He's been rolling on the floor with Freya, not really aiming at anything, just high on the sound of her moans and the taste of her cunt on his tongue, when Arthur walks in and she jumps away, lowers her long skirt, and runs out the door. Merlin thinks about going after her but goes to his master instead.
"This place is a mess," Arthur says, his arms crossed over his chest.
Merlin shrugs and leans in close – he loves the smell of sweat and dirt that Arthur always brings after he's been training with his knights. "I've been trying to make Freya feel at home, " he says.
"Oh? Did she grow up in a barn?"
"No, Arthur, don't be a brute!" Arthur just raises an eyebrow and steps back, breaking their contact. Merlin lowers his voice. "She grew up in a normal little house in the country where people have to clean for themselves, just like me, and even if…there's no need to be cruel. I just mean, she's new, and it's nice to have company. And we've been busy."
"Well, that's… fine, I suppose. She needs to know she's safe here, but if you want to stay safe you'd best concentrate on doing your job."
He's been saying a lot of this kind of thing lately, but Merlin thinks it's mostly out of grumpiness. Or maybe because Arthur works harder than any of his knights, he thinks Merlin should have to work more than any of the other pets. In any case, it does no good to argue.
"May I undress you then?"
Arthur snorts, but allows it, and Merlin makes a point of being efficient – professional, as Arthur puts it – and not touching him any more than is strictly necessary. Arthur looks at him with something like approval, and it's something like a comfort.
Perhaps it's the sound of Arthur's armour coming off that draws Freya back into the room. She walks awkwardly, but even more quietly than most felids, in her bare feet, missing their claws. Arthur might not have noticed her if he hadn't followed Merlin's gaze.
"Freya," he says, turning towards her. "You've been polishing my armour, haven't you? And sharpening my sword?"
She nods guardedly.
"Well done. I noticed at practice today, it handles better than ever. Merlin was always rubbish at that, weren't you, Merlin?"
Merlin says nothing.
Freya says, "It's my pleasure, sire," and bows her head. Arthur carefully reaches towards her, and she lets him smooth his hand over her hair once before she curtseys and moves away, grabs his weapons and carries them off.
"That was better," Arthur says as he stares after her.
"She's warming up," Merlin agrees, taking off Arthur's tunic and bringing the shirt he'll sleep in.
"She may as well keep out of sight tomorrow. We'll have guests, and she might like them even less than she likes me. But my father wants you to wait on us the head table."
"Do I have to wear a hat?"
"Not this time." Arthur grants Merlin a small smile before going stern again. "You're to dress like the other servants – the human servants – and behave yourself like one, is that clear? Just… be as normal as you can stand to be."
Merlin nods slowly. "I can do that."
Arthur eats alone that night, while Merlin prepares the fire. When he's finished Merlin takes the leftovers and goes to find Freya in the armoury. Turns out Gwen – the only human Freya can tolerate for any length of time – already brought her some scraps from the kitchen. Merlin's a little disappointed not to have brought what Freya wants, and more disappointed that he missed the chance for a cuddle with Gwen. But it means more dinner for him, which is all to the good. Afterwards they curl up together and lick each other's faces clean.
"Arthur really is a good man," says Merlin. "There's no need to be afraid of him."
"I know," she Freya, offering him her neck. "Gwen says the same. I'm not afraid… and I'm not a fool. I know we're lucky to be here."
Merlin nods and nuzzles and breathes in her scent, grateful once again that she's made her way to them, though the journey must have been harrowing. Freya's been hurt, and not just the kind of taunts and the yanks at his tail that Merlin had to put up with at home, before his mother sent him away. She's not a fool, but she's got reason to be afraid. He wants her to know that nothing like that will happen anymore.
"Gwen says that Morgana says that Camelot's the best place any of us could be. Especially now that there are so many of us, the way Uther's brought us together."
Freya twists around so his front is curled around her back, lying there on the floor, and she hums when he licks behind her ears. "Who's Morgana?"
"The king's favourite. I've never seen her, but Gwen's worked for her since they were little, before she changed. And Gwen's the only servant who still gets to see her sometimes, in his private rooms."
"Is Morgana the king's servant too?"
Merlin shakes his head. "She doesn't have to work, just lives in the place he's set aside for her. And at night, or during the day, whenever he thinks of her, he goes to her and loves her."
Freya makes a movement halfway between a shrug and a shudder. "No wonder Gwen didn't tell me about that. I wouldn't like it at all."
"I think it sounds wonderful."
