Arthur entered Camelot's gates, brimming with the thrill of the hunt. A hart and seven rabbits were an excellent bounty for a single day’s ride. He shared a smile with Sir Gawain as the children of the lower town shouted out their greetings and praise. It was the first properly warm day after a winter that had dragged too long; the sun heated his cheeks, welcoming him back to the castle.
His skin had itched that morning to be out -- a call to the forest he couldn't deny. When Merlin had fidgeted about with breakfast and reminded him of the council meeting and the issue of the delayed planting season his father's advisers had brought before the court, Arthur had chuckled.
"You'll come up with something to tell the king, won’t you, Merlin?" he had said with a rough clap to Merlin's shoulder that had sent Merlin stumbling forwards. "Make it something good this time."
The look on Merlin's face as the dishes he'd been carrying crashed to the floor had been priceless. Arthur laughed at the memory, earning a questioning look from Gawain. It was unfortunate that Merlin couldn't have joined him on his outing -- the journey would be far more entertaining with a ruffled bird to poke at -- but someone had to remain in Camelot to make his excuses to the king.
Arthur raised an eyebrow at the empty stocks in the center of the courtyard. It was possible, no matter how unlikely, that Merlin had stammered through some tale that had satisfied or at least amused the king sufficiently to avoid the stocks. Good, then. Merlin would have his supper and bath prepared and wouldn't smell of rotting cabbage. It was truly a blessed day.
Arthur's smile faltered as he entered his chambers to find no fire in the hearth, his table empty, and the wash basin still propped against the wall in the corner. He took a step farther into the room and a shard of pottery ground beneath his heel. The dishes from breakfast were still shattered on the floor.
"Merlin!" His snarl resonated through the dark room like a curse.
Arthur pushed open the door to Merlin's chambers; the spindly wood crashed against the wall.
"Worst manservant --" Arthur's tirade caught in his throat when Gaius turned and narrowed his eyes. Arthur waited for the look to fade, as it always did, into a proper deference. The old man's lips pursed, his face hardening. Arthur's cheeks burned; Gaius hadn't looked at him like that since he'd been ten and had broken an entire shelf of potion bottles. And even then it had been restrained annoyance, never open hostility.
"Your highness," Gaius nodded, the barest tilt of his head, and turned back to the bed.
Before Arthur could gather his thoughts enough to demand the reason for such treatment, his eyes fell to the bed and the person lying in it.
Gaius sat hunched over his patient, a cloth in one hand and a shallow basin of water balanced on his knees. He dipped the rag and squeezed the excess water before dabbing at the patient's back.
Long red gashes crisscrossed the boy’s skin. One deep cut bled, a trickle running down a pale shoulder blade; another, in the soft tissue just at the swell of his arse, looked angry and inflamed, the skin ripped from what had to be the barbed end of a whip master’s favourite tool.
Arthur winced in sympathy and opened his mouth to apologize for the intrusion when the fact that the patient was laid out in Merlin's bed slammed into his thoughts. He stared at the patient, dragging his eyes away from the brutalised back to what he knew would be a shaggy head of black hair.
A burning, pounding ache began in his chest. He watched in numb silence as Gaius tended to the wounds, the blood soaked rag turning the basin water red. The only thing he could feel was his heart clenching. Finally, he managed, "Why?" Not what happened because that was clear. He’d stood witness to enough floggings that LeBlanc's style was recognizable.
Gaius didn’t look up; Arthur was grateful to avoid the accusation he knew he'd find there even before the words were spoken. "You may take that up with the king, sire."
"Is he… will he…"
"I have given him a potion for the pain and a sleeping draught. He will not be able to tend to you tonight, I’m afraid."
Arthur blinked as if he'd been slapped; having Merlin rise to clean his boots was the furthest thing from his mind. He backed away with a final look over his shoulder and watched Gaius place strips of cloth over the wounds, red soaking through the material on contact. His mind reeled with how his day had been turned upside down in a matter of seconds.
