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It's not like there weren't signs. If Merlin had been paying attention, if he'd known what to look for, if he'd known that there was any need, he might have seen it coming. Maybe he could have done something about it.

Maybe it would have always ended this way.

Maybe he was just obsessing over this because it was easier to kick himself -- in Arthur's voice, of course, at some point along the way his inner voice had become Arthur and now it sneered How could you be such an idiot, Merlin like his own personal curse -- than to think about the situation they'd found themselves in.

The cell was small and damp, musty like a root cellar but the walls were solid stone and the mortar was strong. The only luxury was a thin, barred window that ran across the top of one wall, just beneath the ceiling. It let in the moonlight, so at least they weren't blind. But they were trapped. Merlin hadn't even gotten a good look at their attackers before something had clocked him over the head and knocked him out cold. The last thing he remembered seeing as he'd toppled from his horse was Arthur's expression, his face tight with fury and his eyes flashing fear.

And now they were here, trapped, and something was very, very wrong. Arthur had wedged himself into the corner, bent into a ball with his arms wrapped tight around his middle, and he groaned like a dying man.

Merlin's heart had clenched into a knot when he'd woken and heard Arthur making those sounds. He'd scrambled to his feet, choking back nausea as he sat up too fast. His head felt like it was going to split straight down the middle, but that didn't matter because something was wrong with Arthur. Those thugs must have overpowered Arthur, must have hurt him, and it was Merlin's fault because he'd been unconscious instead of helping him.

"Arthur?" He'd rushed to his prince's side, reaching for him. He could help now. He could heal Arthur. He would be fine.

But when Merlin was still two strides away, Arthur had thrown a hand out and snarled, "No!"

Merlin froze where he stood and stared at him.

"Don't." Arthur's voice rasped through his throat. It sounded all wrong, hoarse and desperate. "Stay away."

"Arthur--"

"Leave me be, Merlin!"

Merlin had retreated reluctantly, helplessly. Every step away from Arthur felt like a torment. Arthur needed him. He'd never had a problem with letting Merlin save him before. "Please," Merlin said faintly. "Whatever's wrong, I can fix it. I can help."

Arthur's face had twisted into an agonized grimace as he shook his head and groaned.

Merlin sat at the opposite end of the wall from him, his back pressed against the stones and his hands trembling. The light of the full moon poured through the narrow window, casting silver highlights across everything except the shadowed corner Arthur crouched in.

Merlin stared hard into the darkness, trying to see Arthur. He didn't think Arthur was bleeding -- his hands were pale where they clutched at his stomach, and his clothes looked unstained, near as Merlin could tell. It was hard to see anything in the shadows.

"Arthur," he said in a low voice, the kind he'd heard stable hands use to try to coax a skittish horse. "What'd they do to you? Is it poison?"

"No," Arthur snarled, then broke off with an awful groan.

"But--"

"Merlin, for once, will you just do as your prince commands you and shut up?"

Merlin snapped his mouth shut, stung. Arthur tipped his head back against the wall, panting hard. Merlin didn't speak, but he didn't stop watching Arthur either, staring at him, searching for some sign of what illness might have seized him during the hours Merlin hadn't been able to protect him.

The night wore on slowly. The lines of moonlight seemed to crawl across the floor, while Arthur groaned and twitched and writhed in his corner. Merlin watched him helplessly, hating that he could do nothing, that Arthur wouldn't even let him try.

"Arthur," he said, casting his voice low when the prince's back suddenly bowed off of the wall and he cried out like he'd been run through with a sword. "Arthur."

Arthur didn't respond.

Slowly, Merlin rose to his feet, eyeing the prince warily. Arthur seemed to pay him no notice, not as he rose, and not as he edged across the distance that Arthur had put between them. "Arthur," Merlin breathed, dropping to his knees beside him. He reached out to touch Arthur's moon-pale cheek. His fingers met skin that was clammy with a cold sweat.

Arthur's eyes shot open, eerie yellow and feral. His gaze bore into Merlin's and made his breath stick in his lungs.

"I told you," Arthur snarled. "I told you. Leave me alone! I can't--" He broke off with a keening cry that sent tremors down his spine and bent his head back, face tipped up to the ceiling as inarticulate sounds worked their way from his throat.

"Arthur Pendragon." Merlin gripped Arthur's face between his hands and met his strange gaze. "You tell me what is wrong with you right now, or so help me--"

Arthur moved fast as a snake, grabbing Merlin and spinning with him. He shoved Merlin back against the wall hard enough to knock the breath from him. "I can't," he snarled in Merlin's face. Then the fierceness of his expression crumbled. He pressed his brow against the wall and shuddered against Merlin. "I can't stop it. It wasn't-- wasn't supposed to be like this." He groaned and convulsed against Merlin. "You weren't supposed to be here. I was supposed to be alone."

Fear turned Merlin's mouth dry as dust. Arthur surrounded him, caging him. His teeth were bared and his body tense. "You were supposed to be on the road alone," he said through parched lips. Arthur's fingers scraped against the stones as though he could claw his way out of this prison. "They knew that. Arthur. Someone knew. Those weren't highwaymen. This wasn't an accident."

"Merlin." Arthur shut his eyes and breathed deep through his nose as though he were fighting for calm. "If you do nothing else I ask of you ever again, will you please, please do this one thing for me?"

"Anything," Merlin breathed past the knot of emotion that rode high his throat.

"Stop talking."

"But I--"

Arthur spun away with a growl and stalked across the tiny cell. His hands curled into fists at his sides and his shoulders heaved with every breath. He was making awful, strangled sounds in the back of his throat, and when the moonlight fell across him, he froze and turned his face up to it. Something like a shadow rippled across his skin.

Merlin couldn't move. He felt as though something had stolen all the air from the room. His chest hurt and his eyes burned and he wanted, more than anything, to go to Arthur and soothe him, to heal him. But there was something in the line of Arthur's back, in his stance, in the way he stared at the moon as though it were a lover's face, that kept Merlin frozen in place.

When Arthur clawed at his shirt and ripped it off over his head, Merlin forgot to breathe. Arthur pushed his pants off his hips and Merlin couldn't have torn his gaze away if his life had depended on it. In the silver light of the moon, there was no mistaking the way tawny fur spread out across the bare skin of Arthur's shoulders, then spread down his back.

"Arthur." Merlin's voice squeaked through his throat. "What--"

Arthur whipped around. He moved toward Merlin, one slow, stalking step at a time. Merlin pressed his shoulders against the wall and swallowed the thick taste of trepidation. Fur was climbing up Arthur's throat, changing the shape of his face. His lip curled in a snarl.

"Um." Merlin edged sideways along the wall. Every time he moved, a rumbling growl rose to fill the cell. It made the hair on Merlin's nape stand on end. He sidled along until he had reached the door set in the wall and pounded his fist against it. "Um. Hello? We've got a situation in here."

If there was anyone out there guarding them, they weren't, apparently, interested in preserving the safety of their hostages. Or at least, not in preserving Merlin's safety. Not that that meant anything.

With a deep breath to steady himself, Merlin faced Arthur again. "Don't do this," he pleaded quietly. "You don't have to. Fight it, Arthur."

"I can't." He wrenched his eyes shut. He lifted one hand, half-extended toward Merlin, fingers curved and clawed. "I can't. I want--"

"You don't want to hurt me." It wasn't a question. "I know you. You don't want that."

Arthur bared his teeth. "You didn't know this. You don't know anything."

