthur didn't like the price paid. Not when it was in someone else's pain and suffering. Not when he cared about the person that suffered. Arthur quickly stuffed that thought into the back of his mind.

Gaius's face was a tortured mask at what he was being made to do to Merlin. Even though it was for his own good and would save him from a worse fate, that didn't make listening to the desperate pleadings and pained cries any easier. Brushing away the hair that stuck to Merlin's sweaty brow in a gentle gesture, Gaius held the cross in his other hand. Looking down at Merlin's fear-filled eyes, he whispered, "Almost done, my boy. It's almost over," before pressing the silver into Merlin's reddened and blistered flesh. Merlin had squeezed his eyes in preparation for the pain, but his shocked look was mirrored by Gaius and Arthur when the cross sat silently and painlessly against Merlin's neck. Crying in relief, Merlin tugged on his arm that was still pinned by Arthur. When it was hastily released, he brought it up to cover his eyes as he wept in gratitude that it was over. Arthur pretended not to notice when Gaius swiped a tear away from his own face.

"Is that it? Is it done?" Arthur wanted desperately to be anywhere but here, listening to Merlin's soft sobs. The fluttering in his chest had moved down to settle into the knot in his stomach that twitched and writhed like a living thing with each pained sound that had left Merlin's lips. Merlin had curled up on his side and his thin shoulders shook with the silent cries wracking him. Arthur could hear the stuttered breaths; each one twisting the roiling knot in his stomach.

Gaius knelt by the bed, stroking Merlin's hair. "I believe so, sire. Merlin's been cleansed of the infection and will be fine, if given time to recover." Arthur didn't imagine the censure in the tone. "For now, the boy needs rest."

Arthur heaved an internal sigh of relief as he was given an excuse to leave. "Of course. I'll come by to see how he's doing tomorrow, but he's dismissed from his duties until you feel he's recovered." Arthur turned to go, squashing the desire to do so hastily. Pausing at the door, he looked back at Gaius – who was still kneeling at Merlin's side, comforting him. "Do you need anything else? Food or... something?"

Gaius looked up from Merlin to shake his head slowly at Arthur. "Not at the moment, sire."

"There'll be a guard posted near your room. If you do need anything, you won't have to go far." Arthur felt a little more at ease knowing he was doing something for his manservant. Even if it was by proxy of having someone close at hand to keep Gaius from having to stray far from him.

Gaius nodded before going back to soothing the still shaking boy. "Thank you, sire."

Arthur left, knowing that even though he couldn't hear them anymore, Merlin's sobs and soft whimpers would follow him into a tormented sleep.

~

Arthur finally gave up the pretence of sleeping when he heard the morning changing of the guard. Kicking his blanket off, he lay staring blankly up at the bed's canopy. The few snatches of sleep he'd caught had been filled with nightmares of Merlin's cries and sobs echoing in the dark as the vampyre managed to escape with him. Arthur searching for him and finding him sitting in a clearing in the forest, covered in dirt and glaring at him with red-on-black eyes. Sitting up, he hung his legs over the side of the bed and scrubbed his face with his hands. This was going to be a long day – starting first with the debriefing of last night's debacle with his father. Arthur groaned and hung his head. He got up and began to wash and dress himself for the day, noticing as he did so that he'd never realised how quiet it was in the mornings when Merlin wasn't there to talk his ear off. Arthur decided to check in on Merlin before making his way to the kitchens. Checking with the guard by the physician's quarters, he was informed that it had been a quiet and uneventful night. He knocked lightly on the door, not wanting to wake Merlin or Gaius if either was sleeping. He heard movement on the other side and was shortly greeted with the sight of a weary-looking Gaius. "Sire."

"How is he?" Arthur reminded himself that it wouldn't be very appropriate for him to push Gaius out of the way to allow him to see Merlin for himself.

"He's still sleeping. His colour's coming back and I managed to get some broth in him last night. It seems there won't be any lasting damage from his ordeal." Gaius said in a low voice. "Have you given your father your report, sire?"

Arthur told himself he was not adjusting his position to try to sneak a peek inside the room, his back was just sore from a night of tossing and turning. "I thought it best to check on Merlin first. I want to be able to apprise my father of the entire situation."

Gaius smiled. "Of course, sire. I'm sure he'll be up in a few hours, if you'd like to check his condition yourself."

Arthur cleared his throat and twisted his ring on his finger. "Right. I'll come by just before midday. As lazy as he is, he couldn't possibly sleep that long." Turning on his heel, he made his way down the hall, ignoring the chuckle he heard before the door closed. Arthur made his way quickly down to the kitchens, grabbing a hasty breakfast to eat as he prepared to meet with his father and his knights. Cramming the last of the cheese in his mouth, he rounded the corner to the throne room and saw all seven of the knights he'd taken last night waiting silently.

They all looked over at him as he strode up, a question on each of their faces. Leon was the one to voice it. "How is Merlin, sire?"

"Sleeping. Gaius says he'll recover fully." Arthur heard the collective sigh of relief at the good news.

"What was that thing, sire?" Gawain ran a hand through his short, reddish-blond hair. "I've never heard of or seen anything like that before."

As Arthur opened his mouth to answer, the doors to the throne room were opened and they were ushered in to stand before the King. The knights stood in a solid line against Arthur's back as he gave his report to Uther. When he got to Gaius's discovery of what the creature was, he saw the disgust curl his father's lips into a sneer. "The worst creature of all – a sorcerer who refuses to die. You will find a way to kill this thing and whatever others it may have spawned. I will not have a magical creature wandering freely through my kingdom." Uther speared Arthur with a look that brooked no argument.

Arthur gave a sharp nod, noticing how Uther had failed to mention that he wouldn't have a magical creature harming his people. "Of course, father. I'll take a larger contingent of men into the woods to look for its nest. We will need to borrow some items from the chapel, with your permission."

Uther gave a perfunctory nod which Arthur took as permission and a dismissal. Leaving, he tipped his head at his knights to follow after him. He addressed Leon as they made their way through the castle to the barracks. "I want you to send three men to the chapel – we need all crosses and icons that are able to be easily carried. Tell them to also fill as many flasks as they can carry with water. Get the priest to bless each flask. I also want any silver daggers brought to the barracks. Ornamental or not, they'll do more good than our swords did. We may have had ineffective weapons last night, but I can promise you that we'll show no quarter during our next confrontation."

Leon nodded before dropping back to confer with Gawain, Broderick and Hector. Hector split off to go and grab the men to raid the chapel, Gawain to procure the water flasks to bring to the priest for blessing. Broderick left to see about gathering up a silver arsenal. Leon lengthened his stride to catch back up to Arthur. "Anything else, sire?"

Arthur looked over at Leon. "Go to Gaius's and ask him if there's anything else about this vampyre we need to know. Anything that will give us an advantage."

Leon nodded, falling back to take the corridor to the physician's quarters. Arthur arrived at the barracks with Gavin, Tristan and Kay and set the three knights to the task of selecting the guards to accompany them that afternoon. Arthur gave the Captain the information he needed to pass on to the rest of the guards and knights. They were going to be prepared for the vampyre. Notices were made and posted in the town commons to inform the residents of what exactly was plaguing them and the precautions they could take to avoid being attacked themselves. The morning passed in a flurry for Arthur as he and the knights equipped and readied themselves for the hunt. Because that's what it was; a heavily armed hunting party going out to put down a rabid beast that was terrorising the kingdom. Arthur turned at the tap on his shoulder as he was stuffing provisions into his saddlebag. "Gaius would like to talk to you, sire. I think he needs some help convincing Merlin to stay in bed instead of trying to come down and saddle his own horse to come with us." Leon rolled his eyes.

Arthur felt the coiled tension in his shoulders lessen; a tension he hadn't even realised was there. If Leon was able to poke fun at Merlin, he must be better than he had been when Arthur had left last night. He shook his head to stop the memory of Merlin crying from surfacing. Grumbling to himself about idiot manservants that didn't know their head from their arses, he took off for Gaius's quarters with Leon chuckling behind him. Arriving at Gaius's door, he opened it without knocking and strode in, eyes focusing on Merlin – who was sitting at the table spooning stew into his mouth. "Merlin, what is this ridiculous nonsense I'm hearing about you trying to come with us? Your obvious mental affliction must have worsened during the night if you somehow think you'd be any use to me during a hunt."

Merlin spluttered indignantly through a mouthful and tried to hastily swallow to answer. "I could so be useful!"

"As what? Some huddled lump on the ground for me to trip over?" Arthur stood with his hands folded across his arms, a prattish expression on his face. Leon stood behind Arthur and to the side, doing his best to look like he wasn't listening.

"I did fine last night with the torch." Merlin glared at Arthur, also folding his arms as he retorted petulantly.

"Right. Fine, hmm? Certainly. You did a brilliant job of shoving your neck in its mouth. I especially liked the part where you fainted... like a girl." Arthur noticed that yes, Merlin's colour had come back. That was evident by the two circles of red staining his cheeks as Merlin was building up a fine temper. Arthur decided to ignore the blatant disrespect being shown a member of royalty in deference to being satisfied that Merlin was capable of such an act. It showed he really was back to normal. Well, as normal as Merlin could be.

"I'm not the one who had the wonderfully brilliant idea of dressing me up like a girl in the first place, you bloody prat."

"When are you going to get it through that thick head of yours that you cannot talk to me like that, you bumbling moron."

"Can and did...sire." Merlin dragged out the 'sire' so that somehow he managed to make it sound like 'pig-brained sodding arse'. Arthur quirked a brow.

"Merlin!" Gaius admonished from across the table. "Ill or not, that is no way to talk to anyone, let alone Prince Arthur." Gaius lowered his chin, peering at Merlin from above the rim of his spectacles.

The two spots of colour spread as Merlin blushed in embarrassment, ducking his head. "I apologise, sire." Ah, he'd only managed to make that sound like 'pretentious git'. An improvement.

Arthur chose to ignore the implied insult. "Obviously you're still not quite well, which is further proof that you're in no condition to assist me in any way, shape or form." Arthur kept the grin to himself as he noticed Merlin choke back another barrage. "Of course, if you're mending so quickly, I will expect you to be back at your duties tomorrow." Smiling smugly at Merlin, who was biting his lip to stay quiet, he turned his attention to Gaius. "I take it you've briefed Leon accordingly?"

Leon moved up to Arthur's side, glad of the subject change. "I believe so, sire. We haven't managed to go through all of the lore on the creatures, but we have discovered the ways to kill it. Silver will harm and incapacitate it. Holy water will burn it. Sunlight will kill it, so if we can find the lair during the day, all we need to do is drag it into a patch of sun. Decapitation will work as well. And no matter the way it dies, it's best to burn the bodies completely, since it does indeed have a weakness against fire. This also applies to any thralls found; though they won't be as strong or fast as the vampyre."

Gaius motioned a hand to the three tomes he had splayed in front of him on his worktable. "The legends and stories surrounding these creatures are wide-spread and plentiful. There are numerous encounters and triumphs over them, as well as notations of entire villages and kingdoms wiped out by a single vampyre and its nest of thralls. Do not let your guard down around it or its children, sire. It is extremely dangerous. Some tales have told of the vampyres being able to use its gaze to enchant a victim into letting it feed from them." Gaius lifted his spectacles off to rub at tired eyes. "I'll continue to research what I can of it, though hopefully today will be fruitful and it won't be necessary."

"We've armed ourselves with what we can. When we come across it – and we will – there will be quite a different outcome from last night." Arthur's eyes strayed to the bandages around Merlin's neck. Oh yes, he was prepared to meet the creature again, equipped with better knowledge of how to kill it. Arthur left with Leon behind him, both men's faces set in grim lines of determination as they prepared to go forth and end the life of a monster.

~

Ending the life of a monster may be easier said than done, since one would have to find the bloody thing to kill it. Even with the best trackers in Camelot, they couldn't find a trace of the vampyre. With an hour left until dusk, Arthur called a halt to the search and ordered them to head back to the castle. Having not found the creature, it was sure to try to take another girl tonight since its last meal had been interrupted. They rode back to Camelot, double file, frustrated with their failure at ending this quickly. As Arthur dismounted, he ordered the groomsmen to keep the saddlebags packed and for the horses to be saddled and ready first thing in the morning. Making his way up the steps to the castle, he wondered what would anger his father more about his not killing the vampyre swiftly – the probability that more of his people would die, or that a magical creature roamed his lands. Arthur figured on the latter. Pulling off his gloves and stuffing them through his belt, he strode into the throne room to report.

As expected, his father was furious that the creature still existed. Not because of the harm it would do to the residents, but because it dared to taint Uther's kingdom with magic. Its mere existence was a slap in the face to the king. Arthur would love to say that his father was a reasonable man and a good king, but when the subject of magic and the people who wielded it came up – reason failed to enter the equation.

Entering his room, Arthur took a brief second to register that he mightpossiblyprobablynot miss Merlin's lopsided grin greeting him before turning and calling for a cold dinner to be brought. Divesting himself of his light armour, he ignored the servant who entered his chambers and hurriedly placed his dinner on the table. Arthur sat at his table alone, staring at nothing as he went over plans for tomorrow in his head while he ate – avidly trying to keep his mind occupied so that it wouldn't go over all the things he was insisting weren't possible.

The fact that he was concerned over the fate and well-being of a servant was ridiculous. Especially when that servant was absolutely rubbish at his job. Mostly. Well, he had become rather adept at polishing and keeping good repair of his armour and sword. He also took a hit better than most of the servants in the castle. Not that Arthur made a habit of walking around beating the servants. It's just that so few of them had the temerity and stubbornness to get up after they'd been knocked down during practice. And he did prove to be a good travelling companion for dangerous and foolhardy missions. Arthur attributed this to Merlin being more foolhardy than most. He had a mental image of Merlin scowling and calling him a prat in retaliation. Arthur smirked. To be fair, Merlin was almost painfully loyal. Once he'd given you his friendship and trust, he'd walk through fire for someone he cared for. Arthur paused and thought over that statement. Merlin had gone to some incredible lengths for him... and it made him wonder in what way Merlin cared for him. Not that he cared at all if Merlin did. If he did... Arthur shook his head and pushed himself away from the table. These were not thoughts he needed to be concerning himself with right now. He had a monster to slay tomorrow and he needed to be rested and prepared for that. Shucking his breeches and tunic, he yanked on a pair of bedclothes leggings and pulled the top cover of his bedding down. Arthur crawled into bed, not realising until he lay down how exhausting today had been. As he let his body finally relax, his thoughts flew free from the restraint he'd put on them. He thought of how much he did miss having Merlin around, even if only to verbally spar with. None of the other servants dared, and Arthur found it somewhat endearing. It gave him a tiny reprieve from 'noble airs' (or 'noble arses', as Merlin would say).

