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His Own Hand (past-tense version)

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It began as so many of their stories do, with a monster and an order. A monster stalking Camelot; an order from the King.

A monster stealing children in the night, and only first-born boys. An order to clear off the streets at sundown so the knights could do their job, though the thing turned to mist each time they cornered it.

A monster with empty white eyes and a red lolling tongue on prettily-illuminated parchment somewhere in the depths of Geoffrey's library. An order that Merlin, scrambling across the flagstones with an amulet in his hand, obeyed no more than he ever did when it came to Arthur's safety.

A monster that, so said the book, lost its preference for children on the third night after it rose, but still had a taste for eldest sons: the more well-born, the better. An order that meant nothing in the face of something pale and awful scaling the wall to Arthur's rooms.

A monster that fell screaming to its death when Merlin, no chance of reaching it in time, stood still in the courtyard and flung the stone on a chain up the castle wall with all the force a pair of golden eyes, a guttural shout, an extended arm could bear.

An order carried out at the sound of that shout. Merlin caught a breath for staring up at Arthur's casement, now thrown wide, bare shoulders and sleep-tousled moon-blond head thrust out to stare back down. Tossed a grin and one mad, cheerless wave before they dragged him away. He was lucky, he supposed. They only heard his voice, didn't see his eyes. He'd only run afoul of the curfew, not the law that would see him burn.

A monster that melted to a pool of foul-smelling slime before the knights even arrived, let alone by the time Arthur could get his sword belted on and race his way down a thousand steps. An order that echoed in more than one pair of ears that night: if any man is found out of doors after sunset until this creature is caught, I'll have him whipped.

 

***

"Father, you can't be serious." He knew his father was serious; it was just something Arthur had to say, like Merlin you raving git was something he'd had to say. Was the kindest thing he had to say as he stomped back upstairs to find himself a shirt, then made his way to Uther's chambers.

"Of course I'm serious. I gave an order; it was disobeyed."

"It's Merlin. You want to punish him, put him in the stocks and throw turnips at his head. Confiscate every one of those stupid neckerchiefs he wears. He'll be crying into his porridge for days."

Uther looked up from early breakfast or late-night snack, weariness set in his face like it was carved there. "And because it's your manservant, he should be spared from a decree meant to protect both the people and your knights from a creature that is--"

"Gone. A creature that's gone. Not one boy was taken tonight. My knights have scoured the city and found nothing."

"Which means exactly that, and you know it. One night free of the creature doesn't mean it won't return." His father wiped crumbs from his lips. "Even if it is gone forever, the law was still broken. Your man got lucky. Your knights got lucky that they weren't attacked from behind while dealing with him, or some child wasn't snatched from its home."

"None of that happened."

Uther rose and knocked back his chair, a fast, steady kick. The sleeplessness drained from his face, but the stone was still there, a hearth for the embers in his eyes. "And the next time? The next time some witch-beast is loose in the streets of my kingdom and my people -- your people -- take the King's commands as a suggestion? Surely he won't punish me; I'm his tailor, I bake his bread, I'm the captain of his guard. Is this how you plan to rule when you are king? Camelot will fall about your ears."

Surely he won't sentence Gwen's father to death, Arthur let slip through his mind but not his lips, or kill him when he tries to escape. As if anyone under Uther's hand expected such lenience.

Except his own child, and even that had been less expectation than hope. Now it was just stone. Like father like son, but the only heat in Arthur's face was the spots of colour high in his cheeks. "It's Merlin," he weakly repeated, the words the only part of him that wasn't held stiff, at attention, the future ruler his father had just told him he'd fail to be.

"And?"

And if he were the son his father wanted, he'd answer anything but, "And he has the constitution of a dairymaid. Your men will kill him if you have him whipped."

"No, they won't." Uther turned his face away for a moment, but Arthur didn't let his own relax. As if that movement ever boded well? Though he wasn't expecting the words when along with the return of his father's gaze, they came: "You will."

"What?"

"You will, by your own hand -- and get that look off your face." The stricken one, half insulted, half aghast. "He's not going to die; at least I presume you can manage to flog a man without killing him. You've done it before."

"To criminals!" On direct command from the King, and it had hardly been his favourite activity even then.

Uther rounded on him, finger extended like a blade. "He is your servant. It is your knights who might have died defending him from that beast, and you are my son. You're the Crown Prince and you'll be seen to act like one!"

Hit him in the stomach with your boot, why don't you, Your Majesty. Right in the spot beneath his left kidney where the need for approval from you and the need to do what's right and the words it's MERlin met up and churned in his gut like fish three days past fresh.

"I..." The hesitation shamed him more than any of it. More than what he ended up saying, no matter what that might be – it was the fact that he paused. "Will not."

"We shall see."

***

Merlin hadn't believed he could sleep here, iron around his wrists and propped against the wall in the cell with no straw on the floor. (The other one must be the luxury suite, he'd thought long ago, the one reserved for kings from other lands and the odd rebellious ward. Him, he always got the cheapest digs when he booked a room in the dungeons.)

He was wrong, though, exhaustion winning out over cold and fear, and it was only a clank-clack-scrape against the wall of the other cell that finally brought him to.

"Get caught out after curfew as well?" he called. "Sorry for your luck - wish I could say at least the weather's nicer in here, but I'd be lying." The floor was rock, not a sheet of ice, but when you were sitting on it knees drawn up and back to the wall, it might as well be. "I'm not sure I can feel my backside anymore."

"Wish I could say the company makes up for it," came a familiar voice, and oh, it was manacles clanking. "But I'd be lying...and speaking to you."

"Arthur?" Merlin was on his feet, swaying for a moment from sitting so long, then across to the other side of the cell, to the wall that they shared. "They arrested you as well?" For coming down and out after him. Wonderful.

He could see the rolling eyes and curled-up lip as if the stone were glass when Arthur answered, "They're my knights, you fool. I'm in charge of them; of course I have leave to be out after dusk."

It was almost comforting, that tone. "Then what're you doing here?"

"I'm the Prince, you know."

Merlin wondered if that was a sequitur and also if sequitur meant what he thought it did. His Latin was spotty at best. "Good, you remember who you are. Now can we move on to how you got here?"

"I'm the Prince and that means I get to ask you what you're doing here, you suicidal clod!"

"Oh." That might take some explaining. "I was out after curfew, you see." Or not.

"MERlin!"

Right, explaining it was, then. Of a sort. He slid down the wall to sit again. "I found something in one of the books in the library; a history of the region. About a creature that eats eldest sons."

That shut the princely mouth up for a moment, at least, but soon enough Arthur was at it again. "Anything on how to kill it?" Then duty gave way to irritation again and, "You couldn't bring the news the long way round, through the passages?"

"It was--" Merlin's head thunked back against the stone that separated their backs. There was no body. No evidence that anything had been out there tonight except him. It was best that way, nothing left to show that the one who killed it was as magical as the beast itself. "I thought it was going after you."

"ME?" Merlin could see that face as well. "Do I look like a child to you, Merlin?"

