Some moments are painted into Merlin's memory so vividly that he almost imagines they've been with him since birth, waiting quietly for him to stumble across them, like the images preserved in the crystal cave. Others fade with time, growing muddled with age.
For instance, in a year, Merlin will barely remember what Arthur had done to so enrage his father. He will only remember Uther's grim finality -- "Ten lashes." Merlin's stomach went cold at the thought of Arthur being flogged like a criminal, when his only transgression had been for Camelot, for its people. Uther should be celebrating Arthur's heroism, not punishing for it. However, Arthur accepted the sentence stoically. He only nodded, stubborn and resigned. Uther's eyes flashed with anger. "No," he'd added, his voice cold and calculating. "You've experienced pain -- it won't teach you anything. The lashes will be dealt to your manservant instead."
Later, Merlin will never quite remember if he dared to speak. His mouth fell open, that he knows, but did any sound escape it? What could he have said that wouldn't only add to the king's resolve? And though he already felt sick from the very anticipation of the lashes, deep in his heart, Merlin was relieved. He'd never hesitated to spare Arthur any pain or punishment. Whether it meant spending an afternoon in the stocks for Arthur or offering his own life in exchange for his, Merlin had always protected him without thinking. If one of them had to take the lashes, it should be Merlin. He'd rather feel the whip himself than see Arthur in pain. But he can't remember if he said any of that, or if he said anything at all. All he will ever be able to recall is Arthur's voice, its bright edge of panic strong enough to dissipate his cloudy composure.
"Father, Merlin has done nothing wrong! I disobeyed you, I should be the one to --"
"Enough!" Uther snapped. His gloved hand clenched around the arm of the throne. “That is my final word and in this kingdom my word is law.”
Even Arthur recoiled at the king's tone. He nodded, stiffly, his expression lost and almost helpless. It wasn't right that Arthur should look that way, Merlin will remember thinking. Never Arthur. Their gazes locked as the guards stepped forward to catch Merlin's arms. Arthur's eyes were bright with guilt and sorrow, like sunlight glinting on the sea.
* * *
A year from today, Merlin will barely remember the lashing. He will only know that the pain sang through him. The sting of the long, bloody welts on his back resonated in time to the irregular crack of the whip, each sharp snap of pain echoing through the rest of his body until all his nerves screamed in crescendo.
Afterwards, he hung limply from the manacles, sick and shaken. Small details will stand out, oddly vivid in his memory. The guards' hands ,surprisingly gentle as they lowered him to the dungeon floor. The press of dirty straw against his cheek.
And Arthur. His strong, square hand felt cool on Merlin's jaw, a soothing caress as he lifted Merlin's head to cradle him carefully in his arms. He will never forget the look in Arthur's eyes, a well of guilt, sorrow, and concern so deep that Merlin almost thought he could slip inside them, away from the burning cacophony of pain.
Arthur lifted Merlin gingerly, as he would a child. One strong arm slipped beneath Merlin's knees, the other settled high on his shoulders, trying to avoid the worst of his injuries. Despite Arthur's care, however, it still hurt when he rose to his feet.
Merlin whimpered, burrowing his face into Arthur's chest. His hands fluttered limply on Arthur's shoulders, too weak to gain any real purchase there. He breathed in the clean, fresh scents of him -- wool and leather, a musky sweat. Later, he'll forget the journey up to Gaius's chambers, though it must have hurt, each step a jostle. He will only remember how Arthur cradled him to his chest, the strength of Arthur's arms, his hands lingering on him even after he deposited Merlin onto the sick bed.
Like a nightmare, he'll remember Gaius's voice, edged with fear, the salty sting of a wet cloth over his bloody back. He bobbed in and out of consciousness, sick with pain, anchored only by the steady clench of Arthur's hand in his own. The pain crashed over him in waves, dark with blood and salt-white foam, until he finally grew too weak to struggle, and let it carry him below.
When he'd opened his eyes again, Arthur had been there still. His face was gaunt, pained, like he'd been the one flogged.
“Arthur,” he'll remember croaking, “why are you...”
"I won't leave you," Arthur promised. His fingers brushed cool against Merlin's shoulder and the back of his neck, curling down to trace the line of his collarbone. The gentle caresses washed over Merlin, soothing away the sharpest edge of pain. Arthur's hand eventually settled on Merlin's head, petting him gently, as if he were a wounded animal. The steady motion of Arthur's fingers through his hair lulled Merlin back to sleep.
