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It's always hard for Merlin, watching Arthur sweat and bathe and undress and generally be perfect, even when he's being awful. It's the worst in the winter, because Arthur is always near. He stays inside, and so Merlin has to stay inside with him, trapped and unable to escape anywhere to relieve the warmth that builds up inside of him. There's nothing for him to do but sneak glances at Arthur, to squeeze his eyes closed and imagine backing Arthur up against his bed and kissing down the length of his body.

As usual, on this particular day Arthur is quiet, distracted in that way he gets when there's nothing to do and nowhere to go. He's been shut up in his room all day, and Merlin's been here with him, quietly polishing stray bits of armor, clearing away his untouched lunch, and watching him alternate between staring up at the ceiling from his bed, pacing in aimless circles, and striding over to the window as though there's finally something interesting outside of it, only to sigh heavily and turn away.

"Arthur," he says finally, and feels far too weary, even though it's only early evening, "What is it? Can I bring you anything?"

"What?" Arthur says abruptly, and whips around, his body coiled and tense. "No," he says, and brushes past Merlin and out of the room, opening the door with enough force to make it slam into the wall before closing with a heavy thud.

Alone, Merlin sinks down against the bed with a heavy sigh, sliding to the floor to crouch into himself, his forehead tucked in against the top of his knees. His head is aching, and he rubs ineffectually at the base of his skull for a moment, before giving in and loosing his breeches to take himself roughly in hand. It isn't right that Arthur has this effect on him even when he's upset, unknowing, and it's even less right because Arthur trusts him, and believes that he's a loyal servant, when he is a lying, traitorous coward who can't tell the one person he really loves who he really is. It's all lies, all of it, he thinks, and comes, muffling the cry that wrenches out of his chest with a hand clapped over his mouth.

And so, it eats away at him, the lust but even more so the love, constantly making him hot and heartsick and miserable. Sometimes he imagines telling Arthur about one of his secrets, or the other, and for a moment he can see Arthur pulling him close and telling him he's forgiven, or saying that he's always noticed Merlin too, and why not give it a go, but these thoughts only last a moment before dissolving into Arthur's pinched, angry expression of betrayal, Uther's face white with rage, the flames lapping at his ankles. The thoughts don't go anywhere, they just cycle over and over and endlessly over, until Merlin is half-certain he'll go mad.

"Help me with this shirt," Arthur says quietly, on one of these occasions, and Merlin chokes back a noise, he's not really sure what sort of noise, and crosses the room to help him with brisk, impatient hands, trying to ignore the solid warmth of Arthur's chest.

It's the worst when he's physically close by, so it's a relief when, one evening, Arthur tells him to stop by the stables after he's dropped off the supper dishes. The groom says his horse is not eating well, and Arthur wants Merlin to see if anything seems off.

It feels good, trekking through the cold to the stable, and Merlin can almost relax. The air feels crisp, almost sharp as he breathes it in, and Merlin shudders a little and tugs down his tunic, baring his neck to the cold. He should feel stiff from it, but instead it makes him feel loose and calm and like for once, his senses aren't overworked by the smell of Arthur, the way when Arthur reaches for a bit of bread, Merlin can almost feel the touch on his own palm, the way the light catches on the lines of muscle and sinew that work over and through Arthur's body. When he is away from Arthur, nothing in the world is so awfully, painfully brilliant, and it means that for once Merlin can breathe properly, can look around him aimlessly, without having to dart his eyes away lest Arthur see.

Inside the stable, everything is soft and pleasantly indistinct, lit by wavering torches and slightly warmer than outside. The groom has already gone for the day, but he's left a boy to watch over the horses, and he takes Merlin to see Arthur's horse, his feet nearly silent on the earthen floor.

Merlin doesn't see anything amiss. Not eager to go back to the castle, he allows the stable hand to walk him past the other stalls, talking idly of seats and shoes and how many hands high the new charger is. It's nice, but nicer still is the way the stable hand looks at Merlin. It's a mixture of general salaciousness and specific interest, and Merlin is pleased by it, the force of his intent coupled with his too long, drifting touches. When Merlin is quite sure of the stable hand's meaning, he thinks, why not, and pushes the other boy down onto a clean bale of hay.

The stable hand is clumsy with inexperience, but it's good, so good, because it's dark and the boy is nameless, and in the end it's just too easy for Merlin to pretend he's Arthur. Yes, it's Arthur he's kissing, Arthur who's rutting filthily against him. When he reaches for the other boy's cock, hard in his trousers, it's Arthur who moans and shoves into his hand. He even almost believes it, at least until they're both done.

"That was bloody incredible," the boy says earnestly, after they've recovered their breath.

"Thanks," Merlin says. "Er, you were lovely," he adds, because what's the etiquette for thanking someone who doesn't know they've been used to act out a desperate, pathetic fantasy? He feels almost numb, but at the same time, the heat, the pressure inside him, has dissipated somewhat, enough to bring him to his senses, and since he's not a completely heartless person, he finds himself asking, "What's your name?"

The boy looks a bit surprised, and he hesitates a moment before saying, "Idris. I'm Idris."

"Idris," Merlin says. "Perhaps I'll see you next time I've business in the stables."

"Right," Idris says, a little ruefully, but doesn't press him for his own name, and Merlin squeezes his eyes shut, thankful for small kindnesses. He wipes his hands off and cleans himself up as best he can on a crumpled tack rag, then tucks himself back into his trousers. When he strides out into the cold, he can tell Idris is watching him go, but he doesn't look back.

After that, when Arthur sighs quietly in the evening lamplight, settling into his blankets, Merlin has something with which to distract himself. He thinks of his hands, slick with Idris' come, of biting at his lips and digging his fingers into the cheeks of his arse, of thrusting hard and fast into the other boy's hand. He can barely remember what Idris looked like, although he vaguely recollects that he appeared to be about the same age as himself, maybe a little older. He had brown hair, not very dark, and he was tall and narrow of shoulder, but that's about all Merlin can remember, and also all he cares to. Most importantly, he wasn't Arthur, though for a few moments, he was good enough.

