It had taken a while--about two months into the campaign or so--but Merlin had finally grown used to traveling with the army. It was so different to what he'd become accustomed to at the castle. On the road, his duties focused solely and entirely on Arthur, every hour of every day. Every hour, except those interminable stretches of silence in the camp; the servants left on their own to tend to their various duties and cluster in uneasy groups to await the army's return.
(The squires accompanied their masters to the field, and some of them were so small that Merlin surreptitiously checked up on them after each battle, producing small, sweet apples seemingly from nowhere and gaining himself a loyal following of tow-headed, noblemen's sons as a result.)
Merlin wanted to go with Arthur--wanted to protect Arthur--but Arthur would have none of it, citing Merlin's amateurish efforts with a sword and overall clumsiness. Merlin eventually had to face the truth of the situation: his magic might be able to help Arthur, but Merlin would have no chance of surviving the attempt. Not with the entire army of Camelot there to bear witness. Even if he managed to survive the actual fighting, his head would be on a block as soon as the battle wound to a close. So he stayed in the camp and fed Arthur's spare horses, tended to Arthur's things, helped the other servants prepare meals and keep the camp in something resembling order, worried about Arthur, and hoped that the subtle protection charm he had laid on Arthur's ever-present pendant necklace kept working like it was supposed to.
The feasts that followed each victory (there were many--the knights of Camelot did not have their reputation for nothing, and the knights of Mercia were not far off) were surprisingly lavish affairs for being held in large, woodland clearings rather than the usual stately banquet halls, and Merlin felt a certain amount of pride for having helped to prepare the food the army devoured. His part, admittedly, had largely involved felling trees for firewood and sparking the big cooking fires (he shouldn't have been using his magic so much and so in the open, but he'd already gained a reputation for being uncommonly fast at the job before he'd thought of it), but the cooks always thanked him and let him taste the stew when they would have run anyone else off, brandishing their ladles threateningly.
Merlin was still annoyed that Arthur had kept him from enjoying one of the better celebrations they'd had, particularly since he'd spent half the day helping the cooks season the venison and hadn't actually gotten to taste any of it, but Arthur seemed to be making up for it that night. He'd waved Merlin off early, allowing one of the other servants to fill his goblet and bring him his plate of food, and Merlin had taken gleeful advantage of his night off; filling his own plate and goblet and hanging around the cooking fires, since the cooks always kept the sweetbreads back for themselves. The head cook's apprentice (and daughter)--who by amusing and not-unmentioned happenstance had been named Wren--dragged him out for a dance; not caring in her fourteen-year-old exuberance that Merlin was quite terrible at it. Her mother called her back, though, before the night got too late and the knights got too drunk, and Merlin was left to his own devices.
"You're Prince Arthur's servant." A deep, slightly slurred voice came from behind him as Merlin made his way past a group of knights who had gathered around one of the many firepits. It wasn't quite a question and it wasn't quite a statement, and Merlin turned around to find himself faced with a mountain. A step back revealed the mountain to be a knight in Mercian blue, a good head-and-a-half taller than Merlin. He had thick, salt-and-pepper hair and a craggy face marred by a knotted scar along one cheek, and he clutched a goblet in a fist the size of Merlin's head.
"Um. Yes?" Merlin wasn't particularly proud of the way he'd squeaked there. The big knight had a smile on his face, but something about the way he was looking at Merlin was unsettling. It was looking with intent. When his hand encircled Merlin's upper arm, not violently but with enough power behind it that Merlin knew he would not be able to pull away without a very public and showy use of his magic, Merlin blanched. That sort of intent, he realized too late. A frantic glance around him did not reveal Arthur, and Merlin's heart rose, fluttering and panicked, into his throat.
Arthur! His voice stuck, and the cry went up only in his mind; utterly useless.
Merlin didn't see the way Arthur's head snapped up on the other side of the clearing--scanning, searching. Finding.
Merlin did see when Arthur strode up to them, every bit the knight in shining armour (even if the vast majority of his armour was, in fact, back in the tent).
"I hope you're not taking liberties with my manservant, Sir Cadwgan." The emphasis Arthur placed on the 'my' was subtle but unmissable, and Merlin felt a rush of unexpected gratitude for Arthur's selfish tendencies. He relaxed, relieved, as Arthur removed Cadwgan's hand from his arm with a certainty that brooked no argument. Merlin had already taken a half-step away when Arthur grabbed him at the hip and tugged, drawing his back flush against Arthur's chest. All the newly-released tension flooded back into his limbs.
"What are you--" Merlin griped, trying to pull away from Arthur's hold with little success.
"Shut. Up." Arthur growled, low and dangerous in Merlin's ear, though his face betrayed only a self-satisfied smile to the cluster of men. Arthur's fingers tightened on his hip, hard enough to bruise, and Merlin stilled, startled into silence by the intensity in Arthur's voice. Arthur took advantage of his compliance, and Merlin found himself pulled down into Arthur's lap as the prince settled himself on one of the low benches surrounding the fire.
Arthur wrapped an arm around his waist, hand settling a shade too close to Merlin's groin for Merlin to be completely at ease, Arthur's fingers curling along his inseam. Perched on Arthur's thigh was a tenuous position at best, and Merlin resigned himself to the half-embrace, tucking his own arm around Arthur's body to grip the back of Arthur's tunic in his fist. The height was awkward and Merlin ended up leaning against Arthur's shoulder, glad that Arthur had foregone his plate armour for the evening, and that the chainmail beneath his over-tunic was body-warm, even if it was uncomfortably hard.
