Gaius examines his forearm briefly before nodding, taking out a length of clean bandaging and one of his hideous-smelling salves. "It's a clean cut, Your Highness," he says, fingers scooping into the jar before smearing it across the newly-cleaned wound. "Any numbness in your fingers or hand?"
Arthur looks at him and tries not to wince. "I would say no," he manages between gritted teeth. "There is no island of numbness in the burning pain."
Gaius looks down quickly, but Arthur's fairly sure he's hiding a smile. "It's the remains of the venom," he says in what he probably thinks is comfort. "Hold still, if you would, sire." Gentle fingers spread another layer of salve before he unwinds the bandage, easing it carefully from wrist to elbow. "It's shallow, though long; the burning should be gone by morning."
Arthur nods, mouth tight. It's not unbearable, but the constant irritation has been working on his nerves for hours, unfamiliar and impossible to ignore. He's used to the ache of blade-given wounds, not this deep burn like the constant press of a heated brand against his skin.
"Come to me in the morning if it has not improved," Gaius says as he finishes, pulling Arthur's sleeve down over the bandage and handing him a cup. Arthur doesn't make the mistake of either looking at it or smelling it, taking it in a single gulp.
"Thank you," he says belatedly, aware it's hours past dusk and Gaius is in his nightclothes, looking torn between exhaustion and amusement.
"I'm at your service, Your Highness." Going to a basin the corner, Gaius washes his hands with what must be icy water, turning to bow briefly. "Do you require anything further?"
"No, Gaius. Go to bed." Arthur picks up his helmet and leaves, trailing two worried knights that he sends to report to the King that he's returned to Camelot. Taking the stairs two at a time despite his own exhaustion, he comes to his chambers, closing out the chill hall for the warm darkness of the room. The few candles left sputtering give him enough light to finish disarming himself, discarding his soaked clothing at the foot of the bed before crawling into body-warm bedclothes. Merlin stirs when Arthur draws back the thick wool, the long line of his spine flexing against the cool air, eyes flickering half-open when Arthur palms his bare hip. "Arthur?"
Arthur answers the drowsy question with his lips against the curve of Merlin's throat, settling against the warm body that shivers more even as it curves back against him. Settling in a cocoon of skin and wool, Arthur draws him closer with an arm around his waist, the restless energy he's burned with through two endless days sinking into something unfamiliar and heavy like contentment. Half-asleep, Merlin hums, pressing back until Arthur's half-hard cock slides comfortably into the curve of his ass; Arthur sucks in a breath at the unexpected shock of the contact.
Merlin's soft hum checks, and Arthur feels Merlin come fully awake, hand settling on Arthur's bandaged arm before he turns his head, sleepy eyes slowly clearing. "You were hurt."
"Gaius treated it," Arthur says, closing his eyes at the clumsy kiss that grows more expert as Merlin turns in his arms, easing him back against the mattress before he can stop him. "Merlin--" he starts, and Merlin's hand on his arm tightens, drawing out a hiss at the sharp flare of pain, pushing it into the pillow above his head.
"Shh," Merlin whispers, shadowed and half-there in flickering candlelight, ethereal as a splash of moonlight. Arthur stares into the red hangings like drying blood as Merlin's kisses slowly down his chest, slow, sucking kisses that Arthur can feel in a line of crawling burn that reaches his cock when Merlin does. Arthur reaches for him, sucking in a breath when that wet mouth closes over his cock, when his hand knots in silky hair. Gripping the pillow behind his head, Arthur tries to hold still, Merlin's cool hands on his hips guiding him into something twistingly alive and burning bright like dry kindling touched with a spark.
Behind closed eyes, flickering memories of hours on horseback loop endlessly through his mind, the days of rain falling with no respite, rivers bloated and overrunning their banks in muddy black waves, homes like twigs in a fast-running stream and bodies surfacing blue-white before vanishing before the blank eyes of their families, lost to burial or pyre. They burned the ones they could with green, wet wood, the smoke filling the sky until they joined the clouds in the ash-grey sky.
"Please," he tells the slowly swaying drapes, and he doesn't know if he's asking Merlin or God or even what he's asking for. Merlin pulls off with an obscene sound before he crawls the length of Arthur's body, licking into his mouth dirty-slow, cock dragging against his belly before he reaches back, braced on one arm, and Arthur feels Merlin guide him inside, tight heat closing around him like a fist. "Christ."
"Shh," Merlin whispers, lashes swept down while he takes Arthur with a slow twist of narrow hips, and Arthur reaches out, holds them the way he held his reins, tight and hopeless because nothing he could do would ever change a fucking thing.
"Arthur," Merlin murmurs, a ripple like the rising water, darkly intimate, and Arthur watches through half-closed eyes as Merlin shivers, riding him with slow, sinuous curls of his hips, "you can--you can," and Arthur wants not to want to take what Merlin offers with his body, as casually as he fills Arthur's cup or cleans his sword or sucks his cock. Merlin takes the decision out of his hands, shifting upright and barely-there, only the heat of the hand on his chest and the tightness around his cock connecting them when Arthur lets him go.
He walked into a river, half-frozen and half-awake, dragging another body from murky water to add to the dozens he couldn't save, their bodies smeared with his blood--
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin whispers, voice as steady as the rise and fall of his body, and somewhere far away, a dozen pyres will burn this wet, endless night away.
He pushes Merlin off him, forcing him belly down on his bed and kneeing apart his willingly-open thighs, "Yes, Arthur, please," licking two fingers and pushing them inside, hand hard on the back of Merlin's neck, "Please, Arthur," and he can't wait another second and pushes into Merlin, licking up the line of his spine and sinking his teeth into the offered shoulder, aching and sweating away even the memory of cold. Merlin moans, fingers digging into the pillow beneath his head, and Arthur looks at the shadowed face and pretends that this can make him forget how many people died this night.
There's just Merlin, moaning and shaking beneath his hands, and Arthur covers his body, the flat, needy press of damp skin to damp skin, shoving inside him until they're both shaking. He can taste blood and comes with Merlin's cock in his hand, pressing his forehead against Merlin's shoulder and whispering, "Come on, Merlin, come on" until he shudders, arching up, burying his face in the pillow as he comes, and Arthur can finally breathe.
Pulling out as slowly as he can, he rolls onto his side, watching through heavy-lidded eyes as Merlin stretches, head turning slowly to smile lazily before he curls up, asleep between one breath and the next with long inches of colorless linen between them.
Arthur dozes fitfully and waits for dawn wrapped in the cool scrape of linen and wool, the burn of his arm throbbing in counterpoint to the soft breath of the man beside him.
Merlin checks his arm the next afternoon when Gaius is out for his rounds, stretching it carefully on the table beside the dishes from the midday meal, touch impersonal and professionally careful as he unwinds the bandage with a frown, picking up the salve he'd taken from Gaius' stores and uncapping it. "How were you injured? Did something attack you?"
Arthur looks at the scrape blankly and remembers black water and sharp, burning pain. "A serpent of some kind," he says, watching Merlin measure the slice with his fingers. Merlin frowns again. "What?"
"How big was it?"
Arthur remembers the winding pressure against his legs, something huge pressing by his thigh, gone between one sucked-in breath and the next with only a bright warmth that turned to blood on the shore. "Big."
Merlin looks at him like he's an idiot. "Well, that's helpful." Turning his attention back to the salve, Merlin coats the wound, getting a clean bandage and winding it into place, the discarded one burning in the fireplace. Arthur didn't bother asking why; he doubts he would understand the answer Merlin would give any better than he would Gaius. "Maybe we should check it out."
Arthur stretches his newly bandaged arm, reviving the flickering heat, then looks at Merlin. "We?"
Merlin shrugs, sliding off the table, brushing by him to the basin in the corner, washing his hands clean of salve and Arthur's blood. Sliding his sleeve down, Arthur watches as he turns back. "Or you," he says casually, going to the fire. "I'll take these back down to Gaius' workroom and finish cleaning your hauberk."