"No, but I thought it might be fooled by how you act." There was no almost to the comfort of this routine, actually. The floor and the cuffs were no less cold, but Merlin was now, just a bit. "The book said it stopped snatching children on the third night, and would look for the highest-ranking first-born son, no matter his age." A perfect tool for magical assassination: hide an egg somewhere. Watch from afar as it hatches and destroys a kingdom.

"...And that would be me."

Merlin didn't answer, just let him chew on that and thought it might have done them all a world of good if Uther Pendragon hadn't an elder brother who, Gaius told him, died in infancy.

"Nothing about how to kill it?" Arthur asked again, the anger mostly gone.

Yes. Magic, and Merlin did it. "No. I'm not even sure it was the right creature now." He lowered his voice. "It wasn't there, was it. So I must've got it wrong."

"Lovely." Merlin would swear there was an answering thunk of skull against stone, back of head to back of head, though he shouldn't be able to feel that through walls this thick. "So it's still out there. If we're lucky it's buggered off to bother some other kingdom, and all this is for nothing."

"All what?" It wasn't still out there. It wouldn't be coming back, and Merlin couldn't say a word about it.

Metal off stone, and that, he could hear. "This, you brainless tit. You got caught out after curfew, remember?"

It'd be difficult to forget. Merlin was kidding before, but he really couldn't feel his arse now, the floor was that cold. But it wasn't for nothing, even if he and Gaius were the only ones to ever know that. Arthur was here, after all, to berate him for saving his life, so it was worth---

Oh. Right. Arthur was here. "Which doesn't explain what you're doing in irons."

"Do you remember what the King said he'd do to anyone out after curfew?"

"Vaguely." Not vaguely at all; Merlin just wasn't thinking about it until he had to.

...Merlin was just pretending not to think about it until he had to.

Still worth it. Still.

"Vaguely." Ah, the time it took that snort to travel down the length of his high-born nose. "Well, let me refresh your memory, then: he wanted to have you flogged!"

"I hadn't actually forgotten." Merlin's voice was less sarcastic than he'd like, but then-- "Wait, wanted? You talked him out of it?"

"Yes, and then I thought I'd pop down here to have a chat for a few minutes before we head up for breakfast. I think I fancy quail eggs - you?" Finally now, Merlin recognised the repeated deliberate scrape. It was Arthur using the edge of his manacle to fidget at the wall in place of the ever-present knife they'd no doubt taken from him. "What I talked him out of was any kind of sense."

"...Come again?"

Each word was spat out tight and wet, like teeth from a punch in the mouth. "I told him you're a delicate fainting lily and his men would kill you if they took a whip to you; he ordered me to do it instead."

"I'm not--" he started hotly, but the heat drained out fast enough at Arthur's words, sucked into the stone along with his breath and ability to reply for several long moments.

Moments turned to minutes, and it was a test of manhood now to see who'll break the silence first. Minutes turned to... more minutes was all. There was no candle down here to mark the time. There were only steady breaths and the stab, stab, scrape, and Merlin's skull every so often adding rhythm against the wall.

"You told him no." It was Merlin who lost, if that's how they were scoring the game. Somewhere outside in the hall, noise from the guards. Hushed voices; a wooden creak and footsteps coming their way.

"As if I'd want to wear myself out lashing your worthless hide."

That was a yes, then, not that Merlin needed it. That Arthur was here answered the question before it was asked.

"And yet you shall." It wasn't a voice or a face you could easily mistake. Merlin tried to rise, but could only manage bowing his head at the King, his pins-and-needle thighs locking on him halfway up the wall.

"I won't." From the jingling of chain, Arthur was more successful at standing. "Merlin was trying to help me; he thought my life was in danger."

Uther stood where they both could see him, but his gaze was all at Arthur. The guard behind him carried a candle, and the faint reflection in Uther's eyes was the first Merlin had seen of the Prince since that last quick wave towards his window.

There was a space for escape there in Uther's concern for his son. "And was it?"

"Well. No. He was mistaken."

"Indeed." No, there was never a space, except the one between Uther's fingers before they snapped shut.

Arthur's voice went tight. "Look, I'd hardly say he's not a fool -- but he's a loyal fool. There's no justice in punishing him for that."

"Thanks," Merlin muttered. It was half sincere. Three quarters, even.

"Shut up."

Merlin let a daft bit of giggle escape his lips, because he could see it in the King's shadowed eyes: the movement of Arthur's hand slapping at the phantom back of Merlin's head and hitting the wall instead.

"Arthur." Uther's voice silenced most things in Camelot; they might have stood a chance at drowning him out if Morgana were down here, but it was a dice roll even on that. "You will do this. You'll do this or I will give the order for my men to strip the skin off his back, if that's what it takes for you to learn what it means to be King."

Merlin hadn't thought his back could get any colder than pressed against an old stone wall, but it could. It did. Fear that he might not get out of this turned to fear of how much it would hurt hours ago, before Arthur even came. This was something else entirely.

"Arthur," he said when he managed to thaw his tongue enough to move it.

"I said shu--"

"Do it."

That wasn't the scrape of boredom and frustration; it was the slam of Arthur's hand against the stone. "Are you further out of your mind than ever?"

Very possibly, yes. Merlin had suspected it for some several seconds now. "Because I'd prefer to have you beat me than Aelfric the Headsman? He's built like three oxen stacked on top each other!" He could in fact flay the flesh from Merlin's body with a flick of his wrist if Uther gave the order. "I like my skin; I have to live in it and all. At least with you there's a chance you'll get distracted by deciding your boots aren't shiny enough, and miss a few blows."

He would swear that Uther almost cracked a smile, but it had to be a trick of the barely useful light. "Even the boy sees reason, Arthur. Will you? I'll give you this, even: no witnesses but me there to see you follow through." When Arthur's silence lasted too long, Uther's voice went harder and there was no chance he was smiling now. "Or will you watch while they take him apart in the public square? And I will make you watch; have no doubt of that."

A short inhale, and long, slow breath out the nose. "Merlin..."

It was the easiest thing he'd ever said in his life, and the hardest at once, honesty cutting cruelly through the joke, leaving only, "I'd rather it was you."

What the hell was he saying? He'd rather it was Gwen with a feather pillow, was what he'd rather. He'd rather it was a week in the stocks throwing pumpkins at his head! He'd rather it was nothing. But it wasn't nothing. So.

"If--" Clipped, clipped, Arthur holding tight to the word in his mouth before spitting it fiercely. Then steady. "If I do this, then it's over. No deciding it wasn't enough. No by the way, he's also banished and you're sharing rooms with Morgana for a month."

"I had wondered if putting you in the dungeon wasn't a kindness, comparatively speaking." It was, it actually was the phantom of a smile. Then it was gone as if it never existed. "Something to note for next time."

"Father."

"Yes, Arthur. I give you my word. When I tell you it's done, it's done."

One more clank-scrape, and Merlin wondered what he was writing on the wall all this time, or was it just meaningless lines? His father's face as a target for punching? Probably Merlin's. "Fine. Then let us out of here. I'll do it in the morning."

"You're bargaining with me? You'll do it now."

"I'm cold, tired, and covered in dungeon grime. So is Merlin. At least give me a chance to clean up and put some bloody socks on, and him not to smell like a wet elk-hound."

"Hey!" He didn't-- well. Perhaps a bit.

