All right, so Arthur was as glad as anyone that the unicorn was alive and well and not cursing Camelot to eternal perdition, but honestly. He shoved Merlin by the shoulder as they left the grove. "You needn't cry, I'm sure the unicorn will let you come back and play with it again if you're so keen on it."
"No, no," Merlin said, batting at Arthur's hand. "I think it liked you better. You're the one who's been proven 'pure of heart' and everything."
"You're the one it was slobbering over in the first place," Arthur said. "What's that they say about unicorns? I thought you country boys got an early start on this kind of thing."
"Oh, excuse me, I'm not the one it let get up close with a crossbow," Merlin said. "What's the matter, having trouble deciding which of the lovestruck maidservants to grace with your princely—"
"That's enough," Arthur snapped, insisting to himself he was not blushing in the slightest. The conversation had gone stupidly pear-shaped, and it was clearly time for it to be over. He moved ahead on the trail and shoved aside several branches, even if they weren't precisely in his way. They might have snagged on his mail.
"Wait," Merlin said behind him, with one of those incredibly inconvenient bursts of insight, "you really haven't?"
There was just a hint of glee in his tone, and Arthur wheeled on him, furious. "If you dare so much as suggest, to anyone—"
"No, never," Merlin said, wide-eyed and innocent, hands behind his back.
Arthur glared at him, trying to put in a convincing suggestion of hours upon hours in the stocks. It was possibly less effective after he'd just drunk poison rather than let Merlin die for him: Merlin looked less fazed even than usual, which wasn't much to begin with. As soon as Arthur turned and stalked onward, Merlin came trotting after him and promptly added, "But really, you haven't? You do know that half the serving girls at court end their prayers at night with, 'and please let Arthur shag me blind tomorrow, amen.' "
Arthur tried not to think about that very much, it was too depressing. "If you'd been lectured by my father for four hours on your thirteenth birthday about all the many disasters that occur to a realm when you muddy the succession with bastards, you wouldn't have been very quick to dive into bed with the nearest servant girl, either," he muttered. "Anyway, then there was Morgana."
"What, you mean, you're—keeping faithful to her?" Merlin said, doubtfully.
"What? No, you idiot," Arthur said. "I—I lost a bet to her."
"You had a bet on with her about—"
"She had this idea—this stupid idea—that it's harder to be a woman," Arthur said. "She bet me I couldn't last a week living like her if we exchanged places."
"And you lost the bet," Merlin said.
"She showed up at my door at dawn on the first morning, wearing mail, with a dress and a corset," Arthur said. Merlin kept looking at him with an interested, questioning expression. "Yes, I lost the bet!" Arthur yelled. "Do you really think I would go prancing around Camelot in women's clothing?"
"No, obviously," Merlin said, too hastily. "So for her forfeit?"
"She said I'd have to keep my honor the same way she had to keep hers, until marriage," Arthur muttered.
"Oh," Merlin said. "Er, how old were you?"
"Fifteen," Arthur said, grimly.
"Oh," Merlin said. At least he had the decency to sound sympathetic. "Maybe by now she's forgotten?"
"She asks me every year," Arthur said, even more grimly. "On my birthday."
Merlin winced. They walked on, the forest rustling peacefully overhead, birds chirping, Arthur sunk in gloom. "Nobody could blame you, you know," Merlin ventured, after a moment.
"Merlin, you ass, what do you think Morgana would do, if I did?" Arthur said.
"Er," Merlin said.
"She'd go out and find some hapless idiot, probably one of my knights, and throw her own honor over the nearest stile five minutes later," Arthur said. "And it would all come out, because she has the discretion of a rabid sow, and then my father would have to put the man to death and lock her up in a convent."
Merlin stared at him.
Arthur cleared his throat. "I've thought about it. A few times."
Merlin nodded. They walked on.
"At least it's a little better than just, you know." Merlin said.
"How is it any better than that at all?" Arthur said bitterly.
"Well, at least you can," Merlin made a weird gesture that possibly meant something inside his strange little head but certainly nowhere else. It didn't look like 'just, you know,' but Arthur had no idea what it was supposed to be.
"What are you talking about," Arthur said.
"So—you don't at all," Merlin said. "With anyone."
"No, I don't at all," Arthur said savagely. "That's the bet."
Merlin eyed Arthur sidelong. "Er."
"What?" Arthur said.
"Nothing," Merlin said.
"Merlin," Arthur said.
"Nothing!" Merlin said. "I don't know anything! It's not—" He was backing away hastily.
"Merlin," Arthur said, in what he considered an extremely reasonable, level, and calm tone, befitting a knight and a prince. Merlin backed into the broad oak tree behind him. Arthur put his hands on either side of Merlin's neck.
Merlin swallowed, very noticeably. "I'll only tell you if you promise not to have Gwen put to death."