He found his father in the antechamber of the throne room. His father sat behind a massive desk cluttered with parchments, pinching the bridge of his nose as he studied the roll in his hand.
"Father?" Arthur stepped into the room and squared his shoulders, waiting, as he'd been long taught, for the king to acknowledge him before speaking.
Uther’s eyes flickered over the parchment for several minutes more then he raised them to Arthur long enough for disappointment to flicker across his face before he looked down again. "Arthur."
"Sire, I need to speak with you."
"I'm busy. The delayed planting season will deplete our stores well into the next month. We will need to lower our rations."
Arthur startled at the news. The rations were already the lowest he had ever seen. "There must be another—"
His father's head snapped up. "I will not hear suggestions from someone who could not be bothered to attend the advisory council, could not even be bothered to tell me himself that he deemed gallivanting in the countryside more important than getting food in the bellies of his people."
"I—" Arthur swallowed past the lump in his throat, biting back the defense that he had killed a hart, but he knew only the select few would benefit from that. Only already fattened bellies would ever be served the prince's catch. The people, the poor, survived on the castle's grain stores from late winter until the first crop could be harvested.
The king's eyes narrowed, waiting, as though the next words from Arthur would prove his true character.
"It was not Merlin's fault."
"I know that."
Arthur’s heart hammered as he selfishly hoped there had been a misunderstanding and it was not his fault that Merlin lay bleeding. "Did you order him to be flogged?"
Uther stared back at the paper in front of him and lifted a quill. "I did."
"But he only –"
"You will one day be king, Arthur." Uther didn't look up, his words ominous like a whispered prophecy. "You will learn that your mistakes make your people suffer while you watch helplessly."
A cold knot twisted in Arthur's belly, gorge rising as his father's meaning seeped into his skin.
Uther bent to make a small note on the parchment and said, "Learn this lesson well. Your servant will heal, but I expect you both to carry the scars."
After a pause, Uther raised his eyes and Arthur realized he didn’t know how long he’d been standing frozen, the chill of shock numbing his usual infallible propriety. The harsh glare snapped Arthur back to himself and he nodded at the dismissal.
Arthur was scarcely aware of his walk through the castle. There were people about, eyes he vaguely remembered turning away from, salutations that only registered after he’d passed. However, he did notice Gwen, was intensely aware of the tight press of her lips and furrow of her brow when he’d come upon her, of the quickness in her step as she turned away from him.
Arthur was never so grateful to be back in his chambers. He shut the door behind himself and let his head fall back against the heavy wood. He stood in the dark, empty room until the chill seeped beneath his hunting jacket. He kicked his heel back and it connected hard with the door in a dull thud. A satisfying burn sliced through his leg for a moment, switching his focus.
He flung the door open again with a grunt. He didn't have to walk far to find a servant; a young chambermaid laden with a basket of laundry stood only a few doors down.
"Your highness." She curtsied, head bowed, and made to walk past, but he blocked her way.
"What is your name?"
"Amelia, sire." Her eyes darted up to his then again to the floor.
Arthur's fist clenched at the respect he did not deserve at the moment.
"I work in the south wing under Batilda."
"Amelia, I am in need of assistance this evening. My manservant is … indisposed." The words tasted like ash on his tongue. "I'll be needing a fire, and some bread and cheese from the kitchens."
"Oh! Of course, your highness. Right away." And she was off to his chambers preparing the hearth in a heartbeat as though he was a man worthy of every honour.
He wished he had not ordered food. His appetite was lost, and food was precious.
Amelia arrived again the next morning at first light, burdened with a plate of ham, bread and dried figs. She bustled around the room with a quiet grace that Merlin could never manage; the meager meal Arthur had forced down the night before churned in his belly.
As Amelia curtsied her goodbye, he rose. "Wait a moment." He inspected the plate and then looked at the girl. She was younger than he remembered from the torch lit hallway, barely fifteen, but her eyes had a sincerity about them and Arthur hoped he could trust her.
He grabbed the bread and twisted it in two, placing one half back on the plate. The other remained in his hand.
