Merlin surfaces from sleep to the feel of lips pressed against the back of his neck. Sinking more deeply into the bed, he lets himself drift into a half-dream of early morning caresses and slow, sucking kisses that travel slowly down his spine. Merlin sleepily reaches back, curling his fingers in slightly damp, curling hair, sighing as a hand slowly slides over his hip and settles over his cock.
"Mmm, yes," Merlin mumbles, pushing his hips into the hard hand, catching his breath at the slick fingers rubbing up and down the shaft as he starts to harden. "Oh, yes, do that again." Arching his back a little, Merlin sucks in a breath at the twinge of strained muscles, thighs aching pleasantly, and turns his head enough to accept a bitter morning kiss. Cracking his eyes open, he can see the sky's still dark, and it's at least an hour before he has to be up and about.
Letting himself settle back, he arches his neck enough to invite teeth, covering the hand on his cock and speeding the strokes, holding tight to the slow drift of half-sleep that makes the world soft-edged and glossy. Rolling onto his back at a nudge, Merlin reaches lazily for his cock, giving it two slow strokes before a hot mouth descends, wrapping around him like a vice, lips pressed to his fist.
"Yes," Merlin murmurs drowsily, curling his other hand in soft hair. "That's it, perfect…."
Morning sex is always good. There's no premium on performance or creativity; it's about getting off as comfortably as you can with as minimal effort as possible, and there's really no wrong way to go about it. "Yes, that's it," Merlin says, and thinks of pink lips and blue eyes, of undressing Arthur the night before, impatient as he stripped away the layers of velvet and wool, the long length of his bare back, muscles rippling beneath golden skin, and catches his breath.
"I'm--" Merlin sucks in a breath as his cock is swallowed abruptly, and God, yes. "Stop," he says, pushing up with both thighs until cold air surrounds him, but he wants--he wants-- "Fuck you," he murmurs, tangling his fingers in blond hair and pulling until he can breathe it against his lips, "I want to come when I feel you come around me," and pushes Arthur on his back, reaching down to slide two fingers inside, hole still slick from last night and tight and utterly, utterly perfect.
Half-opening his eyes, Merlin kneels between muscular thighs and pushes inside, breathing out "God, Arthur," as he slides home, and may his mother never hear of this, it's three entire strokes before he realizes the man beneath him is not, in fact, Arthur.
Blinking, Merlin stares down at Agravaine with a faint sense of resignation.
"Right," Merlin says, leaning down to kiss the half-open mouth, circling his hips hard once. "Forget that part."
And mostly, Merlin thinks Agravaine does. At least for a little while.
Agravaine, of course, flees the scene of the crime, and since they were in Agravaine's quarters in the tower, that means Merlin has to drag himself down three flights of stairs to the tower door alone and let himself out. The courtyard is bustling with early morning merchants and maids on errands for their mistresses, none of whom are wearing clothes that obviously spent a considerable amount of time on the floor and not looking at all like they just had rather middling (though still quite good, if the way Agravaine carried on is any indication) sex and then were abandoned in a fit of terrible shame.
The shame, Merlin suspects, isn't in being a substitute, but more that truly, it's rather hard to care when you are coming hard enough to cry like a little girl. Stamping across the courtyard, Merlin glances briefly at Arthur's window and hopes to God Arthur isn't watching.
He's careful when he opens the door to Gaius' quarters, uncomfortably aware that Gaius doesn't even need to be awake to project vehement disapproval of Merlin's utter lack of morals.
Though perhaps Merlin is projecting, just a little.
Tossing his clothes into the corner, Merlin heats the water left in the basin, cleaning up as quickly as he can with an eye to the horizon, feeling irritable and less relaxed than he should be, considering. Upon reflection, he should have left the banquet early last night like anyone sane, slept in his own bed, and gotten up at a decent hour so he's not rushing about like an idiot, trying to find something to wear in the pile of laundry on the floor, and not show up at Arthur's door looking exactly like what he's been doing.
Wetting his hands, he forces his hair into compliance as he shoves on one boot, stopping just long enough to give up trying to untangle his boot laces and magic them into compliance. It's perhaps the stupidest use of magic ever, and he just doesn't care. Half-running, Merlin manages to not see anyone he knows, slowing at the kitchen long enough to get breakfast and a knowing look from the cook--what? Are his breeches open or something?--and takes the steps two at a time, already knowing--
Arthur's leaning against the open door of his room, smile bright with malice. "Good morning, Merlin," he says, looking him up and down with amused blue eyes before turning to go back inside, shift brushing against the long muscles of his thighs, and abruptly, Merlin remembers exactly why he tends to stay for morning sex.
To his credit (because he's a prat), Arthur doesn't say anything else, seated cross-legged at the foot of the bed, chin in his hand and watching Merlin rush about his morning duties with the long-suffering look of a man who has grown used to disappointment in manservants.
"Good morning, sire," Merlin manages belatedly as the fire finally stops fighting him and obediently comes to life. Turning around, he waits, resigned, as Arthur stretches, tousled blond head leaning against the bedpost and blinking sleepy blue eyes before nodding and getting up.
"That was a record," Arthur says mildly, sitting down and looking over the selection for breakfast critically. "I've never seen you run like that without something large and fire-breathing chasing you."
Merlin stares hard at the bed and doesn't imagine it on fire, and with Arthur still in it. "I have no idea what you are talking about," he lies. "Did you sleep well?"
Arthur reaches for his cup. "Better than you, I suspect," he says, but mercifully leaves it there. Going to the bed, Merlin strips away the bedclothes, trying to remember if he brought up clean ones from the laundry yet as Arthur draws up a leg and picks up a piece of fruit. The silence begins to stretch unnaturally, like Arthur knows that waiting just makes it worse.
Merlin lasts through breakfast, but the dressing process always breaks him; there's something about Arthur in an unlaced shirt and trousers without boots that does something unfortunate to higher brain function.
"Just say it," Merlin says, giving up as he goes back for a tunic. "I know you want to."
"I can't imagine what you are referring to," Arthur answers he puts on the tunic and takes his coat from Merlin's hands, padding to the table barefoot and picking up his cup. "It's a lovely morning, don't you think?"
"I am hunting today and will require your presence?" Sitting on the edge of the table, he looks at Merlin with such a lack of expression Merlin would almost think that Arthur was telling the absolute truth and not being the dirty liar he actually is. Gritting his teeth, Merlin kneels, concentrating on the scent and feel of the smooth, worn leather. When he's done, he glares up at Arthur, still finishing off an apple like his head is just as empty as Merlin used to accuse it of being.
"Arthur--" he starts, and then Arthur slides off the table, boots bracketing Merlin's thighs. Merlin blinks, mouth going dry as Arthur leans down, trailing a finger up his collarbone before pulling away.
"You forgot your neckerchief," Arthur says, grinning, and Merlin reaches up with numb fingers, still feeling the heated touch and wincing at what is probably a truly spectacular bruise. God dammit.
Turning on his knees, he watches Arthur hunt through his cupboard for his rings, blond hair catching the light of dawn with the unfortunate effect of making him look much more attractive than his personality might otherwise have otherwise suggested. "Sometimes," Merlin says, squinting slightly, "I think you're just jealous."
Arthur flashes him a grin. "Beyond words to describe. Take the plates down and be ready in an hour or I'll be very put out."
Merlin sighs, standing up. "You're such an ass."
"That's new and different. Now do as you're told. It is going to be a very long day."
Merlin doesn't exactly blame his mother for sending him off during the most impressionable part of adolescence, but he does think her timing could have been a little better.
Hunting, if nothing else, is excellent for distracting Arthur from anything that's not killing things, and by noon, Arthur's no longer asking if he's too tired to carry these rabbits or if he's sore when he shifts after crouching too long in a thicket while Arthur exercises that streak of terrifying patience that he never seems to have for anything that doesn't involve violence.
"I think it's going to rain," Merlin says, squinting up at the sky. While the clouds don't look any more threatening than they have the last four rainless days, there's a subtle feeling in the air that even Arthur seems to have noticed, or so his occasional glances up seem to indicate.
"Probably." Setting the crossbow down, Arthur reaches for Merlin's pack, hunting up the bread and cheese and cutting off a chunk of each with his knife before looking around. "Are they still after that boar?"
A faint, distant sound of cursing answers the question. Arthur rolls his eyes at the noise. "They'll be chasing it the rest of the day."
"It was a very nice boar," Merlin says uncertainly, cutting off a piece of cheese and making himself comfortable on the grass below a very wide tree, perfect for hiding from storms in the forest. "Do you want me to fetch them back?"
Arthur shrugs, looking content enough with being abandoned by his companions, possibly due to the fact he's usually responsible for the abandonment. It's not often he does this, and Merlin supposes the relative privacy must be something of a relief, when there's so little to be found in Camelot. Stretching out, Arthur leans against a rock and sighs, looking an odd cross between relaxed and irritable. "Something troubling you, sire?"
Arthur's eyes narrow. "How is it you sound less polite when using my title than my name?"
"It's a gift." Arthur rolls his eyes. "What's bothering you? You'd usually be first after the boar, and don't think I didn't notice how convenient your sighting of a small herd of deer seemed to be. I was looking that direction. There were no deer."
"They were very fast deer," Arthur objects, frowning. "And there's nothing troubling me, so keep your fancies to yourself."
Merlin snorts, offering the rest of the cheese. After a second, Arthur spears it on his knife and splits it, offering half to Merlin; it's nothing like an apology, and Merlin doesn't dare so much as smile as he takes it. It's nice, in any case; a quiet afternoon with a comfortable breeze, and Merlin thinks if any day could be called perfect, this might be it. Idly, Merlin kicks Arthur's foot, temptingly close, and Arthur looks up, rolling his eyes even as he kicks back, settling against his rock and the pensive look melting away. "You're quite irritating."
"That's why you like me," Merlin says comfortably, kicking again. "You might as well tell me, you know. I'll hear it about it sooner or later."
Arthur arches an eyebrow. "There's nothing to hear. And even if there was, who says I'd want to talk about it with you?"
"Have you tried to carry on a conversation with some of your knights? Or have you forgotten Gareth so easily?" Merlin says curiously. "I'm not convinced he has any thoughts in his head at all to converse with."
Arthur scowls, but that's possibly because he did indeed try once, and the experience had been one that Merlin had been forced to rescue him from after an hour and a half discussion on the finer points of cleaning armour. Arthur's knights are his companions but they aren't his confidantes, and Merlin wonders sometimes if that's Uther's concept of kingly training or if Arthur had chosen that degree of distance deliberately. He hunts with them and trains with them and even drinks with them and goes to war with them, but there's always been that distance that Arthur keeps like a shield between them, invisible and unmistakable for all that. They let him keep it, too, their prince and future king, give him worship and trust and respect, eager to touch the surface but content to come no closer.
Maybe it's that way with royalty, Merlin reflects; Uther's no different, and the closest thing he has to a friend is Gaius. Merlin looks at Arthur, wondering if some day they'll be reduced to that, if Arthur the king will retreat into his kingship so deeply that even Merlin won't be able to reach him. It's a depressing thought.
"Something troubling you, Merlin?" Arthur says, slightly mocking, but the expression on his face doesn't match the voice. "Or given to melancholy that your--friend didn't stay with you today?"
Merlin frowns. "Who?"
Arthur's mouth twitches. "Never mind. It's about to rain, and we should get back."
Bemused, Merlin scrambles to his feet, putting away the rest of the bread and looking around. The other knights are so far away that even when he listens, Merlin can't hear them. "Should we tell them we're going?"
Arthur shakes his head, unwinding his horse's reins from a nearby tree and mounting.
"You know they'll stay out here for hours looking for you, right?" Much less gracefully, Merlin scrambles onto his horse, turning to follow Arthur back down the trail. "And it's going to rain a lot."
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Arthur says airily. "Race you back?"
Merlin grins, pushing his heels into the horse's side. "Everything's a competition with you, isn't it?"
"Only with things I refuse to lose," Arthur answers, and Merlin shakes his head and lets the wind carry away his laugh.
By the time they get back, they're both soaked, and of course Arthur won. Dismounting, Merlin leads the horses into the stables, where a cheerful groom takes them both as Arthur runs a hand through wet hair, scraping it back from his flushed face. Merlin's chest tightens just looking at him. As the groom leaves, Merlin joins Arthur at the door.
"I told my father I'd be out all day," Arthur says. "There was a council meeting today." Arthur watches the castle with vague alarm, chewing on a thumbnail. Merlin looks at the ragged edge of the nail and puts two and two together. No wonder Arthur looked pensive.
Arthur winces. "Lady Melisande," he says, sounding like he's speaking of the person who is planning his untimely death, which isn't all that far from true.
"She's pretty," Merlin says dubiously, having met the lady the year before. She'd been rather tall and very pretty, and she could ride very well, and she had hated Arthur with an intensity that rivalled Uther's for sorcerers. The feeling had been explosively mutual. "I really don't think she was trying to poison you. It was purgative in your wine at worst. Really."
Arthur slants him a disbelieving look. Either her dowry was utterly incredible, or someone, somewhere, has been reading those terribly maudlin ballads about people who hate each other at first meeting and then fall madly in love and truly believed that sort of thing could happen. Merlin had surreptitiously spent the horrible month of Melisande's visit learning new and exciting spells to detect foreign substances in Arthur's food and Arthur had lost fifteen pounds and refused to eat anything he didn't kill and cook himself. And Arthur was a terrible, terrible cook.
"I doubt anything will come of it," Merlin says hopefully. He's sure Uther won't actually marry Arthur to someone who wants to kill him. Pretty sure. Mostly sure. Unless she has a truly incredible dowry. "Should I ask Gaius for more cures for poisoning? Just in case?"
"She's not actually here," Arthur says with a sigh. "Yet, anyway. Just an envoy to press the suit again." Merlin tries not to think of the rows of empty stalls with fresh straw and a soft layer of sand beneath them, or the fact that the grooms are on the other side of the stables, or that Arthur looks like he's just heard his own death sentence.
Then again, he always looks like that when the word "betrothal" comes up, and considering the candidates Merlin's seen so far, he can't entirely blame him. Lady Gwyneth had been short and constantly nervous, giggling so incessantly that Merlin had thought Morgana was going to kill her to spare the world any possible giggling offspring she might produce. Lady Meredith had been almost terrifyingly obnoxious and made Arthur look like a model of courtesy and good manners by comparison, while the Lady Aidra had been--
Aidra had come the closest, and for once, Arthur hadn't found new and inventive ways to hide for perfectly legitimate reasons, but after only a few days, the tentative warmth between them had changed. Less than a week after her arrival, she'd vanished into the night with Sir Lionel, and the last Merlin had heard of her, they were quite happy together somewhere very far north.
Arthur's still staring at the door, bracing himself for an afternoon trapped in the council chambers while his marriage is treated as a commodity to be bartered to the highest bidder. Uther had loved his wife and had had, from all accounts, a happy marriage, and his grief over her loss had never weakened in the years since her death. Denying Arthur even the possibility of the same might be his idea of kindness, but Merlin thinks that Arthur might be willing to take that kind of risk when the other option was a lifetime sentenced to the company of a person who would be at best, a familiar stranger, and at worst, an enemy who would share his bed.
"It's not fair," Merlin says suddenly, viciously, and regrets it when he feels Arthur looking at him. "Er. The rain?"
Arthur rolls his eyes, but a warm arm circles his shoulders, resting heavily for a second, as if Arthur understood what he hadn't meant to say. "The kitchen stairs. Can you make a distraction--"
Merlin grins. "Give me thirty seconds."