"Goodnight, Merlin," Arthur says quietly, and Merlin nods at him from the doorway, remembering the brush of coarse fabric over his stomach, the burn of his arms as he fought to maintain the rapid pace that Idris begged for, needed in order to come, the pace that Merlin needed, too.

At first, the memories are enough, but they fade more quickly than expected. Arthur is upset about something, and it's more than the general air of malaise that has clung to him as of late. Merlin doesn't know why Arthur's unhappy, but it's easy enough to guess that his father's angry at him for something he hasn't or shouldn't have done. Arthur has a very specific sort of self-loathing that he reserves for feeling that he's disappointed people who depend upon him to be faultless, and Uther is the very best at bringing it out in him.

"Dinner?" Merlin asks, but Arthur shakes his head no.

"Not hungry," he mutters, and shrugs out of his jerkin, tossing it at the bed.

The desire to reach out and take Arthur into his arms is nearly overwhelming, but Merlin just sighs and says, "You'll be up halfway through the night complaining if you don't eat now."

"Leave the tray, then," Arthur says irritably, and Merlin presses a hand to that ever-present ache at the top of his neck and does so.

"Yes, Sire," he says, and slips off to splash icy water on his face.

He's already thinking about it, so it's not much of a fight to convince himself to return to the stables. He's scarcely there for a moment before he's groaning into Idris' mouth and wrapping his arms tightly around the other boy's back. Idris gets his hand wrapped around their cocks and strokes them both at once, slow and slippery and tight, and Merlin gasps at the warm heavy feeling of it, his breaths loud and shuddery, and never once lets go of him, not until they're both completely spent.

Afterward, Idris licks curiously at the come on his hands, cocking his head at the taste, and though it's a nice sight, Merlin can't pretend he's Arthur any longer, now that his head is clear, and so he goes.

Arthur's mood doesn't improve, and Merlin begins to worry. Arthur seems distracted and ill at ease, and now he's constantly jumpy around Merlin, flinching away from the brush of his fingers when Merlin helps him with his boots, and snatching the bath linens out of Merlin's hand before he's even risen out of the cooling water. One afternoon Merlin comes up behind him to help with a tangled sleeve, and Arthur makes a strangled noise and whips around to back away from him, pressed against the bed like a cornered animal.

"Sorry," he says a moment later, and his voice is flat. "I didn't hear you coming."

Once Arthur is gone, Merlin sinks into a chair and drops his head into his hands, because it's quite clear that Arthur no longer trusts him, and since Merlin hasn't done anything epically stupid lately, no drinking of poison or disobeying members of the nobility or causing expensive damage to the castle, he assumes it must have something to do with magic. If it was anything else, Arthur would have no qualms about confronting him, about mocking him or scolding him, or any other of a variety of derisive reactions. He'd never sit and stew over it like this, letting his anger and unhappiness build, not unless it was about magic.

So, he doesn't know when Arthur could have seen him using magic, but he must have, and it must have been recently, based on Arthur's mood. He tries to think back, to remember the last few times he's used enchantments. It hasn't been often, once to chop wood when his hands were too numb, once when he broke a vial of a poultice distilled from highly expensive plants from the North, and a few times in the armory, reinforcing the spells of protection on Arthur's armor. It was probably in the armory, he reflects dully, where for a moment he'd thought he heard a footstep, but after he didn't hear any others, had concluded it'd been his imagination. Arthur can be very quiet when he wants to.

That night, he's slow and gentle with Idris, because maybe tomorrow Arthur will confront him, and maybe tomorrow it's the pyre, stacked high with wood that they really can't spare at this time of year, but will in order to rid the kingdom of a traitor.

"Trust me," he mutters, and kneels to take the Idris's cock in his mouth. He thought he'd said it under his breath, but Idris babbles and moans and pleads all through the slow, messy slide of Merlin's mouth over the length of his cock, and when Merlin takes him in, all the way to the root, heavy and warm on his tongue as he pulls Idris even closer, the boy whispers,

"Yeah, I do."

When he comes, Merlin swallows it all down.

So, life continues on like this. Idris is probably a very lovely person, but Merlin doesn't want to know about it. He wants this boy to remain an unknown entity, as alien as he is familiar. Most nights Arthur is quietly irritable, and Merlin spends a few moments asking him about his day just to try and force something of substance out of him. He nearly asks Arthur, "Why haven't you told me you know about the magic," but each time his courage fails him and he turns the anticipatory intake of breath into a cough, or a query as to the quality of Arthur's dinner.

They have a curiously warm day, several weeks into the snow season. It's clearly not the end of the winter, but for an afternoon the greying snow that covers the fields recedes back into huddled, shrunken masses, and the suns beats down almost warmly upon the castle walls. Everyone comes up with excuses to be outside, and even Arthur seems happy, directing his knights through a series of broad, showy maneuvers that kick up mud on the training ground and leave swooping sets of footprints, neatly mapping out the company's progress.

Merlin stretches out on a low wall, basking in the sun and everyone's good cheer, and for once letting himself enjoy the way Arthur glides through his stances. He looks strong and capable and confident, laughing breathlessly in a manner that belies his attempt at a stern countenance, and when one of the younger men slips in the mud and lands in a heap on top of a spluttering Sir. Leon, Arthur doesn't lecture him at all, just throws his head back and laughs.

They tuck bread, salt-pork and dried fruit into Merlin's untied and unfolded neckerchief and eat supper outside, even though the pleasant weather rapidly begins to go chill as the night descends. After, Arthur stays close, so close that Merlin can feel the heat radiating off him.

"I want it to be spring," Arthur says, and his voice is pitched so low that he could almost be talking to himself. "I hate the cold."

