Camelot is as beautiful in the sunlight as Lancelot remembers. Her gorgeous white flanks rise high above the town and the forest, and he walks up towards the castle in a kind of daze. He cannot quite believe he's here again, that he's worthy to be here again, but Arthur found him, heard of him fighting in the north, and summoned him back.
Camelot needs you. We have enemies, we need your strong sword-hand and your cool head. I need a second I can rely on ...
Arthur meets him at the castle gate, Merlin behind him like a shadow or a second skin, just as Lancelot remembers.
Merlin is still as awkwardly beautiful as ever, and still as besotted. Lancelot shared his bed, as friends do, for many nights, and they talked and laughed, and every night he had to stop himself from asking ...
One night, though, the restless energy that was usually dissipated by sparring would not go away. Their mouths met, Lancelot sure and joyous, Merlin willing but hesitant, and eventually pushing Lancelot away.
I can't ... Merlin had said, reluctantly, and what he had not said was a name, or a reason, but Lancelot could guess. Merlin was waiting.
Seeing them now, though, as Arthur's arm wraps round Lancelot's shoulders and they turn to walk three-abreast through the gates, Lancelot thinks the waiting may have ended. The look in Arthur's eyes when Merlin speaks... Merlin's devotion was always obvious, but Arthur had seemed so blind to it before ...
Lancelot imagines they must make a glorious picture together, bright and dark, broad and lean, skin amongst sheets or linen and leather pushed hurriedly aside ...
He pushes aside these visions as well. It is nothing to do with him, if they are together.
Merlin is still sleeping in the little chamber off Gaius's quarters. He has no lover, he feels he has no time for one, since Arthur keeps him hopping day and night and Gaius seems to have decided that the entire physician's room needs cleaning from top to bottom. Lancelot learns all of this within a couple of days, as Merlin, delighted to have his company once more, seeks him out.
'I can talk to Gwen, but it's not the same as another man. And I can talk to Arthur but he's always so aggravating. I missed you,' Merlin adds blithely, polishing away at Arthur's second-best helm while Lancelot sharpens his sword out by the practice-grounds.
'I was here hardly a fortnight,' Lancelot points out, laughing.
And then Arthur looms, cutting a dashing figure in his mail and plate, and Lancelot watches with something akin to awe as Merlin's eyes darken and Arthur's smirk becomes blindingly flirtatious and yet neither of them seems to notice.
This is ridiculous.
It takes three weeks of being caught in the middle of their little dance before Lancelot, in desperation, asks Gwen if they're really not sleeping together. She blushes hotly and claps a hand over her mouth to stifle whatever her reaction was - a gasp, a giggle, it doesn't really matter, seeing as she recovers her composure and very, very quietly informs him that no, really, and yes, it's been like this since not long after he left, and yes, apparently it is possible to be both besotted and oblivious.
'Heaven knows I've tried talking to Merlin, and Morgana drops the most unsubtle hints sometimes, but they just don't seem to see it.'
Castle gossip, usually very reliable when it comes to Arthur, reports no private meetings, assignations or trysts on the Prince's part. Instead, Arthur seems to sate himself by beating most of his knights silly every morning and then spending the rest of the day informing everyone at the top of his voice what a hopeless specimen Merlin is, for which consideration Merlin doubles his insubordination and at the same time somehow manages to give a good impersonation of a hapless, lovestruck milkmaid.
All this unrelenting sexual tension is giving Lancelot a headache. Something must be done.
Arthur is very, very hard to get drunk. Lancelot has had to resort to the whiskey he brought with him from the north. It is very fine, and very fierce, and it leaves a burning sensation down the back of your throat and a warm feeling spreading right to the tips of your fingers. It takes four small glasses of that on top of a wineskin and a jug of ale before Lancelot, feeling slightly woozy, feels confident enough to broach the subject of Merlin and his staring, and his face, with which he does the staring, and also his quite lovely arse.
Turns out Arthur's not oblivious, just a much better actor than Lancelot ever gave him credit for being.
