Chapter 1: Virtue Itself 'Scapes Not Calumnious Strokes
When Merlin is injured while saving Arthur on a hunt, Arthur and the knights must save his life in return.
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.
Chapter 2: No More But So
The air inside the tent seemed thick enough to choke on when Merlin finally woke. He pushed the heavy layers of blankets down to his waist and slowly propped himself up enough to see it was Gwaine lying with him, not Arthur. He’d known before he’d opened his eyes that it wasn’t the Prince. It didn’t surprised him much that Arthur hadn’t kept his word. There was always something pulling him away from... well, everything, and Merlin was usually the least of his concerns. The fact that he’d taken himself off without telling Merlin was unusual, though, and it felt even stranger given the circumstances.
“Arthur’s gone,” he said, voice perfectly steady, though he didn’t feel very calm. Their little camp felt different, more vulnerable somehow, without Arthur there.
“He made for the main camp at dawn,” Gwaine said quietly, sitting up beside him. “We’re to follow if you feel up to riding.”
Merlin took a deep breath and lay back down, wishing for trousers so he could kick the covers off. “Yes, as soon as we can,” he answered, wanting nothing more than to be out of the tent. “It’s roasting in here.”
Gwaine raised an eyebrow at him in obvious doubt. “You shouldn’t be-” He reached out and spread his palm over Merlin’s forehead, then felt his cheeks, as well. “By the light, you’re as warm as I am! Even with us lying with you, I didn’t reckon you’d be warm until nightfall, at least.”
“Does that mean I get my clothes back now?” he asked hopefully. “Not that I’m not grateful for... you know. But we’re all better off with me clothed.”
Gwaine shook his head disbelievingly. “You really have no idea how handsome you are, do you?”
Merlin rolled his eyes. “I’m not exactly in the mood to be teased, Gwaine.”
His friend shrugged. “Ah, well, it’s probably for the best. You’d be impossible to live with if you did know,” he said, knocking his shoulder into Merlin’s, giving him an impossibly bright smile.
“Probably,” Merlin said, forcing a quick grin to get Gwaine to stop trying to make him smile. “Come on, get my clothes and let’s get going. The sooner we get back to the camp the better. This entire trip has been one disaster after another.”
Nodding his agreement, Gwaine left the tent and returned a moment later with a pile of mismatched and odd-sized clothing and a pair of boots that were altogether too fancy for a servant’s feet.
“Sorry to say we had to cut your clothes off and your pack went in the lake with you. Everyone donated something, I think.”
“Arthur told me they did, but I hadn’t expected... I’m going to look like a scarecrow in nice boots,” he groused, holding up the embossed leather boots and grimacing. “Are these Leon’s?”
Gwaine put a finger to his nose and laughed. “His was the closest to your size, so you get the honour. I don’t think he would have given them up for just anyone, you know.”
“I’ll try not to step in anything too smelly, then.” Merlin set them aside and gave Gwaine a pointed look, but Gwaine didn’t budge. “Are you going to watch?”
“I’ll wait outside,” Gwaine said, grinning and looking away, waving a hand in dismissal. “Not that I haven’t seen you starkers already.”
“Gwaine!” he shouted after the man, smiling despite himself. It was far better for them all to get their laughs out of the way now than for the jokes to continue for months and months, or for anyone to pretend the situation wasn’t as awkward as it truly had been.
Alone in the tent, Merlin yanked off the covers and sighed as the cool air hit his skin. He was sweating with the radiating heat and he felt as though his head were stuffed with wool, his thoughts sluggish.
There was no telling what the after-effects of nearly drowning were, let alone the fall that had landed him in the water. He’d landed hard enough on the ice to break through it, after all. His shoulder throbbed. It was swollen and bruised and he tried not to move it, keeping his arm as close to his body as he could manage as he went through the clothing to see what the knights had donated.
Arthur’s faded red padded tunic was the most obvious thing in the pile, then another tunic, small clothes and breeches from the others – he couldn’t guess who. They’d saved his neckerchief, but he still felt as though he was playing dress-up as he carefully pulled on the smallclothes.
They fit almost like ladies’ stockings – tight to the skin and long enough to tuck into Leon’s fancy boots. He’d seen Arthur in his own pair like these, but he’d never worn any himself and it felt decidedly odd. Warm, but odd. Like being held together in a way Merlin wasn’t sure he could ever get used to. Not that he would have to. He’d launder all of this back in Camelot and make sure the knights all got their things back.
The trousers were a bit long and Merlin caught his foot in the cuff putting them on, wrenching his sore ankle. He sucked in a breath through gritted teeth and Gwaine’s head appeared instantly through the tent flaps.
“Alright?” he asked, looking Merlin up and down with concern.
“Fine. Wrenched my ankle a bit is all,” he muttered, lying back to jerk the trousers up around his waist and knot them with the cinch. Sitting back up, a wave of dizziness hit him and he swooned, catching himself on one elbow as he sank to the ground. “Oh, no – I take that back. Very much not fine.”
Gwaine knelt beside him, urging him with a hand on his chest to lie back down. “You’ll have to go slow for a while. Just lie there for a moment and I’ll get you some water.”
His bladder was already near to bursting as it was, so Merlin shook his head. “I’m already in desperate need of… a tree. Just help me sit up and get these tunics on. I’m going to look ridiculous in this thing, I’ll have you know,” he said, pushing himself up as Gwaine half-lifted him and holding up Arthur’s under-tunic. “What’s Arthur got on under his armour anyhow? He’ll be chaffed and whining for days.”
Gwaine froze and held up a hand to stop him as he started to push his good arm into a sleeve. “Here, like this,” he said, unlacing the neck and pulling the entire tunic down over Merlin’s head and then down to his waist. “Tuck your arms in as I bring it up. You won’t risk pulling that injured shoulder this way.”
“That’s actually brilliant, you know,” Merlin grinned, doing as instructed and managing not to wrench his arm.
“Old tricks for new dogs,” Gwaine laughed, shaking his head. “You live on the run long enough, you learn these things.”
“But you’re not on the run now.” Merlin smiled as Gwaine fastened a cloak around his shoulders. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Gwaine winked at him and reached for the boots. “I wouldn’t have missed seeing you in this getup,” he grinned.
Merlin punched Gwaine’s arm and took the boots, pulling them on. He paused, sitting there in his borrowed clothing, wondering how the hell he was going to stand when his head was still swimming. He shifted around, getting his legs underneath him, then knelt up, Gwaine taking a firm grip on his elbow and waist. They looked at each other and at Merlin’s nod, Gwaine pulled him to his feet.
His first step was shaky and he leaned heavily on Gwaine, the snug smallclothes and unfamiliar heels on the boots not helping matters.
“Easy there, go slow now,” Gwaine cautioned.
“If I went any slower, we’d be standing still. There’s a tree out there with my name on it and I intend to find it.”
Gwaine reached out to open the tent and Merlin narrowed his eyes against the brightness. Even in the relative cover of the trees surrounding the clearing, the sun seemed glaringly bright. The cool air felt like heaven against his face and hands and he had the wild urge to strip everything off and feel it everywhere. He was already beginning to sweat in the thick armour padding and multiple layers.
“I think I saw your tree over here,” Gwaine said, directing him to the edge of the clearing and then, carefully, a little way into the woods.
He leaned up against a fair-sized pine, waving Gwaine away. “Go on, I’m fine.”
Gwaine shook his head and ducked around to the opposite side of a larger tree where Merlin couldn’t see him. “I’ll wait. You’re a bit too unsteady for my liking.”
Merlin fumbled the opening of the unfamiliar trousers but managed to get it open soon enough and relieved himself, leaning on the tree with one hand. Tying the trousers again was a pain, but at least he didn’t have to call for help.
He staggered away from the tree on unsteady legs and nearly sagged to the forest floor. Leaning against a sapling that bowed under his weight and threatened to dump him to the ground, he reached a hand for Gwaine, who was immediately by his side, supporting so much of his weight he might as well have been carrying him.
Merlin gasped for breath and jerked his neckerchief off as if it was strangling him. He pulled the laces of the tunics open as far as they would go. Gwaine had him back at the fire in a moment, sitting on the ground.
He put his head in his hands and closed his eyes. If walking twenty paces had done him in this horribly, how was he going to make it back to Camelot?
A cool hand swept across the back of his neck and rested on his shoulder. “Good to see you up and – well, up, anyway.” He slowly raised his head, opening his eyes, and was greeted with Lancelot’s smile.
“Lancelot,” he mumbled, feeling more than a little off-kilter and lowering his head again. “I’m just a bit dizzy. It’s sweltering in this padding. Don’t know how you knights stand it.”
“It can be on the warm side,” he said, lifting the back of his hand to Merlin’s forehead. “You’re feverish, Merlin. Maybe you should lie back down.”
Merlin shook his head, then groaned and pressed his hands to his face again, taking long, slow breaths to will down the spinning. “We have to meet Arthur. I’ll be all right. I don’t want to sleep anymore.”
“What you want and what you need are two different things, my friend,” Gwaine said, handing Merlin a cup of water. “Drink. We’ll see how you are after we prepare the horses. If you’re still this ill, you won’t be able to sit your mount to save your life.”
Still reeling, Merlin groaned his protest as he took a sip of water. It was cool and he sighed in relief, drinking slowly but steadily until the cup was empty. His head felt foggy and muddled, his thoughts coming slower and slower as if he were on the verge of falling asleep. He fought the hazy feeling, but in the end, conceded to lying back down in the tent for a while.
When Lancelot offered to help him up, Merlin only made it to his knees. He stayed there for a moment, catching his breath, giving up the fight for balance as Gwaine and Lancelot took over.
They gently pulled him to his feet, draping his uninjured arm over Gwaine’s shoulders. Lancelot’s strong arm circled around Merlin’s waist, the two knights supporting him as well as they could in the awkward position. They slowly made their way across the campsite, the toes of one borrowed boot dragging through the bracken as Merlin struggled to hold his hurt ankle off the ground.
“He’s burning up,” Lancelot said through the clouds in his mind as they reached the tent. “One of us should get word to Arthur that he can’t be moved. I wouldn’t have expected fever to set in so soon with him so cold only last night, but-”
“No. It shouldn’t have,” Gwaine agreed in a low voice as Merlin was laid flat and another cool hand brushed across his forehead. “The fever’s raging, too. He’s warmer than he was just minutes ago. If he keeps on at this rate...”
Merlin couldn’t make out the rest, but he knew what the knights were saying without words. He’d felt this overwhelming confusion and heat before, when he’d swallowed the poisoned wine from Arthur’s cup. His boiling fever had nearly taken his life that time. No flower would save him this time, and Arthur wasn’t here to find it even if one would.
If he was dying, Arthur wouldn’t even know until it was too late.
“Please,” he murmured, trying his best to form the words. “Have to go. Arthur-”
His words were slurred, even to his ears, but he thought his friends would understand. Good as the darkness felt to his twirling head, he couldn’t stay in that tent forever and if this fever was going to kill him, he didn’t want to die in the woods. He wanted Camelot, a real bed, Gaius and Arthur, for Gods’ sake.
They laid him carefully down and covered him with a single cloak, Lancelot pushing his sweat-damp hair away from his eyes as Gwaine ducked out of the tent.
“Lancelot,” he gasped, making a grab for the man’s tunic. “Please take me to him.”
He closed his eyes and waited for the blackness of sleep, but it didn’t come. Confusion won out and he stirred fitfully as Gwaine returned, pressing a cool, wet cloth to his forehead, his throat, the back of his neck. It warmed quickly, disappeared and returned as cool as it had been, like magic.
He choked out a laugh and moved fitfully, wondering if he could vanish his second-hand clothing straight to hell. The padded tunic was the worst, and Merlin grinned madly at the thought of it being so sweat-soaked and stained that Arthur would turn his nose up at it and order it burned.
“I think we should try for camp,” Lancelot whispered somewhere over his head, and the cloth stilled on his chest.
“Are you mad?” Gwaine hissed, and Merlin wanted to punch him in his swollen nose. “He can’t even rest peacefully. How do you expect him to ride?”
“We’ll strap him in if we have to.” Lancelot understood, he must. “Gwaine, what if this is...” Merlin didn’t hear the rest, and he was too fuzzy-headed to fill in the blank, but he knew it wasn’t anything good.
“I still think it’s a bad idea.” Gwaine said, his voice harsher than Merlin was used to hearing. “Gods, he should never have gone.”
Was he angry with Merlin for falling into the lake? He didn’t want Gwaine to be angry, not now.
“Sorry. I’m sorry,” he managed to whisper, wanting to open his eyes and look up at his friends so they’d know he meant it, but his eyelids wouldn’t cooperate. “I need Arthur, please,” was all he could get out.
He breathed shakily and tried to push the cloak away, but cold hands held him down.
“Shh. Try to rest, Merlin. We’re going to try to go soon, all right?” A hand slipped into his hair, gently lifting his head until his lips touched the rim of a cup. Lancelot’s voice and hand were soothing, the cold water that trickled into his mouth even more so.
He swallowed greedily, though he was given what seemed like very little – a mouthful – before it was taken away. It felt like drinking straight from a mountain stream, the ice slicing right through the heat and sliding all the way down his throat to his stomach.
Lancelot gave him another drink, once again taking it away. Each time the cup left his lips, the heat came back in one huge wave.
Tearing at the laces of the tunics that suffocated him, Merlin cried out. “Please! Take them off. I can’t – I need-“
“All right, shh,” Lancelot whispered, then called for Gwaine. Merlin heard his footsteps and then Lancelot, who was fast becoming his favourite person in the world gave him another drink. “I think the tunics are doing more harm than good. Look.”
The cool cloth swiped over his chest again, this time drawing a stinging line clear across it. “Gods. He’s scratched himself bloody trying to get them open and he’s sweating like a bull.” Gwaine sounded panicky, something his friend never was.
“He did it before I could stop him.” Lancelot didn’t sound much better. “Come on, help me.”
Merlin felt himself being lifted and moaned as the dizziness swept in again. The tunics were pushed down to free his arms, then drawn up over his head and he sobbed in relief, doing his best to smile to let his friends know how good it felt.
The cold, damp cloth swept up his chest, around his neck and up and down both arms, over and over until he was whimpering in pleasure. “Better,” he managed to murmur, Gwaine hushing him but not stopping. Merlin sighed under the lazy, cool strokes of the cloth on his bare skin.
He could hear the sounds of Lancelot outside, breaking camp: water pouring over the fire, the slide of leather through buckles, the horses shifting and huffing as they were prepared. It wouldn’t be long, and he’d be on his way to the main camp, to Arthur.
“I know, Merlin, shh. We’ll see him in no time,” Gwaine whispered, wiping the cloth across Merlin’s lips and pushing his hair back from his face, fingers brushing along his hairline over and over. “Try to rest.”
Had he said Arthur’s name aloud? He didn’t think so, but everything was all so muddled and confusing. He just wanted Arthur, and he would be okay. Just Arthur.
“I know why, my friend, but unless you want Lancelot to know, too, you’d best try to lie there quietly.” Gwaine’s voice was a little lighter, and Merlin tried to smile.
“He knows,” Merlin whispered.
Gwaine scoffed and held Merlin closer. “He serves Arthur. He’s doing this for him.”
Before Merlin could puzzle that out, sunlight blasted against his eyelids and a cloth came up to cover them. The tent was taken down around them, Gwaine moving to help Lancelot roll and pack it.
Merlin tilted his head up towards the freezing air and took a deep breath.
When he woke again, he couldn’t see a thing, but he knew instantly he was on a horse. The swaying, rocking motion was unmistakable. He knew, too, that someone was holding him, because he didn’t feel the least bit unsteady and he should have, would have, if he’d fallen asleep in the saddle. He’d done it before, and being jarred awake while ahorse was not a pleasant experience.
This, however, wasn’t too bad. Darkness pressing against his eyelids, he inhaled and knew exactly who he was riding with.
Cradled in Gwaine’s familiar arms, he rubbed his face up against the chin that pressed to his head. He was riding side-saddle with his legs swung over the horse’s shoulder and his body leaning back into the strong wall of Gwaine’s chest. He was wrapped tightly in a cloak, but he remained blessedly shirtless. The heat wasn’t unbearable, though he still felt damp with sweat and he’d begun to shiver at some point and couldn’t seem to get it to stop no matter how hard he clenched his jaw.
“Gwaine?” he asked, mostly to let the man know he was awake. He reached up and felt the cloth that covered his eyes, but, remembering the sun’s strong rays, didn’t push it off.
“Ah, finally. He’s awake, Lancelot,” Gwaine called, and Merlin heard the answering hullo, though he couldn’t do more than raise a hand. Gwaine’s voice rumbled against Merlin’s ear as he spoke softly. “You can take the scarf from over your eyes if you’d like – the sun seemed to bother you, so we tied it on.”
“No, it’s fine,” he rasped out, clearing his throat. “Where’s the water skin?”
Gwaine pushed it into his hands and Merlin fumbled to find the spout, then drank deeply of the cool water.
“Drink slowly,” Gwaine said, taking the skin from him as he finished. “You sound less addled.”
“I feel... a bit better,” he chattered out, huddling closer in to Gwaine and pulling the cloak higher around his neck, wondering why Arthur couldn’t have stayed. He’d rather be back in that sweltering tent as naked as a jaybird than shivering on horseback with Gwaine. “Was Arthur angry when he left?”
Gwaine shifted and tightened his hold on Merlin. “Lancelot said he seemed out of sorts, but didn’t give a reason for returning to camp,” Gwaine whispered, obviously annoyed.
“I knew it was too good to be true,” he whispered, not sure if he should be saying anything. “He seemed fine with my secret, but...”
“He should never have left,” Gwaine answered sharply.
“He didn’t know this would happen.” Merlin shivered violently as a breeze slipped in under his cloak and he shook his head, dropping the subject. His mind was spinning and he just wanted to sleep.
Gwaine pulled the horse to a halt and Merlin heard Lancelot do the same nearby. A hand covered his forehead again and Merlin fought back a sigh. He supposed he’d better get used to people fussing over him if he was going to keep getting sick.
“Hand me another blanket, would you?” Gwaine asked Lancelot.
Merlin heard the crunch of Lancelot’s boots hitting the leaves on the ground. He wriggled his toes inside his borrowed boots, thinking of how ridiculous he must look in them. The pointed toes felt feminine somehow, squeezing his toes together so they had little room to move.
“Merlin, are you still with me?” Gwaine asked, patting his cheek.
“Yes?” He didn’t sound sure, even to himself. He sounded like he was about to knock the teeth out of his head with shivering. “I’m so cold now.”
“It’s the fever,” Gwaine sighed, pushing Merlin away for a moment as he wrapped the blanket around his shoulders. Merlin sank against him under the added weight and warmth, tucking his face into Gwaine’s soft tunic.
He wanted to ask if they were close to the main camp and how far they still had to go. He wanted food, but only vaguely and not enough to ask for it. His little cavern against Gwaine was too warm and smelled too good to leave. Where Arthur had smelled of the outdoors and campfires, Gwaine smelled like leather and newly-sharpened steel.
“Just sleep,” Gwaine said softly, the vibrations of his voice almost matching Merlin’s shivering.
He tried, but the sound of the knights whispering kept him awake as they rode on.
“The fever is lessening, but we can’t keep him warm enough like this,” Gwaine said, tucking the blanket in tighter around him.
“Only another league or so. It’s what he wants.”
“He’s getting chilled and barely had a swallow from the water skin. If the camp wasn’t so close-”
Merlin turned his face into Gwaine’s chest and pulled the blanket up over his head, tucking it in between Gwaine’s skin and his cheek to hold it there. The arm around his back tightened as he sagged in exhaustion and gave up his boneless body to Gwaine’s strength. The blank nothingness he shivered into was warm, so warm.
“Ho there! Oh, look at you! I always said you were such a girl, didn’t I? Who knew you could ride like-” Arthur drew his horse to a halt as Gwaine rode close, face grim, Merlin in the saddle before him, bundled in blankets.
He was riding side-saddle like a woman, but in his current state, he couldn’t have ridden any other way. Gwaine lowered the blanket covering Merlin’s head so Arthur could see him. Merlin looked no better than he had when they pulled him from the water the day before. His hair was damp around his face, his shivering the only moving thing about his limp, rag-doll body as it draped in Gwaine’s arms, leaning heavily against the knight.
“It’s fever, Sire. Set in this morning and rose so fast we couldn’t get a handle on it. We’ve done what we could, but he insisted on coming here.” Gwaine halted his steed next to Arthur’s, brushing the back of his hand along Merlin’s cheek, then pulling him in tighter to his chest.
“Since when does a servant give orders to knights of Camelot?” he snapped, then shook his head, closing his eyes. He knew how persuasive Merlin could be; he’d given in to him far more times than he cared to admit.
“Sire, he wouldn’t rest until we brought him,” Lancelot said in a hushed voice, and Arthur looked up, taking a deep breath at the fear he saw in the knight’s eyes.
If the fever was that advanced, there mightn’t be much they could do for Merlin out here in the woods. Arthur turned his horse back in the direction of camp and pushed it into a fast walk. “I was just coming to look for you. Best get him lying down as quickly as possible.” He stood in his stirrups and cupped a hand to his mouth, calling ahead to the camp, “Percival!”
“Aye!” the tallest knight answered, jogging towards them.
As they rode into the large clearing where they’d made camp around a bonfire large enough to warm them all, Arthur nodded back at the two horses following slowly behind. “They’ve brought Merlin. He’s unconscious. Take him to my tent immediately. Find Leon and Elyan –we’ll send them to Camelot to fetch Gaius.”
Dismounting and crossing to Gwaine’s horse, Arthur watched for any sign of consciousness as Percival reached for him and Gwaine shifted him out of the saddle. Merlin didn’t so much as sigh as Percival took him down and cradled him like a child.
Arthur followed closely behind as they entered the tent and gestured for Percy to lay Merlin on his bedroll. Arthur knelt and laid his palm across Merlin’s forehead, swearing and sighing heavily.
Gwaine knelt on the opposite side of Merlin, and Lancelot ducked into the doorway of the tent, blocking most of the light from outside.
“Before you send for Gaius, I have an idea,” Gwaine said, his tone confident but cautious.
Arthur nodded and took his eyes off Merlin to let the knight know he was truly listening. Anyone with an idea would be heard today.
“Ealdor isn’t far from here. We’re less than twelve leagues, if my reckoning is right. Why not take him home?”
It wasn’t a bad idea, but he knew that moving Merlin in his condition could be dangerous. “He’s burning up. He likely shouldn’t be moved at all. What medicines do we have on hand for fever?”
Lancelot crouched down, laying a hand on Merlin’s leg. “Percy’s probably the best man for the job. If he hasn’t got what we need with him, he can likely make it out of something local if he can find it under all this snow. He took care of his family in these woods for years, living off the land.”
Looking up in surprise, Arthur nodded. “If you’re sure he knows what he’s doing, I would have him advise me. If Merlin can be moved, we’ll make for Ealdor at once. Surely his mother would want to care for him, especially if...”
He bit his tongue and looked back to Merlin, whose face looked like marble. “Send for Gaius in the meantime. Have him meet us in Ealdor.”
Lancelot called for Percy to get his pack, then to Leon and Elyan, relaying Arthur’s orders.
Merlin stirred, reaching out in his sleep.
Gwaine took his hand and leaned down over Merlin, pressing a kiss to his forehead, stroking his head. “We’re all here,” he whispered, the sadness in his voice apparent.
Arthur was used to seeing Gwaine treat barmaids with such affection, but the gesture toward Merlin surprised him. How could Gwaine feel so comfortable expressing his feelings for Merlin in front of him and Lancelot? It seemed a desperate gesture and Arthur’s face flushed with his anger.
“Enough,” he said, voice sharp. “Outside, both of you.”
Gwaine and Lancelot followed him out, heads bowing in close as he wrapped an arm around each of their shoulders, their backs turned to the tent.
“No goodbyes – tell the rest of the men as well – no one is to say goodbye or do anything that might lead Merlin to think he is dying, whether he is conscious or not. Gaius has always maintained the power of suggestion in healing. He’s seen it work for the good of as well as against a patient. The old man is right more often than he is wrong and we will not bet against his advice. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Sire,” the knights both agreed, Gwaine’s face flushing in what seemed a rare bout of shame.
“Bring a pail of snow and rags. We’ll try to cool him down until Percival can come up with something,” Arthur added, softening his tone. If he let his anger get the best of him, he’d only be giving Merlin his second-best.
“Already have,” Percival said, holding out a small vial of brownish liquid. “It’s chamomile, feverfew and pepper. Not the tastiest of medicines, but it usually breaks a fever. We should use cold compresses as well. If I had any vinegar...” Percival shrugged as Arthur took the vial.
“We’ll try this first. If it doesn’t work, we’ll have no choice but to take him to his mother tonight and hope she knows more about nursing a fever than a bunch of soldiers do.”
