The chase was on, and Merlin would have sighed if he’d had breath to do so. His boots were caked with snow to his ankles, the cold and wet long-since freezing through to his skin. He could barely even feel his feet at this point, obviously, as he was stumbling along in a clumsy loping run after Arthur, not even trying to keep up with him now, really.
Let one of the knights load his crossbow for once.
Except, he realized as he grabbed a tree trunk for support and pressed his forehead against the bark, panting, the bolts were in the quiver strapped to his back. He pounded his fist on the tree, sucked in a breath and took off again. He could see the blaze of red capes darting in and out of the trees ahead as he ran to catch up. The crunch of deadfall under his boots earned him a stern look from Leon just as Arthur raised his hand in the air, signaling for them to halt.
“What are we listening for?” he whispered to Lancelot as he crept close.
“The sound of silence, Merlin!” Arthur hissed, whirling and stalking up to him. He snatched a bolt from the quiver roughly, jerking Merlin’s body to the side. “I believe you may have heard it once or twice – before your mother taught you to speak and damned us all to your incessant chatter.”
The knights chuckled softly and Merlin lifted his chin in the air, smiling. “Lose it, did you?”
“I did not lose the Serket. It just so happens that we’ve finally got it cornered, but will you look at that? The bolts are back here with you.”
“I’m happy to hand them over if you’d rather carry them,” he said, raising his eyebrows in mock challenge. Arthur liked to dress him down in front of the knights, but Merlin had only ever seen him truly angry a handful of times. Annoyed, yes, and often, but not usually truly angry.
Arthur rolled his eyes and loaded the crossbow as he walked to the front of the group, turning back to glare at him. “Keep up, Merlin. I mean it. If I don’t see your pitiful legs running every bit as fast as mine, you’ll be lugging more than a quiver back to camp.”
“It’s not easy keeping up with your pitiful legs,” he murmured through a grin, but at Arthur’s glare, Merlin moved quickly to his side. He decided not to mention the fact that he’d been playing pack mule for Arthur for three days, typically hauling around a small arsenal. The cross bow and bolts weren’t light, and Leon had only taken the spear from him a league or so ago.
How the knights managed to run at all in chainmail, he’d never understand. Arthur had to be carrying four stone, though, what with his shoulder-plate and mail combined. Since Cenred’s kingdom had fallen, the land was crawling with bandits and Merlin would have insisted on Arthur wearing it if Uther hadn’t beaten him to the suggestion.
Arthur crouched low and began softly stepping toward a narrow passage between a large boulder and a thick stand of trees. There were brambles everywhere, catching on Merlin’s trouser cuffs and hands. He followed closely, reaching out to pluck Arthur's cape free from the briars just as Arthur suddenly cried, “He’s on the move!” and took off at a dead run, the bow tucked neatly in to his side, completely oblivious to his ripping cloak.
Swearing under his breath, Merlin dashed after him. Gwaine was a brown and silver blur beside him, throwing knives glinting in each hand as he ran full out. They darted through the passage, Arthur leading the way as they sprinted after the scorpion-like creature.
Raising his left arm to steady his shot, Arthur let loose a bolt as he ran, not something Merlin had ever seen him risk. He must have been as exhausted of this chase as the rest of them. They had been tracking the Serket for three days and over more leagues than Merlin cared to recall. It didn’t surprise him that Arthur was resorting to manoeuvres he wouldn’t normally dare.
The bolt struck true, lodging in the central segment of the Serket’s glossy black body, but the creature didn’t even pause. It screeched and sped through the trees, disappearing as if by magic a handful of yards ahead of them.
Merlin heard the shriek of the creature, gasping as he realized what had happened.
He shouted a warning, stretching to catch Arthur’s shoulder just as Arthur saw the ledge and drew up short, skidding on the leaves beneath their feet. Arthur fell as they tried to stop their slide, landing on his hip, desperately clutching at roots and fallen tree limbs. Merlin stumbled forward, an arm’s length behind, reaching only for Arthur.
He managed to grab the strap of Arthur’s shoulder-plate as he and Arthur slid toward the edge of the cliff, his hand locked tight, fingers digging in and holding on. Then, seeing Arthur’s feet fly over the edge, Merlin dug his heels in and leaned back. He yanked Arthur away from the precipice, eyes flaring as he shoved with magical might, propelling him backwards to safety.
Arthur rolled, slamming into Lancelot and Gwaine who each grabbed onto the other, halting just shy of the cliff’s edge. The three of them looked at him in horror, eyes wide. For an instant he thought they knew, thought they’d seen him casting his spell, but then he realized why they were staring, mouths agape.
Merlin’s breath whooshed out of his chest with the abrupt shock of feeling nothing, absolutely nothing, beneath his feet.
He didn’t make a sound as he fell, his only thought gratitude for Arthur’s safety and then, Arthur’s retreating face, a mask of desperation as he scrambled forward on his knees and peered over the edge, reaching after him.
The last thing he heard was Arthur calling his name and then the icy blackness tore past him, breaking open to swallow him whole.
His last gasping breath was pure, frozen water.
Gwaine was the first to move, but Arthur was just behind him, sliding and jumping his way down the rocky side of the cliff, planting his footsteps just behind the other man’s as he went, sure of Gwaine’s judgment on unsteady ground.
Below him on the frozen inlet of lake, the body of the Serket lay limp and unmoving. He shouldered past another jagged rock, scraping his armour and gritting his teeth as his mind instantly went to telling Merlin to repair it later.
Merlin, who was nowhere, who was under the thin sheet of ice, maybe as broken and dead as the giant scorpion.
Gwaine turned and held up his hand as they reached the bottom, panting hard. “Arthur, no. The ice is too thin for the weight of your armour. Let me.”
Before Arthur could protest, Gwaine was kneeling on the bank, stripping his chainmail off overhead, unbuckling his scabbard and tossing it back at Arthur’s feet. With an apprehensive look back at Arthur, he scooted onto the ice on his knees.
Arthur clenched his fists, calling for a rope that was thrown onto the ice beside Gwaine almost before he’d finished the order. Gwaine grabbed it and held it in his teeth as he slid, too slowly for Arthur’s sanity, toward the gaping hole.
As he reached the jagged edge, Gwaine called out, “I see him! He’s just here! The spear – slide the spear within reach!”
Arthur snatched it from Leon’s hands and slid it in a straight path along the ice to Gwaine’s side, whispering prayers to God Almighty, to the Gods of the Old Religion, to Merlin himself. Be alive. Be alive.
The spear lain across the hole, Gwaine heaved forward and dove his upper body into the water.
Come on, Arthur willed, fists clenching.
Gwaine came up gasping, sputtering, blowing out hard and sucking air in, his face purple-red with the shock of cold and Merlin’s body beside his, grey as stone.
“Get him out, quick! The rope – tie on the rope,” Lancelot screamed, bracing his feet on the shore and wrapping the rope around his arm, grabbing onto it as if he was ready to pull the moon from the sky if only Gwaine could get the damned thing tied to it.
Arms hooked under Merlin’s, Gwaine hauled him slowly up, pausing to adjust his grip. Arthur clenched his teeth shut on the scream of frustration he wanted to unleash. He’d never felt so impotent, not even when his father had been sick and Camelot under siege.
It was Merlin - Merlin who’d just saved his life for Gods’ sake!
Hefting the unconscious body forward, Gwaine moved Merlin’s arms over the spear, jerked slack in the rope and stretched down into the icy water again, looping it around Merlin’s chest and tying it off as best he could with obviously numb hands.
“All right, heave on three! One, two...” Arthur called, stepping in front of Lancelot, taking up part of the rope and signaling to Gwaine to move to the side as he counted. Gwaine obeyed, but stayed as close as he dared on the thin sheet of ice. “Three!”
The crack and split of the ice sent a hard jolt through him, as alarming as a rally cry on the battlefield. Arthur grunted in frustration and hauled on the rope, Merlin’s body dragging through the ice instead of sliding out on top of it.
“You always have to do things the hard way,” he growled, digging his heels in and pulling as hard as he could. “Gwaine, clear some of the ice,” he called.
Gwaine knelt up and punched the spear through the thin crust of ice to clear a path, careful not to get too close to the ragged edges. When the ice became too thick to break, Gwaine growled and hauled Merlin from the water to slide across the frozen lake.
They all hauled on the rope until Merlin was within reach.
Dropping the rope and trusting his knights to take it up as he fell to his knees, Arthur curved his arms under Merlin’s and clasped tightly around his chest, pulling with a strength that usually came to him only in the heat of battle.
He hauled Merlin from the ice, their momentum carrying him straight back onto Arthur’s chest. The dead weight bowed his back as he held tightly to Merlin and no, no. Not dead weight. He couldn’t be.
He looked down to see water pouring from Merlin’s blue lips and shook his head. No. Please, no. “Take him,” he gasped, worried that his strength would fail him.
Hands came from all directions, the knights on either side of them and even Gwaine, who was still breathless from his exertions. Together they lifted Merlin from Arthur's arms and up over his head, lake water dripping down over him as they moved away from the shore and laid Merlin on the frozen ground.
Arthur stood, panting, turning to stare at Merlin's ashen face, waiting to hear one of the knights say it. He couldn’t look at Merlin’s chest himself.
“He breathes, My Lord,” Lancelot whispered, clearing his throat, his voice gaining strength. “He breathes.”
But all of them, the whole lot of them, were panting clouds, and Merlin’s breath was as invisible as on a summer’s day. Pulling off a glove, Arthur knelt to feel it for himself, his palm cupped as if to catch it. The ghost of an exhalation sent a thrill of urgency racing along his limbs.
“Leon, Elyan, Percival - leave your cloaks and run back to camp as quickly as you can. One of you stay behind and keep watch. The others, bring our horses, every blanket, a tent and the kettle to the last clearing we saw. We’ll meet you there.” Arthur laid a hand on Gwaine’s shoulder. “You and Lancelot make a litter; use cloaks and branches, your belts if you have to – hurry.”
“Sire, I can carry him,” Percival offered, crouching to slide his hands under Merlin and lift him.