"Shut up."

Uther stepped closer to the other cell, and Merlin could no longer see his face, just the thick grey edge of his cloak. "You have an hour - if you give me your word. In one hour you'll be ready and waiting in your chambers, and I'll watch you punish the boy by your own hand."

There was... something, and Merlin believed for the longest, oddest moment that Arthur had some magic of his own after all, building in that silence to the unbreakable bond of his promise. "You have my word, then. By my hand."

"Release them."

There was no pause, as if once he had that, Uther had everything, but if that was so, then why was he insisting on watching, being there as Arthur... as Arthur...

Just like that they were free, except not at all free, were they now, Merlin babbled in his head as Uther turned to sweep away, as the guard who tended to lose at dice unlocked the doors and freed their hands. Arthur first, of course it was Arthur first.

Merlin babbled in his head because his hands hurt more with the cuffs off than on, because the feeling was returning to his legs, because if he kept reaching for words he wasn't speaking he could pretend for a second more that this wasn't, that it was not going to happen, that it wasn't--

"Merlin."

Right. The door was open. He could leave. Merlin rubbed his wrists and stumbled a bit, but he was moving. Out the doors, past the guards, down the hall...

To the wall, as strong hands grabbed him by collar and arm and slammed him lightly into an alcove. Yes, you could slam lightly; it was a talent only Arthur could possibly master.

"Mer-lin!"

His eyes were wide and his mouth open and Arthur was giving him that look like he was the perfect gooseberry fool. It made him break out of the staring to smile, and that smile earned a smack to his head and he stared again. Vicious circle, that. "If you're going to start beating me now, you might want to call your father back so he can watch."

Another smack; he'd almost call it fond if Arthur didn't look like he looked, all manly aggravation and ... that couldn't be fear. Not of this, not in him.

"No, this part now is just for fun." The hand on his arm was gone, because Arthur was sighing through his teeth, rubbing at his hair. "Right. Look. I don't want this any more than you do."

"Oh, I'd lay bets I want it less. Not that I could prove that, but it's not your--"

"Shut up." Perhaps if Arthur knocked Merlin out with these continued blows to the head, he and his father could get the whole thing over with while Merlin was unconscious and he'd just have to deal with the aftermath? Merlin was good with aftermaths, really. "It's my word," Arthur said. "I gave him my word." The next ones were slow. Careful. Precise. "If you're not there in my rooms in an hour--"

"You'll hunt me down and string me up by some important bit or other and slice the rest of them off for making you break an oath, I know, I know." Arm free, Merlin waved it at him. "I'll be there."

Arthur's eyes were inches from his own now, breath on his face, and he'd had grouse and peaches tonight, and more than one glass of wine. "If you're not there in my rooms in an hour," Arthur repeated, slowly, to a gooseberry fool, "I won't have broken my word -- and you never gave yours."

Arthur wasn't wrong that sometimes Merlin was just a bit thick. A bit slow. This was one of those times, and the wall at Merlin's back now felt as cold as the one in the dungeon, though fire burned in a sconce not three feet away. "And where would I be, then?"

"Not there, you nincompoop!" This time it was the wall beside his head that Arthur smacked.

"Not anywhere in Camelot," Merlin shot back. Not that thick. "I'd have to leave, or the King would hunt me down." Not that slow.

Arthur let his head fall back, unlaced red shirt framing the long line of his throat, curtains at an open window Merlin couldn't help staring through. "Yes. You'd have to leave. But you'd part my service with that lily-white skin of yours intact. It seems like rather a decent separation wage."

"You're sacking me now?" He was less aggrieved than he sounded, but it might make Arthur laugh, and right now he needed to hear Arthur laugh.

Down came the chin, and there were the eyes, and the twist of the lips, and "Merlin, I sack you every second Tuesday. What's so terrible about one more time?" Not a laugh, but a puff of air, and it was enough.

"You wouldn't be hiring me back when your socks get so stiff they can stand on their own." What was so terrible was it would be the last time, and that wasn't how this destiny thing was supposed to go. Ever try slicing a coin in half down the edge, so both sides are intact, but apart? Yeah. "Look, I don't know about you, but I actually would like to wash up. Wouldn't want to stink up your room with the smell of wet dog, now, yeah?"

Arthur stared -- "You're mad." -- or maybe glared -- "I don't want to do this." -- but it was enough that his fingers fell loose and Merlin could finally twist away.

"But you can. It'll be all right."

It was a long damned walk back to Gaius' chambers, and Merlin was listening for footsteps behind him, and he was thinking yes, yes it would still be Arthur breaking his word, and he was thinking Arthur knew that, and he was thinking he really was mad, or an imbecile, or both.

And he was thinking he did smell a bit like an elk-hound, yeah.

***

An hour. He'd had an hour to wait, to convince that good-for-nothing fool to leave, to come up with something, and now Arthur had five minutes.

Five minutes and clean socks and a chant of don't come under his breath and those spots of colour back in his face again, but this time the shame was that he didn't mean it.

He meant don't go and he had four minutes and not a cunning plan in sight. Nor a manservant, so perhaps he wouldn't come.

Three minutes and the sense-memory of a braided cat in his hand because of course he'd done this before, just never to a man who didn't deserve it.

Two minutes and bad fish in his gut, though it was peaches and grouse for supper, and perhaps he wouldn't come.

One minute and bootsteps in the hall but he knew those feet; he'd known them for twenty-odd years.

One minute. Less than one. Uther had the cat in his glove; he tossed it on the table, took Arthur's favourite chair, and watched the door.

An hour, and perhaps he wouldn't come, and perhaps the look on his father's face, the shake of the head, was worth that. Perhaps this feeling like the fish weren't only old, they were poisoned, was happiness. Was relief.

"Shall I call out the guard?" his father asked, and that look of disgust was.... "Or is it even worth the time? I imagine he's halfway through the forest by now."

An hour and five minutes, and the door banged open and the daft git was smiling, that stupid nervous grin as he huffed and bowed. "Sorry! Sorry, I--"

"Stopped to help some maid with her fallen laundry?" Arthur asked, and oh. So that was relief -- and terror; he'd never known the two could mix so well.

"Something like that."

"You're never on time for anything; I ought to have Gaius examine my head for thinking this would be different." Hello, cunning plan, where are you? Hiding under the table with the crumbs for the mice?

Merlin passed close enough as he walked towards the fireplace to lean in and whisper, still the smile, "You'll remind me later that this is the stupidest thing I've done in my life, right?"

"Count on it," Arthur breathed, turning back to face his father.

"Well, then." Uther was good at covering surprise; Arthur was good at reading his face. Draw? Only for a moment, then a gloved hand pointed to the table.

There was movement behind him, and Arthur would rather not look at the whip, so it was easy to turn and see Merlin taking off his jacket. It would have been easy, if he hadn't caught the bastard's eye, and fuck, Merlin wasn't smiling now, that was something else, and it hurt.

"It'll be all right," Merlin repeated, this time in front of his father, and Arthur did want to hit him just a little, because he didn't need -- he didn't need reassurance! (It didn't occur to him that Merlin might have said it for himself as well as Arthur until much, much later.)