Doubtful, Arthur went back inside the tent, kneeling and lifting Merlin’s over-warm head onto his lap, whispering a prayer as he uncorked the small bottle with his teeth. He cupped Merlin’s jaw, willing him to wake. “This is going to taste terrible, but Percy says it’ll help your fever, so you will drink it, every drop.”
There was no response from Merlin, none at all.
Arthur watched his parted, flushed lips for a moment before gently sliding his thumb between them. He opened Merlin’s mouth and tilted his chin up. Pouring a small amount of the liquid onto Merlin’s tongue, Arthur rubbed down over the sweat-damp throat, willing him to swallow.
“Come on, come on,” he whispered. “It can’t work if we can’t get it down your gullet. Just-” Merlin swallowed convulsively and Arthur raised his eyes heavenward, whispering, “Thank you.”
The rest of the potion gradually went down Merlin’s throat, Arthur patiently stroking his neck each time he poured in another measure of the liquid.
When the vial was empty and he looked up, Gwaine stood glaring at him from the doorway of the tent. His arms crossed, he kicked gently at the pail full of snow at his feet, nodding at Merlin. “When he woke this morning, he expected someone other than me.”
“Hand me a cloth and that pail. We’ve got to get him cooled down,” Arthur said, blatantly avoiding the bait.
Gwaine sighed, scooping a handful of snow into a cloth and handing it to Arthur, who pressed it to Merlin’s forehead.
Merlin didn’t move or make a sound. Every time Merlin didn’t respond to something a healthy man would react to, it made Arthur more nervous.
“All he could think of was getting to you, as if you were the cure.”
Arthur gritted his teeth, gently lifting Merlin’s head to smooth the cloth across the back of his neck. “I’m no cure. I don’t know why he thought I could help. I don’t know why you brought him.”
Gwaine scoffed, a short, sharp laugh that made Arthur look hard at the man, who glared back. “If you think for one moment I wouldn’t go to the ends of the earth and back for Merlin, you’re greatly mistaken.”
Arthur sighed and nodded. “Gwaine, you know how I feel about Merlin. I just-”
“No, Sire, I don’t. I doubt he does and frankly, I doubt you know exactly how you feel about Merlin. But I do know how he feels about you and I won’t stand by and watch you literally abandon him in what might be his-”
“Outside, now, Sir Gwaine,” he snapped, fed up and absolutely unwilling to have this argument, any argument, over Merlin’s unconscious body. They stepped out of the tent and before Gwaine could open that mouth again, Arthur pushed him against a tree and laid a hand on his scabbard. “If you so much as hint that Merlin is dying in his presence again, you will find yourself on the other side of this life waiting for him.”
Gwaine’s hands were in the air - a good thing, too, as the other knights could see he was unarmed. Arthur didn’t want Gwaine dead, after all. Gwaine shook his head at the knights that Arthur could hear approaching. Smart man.
“I apologize,” Gwaine said in a low, tight voice that changed to a whisper as Arthur let go his sword. “You didn’t hear him, Arthur. You would never have left him if you had. Why would you go when you could see...”
Arthur shook his head, letting go of Gwaine’s tunic and walking into the edge of the woods, turning and running a hand back through his hair as Gwaine followed. Out of earshot of the other knights, Arthur continued. “I wouldn’t have left if he’d been in the state he’s in now. You know that.”
“Then why? It makes no sense.”
“He was fine when I left him. He...” Arthur started, looking up at the treetops, shaking his head, his hand going to his lips as if that could stop the words. “Last night, something happened between us.”
The heady rush of his blood thumping through his veins made him want to move, but he leaned against a tree and kicked his heel against it. He couldn’t make a scene over this. Gwaine might know, but the other knights couldn’t.
“So you walked away. That’s your answer for him, then?” Gwaine asked, disdain clear in his voice.
Unused to being spoken to with such blatant contempt, Arthur clenched his teeth shut on a scathing remark, knowing it would get him nowhere. “He wasn’t – he didn’t know what he was doing.”
“What did he do?” Gwaine’s voice was low and close. “What was so bad you felt you had to leave?”
Arthur clenched his fists, growling. He felt a hand close on his shoulder and together with Gwaine, took a deep breath. The hand fell away and he pushed the words out, knowing they’d never come to him again. “He... he kissed me.”
Gwaine grinned, shaking his head. “Unbelievable.”
Arthur looked up then, crossing his arms over his chest in impatience. “He cannot be led to believe that a certain... situation might be possible.”
“Because then so will you?” Gwaine raised his eyebrows, nodding in mock understanding. “No, it makes sense. You think you’re protecting him. And yourself.”
“You know what is expected of me, what I must do, whether or not I would choose it for myself. You hear the talk even more than I do, I’m sure. All of Camelot’s nobility already wonders why I’m not married with a half-dozen sons by now. And just imagine how my father would react to the news that I was courting another servant, and a male one at that. The last of his line, choosing to have no wife or heirs? He’d make Merlin disappear the instant he found out, and he would find out, Gwaine.”
Gwaine frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “You do realize Merlin’s a grown man, for all we treat him like our younger brother? He should have a say in this.”
Arthur shook his head. The instant he allowed either himself or Merlin the slightest leeway, it would be too late. He could never go back once that door was opened. “He deserves more. He should settle with someone who can... someone who won’t eventually betray him, whether they mean to or not.”
“He has no idea why you left. He thinks you’re angry about his secret.” Gwaine sighed and leaned heavily back against a tree. He looked as defeated as Arthur felt. “And you’re never even going to tell him the truth, are you?”
“It would only be more painful for him to know.” Arthur swallowed around the thickness in his throat and began walking back to the camp, clearly hearing the question Gwaine didn’t ask. More painful for him, or for you?
They’d settled on shifts again, apparently, because each time Merlin woke that day, there was a different knight tending his fever. Percival was gentle, but nearly silent. Leon’s touch was uncertain and abrupt, as though he was afraid he might do Merlin more harm than good. Lancelot prayed over him, stroking his hair. Gwaine hummed to him as he bathed Merlin’s chest and arms with icy water.
Through the haze, Merlin realized he was asleep far more than he was awake. Sometimes he was conscious, but couldn’t will his eyes to open.
The next time Arthur tended to him, he seemed agitated and distracted, fidgeting as he uncovered Merlin’s chest and letting the cool cloth roll from Merlin’s forehead.
“Just leave it off,” Merlin mumbled, the first words he could remember speaking since they got to the main camp. He opened his eyes and pulled the blanket back over himself. “I’m freezing anyway.”
“You’re hot enough to light the tent on fire, Merlin, which is precisely why we’ve been doing this all day,” Arthur said, smiling, though even as sick as he was, Merlin could see it wasn’t genuine.
“Could you send Gwaine in?” he asked, giving Arthur an excuse to leave if he wanted to. The Prince of Camelot shouldn’t nurse sick servants anyhow, and Merlin didn’t especially like Arthur seeing him like this. “I want to talk to him about something.”
When Arthur hesitated, Merlin thought about grabbing his arm and telling him to never mind, but he couldn’t. Arthur’s frown grew, and Merlin couldn’t believe his illness was the only reason behind it, no matter what Gwaine said.
“I’ll get him if you’ll drink some water for me,” Arthur promised, one arm sliding behind Merlin’s neck to support his head as Arthur lifted him up.
He leaned against Arthur, unable to do anything else with the man’s arm around him, and nodded, looking up at him. “Just a bit, then.”
Arthur pulled him closer, Merlin’s head on the comfortable cloth of Arthur’s gray tunic. He noticed the absence of mail and frowned. “You can have your under-tunic back. I’m not likely to need it anytime soon.”
“You’ve finally got your day off, Merlin. Don’t spend it fussing over me.”
The frosty metal cup was pressed to his lips and he closed his eyes, almost moaning in relief as the icy water flooded his mouth and slid down his throat. His whole body seemed to ache for that coolness. He gulped it down as fast as Arthur would let him have it.
“More?” Arthur asked, moving to refill the cup even as Merlin nodded his ascent. “You’re getting stronger, but we’re staying put until tomorrow. If your fever breaks, we’ll give you something to eat. Until then, it’s water and Percival’s foul tonics, I’m afraid.”
Merlin shrugged. “Nothing I’m not used to. Gaius seems to think apprentice is another word for taste-tester and he’s yet to make one I like.”
Arthur smiled and for a moment, Merlin did, too. That was the smile he’d been missing. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, though.
“We’ll see if we can’t find some honey to add to the tonics, if you’d like. I’m sure one of the knights has some stowed away in his pack.”
Merlin drained the cup again, this time taking it from Arthur. He felt a bit stronger, but as he tried to sit up, his head spun and he half-fell against Arthur’s shoulder, grabbing his arm for support. “Sorry. Thought I could...”
Turning Merlin in his arms, Arthur held him steady, their eyes locked together for a long moment before Arthur looked away, busying himself refilling Merlin’s cup. “I should have been there this morning.”
Merlin swallowed and shrugged again, “It’s fine. I know you have more important things going on and-”
Arthur turned back to him, pressing his fingers to Merlin’s lips, silencing him. He looked up, expecting to find Arthur annoyed at his rambling, but he wasn’t. His expression was as serious as the day Morgana had taken the throne from Uther.
The silence stretched between them, Arthur’s fingers falling away. He looked torn, lips parted as though he had something to say but couldn’t bring himself to say it.
“Listen, it doesn’t matter,” Merlin said. “You’re here now. Just look how you’re taking care of me. The Prince of Camelot mopping my brow. I’m honoured, you know,” he joked, broadening his smile.
“Don’t do that,” Arthur glared a little and Merlin nodded quickly, smile disappearing. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.”
Merlin’s heart thrilled to hear the apology, but Arthur was clearly uncomfortable.
“I understand,” Merlin said, sighing and shifting to lie back down on the bedroll, putting a bit more exhaustion behind his yawn than he actually felt. “I’m really tired. Can you get Gwaine now?”
It was all he could do to let Arthur leave him, but it was more than clear that Arthur was only there out of guilt for leaving him back at the other camp.
“I’ll be back tonight,” Arthur said, staring at the opening in the tent where a thin streak of pale sunlight still shone through. “Or Gwaine can sleep here if you’d prefer. I’ll take his place in Lancelot’s tent.”
“No,” Merlin said, not willing to give Arthur up altogether. “Just sleep here. I’m not a naked block of ice this time, after all,” he gave a weak laugh and rolled away, onto his side.
“Merlin,” Arthur began, but he didn’t answer and Arthur never finished.
Merlin heard his footsteps and the tent flap falling closed and a few minutes later, Gwaine came in and began wiping the cold, snow-filled cloth along his neck and face.
“He’s more worried than he can say, you know,” Gwaine said softly as he pulled the blankets away and gently sponged Merlin’s back and shoulders, sending chills up his spine.
“I could tell by the way he couldn’t wait to leave,” Merlin scoffed, rolling over to face Gwaine, pushing the cold rag away and pulling the blankets back over himself. “Are we really going to Ealdor tomorrow?” he asked, knowing Gwaine wouldn’t blame him for listening when they’d thought him to be asleep.
Gwaine pressed the cloth to Merlin’s forehead and sighed. “Heard that, did you?” Merlin smiled sheepishly. “Well, you seem to be improving steadily and since you’re awake, we might be able to manage it in the morning. Arthur won’t break camp this late in the day.”
“It’s been so long since I’ve seen my mother,” he said softly, thinking of the last time he’d seen her, when she’d been so ill and he’d destroyed Nimueh to save her and Gaius. It seemed a lifetime ago. “She and I used to be inseparable.”
“You haven’t been home in how long?” Gwaine asked, holding the cup to Merlin’s lips.
He drank deeply, not bothering to tell Gwaine he’d just had an entire cupful. “Well over a year, now. The last time was before our quest in the Perilous Lands.”
“You’ll be glad to see her, then,” Gwaine said, smiling. “And I’ll be glad to meet her. I’m sure she has some lovely stories about you.”
“Oh, and she’ll be all too happy to share them, I’m sure.” Merlin grinned and took another sip. When Gwaine finally took the cup away, he rolled back onto his side. “I never could lie to her. She knew the instant she looked at me whether I was hiding something or not.”
He’d never had a secret he didn’t share with her, not until he left home for Camelot. He longed to tell her everything when they’d visited, but there hadn’t been time or privacy for secrets. She still knew nothing of him meeting Balinor, the Great Dragon or how far he’d come with his magic. The only thing she’d known, without Merlin ever saying a word, was how strong his connection to Arthur truly was.
“Mothers are like that the world around, Merlin,” Gwaine said, taking the cup and setting it aside. “They know their sons inside-out.”
It was true. His mother had taken one look at him and known he was no longer only hers. “She figured out how I felt about him before I even realized.”
“Did she disapprove?” Gwaine asked in a low voice, leaning in close. “Even after what he did for Ealdor?”
“The opposite. That was actually the same day she said Arthur and I needed each other, that I belonged at his side. Shows what she knew,” he murmured, biting his lip.
“You saved his life by being at his side yesterday, Merlin. I think she was pretty well spot-on,” Gwaine said, smirking.
Yes, he could protect Arthur his entire life, but all that meant was that he’d go his entire life always wishing his life was different.
How could he be in Ealdor with Arthur again? His mom would know everything the moment she laid eyes on them. As much as he wanted to see her again, he didn’t think he could stand her pity, or another speech on how he was meant to be with Arthur, whether or not Arthur chose to acknowledge it.
“What is it? Is your shoulder giving you pain?” Gwaine asked.
Merlin shook his head and sighed. “I don’t want her to see me like this, Gwaine.”
“Sick as a dog because you’ve just saved three men’s lives?” Gwaine leaned over him, grinning and ruffling his hair. “You’ve looked worse after practice drills, trust me.”
Merlin swallowed hard and cleared his throat. He could get this out, and once he did, maybe Gwaine could help him deter Arthur from taking him to Ealdor. “Nothing has changed between me and Arthur, for all that we’ve been through together. I’m still just his servant. He clearly doesn’t feel the – whatever it is that’s supposed to be between us. I’m not sure if I do anymore, to be honest.”
It wasn’t honest, not really, but Merlin didn’t feel up to speaking enough to explain it fully. He hadn’t needed a Great Dragon to tell him he was inextricably connected to Arthur, but Arthur had never seemed to catch on. For all the people lecturing Merlin about their supposed connection, no one appeared interested in telling the Prince anytime soon.
And Merlin didn’t want a forced connection, anyhow. He wanted Arthur to look at him and just know, the way Merlin did. The way Merlin’s mum had.
“You don’t mean that,” Gwaine said, shifting around to stretch out in front of him, wrapping his arm around Merlin’s waist. “I’ve seen how you look at him.”
Merlin scoffed, flushing. “That doesn’t mean-”
“And how he looks at you, as well,” Gwaine interrupted, giving him a shake. “I wish the two of you could step back and watch yourselves. It’s ridiculous how obvious you both are.”
“Obvious?” Merlin repeated, his tone carefully disbelieving. “Arthur wouldn’t disgrace himself by... being obvious with me.”
In truth, Merlin had seen knowing looks pass between the knights on occasion and tried his best to tamp down his enthusiasm when speaking to Arthur. It was impossible not to respond when Arthur goaded him, though he didn’t think Arthur meant it as flirting.
“You two have a process,” Gwaine said, brushing his fingers through Merlin’s hair until he felt ready to melt, despite the conversation. “You poke at him, he pokes at you. You usually get the last word, but only just.”
“We have to do something to break up the monotony,” Merlin said, smiling softly. “I mean, how many deadly beasts can there be in Camelot?”
“One less, thanks to you,” Gwaine answered, grinning. “One more Prince, too.” Gwaine lifted his chin so Merlin was looking him in the eye. “You should have seen him when you fell. He looked ready to jump straight after you, and once you were out of the water, I swear he didn’t take a breath until we were sure you were alive. If you hadn’t been, I’m not sure he would have.”
“Gwaine, don’t.” Merlin shook his head, tucking his face down beside Gwaine’s bearded cheek. “I know he’s angry with me. I never got to tell him about my magic the way I wanted to,” he whispered, his voice almost a breath against Gwaine’s ear. “We spoke of it last night. He said he already knew about it and he wasn’t angry, but I was still so sick and now... today, he can barely look me in the eye. He can barely stand to be near me.”
Gwaine’s voice was so soft, his breath cool against Merlin’s cheek. “It’s not what you’re imagining. Arthur has issues of his own to work through. You’re getting caught in the crossfire. Just focus on healing. That should be your only concern right now. You’ll make yourself worse worrying like this.”
Merlin nodded, shivering. “I’m cold now,” he managed between chattering teeth. “Could you get another blanket?”
Gwaine patted his good shoulder and left to fetch him one. As soon as the tent flap fell closed behind him, Merlin held a hand over his chest, mouthing the only sleeping spell he knew, hoping casting it on himself would work. He couldn’t talk about Arthur anymore, couldn’t think about the way Arthur had looked at him earlier.
He pulled the blankets up to his chin, taking a deep breath and closing his eyes. Sleep swept over him like a black wave, pulling him swiftly under, and he went willingly, welcoming the respite from his pain.
Dinner was camp fare, far less than Arthur was used to and almost tasteless to boot, though Percival had found some sort of mint leaves and steeped them in their tea, so at least they weren’t drinking plain hot water again. The last of the stew sat over a low fire in the hopes that Merlin’s fever would break in the night and he’d be able to eat. None of them seemed to want to finish it off, not when there was any chance Merlin might need it.
Arthur delivered a bowl of stew to Lancelot, who was tending Merlin, then took his place among the knights around the fire, but Gwaine avoided his eye and didn’t speak to him.
He should never have said the things he had to Gwaine, should never have given voice to all he was feeling and thinking about Merlin. There was a chance – albeit a small chance from what Arthur knew of him – that Gwaine would think it best for Merlin to be privy to all Arthur had said. As a knight, he was sworn to secrecy, but Gwaine wasn’t raised with a knight’s honour and had always been a bit freer in his behaviour than the others.
As the sun began to set, Percival, Leon and Elyan readied their horses for the road. They were to ride for Camelot, he’d told them, and fetch Gaius. If they set out from Camelot the next morning, they would all reach Ealdor at nearly the same time. With both Gaius and Hunith working together, surely a cure could be found.
Gwaine watched the other knights tying on their packs, still obviously not looking at Arthur, even when only the two of them still sat by the fire.
Arthur sighed and stood, laying a hand on Gwaine’s shoulder as he passed. “Come with me,” he ordered, not bothering to look back and see if Gwaine followed. By the time he reached the edge of the woods, Gwaine was at his shoulder, keeping pace with him. “I need your assurance you will not speak to Merlin about what we discussed earlier.”
“You have it, Sire,” Gwaine said curtly, glaring. “Rest assured he has no idea why you’re treating him this way.”
Arthur rounded on him, hands clenched in fists at his sides. “You have no right to judge me, Gwaine.”
“As your knight, that’s true,” he said, his voice like ice. “But as your friend and his, I cannot help but want to slap sense into you both.”
“So help me, Gwaine,” he began, grasping the man’s wrist as Gwaine put a hand on his shoulder. “If you-”
“He thinks you’re angry with him because of his secret, that you were just being kind because he is so sick,” Gwaine said, his hand falling away as Arthur let go and took a step back. “He clearly doesn’t remember what happened last night. Even if he did, he doesn’t deserve your anger.”
“No, he doesn’t deserve it,” Arthur agreed, sighing. “Go on. Tell Lancelot I’ll take his place in a moment.”
Arthur paced amongst the trees as the three knights left camp, the night spilling like ink over the forest and down through the branches, the moon slipping through to light up the patches of snow here and there. Tomorrow would be warmer, and Merlin was improving.
He heard Gwaine and Lancelot speaking in low tones to one another and turned back to camp, ready to enter the tent as Merlin’s friend.
Merlin started awake, Arthur stirring in his sleep a few feet away, but not waking.
Merlin was parched, though as he began moving, he felt a bit stronger and wasn’t shivering anymore, either. He pushed the blankets away and shuddered as the cold winter night air hit his bare skin. He wrapped one of his blankets around his shoulders and rolled to his side.
Spotting the cup nearby, he drained what little was left in it. He pushed up on one elbow, testing his balance to see if he could manage to refill it himself from the pail and not wake Arthur. He wobbled a bit as he sat up, but his head seemed otherwise normal. He was weak, of course, but he wasn’t feverish or confused.
Crawling to the pail by the tent door, he scooped a cupful of water and gulped it down. The cool liquid was heaven as it slid down his throat. He filled the cup again, drinking more slowly this time. The night air was cold, though not abnormally so, and his stomach clenched with hunger.
Peeking out of the tent, he saw the campfire still burning, the water kettle hanging as it always did when Merlin forgot to put it away, from a makeshift stand over the smaller, smouldering cooking fire. It would still be warm, at least, and warm tea sounded a thousand times better than cold water.
He looked back at Arthur, whose slow, steady breaths meant he was deeply asleep. If he didn’t think he could do it alone, Merlin would wake him or just go without, but there was no need. He reached for the thinner of his borrowed tunics but discounted the idea of trying to get it on the way Gwaine had shown him by himself. Wrapping the blanket back around his shoulders, he sneaked out of the tent. Leon’s boots weren’t there, so he stood shakily on his tiptoes as he picked up Arthur’s, turning them upside-down one at a time and shaking them to make sure nothing had crawled inside in the night.
He stood for a moment, taking in their small camp – only one other tent, the central fire, the smaller cooking fire and three horses, who were tethered to a stand of trees at the edge of the clearing. He didn’t see anyone circling the camp, but he was sure one of the knights would be. They never all slept at once.
Clumping across to the fire as softly as he could manage in the too-big boots, he crouched and set the cup down on the ground. He considered and dismissed the idea of finishing off the last of the stew in the cook pot, which still rested on the embers of the fire.
The tea kettle was warm to the touch, but not hot, and even though he would have loved a steaming cup of tea, he was wary of using his magic and the night was too cold to bother fetching more wood and feeding the fire high enough, then waiting on the kettle to heat.
Merlin knelt, shivering as he did. The close-fitting smallclothes were too thin to protect his legs from the cold ground. He tucked the edges of the blanket under his knees and puffed heat into his freezing, cupped fingers.
Lifting the kettle, Merlin poured his cup full, inhaling the minty scent of the tea, letting his hands soak up the warmth that seeped through the cup. He drank slowly, letting the tea linger on his tongue. It was the best thing he’d ever tasted in his life. It cleared his head of the last of the cobwebs the fever had strung up, opened his eyes and made him take huge, long breaths of the fresh, clean winter air. It froze his lungs, but he didn’t mind. He could feel how cold it was, how warm the tea in his cup was, the chill of the gentle breeze against his face, every sensation just as it should be.
He closed his eyes and huddled in his blanket by the fire, finishing off the tea as his mind wandered. He’d not even woken when Arthur had come to their tent, but he was sure he’d been given him another potion, the last of its after-taste washed away by the first sip of the mint-leaf tea. Maybe it had been that last dose that had done it – had broken his fever – but Merlin didn’t think so.
He felt drained, not only physically, but magically as well. Could he have cast a spell in his confused, frozen state, raising his temperature to warm himself? He didn’t think so, though he did know a few spells that would have served the purpose. What if he had? That was rogue magic, not truly under his control. There was a way to test his theory, and no one but the knights for leagues around.
A log dropped in the fire, sending sparks high into the air as if encouraging him to try. He sent a gentle wave of magic at the pile of kindling nearby, lifting a few twigs and poking them into the white-hot embers below the flames.
Exhaustion swept over him like a wave, crashing down and stealing his breath. He reeled, leaning back on his hands for support, head bowed and eyes closed in an effort to stave off the dizziness. It felt exactly like before, only to a much lesser degree. It was proof enough that he’d caused his own fever.
Merlin turned away from the fire’s warmth and after a few calming, deep breaths of the chill winter air, the dizziness passed, leaving him bone-weary.
Leaving the empty kettle on the ground, Merlin took his cup back to the tent, quickly stepping out of Arthur’s boots and climbing back inside. He wrapped a blanket around himself as he sat and listened to Arthur breathe for a few moments. He’d done it before - often actually - when they’d been on patrol or out hunting. At the citadel, Arthur slept like a log, rarely moving or making a sound, his deep breaths like heavy sighing. Out in the woods, though, he tended to wake at the slightest provocation.
He looked like a painting when he slept, his face peaceful, lips parted, redder than normal against the pure white of the rolled-up linen beneath his head. How Arthur could still sleep so peacefully on a couple of thin blankets over the lumpy ground when he’d been raised knowing royal comfort, Merlin would never understand.
Shaking his head, he reached out to brush Arthur’s hair from his eyes, his stomach fluttering as his fingertips grazed Arthur’s forehead. Pulling his hand away, Merlin sat back on his heels, thinking of the call to arms as the Serkets attacked an outlying farming village.