"Of course I'm not going to have Gwen put to death," Arthur said, baffled. "What does Gwen have to do with it?"
Afterwards, Arthur stood very still and contemplated the extreme and vilely underhanded treachery of women. "How long has this been going on?" he inquired, after a moment.
"Well," Merlin said. "A—a while, I should think? Before I came to Camelot, anyway."
"Years," Arthur said. "She's been—for years."
Arthur nodded thoughtfully. "Right. Come on." He turned off the path.
"Aren't we going back to Camelot?" Merlin said, following him, picking his way gingerly through the shrubs. Arthur held a couple of branches back from him. "Thanks," Merlin said, a little doubtfully.
"Not yet," Arthur said, pushing on into the small campground; they'd used it on the hunting trip, two weeks before. He poked the ground experimentally with his boot: soft moss and dry pine needles, comfortable. He took off his cloak and spread it on the ground. "Come here and help me with my armor."
Merlin came over and started unbuckling him. "I don't understand. You know it's going to take the better part of an hour to get you back into it."
"It'll be worth it," Arthur said, working off his gauntlets.
Merlin's hands abruptly stopped, and Merlin eyed him up and down with an insultingly dubious expression.
"What?" Arthur said, "Get on with it!"
"I'm pretty sure this isn't part of my duties," Merlin said.
Arthur glared at him. "Guinevere does it for Morgana!"
"Morgana's really nice to Gwen," Merlin said. "I don't think I like you that much."
"You don't—" Arthur was speechless a moment, and then he threw down his vambraces and hauled his chainmail, weskit, and shirt all together over his head, jangling all the armor in a heap and wriggling his arms free of the last straps to shed the lot. He dumped the pile on the grass and reached out and seized Merlin by the front of his shirt and hauled him in. "You don't like me that much?" he said dangerously.
Merlin was grinning at him with a sort of idiotic expression. "Not really," he said, but there was a flush of color in his cheeks, and he started unbuckling Arthur's belt. His fingertips skittered along the tops of Arthur's hips as he slid the leather strap loose.
Arthur swallowed and started tugging at the laces of Merlin's shirt. "You ought to," he said. "I'm—absurdly tolerant of you." His knees felt a little strange.
"You're an ass," Merlin said, and kissed him before Arthur could respond to that as it deserved. He even kissed insolently, mouthing softly along Arthur's jaw even when Arthur made it perfectly clear he wanted Merlin's mouth and tried to catch him. Merlin dodged it and instead bit at Arthur's ear, sliding the lobe through his teeth, slowly.
"Merlin," Arthur said. It was irritation; he was extremely irritated. Merlin's skin felt soft and cool under his hands, and there was so much of it, the whole smooth expanse of his back now that his shirt was off. Merlin's hands were busy at his trouser lacings, brushing against him, and just the thought of it, of Merlin's hands, his clever fingers, was making Arthur very nearly desperate.
"Stop hurrying," Merlin murmured against his cheek, lipping his way with soft half-kisses to investigate the corner of Arthur's mouth with his tongue. Arthur's trousers slid down his legs and tangled over his boot tops. Merlin was undoing his own trouser lacings with one hand.
"Shut up, I've been waiting years," Arthur said, and it felt true suddenly, that he'd been waiting for this, for Merlin, and he sought Merlin's mouth again to keep himself from saying anything ridiculous and stupid like that, except Merlin trembled suddenly in his arms as though he had said it.
Then they were kissing urgently, messily, pressed naked against each other, and Arthur was starting to wonder about the mechanics. He'd never really thought about it, he'd tried mostly not to think about sex at all—he really was going to kill Morgana slowly and with great pleasure, except not until after Merlin had finished doing that, and also that other thing, and anything else he might possibly do, potentially over the course of several years, and while considering these things, Arthur somehow ended up on his back on the ground.
Merlin was tugging at his boots. Arthur left him to do it, that seemed appropriate, and anyway he needed to catch his breath a little. Merlin finished with that and tugged off his own, and then he sort of paused, sitting back on his heels at Arthur's feet.
Arthur propped himself up on his elbows. "What?" he demanded. Merlin raised his eyes slowly, letting them slide all the naked length of Arthur's body, and Arthur felt as though he'd been stroked all along, a warm golden touch; he was panting hard, even before Merlin bent his head and kissed him on the ankle. Merlin curled his hand under Arthur's knee, lifted his leg a little so he could kiss him on the inside of his thigh, and then again, higher on the leg.
Arthur let his head fall back. Merlin was—Merlin was—"Oh," Arthur said, helplessly. "Merlin. Merlin."