He wasn't the one being punished here (except he was, because the King wouldn't doubt his sworn word, he was only here to make this horrible because Arthur dared to argue with him in the first place), he wasn't the one who'd feel the leather on his skin (except he thought he might and he knew what a stupid womanly thought that was and he hated himself for it so thank you for that one too, Father), he was just the one who'd hold it in his---

"Arthur, let's have this done." The whip was in Uther's hand, but he held it out.

There was rope on the table for tying Merlin down, and any other time it might send Arthur's head somewhere funny, that thought, or maybe it was only now that it even could, but there was nothing funny now.

A breath, and Merlin's jacket was on a chair. Another and the ragged red kerchief joined it. Another and he was lifting up his shirt, all pale skin and ribs, and for God's sake what did he do with all that food Arthur knew disappeared from his trays because he sure as hell wasn't eating it and--

"Stop."

Was this a cunning plan, then? It felt like indigestion, but maybe it was a cunning plan.

Merlin twisted round, clean but threadbare shirt still half up over his face, hair poking out at odd angles; Uther just looked as if he was going to slap his forehead before he remembered his hand was full, but they both said "What?" at the same time.

"I said stop. Put your shirt down, Merlin; nobody needs to stare at your spotty back." There were no spots that Arthur could see.

"We're not doing this again," his father said, slapping the whip down before him on the corner of the table, then tossing it towards Arthur. "Spare us all whatever you're playing at and get on with it. You gave me your word."

"I'm not playing at anything." That was, very suddenly, a lie. "I'll keep my word." That wasn't, though it stung to have to speak it aloud. "But I didn't say anything about this."

He picked up the whip, felt the swing of it cutting through the air though it stayed coiled in his grip, then dropped it on the table with a thud. Grabbed the chair at the end, the one with no arms, the one that wasn't his, and spun it out to sit in the middle of the floor. Was this a cunning plan?

Merlin didn't seem to think so. Merlin seemed to think - as much as Merlin ever thought - that Arthur no longer got to tell him what to do, as he'd still not let his shirt fall down. He just stood there half pointed towards the fire, staring back over his shoulder like a loon.

"You said--" Uther began, half rising from his chair -- Arthur's chair, the one he slouched through breakfast in, more of a throne than the stiff-backed gilded seats that flanked the King's in the audience hall -- as Arthur dropped to sit in the other.

"I said my hand." Which rose to cut Uther off as sure and as rude as the words. Not quite as rude as the grin that followed seconds later off the gobsmacked look on his father's face.

This was a cunning plan. Yes. "Come on, then, Merlin. Over the knee, there's a lad." He could only say something like that while laughing, so the words dragged the laugh from his mouth, and yes. This was good. A slap to his knee like some comic minstrel, just to make the point.

Turning the grin to a smirk. Lifting his face to his father to say I GOT you. This time I got you. Beaten you fair and square, my word and yours.

Even the law would be technically satisfied; what mother in the lower town hadn't called her child in from the streets with that threat when the only thing she wielded was her palm? I win like they were playing at trumps by the fire. Make him laugh, turn this thing on its ear from one more stormy Pendragon test of wills to the joke of a thing that it is, because really, Merlin? Merlin?

"This is ridiculous," his father snapped, and yes. Exactly. Exactly. Recognise the depth of that inanity, Uther, and call the whole thing off.

"I can't see how," Arthur lied, but not that sort of lie, not the sort where he was breaking his word. "He's got the mind of a nine year old boy at best." It was an unexpected gift to be able to get Merlin back for that crack he made in the cells. Arthur showed his gratitude by smirking again. "Merlin, come here."

"You're off your head," Merlin blurted, gangling over to stand awkwardly in front of him, and for once in his misbegotten life it was the right thing to say; it made Arthur laugh again.

"Right, that's extra for you, young man." There was a nurse, long ago; he couldn't recall being attached to her. This might well have been why. "Breeches down, come on."

They were only coming down by magic or if Arthur took them down (head gone funny again but maybe that was all right now because this was funny, he'd made it funny now), since Merlin was glaring with his arms crossed and a pink in his cheeks that made Arthur want to crow out loud.

He looked to Uther, the black-snake braid of the whip on the table between them, and grinned. And waited.

Grin back. Come on, I know you can, just laugh. You can do it. Come on. Any time now. I'll give you the draw, we'll never speak of it again, just cut this now before it gets any sillier.

"Yes. All right." That was not a grin.

"What?" This time it was Merlin and Arthur who sang it in unison and he rather hated that his sounded the more surprised, though at least his voice was lower.

That was not a grin; it was a grim, self-satisfied smile. "I thought you'd learnt about the letter of the law and the spirit when you were as young as you say he is," his father said, picking up the whip and pointing to Merlin.

It was another kind of ridiculousness, because this was all about the letter of the law, the law that Uther wouldn't back down from, the oath that Arthur couldn't, but any words to that effect tumbled silently from Arthur's gaping mouth in no particular order, like his brain.

"But if it's a lesson you need to learn again," said the King, "all right." There was something wrong with him holding the whip in his hand, still, as he crossed his arms and leaned back. "You heard him, boy."

Here was Merlin gaping too, his own arms dropped to his sides. "Sire?"

"There's a certain irony to someone with your ears turning out to be deaf. Take your trousers down and bend over his lap."

How was it Uther could say something like that without laughing? It wasn't fair -- but none of this was fair. Unfairest of all that it wasn't just Arthur's head, still faced like a frog, that went funny at the words. At Merlin's pink turning red, at fingers fumbling slowly for the ties at his waist and wrong, wrong, wrong.

This was not a cunning plan.

This was Arthur shutting his mouth with a snap and Merlin's shirt, well. This was that falling down now, you bet, once the waist was undone. This was blue shirt-tails covering places Arthur wasn't staring anyway and not covering knobbly lanks of legs that could blind you worse than the sun peeking in behind Uther's head because they'd all been awake that long.

This was Merlin failing to be anything like graceful as he bent over Arthur's splayed legs because for God's sweet sake he was a few inches taller than Arthur. This was Arthur only catching on after long enough that he felt like a prick -- which he hated -- that he ought to be helping or something, reaching for Merlin's shoulder to guide him down. This was Merlin turning his face to Arthur's in the second that it passed him and muttering, "In case you're wondering, this is the stupidest thing you've ever done."

That helped, somehow, God help them all. It helped distract Arthur for a moment from the weight on his legs and not just his head being funny. Fuck, this is awful, he's ... fuck. He can tell, of course he can tell, he's draped right over it. Distracted him from that shirt-tail right there next to his hand now, that he had to slide up, but not before he whacked Merlin one hard on the back of his head.

His father still holding the whip as he finally laughed now, a short bark of bone-dry amusement, and said "Wrong end..." did not help. Not at all.

The world's most girly ow helped a bit, but not long enough to stave off the roll of Uther's eyes and the wave of a tightly-grasped whip and the fact that Uther had to say "Get on with it, Arthur" as well.

So... so right. Lifting that shirt, and there was a joke in there somewhere but Arthur was breathing too carefully to make it, trying too hard to be smooth, like he did this every day. Like he'd ever done this. Like that wasn't Merlin's bare, white arse staring back at him and like he wasn't about to giggle like he was Merlin at the thought of a staring arse.