"You've turned out surprisingly useful, for such a terrible manservant," Arthur says, hand shifting to the centre of his back. "Go."
Sneaking up the stairs on Arthur's heels, Merlin watches for inconvenient servants or wandering nobles, following a twisting route through long-unused suites and corridors rarely patrolled when the castle had no guests, giggling into the back of Arthur's coat as they hide behind a tapestry from an unexpected chambermaid while Arthur kicked him and promised that if they were caught, a week in the stocks wouldn't be long enough to satisfy the loss of dignity being found crouching in a dusty corner.
"Stocks, I swear to God," Arthur hisses in his ear as Morgana pauses to look around with a frown. A hand clamps down on Merlin's mouth, trapping him between Arthur's thighs and the wall. Morgana becomes less interesting; Arthur's very warm, even through his wet clothes, and the smell of clean, damp leather and the oil used on Arthur's weapons surrounds him. When Arthur eases into the hall, Merlin almost forgets to follow, stumbling behind him mostly due to the hand clamped around his wrist.
Eventually, they slip into Arthur's chambers, and Merlin locks the door behind them, sinking down to the floor fighting the urge to collapse laughing while Arthur strips off his damp coat and looks at him like he's gone completely mad. "Stop that!" he says, tossing the coat over a chair and moving closer to the fire. "If she'd caught us, I'd never hear the end of it."
Wiping his eyes, Merlin grins. "Sorry," he says, trying to sound sincere. "Need some help, sire?"
Arthur rolls his eyes, spreading his arms briefly, eyes flickering to the window with a faintly amused expression, and Merlin wonders how long the knights will scramble around before they realize their prince is a prick. Getting shakily to his feet, Merlin turns Arthur toward the fire, methodically removing each piece of clothing while imagining the disgruntled looks they'll hide until Arthur mocks them into good humour again. The thin linen shirt somehow managed to get soaked despite the protection of coat and tunic, clinging to Arthur's skin in a way that snaps Merlin right out of any urge to laugh, and he blinks, fingers still wrapped in the laces.
Merlin meets Arthur's eyes and reaches for the hem, jerking the shirt up and off, taking it to the pile of wet clothes instead of tossing it. "There's a tear," Merlin says over his shoulder, feeling Arthur watching him curiously. Pushing his fingernail against the seam, Merlin tries to coax the threads to tear already and curses the lack of shoddy workmanship in Camelot. "I'll mend it tonight."
"All right." There's the sound of boots being kicked off and Merlin braces himself, going to the cupboard for dry clothing before Arthur and his trousers part ways. "Merlin? You seem distracted."
I am, Merlin thinks viciously. You are naked and very, very dense.
"Perhaps you are still tired from last night?" Arthur says lightly, and Merlin grabs the nearest shirt and tries not to look any more than he has to.
The knights finally return, worried and disgruntled both, and Merlin is sent to inform them that Arthur's been with them all day. Facing the crowd of tired, damp men (and Agravaine, who still seems torn between great sex and personal shame), Merlin thinks uncomfortably that there should never be a time when the number of people you have slept with outnumber the people you haven't in a single room.
With that unsettling thought, Merlin returns to his room, waving a greeting at Gaius, currently bent over something that looks faintly like green pudding. "Tell me that's not meant for consumption," Merlin says as a bubble slowly forms on the surface like a giant pustule, bursting with a faint hint of rotting beans and cabbage.
"Muscle cramps," Gaius answers, stirring it warily as another bubble begins to form. "Do you need anything?"
"Arthur has a cold," Merlin says, remembering the startled look on Arthur's face when he'd sneezed, followed by what on the surface had seemed at the time a brilliant idea. That was often the way of it, though; Arthur had many ideas, and he can make even the stupidest of them sound like utter genius while wet and half-naked. "Tell me you have something to fix it."
Gaius smiles down at the pudding. "You can't cure a cold, Merlin. Pulling the ladle free with a wet pop that makes Merlin blink, Gaius goes to the cupboard, taking out a bottle of thick, dark syrup. "This should help ease the symptoms."
Merlin holds up the bottle, squinting at the unfamiliar contents. "Is this new?"
"Somewhat. It's a variation on the original recipe to help encourage rest and relaxation," Gaius answers. "No more than two spoonfuls, however. It's a bit stronger than what I usually use."
Merlin nods, taking it to his room and stripping off his damp clothes before hunting for something both clean and dry. On his way out, he sees Gaius pouring the pudding into a container that Merlin hopes he will never, ever need to ever use on anyone, ever.
"Does the prince require my services?" Gaius asks as he reaches the door.
Merlin hesitates; he hadn't thought of that. "Let me see how he's feeling," Merlin prevaricates. "After dinner?"
Gaius nods agreeably, and Merlin flees before Gaius can ask for more information than Merlin can give and not lie through his teeth. Getting a tray from the kitchen, he sends a page to tell Uther that Arthur is indisposed and returns to Arthur's chambers.
"Syrup," Merlin says, holding out the bottle and wishing that Arthur had dressed just a little more. The room's too warm for anything but a shirt, which is making Merlin resent the invention of fire. "For your very convincing cold." Arthur makes a vague sound that could be mistaken for suffocation. "Gaius wants to check on you. After dinner."
Arthur sneezes, shrugs, and takes a spoon from the tray. Pouring out the thick black syrup, he looks at it with disfavour. "I've never seen this before," Arthur says suspiciously, and Merlin gestures until, rolling his eyes, Arthur takes the spoonful. "Did you tell my father--"
"I sent a page to tell him that you were indisposed, which Gaius can now verify" Merlin says, adding maliciously, "so you will be excused the banquet honouring your potential intended's envoy. Two spoonfuls, now. Gaius' orders."
Arthur pours another spoonful. "Good health is important." Merlin nods enthusiastic agreement. "Lord Antes didn't go near the food, did he?"
Merlin doesn't sigh, but it's very hard. "No, the cook promised me that she was the only one who touched that chicken. And I'm telling you, it was a purgative."
"So you think," Arthur mutters darkly, licking the spoon clean. Merlin watches the pink flickers of his tongue over the metal before he sets the spoon aside. "Have you eaten?"
"Have you had dinner? You will have to attend me at least until the banquet is over, you know."
Right. Banquet. "Not yet." Then, "You want me to taste everything to make sure you're not poisoned, don't you?"
That, Merlin decides two torturous hours later, is not syrup for a cold.
"And then," Arthur says, sprawled out on the rug and staring up at the ceiling, "I told him I never judged a man by his taste in sheep." For some reason, this seems to be most hilarious joke in the history of mankind, because Arthur laughs so hard he rolls onto his side, panting into the floor. Easing toward the table, Merlin picks up the bottle, running a finger around the top and tasting it warily. It does taste nice, and apparently, feels quite good, because Arthur is the happiest Merlin's ever seen him.
"Perhaps you had to be there," Arthur observes, lifting his head slightly, and Merlin finds himself staring at the soft pink of his mouth for far longer than he should. Merlin quickly makes himself look at the dinner tray and wonders what sort of definition "relaxing" Gaius had been using. Whether or not it cures you of a cold may be debatable, but apparently it can make you care not at all if you have one or not.
Merlin's seen Arthur sick and well, injured and drugged on whatever Gaius has in stores after injuries, but he's never seen him quite like this. It's almost like he's drunk, except Arthur drunk is faintly brooding and manic by turns, while the loose sprawl of golden prince on the floor is just happy, wrapped up in a glow of contentment like the world just cannot get better than this.
Sneezing again, Arthur pushes himself up on one elbow hopefully. "What are you doing? Is it time for more?"
Merlin puts the bottle behind the nearly empty wine jug. "No, no, we'll wait for Gaius," he says quickly. "To make sure you are--improving."
Warily, Merlin returns to the fire, watching Arthur study the rug with the kind of concentration he usually turns on dealing death to enemies, or making Merlin's life miserable. When Merlin sits down, though, he smiles, blue eyes bright and slightly glassy.
"Maybe you should get into bed?" Merlin starts, and then blanches, because God, such a bad idea, such a tragically, wonderfully bad idea.
Arthur tips back his head to look at the bed, loosening the laces of his shirt still further. "I'm not tired," he answers. "Is it too warm in here?"
Merlin watches in slowly growing horror as Arthur plucks discontentedly at the laces of his shirt, but he gives it up when it obviously requires more hand-eye coordination than he has at the moment. Relaxing back onto the floor, Arthur turns his attention to whatever entertainment the ceiling seems to bring him with a faint, delighted smile.
A discreet knock at the door brings Merlin to his feet; Gaius looks at him quizzically as Merlin drags him inside. "What was that?" Merlin demands in a heated whisper. "That--that syrup?"
Gaius frowns, eyes going to Arthur and pausing thoughtfully. "I told you it has a very relaxing effect--"
"Relaxed is an understatement!" Merlin hisses, pasting a smile on his face when Arthur looks at him.
"He looks well," Gaius says, crossing the room to smile down at Arthur, much as he did at small children and those with incurable head maladies. "How are you feeling, sire?"
Arthur sneezes cheerfully. "Very well, Gaius, thank you. Your skills are on par with legend. Can I have more?"
"Every four hours," Gaius says heartlessly, kneeling awkwardly and lying one hand against Arthur's forehead. "You seem a bit warm. Do you have a cough?"
"Yes," Merlin answers hastily. "Once in a while. And he says it's too hot."
Gaius looks at Merlin for a moment, then at Arthur, mouth twitching slightly before he braces himself on the chair Arthur had long abandoned for the comfort of lying full length on the floor like an idiot. Getting to his feet, he nods briskly. "I see. I'll report to the king that Arthur will need a few days to recover, so as not to aggravate his condition." Picking up his bag, he gives Merlin a smile that's not terribly reassuring. "Two of the knights have fallen ill this week as well. Make sure he doesn't come in contact with anyone else, and he should be fine."
Merlin looks at the bottles dubiously. "So one more dose tonight and another tomorrow?"
"Oh no." Gaius taps the bottle. "Every four hours on the dot. So I shan't expect you to return to your room tonight." Not that it is often you are there, Gaius doesn't say, though his eyebrows telegraph his amusement well enough. Closing his bag, Gaius gives Arthur a bow, which Arthur returns with a cheerful wave, then makes his way to the door. "Good night, sire. Merlin."
The door clicks closed behind him like inevitability, and Merlin turns back to look between the bottles and the carefree sprawl of crown prince with a feeling of incipient doom.
This must be what people mean when they speak of hell.
It's inevitable that the imaginary cold will turn true; honestly, Merlin doesn't think it could have happened any other way. There is coughing, low and rough, and sneezing, but mostly, there's just Arthur finding shoes funny and Merlin funnier still when he's trying to coax him toward his bed, where at least he might fall prey to the sheer comfort of it and fall asleep, leaving Merlin at peace.
"But I'm not tired," Arthur argues stubbornly, not really fighting so much as engaging in aggressively passive resistance. "I'm ordering you to leave me alone and bring me more of that syrup."
"Not for another hour, sire," Merlin snaps. "You are ill and shouldn't be on the cold floor."
"I don't feel ill."
"That's because we lied and I'm being punished for it. As usual. Now you will get in that bed and you will contrive to go to sleep."
Arthur tilts his head back. "How are you being punished?" he asks in interest, and Merlin hates the entire world.
"Never mind," he grits out. "Sire--"
"If I go to bed, you will leave," Arthur says in his most reasonable voice. "And I am not tired, so I will get bored."
Merlin closes his eyes and counts to ten. "If you go to bed, I won't leave."
Arthur smiles, startlingly bright, and holds out his hand. "Very well. How are you being punished?"
"God," Merlin mutters feelingly, but Arthur goes abruptly tractable, letting Merlin take his boots and stare at his breeches for longer than is really necessary, trying to make a decision. Arthur decides for him, rolling lazily toward the centre of the bed and making some effort to pile the pillows into some kind of mound before losing interest and collapsing in a boneless heap across them.
"You should sleep," Merlin says half-heartedly, sitting on the edge of the bed with a sigh. "Or at least pretend to. You could actually get ill, which the way my luck is running, is fairly inevitable at this point, and you are very unpleasant when you are ill."
"I am a perfectly pleasant companion." Settling on his stomach, Arthur kicks in the general direction of Merlin's thigh and misses dramatically. "I can converse on a wide variety of truly abysmally boring subjects and look interested no matter how incredibly stupid the conversation may be."
"That," Merlin says flatly, "is a filthy, filthy lie."
"'It's not. I can." Arms curling beneath his chin, Arthur eyes the air pensively. "That's what went wrong, you know."
Merlin pushes Arthur's foot away before the kick can land. "What went wrong?"
"With Melisande, of course. I was quite nice--"
"You called her a sow," Merlin says slowly. What is in that syrup anyway? "And that she had all the attractions of falling on your own sword, which is the only way you would--"
"Not that time," Arthur murmurs, waving it off. "Before. At her father's castle."
Merlin straightens; Morgana hadn't said anything about them meeting before, and Merlin had asked after the first time he saw Arthur and Melisande stare at each other in utter loathing. "When?"
"Years ago," Arthur says dreamily. "It was quite pleasant until she told her father she wanted to marry me."
"How old were you?"
"Fifteen? There was a great deal of pastry." There's the faintest trace of a pout. "No one makes anything like that here. It's irritating."
"Right, very," Merlin answers, intrigued. "But Melisande. You were nice to her and she wanted to marry you and--"
"I said I would fall on my sword. She took it badly."
Merlin blinks slowly. "Why would you--"
"Well," Arthur says thoughtfully, "I suppose it's insulting to be compared to suicide for the sake of escaping--"
Rolling his eyes, Arthur stares off into the distance for a while, apparently bemused by dust motes. "I think," he says finally, "the garden might have had something to with that," he says, eyes fluttering closed, and before Merlin can make any sense of that, Arthur's asleep.
It takes nearly two days before Merlin can find the time to track down Morgana, as Arthur in fact is miserably sick, and Merlin ignores yet another important lesson on the value of honesty. "You never said they met before. My lady."
Gwen looks up from sorting through her morning purchases on the table, mostly consisting of a bewildering variety of thread in various shades of blue. Apparently, nothing is just blue, no, there have names, though Merlin can't honestly tell the difference between them at all. They're blue. "What's that?"
Morgana, however, looks distinctly uncomfortable. "I forgot all about that," she says with an unconvincing shrug, picking up a skein of thread to compare it to what appears to be an identical skein, except apparently not. "It was a long time ago."
"Six years give or take?" Merlin asks, making himself comfortable on the chair. "In a garden?"
Morgana drops the thread, startled. "He told you about that? He said--"
"Ha! No. He fell asleep." Merlin crosses his arms, waiting patiently as Morgana rearranges the skeins again and Gwen gently stops her and puts them back in their original order. "My lady," he starts, trying to look determined, "I'll ask. And he's ill. And there's this syrup that makes him very talkative--"
"All right!" Frowning, Morgana sits back. "It was just a stupid joke."
Somehow, Merlin had thought it was something like that. "What happened?" At her hesitation, Merlin leans forward. "He set himself on fire in the kitchen the last time she visited. To avoid eating in her presence."
Morgana winces. "I did offer to taste his food for him."
Merlin narrows his eyes.
"Fine, fine. It was a state visit to her father, there was a banquet, Arthur was being an ass, so I told Melisande he was in the garden. Alone. And that he liked--" Morgana looks at the far wall. "That he liked being persuaded."
"What does that mean?" Though Merlin has a bad feeling he can guess.
"Apparently, she interpreted that rather liberally and stripped to her shift and pinned him to a tree. And Arthur--" She sighs, pushing back a strand of hair. "Up until then, Arthur hadn't been permitted to spend much time with girls, and the sudden attention made him insufferable. I didn't think he'd react quite so--dramatically."