"I hate it too," Merlin says, and it's a bit more forceful than he'd intended. "But soon, soon it'll be better."

"Will it?" Arthur asks, sounding genuinely unsure. "Sometimes it feels like it'll be like this forever."

"It must be worse for you," Merlin ventures. "Me, I can run off if I want to." It's not quite true, although he'll never tell Arthur that his destiny ties him to this place just as much as Arthur's does, or that he wouldn't leave even if he could. "I mean, people wouldn't be happy about it," he continues, seeing Arthur's raised brow, "But it's not as though the kingdom would fall apart. You-" he stumbles a little before managing, "It must be hard to be important."

"I don't feel so important," Arthur says quietly, and drops his head into his hands, pushing his fingers back through his hair.

"The king," Merlin starts carefully, but Arthur cuts him off, his voice suddenly curt.

"Come on, let's go in. It's getting cold."

It's only after Merlin is back in his room for the night that he realizes Arthur didn't shy from him at all, while the day was pleasant. The thought isn't a comforting one, and even though he's bone tired in more ways than one, Merlin is already up and shoving his feet back into his boots.

It's a little later than usual, and the courtyard is very still. The air feels prickly, and Merlin feels as though if he stopped and waited, he could watch everything freeze over again, cementing down the tracks of the knights from the afternoon, the shape of Leon's back against the tournament ground where he was pinned beneath the other knight. He can almost see the drip of thawing pine-needles still as the trees begin to glisten again, and maybe if he just stays here, it would happen to him too. He could be a statue carved of ice, caught with one leg out behind him, his arms out as though to reach for something, someone. His cheeks would still be red, he thinks, but everything else a lovely blue, until the summer when he'd melt all away and sink into the thick, fragrant earth.

He shakes off the thought, uncomfortable with its morbidity, and hurries the rest of the way to the stable.

Merlin isn't sure whether Idris will still be here, and he isn't sure if he wants him to be, either, but when he slips into the stable, Idris is there with a low-burning torch and a small, happy smile.

"I hoped you'd come," he says, and steps forward to help Merlin out of his clothes. "I'm glad I stayed."

"Me too," Merlin says, and guides Idris over to the wall, leaning back against it and letting Idris step up close and thrust against him, already hard. He isn't sure whether it's true or not that he's glad, but he's guilty all the same, that this boy waited for him alone in the dark, that he's grateful for Merlin's presence when Merlin is most grateful that Idris doesn't talk much, doesn't disturb his fantasy. He makes Idris take him hard that night, thrusting roughly against his cock and holding onto Merlin's wrists in an iron grip. Maybe it will bruise, he doesn't care.

In the morning, Arthur sends him away without even asking for breakfast, and Merlin is secretly relieved that he won't have to risk exposing the mass of mottled blue-grey that rings both of his wrists.

Gaius has taken to sending worried glances in his direction. Maybe he thinks Merlin isn't looking, although it's equally likely that he's decided Merlin has done something idiotic and is trying to make him guilty enough to confess. Merlin can't imagine telling him any of it, but he doesn't have the heart to lie, either, so he doesn't say anything at all, obediently following Gaius around and smelling various herbs that he's going to go try to gather in the lighter forest to the east of the castle.

Gaius presses a satchel into his hand and makes him repeat a singsongy list of all the herbs he needs, then adds a bit of bread and sends him off with a long look, a hand on his shoulder, and a warning for him to try not to do anything foolish.

Outside, snow is falling heavily, blanketing the courtyard and weighing down the treated cloths that serve as roofs over the deserted market stalls. Everything looks very still, and Merlin is loathe to disturb it with his bootprints, marring the beauty of the path, laid out like a river of white. The snow is fresh enough to still be clean, not rubbed into the dirt and ash that lies beneath, but when Merlin returns that will probably already have begun to change. He sucks in a cold breath through his nose and hurries on, not wanting to be caught in the woods after dark with such a heavy snowfall.

There isn't much to find, especially now that it's all covered over, but there are a few winter plants, a reedy grass that grows tall and brown near the water from which Gaius extracts a tincture for coughs, a certain bark that he crumbles into solutions for headache. Gaius has taught him, also, to lift up large branches and patches of rock and search in the places just around where they lay, to find the little plants that have survived the elements, tucked away like this.

He's wet and shivering by the time he finishes, his knees soaked through from where he's had to crawl into a thicket after a few surviving bits of green, and his hands raw and cracking. His neck feels stiff and sore, and he shrugs his shoulders up into the ache, rolling his head forward and stretching. It all hurts, but something about it feels good, too, working hard and being so tired and cold, and on his way to the castle that for once will not be too warm or too dry. He desperately wants a bath, but it doesn't seem worth hoping that Arthur will allow him the use of his, so he contents himself with the thought of a warm wash cloth and a bath linen, heated by either magic or the hearth.

He's still rosy from the scrubbing down when he takes Arthur his dinner. Arthur raises an eyebrow at him but doesn't say anything, just gestures at the table and turns away to stare out the window at the darkened courtyard. The snow is still falling, thick and sluggish, and outside everything looks soft in the moonlight.

Merlin shifts uncomfortably, unsure whether he's supposed to stay or not, but then Arthur speaks, and his voice is quietly condemning.

"Do you think it's ever all right to lie to someone?" he asks, and he's turned away from Merlin completely, so he can see nothing but the tense lines of his back, drawn tight beneath his tunic.

Merlin shrugs miserably, though he knows Arthur can't see it, and considers just admitting, rather than dragging it out like this. He suspects this is part of his punishment, though, so he just replies, "I think some things are worse than others, and lies are no different," in a weak voice, then adds, "Do you need anything else?"

"Need?" Arthur says. "No."