“No!” Arthur stopped him with a hand on his arm. “He cannot be jostled – the water has made him susceptible to any shock, however small, and we won’t know the extent of his injuries from the fall until he wakes. The way up the cliff is too rocky to risk it. We’ll be able to watch our footing if he’s on a litter. Now, go.”
The knights pulled off their cloaks and passed them to Lancelot, each racing down to touch Merlin before disappearing up the cliff side, leaving Arthur alone in the frozen silence with Merlin.
He pulled off his other gauntlet, hand reaching inside Merlin's tunic, his palm spread against Merlin’s chest. The heartbeat there skittered under his fingers, a fluttering staccato instead of a steady thump.
Next, he threaded his fingers through Merlin’s hair, searching for lumps or blood, but found none. Lucky idiot. He felt like shaking Merlin awake as if he’d fallen asleep at a task, but instead he wiped the dripping, ice-crusted hair across Merlin’s ashen forehead and leaned down, whispering in his ear. “You will not die on me, Merlin, do you hear me? There will be no dying today.”
Reluctantly lifting his hand away, he began to pull at the straps and buckles of his own armour, making a mess of the job but getting the bulky shoulder plate off.
He unfastened the vambraces on his forearms, recalling the vivid memory of helping Merlin on with his in Ealdor. He looked down at his servant- his friend, thinking of his bravery that day long ago. Merlin's lack of fear in Ealdor mirrored the calm he’d shown as he’d gone over the cliff. He hadn’t cowered in Ealdor or screamed as he’d fallen today. All those times Arthur had teased him - he’d never given Merlin enough credit, had he?
Lancelot and Gwaine returned, panting down the hillside, a makeshift stretcher carried between them.
Arthur shoved his hauberk off over his head, shrugging quickly out of his chainmail and letting it fall to the ground as they knelt and gingerly lifted Merlin onto the litter. He made no sound as he was moved. As Lancelot tucked Merlin’s arm in at his side, Arthur noticed the odd shape of the dislocated joint of Merlin’s shoulder. If he were conscious at all, Merlin would be screaming the forest down around them.
“Careful of his shoulder,” Arthur warned, stepping forward to spread his cloak over Merlin and take up one of the rear handles of the litter. “High as you can, men, so we don’t injure him on the rocks. Quickly - he needs warmth and we’ll not be able to give it to him down here.”
Gwaine and Lancelot exchanged more than one fearful look with him and each other as they carefully but quickly carried Merlin’s still form up the cliff. Their boots slid on the loose stones, Lancelot nearly going to a knee, the litter tilting wildly as he fought to catch and steady himself. Balancing the litter’s branch on his shoulder, Arthur lent him a hand up and they continued, reaching the top breathless.
“A fast walk, and the straightest, flattest path you can find to that last clearing,” he ordered, though he doubted the wisdom of waiting any longer to warm Merlin. It would mean they were closer to their own camp though, closer to the knights and the supplies, and better able to defend themselves should more Serkets decide to attack.
There was no telling if he was making another fatal mistake and his heart pounded in his ears as they strode quickly through the woods, worry eating at him with every step.
It was only a few hundred metres away and they didn’t stop, not once. Arthur quickly clapped a hand on each of their shoulders when the three of them gently set Merlin down. “Good work, now let’s get him warmed up.”
“I’d feel better if he was shivering, at least.” Gwaine looked up at him then, and Arthur saw the fear behind his eyes. “That can’t be a good sign.”
“No,” Arthur replied, fear a goad to his action. “We’ll set his shoulder first, though. Better to do it while he’s unaware of the pain.” Arthur knelt down to wrap an arm under Merlin’s back and knees. He pulled Merlin to his chest and stood, Gwaine’s hand on his back to steady him. He quickly carried Merlin to the cloak spread on the ground and knelt. As he lowered Merlin, he paused to let Gwaine quickly strip off Merlin’s sodden, baggy jacket. It lay stiffly on the ground, frozen.
Half-naked, sweat chilling in the winter air, Arthur crouched over Merlin, taking a deep, steadying breath. He closed his eyes and walked himself through the steps. He’d done this in the field and once on a hunt, with both men clenching their jaws on screams.
He’d give up his right to the throne for a blood-curdling cry from Merlin right now. He opened his eyes and breathed out heavily as he realized how true that was – he really would give anything to hear Merlin’s voice, even in pain.
Maybe putting the joint back in place would bring Merlin round. He laid Merlin’s arm out flat at his side, then bent the elbow in so his arm lay across his belly. Slowly, firmly, he lifted the hand and guided it out to the side, the muscles stiff and unyielding. He lowered it back to rest over Merlin’s stomach, beginning again. It took several tries, but finally he heard the telltale pop of bone snapping back into place. Laying Merlin’s hand back down, he felt for a pulse at his wrist and sighed in relief. At least that much was fixed.
Pulling off his padded tunic, he looked up at Gwaine and nodded when he saw the other man beginning to remove his vest, realizing Gwaine knew what he meant to do, and perhaps was in need of it, too, soaked as he was after pulling Merlin from the water.
“Clear the snow from those leaves and lay out my cloak. Untie the others from the stretcher. We’ll need them all until Leon and Elyan arrive,” Arthur said to Lancelot as he reached for his belt and unbuckled his scabbard, tossing it to the ground. He stood and pulled off his boots, shivering as his feet touched the snow.
“Surely you’ll be in as much danger of freezing as he is, Sire,” Lancelot said, looking from him to Merlin and back again as he spoke. “Let me take your place.”
“No,” he said curtly, not bothering to justify the refusal. He gave Lancelot a hard look to stave off further argument.
Lancelot pulled Arthur’s cloak off Merlin and draped it out on the ground. It spread wide, nearly wide enough for all of them.
Arthur began to strip off his under-tunic, but Gwaine's dagger flashed under his nose and he instinctively snatched it away, his eyes narrowing at the knight. “What-”
“It’ll go easier on him if we cut his clothes off,” he answered, his brow furrowed at Merlin. “We’ll never get him warm while he's soaking wet.”
Arthur nodded and began at Merlin’s collar, slicing the loose tunic down each arm, then down the middle from the neck, parting the two halves and letting them fall to the sides. Merlin’s chest was as white as the nearby snow, his ribs clearly visible as they expanded and contracted with each too-slow breath. He ran a hand over the already-swollen flesh of Merlin’s injured shoulder, just to reassure himself the joint was sound.
Gwaine untied Merlin’s neckerchief and pulled the scraps of tunic from beneath him as Arthur continued cutting.
The knife sawed easily through Merlin’s belt, just a length of leather strap with no buckle at all, knotted at his waist. His trousers were the thinnest wool, scratchy against Arthur’s fingertips, even soaked through. Merlin’s smalls were nothing more than a thin layer of material, not even long enough to reach his knees, when all the knights were issued tight-fitting long small clothes that went clear into their boots.
Merlin wore no cloak. Arthur’d noticed that before, though he knew Merlin owned one.
How he’d ever stayed warm to begin with was a mystery. He certainly wouldn't risk using magic for warmth every single time they'd ventured out. Arthur guessed he simply hadn’t ever been warm on their wintertime outings, the idiot, and had just borne the misery without comment. He would have expected Merlin to complain, though in truth, he couldn’t remember the last time Merlin requested anything for himself.
Gwaine quickly jerked Merlin’s boots and socks away, then took a cloak from Lancelot, kneeling and brushing it along Merlin’s damp skin. Arthur carefully turned Merlin this way and that, lifting his arms and legs so Gwaine could dry as much of him as possible.
The cloak was a sodden mass as Gwaine tossed it aside and reached for his own jacket, pulling a thin wool scarf from the pocket. “Lift his shoulders for me,” he said, and Arthur wedged his knees under Merlin’s back, propping him up.
Gwaine spread the length of cloth and wrapped it over Merlin’s head, crossing the ends and doubling the layer before tying them off. In his haste, Arthur had forgotten all about Merlin’s wet, ice-tipped hair, but for once, Gwaine seemed to have the clearer head of the two of them.
Gwaine shook the water from his hair and pulled his tunic off, then reached down and yanked off his boots, jumping from foot to foot. “Lancelot, be ready to cover us, unless you’d rather have three frozen men on your hands instead of one,” he warned.
Arthur followed Gwaine's lead, then, stripping down to his small clothes. He moved quickly in the frigid air, he and Gwaine laying down on either side of Merlin, who breathed shallowly between them but otherwise was silent as the grave when they rolled him onto his side.
Arthur pressed up against Merlin’s front, his arm wrapped around Merlin’s waist, pulling him close. He raised up to look over Merlin’s shoulder and make sure Gwaine moved in close, too. He did, legs pressed flush along the backs of Merlin’s, arm laying carefully over Merlin’s injured one, hand spread wide on Merlin's chest.
Arthur nodded to Lancelot, who held the pile of four cloaks in the air, ready to lay it over them. “Cover us and build a fire. Light more than one, if you can find enough dry wood.”
Arthur clenched his jaw to keep his teeth from chattering as Lancelot whipped the cloaks open and down onto the three of them.
“I’ll manage it, Sire,” he said as he moved to begin gathering kindling.
The forest fell silent around them but for the crunch of Lancelot’s boots on dead leaves and twigs, then the clicking of a flint and finally the crackle of fire as it began burning.
When Arthur saw Gwaine’s eyes close and heard him sigh, he pulled the shroud of cloaks up over their faces. Under the smooth, soft wool, everything was instantly warmer, almost steamy. The crimson cloth allowed little light to filter through, casting a soft, rosy hue over them, though Merlin’s skin still looked gray.
Arthur leaned in to press his cheek to his friend’s, his own skin hot against the ice of Merlin’s. “You killed the Serket, Merlin,” he whispered. “I would never have thought of running it off a cliff.”
“It was tactical genius,” Gwaine grinned against the back of Merlin’s ear, his breath so close it touched Arthur’s lips as he spoke. “Genius, Merlin.”
“Well, apart from the fact that you’re now...” Arthur sighed, swallowing hard against the emotion that clogged his throat.