"I know what's important." But it was hard to remember that when Arthur grabbed him with those clawed hands and pulled him away from the wall, hard not to cry out for help that wouldn't come when Arthur bent and grazed his too-sharp teeth across Merlin's shoulder, huffing at his skin. It was so hard not to think This isn't him in a tight panic when Arthur's fingers dug painfully into Merlin's waist.

Another shudder wracked through Arthur, making his empty hand convulse closed on the air. The other, gripping Merlin's hip, tightened until the points of his claws drew blood and Merlin made a low, frightened sound in the back of his throat.

His heart pounded against his breastbone. He wanted to run, to get as far away as he possibly could from Arthur and this creature he was turning into. But he couldn't, not when they were trapped in this tiny cell together. And if he tried-- Merlin knew enough about the beasts of the forest to know that if he ran, it would only guarantee that Arthur would pursue. And right now... right now, Arthur was manhandling him, and snuffling along the line of his neck like a hound searching for a treat, and Merlin was guaranteed to be bruised and scabbed after all this, but Arthur wasn't hurting him, not really. Not yet. If Merlin fled or tried to fight, that could all change.

"You can fight this, Arthur," Merlin breathed, soothing. His voice shook, but that couldn't be helped, not with Arthur's teeth so close to the cords of Merlin's throat and the low, steady rumble of a growl rising up between them.

Merlin kept the words of a spell poised on the tip of his tongue, but he didn't speak them. The state Arthur was in right now, Merlin could scarcely breathe without making him growl and flex and grab on to him tighter. Arthur would just see magic as a threat, and Merlin wasn't inclined to find out if he could cast the spell faster than Arthur could flex those claws and tear him open.

No. He'd keep the spell in reserve for when -- if -- it became necessary. But he hadn't yet given up on talking Arthur down from this.

"Arthur, listen to me. You're still you. You can control this. You're not--"

Arthur spun him around with a snarl and shoved him flat against the wall. He dragged his claws down Merlin's back with an awful tearing sound. Merlin tensed, braced for pain, but it never came. My shirt, he thought wildly as Arthur tore it away, shredded and ruined. When he tore Merlin's trousers away, as well, Merlin choked out a hysterical laugh against the stone.

Arthur crowded him forward. One hand tangled in Merlin's hair and wrenched his head to the side so Arthur could pant against the side of his throat, hot breath gusting over Merlin's ear. His hips pressed into Merlin's and he was hard. The shock of realization struck Merlin like a blow.

"No," he choked. "Arthur, don't." He braced his arms against the wall and pressed his face into them. "Not like this."

But the change had taken charge of Arthur, and he didn't respond except to grab Merlin's hip and rut against him. His cock slid in the cleft of Merlin's ass, hot as a brand and somehow slick. Merlin bit the back of his wrist, stifling a cry as the head of Arthur's cock grazed his entrance.

No, no, no, no, no, no. The protest spun through his mind, deafening, dizzying. Not here. Not like this, please.

Arthur closed his teeth over the curve of Merlin's shoulder, bit down hard enough to hurt, but not enough to draw blood. Merlin's breath unraveled in his throat. Arthur grabbed his hipbones in both hands and held him still as he flexed, pushing inside. Merlin gave a hitching cry and pushed against the wall, twisting, fighting.

A growl erupted from Arthur's throat, vibrating against the skin of Merlin's shoulder. He braced an arm across his back and bore him down, pressed hard against the rough-hewn wall from shoulders to knees and still he was moving, thrusting, driving deep until he touched something inside Merlin that made a startling bolt of heat flash through him.

Sweat gathered on Merlin's shoulders and dripped down the valley of his spine. Arthur lapped it off his skin with broad strokes of his tongue. He withdrew, then fucked back into Merlin with a solid stroke that grazed that spot again and sent a jolt through him that was sharp and sweet and good.

"Okay," Merlin breathed, spreading his hands wide across the stones. "Okay. Arthur, we can--" Arthur fucked into him again and Merlin cried out. "It's all right, Arthur. It's okay." Arthur drove into him again, strong, powerful. Merlin sobbed and surged back against him. "Please."

Arthur's growl sounded victorious. He drove into Merlin again and again, stretching him, plowing into him. Merlin clawed at the wall as his trembling legs threatened to give out beneath him. He shut his eyes and told himself this was Arthur, this was his prince, the man Merlin had secretly fantasized about for years, the man he wanted. It was hard to remember with Arthur's teeth, his fangs, biting into Merlin's skin, but when Arthur wrapped a muscular arm across his stomach and groaned in his ear as he pulled Merlin back into his next thrust, it was easier. "Please." He twisted, fucking forward into nothing. He was hard as iron, but Arthur hadn't even touched his cock yet and it hurt. "I need-- Arthur, touch me."

Arthur's hips snapped against Merlin's, their flesh slapping together with a filthy rhythm as he bottomed out with each stroke. Merlin choked back a sob, but when Arthur's arm tightened around him and he stopped moving, Merlin cried out, sharp and distressed. "Don't," he gasped. "Don't, please, don't stop."

Arthur dragged him away from the wall, hands tight enough to bruise. Merlin stumbled and fell, landed hard on one knee. When he looked up, Arthur was standing before him, and the sight made Merlin still as he reached for him. Arthur was fully shifted now, his face elongated into a muzzle, the shape of his own face a scant shadow beneath the wolf's features, a tail, dear gods, whipping sharply behind him. His cock jutted up against his stomach, stiff and red.

Arthur dropped to his knees and crawled forward. He planted one hand low on Merlin's stomach, holding him down as he bent and huffed hot breath over Merlin's groin.

Merlin dropped his head back with a groan. It was strange and wrong and it made a thrill of something indescribable climb up Merlin's spine, but then Arthur's tongue lapped out along the Merlin's shaft and strange ceased to matter.

Arthur was artless like this -- or maybe he wasn't skilled to begin with, Merlin thought with a huff of delirious laughter, and the rumors of his prowess that circled through the castle staff were all unfounded -- but it hardly mattered. His tongue was hot and wet and a little bit rough, so what did Merlin care if it was sloppy? His back tried to bow up off the cell floor, but Arthur snarled and pushed him down flat again, then lapped down between Merlin's legs. When the tip of his tongue dragged over Merlin's entrance, he jolted and grabbed at Arthur's head without thinking. Thick tufts of fur jutted up between his fingers. Arthur's head snapped up. He stared at Merlin, his lip curled to bare his canines, his eyes wolf-gold.

Before Merlin could react, Arthur had him flipped onto his stomach and was crawling over him, growling possessively against Merlin's ear. The claws of one hand bit into Merlin's thigh, hauling his hips up. He slid into Merlin with one thrust, filling him until their hips were pressed together and Arthur moved against him with little, rutting pushes. Merlin cried out against the muscle of his arm, frustration as much as pleasure. His cock hung thick and heavy between his legs, and Arthur still wasn't touching it. He couldn't even grind it against the floor, the way Arthur had him angled.

Biting back oaths, Merlin shifted and shuffled his weight until he had worked one hand down beneath himself and could take cold of his cock. He stroked it fast, panting and shuddering as Arthur drove into him, and when the friction of his own palm over the head of his cock made him convulse, Arthur gave a whuffing bark and fucked him even harder.

"Fuck," Merlin muttered against the sensitive skin at the inside of his arm. "Fuck, fuck." Arthur grabbed his hips and slammed deep, locked them there as he emptied himself in a wave of rushing heat.