Arthur let himself acknowledge the fear he'd felt when he'd seen Merlin laying sprawled underneath the vampyre – then when he'd fainted. He had felt completely helpless as he'd led the knights carrying Merlin up to Gaius's quarters. He'd felt even more so during the 'cleansing'. Arthur never wanted to be the cause of that kind of torment to anyone ever again. He never wanted to see Merlin flinch away from him as though expecting pain. Something inside of him cringed and trembled at the thought of Merlin looking at him with apprehension or mistrust – or fear. Arthur realised that Merlin had come to mean something to him. What exactly that something was, he wasn't sure. But it was something... something more than 'just a servant'.

Arthur recalled the way Merlin looked in his chambers last night, nostrils flared and eyes narrowed in a glare at Arthur's teasing. The blush that fit just perfectly on over-defined cheekbones. The lips that were pink and alluring, even when thinned into a grim line as their owner tried not to say something that would cause him to wind up in the stocks. Merlin's lopsided grin he distractedly gave whenever Arthur tried to get Merlin to talk to him while he was busy doing a horrible job at his chores. How Merlin always showed up in his room in the morning with breakfast and his hair in a complete mess – letting Arthur know that Merlin had slept in again and had been forced to throw his clothes on and run down to the kitchens.

Arthur thought over all the times Merlin had been quick to show up at his chambers after a brutal training session with Gaius's wonderful heating oil, ready to rub out the worst of the kinks and muscle cramps. He wasn't really all that horrible of a servant... not when you really thought about it. He certainly meant well. Arthur's last thought before he slipped into slumber was that he didn't know of any of the male servants in the castle that could have pulled off the dress as nicely as his had.

~

Merlin's eyes moved under closed lids as he slept, images flickering and melding in his dreams. The smirk on Arthur's face as he addressed Merlin as 'Marie'. The grin on Leon's face as he extricated Merlin from another pair of unwanted hands. The red-on-black eyes of the vampyre boring into him. The look of horror and stark fear on Arthur's face as Merlin collapsed; the sword falling from Arthur's hand as he reached for Merlin's falling form. Merlin frowned in his sleep. Arthur would never just drop his sword. Arthur was the last person in the world to mistreat his weapons. He'd verbally scalded green knights for the same mistreatment of even practice blades. Merlin had asked him about that once. Arthur had been feeling generous enough to answer; a knight's weapon was something that lives depended on – not only the knight's, but the lives of the people they swore to protect. Arthur wanted it beaten into them from day one to respect and care for their weapons. A fat lot of good it would do to pull your sword in defence of the innocent if it shattered on first impact because of shoddy maintenance. Then Arthur had proceeded to lower his head and give Merlin a raised-brow look, shifting his eyes from Merlin's face to his unpolished sword leaning against the wall. Merlin had made certain to be extra diligent in his care of Arthur's weapons after that day.

Merlin's mind changed scenes again; Arthur lying motionless on the ground, blood seeping from a wound on his shoulder. Merlin had remembered the fear that had pulsed through him at that sight – then the relief as he'd seen Arthur's chest rising and falling. Another scene of Arthur standing in the middle of the training circle, sweat pouring down his neck and soaking into his under-tunic as he went through another round of blocking techniques with a newer knight. Arthur sitting on his bed in his chambers with his tunic off, head hung low as Merlin worked out the worst of the knots in his shoulders from that same session. Arthur standing in Gaius's room earlier that day, arms crossed and a smug expression on his face as he ordered Merlin to stay behind – an expression that didn't quite reach his eyes like it used to. Merlin felt a wisp of the same feeling he'd felt when Arthur had ordered him to stay; that Arthur didn't need him. Or maybe, that Arthur didn't want him. Dream-Arthur stood there with his arms folded, mouth open as he hissed at him. Wait, hissed? And why did it smell like the back of the butchers shop? Merlin snorted, the sound and action waking him from his now-confusing dream. Eyes beginning to crack open, he wondered why he could still smell that awful odour and where the bloody hell was that hissing coming from?

A shadow shifted in his room and suddenly Merlin was wide-awake, his brain recognising both the scent and sound from last night. His realisation hit him at the same time as the vampyre decided to attack, blurring in Merlin's vision as it moved for him. Pushing himself up from his prone position, he flung his hand out, "Áflíegung!" The vampyre was invisibly thrown against the wooden wardrobe, hitting hard enough to crack the frame. Still hissing, the vampyre was on its feet before Merlin could process that it had been down. "Gebiern þóðer," Merlin shouted, uncaring of who was able to hear him. A ball of fire appeared between him and the vampyre, causing the vampyre to shrink back against the broken wardrobe. Merlin stared at the creature, fear leaking out of his every pore. A large part of his brain was screaming at him to finish it off, throw the ball of fire at it and watch it die – but a small yet persistent part was cowering in fear, remembering the suffering he'd had to endure because of a single bite from this… thing. His neck throbbed with each heartbeat as a painful reminder. As if it could scent Merlin's indecision, his fear, the vampyre began to edge forward. Merlin pressed closer to the wall, hand still outstretched and controlling the rapidly-dimming fireball. He felt an almost physical force drawing his head up to look at the vampyre's eyes and he fought against it. Sweat broke out along his forehead as Merlin and the vampyre got into a battle of wills that seemed to go on forever – and it may have if not for the timely interruption of Gaius.

Gaius, who had heard Merlin's cries and had gone to the boy as quickly as he could – proving that the entire altercation had taken mere moments; who opened the door to Merlin's room and took in the sight of Merlin and the vampyre in a staring contest, the flickering ball of fire seemingly forgotten between them. "Merlin!" Gaius's sharp exclamation broke the vampyre's concentration, letting Merlin snap back into the here and now. The vampyre hissed at the physician, making as if to pounce on him. Merlin felt his fear of the creature fall away as the greater fear of harm coming to his mentor overthrew it. Strengthening his resolve, he put more energy into the flames, feeding it with his rage.

"Gaius, get away from the door," Merlin calmly spoke as he moved the fireball towards the vampyre. The vampyre hissed again, ending it with a menacing growl that sent a shiver along Merlin's spine. Gaius moved back into the main room, letting the door close behind him. Merlin got up, slowly, and keeping the ball between himself and the vampyre, began to make his way to the door. The vampyre growled again, its hands clenching into fists as it watched its prey walk away from him for a second time. Merlin got to the door and opened it, still turned towards the creature.

Gaius moved up behind him, handing him the silver cross he'd used to cleanse Merlin. He held a flask of the holy water himself. "Let the fire go, Merlin. We need to summon the guards to deal with this monster."

Merlin kept his eyes level with the vampyre's. "Of course, Gaius." Merlin flicked his fingers and the ball of fire flew at the intruder. Merlin felt a jolt of shock as the creature dodged it, flying straight towards him instead. Merlin managed to get the cross up to his chest before he was sent barrelling backwards with the vampyre riding him… again. Before either Gaius or Merlin could react, the creature let out a wail of pain, moving off to the edge of the room in a blur of motion. Merlin noticed the wisps of smoke and bits of flesh sticking to the cross and he took a moment to mentally bless Gaius's quick thinking.

Gaius bellowed for the guards, surprising Merlin with the volume of the shout. The vampyre bared his fangs and made to move towards Merlin again, but a jet of water squeezed from Gaius's flask changed its mind. It edged away from the two men, eyes still focussed on Merlin. "Stay behind me, Merlin." Gaius moved himself in front of his ward, daring the creature to pass him to get to its intended target.

Merlin swallowed a lump consisting of gratitude and fear – fear of the creature attacking Gaius, gratitude for Gaius caring enough about him to put himself in harm's way. Merlin raised the cross over Gaius's shoulder, hoping it would shield them both from a further attack. They both sighed in relief as they heard footsteps approaching from the hall, the guards coming to the physician's call. The door burst open and two guards appeared, swords drawn. Merlin groaned internally, since he was well aware that the swords were useless in this situation. "It's afraid of fire! Get a torch," Merlin yelled at the guards. He swore in frustration as they ignored him and began to advance on the vampyre. The older of the guards reached it first and made a strike for its heart. The vampyre barely expended any energy avoiding the blow before reaching out and twisting the man's head until a sickening crack echoed through the room. Body twitching, the guard dropped dead at the creature's feet. The second guard moved more slowly, hesitant to come within grabbing distance. This time, the vampyre took the initiative, seeming to work out its frustrations on not being able to feed on Merlin by taking his time in killing the second guard. Merlin cried out in anger and frustration of his own at the vampyre, shaking the cross impotently at it. Gaius took two steps towards the creature and let another stream of water leave his flask as he yelled at the thing to get away from the guard. The guard was beyond caring, since one of his arms was over by the door and his lower intestines were spilling onto the stone floor. The vampyre tossed him angrily to the floor as he moved out of the way of the spray again, eyeing Gaius with a lethal stare.

More guards came up the stairs, horrified shouts filling the room as they took in the bodies of their comrades. Thankfully, one of them had a torch. "Burn it, quickly!" Gaius gestured wildly at the creature. The four guards entered the room, three with swords drawn and the one with the torch bravely at the front, waving it at the now hissing and retreating vampyre. The torch-bearing guard stabbed quickly at the intruder, flames barely missing its robes. This, apparently, was enough for the vampyre. Glaring balefully at Merlin, it spat at the guards before disappearing through the empty door in a blur. They hurried after it, sending up the alarm through the entire castle. Shouts echoed through the halls as guards and knights began a thorough search, circling out from the physician's quarters. Gaius turned and gave Merlin a hug, squeezing before letting go and looking him over. "Are you alright?"

Merlin felt a slight sense of déjà-vu as Gaius uttered the same words Arthur had after his last encounter with the vampyre. "Yes. I think so. I mean, I woke up before it bit me..." Merlin trailed off as Gaius edged the bandage on his neck down to check for himself. They both looked over as footsteps sounded towards them, Sir Leon making his way into Gaius's room.

"Merlin. Gaius," he nodded at each. "The vampyre?"

"Tried to attack Merlin in his sleep. Fortunately he'd left a candle burning, which he threw at it to distract it before escaping into the main room." Merlin blinked at Gaius's quick lie that would reasonably explain the scorch marks in Merlin's room from the unsuccessful fireball. "Unfortunately, the first pair of guards to come to assist us were without any useful weaponry." Gaius made his way over to the dismembered guard, who had mercifully choked to death on his own blood seconds after the vampyre had released him.

Leon sighed heavily as he took in the two dead men before coming over to stand by Merlin. Resting a hand lightly on his shoulder, he asked, "You're alright though, yes?"

Merlin gave a quick nod. "I woke up before it attacked again."

Leon gave Merlin a quick visual once-over regardless. "What woke you?"

"The smell." Merlin wrinkled his nose in remembrance. "I was having a dream and the smell didn't fit with it."

Leon nodded as though that made perfect sense. Then his brow creased as he turned to look at Gaius. "Why would it come into Camelot to attack him? I thought it went for women? It couldn't possibly have mistaken him for one without," Leon waved at Merlin's head, "the wig and dress and all that."

Gaius's brows formed a thick line as he frowned and looked over at Merlin. "I don't know. I hadn't finished going through the books – there only seemed to be an interest in how to kill it, not its motives." Gaius moved over to the worktable, the books still strewn open across it.

Merlin gave Leon one of his lopsided grins when Leon turned back to him. "Well, if worse comes to worse, we can always use me as bait again. It seems to find me quite tasty."

Leon pursed his lips and shook his head at Merlin. "I somehow don't think Prince Arthur will go for that, Merlin. I doubt he'll be in any way happy with tonight's events." Leon was as yet unaware of both the truth and lie those words carried.

~

Arthur was woken out of a sound and happy sleep, if the state of his arousal was any indication, by a loud and persistent pounding on his chamber door. He groaned and rolled tired eyes. "What is it!" he yelled in its general direction.

"The vampyre was seen in the castle, sire. It attacked your servant," a muffled voice informed him through the heavy wood.

Those words woke Arthur like a splash of cold water, having a similar effect on his libido. Flinging the covers back, he strode to the door and yanked it open, causing Sir Percival to jump back in surprise. "Merlin? It was in the castle? Where is it now?" Arthur motioned to Percival to enter his chambers to answer him while he made to throw on his discarded clothes.

"Your servant is unharmed, sire. The creature killed two guards before it was chased off. We're doing a search of the castle to ensure that it's vacated." Percival tried not to blush as red as his hair when Arthur pulled his leggings off before trying to scramble into his breeches. Arthur got his foot caught in his haste and hopped on one leg, nude, before falling against his bedpost which he used as leverage to untangle his foot and trouser leg. He hastily tied them before bending to cram his feet into his boots.

"Where did it attack him?" Arthur asked through his tunic as he pulled it over his head. Running a hand through his hair, he grabbed his sword belt, buckling it in place as he made his way out of his chambers, Percival following him.

"His room, sire." Percival quickened his pace to keep up with the stalking prince.

"Gaius?" Arthur rounded another corner, heading for the physician's rooms.

"Unharmed as well, sire."

"Good. Go talk to the night watch Captain. I want a report of how this thing managed to get into a supposedly guarded castle, Percival. I'll be at Gaius's quarters." Arthur barely noticed as Percival left to complete his orders, mind focussed on getting to Gaius's room and seeing for himself the state of things. Taking the stairs two at a time, he huffed as he reached the top and saw the open door, blood spattering the bottom of it. He felt the flutter of fear in his chest again, as the possibility that either Percival had no bloody idea what he was talking about or that the vampyre had somehow come back and finished what it had started flitted through his mind. Entering the doorway, he steeled himself for the worst. Arthur saw the amputated arm – which was the probable source of the blood on the door – curled up beside the body of an obviously dead guard. A few feet away, another guard – missing an arm – lay disembowelled in a pool of blood. Arthur felt his stomach turn at the sight and smell. Looking over the rest of the room, he almost let out a cry of relief when he saw Merlin standing beside Leon, both on the opposite side of the table from Gaius – who seemed to be going over the enormous tomes again. This feeling was soon followed with the desire to walk over and smack Merlin upside the head for scaring the living daylights out of him... again. "Well?" he asked of no one in particular.

Both Merlin and Leon jumped at Arthur's voice, Leon hiding it slightly better than Merlin. "Sire," Leon addressed Arthur as he walked over to him, "it appears the thing has a persistent craving for your manservant."

"So it seems." Arthur looked over at Merlin, who was trying – and failing – to read the books upside-down. Lowering his voice, he asked Leon, "Is he really alright?"

Leon remembered the screams coming from this room the previous night, and the pained look on Arthur's face as he'd come down the stairs. Equally low, he answered, "He seems to be, sire. He wasn't physically hurt, at any rate." Both men looked over at Merlin, who had moved over to Gaius's side of the table and had procured one of the books to go through himself.

Arthur and Leon turned at the sound of someone running up the stairs. A red-faced guard came through the door, jerking a quick bow at Arthur before trying to quickly catch his breath to relay his message. "Sire," he panted, "a boy... from the lower town... taken by the thing as it fled."

Arthur's felt his eyebrows lift in surprise. "A boy? I thought it only took girls. What the bloody hell was a boy doing out at this time of night anyway? There's a bloody curfew in effect."

Breath regained, the guard answered. "Apparently the boy was sneaking out to make sure his dog was alright. The lad's mother is beside herself. He's only eight, he probably wasn't fully aware of the dangers, sire."