Merlin swallows hard. "How--dramatically?"
"Ran away when she tried to remove his breeches." Morgana smirks in memory, then winces again. "Uther had him drilling or riding around the kingdom almost constantly, so he had no idea what to do when she decided to try to bed him against a tree. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky he didn't challenge her, but he took it extremely badly." Morgana pauses thoughtfully. "At the time, it was very funny."
Merlin considers the story and tries to pretend it wouldn't have been. But it was. "I don't see why--"
"Arthur didn't really hit his growth spurt until the next year. So when I say pinned to a tree, I mean, lifted off the ground and held there while she tried to have her way with him. Melisande was two years his senior and quite tall."
Oh God. Merlin covers his face with both hands, torn between horror and sheer hilarity. Of course. This is Arthur. It really couldn't have happened any other way. "And he's still angry about that?"
"Well, not wanting to marry her aside, it might have blown over," Morgana says, and her flat stare at the wall tells Merlin that it does, in fact, get worse. "But after his rather colourful refusal of her in her father's hall, she had her maid spread about that the maid had been with him and he was--"
Merlin stares at her. He can't think of anything to say.
"And it got back to Camelot after we returned and there was--" Morgana drifts off with a look that tells Merlin exactly what had happened when that story spread through the castle. "It grew quite a bit in the telling, and even the serving girls gave him odd looks. However, it was somewhat inspirational for Arthur; he became extremely devoted to training for his knighthood. Every waking hour, one might say. Consequently, talk died down rather fast as it became impolitic to make such remarks when Arthur was close enough to throw a gauntlet."
"And Uther is negotiating their marriage," Merlin says, wishing suddenly for wine. "This is a disaster."
"Of that, I'm aware." Picking up a skein of thread, Morgana frowns as she methodically unwinds it between her fingers. "Uther doesn't really--see how their--dislike of each other should be considered a matter of state. As he does not know Melisande and assumes Arthur is merely a very large five year old. Which granted, often he could be mistaken for one, but--"
"Uther is negotiating their marriage," Merlin repeats blankly. "And Arthur will kill himself with his own horrible cooking long before she can poison him."
"I did offer to taste his food," Morgana says again as Gwen patiently takes away the tangle Morgana made of the thread. "Trust me, I have talked to Uther, but this is a matter of politics. He doesn't think personal--quirks should affect affairs of state."
Merlin looks his opinion on that.
"I know," Morgana sighs.
"We have to stop this," Merlin says urgently. "Even if she doesn't kill him, she'll live here. And she will make him miserable, and he will make us miserable, and--"
"She has already told me she will marry me off to the oldest and least attractive knight she can find when she's queen," Morgana says flatly, picking up a knitting needle with a determined expression. "She is not marrying Arthur, if I have to marry him myself."
Just beyond Morgana, Gwen mouths, I'll look into it and Merlin nods his gratitude, answering with a meet me later? glance at the window. At her smile, Merlin settles back, content.
Uther is just leaving Arthur's chambers when Merlin arrives, looking a cross between vaguely worried and in general high spirits, which Merlin finds ominous; Merlin missed the visit with a strategically timed trip to the kitchen to acquire Arthur's lunch. The ominous feeling is proved correct when he opens the door to see Arthur, looking feverish and determined, making a staggering step away from the bed.
"Merlin," Arthur says seriously as he tries and fails to remain upright, staring at his cupboard calculatingly, "come here and get me all the sheets in that drawer."
Setting down the tray, Merlin crosses the room, looking down at the flushed face of his lord and master. "Why?"
"I need to make a rope."
Merlin sighs. "I wish I could attribute this to the fever, but--"
"My father," Arthur says, staring up at Merlin with glassy eyes, "is happy. He did not remonstrate me for my absence, and he did not express disappointment in my lack of sufficient constitution to ward off ailments. He smiled. He wished me well. Do you see the problem here?"
Merlin takes a deep breath to cover abject terror. "Maybe breakfast was excellent?"
"Maybe he's come to an arrangement to marry me off to my future murderer? What do you think?"
"I'm certain she will keep you alive to torture you further," Merlin offers weakly. Arthur's eyes narrow. "Fine. One, the sheet rope doesn't work, or don't you remember the incident with the stables and my ankle? Two, you can barely stand, much less ride. Three, I am not staying behind to be beheaded for losing the crown prince. We'll think of something."
"We?" But after a last hateful look at the cupboard, Arthur lets himself be taken back to bed. Merlin looks at the syrup hopefully, but Arthur had woken with a distinct dislike of it and refused another spoonful no matter how much he coughed. Settled back among the blankets, Arthur curls up into a miserable ball, wiping his nose absently with the handkerchief crumpled in one fist. Merlin fights not to find this utterly, utterly adorable. "I'm sending you to the stocks," Arthur says darkly. "As soon as I can stand long enough at the window to watch."
"Of course, sire," Merlin says, not ruffling the messy blond hair or smiling idiotically at all. "Would you like to eat? I tasted everything first."
"Could be a slow acting poison," Arthur mutters petulantly. "Yes. Bring it here."
Merlin later blames the fact that he had to be present while Arthur bathed for fear he'd drown himself from spite, or fall asleep. After threatening to bring Morgana to entertain him in his illness, Arthur reluctantly took a spoonful of syrup and drifted off almost immediately while Merlin tried to pretend he hadn't been watching Arthur lounging miserably in warm water for above half an hour without so much as blinking.
But he did, and then he left Arthur to Gaius, who kindly offered to allow Merlin a night of uninterrupted sleep and watch over Arthur himself, which logically Merlin did not use for sleep at all.
Still panting, Merlin rolls off Agravaine and thinks that one day, he's going to look back on this and be utterly sickened with himself, but that day is not today.
"Christ," Agravaine mutters breathlessly. Merlin waves a lazy hand in agreement, still seeing Arthur's dark frown before allowing Merlin to assist him out of his bath and the way he looked drying himself perfunctorily before crawling into bed naked, still wet, tangled limbs gold against the stark white linen. Despite recent activities, he can feel his cock twitch a little. "Rumour for once was right."
Merlin grins, not opening his eyes. "You should never listen to rumours," he says, stretching slowly and feeling better than he has for days. "I was taught to draw my own conclusions."
Agravaine snorts, big hand resting on Merlin's stomach, nosing gently at his ear. "Still," Agravaine murmurs, voice husky, "sometimes, they exceed expectations."
Merlin snickers, arching his neck to give better access. "It's all probably true," Merlin admits with a sigh. Agravaine fits his teeth against his shoulder, biting lightly, and Merlin nearly purrs. "I can't stay long. Gaius is with the prince, and I shouldn't make him stay the whole night just to please myself."
"Then we'll make the most of the time you have." Agravaine nips sharply, hand drifting lower. "Wouldn't want to send you back to His Highness still unsatisfied for a long night of waiting on his every breath."
Merlin thinks of the way Arthur slept, loose and soft. "There are compensations," he murmurs.
"None like this, though, yeah?" Agravaine licks a line down his throat, shifting to press a kiss against his chest. Merlin frowns slightly, wondering if Agravaine is referring to that unfortunate morning incident.
"Prince Arthur never discusses his private activities with me," Merlin says, a little stiffly, and Agravaine looks up, eyes softening.
"That's not what I meant. All know of His Highness'--peculiarities. It's no reflection on you. God knows," Agravaine breathes almost reverently, bending down for a slow lick, "if he could, he would have by now."
Merlin gets a handful of rather lank blond hair and jerks hard, using his knee the way Arthur had taught him, and in short order, Agravaine's spread out beneath him quite uncomfortably and staring up at him with watering eyes, hands pinned above his head.
"If he could?" Merlin says quietly, putting a knee against Agravaine's groin. "Try to move and you'll discover just how competent an instructor the prince is in hand to hand and what an excellent pupil I am. What peculiarities?"
"It's--it's merely a rumour. I don't listen to rumour--"
"What. Peculiarities?" Merlin breathes, and pushes his knee in, hard.
Agravaine tells him.
Arthur seems somewhat better in the morning, even taking a spoonful of syrup when Merlin holds it out grimly, and settling into bed instead of trying to drag himself toward his clothes like has some hope of staying upright. Merlin checks for a fever in hope, but it seems as if the cold is clearing, which is just the kind of luck he has.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asks nervously as Arthur settles down, eyeing Merlin suspiciously as he pours another spoonful.
"I don't want another dose. It makes me--" Arthur gives the bottle a pained look, "--feel strange."
"I think it would be better for us both if you took it," Merlin says, trying to convey how very much he believes this by expression alone. Arthur looks at him, then pushes himself up, glancing at the door with worried eyes, then at Merlin, mouth opening. Merlin takes the opportunity to shove the spoon in his mouth.
Arthur sputters, pushing him away. "You--have you heard about--did my father--"
"It's not about Lady Melisande," Merlin says grimly, pouring a spoonful and taking it himself before sitting on the edge of the bed. "I hid all your weapons while you were sleeping. Because I think you would regret it if you killed me. Eventually. And my mother would be so upset, and you know she likes you a great deal."
The syrup's working, at least on Arthur--instead of immediate panicked aggression, Arthur eyes him with vaguely homicidal alarm. "What are you on about?"
Sadly, the syrup isn't working on Merlin at all. Clasping his hands, Merlin takes a deep breath. "The knights may be under the impression that I share your bed," he says, getting it out in a rush of breath. The only thing in his favour right now is that it's likely he might get away before Arthur finishes killing him. Or at least the syrup might dull the pain.
"What?" Arthur frowns. "Where would they get such a ridiculous idea?"
"Well," Merlin says nervously, picking up the bottle and preparing the second spoon, "that would be because that's what I told them."
It's another spoonful of syrup (for Merlin, who needs it), an hour, Arthur attempting to strangle him and then becoming bored and offering him a pillow, and Merlin realizing exactly how excellent Arthur's mattress is before they get any further along in that line of conversation.
"I think I'm upset about this," Arthur says musingly, tucking a pillow against his chest. "I'm probably going to try to kill you when this wears off, so I'd suggest starting to run within the next hour or so. Get a good head start."
Merlin nods agreeably, curled on his side. "Was thinking just that. Always wanted to go to Wales."
"I'll find you anyway," Arthur answers almost apologetically, reaching out to settle a comforting hand on Merlin's shoulder. "But I'll make it fast, I promise you."
"Thank you, sire." Shifting a little closer, Merlin wonders if he'll ever stop smiling. "Agravaine might be a limping for a few days. Just so you know."
Arthur grins. "Aren't you glad I taught you how to defend yourself? Next time you complain, remember that."
Merlin nods and follows the withdrawal of Arthur's hand, missing it. Pushing himself unsteadily up on one elbow, Merlin's startled how close he is to Arthur, blue eyes only inches away. "I would, you know," Merlin breathes. "If you asked. Or just, you know, looked. I don't need a lot of encouragement. Ask anyone."
"Encouragement for--" Arthur blinks, frowning slightly before his expression clears. "Right, that."
"That." Merlin can't help it; Arthur's so close, and he's not actively objecting, and Merlin was telling the truth. He does not, in fact, need a lot of encouragement. Leaning forward, he brushes a kiss against Arthur's mouth, pulling back after an endless honey-sweet moment. The faint frown is more surprise than anything else. "I just--" Merlin touches Arthur's face, day-old stubble rough against his fingertips, and it's just like he imagined, being able to touch him like this. "I want to."
"I've heard…." Arthur starts, eyes very dark, then licks his lips, as if searching for a lingering taste. Merlin leans down again, slicking his tongue over Arthur's damp lower lip, curving his hand to fit Arthur's jaw. When he draws back, Arthur breathes in sharply, flushing. "I never believe rumours."
"Believe these," Merlin says, feeling giddy, and this time, when he kisses Arthur, Arthur's lips part at the press of his tongue. It's amazing, and messy, and meltingly sweet, and Merlin pushes his hand into Arthur's hair and holds him still, licking into his mouth slowly and thoroughly, tasting the remains of the syrup still lingering on his tongue, coaxing Arthur's tongue into his mouth and sucking until he hears Arthur groan. It's wonderful, even if Arthur seems uncertain, fine tremors that seem to shake the surface of his skin like a stone thrown into a still, quiet pond, and Merlin strokes gentle fingers up his side until he feels Arthur begin to relax.
Reaching down, Merlin curls a hand around Arthur's hip, pulling them together and nipping gently at Arthur's lip when he gasps, hard against Merlin's thigh. Arthur jerks his mouth away, blue eyes wide, and Merlin takes the opportunity to lick down his throat, remembering the way the water had streamed down his skin as he left his bath and how much Merlin had wanted to follow the trails with his tongue wherever they would go. Arthur settles a heavy hand on his shoulder, then, more tentatively, curves it around the back of Merlin's neck, and Merlin sucks on the soft, vulnerable skin below his jaw before travelling down the side of his throat and biting gently at the join of neck and shoulder.
It's perfect; Merlin sighs, nuzzling at the fine, soft skin of Arthur's shoulder, mouthing across his collarbone, feeling sleepily content with the world. Arthur strokes slowly through his hair, and Merlin leans into the touch, finding Arthur's mouth again, warm and soft and wet, and abruptly falls asleep with his fingers still tangled in the laces of Arthur's shirt.
Some point much later, Merlin wakes up and gets all of five seconds of confusion to flail at whisper-soft linen with dawning horror before he sees Arthur seated at the table with every knife he owns spread out like a warning.
Merlin sits up and quietly thanks the gods he seems to still be dressed.
"I think," Arthur says, leaning forward and looking much less sick than one might hope, palming one knife with intent, "that we need to talk."
Merlin nods dumbly.
"Let me make sure I have the series of events in the correct order," Arthur says, no longer sitting, though the pacing isn't any kind of sane improvement. "Something I said after you drugged me--"
"It was syrup for your imaginary cold, and I got it from Gaius," Merlin objects and regrets it at Arthur's glare. "That's now real, granted. But it was for your cold. Which is suspiciously cured, I notice."
"We live in a time of miracles," Arthur says flatly. "To continue before you interrupted--I made an indiscreet comment and that led you to Morgana. Who is an idiot and told you the entire sordid--thing."
Merlin nods miserably, wishing Arthur would at least let him get out of bed to give him a fighting chance of reaching the door or perhaps a window. But no: every time he makes a motion toward the floor, Arthur stops short, glares, and Merlin meekly goes back to the middle of the bed. He doesn't really think Arthur will kill him. But he's not sure Arthur knows that yet.
"So while copulating with one of my knights--"
"Not during!" Merlin objects, and then wonders why on earth he bothered.
"During the afterglow then, you gossiped about me with one of my knights--"
"No! I never--" Merlin pushes onto his knees, glaring at Arthur. "I've never, ever talked about you or anything like it. Not with your knights and not with any of the serving folk. But--"
"So why the hell did you tell him--"
"Because he said you were gelded!"
That, Merlin thinks sickly, could have been broken far more gently. Arthur goes white, mouth dropping open.
"I mean," Merlin adds desperately, "that such a thing might have been among the many, many unbelievable rumours that no one believes. At all."
Arthur shuts his mouth with a snap, staring at some point above Merlin's shoulder, face unreadable. "Gelded," he says, unnaturally soft, like he's checking it off some mental list. He looks at Merlin sharply. "When did that one start?"
"I don't know--recently? Agravaine said he heard it from the kitchen girls, who heard it from the chambermaids, but where they'd--" Merlin stops, startled by the sudden, oddly unsurprising conclusion to that train of thought. "You think Lord Antes is behind this? The envoy from Melisande's family?"