Merlin cried out in distress and tightened his fist around his cock, jerking himself off desperately. Arthur kept his arms around him, nuzzling and lick at the edge of his ear, the side of his throat, his nape. And as he held Merlin close and Merlin strove toward his own climax, he swelled and grew with Merlin, stretching him, impossibly large.

Merlin froze, shock and panic twisting through him. "What--" Arthur settled his hips more firmly against Merlin's, making the bulge move, and Merlin knew. "I can't," he cried, dizzy and hysterical with it. He shook his head wildly and pressed his face to his arm. "Arthur! I can't!"

Arthur kept him close and continued to slide in him, shallow, lazy movements. Every time he began to draw out, Merlin choked and surged back against him. Arthur's breath washed over Merlin's skin, and he licked his jaw as though pleased.

Merlin shut his eyes and shuddered. His pulse thundered a panicked rhythm, but the need that it pumped through his veins hadn't flagged. He was still hard. He still ached. And the small, slight movements of Arthur's cock inside him only made it all even more unbearable. Merlin grasped his cock in his fist and pumped frantically while Arthur lapped his skin and rumbled approvingly against his ear.

Half a dozen strokes and Merlin was at the edge of the peak, gasping, shaking. Arthur nuzzled his nape and kept his arm wrapped around Merlin's waist and bared his teeth with unmistakable pleasure when Merlin's voice broke and he spent himself on the floor.

Merlin leaned his brow against the cell floor and wrapped his arms over his head, where it was dark and cool and close. Shivers rippled across his skin, slow to fade. And Arthur was still in him, still moving lazily, still stuck there. Now that the sweat was cooling on his skin, Merlin wished there were a hole somewhere he could go bury himself in. At the very least, he wished he hadn't let Arthur destroy his clothing.

Arthur's breathing slowly steadied. He stroked lazily over Merlin's stomach until Merlin shivered and twitched away. When he looked down, Arthur's arm across his stomach was tan and strong and lightly-haired, but not the least bit wolfy. He twisted, looking over his shoulder. Arthur's face was pressed against his shoulder blade, his hair fallen forward to obscure it. But his lips were soft and his hair was short and his ears were pink and round and all too human.

Merlin ran his tongue over his parched lips and tried to find his voice. "Sire." Arthur didn't respond. "Arthur. Do you think you could..." He trailed off and coughed significantly. It made him tighten in reflex. Arthur groaned, wretched, and lipped at the nob of his spine.

"Not for a while yet." He soothed a hand over Merlin's flank. "Sorry."

Merlin shut his eyes and shivered. "Don't. Please."

Arthur froze against him, inside him. "Merlin--"

"Please." He forced the words through gritted teeth. "I just need..." But he didn't know what he needed, except out of here and away. He needed to go. He needed to be untied. He needed a broad expanse of grass to walk through until he'd sorted out the tumult of emotions that raged within him. He needed peace, and distance, and with Arthur still locked inside of him, he wasn't going to get either. "Please, just don't."

Arthur was silent just long enough that Merlin began to think that he might actually do as he'd asked. Then his hand tightened on Merlin's upper arm and he whispered against his skin, "I'm sorry."

"Oh gods, Arthur. Don't you listen at all?" Merlin bucked beneath him, twisting, pushing. "Don't. Stop. Please, get out of me, just get out of me, Arthur--"

Arthur rolled him onto his stomach, pinning him down with his weight against Merlin's hips and his arm braced across Merlin's shoulders. "Can't," he groaned close against Merlin's ear. "Gods. Stop. You'll hurt yourself."

And that right there, that hushed tone of concern in Arthur's voice, was worse than anything. Merlin laid his head down on the floor and wrapped his arms around and shook. His eyes were dry, and the skin on his face felt tight and thin as parchment. He wasn't crying, but he felt wrung out and exhausted all the same. "Shut up," he muttered into the dusty stones. "Please, just shut up."

Arthur said nothing else. He laid his cheek against the valley of Merlin's spine and stroked a hand over his side. Merlin supposed he meant it to be soothing, but it just made tension ripple through him. He wished Arthur wouldn't. He didn't need soothing, he didn't need to be cosseted, he just needed the space to come to terms with what had happened.

Time seemed to stretch out until it was infinite. Merlin became acutely aware of the quiet rush of air through his lungs, the steady thump of his heart, the touch of a draft against his bare skin, Arthur's slow and rhythmic breathing, the way his knees tucked in against the backs of Merlin's as though they were made to fit.

Slowly, the massive presence of Arthur's knot within him became less overwhelming. Merlin wasn't sure whether it was because Arthur was softening, or he was adjusting. He didn't want think too hard about it, certainly didn't want to ask. When Arthur palmed his hip and shifted his weight backwards, the knot pushed and stretched at Merlin's opening. It wasn't as impossible as it had been before, but the intensity of it still made Merlin sob a breath out and dig his fingers into the cell floor.

"Hush," Arthur murmured, stroking his back. "Relax for me. It's just for a moment."

"Don't." Merlin pressed his face to his arms. "Don't be sweet. Just get on with it."

Arthur's sigh brushed across the nape of his neck. Merlin tried to keep still for him, to stay relaxed, but it was impossible. The slight stretch as Arthur withdrew was still staggering. The movement of him within Merlin, sliding out, stirred up the pleasure that had held Merlin in its grip earlier. He shut his eyes and waited for it to pass.

At last, the widest part of Arthur's cock slipped past the ring of Merlin's muscle and he slid out the rest of the way. Merlin ached at the sensation of emptiness, and hated himself for it.

He got his knees beneath him slowly, and shifted upright with ginger movements. Everything within him felt battered, used, abused. It should have felt marvelous. It did feel marvelous, but the sensation that a foundation he'd always stood upon and trusted to hold his weight had suddenly cracked beneath his feet turned the pleasure bitter.

He turned. Arthur sat back on his haunches, completely shameless in his nudity. He held his head angled to the side, his eyes narrowed with speculation. Merlin met his gaze, but he couldn't answer any of the questions that he saw brewing there.

A moment passed, and neither moved. Merlin sighed and took it upon himself to break the silence. He turned away and retrieved the scraps of his clothing from the far reaches of the cell where Arthur had tossed them. "You might have at least left them in one piece." He tried for levity.

"I'll have them replaced, of course."

Merlin sat against the wall, his thighs drawn up to his chest and his chin on his knees. "That's not really what I meant."

Arthur glanced at him, then turned his face aside. He looked ashamed, and it sent cold fingers chasing after the last remnants of pleasure that warmed Merlin's stomach. "What do you want from me, Merlin?"

Merlin shut his eyes and pressed his palms against the cool, gritty stone beneath him. "I don't know," he said. It was as much of the truth as he could manage.

#

Merlin woke with the morning sun to find Arthur crouching against the wall just beside the cell door, looking human but feral. Merlin licked his lips and tried his dry throat. "What--"

Arthur motioned him to silence with a sharp gesture and a dark look. Merlin swallowed the rest of the question and let it be. It was just as well. Dawn may have brought warmth and light to the dank cell, but it hadn't made it any easier for Merlin to unravel the knot of emotions that tangled in his chest. He had no words for how he felt, none that were adequate. He felt light-headed, dizzy. He felt somehow fractured and strong at once. He wanted to push Arthur back against the wall and kiss him until they were both breathless, and at the same time, he wanted to the unacknowledged space that had always separated them. He didn't know what to do with this new Arthur, who was courteous and gentle where he'd always been brash and sarcastic before, and who could no longer look Merlin in the eye.

