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It takes longer for the three of them to get out of the Perilous Lands than it did to get in, which in Merlin’s experience, is not the usual way time passes while travelling. It seems almost a different place this time they pass through it, too—though maybe it’s only Merlin who senses that. With the Fisher King’s death, the miasma of sickly magic that had rested heavily in the air is washed away, like the smell of sickness from Gaius’ rooms when the languishing patient has left and doors and windows are thrown open.

What it means, though, is that the ruined landscape is irritating rather than oppressive. Instead of fearful, Merlin feels increasingly frustrated. Everywhere is muck and grit, nothing growing in the razed earth, just dead sticks poking up viciously into the soles of his boots. With no trees or undergrowth to catch and absorb the rain, filth from the ground has washed into scum-covered pools. Under the hot sun, the smell of rot is thick in the air.

When Merlin loses his footing on an unstable cluster of debris and starts to slip towards one of the fetid pools, Gwaine grabs him and hauls him back in. Merlin can’t help but lean against him for a moment, heart pounding at the near miss; even the scent of Gwaine’s sweat is clean and welcome. Though that’s not something that’s particular to this setting.

“Thanks,” Merlin says, making himself push away. Gwaine presses his lips together in a firm smile, nodding. Above them, Arthur takes the opportunity to rest a moment, leaning on his sword and squinting toward the horizon.

As the sun begins to set in an oily haze they grimly push on; they can see the green hillsides ahead beyond the boundary of the kingdom. Though it may be unwise to attempt to keep walking on after dark, they are in unspoken consensus: none of them are willing to spend another night here.

The border is a river, the cut of it not as deep as where Merlin and Gwaine crossed it on the small footbridge, but even though it seems shallow—from what Merlin can see of it in the remaining half-light—there’s no bridge at this point. Merlin almost feels like weeping; grass and trees and the fresh smell of life so close and yet so far away.

“Come on,” Arthur says determinedly—the first time he’s spoken in hours—and he takes Merlin’s forearm in a tight grip.

“Wait a minute—” Merlin bleats reflexively, but Arthur’s already dragging him down the bank, the muscles in Merlin’s thighs protesting the slope after days of walking already. He flails a hand behind him and Gwaine grasps his wrist; between them Merlin feels at very little risk of being washed away as they wade through the river, the water not rising very far above his knees. They don’t let go until they’ve hauled him up the bank on the other side again, and he falls to the ground with a groan of relief. He almost wants to roll over and collapse face-first into it, imagining the soft, fragrant blades of grass against his face, but Arthur stops him by clapping him on the shoulder, shaking him a little.

“Not done quite yet,” Arthur says, sounding as exhausted as Merlin feels, but with that usual stalwart denial wrapped around it.

“I think there’s a tributary over here,” Gwaine says from a short distance away; he hasn’t sat down like Merlin and Arthur, but wandered off into the encroaching shroud of darkness.

Merlin immediately wants to get up and walk after him. Arthur rises stiffly to his feet—Merlin sees his wince and his fingers itch to lift the weight of armour from his shoulders—then hauls Merlin up beside him.

The trees are grey around them now, the shadows of the leafy canopies deepening the twilight. Merlin can’t even see the stream, especially with his eyes fixed on Gwaine’s back in front of him, but he can hear its dulcet chatter as they follow it further away from the border. There is the smell of clean, fresh water, and the sound grows louder, then the trees open up ahead of them. Gwaine strides a few steps further through the thick, deep grass, then stops to look back over his shoulder at them, eyes and teeth gleaming faintly in the dim light. Ahead of him is a vast expanse of water, shining smooth and dark like polished pewter, reflecting the fading sky above.

Gwaine’s stripping off while Merlin’s still taking in the view, though once Gwaine’s pulled his shirt up over his head, Merlin stops looking at the lake.

“Don’t think I’ve ever felt so revolting,” Arthur mutters in disgust from behind Merlin. Merlin turns around, indignant, with the half-formed urge to defend Gwaine’s... well, not honour exactly—only to find Arthur looking down, picking at the fastenings of his own gear. “There’s nothing else for it.”

“You need to live a little more, if this is the filthiest you’ve been,” Gwaine comments, as cheerfully sly as ever but with the same edge of weariness that Merlin feels.

“Merlin, take this off,” Arthur instructs, and Merlin has to concentrate on trying to see Arthur’s buckles without proper light, listening to the sound of Gwaine’s clothes rustling and dropping behind him.

By the time he’s got Arthur undressed enough that Arthur can shuck off the rest of his clothes himself, Gwaine’s splashing into the shallows, shouting at the cold. Merlin turns around in time to see his bare arse flashing briefly as he dives under the surface; when he rises again amidst the rippling glass he laughs loudly, flicking wet hair out of his face expansively.