He remembered everything from that moment to the instant he hit the ice. He even remembered Arthur’s face as he’d watched Merlin fall, though he kind of wished he had forgotten that bit. He remembered waking and feeling Arthur pressed all along him, Gwaine warm against his back, the two of them closer than Merlin had ever been to another human being and all of them skin-to-skin. More of Merlin’s skin than theirs, but small clothes were hardly concealing and as tightly as he’d been held between them, there hadn’t been a thing left to the imagination.
He closed his eyes, letting the memories flow like smoke across his mind. He took a deep breath and sighed quietly, his skin tingling with the remembered feeling of Arthur touching him, holding him close, gently insisting on keeping his warm thigh pressed between Merlin’s legs as they lay together.
He shook his head as his mind conjured up the touch of Arthur’s lips to his own, the feeling of Arthur’s hair between his fingers, the taste of his tongue.
Hand flying to his lips and eyes snapping open, Merlin shook his head. No, oh, Gods! He’d- Gods, it was real. He’d thought it was a dream, just something the closeness of being held had made his mind create as he slept, but no, he’d actually done it.
And Arthur had kissed him back.
As horrifying as it was to think he’d just grabbed Arthur without so much as a by-your-leave, it was nothing compared to that realization.
Arthur hadn’t been asleep and he’d kissed him back, not just tolerantly. He’d seemed reluctant at first, but Merlin distinctly remembered the slide of Arthur’s tongue along his own and a hand squeezing his thigh in encouragement.
He felt his face heat at the memory and pressed his hands to his cheeks, looking down at Arthur.
Those lips had touched his own.
Had that been the reason Arthur left him that morning? Of course it was. It explained everything, but was did that mean? Was he angry, or, in light of his carefully friendly behaviour, did he just want to pretend it had never happened? Had he thought that’s what Merlin was doing all day long, just acting like the entire thing hadn’t happened? How would they ever get anywhere together if they were both too stupid to just say it.
Say what, exactly? ‘Gee, that kiss was amazing. Let’s try it conscious this time?’
Merlin rolled his eyes and lay down, staring at Arthur’s profile. Everyone would recognize it someday. It would be on coins when Arthur was King, he was sure, but Merlin already had it memorized. He lifted his hand and held it over Arthur’s chest, wary of waking him, but unable to stop himself. He’d never get another chance. He moved to lie against Arthur, breathing in the clean earthen scent as he touched his cheek to Arthur’s shoulder. He rubbed his cheek there and laid his head down, his wounded arm stretched across Arthur’s stomach.
He breathed deeply, trying to relax and let sleep come, but every time he closed his eyes, he felt Arthur’s mouth against his own, their bodies pressed together. Heart racing at the memories, he decided to move away. He propped back up on his elbow, Arthur stirring as he started to pull his arm away.
He stilled, willing Arthur not to wake.
Arthur hummed and edged closer, face tilting toward his own so Merlin felt every breath against his lips.
Such a small space between them, just nothing almost, and Merlin shuddered with the heat that radiated off Arthur’s body all along his own – through thin tunic and thin small clothes. He took a deep, slow breath, reaching for a control that had long-since abandoned him. He shook his head, at a loss as to how to stop himself when he wanted. He needed this so badly and it was right there before him. Arthur had kissed him back, he had, and that one thought was all it took.
He leaned forward and touched his lips to Arthur’s, wincing at the sweetness of that mouth pressing against his own again. It felt like every good sensation he’d ever known – safety, warmth, softness, Arthur’s dizzying scent and the taste, Gods. He moaned, his eyes squeezed closed, and shifted closer, his thigh rubbing up over Arthur’s leg. It was too far, he knew, but he wanted to feel it everywhere, wanted to feel Arthur with as much of himself as he could.
An instant of response – of Arthur’s lips moving against his, Arthur’s hips arching up against his thigh and then it was over.
He swallowed hard and looked away, unable to stop his soft cry when Arthur’s hand curled tightly on his injured arm.
Arthur let go immediately, his harsh breath ghosting against Merlin’s cheek as he whispered, “Merlin?”
He nodded, humiliation swelling in his chest. He kept the embarrassment carefully in check behind his closed eyes, swallowing hard as he shifted his thigh away.
Arthur probably wouldn’t punch him, but Merlin knew from experience that Arthur was just as good at inflicting wounds with words alone. “I think I should check on the horses,” he whispered, dumbly, starting to roll away.
Arthur’s hand pressed into his lower back, stopping him. “No. You’re...”
Merlin opened his eyes and looked down at him, shaking his head a little, doing his best to smile though the light in the tent was dim. “I’m fine now – no fever.” He shrugged and tried to move away again, but Arthur only pressed him closer.
His other hand slid up Merlin’s neck and cupped over his forehead, and Merlin closed his eyes. It would be the last time and he wanted to remember how it felt.
“The horses are sleeping,” Arthur whispered, his breath ghosting over Merlin’s skin as his fingers slipped down his cheek, thumb brushing lightly across his lips.
Heartbeat thumping in his ears, Merlin held his breath, licking his suddenly dry lips. Arthur watched him do it, staring at his mouth. When their eyes met, Arthur inhaled deeply, then gave him a slight nod.
Merlin nodded, too, biting his bottom lip, arching back into the touch as Arthur’s fingers combed through his hair, squeezing gently on the back of his neck, urging him down. He closed his eyes, falling into the kiss as willingly as he’d fallen over the ledge; the heady rush much the same but the destination so much better.
Arthur enveloped him, even from below, strong arms circling his body, pulling him closer, moving him up and over until Merlin lay nearly on top of him, one thigh between Arthur’s, the hot press of groin against groin as dizzying as the tongue that slipped between his lips and licked him open.
He held agonizingly still as his heart leapt and his blood raced through his veins, trying desperately to focus on Arthur’s lips and tongue and hands every time he felt the strong body move beneath him. He wouldn’t rub against it, he couldn’t, though his body ached with the need to. Arthur’s hand drifted down his back, lower and lower, rubbing down over his arse, grabbing the back of his thigh and pulling him close, pulling in waves, in a rhythm, in and in until Merlin was moaning and Gods, moving, rocking up and back against the twin of his own arousal.
A moan hummed against his lips and he pulled back, opening his eyes, Arthur’s smeared-red lips panting and smiling softly up at him. Arthur put a hand on his chest and pushed him back. “You’re awake.”
Merlin nodded nervously, swallowing hard. “I only just remembered... you know... last night.”
Arthur nodded, smirking. “I wondered if you would. I guess I have my answer.”
Face flushing, Merlin slowly lowered his lips to Arthur’s again, this time their kiss was slow and lingering, though his pulse still hammered a stampede of hoof-beats against his ribs.
Arthur’s tongue slipped along his lips, tickling them open and Merlin shyly brushed his own against it, the languid, sleepy pace calming him, soothing his fears away.
He pulled gently back and looked down at Arthur’s face as fingers combed through his hair. He didn’t know if he should apologize, but it felt ridiculous to do it now, after they’d just kissed again. “I’m glad we’re both awake now.”
Arthur lifted his chin and slowly, Merlin raised his head and looked into Arthur’s eyes.
“I should never have let you,” Arthur whispered, shaking his head. “You’re enough of a distraction as it is.”
Merlin swallowed hard, waiting for a smile or another kiss to soften the words into a tease, but as they stared at one another, Merlin felt as if something irrevocable was slipping between them. He couldn’t think of anything to say, though he desperately wanted to.
When he closed his eyes, Arthur pressed his fingers to Merlin’s lips. “Enough,” he breathed, the word a plea more than a command. “We cannot-”
Merlin turned his face away, nodding. He’d known what Arthur’s answer would be, though he’d hoped he’d be wrong. Too late, he thought of stilling the moment with magic. It slipped along through his fingers like sand.
“No one can know,” Arthur whispered, his arm strong on Merlin’s waist even as Merlin tried to move away. “Not even the knights - I mean it, Merlin.” His brow furrowed as if he was asking a question, even though his words were clipped and serious.
“All right,” Merlin replied quietly, unable to say more. He quickly pulled himself away and knelt up, feeling like a fool. How long had Arthur been humouring him? The whole time? Taking a calming breath and holding still as his head slowly stopped spinning, he shoved the thoughts from his mind.
Best to begin as one meant to continue. Gods, how he hated that expression.
Like a bucket of cold water, Arthur’s words had shocked him back into reality, holding up in front of him what he’d tried so hard to forget.
He was a servant, and he would obey. Arthur couldn’t help it any more than Merlin could. He knew that, but when he’d let himself dream about this moment, he’d always pictured the two of them connecting only as men, not as Prince and servant.
Arthur followed, sitting up, a hand to Merlin’s arm. “Are you all right?”
Reaching for his cup, he moved away from the touch, wishing he knew a spell to make himself vanish into thin air. Even evaporating into the winter wind would feel better than this, this aching humiliation.
He scooped up some water and took a sip, clearing his throat. “I’m fine,” he lied, staring into the cup. “Apart from my shoulder and ankle. My magic is a little off, so I’m not going to try to heal them right now.”
“A little off?” Arthur asked, taking the cup when Merlin offered it.
“It’s making me a bit dizzy. Happens sometimes when I’ve cast a lot, or something powerful,” he explained, grateful to think about anything apart from that kiss and what Arthur had said, but wishing he didn’t have to speak at all.
“You’ve been asleep for the better part of two days. You haven’t cast a thing; we would’ve seen it.” Arthur laid down, one hand tucked beneath his head, the curve of his bicep flexing in the soft light of the campfire outside.
Merlin looked away again, shaking his head. He couldn’t even look without wanting to touch. “My fever never broke,” he said, his voice sounding flat even to him. “It just disappeared. I think I must’ve created it to warm myself.”
“Is that even possible?” Arthur asked with obvious doubt.
“I cast once before when I was this ill,” he said, glancing at Arthur apologetically, then looking quickly away again. “I conjured the light orb in the cave for you, even though I was unconscious the whole time you were gone.”
Arthur’s scoff was harsh in the stillness of the night air. “I should have known that was you.”
Merlin shrugged, scooting his pile of borrowed clothing closer and starting to pull on the trousers over his smalls. He pulled the tunic on, wincing as he stretched his sore arm. “I’m going to stretch my legs,” he said by way of explanation, and slipped out of the tent.
He sat by the fire, not even pretending by walking around, and stared into the flames. Arthur didn’t follow him, and every moment the tent flap stayed closed was both cruel torture and a relief.
When Lancelot came by on his patrol, he sat down and wrapped an arm around Merlin, not saying a word.
Whether the man had heard him and Arthur or just knew Merlin well enough to know when he needed not to talk, Merlin was grateful for the silent companionship. After a while, Lancelot patted his leg and nodded in the direction of his and Gwaine’s tent. “Get some rest.”
When the fire began to die down in earnest, he crawled into the tent with Gwaine, pulling the covers to his chin. Gwaine woke and smiled over at him, sighing as Merlin gently shook his head, hoping Gwaine would be as perceptive as Lancelot had been. “My fever’s gone,” he managed to whisper, but even that hurt, somehow.
“Come here,” Gwaine whispered, reaching for Merlin, pulling him in so Merlin’s head lay on his shoulder. Gwaine’s cheek pressed against his forehead, checking his temperature. “You’re better? Then what’s got you so upset?”
Merlin closed his eyes and took deep breaths, willing the ache in his chest to be chased away by his friend’s unfailingly bright spirit. He couldn’t speak. He felt as though he would splinter into a million pieces if he spoke.
“Is it Arthur?” Gwaine asked gently.
Taking a shuddering breath, Merlin reached for Gwaine’s hand and squeezed in answer.
“Oh,” Gwaine whispered, his voice a reflection of the anguish twisting in Merlin’s chest. Gwaine tightened his hold, fingers lacing through Merlin’s. “What happened?”
Merlin shook his head, his eyes still closed. “He-” His almost silent whisper broke off as the words clogged his throat and stuck there. He could barely breathe past them. He squeezed Gwaine’s hand again, hoping he’d understand.
“I wish I could make him see,” Gwaine whispered, pressing a kiss to his temple. “He doesn’t know what he’s giving up.”
Merlin choked down his tears, turning away onto his side, unable to be so close to another person, even to Gwaine, right now.
“Try to sleep.” Arms tucked in under and around him to circle his chest and pull him into the curve of Gwaine’s body. “You’ve been through so much, Merlin, but you’re going home tomorrow.”
Gwaine held him in a strong hug that didn’t end. It felt so entirely different to be held for comfort’s sake instead of for warmth. It was wonderful, but hurt, too, looked at in the same light as Arthur’s unwillingness to do the same for him.
He breathed deeply, summoning control. Home, Ealdor – it would mean time to collect his thoughts and dignity before heading back to his life in Camelot. He would see his mother, for once grateful that she wouldn’t need an explanation to realize what must have happened. She would just know, and she’d understand.
She’d make sense of it all for him and help him find a way to forget and slip back into his proper role as servant and sometimes friend. He would learn to be grateful for even that much of Arthur.
Gwaine kissed his shoulder and hair, arms tightening around his chest. “You deserve him, Merlin. Don’t ever believe that you don’t,” he whispered, drawing out the tears that Merlin had been desperately holding back.
They broke through his thin barrier of pride and wracked his body. He shook with them, but tried not to make a sound, not even bothering to wipe them away. As he choked on a gasp, the back of Gwaine’s hand brushed over his cheeks.
“That’s it, my friend.” Gwaine’s fingers wove back through his hair. He didn’t say it was all going to work out, or that Merlin still had a chance, or that Merlin was a fool, though he supposed the last hadn’t needed to be said. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. Just let it out.”
He pressed the back of his hand to his mouth to stifle a sob, the tent prisming all around him through his tears. “I knew. I knew and it still feels like I’m splitting open,” he whispered, shaking his head in disbelief, pulling in great gulping breaths, trying to calm himself.
How long had he felt this way about Arthur? Years, and every single moment of those years, he’d told himself this would be the outcome if he ever told Arthur how he felt. He’d known with every fibre of his being that Arthur couldn’t feel the same way about a servant. About him.
If Arthur had screamed or laughed at him, it couldn’t have hurt this badly. That they had shared kisses before Arthur let him down was no comfort. It made it worse.
Now he knew Arthur’s flavour, the feel of his fingers on the back of Merlin’s neck, the peaks and valleys of his body as they pressed together, fitting like lock and key. How could Merlin be close to him every day and pretend he didn’t know those things, didn’t want them again and again for all of his life?
Gwaine’s hand opened wide over his chest, a reassuringly strong presence as if he knew Merlin felt pain – actual pain – there. “Shh, Merlin,” he soothed, running his fingers back through Merlin’s hair, over and over.
“How can I-” he began, his grief a hard stone in his throat. He shook his head, unable to finish, but Gwaine pressed a kiss to his shoulder.
“You will be able to carry on,” he promised, his certainty giving Merlin the smallest bit of hope. “Your feelings for him make you the best one to protect him, and you know that.”
Merlin nodded slowly, though he wanted to deny it. He wanted to run, as far and as fast as he could and never lay eyes on Arthur again, never hear him speak Merlin’s name or share another moment with the man.
Or the opposite, entirely. Now that he knew he would never have it, he wanted all of it tenfold as badly. He closed his eyes tightly and growled, pounding his fist into the blankets, desperate for any sensation but the burrowing, twisting pain that found its way deeper every moment.
“It’s not fair,” Gwaine softly said against his ear, taking his throbbing fist and pulling it open, thumb rubbing over Merlin’s fingers. “But you had to try.”
“No, I didn’t. I knew what his answer would be,” he croaked, turning to press his face into the blankets beneath him.
“He cares for you, Merlin,” his friend whispered. “You must see that.”
“I know,” he said thickly, swallowing hard. Even now, sobbing in Gwaine’s arms over Arthur’s rejection, Merlin could admit it. “I know he does.”
“Then hold onto that,” Gwaine said quietly, fingertips combing Merlin’s fringe across his forehead.
He nodded gently, taking a deep breath and holding on to an image behind his closed eyes. Arthur stood, silent and brooding at the corner window of his chambers. The fire Merlin was tending bathed Arthur’s bare back, neck and arms in a warm light and Merlin drank in the sight. Suddenly, Arthur turned away from the window, smiling softly at him for no reason at all.
Merlin took another deep breath and blew it out shakily, his tears finally easing.
Gwaine pulled away for a moment, reaching to his pack and pressing a handkerchief into Merlin’s slack hand.
“I’ll ruin it,” he protested weakly, fingers sliding over the fine embroidery at the corner.
“That’s what they’re made for,” Gwaine said, pulling at his shoulder until Merlin turned to face him.
He swiped quickly at his eyes and nose with the cloth, knowing he must look exactly how he felt. He sighed and reached for Gwaine’s hand, lacing their fingers together, pulling their joined hands up beneath his chin. When he could breathe without gasping at all, he looked up at Gwaine, seeing only concern and affection.
Emotions stripped too raw to accept either without the tears starting again, Merlin closed his eyes and pleaded softly, “Don’t let go of me.”
“Never,” Gwaine swore. He laid his forehead against Merlin’s, inhaling deeply before pressing a soft kiss to his lips, his forehead. “Sleep, my friend. It will be easier tomorrow,” he promised, though Merlin didn’t believe him.
It would never be easy between him and Arthur again.
Difficult as it was to feel every minute difference of another body besides Arthur’s holding him so closely, he couldn’t bring himself to move away from Gwaine’s offered comfort.
Gwaine shifted onto his back, wrapping an arm around his shoulders and pulling Merlin with him, holding him close.
Hand still clasped with Gwaine’s, he rested his head on his friend’s chest just as he’d rested on Arthur. The slow, steady rhythm of Gwaine’s heartbeat under his ear pulled at his exhaustion.
Wrapped in the warmth of his friend’s embrace, the sharp edge of grief dulled by the tears he’d shed, he finally drifted off to sleep.
Chapter 3: Do Not Dull Thy Palm with Entertainment
On the road to Ealdor, Merlin and Arthur must make peace with Arthur's decision.
Merlin woke to fingers carding through his hair and his cheek pressed to warm, smooth skin, Gwaine’s heartbeat thudding against his ear in a slow, steady rhythm. “Mmm, morning,” he hummed, stretching. As the covers fell away from his skin, he shivered, tucking quickly back down against Gwaine’s chest. If the man wanted him to move, he would have to say so. “I’m freezing again,” he said, slightly worried about his temperature, but he really didn’t feel as bad.
Gwaine’s fingers wove through his hair, the back of his hand resting briefly on Merlin’s forehead. “Your fever’s not returned,” Gwaine assured, chuckling. “It’s just chilly.” He pulled the blankets back up around their shoulders, folding his arm beneath his head. He didn’t seem in a hurry to get up either. “I heard the camp stirring. We won’t have much longer, lazy daisy.”
Merlin stiffened at the name, sighing and pushing up, one hand on the centre of Gwaine’s strong torso, looking down at his friend. “Best not linger. Arthur hates it when-”
“Wake up, you two!” Both of them turned as the tent flap was pushed aside and Arthur’s face appeared, looking decidedly annoyed. “Get up. We’ve got a long ride and we don’t want to keep your mother and Gaius waiting.” Arthur tossed Merlin’s now-dry boots into the tent, though not at Merlin himself. Surprising, given his apparent mood.
“All right, just give me a moment to get my eyes open,” Merlin said, looking back down at Gwaine. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Arthur’s head pull out of the tent. “May I?” he asked Gwaine, shifting to sit up, his thumbs hovering over Gwaine’s swollen, bruised nose.
“I don’t think it’s broken, but I’ll buy you a tankard in the next town we come to if you can make it stop throbbing,” Gwaine said, looking down his nose. “I must look like a raccoon with these bruises.”
“A bit,” Merlin said, smiling. “I’m not sure this will do much, but it’s worth a try.” He laid his thumbs on either side of the swelling, barely touching the bluish purple skin. “Senthuis alreya heathu.”
He watched Gwaine’s expression as he cast, seeing wonder in the dark eyes as they witnessed his magic up close for the first time.
Gwaine gasped and Merlin jerked his hands away quickly, but the bruises lifted, the swelling shrank a bit and Gwaine laughed, fingers touching the bridge of his nose. “Much better, thank you.”
Smiling in relief, Merlin shivered, tucking back down under the blankets, his head on Gwaine’s chest again, fingers brushing back and forth where his hand lay trailing over Gwaine’s side. He just wanted a moment more of peace before he faced Arthur. “I’m sorry I hurt you. It was surprising to wake up like that, to say the least.” He felt his face heat as he thought of himself sandwiched between Gwaine and Arthur, the memory of so much bare skin touching everywhere along his body still fresh in his mind.
“I can imagine. Especially since you’re not accustomed to it,” Gwaine said, ruffling Merlin’s hair and grinning down with a teasing smile. “Someday it will be old hat to you and I’ll never get to see your face redden.”
Merlin closed his eyes. There were times when Gwaine’s smile and teasing felt like a brick to his chest. “I doubt it.” After a few moments, he sighed and patted Gwaine’s side, rolling away to sit up again, casting a spell to fill the tent with warm air as he crouched, running his hands through his hair. “Well, I’ve got a hungry prince to feed. Thanks for...” Merlin gestured at the blankets and gave him a half-smile. “Well, thanks.”
“Anytime,” Gwaine answered, kneeling up, the blankets falling away. He was dressed in only his smalls and Merlin looked away quickly, pretending he didn’t see the state Gwaine was in.
Mornings did that to him, too, usually.
He nodded, pausing at the door to the tent, steeling himself for whatever Arthur might throw at him. Literally or figuratively.
“It’s about time,” Arthur barked. He chucked his leftover breakfast into the fire before looking at Merlin. “Sorry. I’m just... Lancelot made breakfast while you were sleeping. He thought you could use an extra candlemark or two of rest.”
For an instant he wondered what he’d done to earn Arthur’s ire this time. He wouldn’t have guessed Arthur would be angry at him about the night before, but Arthur could get worked up about dust on his windowsill. Why did Merlin always hope for more consideration? “I’m not hungry, thanks,” he said, warming his fingers at the fire.
“No, me neither, not after last night,” Arthur said quietly, the words spearing into Merlin as sharp as a crossbow bolt.
He didn’t look up. He couldn’t. His face burned with shame and the sinking feeling that this was more than Arthur’s usual morning moodiness.
Maybe he’d lost far more than he’d thought when he’d kissed Arthur. The thought made him unsteady on his feet. “Could we please not talk about it? Ever?” His voice barely wavered, but Arthur still obviously heard.
He looked sharply up at Merlin, anger poorly-concealed and showing in the slight hitch of his upper lip. “I had thought I’d asked as much before you left my tent.”
“If you’re trying to make it worse, you’re doing a damned fine job of it.” Merlin felt sick as soon as he’d said it, his throat clogging as he swallowed hard. Before Arthur could yell, he said, “I’m sorry. I’m not altogether here this morning, Sire.”
“When are you ever?” Arthur threw a stone into the fire, not looking up. “Eat. I don’t care if you’re not hungry; you need the nourishment and I’ll not have you fainting and falling from the saddle. Your mother wouldn’t thank me for breaking your head.”
Merlin opened his mouth to protest, but just then Gwaine came out of the tent, shaking his hair back from his face and frowning. “What are we talking about?”
As Merlin looked in disgust toward the hanging pot of thick wheat meal, Arthur stood and slung an arm around his shoulders, yanking him back as if showing him to Gwaine, his false smile and the weight of his arm on Merlin’s shoulders made his chest ache.
Arthur’s smile was the one he saved for court functions. “My bean pole of a servant isn’t hungry. Tell him to eat, Gwaine; maybe he’ll listen to you.”
Merlin ducked out from under Arthur’s arm, busying himself with bowls and cups for him and Gwaine.
Gwaine didn’t respond to Arthur, instead coming to stand next to Merlin by the fire. When Arthur shrugged and walked away toward the opposite end of camp, Gwaine turned and took the bowls from Merlin’s hands, setting them down.
Merlin clenched his jaw, as angry as he was humiliated. “I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?” he whispered, holding in the sigh that might let loose every emotion he had at once.
Gwaine moved in front of him, cutting off his view of Arthur’s retreating back, hands on Merlin’s face, forcing Merlin to look at him. “It will pass,” he whispered, “He can never stay angry with you, Merlin.”
“Yeah, well,” Merlin shrugged, not looking Gwaine in the eye. “He doesn’t have to be mean about it, does he? I’m humiliated enough already.”
“I’ve something better than pottage. Come here.” Gwaine led him over to the tent they’d shared, crouching to rummage through his pack. He came up with two cloth bundles of cheese and dried meat, handing one to Merlin. Keeping his voice low, he said, “It startled Arthur, seeing us like that, you know.”
Merlin looked away, taking a bit of cheese. It stuck in his throat as he swallowed. “More likely he’s upset I was still here at all. I should have just gone on to Ealdor alone last night.”
“If you had, my tent would have been cold and we’d all be tracking you down by now,” Gwaine said, a soft smile on his lips as he looked in Arthur’s direction. “He likes to keep an eye on you, you know.”