"I don't know what you're so surly with me for," Merlin said at length, when he'd settled himself back against the wall and the silence had stretched long enough to feel thin and uncomfortable. "I'm not the one who--"

"Merlin," Arthur said in a low undertone. "Will you please shut up so I can get us out of here?"

Merlin snapped his mouth shut. Irritation flared, and it was a comfort. This, at last, was something he knew, something familiar. And he smiled at the thought that Arthur's lurking there was somehow meant to earn them their freedom. "Really, Arthur, that isn't necessary. I can--"

Before Merlin could finish, heavy, thudding footsteps sounded outside the door. Keys jangled over a muttered oath and Arthur's gaze went sharp in the instant before the door swung open and a man stepped into the cell. He moved right past Arthur without noticing him and swept the cell with a gaze. "Where's--"

Merlin jolted to his feet, his heart lodged tight in his throat. Before either of them could say a word, Arthur surged up from where he'd been crouched and threw himself at the man's back. They both went down in a pile, and Merlin only narrowly managed to scramble away before they took him down with them, too.

Arthur had him pinned flat, an arm wrenched up behind his back and a knee digging into his kidneys with a knife -- where on earth had he gotten a knife? -- held to the other's throat. "One move and you're dead," he snarled into the man's ear. "Merlin! The keys."

"Arthur," Merlin snapped. "It's Gwaine."

Arthur froze. Gwaine cleared his throat and pulled away from the knife at his neck enough to say, "You sure know how to show a man gratitude, sire. Remind me to ride to your rescue more often."

Arthur shifted off of him with a muttered oath. He flipped Gwaine over and squinted down at him through the dim light as though he didn't quite believe his own eyes, though Merlin didn't know how he could doubt. It wasn't as though anyone else had that ridiculous hair.

Gwaine grinned up at him, as cocky as ever despite the incredibly grisly prince still kneeling over him, looking like he might want to use that knife anyway. Gwaine raked Arthur with a gaze, then Merlin, and laughed. "I could go away, if you two were enjoying yourselves."

Merlin flushed hot at the reminder of his state of undress. "No, thank you," he said tightly, and snatched up his rags as he got to his feet. "Arthur, let him up. I'd like to leave now."

Arthur shot Merlin a swift look, dark and tight-lipped with worry. But Gwaine was looking on, practically smirking as he glanced between the two of them, and that was as good an excuse as any for Merlin to shake his head in refusal. "Let's go," he said quietly. "Please. Before--"

Arthur's expression transformed, flooding with sympathy. Panic wrapped tight around Merlin's chest and he turned blindly for the door, needing to get away, to get out, before Arthur could do something stupid like apologize again.

But what Arthur said, softly, was, "Before those men come back?" His voice hardened abruptly, turning sharp and angry. "That's not going to happen. You're safe, Merlin. I swear it."

Merlin nodded mutely, and accepted Gwaine's cloak when he offered it, and followed them out into the sunshine, where Gwaine and the rescue party waited with their horses. He believed Arthur and the promise he'd made, but even so, the ground beneath his feet felt unsteady, and the cracked foundation seemed only to loom ever wider.

#

Arthur stared when Merlin carried in his breakfast tray, the first morning after their return. "What are you doing?"

Merlin froze halfway through the door. "My job."

"Gods, Merlin, I didn't expect--"

He set the tray down on Arthur's table. "Do you mean to sack me because of what happened?"

"What?" Arthur jolted to his feet. "No!"

"Then it is my job, and my responsibility." He bent at the waist into a slight bow. "Sire."

"Merlin."

He froze halfway to the door to Arthur's chambers. His fingers curled at his sides and he couldn't turn. He couldn't look at Arthur and see on his face what he heard in his voice. He'd crumble, and his strength was all he had left. "Is there anything else you require?"

He heard the sharp breath Arthur exhaled, and could imagine the irritated way he'd drag a hand through his hair. The skin between his shoulder blades itched, and Merlin knew Arthur was frowning at him. "No, I don't require anything from you. This isn't necessary, any of it."

Merlin gave a single nod and made for the door again. As soon as he moved, Arthur made a strangled noise. "Merlin, wait, please."

He stopped and shut his eyes, breathed deeply through his nose for a long moment. "Is that an order?"

"No, gods, of course not--"

"Then I'd really rather not," Merlin said quietly, and left before Arthur could stop him once more.

#

He half expected Arthur to come tearing after him, to track him down and plaster himself to Merlin's side as though that might assuage his guilt. He couldn't stand the way Arthur looked at him now, though, the way he'd looked at him ever since that morning, with his eyes gone wide and soft and earnest. Merlin would have rather Arthur scorned and scoffed and insulted his skills as a manservant. Even that would have been better than being stared at like a toy Arthur had broken and was trying to figure out how to glue back together before anyone noticed the damage.

He couldn't go back to Gaius's workshop, that'd be the first place Arthur would look for him, so Merlin just kept on walking, straight out of the castle and into the city, dodging merchants blindly until someone called his name and caught him by the shoulder.

"Merlin? What's the matter?"

Merlin spun. Gwen stood before him, her face tilted up, creased with concern. He let out his breath and slowly allowed the tension to ease out of him. "Sorry, Gwen," he said. "I didn't see you."

Some of the concern on her face eased. She let go of his shoulder and tilted her head. Her mouth pulled into a crooked smile. "I noticed." She waited, watching his face like she expected something. When Merlin didn't say anything, her frowned deepened. "Merlin. What is it?"

Right. She'd asked the question before. Merlin shook his head and sighed. "Nothing's wrong. Sorry, Gwen. I'm fine."

She snorted and gave him another wry smile. "Liar."

"Hey." He jostled her shoulder in mild protest as she fell into step beside him.

Gwen kept in step with him, walking at his side in companionable silence, even though Merlin himself didn't know where he was going except away. She didn't make any comment about their aimless path, though, until at length she spoke, with her gaze on the wispy clouds scudding by overhead as though her words were an afterthought and of little consequence. "Whatever he's done, I'm sure it wasn't meant poorly."

Merlin stopped. Gwen kept walking a few steps past, which carried her around until she'd turned back and faced him. "He?" She just raised her brows and sent him a look that brooked no nonsense. "You mean Arthur?"

Gwen laughed. "Of course. Who else would I mean?" She closed the few strides between them and hooked her arm through his. "No one else upsets you as reliably or thoroughly as he does. He seemed the likeliest candidate."

She pulled at him until he resumed walking again. It was a moment before Merlin realized that she had somehow got him turned around and headed back to the castle. "Gwen." He sighed.

"Merlin," she echoed, her expression comically grim. "Just give him a chance to grovel, won't you? You know he'll be useless until he has a chance to make up for it."

He shuddered, unpleasantness curling tight in his belly. "Gods. No. I don't want that."

"Well, maybe it's what he needs."

"It isn't necessary," he said, pushing the unpleasantness down until it was buried well enough to be ignored. "He's got no cause for it."

#

Merlin wasn't too proud to admit that, when he let himself into Arthur's chambers for his afternoon chores, he hoped that Arthur would still be out on the training field, or maybe summoned into Uther's presence for some matter of state. Whatever the reason, so long as he wasn't there, and Merlin could tidy up in peace.