If he tucked his head, he could bury his face in Arthur's hair.
"I don't like to share." Arthur smirked at Cadwgan, who was settling himself heavily on a facing bench, just around the curve of the rough circle. Merlin flinched at that, forcing down his natural urge to protest that he was not Arthur's to share, regardless. Arthur's fingers were pressing into his inner thigh, a silent reminder to hold his tongue. Cadwgan laughed, loud and booming, and the clustered knights joined him. Some of them were from Camelot, vaguely recognizable though Merlin couldn't have called them by name, and Merlin flushed with embarassment at the realization that this moment would surely be related (probably multiple times) at the castle, when they finally returned from the campaign.
He hunched over to whisper hotly in Arthur's ear, "It's not funny, let me go."
It was for show. Merlin liked Arthur's real laugh too much not to be able to tell the difference.
Arthur turned his head to Merlin, lips ghosting perilously close to Merlin's own on their way to his ear. "I'm not doing this for fun."
Arthur was still growling, though there was a note of something almost desperate in his voice that Merlin didn't recognize, which in itself was significant. Merlin looked at him quizzically, a difficult thing when their noses were barely two inches apart, aware that they were drawing the knights' attention (not that they didn't have it already) but needing to know why since Arthur, if anything, seemed even less enthusiastic about having Merlin on his lap than Merlin was about being there. Arthur hesitated, very purposefully not looking at anyone but Merlin. That desperation was still there when he spoke, his voice tight with an emotion that was not quite anger:
"I don't want them touching you."
Merlin stared at him, wide eyed, as Arthur pasted on his fake smile and his fake laugh and raised his goblet to call for more wine. One of the other knights' squires--one of the ones who'd taken to following Merlin around whenever he could--appeared with both wine and a fresh plate covered with piping hot slices of meat and a few incongruous blackberries that Merlin hadn't known they had. Arthur sat his goblet down on the bench beside him and took a piece of meat for himself, then, bizarrely, raised one of the berries to Merlin's lips. Still a bit stunned, Merlin took it, his tongue darting out reflexively to capture the juice on Arthur's fingertips.
They were too close to each other for him not to feel the shiver that ran through Arthur's body at that, or to hear Arthur's barely-there intake of breath, and those tiny signals were a revelation.
Arthur didn't want them touching him.
Arthur didn't want them touching him, because Arthur wanted to be touching him. And Merlin...
Merlin didn't hate that thought.
In fact, he realized as his stomach flipped over in a way that was at once nauseating and strangely exciting, he didn't hate that thought at all. What he felt about that thought was so far from "hate" that even the notion was laughable. He gripped Arthur's tunic a bit more tightly.
Arthur joined in the knights' conversation, which seemed to be a recounting of the day's events, with each knight's tale of his own bravery outstripping that of the last. The group broke down into pealing laughter when one man told the story of how, in the midst of the battle, he had fought and defeated a massive serpent and saved the life of a blushing maiden, all while single-handedly fending off half of the opposing army. The squire returned, taking away the emptied plate and filling Arthur's goblet yet again.
Merlin's free hand was truly free without the need to balance the plate on his knees; he rested it atop Arthur's, sliding Arthur's hand half an inch further up his thigh. A small thing, but it made Arthur look at him. With intent. The same sort of intent the big knight, Cadwgan, had shown earlier in the evening. The difference was, when it was Arthur giving him that look... it was still unsettling, but in a pleasant way. It made his stomach flutter and his heart pound.
When the knights began a round of drunken singing--songs with lyrics that would have made Merlin blush if he had been paying any sort of attention--Arthur squeezed his leg and stood, sliding Merlin up along with him. Merlin went, silently compliant, and followed Arthur back to the tents. Back to Arthur's tent, since Merlin's had not gotten much use of late, for reasons Merlin was still just beginning to comprehend.
He had stripped Arthur and readied him for bed many times before, but the sudden weight of the action left Merlin shaky, even as he tugged Arthur's tunic and chainmail over his head. Arthur's hand descended on his as he moved to unlace Arthur's trousers, and Merlin paused, unsure.
"I--" he began, but Arthur cut him off, his voice low and warm.
"Later," was all he said, but Merlin understood and breathed out slowly, his hands steadying as he relaxed. Arthur didn't let him finish his job right away, instead reaching out to unbuckle Merlin's belt and pull Merlin's tunic off. He toed off his own boots, and Merlin followed suit. Then their trousers came off, both of them, and both oddly hesitant though there was not much of Arthur that Merlin had not seen at some point.
Merlin flushed as Arthur's eyes wandered over him, and Merlin tried not to wince at the deep purplish bruises that mottled Arthur's skin--the remnants of the many battles fought over the previous few months.
"Come to bed." Arthur invited, though Arthur's hand closed around Merlin's wrist and left him little choice in the matter (not that he would have chosen otherwise). Merlin found himself on Arthur's comfortable mattress bed, tucked up against Arthur's chest and doing his best to ignore the way that other parts of him were tucked up against other parts of Arthur. Later, he had promised, and Merlin knew Arthur to be a man of his word.
"Thank you." He murmured, snuggling backward. Arthur's arm tightened around him.
"Go to sleep, Merlin." He ordered tiredly into Merlin's hair, his breath warm.