The next time he woke, shortly after dawn, it was to see Arthur slumped in the chair beside the bed, his face resting on the edge of the mattress and his hand curled loosely around Merlin's shoulder. Gaius rested on his cot a few feet away, and the two of them were snoring in tandem. Smiling despite the pain, Merlin let his eyes fall shut again and threaded his fingers into Arthur's fine hair.
Arthur made a low, pleased sound in his throat, and shifted closer to Merlin, his fingers tightening briefly over Merlin's bare shoulder even as his breath caught in another snore. For the first time since he'd collapsed on the dungeon floor, Merlin believed he might survive the flogging after all.
Arthur had been sweetly embarrassed when he'd woken a few hours later. He glanced away from the sick bed, and murmured that he needed to oversee the knights, but that he'd be back later. He squeezed Merlin's bare shoulder before he left, his fingers lingering on Merlin's bare skin. It might be a trick of his memory, but Merlin could swear that Arthur kissed the top of his head as he pulled away.
The days of recovery passed in a fog of pain and fever. Gaius was a constant presence, changing Merlin's bandages, rubbing salve on his inflamed back, lifting vial after vial of bitter medicinal tea to Merlin's lips. He slept almost constantly those first few days, waking with a start to cool hands on his shoulders, a calm voice in his ear. Sometimes it was Gaius. Sometimes Gwen. But most of the time, it was Arthur.
Merlin grew to cherish the feel of Arthur's hands folding over his shoulders, Arthur's sword-calloused palms running over his arms, Arthur's fingers catching his own and tangling with them, his thumb rubbing soothing circles over the back of Merlin's hand. At first, it surprised him that Arthur could touch him so gently. In the past, Arthur's affectionate gestures had consisted of shoves, noogies, and punches to the arm. But those fever-ridden days revealed a new tenderness in Arthur. His gentle caresses became so easy and comfortable that Merlin half imagined Arthur had always touched him that way, and always would.
* * *
The first time Arthur returned from practice to find Merlin sitting up in bed reading one of Gaius's books of remedies, relief flickered over his face, followed almost instantly by uncertainty.
"I can see you're feeling better," Arthur said. His voice was breezy, filled with bravado, but Merlin could hear the current of uncertainty running below it.
Arthur took his seat beside Merlin's bed, and rested his hands over the chair arms, for all the world like he were in the throne room, listening to an audience. Merlin's recovery had wedged a shield between them somehow, as if, by sitting up, Merlin were inadvertently telling Arthur that he no longer needed his care.
This was the Arthur he'd known before the flogging, not the one whose hands had cooled his feverish skin. They'd slipped back into their old roles as prince and manservant, just like that.
How was Merlin supposed to pretend he didn't know that Arthur's voice could be gentle and warm, his . They'd spent his recovery in such constant closeness that the distance between them seemed superfluous now. Merlin ached for Arthur's hands, the cool strength of him.
But he tried to keep his voice casual. "Gaius says I can start working again before long."
"Don't come back until you're strong enough!" Arthur protested, then blushed, clearing his throat. "The last thing I need is for you to faint in my chambers like a girl."
"Your dirty socks would make anyone faint," Merlin parried back, automatically, but his heart wasn't in it. His gaze flickered from Arthur's face to his hands, still resting on the wooden arms of his chair. Arthur caught the glance and swallowed, Adam's apple bobbing in his throat.
Merlin folded the book shut. Gathering his courage, he reached for Arthur's hand, fearing he'd be rebuffed. But Arthur leaned forward and met him halfway, catching the hand in a fierce grip that told Merlin that he'd missed this, too. Then he shocked Merlin by pressing the back of his hand to his lips. They were as warm as his fingers were cool, lingering a second too long to be purely chivalrous. Arthur's stubble scraped against the back of Merlin's hand as he looked up into his eyes.
"You need to get better," Arthur said fervently. His eyes sparkled as he added, "I'm getting spoiled from all this competent service while you're gone."
Merlin only squeezed his hand and smiled down at the sheets. Arthur was already spoiled, he thought. But then, so was he.
* * *
Merlin will always remember his first morning back in Arthur's chambers, a week after the flogging. He was still shaky on his feet, but steady enough to carry a breakfast tray without spilling anything. He set it on the table and drew back the curtains, wincing a little as the movement pulled the healing scars on his back.
Arthur groaned as the sunlight hit him, his bare arm dragging over his eyes then stretching up above his head on the pillow. He opened his eyes and blinked, sleepily. Then his gaze fell on Merlin, and his lassitude fell away.
"What are you doing?" he demanded, throwing off the coverlets and crossing the room in three quick strides.
"My job," Merlin protested, as Arthur caught his arms.