The snow doesn't stop. It keeps steadily on, thick flakes that quickly accumulate, covering over the paths and the little identifying marks of stones or marks carved into the trees that help guide travelers to and from Camelot and the outlying villages. The snow piles up against the castle walls, forming snow drifts as high as the kitchen windows, high enough that they must be barred off, with rags stuffed into the cracks, to keep the snow from falling into the kitchen and making everything slippery and treacherous. The kitchen servants lean out the door and dip the soiled cups and bowls into the snow to clean them, hurrying to finish before the snow tries to follow them inside.

Everything looks the same in this weather, still and white and blurry from the constant snowfall. It's difficult to see one end of the courtyard from the other, so it isn't a shock that people trying to travel longer distances aren't faring well. They receive reports of two deaths, people who stepped out onto what didn't look like a frozen bed of water until they were falling through it, and a handful of missing people and livestock. After that, the knights are taken off training duty and assigned to clearing the paths. Their work is undone nightly by the relentless blizzard, and they all look pale and weary in the morning, preparing to repeat the same tedious task they've had for the last several days.

The servants are all given extra duties, clearing baskets of snow from around the castle and its less-protected areas of stairs and battlements. For Merlin, this work is welcome, and he relishes the way the cold runs all the way through him before he goes numb, and the vast, overwhelming sting of the feeling returning to his limbs when he steps back into the castle at the end of the day.

Arthur does not cope with the weather nearly as well as does Merlin. He spends his days staring vacantly down at a pile of maps and reports, picking at his food and shifting restlessly in his straight-backed chair.

Merlin cleans Arthur's room thoroughly, for lack of anything better to do. Arthur has been spending enough time in the room that Merlin feels justified in stripping his bed down to the ticking, strewing dried herbs into the fresh straw before reassembling everything.

Without saying anything, Arthur turns away from the hearth and helps Merlin with the sheets. It's strange of him to help with Merlin's chores, but he doesn't offer any explanation, and right now, Merlin knows better than to ask. After all the rugs are piled on the bed again, Arthur sinks down onto it, staring out the window as has been his wont.

"Is this your fault?" he asks, and his voice sounds unusually conversational. "Calamities usually are, so I wouldn't put it past you."

Merlin thinks of Arthur saying, Sometimes it feels like it'll be this way forever and swallows uncomfortably. The trouble is, it's always at least a vague possibility that he's to blame for unusual occurrences. He has no way of knowing whether or not he uses magic in his sleep, and it's easy enough to imagine himself dreaming of the snow piling up and up until the castle is completely buried. He wonders idly whether he'd come forward and admit, use his magic to clear away the snow, or if he'd bite his tongue and dig his way out alongside everyone else, never mind the people who would inevitably be crushed in collapsing tunnels of snow.

He's waited to long to reply, but fortunately Arthur doesn't seem to actually be asking for a response. Merlin pushes away the ugly thoughts, not having any real answer to them. After a moment of staring out at the snow, he asks quietly, "Will that be all, sire?" and Arthur waves him away without another word.

On the following morning, Arthur asks for his court clothes, but doesn't say why. Merlin doesn't question him, but once Arthur has left, he does too, keeping a few paces between them and trying not to make it too obvious that he's lurking. Arthur strides into the audience hall, and Merlin doesn't feel too guilty about listening in through the space between the double doors. On the list of things he's ashamed of, this isn't anywhere near the top.

He can only see a small sliver of Arthur's back, but he can hear every word he says.

"Sire," Arthur begins, and the light patch that is his hair bobs a little as he lowers his head. He wants something, Merlin thinks.

He's not wrong. "I request permission to ride out after the lost villagers," Arthur says, and he must know Uther isn't going to like this at all, but his voice doesn't waver.

Uther's reaction is predictable, but Merlin still winces when he replies with a curt, "No, don't be ridiculous."

"But Father," Arthur starts, but Uther cuts him off.

"I've given you my answer," he says, and though his tone is calm, there's something very dangerous in his voice. "They're dead long already if they've been out in this weather, and I won't have you sacrifice yourself on such a ridiculous venture. You're dismissed."

Merlin has only a moment to hurl himself around a corner before Arthur comes striding out, his face red above the tight set of his jaw.

That night, Arthur is beyond irritable, and Merlin is forced to pretend he doesn't know why. He tries to stay cheerful, clearing away Arthur's untouched dinner with a flourish and setting his clothes out by the fire to warm without having to be told. It just seems to make Arthur angrier, though, and when Merlin asks if he'd like anything else, he slams his hand down on the table, water sloshing out of the cup by his other arm.

"Merlin," he says, and his voice sounds dangerous, forced through gritted teeth. "I do not need anything except for you to keep the hell away from me. I don't wish to be near you, so you will remove yourself from my presence." His face twists into an ugly grimace, not unlike the look he has when he's been wounded in battle. "I mean now," he says, and it's almost a whisper, but Merlin hears the anger in it and runs, the tray that he was holding clattering to the floor in his wake.

He keeps running for a long time, until his throat feels raw and his sides are tight and aching. Finally, when he feels so raw and worn that he can't imagine taking another step, he slows to a halt and collapses into the hollow of a window, barred and treated to keep out the cold. He stays there for a moment, coughing and making harsh, ugly panting noises as he tries to regain his breath.

It's not the first time Arthur has treated him poorly, but it may be the worst, so much more awful than the snappish way he behaves when he is worried, or afraid of letting someone down. These things are always entirely transparent, though, and in every other instance in which Arthur has lost his temper with Merlin, it has been tempered with the kind, easy manner of their usual interactions. Now, though, Arthur has distanced himself completely. He won't say at all what's bothering him, and he'll barely speak a word even when he's not just had a bad encounter with his father. This time, it's just awful, and the words cut deep, ringing over and over in Merlin's head until he thinks he might cry.