Arthur’s arse Merlin is more familiar with seeing. He watches as Arthur struts towards the water, smirking as he sees the muscles of Arthur’s back tighten in reaction to his first step in, with no other acknowledgment of the temperature.

“Merlin!” Gwaine shouts. “Come on! You’re not exactly smelling like roses yourself!”

“Thanks, thanks very much,” Merlin shouts back, droll even though his heart is pounding a little faster than it really ought, because he feels poised on the edge of another boundary.

Before they’d found Arthur, it had been the two of them. Even sitting quietly by the campfire had felt new and exhilarating; as if Merlin had shed something in the long journey from Camelot, a cloak of other people’s expectations. And there was just Gwaine, appraising him for what was left beneath that. And then there was Gwaine drawing him closer under the cover of darkness; not having to reach very far, with Merlin having set his bedroll down with barely a space between them. That had felt like falling into a flood-stricken river: he’d been swept away immediately.

This—standing here in the not-quite-dark, seeing Gwaine’s gleaming white shoulders and remembering what they’d felt like under his hands—and Arthur striding into the water a polite distance away: this is different again. It’s more like wading into a river’s shallows, unsure of whether he’s about to slip on a stone and go tumbling down, or just skip through to the other side with a laugh of relief.

He starts with unfastening the scarf tied around his neck, then pauses to gather together Arthur’s things in a neat pile before setting the square of cloth on top of it. When he straightens and glances back, it’s to see Arthur minding his own business—fingers scrubbing through his hair—and Gwaine lurking with his mouth half under the water, staring back at Merlin on the shore.

Merlin unfastens his belt, forcing his self-consciousness to the side. The brush of cool air over his bare skin when he pulls his shirt quickly over his head helps to distract him from the fact that he has an audience. Even though he’s been sweating since he woke up, amidst the lush green growth of an actual, living forest, the evening air is fresh. He feels his nipples tighten immediately and dismisses the urge to press his palms against his chest to warm them. He also represses the urge to cup his hands between his legs when he finally strips the last of his clothes off; Gwaine and Arthur both strode in without shyness, it would be even worse to evince any modesty now.

He doesn’t look at Gwaine as he walks to the lake—or at Arthur—keeping his gaze fixed on the ground ahead, shivering a little at the feel of the long, sticky grass brushing up to his knees. The water feels practically icy against his boot-wrinkled feet, but before he can humiliate himself any further Merlin grits his teeth and launches his body forward.

The shock of the water against his skin is intense—the night air was practically balmy in comparison—and he surges upwards again like a barrel, bursting to the surface with a curse exploding from his throat.

Gwaine’s laugh sounds nearby, low and amused amidst Merlin’s spluttering. The next moment something touches his side and he yelps, splashing away before Gwaine shushes and catches him again, hands sliding about Merlin’s chest.

“Do try not to drown, Merlin,” Arthur calls disdainfully from nearby; Merlin can barely even see where he is any more, just the faint glow of his pale face above the dark surface of the water. Merlin forgets to keep paddling as Gwaine’s mouth fastens hotly on his neck; his body sinking alarmingly quickly before Gwaine tightens his arms again, puffing hot amusement against Merlin’s chilled skin.

Merlin moans at the sensation; apparently the shock of the cold water has shaken loose his voice from his chest. It also seems to have broken all other control as well; Gwaine must be just touching the ground beneath the water, if his anchoring embrace is anything to go by, but Merlin can’t force his legs to uncurl. He’s poised tensely in the water, body trembling in Gwaine’s hold.

The weightlessness of it is intoxicating, though: he doesn’t have to worry about his body turning clumsy, just yield to the embrace of buoyancy. When Gwaine cups Merlin’s jaw with one large, wet hand and turns his head for a proper kiss, Merlin follows the movement through and twists in his hold, facing him fully instead. The cold and anticipation must have all his tendons taut: he can’t resist the instinctual urge to cling, his legs wrapping around Gwaine’s hips and pressing their soft, cold-shy cocks together. It feels bolder than having Gwaine’s hand on him when he was hard under their shared blankets; this a more intimate press of warmth below the water.

Gwaine pulls him closer without pause and Merlin wraps his arms around Gwaine’s shoulders, exhilarated; most of his weight held by the water but some still taken by Gwaine’s tensing muscles. Gwaine’s hands slide down to palm his arse, and Merlin arches forward, pressing his chest to Gwaine’s and crushing his lips with a kiss. Merlin’s lips are numb from the cold, but Gwaine’s tongue is slick and hot against them; feeding a soothing warmth into Merlin’s mouth that he accepts gratefully.