"How's the left arm?" Arthur asks.
"Like something big sliced through it," Merlin says, flickering a smile. "I'll send it for repairs when I'm done."
Arthur nods his thanks, watching Merlin leave before he gets up, going to the basin and running his fingers through pleasantly warm water from a basin left overnight in the coldest part of the room, pale pink and cloudy yellow. Picking it up, he dumps it in the bucket by the door to cool, to be discarded without thought when Merlin comes back.
Gaius' organization is a mystery, but one Arthur is familiar with from a childhood spent being treated for bloody knees and skinned palms, sitting impatiently on the wide workroom table that's never changed in the nearly-two decades of Arthur's memory. Fingering the books, Arthur reads the titles to himself, the Latin as familiar as his native tongue, pulling down the one he recognizes from a childhood fever isolated in this room with the restless energy of pre-adolescence, reading about sphinxes and gorgons and wondrous beasts that his father called myths, from a time before the executioner's axe took their place in the nightmares of the people of Camelot.
Merlin will be hours in the armoury; Arthur goes into the small, warm room where Merlin lives, no matter where he spends his nights, stretching out on the messy bed with a pillow pulled to his chest, fingers tracing out the picture of something large and green that sleeps far beneath the surface of the ocean. Looking at his bandaged arm, Arthur thinks of teeth the length of a short sword and the hard matte of green and black scales that felt like armour against his calves, rushing water stilling around him for the length of time it took to stagger to shore and look back at the fast currents stealing away everything that proved the existence of a man's life.
"Thank you," he tells the picture. "That river was running a bit fast, wasn't it?"
He marks in his memory the details of vulnerabilities that he'll carry beside the parts of him that know every gap between plates of armour and the twist that can slide a blade through mail and split a living, beating heart. Ocean creature, but the rains have gone so long that lakes are stretching out long arms onto land far from its banks and mild streams turned to rivers impossible to cross How it got to fresh water inlets is a mystery; Arthur pulls up mental maps of Albion, tracing routes that twist beyond mountains and through valleys, giving up leagues from the banks of the south. Too many possibilities.
Leaning over the edge of the bed, Arthur pushes discarded shirts and socks aside, finding nothing. Rolling over, he sits up, searching the room like he would if he were looking for contraband, then again like Merlin would, remembering every time he's watched Merlin clean his chambers. There's very little of Arthur left in those chambers, fingerprinted with that unique mind that thinks around corners and beneath them, too, controlled chaos wrapped up in a tall, thin body, hovering behind blue eyes sheened in gold.
Right. Merlin. Getting up, Arthur opens the cupboard and pushes aside another shirt, finding it trapped innocuously between a treatise on medical herbs and Cicero, book dusty beneath it from disuse. So much for Gaius' insistence on education, Arthur thinks, taking it back to the bed and flipping it open, scanning the pages quickly. Magical creatures, a footnote in a different hand than the rest of the book, faded from age, not dangerous, it reads, and Arthur sighs, looking at the spell above it that brings sleep to any creature before putting it away with any and all memories of long hours reading Cicero's speeches and wishing heartily for the executioner's axe himself.
He replaces Gaius' book on the shelf, waiting patiently until Gaius returns, letting him fuss over Merlin's work approvingly and leaves with a slow burn that's the memory of venom beneath his skin.
Merlin's refilled the basin and removed last night's ruined clothes by the time he returns. Arthur closes the shutters against the chill fall of rain and pulls his coat closer as he waits in front of the fire, trying to remember how to be warm.
This is what he wanted, he thinks, watching Merlin strip for him bathed in firelight, outlined in yellow-red and soft gold. He feels too young to be this tired and too old to be this easy, when just watching Merlin turn toward him, fingers teasing on the laces of his shirt is enough.
"You want to chase a sea serpent?" Arthur asks lazily, sprawled at the head of the bed. Merlin, currently occupied with the laces of his trousers, looks at him with an incredulous expression.
"You want to talk about that now?"
Arthur shrugs. "Why not?"
Merlin hesitates, and Arthur wonders where he goes when his body is here. Ealdor, maybe, but Arthur doubts Merlin thinks of Ealdor when he looks like that, like the walls of Camelot are closing around him, shrinking him uncomfortably into too-tight skin. Arthur taught him to ride as easily as any knight, but he more often roams the forests on foot for Gaius' make-work errands, playful and light and bright like the golden burn of dawn in high summer stretching over the sky like a miracle. Noting like he is in Camelot, not since Arthur woke from what should have been his death to Merlin, pale and hollowed out, closed-mouthed at his bedside while Gaius gave him potions and refused to meet his eyes.
Picking up the goblet of unwatered wine, Arthur waits for Merlin to return, to the room if not to him.
"It's not dangerous," Merlin says finally, coming to sit at the foot of the bed, unlaced and a little obscene even mostly-dressed. "It's an ocean creature--"
"The name 'sea serpent' does tend one's mind in that direction," Arthur offers, and bites back a smile at the familiar exasperation he pretends to himself is fondness and affection both. "All right. So not dangerous?"
"Not dangerous. Moving it, though--" Merlin frowns, then sighs. "I can't even figure out how it got this far north."
"So from the south?"
Merlin nods absently. "I think it's lost."
There are a hundred rivers and streams running through Albion in lines on the map, circles and twists that end in solid land or streams that even now would be unsuited to something that damned big. It could go forever in circles, or until the rains end and the rivers drop, leaving it stranded far from its home while the water evaporates around it.
Not dangerous, the book had said, but not something to be approached easily, either. Venom, mild, used to paralyze its prey. Arthur was barely brushed with sharp teeth, numbness that eased away in less than an hour. Big and eats everything; no river in all of Albion could support it. It will eat until it starves the people, then starve itself in empty waters.
"Dangerous for anyone who wants to eat fish," Merlin says ruefully. He looks at Arthur measuringly, and Arthur wants to tell him that he doesn't mind that Merlin now finds him wanting. A year is longer than Arthur had ever expected to have, a surfeit of surprises in a life long without them, and this strange boy glittering with the promise of something uncontained by stone castles and the inexorable routine that was duty and disappointment both. I don't mind, he wants to say, and maybe, I'm sorry, I never meant to trick you into thinking I was anything else. And maybe, maybe, don't leave. I can try. I just don't think I'll succeed. "I'll ask Gaius," Merlin says, dismissing the subject as he twists out of his shirt, smiling at Arthur with dancing eyes.
Arthur takes another drink of wine and wonders why he can't taste it. "Did I ever tell you I had a nurse from the countryside?" he says, watching Merlin go on his knees at the foot of the bed, pulling at the knot of his trousers.
"I bet you were a very difficult child."
Arthur smiles slightly, watching Merlin's fingers slide across the bared expanse of skin with every loosening lace. "I was. She'd feed me sweets whenever I was unhappy. Which was often."
"A difficult, fat child."
Arthur watches the trousers slide from Merlin's hips, down the length of pale thighs smudged with fading yellow fingerprints. "That as well," he says, breathless as Merlin crawls out of the trousers, kicking them to the floor. "The kitchens were warm compared to the rest of the castle," he continues as Merlin eases into his lap, hot through the thin material of his trousers.
Merlin takes the cup from his hand, fingers brushing his as he drinks the rest and drops the cup on the floor. "So you outgrew your love of too many pastries?" Merlin says, eyes fixed on the laces of Arthur's shirt before his fingers tangle in them, thumb rubbing at skin beneath.
Arthur tips up his chin, looking into bright blue eyes, and wonders if it will ever hurt less to be this much in love, like burning up inside with no relief in sight. Licking the corner of his mouth, Arthur can taste the sweetness of the wine. "No."