"It's to pattern," Arthur says, anger banked abruptly. Giving up the pacing, he drops on the foot of the bed. "It's certainly not the first time."
"But why? What would be the point? It won't help her get you."
Arthur leans back against the bedpost. "My father gets four marriage offers a year for me," he starts, taking out his knife and checking the edge with far too much attention. "When I was fifteen, we would get as many as four per month."
"That's--odd." Merlin leans back against the pillows, keeping a wary eye on Arthur's knife hand. "And by odd, I mean, that sounds like--"
"And their rank drops lower every year," Arthur adds.
"--like someone is deliberately poisoning the pool of potential wives," Merlin finishes. Agravaine had been very forthcoming about all the rumours he'd heard in his two and a half years in Camelot, and none had been pleasant or likely to make any highborn girl look forward to marriage with Arthur at all. They wouldn't make any girl look forward to going within ten feet of Arthur's bed, for that matter. "I never heard most of it," Merlin says blankly. "All this time, and I never knew."
"Merlin," Arthur says patiently. "You're known to be somewhat loyal," in a dramatic understatement of a truth they both know, "and I suspect they might have thought you would tell me what was said. They wouldn't risk their place here by telling you anything that I might hear and want to investigate."
True. "So she finds ways to spread rumours among the castlefolk--and in other households, apparently--to destroy your reputation in the most personal way possible, and in ways that you can't ever answer. She hates you that much?"
"She wants to be queen that badly. Wrecking my life is just a pleasant means to an end, until such a time as she can gain the crown and turn it into a life's calling."
Merlin licks his lips. "You're very calm about it."
Arthur slumps against the bedpost, and for a moment, he looks impossibly tired.
"That is not the worst of them," Arthur says, and Merlin nods stiffly, feeling sick. "If they weren't so--humiliating--I might thank her. I would have been married off years ago otherwise. As is, my father is still hoping for someone of political value and high estate, not merely wealth, which is all an alliance with Melisande could offer. Camelot is already very wealthy."
"But he's considering her offer now."
"Apparently not as much as I'd thought, if the envoy felt the need to continue the practice of spreading these things, especially one so easily proved false. But the possibility still exists. Morgana will continue to argue that selling the queen's coronet so cheaply is not in our best interests, and the council will continue to argue that her rank is below that of their own daughters and of no benefit to Camelot."
"And you?" Merlin says after a few seconds.
"I'll continue to pretend I know nothing of it, because my father made it clear long ago that my opinion on the subject of my wife is neither needed nor desired."
Merlin nods, looking away before Arthur can see anything on his face. "Right." Uncomfortably, Merlin straightens, changing the subject. "So, I guess the stocks for a week."
Arthur looks surprised for a minute, then smiles faintly. "Not this time. I think what you've already done is punishment enough."
Merlin, foot half-way to the floor, freezes. "Punishment?" he says warily.
"You announced to Agravaine--and by extension, the entirety of Camelot--that you have shared my bed. Recently."
"That was to help you, you ungrateful--"
Arthur waves it away. "In any case, I don't think it's appropriate for me to share your favours with the entirety of the castle," he says. "So consider yourself--unavailable for the foreseeable future."
Merlin stares at him. "But you're not. Sharing my favours. Enjoying them. Whatever."
"But you said I was," Arthur answers with maddening logic. "And rumour, as you are quite aware, is taken as fact. Especially when it's delivered by one of the two participants."
Merlin feels something in his stomach drop in sheer horror. "You. I have to be celibate because I tried to defend your honour?"
"And I thank you," Arthur says graciously, but there's an unfamiliar edge to his voice. "I feel better today, I think. Please returned to your regular duties, and avoid falling into anyone's bed, if you would? I would as soon avoid the further embarrassment of being seen cuckolded so early in our liaison."
Appalled, Merlin stares at Arthur. He's serious. "And you think everyone will ignore I was with Agravaine when I took up with you?"
Arthur shrugs carelessly. "With your skill in manipulating rumour, I'm sure you can think of a reason you would decide to embrace fidelity to a new lover and spread accordingly."
Actually, Merlin can think of three without much consideration required.
"And warn Gaius you won't be returning to your room tonight. God knows, there will be expectations now and we'd best fulfil them adequately." Shoving the knife back in its sheathe, Arthur crosses to the cupboard, getting his coat. "I'm going riding. I'll see you tonight."
Getting a second knife from the table, Arthur leaves, and Merlin wonders how the hell this can possibly be happening.
Gaius listens, occasionally contributing an understanding nod or an encouraging noise in Merlin's general direction, but otherwise is utterly useless.
"There's always been talk," Gaius reflects over his glass of ale. "Few people believe it."
"But people do believe this!" Merlin answers, frustrated. "I mean, I had to go into the kind of detail I had to make up words for to convince Agravaine that Arthur was normal and not deprived of his manhood or devoted to sheep or unnatural practices involving leather straps…" Merlin breaks off at Gaius slightly glazed eyes. "Right. Less detail. I know."
"Hmm." Gaius leans back, looking at him thoughtfully. "It's odd that there seem to be so few rumours involving Prince Arthur's partners. You would think that anyone with whom he had a liaison with would refute them immediately."
Merlin had thought of that. "Arthur's--very private." Though not above mocking Merlin about his various attachments. In the almost three years Merlin's served him, Sophia is the only one he remembers Arthur showing any public interest in at all, and that had required magic. "He's never been the kind to--talk about that sort of thing." Even with his closest knights, or they would have known better than to listen to rumour. Maybe he'd thought discussing such things with them would alter their companionship, or that it was beneath him, or something; Merlin has no idea.
Now, of course, that's all changed. Merlin buries his head in his arms on the table, wondering if Arthur's currently plotting the most horrifying revenge he can think of. "Do you know how far the negotiations have gone?" Merlin mumbles to the scarred wood.
"They go, with no decisions made," Gaius answers with a comforting pat to his shoulder. "Don't worry too much. From what I understand, the length of the negotiations is stretching the king's patience. All will be well."
Merlin sighs. No help at all.
Merlin contemplates the unfixed period of celibacy in his future on his way to Arthur's room that afternoon. It's unfair; Merlin had been trying to help and now he's trapped in a lie that he's wanted to be true for almost as long as he's been in Camelot. Picking up a discarded shirt, Merlin resentfully adds it to the pile of laundry; Arthur can't watch him every second. God knows they'd go insane if they spent that much time together. A quick moment in the stables, if his nights are now off-limits. Camelot is filled with people who like quick, easy fun. It doesn't mean anything. And everyone knows that he--
Everyone, Merlin thinks, stopping short. There have never been rumours of Arthur's lovers, and this is the first one, he's the first one. And if he's caught now with someone else--if someone talks--and they will, they do--it won't be Merlin that they'll mock. It will be Arthur, who can't keep a new lover faithful, even his own manservant.
Bad enough what's already gone before; adding this would be unconscionable and possibly undo what little Merlin's done already. Six years of this won't be undone with a single word in Agravaine's ear (or shouted to his face, in terms that had made them both blush). If it's to be done, it has to be done well. Merlin rubs a hand across his face, thinking of Arthur's carefully guarded privacy and the fact that nothing can be private any longer; that's the entire point of doing this.
Taking the clothing to the laundry, Merlin goes to Gwen, who takes one look at his face and draws him into Morgana's chambers, eyes widening in shock as he tells her, "So. I'm going to need some help with this."
There's no way to avoid the court dinner. Dressing Arthur isn't the unalloyed pleasure it usually is; tonight is too much like the hours before a tournament or a fight, when Arthur's quiet and pensive, or loud and aggressive, or both at once. Merlin watches as Arthur clothes himself in the pride that he wears like his armour, to ward off six years of lying tongues and malicious whispers and all the lies that a castle of bored people can create.
Following Arthur into the main hall, Merlin feels every half-hidden gaze and amused smile like they crawl across on his own skin, speculation and disbelief and malice by turn, and wonders how on earth Arthur could have done this every time a new rumour began and not killed everyone where they stood.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs pleasantly, hand wrapped white-knuckled around his eating knife, hidden by the edge of his plate, "smile and stop looking as if sleeping with me is a nightmare from which you feel you will never awaken. It is not helping."
Merlin draws in a breath and pastes a smile across his face, filling Arthur's cup with a hand that's not quite steady. At least that's normal enough; he's never not been clumsy.
"Why is this bothering you?" Arthur asks later, as the second course is taken away. Merlin's dropped a napkin and spilled the wine twice, and has never been so aware of the eyes on him, on them, on Arthur. "You've never minded what people said of you before."
Startled, Merlin almost drops the jug at the edge Arthur's voice. He thinks of Aidra, who in the end could hardly stand Arthur's presence and ran away with a knight she had never met to escape him, and spares himself some of the contempt he feels for those who caused this.
"This isn't about me," Merlin says, cheeks aching from the smile he doesn't dare relax or lose it to the anger he has no right to express.
Arthur gives him a curious look, then moves his cup toward Merlin when he begins to pour too soon. "Actually, it is."
"No, it's about you, and it's--" There's not a word for this eager malice studying their every move. "Obscene. When can we leave?"
Arthur looks at him in surprise, hand curving around his cup, then leans back, the practiced smile fading into something much more real. "Whenever I choose," he says, as if he just realized there were actual benefits to this entire mess. "After the last course, I'll make my excuses."
Merlin finds himself smiling back, and for a few minutes, he almost forgets they're being watched at all.
"So wouldn't it have been better to have a go with a chambermaid or something for people to see?" Merlin hears himself ask just as he takes Arthur's coat. For a second, he honestly has to wonder if he's become as idiotic as Arthur's always accused him of being.
Arthur, though, only gives him a pained look, as if Merlin suggested Arthur strip naked and sing at the next court dinner while sober. "I think not."
"Because this is so much better?" Hanging up Arthur's coat, he unfastens the tunic, trying to ignore the memory of how soft Arthur's mouth had been, and how he'd felt beneath Merlin's hands, concentrating on the formalities of their respective stations the way he's never really bothered to before.
"I won't lie my private actions open for public discussion," Arthur says, almost as if by rote, like a promise or a long-held resolution that he's lived with so long he's forgotten any other way. "Though I suppose that's come to an end." Arthur eyes Merlin unfavourably, but Merlin only rolls his eyes and strips away Arthur's shirt ruthlessly, ignoring the scowl and the way Arthur rubs his ear.
"I'm never defending you again," Merlin says, tossing Arthur a clean shift and closing the cupboard. "Even if they mention sheep."
Arthur pauses, shift halfway over his head, then jerks it down. "Sheep? Really?"
"That would be spreading rumours," Merlin answers snottily and stares at the chair expectantly until Arthur sits down. Kneeling, Merlin reaches for the laces of his trousers and suddenly remembers how much he'd wanted to do this last night, before the stupid, stupid syrup screwed it all up.
Arthur hasn't so much as looked at him in a way that conveys he's thought of it at all, though Merlin can see the imprint of his teeth on Arthur's throat and the thin, fading red lines from Merlin's nails on his shoulders, the back of his neck.
Shaking himself, he veers to where he should have gone in the first place, taking each boot off with unusual care, concentrating on not thinking of anything at all, and he's still clutching the other boot when Arthur reaches down and takes it away, sliding off the chair and cupping Merlin's face. Merlin sees something very like uncertainty in Arthur's eyes before he leans forward, and Merlin, feeling less idiotic by the second, meets him halfway.
It's awkward and fantastic at the same time, and Merlin wonders vaguely which one of them is trembling and finds he doesn't really care. Tilting his head, Merlin fits their mouths together better, and Arthur sighs and leans into him, easy and surprisingly careful, as if he's afraid Merlin will run away, like maybe that he might run away himself.
Arthur's cautious, which Merlin hadn't expected at all, edged with curiosity, the way he is in the tourney ring or on the practice field, testing an opponent's skill, when he practices a new skill, focused and intent. Merlin can't remember a time in his life when something as simple as a kiss seemed so huge, all-encompassing like there's nothing else in the world but his mouth and Arthur's, and the thousand ways they fit together.
And it doesn't go anywhere, no scrabbling for clothing to remove, finding more comfortable positions, just Arthur eventually straddling his lap, fingers stroking through his hair and exploring Merlin's mouth like an undiscovered country. Merlin hasn't done anything this chaste in longer than he can remember: maybe ever.
After an endless period of time that Merlin forgets there's anything else in the world, Arthur pulls away, gold-tipped lashes fanning dark against flushed skin, mouth vivid red and swollen. Merlin can't help licking the seam of his lips, press a kiss against the corner of Arthur's mouth. "Arthur," he murmurs, voice scratchy, and Arthur's eyes snap open, dazed. "Do you want--"
Arthur licks his lips distractedly, looking at Merlin, almost startled before he pulls away, sliding to the rug before catching himself on one arm and pushing himself to his feet. Before he turns his back, Merlin sees him touch his mouth, thumb pressing briefly to where Merlin had last set his lips.
"We should get some sleep," Arthur says huskily, and Merlin fists his hands to stop himself from reaching down, palm his cock at the sound of Arthur's voice. "Have a good night."
Merlin looks at Arthur incredulously, warmth dissipating. "I have to sleep on the floor?"
He can't see anything but Arthur's back as he rifles pointlessly through the cupboard. "Of course. You can't sleep with me."
"Why not? Isn't that the entire point?" Crossing his arms, Merlin's scowl falters as Arthur steps out of his breeches, and disappears completely at the sight of long, bare thighs.
Arthur turns around with his most irritatingly condescending expression that begins to evaporate as Merlin gets deliberately to his feet, pulling off his own tunic and tossing it carelessly toward the foot of the bed. "Merlin--"
Merlin toes off a boot, holding Arthur's slowly widening eyes. "I am not. Sleeping. On the floor," Merlin says, getting his second boot off by dint of sheer will. Or possibly, magic. "I am sleeping in your bed, and if that bothers you, you sleep on the floor." Dropping his trousers, Merlin steps out of them and defiantly crawls up from the foot, jerking back the covers and burrowing inside, still hard and with the horrible knowledge that he's going to most likely stay that way for the rest of the night from how Arthur's acting, the bloody cocktease.
"I'm not sleeping on the floor!"
"And I wouldn't take up with anyone who made me sleep on the floor!" Merlin shouts through his pillow, trying to will down both his erection and the wild and crazy impulse to get out of bed, drag Arthur onto it, and make every lie he's told today true. Maybe all of them tonight. It's a long list, and Merlin's had two years to imagine it. "So stop arguing!"
"Fine!" There's irritating muttering, but Merlin ignores it, sinking into the mattress with the weight of the bedclothes a pleasant warmth surrounding him. Not as good as Arthur would feel, but it looks like that's out of the question.
Poking his head up as the bed shifts, Merlin stares resentfully at Arthur's back and reminds himself Arthur's an utter ass. "What was that? On the floor?"
"Verisimilitude," Arthur answers without hesitation. Lying back stiffly, Arthur stares at the draperies above them with a grim expression. "Though I didn't expect to need to do this."
"What, do you throw everyone out when you're done with them?" Merlin says incredulously. "I'm surprised you can get anyone at all."
Arthur's eyes narrow. "I can push you off onto the floor," he answers tightly. "So shut up and go to sleep!"
With Arthur imitating a corpse two feet over, Merlin's not sure how he's supposed to do that, but eventually, Arthur pulls up the bedclothes and rolls onto his side, and Merlin has a feeling the bed's just been demarcated, as clearly as if Arthur had put his sword between them, as obviously as if Arthur told him, "Do not come closer or I will stab you. And enjoy it."