“Oh, you’re lovely, you are,” Gwaine murmurs huskily when they finally draw apart again, his hands kneading steadily as Merlin pants against him. Merlin jolts and shivers as Gwaine gently lowers them in the water until their shoulders are under as well; the shock of sensation is quickly succeeded by comfort at being covered, damp skin no longer exposed to the air.

It’s nearly full dark, now; when Merlin looks back to the shore he can only just see the black silhouettes of the trees against the deep indigo of the sky. He can hear Arthur splashing faintly in the middle distance but finds it difficult to pinpoint just where the noise is coming from, eyes straining—and then he gives a yelp of alarm when Gwaine suddenly dunks him under, water going in his eyes and mouth. He chokes and spits when he gets back to the surface, pushing Gwaine away with feet and hands as Gwaine chuckles wickedly.

“Just what the hell is going on over there?” Arthur’s indignation smacks across the surface of the lake, closer than Merlin had thought he was, and Gwaine laughs louder. Merlin sinks lower, water cold against his skin now that it’s not covered by Gwaine’s. He paddles just enough to stay afloat, and lets himself drift a little distance away, more than half-hoping that Gwaine will pursue. Ripples wash gently against him from another direction, and the sound of Arthur’s steady strokes become louder as he swims toward them.

“What’s the matter, princess?” Gwaine drawls when Arthur is close enough for Merlin to see the slick of his wet hair gleaming in the faint light. “Need someone to scrub your back?”

“I’ve got Merlin for that, but thank you for offering,” Arthur returns stiffly, then his haughty tone breaks on a startled shout, punctuated with indignant splashing. “Oi!”

“Something just touch the royal bum?” Gwaine questions without a shred of innocence, and a surprised laugh bursts out of Merlin before he can stop it.

Arthur growls, then surges through the water to force Gwaine under the surface. After that, it’s just a choppy turmoil of shoving and splashing that Merlin watches for only a moment before launching himself into the thick of it—if this is the only chance he gets to grapple Arthur’s naked body, then it’s not an opportunity he’s about to let pass him by.

He’s sure he’s swallowed half the lake—and at least half of the rest is in his ears—by the time they subside, panting and drifting in the water. Though the fight’s been worked out of them, they still maintain close contact. Merlin fancies the three of them are keeping each other afloat with the arrhythmic pant of their breathing, and touching both Arthur and Gwaine at once is reassuring in the dark of the newly-fallen night.

“I suppose there’s no need for me to ask just what you were doing over here,” Arthur says drily.

Merlin splutters, tensing and pushing away from him. “What? I don’t—”

“Merlin, unless Gwaine is rather a better prepared fighter that I give him credit for, that’s hardly the hilt of his sword digging into the royal bum.”

Merlin is rendered speechless, suddenly hotter still below the surface of the water. His blood’s already pumping warmer in his veins from the impromptu wrestling match—and to one place in particular, already stirred by Gwaine’s kisses and even more interested after the feel of all that skin against his, strong and slick. Gwaine laughs again, making Merlin feel abruptly wretched with self-consciousness and longing—if only it were as easy for him as it seems to be for Gwaine.

“Surely that’s not the first sword you’ve ever encountered, your Highness,” Gwaine teases. “I’m sure I must have seen you handle one before.”

“Skilfully,” Arthur returns shortly, and Merlin’s a little surprised there’s not more bluster—but then again, Arthur is generally more agreeable after he’s just won a fight. And liable to be goaded into further action when feeling victorious. Merlin’s heart is in his throat; familiar with Gwaine’s particular style of flirting, he wills the conversation’s trajectory to wind up where he hopes.

“Perhaps you can give us a demonstration.”

Arthur doesn’t answer Gwaine at that, but Merlin can hear the sound of movement in the water and the catch of someone’s breath. The uncertainty creeping under his skin almost makes him swim away and back to the shore, but then Gwaine says, fondly, “Come here, Merlin.”

When Merlin paddles back within reach of them again it’s Arthur who drags him in, gripping Merlin’s arm as he had to help him across the river boundary, this time sliding his hand up to rest an arm across Merlin’s shoulders. It’s barely more suggestive than the companionable touch Arthur’s bestowed upon him many times, but in the dark, Merlin can’t help but reach out, as if he can better test Arthur’s mood by touch. Arthur’s jaw is tense and skin just slightly warmer than Merlin’s; his hair wet and silky, plastered to the shape of his skull. Merlin’s breath hitches at the warm press of Gwaine’s lips on his knuckles.

“Go on, then,” Gwaine murmurs easily. “Kiss him.”

Merlin’s not sure which of them he’s talking to, but then he’s not sure who follows the instruction first; just that his lips meet Arthur’s warmly half-way. It’s not as intense as his kisses with Gwaine had been; instead of fraught with passion it’s thrillingly comfortable, for all that Merlin’s heart is racing. The night doesn’t retreat for outrage to glare down upon him, and the lake doesn’t drain from the ground opening up beneath his feet.  