Bedwyr looks up at him from the muddy ground with a faint smile despite the blood smeared across his nose and upper lip. Extending his hand, Arthur pulls him to his feet and smiles back, feeling lighter than he has in days. A short lull in the rains can do wonders for one's mood, he thinks. Well, that and a decent opponent. "Your left wrist is weak," he says, pulling away with a punch to the shoulder. "But better."
"Thank you, sire," Bedwyr says without irony, taking the water skin a nameless squire offers. Craning his neck, he drinks, splashing water over his face before eyeing the sky. "Another hour, maybe."
Arthur glances back at the mud-splattered, miserable knights, who definitely aren't looking at him in hope. "Until you actually can't stand due to copious flooding," he says, watching them sigh en masse before going back to work. "You're much improved," Arthur admits, taking the skin when offered and seeing Merlin talking to Gwen at the edge of the field, waterskin forgotten in one hand.
"I'm not all that fond of being muddy," Bedwyr answers, eyes following Arthur's curiously. Arthur turns his attention to the knights, watching them as they struggle to hold their footing on slick, sopping ground. It's rare they have the luxury of perfect weather, and if the rains have done nothing else, they've given form to flaws that badly need correction. "Sire, I have a request."
Arthur waits while Bedwyr avoids his eyes. "Hearing it would help," Arthur says, and Bedwyr flushes, looking at the ground. He's very young, Arthur realizes; his sheer size makes him seem so much older, but if he's less than two years Arthur's junior, he'd be very surprised.
"There's been some strange--thing in one of the villages on my father's land," Bedwyr says warily. "The flooding has been bad for everyone, but the river fishermen say that their fish are vanishing."
From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees Merlin saying goodbye to Gwen and belatedly become aware he is in fact on duty. Merlin searches the field, frowning slightly; when he finds them, he looks briefly surprised before the blue eyes narrow unexpectedly.
Fish. Bedwyr is talking about fish. "Did anyone mention perhaps seeing something--unusual in the river?" he says carefully. Bedwyr's eyes widen. "Something like a very large snake? A serpent, perhaps?"
Bedwyr blinks. "Yes. Do you know what it is?"
"Sorry," Merlin says, shoving between them and handing Arthur the waterskin. Arthur takes it because he's not sure what else to do as Merlin looks Bedwyr up and down with a measuring look that Arthur knows from experience is not terribly pleasant to receive.
"If you can delay your return until tomorrow morning," Arthur says, weighing the skin, "I think I can accompany you."
"Sire, I don't expect you to inconvenience yourself--"
Arthur doesn't look at the mended arm of his hauberk, skin burning beneath. "It won't be an inconvenience. I'll meet you at dawn. Come along, Merlin," he says, handing Bedwyr both skins as he passes, Merlin trailing him until they reach the courtyard.
"Who is he?"
"Bedwyr?" Arthur looks back at Bedwyr, trying to look casual holding two waterskins, and smiles. "He arrived a few months ago."
"I don't recognize him."
Arthur pushes open the door of the armoury with his shoulder. "Why would you?" Leaving the practice sword, he pauses, noticing Merlin is still frowning even as he helps Arthur free of his armour. "What?"
"I just realized--you haven't ordered me down there in a while," Merlin says slowly. "Months, you say?"
Arthur opens the door to the castle, heading toward the stairs. Behind him, he hears Merlin catch the door and the quick fall of his feet behind him.
"In fact," Merlin says, as if he had just discovered something unpleasant, "I had to ask this time. If I was needed. And you took a bit to respond."
"I did find it odd you asked for extra duties," Arthur admits, taking the stairs two at a time, still feeling flushed from an afternoon of work. So few of the knights can match him; Bedwyr's the only one that even comes close. "Why did you, by the way?"
Merlin keeps up with him, only feet behind when they reach the top of the stairs. "I didn't--wait, you're changing the subject."
"I didn't need you," Arthur says as they go inside. Someone had left fruit on the table, and Arthur picks up an apple, wondering who had thought of it. Taking a bite, he looks at the fire and neatly made bed and comes to the unlikely conclusion that it was Merlin and is surprised into telling the truth. "You hate it. I didn't think you would notice."
"I don't, really," Merlin says, looking at him oddly. "Hate it, I mean. I like watching you."
Arthur wonders what on earth he's supposed to make of that, buying himself a few seconds with continued chewing before he swallows. "I see. Then continue to--"
"But why would you care if I hated it?"
Christ. "Merlin," Arthur says, sitting on the table when his chair seems a very distant two feet away he really doesn't want to bother crossing, "I don't actually live to make you miserable."
Merlin gives him a disbelieving look, crossing from the door to go down on his knees, reaching for Arthur's boots. Arthur stills instinctively at the sight of Merlin at his feet.
"I don't. It's more a pleasant hobby than anything." He takes another bite, mouth dry.
Merlin tosses the first boot toward the bed with more force than strictly required. "Arthur," he starts, and Arthur looks away as Merlin's hands pause on the second boot, with an expression on his face like perhaps he has something to say.
"Bedwyr has a fish problem," he says.
Merlin looks up, neatly distracted. "Really?"
Arthur kicks him lightly until he returns to the task at hand. "Yes," he says. "And a mysterious snake-like creature wandering his river. Sound familiar?"
Merlin's eyes flicker to Arthur's arm, then away, so quickly Arthur wonders if he imagined it. The second boot joins the first, and Merlin stands up, bracing his hands on Arthur's knees, palms warm. "What sort of fish problem?"
"Something eating all of them." Arthur offers Merlin the unmarred side of the apple. "A non-dangerous sea serpent in a river, eating all the fish. Rather mundane, don't you think?"
Merlin contemplates the apple, reaching up and turning it in Arthur's hand before leaning close, teeth overlapping the last bite Arthur took before pulling away, eyes dark. Arthur stares at the pink mouth for a long moment, then looks at the apple. "Did you talk to Gaius?"
"This morning," Merlin says, licking the corner of his mouth. "One of his books had a bit on them."
"Anything on how to move them?" Arthur flickers through the words that send an animal to sleep and wonders that he didn't look to see if there was a spell to move them. He should make more time to read, somehow. "Unless you would like for me to set you on a raft and have you lead it to the promised land."
Merlin grins, and Arthur smiles back, surprised by the warmth, offering the apple again. Merlin tilts his head, and Arthur has a second of flickering regret for the impulse, but Merlin leans forward, taking a slow bite, then closing a hand over Arthur's wrist and easing it aside, offering half the bite from between his teeth.
Arthur takes it, and the tart-sweet tongue that follows, letting go of the apple when Merlin pushes him back on the table, hearing it and three dishes fall to the floor and laughing when Merlin says, smiling against his lips, "I'll clean that up later."
Merlin's left with the dishes by the time Arthur awakens, still humming with the bright energy that followed him from the training field and tasting apple on the back of his tongue. His muddy boots are gone, the mud cleaned from the floor, and Arthur gets another pair, wondering how long it's been since he had a lie-down in the middle of the day. That would be never, barring near-death, that is.
With the clouds and rain turning every day into an endless, miserable evening, he's not entirely sure it counts anyway. It's odd to be without anything in particular to do; usually his father knows when he's finished training and a servant is hovering close, ready with new orders and new expectations. The absence is unsettling and freeing both, and he thinks that perhaps for a little while, he'll take the freedom. Getting his coat and checking his knives, he checks the empty hall and goes out, trying to look as if he's on the way to something very specific instead of nothing specific at all.
He's never cared for being left with the company of only his thoughts, preferring furious activity to too-long contemplation, a preference left from his father's punishments and the hours he would spend alone in his room to stare at grey stone that reminded him he would never clear the debt he owed for taking his mother's life.