"Do you know where to find Gaius, the court physician?" At her nod, Arthur pushed the remainder of his breakfast towards her. "Take this to him and tell him that Merlin is to take the time he needs to recover."
The servant blinked, her eyes wide, between the meal and Arthur before nodding and reaching for the plate all at once. "Right away, your highness."
"Good." He lowered his tone and held her gaze with an intensity that had to be foreign to such a young girl. "Tell no one of this. If it ends up as castle gossip, it will be your job."
The poor girl squeaked and Arthur felt a pang of guilt. He'd wanted discretion, not terror. He softened his gaze. "Just tell your women that I need a few errands run while my servant is ill. You will be needed for meals and to prepare the fires for the next three days."
Arthur went about that day and the next as though nothing were different. He trained and attended court, bickered with Morgana and patrolled with his knights as though there was no anvil pressing in on his chest, no hornet's nest in his stomach each time he passed Giaus's door and dared not enter.
Amelia continued to bring him meals and then redirect them after Arthur grabbed a few bites. If the plates were loaded with an extra apple and chunk of cheese more than he would normally be served, Arthur only smiled and thanked her.
On the third morning, it wasn't Amelia that delivered his breakfast.
"Look at all this food!" Merlin tutted as he swept into the room. The plate balanced in his hand showed no signs of the rationing that had hit the castle. "No wonder you've been sending me your scraps."
Arthur's eyes shuttered as Merlin placed his meal on the table in front of him.
Merlin's voice was steady but his ears were pink and his gaze averted. He turned around to poke at the fire. The movements were cautious, slow and tentative as he knelt in front of the hearth. There was a barely audible hiss as he stood. And when he turned, his smile had faded into something broken and false. A light sheen of sweat broke out on his sallow forehead.
He swayed and Arthur leapt to his side, grabbing his elbow to keep him from toppling. They stood like that for a moment, Arthur supporting most of Merlin's weight until Merlin's breathing evened and some colour came back to his cheeks.
"Sorry," Merlin muttered. The muscle in his jaw twitched as he stared at the floor. He hadn't shaved that morning.
"You were not to come back until you were ready," Arthur snapped.
"I was going to get fat if I'd stayed in bed and ate the prince’s rations any longer," Merlin said, ending with a huffed laugh. A trembling hand wiped his brow.
“Arthur.” Merlin stepped away, shaking his head as though Arthur was joking. “No, really.”
Arthur clenched his teeth. “Merlin.”
Merlin hesitated far longer than anyone should at Arthur’s command, then, cheeks pink, he reached for the bottom of his tunic. Arthur helped him raise the fabric so that it wouldn’t touch the skin. Any bandaging had been removed but the wounds had only started to heal, the glossy pink of new skin protecting them.
Arthur took his time, ignoring Merlin’s silent impatience as he traced every line with his eyes, burning each to his memory.
He counted ten. Ten lashes under the deft hand of the king’s whip master: the punishment for a serious crime. Even theft from a noble would only land a peasant five.
Merlin’s ragged breathing reminded him that he’d been staring too long. Merlin was swaying again, forced to stand still, arms raised to hold his tunic at his shoulders. Gently, Arthur lowered the fabric and winced in empathy at the feel of the rough wool beneath his fingers. He led Merlin to the table and urged him into Arthur’s own chair, pushing breakfast in front of him.
"It’s the potions Gaius keeps shoving down my throat. They make me sleepy." When Arthur said nothing, jaw clenched around what he did not want to say, Merlin added, "He’s worried about infections."
"Right," was all Arthur managed, imagining the whip master’s bulging eyes as Arthur twisted that filthy whip around his neck. Then again, LeBlanc had only been following his father’s orders, just as Merlin had been following Arthur’s.
Fallen pawns in a chess match.
Arthur pressed his hand to Merlin’s shoulder -- the one absent of the angry red slashes. "Stay here and do not get up, unless it’s to sleep. I’ll be back in a few hours."
"Arthur, I’m not that bad."