Like he wasn't hard as a sodding dungeon wall now and yes, he would hang Merlin by every important bit he could find if there was ever a word breathed of that to anyone. Speaking of breathing, he did that again, and Merlin didn't smell like wet dog anymore; he smelled like skin and soap. Something with lavender... Of course there's flowers, bloody hell, whose arse smells like flowers besides maybe Morgana's? Oh, thank you, more cellars full of wrong; he could almost believe that was as far down as this could go if it wasn't that he had to draw back his hand now, and.... yeah.

Who knew a smack could echo so loud? It couldn't be the loudest he'd ever heard in this room, because he'd had people here, you know, and there were other sorts of smacking. He'd certainly made them groan louder than that tiny embarrassed squeak, yet both of those were the only things filling the spaces in Arthur's funny head.

"Dairymaid," he said because it held him to some semblance of sane.

"Ass," Merlin muttered back, or perhaps it was the other word that sounded like it, and well. Arthur wasn't going to look but... Oh.

What fiend from Hell bewitched him into looking down so he could see the hand-print in Pendragon red blooming on that ridiculously smooth, pale haunch?

"If you're going to spend the day exchanging pleasantries, perhaps we'll go with the original plan." Uther should put down that whip, because wrong. Wrong in a way that was hard to define, but Arthur knew it when he saw it.

For instance, it was just unfair to Merlin that the next smack splatted harder out of anger at his father (not fear of, shut up, shut up, shut up). It was wrong that it landed on the other cheek because he wanted to see them match.

It was something else entirely when the squeak came again and was followed by a low short huff and a shift and ahhhhh ok then. Perhaps there wouldn't have to be any hanging by bits after all.

Centuries from now, they'd call it mutually assured destruction; Arthur just knew his secret was safe. This didn't make it any less humiliating now; it just tucked away a fear.

Stop LOOKING at me, he thought at his father, who watched like Arthur was the dairymaid. It had taken this long and there'd only been two, and clearly they weren't getting out of this thing until he'd gone completely bonkers.

So Arthur watched Merlin instead, because that was conducive to sanity, as the third blow fell and Merlin's head jerked where it hung, dark hair wild. How was the back of his neck so pasty pale when his ears had flushed pinker than his rear?

The fourth, and the squeaks got stifled. The fifth was a little harder because Arthur heard a cleared throat from the table, and faster because Mother of GOD, Merlin, stop breathing like that, stop MOVING like that, and the handprints started to disappear into blotchy patches of red and there was the squeaking again.

He was on ten or twelve before he lost count because he was trying to decide if it was Merlin's rump getting hotter or the palm of his hand.

He'd forgotten for a moment that they were being watched, when it finally became a rhythm in place of a number and he realised the heat was both places and his hand rather hurt and was it possible to be harder than a wall?

Then he remembered and his face flared up warm as his hand, as Merlin's arse, as he imagined Merlin's face must be too, hanging down there near his hands braced on the carpet, all the blood rushing down. Almost all the blood, and speaking of: Arthur's prick must be the fiend from hell in question because damn if it didn't twitch when he remembered their audience, instead of shrinking away to hide somewhere.

It was a terrible, laughable wrong, worse that his movements made Merlin squirm more, and it sent Arthur furious, utterly round the bend, made his hand fall harder and faster still. Spiraling down and down into wrong, wrong, WRONG where the sounds that Merlin made were clearly yelps of pain now but what ground against him said otherwise and yes. Yes it was possible, the walls in the dungeons must be made of goat cheese they were so soft compared to this, and---- AND.

Fuck. Bloody fucking things that Princes don't bloody fucking say, Merlin I hate you so MUCH or maybe that's -- WOUNDS OF THE SAINTS I will not think of my FATHER while I'm -- Merlin, I'll just stick with hating Merlin, did you just LIFT your arse up to me oh....sodding hell my hand hurts and you have the most terrible, beautiful backside I've ever seen and I -------- Fuck..

At least, he thought as Merlin stiffened on his lap and Arthur lost any sense of rhythm in his hand because it was all tied up in shoving up against Merlin's down while not looking like he was and trying to breathe like he wasn't --- not --- was--- yeah -- fuck. At least he managed to keep his mouth shut when he came, and miracle of miracles, a few half-wild arse-smacks later, Merlin did the same.

Though the hope that his father had no clue what was going on was dampened a bit by his own hand resting still and hot on Merlin's right cheek while he wiped at the sweat on his forehead with the other. What the hell were either of them going to do when they had to stand up?

Which was seriously a concern, because he was done. Done. Looking up at his father no matter how hot his face because hanging his head in shame was not an option DONE.

"I would say the law is satisfied, wouldn't you?" he asked, as even and as lightly as he could (which wasn't, he could barely breathe to a beat, forget speaking). He searched Uther's eyes and brow and mouth for the telltale signs of triumph or disgust. Arch, knowing boredom. Anything at all that Arthur'd ever seen before. "It's done."

Oh, stone. Arthur knew that one, yes; just never what it meant. And for the sake of all that's holy or profane, stop squeezing that thrice-damned whip!

"It's done when I say it is. Now, I believe you said something about extra?"

Somewhere near the carpet, there was a groan.

***

I've drunk poison for you, Arthur Pendragon. It was the running chant in Merlin's head all along when he had enough wit to remember the language he thought in. I've lied for (to) you, stolen for you, made myself a laughingstock so you could go chat up fairy girls, bargained with witches and dragons and other things almost as irritating and smug as you but not quite, and worn that STUPID. BLOODY. HAT. for you, and this is still the most humiliating thing I've ever done. You've ever done. We've ev--

So that was all sometime before the third or fourth smack on his arse, yes. After that, wit left the castle on a fast horse heading for the hills.

There was only ow and unh and oh God the KING is watching this and what, a lot of what as Arthur's magic trousers that Merlin couldn't believe fit the Prince on the best of days got impossibly tighter, hard beneath Merlin's belly.

Hard enough to distract him for a moment from his arse in the air and ow and pleasedon'tlethimnotice------I GUESS HE NOTICED THEN and OW and cnych--- which he actually grunted out loud, the both of those, and other words his mother didn't know he knew that he swallowed with the blood from the lip that he bit so he didn't make any sound at all when Arthur lifted up against him and hey watch those please I might like to father children if I live that long in your company or at least OH NEVER MIND I LIED DO THAT AGAIN and there was one shirt ruined AND.... yeah.

Centuries from now, they'd call it mutually assured destruction; even now the French knew it as Little Death. Merlin didn't speak French.

Just when he was about to slide off to the carpet and die now thanks, his ears (only those, though) cooled down to a bearable temperature, started working again and "...something about extra?"

Want to know something about extra? When you were lying in your own sticky mess with nothing like a hard prick, royal or otherwise, to distract from a sword-hand landing on your hot, sore bum, extra hurt.

It hurt more when you found yourself thinking between the gulps and the slaps that you were doing this for him and he'd never get it. That he was doing this because his father was in the room and it was one more game of Staring Down The King. Just a battle of who can keep it up longer, father or son, with Merlin in between like Arthur's whipping boy or-- his mother didn't know he knew words like that either.