Arthur swore and turned back to Gaius. "A child, Gaius? Why change its taste now? And why go after Merlin? And how did it find him in the middle of a castle full of people?" He eyed the guard, "Assemble a search party and see if any tracks can be found. If so, I want them out to find the boy, quickly." Arthur felt extremely frustrated that he was suddenly faced with more questions than answers. The vampyre had changed its original behaviour and that would not help them catch and kill the bloody thing.

Gaius shook his head as he answered Arthur, eyes still glued to the pages in front of him. "I don't know, sire. This creature has so many tales told about it, it's hard to sift through it and find the – oh." Gaius blinked and his finger went back over the line he'd just read. He lifted his head and looked at Merlin. "Oh." Gaius's mouth stayed open in surprise as he continued to look at Merlin.

"Oh? Oh what?" Merlin tilted his head to try to read what had rendered Gaius speechless, but the book was shifted away from him. Merlin frowned and looked up at his mentor. "What? 'Oh' what, Gaius?"

"Yes, Gaius. 'Oh' what?" Arthur moved over to the table. He felt somewhat amused at the sight of Gaius seemingly at a loss for words.

Gaius ineffectively worked his mouth a few more times before coherency came back to him. "I believe I've found the explanation for the 'why' of its choice of victims. It would explain the boy tonight... and Merlin," Gaius removed his spectacles and seemed almost embarrassed as he addressed the prince, studiously avoiding Merlin's curious gaze. "It appears as though vampyres have a taste for virgins... sire."

Arthur let out a surprised laugh. "Well, I don't know why it's bothering with Merlin then." Arthur grinned over at Merlin – who was sitting with his hands covering his blazing face. "Merlin? You're not... You're a..." Arthur trailed off in disbelief.

Merlin groaned, "Kill me now," before dropping his hands and letting his head bang against the table top.

Gaius gave Merlin's shoulder a quick, reassuring pat. "There's nothing wrong with that, Merlin."

Leon quickly added, "No. Nothing wrong at all. It's quite honourable, actually."

Arthur gaped as he stared at the top of Merlin's head, which was still banging softly against the table. "Oh, stop that before you actually give yourself a mental injury, you idiot." A multitude of thoughts were careening through Arthur's head, barely giving him time to process them all. He settled on the least confusing. "So, all the women that were taken were taken because they were virgins?"

Gaius cleared his throat, giving Merlin one last conciliatory pat. "Yes, sire, so it would appear. An eight-year old boy would most likely be one as well. And Merlin..." Gaius put his spectacles back on and went over to the book he'd been reading. "It says that vampyres prefer the blood of a virgin – and that if they've tasted someone and that person manages to escape and survive, they're capable of tracking them through a link via the blood they've ingested. A thrall, however, has no preference; they also cannot create more thralls from their victims."

Merlin rolled his head over to look up at Gaius, "So basically what you're saying is that I didn't have to wear a dress in the first place?" Merlin groaned again and gave the table one more knock with his head. He lifted it, face still a flaming red as he glared at Arthur.

Arthur covered his mouth with his hand. Merlin glared harder. Arthur turned away trying to stop the laugh that was bubbling up in his throat from escaping, but at the look on Leon's face – who was looking everywhere but at Merlin, Arthur lost it. He could blame it later on the stress of the previous few days, his lack of sleep, the relief that Merlin was safe, the look of severe discomfort on Gaius's face or Leon – stoic, brave, Leon – blushing as hard as Merlin and looking like he wanted to disappear. Any of those would have been accepted. But really? It was probably the absurdity in Arthur's mind of any male Merlin's age still being a virgin. Add to that the death-stare he was currently receiving from the person in question, who was still a fiery shade of red and Arthur couldn't help it. He burst out laughing. "You looked so lovely in it," Arthur giggled out. "The blue really brought out your eyes, Marie."

"I hate you so much right now..." Merlin bit out through clenched teeth before getting up and stomping off to his room. "Prat!" he yelled out as he slammed the door, which only served to set Arthur off again.

Somewhere in the back of his head, Arthur knew this wasn't exactly the time to or place to be laughing, but his relief and utter exhaustion were making it difficult for him to be anything but giddy. Finally slowing down, he wiped at the tears that had leaked from his eyes, looking over at a disapproving Gaius and a perplexed Leon. He waved the questions away, preferring to ignore that anything out of the ordinary had happened. "Well, at least now we know."

Leon coughed. "Would... would the creature still be able to track him if he weren't a virgin?"

Gaius bent his head back to the pages. After a moment he answered, "It would still be able to track him, but once in his presence, it would scent that he wasn't a virgin anymore and would lose the desire to feed from him. At least," he amended, "that's what it says about the females. I haven't found any cases of a vampyre attacking a male virgin."

"Probably because Merlin is the only male older than fourteen who is one." Arthur grinned. He dimmed it at the look of disapproval from the elderly physician. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. As Leon said, it's quite honourable." Arthur tried not to smirk. Judging by the snort Gaius gave him before returning to his book, he'd failed. "Then I suppose we'd better fix this..." was all Arthur got out before Merlin came storming back into the room, proving that he'd been listening at the door, if not actively participating in the conversation.

"There's nothing to fix, you giant royal arse. I'm not broken. It's not an illness that needs curing. It's a decision, my decision, that I've made. You have no right to even discuss this, let alone fix it." Merlin spat at the three men who were staring at him in surprise.

Leon recovered first, attempting to smooth things over. "Merlin, no one's thinking of forcing you to do anything. We respect your decision and your choices, but surely you can see that we're only suggesting it because of the situation. As it stands, you're the person threatened most in the entire kingdom. The vampyre can track you anywhere, so hiding is out of the question. And confronting it hasn't exactly gone the way any of us have expected. Until we can come up with a solid plan to kill the creature, it's the best way of keeping you safe."

Arthur looked over at Leon as he pleaded with Merlin. Leon seemed to honestly care if Merlin was safe or not. Arthur couldn't explain why, but he felt irrationally angry about that. "Leon's right, Merlin. At least think about it."

Merlin gave Arthur a strange look before turning to appeal to Gaius. "But..." Gaius gave Merlin a look of mixed sympathy and apology. Merlin turned back to Arthur and Leon, staring at the ground between them. He seemed to be thinking of how to put his next words. "I don't have anyone I'm... There's no one..." The blush was back, reaching the tips of his ears.

Gaius answered softly, "There are... certain women in the town who..." the rest got stuck in his throat. This had to be the most awkward conversation any of the four men had been involved in. Ever.

"Who's to say it has to be a woman?" Leon asked. He seemed surprised that he'd spoken at all. Arthur stared over at him, a light clicking on in his head as he took in Leon's past and current attitude towards Merlin. He also took in his own reaction to this knowledge, the shock momentarily numbing him.

"Whoever it is, it's up to Merlin." Arthur stated. He felt another flutter in his chest at the look of gratitude Merlin threw him. "No one's going to force you. But it really is the best way to keep you safe."

Merlin sighed before noticing the expectant looks Gaius, Leon and Arthur were giving him. "Right now?" he squeaked. "But it's the middle of the night!"

"And the vampyre could decide at anytime that it would prefer to finish the meal it started." Arthur quirked a brow at his manservant. "Unless..."

Merlin frowned. "Unless what?"

Arthur shrugged and gave Merlin his best 'couldn't care less' look. "Unless you're afraid. You know, maybe there's something wrong with..." Arthur let his eyes flick down to Merlin's groin, then back up to his face.

Merlin's jaw dropped. "There is nothing wrong with that!" Merlin screeched. He covered himself defensively. "Stop looking at it!"

Arthur held his hands up. "Alright. There's nothing wrong with it." He paused for effect. "That you know of."

Merlin spluttered indignantly. Pointing at Arthur, he glowered, "You... you... I hate you!"

Arthur rolled his eyes. "You're becoming repetitive, Merlin. It's boring."

Merlin curled his hands into fists. "You sodding prick."

Leon snorted and covered his mouth. "Merlin!" Gaius scolded.

Arthur gave a dismissive wave to Gaius, "It's alright. Clearly Merlin's distraught over the evening's events. I'd say his mind's not quite right, but that would also be implying it ever was."

Merlin stepped forward, only a foot separating him and Arthur. Leon edged closer; concerned that Merlin would react in a way Arthur might not easily dismiss. "What are you implying, sire?" Merlin asked in a dangerously low voice.

Arthur felt something clench low in his stomach, unsure if the cause was Merlin's proximity or the hint of danger he currently presented. "I'm not asking you to give up your soul, Merlin. I just want to ensure that you stay alive long enough to do with it what you will." Arthur answered as honestly as he could.

Arthur saw the same strange look cross Merlin's face as before; like he was somehow surprised and... something else Arthur couldn't quite identify. Merlin took a breath and looked as though he were trying to choose his next words carefully. "It would take too long to get a... to arrange a woman..." the blush fought its way back across his cheeks. "I'm tired, Arthur. I'm sure you and Leon and Gaius are as well. I want nothing more than to sleep right now." Merlin's shoulders drooped a bit, reminding Arthur of how exhausted he was himself.

Arthur lifted a hand and placed it on Merlin's shoulder, squeezing lightly. "I know. The sooner you decide, Merlin, the sooner we can all go to bed." Something about the way that sentence was phrased caused the things low in his stomach to clench again.

Leon moved closer. "Either way, Merlin, you and Gaius aren't sleeping in these quarters tonight until this mess has been taken care of." Leon gestured to the two bodies on the floor. "So why not gather your things and mull it over while you do. We'll be waiting out here." The implications behind the phrasing and the words weren't lost on anyone in the room. Leon had basically put his and Arthur's names in the hat for Merlin to draw from.

Merlin's eyes widened as he looked over at Leon, then back at Arthur – seeming to finally understand the message both men were silently giving. Sighing, he turned and made his way back to his room to gather what he'd need for the night and tomorrow. "You too, Gaius," Arthur said in his direction.

"Of course, sire." Gaius made to roll up his bedding, but turned and looked back over at Arthur and Leon. He took a deep breath before opening his mouth, "Go easy on him, sire. He's not seen as much of the world as some." Rolling up his bedding, he gave the two men one last piercing look before leaving to bed in one of the empty storage rooms; after he'd requested a makeshift cot from one of the guards in the hall.

Leon and Arthur gave each other a measuring glance, neither completely sure of the other's intentions. Leon lowered his eyes first, deferring to his prince in all matters, but not completely willing to leave without hearing Merlin's decision for himself. So both men settled in to wait and hear Merlin's deliberation on who he would give himself to. Of course, it never occurred to either of them that they might not be considered. Their eyes locked on Merlin as he emerged from his room, his satchel stuffed with clothing for tomorrow, a pillow and thin blanket rolled and tucked under his arm. Raising his eyes to meet theirs, he took a deep breath in preparation. His eyes shifted over to Leon once before settling on Arthur's. "Arthur?"

Arthur let out a breath he hadn't realised he'd been holding. Leon gave Arthur's shoulder a squeeze, smiling over at Merlin to let them both know there were no hard feelings. Arthur let the gratitude show on his face. Leon left the room and just like that, the air in the room felt heavier. Arthur could feel the weight of Merlin's eyes on his face; he felt the trust that went with that stare. He would do his best to make Merlin know it wasn't misplaced. "Come on," he motioned.

Merlin looked suddenly timid as he approached Arthur. "Where are we going," was barely choked out.

"My room, of course." Arthur gently slid his hand down Merlin's back, moving him along ahead of him.

"And then what?" Merlin twisted his head back to ask.

"And then," Arthur answered, "we do whatever you're comfortable with. I meant what I said, Merlin. I don't intend to force you to do anything. All you need to say is 'no'."

Merlin blinked at Arthur. "Anytime?"

Arthur let a small smile curve his lips. "Anytime."

Merlin visibly relaxed and began walking purposefully towards Arthur's chambers. Arthur managed to keep the chuckle to himself. As they reached his chambers, Merlin entered first, holding the door open for Arthur. "After you, sire." Merlin swept a low bow, the familiar cheeky grin present on his face.

Arthur entered and Merlin was about to close the door when a servant arrived. "Sire, your father would like a report of tonight's events."

Arthur mentally cursed, then smiled and turned to the servant. "Inform my father that I'm currently busy ensuring that the vampyre doesn't return tonight."

The servant blinked. "From your chambers, sire?"

Arthur lifted a brow at the inquiry. "Yes, from my chambers. And I'm not to be disturbed until after mid-morning, at the earliest." With that, Arthur closed the door and turned to Merlin. "Now, where were we?"

~

Arthur had barely got the words out before Merlin had flung himself at him, arms winding around his neck and lips pressing to his in a clumsy kiss. Arthur could feel the frantic energy humming through the body against him and it brought out a protective urge in him that he hadn't thought would ever be directed at Merlin. Breaking the kiss, he held Merlin's face between his hands as he locked eyes with him. "Slowly, Merlin."

Merlin bit his lip and lowered his eyes, cheeks reddening. "Sorry. I just..." taking a deep breath, he tried again. "I just want you to know I don't feel forced. Not with you, Arthur." Merlin looked up at Arthur through the fringe of his lashes and Arthur felt the low, clenching things again as they sent the blood pooling to his groin.

Arthur smiled, moving in to slowly kiss the lips Merlin was trying to chew through. He felt the hungry thrum again and lowered his hands from Merlin's face to wrap around his body. Arthur kept the kiss soft, gentle; moving his hands over Merlin's back as unhurriedly as he was moving his lips. Merlin's hands moved down to Arthur's shoulders, fingers squeezing before they trailed down Arthur's arms. Arthur tightened his hold, bringing Merlin more firmly against him and he felt a pulse of lust shoot through him as he noticed the press of Merlin's rising erection against his thigh.

Arthur broke the kiss again, this time to drag his lips over Merlin's cheek, down his jaw and along the edge of the bandage that was wound around his neck. He growled against it as the thought of what could have been passed through his mind. Kissing his way over the bandage, he reached the skin of Merlin's shoulder and nipped it lightly before soothing it with a soft press of his mouth. Merlin sighed and shivered, head tilting to the side to give Arthur better access. Arthur smiled against Merlin's shoulder, lifting his head and meeting Merlin's eyes again. "Would you like to take off your tunic?" Arthur let his fingers tug at the fabric, hoping Merlin would say yes.

Merlin nodded quickly, lowering his hands and almost ripping the tunic off in his haste. Arthur chuckled. Merlin's fingers reached for the hem of Arthur's tunic and before Arthur could stop him, he'd lifted it up and off the prince. Arthur looked a question at Merlin, who just grinned impishly back. "You always take so long to dress and undress yourself, sire. I figured the least I could do was assist you. I am your manservant, after all."

Arthur pulled Merlin back against him, the feel of warm flesh against his own fuelling the desire already coursing through him. "Not tonight, Merlin. Tonight we're just 'Arthur' and 'Merlin'. No titles." The thought of Merlin acquiescing to him because of a feeling of obligation left a bad taste in Arthur's mouth.