“No, he doesn’t, but he should,” Merlin said, his stupid, blindly-enduring hope slipping a little through his carefully straight-faced delivery. “I’m quite valuable,” he teased, the corners of his lips turning up as he glanced sideways at Gwaine, who bumped their shoulders together and laughed softly.
“Too expensive for the likes of him,” Gwaine said, smirking. “Finish up. He’ll put us both in the stocks if we don’t get a move on.”
They ate as they packed up Gwaine’s tent and then the cooking things, now cool to the touch. He nearly dropped the kettle on his foot anyway when he tripped on a root.
“Careful,” Gwaine said, stopping the kettle from rolling with his boot and grabbing Merlin’s elbow to steady him. “I’ll take that if you take the blankets,” he said, and Merlin gave him a grateful smile.
As Gwaine handed him a wadded quilt, Arthur came up behind him, wrapping an arm around Gwaine’s shoulders and leaning his head in close, stage whispering, “Merlin’s always a bit clumsier in the mornings. Isn’t that right, Merlin?”
Gwaine stepped away, kneeling to shove a coiled rope into his pack, fury plain on his face as he looked up at Merlin.
“Yes, Sire,” Merlin said, touching Gwaine’s knee with his boot as Arthur turned away. He shook his head in warning, willing Gwaine to remain calm. There would be hell to pay if this turned the two men against one another. Merlin would never be able to choose between them.
Despite his behaviour that morning, Arthur was still his friend, would always be, he hoped, at least in some small way. He didn’t think he could go back to how things were in the beginning, when Arthur had only ever seen him as a nuisance.
Gwaine shoved the last of his things into his pack and, throwing one more look of carefully-checked anger in Arthur’s direction, stood up, shouldering it.
The morning was dripping wet, the snow falling in great heavy heaps from the branches overhead, splatting thickly on the forest floor. Merlin’s boots had dried by the fire for an entire day, the leather stiff and unyielding from all the abuse it’d taken. Still, they were more comfortable than Leon’s had been and kept out the worst of the melting snow.
“Merlin, I could use a hand with my horse-” Gwaine began, but Arthur stepped between the two of them, raising a hand in the air.
“I think you’ve had Merlin long enough, Sir Gwaine. My tent needs seeing to and I’m eager to put horseshoe to packed dirt and be on our way,” Arthur said, smiling his non-smile, the one that Merlin loathed.
“Follow me – I have a task for you,” Arthur ordered Merlin, still smiling, waving him into the tent. Once inside, he dropped the grin and shook his head. “Rolling blankets?” he asked, disgust evident in his tone. “You won’t find me treating you like an invalid just because you managed to go for a swim in winter.”
“No, Sire,” he answered, picking up the nearest blanket and beginning to roll it anyway. It had to be done and likely as not he’d be the one that ended up doing it, no matter what Arthur said.
“You healed Gwaine’s nose,” he said, almost accusingly. “How is your...” Arthur made a waving gesture in the air between them, frowning at the blanket in Merlin’s hands. “For Gods’s sake, Merlin, put that down and pay attention.”
“I don’t actually flail my arms about like that, you know,” he said, smirking and tossing the blanket onto the pile of supplies by the tent door. “And it’s fine, I suppose. Why? Worried you’ll need saving between here and Ealdor?” He picked up another quilt and began rolling it as well.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. “The fever hasn’t returned?”
Before he could so much as open his mouth to answer, Arthur’s palm pressed against his forehead. He knocked it away with the back of his hand, ducking a bit. “I wish people would stop doing that. You have no idea how annoying it is.”
“As annoying as, say, a servant who cannot stand to have a single conversation without managing some sort of backtalk?” Arthur asked, tilting his head to the side, disheveling his hair.
Merlin set down the blanket and picked up the last. “Oh, it’s far more annoying than that, Sire.”
Merlin looked up in time to see Arthur’s satisfied smirk. “But you said-”
“What I said, I said over a year ago, Merlin, and you’ve hardly listened up to this point, have you? Besides, the knights call me by my name away from the citadel. It’s awkward, you being the only one bowing and scraping.”
“I’m not bowing and scraping,” Merlin said, shaking his head just a little. The abrupt change from Arthur throwing insults at him to being concerned and kind was too odd for him to decipher. “It’s awkward for me, too, you know. The way you keep switching between prat and... friend.”
Arthur shifted in the uncomfortable silence that followed. He sighed heavily and laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin flinched at the touch, and Arthur sighed again, this time with less frustration behind it.
“Listen to me, Merlin,” he began, and something about his tone made Merlin stop what he was doing and give Arthur his full attention. They were close, closer than they usually were to one another. “I apologize for... for my reaction this morning.”
It was sincere, Merlin could tell, but he wished he could go back in time and leave the tent so he wouldn’t have heard it. He didn’t ever relish hearing Arthur say he was sorry for his actions, not even ones Merlin thought warranted the apology.
Arthur’s apologies were alternately like admissions of failure or blatant accusations instead of heartfelt remorse for mistakes. He might as well have been flogging himself, saying, “I’m debasing myself like this for you, because of you.”
It turned Merlin’s stomach.
He took a deep breath, knowing he’d only made the whole thing worse by pausing to think about it. “No need for an apology. You didn’t know where I went last night. I’m sure you-”
“I knew where you were,” Arthur interrupted, his voice low. He let his hand fall from Merlin’s shoulder, head tilted down to watch his own hands as he ran a thumbnail over a scrape on his palm. “As much as I’ve come to expect your... impertinence, I thought for once you’d obey a direct order.”
Merlin furrowed his brow in confusion. Not only did he not remember a direct order not to sleep in Gwaine’s tent, but Arthur really hadn’t the right to order such a thing, especially not after he’d refused Merlin.
“You never said I had to sleep here.” When Arthur didn’t look up or say anything, Merlin reached for their soiled clothing, quickly stuffing everything into a duffle indiscriminately. It would all likely be relegated to the rag pile when they got back to Camelot anyway, and he wanted out of the tent as soon as humanly possible.
Arthur looked over his shoulder as if he thought someone might be listening through the tent wall. “I told you not to speak of what happened,” he whispered, his voice tight with poorly-concealed anger. “I mentioned the knights specifically.”
Arthur’s eyes locked on his, daring. He should know by now that Merlin never backed down from a dare, spoken or not. “What makes you think I told him?”
The returned glare sharpened, the apology apparently replaced with contempt. “I heard you, Merlin.”
“You couldn’t have, because I told no one, not even my closest friend, not even when he asked.” Merlin whispered fiercely, resenting the hell out of this conversation and the presumptions Arthur had made, mostly because he was right. Gwaine had known without him saying, that was true enough, but Merlin hadn’t told him he was wrong. He’d needed every moment of Gwaine’s sympathy. That Arthur would deny him even a friend’s comfort just made him angry. Merlin yanked the drawstring on the duffle and tossed it so hard the tent wall shook.
“I’m sure he could guess what happened, the way you were...” Arthur cut himself off with a frustrated growl, anger slowly falling from his face as Merlin sat there, dumbfounded, heart in his throat. He shook his head, but Arthur nodded. “I heard you...”
Crying. Gods, he’d cried, and not as quietly as he’d thought, apparently. Face flushing, he brushed past Arthur and crouched at the door, collecting the blankets. “It won’t happen again.”
A promise he didn’t know if he intended to keep, and Arthur likely knew it as well as Merlin did, but at least he didn’t say that, too.
“See that it doesn’t.” Arthur’s hand closed on the back of his neck, pulling him around so they were face to face. “You understand why I ask it.”
“Of course, Sire,” he whispered, forcing himself to smile, quickly looking down at the blankets in his arms, not quite brave enough to look into Arthur’s eyes. When he saw the small shake of Arthur’s head out of the corner of his eye, he realized what he’d said, his fake grin falling. “Arthur,” he croaked out, too late, stumbling as he grabbed the duffle and ducked out of the tent.
Arms full of supplies, the only place he could go was the side of the camp where Lancelot was saddling Arthur’s horse. He felt like dropping the whole lot and running until his legs gave out, which, judging by their weakness, wouldn’t be all that far.
He dumped the load onto the ground-cloth Lancelot had stacked everything else on and gave the knight his brightest smile. “Morning, Lancelot! How goes the packing?”
“You don’t have to do that,” Lancelot said, looking pointedly at his plastered-on grin. “Go ahead and frown - I won’t ask if you don’t wish me to.”
For a moment he considered laughing and forcing the facade, but Lancelot knew him too well to be fooled and Merlin knew he would be true to his word. “Thanks,” he said, breathing out hard, shaking his head. “I- I just don’t feel much like myself this morning.” Such an understatement, but it would have to do.
“You nearly died. It’d throw any man off-balance for a day or two,” Lancelot said with a small grin, handing him an apple and nodding at Hengroen. “Bribe him for me? Stubborn fellow won’t let me tighten this.”
Merlin held the fruit on his open, flat palm for the horse to nibble, the rough whiskers around his lips tickling Merlin’s hand. He patted the stallion’s nose with his free hand, watching as Lancelot thumped him hard on his ribs, one hand wound around the girth strap, ready for the moment when the horse finally gave in and exhaled.
“You’ll feel better when we get to Ealdor. Leon is bringing Gaius – did you hear?” Lancelot asked, yanking on the girth strap of Arthur’s stallion. The horse neighed softly and shook its mane and Lancelot gave it a pat, slipping the strap through the buckle and securing it.
Merlin pressed his cheek to the white splotch on the horse’s forehead. “Gwaine told me, but I wish they weren’t. I’m fine now and he’ll have ridden all that way for nothing,” he said, moving to help Lancelot settle a supply pack behind the saddle. He steadied it while the knight tied it into place. “Mum will be beside herself with all the company. Don’t know where everyone will sleep, but she’ll figure it out. She always does,” he said, thinking of their sleeping arrangement the night before the skirmish, Arthur’s foot in his face and Gwen and Morgana cuddled together for warmth.
If he’d known then how things would be now, he would have fought harder to keep the four of them together, to make sure Morgana hadn’t drifted away from them. She’d even been kind to Merlin’s mum, never once complaining about the food or the floor.
“Hunith will send us to a field outside of town, I’d imagine,” Lancelot said, chuckling. “It’s what I would do with our lot.”
Merlin shook his head, pushing away his regret as he’d done so many times since Morgana had taken Camelot.
“Mum will find room for all of us, and if we bring something, she’ll cook, too. I was thinking of stopping to fish on the way, if you think we can talk Arthur into it. Her larder isn’t big enough for the seven of us.”
“Fishing, eh?” Lancelot gave him a conspiratorial grin. “I think we can manage something better than that, and away from lakes.”
“Yeah,” he laughed, flushing. “Arthur would likely love to shoot something this morning.”
“When have you known him not to?”
Merlin crouched down on the ground-cloth to adjust the buckles on Arthur’s pack, remembering a time when Arthur had no taste at all for hunting. No one else knew that he’d lied for the Prince, the first hunt after he’d killed the Unicorn. That morning, Arthur’d taken up his brooding stance at the corner window of his chambers, silent even when Merlin goaded him. He’d brought a huge breakfast with extra helpings of all the meats and had taken a sausage from the platter and made satisfied noises as he’d eaten it.
With obvious reluctance, that silence had turned into a carefully-worded, quiet refusal to join the hunt. He’d helped Arthur strip back down to his breeches and return to bed.
Merlin had drawn the curtains and gone to lie to the King without a second thought. No one else would ever know that Arthur hadn’t developed a severe headache and upset stomach, or that the lunch Merlin gathered in a large square of cloth hadn’t been for himself at all.
“Wool-gathering won’t get us on the road any quicker, my friend,” Gwaine said, clapping a hand on his back. “Did I hear something about a hunt? Please, Gods, let it be something we can eat!”
“We’ll need enough for all of us in Ealdor, and Merlin swears his mum will cook it,” Lancelot said, looking hopeful.
“I don’t remember my last home-cooked meal. The mess hall is better than a campfire, but only just. You can count on my knives, Merlin.” Gwaine grinned and took the pack from Merlin, handing it to Lancelot, who began fastening it to the back of the saddle, behind the first.
“And my crossbow, when he misses. This is the last of it, Lancelot,” Arthur said, striding up with the two tents in his arms, both tightly rolled and folded, tied with twine. He tossed them to the ground, turning to Merlin. “We won’t be a burden on your mother or Ealdor, and after two days of camp rations, I’m ready for a proper meal.”
Merlin wasn’t the only one who knew Arthur’s weakness for food. None of the knights would turn up their noses at a home-cooked meal, and if they brought their own supplies, his mum might be able to put together a real feast. It wasn’t often that she got to show off her cooking skills, though the one time Arthur had visited Ealdor had been the worst possible time for sampling his mum’s cooking. All of the truly edible food supplies had already been confiscated.
Even he’d been embarrassed by the bland, gooey pottage she’d served. She’d be grateful for the chance to redeem herself.
Merlin nodded, frowning at the horses. They each had their own, but Lancelot had loaded Merlin’s mare from shoulders to flanks with supplies. He supposed he couldn’t even argue against riding double now, since it would take far too long to untie and rearrange everything.
“We’re keeping you close for a day or two,” Gwaine explained when he saw that Merlin noticed the arrangement. “Can’t have you relapsing and keeling over into a frozen puddle.”
“Could I ride with you?” he asked in a whisper, turning his back to where Arthur and Lancelot were discussing the placement of the last supplies. “Your horse is more... comfortable.”
“You’re welcome to, if he doesn’t mind,” Gwaine said, stressing the last bit. He pulled a face, as if he really didn’t want to say the next. “I think he’s going to mind, though. He’s a bit possessive this morning.”
“Thanks,” he muttered with little hope that he would get his way if he did ask. “I’ll be right back,” he called over his shoulder, turning and heading off into the woods, noticing Arthur beginning to follow. It was a good job Lancelot didn’t want to feel his forehead, too, or they’d all think he had a fever again, flushed as he was.
“A little privacy wouldn’t go amiss,” he said, not bothering to look back at Arthur as he sidled up to a tree beside his and began unlacing his trousers.
“Just because we happen to need to take a piss at the same time doesn’t mean I’m following you, Merlin,” Arthur drawled, stepping right into Merlin’s personal space, pulling open his trousers. “Find another bit of woods if it bothers you so much.”
Merlin rolled his eyes but stepped to another tree, wondering when Arthur had de-aged ten years. “Mum really is a good cook. She makes a fantastic rabbit stew. No rats or anything.”
Arthur snorted a laugh. “We’ll take her something a bit better than rabbit, I’d wager.”
“Could I ride with Gwaine?” he blurted out, finishing and tucking himself away, doing up his trousers but not turning around in case Arthur wasn’t done. “His horse was really steady with the two of us yesterday.”
“You were unconscious! You wouldn’t have known steady if it’d hit you between the eyes.” He heard Arthur’s boots on the snow, walking away.
Merlin sighed and turned to follow, throwing his hands up in the air behind Arthur’s back. “It’d be more comfortable. You’d have Hengroen to yourself and you wouldn’t have to listen to me. You know how I love to blather on,” he said, tossing out every excuse he could think of.
“No? Just like that? I don’t get a say in the matter?” he snapped, stopping then running to catch up as Arthur stalked out of the woods, ignoring him. “You don’t even want me to ride with you. You just don’t want me to ride with him,” he said under his breath.
“Did it never occur to you that I feel just as protective of you as he does, if not more so?” Arthur spun and saw Merlin shaking his head, then raised his hands in exasperation. “You can never manage to believe anything but the worst of me, can you?”
“I never said-” Merlin began, but Arthur’s fist closed on the front of his tunic, dragging him back into the woods. He stumbled along, unresisting.
Arthur pushed him against the largest nearby tree, knocking the breath out of him. “Aren’t you going to ask me why? Aren’t you even the least bit curious?” he ground out, his voice carefully low as he obviously tried not to scream at Merlin.
“I may take your myriad insults and teasing with a smile,” Merlin retorted, “but even I have my limits.”
“Insults?” Arthur’s face screwed up in disbelief. “You think I just don’t want you,” he said in that tone that said he clearly thought Merlin an idiot.
“It’s obvious you don’t,” Merlin whispered, closing his eyes so he didn’t have to see Arthur laugh at him, his pulse pounding in his ears. “Could you please let me go?”
Arthur pressed him harder against the tree and he opened his eyes, gasping.
“I’m choosing Camelot over you, Merlin. An entire kingdom’s welfare. My bloodline’s future. My Gods-damned destiny. And yours, if you stand by me.” Arthur held his gaze a moment before leaning in to breathe against his ear, sending chills down Merlin’s spine. “Believe me, the choice was not an easy one.”
Merlin closed his eyes again and tried to breathe, his heart pounding as if it wanted to leap from his chest. Arthur hadn’t been laughing at him all along. He really did... Gods. Arthur wanted him.
Arthur let go of his tunic, pushing him away so the bark of the tree dug into Merlin’s back one more time. His fingers slid along Merlin’s arm as he leaned back in close, lips brushing softly against Merlin’s for an instant, a heartbeat, almost as if by accident. “You may ride with Gwaine.”
When he heard Arthur’s footsteps fading away, Merlin opened his eyes and looked skyward, grasping for control.
The worst part, the very worst part, was that Arthur had done the right thing, the thing Merlin would have wanted him to do. Camelot was more important than either of them. How could Merlin blame him for choosing the very thing Merlin had been charged with protecting?
He should be thanking Arthur for thinking rationally when Merlin was letting his heart lead him around by his nose.
But now, now that he knew the truth and Arthur had given him permission to do so, the last thing he wanted was to ride with anyone other than Arthur.
He should be grateful that Arthur hadn’t let him believe the worst, that Arthur didn’t even want him. The truth was like salt to his already scrubbed-raw emotions, a whole new brand of torture.
Maybe Arthur didn’t realize that every moment they were alone from now on, every word he tossed in Merlin’s direction would be like fire under his skin, scorching him from the inside out. Knowing that Arthur might be feeling the same pull toward him as he felt toward Arthur was just going to make not having it even harder to live with.
He’d have to fight against every feeling and thought now, instead of shoving them to the back of his mind or simply keeping quiet about them and admiring from a distance. If Arthur was fighting for Camelot, Merlin would fight, too, alongside him.
It’s what he did.
Swallowing down his emotion, Merlin pushed off the tree, fingers digging into the sharp bark. Taking a steadying breath, he set his feet down in Arthur’s footprints as he slowly made his way back to camp.
Before long, the fire was out, the horses loaded and the knights all three mounted. Merlin carefully didn’t look at Arthur as he slipped a foot into the stirrup Gwaine vacated for him, swinging up behind his friend and wrapping his arms around to hold onto the saddle horn.
“All right,” he whispered against Gwaine’s back, pressing his face against the cool leather jacket. “Take me home.”
They were nearly halfway to Ealdor when Arthur called them to a halt, deciding the terrain was perfect for a short hunt. Lancelot volunteered to stay behind so Merlin wouldn’t be alone.
Arthur and Gwaine fetched their weapons from the packs, leaving Lancelot and Merlin to tend to the animals. Before they mounted, Gwaine stepped in close to Merlin, leaning so his lips almost touched Merlin’s ear. Arthur looked away. He wouldn’t interfere, but he couldn’t yet bring himself not to begrudge Merlin the comfort Gwaine was all too ready to provide.
When he looked back, one of Gwaine’s spare daggers rested on Merlin’s hip, tucked into his borrowed belt. Gwaine had an uncanny knack for knowing Arthur’s mind or at the very least thinking the same things at the same moments; it was unsettling to say the least.
“Merlin, you’ll rely on Lancelot for protection; do you understand?” Arthur asked, walking Hengroen close and leaning down from the saddle, pointing a commanding finger in Merlin’s face. “You’re not to... He is perfectly capable of defending you and you will allow him to do so.”
Arthur hoped the implicit order behind his insistence was clear: Merlin wasn’t to use magic, not even to defend himself. He could depend on Lancelot to protect Merlin.
“I understand,” Merlin said quietly, walking sulkily to a nearby bolder, taking up a pinecone and starting to pick it apart, throwing each little bit to the ground.
“How are we supposed to get that to Ealdor?” Merlin asked, slipping out from under Lancelot’s arm and tugging on the end of the crossbow bolt protruding from the boar’s throat.
Lancelot didn’t step away, his hand brushing against Merlin’s as if he were about to take hold of it. First Gwaine, now Lancelot? Surely not even Merlin required that much coddling?
The boar was Arthur’s kill, of course, and an easy one. It was only a youngling, small and without tusks. There had been another larger one, perhaps the father, but Arthur had let it pass, knowing it would be absolutely impractical for either the horses or Ealdor.
“It’ll just have to ride double with Gwaine,” Arthur said, holding a hand up to forestall any argument as Merlin opened his mouth to protest. “You’ll ride with me, Merlin.”
Arthur began to strip off his blood-spattered tunic, his chainmail hindering his movements. Merlin stepped forward to help him, pulling it off and holding it at arm’s length as if he hadn’t handled worse.
“There’s enough meat to keep your mother well-fed for weeks. I’d have thought you’d be happy,” he said, a little sharper than he’d meant to. Merlin’s ability to needle in under his skin was nothing new, but it seemed particularly effective when it also involved Arthur’s knights.
“Of course, Sire,” he said softly, clenching the tunic and stepping around Hengroen, apparently to stuff the shirt into Arthur’s pack and get a fresh one for him. Arthur followed him around, intending to help take the pack down for him, but as Merlin started to untie the rucksack, he paused.
He stared at the tunic in his hands as Arthur watched, unnoticed, behind him. The shirt was torn, faded and filthy from the past few days. It wouldn’t even be worth trying to mend, but Merlin was looking at it intently, as if he were going to...
Jumping like a child caught with his hand in the larder, Merlin turned and dropped the tunic to the ground.
Arthur picked it up and growled. It was still faded, but the blood and dirt were gone and the worst tear had closed up as if someone had woven the threads back together. His anger flared. “This? This is worth your neck?”
“I- I-” Merlin stumbled forward and landed hard on his knees despite reaching toward both Hengroen and Arthur for balance.
“Oh, for Gods’ sake!” Arthur said, taking his waist and arm and hauling him to his feet. “I swear you’re trying to kill yourself!”
“I was fine earlier!” Merlin dropped his head and swayed. “And it looked shabby! Do you want my mum seeing you like that?” he asked, jerking his arm out of Arthur’s grasp and taking a step away – a single step – before falling again to the ground, groaning in pain.
“You do realize you could be seen,” Arthur hissed, looking over his shoulder just to be sure there was no one in sight. He reached for Merlin again, but he moved away from Arthur’s touch. “Are you always this careless with it?”
The knights had come running when Merlin cried out, and Gwaine was crouching beside him now, gently, slowly helping him to kneel up, then to stand.
“Yes,” Merlin answered when he stood, doing his level best to stare Arthur down as he leaned against Gwaine. “You never wondered how one manservant does the work of the three he replaced? Or how I manage to work for both you and Gaius at once?”
“If you actually did the work, I might,” Arthur snapped, coming closer, biting down on his anger and the ridiculous desire to punch Gwaine in his newly-healed nose. “You are never to use magic for chores again, do you hear me, Merlin?”
“All of the countryside could hear you when you bellow like that,” Merlin gripped his head and turned his back, obviously done listening. “Gods, even I know better than to scream it at the top of my lungs,” he muttered.
“He has to talk that loud to get it through your thick skull, apparently,” Gwaine said, his voice softening as if talking to a girl, for Gods’ sake. “Are you all right?”
Merlin pushed Gwaine’s hand away before it could close on his forehead. “I’m fine. Everyone just leave off, will you?”
“Merlin,” Lancelot said, frowning and stepping between Gwaine and Arthur as if he thought Arthur was about to throttle the knight. “Perhaps it’s best if you don’t use it for a day or two. You can test it again on the way back to Camelot, all right?”
Arthur took a step back and a deep breath, but his anger still simmered as he watch Gwaine fuss over Merlin, leading him to a boulder to rest.
“Gwaine. Prepare the horses,” he said, not even trying to come up with a task that he would normally give a knight. When the man nodded curtly and walked away, Arthur retrieved a tunic and an apple from his pack. He pulled the fresh shirt on quickly and went to Merlin, crouching on the dewy grass. “Eat this,” Arthur ordered, thrusting the apple under his nose. “You need to keep up your strength.”
Merlin waved away the offer. “No, thanks.” At Arthur’s disapproving look, he added, “I’m still full. Gwaine gave me some meat and cheese earlier.”
Arthur stood and chucked the apple as far as he could, frustrated that once again he couldn’t seem to comfort Merlin when Gwaine was so competent at it.
“You didn’t have to waste it,” Merlin said, starting to push himself to his feet and walk away, wobbling with his arms out to his sides as if for balance.
Arthur grabbed his sleeve and firmly laid Merlin’s hand on his forearm for balance as Merlin headed toward the horses.