His hopes were short-lived. Arthur was waiting there the moment he stepped into the rooms, standing with his arms crossed and a grave look on his face that heralded nothing but trouble. Merlin faltered at the sight of him, but recovered himself quickly. "Your pardon, sire." He kept his gaze lowered as he stepped around Arthur to reach the bed, and the linens that must be changed. It was a sham, a show of deference that he didn't truly feel, but it was an excuse to avoid catching Arthur's eye and that was all Merlin wanted. Maybe, maybe he could sidle around Arthur and do his chores and they could all carry on with everything as it ought to be.

It was a feeble hope at best. Arthur killed it when, as Merlin tried to move past him with the fresh sheets, Arthur shot his hand out and grabbed Merlin by the arm. The sudden, sharp pain of it threw him back to that night, the bite of Arthur's fingers in his skin and the way Arthur's body had commanded his.

His lungs seized, and his breath tangled to knots in his chest. Merlin tore out of Arthur's grip and stumbled back. Tremors coursed through him. He squeezed his eyes shut and reminded himself that there was no cause for this weakness. It was only Arthur, and Arthur was his friend.

"Merlin." Arthur's voice was torn, wrecked. Merlin forced his eyes open, but regretted it. Arthur's expression was raw with misery. He stared at Merlin as though he were the king, and Arthur the supplicant praying for mercy. "Please..."

"Don't." Merlin forced the word through his throat, though it felt like daggers.

"Merlin, I'm sorry."

He flinched. Gwen's words rang through his mind like the tolling of a bell. Maybe it's what he needs. If Merlin were a better servant, a better friend, it wouldn't have been so difficult for him to let Arthur say what he needed. If he were a good man, he could have done that for him without wanting to claw Arthur's lungs out so Merlin would never have to worry about hearing those words from his mouth again.

And if he were a selfish man, he could turn and walk away, and leave Arthur to care for his own needs while Merlin saw to his. But Merlin wasn't that sort of man, either, not even now, when every word Arthur spoke threatened the solidity of the ground beneath him. Arthur still stared at him. He looked wretched and miserable, and even as he saw the words forming on Arthur's lips, Merlin couldn't make himself leave his prince's side.

"Please," Arthur breathed. He reached for Merlin and took a step toward him, but froze when Merlin flinched away from his touch. Slowly, he lowered his arm back to his side. But his gaze stayed on Merlin, boring into him until every breath was painful. "Gods, Merlin, just talk to me."

"I..." Merlin drew a shuddering breath. His hands curled to fists at his sides, nails biting half-moons into his palms. "I really need you to not say that."

Arthur's expression transformed, but it was no improvement. He looked as though he'd just been run through, and couldn't believe that Merlin was the one holding the sword. His lips trembled apart and he took a single, aborted step forward. "Please... You have to know how I never would have--"

"No!" Merlin jerked back. "Gods, Arthur. Please, just stop." He spun away, pulling his hands in front of him to hide the way they shook. The acrid taste of bile burned in his throat. "It's the same thing, just different words. Please, don't apologize to me."

Arthur's voice fell to silence. It should have been a relief, but tension remained between them, filling the room like the low, black clouds of a thunderstorm. It was only a matter of moments before Arthur wouldn't be able to help himself and would speak again, Merlin knew. And when he did, Merlin didn't know how he'd be able to bear it.

A sound broke the silence at length, but it wasn't speech. It was a rasping, metallic slide that Merlin knew in his bones. It was the sound of a sword being drawn from its scabbard. Fear drew prickling claws down the back of his neck.

He turned with slow movements. He half expected to find Arthur with some other object in his hand, some innocuous explanation for the sound that could not be what it had sounded like. But no -- there he stood, an impossible sight, Arthur with his bare sword in his hand, its point leveled at Merlin's chest. Merlin waited, numb with shock, to see if Arthur meant to challenge him or strike him down for refusing to hear his apology.

When Arthur flipped the sword around and offered it hilt-first, Merlin's thoughts evaporated to nothing like mist beneath the morning sun. He couldn't speak, and could scarcely even move enough to reach out and grasp the sword's hilt, and take the weapon from Arthur's hand. A part of him waited, breathless and disbelieving, for the moment to break and Arthur to reveal the joke that must be behind it all.

Arthur moved forward until he couldn't have taken another step without the tip of his sword cutting through his tunic and the flesh underneath. Slowly, he lowered himself to one knee and bowed his head forward to bare the back of his neck.

"What-- What are you doing?" The words were thin and strangled. Merlin could barely force them past his throat.

Arthur lifted his head only as much as was needed to look Merlin in the eye. "If you do not want my atonement," he said solemnly, "then I can only assume you want vengeance." And he lowered his head again, like a lamb come willingly to the slaughter.

The skin at the back of his neck was paler than the rest of him, protected from tanning in the sun by Arthur's hair and maille and armor. It looked soft and delicate and would have parted so easily beneath the edge of Arthur's sword.

Merlin dropped the sword and staggered back while it clattered and rang off of the stone floor. "That's what you think I want?"

A muscle twitched in Arthur's shoulder. "Isn't it?" He lifted a hand and pushed his fingers through his hair. His gaze slid to the sword, lying discarded and most likely damaged from its fall. He slid the hand down to his nape, fingers rubbing across the skin he'd just offered up to Merlin's retribution. He straightened slowly, but remained kneeling. Weariness seemed to pull at him, dragging his shoulders down until they slumped and twisting his mouth into grave lines. "Please," he said, and if Merlin had still had the sword in his hand, he might have struck him after all. "You must allow me to say this, just this and then no more, if that's what you wish of me. What happened... You have to know that wasn't me."

"No! It was you," Merlin snapped.

Arthur dropped back onto his haunches and stared at Merlin, his mouth gaping like a wound, his eyes full of hurt betrayal.

Merlin drew a breath and fought to calm the storm that Arthur's words had kindled inside him. "It was you," he said again, gentler. "That's why I let it happen."

Arthur stared at him, unspeaking. The silence stretched too long to be tolerated, but Merlin had no words left, and nothing he dared speak, besides. A moment passed, and another, and then Arthur braced a hand against the floor and pushed himself up off his knee and stood upright. The openness and honesty that had been written across his face since they started speaking was gone now, leaving him impossible to read. He looked like a prince. He looked like Uther.

"I must beg you to accept my apology once more, Merlin," he said, stiff and stilted. "You should never have had to make such a choice. You should never have had to allow me force anything upon you."

And then, to make Merlin's astonishment complete, he bowed at the waist, stiff and formal. He straightened before Merlin could gather his wits about him, and turned and made for the door.

Pain twisted sharp and ugly within Merlin's chest as he watched Arthur walk away. So this is how it's to be now, he thought. All yes, sire and if you please and dreadful propriety between us. The friendship they'd forged between them these past years, gone, lost in the wreckage of that one night between them.

"Arthur." The word burst from him in a wild fit of desperation as Arthur curled his fingers against the handle of the chamber door. But when he turned and looked back, all Merlin could do was stare at him, full to the seams with stupid, wretched hope.

Arthur lifted his brow, cool and impatient. There was something familiar in that expression that gave Merlin just enough purchase to cling to. Arthur had looked at him like that any number of times, while they still would have called themselves friends. That he looked at Merlin that way still...

"Did you mean it?" he asked, before he could think better of it. The words tumbled from him in a desperate rush. "What you said. That it wasn't you?"

Arthur's fingers clenched around the door handle. "Yes! Of course."