"Rest, idiot." Arthur’s voice was strangled. He wanted to add something flippant "Who will muck my stables if you go and die from this?" but he could no longer swallow around the lump in his throat.
He performed his duties again that day, his heart clenching when he allowed his mind to drift. But he was attentive, not just in attendance, scowling at the long speeches by the court advisors and looking away from the toothless grins and dirty hands of the local farmers, but listening and thinking. When he suggested a group of servants and young squires from the castle be sent to the outlying villages to help speed up the first of the planting, his father's grimace softened. The idea had been eventually turned down as impractical, but his father's slight nod at the end of the meeting was enough to tell him his contribution had been appreciated.
The myriad of emotions that sprung from that look was nearly overwhelming, warming his cheeks and his heart, yet, also twisting the knife of betrayal when his father's pleased smile had resonated victory. Arthur brushed past the hand that patted his shoulder and left the throne room without looking back. No end justified his father's means.
The sun cast long shadows on the empty courtyard as Arthur made his way to Gaius's chambers.
The old man looked up from his array of bottles when Arthur entered. "Merlin is not here, sire." Though he returned to his work more quickly than he might have a week before, his tone had softened in the past few days.
"He nearly passed out bringing me breakfast." Arthur strode across the room to stand by Gaius and added, "He's in my chambers resting now."
Gaius frowned. "When I took his bandages off this morning, he had said he felt ready to work. Idiot boy."
Arthur couldn't agree more, both with the sentiment and the tone of affection belying it.
"I will need to attend him, then, and return him to his room." Gaius moved to his shelves of potions. "There may be an infection."
"Yes, he'd mentioned. If you give me a salve and something to fight the infection, I can tend him." When Gaius's eyebrows rose, Arthur raised his chin and added, "I know what to look for with an infection. On the battlefield we have no luxury of physicians."
Gaius said nothing for a moment, simply stared at Arthur. When Arthur refused to look away under the scrutiny, Gaius started fiddling with his bottles.
"See that you call for me if he has worsened." Gaius placed a pot the size of a mace in Arthur's right hand and a small phial in his left. "Your highness."
When he returned, his chambers were welcoming: a roaring blaze in the hearth and a table set with a plate of venison, a small square of cheese and a tankard of watered wine. With two cups. The curtains were drawn about his bed, with a soft snore slipping through the crack. If the castle was not abuzz by morning with talk of Merlin in the prince's bed, he would have Amelia promoted to a fine spot. Maybe have her work under Gwen for a few years.
Arthur poured a glass of wine and drank until the stress of the day slid from his shoulders. A chilled breeze blew through the open window, freshening the room from the heat of the fire. Arthur walked over to it and watched the evening sky turn dark, angry clouds gathered in the distance. With a sigh, he closed the window, lest Merlin catch a chill and grabbed the pot of salve.
Merlin lay in the center of the bed, cover pulled to his waist and his bare back exposed to the air. His arms were tucked under Arthur's pillow, his head turned away. The marks on his back had healed significantly in the past few hours. The glistening pink of new skin had smoothed to a white scar. A tingle began in Arthur's belly as he watched the soft rise and fall that accompanied each of Merlin's breaths.
Rather than pull back the curtain and let in the fading sunlight, Arthur slipped through the opening and crawled with the pot of salve to Merlin. He blushed at the humble sight he must make – a crown prince walking on his knees to his servant. Pushing down the rush of pride that cried out in protest of that image, he knelt at Merlin's side and removed the top of the pot.
The salve was cool and he rubbed it between his fingers and thumb until it warmed.
A ghost of an ache shot through his shoulder as the air filled with jasmine and citrus. The scent memory threw Arthur back to the weeks of recovery after the questing beast attack and the strange conversation with Merlin in the days that followed: the goodbye that was said in all but the actual words, Merlin's disappearance and the regret that had sat heavy in Arthur's chest until suddenly, Merlin was there again, his eyes a little older, a little worn but back.
Back for Arthur to tease and protect. He tried not to think about how spectacularly he had abused the first and failed in the last.
Now lying in the middle of Arthur's bed, face buried in Arthur's pillow, Merlin looked like he belonged there.