After a moment of Merlin pressing his closed lips hesitantly to Arthur’s, Arthur huffs against his upper lip and opens, tongue pressing along the seam of Merlin’s lips the same way Arthur approaches everything—like he’s entitled to be there. Spurred by the familiarity into confidence, Merlin licks back, taunting Arthur closer, deeper.

“That’s more like it,” Gwaine murmurs into Merlin’s ear, and Merlin doesn’t open his eyes—suspecting he’d be able to see little more than darkness, anyway—instead just savouring Gwaine’s lingering touch up his spine as Arthur’s mouth tries to claim all his attention. Merlin shivers as Gwaine’s fingertips push aside the wet hair at his nape, and then moans into Arthur’s mouth as Gwaine kisses him there, hotly.

“I should complain about that,” Arthur says, drawing back. His voice is low and a little rough, sending goosebumps over Merlin’s skin with its warm proximity, but Merlin can’t help but prickle in resentment as well. Because of course now, now of all times, Arthur’s getting possessive, when he’s barely acknowledged Merlin’s actually helpful participation in the quest thus far.

“But I suppose it can be your reward,” Arthur continues, oblivious. “For definitely not helping me on my quest.”

“As if I need your permission!” Merlin blurts incredulously, stung anew; though it’s mostly the insinuation that Arthur should be censuring anything Merlin has with Gwaine that’s finally spurred him to retort. Even so, he finds himself torn between being pleased at Arthur’s approval, and the creeping worry that this part of it—Arthur’s arm wrapped around him, Arthur kissing him—is a gesture empty of anything but reluctant thanks.

“Well if you’re going to be like that, then we’ll just get on with it,” Gwaine says, though when he presses snug up against Merlin’s arse under the water, it pushes Merlin forward into Arthur; Merlin feels Arthur’s stiff cock brush against his thigh.

At the feel of it, Merlin becomes abruptly more confident: he pushes back against Gwaine, this time making his pleased noises at the feel of Gwaine against him more audible.

“You’re a terrible influence,” Arthur says, tone easy and amused.

“Me? Never.” Gwaine runs his hands over Merlin’s belly and hips, and down the fronts of his thighs, undoubtedly stroking his knuckles against Arthur’s cock in the process. “These things just tend to happen around me.”

“Yes, I’m sure no responsibility whatsoever is yours,” Arthur says drily. “But Merlin seems to like you well enough, so I suppose I’ll allow it.”

“So magnanimous of you, Sire,” Gwaine says against the side of Merlin’s neck, sending a skittering thrill of pleasure directly downward as he tugs lightly on Merlin’s earlobe with his teeth. “Does this mean I’m unbanished?”

“Don’t push your luck.”

Gwaine rolls his hips and it finally slides the thick line of his cock into the cleft of Merlin’s arse. The suggestion of it sets Merlin’s skin aflame: that maybe this is happening, not in a bed or tucked under blankets anywhere; but here, in the middle of a lake, in the dark, with Arthur smug and prattish (and naked) before them.

Gwaine’s hand presses low and reassuring on Merlin’s belly, his other hand smoothing slowly up to rest against Merlin’s breastbone, his warm, solid chest flush against Merlin’s back. He rocks forward again, just slightly, and the slick movement of his cock feels momentous and exciting; Merlin can hardly tell if the stuttering pound of his heart is due to the urge to flee or to fuck.

Then Gwaine reaches lower to curl his hand around Merlin’s cock and Merlin no longer cares; just wants more of Gwaine touching him everywhere, Gwaine’s hand hot and firm in contrast to the cool caress of the water. His head falls back against Gwaine’s shoulder and it doesn’t matter that his legs go weak—with weariness and pleasure both—because the water doesn’t let him fall and Gwaine doesn’t let him sink.

“Don’t drown, Merlin,” Arthur says again, totally nonsensical and inexplicably fond, and then he’s crowding forward, chest broad and firm when Merlin lifts his hands to find how close he is, his breath hot and damp against Merlin’s skin when he angles in to nip at the exposed edge of Merlin’s jaw. Merlin’s happy sounds skim across the surface of the lake like skipping stones; and then when Arthur kisses him again, his moans uncurl from his tongue and into Arthur’s mouth.

“Don’t know why I thought this might shut you up,” Arthur says when Merlin tips his head back to gasp instead, Gwaine’s hand working his cock dragging all his attention downward.

“Mmm, I can think of something that might,” Gwaine murmurs, grinding his hips forward, then the next moment he’s angling around to kiss Merlin’s slack mouth, tongue darting in insistently with the same rhythm of the stroke of his fist.