It doesn't even feel like it's a choice, going to the stable. It's the only thing he has left. He stands up, brushing the wrinkles out of his trousers, and makes his way back through the castle to the courtyard door. He feels curiously calm, almost detached, and it's a shock when he steps outside and his legs sink into the snow, past his knees even though the path was cleared at mid-morning. Somehow, he'd forgotten about the snow.

It's slow going, making his way to the stable. Merlin knows exactly where it is; he's been going there so often that he could probably find it with his eyes close. Still, it's disconcerting, the landscape completely distorted by massive snow drifts, and for a moment he wishes for a rope, something he could tie to the castle and hang onto, lest he wander out into the vast whiteness and never return.

Fortunately, he stays true to where he knows the path ought to be, his arms stretched out in front of him, and before long he can smell the horses, and hear them shifting in their stalls. A moment later his palms hit the pitted wood of the stable door and he kicks away the snow that has fallen against the door, dragging it open far enough to slip inside.

The stable is dark. Merlin wanders around for a few moments, lighting a few torches with a muttered spell, then poking his head into the tack room. Idris isn't there. He's not anywhere, and it doesn't look as though he was at any point in the night, if the snow piled against the door was any indication. It's all too much to bear, thinking about trudging back out into the cold and squeezing his eyes shut against the sting, so Merlin fetches a blanket and curls into it, leaning up against the wall. He'll just wait for a moment.

Much more time passes than a moment, but Merlin finally decides to give up and return to his room. He replaces the blanket in the tack room and is just about to brace himself for the cold when the door swings open from the outside, admitting a shivering, snowy Idris.

He smiles when he sees Merlin, and steps forward to kiss him. It's slow and soft, and Merlin lets it be that way because that's what Idris seems to need. It isn't much, what Merlin is able to give him, but he tries to make up for the selfishness of his interest in Idris by granting him whatever he asks of Merlin's body. Idris never asks for more, although Merlin suspects that he would if he thought Merlin would ever grant him it. Idris is very cold, and wet from the snow, but that isn't so bad, really, because Merlin feels suddenly far warmer.

"Glad you're here," Idris murmurs against his lips, pausing to press a little kiss to the corner of his mouth. "I've been thinking about you. Want you to fuck me."

Merlin takes a quick, sharp breath, and the air seems thick in his mouth, too dense to swallow through it. They're very close, and he knows Idris can feel his cock pulsing against his thigh, proof of just how much he likes that idea.

"You sure?" he asks, and takes another harsh breath.

"I'm sure," Idris says. "But be gentle, it's my first time."

"D'you have anything?" Merlin asks. Idris looks confused for a moment, but then the meaning sinks in, and he fumbles behind him, retrieving a tub of some sort of salve. It has a clean scent, and Merlin thinks Arthur uses something similar for muscle aches.

"Okay," Merlin says, and they spread a blanket out on the stable floor. "Lay down," he tells Idris, and he complies, looking a little frightened but not uninterested.

"It'll feel good," Merlin assures him, and he's quite serious about that. He may not treat Idris like a lover, or even a friend, but he's never made him do anything unpleasant, either. If anything, Merlin has been far more obsessed with giving him pleasure than with taking it for himself. He kneels over Idris, planting his knees on either side of his thighs, and lets their cocks rub together briefly as he leans in and kisses him.

He waits until Idris is grinding up against him and making little high-pitched noises, before breaking off the kiss and sliding down the length of his body. He stops at Idris' cock and wraps his hand around the base, licking a bit of slick off the head before sucking it into his mouth. Idris makes a strangled noise and bucks up into it, but Merlin doesn't take him any deeper, not yet.

He keeps him like this, gasping and begging for more, while Merlin quietly coats his fingers in salve. He inches a downward, then, and drags his thumb up the back of Idris' thigh, careful not to surprise him.

He circles Idris' arsehole slowly, rubbing the salve into him and humming against his cock. Idris lets out a long moan, and Merlin takes it as permission, sliding one careful finger into him as he takes his cock as far into his mouth as he can.

After that, it's not at all difficult. Idris bucks into his mouth and back onto first one and then two of his fingers, and makes a series of shocked, wondering noises. It's easy to work him open, and before long, Merlin is sliding three fingers into him, carefully aiming for the spot that makes him buck off the blanket, nearly choking Merlin with his cock. Fortunately, Merlin knows to expect it.

It's detached, almost clinical, this process of preparing Idris. Merlin reflects that he ought to be desperate for it by now, but he's barely even aware of his own arousal. He considers this for a moment, while twisting his fingers inside Idris in a motion that makes him squeal, and realizes that it's because this time, he can't pretend it's Arthur that he's about to fuck. There's something about this, about Idris laid out under him, that he just can't imagine into anything other than what it is. Idris has the wrong voice, the wrong mouth, the wrong hands. His body is built differently, and his hair is the wrong color, and in short, he isn't Arthur, and Merlin really doesn't want anyone else. With that realization, Merlin knows that he can't do it, and he can't stop himself from stopping and pushing away from Idris, falling backward to land hard on his elbows.

"Why'd you stop?" Idris pants, making a protesting noise, and then, seeing Merlin's face, asks, "What's wrong?"

It's the first time Idris has ever asked him anything of the sort. They barely talk at all, not even about the weather or how their days are going, or even how the blanket is a little bit scratchy. Personal matters are always completely avoided, except now Idris is breaking the most important rule and looking completely kind and earnest, and Merlin doesn't know what to do except to give in and cry.

So he cries, great heaving sobs that shake his chest and leave his shoulders feeling knotted tight. "Oh," Idris says. "Oh, Merlin," and he wraps his arms around him and pulls Merlin down to cry into the join of Idris' neck and shoulder, stroking gently through his hair and holding him very close. "It's okay," he whispers. "It's fine. You're in love with someone else."

Merlin shrinks away when he says it, though it's probably useless to deny it at this point. Idris doesn't let him go, though, and so he forces himself to relax. He can get through this.