Despite the wonders of sharing Arthur's truly amazing bed, it's a long time before Merlin finally finds sleep.
Merlin's internal time sense has been set to dawn since the earliest childhood, and he wakes just as pale grey light breaks across the sky outside the window. Merlin stretches luxuriously, rolling drowsily onto his side, and comes face to face with Arthur, less than a full foot away and utterly breathtaking.
Abruptly, Merlin's body reminds him of exactly what it missed last night.
Pushing himself up on his elbows, Merlin thinks of all the reasons this is a bad idea, then ignores them all, cupping Arthur's cheek and kissing the soft, slack mouth, easing Arthur onto his back just as he starts to respond.
"Merlin?" he says, bemused, and Merlin captures his lips again, licking the words off his tongue and breathing in the warm, sleepy scent of him, cradling his face between his hands. Sliding a leg over Arthur's thighs, Merlin deepens the kiss, nipping gently at his lower lip before mouthing down his chin, pressing his lips against the soft, smooth skin just beneath his ear, sucking gently until he feels Arthur shiver, then increasing the pressure. He can feel Arthur's hips shift, move, cock hard and sliding against his thigh through the thin cloth between them as Arthur's fingers tighten in his hair. With a final nip, Merlin pulls away, lifting his head to look into drowsy blue eyes, running his tongue over his lower lip.
"Verisimilitude," Merlin whispers, staring at Arthur's mouth, then gets out of bed, not daring to look back or there's no way he'll leave. "I'll get your breakfast, sire," he adds, pleased with how easily the words come as he dresses, taking none of the care he usually does when leaving someone's chambers in the morning, leaving his laces unfastened and messy, like someone who was just dragged from a highly pleasant time in bed for duty only.
He looks back only once, as he goes out the door, and Arthur still hasn't moved. He wonders if that means he won, and then wonders why he'd wanted to.
Gwen catches him just after the midday meal at rare loose ends; Arthur hadn't given him any orders this morning, and his usual duties are nearly complete. And a wonderful morning it had been, too, with Arthur unable to hide how badly he wanted Merlin out of his sight, flinching with narrowed eyes and the promise of violence at his least approach.
Merlin's used to Arthur's flashes of temper like dry twigs set alight, brilliant and brief; the other is far more rare, a slow, implacable burn like the heart of a bonfire or a funeral pyre, his inheritance from the father whose eyes reflected it at every mention of sorcery. Merlin had seen it in when Melisande's name was spoken, with one of Uther's former councillors, once, and this morning felt it touch himself, the first taste of a world where he was someone Arthur Pendragon hated.
And the worst part is, he can't be sure why, or how it can be fixed. Merlin had expected to return to a temperamental Arthur, angry that Merlin had played the tease, not one that measured him with eyes that judged him one step from an enemy.
Wandering through the mucked stables and staring at Arthur's perfectly groomed horses is a lot less interesting than he'd thought, and he hadn't thought much of their entertainment value before.
"It's all over the castle," she says, making herself comfortable on a bale of hay after Merlin checks to make sure the grooms and stableboys are well out of the way. "Bettina and Elian are placing bets--"
"They bet on everything," Merlin says glumly. "Find out anything about who is doing this?"
Gwen purses her lips. "There are ten chambermaids that are responsible for the guest chambers," she starts, looking grim. "Even narrowing it down to the ones that have direct access to Lord Antes, he's not above a tumble with a servant, and never the same one twice."
"God," Merlin says, burying his face in his hands. Did the man have no shame? "Give me something, anything. Someone here is spreading this deliberately and with some kind of--of reputation for veracity or it wouldn't be so--"
"Prevalent? I know." Gwen twists her skirt uncomfortably. "The thing is--"
"I mean, the castle is full of women--and men for that matter--and Arthur's discreet, but surely someone has talked about what it's like to bed the crown prince!" Merlin says irritably. "I mean, is he killing them after he's done with them or--"
"The thing is," Gwen says, raising her voice slightly, "that no one has."
Merlin blinks. "What?"
"I've lived in Camelot all my life," Gwen answers slowly. "And I've served Morgana for half of it. There's never been anything. Not even Evan, and he still claims the king got him with child. There's no one."
"That's impossible. No one is that discreet." Merlin falters at Gwen's slow nod. "No one can be that--" Merlin pauses, turning it over in his head, something impossible trying to press to the surface. "He only beds visiting noblewomen? Or serf girls when he is on patrol--" and stops there, because that doesn't even make sense.
"Merlin," Gwen says doggedly. "No one. No one in memory. Even Lady Melisande--no one knows about that. It's as if he--" Gwen hesitates, looking at him desperately, waiting for him to say what both of them are completely not thinking. "He's killing them after, yes. I'll look into that."
Merlin stares at her, mouth dry. "You do that," he manages, and Gwen nods enthusiastically, picking up her basket and slipping out the door. Merlin stays where he is, not sure if his legs will hold him if he tries anything complicated like standing.
For lack of anything else to do, Merlin goes to watch drills and is almost immediately co-opted by the other squires with a kind of desperate gratitude that makes Merlin wish he'd followed his first impulse and hidden in his room. Letting them herd him toward the training field, Merlin tries to pretend that this is any day that he comes out here to watch the knights and be on hand in case Arthur gets bored and has a pressing need to give Merlin insane orders to amuse himself.
When they come to a stop, abruptly gathering behind him like he's a castle wall, Merlin sees exactly why boys who will one day be knighted are under the impression they might not make it to knighthood.
Arthur hadn't bothered with anything so sensible a helmet, face sweat-slicked and flushed, a force of pure, methodical destruction, sword almost a blur as he fights two obviously terrified knights who probably hadn't thought that today would be the day they would die. Frozen, Merlin watches his attention skim between them, keeping them both easily at bay, and doesn't wonder why the men who have faced him in combat fear him.
It's as inevitable as watching the rise of river during a storm, as fast as the floods that wipe away villages in the blink of an eye, watching the first knight stumble, hesitate, and fall, spread full length on the ground as Arthur brings his sword around in a blur that stops a breath from the throat of the other one.
Merlin swallows, feeling dizzy. "How long?"
"Since mid-morning," one of the squires whispers. From the look of the men scattered around the field like forgotten chess pieces, Merlin would say that practice is going to end early today.
God, practice had better end early today; Merlin doesn't see anyone else left standing.
"Sire," someone says, voice rippling across the field, and Merlin wonders for a moment who was mad enough to interrupt living, breathing chaos. Arthur's head jerks up, and even from the edge of the field, Merlin can see his pupils are blown wide, ringed in the dark blue of a rising storm.
Then Merlin realizes he'd been the one who had spoken.
On not entirely steady legs, Merlin makes himself cross the wet, muddy ground between them, knowing there was no one not watching every second of this. Somehow, the length doubles, then trebles, and Merlin feels like perhaps he'll never get there at all, until Arthur's just there, sword still unsheathed, like anyone who wants to survive the day is going to face him after this.
"Do you require orders for every second of your day or can you think for yourself?" Arthur says flatly, breathing hard. Merlin stares at him, unable to find a single thing to say. "Merlin. I asked you a question."
Merlin swallows and looks for something, anything, but he can't quite think past how Arthur looks right now, and how he looked when Merlin left him this morning, and finally manages, "I need to speak with you, sire."
Arthur opens his mouth, probably to protest he's busy and then seems to realize that in fact, he isn't busy at all, unless he plans to start on the squires, and even Arthur wouldn't--usually--do that. With a narrow look, he shoves the sword back in its sheathe and grudging offers a hand to the knight who hasn't yet dared to so much as shift his position.
Somehow, Merlin isn't entirely surprised to see Agravaine, who hesitates before gingerly letting Arthur pull him to his feet.
"Morgana could do better," Arthur says contemptuously, voice like a cracking whip. Turning away, he strides toward the edge of the field, and Merlin belatedly struggles to keep up, wondering where they're going, then realizes exactly where they're going to go. As soon as they're out of sight of the field, Merlin reaches for Arthur, ignoring his scowl as he pulls him toward the stables.
"Merlin, what are you--"
"Shut up," Merlin manages, and pushes him into the empty stall he'd cleaned out this morning while thinking of Arthur, warm and willing beneath his hands, and slides his tongue into Arthur's mouth before he can say another stupid word.
Arthur braces both hands on his shoulders, and perhaps he'd meant to push Merlin away, but Merlin sucks on his lip, biting once, hard, and slides a hand down until he can feel Arthur's cock, hard and almost shockingly hot through the thin cloth of his breeches.
When Merlin pulls back, the look on Arthur's face is confirmation of every single thing Gwen hadn't said and Merlin hadn't thought.
"Arthur," he hears himself say helplessly, and then, "Right. The thing is--" Suddenly clumsy, Merlin twists his fingers in the laces of Arthur's breeches, reaching for the waist with both hands and jerking them down, following them until he's on his knees. "The thing is--"
"What are you--" Arthur's fingers brush against his face, and Merlin turns enough to catch one between his lips sucking slowly and watching Arthur flush, wide-eyed and shocked silent.
Pulling away with a scrape of teeth, Merlin runs his hands up Arthur's thighs and says shakily, "I'm making this true," and leans forward, licking up the length of Arthur's cock before taking him in his mouth.
Arthur doesn't last long at all, but then again, Merlin doesn't either; he's still swallowing when he reaches down, and the brush of his own fingers is all it takes, shuddering, face buried in the warm skin of Arthur's thigh, breathing in the scent of him and mouthing the skin helplessly until Arthur sinks down the wall, still trembling.
Shifting to lean against Arthur's knee, Merlin struggles to catch his breath, still half-hard and aching a little. Looking at Arthur's face, shocked and wondering and destroyed all at once, it hits Merlin all anew; he's never done this before. No one's ever done this for him before. There's never been anyone else that's ever touched him like this.
He's hard again so fast he can barely see. Pulling back, he shoves Arthur's knees, down, crawling into his lap, kissing him frantically and thinking of all the things he wants to do to Arthur, with Arthur. Very distantly, a bucket drops and there's a voice making a terrified apology, but Arthur is sucking on his tongue and Merlin thinks he'll kill anyone who tries to come near them.
Reaching between them, Merlin feels him, hard again, slick from Merlin's mouth, and pulls away for a gasp. "Arthur," he pants, one hand tangled in Arthur's hair and trying to unlace his breeches one-handed, laces knotting rebelliously with every tug. "God, I want to--" Desperate, he pries Arthur's hand free of his hip, pressing it against his cock, and even through the wool, it's impossibly good. "Arthur," he whispers, shuddering, forehead pressed to Arthur's shoulder. "Please--"
For a second, he can feel Arthur hesitate, hand stiff, then abruptly, he's pulling at the laces, growling something that makes Merlin shudder. Mouthing the column of his throat, slick with sweat and a tang of copper that might be blood, Merlin fights the urge to just rub up against Arthur until he comes. It would be good. It would be bloody amazing.
Then Arthur pushes him back, and Merlin hears himself hiss, but Arthur unsheathes his knife, and Merlin watches as Arthur cuts neatly through the laces and pushes his hand inside, curling around him rough and perfect. With a groan, Merlin finds Arthur's mouth, shoving his tongue inside for a breathless second before groaning, "Do us both, come on, please--" shoving his hips forward until Arthur's cock rubs against his and the world goes white and brilliant, like staring at the sun.
After a while, Merlin lifts his head from Arthur's shoulder, feeling shaky and sated and wanting to do it again right now.
When he looks at Arthur, eyes glassy, mouth bruised with stubble burn on the edge of his jaw, he feels fierce satisfaction, almost painfully focused, and Merlin presses their foreheads together, breathing, "You have no idea what I want to do to you."
Arthur's tongue swipes across his lower lip, utterly wrecked. "I--" His voice cracks, and Merlin wants to kiss him again, push him down on the straw and do everything he can think of, show Arthur everything Merlin can do to him and know no one, no one's ever had this before, no one's had him like this (and never will, some part of him murmurs, low and dark and certain, never); an unmarked page never stained by ink, unknown territory that Merlin wants to claim in its entirety.
"I have to--my father," Arthur manages breathlessly, and Merlin wonders for a fascinating moment if he can keep Arthur here despite that, despite a hundred fathers and a thousand councils and any number of useless drills. He thinks he could; Arthur doesn't move, and Merlin lets the moment stretch before sliding off to the side, lazily climbing to his feet, pants loose around his hips as he knots what's left of the laces beneath Arthur's unblinking stare.
As Arthur gets slowly to his feet, Merlin reaches for his breeches, feeling Arthur lean into it and hiding his smile. "I'll help you dress," he says, and holds Arthur's eyes while he slowly laces them back up.
Merlin doesn't see Arthur again until the evening meal; there's no dinner with the court tonight, and Merlin ignores the cook's knowing smirk as he takes the tray, unsurprised to find Arthur restless in his skin, impossibly still everywhere but his eyes, fixed on Merlin as soon as he comes in the room.
"Sire," Merlin says, setting the tray on the table and going back to the door, sliding the lock into place. When he turns around, Arthur's still watching him, all the intense focus that Merlin's only seen him turn on tournaments, on fighting for his life, concentrated on Merlin like nothing else exists or ever will. It's almost drugging, like the feeling of magic when he gets it right and it bends to his will, but so much better, like all the power in the world is beneath his hands and he could do anything with it he wanted, anything at all.
They're only inches apart when Arthur starts to speak, then stops when Merlin reaches for the hem of his tunic, and Merlin presses his lips to the hollow of Arthur's throat, warm and slightly salty, the faint trace of soap from the quick wash Merlin had given him in the stables before sending him away.
He'd thought of Arthur in that meeting all afternoon, seated irreproachably beside his father, and how they would all see the crown prince fresh from drilling his men and never see the places Merlin had touched him, invisible and unmistakable. Pulling back, Merlin eases the tunic up and away, and Arthur sways toward him almost before it's forgotten on the floor behind them, mouth soft and Merlin kisses him, slow and almost lazy, Arthur coiled like a spring when Merlin touches him, running his hands up beneath his shirt and up his back, skin smooth beneath his fingers.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs, breathing fast already, and Merlin curls his fingers over the sharp bones of Arthur's hips, pushing a thigh between his legs and swallowing the startled gasp at the sudden pressure, hands restless on Merlin's skin, unable to settle and unable to stop touching, wanting so badly Merlin can taste it with every kiss, rough and inexpert and greedy for more. Merlin keeps it slow, easy, sucking on Arthur's tongue as he eases Arthur's breeches down, spreading his hand low on his flat, muscled belly, sliding over his side and up his chest beneath his shirt, flicking a nipple with one fingernail and feeling Arthur shudder all over, hand tightening in Merlin's hair.
"I've been thinking about this all day," Merlin breathes against the shell of Arthur's ear, licking gently along the curve before pressing his tongue in. Against his thigh, Arthur's hips are moving helplessly, as if he can't stop himself, and Merlin doesn't want it to occur to him to even try. Pulling off the linen shirt, Merlin kisses the centre of his chest and placing his hands on Arthur's shoulders, urges him down on his knees.
For a second, Arthur resists, but Merlin smiles at him, looking at his mouth for a long moment, then presses down again, and this time, Arthur goes, eyes wide and dark, hands dragging down Merlin's body like he can't let go.
"Stay there," Merlin says roughly, swallowing as he pulls of his own tunic and shirt, unlacing the top of his trousers as Arthur watches. Arthur's attention has weight, pressure, and right now, utter desperation, and Merlin likes to see him like this, stripped bare and open.