Arthur only frowned in response, giving him the same cool, calculating look that Merlin had seen him give to any number of trainees on the battlefield. Sizing him up. Evaluating his weaknesses. Apparently, Arthur didn't like what he saw. His lips drew into a thin line, and he crossed his arms over his chest.
"Take your shirt off. Let me see."
Merlin blinked at him. He half wanted to refuse. A week ago, he would have. But a week ago, he hadn't known the strong, soothing pressure of Arthur's hands, or the dry brush of his lips over Merlin's hand or hair. A week ago, Arthur would never have asked him. And worse, Arthur was fighting dirty. He was using that voice, the low, gentle, one with which he'd murmured Merlin's name at his sickbed and promised not to leave him. Merlin felt himself responding to it without thought, as a flower turns towards the sun. Before he'd quite realized that he was going to obey the order, his fingers were already tugging up the hem of his shirt.
He couldn't stop himself from cringing as he pulled it off. The rough fabric chafed his wounds and pulled at the scabs when he lifted his arms over his head. Acutely aware of Arthur's eyes on him, he gripped the crumpled shirt to his chest. Arthur circled behind him, then made a low sound in his throat.
"Merlin," he whispered, sounding broken. Merlin winced. He couldn't see his own wounds, of course, but he'd helped Gaius attend to flogging victims. He knew what he had to look like.
One of Arthur's hands closed over Merlin's shoulder. Merlin closed his eyes, swaying into the touch. The calluses of Arthur's fingers caught his skin, drawing a shiver from him as Arthur traced down his back as precisely as he would mark the terrain on a map. He never touched the broken skin directly, but traced around the wounds, outlining them. Merlin's skin burned where Arthur touched it, as though Arthur were the sorcerer, painting his back with golden light. When Arthur's fingers dipped into the small of his back, a low sound escaped Merlin, thick and throaty.
"Did I hurt you?" Arthur asked, pulling back at once.
"No!" Merlin protested, shaking his head. When Arthur didn't move of his own volition, Merlin turned to face him, and touched the back of his wrist. "Please, Sire," he whispered, not entirely sure what he was asking for, just knowing that he needed Arthur's hands on him as desperately as he needed the air to breathe.
Arthur studied him for a long moment, his eyes shadowed and his lips pursed, measuring the request as he'd measure one of Uther's more dubious orders. Just as Merlin began to fear that he would ask him to put his shirt back on and leave, Arthur nodded.
His eyes never leaving Merlin's, he reached for the shirt in Merlin's hands and tossed it aside. Merlin heard the fabric whisper as it landed on the stone floor, but he spared no glance for it. Arthur's eyes were dark as he caught Merlin's shoulder and tugged him forward into a hesitant embrace.
One of Arthur's hands curved over the nape of his neck. His other arm curled warm and low around Merlin's hips, carefully avoiding the lash marks on his back. Arthur wore only his sleeping leggings, and his muscled chest pressed against Merlin's, skin warm against skin.
A small sigh of relief escaped Merlin, and he wrapped his arms around Arthur, clinging to his solid strength. The careful pressure of Arthur's arms grounded him. It felt, oddly, like recovering from a demanding spell, the wind-blown, tangled threads of his consciousness slowly drawing back in to spool around the core of his being. Arthur's warm hand rubbing circles in the small of his back drew Merlin away from the lingering edge of pain. The touch steadied him, anchoring him in the sunlight, in the airy expanse of Arthur's chambers, so very different from the cluttered confines of Gaius's workroom. He exhaled shakily and buried his face in Arthur's shoulder.
In response, Arthur tightened the embrace. He pressed his mouth to the crown of Merlin's head, scattering warm kisses into his hair. Merlin closed his eyes and clung to Arthur, wishing he could stay here forever, held warm and safe in the circle of Arthur's arms.
Arthur's lips brushed against his temple. His voice was ragged as he whispered into Merlin's ear, "I'm sorry. Merlin, I'm so sorry."
Merlin pulled back slightly, and frowned at the guilt written clearly in Arthur's eyes. "Arthur, it's not your fault."
"But it is," Arthur protested, looking miserable, but determined to keep going. It was a look Merlin knew well. "My father whipped you to punish me. If I hadn't disobeyed him –"
"Then half of the lower town would have died!"
Arthur stared fixedly over Merlin's shoulder, his eyes suspiciously bright. He didn't speak, but his clenched jaw and drawn mouth spoke his unhappy awareness of the truth of Merlin's words. Merlin touched his cheek, drawing him out of his thoughts.