Arthur's already sleeping when they go back to his rooms, and Merlin crawls in to lie beside him. Arthur swats at him unconsciously, and Merlin presses his face into those large, tender hands, and snuggles in. He lives for this, for when Arthur's too far gone to pretend not to want him.
Freya watches them from her corner.
"You should join us," Merlin murmurs, and she stalks away.
Merlin's plan is to get through the next day by following Gwen and imitating her as much as possible. That's generally how he gets through any new task Arthur sets him, for she seems to know everything there is to know about being a servant. Uther looks through her, but Arthur often smiles and even thanks her. No one gets angry at Gwen.
Except, today, they do. Lady Vivian, the daughter of the visiting king, reminds Merlin of the haughtiest of cats, though her skin is pale and naked, and her little ears are set on the side of her head. She treats her own family as if they stood a level beneath her, and Arthur's family lower than that. One of Gwen's jobs is to prepare Vivian's rooms, and Merlin tags along so he'll know what to do in King Olaf's rooms later. When Vivian finds them there she screams and chases them out. In their rush out the door Merlin literally runs into Arthur.
"Please don't be alarmed," Arthur tells their guest. "I realise my father's tastes are unusual… some even call them unnatural, but they're perfectly harmless."
"They're actually quite clean. But if Merlin makes you uncomfortable it's fine, Gwen's certainly capable of taking care of –"
"No," Vivian says quickly. "No, if you'll stay then the catboy can too. I wouldn't mind getting a closer look at him. But that girl was trying to steal my combs, I'm sure of it."
"I assure you, Gwen would never –"
"Arthur Pendragon, are you calling me a liar?"
It's resolved when Gwen volunteers to go back to the kitchen and, like Freya, keeps out of sight for the rest of the visit. Unfortunately that leaves Merlin to fend for himself at the feast, trying, for Arthur's sake, to pretend to be a human. Meanwhile Uther rattles on about how felids make better servants, and Vivian, having quickly overcome her revulsion, grabs Merlin by the collar and pulls him close so she can scratch behind his ears. Of course he spills the wine. Of course Uther laughs, and Arthur growls, and Merlin creeps away, letting Gilli and Morris take over.
That night, even in his sleep, Arthur kicks Merlin out of bed.
"Don't go out," he says in the morning. "You're to stay with me and do your job. That's all. Do you understand, Merlin?"
It's not easy to get his job done without going out, but Gwen and Gilli bring them some hot water. After giving Arthur a bath Merlin washes the linens and then sets to scrubbing the floor. It's not pleasant work – like most of his kind Merlin hates getting wet – but he likes that Arthur stays with him. They don't touch or talk much, but there's a steady rhythm to the work that's calming. When the king shows up Merlin can feel Arthur's whole body go tense without even looking. He goes on scrubbing, as if nothing's changed.
"Still giving him drudge work, are you?" Uther says.
"He does fine as long as you don't distract him."
"And so would a hundred other country boys. Does this one not strike you as… special?"
A huff of air, and Merlin still doesn't look, but he thinks it's good humour.
Uther continues, "What about that new one you took in? I barely see her. She could do with a bit more structure and discipline, I think. And this one could do with some more attention." And then he's close, crouching down next to him. Merlin concentrates on the stain when he feels the king's gloved hand sliding along his back. Get it out, do it right, and please Arthur. At the thought of Arthur kneeling beside him and touching him like this (but it would be his bare hand, Arthur's gentle hand on his skin) Merlin's ears twitch. Then Uther scratches through Merlin's breeches, that sensitive spot at the base of his tail, where Arthur has never yet touched him, and Merlin can't help himself, he gasps and arches into him, raises his rump and bows his head, wanting to feel more.
"Father," is all Arthur says, as if his father were the one who'd disappointed him and not Merlin. Merlin's head goes lower still. He is still aroused. He's also ashamed.
Uther leaves without another word. Merlin is frozen, with his arse in the air, unsure what to do until Arthur says, "Get up, for God's sake, it's as clean as it'll ever be."
Merlin stands and drops his rag in the bucket. He looks at the ground.
"First the scene you made last night, and now this," Arthur says with a sigh. He's still sitting on the bed.
Feeling defiant, Merlin sits down next to him, but doesn't try to touch him.
"I've done everything you told me," he says quietly. "I brought you everything you asked for at the table, I've worked all morning. You and your room are cleaner than I've seen them and my hands are wrinkled and I haven't complained, Arthur. I've been practically Morris! And – and they touched me first!"
"And once they did you couldn't help yourself," Arthur says, standing up.