'I know,' Arthur says, eyeing Lancelot blearily. 'But what c'n'I do? He's'm servant. 'N he likes girls. Well, Gwen. She's a girl, 'nyway.'
'Think you'll find y'might be wrong on tha' one,' Lancelot says, attempting to tape his nose. 'Snoggged me, dinn'he?'
The punch would have hurt more if both of them were sober, Lancelot is sure of it.
'Nonononononono, h'stopped cosvyou. Ow.'
'S'maybe he likes girls and you. Special case, amiright? Cos'y pretty.'
'Nah. Nif I did summing, he'd think it w's'n order.' Arthur shrugs. 'S'bloodygooddrink, this whiskey.'
Lancelot tries for the nose-tap again, with slightly more success. 'T'morrow night, my chambers,' he says. 'Gonna have s'prise for you.'
Arthur catches him at training the next morning, glaring through bloodshot eyes. 'You didn't mean it, last night?' he asks.
'My quarters,' Lancelot says, ignoring his pounding head and thanking the gods that Arthur keeps his memory while drunk, because he doesn't want to go through that ever again. He tries for a flirtatious smile, and lets his gaze drift towards Merlin, who is sitting by the wall that flanks the practice-grounds and absentmindedly polishing the little joints of a gauntlet whilst actually watching the sparring. His eyes keep flicking towards Arthur and Lancelot.
Arthur wrenches Lancelot's shoulder in drawing him near. He puts his mouth to Lancelot's ear and hisses, 'This had better be something he wants,' with such venom that Lancelot almost forgets the jolt of heat that pools in his gut at the gust of Arthur's breath in his ear. 'If I find out you've-'
'Gods no!' Lancelot says, belatedly jerking back.
'Good.' Arthur stalks off. Merlin's eyes, from the far wall, track him, then come back to Lancelot, to whom he waves.
Lancelot waves back, hoping against hope he's not wrong about this.
'No, I've never - he'd never - no!' Merlin says, eyes round with shock.
'Is it that you don't want to, or you've never tried?' asks Lancelot.
'That's not the point, it's - he wouldn't want -' Merlin is staring hard at the withers of Arthur's mare, combing her mane out with fierce concentration. She approves of this.
'Men who don't want don't stare,' Lancelot points out, moving gently around the horse to stand by Merlin's side.
'He doesn't stare,' Merlin whispers.
'He does,' Lancelot counters, even though it's not exactly eloquent.
Merlin looks down. 'Don't,' he says, very quietly. 'It's too cruel. He doesn't. Don't make me think it when it can't be true.' And that sad note Lancelot cannot bear to hear, and he raises Merlin's head, smooths the hair from his face with gentle hands, places kisses as gently as he knows how to Merlin's forehead, eyelids, his cheeks, where two bright smudges show.
'Come to my room tonight,' he says, breathing it out slow and kind. Merlin shivers, closes his eyes. Lancelot kisses his mouth then, hungrily. Wants to show him he's wanted, even if it is, right now at least, by someone other than who he wants it to be.
'I'll come,' Merlin promises at last. 'For you, I'll come. Don't -' his voice breaks a little, 'don't ... don't promise me anything else.'
Lancelot feels, when he walks away, as if he's uncovered a nest of ants where he thought there was solid brick and mortar.
Merlin arrives first, and this is tricky, because he wants. Oh, does he want, with his eyes shut and his lip worried between his teeth, and Lancelot knows exactly what this is about.
'Sssh, ssh,' he says, trying to calm the frenzy that is Merlin when he has the bit between his teeth, so to speak. 'Be calm, my friend, we have all night-'
Merlin's mouth on his is hotter than fire, and he's learnt with devastating skill how to divest a knight of his garments in as short a time as possible. It is with some difficulty that Lancelot retains his underclothes. He threads his fingers through Merlin's hair, trying to keep control, pressing gentle kisses to him where Merlin would be hasty and clumsy and far too arousing despite, or perhaps because of, that lack of grace. Merlin is seeking the same thing that drives a man to drink, and Lord knows Lancelot saw enough of that during his travels.
He hopes Arthur will get here soon.