The suggestion—made explicit by Gwaine’s wicked tongue—makes Merlin shudder. The darkness is freeing—his world has narrowed to the inescapable, chilly caress of the water, and Gwaine and Arthur’s hard cocks and strong bodies against him—he could do anything he wants. He could take them in his mouth, like Gwaine’s suggesting, like Arthur’s wanting, if the way he’s rocking against Merlin’s thigh is anything to go by.

Merlin drags his touch over the sharp points of Arthur’s nipples and down, following the taper of his waist and sliding his hands around to rest in the dip in the small of Arthur’s back, tugging him forward, wanting to feel the same pressure of Arthur’s body against his front as Gwaine is giving at his back. Before he can get it, though, Arthur tenses and draws away, breaking free of Merlin’s hold.

“Should get a fire going before we all catch our deaths,” Arthur says gruffly, and before Merlin can even process that, he’s forging through the water away from them, the sound of his sloshing strides still audible even after he’s lost from sight in the darkness.

“What—” Merlin begins, feeling the cold suddenly: it’s like a solid block of ice in his chest, and he can barely breathe around it. The lake seems enormous around him, as if his awareness is receding back into himself; moments ago every single sensation felt huge and immediate.

“Nothing, nothing,” Gwaine murmurs below his ear, though he sounds less self-assured than he did moments ago, voice rough. He lets go of Merlin’s cock to wrap arms about Merlin’s waist and pull him tight back against him. “Don’t even think about him.”

Merlin wants to fold around the embrace and sink into him, to not have to think again at all. But Gwaine’s urging is useless at best and at worst causes the opposite of what it intends; Merlin wonders helplessly if he’s going to be reliving this rejection every time he’s vulnerable around Arthur ever again. Or whenever he’s naked with Gwaine again. That is, if he can ever bear to be, raw and exposed as he feels now, ripe for humiliation.

“Merlin!” Arthur bellows from the shore, shout echoing tonelessly across the expanse of the lake. “I wasn’t joking!”

“Fuck,” Gwaine whispers sharply against Merlin’s skin, and Merlin can feel his harsh exhale; it puts more space between them for cool water to flow.

“He means well,” Merlin finds himself saying, because making excuses for Arthur’s behaviour has become necessary habit, by now.

Gwaine doesn’t seem to appreciate it, though, and Merlin pulls away from the tensing of his body, finding himself sinking again, knees folding to nearly crouch in the water. He wants to just submerge himself entirely, and not have to face either of them again. What’s worse, there’s one thing that hasn’t changed from moments ago: he wants them. Gods, he wants them.

But perhaps this is just another thing he needs to fold up inside him, cram down and tuck away with his magic. At least Arthur finding out about this isn’t going to lose Merlin his head.

“Merlin,” Gwaine says, resigned and a little apologetic. “Come on, you will catch your death.”

Gwaine waits until Merlin’s making his way back to the shore before following. Merlin listens the soft shushing of the water parting around the movement behind him, and wraps his arms around his exposed chest, shivering.

He can barely see beyond an arm’s length in front of him, but as he steps up out of the shallows he can’t even detect any movement on the shore. He takes breath to call out, but expels it in a startled huff when Gwaine’s hand comes to rest on the back of his neck, gentle and heavy, his thumb stroking against the hair on Merlin’s nape.

“He’s probably off wanking the royal prick,” Gwaine murmurs, low and wryly amused. His lips brushing against Merlin’s ear send a thawing shiver of heat back down the core of Merlin’s body. He turns his head to capture Gwaine’s lips with his own, affection swelling in his chest.

“At least let’s get dry first,” Merlin whispers when they part again. The number of times he’s wished he could use his magic openly is countless, but this time feels particularly needful; he could have them dry and warming by a fire within moments. Instead they’ll have to fumble in their clothes with cold-numbed fingers for flint, then try and gather firewood by touch—not to mention put wet feet into still-damp boots…

When orange light flares from just within the trees, Merlin’s first response is one of horror, convinced that his magic has gone ahead and carried out his wishes without his conscious permission. When the flames catch, though, and begin to lick around the little nest of dry tinder, the fire becomes large enough to cast light on Arthur’s pale face leaning over it, stony with concentration. Merlin lets out a shaky sigh of relief.

“Or not,” Gwaine mutters.

The fire lures Merlin onward, eager to warm his extremities, the cool air pinching an ache into his wet skin. When he gathers up his clothes it’s to find that most of Arthur’s are still with them, including the chilly steel of his armour, and his trousers—legs still damp from wading through the river. Merlin holds the whole pile of them before him as he walks warily towards the light.

Arthur’s eyes rise to meet his when Merlin creeps into the small clearing, though his expression remains inscrutable, even as they flick to take in Gwaine over Merlin’s shoulder. “Get on with it, would you,” Arthur says bluntly.