He brushed back the hair at Merlin's nape that had begun to curl since his last cut. Arthur had teased him mercilessly that day, weeks ago when Gwen had shorn him far too close. Gaius and Arthur had run him ragged that week and there had been no time for a proper barber, Merlin had said. His ears had been so prominent with nothing to distract from them, Arthur had tugged Merlin’s earlobes for days until Merlin finally snapped that he would never cut his hair again. With a fond smile at the memory, Arthur began at the shoulder, smoothing the thick mixture over the largest gash. Hands steady, Arthur worked through the wounds. It wasn't until the fourth lash mark that Merlin's breath hitched and he tensed, clearly waking and taking in his surroundings before reacting.
Arthur said nothing, wondering if Merlin could hear the thud, thud, thud that pounded in Arthur's chest.
Arthur dipped into the pot again, warmed the salve with the friction of his thumb, then moved to the fifth strip of healing flesh. Eventually, Merlin began to breathe again, a shallow in and out that was nothing like the peace of sleep. The muscles beneath Arthur's fingers twitched with every touch. Merlin kept silent, his eyes closed and crinkling at the edges. His dark lashes were thick and long, resting like raven feathers on his pale cheek.
Distracted, Arthur forgot to warm the salve on the next wound and Merlin hissed. Arthur muttered, “Sorry," and Merlin's eyes opened a fraction, enough for an unreadable look over his shoulder before shutting again.
The final slash began under Merlin's shoulder blade, wide and inflamed, slow to heal. Arthur's jaw clenched, thinking of the sound Merlin must have made as the blow struck. The end of the slash continued under the sheet. Arthur tugged the sheet lower to find Merlin's breeches were already loosened and pulled low on his hips, resting on the very top of Merlin's cleft to not rub the wound. Merlin didn't move. The only sign of discomfort was his ragged breathing and the deep blush that had bloomed on the back of his neck.
Arthur tore his eyes away and hoped the noise that had slipped out of his throat sounded like sympathy at the star shaped gauge and not anything untoward.
Merlin had always been unusual, foreign in an otherworldly sort of way that made him compelling even from their first meeting. But like this, spread on Arthur's bed like a sacrificial lamb, all pale skin and black hair and pink and white scars, he looked ethereal. Arthur had to stop himself from leaning down and placing a chaste kiss upon the bump of Merlin's tailbone.
Merlin squirmed beneath his gaze. "Arthur." He drew the name out, half question, half plea.
Arthur cleared his throat and was grateful Merlin hadn't opened his eyes because his cheeks were burning. "Last one."
He took his time warming the salve. Merlin fidgeted and Arthur wondered if he even realised he was moving, his shifting almost imperceptible, not even a rustle of sheets. If Arthur hadn't been so close, hadn't been staring with such intensity, he would never have noticed the slight rocking of Merlin's hips… oh. The heat in Arthur's cheeks travelled south.
His hands trembled as he began to apply the salve, unsure what to do with that information. He tried to focus on the task and not the harshness of Merlin's breath or the way the colour at his neck had deepened and spread to the tops of his shoulders and crept down his spine. Or worse the swell of Merlin's arse that lay half-bare and so close.
His fingers followed the line, and stopped at the starred tear. "Almost done," he breathed.
Merlin buried further into Arthur's pillow and nodded.
After a liberal amount of the salve coated the wound, he sat back, taking a deep breath. He wanted… more. He wasn't entirely sure what and the possible answers were overwhelming. He felt every one of them in the tightness of his breeches. But Merlin was injured, likely in pain and heavily medicated at the moment.
He moved off the bed before he forgot those points. "I have something to attend to," he muttered, thankful again that Merlin did not raise his head because Arthur's long tunic did little to hide his obvious discomfort. "Gaius sent along your next dose of potion. Supper is on the table and then you should sleep. Here." Arthur paused for a moment then stammered. "Gaius said you should. Stay here, that is. It's not safe for you walk about on that medication."