Gwaine obviously heard it, looking up at him with concern. He pulled his hand from between Merlin and Arthur’s chests and wrapped it around Arthur’s back, urging him closer still, winking. “You’d best open those pretty eyes soon, Merlin. Arthur’s freezing and you’re having a lie-in?” He clucked his tongue and rested his cheek against Merlin’s neck, nuzzling.
The cloaks were heavy and Lancelot had tucked them in close, but every slight breeze sent a chill up their spines and set Arthur and Gwaine to shivering and shifting. They didn’t seem to be able to stop moving, and it was difficult to force their warm flesh against the ice of Merlin’s, which meant they had to scoot back in closer every few minutes. Gwaine’s hand didn’t leave his back, and Arthur thought it must be as much for the other man as for his own comfort.
There was a constant look of concern in Gwaine’s eyes and Arthur knew it was mirrored in his own. He could barely breathe he was so overcome with fear, with the dizzy rush of his blood now that his initial plan of action was complete. He needed that, something to do, to keep himself from slipping into brooding thoughts. Lying there doing nothing but pressing his skin to Merlin’s made him feel weak and restless.
They all knew well the dangers of cold; it was every fighting man’s second-worst enemy, just after hunger. An entire army could easily be wiped out during winter by days of soaking rain followed by a hard snowfall. The men would be in agony at first, then feel no pain at all as they drifted off to sleep or went mad as their blood froze. Men were even known to hide from search parties in extreme temperatures, a self-preservation instinct gone awry, he supposed.
Lancelot set another fire burning at Gwaine’s back, then another at their heads, the last so large and the three together so hot they chased away the frigid breezes and blew warmth in waves over them instead. Arthur slowly stopped shivering and, soon enough, Gwaine did as well.
But Merlin began shivering as they finally stopped, his body shaking all three of them as they huddled close together, Merlin's legs fairly vibrating between theirs. Arthur began chafing his hand on Merlin’s side, down over his hip, his thigh and back up, rubbing their feet together as best he could.
“Arthur,” Gwaine whispered, looking down their bodies. “Here.”
He lifted the cloaks up so he could follow Gwaine’s gaze. Gwaine’s hand curled under Merlin’s thigh, lifting it.
Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath, nodding, then laid his head back down, watching Merlin’s face for any reaction as he slid his warm thigh between Merlin’s achingly cold ones.
Merlin's eyes remained closed.
Still, he felt as though it might be a liberty too far, even for the sake of warmth, for he suspected he knew the depth and direction of Merlin’s feelings for him.
“There’s a major blood supply there. Trust me, he’ll thank you for it tomorrow,” Gwaine said quietly. Arthur didn’t look up, but there was no smile or jest in Gwaine’s voice.
A man’s core was neck to groin – every soldier had that drilled into them. Protect the trunk; it was the strike zone: the majority of a man's kill points, the most vulnerable of vital organs, were located within it. And Merlin’s core, neck to groin, was as icy as death.
“Gods allow he has breath to thank me with tomorrow,” he whispered, shaking his head as his own words stabbed into his chest. He lowered his cheek to Merlin’s again, whispering, “Gods allow he has breath to rant and rave, if he wants.”
“Gods allow,” echoed both of his knights.
It unnerved him, suspecting that Merlin admired him. It wasn’t that Merlin was a man, but he himself had never been as attached to anyone before as he was to Merlin now, and he wouldn’t risk losing their friendship for some brief affair that had no chance of going further than the bedroom.
Not that he hadn’t ever considered Merlin in that light. He had, of course, many times, but that was irrelevant. They spent so much time together, they’d naturally formed a strong attachment, one that might last a lifetime if they were careful not to take advantage of it.
As it was, he felt as though he was still constantly acclimating himself to their relationship. He wasn’t sure at times if he was doing things properly, if he was giving as much or as freely as Merlin seemed to without a second thought.
Merlin was always there, always present and paying attention. When Arthur found himself in a situation beyond his experience, Merlin would offer an opinion – he always had an opinion - or at the least, his support. They’d been through the worst moments of Arthur’s life side-by-side, though it often surprised him how closely Merlin stuck by him.
Only now, it all made more sense – the secrets, the protectiveness, the straight-faced comments about saving Arthur’s life. He’d suspected Merlin of performing magic before, had felt the tingling spark of it in the air around them on more than one occasion. There was just no way one person could experience as many coincidences as Merlin claimed. Once, in the midst of an attack, he’d thought he’d heard Merlin whispering a spell. At the time, he'd convinced himself it'd been a prayer, but now he knew he'd been right. He’d seen Merlin’s blue eyes glowing golden as he’d cast the spell that had pushed Arthur back from the ledge. He’d felt the magic skitter along his skin like pure energy. Feeling it flow over him, seeing Merlin's flaring eyes, it'd taken his breath away.
If Lancelot and Gwaine had seen or felt it, they weren’t speaking of it. He trusted them to maintain their silence. He had to; it wasn’t as though he could come out and ask them if they’d seen Merlin’s eyes glowing.
Magic. It meant a death sentence, one his father handed out on a regular basis without discrimination or hesitation.
Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his chest swelling with gratitude and awe. How brave Merlin was, how stupidly brave to put himself at such risk over and over again, just to protect Arthur.
He’d thought Merlin a bit of a coward, actually, always seeming to run and hide when trouble struck. But he couldn’t very well cast spells in the middle of a skirmish, could he? He would have had to seek some sort of cover first, every time.
But, Arthur realized with a start, when it came to acting on instinct as Merlin had today, he hadn’t hidden, he’d acted. In that split second at the top of the cliff, Merlin hadn’t considered the consequences of using magic. He hadn’t thought of his own death, whether by falling from the ledge or burning in a pyre back in Camelot. He’d thought only of Arthur, of saving him, and had done so without hesitation.
One way or another, Merlin had given his life to save Arthur’s without a second thought.
No. Not yet, he hadn’t.
Arthur tilted his body and edged his thigh further between Merlin’s, his pelvis angling so their hipbones brushed together, determined to give Merlin as much warmth as possible. He let his weight press Merlin back against Gwaine, his hand rubbing again and again over Merlin's skin.
The quiet surrounded them like a curtain, the only sounds those of Lancelot as he placed stones around each fire, coming to sit at Merlin’s feet.
In the heavy silence, Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin’s, concentrating to hear each breath, to feel each one puff out past the trembling of Merlin’s lips.
Slowly, not quite sure what he was doing, Arthur pressed his mouth to Merlin’s, parting his lips with a swipe of his tongue against their icy softness, letting his breath flow into Merlin's cold body.
Merlin’s shivering broke for a moment as he greedily drew in Arthur’s breath, gasping as if he couldn’t get enough, then as Arthur leaned away, he began shaking again. It was the first reaction Merlin had had to anything they’d done.
He watched Merlin's face, but Merlin didn't rouse. Curious, Arthur took a deep breath, fingers gently holding Merlin’s chin. His jaw quivered with the force of the shivering, even under Arthur’s firm hold.
Lips sealed to Merlin’s, Arthur breathed out. Again Merlin drew it deeply in, shuddering but seeming to puff up with it and hold it for a moment before letting it slip back out between chattering teeth.
Gwaine lifted his head to look at Arthur, who glanced at him, daring him to comment.
Arthur leaned back in to give Merlin another breath as Gwaine watched.
“I’d not thought of that, but it might just help,” he whispered, giving Arthur’s back a solid pat. “Well done, Arthur.”
“Well done would have been to have killed the Serket two days ago,” he murmured, frowning as a small noise escaped from Merlin’s lips.
“Don’t waste your breath with should-haves,” Gwaine told him. “He needs it more, apparently.”
Arthur knew this was his fault, and so did his knights, though they would never come out and say so as Merlin likely would have done. Would do, when he woke.
Never chase anything into a blind alley. He’d taught his knights that every season when they reviewed tracking a foe, be it man or beast. Never try to fight what you can’t see. They were basic rules of engaging in combat and Arthur had done exactly what he cautioned his knights against – he’d gotten caught up in the hunt, in the chase, and just let the rules fall by the wayside.
He couldn’t let his stupidity cost Merlin his life.
He pressed his mouth to Merlin's to give him another warm breath, but Merlin took it without reaction at all this time. His shivering seemed to be less violent, though.
“His legs are calming,” Lancelot said from outside their cocoon of wool. “And I hear horses.”
Arthur listened as Lancelot rose and drew his sword, then sheathed it again a moment later. “It’s Elyan and Leon,” he said quietly.
The hoof-beats clomped into the clearing and Arthur looked out from beneath the blanket to see Leon and Elyan riding up, leading his and Merlin’s horses.
“How is he?” Elyan asked as he dismounted, moving with Leon to tie the horses to trees at the edge of the clearing.
“He’s not woken yet,” Lancelot answered. “But we’re warming him.”
“See if you can’t get a tent up around us. If we can stay put, we can save the heat we’ve managed to collect under here,” Arthur said, pulling the covers back up over their heads and giving Merlin another breath. He waited a few moments, then gave him another.
He’d heard of a man once saved by a woman who breathed for him, blowing breath after breath into the drowned man’s mouth until he choked up lake water, finally breathing on his own, but what he was doing was altogether different. Merlin just needed his warmth, as much as he could give.
A soft moan hummed against his lips and he stilled, felt Gwaine stop his fidgeting behind Merlin as well. He leaned back and saw the briefest glimpse of blue as Merlin’s eyelids blinked open.
“He’s coming ‘round,” he announced, and heard a whoop from outside their huddle, Gwaine’s heavy sigh of relief and small smile meeting his own. “Merlin," Arthur whispered, "Can you look at me again?”
Merlin groaned and shook his head the smallest bit, his hand going up to clutch weakly at his injured shoulder, but he didn’t answer.
“I know it hurts, shh,” Gwaine soothed, face burrowing into Merlin’s neck.
Joy filled Arthur's chest –there was no other way to describe what he was feeling. Despite the obvious exhaustion, at least Merlin was conscious. He tightened his arm around Merlin’s back and grinned.
“Help,” Merlin murmured, shaking his head fitfully, crying out softly as he tucked his arm down between his chest and Arthur’s, his hand resting just where their thighs pressed together.