“We should get going if we’re going to make it to Ealdor before dark.”
“See to the boar,” Arthur called back over his shoulder as he and Merlin reached Hengroen. “How long does it usually take you to recover from something like this?” he asked, lowering his arm only when Merlin let his hand slip away.
“Never more than a few days, and it’s only dizziness. Well, that’s if I’m sleeping through the night, which...”
“Which you’ve not been,” Arthur said, smiling softly, sparing Merlin the embarrassment of saying it himself. They both knew why he’d been up half of the night before.
“Look, I’ll try not to use it, but I won’t promise. It’s as natural as breathing to me,” Merlin said, smiling shyly. “I’m always careful, you know.”
“Throwing yourself off a cliff in front of a company of knights?” Arthur asked, his voice low and tight. He didn’t find any of this amusing. “I wouldn’t call that being careful.”
Merlin sighed and shook his head. “Forget I said anything.” He turned away and strode off toward Lancelot and Gwaine.
He wouldn’t speak to Merlin about this in front of the two knights. It seemed far too secretive and personal, even if the knights did know about Merlin’s magic.
The boar rode slung across the horse’s flanks behind Gwaine, where Merlin had been seated up until the hunt. Now, he rode behind Arthur, who could feel Merlin’s muscles flexing against his own from hip to knee. He was obviously tensing with the effort to hold himself as far back in the large saddle as he could manage, his hands first pushing against Arthur’s back, then gripping the rear of the saddle behind himself, then closing briefly on the backs of Arthur’s hauberk sleeves before he heard Merlin sigh and felt his palms spread, pushing on his back again.
“What are you doing back there?” Arthur whispered over his shoulder, smirking. “You’re as tense as a bowstring and if you don’t stop wringing Hengroen with your legs, we’ll be galloping all the way to Ealdor. He’s not a washrag, you know.”
“He could use one,” Merlin retorted over Arthur’s shoulder, a smile creeping into his voice, the sounds such an unexpected relief, Arthur resolved to hear it again and again on the way to Ealdor.
“Yes,” he answered vaguely, looking down at the bits of dirt caught in Hengroen’s mane. Merlin usually took great care of their mounts, but with he and the knights all so concerned with his illness, the horses had only received rudimentary attention.
“And so could you. When’s the last time any of you bathed?” Merlin teased, loudly enough for the others to hear him, too.
Gwaine snorted and Lancelot chuckled, shaking his head where he rode just in front of them.
“What?” he asked, but at the incredulous look Arthur threw over his shoulder, Merlin finally got the joke. “Oh, right,” he said, realizing they all must’ve been soaking wet after they’d pulled him from the water. “Well, a little lake water doesn’t count for a bath.”
“It does when it’s all that’s handy and there’s a shocking lack of soap to be had,” Gwaine said, still laughing. “But we know you aren’t used to your men smelling like men, what with all the flowery oils and potions Arthur puts in his baths.”
“He stopped using those ages ago!” Merlin countered, slapping a hand over his mouth as Arthur huffed and twisted to glare at him. “Sorry,” he murmured, looking off into the trees, his face as red as Arthur’s felt.
Lancelot and Gwaine burst out in laughter, sidling up to one another. Gwaine sniffed loudly as he leaned over to Lancelot, who pushed him away with a hand to his forehead.
“Oh, Sire, you smell heavenly! Is that au d’Hengroen you’re wearing today?” Gwaine asked Lancelot, unable to control his laughter even long enough for the tease.
The two knights were still laughing as Arthur angled Hengroen apart from the others. The wide open field gave way to tall hills ahead, the last before the valley where Ealdor lie.
“You’re fuel for their fire, Merlin,” Arthur said quietly, smiling and shaking his head. “You have been since day one, remember?”
Merlin rested his forehead against Arthur’s back, his thighs finally beginning to unclench and relax, pressing closer against Arthur’s.
Arthur closed his eyes for a moment, drinking in the contact. Since they had pulled him from the lake, Arthur hadn’t been able to forget what Merlin’s body felt like, but he’d made every effort to push the memory of it from his thoughts. Now he had no choice but to feel Merlin’s body against him again.
“Are you sorry for it?” Merlin asked softly, and it took Arthur a moment to realize what Merlin meant: that they’d been thrown together as they had been.
Merlin sounded as though he suspected Arthur did regret it, or else he truly needed to hear Arthur admit that he wasn’t. Either way, Merlin deserved the truth, though as Arthur began to answer, he found himself swallowing hard on the admission. He’d as good as said it before, and it would do neither of them any good to hear the words spoken aloud.
“Only when you ask such ridiculous questions.” Arthur teased gently, reaching back to take Merlin’s elbow, drawing his hand forward, pressing it to his side.
Merlin curled his fingers into the fabric, turning his face so his cheek pressed between Arthur’s shoulder-blades. He lowered his other hand to match the one Arthur had placed. The weight pressing all along Arthur’s body was comforting, though he wouldn’t have thought he needed it.
He did. He needed Merlin like this as he needed him in every other way. Knowing that and not having it was going to be more difficult than he could imagine.
“You made the right choice,” Merlin whispered as if reading his thoughts, slipping his hands down to lie gently at the top of Arthur’s legs. “I should have made it myself.”
Still holding the reins loosely, Arthur rested his hands on top of Merlin’s. Silence comfortable between them again, their bodies moving with the rhythm of Hengroen’s steps, he felt Merlin gradually relax, his hands slipping lower and body pushing against Arthur’s.
The meadow gave way to a proper road that didn’t narrow for as far as he could see, but he didn’t increase their pace, suspecting that Merlin was asleep in the saddle.
Lancelot rode up beside them, nodding at Merlin, his voice low. “He’s out, Sire. Should we stop and tie him on?”
Arthur shifted, testing to see if Merlin was well-seated against him. As he did, Merlin clenched his thighs around Hengroen again, setting him to trot for a moment before Arthur stayed him. Merlin held perfectly still and heavy against him, obviously wanting the others to believe he was asleep.
The trot might have seemed a test of their balance to Lancelot, so Arthur merely said, “No, we’ll be fine. Let’s continue.” Realizing Merlin’s farce must have a reason, and guessing that the reason could only be that he wished the two of them to have more time alone together, Arthur added, “In fact, the two of you ride on ahead. Let Hunith and Gaius know he is well. They are likely anxious to hear news and we’re close enough to Ealdor I can spare you both.”
Lancelot nodded and pressed his mount into a trot, turning in the saddle to see if Gwaine was behind him. As Gwaine rode past Arthur and Merlin, his eyes lingered. “See you in a bit,” he said, not looking at Arthur as he spoke.
When they were out of earshot and nearly out of sight, Arthur laced his gloved fingers through Merlin’s bare ones and lifted them up to his lips. “They’re gone,” he said, lowering their hands to rest on his thigh again, hoping Merlin’s ice-cold fingers would warm beneath his own.
Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath, his chest pressing tightly against Arthur’s back. “I don’t know if I can do this,” he whispered, squeezing Arthur’s hand.
For a moment Arthur thought he meant the visit to Ealdor, but when Merlin clutched his hand tighter, he realized. Merlin meant him. Them.
He slowed Hengroen to a snail’s pace, giving him his head. It didn’t matter if they wandered as they spoke, but Arthur didn’t want to dismount and have to face Merlin just yet. “I know it will be difficult,” he began, looking off into the distance, searching for the right words. “I’ll assign some of your duties to another servant.” It wasn’t enough, not by half, but it might be a start.
“Still,” Merlin said quietly. “I don’t know if-”
“Yes.” Arthur looked down at their joined hands, wondering if it would always be like this, Merlin touching him, their attraction sparking and being smothered over and over under the weight of duty for as long as Merlin stood at his side. He didn’t think anyone could stand that much caged emotion, not even someone trained to hide their feelings.
He knew Merlin would never manage to hide how he felt. Arthur had known the first time they’d gone into battle together –in Ealdor, in fact – when they’d been putting on their armour and Merlin had looked at him with such an open expression of admiration. He hadn’t quite believed what he was seeing. No one else looked at him that closely; no one paid that much attention to the man he was beneath his circlet and armour.
But if almost-admissions and almost-intimacies were constantly being exchanged between him and Merlin, Merlin wouldn’t be the only one struggling to conceal their connection. As difficult as it was to admit to himself, Arthur realized he might not be able to let go and move on, even for Camelot, if Merlin wasn’t able to do the same.
“Perhaps you could find another position in the citadel,” he suggested, his throat closing hard on the words so that they came out gravelly. “If we rarely saw one another...”
Merlin’s fingers gripped tightly between his own, raising and pressing their hands to Arthur’s chest. “Arthur,” he choked, but stopped, his mouth pressing to the collar of Arthur’s tunic.
Pulling Hengroen to a halt, Arthur swung his leg over and slid from the saddle, turning to hold the horse still for Merlin. “Come here.”
Merlin nodded and dismounted, Arthur’s hand on the small of his back before his foot ever touched the ground. Taking Merlin’s by the hand, he brushed his thumb across the sharp points of knuckles and tugged, pulling him under the overhanging branches of a pine.
“What is it?” Merlin breathed as Arthur stopped and turned to face him. Merlin was obviously avoiding his gaze, looking down at their boots.
“We’ll figure it out together. For now, we both need this,” he whispered, lifting Merlin’s chin and leaning in before his nerves or sense of duty could get the better of him. When Merlin didn’t stop him, he pressed their lips together gently, his hands on either side of Merlin’s jaw, thumbs stroking his cheekbones.
Stepping closer, Merlin pressed their chests together, his hands on Arthur’s forearms, urging them down from Merlin’s face. Confused but determined to honour Merlin’s wishes, Arthur relented, starting to back away, but Merlin hummed. His tongue pressed along Arthur’s lips, parting them and deepening the kiss.
Merlin stripped away Arthur's gloves and dropped them to the ground, pressing Arthur’s hands back to either side of his face. Against his mouth, Arthur felt the corners of the Merlin’s lips turn up in a smile.
Pushing one hand into Merlin’s hair, he dragged the other down, past the neckerchief that was so familiar. He’d seen it daily for years and never touched it, not once. It was soft, almost downy, and thin, not coarse or thick as he’d always imagined. Merlin’s hair was twice as silken, his loose waves twining between Arthur’s fingers as if pleading to be stroked.
Merlin’s breath was hard against his cheek as they kissed, small, needy noises humming against Arthur’s lips. He rubbed his hand down and around Merlin’s waist, fingers touching hard through the over-large shirt. If it wasn’t so damned cold, it would be off and forgotten by now, and his own not far behind. He wanted skin and hands, he wanted every inch of Merlin against him as he’d had two days before. His chest ached at the memory, his hands clutching as if to take it back. But there was only so much he could claim on the side of the empty road, only so much Merlin might give this one last time they would touch.
And while he would accept whatever Merlin offered, he couldn’t ask Merlin for anything at all.
“Gods,” he breathed, body thrumming with pent-up energy and emotion and passion as Merlin’s hand trailed down his back and around his hip, slowly brushing closer and closer to the laces of his trousers.
He took Merlin’s mouth again, hard, tongue sweeping inside, hips thrusting against Merlin’s, his hand closing roughly on the back of Merlin’s neck.
The long fingers he’d watched scrubbing his floor and making up his bed slipped into his waistband, more determined and purposeful than they ever had been at chores. He sucked in a breath against Merlin’s ear at the cool touch on his belly, hearing Merlin’s near-silent apology and shaking his head to dismiss it.
He grasped at Merlin’s back as the fingers dipped inside, the sharp pull of honour striking him like a lightning bolt, too strong and too intense to ignore. Merlin deserved far more than a quick jerk on the side of the road. He deserved far more consideration and time than Arthur could give him there and then.
He took Merlin’s wrist and stopped him gently, placing Merlin’s hand on his side so at least the contact wouldn’t be broken. “Wait.” When Merlin’s mouth pulled away from his skin, his breaths coming hard, Arthur lowered his lips to Merlin’s ear. “Not like this, Merlin.”
As he said the words he realized that he hadn’t thought it through, not all the way to the end, when he and Merlin would see each other often and never once touch like this again.
“If this is our last chance...” Merlin whispered, more defeat than hope in his voice. Arthur hated that he’d put it there, wished he had never gotten off the horse to begin with.
“Not like this,” he repeated softly, eyes staying closed even when Merlin leaned away, though his hands still rested on Arthur’s sides as if he was just a loathe as Arthur to quit.
“Gods,” Merlin whispered, pressing his forehead to Arthur’s. “I couldn’t have stopped. Not on principle.”
Arthur shook his head, inhaling deeply and pulling Merlin into a strong hug, face tucking down into his neckerchief, breathing in his scent. His voice was muffled against the fabric and Merlin’s skin. “It’s not that I-”
“Please don’t,” Merlin said quickly, arms tightening around him like a vice. “This isn’t how I want it to happen, either.” Merlin leaned away, brushing Arthur’s hair from his forehead. “Will you... kiss me again?” he asked, looking down at Arthur’s mouth and biting his own lip.
Arthur didn’t bother with an answer, his blood still rushing through his body unchecked by the interruption. He kissed Merlin softly, sighing as their tongues met, the warmth and intensity of their close embrace seeping all the way to his toes, a steady pulse of want and need instead of a headlong rush this time.
Merlin’s full lips moved on his, their salt-sweetness making him want to taste them again and again. He pulled back, thumbs rubbing hard over the blush on Merlin’s cheekbones, then leaned in to kiss it away, Merlin’s eyelashes tickling against his lips. Exhaling slowly to gain some control, he sucked a wet line up Merlin’s jaw, teeth nipping his earlobe. Merlin’s fingers carded through his hair, his other hand spread wide on the small of Arthur’s back, holding him close as if Arthur would slip between his fingers at any moment.
The fear was palpable, the undeniable desperation edging every soft, warm caress with emotion. Arthur tucked his face against Merlin’s neck and held on, held him impossibly close, for once letting the strength and depth of his feelings bubble to the surface. Merlin answered his tight embrace not with weakness or submission but with thrumming emotion of his own, fingertips digging into Arthur’s shoulder and back, arms as desperate in their strength as his own.
They stood there on the side of the road to Ealdor, the afternoon still as if it were the dead of night.
When the sound of wheels broke the silence, heralding a cart’s passing, Arthur let him go.
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Chapter 4: Grapple Them Unto Thy Soul
“I could never sleep in the saddle,” Gwaine said, his voice pulling Merlin gently awake. “Then again, I never had a Prince to lean on.”
“I’ve managed it a few times, but I don’t recommend it.” Arthur voice hummed against Merlin’s ear as he slowly woke, his eyes still closed to savour the last moments of his and Arthur’s closeness.
“He looks like hell, Arthur.” Gwaine said in a low, concerned voice. “I’ve never seen him so haggard.”
“I’ll try not to take that in the worst possible way,” Merlin said, slowly opening his eyes. “It’s going to be a bit difficult though, given how you put it.”
“Glad you’re awake.” Arthur said, pulling Hengroen to a standstill and looking back over his shoulder. “All right?”
“Yeah,” he answered, wishing he and Arthur hadn’t caught up to the other knights and had had the entire ride to themselves. “Just a bit groggy. I’ll be right as rain in a moment or two.”
Arthur nodded and, watching Merlin to make sure he was steady on his own, lowered himself from the saddle. He handed the reins to Gwaine and offered Merlin a hand down.
“Here, Sire,” Lancelot said, holding up a new-filled water skin.
Arthur took the offered skin from Lancelot, pressing it to Merlin’s chest. “Drink.”
Merlin looked at the water skin and then pushed it away, shaking his head to free the last cobwebs of sleep. “You first, Sire.”
“We’re at the edge of Ealdor.” Arthur impatiently took a quick drink, then held the skin out to Merlin again insistently. “We’re going to clean up a bit before we go in. Give you a chance to get your eyes all the way open before you see your mother and Gaius.”
“Oh, right. Gaius will be there,” he said, frowning. His mentor was not going to be pleased with him.
He took a long pull of the water as Arthur walked toward the small stream that ran along the edge of the village, only about a league from where they’d caught up to the knights, who had been talking to a local farmer about the long winter. He’d not been asleep all that long, then.
“Yes, and you just wait until he and your mother see you. We’ll all catch hell for letting you fall into such a state,” Lancelot said, looking Merlin up and down.
Merlin shook his head, sighing. “Why does everyone feel the need to keep telling me how horrid I look.”
“No mirrors,” Gwaine supplied with a grin. “Come on, you’ll feel better after you get cleaned up.”
“But will I look better?” Merlin smiled as Gwaine pressed their foreheads together.
“They’re going to be glad to see you alive and well no matter what you look like,” Gwaine said quietly. “As we all are.”
Still, as hesitant as he was to dig himself any deeper into trouble, Merlin knew he would be casting one more spell – one that would cause more good than harm for once. He followed the knights to the slow-moving stream, trying to remember which syllable of the incantation was supposed to be stressed as they stripped down to their trousers and boots and began washing.
Ice crusted the edges of the water and the bank was slippery with snow, but they all managed to find a rock or a log to brace themselves on while they scooped up handfuls of frigid water, splashing their faces and necks, underarms and chests. Merlin washed quickest, spluttering and shivering louder than the rest, but he supposed he had a right to. Winter water would forever take him straight back to that fall through the ice.
He didn’t quite catch the scrap of cloth Gwaine threw at him, but at least it didn’t fall into the water. He dried and quickly pulled his tunic back on and tied his neckerchief tighter than usual so it would catch any ice-cold drips from his hair before they could slide down into the neck of his tunic.
As he turned away from the stream and the others, he cast the simple glamour over his features. He lightened the circles he knew sagged under his eyes, pulled pink into his cheeks and lips and, very carefully softened the scrapes and bruises that littered his face and body.
“By the Gods! What did you do?” Gwaine shouted as Merlin turned, grinning shyly at his astounded expression.
“No!” Arthur yelled, teeth clenched and eyes narrowed to slits as he wiped his face and neck. He threw the cloth he’d been using to the ground, stalking toward Merlin. “Stop it this instant or I swear to you, Merlin, I will knock you unconscious without a hint of remorse.”
He took a quick step back from Arthur’s advancing stride, hands up in the air between them to stop his progress. “I’m fine – it’s just a small glamour so I won’t frighten my mother. It didn’t even make me dizzy.”
Arthur stopped, looking wary and shaking his head. “Not one more spell. I’ll make good on my threat and lay you out before I even see your eyes glow. Don’t believe I won’t.”
Lancelot and Gwaine flanked Arthur, who snatched his tunic and hauberk from Lancelot’s hands and worked his way into both, his glare enough to keep Merlin from reaching to help him.
“Your mum would want to see your actual face, I would think,” Lancelot said under his breath, shaking his head slightly. “Is it real, or a mask?”
Merlin smiled. It wasn’t often he got to discuss his magic or the unique uses he could make of it. Lancelot’s wonder surprised him. Killing the Griffin had been far more spectacular. “It’s a sort of mask, painting a layer of illusion over my skin. It does the trick, though by the time I take it off tomorrow, I’ll be strong enough to heal myself anyway.”
“Well, the healing would come in handy – I’ve more than a few scars I’d just as leave have done without. It’s amazing - you look fresh as a flower, though you’ll have to work on your steadiness,” Gwaine said, walking to him and clapping a hand on his back, leading him to the horses as if he was worried Merlin would be too wobbly to walk back alone.
“I’m really all right,” he assured, but Gwaine just patted his shoulder and kept walking. “I could try healing your scars,” he offered, smiling shyly to show he wasn’t bragging. “I never thought to offer before now.”
“Nah, I’ve lived with them long enough now that we’re old friends.” Gwaine cupped his hands as they reached the horses, stooping and lacing his fingers together to give Merlin a leg up. When Merlin hesitated, Gwaine nodded in the direction of the village. “Up you go. Mum’s waiting,” he said with a grin.
Back ahorse, their small party cleaned up as well as they could manage in a stream with no soap and even less warmth, they made their way into Ealdor.
Merlin held his breath as they passed through the gate, grinning and pointing when he saw the curly mop of Leon’s head turn their way from atop his mum’s house. Leon waved a thatch-filled fist in their direction then scrambled, half-sliding, to the ladder and down to the ground just as they stopped and dismounted.
“Sir Leon,” Arthur said, his tone sharp and chiding. “You have straw in your hair.”
Leon bit his lips, obviously stifling a grin, then nodded. “I’m sure I do. I’ve been patching the roof since breakfast.”
“I might’ve known you’d allow yourself to be conscripted into household chores by the first woman who fed you.” Arthur’s stoic facade crumpled into laughter as he reached to brush bits of straw from Leon’s shoulder.
Leon laughed with him, giving Arthur a wry grin. “Wait until you taste her cooking, then judge me,” he said, nodding at Merlin. “You’re looking better than when i last saw you.”
Merlin’s face heated as Arthur’s look hardened, silently daring him to be smug about his glamour. “Mum’s terrified to go up there,” Merlin said, stepping forward to clap his hand on Leon’s arm. “Thank you for helping her. When did you arrive? Where’s Elyan?”
“Last night. Elyan stayed in the city – the King thought I was sufficient to escort Gaius” was all Leon got out before Hunith and Gaius poured from the tiny house.
His mother’s hands went straight to the back of his neck and his forehead. She stared at him in wonder, then beamed as bright as the mid-day sun at him, wrapping him up in a tight embrace. “Thank the Gods you’re all right,” she said, squeezing hard.
She held on as if she’d never let go, leaving Gaius to pat Merlin’s shoulder and grin, unable to take a hug of his own.
“Mum, I can’t breathe,” he choked, face flushing. He might be her son, but he was surrounded by knights who revelled in using such displays as so much cannon fodder when they were in their cups.
Hunith held him at arm’s length, looking him over. “You’re tired – I can see it in your eyes,” she said, giving him a look that said much more. Merlin ducked his head and nodded grudgingly, and Gaius raised an eyebrow at him.
“I just overdid it, that’s all,” he said quietly, glancing over at where Leon was helping to unload the boar. “The fever wiped me out, but I’m on the mend.”
Arthur stepped forward then, and Merlin realized he must’ve been allowing them a moment to say hello uninterrupted. “Hunith, it’s good to see you, despite the circomestances,” he said, smiling, and Merlin grinned, too, hearing the sincerity in Arthur’s words.
“It’s always a pleasure to have you in Ealdor, Sire. But let’s go inside. You’re bound to draw a crowd if word gets out you’ve come. Some of the others have already been asking if you were following Leon and Gaius.” She led them into the tiny home where Merlin had grown up.
The door creaked on its hinges in what used to herald his return from playing in the creek or, as he grew, working in the fields each day.
The floor was packed smooth but uneven, the hard lumps pressing up through the soles of his boots as he stepped inside. The furniture was all the same; nothing had been moved or replaced at all. Despite the constancy of its appearance, the house seemed smaller every year, this time in particular - it’d been so long since his last visit. “This place always smells like home,” he said, closing his eyes and inhaling deeply.
Gaius took a deep breath and nodded. “Something in the soil, perhaps.”
“Or the leaky roof,” his mother said, smiling, looking up at where sunlight filtered through the loose straw here and there.
“It’s the lumber of the walls,” Arthur guessed, reaching out to run his hand down the smooth, old timber that had weathered all of Merlin’s years and years before him, too. “It absorbs the smells of a place, holds them.”
“All of it together, then” Merlin nodded, snatching a lump of cheese from the platter laid out on the table. “I’m starved! Where did you get this?”
Hunith slapped his hand and took the cheese away, rolling her eyes and holding it out to him again when he pouted. “Gaius brought it from Camelot.”
“Gwen offered her assistance and I could think of nothing useful to ask of her. When I made it down to the courtyard, she had two sacks full of food already tied to the packhorse.” Gaius shrugged, then sat on the low bench at the table, eyeing the blue-veined cheese with distaste. “It certainly wasn’t my idea to bring that.”
Hunith bumped her hip into her old friend’s back as she walked past, giving Gaius the same look she’d given Merlin. She held the tray up for Arthur, obviously offering him first choice. The brightly-coloured wagon-wheel of vegetables and cheeses on the platter was as tempting and decadent as candied fruit to anyone in Ealdor, but Arthur wasn’t likely to think so. Merlin could hardly get him to eat a bit of anything green, and cheese was completely out of the question, even if Merlin bribed him with pie for dessert. He winced in anticipation as Arthur’s hand hovered in the air over the tray.
“Thank you,” Arthur said, taking a short carrot and, gesturing to Merlin with it as if to say “bottom’s up.” He took a large crunching bite, chewed and swallowed, making a passable effort to look pleased.
Merlin grinned and walked to the platter, taking a carrot of his own and two small blocks of cheese. As his mother turned her back to put the tray down, he held his cupped hand out behind himself, palm up. Almost instantly he felt the cool, wet, uneaten half of Arthur’s carrot being pressed into his hand. “It’s nice to see colour in food again,” he said, grinning and closing his fist over Arthur’s discard, slipping it covertly into his pocket. He didn’t mind finishing it himself, and at least Arthur hadn’t chosen a parsnip.