Merlin's head snapped up. "He said that? Told me to sleep in the Royal Quarters?"
"He… I… we thought it best. Now if you are done questioning orders."
"It was an order? To sleep in your bed?" Merlin grinned.
"Shut up, Merlin."
Merlin's eyes glowed with mirth.
"Your food is waiting and I am not serving you in bed."
Merlin's grin turned to a smirk. "Of course not, sire."
Arthur moved to the door.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice wavered, all the amusement of a heartbeat ago vanished.
He turned, only enough to show he was listening, but not to face the crack in the bed curtains he was sure Merlin looked through.
"You could stay."
Arthur took a step towards the bed. He caught Merlin’s blue eyes barely visible between in heavy scarlet curtains, and stopped. "I--" Arthur closed his eyes and inhaled, fighting everything inside him that screamed to go and join Merlin in a tangle of sheets. "You need to rest." And not be pinned to that bed and ravished.
Outside, it had begun to rain. A soft pitter-patter hit the window and filled the quiet room.
"It wasn't your fault. You didn’t know."
Arthur's lips tightened, chest aching from the forgiveness he didn't deserve, he whispered, "I'll be back later." He left, closing then locking the door behind him.
Arthur supped with his father and Morgana, noting with a smile that Merlin's plate had been no less full than Uther's portion. The rot in his belly eased for the first time in days. When he returned to his chambers, his heart hammered to find it still occupied.
The phial from Gaius lay empty on the bedside table and only congealing gravy was left on the plate. He peeked inside the curtain and found Merlin snuggled into Arthur's pillow.
The scent of jasmine and citrus made him inhale deeply as the memory of Merlin's blush came back to him. His neck and shoulders were pale now, glowing in the flicker of candlelight that spilled through the opening of the curtains.
Arthur didn't hesitate. He stripped off, letting his clothes fall to the floor for someone -- not Merlin, not yet -- to pick up, and he slipped under the covers and tucked in as close to Merlin as he dared.
The heat of Merlin's side pressed to his drew him closer. He sighed and resisted the pull.
He woke to lips on his, a gentle brush that tickled and teased and promised with each light kiss. Arthur sighed into Merlin's mouth, pressing back and letting his eyes flutter open.
"Good morning," Merlin breathed, barely pulling away.
Arthur smiled into the kiss. "It appears that way, yes."
Merlin kissed along his jaw. "I feel fantastic. Your bed is… Gaius should get one of these for all his patients. Far better than the goat piss potions that he has everyone drink. Camelot could be cured entirely by one proper mattress."
Merlin kept kissing and Arthur's head swam, wondering how long Merlin had wanted this, how long he had wanted this. He tried to figure out where to put his hands that wasn't Merlin's back and decided on burying them in Merlin's thick mop.
"This okay?" Merlin looked up at him from where he'd been scraping his teeth along the stubble of Arthur's chin. Arthur frowned, unsure if Merlin meant the teeth or the kissing or just Merlin taking the lead. He tugged on Merlin's hair a bit until Merlin slid up, their bare chests gliding together deliciously. He attacked Merlin's mouth, hoping whatever answer Merlin needed he'd find it there.
They writhed against each other, Merlin’s stubble rubbing Arthur’s lips raw with every sloppy kiss. He smelled of sleep and salve and lust and Arthur nipped at his lips like a starving man until they were panting more than kissing. Arthur spread his legs and Merlin slid between them and yes, it was so much more than okay. He felt Merlin's length against his hip and thrust up, the brilliance of friction making his skin spark with pleasure.
They rocked against each other, glorious and slow until they couldn't hold back any longer and they tumbled over the edge in quick succession. They clung to each other long after the bliss had faded to a low hum of pleasure.
"I'm sorry." Arthur buried his face in the crook of Merlin's neck.
"I know." Merlin pulled back. Deep blue eyes, wide and knowing, looked at him like he was already king, like he was seeing the future and the man Arthur would be some day. "I know."
Somewhere in there -- in the man reflected in Merlin's eyes, the man he would endeavor to become -- he found forgiveness.