One smack and then another fell where one too many had landed, sharp and hot enough that maybe he was still nine for a moment. Eyes that were prickly and moist from the start spilled over and Merlin was glad that whatever else of him was on display, his hair hid his face. Not that it did any good when the noise he made couldn't be mistaken for anything else but a sob.

Then it was a whole different kind of hurt, to something Arthur could never touch with his hand. The blows ceased for a moment, and Arthur leaned low as he yanked Merlin closer with an arm round his back, some pretext of adjusting the royal knees so he wouldn't go sliding off, and whispered, "Sorry."

Just that, and now a hand in the sweat on the small of his back as the other moved lower. Away from the bits that already hurt, to the backs of his thighs.

It smarted like Hell and Merlin couldn't even tone the wet gulping rasps back down to ragged breaths, but it didn't matter. He bit his lip again and When does Arthur ever say no to the King except over what he thinks is right? It could've been that whip in his hand. It could've been that whip in someone else's hand. Instead it's this, and he's doing this for me. He doesn't even get it and he's doing it for me, the best he can manage to do.

He might be more shamed by that than the position he was in, cool air on his arse and his legs kicking out at the smacks to his thigh, and the sound of Arthur holding back his breath.

There, and there, and there, and then it stopped, and Arthur's hand rested again on his skin, just there. Just resting on the curve of his arse.

Merlin couldn't see what was going on above his back. The air was heavy with it, though, whatever the Pendragon men said without speaking a word. It pushed Merlin down over Arthur's lap to the point where he had to grab a leg to stop his head from spinning, even though he knew Arthur wouldn't let him fall.

"And that is done, I think," he heard at last, with the sound of Uther rising.

He'd like to move, and he'd like to stay right here because he thought he might just fall if he tried to stand, and then there was the matter of his clothes. Boots across the floor, and still whatever wasn't said hung in the air like a stone about to fall. Arthur's fingers drummed an odd little pattern on his back.

"You won't get that mercy again," the King said at last, and Merlin wondered what he was supposed to say. Probably thank you, Sire, but there was something in the idea of speaking to the King when he was looming over your freshly-smacked bum that was enough to close your throat lest you giggle like a loon. "I trust you've learnt not to play tricks with your word on me."

"Yes," Arthur answered, his voice stiff and tight, and Merlin bit his lip to taste the blood. Nobody was talking to him at all, though maybe Arthur said it for him too, or maybe just himself. "Thank you, Sire."

"Then I'll take this back where it belongs. You'd both do best to act as if it got its use."

Whatever this was. Merlin couldn't see, but he could hear feet across the floor at least, and the door finally closing behind him as Uther left.

He ought to move. He ought to move... now. Before this got ridiculous, before Arthur thought he was... something. Afraid to ever face the man again. Because he wasn't. At all. He was just still here over Arthur's lap because--

"Oh, for God's sake, shift yourself." The arm round his waist was suddenly shoving him off, so he did tumble down to the floor. Arthur stepped to the side, almost tripping over Merlin's flailing legs, then away.

Right. Well. There was that moment over, then. Merlin stared at his hands as he pushed himself up, then his feet as he yanked up his -- ow, ow, did they get two sizes smaller -- breeches, then his shirt and the mess that had been left there. Anywhere but up.

He could hear Arthur fussing with his belt and darted a glance to see... ah. Then Arthur's shirt was pulled free and at least one of them wasn't standing there with the obvious signs of something that obviously never happened being ever so obviously wet.

"Don't just stand there like a simpleton." Where Arthur even found words, let alone the breath to make them breezy and indifferent, Merlin hadn't a clue. He looked up finally, but found himself staring at Arthur's back, disappearing behind the changing screen. "You can't wear that shirt back to your rooms. Take one of mine and get out of here."

"Right." Right. Well, looking at him wouldn't be an issue then, would it. Merlin walked slowly -- painfully -- to the cupboard and took the oldest shirt he could find, pulling his own off over his head with a sniff of disgust as the wet spot scraped his nose.

He was turning around, donning Arthur's brown shirt as he went, when their eyes finally met. Dark blond hair and blue eyes sticking out from the edge of the screen. Merlin stared for a second with nothing to say, then reached to wipe at the mess of his face as the shirt fell loose across his stomach.

It was his eyes, red-rimmed and wet, that he thought Arthur was staring back at, and some vestige of pride or just heat made him rub them again and spit out, "Of course I cried; it bloody hurt."

Arthur's eyes flicked up, unfathomable as his father's in their way, and Merlin realized that wasn't where he was looking at all. "Dairymaid," he said again, then, "Have that lip seen to," and he was gone behind the screen once more.

Right. "Right." Merlin grabbed his jacket and scarf, passed the empty table as he turned to go, and saw what Uther didn't leave there, what never touched his skin.

He ought to say something. He wanted to say something. He couldn't bring the words to his tongue.

"Merlin, go home. Take the day; God knows I've seen more than enough of you this morning."

Right. He didn't answer, just balled his own shirt into something he wouldn't have to hide from those he passed in the halls, and went, shoving the door shut hard behind him. What prompted the sullen kick to it, he didn't care to say.

Two steps down the hall, then three, and certainly not looking back. It was slow going when you were walking like a stiff old man, but with any luck he could make it back to Gaius' rooms without seeing anyone he--

"Merlin. Are you all right?"

--knew. Morgana. Brilliant. In her pristine white morning gown, dark hair spreading over her shoulders, not even put up yet, and him with his own wet shirt crumpled up in his hand, covered only by the jacket hanging over his arm. He considered trying to vanish it, he really really did, but he'd never get away with it.

Merlin kept walking because if he stopped, he wasn't sure he'd start up again. "Of course, my lady."

"Don't lie to me, Merlin." (Oh, where to start, with that one.) "You're clearly not. I saw Uther leave Arthur's chamber before you. He was carrying a whip."

Of course she did. Of course. What's she even doing here? Did she dream about me getting my arse beat? He knew the thought was mad; he only answered again, "Thank you for your concern, but I'm really all right."

"Really." She looked like she believed that about as much as he did. "Merlin, I know why you were down in the cells; it's hardly much to guess the rest. I know what he did-- " Some other time, he'd feel grateful for the loathing in her voice, instead of awkward. "What Arthur did to you."

He did stop then, because the tone didn't change when she said that name, and that was something other than awkward, and hot as the pain in his-- well. "Morgana, no. Arthur didn't--"

"Do what his father told him?" At least she was bright enough not to touch him, though she looked like she wanted to. She wouldn't increase the pain he wasn't feeling where she thought it was.

"Not exactly."

She hmm'd, but her dark brows stayed knit. "That explains why Uther stopped to bang his head against the wall a couple times, I suppose."

Merlin wasn't going to ask.

"Whatever Arthur might have said to his father, though, I can still see he hurt you."

Merlin started moving again, a little ahead of her because with his back to Morgana's fierce eyes was the only way he could utter, "Arthur was the only thing that made it bearable, and if you tell him I said that I'll--" What? He couldn't threaten Morgana. "--lose anything like pride I've got left," he finished, straightening his shoulders, because it was all he had. "And I'd rather you didn't."