"Tell me about it," Idris murmurs, calm and quiet against his ear. He doesn't sound at all upset, just concerned. "Tell me."

So Merlin does. He squeezes his eyes shut, trying to stop the tears, then opens his eyes and says, "I'm in love with Prince Arthur. He doesn't know, and I know that's how it needs to be, but I can't stand to be around him and not be able to touch him, or comfort him or, you know." He gestures at their intertwined bodies, feeling the choke of guilt welling up inside of him. "I'm sorry," he says. "I didn't set out to hurt you. I just needed- something. I don't know. I can't have him, but I could pretend, sometimes. That's just so awful, I can't begin to apologize for it."

"No need," Idris says, and though his eyes are shining with moisture, he doesn't look angry. "I always suspected," he says. "I just didn't know for sure. I never asked for more from you." His tone goes urgent. "You're allowed to love him, Merlin. Nobody gets to say who you can love except you."

"That's not all," Merlin says miserably, and this might be a death sentence, but he already feels so broken that he can't bring himself to care. "I have a secret, something that he doesn't know about. He thinks I'm his ally in a battle, but I'm exactly what he's fighting against. I don't want to hurt him, the opposite, really, I was just born with it. But I've waited far too long to tell him, and he's going to think I just don't trust him, and I know he'll never forgive me."

It's too much, far too much to unburden so quickly, and Merlin dissolves into shaky sobs again, though much of the force has gone from it. Idris doesn't say much, just rubs soothing patterns over his back and strokes through his hair and whispers that it's okay, it's all okay.

Merlin isn't sure how long it takes, but after a time his sobs trail off, and his breathing begins to slow. He feels hollow, emptied out, and yet more full, more honest and alive than he's felt in ages.

"Thank you," he says, when he feels he can speak, and then he says it again and again, until Idris places a gentle hand over his mouth and whispers,

"Go to him, Merlin. Talk to him."

"Yeah," Merlin says, and pushes up onto his arms, clambering off Idris to stand. "Yeah, okay." He reaches for his trousers and steps into them, fumbling over the laces before pulling on his shirt.

"Good," Idris says. "Go."

He almost wishes he could stay, tell Idris that he's lovely and that nobody should ever have treated such a kind person this way, but he can't stop. He wades out into the snow, his legs a leaden weight as he tries to hurry, looking for the tracks he left on the way in and trying to keep to those, where he's already beaten out a path. It's slower going than expected, and he finally resigns himself to that, wiping his eyes on his kerchief and trying to sort out the mess of his already wet hair.

His face feels puffy and unpleasantly warm, tight where his tears have dried, but also dripping with melting snow, so once inside, he makes a detour for the wash basin and splashes icy water on his face. The sting of it feels amazing, and he realizes that during these last weeks and months he's barely felt anything at all, with the exception of his own guilt. While in Gaius's chambers, he strips off his clothes and puts on dry, clean trousers and a fresh shirt.

This done, he slips back through the corridors and into Arthur's room. It's cold and dark, and he clearly hasn't been here in at least a few hours. Merlin feels curiously calm now, though, and after feeding a few logs to the dying fire, he sits down on Arthur's bed and waits, his limbs loose and his eyes half-closed.

Arthur comes in not long after him, and doesn't look particularly surprised to see him. All he looks is very, very tired.

"Hello," he says, and gestures down at his clothes. "Help me with these?"

Merlin stands and crosses the room to him, pulling him toward the bed. He works at the laces, his fingers more deft than they've been in ages.

"I need to tell you something," Merlin murmurs, and and feels his pulse go suddenly faster and so loud that Arthur can surely hear it. "A few somethings, actually."

Arthur lets out a harsh breath and closes his eyes, pulling back slightly. "No, listen. I need to tell you something first. Please," he says, at Merlin's noise of protest. "Just listen."

Merlin nods in acquiescence, and Arthur draws the flat of his hand over his eyes, sighing. It's a fitting punishment that Arthur is choosing now to confront him, when he is so close to admitting to it all, and of his own volition. He thinks he ought to feel frightened, has imagined this encounter enough times to expect the bottom dropping out of his stomach feeling of guilt and dread. He doesn't though, he just feels curiously calm. However Arthur chooses to tell him, it's what he deserves, and he can't bring himself to be afraid of it any longer.

"I've done something terrible," Arthur says, and his voice is very quiet. "I've been doing something terrible for a long time, now."

Now he's a little frightened, and more than a little confused, because this isn't how it's supposd to happen. "Go on," Merlin says, waits as a strange feeling pulls at his stomach, something he can't quite identify. Arthur isn't accusing Merlin of doing anything awful, he's saying it about himself.

He glances at Arthur, whose arms are outstretched, and helps him out of his shirt, surprised to note that Arthur isn't shrinking away from his touch at all. Once his shirt is gone, Arthur doesn't gesture for his night tunic, but he does take a step back.

"I bought a tonic in the lower village," Arthur says. "The man who had it said it would make me whoever I wanted to be, but only for a few hours. He taught me a word to use to start it, and another to make it stop. It was-" he hesitates "-Magic, and I knew it from the start."

Merlin sucks in a breath, and there's that odd feeling in the pit of his stomach again, but he doesn't say anything except, "Go on."

"I was having thoughts," Arthur says. "Thoughts about a specific person. It kept me up at night, I couldn't eat, couldn't lead my men, couldn't do anything. I thought if I could be someone else for a day, I could try what I'd been thinking of, and then I'd know and it wouldn't torment me any more. So I took the tonic, and I wished to be someone completely ordinary. I found the person where I knew he'd be, and I acted out my-" he coughs. "My desires. He was interested too, I'm certain, but he thought I was nobody, not me at all."

Merlin sinks back against the bed, feeling a little dizzy. "Arthur-" he begins, but Arthur raises a hand and Merlin falls silent.