At that moment there is a peremptory knock at the door. Merlin freezes.
'Come in,' Lancelot calls, clamping his hands now on Merlin's shoulders. Merlin's face is wide-eyed and disbelieving, he does not want to be seen -
And then Arthur walks in, casually, his body belying his tense face. He sees Merlin and Lancelot in the middle of the room and freezes by the doorframe.
'Lock it,' Lancelot says, as definitely as he knows how. Someone needs to give the orders here, and in realising that, Lancelot sees in a flash how this evening will go. Arthur meets his eyes, nods, and locks the door. He does not come any closer, locking his hands behind his back, and Lancelot is having to prevent Merlin from, presumably, throwing himself out of a window in mortification.
'You seem surprised,' he says to Arthur, trying to manoeuvre Merlin closer. 'I told you what I planned.'
'I didn't think you'd manage it,' Arthur admits, his eyes fixed on Merlin.
'Yet you came.'
'I had to make sure - Merlin, are you all right?'
Merlin swallows. Hard to know what all right is, Lancelot supposes, when you are very nearly naked in the presence of someone you've loved, pined over, sacrificed for, and ultimately thought beyond your reach forever. He nods, slowly.
'I told you,' Lancelot says to Merlin, close and intimate. 'I said it would be him.'
'I came for you,' Merlin points out. 'I never presumed-'
'No, you never did,' Lancelot says, and he can relax his grip now, Merlin isn't going to run. But neither of them are going to do anything unless pushed.
So Lancelot pushes. 'You both came here because I asked you,' he says. 'Do you trust me?'
It is a big question. Perhaps the biggest.
Merlin nods first, and buries his face in Lancelot's neck. 'Of course I trust you,' he says, muffled.
Arthur clears his throat and says 'I trust you,' clearly and carefully, but he doesn't move.
Lancelot peels Merlin off him, takes his hand. Walks him over to Arthur. 'Touch him,' he says, without being clear who he's saying it to.
Neither of them moves. Merlin's gone wine red.
'Touch him,' Lancelot insists. He puts Merlin's hand on Arthur's shoulder, moves around to Arthur's back and untangles Arthur's hands to put them on Merlin's waist.
Arthur is now biting his lip.
'Merlin,' he says, steely control in his voice. 'You have to tell me if- say no-'
'No,' says Merlin softly, and then lunges to grab Arthur back when the prince starts to back away. 'No! I mean ... I mean, I don't want to say no.'
'He means yes,' Lancelot points out. 'Kiss him.'
There is no more than the skin of a beat before Arthur does so, and they move together, inexorable like an avalanche, but still, somehow, hesitant. Arthur is holding back - Lancelot recognises how he is, how his shoulders bunch and hold hard like that, when the knight he's sparring with is new, or recovering from some injury.
Merlin is trying to be careful, to not ruin this, like he expects it all to be taken away. Lancelot moves to behind him, runs gentle hands up and down his sides, and leans in to whisper, 'It's okay.' Merlin shivers, and Lancelot kisses his neck softly, presses up behind him and moves his hands from Arthur's shoulders to his waistband, follows the contact round like walking round a horse, keeping that touch so no-one is startled, until he's behind Arthur. He can feel the control, the fine trembling in Arthur's frame, and he wants to let it out, let Arthur know Merlin is neither fragile nor green nor scared ...
At first he makes for Arthur's belt, loosens it and guides Merlin's fingers in to do the rest, then makes for Arthur's hands, skimming them over Merlin's body, up to his neck, down his back, feeling each dip and climb of his spine, round to his hips, already starting to move with the rhythm of the kiss, the tops of his trousers, then down in front, so Arthur can truly feel that Merlin wants this.
Merlin's startled moan makes Arthur pick up the pace, pulling Merlin to him, and Lancelot decides to start them moving, walking towards the bed, pulling and tugging and pushing until Arthur is sitting on the edge of the mattress with Merlin between his thighs, still kissing.
Lancelot has already organised a bunk for the night elsewhere, and this seems like as good a time as any to head to it. He moves to pick up the clothes Merlin removed from him earlier, only to realise that the noises from behind him have stopped. He turns.