The servants don't notice him with more than a bowed head, busy at their own pursuits as he follows nothing in particular, emerging outside under black skies and to the stables, spending a peaceful hour checking his horse, immaculate from Merlin's and later the groom's attentions, wondering why he'd allowed himself to give up a routine that's been part of his day since he was old enough to have his own pony. Finding the kit neatly put away, Arthur goes over her inch by inch, familiarizing himself all over again with the sleek coat and smooth flex of her muscles beneath his hands before finding her tack and making himself comfortable on a bale of hay to oil the leather, metal jingling between his fingers like the sound of perfect contentment with the world.
The rain strengthens, and Arthur hears the doors open and voices, feminine laughter and the groom's indulgent "Yes, my lady,"; going to the stall still holding the bridle, watching Morgana dismount, having probably taken advantage of the lull in weather for a ride and stayed out too long. Water sparkles in the lengths of wind-whipped hair, and her cheeks and lips are stained pink. She looks happy.
"My lady?" Arthur hears Gwen say, and Arthur sees her come down the ladder, looking surprised. "You said you would be back an hour ago." The subtle reproach isn't as subtle as Gwen probably meant it, and Arthur hides a smile as she flushes, but Morgana just laughs.
"And you waited for me?" Shaking her hair back, she crosses to the ladder, picking the hay from Gwen's hair and her smile widens, peering up into the opening. "Merlin, come down."
Arthur catches the bridle when it starts to fall from numb fingers.
Gwen's eyes widen. "My lady, we weren't--"
"Do I need to speak to him on your behalf?" Morgana says, mock serious. "Merlin, should I ask Arthur to speak to you about your intentions toward my maid? I will, you know."
Merlin says something unintelligible, but Arthur recognizes the flickering something that it had taken him far too long to recognize as magic. Then he comes down the ladder, giving Morgana an irritated look.
"Thank you, no, I'm not that fond of the stocks, my lady." Picking straw from his hair, he shrugs. "I thought Gwen might want company when I was done with His Highness' horse."
"I thank you, then," Morgana says with a grin. Arthur watches her shake her cloak. "I thought I had time to get back before it got worse. I'm soaked through."
"You know," Merlin starts with a smile, "I learned--"
"Uh," Gwen looks worried.
"Hold on, just--" And he waves a hand, eyes narrowing with a flare of gold as he murmurs a phrase. There's a crackling sound, then the smell of burnt straw, enough to make his horse shy, and Arthur steps back, catching her head and soothing her with a hand while Morgana says, "That worked?" and Gwen says, resigned, "He lit himself on fire last time. And His Highness' boots as well."
Arthur sits carefully on the bale, drawing his nervous horse with him, rubbing her soft nose until he feels her relax, breath warm against his hand, and thinks of nothing at all.
Arthur sends a message that Merlin isn't needed for the remainder of the evening and instructs the kitchens to have a pack prepared for dawn. Bedwyr looks surprised but amenable enough when Arthur requests his company, and over three ale at the most local tavern possible, Arthur discovers the fish problem is a week old and apparently growing worse.
He also finds out more than he ever wanted to know about Bedwyr's fear of very large reptiles, but it's his own fault, so he bears with it.
So not the same serpent, which opens up an entire train of thought over just how many sea serpents wander into rivers and why in the name of God they'd want to.
"Twenty, thirty feet," Bedwyr slurs by his fourth glass while Arthur nods and pretends to drink his first. "No one ever believes it until they see it," he tells Arthur like a secret, which it probably is. With Uther's stand on magic, it's usually better to err on the side of caution when it comes to speaking of, or believing in, magical creatures. Arthur supposes it helps if it's attacked the crown prince a few times to gain some kind of credibility. "They used to be in moats, you know," Bedwyr says with the wide-eyed sobriety of the very drunk. "Read about it."
Arthur leans an elbow on the table and pretends that he isn't trying to work out how to build a moat around Camelot and have a sea serpent to look down on and perhaps throw irritating people to. Though his limited experience with them tends him toward the idea it would swim around them and perhaps help them onto the shore, which would rather defeat the purpose, but still. A sea serpent in a moat. Just knowing it was there would be enough.
"I wanted to build a moat around our castle when I was younger," Bedwyr tells his glass with the air of a childhood dream crushed. Arthur wishes he'd drank more after all; it would be an excuse for the acute feeling of sympathy.
The tavern has food, hideous stew made from God knows what and a hard black bread that Arthur had, by sheer determination, learned to eat as it traveled very, very well. Alcohol would help with this, too, he thinks, and doesn't think of rat stew no matter the similarity in flavor.
By the time they leave, Arthur's still unfortunately quite sober and helping an agreeable Bedwyr back to his quarters with a faint, thankful thought that at least Bedwyr, despite his height and weight and relative intoxication, isn't impossibly hard to direct, and he doesn't wince at the weight of him leaning on his shoulder, ale-scented breath warm against his ear as Arthur pushes him into the knights barracks, leaving a message with a page to tell the man when he awakens that their journey will have to wait until the rain lets up enough to see more than a foot ahead of them. More importantly, so the horses can actually get some kind of footing on this kind of ground.
Of course, he could ask Merlin to do something about that, and while he's at it, about moving a serpent a great and terrible distance as well, but that would require Arthur knowing something about that sort of thing and what do you know, Arthur doesn't know anything at all about Merlin's magic.
Merlin's not in his chambers when he returns, and he buries his knife in the rough wood of the table, through the apple that had been left at the center, dark red skin splitting open to reveal the yellow-white center like a bared belly. He reminds himself that he'd always known what this was and puts away his own clothes, piling them neatly in the corner and going to bed, tossing a pillow toward the door that still smells of apple and the afternoon's sweat.
As it turns out, the page was quite unnecessary; Bedwyr's hangover meets a rain-bourne cold. Merlin tells him at presumed dawn, a faint lightening of the sky somewhere that could be east, beyond rain falling like sheets from the sky.
"Miserably sick," Merlin says, reaching to pluck something from his hair when Arthur surfaces blearily from beneath the pillows and wishes he could excuse his headache with a hangover. "It's early yet, but I can get you breakfast, if you wish."
"Not--yet," he says drowsily. Looking at Merlin's pale face hovering over him, eyes shadowed, Arthur forgets his pride. "Come to bed."
Merlin slips off his boots and tunic with gratifying speed, shucking trousers as he climbs in, and maybe he's tired too, letting Arthur wrap around him as he likes and pulling the blankets over them both, stroking through his hair with slow, gentle fingers. Arthur falls asleep again between one slow, sleepy kiss and the next while the rain falls outside like it will never end.
"I know there were clothes here," Merlin is saying when Arthur returns from the enforced midday meal with his father and a lecture about various things that Arthur's luckily expected to have no opinion on himself. Afterward, he checked the granary by habit and their stores and thought of rationing and of wheat and rye rotting in the fields, ordering supplies be sent to the river-decimated villages.
"I sent them down already," Arthur says, looking around the narrow confines of the room with a feeling of incipient claustrophobia. Merlin pulls out from under the bed and looks up at Arthur with unreadable blue eyes.
Arthur plays with his knife and wishes he had a firmer reputation as one who is too fond of the wine and could order a skin, but then again, he has reputation enough in other things and keeping track of that and everything else as well would be a bother Adding overfondness for drink would be nearly impossible to maintain without wasting it out the window.
"There was a passing chambermaid," he hazards, and Merlin goes still and stiff, jerking himself to his feet and looking anywhere but at him.
"I see." Merlin looks around the room as if he just realized how small it is. "Do you have anything else you need, Sire?"
Arthur fixes his gaze on the expanse of stone above the fireplace and imagines a world he could answer that question honestly. "No. Does Gaius not require your services?"
Merlin looks at him incredulously. "So that's how it is?" he says slowly, each word sharply edged like a unsheathed blade, and Arthur doesn't look at him, hands locked behind his back. There had to be a time they weren't like this, when he could shout and Merlin would argue and they might once in a while hear each other, but he doesn't know how to go back and find it.