He likes it even better when Arthur's touching him again, better when he can taste it in Arthur's mouth, feel it in every shiver and groan and half-spoken sentences gasped against his skin, "Merlin, I want--" and Merlin whispering, "You can have anything you want."
Merlin strips him on the floor and stretches him out in front of the fire where Arthur had left him the night before, greedy to see everything, golden skin and muscled body and utterly, impossibly beautiful, faint scars in relief that Merlin learns one by one with his tongue. "God, you're perfect," Merlin murmurs, sucking a bruise into his hip, hand wrapped around Arthur's cock and making it slow, making it last until Arthur says "Merlin" and "Please" and "Anything" like a promise, and Merlin kisses him through it until he goes limp and boneless and kissing him again until he shudders, needing more.
Merlin rubs his cock slowly against Arthur's belly, gasping against Arthur's neck until Arthur's hard again and almost vicious, tangling their fingers together around both their cocks and showing Arthur how he likes it, how he wants it, excruciatingly slow, Arthur's come slicking them both until Merlin can't stand it another second and buries his mouth in Arthur's neck, coming with Arthur groaning wildly in his ear and Arthur's fingernails scratching down his back.
Eventually, Merlin gets them both to the bed and they do it all over again.
Arthur's already awake when Merlin emerges from sleep, aching and warm and impossibly comfortable, unable to summon even vague worry at the way Arthur lies beside him, careful inches away, somewhere between guarded and where Merlin took him last night.
Merlin checks the window drowsily, then rolls over, hooking a knee over Arthur's thighs and burying his head against his shoulder, muttering, "Not dawn," and pressing a sleepy kiss against the skin beneath his cheek. "Go back to sleep." Eyes closed, he clings to the edge of awareness until Arthur softens by degrees, arm draping around his shoulders and pulling Merlin closer, and Merlin settles in, content.
The day passes in a faint, dreamy haze, and Merlin finishes his duties without any clear memory of doing them, remembering Arthur stretched beneath him when they finally woke, sucking Arthur off slowly, luxuriating in the feel and taste of him and how badly Arthur wanted it, wanted Merlin, thighs trembling beneath Merlin's palms, and Arthur licking his own taste from Merlin's mouth with his hand wrapped around Merlin's cock.
Merlin dressed him just as slowly, linen that covered the red crescents from Merlin's fingernails in his back, wool over long thighs marked with the shape of Merlin's teeth, and the tunic that edged the dark smudges at his collar. Nothing could hide the vivid purple on his throat, but Merlin didn't mind, licking slowly over the bruised skin so Arthur remembers where it is and who put it there before letting him go.
"Merlin," someone says--Gwen, Merlin realizes belatedly, surfacing from his thoughts and realizing that Arthur's sword can't possibly get sharper. Setting it carefully aside, he wonders how long she's been standing there, saying his name. From the look on her face, quite a while.
"Sorry," Merlin says, and he almost is, really. "I was distracted."
Gwen's expression doesn't change, eyes sharpening. "Lady Morgana wishes to see you."
Merlin gets to his feet, making himself concentrate on putting everything away before following her to Morgana's chambers. Gwen keeps shooting him sidelong glances, but he never catches her at it as she carries on a one-sided conversation that Merlin can't even try to follow, nodding when there's a pause and trying not to do something embarrassing like fall down the stairs or over his own feet.
Morgana's expression when she sees him shifts to match Gwen's, and Merlin could get heartily tired of that if he could bring himself to care. "My lady?" he says, trying to leash his own impatience. It will be hours until Arthur's back from patrol, and there's a court dinner tonight to get through, and--
"Merlin, have you heard anything I've said?" Morgana says sharply, and Merlin blinks, jerking his attention to the dawning suspicion on Morgana's face. "You aren't--you didn't…."
Before Merlin can work out what she's asking (care what she's asking), Morgana gives Gwen a sharp look and Gwen goes to the door, locking it. Abruptly, Merlin's the focus of two pair of suspicious female eyes.
"It's not--true, is it?" Morgana says slowly, and while it's a question, he thinks she knows the answer. "Merlin. I thought--you told Gwen--"
Merlin averts his eyes. "I don't know what you are talking about,"
"Oh my God," Morgana says faintly, sitting back in her chair as if Merlin had just told her that Uther had decided to enter a monastery. "What--"
"I don't want to talk about this," Merlin says, meeting her eyes. "What do you need, my lady?"
Morgana opens her mouth, then sets her lips together in a tight line, looking away briefly, and Merlin wonders if he imagined the flash of jealousy, or if he's merely projecting. Going to the chair she indicates, he waits for Gwen to sit as well, mending in her hands and looking between them, quiet and watchful.
"Gwen thinks we may have the person who is spreading tales," Morgana says after a moment, hands clasped. Merlin looks at Gwen, who nods. "Two, actually. One has been in service of Camelot since before Arthur was born. The other is rather new. It could be either, or both, but they seem to be the source."
Startled, Merlin realizes he had forgotten all about Melisande, and the sudden anger that accompanies the thought startles him even more. "I'll talk to them--" Merlin starts, but Morgana, alarmed, shakes her head quickly.
"No," she says, "Gwen will."
Merlin frowns. "Why?"
"Because this will take subtlety, tact, and the ability not to barge in like this is a tourney field. Gwen will handle it."
"If I wanted to kill them from fright, I'd just throw them to Arthur," she says with a frown. "Though God knows the way he's acting today, I'm not sure he'd hear three words together…" She drifts off, looking at Merlin for a second, then flushes again. "Right. You may go."
Merlin, feeling himself start to blush as well, gets up with a quick bow, trying not to stumble, going back out into the hall with a faint sense that once the door is closed, the subject of the conversation behind him will not, in fact, be about traitorous chambermaids.
Merlin has a bath prepared and waiting by the time Arthur rides back into Camelot; usually, there's a delay between arrival and when Arthur shows up, spent joking with his men or speaking to a groom about his horse, or possibly reporting to his father if anything unusual occurs. Merlin will guess, though, that nothing less than an actual war in progress will be thought to merit a personal report today, and one minute exactly after watching him dismount, the door opens.
Straightening, he watches Arthur close the door, locking it behind him almost absently (something that in memory Arthur has never bothered with; Arthur's privacy is sacrosanct, unspoken but crystal clear). Merlin pushes Arthur up against the door, gloved fingers curling in Merlin's hair and Arthur catches his mouth in a searing kiss, lips cold and a little chapped, mouth incredibly hot in comparison.
"How was patrol?" Merlin asks breathlessly.
In his head, Merlin has his timetable; two hours until the feast, so twenty minutes to bathe, ten to dress him, that leaves them almost no time at all and Arthur's still dressed, but Merlin does his best to fix that immediately, unbuckling his belt and throwing it to the side, sliding his hand down Arthur's breeches and feeling him hot against his hand, hips pushing eagerly into his touch. Merlin revises his plan accordingly, unlacing and pushing them away, dropping to his knees, Arthur gasping as Merlin wraps a hand around him, stroking curiously to see what kind of sounds Arthur will make for him.
Merlin remembers how this felt with Will, overwhelming and frightening and desperately eager, the first week that went by in a blur where he couldn't think of anything else. He'd done laundry for his mother and ended up sitting in the river with clothing winding their way downstream without any clear idea of how it had happened, chores he'd forget entirely between their start and his mother swatting the back of his head, indulgent and amused.
Soft leather brushes his cheek, tentative and hopeful, and Merlin licks the head for a few cruel seconds before being merciful and opening his mouth, sliding slowly down the length, knowing Arthur watching by the small, choked sounds until his lips press against rough, springy hair and the warm skin at the base of his cock and Arthur's shuddering like he's about to fall apart. Pulling back, he kisses the head, wet and ripe, pressing his tongue against the slit and Arthur makes some sound half between a groan and a whimper.
Curving his hands over Arthur's bare hips, Merlin pins them against the wood, and Arthur stills with an enormous effort Merlin can feel in the tension in his thighs. Rewarding him for good behaviour, Merlin pulls back, licking the length until only the head is still in his mouth, then back down, cupping the warm, fragile weight of Arthur's balls in his hand, heavy and soft, tightening in his palm. Breathing through his nose, Merlin keeps it slow and careful, wrapping his free hand around the base when Arthur shudders with a gasped, "Please," and shifts his hand farther back, scratching his nails gently against the warm skin just behind Arthur's balls and tightening his hand at the surge of Arthur's body.
"Christ, Merlin," Arthur breathes thickly, and Merlin pulls back, looking up at Arthur, entranced by how he looks, utterly incredible and completely focused.
"Spread your legs," Merlin says, not recognizing his own voice, and licks his own fingers while Arthur watches him before sucking him back in. Distantly, there's the sound of something hitting the door that might be Arthur's head, panting wildly as Merlin reaches between Arthur's legs, pressing wet fingertips against him.
"Merlin," and Merlin shivers at the way Arthur's voice breaks, breaching him with a fingertip and swallowing around him, letting go of his cock to brace a hand on his hip and Arthur comes with a breathless sound, shaking all over. Merlin sucks him through it, swallowing until he's done, then holds him in his mouth until Arthur whimpers.
Sitting back, Merlin wipes his lips and gets to his feet, kissing Arthur through the shuddering aftershocks, holding him up against the door, Arthur wrapping an arm around his waist, gloved hand pressed to the base of his spine. A while, Arthur shivers and pulls away, eyes glazed and satisfied. "Do you want," he starts, thigh moving against Merlin, and he does want, just looking at Arthur makes him want, but Merlin shakes his head, kissing Arthur again and reaching for his tunic.
"Later," he breathes, licking Arthur's bitten lips. "Your bath's ready."
"Did anything unusual happen during patrol?" the king asks Arthur, an edge of disappointment in his voice that his son hadn't reported to him when he arrived. Arthur turns his head lazily, oblivious to tone, and Merlin, pouring Arthur's wine, is beginning to think Morgana's assessment of Arthur's attention span today is more accurate than he'd thought.
"Some bears, sire," Arthur answers briefly, eyes fixing on Merlin as he fills the goblet. "Nothing terribly interesting."
"I see." It's the fourth attempt at conversation, and the king gives up, turning his attention to more attentive dinner companions. Arthur's a relaxed, nearly boneless presence in his chair, responding with the automatic, practiced courtesy that he almost never bothers to use, rather like Merlin had thought princes were supposed to be when his experience with them had been solely via ballad and tale and well before he met the real thing.
Morgana, on the other hand, is thoroughly unnerved, losing her own threads of conversation every time she looks at Arthur, and Merlin fights down a smile every time her sharp, dark eyes fix on him. Standing patiently beside Gwen, Merlin shifts enough to stay in Arthur's line of sight; the one time he'd gone out of it, Arthur had roused himself enough to start looking without any care at all how it appeared to anyone watching.
The only thing that even vaguely captures his attention is food; to that, he devotes the entirety of his energies. Merlin lets his eyes skim the room and sees Lord Antes, smile stretched across his face and going nowhere near his eyes. Negotiations aren't going well at all, and apparently, neither are the latest attempts to slander Arthur.
When Arthur absently replies to a barbed comment--and until today, Arthur's never bothered to hide his loathing--the smile fixes further, and Arthur loses interest halfway through the stilted conversation, finishing his wine and staring at Merlin until Merlin unlocks his knees and approaches the table.
Christ, Merlin thinks, pouring a fresh goblet unsteadily. Arthur's fingers slide as if by accident against the side of his hand and of all the things to make him catch his breath….
Dinner ends eventually, with Arthur surprised when the dishes are gathered up and taken away. Morgana catches him as he starts to stand, already looking toward the door, and Merlin watches uneasily as she smiles, trying to draw him into conversation with a few of the knights, all of whom hideously aware that Arthur probably has no idea what any of them are saying and cares even less.
On one level, Merlin understands that Arthur really can't go about like this forever, but--
Merlin nearly drops the jug, wondering how on earth Agravaine had gotten so close and he hadn't noticed. Drawing back a step, Merlin puts the jug between them, almost feeling the second Arthur's attention fixes on them. "My lord," Merlin says warily.
"Merlin, there's no need of that between us," Agravaine says, brows drawn together, taking a step toward him. Merlin looks frantically for Gwen and edges down the wall. "I wanted to speak to you."
"I'm on duty, my lord," Merlin says, and gets another step away, dodging behind a serving girl with a stack of plates. On the other side of the room, Arthur's turned away from Morgana completely, despite the hand his arm, and Merlin thinks that perhaps, this would be an excellent time to remember how to be clumsy.
The next girl that passes, Merlin stumbles against her and drops the jug with malice aforethought. He doesn't even pretend that the splash that soaks Agravaine's polished boots isn't incredibly, incredibly funny.
"You're lucky he didn't challenge you," Arthur observes as Gwen patiently finishes cleaning and bandaging the rather minor cut from a piece of flying pottery. Merlin scowls at him. "He just commissioned those boots. His squire will be hours working over them."
Sliding off Gaius' table, Merlin helps Gwen clean up. Gaius had tried to talk to Arthur three times, and after Arthur had absently agreed to a trade order that included a box of unicorn horns, Gaius realized what everyone else already knew and left him mercifully alone.
"Finished?" Arthur asks, with the faintest trace of impatience, and Merlin thanks Gwen, who rolls her eyes completely unnecessarily, and nods to Gaius, who looks his pleasure that he'll be left in peace. Following Arthur into the hall, Merlin winces at the slight pull of the bandage, and Arthur's expression changes.
"Was he bothering you?"
Merlin almost stumbles, surprised by the edge in Arthur's voice. "Yes. No."
Arthur frowns. "Which one?"
"I'm really not sure," Merlin admits as they cross the courtyard toward the stairs. "I would think our last meeting was discouraging enough."
Arthur snorts, not saying anything else until they reach his chambers. Merlin locks the door behind them, wondering what Arthur's thinking.
"He won't, again," Arthur says abruptly, draping his coat over a chair so carelessly it falls on the floor. Merlin hesitates, then picks it up and takes it to the cupboard, trying to form the response he should, not the one he wants to make. Turning around, Arthur's removing his knives, one by one.
"What did you do?"
Arthur shrugs, watchful. "Does it matter?"
Merlin reaches for his belt, buckle loosening in his hands, and nips Arthur's lower lip. "Not at all."
The next day is a little better; Merlin's duties require actual attendance on Arthur in more than theory, and drilling is always interesting when he's not the one Arthur's instructing. Seated a safe distance away, Merlin watches the almost formal movements as Arthur puts his knights through their paces.
"I have no idea why you find this so interesting," Gwen says, seated beside him. Morgana and some of the other ladies of the castle had just returned from riding, and the knights are preening under all the feminine attention and occasionally making asses of themselves.
"I don't know," Merlin says vaguely, watching Arthur, quick and deliberate, energy barely leashed, blond hair bright in the sun.
"I see," Gwen says patiently.
Merlin flushes, trying not to smile ridiculously. "Is it that obvious?"
"Yes and no. You've been like this almost since you came here. Admittedly," and Gwen looks at Arthur as he starts again, letting them both enjoy the show, "he's something to see."
Seeing at her sudden flush, Merlin fights the urge to comment. "Did you talk to them? The ones spreading these rumours?"
Gwen nods, hands curled in her lap. "They'll stop."
That's not enough, though; Antes will find someone else, and it will start all over again, the whole sordid mess. "Are they leaving?" Merlin asks impatiently, ignoring Gwen's frown. "They can't stay here. Not if they're betraying him."
"Merlin, it's gossip. It doesn't--they weren't doing anything that most of the court doesn't do when they hear something interesting."
"They knew it was a lie."
"Merlin," Gwen says slowly, "most of it is a lie. Everyone knows that. It's--it's harmless, for the most part."