Arthur sighs, and it looks like a shudder, running through his body "It didn't work. After the first time, I just wanted him more, and I was already so guilty that I could barely stand to see him as myself, lest I do something to let it slip and show him how I'd wronged him. I didn't know what to do, but I couldn't stop going back to him. It was the only time I was happy, when I was with him."

"Oh, Arthur," Merlin says quietly. "I didn't know."

"Wait," Arthur says softly. "Let me finish. I always pretended he knew it was me, that he understood and loved me anyway. Finally, I asked him- you," he amends, and continues shakily, "I asked you to take me, but you couldn't, because you really did love the real me. And so I ruined whatever chance I once had. You were afraid to tell me of your magic, and I was using magic all along to trick you. I'm so sorry, I had the only thing I could think of wanting, and I've sullied it so terribly that you could never want it now," he finishes, and he's swaying a little, as though he might swoon.

Then, when Arthur has gone weak and silent, everything is so much easier. Merlin stands up and reaches for him, tugging him around so he's leaning against the bed and Merlin is standing between his legs, their hands still intertwined. Arthur leans back heavily against the bed, as though he isn't sure he can stay upright without it.

"It's okay," he whispers, and leans forward, letting their foreheads touch. "We were both foolish. I thought I was using Id—you," he says, and smiles gently, "And you thought you were doing the same to me. We both lied, but only because we didn't know. It's okay."

Arthur makes a sound that is half a gasp, half a sob, and he frees his hands, reaching to cup them around Merlin's waist and pull him closer. "I'm so sorry."

"I am too," Merlin murmurs, and now there's nothing left to do but kiss him, and so he does.

Kissing Arthur, here in his own body, his own room, is nothing like kissing him as Idris, nothing either like Merlin has ever imagined. In the stable, in his too-thin body with the wrong lips and the wrong eyes and the wrong hands, he was never fearful. Here, though, he is soft and cautious, hands trembling as he gasps into Merlin's mouth, his eyes fluttering closed.

It's a chaste kiss, just the careful, drawn-out brush of his lips along the length of Merlin's mouth, so slow that he can feel the gradual press and drawing tight of Arthur's lips, the only thing that makes it a real kiss and not just the two of them standing very close together. Arthur reaches up to cup Merlin's face, angling his face back to tilt his forehead toward Merlin's until they touch, his hair a faint tickle against Merlin's brow.

He gasps a breath, and then another. Merlin's name slips out somewhere between the two and then they're kissing again, and this time it's a a thick, forceful kiss that's heavy with unvoiced promise. Merlin doesn't know what it is exactly that Arthur is trying to offer him, but he knows that he wants it. He moans blindly, reaching for Arthur's hips and dragging him closer to lean too heavily onto Merlin as their hipbones jar once, twice, before fitting neatly together.

"I don't know what to do," Arthur whispers, and Merlin follows the path of his words, licking into his mouth and dragging a hand up the length of Arthur's back to press his palm to the top of Arthur's neck, his fingers catching in his hair.

"Everything," he whispers back. "We'll do it all."

"We've already tried a lot of things," Arthur says, but Merlin shakes his head forcefully and kisses him again, the sound of Arthur's tiny gasps almost a tangible sensation against his tongue.

"No," he says, when Arthur draws back again to gasp and gaze wonderingly at him, through the fringe of his tousled hair. "That wasn't you," he says. "Not all of you. And it wasn't me at all."

"Okay," Arthur says softly, and his voice has gone very tender as his arms bracket warmly around Merlin's waist. "Show me you."

Merlin loses track of how long they stay like that, Arthur pressed up against the length of his body, pressing dizzying kisses to his mouth, his jaw, his cheek, and learning the lines of Merlin's face in a way he never did before. It's entirely different than before, slow and sensual and though it's not without an urgency of its own, it's also not rushed. He can't keep his hands still, running them over the planes of Arthur's shoulders and arms and down to his wrists, where the bones are surprisingly delicate.

He gasps at the feel of Arthur's mouth on his neck, pressing wet kisses that he follows with the flat of his tongue, and Merlin follows the strong tendons of Arthur's neck up to the point of his jaw, before veering off to feel over the lines that span his brow. They're faint, but Merlin can feel each one, a little twist here, a sharp bend there. He stays there for a long time, full of quiet wonder at these textures that belong to only Arthur, until Arthur latches his teeth onto Merlin's collarbone and he shoves closer with a gasp.

Arthur pushes him back against the bed, leaning forward on an arm, his fingers sink into the coverlets, leaving heavy tracks, and watching the moonlight dapple on the curve of Arthur's back, Merlin thinks again of the knights in the field, their footprints freezing slowly over, and feels very, very alive. .

"Want to see more of you," he murmurs, leaning in to brush his lips against Arthur's ear. Arthur shudders into the sensation and nods, reaching to pick at the laces of his shirt. He pulls it over his head in a slow, easy motion, stepping back to kick off his boots and work his trousers down to pool at his ankles. He seems surprisingly comfortable like this, given his shy kisses, and Merlin understands it as a gift and takes it, leaning back on his elbows to gaze over the length of Arthur.

He looks very pale, the moonlight washing away the usual golden hue of his skin. Merlin will see that tomorrow, he thinks, perhaps Arthur's arm wrapped around his shoulder, his wrist close enough to kiss as Merlin opens his eyes to the morning sun. It's going to happen, he realizes, and shivers at the thought, at being allowed to think that.

He takes his time looking at Arthur, drinking him in. He wants to learn every minute detail of this shockingly beautiful man, and he slowly memorizes every inch of him, hollows of his cheekbones, the swell of muscle at his shoulders, his rosy nipples, peaked in the air. He draws in a quick breath at the line of smooth muscle that pulls gentle ripples over Arthur's stomach, another at the dip of his navel and at the faint trail that leads down to his cock, heavy and half-hard already and a little rosy, looking velvety smooth in the shadowy space between their bodies. He continues on, taking in the lines of calf and thigh, Arthur's finely boned feet, the soft curve of his ankle.