For a wonderful second, it looks like just maybe, Merlin will break, shout, do something, and Arthur wants to see it so badly he can't imagine wanting anything else.
"Well," Merlin says instead, whip-edged voice meant to cut, to wound, "if that's all you think of me," and Arthur's not sure when it changed, but the narrow confines of stone become even closer, and Merlin's kneeling at his feet, fingers on the laces of his trousers, blue eyes flickering in gold. Arthur grabs for the table behind him and looks down at the dark head with a feeling of inevitability before he reaches down, slapping Merlin's hands away.
Dropping on his knees, he jerks Merlin into a kiss to drown out the apology running through his head, I'm sorry he tells him with his tongue, I love you and I'll be what you want if I can, and the humiliation of it makes him rougher than he wants to be, pushing up Merlin's chin, licking promises and apologies and all the things that have no words and never will. It wasn't supposed to be like this, Arthur thinks, jerking his tunic off and spreading it behind Merlin, easing him down on his back; he wasn't ever going to make his father's mistake and fall in love like this and have so fucking much to lose.
This kind of vulnerability is like a bleeding wound that will never heal, and Arthur knows why sorcerers burn in the city square for a woman long dead and almost beyond memory; there's nothing that his father's done that he wouldn't do and do better. He'd tear apart a kingdom if Merlin asked it of him, mouthing frantic kisses down Merlin's narrow chest, hands shaking until he jerks out a knife and cuts the knotted laces away and the thin linen too, licking a slow line down Merlin's belly before taking him in his mouth.
Merlin arches with a gasp, thin fingers scratching helplessly against his shoulder, tangling in his hair, and Arthur rides each rough thrust; he learned this from Merlin like he's learned so many things, relaxing his throat and breathing through his nose, letting Merlin set the pace, rough and jerky and too fast, tongue slick against the round head and cupping his balls to feel him shudder, twisting up and in and fucking his mouth.
Over the roar in his ears, he hears Merlin talking, strings of syllables that joined together might even make words, going tight and still beneath his hands, and Arthur swallows, vaguely surprised he doesn't choke, but he's always been good at what he chooses to learn. He stills until he feels Merlin go limp and sits up, mouth sore and raw, throat aching and feeling bruised and so very, very tired.
Pulling away, he looks at the mess of flushed Merlin on his floor, eyes glazed and mouth open, and braces his back against the foot of the bed and closes his eyes.
After a while, he hears Merlin sit up, but he doesn't go away, and Arthur feels him take up footboard space a long foot away. "There was straw," Merlin says, voice cracking.
Arthur looks at him, but Merlin's leagues away and going farther by the second.
"This morning," Merlin says, staring at the fire with unseeing eyes. "In--in your hair, straw from your horse's stable, I know because I put it there and it was the only dry straw left. I know you didn't go riding because I had your boots and the others aren't muddy enough." Merlin licks his lips. "You dismissed me and I couldn't find you. I always know where you are, and I didn't know you went to the stables yesterday."
"Always." It's not a question.
Merlin looks at him now. "In the back of my mind, you're always there," he says bleakly, and Arthur thinks this is an admission, a confession. "I could always find you, and now I can't and I don't know why. I can't find you anymore."
That makes two of us, Arthur thinks, rubbing his face tiredly.
"I was with Bedwyr," Arthur says, then rethinks the phrasing. "At the tavern. About the sea serpent."
"But you were in the stables before."
Arthur hesitates, then nods. Merlin closes his eyes, swallowing.
"You didn't ask about your boots," Merlin whispers, offered like a olive branch or a sword, hilt-first. Arthur can't tell the difference between a treaty or unconditional surrender anymore. Maybe he never has.
"No, I didn't."
Merlin braces his arms on his bent knees, head buried in them, and Arthur can see his shoulders shaking. "That--that explains it," he says, so softly that Arthur almost doesn't hear him. "Everything. How long?"
Arthur thinks there are more answers to that than sea serpents in the sea.
"When?" Merlin says, voice flat and terrifyingly blank.
Arthur stares at the fire. "I thought you did it on purpose," he says finally. "I thought--and it turns out you were merely tired. You didn't even know you did it."
Arthur looks into gold sheened eyes and almost laughs. "When the fuck do you think?"
"…hauberk and could you clean my sword as well?" Arthur said, amused at the way Merlin looked at him with utter hate. "You've been lazing about enough while I've been in that damn bed--"
"Lazed about?" Merlin stared between Arthur and the pile of laundry that had grown steadily into a small but easily identifiable mountain over the last few weeks. "You have got to be joking."
Merlin pushed a tunic toward the pile with one foot, and Arthur thought of the last few weeks of utter misery for them both, trapped in this damnable room and endless games of dice and chess and finally some incredibly plebian game with rocks and sticks that Merlin had sworn all children played in Ealdor all their lives, which was why he always won. Merlin had never been more than three feet from his bed waking and possibly sleeping if Gaius' frown was anything to go by.
Turning away, Arthur picked up a piece of fruit from the table and turned in time to see Merlin wave a hand, muttering under his breath, and the lukewarm bath that Arthur had waited too long to take began to steam.
It had been like revelation, like epiphany, like a puzzle where all the pieces suddenly slid together, locking of their own volition before his eyes, and he dropped the fruit, letting it roll where it would.
Merlin turned around, looking at the laundry with a faint frown from black-circled eyes and then Arthur said "Merlin" and "Come here" and everything, he'd thought when he kissed him, everything changed
As it turned out, that was true and a lie as well, as most things tended to be; he'd woken warm and impossibly content to a manservant cleaning his room, wrapped in coarse linen and lying without a word being spoken, willing to share his body but never his secrets.
In retrospect, he hasn't handled this well at all, but then again, he's not sure Merlin did any better.
"Oh." Merlin runs a shaking hand through his hair, looking like someone whose entire world has fallen apart. "I didn't--I didn't know."
Arthur leans his head against the footboard, because that's so fucking true. "I rather thought so," he says, so impossibly tired, but the fear on Merlin's face makes him continue. "It's--it's not often, that you do that," he says quickly, even though in some ways, that's a lie, but a lie only here. When he knew what to look for, it flared unexpectedly in perfect baths and perfect fires and impossibly clean, pressed clothing without a crease. Arthur had been careful, removing duties that Merlin would never notice the lack of, opening his days enough so the temptation to use magic casually would never be present, at least where others might see. "You've been careful." And when he's not, Arthur's careful for him.
Merlin shakes that off like it doesn't matter. "You didn't say anything."
"You didn't want me to know." The ache of that is old, a habitual, simmering hurt, long forgiven, backed with perfect comprehension of all the reasons the crown prince of Camelot and Uther's son could never, never know. That he understands, always has, even from the first.
Merlin's lover, however…that's the question he'll never been sure enough to ask, and the answer is one he may not be able to hear.
Arthur shivers, thin shirt not proof against the chill of the room, and Merlin motions toward the hearth so casually, so instinctively he must have done this a thousand times and Arthur never noticed. The fire flares up, and he can feel the room warm around him.
There are a thousand ways Merlin's changed his life, but it's these things that he values most, ridiculously small and endearingly kind, the way that Arthur's never been or ever wanted to be and wonders if he can ever learn.
"You should have told me," Merlin says finally, and Arthur looks at him, has to, and Merlin's expression changes, unwilling smile cracking through, bleeding regret. "Yes, I know."
"I thought about it," every day, every time he touched Merlin, kissed him and wanted him so desperately and wondered why this was so damned hard. Like saying that one thing, "I know what you are" and "I want to see what else you can do" would break open the dam on everything else, ripping the rest from him like a bandage from a suppurating wound with nothing left to protect him. Which had in fact worked brilliantly, he thinks bitterly. "I didn't know how."