She was quiet for a moment, and there were only his footsteps, so perhaps he'd been blessed by the gods and she'd let him alone. "Of course," she said finally, and yes, she was still standing where she'd been. Her tone was artificially light, but there was a laugh there somewhere, skirting round the edge. "I'd hardly give him the pleasure of hearing that."

Merlin made his own laugh certain; he couldn't quite turn back or he'd stop again and he just wanted to get home, but over his shoulder he gave her a lip-bitten smile. "Thank you."

She didn't follow, and he thanked her for that as well.

His muttered prayers to make it back to Gaius' place without passing anyone else didn't come true, but it was no one with an interest in stopping him. A couple knowing looks, yes, but they didn't know what they thought they knew, and if he kept walking, slowly but sure, he'd be past them in no time, and back where he belonged.

Gaius, at least, didn't wait outside Arthur's door to ambush him, but then Gaius had known. Gaius had been the one to hand him clothes, wash his back -- "It's less likely to get infected if it starts off clean" -- and only point out once that Arthur was right: he could disappear into the dawn and never come back. Then he'd traded Merlin's dark look for silence and the jar of soap.

Inside his own door, though? That was another story, and the trade Merlin knew he was making for not getting fussed at beforehand. Honestly, when he'd left, he wanted to be fussed at after. Before, he couldn't bear it; the only way to make himself go was just do it and go. After, he'd expected to need all the help he could get.

"Merlin!" That was Gaius up from the table, then, and moving to take Merlin's arm like he was the one with the bad back and achy limbs, instead of Gaius.

"I'm ok, Gaius." Merlin fended him off with the hand holding... ergh. That one could go behind his back, perhaps. Because that wasn't suspicious at all.

Ow, the eyebrow, ow. "Of course you aren't. Now come here--" He went for the other arm instead, tugging Merlin towards the table with the least amount of books and food and scientific somethings spread across it. There was water in a bowl, and linens. Jars of salve. "--and let's have that shirt off."

Then his arm was let go and it was the shirt that Gaius tugged, firmly but carefully. "Gaius, no, I don't need--" To wince at the worry on the old man's face, but he did.

"Merlin, if you don't let me take care of you, it could get in--" He twitched the shirt up over Merlin's untouched back. "Merlin?"

A breath and a guilt-laden glance at the table. "I did say I'm fine, you know."

"I watched you walk in here, my boy. Whatever you are, it's hardly 'fine.'" But Gaius let it drop -- the shirt, not the subject. "You're moving like-- is that Arthur's shirt?"

Sigh. And sigh again. "Yes. If you care for me at all, Gaius, you'll never ask me why." Nor was that guilt-inducing at all, but honestly. There were limits.

The eyebrow climbed farther than Merlin ever knew it could. "I'll make you a bargain, then: if you'll tell me what happened -- so I know what to do for you -- I won't."

"You don't need to do anything." Except let him stumble up to his room, toss his shirt in a corner to try to forget about, and fall face-first on the bed. "I'll be fine."

"MERLIN."

How did he learn that voice? Only Merlin's mother knew that voice! Unfair. Unfair.

"He used his hand, Gaius. All right? He caught Uther in a loophole and he used his hand." The flush he'd thought had faded from his face had just been hiding, so it seemed, because suddenly there was burning in more than the obvious place.

He'd be sorry for snapping later. He was sorry now, but his pulse was louder in his ears than the guilt.

Oh, both eyebrows now. An auspicious day indeed. Gaius glanced at his shirt -- Arthur's shirt, not the one in Merlin's hand, thank whatever gods may be -- and finally, thankfully, turned away, going over to putter with another set of jars. "I imagine I don't need to say you got lucky. Not that you feel terribly lucky at the moment," he said, his back turned.

"No," Merlin answered to both, and started heading for his room.

"Merlin, wait. I've got something that should help, here. If you'll--" The gesture he finished the sentence with involved Merlin's trousers and possibly the table, or possibly the bed, and either way it would be imprinted in Merlin's brain until the day he died, under NO, NO, NO.

Which he said, but just once, to whit, "NO!" Then his manners or something kicked in, and he cast his eyes down. "I mean. Sorry, but no. I can do it myself."

There was a kindness in Gaius' eyeroll that was almost more comfort than the smile, as wry as that was. "Here you are, then." He pressed the jar into Merlin's hand, and Merlin was off to his room like someone lit his tail on fire, and he was never going to use that phrase again. "If you change your mind, I'm--" Merlin heard as the door swung shut.

Another "NO!" but at least this one was followed by "...thank you." Then Merlin falling face-first on the bed. That part of the plan hadn't changed.

***

He'd have been here sooner, Arthur thought of saying to Gaius when he opened the door, but he met a terrible shrieking she-creature with a giant nose in the hallway and had to slice its head off with his sword. (Despite the fact that his sword-hand stung like fire right now.)

Knowing the way that rumour traveled here, though, he'd be back before his father in an hour, explaining with a pained sigh and a pike-stiff back that he'd only meant Morgana.

Morgana, who'd asked after the health of his shirt, as she'd seen it wandering the halls without him, then sworn if he didn't go speak to Merlin, she'd tell about the thing with the frog and the horse when he was twelve, which was utterly unfair and dishonourable beside.

He'd paid her in staff lessons not to say a word, and besides, as he told her in the hallway with heaven-cast eyes, "If you're quite finished threatening to break years-old oaths, you might consider where it is I was already going."

Gaius opened the door, and instead Arthur said nothing. He didn't know what Merlin had told him, but he knew how close they were, so he could guess, and... there was nothing to say, beyond an uncomfortable cough.

The old man eyed him silently as well for a moment, giving Arthur the raised brow that he'd known for long enough to withstand with his own face immobile, then shook his head. "He's in his room. Not, as you can imagine, in the best of moods."

"Yes. Well." What could he say to that either, as Gaius stepped out of his way? "Could you leave us alone for a bit?" Apparently that.

As if he was used to being asked to vacate his own chambers every day, Gaius nodded. "Of course, Sire." He reached for a book from the bench near the door. "I've been meaning to return this to Geoffrey; I'll pop off to do that now." To the library halfway across the castle.

Arthur just nodded back. He was the Prince; he was used to answers like that. He did have the manners instilled to say "Thank you," though. "How is he?" he found himself blurting afterwards, softer and with far more concern than he ought for something as cracked as this whole thing had finally been.

"He'll survive." Gaius paused in the doorway, his hand on the frame, looking back at Arthur. "He won't thank you for that, and you shouldn't ask it of him."

Gaius had known Arthur long enough to always be able to break his statue-face with something. "I wasn't-- I didn't come here for that."

"He won't," Gaius said again, dropping his head a bit -- perhaps it was a nod or a bow, perhaps both. "But I do. I know what you spared him."

Now Arthur was back to, "Yes. Well," and then Gaius was gone.

There was only the door to Merlin's small room up the steps: one, two, three and he was there -- and knocking, unlike some people, Merlin.

"Gaius, I said I can do it my--"

Granted, knocking and waiting for an invitation were two different things. "I'm not Gaius," said Arthur as he stepped inside.

"--self," said Merlin as Arthur stared.