The grin became a small smile. "I know, Arthur. I think it's very... nice that you're doing this. I mean, I know you prefer women..." Merlin's eyes dropped again.

"You think I'm doing this out of some twisted sense of duty?" Arthur asked, incredulous.

Merlin's eyes refused to rise. "Well, why else would you... with a man..."

Arthur growled his frustration and shook Merlin's shoulders, forcing him to look up. "I'm not doing this out of any sense of duty or because I feel I have to, Merlin. I'm doing it because I want to. Because for all your faults – and believe me, they are legion – you are mine. My completely irresponsible and inept manservant. My disgustingly loyal and steadfast friend. Mine. Duty has nothing to do with what I want to do with you or how I feel." Arthur felt somewhat surprised at himself for the admission, but his surprise didn't make it any less true.

Merlin's eyes never left Arthur's as he took in the set of his prince's shoulders and the earnestness on his face. "And if I'd chosen Leon?" he asked with a twist of his lips, almost coyly.

Arthur blinked and took a moment to consider that option. "Then I believe I would have had to run him through."

A laugh burst out of Merlin's mouth. "You wouldn't."

Arthur's lips twitched. "I might. Possibly." To himself, Arthur admitted the tiny truth in that statement. The thought of someone else touching Merlin, showing him intimate things and watching him come apart for the first time sent a current of jealousy through him, along with a streak of possessiveness.

Merlin smile was as soft as his voice, "Liar."

"I want to be the only person who gets to do this." Arthur leaned in and touched his lips to Merlin's, flicking his tongue out to wet them, letting them slide against each other. Merlin breathed against his mouth, pressing his chest to Arthur's and running his hands up his arms. Arthur dug his fingers into Merlin's back, pulling him closer – though there was no space between them. Arthur kept the kiss slow, his hands teasing as he built up Merlin's arousal. Merlin was surprisingly receptive, willing to let Arthur take the lead, for once. They stood there in the middle of Arthur's room, naked from the waist up, arms clinging to each other and lips melded. Arthur licked along Merlin's bottom lip, eliciting a gasp; Arthur used this as an opportunity to slip his tongue in. He tasted Merlin fully for the first time, caressing Merlin's tongue with his own. A breathy hum of contentment left Merlin's throat and was swallowed by Arthur. Pulling back, Arthur felt the flutter in his chest turn into a burning pulse at the sight of Merlin's parted lips and closed eyes; at the low whimper as Merlin opened his eyes and pouted because Arthur had stopped. Arthur smiled. "Would you like to touch me?"

Merlin's eyes went suddenly dark as the pupils threatened to swallow every speck of blue. His throat worked a few times as he swallowed before answering in a thick voice, "Gods, yes."

Arthur took Merlin's hand and led him over to the bed, sitting on it and pulling Merlin in to stand between his thighs. Running his hands up the back of Merlin's legs, he moved them briefly over his buttocks – squeezing softly before dropping his hands to the bed to brace himself. "Where?"

Merlin's gaze seemed to try to take in every inch of Arthur all at once, flicking from his eyes to his lips, down his neck and over his chest; widening at the noticeable ridge outlined against his thigh through his breeches. "Everywhere," he choked out.

Arthur tilted his head as he regarded Merlin. "Are you attracted to men?"

Merlin met Arthur's eyes. "I hadn't actually thought about it, but I am to at least one." It was his turn to look questioningly at Arthur. "Have you ever... with a man?"

"Once, when I was younger. It wasn't unpleasant, but when he left, I couldn't think of any other male I knew of that I'd want to be with that way. Not until recently, that is."

Merlin blushed again and Arthur found that he quite liked having that effect on him. Merlin lifted his hand slowly, fingers outstretched towards Arthur's chest. "Can I... I want to..." Merlin's fingers curled in on themselves as he struggled with the words.

Arthur caught Merlin's hand and brought it to his lips. Smiling, he looked at Merlin over his knuckles, "You've touched me before, Merlin. You dress and undress me nearly every day. You've seen me nude plenty of times."

Merlin's chest hitched and he licked his lips. "This is different."

Arthur's smile curved wickedly. "Yes. It is." He tugged on Merlin's hand and had him tumbling into his lap. "Now, I finally get to see you undressed."

Merlin grinned down at Arthur as he straddled him, both of them inching further towards the centre of the bed so neither would be in danger of falling off. "Is this something you've thought of often? What I'm hiding under my clothes?"

Arthur smirked. "Hardly. Although, I'll admit to being curious as to whether you have any meat on this scrawny body." Arthur reached up and dragged calloused fingers over the smooth skin of Merlin's chest. He scratched his fingers lightly through the sparse patch of dark curls, trailing a finger down to tickle along the line of hair that disappeared under the waistband of his breeches. He noticed how Merlin's stomach shuddered and gooseflesh rose under his touch. Arthur let his hand drop again as he lay on his back, cradling his head with his arms and raised a brow at Merlin. "Well... get on with it then," he drawled. Arthur could feel each pulse of his heartbeat as it echoed throughout his body and made his cock throb. As much as he wanted to hurry this along, to watch Merlin come completely undone, he forced himself to take it slow; to ease Merlin through this momentous rite of passage.

Merlin sat on Arthur's legs, hands at his sides. "Where should I start? What do you like?"

"Wherever you want. As for what I like, it varies. Do what you want."

"Will you tell me if you don't like something?" Merlin looked worried at the prospect of doing something Arthur would find distasteful.

"If I say yes, will you just get on with it?" Arthur shifted his hips under Merlin suggestively.

Merlin grinned and pursed his lips before he brought his hands up to rest on Arthur's chest. For a moment, he just sat there, hands flexing minutely as he stared down at the man underneath him. Then he smoothed his hands up Arthur's ribs, fingertips being tickled by the light patch of hair that covered the top of his chest. Arthur said nothing, eyes locked on Merlin's face; enjoying the slight sense of awe that it showed. Merlin seemed not to notice the slight rocking he'd started with his pelvis over Arthur – but Arthur certainly had and was making a concerted effort not to grab onto Merlin's hips to allow him to roll up against him. Merlin's fingers had moved over to brush lightly over Arthur's nipples, something that Arthur surprisingly found arousing. Extremely arousing. Enough so that he was unable to stop a breathy sigh from leaving his lips. Merlin's eyes flicked up to his face, smiling at the contented look Arthur was giving him. "That? You like that?" Merlin asked as he gently pressed the nipples between his fingers. Arthur biting his lip and arching against his hands was answer enough.

Arthur felt the staccato beat of his heart to be a backdrop of sound against the rush of lust and desire that was pulsing through him with each light touch and smile from Merlin. Pale and delicate looking fingers ghosted over his flesh, raising gooseflesh and making Arthur ache. Merlin lowered his head and dropped a soft kiss over Arthur's heart; it pounded against his ribs in an answering thump. Merlin kissed a line up Arthur's chest, shoulder and neck. He nipped lightly just under his ear and smiled in satisfaction when Arthur's breath blew out against his own. Merlin was about to continue his further exploration of Arthur when he felt hands skate down his back and grip his arse. Arthur's lips slid over Merlin's ear, his tongue wetting the lobe before Arthur's teeth nibbled lightly on it. Merlin's eyes closed as he let out a gasp at the sudden jolt that seemingly went from his ear to his crotch. Arthur let out a light chuckle against the side of Merlin's neck. "As large as they are, I had a feeling they'd be sensitive." Arthur licked along the edge of the shell of Merlin's ear, letting his teeth scrape along the crease that joined it to the head. Merlin shivered, fingers clenching Arthur's shoulder as he rolled his groin against Arthur's. Arthur nipped the skin of Merlin's neck and squeezed the flesh he was massaging with his hands as he refrained from rolling Merlin over; his body craving the friction Merlin was teasing him with.

Merlin lifted himself up on his arms, eyes heavy as he stared down at Arthur. He bent down to touch his lips to Arthur's, tongue slipping past lips and teeth to dance within the confines of his mouth. Arthur pulled against Merlin's arse, slowly thrusting his hips up. Merlin drew back, a glint in his eye. "I'm not done touching." Arthur huffed out a frustrated breath, but smiled and lifted his hands off Merlin's arse and back up to cradle his head.

"By all means, continue." Arthur's lips smirked. They flew open to let a groan out when Merlin lowered himself to take Arthur's nipple into his mouth. "God!" Merlin pressed his tongue flat against the peaking flesh, dragging it slowly. Arthur groaned again, inarticulately this time. He lowered a hand to thread through Merlin's hair, palming his scalp. Merlin licked Arthur's nipple again before shifting over, pressing kisses through the patch of hair until he reached the other nub. He circled it with his tongue before taking the meat around it into his teeth, biting gently. Merlin let the flesh slip through his teeth, his tongue flicking against the nipple in his mouth as it was pulled through. Arthur's hand fisted as he held Merlin's face to his chest.

Merlin tilted his head up, waiting until Arthur opened his eyes and peered down. "Good?"

"Yes, you bloody... yes." Arthur released his grip and circled his fingers through Merlin's hair. Merlin gave one last flick of his tongue before he began nipping his way down Arthur's ribs. Arthur felt his stomach muscles jump with each light breath and sharp nip as Merlin made his way to the waist of his breeches. Merlin sank his teeth into the flesh around Arthur's hip bone; Arthur made another strangled cry as Merlin's hand stroked firmly over his erection. Arthur's hand fisted the blankets, his mouth open as he began to pant with heat and need. "Merlin..."

Merlin raised his eyes again, a smile on his lips as he met Arthur's gaze. He rubbed his cheek over the appendage he'd stroked, like a cat scent-marking its possessions. "Yes?"

"What are you doing?" Arthur pressed his hips up, needing the contact Merlin was giving him.

"Well, you said I could touch wherever I wanted, and I very much want to touch here." Merlin palmed Arthur through the dark material, thumb rubbing over the growing circle of dampness.

Arthur clenched his teeth to stop from making a rather embarrassing noise. "Mmmm, not that I'm complaining – good god – but aren't you supposed to be the one being despoiled?"

Merlin's fingers distractedly undid the ties of Arthur's breeches as Merlin kept his attention focussed on watching Arthur and hearing all the noises he was dragging out of him. "I'm sure we'll be getting around to that, eventually." Merlin slipped those dextrous fingers past the spread fabric and let them flit along Arthur's cock.

Arthur sat up, hand reaching to grasp Merlin's wrist. "If you keep that up, I doubt I'll have anything left to despoil you with," he gritted out.

Merlin's lips twisted as he refused to let go. "I may be... 'inexperienced', but I am aware of the recovery powers of youth." Two sets of blue eyes stayed locked for a heartbeat before Arthur's rolled and he flumped back on the bed.

"Fine, but I'm only human, Merlin. I can only promise finesse if I have a mind left." Arthur draped his arm over his eyes and tried to focus on anything but the light touches sending jolts through his entire body. He lifted his arm when he felt the touching stop. Peering down, he saw Merlin standing by the bed, reaching for Arthur's boots. Arthur allowed them to be pulled off, and then raised his hips as Merlin grabbed the edge of Arthur's breeches, tugging them down and watching his cock bob as it was released. Merlin slid the breeches the rest of the way off, his eyes touching on every piece of flesh revealed. Arthur lay there, naked and obviously aroused, and Merlin drank the sight in. Arthur arched a brow. "If you're just going to stand there..." he dragged his hand down and started copying the light touches Merlin had been doing.

Merlin's eyes blazed and Arthur could have sworn he felt the heat of it on his flesh. Merlin managed to toe off his boots and shuck his breeches faster than Arthur thought possible before scrambling onto the bed. Arthur made to lean back, but Merlin caught his hand. "Don't stop... please." The hungry look on his face sent another wave of lust through Arthur. Eyes on Merlin, Arthur continued touching himself, shivering from the combination of Merlin watching him and the sensations of his barely-there ministrations. Merlin had straddled Arthur's legs again and Arthur let his eyes drift down the body over him. Merlin's body was dainty, although Arthur would bite his own tongue off before saying it at this particular moment. He reminded himself to bring it up later. Well, maybe lean was a better description – but compared to the meaty bodies of the men Arthur had grown up around and was used to, 'dainty' came to mind more easily. Merlin was also pale, although Arthur would attribute that to genetics rather than lack of sun or a frail constitution. His arms and legs were limber, lightly muscled. The line of hair that Arthur had been toying with earlier continued down to a thatch of dark curls framing a rather impressive erection. Merlin saw Arthur's brows rise and grinned at him. "I told you I wasn't dainty."

"I stand corrected. You are most definitely not dainty. Now come here." Arthur reached out and pulled Merlin to him, fusing their lips together. Arthur's hands greedily played over Merlin's body as he manoeuvred him down onto the bedding, rolling so that Merlin was partially under him.

"I wasn't done..." Merlin started before Arthur sucked his lower lip into his mouth, silencing him with his tongue and lips. The dance of tongues was matched by the questing and conquering hands, each man trying to touch as much of the other as possible. Each wanting to mark and claim the other as their own. Merlin's hand reached over to wrap around Arthur's erection again, grip firm as he began a slow rhythm. Arthur nipped Merlin's lower lip, leaning his forehead against Merlin's, as he couldn't help the shudder down his spine while he gave a few short, sharp thrusts into the hand encircling him.

Arthur reached a hand down and pulled Merlin's hand away. "Stop."

Merlin frowned as he looked up at Arthur. "Was I doing something wrong?" Merlin made to back away.

"No, lord no, Merlin. But I set out to despoil you tonight and I fully intend to do a thorough job of it. Starting with this..." Arthur lowered his head and nipped Merlin's nipple. Merlin's hands flexed spastically as he tried to both pull away and press into Arthur's mouth.

"Ah. I see why you – gods yes – like that so much." Merlin arched up, fumbling with his hands against the bedding. Arthur traced his tongue over the outline of Merlin's ribs, nipping gently and soothing the bites with a lick. Arthur's hand clenched once on Merlin's hip before moving in to softly fondle the heated flesh that pulsed with each heartbeat that pounded through him. "Arthur..." It came out as a moan and had Arthur tightening his grip before continuing his movements.

Arthur's head dipped lower, the tip of Merlin's phallus nudging under his chin. Merlin lifted his head and stared down his body and burned the image into his mind; Arthur naked and with one leg thrown over both of his, large calloused sword hand pumping him and his golden-haired head so close to his groin. Arthur let the head of Merlin's cock slip over his cheek and onto his lips, a smear of creamy white staining them. He slipped his tongue out to sweep the pre-come into his mouth. Merlin choked. Arthur used his grip on Merlin to slide the foreskin of his cock down, and then he let his tongue linger over the exposed head. Merlin threw his head back on the bed and gave a strangled cry that may or may not have been Arthur's name. The reaction had Arthur grinding his crotch against Merlin's leg, leaving his own glistening trail. The thought of this as some sort of marking only intensified Arthur's lust. Lips closing around musk-scented skin, Arthur sank his mouth down over straining flesh. He growled when Merlin's hand tangled in his hair; not in warning but in heat... need.