"Exactly! It's in my nature, Arthur. How can you blame me for wanting to be touched, especially when I'm starving for it with you? Why do you want me to be something I'm not?"
"Because I want to keep you safe! And when you act like an animal in front of my father you draw attention to yourself. If you care about me, you should do what you can to stay with me, not give him cause to take you for himself."
Merlin blinks. "I've given him no cause."
"You understand nothing," Arthur says, and leaves him alone.
It's only a few hours later that Gwen pops her head in the door, smiling. "Come with me, Merlin, we've got another job for you to try."
He gets up and goes with her at once, down the corridor and up the steps. At first the companionship is pleasing enough that he doesn't notice how quiet she is. But that's not like Gwen. "Are you still upset about Lady Vivian?" he asks. "Did you get in trouble?"
"What? No, Merlin, Lady Vivian is off away home, and nothing for either of us to be concerned about. I'm only…" She stops, turns to him, and he ducks his head into her hand. "You're such a sweet boy," she says, scratching the back of his neck. "I think you'll be just fine here."
"Here?" Merlin says, his eyes still half closed as he takes pleasure in her touch. When he looks around, he realises they're standing in a corridor he doesn't know, outside a door he's never seen. Gwen takes a moment to find the key on her chain.
The room is rich and warm, and so dark that Merlin sees little at first, only notices the deep softness of the carpet under his feet.
Gwen clears her throat. "I'm supposed to take your things."
"What?" Merlin says, looking down. "I didn't bring anything."
Gwen smiles. "Your clothes, Merlin," she gives a strained little laugh. "It's so warm in here, the others swear they don't miss them."
"Oh." Merlin stares at nothing for a few moments and then starts unbuttoning his shirt, thinking, the others. He had thought the room was empty but as he undresses he starts to see movements in the corners. His eyes are adjusting to the dimness and he recognises the shape and the smooth movement of other felids, though he doesn't know their faces. Their tails are all visible, for they're naked but for their collars. Merlin sniffs the air and realises their collars are made of leather. He touches the red cloth at his throat, the only thing he's wearing now, and hesitates. "Do I – " he starts to ask – "Should I take this off too?"
Gwen bites her lip. "He didn't say… but yes, let me take it for now. I'm not sure if Freya's ready to wear one yet, but she'll be happy to have something of yours."
Merlin's skin is hot under her fingers, but he shivers as she undoes the knot.
"Am I – it's not a punishment, is it?"
Gwen shakes her head and pets his shoulder. "I don't think so, Merlin. You can't always look for why and because here. If Uther wants something, that's reason enough."
Merlin nods. He thinks to say something about taking care of Freya, but he's still not sure just what's going on, or how long he's meant to stay here, and he feels a fool standing naked in the doorway. "Thank you," he says, handing over his shirt and trousers and smallclothes awkwardly.
Her hands are full but she leans in quickly to kiss his forehead. "I'll see you soon," she promises, and turns to go.
As soon as the door closes there's a thin, dark-haired woman pressed against him, kissing his face and whispering him welcome. He misses Freya fiercely as he presses back, slides his hands up and down her sides. Then there's another girl and a boy, and then another three or four, sniffing and touching him. Someone pulls and Merlin goes to his hands and knees and they're all together, and he's still confused, disoriented, but he can't be ashamed or unhappy. Not with so many sweet touches all around.
"Do you like it here?" he asks. "I'd heard rumours but I never really – do you ever go outside? To the rest of the castle, I mean? I don't know if I'd like not being able to go outside. Arthur visits you, doesn't he? Arthur must be able to visit, and Freya…"
All their answers are only variations on hush, and then there's a real hiss, and the tinkle of a tiny bell, and all the others scatter, leaving Merlin curled on the floor, panting and humping at nothing. The sound of the bell comes closer, though her feet on the rug make no sound, and Merlin knows this is Morgana, though her face is as unfamiliar as the others. Instead of touching him she looks down, nods, and motions for him to follow. Merlin scrambles after her.
They enter a smaller room, not closed off from the larger hall, but set back, with a low ceiling, more furniture, and the only window to the outside. Merlin blinks at the bright whiteness. Morgana lies on a couch next to it, and from her comfortable pose Merlin understands this is her space. She's only brought him into it as a favour, and a temporary one. The carpet is soft under his knees.
"Congratulations," she purrs. "You've been promoted."
"Thank you," he says. He clears his throat. "I didn't ask for this, you know."
She smiles coolly. "Not with words, perhaps. But I'm serious, Merlin. You should be proud, to have come so far."