If the question Could today get any odder or more uncomfortable had been asked of Arthur five minutes ago, he'd have asked Is Morgana involved? and said no, after hearing she wasn't.

He'd have been wrong, so very, very wrong, because Merlin lay on his front on the bed with his trousers round his ankles and his arse in the air, twisting round in a clumsy doomed-to-failure attempt to rub some sort of cream on his reddened backside.

There was nothing less fair or more wrong in Heaven and Earth than the fact that the sight made Arthur's second pair of trousers of the day go tight. Nothing.

(Yes, fine, perhaps slavery and murder and the wholesale slaughter of wizards and the punishment of innocents for something someone else had done, but Arthur was young and there was bare skin before his eyes and he'd had a very trying night.)

It was Arthur who caught on soonest that this particular contest of manhood would be won by he who found words for it first. "For God's sake, are you going to ruin my shirt as well?" Not the best he could have chosen, but it stopped him freezing in the door, if not the staring. He strode towards the bed and the door slammed shut behind him as Merlin scrambled to cover up. "Stop that; you'll only make it worse."

Seriously: Merlin had already dropped the pot of whatever it was onto the sheets, then let go of his breeches in his haste to stop it spilling, by the time Arthur made it to his bedside. "Arthur!"

It wasn't that Arthur couldn't hear GO AWAY in that particular dialect of his name; he just didn't feel obliged to care. He was also fast enough to snatch the stuff from Merlin's hand.

"Uhnff..." was the only thing he got in response to that, Merlin's face buried into the pillow in sheer frustration. Then, somewhat muffled, "Have you brought Gaius with you too, or is it Gwen this time? Morgana? Perhaps Sir Leon..."

"Sir Leon? Now you're just being silly." Arthur dropped to the chair beside him and dipped his fingers in the jar, though there was already a smear across the top of Merlin's arse. The stuff smelled like sage and something mintish; it was only the things you had to drink that Gaius always made taste like toad spit.

Merlin turned his face away, but out of the pillow, so his next words were clear. "Shouldn't you be someplace pretending this never happened?"

Yes. "I'm the Prince; I can be where I please."

His hand on Merlin's arse again today (he'd say ever but he wasn't that pure of heart) : something Arthur had never imagined until he walked in the door. The skin was still warm, and Merlin jumped when his fingers touched. It still hurt, what Arthur put there, and the sight of it still made him hard and sorry, all at once.

"Besides, I had to come remind you that this was the stupidest thing you've ever done. I always keep my promises; you know that."

At least now his hand was spreading something cool across that skin, as Merlin wriggled beneath it and muttered things into the pillow that Arthur pretended he couldn't quite hear. It was also the other hand; his sword-hand just drummed fingers on his thigh, the palm as pink and aching still as Merlin's rear must be. No, less, he supposed. There were calluses on Arthur, after all.

"Arthur..."

"Shut up, will you?" When he turned his head to glare at the back of Merlin's, his fingers slid to the land in between that wasn't pink because they never landed there. Merlin tried to twist away, or maybe escape downward through the mattress and into some hole in the floor, and it poked Arthur hard in a sore spot of his own, just not the one in his hand. "Just let me do this for you, damn it. Just give me that, at least."

Merlin lifted his head from the pillow to face him this time. The shell of his ear was red, like the stripes along the tops of those cheekbones that some might say were wasted on a man. "It's not that; it's--" His lip was still wounded, split and red from the bite. Arthur wasn't staring though, just processing what Merlin meant. Yes.

Fingers slid a little more and Merlin groaned, and oh.

"Yes. Well." It was a useful phrase for many occasions in Arthur's life. Perhaps not this one.

"You could leave me with some shred of dignity, you know."

"As if you ever had it to begin with." He hadn't moved his hand. He ought to move his hand. This wasn't something he couldn't shut down because of where they were and who was watching. It was only them here, Arthur and Merlin. "Balls, though... I'll have to grant you that."

"Yes. Well." Merlin ought to be whipped for mocking the Prince, but Arthur thought he'd let it slide this time. "It's hard to deny what you've seen with your own royal eyes. Quite enough of me today, didn't you say?"

"Shut up. I'm the Prince; I'm allowed to change my mind." He ought to move his hand. Where he ought and where he wanted were lands so far apart that you'd have to flip the map over. He ought to say... nothing like what he said. "No, don't shut up - tell me to stop and I will."

The flush went deeper above those cheekbones, and how did Merlin's eyes get that blue when half the time Arthur would swear that the damned things were black? "Which is it, my Lord? Shut up or don't?"

Arthur ought to smack him for that grin pulled out of nowhere, at least, but one hand was busy, and the other hand stung too much. "Do what you like; as if you ever listen anyway."

One hand was busy, yes, again. Sliding, sliding, over places warm and cooler, pink and white, shadowed and already slick with sweat.

Merlin had decided to go with not listening again, not shutting up but not telling him no, just groaning in a way that he couldn't have hours ago. A groan that had led to that reddened lip when he swallowed it whole, Arthur thought.

He was thinking a lot now, more than he expected, more than he ought if he wanted to stay sane, but then he thought that might be a lost cause anyhow.

Merlin pushed against the bedclothes and Arthur thought that was wasted on the sheets. His hand -- the one that wasn't slipping, slipping down to someplace dark where it had certainly never been before -- the sword-hand hurt but Arthur thought he didn't care, as Merlin lifted and he darted it to reach underneath.

It never got there, and Arthur thought - Merlin got that fast exactly when? - with his wrist grasped in Merlin's own hand. That might be a stop; he thought the only way to know was to ask, and wonder of wonders, he did. "Is that stop, then?"

But Merlin was just looking, staring at his palm. It was pink, still, yes, with white bits that weren't blisters, they were the calluses from his sword, but he could understand the-- no, that was Merlin's thumb, sliding softly across his skin, so the boy knew exactly what they were.

That was Merlin's hand drawing his closer, like Arthur wasn't three times as strong, couldn't yank it back in an instant, and that was Merlin's mouth pressing against it.

Arthur just stared, not even Yes. Well. on his tongue, and Arthur thought nothing, just nothing at the touch of Merlin's lips, but that sore spot not in his hand felt like someone was kissing it better.

There was a nurse like that once, too. She didn't last long, when the King caught her coddling his heir.

Arthur thought he'd been thoughtless long enough, and pulled his hand away more gently than he ever thought he could. "I take it back," he said, voice too rough. He moved his hand where he'd meant it to go in the first place. "That was your stupidest thing. For the day, at least. I'm sure you'll surpass yourself tomorrow."

Merlin's over-bright eyes slitted shut as Arthur's fingers wrapped around him, but even blind, he could pull off that gormless, maddening grin. "Ahhh-and that's the stupidest thing you've ever done."

"No, this is," Arthur said as he slid to his knees and smashed his mouth to Merlin's. There was blood beneath his tongue, but it was old, and Merlin arched in his hand.

This was not a cunning plan either.

***

It ended as so many of their stories do -- or would, rather, now, though they didn't know it yet -- with Gaius poking his head into his chambers. He cocked an eyebrow at the sounds from behind Merlin's door, and remembered a book that he needed to go back to the library and read. Right now. Perhaps for several hours.

~0~

Fin