"You call this harmless?" Merlin wants to shake her. "It's not harmless, not for him. It was meant to humiliate him in front of everyone, in front of other kings of Albion--"
"They didn't know that!" Gwen retorts, flushing with anger. "Now stop acting like this. They aren't leaving--"
"Tell me who they are."
Gwen gives him an incredulous look. "Do I look mad? No, not the way you're carrying on. Leave them be."
"I'll tell Arthur."
Gwen rolls her eyes, gathering her skirts around her. "He won't do anything, any more than Morgana would. It's beneath their notice, this sort of thing. To acknowledge rumour is to give it power--"
"It has power!" Merlin answers hotly, and realizing they're drawing attention to themselves. Gwen stands up, giving him a stiff nod, and there's no way to stop her and not make a public idiot of himself. Turning back to the field, Merlin hopes Arthur was too involved in acts of wholesale destruction to notice, and turns his full attention back to watching Arthur.
"What were you and Gwen arguing about?" Arthur asks as Merlin takes his hauberk, checking it carefully to see just how much cleaning will be required.
Merlin almost sighs. "I didn't think you'd notice."
"It was rather obvious," Arthur says, studying the practice blade with a frown and running a thumb along the edge. "And it's the talk of the castle."
Merlin almost drops the armour. "What?"
"It isn't," Arthur assures him with a grin, apparently satisfied with the sword and putting it away. "But I still want to know."
"You've never been interested before," Merlin mutters, flushing when Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Well, you weren't!"
"I am now. Tell me."
Putting the hauberk aside with a mental note to oil it later, Merlin looks around the armoury; it's odd, how aware he is of people now, the way he never was before. There's no one around, and both doors are closed, which Merlin supposes is as close to private as they'll get outside of Arthur's chambers. "I was just wondering--if you found out who was responsible for the rumours, spreading them about, what would you do?"
Arthur looks uncharacteristically thoughtful, leaning an elbow against the table, gloved hand against his cheek. "This isn't rhetorical."
"Pretend that it is."
"All right. If I found out, I wouldn't do anything at all."
"Acknowledging such things," Arthur starts, sounding eerily like Gwen, "gives them a veracity they didn't have before. It makes them more believable, and therefore that much harder to stop."
Merlin frowns at him. "Because they've been so harmless up to now."
"People talk," Arthur says with a sigh. "I don't like it, but I don't like rain when I want to hunt, either."
"But you can stop the rumours. Or at least, get rid of the ones who started it." And technically, Merlin could stop the rain if Arthur really wanted him to. If Arthur knew he could do it. Which is an entirely different subject altogether, and not one Merlin wants to think about at all at the moment.
"And where would they go?" Arthur answers, and now, he just sounds tired. "I could hunt them down and dismiss them, throw them out of the castle and leave them to their own devices. And they will carry that with them the rest of their lives, that they were found unacceptable to the crown prince of Camelot. They'd never find work anywhere in the kingdom, and I don't rate their chances good managing on their own to go anywhere else, without references, and far from everything they know. It would destroy them, and very well might kill them. That's not a fair trade for mindless gossip."
Merlin sets his teeth together over his counter; why the hell should Arthur care what happens to them? They betrayed him, and they will continue, and as long as they do without repercussions, everyone else will continue to do as they've always done, and the whole mess will start all over again.
He doesn't say it, though; Arthur's smile isn't quite as bright, the warm happiness of the morning dimmed, and Merlin hadn't wanted that.
"It was mostly rhetorical," Merlin lies easily, going to Arthur and unnecessarily straightening his tunic. "I was--trying to find out who in the castle was doing it, that's all." Arthur turns into his hands reflexively, and Merlin lets his fingers brush against the sweaty skin of his throat, just above the new mark of his teeth, watching Arthur's eyes darken. "I can be vindictive, you know."
"Really?" Arthur says, surprised, and Merlin grins at him, pressing their foreheads together just to breathe him in and wondering how he ever lived without this, brushing a teasing kiss against Arthur's mouth before retreating with a quick bow.
"I should fetch your midday meal, sire," he says, wanting to see him flush. "That is, if you're hungry."
Arthur's eyes are fixed on his mouth. "Yes," he says huskily. "I think I am."
Luckily, there's another council meeting mid-afternoon that Arthur is required to attend, leaving them hours longer than they'd have if he went on patrol. Merlin has no motivation at all to let Arthur out of bed, and Arthur shows even less interest in leaving.
Stretching on the mess they've made of the linen and wool of the bedclothes, Merlin arches into the feel of Arthur's mouth on his throat, slowly mapping his skin with teasing licks and long, luxurious kisses that make Merlin shudder, pressing their hips together for the rippling pleasure of drawing it out as long as he can. Arthur's hands on his hips tighten, like he wants to leave his fingerprints behind on Merlin's skin, and Merlin thinks he wouldn't mind that at all, stroking his hands through Arthur's hair, liking the way Arthur presses into every touch like he's starved for it, like even everything will never be enough.
"Keep doing that," Merlin murmurs; Arthur's unbelievably responsive to Merlin's voice, and Merlin's found it almost impossible not to talk, though it's never something he'd really done before. It had always seemed a little silly, but he loves hearing Arthur's voice, broken and raw and needy, wanted to hear him ask for what he wanted, beg for what he needed, what he didn't have words to ask for and Merlin has to teach him how to say. Arthur would fall apart completely when Merlin told him, "I'm going to suck you until you can't remember your name" and "Put your hands above your head and don't move," and "Don't come yet. Not until I say you can."
Merlin sucks in a breath as Arthur sucks a slow kiss into his shoulder, teeth sinking into Merlin's skin, and Merlin says, "Yes, that," tightening his fingers in Arthur's hair, cock hard and leaking between them. "God, your mouth," Merlin says breathlessly, rutting against Arthur's stomach, teasing himself, "I want to feel it everywhere, I want to feel it around my cock, and I want to watch you suck me, and I want to come in your mouth," and Arthur pulls back with a final bite and looks at him, eyes dilated black and glazed over with lust.
Merlin cups his face, kissing him, filthy and messy with no skill at all, pulling back only when he has to breathe. "Please," he murmurs, feeling Arthur tremble, just a little, the way he does each time he tries something new. "You'll like it. And I will, too."
Licking swollen lips, Arthur nods, ducking his head to press a kiss to the centre of Merlin's chest, and Merlin lazily spreads his legs, cradling Arthur between them as he kisses slowly down Merlin's body until he wraps a hand around Merlin's cock and tentatively licks the head.
Merlin looks at the blond head bent over his cock and wonders dazedly if its the feel of Arthur's mouth, uncertain but growing more sure, or the sight of him bent over and taking Merlin's cock that makes him shudder. Curling a leg over Arthur's, Merlin holds as still as he can, petting Arthur as he opens his mouth, the head sliding over his tongue, and it's unbelievably good. Running his heel down Arthur's calf, Merlin whispers, "God, yes, that's good, Arthur, take more, you can do it," and losing his breath when Arthur does. Stroking shaking fingers over Arthur's cheek, Merlin fights the urge to close his eyes, wanting to see Arthur do this, the first time anyone's ever breached that perfect mouth.
"Keep going," Merlin mutters, tightening his grip in Arthur's hair. "I like that, I love that, I want more, keep doing that," and Arthur spreads one hand on Merlin's hip, bracing himself, and Merlin slides effortlessly into the wet heat of Arthur's mouth until Arthur meets the hand he wrapped around the base of Merlin's cock Drawing his fingers over Arthur's jaw, thumb pressed to the stretched skin at the corner of his mouth, wetting it, Merlin breathes, "Perfect," and shows him the rhythm he likes best.
It won't take long, and this time, Merlin doesn't want it to anyway, wants Arthur to enjoy doing this for him. He watches Arthur learning from him, tells him, "Use your tongue," and "Christ, Arthur, yes," and "That, the head," and unable to stop himself, "I'm going to--don't move, you can take this--Arthur," and he can't keep his eyes open, but the image of Arthur's mouth stretched pink and obscene around his cock is burned into mind, and he comes with a gasp, shuddering through it. Arthur takes it all, as easily as if he'd done this a hundred times before.
Sated, Merlin pulls weakly until Arthur comes back to him, licking into his mouth to find his own taste, reaching between them until he can take Arthur in hand and two strokes has him come hot and slick between their bodies, Arthur groaning helplessly and shuddering in his arms.
Gwen's avoiding him, which Merlin doesn't go out of his way to remedy. He can't help looking at the serving girls and the kitchen girls and the chambermaids now, watching them in huddled groups and giggling behind their hands, wondering which of them were the ones Gwen spoke to, which think so little of their prince that they'd spread malicious rumours for a foreign envoy just because they can.
The servants aren't as friendly anymore, but Merlin can't bring himself to care, and if they quiet suddenly when he passes, he doesn't acknowledge it, or the whispers that follow him as he leaves.
It's not lonely, though, not like it was those first days in Camelot, when he knew no one and everyone disliked him because he'd been given the job of serving the prince. Arthur takes up the entirety of his attention, seeking him out during the day at odd times that increasingly grow more and more frequent, waiting with amused patience in the stables and mocking his skills at mucking stalls, long hunts where Arthur corrects his aim and rolls his eyes when Merlin shoots at a deer and hits a tree.
"That was better than last time," Merlin points out. "I didn't hit anyone else."
Arthur snorts, resetting the crossbow and handing it back. "There is that."
They arrive back to the castle with a page already waiting for Arthur. Handing off his gear to Merlin, Arthur sends him put it away and get him something to eat with a smile that Merlin carries with him all the way to Arthur's chambers.
Gwen's waiting for him, face pale, and Merlin feels the warmth of the day vanish.
"I need to talk to you," she says urgently, and Merlin looks both ways, checking for anyone watching, then nods, letting her into Arthur's chambers and piling everything on the floor.
"The king has completed the negotiations for Lady Melisande," Gwen says. For a second, Merlin thinks, thank God, that man is leaving, then the sense of the words penetrates.
Gwen's hands twist together, the skin of her knuckles yellow-white with strain. "I don't know--I mean, she doesn't entirely--"
"Who told you?" Merlin doesn't recognize his own voice.
"One of the serving girls who served them their wine," Gwen says urgently. "The council--they don't like it, but they don't have any reason other than her rank, and her father's offered his entire estate as her dowry. He has no sons, and this way, the estate passes to the crown instead of a distant cousin. I'm not sure of the specifics--"
"The king summoned Arthur," Merlin whispers, and Gwen bites her lip, eyes closing.
"Maybe he'll refuse," she says hopelessly, and he might, but in the end, Uther will prevail. Arthur loves his father, and he'll obey when the cost is only to himself. Merlin reaches for the wall, dizzy and sick and so angry he can barely see. Arthur will agree, and he'll marry her, and be miserable with a wife who hates him as much as she wants the coronet of a queen. And all she had to do was destroy Arthur's life to get it.
"I can't," Merlin starts, taking a breath, trying to put his thoughts in some kind of order. "Gwen, you know who did this."
"This isn't about gossip now, is it?" Merlin snaps. Gwen's eyes widen. "It's not about gossip, it's about him, it's about his life, the woman he has to marry. What will happen to Morgana, have you thought of that? You don't think she'll find a way to revenge herself on her, too?"
"I know," Gwen whispers. "I do, I just--"
"The ones doing this," Merlin starts, feeling something like the outline of a plan forming in his head. The king will keep Arthur for at least an hour, and if Arthur argues, it might be longer. "I think, if I talk to them, I can--"
"Get them--that empty room near winter storage, the one the traders use, get them there. Make sure they stay." Gwen looks uncertain, but she doesn't refuse. "Gwen. It's Arthur. It's Morgana. If we don't--"
"Right." Straightening, the uncertainty melts away. "Give me half an hour."
"I'll see you there."
Anna has served Camelot all her life; she'd been the one to help Merlin find his way around the castle and tell him when the cooks were distracted so he could raid the pantry when Arthur suddenly decided he wanted a snack. She'd been kind, even when he first came, and Merlin is surprised to realize how little that means to him now.
The other turns out to be a stableboy that Merlin rarely saw and thought of even less. Gwen tells him his name is Evan and then stands in front of the door, ignoring their imploring looks.
"You spread gossip for Lord Antes," Merlin says, looking down at them, unable to temper his voice and not wanting to. He wants them scared; he needs them terrified, willing to do whatever he wants. "This has caused problems for the prince. And I don't believe you didn't know this."
Anna licks her lips nervously. "It was just--"
"I'm not interested in hearing excuses or asking questions I already know the answers to. I am going to tell you what you are going to do and you are going to do it."
Evan, shivering, nods, but Anna isn't quite so easy. "You can't," she says, drawing herself up to her full height. At still a foot shorter than even Gwen, it isn't terribly impressive, even if Merlin had been the mood to be impressed. Pushing back a strand of straw blonde hair, she crosses her arms over her chest. "You don't have any right to order us--"
"I have every right to order you on behalf of the prince," Merlin answers flatly. "It's been two years since I came here, and I do know now what I am and am not permitted to do."
"Just because you share his bed for a bit doesn't mean that you can--that you can do whatever you want," Anna answers, equally flat.
"We could ask His Highness," Gwen says unexpectedly. "We could bring him here, and you both can face him with what you have done, in slandering his name through Camelot. Or you can face us and hear our terms for our silence."
Anna doesn't move, watching them both, colour draining from her face. "My place here would be forfeit," she whispers, voice shaking. "You wouldn't--not to--you're one of us, Merlin. Gwen, you can't--"
"No," Merlin says softly. "We're nothing like you."
Evan grabs Anna's skirt desperately. "We'll do it," he says. "Whatever you want. Just--just tell us what it is. We'll do it."
"You are going to tell the King's chief councillor a story you heard from Lord Antes the last time he had you. It's quite shocking, so make certain you tell it as exactly as I tell you." Gwen is going to hate him for this, but it can't be helped, and in the end, this protects Morgana too. "When he asks how it can be proven, you will tell him that Lady Morgana witnessed it all."
Behind him, Gwen makes a soft sound, but she doesn't contradict him. Taking a deep breath, Merlin says, "Six years ago, the Lady Melisande lost her honour to Prince Arthur in the garden of her father's castle, when she played the wanton to trap him into marriage. That is how you will start."
Merlin is back in Arthur's chambers well before he returns; ordering wine and dinner and a bath, Merlin wonders if maybe Gaius' syrup wouldn't go amiss. Impatient, he checks the fire three times, remakes the bed chasing the shadow of a wrinkle, and breaking his own rules on using magic in Arthur's chamber to find and hunt down every insect that might make its home here.
With nothing else to do, Merlin hunts up an old tunic that Arthur ruined in a fit of temper after a bad day of hunting and begins to cut the seams; the wool will be excellent for cleaning, and at some point, horrifyingly enough, Merlin had realized he has a decided preference on the quality of his tools and become proactive in getting the best of the discarded wool and linen and even the rare and expensive cotton for his duties.
It's almost as if he takes pride in his work, and Merlin sighs to himself, concentrating on the fabric over his knees.
He almost drops his knife when the door opens abruptly, and Arthur comes in, paler than he was this afternoon, eyes downcast as he shuts the door. Leaning back, he doesn't move, and Merlin wonders if he should say something, make a sound, remind Arthur that he's not alone.
"It seems my father has conveyed an offer to Lord Antes," Arthur says slowly. "And if Melisande's father accepts it, the betrothal will be contracted immediately. I will be married by midsummer."
Merlin gets unsteadily to his feet, kicking the tunic and knife away. "Sire--"
"I don't want to think of this," Arthur says flatly. "I do not want to speak of it. It is enough that it--"
"Her father might not accept."