“How long will you boys be staying?” Hunith asked, and Merlin cringed. “Of course I want you to stay as long as you wish,” she added, looking at Merlin in distress. “Did I say something wrong?”
“They’re hardly boys, mum,” he whispered.
Hunith blushed and stepped around the table, laying a hand on Arthur’s forearm. “You’ll have to forgive my country manners, Arthur. They’re the only ones I have.”
“No offense taken, Hunith,” he said graciously, shooting a look at Merlin, who shook his head and rolled his eyes. “We’ll set up camp outside the village. You won’t even know we’re here.”
“What joy would that be? No, you’ll stay here; I insist. The loft of the barn is plenty large and will be far warmer,” she said, winking at Arthur. “Or I could ask the townsfolk to put the knights up. They’d be honoured, I’m sure.”
Merlin sighed and bit his carrot, imaging the knights being pampered and fussed over for days, never wanting to leave. “I’m really fine on the floor, mum. Always have been,” he said with a smile. “Who’s going to have to put up with Arthur?”
Arthur said, turning to Hunith. “The barn will be an improvement over our thin tents. We’ll not put the townspeople out,” Arthur insisted.
“You and Merlin have beds in another house already,” she said, looking over at Merlin with sadness in her eyes and a soft smile. “No one has taken Will’s home. We all thought he was waiting to share it with you someday, when you returned from Camelot. He would have wanted you to use it when you’re here.”
Merlin shook his head, noticing that Arthur was doing the same. “I couldn’t, Mum. We’ll sleep here, on the floor,” he said, begging Arthur as loudly as he could with his eyes. “Right, Arthur?”
“Absolutely,” he agreed, and Merlin mouthed “thank you” when he caught his eye.
“Nonsense. We’ve been using Will’s house for storage, but it’s clean and dry and you’ll have plenty of space. There are two beds, though you’ll have to re-stuff the mattresses before dark, since they were emptied ages ago.” Hunith went to the door, pausing and turning back to them. “How long did you say you were planning to stay?” she asked gently.
“Just tonight, but Leon will be returning to Camelot at once. I must send word ahead to my father,” Arthur said, looking between Merlin and his mum with obviously genuine regret. “We’ve been away nearly a week already and Leon said the King is anxious for my return.”
“I understand,” she said, obviously disappointed. “I do wish you could stay longer, though. It’s too quiet around here without Merlin.”
“You’re always welcome to visit the castle, Hunith. In fact, I’m sure we could find a room for you near Merlin if you decided to stay,” Arthur proposed. “I hope you know we’d love to have you there.”
Struck by the sincerity of the offer and the fact that it was made at all, Merlin beamed at him.
“Thank you, Arthur. It would be lovely to visit more often, but I’m ill-suited for city life, I’m afraid.” She looked from Arthur to Merlin, eyes narrowing, a smile spreading on her lips. “He told you, didn’t he?” she asked, looking back at Arthur, who nodded despite his look of confusion.
“He saw me cast when I saved him. Gwaine and Lancelot, too,” Merlin confessed, ducking his head and pulling at a string on his cuff.
“Well, I’m glad you finally know. Though I hope you realize how unconcerned he is with his own safety now. He still needs a bit of looking after.”
“Mum!” he shouted, face heating. “I do not need looking after! I’m the one that saved him, remember?”
“Yes, dear,” she said, scrubbing her hand through his hair and tugging his neckerchief straight before licking her thumb and swiping at his cheek. Gaius and Arthur both laughed and Merlin flushed hotter, grinning despite himself.
Merlin batted her hand away gently. “It’s a bruise, and that’s disgusting,” he said, wiping his shirt cuff over the wet spot. “Arthur is a prince, Mum, not a nursemaid.”
“Oh, he doesn’t mind,” she said, smiling at Arthur. “I’d wager he’s used to it by now. Help me with the firewood?”
Merlin held Arthur’s gaze for a moment before following his mum out of their home.
“It’s a form of magical exhaustion, Sire,” Gaius said a moment after the door whined shut.
Of course Gaius had known of Merlin’s magic. Gaius had once been a sorcerer himself, though Arthur rarely thought of him as such. For all of Arthur’s life, Gaius had seemed a harmless old physician, nothing more. To look at him as a powerful warlock was a stretch his mind could hardly make.
“He suspected as much,” Arthur said, nodding and taking a seat on the low wooden bench across from Gaius. “He thinks his fever was magical – a way for his body to warm itself.”
Gaius raised an eyebrow and tilted his head, considering. “It’s possible. Most warlocks cannot heal themselves, but Merlin has always been able to do so, even when he was a boy. It’s others he has trouble healing, even when he desperately wishes to do so.”
“It’s odd to think of him as a warlock.” Arthur pinched his nose between his forefinger and thumb, hoping to ward off the headache that threatened. The more he heard and saw about Merlin’s magic, the more concerned he became. “He’s Merlin, for Gods’ sake.”
“Yes, I imagine it must’ve been a shock. You should know that he’s very powerful, Sire. Powerful enough to be Camelot’s greatest ally.”
Arthur looked up, wanting to hear more but not sure he would ever be able to reconcile the two versions of Merlin. “That strong already? Tell me about him, Gaius.”
“Sire, I believe Merlin should explain...” Gaius paused, sighing as if giving up. “I have done what I could and advised him as I believed the King would wish.”
“I’m sure you’ve done all you were able.” Arthur said, leaning forward. “Has he had any other instruction?”
“He is almost entirely untrained. Most of what he knows, he learned from books or discovered on his own.” Gaius took a deep breath, shaking his head slightly as if fighting an internal battle.
“Please continue. I cannot help him if I don’t know this part of him as well as the rest,” Arthur said, hoping to persuade the older man to speak more freely. “Has he improved since coming to Camelot?”
Gaius frowned, pausing for a long moment, but finally spoke. “The Dragonlord gift steadied him a bit, but I’ve long been afraid there is no one who will be able to train him properly.”
The Dragonlord gift. “Merlin is a Dragonlord? But wasn’t Balinor the last?” he asked, mind playing over the night they’d faced the Great Dragon. Merlin had insisted on coming with him and the knights, and Merlin had been the only one left standing when it was over.
Gaius brushed some crumbs from the table, folding his hands on the worn wood. “The gift passes from father to son, but only upon the father’s death. Merlin had no idea until just before you left to find Balinor that he was his father.”
Arthur shook his head, disbelieving, all questions about the dragon chased away by the sympathetic ache in his chest for Merlin. “Gods, and Balinor was killed right in front of him. He died protecting Merlin.”
No wonder Merlin had been so quiet, so distant when Arthur expected Merlin’s usual pointless reassurances and endless optimism. And Arthur had naïvely told him no man was worth his tears.
No man but a father, as Arthur knew all too well. He’d shed them for his own once, and Merlin hadn’t said a word in reproach.
“He told me about that afternoon, Sire. He regrets not saving Balinor more than anything in his life, I’m sure.” Gaius said, looking at Arthur with such sadness that Arthur could feel it filling the space between them.
“But he didn’t even try to heal him. He let his father die because of me,” Arthur realized, shaking his head. “Because I would have seen his magic?”
Gaius nodded, then took a deep breath. “I tell you this in confidence,” he said, “though I’m aware you may have need to speak of it with him someday.”
“Why would he have done that? His own father...” Arthur wondered. “Surely he had to know I wouldn’t allow him to be executed.”
“You will have to ask him for his reason, though I don’t know that any answer will suffice to explain how one can make such a choice. Merlin has always been very careful never to pit you against the King. He is very protective of your relationship with your father, perhaps because he never knew his own.” Gaius raised an eyebrow.
Arthur looked at him incredulously. “You’re saying that Merlin wouldn’t ask me to defy my father’s edict against magic? Not even to save his life?”
“Merlin lives life in simple terms, Sire. He does not see edicts and law. He sees a father and son, not a King and Prince. He sees you, Arthur, and I believe...” Gaius trailed off, looking at Arthur as if begging him to comprehend. “I believe Merlin would do anything for you.”
“He would,” Arthur agreed, thinking of Merlin volunteering first to drink poison to spare Arthur, then insisting on drinking poison to spare Arthur. He thought of the half-dozen times when he’d impossibly survived, thanking the Gods and not the young man grinning over at him as he heated Arthur’s bathwater or emptied the rubbish bin. “He has.”
Nodding slowly, Gaius seemed older, more worn than Arthur remembered seeing him before. It must’ve taken a lot to tell Merlin’s secret, to talk about such things with a man who until now must’ve been seen as a threat to his ward.
Arthur stood, walking around the table and touching the old man’s shoulder. “Thank you, Gaius.” He stepped outside, the bright afternoon sun cutting through the sharp, cold wind to warm his face.
Merlin deserved knighthood, Arthur knew, at the very least. He’d done more for Arthur as an ill-taught and unmotivated manservant than all his league of knights combined. But Merlin would never consent to be made knight, nor would he fare well on the battlefields without his magic.
Outside the house, Arthur leaned on the doorframe and watched Merlin chopping wood, the wedge falling to the side as the axe connected, doing nothing more than making a dent. Merlin picked it up, righted the log and the wedge and raised the axe again, grunting.
Tired as he obviously was, Merlin was smiling as he worked and watched his mother talking to the villagers and knights. What kind of powerful warlock chopped wood by hand without even a proper wedge or a sharp axe?
A warlock who’d let his own father die in his arms rather than force a friend – a prince – to choose between Merlin’s life and the King’s law.
Gaius’ words rang through his head. ‘Camelot’s most powerful ally.’ Perhaps someday, Merlin could be practicing sorcery on Camelot’s behalf, but at what cost? Merlin would give everything of himself in the process, seemingly without hesitation – his father’s life, his own. He would hide and lie and stifle the strength that Arthur was just beginning to understand.
He couldn’t imagine being asked to give up that kind of power, and Merlin had done it for four long years, swallowing his pride and bowing and serving in the basest of ways. He’d never once boasted about saving Arthur before, never once thrown his power in Arthur’s face when Arthur had teased him mercilessly about his weaknesses.
It was the kind of loyalty Kings courted and hoped for but rarely found even in a knight, and never in a servant. It was loyalty of the highest order, fealty Arthur would never have asked of Merlin, though he had been loyal from the start.
Arthur’d known that much all along.
He watched as Merlin worked, the calm, slow pace of the village dulling the edge of his thoughts. Merlin’s axe thunked down again, this time splintering the log in twain. He tossed the pieces onto the pile beside the house, and then, seeing Arthur, gave him a small wave.
The sun shone on Merlin’s black hair and touched the sweat just coming up on his forehead. As he wiped his sleeve across it, Arthur walked to him, taking the axe from his hand and pushing him gently toward the bench by the door to Hunith’s home.
“Sit,” Arthur ordered, his hand lingering on Merlin’s back until he moved. He watched him walk away, clamping his jaw on the overwhelming urge to say more. His fist clenched around the axe handle, holding tightly to it so he wouldn’t accidentally pull Merlin back to him.
Merlin obeyed him, sitting down hard on the bench, catching his breath and squinting toward the sun. “Thanks.”
Arthur shook his head, dismissing the need for gratitude. After all he’d sacrificed for Arthur, Merlin need never thank him for anything ever again.
They busied themselves with chores, stockpiling firewood until the pile was as tall as Hunith, mending a fence with newly-cut timber, finishing the roof work. The villagers went about their daily routines for the most part, only stopping by for a quick hullo or to offer their assistance, even when word got around that the Prince was there.
Not one of them asked him or the other knights for anything more than a handshake.
The boar couldn’t be roasted whole – they didn’t have the time and the meat would do the village far greater good if smoked and preserved, anyhow. Leon helped the men Hunith brought round to butcher it and then he was off for Camelot, though Arthur offered to let him stay for the evening meal.
True to Merlin’s word, Hunith had created a feast. The boar was now in bite-size chunks, swimming in thick gravy with vegetables from Camelot and savoury spices Arthur wasn’t familiar with. His mouth watered as he took a seat beside Merlin, who piled a few pieces of bread on a small metal plate, setting it between them.
Arthur’s elbow brushed against Merlin’s, their legs pressing together beneath the table. He’d never once invited Merlin to sit down with him for a meal in his rooms, though he’d come close to offering a few times. It had seemed too intimate a thing to ask Merlin, but now, in Merlin’s home, it was as natural as breathing to be sitting so close, breaking bread with his servant.
Everyone settled in front of their bowls, pronged spoons in hands, looking at Hunith for a cue to begin. They followed her gaze to Arthur, waiting expectantly.
“Mum wants you to go first,” Merlin whispered.
Slipping into his role as Prince, Arthur sat up straight and raised his mug. “A toast is in order,” he said, pausing until everyone held a cup in the air. “To you, Hunith, and to Merlin, without whom I wouldn’t be here to enjoy this fine feast.”
“To Hunith and Merlin,” the knights and Gaius repeated, and softly, beside him, Merlin said, “To Mum.”
Formality fell away as they touched their cups together, smiling. They tucked into the delicious stew with a vengeance, though Arthur was pleased to see his knights remembering they were guests and not patrons at a pub. They wiped their mouths and spoke quietly to one another.
“Merlin, could you get the pitcher?” Hunith asked, craning her neck to look into everyone’s cups and mugs. “See if anyone needs their cup refilled.”
Arthur had guessed the quiet wouldn’t last long with this group and he wasn’t mistaken. Before he’d taken another bite of his dinner, Gwaine snorted.
All eyes went to the knight, then to the pitcher floating along behind Gaius, Lancelot and Hunith. It stopped at the end of the table, sloshing, then carefully tipped to pour Lancelot’s cup full to the brim. Not one drop spilt as it continued down the line, doing the same to Arthur’s mug, then Gaius’.
“Merlin, not at the table,” Gaius chided, not even looking up from his dinner. He broke a piece of bread and handed half to Hunith, who grinned and took it.
“Oh, let him, Gaius. It’s not every day he gets to show off. Everyone here knows – I imagine it’s a bit of relief to be able to be so casual about it again,” Hunith said, sharing a broad smile with her son, and Arthur saw where Merlin had got his mischievous grin.
“No, he’s right, Mum,” Merlin said, smiling gratefully at her, then glancing at Arthur. “It’s probably not a good idea to get used to it.” The pitcher floated to his outstretched hand as he stood, circling the table and pouring the rest of the cups full by hand.
“Aw, come on, Merlin,” Gwaine urged, “You know you want to, and I for one would like to see more of what you can do. You’ve been holding out on us all this time.”
Merlin looked to Arthur, not his mother, and, in the odd position of being asked permission by Merlin to do anything, he frowned.
Gaius saved him from having to provide an answer. “Go on, then, Merlin, but no fire. I won’t have your mother’s new roof ruined for another of your spark dragons.”
Arthur felt his eyes go wide and looked quickly down at his almost-empty bowl, not sure he was prepared to witness Merlin casually throwing spells around the dinner table. As he spooned up his last piece of boar, the ladle appeared under his nose, giving him another helping.
He looked up to see Merlin grinning wide, the stew-pot hovering before him. Everyone got another ladle-full, and as Merlin began eating his own, Arthur followed the pot’s progress back to the hearth. The wash basin filled with water and suds, a brush scrubbing along the dishes and utensils in a rhythmic motion. Hunith’s hair-tie slipped from her hair, letting it fall down over her shoulders. Gaius sat up straighter, a hand going to the small of his back with a soft “ooh,” obviously having been healed of some pain.
All the while Merlin ate, spooning up the stew, dipping his bread in and eating that, drinking his water. He grinned like a fool but otherwise, it was as if Merlin wasn’t even paying attention at all.
“Will it break your concentration if we speak?” Lancelot asked, looking behind himself at all the activity.
“Nope!” Merlin answered, wordlessly and effortlessly lifting Lancelot’s napkin and wiping it across the knight’s mouth. “I’m used to it, actually.”
“Merlin and I have attempted to tax his abilities before,” Gaius said, “but we’ve yet to reach the point where he passes out or is truly harmed.”
Arthur paused, his spoon halfway to his mouth. They’d been training Merlin’s magic? Of course they had – it would have been irresponsible to neglect his training, but... in the citadel itself?
“I shaped a boulder, once. That was taxing. I was tired for days, though nothing like I have been lately.” Merlin admitted, looking for all the world as if he were honestly trying to be modest while talking about shaping boulders.
“That’s simply because I forbade you to use magic until you regained your strength.” Gaius looked over the rim of his cup at Merlin.
“I tried to do the same, but he refused to listen,” Arthur said, not wanting Gaius to think he’d just let Merlin run around casting at everything in sight, then fall over with exhaustion.
“Merlin!” Hunith chided, shaking her head at her son. “Now that Arthur knows about you, you’re to respect his judgement in this just as much as Gaius’ or your own.”
The table went quiet, the swishing sound of the brush on the dishes filling the silence.
“Did you melt it?” Gwaine asked, taking another bite with his eyebrows raised. “Carve it? You reshaped stone, Merlin - we need details.”
“Hmm. It’s hard to describe.” Merlin turned away from Arthur a bit, angling himself toward Gwaine. “It just became soft, almost like clay, I suppose. The part that did me in was re-hardening it. It felt as though I was squeezing with my entire mind.”
Arthur’s own mind felt a bit like it was in a vice. Each and every new bit of information about Merlin’s magic turned the crank, tightening it a little more. He looked over Lancelot’s shoulder at the water pitcher as it wobbled and lifted into the air again, coming to top off his cup.
Merlin hadn’t even looked at it! How had he known he wouldn’t miss?
There was a feeling in the room, too, a kind of build-up of energy or magic – he didn’t know which. It felt as though the air was going to start crackling any moment, sparking or thundering. It didn’t though, not even when Merlin began sweeping the floor and folding the laundry Hunith had pulled from the lines and piled in a basket as the sky darkened that afternoon.
Not one corner of cloth touched the ground as the skirts and blankets folded neatly and stacked themselves upon the low shelves by Hunith’s bed.
He couldn’t say what he wanted to: that Merlin was a wonder, that he should be using his magic for things far more useful than folding sheets and refilling cups.
Arthur shivered at the ease with which Merlin cast, imagining him working the same magic in Arthur’s own chambers every day, his power one thin door away from being discovered.
The pyre was always erected in the citadel courtyard, in plain view of Arthur’s bedchamber windows. Had Merlin watched the executions and thought of himself tied to that post? Had he thought he would be able to escape before the fires were lit beneath him?
The very image of Merlin bound there made Arthur’s stomach curl into a tight knot. He set down his spoon and stared at Merlin’s long, thin fingers resting on the table next to his own. That had been the hand that cast and saved his life, likely more times than Arthur would ever know. It was hard to believe it was the same callused, clumsy hand that dropped armour on the stairs and never once got his collar straight.
And Merlin used it then, lifting it high in the air, his eyes flaring golden as the spell slipped from between his lips. Everything in the room slowed to a snail’s pace. Arthur drew in a breath and saw the others around the table stare in awe, silent for a long moment as Merlin grinned and chuckled.
“Stop it,” Arthur breathed out, “please.”
Merlin glanced over, his smile faltering, and the objects all around them sped to normalcy.
Normalcy? Perhaps in Merlin’s eyes. Perhaps that was why he was flippant about his powers.
Pressing his leg harder against Merlin’s, Arthur clenched his jaw on the scream of frustration that welled in his chest.
Down the table, Gwaine clapped his hands, laughing and wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulders. “Well done! That was fantastic!”
Across from him, Lancelot grinned in agreement and Hunith looked proud, of all things. Gaius had an eyebrow raised, but even he was smiling.
Arthur wanted to shake them all, to force Merlin to understand the danger he was putting himself in.
In truth, he was sure Merlin knew and was simply apathetic about being found out, which just fuelled Arthur’s anger. Why wasn’t Merlin as careful as he could possibly be with his magic? Why had he ever come to Camelot if he valued his life? Everyone knew sorcery bought a warlock an unchallengeable death sentence.
And did Merlin honestly think that Arthur would let him get away with such stupidity now that he knew Merlin was casting for things like chores?
As ingrained as sorcery seemed to be in Merlin's everyday routine, Arthur couldn't imagine him willingly stopping, not even if he was ordered. And Arthur had seen just how effective his order had been earlier - Merlin had completely ignored it.
If Merlin refused to see the danger he was in and protect himself, Arthur would force him to.
“Merlin,” he began, but hesitated as Merlin turned to look at him, his smile falling away as if Arthur had growled his name.
Belatedly noticing the silence of the others, Arthur smiled and carefully softened his tone. “Why is it I have to badger you to get your chores done, but your mother doesn’t even need ask?”
Merlin grinned as everyone laughed, the light in his eyes a gift Arthur wouldn’t soon forget.
He would have to extinguish it, he knew, but he wouldn’t ever forget what Merlin had looked like in that moment, so entirely at peace with himself and everyone around him.
“I have something I need to speak with you about,” he whispered, leaning in to Merlin’s ear. “Immediately.”
Merlin nodded, wiping his hands on his napkin. “That was delicious, Mum.” As everyone agreed, Merlin floated their dishes to the basin, standing to hug his mother. “I’m exhausted. I’ll leave those to finish, but I think I’d better lie down soon.”
Hunith nodded and rubbed his back, reaching out for Arthur’s hand as he stood and stepped toward the door. “You boys – um, young men - get some sleep.” She went to the shelves and got two blankets, handing them to Merlin. “Take wood for the fire, too. It’s going to be a chilly night with all this rain.”
He and Merlin nodded and thanked her, Arthur memorizing the soft skin of her hand on his and her gentle smile.
He didn’t expect to see it again.
Merlin walked slowly beside him, looking up at the sky, face scrunching up as he considered the clouds overhead. “If it pours like it looks like it’s going to, we’ll have a rough time on the road back. Mudslides and puddles from here to Camelot.”
Arthur didn’t say anything. He couldn’t, not yet.
When they got to Will’s house, Arthur followed Merlin inside and closed the door behind them as Merlin stood, staring around the room.
“We don’t have to stay here. We can sleep in the barn with the others,” Arthur suggested, though any kindness he showed now would seem false soon enough. “Or you can return to your mum’s house.”
Merlin turned to look at him, shaking his head. “It’s fine – I’m fine. Will’s gone. It doesn’t even look like his home anymore.”
Arthur nodded, stepping to the fireplace to deposit the logs, then tossing his pack onto one of the low beds built against the wall.
“You said you needed to speak to me?” Merlin prompted, and Arthur cringed inwardly.
He wasn’t quite ready for this, hadn’t figured out exactly how to word it. He’d known from the instant he’d decided that it would be as difficult to say as it would be for Merlin to hear. He took a deep breath, reminding himself over and over again why this was absolutely necessary.
He reached out and laid a hand firmly on Merlin’s good shoulder, realizing as he did that Merlin had likely already healed the injured one. More magic he hadn’t even noticed, right under his nose.
“You won’t be returning to Camelot with us tomorrow, Merlin,” he said, his voice low and as gentle as he could manage while trying to sound certain as well.
Merlin shook his head, pulling his arm out of Arthur’s grip. “You’re sacking me?” he shouted, then lowered his voice to a whisper. “Because of my magic? Arthur, you can’t.”
“My father imposes the death sentence for sorcery on a regular basis. Have you not seen the charred corpses in the courtyard? Are you blind to the consequences of practicing magic in Camelot?” The words were harsh, but maybe they would get through whatever wall of denial Merlin had built around the issue.
“It’s my choice, and I’ll risk it, thanks,” Merlin retorted, moving to kneel at the fireplace, the logs blazing with flames in a blink. “Besides, no one’s caught me yet.”
“Do you hear yourself?” he asked, his anger flaring as he realized Merlin actually thought he could get away with living in Camelot and never being found out. “There are three knights in this village who’ve seen you commit what amounts to treason over and over again.”
“We’re not in Camelot and you know that Lancelot and Gwaine count me as a friend.” Merlin stared at the fire, not looking up at him. “And I don’t believe you would turn me over to your own father, not even if he asked you directly.”
Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath, reining in his anger. “You’re right. I would defy my father and my King to protect you,” he said, reaching down to pull Merlin to his feet and turn him around, holding onto his shoulders. “But it wouldn’t be enough. He would execute you on suspicion alone. He doesn’t need proof, you know that. You’ve come within a hair’s breadth of it happening, Merlin. It makes me ill to think of how close you’ve come to the pyre.”
“I don’t care. I belong in Camelot, even if I end up a pile of ash,” Merlin’s fists were clenched, his eyes narrowed. He closed his hands hard on Arthur’s forearms. “I have to protect you.”
In light of the past few days, and seeing so many misadventures in hindsight now with the knowledge that Merlin had magic, Arthur couldn’t argue that Merlin wasn’t capable. “I have a company of knights to protect me.”
“They follow you, they don’t protect you,” Merlin whispered, letting go of Arthur’s arms and worrying the edge of his tunic, then looking into Arthur’s eyes, pleading, “Please don’t ask this of me.”