Merlin nods. "The king… they say he chooses his favourites…"
"Only the very best and the most beautiful. It's a real honour for a peasant like you. But do you know what's even better than that, Merlin? Better than being a pet?"
He shakes his head.
"Having power over a king," she says with a grin.
There's a commotion in the main hall, and Merlin turns around to see Uther himself, with the door at his back, grinning in the direction of Morgana's little room.
He strides toward them slowly, confidently, pausing to pet a few of the others on the head, on the backside, even to push his fingers casually into a few of their holes. They writhe and whine under him and Merlin starts to rub impatiently against the leg of Morgana's couch. "Stay still," she says quietly. "Let him come to us and then do as you're told. And for God's sake don't speak unless you're spoken to."
Merlin's never known another felid to give orders like this, and keeping still isn't easy when he wants so much. Still, it seems natural to obey – more natural than, say, obeying Arthur.
"Stand up, boy," Uther barks, and as Merlin stumbles to his feet Uther turns him around again, so he's facing Morgana with all the king's rich clothing against Merlin's naked back.
"What do you think, princess?"
"He's lovely, my lord. Thank you," Morgana murmurs while Uther's gloved fingers touch Merlin's neck, the touch of leather – not petting but – the pressure settles in all around, this new collar heavier and tighter than the one Arthur gave him, the one Gwen carried away a few minutes ago. Merlin tries to keep his breath shallow and his body still, much as he wants to rut against the bulge he can feel in the king's trousers, hard against his arse.
Only when Uther's hands drop to Merlin's nipple and his belly does he hear the tinkle of the bell. And he watches Morgana's eyes go wide, and then go narrow and cold.
"I had it made to match," Uther says proudly. "First one of its kind since you were a girl, but old Geoffrey remembered the design."
Morgana looks at them and says nothing.
"Go to her," Uther says softly, his breath hot at Merlin's ear as he lets go of Merlin's body, then pushes, and Merlin scrambles across the little room and up on top of Morgana on her bed. Her mouth and body twist away in annoyance, but she stays under him. The bell rings as his knees and hands slide along her skin and the deep soft velvet. He hides his face in the fall of Morgana's hair down her back, and breathes.
There's less light here than in Arthur's rooms. Less to look at but so much more to smell and taste and feel, Merlin just wants to sink into it. He startles when Uther gloved hand falls heavy on the small of his back, but then relaxes again. Morgana's body shifts under him and it takes Merlin a moment to realise it's the king manipulating her, shoving one knee forward so her arse rises in the air. Morgana's tail moves wild enough to smack his prick and his thigh, and Merlin isn't sure what his own tail is doing until Uther grabs it and tugs, and chuckles at Merlin's yowl.
He doesn't understand this, but he doesn't need to understand. Uther alternates between gentle caresses and blunt force, and Morgana snarls and moans, and Merlin lets himself be moved.
He's not had a prick inside him since before he left Ealdor, and never so fast, so huge and insistent. His body's not been the centre of anyone's attention in so long and he doesn't know what to do, so he lets go. His limbs and his tail flail every which way unless Uther or Morgana moves something out of their way. After some time Morgana wriggles out from under him and Merlin still lies there and gasps for air while the king sates himself with deep, heavy grunts.
Afterwards Uther talks to himself, reclining on another of the benches and stroking Merlin's thigh. Morgana's retreated to another corner, the other felids scattering in turn to allow her space, but Merlin still lies on his belly, cum slowly drying on his skin and the velvet couch.
"Arthur's a dear boy," the king says, causing Merlin to lift his head for the first time since the fucking. Uther smiles and offers him a hand, and Merlin licks. "Only natural to want to spoil him," he continues. "Any father would do the same. But if he can't appreciate a fine creature like you, well then, he won't be allowed to keep you."
Merlin naps on a luxurious warm bed and imagines Freya tucked in next to him, how she might wake and kiss him and stroke him until they both fell back to sleep, and surely Morgana and the others wouldn't mind setting this space aside for them, and maybe Arthur could come to visit, and he'd be kinder than his father, and they could all get along.
He wakes to the sound of an argument, Morgana snarling, "What did you expect to happen? Did you ever think to ask any of us, or did you just assume you knew better?"
And he jumps up and runs when he hears Arthur voice, though he can't make out the words. He's surprised at how sore he is, but tries to ignore the feeling, the memory.
"Oh, pity the poor exploited creatures," says Morgana. "If only Prince Arthur would save us."
"What's wrong?" Merlin asks.
"Everything." Arthur is backing away from Merlin – not with his normal, familiar stuffiness, but with a deeply troubled look. "How can you both not see how wrong all of this is?"