Merlin feels his eyebrows lift, almost completely certain that Arthur is not referring to what’s at the forefront of Merlin’s mind, but probably something far more innocuous. Like having Merlin scrub his hair dry, or polish his sword, or—nothing he can think of is innocuous, actually; not with the loose drape of Arthur’s shirt barely covering his thighs as he kneels by the fire, and neck lacings open deep to show a broad swathe of his chest, the bared skin limned with gold from the firelight caught in the scattering of hair.

Merlin startles violently as Gwaine grabs his arse, and Gwaine’s mischievous expression isn’t even remotely apologetic when Merlin turns to look at him. He’s somehow managed to pull his trousers on already, though the laces hang loose down his thighs, the front of his untucked shirt covering the bits that Merlin is interested in most.  

“You heard his Highness, Merlin,” Gwaine drawls, sidling closer and beginning to take the bundle of clothes and armour that’s protecting Merlin’s modesty, piece by piece. Gwaine pointedly drops Arthur’s pauldron with a clatter, a wicked glint in his eyes, and Merlin presses his mouth closed against a protest.

Arthur says not a single scolding word, though, and Merlin hopes that it’s because he’s giving them the consideration of disregard, if nothing else. And if not, Gwaine standing in front of him protects him from Arthur’s gaze, at least. Merlin finds himself grateful for the help, extracting his own shirt and pulling it quickly over his head while Gwaine untangles the garments Merlin is sure he folded neatly. His shirt blots up the remaining water on his skin, but is still warmer than nothing. It’s far from clean: stiff with dirt and sweat, it itches against his skin. So much for washing.

Any idle thoughts Merlin has of laundering are derailed, though, when Gwaine begins to drop to his knees at Merlin’s feet. “Gwaine—”

“Here.” Gwaine holds Merlin’s trousers open before him, his mouth quirked in a smile that’s almost deferential.

Merlin feels his expression turn quizzical, though he can’t help but smile back; surely Gwaine’s own trousers had been more difficult to get on, seeing as they fit rather closer than Merlin’s, and he’d put them on just after getting out of the water. Still, the gesture warms him, so he rests a steadying hand on Gwaine’s shoulder and steps into the trousers, teetering on his toes for a moment as Gwaine tugs the cuffs out from under his heels.

He’s surprised at the intimacy of it, and wonders if this is what it’s like for Arthur—though Merlin only helps him with his trousers if he’s wearing particularly ceremonial gear. Gwaine draws the garment up his legs, chivvying it occasionally to get past the drag of Merlin’s wet skin. Merlin has to admit he doesn’t touch like this when he’s helping Arthur dress; Gwaine’s hands are broad and warm on Merlin’s thighs as he smoothes the cloth up. Merlin’s breath stutters when Gwaine’s knuckles brush against his balls.

Gwaine’s fingers stroke the bare skin at Merlin’s hips, and it reminds Merlin too much of when they were alone for the lingering touch to be even a little bit accidental. Then there’s only the laces left to be tied; Merlin’s hands are twitching with the urge to take over, even while he doesn’t want Gwaine to stop at all.

Gwaine looks up to meet his eyes, and Merlin loses the urge to fidget. Instead of reaching for Merlin’s laces, Gwaine splays his hands against the sides of Merlin’s thighs, resting warmly there for a moment. Then he slides them up to Merlin’s hips again, slow and considering. He’s much closer to Merlin’s body than he was moments before; Merlin can feel his breath through the hem of his shirt, which is barely covering him as it is. He’s hyper-aware of just how close Gwaine’s mouth is to his cock, feeling himself stiffening again—the arousal more exquisite this time, as though not following it through to the end last time has left him sensitised.

He knows Arthur is mere paces away, but he can’t look away from Gwaine’s dark gaze. Gwaine doesn’t break the connection even as he nuzzles aside Merlin’s shirt. He presses his lips to Merlin’s cock, and Merlin clutches at his shoulders and gasps.

Gwaine shifts under Merlin’s grip, re-centering his balance as Merlin leans on him. One of his arms wraps around Merlin’s thighs, resting under his arse; his other hand he curls around Merlin’s cock, pushing the trailing hem of Merlin’s shirt well out of the way.

“All right, Merlin?” he whispers, looking up.

Merlin wants to shy away from the fact that Arthur’s still there, but at the same time he can’t help but flick his gaze over quickly—enough to see that Arthur isn’t ignoring them at all, though Merlin doesn’t linger long enough to determine Arthur’s expression—and he looks back down at Gwaine, face hot with his flush. He nods tightly.

Gwaine smiles, beginning to stroke Merlin’s half-hard cock, then pausing for the briefest moment to tongue the exposed head. The lick is scalding, and Merlin’s knees lock and thighs tense as he forces himself to not push forward. Gwaine purses his lips and nudges into Merlin’s involuntary movement, taking Merlin into his mouth partway before pulling off again.