Arthur shifted uncomfortably, reaching for Merlin's wrist and stilling him. Merlin spread his hand and moaned, the ice of his palm chilling the sensitive skin of Arthur's chest.
Arthur drew in a shaky breath and covered Merlin's hand with his own.
“We’re taking care of you, all right? Just try to rest,” Arthur whispered as reassuringly as he could manage.
“C-c-cold,” Merlin murmured softly, almost whining, and curled against him, his head ducking down, cheek raising goosebumps where it lay against Arthur’s neck.
“We’re warming you up,” he said, his voice low and carefully calm. “You’re going to be fine.”
“Mmm, you’re warm,” Merlin murmured and wriggled closer, sounding oddly content for all the shivering he was still doing. He burrowed in against Arthur and slowly, sensuously pressed his hips against Arthur's, rubbing into the heat of Arthur's lap.
Arthur cleared his throat, his face flushed with the foggy heat the wool held closely around them. Merlin’s movements made their proximity seem glaringly inappropriate, though Arthur knew it was still necessary.
“Relax,” Gwaine whispered, and at first Arthur thought he was talking to him, but Gwaine raised his lips to Merlin’s ear, his hand clutching firmly on Merlin’s hip to still it. “It’s only Arthur and Gwaine holding you. We're warming you up, so don’t go getting all excited.”
Arthur’s face burned at the words, for excited was exactly what Merlin seemed to be getting. As Arthur felt the telltale swell against his small clothes, he started to slip his leg from between Merlin’s, intending to stay nearly as close, but Gwaine quickly grabbed the back of his thigh, stilling him.
“He doesn’t know what he’s doing,” he whispered, hand squeezing, pulling him back into their tight knot. “It’s just a reflex - just the relief of warmth after such a shock.”
Arthur knew Gwaine’s touch was anything but sexual – Gwaine was often fairly free with his hands - but knowing wasn’t the same as feeling. Between that hand urging him forward and the arousal it urged him toward, he was trapped.
His heart raced and he fought to slow his breathing, to convince his body not to react in the close heat under their covers. Merlin was injured, but he looked so calm. His lips parted slightly with his soft breaths, eyes gently closed, skin even more pale than usual against his black hair, face as peaceful as Arthur remembered from the times he’d seen Merlin sleeping. It was difficult to convince himself that Merlin had no idea what was going on and the tangle of their bodies meant nothing but warmth.
“Don’t think about it,” Gwaine mumbled against Merlin’s neck, then raised his head and said louder, “Or just pretend he’s Leon. That’s what I’m doing!”
Arthur choked out a laugh, closing his eyes, slipping his thigh back between Merlin’s and placing his hand firmly beside Gwaine’s on Merlin’s hip. Movement was the key to his... discomfort, he decided. If he could keep Merlin still, he could keep control of his own body.
“Oi! I heard that, you ninny!” Leon shouted, then cursed as the other knights shushed him and they all laughed quietly.
“You’re so warm,” Merlin mumbled, laying his hand on Arthur’s waist and wriggling closer. “Feels good, doesn't it?”
Despite Arthur’s glare, Gwaine didn't stop grinning. “Yes,” the knight chuckled, “It feels wonderful, doesn’t it, Arthur?”
Arthur wasn’t sure if he was supposed to answer, but he didn’t. How could he? Gwaine was teasing, but Arthur wouldn’t have been if he’d agreed. It did feel good, amazing in fact, to be so close to Merlin.
He hadn’t lain so close to another person in years, since he’d taken the charlatan to his quarters after midwinter feast years ago. The man had visited him frequently after that, often staying late into the night. They’d fallen asleep on the rug by the fire once, the exhaustion of their exchange combining with an over-indulgence in wine. He could still remember the panic as they’d woken in a scramble at first light.
That hadn’t been like this, though. Merlin’s body was twined with his, their arms wrapped around each other, sharing warmth and breath. This was more... personal than anything he’d done with his few paramours, though it made little sense.
“It’s cold,” Merlin murmured, his eyes still closed. "Are we out of wood again, Gaius?” he asked with a sigh. “All right.” Merlin moved, trying to sit up, but Arthur gently coaxed him back down.
He turned around in Arthur’s arms, wincing as his wounded shoulder touched the ground, reaching for Gwaine. The other knight wrapped him up in his arms and Arthur scooted in along Merlin’s back.
“Just rest, Merlin,” Arthur whispered against his ear. “Lancelot’s tending the fire tonight.”
“Lancelot?” Merlin asked, obviously confused. “He’s in my bed, but I’m on the floor...” he trailed off.
“Typical,” Gwaine said, smirking, running his hand down Merlin’s arm. “Well, at least you have us.”
“I don’t think Arthur would like it, but it’s nice,” Merlin whispered guiltily. “Don’t tell him, all right?”
Gwaine pressed his smile to Merlin’s shoulder, looking at Arthur. “I won’t. I promise.”
Arthur couldn’t bring himself to smile, imagining Merlin in another man's arms, worrying about whether Arthur would approve. He’d never thought about it, mostly because Merlin had never mentioned a lover, he supposed. Now, though, it was all he could think of, and he definitely did not approve.
“He won’t find out. He never comes here,” Merlin whispered, face tucking down against Gwaine’s shoulder. “My shoulder hurts.”
“It's sore, I know. Just turn back over,” Gwaine said, guiding him with a hand on his hip.
They shifted and settled, Gwaine again helping Arthur slide his thigh between Merlin’s, which squeezed tightly.
“You feel so good,” Merlin murmured, arching his chest against Arthur’s, folding into his embrace as if slotting into a place created just for him. "Stay with me?" Merlin breathed, pressing his lips against Arthur's shoulder.
"Shh, I'll stay," Arthur whispered, closing his eyes so he didn't have to see Gwaine's taunting smile.
After a short while, Merlin relaxed and drifted off, breaths slowing and deepening. Arthur looked over the sleeping young man and whispered, “He’s so confused. Do you think he hit his head when he fell?”
Gwaine shrugged, a pained look on his face. “It’s possible. It's likely caused by the cold, though.”
Arthur laid his head back down, tightening his hold. Merlin couldn't have lost his mind. He was the humanity to Arthur’s logic, the compassion a ruler was taught to avoid. There were times, though he’d never admit it aloud, that he literally couldn’t make a decision without Merlin there to guide him. Where would they be if Merlin was mad?
They all three lay there, quiet in their cave of blankets and cloaks, soaking up the warmth from the fires and each other.
Despite the brightness of day and his concern, Arthur caught himself nodding off as the day wore on. He started awake at Merlin's every sound, every time Merlin so much as moved.
Each time, he sighed and willed sleep to come again, and it did.
Merlin’s agonized moan woke him some time later. As he opened his eyes, Merlin fought weakly to get free from their embrace. He pushed half-heartedly against Arthur and tried to raise himself up on his elbow between them.
They spoke softly to him, gentling him back down to the cloak. It seemed as soon as they’d gotten him calmed and settled, he reacted in the extreme opposite, reaching out to slide both hands slowly up Arthur’s bare chest.
“Want to feel...,” he mumbled against Arthur’s neck, mouth moving gently on his skin, sending tingles along Arthur's spine.
Arthur closed his eyes and thought of weapons drills, stoically ignoring the hands that trailed up and up, sliding to his shoulders, behind his neck, as if Merlin was going to lean in and kiss him.
He started at Merlin’s pained shout so close to his ear.
“Ow, oh my Gods!” Merlin cried, eyes wide, hand clutching his wounded shoulder in obvious agony. He opened his eyes and, seeing Arthur so close to him, jerked his head backwards, cracking Gwaine hard in the face. His hand flew to the back of his head and he groaned. His wild, panicked movements scattered their covers, cold air rushing in and making them all gasp.
“Uh, ow,” Gwaine groaned, face scrunching in pain, hand cupping his bleeding nose.
Arthur caught Merlin’s hands and pressed them down to his stomach, trying to calm him. “Shh, Merlin, keep still. Hold your arm still - and down - or your shoulder is going to hurt like hell.”
“All... all right,” Merlin gasped, clutching at Arthur’s hand, slowly looking over his shoulder at Gwaine’s bloodied nose. “Gwaine! Oh, shite! What- I didn’t-”
As Gwaine dismissed it as an accident, rolling away and tucking the cloak up tight behind Merlin, Merlin ducked his head, his shivering harder now.
Heart nearly bursting as he heard Merlin’s words, Arthur smiled softly and lifted Merlin’s chin to look into his eyes. “It’s all right. Just calm down, breathe. Try to focus. You're injured.”
Arthur tightened his hold on Merlin’s hands, knowing another shock was coming as Merlin glanced beneath the disheveled covers. Merlin was fully awake this time, and unlike before, he was surely going to realize he was naked.
But Merlin didn’t panic when he saw his nudity or their bodies touching clear to their feet. He went perfectly, utterly still, even holding his breath.
“Do you remember what happened?” Arthur asked, trying to distract him as he pulled the covers up over their heads again, closing them in under the warmth, hoping the small amount of privacy would help as well. “Look at me, Merlin. Take a deep breath. Good, now, do you remember?”
Merlin shook his head mutely, biting his lips tightly together. Arthur would have preferred an answer, but he went on anyhow.
“We were hunting a Serket. You fell off a cliff and into a lake that was frozen over.” Arthur watched for a sign Merlin remembered, but Merlin just shook his head again. “Gwaine pulled you out, but we had to get you warm again. This is the fastest way; that’s why we’re lying like this. Just rest – we’ll take care of you.”
“All right. I’m...I'm sorry,” he said, his voice small and brow furrowed as if he were trying to make sense of it all.
“Do you understand? You’re going to be fine,” Arthur said firmly, his hand closing on Merlin’s waist. “We’re all watching over you.”
A small nod, and Merlin’s eyes drifted closed again, his breathing eventually easing into a steady rhythm. Arthur laid a hand on his chest, feeling a rapid thump instead of the fluttering beat of earlier. “He’s out again,” he said, pulling the cloaks off his head and finally catching his breath.
“That will happen a lot in the next few hours, I expect. Tea?” Elyan asked, taking his hand and pressing the warm cup into it without waiting for his answer. “It’s just water, actually, since someone forgot the tea leaves.” He jerked a thumb in Leon’s direction, though the man didn’t notice.