It was the right answer. Merlin knew it. But even so, it made pain and grief bloom within him. He had to look away, to drop his gaze and turn aside. It made the pain a little more bearable, at least. It made it so at least he could draw one gulping, gasping breath. "Ah," he said. Why couldn't he have kept his mouth closed? He knew better than this. "Right. Of course. So what happened then"--he didn't have to say when; they never did, either of them; there was only ever the one time they might be talking about, the only one that mattered--"It wasn't your desires driving it. It was just the, the wolf."

Arthur's lips parted, but no sound came from them. He sucked in a sudden breath of air and turned his back on the door, strode away from it, toward Merlin.

Merlin tensed as Arthur neared, unsure what to expect. Arthur might have grabbed him, might have dragged Merlin in until their bodies pressed together from shoulder to knees. He could have hauled Merlin into a kiss and made the matter clear, and Merlin almost wished he would. It would have been so easy, if he had. There would have been no room for doubt.

But Arthur did not. He didn't grab; he slid his hand over Merlin's elbow and urged him around. He bent down but didn't kiss, only waited with his lips a breath away from Merlin's and his eyes open, watching. Waiting. His breath was warm as summer light on Merlin's mouth, but he remained as distant as the sun.

And so it was Merlin who slid his hands up Arthur's chest and up his neck and drove his fingers into Arthur's hair, who twisted them there in the strands and pulled Arthur down to meet him for a proper kiss. Their first, Merlin thought, and had to fight down a bubble of hysterical laughter.

With all that had happened between them that night, they hadn't once kissed.

But this -- this felt right and good and sure. To stand before each other as prince and manservant, with only that between them. They had disregarded that distinction any number of times before, why should it matter now?

As soon as Merlin parted his lips and traced his tongue along Arthur's, Arthur groaned and grabbed doubled fistfuls of Merlin's shirt, and used it to wrench Merlin in hard against him. The force of their bodies coming together knocked the air from Merlin's lungs and he laughed breathlessly.

But as Arthur's fingers bit harder into his waist and his kiss turned even more desperate and demanding, a shiver went through Merlin. Arthur wrenched at him, and Merlin braced to be spun about and pressed down just as he had been before. His hands shook despite the way he clutched strands of Arthur's hair between his fingers to keep himself grounded, and it hadn't a thing to do with desire.

He tore away, gasping and hating his body for reacting as it did, without any thought from him. Arthur froze immediately. His fingers loosened and turned to the slow, easy glide of his palms across Merlin's skin. His breath still came quickly where it gusted against the side of Merlin's throat, though, and it sounded like disappointment.

The memory of his own words floated up from the murky depths of his mind. Don't, he'd said. Not like this. He shut his eyes and shook his head desperately, but he couldn't banish the memory.

He wanted Arthur. He wanted the heat and strength of his body against him, he wanted his kisses, and this closeness. He had wanted it for so long that he couldn't recall when the wanting had begun. But not like it had been that night. Not like it was now.

"Merlin?"

"Hush," he said. Too harsh, perhaps, but it was harshness that he needed now, not yielding softness. It was what he wanted.

He curled his fingers in the collar of Arthur's shirt and jerked him in for another kiss. This time, it was Merlin who chose the pace, and the one he set was frantic. He bit at Arthur's lips and gasped against his mouth. He slid his hands over the strong contours of muscles down Arthur's back and pressed bruises into the narrowest part of his waist. Arthur's breath shuddered against his mouth when Merlin pulled Arthur's hips in against his own. But when Arthur tried to grab him in return, Merlin batted his hands away, and pushed him backwards toward the bed.

Arthur let himself be led. When the bed's edge hit him behind the knees, he climbed up onto it without turning way or breaking the kiss. He kept one hand buried deep in Merlin's hair, but it was a gentle touch. He didn't pull, didn't grab, didn't try to move Merlin about as he wanted him. Merlin kissed him for that, to show his gratitude. He bore Arthur down onto his back and pressed his shoulders into the blankets and straddled him, bent low to lap at his mouth.

Arthur shuddered beneath him, like a pennant taken hold by a strong breeze. He skimmed his fingertips up Merlin's back, guiding the hem of his tunic up with them. He shivered beneath Merlin, and arched up against his weight, and it was perfect. It was just enough.

Merlin levered himself upright when the shirt was gathered beneath his underarms and could go no farther. He sat up, his knees on either side of Arthur's hips, and took pleasure in the way Arthur's gaze roamed over him, then caught and heated, as he stretched his arms overhead and peeled the shirt off.

He let the shirt fall aside, forgotten as soon as it slid out of his grasp. Arthur reached for him, but aborted the movement with his hands still hanging in the air. He sought Merlin's gaze out, a question written into the lift of his brow.

Merlin nodded once. He leaned into it when Arthur spread his hands over Merlin's chest. His fingers traced patterns over Merlin's skin, lighting fires beneath their touch. He made slow, aimless progress toward Merlin's nipples, swept his thumbs in circles around them until Merlin started to frown with the first stirrings of impatience, then caught them between his fingers and pinched and rolled until Merlin threw his head back with a shudder that reached all the way down to his toes. He beamed up at the ceiling as Arthur's touch sent sparks cascading through him. It felt like magic.

When the muscles in his stomach were tight and trembling, and every tug of Arthur's fingers had him rocking their hips together with breathy little moans, Merlin rolled off of his lap and pushed at Arthur's thigh with his toes. "Take those off." He rose up onto his elbows so he could watch.

Arthur obeyed immediately. He climbed out of bed to disrobe, and only broke his gaze away from Merlin's when pulling his shirt off over his head required it.

In the space of moments, he was nude and standing beside the bed, his regard resting on Merlin with a tangible weight. He was hard, as hard as Merlin already was, his cock curving up from between his thighs. Its head was dark with blood, and a drop of moisture sat at its tip like a jewel.

Merlin's fingers closed on the blankets beneath him. He wanted to know the weight of it in his palm. He wanted Arthur on his back again, pinned in place, so Merlin could take time to explore his flesh as he hadn't had the opportunity to before. "Is--" He ran his tongue over his lips, uncertain. "Is it... as it was before? That night?"

Arthur had made to climb back onto the bed, but he stopped moving for the space of a single breath at Merlin's mention of what had happened between them. His face darkened for a moment. Anger? Confusion? Merlin didn't know, and couldn't tell.

When Arthur spoke, he did so slowly, each word pronounced and delivered with care. "I am not sure I know what you mean."

Merlin sat up fully and leaned forward. Arthur's cock twitched when Merlin slid his fingers over it. The skin was hot beneath his touch, and soft as velvet. "The knot," he said. He traced the shaft down to its base, where Arthur's golden hair curled between his thighs, but his cock was as straight and ordinary as Merlin's own. "Does it belong to the wolf alone, or to both of you?"

"Oh." The tension eased out of Arthur's shoulders. "It is somewhat smaller, when I am myself." He laid his hand over Merlin's, letting his fingers glide where Merlin led them, a lazy exploration up and down the length of his cock. Very softly, he asked, "Do you mind?"

Just the thought of it sent a shiver of unease curling through Merlin. But that was the point of this, wasn't it? To exorcise the memory of that night, so he might be able to look at Arthur without some deep, hidden recess inside him turning cold. So he didn't have to live in fear of a heartfelt apology sending him into a panic. So things could be the way they had always been, the way they were meant to be, and he wouldn't have to worry about the ground giving way beneath him on account of one careless comment.

It was what he wanted. Even more than he wanted Arthur, he wanted to fix whatever it was that that night had broken between them. He wanted his friend back. He wanted the ease they'd known with each other, until now. So he gave Arthur a slight smile, and shook his head, and pushed down the unease until it was so small that it didn't matter at all.