Merlin’s cock juts from Gwaine’s fist, stiffer now, and gleaming a little in the firelight with Gwaine’s spit. Gwaine watches it while his hand lingers on the downstroke, his attention on the shiny head as it emerges from the delicate sleeve of his foreskin. Merlin watches too, and when Gwaine rubs it against his lips, Merlin moans and squeezes his eyes shut.

He can feel Gwaine’s smile, and makes himself open his eyes again—not wanting to miss anything (except Arthur, a silent presence beyond Merlin’s focus; he’s not thinking about Arthur). Gwaine dips lower to mouth Merlin’s balls—almost too sensitive, but he doesn’t want it to stop. Gwaine’s beard scrapes the tender crease of his thigh. He clutches at Gwaine’s head and holds him to it harder, relishing the burn and the way Gwaine has to fight Merlin’s clothes to deliver it, chin nudging his trousers out of the way even as his tongue still laps lightly.

Gwaine shifts his attention easily enough when Merlin tugs his hair. It probably doesn’t take a mind-reader to know where Merlin wants his mouth next; he’s got Merlin’s straining cock right in his hand, after all. He pauses with it before his mouth, though, licking his lips and looking up again.

“Is he watching?” he whispers hoarsely, searching Merlin’s gaze.

Merlin has to look, now—he has a feeling he’d do anything Gwaine asked of him, in this moment—and gods, Arthur is looking, his gaze on them unrelenting. Merlin finds himself licking his own lips, wondering just what he and Gwaine look like; and Arthur’s gaze hones in on his mouth before dragging down his body to where Gwaine is, the look nearly as palpable as a touch.

“Yes,” Merlin breathes. “Yes.”

Gwaine takes him in, sinking down until his lips meet his hand. His mouth feels like velvet around Merlin’s cock, sleek and hot and decadent. He tongues deliberately as he draws off again, and on the next downstroke twists his hand around the shaft, the spit from his wet mouth easing the friction.

Merlin’s grip tightens in his hair and he tries not to force himself down Gwaine’s throat, though there seems little danger of that. With Gwaine’s hold on his cock and his other arm a tight band around the back of his thighs, Merlin is held firmly in place, no leverage to move. Even so, he feels weak with pleasure and weariness, struggling to remain upright. He clasps Gwaine’s shoulder tight and digs his toes into the crushed grass underfoot.

Merlin wants it to be over soon; he never wants it to end: he’s swept helplessly between each desperate urge as if by the waves of a tide. He closes his eyes to better concentrate, to dwell in the moment, to focus entirely on the incredible feeling of Gwaine’s mouth on him, and Gwaine’s damp, lovely hair between his fingers, and the crackle of the fire and the wet sounds of sucking.

“Merlin.”

Merlin drags his eyes open, and the orange-tinted world swims back into focus. His gaze finds and fixes on Arthur before he’s truly registered that it’s Arthur who’s spoken, in tones more heatedly urgent than Merlin’s heard from him before. It takes longer to refocus than it ought with Gwaine’s rhythm speeding and firming; Merlin gasps and teeters, both hands clutching Gwaine’s shoulders lest he topple over.

He doesn’t look away from Arthur, though. Arthur, who’s kneeling back on his heels and still on the other side of the fire, still staring intently, but a hectic flush mottling his skin up his throat and over his cheeks. It matches the colour of Arthur’s cock, red and hard in his fist, gleaming unmistakably in the firelight as he strokes it.

Merlin moans when he sees, squeezing Gwaine’s shoulders, and can’t look away after that. Arthur’s tugging strokes speed up, matching the increased tempo of Gwaine’s mouth on Merlin’s cock. The current of Merlin’s arousal picks up as well, sweeping him towards his climax like a river nearing a waterfall, dangerous and exhilarating. He barely has time to catch his breath before he’s thundering over the edge, gasping and crying out and eyes squeezing shut, barely able to tell up from down, just holding on to Gwaine desperately.

His legs give out at last, just as Gwaine’s mouth on him becomes too much, and he drops to his knees, still relying on his arms around Gwaine’s shoulders to keep him at least half-upright. In the wake of coming, he feels suffused with gratitude and warm affection, even as his heart still thumps wildly in his chest. The sensation tugs more poignantly as Gwaine gentles him through it, hand firm and reassuring on the back of Merlin’s neck again.

Pleasure sparks through his sensitive nerves when Gwaine kisses him, and he can’t help but vocalise it—even as he thinks he’s probably not returning the kiss with equal skill—then Gwaine settles him down on his knees and draws away.

“Wait,” Gwaine says firmly, making a point of meeting Merlin’s dazed eyes, which takes most of the panic out of the pang Merlin feels when Gwaine leans back, rising to his feet and stepping away.