"Neither did I. Especially…" Merlin trails off. "I practiced it, you know," he says, all in a rush. "I did. But it always--I'd see you and you'd smile at me and I couldn't give that up yet. I just--I wanted more time. Just a little." Merlin blows out a breath. "Which worked out well, I think. The only time you'd even look at me was when…."
Arthur flushes and fixes his eyes on the fire, unbearably grateful when Merlin breaks off into hideously uncomfortable quiet that stretches to every wall and fills the room until the air itself feels too heavy to breathe.
"Is it still raining?" Arthur says uneasily. They have to get out of here or this silence will be all they have left; they'll never be able to break it, no matter how many words are spoken or shouted between them.
He can feel the force of Merlin's stare. "Yes. Surprisingly. As it has for weeks. Why?"
Well, he's being sarcastic again, which is something. "So is there a spell to move a sea serpent? I didn't see one."
"…read my book," Merlin says, somehow having become so much better on a horse than Arthur had expected and close enough for Arthur to hear every hissed word.
"Why are you upset about that? You hide it with bloody Cicero. Which," he admits, "is rather well done. No one reads him if they don't have to."
Merlin pauses, giving him a look from beneath the hood of the cloak he snatched from Arthur's closet with a stare that dared Arthur to say something about it. "You went into my room and stole--"
"I never took it from the room." It was always so comfortable there, and he could read and pretend, at least for a little while, that Merlin knew and approved; it was almost like being told willingly, almost like being part of Merlin's life and not just an accessory to it.
"Read my book, in my room, and you just--all this time," Merlin says in shock, stopping short to marvel the entire thing all over again like it's some kind of bloody miracle. Arthur hadn't thought contrition would last long, but moving on to insulting surprise isn't an improvement. "And you never said anything."
"I can keep a secret." God knows, he has enough of them, piling up in the corners of his mind in neatly delineated spaces named Uther and Morgana and Merlin and Myself, cross-referenced and annotated and avoided for the latter, because if it's a secret from himself, he's sure he doesn't want to know about it. "Watch that branch."
Merlin ducks, falling back for a blissful few seconds before coming up beside him again, and Arthur thinks whoever made this particular barely-used forest path wide enough for two horses was a fucking bastard.
Merlin doesn't say anything, however, which somehow turns out to be so much worse, and even though Arthur doesn't look, he can feel the quicksilver glances, measuring and thoughtful. Merlin's far smarter than he acts and doesn't necessarily need anything so mundane as facts to come to the correct conclusion.
"So you think you can move this sea serpent?" he says quickly.
"I--think so." Merlin hesitates. "Though, I don't--it attacked you. That's not normal sea serpent behavior."
"Perhaps in revenge for the unicorn," Arthur offers, not rubbing his arm with the flare of remembered pain. "Perhaps they all talk amongst themselves."
Merlin doesn't dignify that with a response, but Arthur's not so sure it's not possible. Uther's not endeared himself to magical creatures and now his son has a reputation for slaughtering them with crossbows, and if he were one, he'd be spread this sort of information as far as it would go. If he was a magical creature with an ability to communicate with other magical creatures, that is.
That train of thought occupies him for a good distance, considering the type of warning system he'd set in place for such a thing--a few scattered key creatures who could appear as normal, ready and waiting for intrusions, an alarm of some sort. Perhaps one stationed in Camelot itself. He's debating dog versus horse when he turns to look at Merlin and sees something that makes him very much wish for a much, much harder rain.
"About Gwen and Lady Morgana," he starts, and Arthur loosens the reins to avoid the temptation to send his horse off at a gallop, "I didn't tell them. They--well, saw me. It was an accident--rather like in your room, but oddly, they didn't seduce me afterward."
Arthur smiles, showing his teeth. "How fortunate for them."
Merlin's eyes widen and he looks away, the hood of the cloak shadowing his face. That seems to silence him, but Arthur has a hundred questions he'd like to ask and still can't find the words to frame. Eventually, Merlin might stumble over one and answer it on his own.
"But I was hiding it from everyone, not just you," Merlin presses on after a few minutes of welcome silence, "and I meant to tell you. I did. And I--" Merlin's voice drops, and in a fair world, the rain would drown it out, but maybe it's magic, he can hear every fucking word. "I just had so much to lose."
"I know," Arthur bites off. His home and his employment and his life and his mother's as well, though Arthur had planned for that, and Hunith and Merlin and Gaius will be long out of the kingdom if that day ever comes while Uther still continues his purge and finds out the truth. Arthur too, if he can manage it; he can't see why he couldn't.
They ride on blessed silence for a while, and Arthur thinks of sea serpent and moving it and even for a second, contemplates a moat he could keep it in, safe and comfortable and fed all the fish it can stomach, far away from the possible dangers of the ocean--why the hell else would a sea serpent come this far inland? Push people into it, too, starting with Merlin, who is looking at him again and like he just might want to talk.
"So I--I suppose I'm sacked?" he says finally. "I know why you didn't before--"
That would be interesting news to Arthur; Merlin's face is hidden by the hood of the cloak, so there's no way to look a question.
"I suppose the rest," he says, with an appallingly explicit hand gesture, "you don't have any objection to, though Gaius will be happy if I apprentice permanently instead of just when you don't need me," he goes on, apparently ready with a new life plan and sounding highly unenthusiastic about it. Arthur looks up at the trees that are blocking a great deal of rain and hates them with a passion.
"You're not sacked," he manages finally. "Your duties remain the same, and yes, the other thing--" and it only take a second for Arthur to parse that sentence when Merlin looks at him with huge, shocked eyes and adds, "for the love of God, I'm not paying you for that! For the things that aren't that! The other things!"
"What other things? You keep getting other people to do my duties!" Merlin shouts, turning surprisingly red. "First the field, then bringing meals, and I have to sneak around to get to your armour and don't think I didn't notice your sudden attachment to the armoury and then the laundry…."
"You don't tell me your schedule! I don't know how to tell if you have too much to do and may be tempted to use magic! I had to guess from what I could gather from Gwen, who was under the impression I was trying to seduce her through the entire hideously awkward conversation, thank you for that," Arthur yells back, because this is getting ridiculous. "I don't know what you do or how much time it takes and believe it or not, people get very nervous when I ask to observe them perform their duties or assume--"
"Oh," Merlin says, but Arthur's not close to done.
"--or assume I want to know if they have time for more intimate services, and I don't know if you've noticed, I'm a prince and somewhere along the line the chambermaids have picked up the odd idea that noblesse oblige means they can lift their skirts when they bring me dinner and I'll be--"
"--I'll be so overcome with uncontrollable lust that I'll forget I am tired and hungry and their underthings are blocking my dinner." Somewhere in his mind, Arthur's aware that this has gone on well past anything resembling a reasonable explanation, but it's been months and months of having to guess and he's heartily sick of all of it.
Arthur stares at the back of his horse's head, hearing himself in Merlin's voice. That can't end well. "I don't remember." When really, the question is, which one didn't. That would be Gwen.
"You didn't," Merlin starts, and Arthur nearly loses his grip on the reins trying to think of what to say to get whatever that is in his voice to go away. Forever, preferably.
Reviewing the last few minutes, Arthur wonders if Merlin knows a spell that can rewind time, just a bit, just back to say, before he lost his mind and actually answered a question.
"So," Merlin says slowly, sounding uncomfortable, "not Bedwyr, then."
Arthur stops his horse short. "Of course not! Where would you get the idea--" Tavern, last night. Straw. Always knows where he is, except for recently, apparently. "Did Bedwyr get his cold from nature?" Arthur asks suspiciously. He hadn't seen that in the book. Maybe he hadn't read far enough. Merlin stares straight ahead, and Arthur grabs for the reins, just in case Merlin is suddenly violently interested in the sea serpent again. "You didn't."
Merlin lifts his chin. "I'm sure he would have gotten it anyway, standing in the rain like that," Merlin says, looking defiant and guilty both. "Drinking and--eating. The food at that tavern is terrible. You could pick up anything from there."