"You did the right thing, Arthur. I'd take a hundred lashes to keep Camelot safe."
Arthur's hand suddenly shifted from his neck to his head, cupping the base of Merlin's skull. "I know," he said softly, his voice suddenly almost unbearably fond. "I know you would." He glanced at the floor, then back up, and Merlin inhaled at the naked devotion in his eyes. Arthur, unguarded, was like sunlight glinting off a sword, almost too bright to look at. Merlin swallowed, dry-mouthed. He felt unworthy, suddenly, with his secrets and his sorcery. When had he ever given Arthur such honesty? He wanted to hide his face, to look away. But he couldn't. Arthur's gaze transfixed him.
"God, Merlin," Arthur choked. "You're just . . . you . . . " And Arthur shook his head, and kissed him.
The sudden touch of his lips was brief, nothing more than a peck, really. They might even have been able to play it off as platonic if Merlin hadn't leaned in to follow when Arthur pulled away. He caught Arthur's lips in another quick peck, then another, and another, the kisses lengthening, deepening as Arthur sighed into Merlin's mouth. When
Arthur finally leaned back, his mouth was red and swollen. Merlin imagined his own didn't look much better.
Arthur brushed the back of his fingers against Merlin's cheek. "Turn around," he said hoarsely.
Confused, but helpless to deny him, Merlin pivoted, exposing the healing mess of his back once more to Arthur. Large hands closed over his shoulders from behind. Arthur's bare feet whispered on the stone floor as he stepped closer, near enough that the heat of his body curled warm and delicious Merlin's spine. Then Arthur's lips touched the nape of his neck and Merlin's entire world went still.
The kiss had been gentle, just a whisper of warm lips against bare skin. Then Arthur kissed him again. Then again. The point of his tongue drew a line of wet warmth over the sensitive skin, and Merlin gasped, reaching behind him for something to steady himself. Arthur caught his hand, lacing their fingers together over Merlin's hip.
"Arthur?" he whispered.
"Shhh," Arthur soothed, squeezing his hand. "Let me . . ."
His lips travelled lower, ghosting over the thin lines of pain, feather-light, and gentle. Merlin swayed on his feet, lost in the warmth of Arthur's mouth, the tickle of his hair, the hot glide of his tongue leaving a cool trail behind it. Merlin's cock was hardening in his breeches. His heart was racing. He wanted to ask Arthur what he was doing, what this meant, but he couldn't bring himself to do it, couldn't bring himself to do anything that might make Arthur stop.
Arthur pulled away suddenly. Merlin almost cried out in protest, but Arthur only tugged him to the bed, easing him, face down, onto the mattress.
"It will be easier this way," he murmured, half explanation and half apology as he scrambled up beside him. His lips returned to Merlin's back, mapping out the network of scars with slow, open-mouthed kisses that burned through the pain, coiling hot and heavy in Merlin's abdomen.
Merlin's toes were curling, his hips jerking forward to grind himself into the mattress despite himself. He blushed, burying his face in his arms. Arthur squeezed his shoulders, dropped a kiss into the back of his neck, just below the hairline.
"It's okay," Arthur whispered into Merlin's ear. "Just let me take care of you."
His hands on Merlin's hips, fingers dipping inside the waistband of his breeches. He hesitated for a moment, obviously waiting for some sign from Merlin to either proceed or stop.
Merlin rocked back onto his knees, lifting his hips, half-wondering if this were all a fever dream. It felt surreal, too good to be true. Arthur reached from behind to undo the ties on his breeches, moving clumsily because of the angle. Catching hold of the waistband, Arthur peeled the thin wool down until the breeches tangled with Merlin's boots. Freed, Merlin's cock strained hard against his stomach. Arthur pumped him once experimentally, his fingers easing their way up the length and dancing teasingly over the head. Nobody had touched him like this since Ealdor, since Will, and Merlin shuddered, rocking himself forward into Arthur's hand. But Arthur released him with one fond, final squeeze, kissing Merlin's shoulder in apology.
"We have to get your boots off," Arthur said. Sitting back on his haunches, he wrestled with one boot, then the other, tossing them onto the floor with twin thuds. Arthur pulled away and there was a rustle of fabric that must have been Arthur removing his leggings because when his legs brushed against Merlin's, they were bare, the soft hair gently tickling.
"Just relax,” Arthur murmured, kissing his spine. "I've got you." He lifted himself up onto his elbows, crawling further back, and Merlin squirmed as his mouth returned, tongue swirling hot and intense into the dip at the base of Merlin's spine.
"Arthur," Merlin groaned. His hips were rocking into the mattress in tiny, stuttering jerks. He couldn't make them stop. "Oh, Arthur."