“Thank you,” he said, blowing on the liquid and taking a cautious sip. It still burned his tongue, but the heat slid gloriously down his throat like warm mulled wine. “Is there a problem with the tent?” he asked, curling his fingers around the warm cup and blowing gently on the water, careful not to soul a drop.
“We only have the doubles,” Lancelot shrugged. “There was just no way we could put it up without trampling one of the three of you.”
“All right,” he said, raising his eyebrows. “And now that Gwaine’s tending to his money maker?”
“How sad if that’s the most impressive thing on his body,” Leon quipped, tossing a rolled bandage strip to the man in question.
Gwaine was now half-dressed, wearing trousers that hung loosely and a blanket around his shoulders. He was slowly moving his nose from side to side, eyes watering as he tested for breaks. “More impressive than anything on yours,” he shot back, though his tease was half-hearted at best.
“Quit flirting and give me a hand,” Elyan said from somewhere behind him, the others chuckling softly.
Arthur leaned back, looking over his shoulder at Elyan, who was already rolling out the canvas on the ground just on the other side of the fire. “A day off field practice for all of you if that tent is up before Merlin wakes again,” he offered, turning back to Merlin and taking another sip of his water. It seemed miraculously warm, as if he could feel it to his toes.
The knights worked quickly and quietly, doing their best either to earn the day off he’d promised or to make sure Merlin got the rest he obviously needed. Either way, Arthur didn’t care.
He passed his cup to Gwaine, who refilled it and drank the entire thing down in one go with a sigh. He had to have scorched his tongue, too, but Arthur thought it was worth it for the warm-centered feeling, and if Gwaine’s expression was anything to go by, so did he.
Within moments, tent flaps fell to the earth on each side of him and Merlin. Although the darkness was welcome, Arthur cringed at the cool stillness of the air. He hadn’t thought about the tent blocking the heat from the fires. It would warm up soon enough, he knew, but soon enough for a soldier wasn’t the same as soon enough for a wounded, freezing man.
Gwaine stuck his head in one of the slits in the canvas and grinned, two bits of cloth stuffed up his nostrils to staunch the bleeding. “Cold?” he asked, and Arthur nodded, rolling his eyes self-deprecatingly. Gwaine pulled one half of the opening back and looked around for a tie. “Thought so. Fetch something to fasten these back with, Leon.”
As easy as that, they found a compromise and their cocoon grew to tent-size, though Arthur wasn’t about to give up the warmth-saturated cloaks, not even a while later, when the sun began to set and Elyan and Leon ducked inside with their arms full of more blankets.
“We’re not taking all of them. The cloaks and mine and Merlin’s blankets will be plenty.”
“All right,” Elyan said at the same time as Leon said, “You need them more.”
They punched each other’s arms and Arthur shook his head. “Just two of the blankets,” he said, turning back as Merlin mumbled something. He drew his fingers down Merlin's cheek. “What was that?”
Merlin’s eyes opened just a bit. “I said, ‘thick knights.’”
Arthur smiled and ran his hand across Merlin’s forehead, sighing in relief at the temperature of Merlin’s skin. It wasn’t anything close to normal, but it wasn’t icy anymore, either. “I have some warm water for you to drink.”
Merlin shook his head, face scrunching up in disgust. “Can’t drink. Too sleepy.” Distractedly, Merlin looked down between them, then closed his eyes tightly and pulled back feebly, obviously uncomfortable with their state of undress and closeness.
Fingers lifting Merlin’s chin, he whispered, “I know I’m not much to look at, but we’re going to have to stay this way until you warm up, so you’re just going to have to get used to it.”
“Don’t tease me,” Merlin groaned and tried to turn away from him, but Arthur caught him at the hips and gathered him close again. He seemed half-asleep, his eyes closed and breaths deep.
“Merlin,” he whispered, shaking his head, “I didn’t mean to tease. We really do have to share body heat. Someone does, at any rate. Do you want me to ask Gwaine to come back? Or one of the other knights?”
Arthur tightened his arms around Merlin as his shivering seemed to deepen once again.
“Is Will out there? Will wouldn’t laugh at me,” Merlin pleaded softly, his voice unsteady and eyes still closed.
Arthur hadn’t thought of Will in months, years to be honest, though he was sure Merlin had. There had been more than friendship there. He had seen that the instant they’d ridden into Ealdor. Friends didn’t hold on so long when they embraced, at least no friends he’d ever had.
Though, now that he thought of it, if he and Merlin were separated for so long, they might hold on to each other, exchange a few low words for only the other’s ears as they embraced.
But Will, Will was years dead, another good man who’d sacrificed himself to save Arthur’s life. Though instead of duty or honour driving him, it had been the man’s love of Merlin that had been his motivation to save Arthur. All because Merlin believed so thoroughly in him.
He knew now it had been Merlin who’d cast magic that day in Ealdor, Merlin who had saved them all. He’d tried to tell Arthur, he could see that now, but time had run out and then Will had taken the responsibility, sparing Merlin.
If Merlin had told him, Arthur would have reacted badly. At that point, he’d just begun to trust Merlin, but he still believed enough in his father to trust him implicitly, even when his edicts seemed inexplicably unfair or harsh. He wouldn’t have let Merlin burn as a sorcerer, but he wouldn’t have taken him back to Camelot with them that day, either. He would have lost him just as quickly and irrevocably as Merlin had lost Will.
“I’m sorry, Merlin, he’s not here,” was all Arthur could manage, pressing his forehead against Merlin’s as his chin trembled in desperate sadness.
“I want Will,” Merlin whispered, the words breathed out, barely audible. “He wouldn’t ever laugh.”
“I know. Shh.” Arthur closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against Merlin’s. “We won’t laugh, I swear to you.”
“But you did,” he choked, his voice breaking. “I heard you.”
“We were laughing at Gwaine.” Arthur pulled back and smiled gently, running his hand down Merlin’s cheek, his shoulder, his back, soothing him. “You know how ridiculous he can be.”
Merlin gradually settled under his touch, humming and turning his face this way and that, rubbing it along Arthur’s as though he wanted to feel his breath over his eyelids, his cheeks, his lips, his throat. Arthur lay still and let him. Whatever was happening inside Merlin’s groggy mind, this was helping him.
Looking out past their feet through the small opening Leon and Gwaine had created, Arthur could see the knights huddled around the fire, warming their hands, passing a flask of something around their small circle, murmuring too low for him to hear.
Arthur pulled the cloak back up over his and Merlin’s heads, shifting closer and running his hand up and down Merlin’s back.
Merlin tucked his head into Arthur’s neck and inhaled, the breath against his skin making him shiver as he whispered softly. “Arthur?”
“Yes?” he answered, closing his eyes and willing Merlin’s next sentence to make sense. The confusion wasn’t a good sign, and it was unnerving that it had returned.
The legs on either side of his own tensed as if holding onto him even as Merlin whispered, “I want Will.”
“I know. He’s not here, Merlin. I can get Gwaine or Lancelot if you want,” Arthur offered, but held tightly to him. Somehow letting him go now seemed... impossible. Merlin was talking, he should be glad, but all he could think was no. No.
Suddenly crying out as if in horrible pain, Merlin shoved at Arthur’s chest and kicked at his shins, eyes squeezed shut. “Get away from me! I want Will!”
Moving quickly away, Arthur knelt up, tucking the cloak in around Merlin as best he could with him thrashing about as he was. “All right, shh...”
“Don’t look at me! Get away! Will!” he shouted, turning his face to the ground.
Arthur lurched to his feet, hunched over to keep from hitting his head on the tent, hands starting to reach for Merlin, then pulling away. “Please keep still. I’ll- I’ll get-”
Lancelot stepped in beside him, pressing a cloak to Arthur's chest. He kicked off his boots and peeled off his clothes. Lying down in front of Merlin, he shushed him, petting the head that ducked onto his shoulder, wrapping his arm around Merlin’s body as Merlin curled against him.
Arthur drew on the cloak and crouched down, tucking the disheveled blankets in around the two men. “Shout if you need me,” he murmured, and Lancelot nodded, not even looking at him, eyes only for Merlin.
“Shh, I’m here, my friend,” he whispered to Merlin. “Let’s get you warm.”
“Is he gone, Will? He’s not looking, is he?” Merlin whispered, his voice cracking with obvious pain.
Swallowing down the selfish desire to take Merlin back in his arms, Arthur stepped out of the tent before he could hear Lancelot's response. Merlin’s distress had to be from the cold, from the madness Arthur knew could set in after being without air or in freezing temperatures for too long. It didn’t make him feel any better knowing the reason behind Merlin’s panic.
Arthur raised his eyes to the knights, who all seemed to be looking elsewhere, all except Leon, who nodded at the pile of clothing on the log beside him as he sat down. “Lancelot dried your clothes and they're still warm, but you’ll want to sit here. Best seat in the house,” he said, throwing a look of irritation in Gwaine and Elyan’s direction.
Arthur just nodded and began dressing as quickly as he could. And bless the knights to the highest cloud in heaven. Warming his clothing by the fire had been sheer brilliance. “Gods, that feels good,” he chattered, pulling on his trousers and both tunics, running his hands down the warm fabric over his thighs. “You have no idea how cold-.” He stopped, not wanting to complain. He should be nothing but grateful, really.
Merlin was alive.
“Actually, I had to do the same for a friend back home once, though he wasn’t as bad off.” Leon stared into the fire. “He had the same sort of... confusion. It came and went the same way, then passed altogether after a few hours.”
“Did he...” Arthur trailed off, deciding mid-sentence he didn’t want to know the answer. He shook his head, but Leon caught his eye and nodded.
“He lived. Didn’t remember a deuced thing he said while ranting, either.”
Arthur sat down and pulled on his boots. “Seems as though he’s settling down with Lancelot quickly enough,” he said, swallowing the lump in his throat. It was ridiculous for him to be feeling jealous.
If something somewhere in Merlin was more comfortable with Lancelot than with him, then it was just a damned good thing Lancelot was here, wasn’t it?