"Mm," Merlin said, and lifted his head away, licking his mouth. Arthur moaned and tried to follow him, his hips rising, but Merlin pressed them down. He nudged Arthur's legs apart and settled himself comfortably between, curled around and resting against them like a cat stretching itself impossibly around a favorite piece of furniture. "I think," Merlin said, bending his head again for a long thoughtful lick, "I think I might possibly change my mind."
"Please," Arthur said, because he was proud, but he wasn't bloody stupid, and Merlin's mouth was all wet and red and kiss-swollen and soft and not where it needed to be, until then it was, and apparently country boys did get an early education in this sort of thing.
Merlin stopped again, and Arthur groaned desperately. "I'll be nicer," he said, urgently. "I will, Merlin, I swear—"
"You will not, you're a wretched bully," Merlin said a bit unsteadily, and he was licking his own fingers, sucking on them. Arthur stared wildly, watching them slide wet and shining out of Merlin's mouth, because he didn't know for certain what Merlin was planning, but—but—and then Merlin was putting his head back down and it didn't matter, Merlin could do anything, Merlin could have anything, gold and kingdoms and a dozen unicorns if he wanted them, except it seemed what Merlin wanted was something else entirely.
Arthur heard his own breath coming in rapid whining bursts, and it wasn't, he shouldn't, something, which didn't quite want to come clear in his head, except he was, he was pushing back and, and it was, and that was Merlin, Merlin's hand, and Merlin's mouth. "I will," he said, hoarsely. "Merlin, I will, I will," straining.
"I know," Merlin said, panting against his hip, kissing him, sucking him again. "I know you will," and Arthur moaned and came slick and wet with Merlin's tongue still licking him as he spilled.
Arthur lay there panting and dizzy. Merlin was still going at him with quick, curious swipes, just the tip of his tongue, as if Merlin wanted to see just how far he could go before making pleasure into torment. He was smiling with the same absurd self-satisfaction he got sometimes when he'd just finished putting Arthur into his armor, as though he was looking at something splendid for which he, Merlin, was entirely responsible. At the moment, Arthur wasn't sure he wasn't right.
"Arthur," Merlin said, crawling up to kiss his mouth and nuzzle at his neck. "Ready?" he asked. His fingers drew lines through the mess on Arthur's belly and came away dripping.
"Yes," Arthur said, and drew his leg up further, to make it easier. Merlin's fingers slid smoothly into him again, then out, and then Merlin shifted upon him. Arthur kept his hand tight in Merlin's hair and stared up at the trees waving gently and placidly overhead against the blue sky, just as though the world wasn't shaking underneath them.
"Arthur," Merlin said, a little choked-off, and his head dipped; he dropped scattered clumsy kisses on Arthur's mouth.
"Oh, god," Arthur said, waveringly. "Oh. Yes. Merlin, yes." He hadn't quite believed there was more to be wrung out of him, but evidently there was, oh god there was, so very much, and Merlin evidently meant to get at all of it, at all of him, and Arthur wanted, oh. "Yes," he said again, his voice rising. "Yes, now, now—"
"Now," Merlin answered him, and kissed him, and kept kissing him, even while he worked steadily and urgently between Arthur's legs, and Arthur did his best not to pull Merlin's hair too much, because that didn't seem courteous even if circumstances made it almost irresistible. Then Merlin brushed up against him accidentally, just his stomach rubbing over Arthur's cock, and Arthur abruptly went over again.
His hands slid loose and fell away, open and supplicant to either side of him. All he could do for the last perfect stroke was try and arch into it. Merlin slid his arm under Arthur's back and held him up for it, pushed deep and coming in him, slow pulses that felt like the last echoes of retreating thunder, and then eased him down to the earth, his own breathing labored like sobs as his head hung forward over Arthur's chest.
Arthur managed to reach up and guide Merlin down as trembling crumpled him. "Shh," he said, stroking Merlin's head, because Merlin was shaking in his arms; Merlin, who was his, completely his. He felt a deep shocking satisfaction at that thought, that he'd possessed Merlin, and he stretched into the ache between his thighs that confirmed him in ownership. And there would be time very soon, he thought luxuriously, for all the other forms, too. He stroked down Merlin's damp and sweaty neck and licked the salt off his fingers.
Merlin raised his head and looked at him with something dazed and startled and utterly open in his eyes. Arthur pulled him in for another kiss, nuzzled at his soft gulping mouth, denying him breath a little longer. "Arthur?" Merlin panted between kisses, in a tone of dawning wariness, as though he'd just noticed he'd signed himself over.
"Yes?" Arthur said, a little dangerously. If Merlin thought he was getting out of this now—
"Oh," Merlin said, and stared at him some more.
"We're not getting back to Camelot tonight," Arthur informed him.
"No," Merlin said, just a little submissively. Good enough. Arthur kissed him.
"And no more of these damned unicorns," he added, smugly.
= End =
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