In response, Arthur pressed a searing kiss to Merlin's tailbone, his hands closing strongly over Merlin's hips. His lips travelled up over the curve of Merlin's arse, licking and biting the sensitive skin of one cheek as he squeezed the muscles of the other. Merlin pressed his face to the mattress, acutely aware of every catch of Arthur's sword calluses on his skin, every teasing lick and playful nibble. Arthur's fringe brushed his skin, and his breath gusted hot over the crack, even as he traced it with one finger. Merlin gasped at the image that came to mind, unsure whether he liked it or not. Arthur wouldn't . . . he couldn't possibly . . . not Arthur!
But no, Arthur only nosed at it curiously before moving lower. His tongue slid wetly over the sensitive spot between Merlin's arse and his balls, causing Merlin to groan and rock back towards him. Hands tightening on Merlin's hips, Arthur returned to the spot, laving attention on it with his tongue while Merlin groaned and squirmed beneath him.
Arthur's hand was closing over his hip now, urging him to roll over, onto his side. Rising up onto one elbow, Merlin did as he asked, drawing up one knee to spread his thighs wider. This brought his leaking cock more prominently into view, and he blushed. But Arthur only made a low, hungry sound. He scooted further down the mattress, reaching for Merlin's cock. Curling his hand around the base, he glanced up at Merlin through his eyelashes, and leaned even closer. His lips brushed over the head in the faintest ghost of a kiss, and Merlin bit his lip in anticipation.
Then Arthur's mouth closed over the head, and he groaned, tangling his fingers in Arthur's hair. Arthur's eyes sparkled up at him, In all of his dreams, he'd never quite dared to imagine this – Arthur's golden hair bowed over him, his tongue swirling hot and wet over the head of Merlin's cock. Still holding Merlin in both hand and mouth, Arthur met his eyes, and Merlin felt himself swell even larger. This was the expression Arthur wore into battle, powerful and intense, and to have it focussed on him now made his toes curl up and his breath catch in his throat.
"Arthur," he whispered, feeling almost reverent. He touched Arthur's cheek, and shook his head, powerless to put his emotions into words. For all his years of silently following and loving Arthur, he'd never once dared to imagine this – Arthur's golden head bowed over his groin, his ruddy lips stretched around Merlin's cock.
At his expression, Arthur made a low sound in his throat that reverberated through Merlin's cock. He mouthed down it, working Merlin with his hand all the while. He was clumsy and obviously untried, like a fledgling knight on the battlefield first learning the feel of his sword. Yet some natural talent and the sheer commanding power of him conspired to make Merlin forget that he'd ever been tended by more practiced partners.
He urged Arthur on with soft, murmured words that would probably embarrass him later, rocking up into his mouth. It didn't take long before Merlin's balls tightened with familiar pressure, and he pushed on Arthur's shoulders, warning him back. But Arthur hung on, resolute, suckling at him with even more enthusiasm. Merlin came into Arthur's mouth with a wordless groan, and Arthur held firm, swallowing bravely.
When he finally pulled away, his lips were bruised and his chin shiny with saliva. He rested his head on Merlin's inner thigh, panting, as though he'd just stepped away from a match. A thin bead of Merlin's milk clung to one corner of his mouth. Merlin wiped it away, then drank it from his own thumb, watching Arthur's eyes grow dark with lust.
"Come here," Merlin whispered, urging him up.
They kissed, Merlin boneless and languid, Arthur fervent, nipping at Merlin's lips and licking into his mouth. His hands travelled over Merlin's chest and shoulders, firm and full-palmed caresses, nothing like the tentative caresses of the sick room.
Merlin reached between their bodies and took Arthur in hand. Arthur groaned at the touch, rocking up into it. Every inch of his body was hot with need. It took scarcely half a dozen strokes for him to come, trembling, his face buried in Merlin's neck.
They collapsed down onto the bed together, still locked in a loose embrace. Merlin rested his head on Arthur's shoulder, and listened to the strong and steady heartbeat. Arthur stroked his hair with one hand. The other traced gentle patterns against his hipbone.
In that moment, he felt so cherished that he thought he could say anything to Arthur, maybe even confess his magic. He couldn't imagine Arthur taking it amiss, not in the sleepy, golden haze of the afterglow. But Arthur was so warm and deliciously pliant beneath him that Merlin couldn't imagine speaking, not really. He snuggled closer, turning his head to kiss Arthur's shoulder, and the moment, their closeness, crystallized for him, burning forever into his mind.
This he will remember.