"Christ." Letting go, Arthur sits back. Unable to think of anything to do, so knees his horse gently to keep going. Merlin eventually catches up, though not beside him, which isn't comforting.
Arthur thinks about it for several paces. Maybe, possibly, but. "Not really," he admits finally, feeling he's losing something in moral high ground but not sure he ever had it to begin with. "Just don't do it again."
"All right." After a few seconds, Merlin's horse catches up, and they have to be close to that fucking serpent already. How long have they been riding? It feels like years. Long, horrible years filled with talking and feelings. "You could have asked. About my schedule."
"You think it's an imposition to close the window when it's raining," Arthur says flatly.
"Telling me to stand up and walk seconds after you've been fucking me, yes," Merlin says heatedly, though Arthur can almost see the blush through the hood, "yes, that is an imposition! I can't even remember my own name and you want me to find a bloody window?"
Arthur wonders if he's flushing as hotly as his face feels. "Fine." God, where is that fucking river?
"Arthur," Merlin says just as Arthur realizes they've reached the river and he has every reason in the world to gallop ahead. Riding up, Arthur looks at the swollen edge, feet beyond the natural banks and rushing dark and rapid and endlessly deep.
Merlin reaches him as he's dismounting, looking at it with wide eyes. "You were in that," he says, voice rising toward a pitch Arthur hadn't realized he could achieve. That anyone could achieve. "You walked into that?"
Looking at it now, Arthur thinks he must have been very tired. "Yes," he says, kicking at the dirt and watching, appalled, as it crumbles into the rushing water. "It wasn't this bad, I'm sure."
Tying his horse to the tree farthest from the water, Arthur goes to the edge, looking down at the rush of the currents that carried houses away before his eyes. Yes, it had been this bad.
"You--" Merlin comes up beside him, damp cloak shaking and radiating anger. "I don't believe it. I let you go without me because you said it was just a patrol--"
"A patrol," Merlin says, sounding like he's spitting out the word, pushing back the hood impatiently, wet hair ruffled into something that shouldn't be possible to achieve without the assistance of say, lightning. "Two days. You were out here for two days. What did you do?"
"Checked the villages," Arthur says, watching Merlin's face, tight lipped and pale. "They reported the outliers who hadn't been seen. So--"
"You had to ride to save them."
"I had to recover their bodies for their families."
Merlin looks up at him, face startlingly white. "Why?"
"Who else was there to do it?" Arthur looks at the water. "They deserve to know, not to wonder. To have something at the end and a way to say goodbye."
"And only you can do it."
Arthur looks up, unable to stop the smile. "I'm the crown prince of Camelot. Where I lead, others will follow."
Merlin looks at him as if he's never seen him before. "You--can't just give an order."
Arthur shrugs, looking at the fast-moving water spinning by them. "What I do," he says finally, putting the years this lesson took for him to understand into every word; it took so much longer than it should have, to learn this, to live it, "is more important than anything I could say. When I tell them to fight, they have to see I will be the first to lead the charge and the last to retreat. And when I tell them their duty is to help the people they will one day rule, they have to see, to know, that I live that every day. Men follow me because I was born a prince. They have to--"
Arthur jerks his gaze to Merlin, kneeling with fingers brushing the surface of the water.
"You are such a prat," Merlin breathes, looking up with eyes flickering gold. "When I met you, I couldn't imagine what on earth the dragon was talking about--" Dragon, Arthur thinks, bewildered. Dragon. A dragon? "Right, that's next. When we're done here. He said you would be a great king. I thought he'd gone mad."
"Dragon?" Arthur says blankly.
"I told you, in a minute, I'm trying to tell you something and you're bollocking it up." Arthur closes his mouth, because really, this is Merlin. Of course he talks to dragons; the wonder would be that he didn't. "See, I thought he'd gone mad from being under the castle--"
"That dragon? The dragon under the castle? You talk to the dragon under the castle--"
"God," Merlin says, with a pained look. "Forget the dragon. You have a great destiny. Can we start from there? You don't listen at all, do you? You never have. People don't make sense at all to you, and I didn't understand why. And it was this--it was this all along, wasn't it? You don't believe what they say when it's not what they do." Merlin shakes his head slowly, like he's discovering something new and not the mundanity of Arthur's life to date. "Doesn't that drive you mad? No one--."
"You do," Arthur answers, knee-jerk. "Morgana. Gwen." He looks away, feeling more naked than the first time he'd taken off his clothing before Merlin's eyes. "Others--they can be--irritating."
"Yes, I'd say that is an understatement," Merlin says softly, looking down at the water. "I thought you were a prat and you are, honestly. Men are never going to follow you because you're crown prince, and you have to know that. They don't now. They follow you, and fight mythical monsters for you, and walk into fucking rivers for you, and try to die for you because you're you. They can't imagine doing anything else." Merlin flickers his hand in the water, looking rueful. "I know the feeling."
The water begins to glow, a spread of summer light reaching across the river, and Merlin smiles, odd and shy, the water growing as clear as glass. Arthur watches, breathless, as something shadowed and huge blocks the light, then pushes toward the surface, breaking with a splash of water like liquid sunlight, curving high above their heads, black and green, a living myth emerging huge and dazzling from dusty books and so, so much bigger than Arthur could ever have imagined.
A sea serpent. He's looking at a sea serpent.
"That's a sea serpent," Arthur says faintly, neck aching and not much caring as the head, as large as three horses and possibly a small but well-made cottage, breaks through branches, sprinkling them with a rain of twigs and leaves. Grabbing Merlin's arm, Arthur jerks them from the path of a falling branch.
"Yes, it is," Merlin says, sounding equally shocked. "Quite--big, isn't it?"
"I'd say," Arthur says, watching the head disappear above the trees before it coils downward again, slipping smoothly beneath the water. How can the river have something that damned big? "Thought it would be--not quite that big."
"Something in a possible size, yes, I was thinking that, too." Merlin's hand closes over his, cold and wet, and Arthur slides his fingers through Merlin's, pulling him back from the bank and moving a little ahead, blocking Merlin with one shoulder. "Are you--what, are you trying to protect me?"
"Someone has to go back and tell everyone how I died," Arthur says as its head finally comes down far enough to be visible without severe neck pain. It stares at him from glossy black eyes, head tilting slightly like it's trying to remember how he tastes. "When you tell the story, I'd prefer a heroic death."
"You're not going to die, you idiot!" Merlin pushes forward, fingers tightening around his. "If anyone's going to die--"
"It'll be me and not my manservant. Who would tell that story around the fire at night?" Arthur snaps. "Get back or everyone will know you cried like a girl, you prick."
Merlin stares at him, mouth open. "You wouldn't."
"Into my cloak you stole, yes, I would, and to every person I see. Get back--"
Merlin gasps, eyes wide and filled with gold. Arthur catches him when his knees crumple, sword already in his hand, easing Merlin to the wet ground. This isn't how he thought he'd die, though he supposes there are far worse ways than defending someone he loves. Slowly and painfully by the claws of a questing beast while everyone watches helplessly--no one should have to see that. "What did you do?" he says to the sea serpent, like the fucking thing can understand--
"Ah, that would be me," Merlin says suddenly, leaning against his shoulder and looking surprised. "Huh. So the spell worked."
Arthur looks down at Merlin, pale and shaky, one hand reaching across and grabbing his sword arm, tugging at it. "Really," he says breathlessly, "it was a spell to--to talk to it--"
"Why would you want to talk to it?" It's a bloody sea serpent, what, Merlin wants to know its favorite food? Fish or prince?
Merlin's mouth tightens. "It hurt you. I wanted to make sure--"
"That it wanted to go home?"