'Where are you going?' Merlin asks. 'I thought this- I thought we were-'
Lancelot smiles, and shakes his head. 'This was for you,' he says, inordinately pleased that they're a united front once more.
'Don't be ridiculous,' Arthur says firmly. 'Whatever this is,' he waves at himself and Merlin, 'we both came here for you, and we're not about to throw you out of your own bedchamber, anyway.'
'Put down the trousers,' Merlin adds solemnly, then grins and holds out a hand.
Watching them was one thing. Being caught between them is quite another. Merlin's mouth is hot and wet somewhere beneath Lancelot's ear, and Arthur's hands are making very accurate forays over Lancelot's body, but this wasn't the point, and so Lancelot wrestles himself out from the middle and pushes Arthur onto the bed properly, and Merlin after him. They are breathing hard, and staring up at him, and suddenly Arthur smiles like sin and whispers something in Merlin's ear. Merlin's face lights up, and he tugs Lancelot closer with his foot until he can grab at him and pull him down onto the mattress.
'What should I do?' he asks, mock-plaintively.
'Yes, do give us some pointers,' Arthur purrs. 'After all, you seem to have gone to an awful lot of trouble to set this up. I'd hate to ruin your choreography.'
Lancelot swallows. 'I ... hadn't really got this far,' he says, which is partially true. He'd supposed he'd be leaving by this point, and he hadn't planned any further ahead. Which is not to say that his imagination hasn't run away with him on the subject once or twice.
'Improvise,' says Arthur imperiously. 'You were giving perfectly good instructions earlier.'
'No, I couldn't-'
'I'm not touching him until you tell me how,' Merlin says, folding his arms determinedly.
Lancelot's brain abruptly shuts down, leaving his libido in charge. 'Kiss him,' he croaks, and Merlin does so, just once, a peck on the lips, and oh hell, if Lancelot has to verbally tell him what to do he'll explode, so he crawls up the bed and starts arranging things and removing the rest of the inconvenient clothing that's littering the place. Arthur does nothing but smirk at him, so in revenge Lancelot pushes him back into the pillows and ends up putting Merlin's leg between Arthur's thighs, Merlin's hands on Arthur's wrists, trapped beside his head, and oh, Merlin is loving this, and the smirk is gone from Arthur's face, replaced with something raw.
'Kiss him,' Lancelot says again, and when Merlin would try for the one-peck approach again, Lancelot puts a gentle hand on the back of his neck and says 'Properly,' in a voice he didn't know he had, and Merlin shivers and goes to work.
And then it's like what Lancelot imagines being a sculptor must be like, except with living beings - he considers the picture they make, the picture they could make, and Arthur's hands should be here, loosely bracketing Merlin's hips, his fingers splayed, exploring. There should be a greater dip to Merlin's spine, he should be pushing, melting into Arthur, so Lancelot strokes his palm along Merlin's back and pushes, just so, until Merlin grinds down and both of them groan.
They start improvising on their own, which Lancelot is more than happy with, but he doesn't want it to end like this, just frantic rubbing - it spoils the picture, it makes no picture at all, no art to it, so he reaches to his bedside table and takes a little bottle he'd made sure would be in plain sight for these two - he hadn't imagined he'd be here with them at this point in time - and uncorks it.
It smells rich and fruity - it is very good oil, traded for from the far-off isles of Greece - and Lancelot breathes in that subtle aroma as he tries to work out who and how. It is a tricky question. Undoubtedly Arthur would be something to behold taking Merlin, driving him into the mattress, or on all fours, but then again, to see Arthur surrender that to Merlin, to see Merlin concentrate like that, see him in control, would be the greater artistry, and Lancelot thinks he has made his decision wisely. He sets the bottle down, and urges Merlin back up onto all fours, then back on his haunches.
'Swap,' says Lancelot hoarsely, and Merlin smiles, and Arthur positively grins, wolfish. Merlin's dark hair and pale skin are beautiful against Lancelot's linen, and Arthur looks expectantly at Lancelot.