Morgana's and Merlin's ears perk up at the loud footfalls of human steps in the corridor, and Morgana grabs Arthur's wrist, forcing him to look at her. "I don't care if we disgust you, Arthur, but your father does. Here he comes. Remember what Gwen said, now, and don't be an idiot. You know what you need to do."
The crowd gathers around Uther again, and Merlin thinks to go along with them, but Arthur lays a hand on his shoulder and Merlin freezes.
Uther pushes the others away quickly this time, coming to stand opposite Arthur, with Merlin between them, though Arthur's no longer touching him. Morgana steps back, watching.
"You don't have permission to be here," Uther says quietly, and Arthur answers at once,
"You have no right to take my things," his voice bare and strained.
When Merlin backs up toward him Arthur's body tenses, but instead of moving away he touches Merlin's shoulder again. His hold is firmer this time, his fingers sharp without claws.
Uther smiles tolerantly. "I'm the king, I have every right."
"Merlin – Merlin and Freya are mine."
As weird as the situation is, Merlin can't help but grin as he hears the words. He relaxes against Arthur's side as Uther says, "I gave him to you and I –"
"You can't take him away, not now," Arthur says, and to Merlin's astonishment he turns toward him, turns Merlin around to face him and smoothes his hand over Merlin's hair and all down his back. Merlin whimpers and clutches at him, wanting to feel him all over. And Arthur doesn't let go, keeps on holding him and stroking him as he says, "Not now that I've really made him mine."
Then Arthur holds one hand low on Merlin's back and the other at his chin. Merlin's eyes close and everything else opens as Arthur kisses him. It feels like floating, like his feet could come right off the ground, and then he realises they have, that he's rutting against Arthur so hard he's climbed up on him, and both Arthur and his father are chuckling. Perhaps he should be embarrassed, though he's not. Some impact disturbs him so he comes back down, and opens his eyes. Uther is clapping Arthur on the back.
"So you do have some healthy human appetites after all."
"I am my father's son." Arthur's voice is strange again, but Uther doesn't seem to mind.
"He really is a treasure, Arthur. I can't say we won't miss him, but what really bothered me was the idea of him going to waste."
Arthur touches Merlin's neck, the collar, he's taking it off, and he hands it to Uther. The bell rings.
"He is a good servant," Arthur says. "He and the girl both are. I trust I don't need to keep them locked up in my own rooms to make it clear –"
Uther holds up his hands. "Anyone else who touches them will answer to me."
Arthur draws back and takes Merlin's hand. Merlin smiles. "Thank you," he says, to Arthur, to Uther, and probably to Morgana as well.
"Gwen will still be allowed to pet us, won't she?" he asks when they're back in Arthur's chambers.
Freya is sitting at the foot of the bed, close enough for Merlin to feel her warmth, though not actually touching. Merlin's got his old clothes and familiar surroundings back, which is nice. He's also got Arthur's hand combing idly through his hair, which is nicer.
"Of course," Arthur says.
"She won't be beheaded or anything?"
"She'll be fine. I'll, um, I'll mention it to my father."
"Will she also be allowed to have sex with us?" Freya asks, and Merlin's stunned. He's been so occupied imagining being with Arthur and Freya at once – how Arthur would fuck him deep, like Uther did, but close and patient and slow, and how glad Freya would be to share Merlin with someone else – he hadn't thought of including Gwen as well, but now it strikes him as a fantastic idea.
"I think that's a little premature," says Arthur.
"Please," says Freya.
"Have you even asked Gwen whether she's interested?"
"Have you?" says Merlin.
Arthur frowns, and Merlin decides to try kissing him then, a peck on the lips is all. When he pulls back Arthur's still frowning, but hasn't moved away.
"Maybe you should lay a claim on her too," Freya says with a yawn, "before your father starts getting other ideas."
"That's not how it works," Arthur says gravely.
Freya gives a little shrug and stretches out to sleep. Merlin decides to lie down next to her, but he keeps his head in Arthur's lap, and Arthur's hand keeps stroking his hair, gentle, chaste, comforting, bewildering.
Merlin doesn't understand how any of this works, not really. And, perhaps more worrying, he no longer believes Arthur understands it either. Is he glad to have Merlin back, or even relieved not to have lost him? Is he excited, is he disgusted? What makes him think he can promise to keep them safe, when so much can change in an afternoon? And what ever made Merlin think he could make such promises to Freya?
It's out of his hands. All he knows is that this is where he wants to be.
"Maybe Gwen can explain," he whispers sleepily. "We'll have to ask."