“He probably just thought you were someone else, Sire,” Leon said, grinning. “A troll or some such.”
“Leon,” he chided, grinning despite himself. The troll references would never get old, not even to Arthur. Gods, his poor father would never live that down.
“Merlin will be asking for you in no time, you’ll see,” Leon said quietly, offering him a cup of hot water.
Arthur smiled at Leon’s attempt to reassure him and took the cup. “Thank you.”
He walked back to the lake with Gwaine to retrieve his armour a bit later. They found Merlin’s pack on the ice, but left it where it lay, deciding not to risk the fall into the icy water.
When they finally got back to their makeshift camp, Gwaine put up the second tent and took a seat at the fire, eyes drifting closed as he relaxed.
Arthur couldn’t sit still for long. He tried to think of what came next, in the morning, when Merlin would hopefully be well. What would he need besides food and Gaius’ care? Clothes, obviously, since his were now in a ruined, tattered heap.
He began collecting clothing for Merlin from the knights. Leon’s feet, as it turned out, were nearly the same size as Merlin’s, so he donated his good boots to the pile of clothing at Arthur’s side, only giving them a parting glance, though Arthur knew they were his favourites.
They’d all pitched in something – Lancelot’s extra small clothes, Arthur’s trousers and thick, padded tunic. It was meant to be worn under armour, but it would serve to keep Merlin warmer than a single tunic alone. Elyan gave up his belt and gloves. Gwaine needed most of his spare things, since he’d been nearly as soaked as Merlin and it would be hours yet before his boots, gloves or cloak were dry.
Arthur sat by the fire with the other knights, still shivering a little despite being dressed and the blanket draped over his shoulders. He listened to every sound Merlin made, unable to think of anything else to do to keep himself busy after he’d gathered the clothing for Merlin.
When he heard a whine of pain from within the tent, he considered sticking his head inside to check on them, but kept his seat instead. Merlin hadn’t wanted him there, and the last thing Arthur wanted to do was upset him again.
Still, there was no denying that Lancelot lay exactly where Arthur wanted to be.
Inside the tent, Merlin groaned again, more softly this time, and Lancelot murmured to him, gentling him. Turning to look through the slit of the tent flaps, Arthur could see movement beneath the pile of blankets and imagined Lancelot smoothing his hand down Merlin’s back, pressing his face against Merlin’s neck and whispering calming words into his ear.
Fighting down the urge to intervene, Arthur cleared his throat and looked away, back to the other knights. “I don’t think Merlin should be moved tonight. We'll split up. Two of you ride back and stay with Percy,” he said, picking up a twig and breaking it into bits. "No need for all of us to stay here, and there may still be Serkets about."
He almost stood to go himself, but he knew he couldn’t leave Merlin in this state. Lancelot would take care of him, of course he would, and sitting there watching and not being able to do anything? It would be an impossibly long night. But there was no way Arthur would be able to stand being leagues away and not knowing how Merlin was for hours on end.
“I’ll go,” Elyan volunteered, standing up with a sigh and kicking Leon’s foot.
“I’ll go as well,” Leon said. They hefted their packs, Leon laying a hand on Arthur’s shoulder as he passed. “On foot, though, Sire. You may have need of the horses before the night is over.”
The look he gave Arthur said what the knight seemed incapable of voicing. They were all worried after hearing Merlin’s outburst. They all knew he would never speak that way to Arthur if he was thinking clearly.
“If we’ve not returned to camp by midday tomorrow, ride to Camelot and fetch Gaius,” he said, staring into the fire. He didn’t even want to imagine Merlin still being too ill to move after that long, or worse, him being so ill they had to drag him back to the citadel on a litter. “Be prepared to ride out just in case.”
“We’ll be ready, though I truly believe he will improve as the night wears on,” Leon said, ducking his head into the tent. “Lance, take care of our boy. Elyan and I are going back to camp.”
Arthur turned to look, curious, as Leon whispered something else to Lancelot, too low for Arthur to hear.
“We should take shifts,” Gwaine suggested, interrupting Arthur's attempt to eavesdrop. “I’m up next, right after I cook something for us.”
Arthur nodded, taking a deep breath and standing. “I’ll help you.”
He would do anything to not be sitting there, two metres away and unable to do a damned thing to help Merlin. Gwaine focused a little too much on preparing their meal for Arthur to believe he wasn’t thinking the exact same thing.
When Merlin woke, it was so dark he thought he was still asleep. He blinked in confusion, startled as he realized he was not alone. Gwaine’s whispering voice eased his fear, but he still shoved himself back in the tangle of limbs and blankets, drawing them down off his head.
“Shh, Merlin, it’s all right, it’s me,” Gwaine hushed, his gentle voice reassuring. “Do you remember what happened?”
Merlin shivered violently, and Gwaine wrapped his arms tighter around him, pulling him back in close, though Merlin carefully kept his hips away from the man in front of him. He shook his head, then nodded as he gathered his thoughts. He’d fallen into the lake and woken up once before, with Arthur and Gwaine warming him. “Oh, Gods,” he moaned. “I’m such an idiot. And your nose!”
“No, no, I’m fine.” Gwaine rubbed a hand up and down Merlin’s back, pressing their foreheads together. “None of that, now - it was an accident.”
“I can’t believe I did that to you and Arthur,” he moaned, remembering the way he’d shoved Arthur away, wanting the only person who’d never laughed at his ridiculousness. Will. Gods. “I pushed him away,” he whispered, shaking his head.
Gwaine wasn't blind. He understood why Merlin would regret pushing Arthur away. “You weren’t thinking straight, Merlin,” Gwaine whispered, his hand warm on Merlin’s cheek. “You’re still freezing. Come back to me.”
Merlin shied away as Gwaine tried to pull his hips close again. “No, I- I’m warm.”
“Merlin, you’re shivering. Skin to skin is the best way to warm up, trust me.”
Lowering his head, he scooted forward, gasping as Gwaine quickly slid his thigh between Merlin’s legs. It was like someone had poured a bucket of hot water across his lap, water that didn’t cool. He closed his eyes and wriggled into the warmth, the heat too good to give up, no matter how his body reacted.
It did, his cock swelling a little against Gwaine’s thigh, and he sighed in frustration, trying to pull away. Gwaine’s arms tightened around him, not letting him move.
“Gwaine?” he whispered, nervous fear almost choking him. When Gwaine didn’t pull away in disgust, Merlin drew the covers up over their heads and buried his face against the man’s neck, whispering, “I didn’t do that with him, too, did I?”
“It’s the warmth,” Gwaine dismissed, stroking along his forehead and cheek. “You need it.”
He remembered the warmth, and pressing himself against it. He’d been aware of almost nothing else but their bodies against his, though he’d thought it was a dream at the time. “Gwaine, what if he thinks that I- that I’m...”
“It’s just your body reacting to the warmth. He understands and besides, he’s a man, Merlin. It happens to the best of us, and in far less appropriate situations than this, believe you me.”
Gwaine knew his secrets, all of them, in fact. Since the quest to the Perilous Lands, he’d known the way Merlin felt about Arthur. He’d thrown an arm around Merlin’s shoulders after they’d retaken Camelot that same year, steering him into an unused chamber and sitting him down. “I have sharper eyes than Arthur,” he’d said, and mussed Merlin’s hair. “He’s lucky to have a man of your talents at his side, even if he doesn’t see it.”
But Arthur wasn’t lucky, he was just saddled with a ridiculous servant who happened to know a little magic.
He was so stupid to let himself feel anything for Arthur, he knew, but he’d not been able to quash the feelings, even when they’d first begun. He was lost, and the fact that he’d just become aroused against Arthur was enough to make him consider leaving Camelot for good. How could he ever face him again?
Shaking his head and closing his eyes, Merlin fought back the tears that threatened to fall. His chest ached as if it was hollow and caving in on itself. “I’m such a moron. I can’t even die without humiliating myself.”
“Enough. You aren’t dying. Look at me,” Gwaine insisted, forcing Merlin’s eyes up to meet his. “Arthur is worrying himself half mad out there. He can’t keep his seat for any length of time. He isn’t thinking about anything but your well-being.”
Merlin nodded, though he knew it couldn’t be true. Sure, Arthur was probably worried, but he was likely more annoyed than concerned.
“Now, tell me how you feel. Anything hurting?” Gwaine asked.
“Besides my pride?” he choked out, trying to smile.
“Oh, Merlin,” Gwaine whispered, gathering him in his arms and pressing his lips to Merlin’s temple. “As impossible as it seems, it will be all right.”
Merlin sniffed and took a deep breath, holding on as well as he could with his injured arm.
“Now, where do you hurt?” Gwaine said gently, pulling the covers down to their waists and insistently holding Merlin at arm’s length, looking him over.
His body ached everywhere, his shoulder and ankle throbbing in time with his rushing heartbeat. His head felt muddy and a dull pain seemed to stem at the base of his neck and spread up the back of his head. “My shoulder and ankle are the worst and my head is throbbing. I’m sore all over,” he admitted, closing his eyes again. “I’m so thirsty. And sleepy.”
Gwaine shivered as he rolled away, taking the top blanket and wrapping it around his shoulders. “Let me get some light and look at your ankle, then I’ll bring you some water and let you sleep.”
Merlin slowly propped himself up on one elbow,watching as Gwaine left and came back with a small lantern, folding the pile of coverings up to Merlin’s knees.
“There’s some swelling here, but nothing’s broken. We can’t treat it other than to prop it up. Ice would only-”
“No, please,” Merlin pleaded, the thought of anything cold touching him was unbearable. As Gwaine nodded and turned to go again, he asked, “Could you tell Arthur I’m doing better?”
“Tell him yourself,” Gwaine said, smiling slyly as he disappeared through the tent flaps, ignoring Merlin’s whispered plea for him to wait. “Arthur, he’s asking for you,” Merlin heard as he hurried to rearrange the covers.
Arthur came straight away, pausing at the tent opening, looking like he hadn’t slept in days.
Merlin took a breath and smiled up at him as genuinely as he could. “I’m better,” he said, cringing as he lay down too quickly, jarring his shoulder.