He’d expected a fight, defiance, but not this, not what amounted to begging. Arthur shook his head. “Until I am King, I cannot protect you. By then, you’ll have a life elsewhere. You should have a life in a place where you aren’t breaking the law simply by breathing.”
Merlin pulled away from him, stepping towards the door but stopping, his back to Arthur. “Is this because I... because of this?” he asked, gesturing between the two of them. “You don’t have to worry about that. I’ll respect your wishes - you know that, Arthur.”
Arthur blinked hard. “You think I would exile you for that?” he asked, swallowing hard. Did Merlin really believe he would be so cruel? Under the circomestances, though, Arthur could see why. Removing Merlin as his servant and leaving him in Ealdor was probably the cruellest thing he could do to him. “No, it’s not because of that.”
“Are you exiling me, then? Because this village will be a part of Camelot soon enough.”
“No, Merlin,” he said softly, though he considered saying yes because in truth, anywhere under his father’s rule was too close to be safe. “Ealdor is small enough to go unnoticed, I believe. I didn’t expect you to stay here, regardless.”
Merlin turned to face him, leaning on the table, arms stiff and head hanging. “What if I swore never to use it again, unless I was saving a life?” he asked, his voice breaking.
‘It.’ As if Merlin wasn’t willing to even say the word magic.
“This isn’t negotiable,” he whispered, stepping closer, wanting to comfort him but knowing it would be neither welcome nor fair, given what he was ordering. “You shouldn’t be a servant, Merlin. You shouldn’t have to give up your gift and you shouldn’t waste it on a kingdom that would murder you for it.”
There, he’d said it. Camelot wasn’t worthy of Merlin.
Merlin backed away as Arthur stepped forward again, reaching out to him. He didn’t know how to do this, to push Merlin away when his body felt half-empty with the desire to touch him.
“Don’t. If you’re getting rid of me, then just get rid of me,” Merlin said, his voice thick and strained. “Don’t try to soften the blow.”
If anyone else had put that look on Merlin’s face, Arthur would have laid them out flat.
The pull was too strong – he needed distance if he was going to finish this. He went to his bed and sat on the newly-stuffed mattress, feeling straw poke through the fabric, realizing he was in Merlin’s home, now. It felt odd to give him permission for anything, but Merlin seemed reluctant to leave. Still, the words barely formed. “You’re no longer my servant, Merlin, and I am not Prince here. You can go if you’d like.”
Merlin stood staring at him, the only sound the crackle of the fire in the hearth. Arthur was sure he must look every bit as shocked and stripped raw as Merlin did. In the course of a short couple of days, they’d gone from admitting their attraction and giving up any possibility of them ever acting further on it to now, losing one another entirely, friendship and all. Arthur couldn’t think beyond this moment, the most obvious turning point in his life since the day Merlin had become his servant.
“It was an honour, Sire,” Merlin said, voice straining to sound strong. He held Arthur’s gaze as he made a short bow. Arthur could almost see the damage he’d done as he looked into Merlin’s over-full eyes. “No matter what you order, I’ll serve you until the day I die. If you send for me, I’ll come to you, no matter how far away I am.”
Arthur sighed softly, wanting nothing more than to take Merlin into his arms and hold him until the pain eased, his own and Merlin’s both, however impossible that seemed. He closed his eyes and clenched his jaw to keep from apologizing. He couldn’t be sorry for this, for keeping Merlin safe.
The storm broke overhead, sending torrents of rain pounding down on the roof and walls. Arthur started at a loud thunderclap that split the air over the small home. Without a word, before Arthur could say a thing in protest, Merlin opened the door and walked out.
The squeaking wooden hinges of the door brought Arthur out of his brooding haze as Merlin returned.
Rolling onto his side, he watched as Merlin stripped off his coat and neckerchief, eyes flaring in the dim glow of the firelight. He shook his hair, then cast again, drying it.
Each time Merlin cast in front of him made him surer of his decision. It was Gods-damned lucky Merlin hadn’t been executed already. If that Witchfinder hadn’t been using sorcery himself, Arthur suspected Merlin would be dead, along with Morgana and Gaius. He might have been anyway, had Arthur not spoken up for him when he went to sacrifice himself to save Gwen.
Did he not value his life at all?
It didn’t matter, because there would be no one to sacrifice himself for in Ealdor. He would be safe, live a quiet life with a small group of people who would protect him as fiercely as he would protect them. Or he would travel to a kingdom where sorcery was exalted instead of reviled. He could serve as court warlock to a king who would appreciate his loyalty and unfailing support.
Merlin lay down on the twin of Arthur’s bed, only a few metres away, turning to face the wall. “I’m never going to see you again, am I?” he whispered, so softly Arthur wondered if he should answer.
Arthur swallowed hard. He’d thought of this, too, while Merlin was out in the storm. “Of course you will. The company already patrols here often and will do so even more often when Ealdor is annexed into Camelot. I can easily come to see you and join back up with them later,” he said, though, difficult as it was to admit, he couldn’t imagine it happening. He rarely rode patrol anymore. His father kept him fairly close since Camelot’s last devastating battle.
“No,” Merlin said shakily, taking a deep breath. “I don’t want you to ever come back here.”
The words felt like hot stones in his chest and Arthur closed his eyes. “Are you sure?” he whispered, his voice rough with emotion. He couldn’t believe Merlin was cutting him off completely, even though he’d intended to do the same to Merlin.
He’d never truly believed he wouldn’t see Merlin again.
“Yes.” Merlin pulled the blankets up to his neck and held his hand up, fingers spread above his face. He murmured a spell, the glamour falling away to reveal Merlin’s drawn, pale visage. He glanced at Arthur, frowning, and raised his hand again, the spell sliding past his lips, sibilant and smooth. Merlin’s hand dropped to the bed and a moment later Arthur realized he was asleep, his breaths even and slow.
Arthur lay still as the rain continued to sheet down against the walls and roof. He stared at Merlin’s sleeping form, unable either to look away or fall asleep himself.
Merlin was his closest friend, his only friend, to be truthful. The knights were his men and they had good times together, but no one else knew him the way Merlin did.
And despite knowing him so well, Merlin had believed in his ability to become a better man from the beginning. Arthur wasn’t blind; he could see that Merlin had reshaped his attitudes over the years, had taught him to think for himself instead of blindly following his father’s example. He learned from Merlin to see beyond pride and the nobility, to be a servant to the people instead of ruling them as his father did.
From the very first moment they’d met, Merlin had encouraged him in the gentlest, surest way to seek out the right thing and do it, say it, help it to happen if he could.
And the things he felt with Merlin, he’d never felt before. The emotions he’d kept bottled up for so long seemed to bubble over and spill with the slightest urging from Merlin. He could speak with him as he would a brother or lover, confessing all manner of sins or worries without fear of judgement.
Merlin listened even when Arthur couldn’t say a word. Especially then, in fact.
Being alone with him was Arthur’s escape, his sanctuary, no matter where they were. He could be himself with Merlin, teasing and laughing, speaking about his mother without fear of reprisal, sharing his concern for the future or his fears of inadequacy.
Arthur would remember it all – every bit of humility and selflessness and concern - everything he’d learned from his humble, loyal, noble, terribly-inept servant. He would become a King Merlin would be proud of.
He’d done the right thing this time, too, even if Merlin couldn’t see it yet. Maybe someday he would be able to. Maybe someday he’d forgive Arthur for severing their friendship, their partnership and see that Arthur had been trying to save him, literally.
The fire burned low, the draughty walls of the house doing little to keep out the chill, damp wind. Arthur went to the fireplace, adding another log to the hearth, using a smaller piece of wood to stoke the flames back to life since there was no iron poker. The fire grew, heating his face, warm against the skin of his chest where his open tunic parted.
A moan slipped under the sound of the constant shower of rain on the thatch above and Arthur stood, looking over at Merlin. He shifted under the covers, obviously uncomfortable, kicking and then tearing them off altogether, screaming as he bolted upright.
Arthur dashed to his side, sitting on the bed next to him, hands on his shaking, shivering arms. The feeling of Merlin’s skin, warm and dry against his palms, was glorious reassurance that the fever hadn’t returned. “Merlin, it’s all right. Shh. Was it a dream?”
Merlin nodded mutely, his chin quivering and lips pressed tightly together, hands fisted in the mattress beneath him.
“You’re awake. It’s all right,” Arthur said, rubbing his hands up and down Merlin’s arms, more grateful for the contact than he had any right to be.
“You died,” Merlin whispered, shaking his head. “You died and I wasn’t there.”
“It was just a dream,” he said, trying to sound as comforting as he could, pulling a little to urge Merlin into his arms fully, but Merlin put his hands on Arthur’s chest, pushing him away.
“You can’t know that. Please, Arthur,” he begged, his voice barely above a whisper. “Please don’t do this.”
Hands sliding up to either side of Merlin’s neck, Arthur leaned closer, not quite daring to press their foreheads together. “I won’t watch you die.”
“Then close your eyes, but let me... stay with you.” Merlin’s fingers brushed down over Arthur’s eyelids, pulling them gently shut.
“No,” he whispered, keeping his eyes closed. He pulled back, wondering if Merlin had heard him over the sound of the rain on the roof. “It’s too dangerous for you.”
Merlin’s thumb brushed along his cheekbone then swept down to his lips. He heard Merlin take a deep breath and felt the gentle breeze as he blew it out again. “Then, if I’m no longer your servant, I need to ask something of my friend.”
The words were anathema and ambrosia at once, spiking into Arthur without mercy. Friend was not a word he wanted to hear, but Gods, how he needed to. “Of course,” he said, his voice strained.
Fingers trailing from his lips to his jaw, Merlin’s other hand drifted up his arm, his shoulder, curling up around the back of his neck. He started at the soft brush of Merlin’s lips over his own, then fisted the bedclothes against the dizzy breathlessness of the thorough kiss. He wet his own lips and answered Merlin's passion, kissing the warm, slick mouth, then abandoning all hope of remaining resolute and taking hold of the moment as though it were a lifeline. He clutched at the front of Merlin’s tunic, hand closing on the nape of his neck and pulling him closer, fingers rubbing up into Merlin’s soft hair. They drew in breaths as if drowning, fingers digging into each other’s flesh, unable to get close enough though they were close enough for anything.
Merlin breathed against his ear as they broke apart, panting. “Take me back to Camelot with you this way if you won’t any other. Please, Arthur.”
Turning his head and opening his eyes, he looked into Merlin’s and found no resentment, no anger. He saw every good thing he was giving up and hoped to the stars and back his rejection wouldn’t wound Merlin beyond healing, that Merlin would accept what he was able to give and not press him for more. He breathed, shaking his head, his chest a riot of grief and anticipation. He watched Merlin misinterpret his movement and leaned quickly in for another kiss, unable to find the right words to convey everything he was feeling.
One would suffice, though. He sucked a wet path from Merlin’s jaw to his ear and whispered his answer, teeth tugging gently on Merlin’s earlobe. “Yes.”
Merlin arched and tilted his head, offering his throat and Arthur took it, kissing and sucking all the way to the collar of his tunic, hands brushing down the front, never breaking contact with Merlin’s chest. He lifted the hem and pulled the shirt up and off, dropping it to the floor, then quickly stripped off his own, Merlin’s fingers pushing and pulling to help him.
Merlin was warm, Gods, warm and soft and strong, arms twining around his neck and pulling them both down, Arthur lying on top as they kissed. Their lips parted at the same moment, their tongues slipping together on a dual moan.
Merlin shifted, rocking up and back with abandon, all timidity seemingly burned away by the raw desire that flared back and forth between them. Merlin paused, looking up at him, hands pushing at Arthur’s hips until he got the hint and moved to the side.
Fingers curled into Arthur’s waistband and paused as Merlin looked to him for permission. The tension reflected between them, doubling, tripling as Arthur realized exactly what Merlin was asking for.
He couldn’t accept such a gift; he knew with certainty that Merlin had never given himself to anyone, man or woman. It was too much to claim on the eve of their separation, when he’d been the one to inflict so much pain.
He nodded anyway, unwilling or unable to let the moment pass, knowing he could give Merlin pleasure and release without taking him completely. He stood, allowing himself to be stripped, carefully watching Merlin’s face as he saw the evidence of Arthur’s arousal. He looked at Arthur’s body in wonder, the tips of his fingers ghosting lightly along Arthur’s thighs and cock, his sac, the insides of his thighs and the crease where leg met groin.
Pulling Merlin to his feet, barely able to stop the hands from touching, it felt so good, Arthur knelt and slowly slid Merlin’s trousers and smalls to his ankles, one hand on Merlin’s bare calf as he stepped out of the clothing.
He looked up at Merlin from where he knelt on the hard-packed ground of the hut, the rain thrumming as steadily as his heart against his ribcage. Merlin’s hand slid up to card through Arthur’s hair and Arthur let his forehead fall to Merlin’s thigh, eyes closed as he took a moment to breathe, to fully grasp the moment. It would be one of their last, he knew, though everything in him was screaming against it.
Pushing slowly to his feet, he pressed his lips to Merlin’s forehead, his cheekbone, the hollow below his ear. Guiding him down, Arthur laid them back on the bed, gently. He slid up Merlin’s body, slipping between the strong, parting thighs, capturing full lips in another slow, sensual kiss, their moans vibrating between them.
Their cocks lined up, smooth bellies and chests brushing as Arthur pushed up on his elbows. They glided together, velvet against velvet, steel beneath, side-by-side as Arthur kissed his way from the hum in Merlin’s throat to the thumping in his chest. He tasted the salt of Merlin’s collarbone, then further down, drawing a rosy nipple between his lips, stroking slickly across it over and again as Merlin writhed beneath him.
Hand pressed deep into the straw mattress, Arthur rolled the neglected nipple between his fingers, sucking hard when Merlin’s hand closed on the back of his head in encouragement, his groans buzzing against Arthur’s fingertips and lips. He matched the constant, even strokes of Arthur’s cock one by one, their movements elliptical and smooth, no beginning or end, their arousal building the longer they pumped.
He could spend his lifetime doing nothing but this, hearing nothing but Merlin, tasting and feeling nothing but his skin. But his lifetime with Merlin would only last a little while longer, he knew. His fingers dug into Merlin’s flesh, his body pressing him deeper into the mattress as Arthur sought as much sensation as he could find.
Merlin’s hips bucked wildly at the intensified pressure, a hand pushing at Arthur’s shoulder. “Wait, please, Gods, I can’t-” he whispered, gasping for breath. “I want-”
“Yes,” he answered, though he knew he couldn’t do all Merlin wanted. There were ways to simulate the feeling, ways to drive Merlin to distraction and overwhelming pleasure without taking his virtue. “Roll onto your side,” he whispered, pushing gently at Merlin’s shoulder, kissing the smooth skin, feeling the strong, lean muscle shift beneath as Merlin obeyed.
Lining their bodies together from chest to knees, one hand tucked in under his side to grasp his hip, the other trailing lightly down his thigh, Arthur suckled at his shoulder, at the line of bumps along his neck, then stretched up to breathe into Merlin’s ear. “Trust me.” He slipped his hand between Merlin’s legs, urging his thigh to lift up and hook back over his own.
“Always,” Merlin whispered, looking over his shoulder at him, eyes glazed with desire and need, lowering to watch as he spread himself open for Arthur. He reached back, grasping Arthur’s hip, pulling him closer.
Pressing his fingers to Merlin’s mouth, Arthur whispered, “Wet them.”
Moaning and closing his eyes, Merlin opened his mouth, allowing Arthur inside, licking and sucking rhythmically. Arthur pushed his fingers in and drew them out, arching against Merlin as the sensation seemed to spread through his body. He could almost feel Merlin’s lips around his cock, his tongue licking stiffly up the underside, darting over the tip. He let his eyes drift closed and imagined Merlin on his knees before him, looking up at him, taking Arthur’s cock with perfect trust that Arthur wouldn’t harm him.
He rocked his hips against Merlin’s backside, arousal slipping into the warm cleft as if it knew the way by heart, sliding smoothly along the crevice with every swipe of his leaking cock. He groaned as Merlin’s flesh pressed around him but pulled slowly back, slipping his fingers from Merlin’s mouth and sucking along the juncture of his neck and shoulder. Arthur reached between them, rubbing his slick fingertips up the inside of Merlin’s thigh, over the tight, smooth skin behind his sac and up, sliding wetly across Merlin’s entrance.
Merlin gasped and tensed, but Arthur didn’t stop.
“That’s it, Gods, you feel good,” he whispered, drawing his fingers back and forth, increasing the pressure with each slow, rhythmic caress, watching Merlin’s face for a reaction. He tilted his head back against Arthur’s neck, mouth open, breaths coming in shuddering inhalations.
“Do you like that?” he asked, the words just a breath against Merlin’s ear.
Merlin nodded, his hips beginning to rock in counterpoint to the friction.
Arthur sucked at his earlobe, his throat, his shoulder and on the next hard rub, slid one fingertip past the gripping, tight ring of muscle, up and in, slowly, steadily working it inside.
Gods, he was tight.
Breathing out as if in pain, Merlin tensed and Arthur stilled against him, his finger buried in that clinging heat, giving Merlin a chance to either adjust or refuse. A moment later, his legs rubbing back and forth along Arthur’s, Merlin arched in one slow, feline stretch, the muscles of his body flexing against Arthur’s, his head thrown back as Arthur bit down gently on his shoulder, licking and sucking.
“So tight, Merlin. Just... just don’t resist me. I’ll go slow,” he murmured, “Let me in, let me have you.”
Arse pressing tentatively back, Merlin reached back to hold onto his neck, turning his head, eyes drifting open and closed, crimson mouth begging silently to be taken. Arthur lifted up and met him halfway for a slow, lingering kiss, their lips pressing sweetly together, tongues twining in a long, slow slide. As they shared panting breaths, Arthur began to slip his finger out, pushing slowly back in as Merlin moaned against his mouth, the smooth muscles inside him flexing as Arthur quickened his rhythm.
Merlin moved into every thrust, arse rocking up and back. He moaned wantonly, demanding a faster pace, a deeper touch.
On the next arching press against his hand, Arthur slipped a second finger inside, licking the hiss from Merlin’s lips, pulling his hand from beneath Merlin’s side, propping up on one elbow to deepen their kiss as he slowly, carefully twisted his fingers and pumped them in and out.
"Does it feel good?" he murmured against Merlin's lips, the flesh around his fingers squeezing in response.
Merlin opened his eyes and pulled back, biting and licking his lips as if savouring Arthur’s taste on his smeared, red mouth. “I want... will you-” Merlin breathed, swallowing hard. “Do you want to--?”
Arthur groaned, pushing his fingers all the way in and holding them there, tight and hard. Merlin’s body clenched around him, throat a long, smooth stretch where he’d thrown his head back, his breath panting through parted, blushing lips.
Gods, yes, Arthur wanted to, wanted every part of himself inside Merlin, wanted Merlin pushing back on his cock as greedily as he was using Arthur’s fingers.
His cock dripped onto his stomach as Merlin’s tight arse squeezed his fingers deliciously.
“Please, Arthur,” he begged quietly, chin lifting as he rocked forward, then sank clear back to Arthur’s knuckles, moaning. “I need you to.”
Gods, yes, he could tell, and there wasn’t one bit of his body that didn’t want Merlin just as shamelessly. But it was Merlin.
How could he be that cruel, even if Merlin begged him for it? Tomorrow, he’d be gone and Merlin would be broken and Arthur couldn’t leave him with nothing, with no reason to ever move forward with someone else. The thought of that, of Merlin moving on, of another man’s hands on him...
No, Merlin’s body wasn’t his to take, shouldn’t be his. He’d taken enough already. More than he’d ever intended.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, closing his eyes as he felt Merlin sigh, the disappointment and grief crashing over Arthur as clearly as if it were his own. He supposed it was, too. “I can’t... you’d only regret it.”
Merlin’s eyes filled as he held Arthur’s gaze, but after a moment he nodded gently, a small smile pulling at the corners of his mouth. “I wouldn’t,” he whispered, his voice broken. “But I understand.” He turned his face into the pillow, hips pulling away so Arthur’s fingers slipped from his body. “I’m so sorry. I should never have asked you. But Arthur, I can’t- how can I-” He didn’t even sound like Merlin, his voice was so thick.
“Don’t,” Arthur murmured against his shoulder. “Don’t think about tomorrow.” As if either of them would listen. Arthur kissed his shoulder, his neck, under his ear.
Merlin shook his head, groaning. “I can’t stop. I thought you-,” Merlin shook his head again, starting to push up on his hands. “No,” he said, as if speaking to himself. His back was a long, smooth expanse, the firelight playing over the dips and curves of his muscles. "I'll go if you want me to."
“What I want is for you to stay with me tonight,” Arthur whispered, his voice husky with unchecked desire, his face flushing as he pulled at Merlin’s shoulder, pulled him back to the bed and slipped his hand between Merlin’s legs, urging his thighs apart again, hooking Merlin’s knee back over his own. “Let me touch you, let me...”
He reached down and tucked himself back into the crease of Merlin’s arse, moaning at the sweet pleasure that raced along his spine, thrusting his hips up and back, nose pressing into the hair at the nape of Merlin’s neck as he groaned. He slid gloriously, all the way into the tight, hot space behind Merlin’s sac, cockhead pressing against the back of his bollocks. Merlin gasped and after a few more thrusts, moved against him, pushing his hips flush against Arthur’s, letting his head fall to the pillow, offering his neck for Arthur to nip and suck.
Up and back, again, pressing harder, but slowly, every movement thorough, the friction of his cock in the tight valley made smooth and hot by the slickness that slipped out of him and spread onto Merlin's skin. He’d never done this before, never known it felt so much like fucking. Did it feel that way to Merlin? As if he were sliding inside him, thrusting into him with every gliding roll of his hips?
Merlin’s hand clutched on the back of Arthur’s thigh, pulling him in and in, the other twisting in the blankets, knuckles sharp and tight in the flickering firelight. Arthur let go of Merlin’s hip and reached for that hand, pulling it back to his mouth so he could taste each dip between those knuckles, turn it over and suckle the pulse point of Merlin’s wrist, moaning against the thin, soft skin that tasted so good, tasted like home and heat, the tendons taut and flexing beneath his tongue.
Licking every inch of Merlin’s palm, he lowered the hand, curling the long fingers around Merlin’s cock, his own fingers lacing between, urging Merlin into long, slow strokes that matched the languid slide of his cock against Merlin’s hole.
As Merlin’s hand sped, so did Arthur’s thrusts and the answering counterpoint of Merlin’s hips matched the pace, pushing back, pushing harder and harder until Arthur was thrusting forcefully against his sac, the friction between their bodies so much more than the drag of skin against skin. They were creating heat, warmth that radiated through Arthur’s hand and cock and hips, down to his toes and up to his flushing face, against Merlin's smoothe, pale skin.
Arthur drowned in his inexorable pace as he watched in wonder, watched Merlin shiver and shake, eyes fluttering closed, hips jerking, his long, white throat painted with red smudges from Arthur’s desperate kisses. His body went taut as a bowstring and spilt, Merlin groaning and gasping his release, slippery and hot, pulsing over and through their entwined fingers.
Arthur pulled away gently, staring down for a moment at the picture he’d made: Merlin, twisted to look back and up at him, flush high on his cheeks, lips as red as if stained with wine, eyes shocked and wide but hungry, starving.
The sight of him, Gods, of his Merlin so completely focused and utterly undone was magnificent. He gasped as Merlin fisted the blanket again and levered himself back, rubbing his arse against Arthur’s desperate arousal, and Arthur answered the movement. Merlin moaned and writhed, passion seeming to increase though he’d just climaxed. Merlin’s eyes locked on his, the heat blazing behind them enough to show him how much Merlin wanted him even without the body moving desperately against his own.
He pushed his forehead against Merlin’s shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut as he panted, dragging in a breath as Merlin shifted onto his back, slipping his thigh beneath Arthur’s, urging him up and over Merlin’s body. Arthur propped up on his elbows, looking into Merlin’s eyes, knowing he no longer had the will to resist, didn’t want to and wouldn’t.
Not when Merlin was already almost lost to him, when this was their last experience together before they would wake and say their impossible goodbyes and part. Not when Merlin, his Merlin, was pleading so beautifully
Merlin’s thighs spread for him, naturally leading him to him settle between. He fit perfectly against Merlin's body, cock slipping first against the taut heat of Merlin’s slick, warm belly and half-hard cock. Then, under Merlin’s insistent fingers, he fitted down between Merlin’s thighs. He rocked down experimentally and groaned as Merlin’s legs spread wider, his arms closing around Arthur’s neck and thighs lifting, legs gripping Arthur's sides. The movement lined him up perfectly to glide into the tight space behind Merlin’s sac.