"You're perfect," he breathes, and lunges forward to pull Arthur into another kiss. It's more desperate now, wet and fast and punctuated by their breathy moans, until Merlin isn't sure which voice is his and which is Arthur's.

Arthur tugs at Merlin's jacket, trying to strip it off his shoulders without breaking their kiss. Merlin fumbles to help him, probably doing more harm than good, but finally he's free of it and Arthur's hands are working at the ties of his shirt, drawing it swiftly up and over his head with a rough noise from deep in his throat. Merlin feels the rumble against his chest as Arthur pulls him close, running feverishly swift hands over his sides and across his back before dipping his hands down between them to yank at Merlin's trousers.

He drops down on his knees in a swift, graceful motion, then pulls the fabric down completely, seemingly unmindful of the popping laces. Merlin presses forward into his touch when the flat of Arthur's hand brushes his erection, and Arthur makes a sound that is half sigh half moan, and reaches to cup his hand around the head of Merlin's cock. He strokes him once, a slow, languorous motion that smears moisture from the head of Merlin's cock down over the length of him, and as he shifts into the touch, Arthur manages to liberate him from his trousers entirely, helping him step out of them, and rising up as Merlin kicks free of them.

Then there's nothing between them, and Merlin slides helplessly against Arthur, leaving slick trails across his thigh and the slope of his groin while pressing closer to the warm weight of Arthur's erection. Arthur hauls them both up onto the bed, and they rut together, Merlin sinking down against the warm mound of blankets then bucking back up into Arthur, licking at the sweat that collects in the dip of his shoulder.

"I'm still ready," Arthur whispers, and turns his face away to suck at the base of Merlin's neck.

"Your first time," Merlin murmurs, stroking a hand over the expanse of Arthur's back and reaching to pull his head up. "Look at me," he whispers, and Arthur does, from under his pale lashes. "Your first time at this, anything like this," Merlin says, and then, "I want you to take me."

Arthur's breath catches, and though he his expression is nervous, his erection pulses, and Merlin wriggles against the pleasant sensation. "Oil," he says. "Find some. That stuff Gaius gives you for aches, maybe."

Arthur half stumbles, trying to stand, then manages to make it to the cupboard where he selects a vial of oil with a trembling hand and returns, running a slow, reverent hand over Merlin's stomach as though he's amazed that Merlin's still there.

"Tell me what to do," he whispers, and Merlin pulls him down onto the bed and takes the oil from him, though his hands aren't much steadier. He manages to uncork it and reaches for Arthur's hand, coating his fingers.

"Start with one," he says, and kisses him hard and fast, before releasing him to lean back on the bed.

The press of Arthur's finger is hesitant at first, but when Merlin quirks a little smile at him and nods, he grows considerably calmer. Merlin gasps into the pressure, the feeling of Arthur's finger opening him up at once alien and welcome. It's been a long time since he's done this, since before he came to Camelot.

Arthur works him open slowly, carefully. Merlin doesn't need to direct him much after that, arching into the touch when Arthur brushes against the places that feel best. He feels full, but it's not enough, not nearly enough, and he reaches for the oil and slicks up Arthur's cock, rocking down onto Arthur's fingers and stroking down the length of his cock.

"Now?" Arthur asks, and reaches to still Merlin's hand. "I won't last," he says roughly, and Merlin reaches up to pull him into another kiss, whispering "I won't either, once you're inside me" against Arthur's parted lips.

Arthur gasps at that, a sharp intake of breath, and then Merlin is flat against the bed and he's pushing in, slow, steady and huge. Merlin takes a calming breath and forces himself to relax, and then it gets much easier and Arthur's sliding all the way in, as far as he can go, and the dull ache is turning into something better, something that tingles in the base of his stomach and sends a dull spark up to his nipples, and Merlin reaches for Arthur's shoulders and grits out, "Move."

Then Arthur's moving, and thank god he's close, because Merlin can already feel it building up inside of him, the tight press of his impending orgasm at the base of his stomach. "Come on," he say urgently, and then again, "Come on, Arthur, you won't hurt me. I want it," and then Arthur is rocking into him with deep, hard strokes that press deeply within, making Merlin wail at the shocking feel of it, so full and deep and slick.

"Yeah," he grunts, the sound knocked out of him with the force of Arthur's thrust, and reaches to pull Arthur down on top of him. "C'mon," he says. "I'm there, c'mon."

And then he is, and when he reaches for his cock it takes only a single stroke before he's coming, pulsing hotly onto his hand and Arthur's chest, and Arthur glances down at it, makes a strangled noise that is almost a roar, and pulses into Merlin's body, his hips pistoning as he spills on and on and deep within.

"Oh," Merlin whispers, and pushes at Arthur's arms until he collapses onto Merlin, and then they stay like that for a long time.

"I've wanted you for so long," Arthur whispers, when they've found the energy to move into a more comfortable position and have cleaned off with a rag from the wash basin.

"I know," Merlin whispers back, and brushes a kiss over Arthur's cheek. "I wanted you. I was a mess without you. Could barely make it through the day."

"Me either," Arthur says, and somehow it feels like the most intimate thing that's happened all night, Arthur quiet and sated and blushing a little over talking about his feelings.

"No more of that," Merlin says quietly, and kisses him slow and soft. "Just us. Yeah?"

"Yeah," Arthur says, and rolls onto his side to wrap around Merlin, dropping a kiss on the top of his head. "Just us."

In the morning, the storm will break, and spring will follow not far behind. Here in Arthur's bedchamber, though, that time has come already.

 

You fell into our arms
You fell into our arms
We tried but there was nothing we could do
Nothing we could do

-"Backdrifts" - Radiohead