Merlin's back bowed off the bed, his hips tilting to try to move more of himself into the wet warmth of Arthur's mouth. Arthur held the base of Merlin's erection with one hand to steady himself as he went lower, as he took more. This time Arthur was sure the name cried out was his own. Starting a slow and torturous tempo, Arthur let his lips meet his circled hand before pulling back up; tongue swirling under the foreskin and toying around the slit. The salty taste of Merlin was heavy on his tongue and Arthur couldn't think of a stronger aphrodisiac. The breathy cries and moans only added to the heavy fog of wantneedcrave that seemed to fill the room. Merlin's fingers continued to clench and unclench in Arthur's hair as his head bobbed. Arthur shifted himself, using his thigh to spread Merlin's legs while still keeping Merlin's cock in his mouth. Settling himself comfortably between splayed legs, Arthur added a stronger suckle to his methods.

Merlin had set up a steady keening whimper which was driving Arthur insane. The image of himself rising up and plunging his own throbbing cock into Merlin was ricocheting repeatedly through his head. Again, Arthur refrained. He did, however, raise his other hand to begin cradling and massaging Merlin's sac. It seemed to add a new pitch to the keening whines. It also added a fine tremor in Merlin's thighs. Letting some saliva trickle from his mouth, Arthur felt it drip down over his fingers and into the crack of Merlin's arse. Moving his hand from the soft skin of Merlin's sac, he dragged his finger through the liquid, tracing the line it followed. He let his finger circle the hotter flesh that ringed Merlin's hole and felt Merlin's thighs jerk in response. Arthur gently nudged at the puckered ring, growling when Merlin arched up again and tried to shove himself further down Arthur's throat. Swivelling his head to the side, he tongued Merlin's prick from another angle. When Merlin raised up again, Arthur pressed his finger slowly in. He felt the muscles clench around it, unused to the intrusion. Letting more saliva drizzle down, he pulled his digit out; coating it liberally before again, slowly inserting it.

Arthur set another pace, slowing his head's motions. As he began his downward stroke, tongue folding around Merlin – his hand matched the pace; finger sliding in slowly as he let Merlin acclimate to the new sensation. Each thrust had his finger sinking in deeper until, after the space of a few minutes, he was up to the knuckle; Merlin pressing himself against the intrusion. On the next rise and dip of his head, Arthur waited until his lips met his fist again before turning the hand entering Merlin and crooking his finger. Something close to a shriek burst out of Merlin's throat as he tried to simultaneously press up into Arthur's throat and back down upon the stroking digit. "Ar-thur," he stuttered.

Arthur lifted his mouth long enough to nip the hollow of Merlin's hip. "Come for me, Merlin." Merlin brought his head up again to watch as Arthur continued to swallow as much of Merlin as he was able. They kept their eyes fastened on each other as Arthur worked Merlin with hand and mouth. Merlin's breath started coming in ragged pants as he fought not to close his eyes, wanting to memorise the sight of Arthur as he was. Perfect. Naked. Glistening. Hungry. Wanton. And for now... his. The prickles of pleasure that were fissuring out from his groin through the rest of his body were building, growing in intensity. They were sharp, almost painful but with a sweet edge that had Merlin craving them.

"I think – ah – I think I'm going to..." Merlin bit his lip and reached down to touch whatever part of Arthur he could reach; one hand fisted in damp hair and the other grasping at a broad shoulder. Eyes still locked, Arthur let the tip of Merlin's cock hit the back of his throat as he plunged his finger in and twisting it to hit the sweet spot he'd found, flicking rapidly. Merlin's mouth gaped open, his throat closing around the scream that wanted out; the scream that would tell the world how brilliant and mind-numbing and cataclysmic and ohlordyes perfect Arthur could make him feel. How no magic he'd ever performed could feel as powerful as this. His heart thundered as he came; pouring himself down Arthur's throat, body bucking spastically.

Arthur kept his lips clamped around Merlin, swallowing the thick ejaculate that jetted into his mouth. He took in Merlin's fogged and glazed eyes as he worked his mouth up and over Merlin's twitching member. They fluttered as he dropped back to the bed, arms spread and chest heaving. Arthur chuckled and kissed his thigh. "I believe this is a first; you not jabbering relentlessly about nothing."

Merlin's arm lifted weakly, finger pointed at Arthur. Then a puff of air left his mouth and the hand fell back to the bed. Arthur's chuckle became a laugh. Arthur bent his finger, which was still inside Merlin and bit his thigh as Merlin's back bowed. "We're not quite done yet..."

Merlin's heart stuttered at the almost feral heat in Arthur's gaze. The fluttering Arthur's finger was causing was quickly building and coursing through him again; proof of Merlin's statement of quick recoveries. Merlin made to sit up and reach for Arthur's still engorged cock, but his hand was batted away and he was pressed back to the bed. "I thought you said we weren't done. You obviously aren't..."

"True, but as I said, I plan to be thorough. Meaning I intend to ensure you've been properly de-virginised. Meaning..." Arthur swirled his finger inside Merlin, pleased at the full-bodied writhing it elicited.

Merlin looked up at Arthur, a hint of fear tingeing his eyes. "Will it hurt?"

Arthur freed his finger and moved up Merlin's body, eyes soft. "It might a bit, at first. But I swear we'll go slowly. I want to despoil you, Merlin – not break you." He smirked. "Although, we might have had a bit of a problem if I was as... endowed as you are."

Merlin seemed to weigh Arthur's words seriously. He brought his head up and pressed a tender kiss to the lips hovering over his. "Alright," he said softly, "but first, I want to do something."

Arthur nuzzled under Merlin's chin, licking at the sweat-dappled skin that was surprisingly sensitive. "Mmm, I suppose I could acquiesce to a small request."

"Good," Merlin said before rolling Arthur over, sprawling over him, "because I'd like a taste now." He began to lower himself down Arthur's body.

"Resiliency notwithstanding, I don't think I'm capable of a second round tonight." Arthur tried to tug Merlin back up, but as most limber and 'lean' people were, Merlin was quite apt at wriggling out of tight and confining places; including the grasp of an aroused and needy prince.

"I want a taste, Arthur – not the whole meal." Merlin licked a stripe up Arthur's cock before fitting his mouth over the glistening cap. Arthur bit his lip and raised his hips against the mouth suckling him. Merlin let his tongue dip into the slit, tasting the heavy tang that coated his mouth. He bobbed his head once, flicking eyes up to watch Arthur's reaction. The clenching hands and bitten lip, closed eyes and head flung back was a jolt to Merlin's libido. He felt his spent appendage begin to swell again, filling with the need to touch and be touched by Arthur.

"If I'd known you had such a talented tongue, I would have found a better punishment for your impudence besides the stocks." Arthur groaned and skimmed his hand over Merlin's head. Merlin bobbed down again, choking when he took Arthur too far in. Arthur pulled Merlin up by his hair, "I'd rather you not die just yet, thank you. You'd be doing your prince a grave disservice – killing him via sexual frustration."

Merlin licked reddened lips and directed heavy-lidded eyes up to Arthur. "I'll get better..."

Arthur's heart fluttered in his chest at the implication that this wouldn't be the only time – just the first. He growled and sat up, wrapping arms around Merlin's shoulder and half throwing, half rolling him onto the bed and under him; exactly where Arthur felt he belonged. "I'll hold you to that." He rolled his hips, catching his erection in the crease of Merlin's thigh. "You've had your taste, now will you just let me have my way with you?"

Merlin's hand grasped the back of Arthur's neck, pulling him down to meet the kiss waiting for him. Arthur continued the slow arches of his pelvis, feeling the intense desire to sink into Merlin rightbleedingnow blaze through him. "Do I need to do anything?" Merlin asked against Arthur's open mouth.

Closing his eyes to regain focus, Arthur licked Merlin's bottom lip. "Only relax. And trust me." Arthur got up onto his knees and crawled over to the table beside his bed. In one of the lower cupboards was a container of oil that had first been given to him as a dirty joke by Morgana when Arthur had started 'showing' signs of pubescent arousal. Arthur had used it once out of curiosity; he'd since made sure that it was kept properly stocked. He crawled back over to Merlin with it, punching a dip into the bed to rest it in. "This will help."

Merlin took the ceramic pot, opening it and giving it a curious sniff. "It's olive oil," he said, surprised.

"You'll find there are plenty of things in this castle that can have multiple uses." Arthur gave a wicked smile as he dipped his fingers in the pot. He lifted them out and let the oil drizzle from his hand down over Merlin's stomach, making a pool.

Merlin flinched. "It's cold!"

Arthur's mouth twitched into a grin. "It will warm quickly." He let his hand trail through the slick mess, moving it further down Merlin's body. He wrapped his hand around Merlin's refreshed erection, giving it a few quick slides through his palm. Merlin closed his eyes and pushed his head back into the bed.

"Gods, that feels different. Smoother..." Merlin opened his eyes and looked down at Arthur, who was reclaiming his spot between Merlin's spread thighs. He quirked a brow. "Comfy, are we?"

Arthur moved his hand back down to the cleft of Merlin's arse, smearing the oil as he went. "Quite, thank you for asking." He slipped one finger slowly into the puckered heat. Gently, he had to be so gentle as he did this; he had to earn the trust being given him. His other hand came up to lightly fondle Merlin's sac as he set a rhythm with his hand. When his finger wasn't being clenched so tightly, he began moving it to hit the spot that had Merlin seeing blinding colours behind his eyes. Merlin started rocking his hips to the same timing Arthur had set. Withdrawing his finger completely brought a mewling whimper from Merlin, only to have him stifle a groan as Arthur added a second finger to the first. He worked those two slowly as well, his other hand moving from Merlin's testicles to his prick. Arthur kept his hand on the head, gently squeezing as he made more room for his fingers in Merlin's arse.

Merlin rotated his hips against Arthur's penetrating fingers; his hand reaching down to rest on top of the one Arthur was tormenting his erection with. "More," he breathed.

Arthur's body shuddered as he again kept from taking Merlin now. "Patience, Merlin. I still have to –" he was interrupted as Merlin reared up. Dipping one hand in the oil, he lowered it to encompass Arthur's cock, the other reaching down to push the inserting fingers further in. Merlin moved his hand over Arthur, covering him in the thick lubricant.

"Now," Merlin growled and bit Arthur's lip, just this side of hard. The growl ended on a keen. "Now, Arthur. Please. I want... you. I want you."

Arthur bit back the multiple profanities that flooded his mind. He tried one last time for a semblance of decency. "Are you sure?" He stilled his hands to give Merlin the ability to think coherently.

Merlin's hand slid further down Arthur's body until he cradled Arthur's testes. He rolled them once before moving his hand back up to the head of Arthur's cock, catching the droplet of pre-come that had leaked out. He brought it to his mouth and lewdly suckled it as his eyes stayed locked on Arthur's. "Yes."

And Arthur's brain blew out of the back of his head. Or at least, that's what it felt like, watching Merlin taste him like he was a delicacy. "Christ," he muttered as he removed both hands from Merlin, adjusting his position so that he was nestled between long legs; one of them moving to hook around his waist. He gripped himself in one hand, guiding the head of his cock to the glistening ring of Merlin's arse. Resting there, he looked back up at Merlin questioningly.

Merlin's answer was to wrap his other leg around Arthur's waist, using both to pull Arthur closer. Arthur took a breath and pushed; the head slipping past the tight muscle, its passage eased by the oil. He felt the immense craving to press further, faster, harder; he held himself back and continued his slow penetration. He felt Merlin clench around him and he paused, waiting. "Don't stop." Merlin circled his hips, drawing another swear from Arthur.

"You're making this very difficult..." Arthur bit out. He began to pull out, head just barely in before he pressed back in, managing to sink further this time. The heat of Merlin's arse, the tight clenching of his inner walls was wreaking havoc on Arthur's control. He breathed heavily as the oil-slicked confines of Merlin's hole was loosening, welcoming him in. Arthur felt his thighs hit the meat of Merlin's arse and looked down to see that he'd buried himself as deep as he could. He groaned as he leaned down, pressing a kiss to Merlin's chest before lifting to delve his tongue into Merlin's mouth.

Merlin's arms reached up to wrap around his prince, their tongues twining as Arthur pumped himself into Merlin. At the deepest part of his thrust, Arthur felt Merlin clench around him as he rode over his prostate. The coiled desire that had been simmering in his groin was unfolding, shooting bolts of almost electric pleasure through him. He quickened his thrusts, growling into Merlin's mouth as Merlin scraped fiery lines down his back. Pushing himself back up, he grabbed Merlin's thighs and dragged him – still joined – to the edge of the bed. Lowering his feet, he stood by the bed, hands clenching Merlin's legs for leverage as he pounded into him. Merlin's hands closed over Arthur's on his legs, mouth open as he arched his neck back and cried out.

Arthur released one leg to reach down and grab Merlin's cock, tugging it to the same rhythm as he was thrusting. Merlin's hand scrabbled uselessly on the blankets, wordless cries slipping from him. Arthur moved Merlin until he was flush against his own stomach, the angle and size different from his own but the motions ingrained. His toes curled on the floor as he felt the first beginning pulses of his orgasm. "Merlin," he panted, "are you...?"

"Arthur!" Merlin screamed out as his legs locked around Arthur, his body bowing back as he came. Arthur felt the heat of the ejaculate as it sprayed against his chest and it felt as though Merlin had marked him; branding his scent and ecstasy into his brain and body.

Arthur pushed Merlin up to allow him to brace one knee on the bed as he bent back down to nip his chest. His hips started to stutter as the blinding godyesMERLIN tore through him and had him erupting into the clutching heat of Merlin's arse. Arthur pumped a few times more, milking himself and wringing another moan from Merlin. He grinned as his arms lost their strength and he collapsed onto the slim form beneath him, smearing Merlin's ejaculate over both of them. "That was..." Arthur blinked. "That was bloody brilliant."

Merlin made a feeble grunt that may have been an agreement. Arthur moved up enough to slide himself out of Merlin, both of them making a noise of discontent. Through a series of shuffles and wriggles, they managed to get under the covers, hearts finally slowing from the thunderous beats of attained pleasure. They settled with Arthur curling up behind Merlin, arm around his waist to hold him close. "Arthur," Merlin mumbled as they both began to drift off into an exhausted sleep.

"Mmm?"

"It was brilliant." Merlin reached a hand up to curl around the one resting on his chest.

Arthur let out a breath against the nape of Merlin's neck, nuzzling him with a smile before laying a soft kiss against it. Then both men fell into a deep and restful sleep, not waking until the sun blazed high in the sky.

~

Arthur woke to the strange sensation of a hot body pressed against his. He cracked an eye open and peered down to see Merlin nuzzled against his chest. Images from last night flooded his brain and he groaned as he felt the rush of blood that flooded his lower region. Merlin moved in his sleep, his arm roping around Arthur as he cuddled closer. Arthur tried, and failed, to banish the delirious grin that was plastered on his face. "Merlin," he whispered into the ridiculously charming ear by his mouth.

"Mmm... smell good," Merlin murmured against his skin.