“Clearly,” Arthur laughed, stepping inside and taking a seat across the tent, just on the opposite edge of the blanket. “I’m glad to see you back to your old self.”
“My ankle is sore and my shoulder, too, but I’m almost warm, I think,” he said, turning on his side and pulling the covers up to his chin. “That’s all I wanted to say. Gwaine could’ve told you.”
Arthur frowned down at him. “Here,” he said, handing Merlin a cup that scorched against his cold fingers as he took it.
He yelped and nearly dropped it, but Arthur leaned forward and steadied it, taking it from him, holding it to his lips. “Go slowly. It’s going to seem hot, but I promise you it’s only lukewarm.”
Merlin nodded and took a sip, his head spinning as the liquid seemed to burn his throat. “It’s too hot, I can’t,” he said, pulling his mouth away.
“I’ll get some snow.” When Arthur came back, the water was only warm, and Merlin tried not to gulp. “Easy, easy there,” he warned, taking the cup away. “You can have more in a moment. Are you hungry?”
Licking his lips and sighing, Merlin took a deep breath and let the heat spread through him. The thought of food wasn’t appealing, but his mouth was dry as a bone. “No, just thirsty,” he said, nodding as Arthur offered him the cup again. He took it, sipping slowly under Arthur’s watchful gaze, then handed it back when it was empty.
“I didn’t know about your ankle.” Arthur started to move toward Merlin’s feet but Merlin jerked them further under the blankets.
“Gwaine already looked at it. It’s just a bit swollen, that’s all. Must’ve hit it on the ice when I-” he stopped as he saw the stricken look on Arthur’s face, panic flooding through him. It was the same look as when – oh, Gods. Arthur had seen him cast the magic on the ledge, and the look on his face was the same now as it had been then. Swallowing hard, he asked, “What is it?”
“Merlin...” Arthur shook his head, clearing his throat, then looked him straight in the eye. “You saved my life and more likely than not Gwaine’s and Lancelot’s, too. It was very brave, what you did.”
Doing his best to push down the fear that rose up to the back of his throat, Merlin closed his eyes and whispered, “You aren’t angry?”
Arthur’s hand closed on his shoulder and Merlin tensed but didn’t jerk away. He ached to feel Arthur so close again, to be surrounded by all that strength and security. As ashamed as he was at the need he felt, he couldn’t help but revel in the warm touch.
“How could I be?” Arthur said quietly, smiling as he knelt beside him.
Merlin sighed as Arthur’s hand moved up to his cheek, his forehead. Arthur was just judging his temperature, no doubt, but it felt wonderful to Merlin’s chilly skin.
“I would have told you if I could,” he whispered, bracing himself. “I tried to, more than once, but something always got in the way.”
“I know.” There was a smile in Arthur’s voice as he lowered his hand to Merlin’s shoulder, looking into his eyes. “Either you wanted me to see it, or you’re even worse at hiding it than I thought.”
Merlin smiled softly and let his fear fall away. “Probably that last one. You know me.”
Arthur’s forehead pressed against his and Merlin closed his eyes. Warmth from Arthur’s touch leeched into his aching shoulder, as reassuring as the casual words he whispered. “Yes, I know you.”
The hand slid away and Merlin sighed, taking deep breaths that left him drifting. He was too exhausted and his body too spent to do anything but breathe. “I thought you’d want rid of me.”
“Only when you’re nattering on about nonsense or slacking off in your duties,” Arthur teased.
Merlin grimaced. “Or lying about who I really am.”
“Who? Oh, you mean the Merlin that is actually brave, intelligent and loyal to the death?” he heard, low and close to his ear. “I’ve known him for a while now, too.”
“You wouldn’t put up with a knight who lied to you,” Merlin whispered, wanting to be sure Arthur truly wasn’t angry.
Arthur’s lips touched his ear as he breathed, “You’re worth ten of us, Merlin. Don’t make me say it twice, though, all right?”
Amazement coursing through him at the words, he nodded and kept his eyes closed, fighting now against the lethargy that flowed through him, easing him back to unconsciousness. As tempting as sleep was, he wanted this more, wanted to feel every second of Arthur’s undivided attention, every kindness he offered.
Warmth caressed the top of Merlin’s head, Arthur’s hand rubbing softly over the cloth there. “I’m going to take this off now.”
Floating hazily on the simple calm of Arthur’s touch and the lassitude of exhaustion, Merlin hummed his permission. "My head is aching," he murmured.
Arthur’s fingers smoothed across his forehead and around to the back of his head, lifting the cloth away so gently as they found the tucked-in corner. Merlin smiled softly as Arthur carefully, slowly peeled the wrap from his head, fingers warm and gentle, carding through his hair, spreading it out. Arthur rubbed his aching neck, strong hands massaging his sore muscles and Merlin couldn't stifle his relieved moan as the ache in his head eased.
“That wet hair isn’t doing you any favours. I’m going to open this end of the tent so it can dry while you sleep.”
Merlin listened absently to the sounds of Arthur moving about him, the canvas whispering against itself, the easy rumble of Gwaine’s low voice, then Arthur’s, agreeing. Then a wave of heat swept in against the top of his head as the tent flaps were pulled back. There were hushed sounds of fabric and boots touching the ground nearby. Sap crackled and popped in the flames and Merlin sighed, snuggling deeper under the covers.
He was nearly asleep again when the blankets were lifted and a wave of cool air flooded his warm haven, followed by the press of skin and Arthur’s warm, bare body sliding against his own.
He gasped and shifted beneath the blankets.
“It’s just me,” Arthur whispered, brushing his hair back from his forehead, his hand slowly rubbing down Merlin’s neck and back, fingers ghosting along his spine, settling finally on his hip. “I’m going to stay with you tonight. We’ll head back to Camelot in the morning.”
He nodded, keeping his eyes closed, though he didn’t think he would ever get to sleep with Arthur slowly moving closer and closer. Their shins were touching now, and Arthur leaned in, his face so close that Merlin could feel his breath against his lips.
“The knights all donated clothes for you. You’re going to look like one of us tomorrow.”
He never would be one of them, a fighter. Merlin felt Arthur move even closer, their legs pressing together. He drew back, his hand firm against Arthur’s chest, holding him apart. “I’m warm enough like this.”
The hand on his hip pulled him in against more bare flesh and the soft fabric of Arthur’s small clothes. “You may think so, but you aren’t feeling temperatures as they truly are. Remember the water?”
His throat felt like it was stuffed with wool, but he managed to choke out, “Why did Gwaine leave?”
“We’re taking turns so none of us gets too cold,” Arthur answered, his voice oddly quiet.
Merlin nodded slowly, then felt a bit better as he had an idea. As quickly as he could manage, he turned so his back was touching Arthur’s chest. He dug his heels in and hissed at the pain in his ankle and shoulder as he pushed himself against that warmth, hurriedly trying to tuck the edge of the blankets in under his chest and knees.
Before he was finished, Arthur’s hand pulled insistently on his shoulder. “Merlin, don’t be ridiculous. Turn back over.”
Putting every bit of sleepiness he felt into his voice, he yawned and argued, “But this is more comfortable.”
“Lying on that sore shoulder? It can’t be.” Arthur wasn’t entirely gentle, fingers digging insistently in as he turned Merlin onto his back and reached underneath him, swiftly pulling him back around to face Arthur.
Merlin closed his eyes as quickly as he could, but he knew Arthur had seen his disappointment.
“This is for your own good,” Arthur chided, pulling them chest to chest and wrapping his arm tightly around Merlin’s back. “Stay still, now.”
He didn’t struggle. He couldn’t. Gods, it felt too good, Arthur stretched out all along his body, their skin smooth and soft everywhere it pressed together. Arthur smelled like earth and fire and snow, clean even though he couldn’t possibly have been anything like it.
Merlin took a deep breath, inhaling Arthur's scent, and squeezed his eyes tightly shut. He winced as his face flushed, the blood stinging sharply beneath his skin. “It’s embarrassing,” he whispered, hoping with everything he had left in him that Arthur wouldn’t laugh.
“I promise I’m not looking,” Arthur whispered back. “And you truly need this. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
Merlin sighed, opening his eyes and seeing Arthur’s face, inches from his own. He wanted to reach up and swipe away the crease of concern between Arthur’s closed eyes. “You think I’ll live, then?”
Arthur’s eyes opened, but stayed on Merlin’s face. He really wasn’t looking at Merlin's nudity. “You will, if you’ll cooperate and let us keep you warm.”
Merlin bit his lip and nodded, determined not to be difficult. Arthur was just trying to help, and Merlin was the one who’d gotten them all in this mess to begin with. He held his breath as Arthur grasped the back of his thigh, pulling him forward.
“I know you’re uncomfortable, but Gwaine says this is necessary,” Arthur whispered against his ear as he brought Merlin’s leg over his own, sliding his thigh between Merlin’s.
Almost instantly, Merlin felt his temperature rise, though he was sure it had little to do with the actual contact and everything to do with the fact that it was Arthur pressed against him. He held perfectly still, clenching his teeth as Arthur adjusted and readjusted, settling.
He squeezed his eyes closed again, holding his breath in an attempt to calm his heart. His cock responded to the warmth of Arthur’s thigh pressing against it, to the slide of his silky small clothes against Merlin’s bare skin. “Sorry,” he mumbled, tucking his face into Arthur’s neck, wishing he would die rather than humiliate himself again. “I can’t help it.”
“Shh, I know.” The stubble on Arthur’s chin scratched against his temple as Arthur shook his head.
“I’d be fine on my own,” Merlin offered, looking up at Arthur. “You don’t have to stay.”
Arthur looked into his eyes, his expression sad and worried, but not angry. He wanted to ask what Arthur could possibly have to be sad about. Before he could, Arthur’s body shifted, his leg slipping further between Merlin’s until their hips touched. The sudden closeness made him gasp, Arthur’s arousal as obvious as his own. His eyes went wide and Arthur nodded once.
Arthur tucked his arms beneath and around Merlin, circling his body, shifting them both until they were comfortably settled. “No apologies. Let’s just try to sleep, all right?”