"He'll accept." Arthur starts to remove his coat, stopping half-way through, incredulous. "I can't believe this has happened."
"He's selling me for an estate," Arthur says, jerking off his coat and throwing it on the floor. "To a woman he knows I cannot bear to share a room with, much less a bed, a woman that--"
"Something could change," Merlin says desperately. "Midsummer is months away--"
"I can hope for a terrible fever to wipe through her household, that's comforting, thank you for that bit of brilliance," Arthur snaps, making a mess of the laces of his shirt, and Merlin finally gets him and pushes him into a chair before he strangles himself. Straddling his lap, Merlin patiently unknots them, then traps Arthur's wrists on the arms of the chair. "Or a riding accident," Arthur adds, almost absently, attention shifting. "Someone to poison her food, perhaps."
"I'll have to wait until she gets here for that," Merlin whispers, leaning forward for a kiss, using everything he's ever learned to chain Arthur's attention, and he feels Arthur respond instinctively, mouth opening and welcoming, offering Merlin whatever he wants.
"Would you?" Arthur says in interest, cupping his jaw, and Merlin rolls his eyes and kisses him again.
What Merlin wants is Arthur, naked, and that's the easiest thing to do, working off tunic and shirt while still in the chair, feeling Arthur hard beneath him and pressing down to feel him shudder, Arthur's hands skimming up and down his back, locking around the back of his neck when they kiss. Twining his fingers in the pendant Arthur wears, Merlin slides back to the floor, pulling Arthur to his feet, licking teasingly at his mouth, his jaw, whichever is closer before drawing back, saying, "Take off your clothes for me. All of them."
Arthur doesn't hesitate, and Merlin watches, rubbing the heel of his hand against the front of his trousers as Arthur skins away his breeches, his boots, straightening before Merlin, and just looking at him is enough to steal Merlin's breath and most of his sense. But--
"Get on the bed."
Arthur watches as Merlin undresses, slowly, taking his time to remove his tunic, his shirt, pulling off his boots and trousers, leaving them in a pile behind him before pacing to the bed and kneeling at the foot, the mattress soft beneath his knees.
"Spread your legs." Merlin crawls between them, pressing a kiss to the inside of Arthur's knee, drawing his tongue up the muscled length of his thigh, stopping to suck a slow kiss into the silky skin there, hairless and warm, easing a hand beneath Arthur's knee and lifting it before biting lightly at the soft, warm skin where thigh and groin meet. Ignoring Arthur's cock, red and already wet, Merlin leaves a trail of bites up his belly, soothing each with a lick before moving on. Arthur's trembling, watching him with wide, dilated eyes, reaching for Merlin as soon as he's close enough to touch, and Merlin buries a smile against his throat, ignoring the hands urging him up until Arthur's hips push up against him, almost involuntarily.
Bracing himself on one hand, Merlin thrusts his tongue into Arthur's mouth, taking his time, while his entire body screams at him for not just going for it right the fuck now.
"Arthur," he murmurs, shifting his hips so their cocks slide together and catching his breath, "let me--" He loses his train of thought as Arthur's hands tighten in his hair, pulling him into another kiss, rough and filled with everything Arthur's still learning how to ask for, and they only pull apart when they have to breathe. "Arthur, I want to be inside you," he says, panting out the words between kisses, and Arthur stills, licking his lips.
"You'll love it," Merlin promises, reaching between them and stroking them together, thumb rubbing along the head. "You will love it, it feels," Merlin breaks off, unable to stop kissing him, tangling his fingers in Arthur's hair and breathing against his ear, "amazing. I'll feel you come around me, and I want that, Arthur; Christ, that's all I think about. Tell me you want it, too."
Arthur trembles, just a little, turning his head, and Merlin can read the answer in the glassy eyes, something deeper than surrender and better than the greatest spell Merlin's ever mastered. Arthur nods, breathing out, but Merlin waits until he says, "Yes. Yes, I want to, I want that," and kisses him silent, because hearing Arthur say more just might kill him.
Merlin gets the oil from under the pillow; he's done this twice before, slid his fingers in Arthur's body, and Arthur had liked it every time, pushing down against Merlin's fingers and coming shaking and boneless after. Merlin settles between Arthur's knees, pouring out enough to slick his fingers, watching Arthur's face as he presses them inside, as Arthur opens up easily around him, head tilting back and eyes drifting shut. Merlin adds a second finger, shifting his weight until he can kiss Arthur while he does this, lick into his slack mouth and swallow his first gasp when Merlin twists his fingers, stretching him open.
Merlin drags it out as long as he can stand it; he loves to watch Arthur like this, skinned bare and beyond thought or reason. Hand shaking, Merlin pulls his fingers free, hating even the brief seconds it takes to slick himself, reaching for Arthur's hand and lacing their fingers together, pinned to the bed as he lines himself up and starts to slide inside.
"God," Merlin gasps, feeling Arthur close around him, tight and slick, Arthur's fingers tightening in his. He'd thought of this so many times, and this is everything and nothing at all like he could have imagined, panting helplessly as Arthur shifts his hips, relaxing around him, letting him in. "Arthur. I--" He pulls back a little, pressing in again, and Arthur groans, shuddering, spreading himself wider, and Merlin kisses him when he draws back again, thrusting in to the hilt and biting Arthur's lip when he closes tight around him. "Do you--do you know how much I--" and Arthur's short nails skid the length of his back, making him arch and hiss, settling hard against the small of his back.
"Yes," Arthur bites out with a groan that shakes them both, lifting his hips, and Merlin thrusts again, helpless, "Christ, Merlin, move," and Merlin forgets everything but the hot burn that rushes down his spine, the tight heat surrounding him, Arthur beneath him, slick and wonderful and everything, everything.
It stretches out forever, and Merlin can't track from one second to the next what he's saying or what Arthur is, just how they move, how good this is and how it's Arthur and there's never been anything he wanted more. "I'd do anything for you," Merlin chokes out, and it doesn't scare him like it once did; he's done so much already and he'll do so much more, gladly. "Arthur," he starts, then has to kiss him. "You were made for me," Merlin breathes, so close he can almost taste it, hovering just out of his reach. "This is what--"
"Merlin," and Merlin had thought he'd heard every way Arthur could sound, but never that, like a chasm opening in the earth, endlessly deep, secrets spilling out after an eternity locked away, "you--you know that I--that you're the only one that--"
"I won't let you go," Merlin tells him, pressing their foreheads together, trying to make him understand. "Not to anyone, not ever, Arthur," and Arthur nods and kisses him like a promise made in blood.
It's too good, and Merlin feels Arthur begin to shake and gropes between them until he closes tight around Arthur's cock, blinking the sweat from his eyes as he strokes him hard, almost shocked by how Arthur tightens around him, arching with a wordless shout. Merlin manages two more thrusts before he follows, slick hand wrapped around Arthur's hip as ecstasy swallows them both.
Somehow, there's something distinctly unfair that Arthur's awake before he is, and--
"You're getting dressed," Merlin observes drowsily from under the heap of blankets that are far too warm, but he can't find the energy to move them, even a little. "Why?"
"Because it's morning? I was summoned by my father, or no, I wouldn't be dressing, I'd be asleep, like anyone sane."
"Your father?" Merlin sits up, blankets pooling around his waist. "Why? And why didn't you wake me?"
Arthur pulls on his coat, straightening the collar, half caught between the prince that has to face Uther and not look like he'd been fucked through the mattress the night before, and the man that had actually been fucked through the mattress last night. Merlin nervously pushes his hair out of his eyes.
"I thought about it," Arthur says, getting his knives, "but you seemed tired. And I don't know what my father wants." Arthur slides both knives into his belt, crossing to the bed, and Merlin lifts his face for a kiss, quick and gentle, drawing it out as long as he can before Arthur draws back. Merlin forces himself to unclench his fingers from Arthur's coat. "Stay here."
"I have--duties," Merlin answers absently with no clear idea what those are, watching Arthur smile, a private look Merlin's never seen him turn on anyone else.
"I assign your duties. I'm assigning one now. Go back to sleep." With a brush of fingers against Merlin's cheek, Arthur leaves, and Merlin lies back, still drowsy, wondering at Uther's summons. The king rarely wakes this early, and even more rarely sees anyone before breakfast.
Getting out of bed, Merlin pulls on his trousers, wincing at the scrape of the wool against his oversensitized skin and finding his shirt, pulling it over his head. He should go find out if Evan and Anna have started, talk to Gwen and explain--though she hadn't been exactly happy with him last night when he left her--
There's a brief, frantic knock at the door, and Merlin frowns, wondering who else could possibly have reason to interrupt Arthur this early.
"Merlin!" Gwen hisses, voice muffled by the wood. Chest tightening, Merlin opens the door, pulling her inside at the first sight of her face, ashen and frantic. "The council is meeting!"
"What?" Merlin checks to make sure he didn't misjudge the time. "It's dawn. Half of them don't even get out of bed until noon--"
"The king summoned them. And Lady Morgana."
Merlin manages to get to the table and sit down before his knees go out. "That was rather--" he stops, swallowing hard. He'd thought he'd have more time. At least a little. "Fast."
"I think your little speech encouraged them to hurry it along," Gwen answers tiredly. "It's all over the castle already."
Merlin stares at her. "But it's dawn," he says helplessly. "Did they wake people or something--"
"It doesn't matter how they did it. It's done."
Merlin takes a breath, then tries another one. It's done, and he wouldn't take it back even if he could. "Did you tell Morgana--"
"Not yet." Gwen stares at the floor. "I will, when she comes back--"
"Don't. Blame it on me," Merlin says in a rush. "Just pretend you knew nothing of it--"
"I'm not ashamed of what we did!" Gwen says fiercely, surprising him. "I'm not ashamed of protecting her. I'm not ashamed of protecting the prince. They--they couldn't do this, what we did. This is our job. To do--to do what they can't. And they should know we will, that we want to." Taking a breath, she pushes off the table. "I'd best be ready for her return."
She shakes her head, reaching to straighten her skirt. "Don't, Merlin. I'm not sorry, not at all."
Merlin nods slow agreement. "Neither am I."
Merlin gets breakfast, hearing snatches of conversation around him as he waits. It's grown in the telling already, and by the time Merlin returns to Arthur's chambers and sets the tray on the table, he's not entirely sure Arthur won't kill on sight.
Unfortunately, Arthur's armed, so there's no use hiding the weapons. Setting out breakfast, Merlin looks around the immaculate room and wishes he hadn't been so thorough yesterday, then wishes he'd brought the hauberk up last night. He doesn't dare go to the armoury; Arthur could return at any time and Merlin thinks it could in fact get much worse if Arthur has to hunt him down.
The morning drags on impossibly slow, and Merlin imagines the council chamber, where Arthur is standing before his father, forced to give the entire hideous, humiliating story in all the detail Uther will require, then thinks of Morgana doing the same, and wishes he had more of that syrup from Gaius right now.
It's midmorning before the door opens, and Merlin braces himself, standing up from where he'd been perched at the foot of the neatly made bed. Arthur walks in, looks at him, then at the table, and says, "Breakfast. Brilliant."
Merlin watches, incredulous, as Arthur attacks the tray with no grace at all, pausing only to say, "Have you eaten yet?" and "You still look tired," while demolishing everything in sight and afterward eyeing the empty dishes like he just might send Merlin for more.
"It was a closed meeting, no servants were allowed in; consequently, we were not fed. God knows we can't serve ourselves, or something," Arthur says with a snort, finishing the goblet, then pausing. "You're still dressed. Why?"
Merlin hasn't quite been able to make himself move since Arthur sat down; now, looking between the door, Arthur, and the tray, he wonders if perhaps he fell asleep, and this is a very strange dream. "I--so there was a council meeting, then?"
Arthur pauses, staring at him before putting down the cup gently and looking at the tray for a long time. Then back at Merlin. "So you were struck deaf the entire time you were downstairs? Or is Gwen not speaking to you now?"
Merlin opens his mouth, then shuts it, shaking his head. "Fine, yes. I heard talk while I was in the kitchen, but you can't trust gossip--"
"Not even when you're the one that started it?"
Merlin closes his eyes for a second. Here it is, then. "Especially when I started it."
Arthur watches him thoughtfully; Merlin can't read his expression at all. "Do you know why I was summoned?"
"I can guess."
"So you can." Arthur sets his goblet aside, standing up, and Merlin watches him approach, not sure what to do. He won't apologize for what he did; he's not sorry. And he wouldn't change anything. "I'd avoid Morgana," Arthur says, reaching up and sliding his fingers idly through the laces of Merlin's shirt. "Maybe forever, but at least for a few weeks. My father wasn't easy on her. Well, on me either, but it's more rare that it happens to her, so she takes it much worse."
Merlin licks his lips. "I wasn't worried about that."
Arthur quirks a brow, looking amused. "You should be. Her silences are rather loud, and they follow you. It can be unnerving when you're not used to it."
Merlin reaches up as the knot loosens, grabbing Arthur's fingers. "What are you going to do?"
Arthur cocks his head, like he has no idea what Merlin could possibly be talking about. "I thought I'd take you to bed, as there will be no use rousing anyone this late in the morning for anything productive, and even if there were, I'm not in the mood for anything else. Then I thought I'd send you to get me something to eat. There's patrol this afternoon, of course--"
"That," Merlin says between his teeth, "is not what I meant."
Abruptly, Arthur pulls away, and Merlin has a second to ready himself for whatever Arthur will do--dismiss him, maybe, or throw him out of his room, at least, but yell first, about how it isn't Merlin's place, or that Merlin's shamed him, or--but there's just a push, then another, then he's stumbling backward onto the bed and Arthur tosses his belt on the floor and says, "See, I'm not even armed," before leaning over and kissing him like they're about to start fucking, and Merlin can't remember what he was going to say.
"I had to sit on a very hard chair in front of my father and all his council and Morgana," Arthur breathes, straddling Merlin's hips. "It was uncomfortable and I thought every time I moved, someone would know what you'd done to me last night." Arthur mouths briefly along his jaw before lifting his head again. "My father asked me if Melisande seduced me in her father's garden in hopes of forcing me to marry her. And I told him that I could not speak so against a lady. So he asked Morgana, who told my father what happened that night and then forgot to mention that she left after I did, not before."
Merlin draws in a breath. "So there won't be a betrothal."
"No, there won't. Of course," Arthur says, bracing a hand above Merlin's shoulder, "council meetings are private, and what is said within those walls is never spoken outside of them, but you took care of that as well."
"I had to be sure," Merlin breathes. "Even if--even if he didn't believe it, it wouldn't matter as long as everyone else did. He wouldn't allow you to marry a woman who was know across Albion to have seduced the crown prince of Camelot when he was hardly more than a boy."
"You've ruined her," Arthur says, lips brushing Merlin's. "The story grows with each telling. By the time it reaches her again, I'll have had her twice in her own bed and my knights had her after. She'll never receive another offer of marriage from anyone of any rank."
Arthur nods, so close Merlin can feel his breath against his lips. "The serving girls, it wasn't a rhetorical question. You found out who they were. What did you do?"
"I instructed them in their duty and sent them to do it. They won't fail in it again."
Arthur smiles slowly. "You were thorough. Now take off your clothes. I want you."
Merlin stares up at Arthur, mouth dry. "You're--not angry?"
"I ordered Agravaine to leave Camelot this morning," Arthur murmurs against his ear. "By now, all the castle can guess what he did to displease me, and that the next time, I will not be so merciful. I will not share. Are you angry?"
Merlin shakes his head, reaching for the hem of his shirt, whispering into the next kiss, "No."