Arthur squashed the flutters in his chest. "Get up, you lazy oaf. We have a hunt this morning." He softened the words with a kiss against the burrowed shoulder.

Merlin frowned and stubbornly cuddled closer, leg sliding between Arthur's. He stopped when his knee nudged Arthur's arousal. Opening his eyes and tilting his head up to Arthur's, he grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "I think you're up enough for both of us, sire."

Arthur snorted and pushed at the arm caging him. "You're ridiculously incorrigible. Now get up. We both need a bath before we even think about leaving this room." Arthur wrinkled his nose as he rubbed at the hardened evidence of last night on his chest.

Merlin whinged and hid his head under the pillow. Arthur rolled out of bed and pulled on the dressing gown that had somehow stayed draped over the foot of the bed. He opened the door and called a passing servant to arrange a bath and breakfast for him. A large breakfast. He saw Merlin's head peek out from the pillow at that. "Food?"

Arthur just rolled his eyes and went over to his wardrobe to grab a change of clothes. He piled them on the table for after his bath. Merlin made to pull on his fresh clothes he'd packed in his satchel. "Merlin."

Merlin stopped with one foot in his breeches. "Yes?"

"Bath first. You're not coming on a hunt smelling like you've been well and truly had." Arthur folded his arms and smirked.

Merlin's grin spread over his face. "But I have been well and truly had." Merlin stopped and blinked at Arthur. "Wait, I'm coming with you? What happened to me being useless?"

Arthur came over and draped a second dressing gown over Merlin. "I may have been a bit hasty with that remark. Besides, I'm not leaving you here when it can track you. The best of Camelot is coming on this hunt. You'll be safer with us. With me."

A flush of red spread over Merlin's face as he lowered his eyes. "Yes, sire."

Arthur tipped Merlin's head up with his finger under his chin. "We're alone, Merlin. It's just 'Arthur'." He gave Merlin a short but sweet kiss. "At least, until you do something remarkably idiotic that forces me to send you to the stocks."

Merlin snorted before leaning into Arthur, following him to offer a more lingering return kiss. "Yes, Arthur." He looked over at the door as a knock sounded, tying the robe tightly around him as he went to open it for their breakfast and the large wooden tub. Their food was quickly placed on the table and a line of servants emptied the steaming buckets of water into the tub. Arthur almost sighed in appreciation. When the last of the servants had left, leaving two buckets close to the newly stoked and blazing fire, Merlin closed the door and eyed the large platter. "Food?" he asked again, hopefully.

"Oh, go on then. It's obvious your brain doesn't work without some form of fuel in the morning. I expect there to be some left for me when I'm done with my bath." He mock-glared at Merlin as he slipped out of the robe, tossing it over the chair.

Merlin stared, a mouthful of fresh bread sitting forgotten in his mouth. His eyes tracked the prince as he lifted a foot and tested the temperature. Merlin swallowed convulsively when Arthur brought his other leg in, sighing as he sank down into the hot water. Arthur looked up and noticed the stark desire on Merlin's face. "Food?" Merlin grabbed something randomly and held it out to Arthur.

Arthur laughed, tipping his head back and resting it against the edge of the wood as he shifted and sank lower. "Incorrigible." He closed his eyes and relished the feel of the heat seeping into his body. He blinked when he felt a touch on his arm. Merlin had brought the platter over, setting it on the floor by the tub. He lifted a piece of cut apple to Arthur's mouth. Arthur took it with his teeth, feeling his waning desire suddenly flare up. "Incorrigible can be good."

Merlin nodded as he leaned in and licked at the line of juice that escaped Arthur's mouth. "Good..." he mimicked absently. He licked and nibbled at Arthur's lips; who chewed the piece of apple in his mouth hastily. Swallowing, Arthur reached out and grabbed the back of Merlin's head, holding him still as he slid his tongue over soft lips and into a needy mouth.

Arthur ran his hands under Merlin's borrowed robe, feeling the heat of him. Moving his hand down, he stroked Merlin's erection, capturing the moan that crawled from Merlin's mouth into his. "Off." He shoved at the robe. Merlin blindly pulled it off, moving closer. "In." Arthur tugged on Merlin's arm.

"But," he spluttered, flailing as Arthur ignored his protest and hauled him onto his lap, which happened to be immersed underwater. "We're going to make a mess." He belied his argument by pressing his mouth to Arthur's.

"Shut up." Arthur wrapped his arms around Merlin, manoeuvring him until he straddled his lap comfortably. He scraped his nails roughly down Merlin's back as he plunged his tongue in to play with Merlin's.

Merlin whimpered into Arthur's mouth, already starting to roll his groin against the firm flesh he sat on. "My bandage is getting wet."

Arthur growled, fingers unwinding the soiled and damp cloth and tossing it on the floor. "Sod your bandage." He returned to kissing the mouth against his, hands lifting water from the bath and pouring it over Merlin. Merlin grinned and wriggled on Arthur's lap, drawing another appreciative noise from him. The rocking motions they set began to slosh water over the dangerously full rim of the tub.

"You're going to get the food wet," Merlin breathed against Arthur's ear before suckling it.

Arthur groaned. "Sod the food." He reached a hand between them and pressed Merlin's erection against his own. Holding them together, the rolling of Merlin's hips and the lifting of his own sent delicious jolts through the both of them.

"We have to be – ah – getting ready for the – oh yes –" Merlin thrust himself through Arthur's hand, shivering from the press of Arthur's hardness against his own.

"Sod everything." Arthur tightened his hand as he gave a few sharp jerks, making sounds come from both their mouths.

Merlin whimpered, teeth scraping the taut skin of Arthur's neck. "Would you..." Merlin sighed as Arthur swept a thumb over the head of Merlin's prick.

Arthur licked the water from Merlin's chest, dragging teeth and lips over wet flesh. "Would I what?"

"Would you do like last night?" Merlin moved his mouth over to Arthur's, kissing him messily. Arthur surged against him, the desire to agree burning in his chest.

Taking a few calming breaths, Arthur drew back to catch Merlin's eye. "I very much would like to, but I don't know if you'd enjoy it as much. Water doesn't ease the passage very well and... you might still be sore from la- GOD IN HEAVEN !" Arthur's hands reached down to grip Merlin's hips hard enough to bruise.

Merlin had had quite enough of tender excuses, well meaning though they were. He was craving the wonderful explosion of pleasure from last night and he knew from the blown pupils and thrusting cock that Arthur was too. He'd quickly lifted himself up, hand reaching down to guide Arthur to his arse. Just as quickly, he'd lowered himself. Merlin threw his head back, hands holding onto Arthur's shoulders to keep him steady. A few stuttered thrusts down and he was fully impaled, the burn worth the trembling waves that were pulsing through him. Raising his head to look blearily at shocked and widened blue eyes, he grinned. "You were saying?"

Arthur's hands squeezed Merlin's waist again. "Bloody incorrigible. You unrepentant, cheeky little..." Arthur trailed off as he pulled Merlin into a fast and jarring tempo. Water sloshed over the rim as Merlin bounced on Arthur's cock, head dropping to rest on Arthur's shoulder. Arthur felt something blaze through him, not entirely related to their actions. Fierce and solid, it speared his erratically thumping heart and he realised he might be in trouble. The word began to form in his mind and he slammed the door on it. He opened his eyes and focussed on Merlin instead. Lifting his hands, he cradled Merlin's face and angled it for a kiss, as deep and as penetrating as the joining of their lower halves.

Merlin's hands covered Arthur's, holding them both in place as the trembling waves began to crash into blinding orgasms. Arthur felt as though it would go on forever, both of them emptying their passions – Arthur into Merlin and Merlin into the now-tepid water. Spent, they sat exhausted; Merlin resting his head on Arthur's shoulder and Arthur nuzzling under Merlin's chin. When the roaring quieted in his ears, Arthur happily settled for listening to Merlin's heartbeat which went from a haphazard pounding to a measured and regular thumping. "Is it always so... so... that?" Merlin asked drowsily.

Arthur chuckled weakly into Merlin's skin. "I don't think anything can ever compare to that, Merlin." Arthur almost bit his tongue at the implication of those words. He sincerely hoped Merlin hadn't noticed. From the contended sigh and soft kiss placed on his shoulder, he guessed it had slipped by.

"We should..." Merlin began to lift himself from Arthur. Arthur leaned forward and bit Merlin's shoulder as the clenching of his arse sent new shivers through his over sensitized cock. Merlin fell back down, moaning at the minor bursts of pleasure it caused. "Oh, wow."

Arthur was torn. He would very much like to stay in his chambers all day, cataloguing what sounds and reactions he could pull from Merlin. He also felt the tugging of his obligation to his kingdom and its people; to protect them from the beast that was still roaming free. Raising his eyes to the healing wound on Merlin's neck, he frowned and strengthened his resolve. Hunting first, mind-blowing orgasmic sex for the rest of his life after. Grabbing the lip of the tub, he gritted his teeth. "Up, quickly... before I change my bloody mind."

Merlin placed a quick kiss on Arthur's frowning mouth as he hoisted himself up. A loud groaning filled the room when he did; Merlin's through bitten lips and Arthur's as he tipped his head back. His legs quivered as he stood in the tub, feet on either side of Arthur and body bent towards him of its own volition. Merlin looked over at the table, which was so far away, and he wasn't sure he'd make it without falling or stumbling. Arthur ran his hands up Merlin's legs, kissing his knee. Merlin glared down at him. "That's not exactly helping, you prat."

Arthur smiled as he nipped above the kneecap. "I'll make sure you don't fall."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "As if you're in any better shape to move," he snorted derisively.

Arthur's smile grew as he flicked his tongue higher up Merlin's leg. Merlin breathed out a moan as he tangled his hand in Arthur's hair. "I'll have you know I'm in excellent shape." Arthur shifted in the water, coming up to his knees. "You are going to have to move your scrawny self, though. I have prior obligations today and you're distracting me, as usual."

Merlin laughed. "Yes, my lord." Arthur felt the low clenching sensation again at the connotations behind those words. Mine, his mind whispered. Merlin must have noticed the dark glint that lit his eyes because he stopped laughing, his hand clenching in Arthur's hair. "Clothes..." Merlin stepped out of the tub, "clothes would be good right now."

Arthur took a deep breath and held it, shoving the thoughts of all the things he wanted right now far into the back of his mind. He jumped at the loud rap on the door. "What?" he called.

"Sire, the horses and men are ready to ride." Leon's voice was muffled by the heavy wood.

The presence of Leon and the reminder of his obligation allowed him to bottle his lust. "Saddle an extra horse for Merlin. We'll be down shortly." Arthur stood, motioning to Merlin to hand him one of the pails of heated water. As he lifted it and dumped it over his head to rinse off the residue of dirt and semen, he tried to ignore the feeling of Merlin's eyes tracing the water's path down his body. Shaking his head, he peered at Merlin from under the sopping fringe of his hair. He was standing by the tub, a drying cloth held forgotten in his hand as he gaped. Feeling churlish at having to refrain from acting out his desires, he snatched the cloth and motioned to Merlin as he stepped out of the water. "Rinse yourself then get dressed."

Merlin blushed and lowered his eyes, walking over to grab the second bucket and do as he was told. Arthur tossed him the second drying cloth and obstinately refused to look at him as they both dressed. Buckling his belt, Arthur turned to say something else when he noticed the dejected look on Merlin's face. He stood there and stared until Merlin looked up. "I'm sorry, sire. I just..." Merlin went over and grabbed Arthur's sword belt, coming over to hand it to the prince.

Arthur huffed and grabbed Merlin's arm instead. "I'm not angry at you, you idiot. I'm annoyed at how I can't seem to look at you without wanting to do very improper yet immensely delicious things to you. I'm also annoyed that I'll have to sit on a horse – which I'm imagining is going to be extremely uncomfortable given my state – and go hunt and kill a monster instead of keeping you in here naked and writhing all bloody day."

Merlin blinked, then his customary lop-sided grin spread onto his face. "Oh." He leaned in and gave Arthur a quick peck. "Is that all..." Still grinning, he reached around and buckled the sword belt around Arthur's waist. His fingers skimmed daringly over the front of Arthur's breeches.

"Merlin..." Arthur growled warningly. "Get the door."

Merlin smirked before dipping a short bow with his head. "As you wish, sire."

~

They'd been riding all day, sending out small groups to search disused trails and pathways. Arthur called for a stop in the late afternoon, ordering his men to eat and rest. He'd decided to keep half of the group out searching with him that night, sending the other half back to protect the town. He was both hoping and dreading that the vampyre would be drawn to Merlin and they could finally end this nightmare. The sun was just above the horizon, fading from the searing yellow to a dark and blazing orange; spreading the colour over the land in smears. Arthur leaned on a fallen log, scanning the surrounding area as he ate. He was blatantly refusing to stare at Merlin as he did so, who was returning the favour by equally blatantly trying to ignore him and carry on a conversation with Leon. A frown creased Arthur's brow; Leon seemed to be enjoying the mundane chatter a little too much for Arthur's liking.

Nothing had been said as the prince and his manservant had arrived at the stables and mounted, but Leon's hasty appraisal of Merlin showed the concern he'd obviously felt. Seeing nothing wrong, Leon had been content to leave the question unasked. Leon had taken notice of the quick glances and blushes that had passed between the two men, as well as the discomfited shifting in their saddles that would accompany each incident. He'd also noticed that they were purposefully avoiding each other during the day; aside from badly concealed eye-groping – if there was such a term. If not, Leon thought there should be one, since that's obviously what was being done between the two. He admitted to a fondness for Merlin – something that had surprised him when he'd realised the type of fondness, since he hadn't previously had an attraction to scrawny men – but his love and loyalty to his prince set his needs and desire above Leon's own. And it was obvious what the prince currently needed and desired. Leon wasn't above subtle – or not-so-subtle – nudges to ensure their happiness. Which would explain why he was currently paying an undue amount of attention to Merlin; even if he was rather nice to talk to and easy to lightly flirt with – especially when he blushed.

Arthur, of course, was absolutely in no way paying attention to the laughter between Leon and Merlin or the blushes that spread on Merlin's face or the way Leon's hand reached out and gently pulled a stray leaf from Merlin's shoulder. He was most certainly not entertaining any fantasies involving a rabid wolf jumping from the trees and mauling Leon. Or maybe a hive of bees dropping on his head; his big, fat, charming head. Arthur noticed Sir Gawain giving him a wary look from the corner of his eye and realised his face was set in a deep and disapproving scowl. He quickly erased it and got up to head into the dense cluster of trees, needing a few minutes to relieve body and mind.

The sun had set during their rest, the reds and violets bursting vividly over the landscape before fading to blend in with the lengthening shadows of the oncoming night. The thicket Arthur had headed for was not far from their make-shift camp, no more than thirty yards –add to that his mental and physical frustration and he could somewhat explain away letting his guard down. A man should be entitled to empty his bladder in private, even if he is alone in the dark hunting for monsters. Just as he was tucking himself back into his breeches, he felt a body slam into his from the side, knocking him and his attacker to the ground. He shouted as he turned, one hand reaching for his silver dagger, the other attempting to hold off the gaping mouth straining for his throat. The hand trying to reach the dagger was grabbed by the wrist and heaved above his head. Arthur was able to feel a moment of panic as the creature's other hand made to pull away the one keeping those vicious teeth at bay.