'Your mouth,' Lancelot whispers, seeing how it will look in his mind - Merlin's hands on the black wooden bedstead, fingers writhing, Arthur between his legs, golden head moving gently. 'Slowly,' he adds, meaningfully, and Arthur's eyes go hot and he moves to comply. Merlin's hands go to Arthur's scalp, but Lancelot moves them away, up, twining his fingers over the wood of the headboard and patting them, telling them to stay there.
Now Lancelot gets close, to Arthur this time, who is occupied, drawing hiccoughing cries and incoherencies from Merlin, and says 'Do you trust me still?'
Arthur pulls off, says, 'Of course,' in a strangled voice before going back to work, and Lancelot takes this as enough and takes the bottle up once more. He warms it in one hand, stroking Arthur's sides, his arse with the other, trailing fingers along places in suggestive pantomime, trying to let Arthur know what will happen. When he thinks the oil is warm enough, he pours a little down where it will be needed, not caring that it drips on the linen. Arthur moans around Merlin when Lancelot's fingers trace the viscous path the oil made, but he doesn't try to run away.
'You said you trusted me,' Lancelot reminds him, pushing a finger gently in.
Two more fingers, a lot of moaning and Merlin pulling himself free and leaning against the headboard panting, and Lancelot is forced to accept that when Arthur said he trusted him, he meant it. He pulls his hand free, trying to ignore Arthur's groan as he does so, and moves to Merlin with the bottle of oil.
'Do you want me to?' Lancelot asks, gesturing with the bottle. 'Or would you rather-'
Merlin licks his lips and says 'You, please,' and Lancelot cannot stop the little shudder of heat that rolls through him at that. He slicks his hand and moves in. When he has Merlin pushing him away, he turns back to Arthur, and pushes him once more into the pillows.
Merlin's eyes are fixed on Arthur's. 'Can I?' he asks, and Arthur rolls his eyes.
'Come here,' he says impatiently, and this, this, is what Lancelot has wanted to see all along - Merlin so tense, careful, pushing forward as gently as he knows how, and Arthur beneath him, trying to yank him closer and mouthing profanities and insults while he does so. This part they can work out on their own, this part they surely do not need his directions for, so he settles back to watch, to touch himself and marvel at the picture they make.
But he cannot, now, just let it go like that. Arthur's leg would be displayed to better effect if it were over Merlin's shoulder, Merlin should be stretched forward, one hand on Arthur's leg, yes, but the other over Arthur's shoulder, showing off the long lines of him, so Lancelot moves to make these changes, and they are pliant beneath his hands even as they pant and swear at each other, moaning and moving together.
'Can I, can I-' Merlin is groaning, and Lancelot's startled to see he's the one being asked. Arthur's eyes are closed, his brow creased, his bottom lip worried between his teeth and God, they are both so close, both just hanging on and they're asking him.
'Yes,' he whispers, stroking hair out of Merlin's face, pressing a gentle kiss to Arthur's open mouth, and they both seem to tighten up, to let go, in the same moment, Arthur's tensing leading Merlin's release and then it's all a mess. Merlin pulls out and crawls up Arthur's body, and they sag together, exhausted for a moment, and the glimmer of light from the now-burnt-down candles over on the table lines them in sweat and brassy shine, and that is perhaps the best picture of them all.
Merlin cracks an eyelid. 'C'mere,' he says lazily, but it is Arthur, eyes still not open, who grabs Lancelot's arm and yanks him into their embrace. Lancelot tries to roll over, to hide things, because he doesn't want to intrude on this, this thing that was meant to be just for them, but Merlin's hand finds him and oh God, it's damp and hot and Lancelot cannot help but buck into it.
Someone's teeth find the back of his neck, someone's hand caresses his chest, and behind him, Arthur rumbles. 'You idiot, you didn't think we'd leave you like this?'
Lancelot wants to say something, a lot of things, really, about how they shouldn't and he'll just go off and take care of this himself, that this wasn't the point, but they don't let him.
'Relax,' Merlin says. 'That's an order.'