A maze of crypts and catacombs lies beneath Camelot, cells and caverns that hold the castle's history in the dust and darkness. The tombs are like the legends of ancestors and enemies that Arthur reads by tracing his fingers over smooth stone and illegible engraving.
He grows up here, in the cool, quiet, hidden rooms, in ways he doesn't on the tiltyards or in the schoolroom. Here, he finds sharp curves, long clean limbs, full lips, all cut from marble, the body of a boy just Arthur's age, dead long before Arthur was born.
He finds desire here and imagines it warms both his and the statue's body.
Arthur's hands shake the first time he kisses the statue. The torch he carried down into the catacombs falls to the ground; the flames lick up the sides of the wall and Arthur's tongue darts out to touch dust and stone.
Something hot and frightening licks its way through his insides, coiling in the pit of his stomach, flickering along his senses. Suddenly, he wants so badly. His fingers move over and over the statue's body, seeking out all the cool places to warm with his touch, his lips kiss and kiss the motionless ones, and Arthur imagines they murmur beneath his own.
When he is hard, his body moving against unyielding, unresponsive hardness, he feels desire move through him like terror.
It's days, almost weeks, before he returns to the smallest room deep in the castle's catacombs. Dreams of marble against his skin, the slip of stone over his lips and fingertips, of a boy with blue eyes and perfect lips, have haunted him since his last visit.
This time, his hands don't shake with fear, but with anticipation, the coil of need and lust tight inside him. He's half-hard the whole walk down through the maze of hidden rooms and steep stone staircases.
Wonder guides his touch and Arthur maps slow hands over smooth stone. Over closed eyes and angled cheekbones, over the gentle curve of the boy's ears and the length of his jaw, down his neck to his chest, where Arthur places the palm of his hand, thrilling to allow himself to imagine a racing heart.
Here, where he presses his lips, at the curve of the boy's neck, here he'd bite gently to leave a mark that would last only a few hours; and here, at the point of a shoulder, he'd murmur secret endearments; and here, here, along the flat plane of the boy's stomach, he'd use his hands and tongue to search out the taste of the boy's skin, of his arousal, his need that, surely, must match Arthur's own.
The fantasy of yielding stone, of lips that move against his and breath that gasps along with his, reaches such a point of such terrible desperation that Arthur cannot help but grind himself against the statue. It remains cold; immovable, curves that never soften or mold to his body, but it's enough.
Arthur strips off his tunic, shivers at the touch cool air on his chest, and shivers harder at the touch of stone after unlacing his breeches. He lets his erection rest against it, heavy, hard, and hot, feels it burn against the statue as desire twists like flame inside him.
He comes against his own hand and stomach, hard and fast, so the climax overwhelms him with sudden, dizzying strength.
Arthur returns he next day, and the day after that, and in the days that follow, he goes after feasts and battles, after quarrels with his father and after executions of his father's enemies.
One day, he arrives to find the plinth empty and a spare, slim figure standing in the corner of the room.
"You're supposed to be a statue."
"I'm a sorcerer." The boy holds up a hand to bathe the room in blue light, then offers the same hand to Arthur. "I'm Merlin. Don't look at me like that – it's your fault I'm here."
Arthur takes a step back and stares. The boy – Merlin – was a statue. A carving of marble and stone that heard all of Arthur's secrets, his shame and desire, has had Arthur's blood, come, and tears spilled over its smooth, cool surface. Yet, his fingers are the same as the ones that Arthur's stroked so carefully, his lips are the same, the sharpness of cheek and hip bones the same, though there is the warmth of blood beneath them now.
"What kind of rubbish sorcerer gets himself trapped inside a statue?" Arthur's hands tremble, the coiling flame of desire tight inside him once more.
Merlin shrugs. The brilliant blue of his eyes fades and there is something like pained regret in them. "It wasn't exactly… I didn't realize it would happen like this."
"How do I know you haven't cast a spell on me?"
"Oh, Arthur." Merlin's hand finally just reaches for his and, suddenly, there is nothing but breathspace between their bodies.
The first time Merlin kisses Arthur back, Arthur's hands shake and his breath comes in a broken, ragged gasp. Knowledge comes to him like desire, like terror and the flash of magic and fire over his body. If there's a spell, it's been cast over the both of them and Arthur is helpless against Merlin as he always has been.
"Will you stay?"
Merlin nods. He fingers, still cold and awkward, reach up to touch Arthur's face. "As long as you need me."
Some days, there is a blankness, a hardness in Merlin's eyes that sees past Arthur, past the Camelot they've built together, and that wanders into dark corners.
Some days, there is the taste of stone and dust at the back of his mouth when Arthur kisses him and his fingers are cold when they move over Arthur's.
Some days, Arthur minds; most days, he finds that he doesn't and wonders if he should.
The final day creeps up on Arthur, stealthy and silent, until he can feel his own fingers grow cold and stiff.
Turning from the window to his darkened bedchamber, Arthur tastes dust on his tongue. "There will be battle tomorrow."
"Yes." Merlin hovers in the corner, preternaturally still, his skin pale and eyes bright.
"You won't stay." Arthur pauses a few steps from Merlin. His eyes linger on sharp curves and long, clean limbs.
"I can't. I'm so sorry."
"Then it is the end." He knows, without either of them saying, that dying is the only thing he can do without Merlin's help.
Merlin's gaze drops to the floor. He is, once again, the boy that woke to Arthur's touch so many years ago. His lips are cool and unmoving beneath Arthur's, but for a second, for the briefest of moments, his cheek is warm and soft beneath the palm of Arthur's hand.
Then he is gone, and the morning of battle dawns cold and quiet over Camelot.