The pounding of his pulse in his ears had covered the sound of his knights coming to aid him, which meant the sweeping boot that kicked the creature off him was as much of a surprise to him as it was to the creature. Hector stood over Arthur, cross held out to ward off another attack. Leon and Gawain had moved towards it; Leon armed with a flask of holy water and a small ornamental silver dagger, Gawain with a cross and a blazing torch. As the light fell on the huddled and hissing form, Arthur heard a gasp from behind him. "That's not the vampyre. That's... it's Isla. One of the girls taken from town," said Tristan.

Arthur's eyes widened as he stared at the girl; because indeed, it was a girl. Or had been. Arthur couldn't remember ever seeing her before, but he was certain that in life, she hadn't been as cadaverously thin as she was now. It was as if, as well as taking her life, the vampyre had sucked all her substance out as well. Her skin looked to be painted onto her bones, the clothes she wore hanging like draperies from her frame. Hair tangled and fell in straggled clumps from her head, the colour almost indistinguishable due to the filth embedded in it. Her fangs glistened as she hissed, red-on-black eyes glaring from over hollowed cheeks. She was a mockery of the probably vivacious girl she'd been in life. She was a thrall. The knights hesitated; Arthur could understand. It was one thing to slay something that barely resembled a human and was most definitely dangerous; quite another to kill what they still thought of as 'one of their own'. Arthur made to get to his feet, accepting a bracing arm from Hector. Quickly tying his breeches, he pulled his dagger and joined Leon and Gawain. Gawain stood, unable to move to kill what used to be a girl. "Give me the torch, Gawain."

Gawain looked over at Arthur, a protest on his lips. He looked back at the thrall, fully seeing her for the first time. Shaking his head, he visibly straightened his spine. "I'll do it, my lord."

"Then do it. We have a full night ahead of us." Arthur stepped to Gawain's other side, he and Leon ready at his back.

Gawain swallowed once before he held the cross out and directed it at the thrall. When she cringed back and hid her eyes, Gawain rushed in and set fire to her with the torch. It reacted as though she were made of oil; quickly covering her head-to-foot in flames. Her mouth opened and instead of hisses, screams poured from it, her body writhing on the ground as she tried ineffectively to put out the fire. The knights circled her, weapons drawn in case she made to leave, but she was too weak and too hurt to do so. After a few horrifying moments, her screams stopped, her body only twitching spastically as the bones and tendons popped and crackled in the dying fire. When her body was consumed, the fire went out; leaving a greasy stain of oily ash on the ground. Gavin stepped forward to collect the ash in a container to later be spread over the ocean.

Arthur turned and headed back to camp, the knights that had come to his aid falling in behind him. Half had stayed at camp, eyes trained on the surrounding foliage for further attacks. Merlin met them just before the perimeter, gaze wide and worried. Reaching for Arthur, he ran his hands over his chest and neck, fingers gentle in their examination. "Are you alright..." he flicked his gaze to the side quickly, "sire?"

"I'm fine." He gently squeezed Merlin's hand before turning to his knights. "I want the group going to town to do so now. Keep a wary eye for attacks and guard the town. The children of the vampyre are attacking as well, now. The rest, break into two groups, one stays here with the horses and acts as a back-up group if we fail. If the thrall is here so close to nightfall, we may be close to the vampyre's nest." He went over and clapped Gawain on the shoulder. "Take heart, men. They can be killed. And we will do our best to save the souls of our people." He saw the knights consider this and accept that as a more pleasant and noble alternative to desecrating the bodies of the people they had sworn to protect. He motioned for Merlin to join him at his horse as he sorted through supplies to carry with him as they hunted on foot.

"Sire?" Merlin looked at him with dark eyes. "Are you sure you're alright? I heard you shout and then saw that thing... Why the bloody hell did you go off by yourself in the dark?"

Arthur grabbed Merlin's wrist, rubbing circles on the inside with his thumb. "Because it was go off and relieve myself or go over and punch Leon in the nose, you idiot. I was distracted and angry and not paying attention. Are you happy now?"

Merlin blinked. "Are you... are you jealous? Jealous of Leon?" The corner of Merlin's mouth quirked up in a grin.

"No, I am not jealous, you grinning buffoon." Arthur folded his arms over his chest.

Merlin giggled, then covered his mouth and looked over the horse's back at the still-packing knights. "Yes you are! You're jealous."

"I may be a little annoyed that you were flirting with him in public, but I most certainly am not jealous." Arthur opened his saddle-bag and began sorting through it.

"I wasn't flirting with him. We were talking, you git." Merlin leaned in and placed a hand on Arthur's back.

Arthur grunted and continued to pack. "If you say so. I certainly have no claims on you."

It was Merlin's turn to frown as he grabbed Arthur's arm and turned him towards him. "Don't say that. You have...," Merlin traced Arthur's jaw with his other hand, "you have me. All of me, Arthur."

Arthur closed his eyes and suppressed a desire to crush his mouth to Merlin's. Instead, he touched a finger gently to Merlin's bottom lip and smiled a sad smile. "You're not obligated to me, Merlin. If you want to be with Leon..."

Merlin smacked Arthur's hand away and glared. "Sod Leon. I want you, you pig-headed prat. Although, sometimes it escapes me as to why." Merlin leaned in and pressed his mouth to Arthur's, nipping none-too-gently at his lip. "You, Arthur Pendragon."

Arthur flicked his tongue out, tasting Merlin. He pulled back and searched Merlin's face. "I don't know why the idea of you with anyone else makes me want to commit rash acts of violence."

Merlin smirked against Arthur's mouth. "Because you're jealous," he taunted before drawing back.

Arthur rolled his eyes and hid his smile. "And you're obviously daft. Now here," Arthur lifted a packed satchel for Merlin to carry, "keep the cross out and in front of you. You'll be behind me."

Merlin's grin turned wicked. "Really?"

Arthur snorted. "How you managed to stay a virgin this long with that libido is beyond me."

The smile smoothed out into something softer. "Maybe I was just waiting for the right person."

"And you wound up with me." Arthur slung his own satchel over his shoulder.

Merlin's answering smile almost blinded him. "Yes, I did."

~

They had all died and gone to hell. At least, that's what it felt like to Merlin; currently flattened against the craggy wall of the cave, bits of what may have been an ex-townswoman splattered over his body. He'd had the misfortune to not move when told to; the smoking thrall smashing into the rock face beside him and bursting open. "Oh, that is so not right." Merlin flicked a clump of skin off his chest.

They'd gone on foot, following the trail the thrall had left; her passage much more easy to find than the creature that made her, even in the darkening night. The moon rose, half full and bright. The stars crowded the sky, each sparkle like the glint in a watching eye. The haphazard trail had led to a crevice in a wall of stone that seemed to be a passageway, barely. The knights had gone single-file into the crack; Broderick at the front with a torch and a flask of holy-water, a silver letter-opener stuck through his belt. All of the knights were armed with a silver weapon, even a sharpened ornamental blade was better than their regular swords; although it was obvious that most of them would have preferred their own blades.

The crack had widened into a tunnel, which had widened even further into a cavern; a cavern with five hungry thralls and one very annoyed vampyre. The party divided and began to attack the thralls, who were forming a protective wall before their maker. The vampyre slunk into the shadows, letting its children fight alone; its eyes found Merlin through the melee of bodies and attempted to force his gaze up. It hissed in distaste as it scented the change in its chosen prey. Merlin gave a silent and grateful prayer to Gaius. Then he joined Kay and Tristan as they fought to corner one of the hissing thralls.

After that, it all got a bit hazy. He heard the shrieks of pain coming from the mouths of thralls and knights alike. Blood flowed and dripped to the floor, making the footing more treacherous than it already was. Merlin cried out in horror as Sir Donovan viciously had his throat torn out; blue eyes wide and staring as his life poured down his front. He gurgled in surprise, blood bubbling from his mouth, before falling to the ground. Merlin had let out a scream of rage as he charged the thrall that had done the deed; taking a small bit of pleasure from the wail of pain as he sprayed holy water on her. She struck out at him, cuffing him in the head before she ran blindly into the back of Kay, who had turned and thrust his dagger into her stomach. She'd spat in his face at that, then screamed again as he dumped the contents of his own flask over her head. Then he'd grabbed her as she flailed – her skin blistering and smoke rising from her – and propelled her at the nearest wall of the cavern; which just so happened to be right beside a dazed Merlin.

Which brought him to now; him standing there with a wrinkled nose as he shuddered and picked pieces of her out of his hair. His eyes searched the fracas for the shimmer of gold he was used to, heart fluttering when he saw Arthur well and whole, finishing another thrall with a swing that seared through her flesh; decapitating her. Apparently Arthur had figured out that silver worked best if dipped in holy water before slicing. Merlin was somewhat impressed. Leon and Hector had finished another one off; that left two. Both thralls were now huddled back to back, flicking furtive glances at the vampyre who was still refusing to save its children. It growled at them and they flinched before turning back towards the advancing knights, preparing to engage in a losing battle.

Merlin almost felt a little sorry for them; at least until one of them hurled herself at Arthur. That made him pretty comfortable with the idea of killing them all. Tristan intercepted her, using his momentum to throw them both to the floor. Gawain moved over to assist him, leaving Arthur and the rest of the surviving knights to face the last thrall; the only obstacle between them and their main target. Leon held his left arm close to his side, evidence of the broken ribs he was likely bracing. Gavin had tied a strip of his cloak around a nasty looking gash down his leg, not letting the wound keep him from supporting his prince in battle. Merlin felt pride fill his chest at the willingness of the knights to stand and fight for Arthur, wounded or not.

Arthur stood with his weapon ready, water beading on its surface. The remaining thrall eyed him contemptuously before hissing and dodging to his right to attack Broderick; seeming to take everyone by surprise. Broderick threw his hands up, cross raising to ward her off. It was sent flying across the cavern by the force of her blow to his arm. She reached for his neck, claws scraping red lines over it. Her eyes widened in surprise as the tip of a dagger suddenly jutted out from her throat. Reaching hands up, she choked as she tried to pull it out, but Arthur knocked them away as he twisted the dagger and severed her spinal cord. The knife made a painful squeal as it scraped along bone. She dropped to the ground, blood beginning to pool from her head. Gavin came over and used a ceremonial scythe to sever the head from the body. Tristan and Gawain had already dispatched their thrall, the smouldering remains causing the shadows in the cave to flicker eerily.

The knights gathered and made a loose circle around the vampyre, not wanting to give it any exit; the tension of the climax of this whole debacle thick in the flickering dark. The vampyre growled in the back of its throat, the red of its eyes seeming to glow from the blackness it was shrouded in. Arthur made to move forward, but Hector stopped him. "We can't afford to lose you, sire." Lowering his head, he gave a tremendous bellow that echoed off the rock walls before he charged the creature.

In a blur of motion it had sprang over the heads of the assembled men, landing close to the exit; and Merlin. Merlin ground his teeth in frustration – what was with this thing and trying to kill him. He was beginning to feel like he had a magnetic draw to it. And maybe he did. Maybe the creature was willing to overlook the lost virginity in lieu of the amount of power Merlin had coursing in his veins. He imagined that a magic user must make a pretty decent snack to an undead creature that used to be one itself. Merlin held up his cross with one hand while blindly searching through his satchel for another weapon - any weapon. Preferably something pointy that would cause the vampyre to be struck down with a sudden case of death.

It advanced on him, gaze flicking between the cross and Merlin's face. It had seemed to have forgotten the knights, which Merlin thought was not in the slightest bit conducive to a long after-life. Gavin came up behind it, scythe raised to strike; the vampyre flicked its arm out and Gavin was sent flying into Leon and Kay. Hector charged the creature again, furious that it had eluded him before. He was stopped in mid-run by a hand around his throat. Only the intervention of Tristan and Broderick kept him from a broken neck. The vampyre flung him absently aside as it prepared to face the two knights. Tristan glared as he made a flinging motion with his arm, sending a spray of water over the vampyre. It screeched as the droplets fell on its desiccated skin, the sizzling sounding obscenely loud in the cavern. It made its own charge at Tristan, still just a blur of motion to the human eyes watching it. Tristan let out a shout as he was slammed into a far wall, the creature reaching a hand down to claw through his armour. Broderick and Arthur moved to help; Broderick making an effort to stab it with his letter opener. The vampyre swivelled and used Tristan as a shield, the opener sinking into the meat of his shoulder. Continuing to utilise Tristan, it hauled him back and threw him at Broderick, both men sailing through the air to hit the rising forms of Leon and Kay; Gavin being quite unconscious at this point.

That left Arthur. Arthur, who stood tall in front of the creature as though daring it to move. Arthur, sweat dripping from his hair, turning it darker. Arthur, whose eyes widened in shock as the vampyre once again ignored him and leapt nimbly in the air to come down near Merlin. Quite frankly, Merlin was getting a little tired of this. He was sore, covered in bits of flesh and other unmentionables, it smelled rancid in here and he was tired. Tired of the constant state of fear he and Camelot had been in since this thing had arrived. Tired of running around in the middle of the night instead of being tucked warm and safe in his own bed. Tired of the pain and the blood; just plain tired. He bared his teeth at the creature as it hissed at him. It opened its mouth and displayed its fangs. Merlin raised the cross at it. He felt something push him in the middle of his chest and barely registered that he was airborne. His back hit the wall of the cave with enough force to knock the breath out of him. He collapsed to the ground, gasping as he tried to relearn how to breathe. The vampyre advanced, spittle dripping from glistening teeth.

Merlin tried to lift the cross again, frowning as he realised he'd lost it on his impromptu flight. The satchel lay just beyond his reach; the torch light glinting off the barb of a silver-tipped crossbow bolt. He felt dampness underneath him and looked down to see his water flask had split open. The only thing keeping Merlin from uttering a particularly nasty profanity was his lack of oxygen. He only hoped that his severe mangling would allow the other knights to rally and slay the creature. Merlin squinted up painfully to see the thing slowly approaching him; apparently relishing the fear it was eliciting. It stiffened suddenly, eyes wide and a shriek coming from its mouth. Merlin discovered the cause as it turned to face Arthur; Arthur's dagger sticking from its back.

"Go back to the hell you came from, you bloody bastard!" Arthur stood there, defenceless, brazenly challenging the creature. He was rewarded with a backhanded slap across the face that had him crumpling to the ground. The vampyre hissed and lowered to complete its kill – and Merlin had had enough. No one tried to kill his prince and lived to see another day.