The last of the tension eased out of Arthur, then. He sat on the edge of the bed, twisted toward Merlin, and allowed Merlin to pull him up onto it, and then push him onto his back again.

Merlin swung a leg over his hips and looked down on him. He braced himself on Arthur's chest, fingers splayed across his ribs. He rocked his hips against Arthur's, letting their cocks drag against one another, and smiled to realize that he could feel every ragged hitch of Arthur's breath this way. He did it again, just for the pleasure of it.

There was one difference between this time and the last, at least. Whatever mechanism had made Arthur wet and slick for him that night, it belonged to the wolf alone.

Merlin closed his fingers on a handful of Arthur's hair and spoke his name. He waited until Arthur lifted his heavy-lidded gaze and looked at him. Merlin grinned and pulled, tipping Arthur's head back. "Ready me," he commanded.

Arthur groaned and shivered beneath him. His eyes shuttered for a moment, but then he recovered and caught Merlin's eye once more. He held it as he lifted one hand and pressed the pads of two fingers against Merlin's lips.

His skin tasted of salt, and the faint, lingering taste of perfumed water from the bath he'd have taken earlier. Merlin took the fingers into his mouth and sucked at them, laved them with his tongue. He worked into the creases at his knuckles and down to the web of skin between his fingers. When they were wet and slippery with Merlin's saliva, he drew back, letting them slide from his mouth with a final, lascivious suck. Beneath him, a sheen of sweat had broken out across Arthur's skin, and twin spots of color rode high on his cheeks. Merlin swept his thumb over that smudge of color and rose up onto his knees. "Now," he said. "Now, Arthur."

His lips shivered apart as he reached between Merlin's legs. His knuckles grazed the inside of Merlin's thighs and nudged back behind his balls. Merlin drew air through his teeth in anticipation of Arthur's touch, but when his fingers pressed against Merlin's entrance, it was more than he could have prepared. The feel of it pushed the air from Merlin's lungs and left him breathless, reeling. He rocked onto the pressure and bit back a cry when the Arthur's finger breeched him.

Arthur was relentless. He worked Merlin open with just a few sharp thrusts, and when he'd taken the full length of Arthur's finger and Arthur's knuckles were pressing into the curve of Merlin's ass, he added the second and had Merlin bowed and panting above him in a matter of moments.

When he added a third finger, it was just a little too dry, and danced along the line that divided an anticipatory discomfort with a truer, unwelcome sort. This time, when Merlin drew air through his teeth, it wasn't entirely due to pleasure.

The suddenness of it was too familiar, it reminded him too closely of that night, of Arthur bearing into him with no preparation at all and how Merlin's body had burned as it stretched to accommodate him. He stiffened and grabbed at Arthur, fingers biting in hard over the tendons of his wrist.

Arthur fell still. He scanned Merlin's face, a frown creasing the skin across his brow. He looked concerned. He looked like he was going to apologize, and then this would be well and truly ruined.

"Enough," Merlin said, his voice gone raw and hoarse. He pushed Arthur out of him and slid down until he was sitting over Arthur's thighs. Arthur's cock rose before him. A drop off fluid welled at its tip as Merlin watched, gathered and beaded and dripped a slow, sticky trail down his shaft.

Merlin caught the drop on the pad of a finger, then took it onto his tongue. It tasted of salt and faint bitterness. It wasn't exactly what Merlin might have called pleasant, but the look on Arthur's face as he watched was everything he wanted. He smiled, smug in his victory, and took Arthur's hand between his own. Arthur watched with a gaze gone dark and heavy as Merlin lifted it, turned his palm up before him, and spat into it.

Arthur's breath hitched. Hid eyes flew wide, an instant before they snapped shut and he shuddered beneath Merlin's weight. Another drop off fluid dripped down his shaft, but Merlin let this one be. He guided Arthur's hand to his own cock, and smiled fiercely when Arthur took himself in hand without direction.

He readied himself quickly, smearing Merlin's saliva over his cock with a few quick strokes. When it was slick and gleaming, Merlin knocked his hands aside and circled his own fingers around the root. He held it upright, curving just a little, as he clambered up over Arthur's hips. The head of Arthur's cock grazed against his entrance, making Merlin shudder, and when he lowered himself onto it, the angle was almost perfect.

Arthur groaned beneath Merlin and jerked his hips, trying to push deeper as soon as Merlin had begun to take him into his body. It felt good, the stretch and slide of another person's flesh inside his own, but Merlin pressed a hand low on Arthur's stomach and pinned him down all the same, because it was a matter of principle. He kept himself half-raised on his knees, the head of Arthur's cock just beginning to work him open, even though it made the muscles in his thighs ache and the need inside him roil and churn like a ravenous thing. He waited, shivering and trying to keep his breath steady, until Arthur relaxed beneath him, and let his hips sink back onto the bed. And then he began to move.

Not even Arthur's three fingers had been enough to prepare Merlin for taking his cock, not really. He'd had the chance to look his fill, and he was sure that Arthur wasn't as big now as he'd been as the wolf. But even so, he felt filled to his limit, and when he'd finally worked himself all the way down Arthur's cock, he dropped forward, the heels of his palms braced on Arthur's shoulders and elbows locked to keep his weight on his hips.

Arthur grabbed on to him, his thumb pressing into the hollow of Merlin's hip, his palm pressed to the jut of bone beneath the skin, long fingers wrapping around to make divots in the muscle of Merlin's ass. He didn't push or pull or try to urge Merlin to move in any fashion, just held on like a dying man clinging to flotsam, so Merlin allowed it. The pressure was comforting, grounding. When he lifted up off of Arthur, then sank down onto him again, Arthur's fingers tightened and he tipped his head back with a groan. Merlin lowered himself, from palms to forearms braced along the strong lines of Arthur's chest, so he could lean down and suck at the skin Arthur bared to him.

He kept moving, kept rocking onto Arthur's cock, riding him, and when Arthur hummed his pleasure and twisted beneath Merlin's weight, Merlin felt it in the lips he kept pressed to Arthur's throat, and he smiled.

Arthur stared up at him, panting, lips parted and eyes glazed. This close, Merlin could still see the blue band of his irises, stretched thin around pupils blown wide with desire. Merlin smiled, and skimmed his lips across Arthur's, but held back until Arthur groaned and begged, "Kiss me."

Merlin's smile spread. He drove himself down onto Arthur's cock, sudden and off-rhythm, and thrilled at the heat that shot through him. "You want to?"

"Yes." Arthur strained up toward him, but Merlin kept just out of reach. "Gods, kiss me, please."

Merlin pulled back, putting more space between them, until the air he pulled into his lungs felt thin and cold without Arthur's breath to warm it. "Earn it," he said.

Arthur groaned as though Merlin was killing him, and surged up against him like he never wanted him to stop. The hand on Merlin's hip loosened. Merlin regretted its loss for a moment, until Arthur ghosted his fingertips across Merlin's stomach and down, to curve around Merlin's untouched erection.

Merlin groaned at the touch of Arthur's hand, the tight squeeze of his fingers, still just a little slick. He caught handfuls of Arthur's hair and jerked him into a kiss that was all tongues and teeth and breaths gasped into one another's mouths, right from the start.