He’s moving towards Arthur, and Merlin watches breathlessly as Arthur’s heated gaze fixes on Gwaine’s, head tilting back almost submissively as Gwaine stands over him. Then Merlin stops breathing entirely, chest constricting; because Gwaine is fisting his hand in Arthur’s hair and pulling, giving Arthur no choice but to rise awkwardly and hurriedly to his feet. Gwaine crashes his mouth into Arthur’s and Merlin gasps helplessly, his mouth filling with saliva, still tasting his own bitter seed from Gwaine’s kiss moments before.

Because Arthur’s tasting it now, inescapably with Gwaine holding him fiercely in place. And instead of shoving Gwaine away he’s grunting and coming, Gwaine’s hand wrapped around his on his cock as if forcing it out of him. Their mouths part as Arthur staggers; Gwaine’s grinning already, teeth bared, the depth of his nefarious plot clear in his gaze when he looks back to Merlin, proud and victorious.

“Get off me,” Arthur huffs at last, and they tussle a little as he tries to push out of Gwaine’s hold, poorly matched with Arthur uncoordinated and half-hearted. Gwaine wipes his hand off in Arthur’s trailing shirt, easily evading the retributive shoves; he scrubs his hand through Arthur’s hair again before finally letting go. Arthur lowers to the ground again, breathing hard and staring into the flames. He fumbles for a stick to stoke the coals, but then just holds it loosely in his hand.

Gwaine’s pleased chuckle draws Merlin closer again, inching the final distance towards the fire, almost surprised at just how warm it feels against his skin. Arthur looks at him through the flames and Merlin looks back, still flushed with his climax and Arthur’s, and just meeting his gaze feels weighted with meaning. Merlin feels sure the tangle of uncertainty and excitement will never loosen within him, never become less thrilling.

Gwaine slumps down beside him, breathing heavily. Merlin refocuses again, attention drawn to Gwaine inexorably, the attraction just feeding itself with Gwaine so frankly inviting, not to mention reciprocating. It’s lovely to kiss him again, his beard rough against Merlin’s hands, and the long strands of his hair still wet when Merlin combs his fingers through it.

Gwaine makes a needy sound against his lips and grasps Merlin’s wrist, dragging Merlin’s hand down to his lap and pressing his cock up against Merlin’s palm; his need makes tenderness swell in Merlin’s chest. He feels pleased and proud to have this asked of him, to be so clearly wanted; eager to show Gwaine he’s wanted in turn.

Merlin fancies he’s good at this—better than the last time, at least. He can use the tricks Gwaine taught him as they curled together, close and secret under their blankets on their way to Arthur. The thought that he’s showing off for Arthur flits briefly through his mind, but more dominant is his appreciation of Gwaine: how hard and hot he is, and desperate for Merlin’s touch, if the way he’s hitching his hips up is anything to go by. Merlin can’t decide if he wants to keep kissing Gwaine more than he wants to watch his fist slide around Gwaine’s cock. But before Merlin can make up his mind, Gwaine digs his fingers into Merlin’s arm and Merlin bites his neck in reflexive retribution; the next moment Gwaine’s coming, hot and thick over Merlin’s fingers, shouting loud and unrestrained.

Gwaine pushes Merlin’s hand off his cock, though not cruelly; he presses his palm to Merlin’s, interlocks their fingers, spreading the mess of his seed between them and holding firm. Merlin folds his legs and settles more comfortably without breaking the hold, leaning into Gwaine. He feels his eyes droop wearily as they’re drawn back to the flames again, and to Arthur, solemn and golden beyond them.

“You were never here with me,” Arthur says at length, tone sober, the teasing humour of earlier—and even the cocky tone of royal demand—absent. He looks up at them. “I was here alone.”

“All right, princess. Our peasanty hands never even touched your royal trident,” Gwaine says, and as innuendo-laden as his retort is, it eases the sudden tight ache in Merlin’s chest.

Arthur’s mouth twitches, just the barest hint of amusement. “And you’re still banished. If only because it would be unfair to inflict such depravity upon the people of Camelot.”

“They’re far more depraved than you give them credit for,” Gwaine says lightly, and gives Merlin’s hand a tiny, private squeeze.

Arthur shakes his head a little, as if shrugging off the conversation. “We’ll make our way back to the horses tomorrow,” he says. “Merlin, you better have brought me some fresh clothes.”

Merlin rolls his eyes reflexively. “You can hardly be seen riding back into the castle wearing a set you didn’t even take with you.”

Arthur sniffs. “You can wash this set tomorrow.”

Merlin sighs, catching Gwaine’s disbelieving look from the corner of his eye and smiling back wryly. “Yes, Sire.”