Eyes shining gold, he aimed his magic at the crossbow bolt he'd noticed; a blue fire enveloping the tip. He still had no breath for words, but the fear and love and vindictive rage that thrummed through him was old; primal and ancient and not needing a verbal language. The bolt lifted from the satchel and its aim was true. It pierced the creature through its heart, lodging firmly in place. The force of the blow had the vampyre back-peddling, arms as wide as its surprised eyes. The vampyre placed both hands over the end of the projectile protruding from its chest and roared as it tried to remove it. Merlin saw blue flames flitting within its open mouth. Spurts of blue shot out from around the wound, burning its hands. The roar became a shrieking wail, blue flames beginning to pour out its throat; blazing through its skin at random places. The flames were visible through the thin shell of its skin, glowing hotter and brighter as it began to consume the vampyre from the inside. A clawed hand reached for Merlin before the fire enveloped its entire form, creating a whirling firestorm with the vampyre as the kindling. The blaze circled and rose high enough to scorch the ceiling before the vampyre had been completely devoured by the flames. The fire went out as suddenly as it had started, leaving the cave in darkness but for a few scattered and dying torches.

Merlin blinked – trying to rid his vision of spots – when he was hauled to his feet. He felt rough hands skate over him as he was assessed for injuries, Arthur's face coming into focus as the spots began to fade. A trickle of blood seeped from Arthur's hairline and Merlin lifted a hand to rub it away. Arthur caught it at the wrist and held it, staring at him. "What did you do?"

Merlin hadn't realised the small nudge of tiny magic he'd used would result in such an obvious show. "Um... I, uh, I threw a bolt at it?"

Arthur's face was a stone mask. "You threw a bolt at it?"

Merlin nodded. "Yes. A silver-tipped one. That had been blessed by the priest."

"A silver-tipped bolt that had been blessed by a priest? The thing burst into obviously magical flames because you threw a bolt at it?"

Merlin's nodding slowed. "Well... I did get it in the heart."

Arthur's eyes narrowed. "Yes, I saw the placement. We both know you're rubbish at archery and any other projectile weaponry. Care to explain?" A blond eyebrow lifted in challenge.

"It was complete luck." Merlin took a deep breath and looked Arthur in the eye. "And I thought it was going to kill you. I might have thrown it harder and with better aim because of that."

"You managed to hit it in the heart while you were half dazed because you were worried about me?" The tone was vaguely incredulous.

"I'll have you know that there have been cases of mothers lifting full wagons off their children out of fear and love." Merlin folded his arms and told himself that he was not beginning to sulk.

Arthur's gaze softened. "Fear and love, hmm? Are you saying you had such miraculously brilliant aim because you love me?" A smile was twitching on the corner of his mouth.

Merlin sighed and threw up his hands. "Now you're being a prat. A great, big, sodding prat." Merlin turned and went to stalk off to anywhere but here; the arm yanking him around stopped that before he'd gone more than a step.

A mouth curved in a smile brushed his ear as Arthur whispered, "Admit it, Merlin. You love me."

Merlin barely turned to whisper just as cheekily, "I might when you admit you're jealous." He felt a nip on his lobe before Arthur drew back with a grin on his face.

A groan from behind them brought them back to the here and now. There were things to do still. They had to see to their dead and wounded as well as burn the bodies of the thralls and collect the ashes for later dispersal. As they rounded up the bodies of the thralls to drag outside and burn, they discovered the half-buried body of the young boy taken the previous evening. He was obviously dead and there was nothing to be done to save him; until Arthur spoke up. "Take him outside and build a separate pyre for him."

Tristan balked. "My lord, he's a child. Shouldn't we take his body home to his mother for a proper burial?"

"Unless you want his mother to have to deal with her son coming back as one of them," Arthur pointed at the bodies of the women, "then I suggest cremating the boy. We can at least ensure his soul goes on and his body never rises. Collect the ashes to give to the mother, though. We can do that much." Arthur's eyes dropped from the pale and still-round features of the boy. Merlin felt the burden of this event weighing heavily on Arthur's shoulders.

Merlin walked over and stood behind Arthur, close – but not touching. "You did the best you could, Arthur. You did better than anyone could have. The boy will go to rest..." Merlin took a breath. "I'm sorry."

Arthur turned eyes that glistened with unshed tears. "It could have been you. That's all that keeps running through my head. I'm sorry for the boy, I truly am, but a part of me is glad it wasn't you; that I'm not standing here staring down at your body and ordering it to be burned." A tear slid unnoticed down Arthur's cheek.

Merlin made a low noise of comfort and wiped it away. "Fight against it all you want, but there are going to be people you care for more than others. If given the choice of saving that boy's life and yours, I'll choose yours every time. It doesn't make you heartless, Arthur; it makes you human."

"That's not enough!" Arthur shouted, tears falling faster. The knights had felt the despondent mood the prince was sinking into and had left to do their duties, and to give him and his manservant the privacy to deal with it. "It's not enough, Merlin." Arthur sank to his knees. "I'm supposed to protect them. What kind of king will I be if I can't even protect a child?" Arthur clutched Merlin's tunic as he knelt, pulling him down to kneel with him. "What kind of king will I be if I can't stand to lose you?" Arthur bent his head against Merlin's chest, hand banding around him to hold him close as he wept.

Merlin made soothing noises and rubbed gentle circles on his back. "The best kind of king, Arthur. You'll be one who cares. You won't be locked behind a mask of indifference. You'll hear the voices of your people and you'll listen. Their pain will be yours, their triumphs yours as well. And they will love you for it." Merlin laid a gentle kiss on the top of Arthur's head. "As I do."

Arthur lifted his head and met Merlin's eyes. "Why?" His voice broke on the word.

"Because I can't think of anyone in this entire world that has done more to earn my love than you. Because you think you hide your emotions so well, but anyone that bothers to pay attention knows exactly how you truly feel. Because you stand side-by-side with your men, not hiding behind them, like a coward. Because you'll stand up to a vampyre with no weapon and tell it off. Because you make me feel things I can't even begin to explain." Merlin sighed and stroked his thumb over Arthur's cheek. "Because even on your worst days, you're still disgustingly honourable and gorgeous. Just because, Arthur. Because I love you and that's all there is to it." Merlin kissed Arthur; soft and full of everything he felt.

Arthur sobbed and reached up to cradle the back of Merlin's head, fingers sliding through hair to dig at the scalp. He fused his mouth over Merlin's, tongue delving in to take everything Merlin was offering. He broke from kissing his lips to dropping kisses all over his face, murmuring 'thank you' in between each one. Drawing back, he let Merlin wipe the traces of his tears away, laying a kiss on the palm of Merlin's hand. "Merlin, I..." Arthur squeezed the hand in his.

Merlin silenced him with another press of his lips. "I know, Arthur." He got up from his knees and helped Arthur to his feet, both men reluctant to return to the harsh reality of what lay ahead of them.

Arthur sighed heavily and stole another quick kiss before turning and bending to pick up the body of the boy. They made their way through the crevice, leaving behind the smell of death and blood. They exited the rock face, guided to the knights by the towering flames of the pyres cast into the night sky. There was a smaller unlit pyre that Arthur went and placed the boy on. Merlin stood back silently, nodding at Leon who came over and gave him a thankful clap on the back. Arthur took a torch and lit the fire himself, not willing to shirk from a distasteful duty. He said a small prayer for the boy and the souls of the women when he stepped back.

Merlin looked around at all the assembled. The dead had been wrapped and laid over the backs of their horses; the wounded had been field-dressed and stood beside their brothers-in-arms, solemn looks set on all the faces present. Yes, they had lost men – good men – but they had done so ridding their kingdom and its people of evil. No knight could think of a more honourable death. Each knight held a hand over his heart, head bowed in prayer as the fires blazed. Merlin felt out of place until Gawain came to his other side, a look of gratitude in his eyes as he squeezed his shoulder and turned back to the fire; head bowed and hand over heart. He noticed the nods being given to him from each of the men and felt something swell in his chest. They accepted him. He'd proven his love and loyalty for Arthur that night and it wouldn't be forgotten. Merlin raised his hand to his heart and bowed his head, adding his own prayers for the souls of the departed. They stayed that way until the sky began to lighten and the fires had burned out. The ashes were collected, Arthur choosing to carry the remains of the boy. They mounted and headed back to Camelot; warring emotions of levity and grief in their hearts.

~

The next day passed in a blur. Arthur was exhausted from the day of searching and night of fighting; the report he gave to his father being somewhat hazy on details as he swayed on his feet. They'd found when they'd returned that one of the thralls had made it to town, but had been swiftly dispatched by the armed guards. No one else had died that night. This was all that Arthur could hold in his thoughts as he went through the motions of his duties disconnectedly. He'd finally been dismissed by his smiling and happy father; who had practically crowed at the news that the vampyre was dead. He wanted nothing more than to fall into his bed and sleep for a week, but duty forced him to be led to the house of the grieving mother. Arthur handed over the container with the ashes of her son and set the stone mask in place on his face as she accepted it with heaving sobs. Guilt gnawed painfully in his chest as he gave his condolences before he turned and marched back to the castle. Faces passed him blearily and still Arthur insisted on finishing his obligations. He went to the barracks, checking in on the wounded men himself. He was assured that all was well and that there would be no lasting damage. Leon tried to accompany him on his round, but Arthur insisted he rest so as not to injure himself further. "It won't do if my finest knight is taken down by a pierced lung that could have been avoided, Leon."

Leon had gone, grumbling, and Arthur had continued his day in his sleep-deprived fugue. He'd run into Morgana and had made to step past her, but she'd quickly moved back in his path and aimed a lethal finger at him. "Arthur Pendragon! You are practically dead on your feet. What do you think you're doing, stumbling around the castle like a drunken fool?"

Arthur blinked a few times to allow his brain to process what may have been a question. "I have obligations, Morgana. Things need to be seen to, rounds need to be-"

"Yes, yes, I know all of that." Morgana waved her hand dismissively. "This can all be seen by other people, Arthur. You're only human, for God's sake." Arthur mused at the similarities in her speech and Merlin's. Her face softened as she turned him in the direction of his room. "You're no good to Camelot if you can't take care of yourself." She pushed him, then lifted her finger again. "And if I see you anywhere in this castle besides your room before tomorrow morning..." The threat hung in the air.

Defeated and too sluggish to think up a good argument, he sighed and went to his room. He was surprised to see a steaming bath and a plate of cold meats and cheese when he entered. He was more surprised to see a girl with long dark hair and a blue dress fussing with his bed. "Excuse me...?"

The girl gasped and whirled quickly, a blush staining his cheeks. His? Arthur gaped at the sight of Merlin, wearing the blue dress that had started this whole mess in the first place. His eyes almost popped out of his head when Merlin dropped him a low curtsy. "Sire," he said with lowered eyes, "your bath is ready." Merlin looked up at him from under dark lashes.

The meagre amount of blood Arthur had managed to steal from his tired body to fuel his brain was quickly stolen and sent to his cock. "What...? You...? Dress...? Merlin?"

"Who is this 'Merlin' you speak of, sire? I am Marie, your chamber maid." Merlin's voice was pitched an octave higher and he actually sashayed as he walked over to Arthur. "Would you like some help undressing, sire? I know you've had a dreadful day." Merlin made a pouty moue with his mouth.

Arthur continued to gape. "Are you trying to kill me?"

'Marie' giggled and covered his mouth with his hand. Arthur groaned. "I would never dream of such a thing, my lord."

Arthur reached out and tugged the wig off; Merlin gave an 'Oi' in protest. "You may find this hard to believe, Merlin, but I find I prefer you the way you usually are." He reached out and ruffled Merlin's hair, lingering a caress to his ear. "How come you look so much more... rested than I am?" Arthur moved in to breathe in the scent of lemon that always came from Merlin after he'd had a bath.

Merlin combed his hair with his fingers. "Because unlike some royal gits, I happen to be smart enough to get some rest before I walk into walls."

Arthur blinked and tried to focus on Merlin's words instead of his mouth. "I never walked into a wall."

Merlin rolled his eyes. "Only out of sheer stubbornness, I'm sure. Now let's get you undressed and into a bath. You smell and you're not getting into those clean sheets with this dirty body." Merlin began to undo ties and buckles.

Arthur closed his eyes and barely noticed the fingers that played over him as they carefully removed his clothing. He let himself be directed over to the still-steaming water and sank gratefully into it. He leaned his head back against the side of the tub as Merlin rolled the sleeves of the dress up and set to washing him, the corner of his tongue sticking out of his mouth as he concentrated on his task. Arthur lifted a hand and let a drop of water fall on the blue fabric. "What's with the dress?"

Merlin blushed and avoided Arthur's eyes. "I just thought it'd be fun... or something," he mumbled.

"The blue does suit you, Merlin." Arthur let his hand trace over Merlin's cheek. "It does amazing things to your eyes."

The blush spread to the tips of his ears and sent an answering rush of blood to Arthur's stiffened erection. "Shut up and move forward so I can do your back and hair."

Arthur smiled and did as he was told, resting his head on Merlin's chest; satisfied to listen to the rhythmic pounding of the heart behind it. Merlin thoroughly, but gently, cleaned Arthur's body; the buckets of rinse water making him feel as though he was rinsing away the pain and grief of the night. Arthur felt more energised from the cleansing; evident from the quick steps out of the tub as he backed Merlin against one of the bedposts. Merlin's eyes widened as Arthur pressed his still-wet self against him, soaking through the light material. "I think I'm beginning to see the 'fun' side of this..." Arthur nipped at Merlin's neck.

Merlin tried not to groan or shiver from it and failed at both. "I thought you were tired. I was just going to tuck you in and – oooh –"

Arthur thought he would quite enjoy keeping a list of all the different exclamations he could pull from Merlin. "Mmm, I think I like the idea of you tucking me in." A smirk followed that remark. "As for me being tired..." Arthur thrust himself against Merlin, whispering a moan into Merlin's neck at the feel of the smooth fabric sliding over his cock.

Merlin thrust back, his hand reaching down to grab Arthur's arse. "Alright. Fine. A quickie. But then you have to go to sleep," Merlin admonished.

Arthur nodded as he bent down and grabbed onto the voluminous material, lifting it and bunching it until he could get a hand under to grip Merlin. "I can live with that." He slid a thumb over an already leaking slit, making Merlin shudder against him.

Merlin bit his teeth into Arthur's neck, nipping as he rolled against the hand holding him. "Bed..." he breathed out.

Arthur nodded again, moving to pull Merlin with him on the bed. Merlin grinned and shook his head. Arthur sat on the edge, lust clouding his thoughts. "What?"

"Get on the bed..." Merlin waited until Arthur had done so before jumping on the bed and straddling Arthur's torso, lifting his skirts and settling them over Arthur's chest and legs as he lowered himself.

Arthur laughed and pulled Merlin down to steal a kiss. "Bloody incorrigible." Merlin smiled as he kissed him back.

~

And so it came to be that Prince Arthur and his loyal and loved manservant, Merlin, rid the land of Camelot of a darkness that had threatened to spread over it. Well, at least they rid it of this particular darkness that had threatened to spread over it. In a magical land such as this, there are many different types of darkness. But this darkness – well, it's dead. And so, they went on to protect the land and its people, together. They fought werewolves and banshees and zombies, oh my, as well as many other dark and deadly creatures before Camelot was finally in the Age of Peace. But that's another story for another time.

 

~End~