"It hurt you!" Merlin yells, a badly-fisted hand connecting with Arthur's shoulder. "I'm not sending something that tried to kill you back to the ocean, you idiot, I'm getting rid of it so it can't ever do it again!" Then he winces, grabbing his head, and Arthur makes an executive decision that something that big with scales like fucking armour isn't going to be all that threatened by a sword, and his knife will do better away. Dropping the sword, he pulls Merlin up against him, blood vivid beneath his nose. Merlin breathes out in what sounds like annoyance, shaking his head slightly. "I--okay, quieter, please. That hurts."
"It's talking--" Merlin winces, and Arthur reaches with one gloved hand to wipe at the new streak of blood. Merlin swats weakly at him, fingers curling around his wrist. "That's--that's better. Just a moment, Arthur. I need to concentrate."
Merlin opens his eyes long enough to scowl, then closes them again, leaning trustingly into his shoulder, and Arthur looks between the extremely large head hovering just above them and Merlin and gathers him up, fairly sure he can throw Merlin clear if the thing attacks.
This will never be a song anyone will ever want to sing anywhere, ever. Hovering sea serpent, half-conscious sorcerer, and a prince on the muddy ground with icy water soaking into his trousers: this is not the stuff of ballads, but it is the stuff of Arthur's life now, filled with surprises and unexpected light, never boring, never disappointing, and he can't help but smile, pulling Merlin into his lap and off the wet ground and gathering the cloak around him more carefully.
Merlin stirs, eyes half-opening, before he looks up over Arthur's shoulder, mouth curving up in a brilliant smile. "Thank you," he says, voice thick and filled with something vast, like the stretch of space between the stars. "I do owe you. Collect whenever you like; I'll be here, assuming I don't kill him myself. Hold on, I'll send you and the others back now. Thank you. Thank you so much." The golden eyes glow bright, words flowing over Arthur's skin and trailing down his spine like warm water, and for a second, Arthur feels something scaly and rough brush the top of his head, almost gently.
When he looks up, the serpent is gone and Merlin's shivering, burrowing against him, hands climbing up his tunic and to his shoulders until both arms are around his neck and he's not sure he can breathe. Then again, he's not sure he really cares.
"You are so stupid; why would you be that stupid?" Merlin mutters against his ear, voice shaking, pulling back to stare at him, eyes huge and blue and oddly wet. "You--you can't go anywhere without me again. Ever. In your fucking life, you utter ass."
They overbalance; Arthur tries to catch himself, but both arms are occupied with Merlin and that damnable cloak, and freezing water soaks into his coat and works patiently into his tunic and shirt while Merlin braces both hands on the muddy ground and glares at him.
"Two days," he says through his teeth, "two days of patrol, you fucking liar, you wandered out into the river a dozen times and that last time, that last time, you were so tired, didn't you know how strong the current was? It watched you and it followed you for two days while you kept going beyond what any sane man would, and after your knights had the good sense to stop, but they couldn't stop you. No, not the fucking crown prince of Camelot being a fucking example and all, and it saw you were going to fall and it came for you--it stopped you, it stopped the river around you so you could get back to shore and it sliced your arm because maybe if you couldn't use that arm, you might stop." Merlin plants a muddy hand on his shoulder, pushing him back before he can try and sit up. "And it watched you help to build that last pyre and thought you were actually going to go out again, but your knights realized you'd gone mad and made you leave. Did they tie you on your horse?"
Arthur stares up at him. "I--no. Well, yes, they said they would, but there was no spare rope--"
"Yes, of course, no rope, they know better now," Merlin says, sitting up, shifting his weight like Arthur had taught him to pin an opponent and usually used in much more enjoyable ways. "It followed you to Camelot. It watched you until it was sure you were safe, because it knew I was there and I'd--that I'd--" Merlin rubs a shaking hand across his face, leaving a streak of mud behind. "That of course I knew you were out there, I'm a sorcerer. And by the way, it thinks I'm pretty incompetent that I didn't know what my king was up to wandering about the countryside on his own, so there goes my reputation--"
"I'm not a king," Arthur starts and Merlin reaches down and shakes him, fingers tight on his shoulders. Arthur can honestly say no one has ever done that to him before, but Merlin's been first for so many things, so it's not precisely a surprise. He can feel mud caking in his hair; Merlin's helping with his bath tonight, no question.
"You can't do that. You can't. You're going to change the world and you can't do that if you're dead in a river."
"I'm not--dead in the river," Arthur says warily, balancing throwing Merlin off into the mud against the fact it's cold and wet and at least one of them should stay somewhat dry and free of fever and it's probably not going to be him with water accumulating in his boots and soaking his collar. "Merlin--"
"You scared the sea serpents, Arthur. You scared the sea serpents dragging yourself around like some kind of lackwitted hero from a incredibly stupid ballad…."
"Why would a sea serpent care--"
"You're his bloody king, that's why! They've been waiting for you, we've all been waiting for you, don't you understand, you can't do this, you're--"
Arthur wonders if connecting with the mind of sea serpents causes some kind of short term insanity. "Merlin--"
"You could have died and--I didn't know." Merlin jerks back, going white and swaying, shaking like he's going to fall apart. Arthur reaches for him and gets his hands slapped away for his trouble. "I didn't know. You came back and came to bed and you didn't say you could have died in a damned river. You may never leave Camelot without me again. I can't sit and wait like a particularly dense princess in a story. This isn't a story, this is everything, this is my life. What would I do if you were gone?"
Arthur squints up at him. "Find someone else to irritate? Merlin, I am lying in water and it's rather cold--"
"I'd probably die too, that's what, did you think of that? If I hadn't said I wouldn't do that anymore, I would give you the worst cold in the history of the world," Merlin says viciously, and then kisses him. It probably says so much about them both that it doesn't seem that odd at all. Arthur kisses him back, the only warm thing in the entire world and maybe, just maybe, the only thing he wants anyway. When Merlin pulls back, Arthur licks his lips, trying to identify the odd, salty taste lingering on his tongue.
"Were you--" Arthur reaches up, careful of his muddy fingers, though honesty, Merlin's smeared himself pretty thoroughly. Red-rimmed eyes glare back. "Merlin?"
"Shut up," Merlin says miserably, rubbing his eyes with one narrow wrist. "It's not like this is a surprise, I know you. You'll do these things because that's who you are and that's why I'm in love with you, but that's why you have to, have to let me help you."
Arthur forgets that it's raining and the mud currently taking up residence in his trousers; he wonders why he ever cared to begin with. "Merlin."
"I knew it wouldn't be easy." Merlin says bitterly. "Should have fallen in love with a nice, safe chambermaid or a page or someone who doesn't think the best fun in the world is to try to drown in rivers. Someone who--"
"I'm not sure I'd take that well at all," Arthur says, pushing himself up, hand skidding on the muddy ground, feeling mud working itself into his gloves. "Could you--" He tilts Merlin's face up, struggling against the habit of silence; he can do this. "That spell, with the drying--"
"It starts things on fire," Merlin mutters, muddy hand wrapping around his wrist and pressing his cheeks against the palm in absent affection. Arthur shivers, breathless. "Morgana found a hole in her cloak."
"And straw. But only a little, I'm sure it will eventually work--"
Merlin shakes his head angrily, free hand fisting in his coat. "You--the thing is, you have to promise me--"
Merlin frowns, hesitating. "I--didn't actually finish telling you what to promise me."
"I know," Arthur says, grinning up at him. "Make a list and I'll say yes. To all of them. Any of them. Even the ones you don't think you can ask, I'll make them to you. And I'll keep them all."
Merlin's eyes go wide. "Arthur--"
For a second, he's not sure Merlin understands, then blue eyes flare incandescent gold and incredibly bright with all the potential of a new day and a new, brilliant life, glittering with promise, and so the fuck what if he's back on the ground in the rain by a riverbank, covered in mud and feeling like he'll never be dry again. Merlin's mouth is soft and sweet and so happy, and he's so warm he may never remember how it felt to be cold.