Arthur stroked him with a frenetic pace, matching the rhythm that Merlin set with every flex of his hips, relentless and maddening. It had been fierce and frantic and violent, that night before. This time, it was no less desperate, and Merlin fucked himself on Arthur's cock so hard that the bedchamber was filled with their gasps and the slap of their flesh. But this time, it was Merlin's need that drove them on, not the implacable demand of Arthur's wolf. And with Arthur's hand tight on his cock, it was only a matter of a few more moments before Merlin came, biting at Arthur's lips and groaning as the pleasure twisted through him, and wrung him dry.

He slumped against Arthur as his orgasm released him from its grip. Arthur was still hard within him, but he kept himself still while Merlin shivered on top of him and lipped idly at the edge of his jaw.

"Merlin," Arthur murmured, when a few moments had passed.

Merlin stretched languidly on top of him. "Hmm?"

He skimmed a hand up Merlin's side, his fingers light and comforting. When he spoke, his voice was hushed and uncertain. "Do you want... You don't have to, if you'd rather not." He fit his hands on Merlin's hips and made to urge him back, push him off. "I could finish myself, and we wouldn't have to be tied."

Merlin pushed up on one elbow and looked at him. Arthur kept his hands on Merlin's hips, kept pushing. "Don't be an idiot," Merlin said, and tightened his muscles around Arthur as he rocked onto his cock again.

"Are--" Arthur shuddered as Merlin fucked onto him. "Are you certain? Gods."

"No," Merlin said truthfully. He traced a hand over Arthur's chest and thumbed at his nipples. "But I want it anyway."

Arthur groaned wildly and threw an arm over his eyes. His hips bucked beneath Merlin, driving into him. Finally, Merlin allowed it. He stroked Arthur's skin and kissed him as Arthur fucked him, until Arthur groaned like he was dying and surged into him, then went still, his face twisted into an expression that almost looked tortured.

Heat spread inside Merlin. Arthur's seed, he thought, and shivered. And as warmth and satisfaction swelled within him, so too did Arthur's knot, stretching him until he had to catch his breath and dig his teeth into Arthur's shoulder.

Arthur smooth sweat-damp hair off of Merlin's brow and murmured soothing nonsense to him. "Are you all right?" he asked softly.

Merlin nodded, keeping his face pressed against Arthur's skin.

"Merlin--"

"No."

Arthur froze, then sighed. "What?"

Merlin lifted his head. "No. You're not going to apologize. We're not going to dwell on this." He shifted on top of him, letting Arthur's knot pull at him just enough that they both caught their breath. "If we're going to be stuck together for the rest of the night, I'm not going to let you make it intolerable."

Arthur looked so serious, as he gazed up at Merlin. He combed his fingers through Merlin's hair and spoke quietly. "We'll have to talk about it eventually, Merlin."

He shut his eyes. "Not now. Not tonight."

"When, do you think?"

Merlin shivered. "I don't know." Never, if he had his choice. Why did they have to talk about it? Why did Arthur have to make it more complicated than it already was? Why couldn't they be friends, as they had been, and care for one another, and fuck each other, without having to talk about anything at all? Arthur always made everything more difficult than it had to be. "Can't we sleep?" He slid his hands down Arthur's sides. "This is nice. Just let it be what it is, won't you?"

For several long moments, Arthur didn't speak. Merlin thought that perhaps, for once, he would do as he was told. But as Merlin drifted into the warm embrace of sleep, Arthur turned his head and whispered against his skin, "For now, Merlin. Yes. For now."

#

Of course, it couldn't be that easy. Nothing with Arthur ever was.

He woke toward evening, happily entwined around Arthur and luxuriating in the sun that streamed in through Arthur's window, spilling over the bed and their naked skin. It was a wonderful way to wake, and it was almost immediately ruined by Arthur. He ordered supper sent up for them both, so they could stay wrapped up in sheets together, and then spent the whole meal staring at Merlin, like he expected that any moment Merlin would say, "Oh, all right, now I'm ready to talk about this," and he could let loose with everything that he so clearly wanted to say.

Merlin held his tongue through the meal, and afterwards excused himself to go tend to some of his duties for Gaius. And for the next week, he found himself avoiding being alone with Arthur whenever possible.

It wasn't always possible, of course. Too often, he found Arthur waiting for him when he came to do his chores in Arthur's bedchamber. When that happened, Merlin either tightened his jaw and endured Arthur's insistence that they would have to talk eventually, or he silenced him with a kiss, and pushed him to the bed, and kept his mouth too occupied for any more conversation.

In the second week, Arthur seemed to resign himself to Merlin's silence. He stopped trying to catch him alone, and Merlin gradually stopped trying so hard to avoid it, and life settled more or less back into the rhythms that he was used to. But Arthur seemed uncharacteristically solemn too often for Merlin not to take note of, and his growing melancholy sat uneasily with Merlin.

In the third week, Arthur's melancholia turned to snappishness and a short temper that left Merlin too irritated with him to bother being concerned. And in the fourth, Arthur abruptly announced that was to take a tour about the countryside and Merlin should make himself useful waiting on Uther and aiding Gaius until his return.

Merlin stopped in the castle courtyard one night, staring up at the swollen moon that hung high overhead, and he knew.

It was no great difficult to find where Arthur had gone, not for one who knew him half so well as Merlin did. Arthur's stallion was still in the stables, so Merlin knew the trip about the countryside to be a lie. He found Arthur in the second place he looked for him, down in the deepest levels of the castle's gaol, in an area devoid of prisoners but for one cell, where Merlin found Arthur, crouched in a corner staring hatefully at the stripe of silver moonlight that crept toward him across the cell floor. The cell was barred, its door locked. Its keys hung from a hook on the wall, well out of reach of anyone who might find themselves inside the cell.

"Arthur, this is barbaric."

Arthur jumped at the sound of his voice. He stared across the cell at Merlin. The moon was barely risen, and he already looked half wild. "What are you doing here? Go!"

"No," Merlin said. "I don't think so." He took the keys from the hook and sifted through them until he found one that looked the right size and shape to fit the lock.

The whites of Arthur's eyes showed all the way around his irises. He looked like a spooked horse, and just as dangerous. "You shouldn't be here," he snarled. The words were harsh and a little garbled. His teeth were already lengthening into the wolf's long fangs.

"I am here because I choose to be, and I won't be sent away just because you've decided this is something too shameful to be witnessed." Merlin let himself into the cell. When the door clanged shut behind him, he reached through the bars with the keys and locked it from the outside.

"Don't." Arthur's eyes shone in the moonlight. Blue was already starting to bleed away into gold. "You don't have to do this. What I did to you last time--"

Merlin turned to face him. He took a breath, fighting for calm. This wouldn't work, if he and Arthur both lost control of themselves. "Will it be easier for you, if I'm here?"

Arthur snarled, his lip curling to bare his teeth. Merlin watched him and didn't move, didn't retreat, didn't even so much as tighten his fingers around the keys. He showed no fear, and after a moment, Arthur's growl faded and he slumped back against the cell's rough stone wall, just as he'd been that first night. "Yes," he said, whisper-rough, and wouldn't meet Merlin's eye.

Merlin reached through the cell's bars and threw the keys down the hallway, well beyond either of their reach. The jangle as they clattered across the stone floor made Arthur raise his head. He stared at Merlin as though he were some new sort of creature he'd never seen before.

Merlin crossed to him, and knelt down on the floor with him. He took Arthur's face between his hands, and didn't flinch when he felt Arthur's bones shifting and reshaping themselves under his touch. "Then that's all I need to know." He leaned in and kissed Arthur on the mouth. "I'm not going anywhere."