Taking a deep breath, Merlin forced himself to let go of some of the tension in his limbs. If Arthur couldn’t help it either, maybe it was just because of the heat. Then again...
He gave in to the comfort and relaxed against all that warm skin as they fitted together, every curve and line of Arthur’s body seeming to match up with his own. He sighed in contentment, letting himself enjoy the feeling of Arthur holding him. He guiltily memorized every touch of Arthur's body on his, the strength beneath Arthur's smooth skin, Arthur's scent enveloping him. He noticed, too, that Arthur held him with cautious strength, careful not to disturb his shoulder or ankle. He barely hurt at all now, though his head still ached a bit. It was Arthur, it had to be – he hadn’t felt so overwhelmingly safe and perfect with Lancelot or Gwaine.
As if Arthur was reading his mind, a large hand brushed slowly, gently back through his hair, Arthur’s voice quietly soothing him. “Shh, that’s it, Merlin. I've got you- you're safe. Sleep now... you’ll feel so much better in the morning...I promise I’ll be here...”
The soft touch of his hair fanning and falling over and over again lulled him into a haze of sleepiness, his body so heavy and weary that he couldn’t summon the strength to keep up his embarrassment. He let it fall away, listening to the fire, the hushed murmurs of the knights talking to one another outside their tent, Arthur’s calm, slow breaths and the sluggish heartbeat that thumped against Merlin's ear. He could feel Arthur relaxing into sleep against him as he finally drifted off.
Arthur woke to the sounds of a fire being tended, wood against wood, the crackle of flame. He looked out above their heads through the slit in the tent flaps and saw Gwaine peeking in at him, holding up a cup as if offering it to him. He nodded and carefully withdrew his arms, then shifted away from Merlin, tucking the blankets in under him to preserve as much of the warmth as possible while he was out of the tent.
He stepped carefully, managing not to make a sound as he left the tent, nodding gratefully as Gwaine handed him a blanket to wrap in and moved to pour some hot water for him from the kettle.
“He’s resting well,” he reported, knowing Gwaine would ask. “I’ve slept nearly as soundly as he has.”
“You both needed it. I was trying to be quiet about this,” Gwaine said, gesturing at the fire. “You’re keeping close to him?”
Arthur nodded, knowing what the knight meant, and took another drink. “Yes, I think he’ll be warm by morning.”
They sat in silence as he finished the mug of water, Arthur wanting to ask so many questions but completely unable to find the words.
“He’d do anything for you, you know. I’ve never seen a more devoted servant.”
It was true, though they both knew Arthur didn’t need to be told. He understood what Gwaine was really saying. He looked across the fire at him, holding his gaze as he answered quietly, “I know, Gwaine. I’m not certain it’s good for him, though.”
“That kind of devotion to a royal usually isn’t,” Gwaine grinned. “But in this case, I think it may be good for you both.”
Arthur looked at the mug in his hands, scraping his thumbnail across the fading paint. He didn’t know how he felt, only that he wasn’t supposed to feel anything, if his father and propriety had their way. He wondered if Gwaine could ever understand. “You know him fairly well.”
Gwaine nodded slowly, warily. “After that stunt, I’m certain we both know him better.”
“We do,” Arthur agreed, glad to have the truth as clear as it could possibly be, and also to know for sure that Gwaine would protect Merlin to the end. “I understand him even less, though.”
“Truly? I’d have thought today would have solved some of the mystery.”
“He only confirmed what I suspected,” Arthur agreed, closing his eyes and pinching the bridge of his nose. “I’ve never known someone like him. He’s so... selfless. How many times has he saved us without our knowing? He never asks for reward or recognition. He’s a servant when he could - he could do anything. Does he not want anything for himself?”
Gwaine chuckled softly, standing and taking the empty cup from Arthur’s hands, his voice only a whisper as he nodded in the direction of the tent. “He wants one thing with all of his being, but you and I both know that he would never presume to ask for it.”
Arthur scrubbed his hands over his face, sighing as he watched Gwaine duck into his own tent. The fire was high and hot, and Arthur couldn’t sit close to it for long. He relieved himself and went back to Merlin, shedding his blanket and sliding in under the covers. As he shifted into place against him, Merlin’s hand came up to touch his face.
He stilled in surprise as he looked down, barely able to see the blue-black glint of Merlin’s open eyes in the dim firelight that filtered through the tent walls.
“You’re awake,” he whispered, running a hand over Merlin’s forehead. He was warm, nearly as warm as Arthur was.
“Arthur,” he breathed, pressing closer along Arthur’s body as if all his shyness disappeared with the dark of night. “I need-”
“What do you-” he began, gasping as Merlin’s hand slid to his neck and pulled him down, mouth pressing softly against his own.
Eyes closing, Merlin’s hand slipped up into his hair, his fingers combing through it as the kiss lingered, Merlin’s lips parting, the tip of his tongue sliding gently along Arthur’s.
Gods, it took his breath away, the sudden intimacy after hours lying skin-to-skin and not being free to touch. There were reasons for that, but Merlin’s mouth moved languidly on his, chasing every thought away. The warm, soft skin of Merlin stomach and thighs slid against him, their chests and arms touching as they moved. Arthur’s mind reeled from the emotional gauntlet they’d run that day and night and he just let go of every nagging hesitation and let it happen.
He closed his eyes, his hand tightening on the back of Merlin’s thigh, pulling it higher over his own as he leaned in, deepening the kiss. He couldn’t help it, didn’t want to. Merlin tasted so good and felt so warm, finally... so right. He’d waited so long, denied himself this for so long, and it was everything he’d ever imagined: they fit together perfectly like lock and key, Merlin’s skin smooth and silky, his arms surprisingly strong, holding onto him with unchecked passion.
A moan hummed against his mouth and Merlin licked into him sweetly, tentative but somehow confident, too, the hand on the back of Arthur’s head pulling him closer. Merlin rolled beneath him, his other hand spreading wide on Arthur’s waist. With another groan, Merlin urged him on top, hips beginning to rock slowly up and back, pulling a groan from Arthur.
Not letting himself forget Merlin’s wounded shoulder, he propped up, one hand tight on the back of Merlin’s neck, the other squeezing the thigh that flexed under his fingers. He slipped his tongue against Merlin’s, instantly moving in perfect sync with him. The kiss went on and on, so absolutely right he couldn’t have dreamed it better. Merlin felt perfect beneath him, as if he’d always been there and Arthur didn’t care what this meant, where it might lead. All he could think of was Merlin, warm and alive and writhing slowly and deliciously beneath him.
Gods, it felt good, the way they fit together so naturally, moved together like they were reading each other’s minds, Merlin so eager and willing and-
Arthur paused, brow furrowed. He pulled away slowly, reluctant to break the kiss and lose this moment, but... he had to be sure. Merlin wasn’t usually so forward or confident and he was injured, had been so confused earlier.
He trailed kisses down Merlin’s jaw, down his neck to his collarbone and propped himself back to look down at the young man beneath him.
Merlin smiled up at Arthur as he closed his eyes and tilted his chin up, offering his neck for more kisses. As Arthur leaned down and pressed his lips to the soft, welcoming skin, Merlin took a deep breath, his body relaxing, head rolling to one side and hands slipping from Arthur’s neck and back to rest on the cloak beneath them.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, pushing up again. He let go of Merlin’s leg and touched his face, waiting for him to open his eyes and look up at him. “Are you awake?”
Merlin hummed softly but kept his eyes closed, not answering. Within a moment, his breaths deepened and he was sound asleep.
Arthur blew out a breath and rolled to his back beside Merlin’s sleeping form, hand swiping over his face as he tried to collect himself. He sat up and dragged the blankets over them, tucking them in all around.
Merlin was warm, he’d felt that intimately, so he turned to face away, unable to summon anger but unwilling to lie there and stare at Merlin, either.
It came down to this: stay in the tent and deal with the fact that Merlin had only been half-awake when he’d finally gathered enough courage and kissed Arthur for the first time, or go get Gwaine and somehow explain why he couldn’t lie there with Merlin any longer. He shifted until his back touched Merlin’s chest, pulling his pack into a more comfortable lump under his flushed cheek.
He felt both humiliated and cheated. Embarrassment and disappointment warred inside his churning head. He should have known Merlin was practically asleep – he wasn’t the least bit hesitant or nervous, not Merlin-like at all, really. Gods, though, it had been unbelievably sexy seeing him so confident and forward. Arthur knew that was in him, that Merlin had the ability to go after something if it meant enough to him.
He’d never gone after Arthur before, but Arthur didn’t want to think about what it meant that he was doing it now, and half-asleep and mind addled from the cold.
Arthur should never have let it happen, regardless. He couldn’t allow himself to... to slip up with Merlin. He was Prince of Camelot, for Gods’ sake.
It wasn't just about the throne. It was about losing Merlin, and he couldn’t, no matter what it cost the two of them. He wouldn’t.
He pulled the covers to his chin and squeezed his eyes closed, though sleep stubbornly refused to come. He lay listening to the sounds of the night dying away all around them, the shifting of the logs as the fire burned down, Merlin’s slow, even breaths against the back of his neck. When he’d nearly managed to doze off, Merlin’s arm curled around his waist, his legs lining up behind Arthur’s.
There was no chance of sleep after that. He lay his arm over Merlin’s, taking a deep breath. He swallowed hard, guilt washing over him as he reveled in Merlin’s skin against him again, warmth radiating all along his back.
When dawn rose, Arthur slipped from beneath Merlin’s arm, tucking the blankets in close around him.
He roused Lancelot to take his place in the tent. Once he was settled, Arthur dressed as quickly as he could and left on foot for the main camp, telling him to follow as soon as Merlin was steady enough to ride double.
Lancelot didn’t question him as Gwaine would have, and he hid his surprise well enough that Arthur didn’t feel the need to invent an excuse for his abrupt departure.
By the time he recalled his promise to be there when Merlin woke, he was already a league away and convinced Merlin wouldn’t remember anything that had been said – or done – the night before.
He shivered and trudged on, his thoughts stuck in a loop of lust and guilt. He took step after step, replaying the kiss over and over in his mind. The frigid morning air stung his every breath, serving as his penance.