Passion flaring as intensely as it was moments before, Merlin’s body still thrummed with energy despite his release. A slick hand slinked down between them, smoothing slippery wetness down his cock, pulling a soul-deep groan from Arthur’s chest. The hand retreated, closing slick and hot on his shoulder, pushing him down as Merlin arched and moaned, pleading and urging. Arthur threw his head back, crying out as his cock slipped wetly over Merlin’s entrance, catching on his clenching, tight hole.
Merlin strained beneath him, back arching and thighs rubbing up and down where they tightened against his sides, fingers curling into Arthur’s hair, twisting there, lips seeking his own as they slid along his jaw. Merlin took his mouth, tongue gliding against Arthur’s softly, slowly, as gently and sensually as if it were their first kiss. Arthur couldn’t stop his pained moan as Merlin broke the kiss, whispering against his lips. “Please, Arthur. Give yourself to me... just this once. So- so I won't ever forget.”
Hand drifting down to cup Merlin’s hardening shaft, he stroked it once, twice, and pulled back, clutching Merlin’s hip, keeping him still as he swept more of the slick come onto his cock and pushed gently, holding just a pressure against Merlin’s entrance, which seemed to clench and open against the head of his cock. “You’re sure?” he gasped against Merlin’s ear, blood racing to keep up with his crashing heartbeat.
“Yes,” Merlin cried, the word full of pleading, turning to a low moan of pleasure as Arthur took his mouth and pushed resolutely past the guardian muscles and up and in, in, Gods, inside Merlin’s hot, gripping body.
He entered slowly and steadily, sliding to the hilt in one long, aching push and then held there, giving Merlin’s body a moment to adjust. He felt too small in Arthur’s arms, too fragile and tight to take all of Arthur inside him. If Merlin’s body didn’t yield to him soon, Arthur couldn’t - wouldn’t - force Merlin to hurt himself for this. He wrenched his mouth away, pressing his forehead to Merlin’s shoulder, groaning as his cock flexed deep in Merlin’s arse, Merlin gasping and fisting his hair, pulling him in for another scorching kiss.
Arthur waited as still and patiently as he could, gritting his teeth and holding on because it was Merlin, Merlin whose tongue curved slickly along his own, thumb rubbing along Arthur’s jaw and up to trace his cheekbone. Arthur broke the kiss, lips almost touching Merlin’s, unwilling to be any further away.
“All right?” he asked softly, hips still but cock flexing again as if unable to resist the feel of Merlin’s tight body clenching around it.
“Arthur,” Merlin breathed out, eyes heavy-lidded and legs squeezing around him, body slowly relaxing beneath him. “Yeah. Yes.”
He kissed the lips beneath his again, softly, slowly, then pulled away and looked straight into Merlin’s eyes, every emotion written plainly on his pale face. Pain. Gratitude for this, this joining that was more a gift to Arthur than anything else, though it was obvious Merlin didn’t see it that way. Exhaustion was clear behind his eyes, bone-deep, the kind that never truly goes away once a person has it.
And affection. Above all, that.
Arthur moved carefully, slowly pulling out and pushing all the way back in as he watched Merlin’s face for distress or pain.
Eyelids falling almost all the way closed, Merlin’s lips parted, small, needy noises escaping between panting breaths. His hand slipped from Arthur’s hair and down his shoulder, his bicep, thumb pushing against his wrist and fingers closing over his own, lifting their joined hands back to Merlin’s cock, which jumped and hardened to silk over stone under their shared touch.
One long, slow stroke and Merlin’s hand slipped away, over his side and up his spine, up the back of his neck, tangling again into Arthur’s hair, urging him into another kiss as he stroked his fist over Merlin’s arousal and thrust gently inside his clasping heat. The hand that closed on the back of his thigh pulled him into a strong, steady rhythm as he sucked in a breath and felt himself thicken even more, filling Merlin’s tight body so full it nearly hurt to draw himself out and push back in.
He kept his thrusts short but stayed deep inside, their bodies rocking in perfect cadence as soon as they began to move together. With a groan, Merlin shifted his weight, hooking his thigh up and smoothly turning them over, body held closely against Arthur’s as they rolled.
Merlin fit in his lap as if he was moulded to it, made to be there, his passage adjusting further to accept Arthur’s length and girth deeper inside it. With a deep moan, Merlin knelt over his hips, raising up off Arthur’s cocktail then listed himself again. With Merlin’s body controlling every movement, Arthur slipped in a long, slow drag out and glided back in, hard and so, so deep, his groin pressed flush against Merlin’s arse.
Back arching beautifully, chest thrust out and head thrown back, Merlin gasped, almost whining, low and needful. Arthur pushed his hips into the bed as Merlin lifted again, holding his body just on the tip of Arthur’s cock for an instant before sinking all the way down again.
Arthur thrust harder this time, reaching as far as he could inside as Merlin fucked down and down, grinding and groaning, hands spread wide for balance on Arthur’s chest, fingers dragging across Arthur’s nipples, then clawing against his chest as, not waiting, not pausing, not holding back a second longer, Arthur pulled himself nearly all the way out and drove up into him, slick and smooth, Merlin’s body as tight and warm and soft as Arthur had always imagined.
His mouth closed on the nearest bit of flesh as Merlin arched and fell onto him, their chests pressing together, his teeth scraping along Merlin’s shoulder as he growled with need, his blood pumping thickly through his veins.
Dimly he heard Merlin whispering against his skin, pleading for more, for it to never end, for Arthur to just stay, just stay with him, never let it end.
He let Merlin’s whispered prayers fill his thoughts and become his own as he lost himself again and again inside Merlin’s tight, clinging body. Between them, his hand clutched around Merlin’s cock, the cadence of his strokes lost as their chests and stomachs pressed closer together. He tightened the slick, hot glove of his fist and Merlin’s hips rolled and thrust, fucking himself up through Arthur’s fist and back onto Arthur’s cock, his passion spilling over them like a wave, cresting as he came, groaning “Oh Gods, Arthur” against his lips and holding on as if Arthur might disappear from beneath him.
“Merlin, yes,” he breathed, laving over the vivid red marks he’d left on his pale shoulder, aching to bite, to claim, to keep. “Say it again,” he whispered, desperate to hear his name on those lips, with that much passion, one more time. He gasped for breath, slipping his hand up to Merlin’s chest, his heart a wild drumbeat against Arthur’s fingertips.
“Arthur.” The whisper tickled against his lips, chased away by the hot slide of Merlin’s tongue, then the hard press of his mouth on Arthur’s, the kiss desperate and possessive and he would never have expected anything so absolutely selfish from Merlin. It was better than anything, hearing Merlin ask, hearing him beg for more of him. “Please, Arthur!”
Shuddering his release, cock burying in and jerking out in ruined rhythm, back arching and vision going white-hot behind his tightly-shut eyelids, Arthur drank in the sound of his name on those lips and came. Came and came in the clenching, gripping heat surrounding him.
Absolutely unwilling to let Merlin go, not for one instant, he breathed hard against Merlin’s mouth, biting gently at his ruddy lower lip, tongue slipping in and twining with Merlin’s again and again. They lay as close as they could be, bodies flush from their slow, gentle kiss to the easy rub of Merlin’s ankle along the side of Arthur’s knee.
Moaning low in complete contentment, Arthur pulled back to look into Merlin’s eyes, to tell him how good it had been, how perfect, how much worse it made losing him. He couldn’t do it, couldn’t find the words.
Merlin shook his head, pressing a finger to Arthur’s lips as if he’d already heard every unspoken declaration. He smiled gently, then laced his fingers into Arthur’s and squeezed, letting go, turning his head away, chin pressing into Arthur’s shoulder.
Panting and breathless, Arthur slipped a hand up Merlin’s spine and into his hair, cradling his head. Squeezing his eyes closed, he wrapped his other arm around the slim curve of his Merlin’s waist. Arthur held him tightly, wincing as he started to carefully withdraw, not wanting to end their intense connection so soon.
Merlin gasped and tensed his thighs against Arthur’s hips, a hand closing on Arthur’s bicep, stilling him, holding him in place. “Not yet,” Merlin whispered, and it was exactly the thought Arthur had been pushing away.
Not yet. Not. Yet.
Chapter 5: You Yourself Shall Keep The Key of it
On the heels of their parting, Merlin must find a way to remain close to Arthur.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The fire was a healthy blaze when Arthur woke, the home surprisingly warm and dry after last night’s violent storm, but he couldn’t help but feel as if someone had thrown a bucket of cold water over him as soon as he opened his eyes.
He was alone.
He instantly began thinking of excuses: Merlin was fetching breakfast or had gone to help prepare for their journey back to Camelot, but, he realized with a start, that couldn’t be. Merlin wasn’t his servant anymore, and he certainly had no reason to do Arthur any favours.
Climbing from the creaking bed, he saw his clothes, folded and neat, by the hearth. Warmed by the fire that burned bright and strong; a last gift from Merlin, he guessed.
Merlin, who was gone Gods-knew-where, and likely a mess wherever he was. He could just imagine Merlin sulking in the woods or walking circles around Ealdor, not knowing what else to do or where to go to pass the time until Arthur and the others left and it was safe for him to come back to the village without having to face Arthur again.
Dressing himself without the benefit of Merlin’s quick, distracting fingers to help with laces or ties or his steadying shoulder for Arthur to lean on as he stepped into his boots was a bit odd, but he managed. He’d managed before Merlin, hadn’t he?
He’d managed before, yes, but he and Merlin had a system, a process. Together they could have Arthur dressed for battle or court or a state dinner in a few short minutes. Merlin wasn’t skilled at choosing dress attire, but he could help Arthur into it without a hitch. His boots stayed polished, his armour gleaming, his sword oiled, his bed made. It wasn’t like it was in the beginning. Merlin hardly needed reminding anymore to keep up or be responsible.
Denying any of Merlin’s usefulness would only make his absence something of a farce, but Arthur’s chest wasn’t aching for his servant. It was aching for Merlin, who’d not even bothered to stay so they could wake up together. Truly, though, Arthur couldn’t begrudge Merlin whatever he thought might make this whole situation easier.
Leaving Will’s home was nearly as awkward and uncomfortable as arriving had been. Arthur used a pail of rainwater to douse the fire in the hearth and with a glance back at the unmade bed they’d shared, let the door fall closed.
The sky was lighter than he’d expected, so he went straight to the barn to check on Hengroen and make sure the knights were awake. His steed was chewing his breakfast lazily, neither saddled nor bridled in preparation for the trip back to Camelot, but only Lancelot’s horse stood in the next stall. No one was in the loft or around back, so he went on to Hunith’s house, pausing with his hand on the door latch.
“You can’t imagine what he’s lived through,” Hunith said, her voice gentle but easily heard through the thin walls. “He’ll survive Arthur, too, if he must.”
“You’re right, of course,” Lancelot replied, but even at this distance, Arthur could tell he didn’t believe the words. “I worry for him, though. He gives so much of himself away.”
“He always has.” Hunith finished, sadness evident in her words. “He’s seen more than his fair share of heartache because of his openness. It’s made keeping his secret that much harder for him.”
“I saw that with Arthur – how badly Merlin wanted to tell him. I just can’t believe that now Arthur knows, he wouldn’t realize how strong Merlin is, how much he’s already done for Camelot.”
“Perhaps he does realize,” Hunith said gently. “Perhaps Arthur believes Merlin’s done enough already.”
“Merlin was certain he’d see Arthur through to being crowned King. And so he shall, I suppose. Though how he stayed the night in the same room with Arthur I will never understand. He’s a stronger man than I.”
“He stayed for the same reason he’s gone back to Camelot,” Hunith said. “Arthur needs him.”
“Still.” Lancelot’s sigh was followed by the scrape of a chair. “My apologies, Hunith. I have a difficult time seeing any side but Merlin’s this morning.”
“You’re a good friend to defend Merlin, but the prince has his reasons, I’m sure,” she said. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Hearing her boots scuff on the dirt floor, Arthur barely had time to step quickly away and round the corner again before the door was pulled open. Hunith stepped out with a bucket of food scraps balanced on her hip as he walked casually toward her.
“Oh, Prince Arthur! I was just taking this to the feed trough,” she said, nodding at the bucket in her arms. “Breakfast is on the table and you’ll find Sir Lancelot inside. I’ll just be a moment.” She walked past him and he turned belatedly to greet her.
“Good morning,” he managed, watching as she walked off across the muddy field, her skirt hitched up in one hand to keep it from dragging in the dirt. He didn’t think to offer to take them for her until she was almost there.
He went inside Merlin’s home, the scent of the sausage and bread Gaius had brought from the city and eggs Hunith’s chickens had likely lain that morning drawing a rumble from his stomach. “Lancelot,” he said, nodding as he took up a plate and began filling it from the skillet and pan beside the fire. He set it on the table, not yet taking a seat. “Where have they gone?”
Lancelot pushed the last of his eggs around on his plate. “Back to Camelot, Sire. Gwaine thought you’d wish him to escort them, in case there was trouble on the road.”
“Merlin is with him and Gaius, then? On Llamrei?” he asked, as if the mare were the reason he was surprised and not the fact that Merlin was headed for the city.
“He is,” Lancelot said, his eyes rising up to meet Arthur’s. “I had to convince him to take her, you know,” he said, smiling gently, “even though you gifted her to him months ago.”
“Did you,” Arthur said, feeling the attempt to make him feel guilty, though he suspected Lancelot knew there was truly no need. He felt guilty enough for twelve men this morning, despite the determination he’d felt the night before. “Then you are aware that he’s defied my orders.”
Lancelot’s eyes narrowed at him for a brief moment, the glare giving way to a look of confusion. “I don’t understand how you could ask this of him. He’s done more for the kingdom than the two of us combined, Sire. I always believed that he should have been the one knighted that day, not the group of ragtag misfits you chose.”
“Merlin? A knight?” Arthur said incredulously, smirking, imagining Merlin in full armour, trying to keep his seat in the saddle. “He’d be run through by the first tree that crossed his path.”
“He is braver than you know,” Lancelot said stiffly, pushing up from the bench. He went to the door and paused, turning back to Arthur. “He nearly died two days ago, Sire. Think of the courage it took to throw his life away to save the three of ours. He didn’t even hesitate. He’s nearly died many times for Camelot. For you.”
He didn’t even hesitate. The thought was his own, reflected back to him. No, Merlin hadn’t hesitated. Merlin hadn’t thought or weighed his options or even paused. He’d cast on instinct, the very reason Arthur felt so strongly that Merlin would end up tied to a stake with ropes not even Arthur had the power to cut.
Arthur swallowed hard, turning almost completely away, not willing to show the doubt that was gnawing at him with every word. “You cannot believe I did this lightly, or that I did not consider every aspect of the... situation.”
“No,” Lancelot answered. “I think you considered Merlin very carefully. I believe he is every bit as important to you as he is to me. I just don’t see how your conclusions led you to abandon him.”
Arthur nodded. He’d expected opposition, of course, expected far worse than Lancelot’s relatively gentle admonition. “You defend him well. He has a true friend in you, and you in him, I have no doubt.”
“Yes,” Lancelot said softly. “I’ll stand by his side. But Sire, I am your knight, and I will stand by yours as well.”
Turning back around, Arthur stepped across the cramped room, offering his hand to Lancelot, catching Lancelot’s gaze as he hesitated. “You’ll not be asked to betray him. I swear it,” Arthur said solemnly.
Lancelot took his hand then, nodding, looking at him with such intensity that Arthur could read his thoughts as clear as he could have heard them.
He would hold Arthur to his word and if the time ever came that Arthur asked Lancelot to choose between them, Lancelot would choose Merlin.
The door opened, thumping Lancelot in the shoulder, the sudden jarring hit knocking their hands loose. Hunith walked in, grabbing Lancelot’s arm as if to steady him. “Pardon, Lancelot. I seem to be doing a lot of that today,” she said.
Stepping around the table, she beckoned to Arthur, filling his cup as he sat down in front of his breakfast.
“Prepare the horses,” he ordered, his eyes never leaving his plate. As Lancelot silently left to obey, Hunith took a seat just next to him, sighing. He flinched when her hand moved to touch his cheek, expecting a slap instead of the gentle touch she gave him.
“Last night could not have been easy,” Hunith said quietly, hand falling away after a moment. “You look as lowly as he did this morning.”
“The exhaustion of the journey, perhaps.” Arthur took a bite, barely able to swallow, and set his fork down. “I expressly forbade him from returning to the city,” he said, wondering at her kindness, almost daring her to continue with it now that she knew exactly what he’d done.
“No,” she said softly, “you didn’t. You dismissed him as your manservant and said he wasn’t to return with you. Merlin listens very closely when it matters as I’m sure you know,” she added, smiling.
“I made my wishes clear. He was to stay away from Camelot. I don’t want him there,” he ground out, fists clenching.
“You never were his prince to begin with, you realize,” she said gently. “In Ealdor, he does not have to obey a Prince of another kingdom, or a man who no longer employs him.”
“Hunith,” he said, drawing in a deep breath to try and dispel his anger. “I understand as his mother, you want to protect him, but-”
“Yes, I think you must,” she said, smiling and laying a hand on his arm. “You must wish for his safety and happiness as dearly as I, to do what you’ve done. I know what you’ve shared. I know what he means to you and you to him.”
Arthur lowered his gaze to where her hand touched his arm, unable to look at her or deny a single word. She turned on the bench to face him fully, her fingers hesitantly reaching for him again, carding through his hair when he didn’t flinch away this time. “Look at me, Prince Arthur,” she said, hand closing on the back of his neck, fingertips brushing softly.
Slowly, he raised his eyes to meet hers, waiting for her to speak, but she didn’t. Arthur held his breath, the moment between them as precious as any he could remember having with his father. She tugged, urging him closer, and, seeing the look of pure understanding in her eyes, he let her pull him in and press his head down onto her shoulder.
“You’re not angry?” he mumbled into the soft, worn fabric of her dress.
“I was, but you’ve only recently learned of his gift,” she whispered. “And now you’ve realized what that means for Merlin in Camelot.”
“His life,” Arthur murmured. “It means his life.”
“Yes. So I am nothing but grateful to you. I will never forget what you’ve sacrificed for him, though I may be the only person who ever realizes the extent of it,” she whispered, her lips pressing to his hair in a gentle kiss. “Merlin is lucky to have such a great man’s affection.”
He wouldn’t deny her words, wouldn’t deny what he felt for Merlin or what he’d given up to try to save him. He closed his eyes and inhaled slowly, soaking up the forgiveness and affection he never thought he would feel from a mother. Hunith was perhaps the only other person who could truly understand what he’d done, how much he’d lost. He allowed himself the moment to mourn it all and wish, as he’d never thought he would do, that he could stay in Ealdor forever.
There was nothing in Camelot for him now but duty to his kingdom and blame from men who would no longer count him a friend. He had lived for that duty once; he could live for it again.
He would have to.
“They rode when the storm broke at dawn, so you’d best finish your breakfast and follow,” she said, patting his shoulder and pushing him gently away. “Knowing my son and old friend, let alone your impetuous Sir Gwaine, they’ll find some trouble to get in along the way from here to there.”
Arthur nodded and turned back to his plate, picking up his fork. He sat, not eating, until Hunith stepped around the table and gave him an expectant look, nodding at his food.
He finished every bite and offered to help her wash up – she refused, shooing him out - and said his goodbyes, less warmly than he wished with Lancelot there to witness the exchange. Just before he turned to mount Hengroen, Hunith surprised him with a tight hug.
As he and Lancelot rode away, Arthur looked back. She stood at the small wooden gates of Ealdor, watching them go.
If he’d been a better warlock, Merlin knew, they’d have reached Camelot by midday and had plenty of time to settle in before Arthur returned. As it was, they had only a few candlemarks to formulate a plan.
“You’re certain the King won’t banish me?” he asked for the third time and got only an eye-roll from Gaius in response. “It’s just that you know what a prat Arthur can be. He’s likely been fuming all the way home. What if he asks for my official exile?”
“I doubt he’ll try to get rid of you again. Remember, Lancelot said he’d calm him as much as possible on the return trip,” Gwaine said, grinning from his sprawl over Gaius’ low settee. “Now get yourself cleaned up. No one’s going to hire you smelling of horse.”
Merlin turned and raised his hand up to heat the water in the basin.
“Merlin,” Gaius said sternly, “remember our bargain,” he reminded, raising an eyebrow. “No magic apart from that guise. A double casting may feel safe enough, but it turns a simple spell complex faster than you would imagine. You must use all of your reserves to reinforce the spell continuously. It must become second-nature to you. You cannot distract yourself or spend your energy on frivolous things.”
“It’s hardly frivolous,” Merlin groused, turning up his cuffs and pulling off his kerchief. “And how will I protect him if I’ve come down with a cough from washing in cold water?”
“I suggest you heat the water over the fire as the rest of us do,” Gaius said flatly.
“And if I don’t get the position? We’ve not even considered that.”
Gwaine pushed to his feet, clapping Merlin on the shoulder as he cupped handfuls of the chilly water. “At least then you wouldn’t have to attend training tomorrow. Arthur’s going to be a handful, I’m sure. Well, I’m off. And don’t worry – we already know you’re perfect for the job. No one else could put up with Arthur as gracefully as you.”
“Thanks, Gwaine,” he said, smiling. “I’m sure I’ll see you tonight at dinner if this works, but remember not to recognize me.”
“Of course. And if it doesn’t work, you should come find us at the evening meal anyway. The knights would be glad to see you well and awake,” Gwaine said quietly, giving Merlin an encouraging smile. “But it will work. You’re a sure bet, looking like that. Old Gladys won’t know what hit her.”
“I am not flirting with her,” Merlin vowed, though Gwaine grinned as if Merlin had just said the opposite.
“You’ll do what you have to, Merlin,” Gaius said, no hint of mirth in his tone. “The future of the kingdom is far more important than your pride.”
“Clearly I agree,” Merlin said, gesturing impatiently at his altered face. “I’m not exactly enjoying this, you know.”
“I am,” Gwaine said, chuckling as he walked to the door. Don’t forget the limp I taught you. See you tonight – you or Sir Cavall, either way.”
“Either way,” Merlin agreed, turning from the wash bowl to smile at Gwaine, hoping his friend knew just how grateful he was.
“Remember,” Gwaine said, smirking from the doorway, “You’re doing this...” he paused, drawing his dagger and holding it aloft, grinning like the cat that got the cream, “for the love of Camelot!” he shouted, dashing out the door as Merlin tossed the wet cloth after him. The door swept shut just as it struck with a splat.
“You’d best clean that up so we can be on our way,” Gaius said as he ducked into the tiny storeroom to fetch the elixir that would make Gladys more amenable to hiring an old knight for a young man’s job. Gaius emerged, vial in hand, mumbling about all of this not being a joke.
No, it certainly wasn’t.
Merlin tilted the looking glass up to see his still-unfamiliar mask one more time. As many times as he looked, he might never get used to the sight of a beard on his chin or the wrinkles that lined his face. He hadn’t expected to look this old again for another quarter-century, but if Arthur was going to take protecting Merlin to stubborn extremes, well, two could play at that game.
For safety’s sake, he and Gaius had ruled out the aging spell, knowing his body wouldn’t be able to take the rigours of transforming so often, several times a day, perhaps. They’d settled on a guise, as effective a ruse as the aging spell but with far fewer risks.
Merlin would be able to remove or apply it at a moment’s notice, and given the simplicity of the spell, there was little chance he would get stuck as he had before when he’d been locked in an old man’s body.
He’d chosen someone younger this time, grudgingly admitting he’d made a lousy old man. The face he’d imagined as he’d cast this time was that of a man from Ealdor, a kindly man he’d sometimes hoped was his father when he was still a boy.
As it turned out, the man had resembled Balinor a bit, and Merlin borrowed from both of them now. The nose and warm brown eyes he remembered from his childhood memories and the shoulder-length waves shot-through with grey from his true father. It felt right to wear this face.
A good thing, too, since he’d be wearing it more than his own if their plan worked.
On his way past the watch towers at the edge of the city, Arthur noticed the knights scowling and wondered what had them in such a foul mood on the first warm day of early spring.
By all rights, they should have been smiling, or at the least had their chins tilted up to bask in the sun’s warmth. They glared coldly at him instead, even after he’d passed, for he turned in the saddle to look back at them.
“What’s gotten into those two?” he asked, not expecting an answer. Their ride home had been swift and nearly silent, Arthur more concerned with returning quickly to the city than awkwardly conversing with Lancelot while the man was still upset with him.
“They’ve likely heard about Merlin,” Lancelot said as they rode slowly into the courtyard. “I’m going to check on him straight away. Are you sure you won’t come with me?”
“My father will be waiting,” Arthur murmured. As the knight led his horse away toward the cavalry stables, Arthur called his name, stopping him before he could escape altogether and waving him back.
As Lancelot approached, Arthur opened his mouth, nearly sending his well-wishes to Merlin, but instead bit the inside of his cheek and shook his head. “Merlin cannot protect himself from all dangers. This journey was proof of that,” he said, looking Lancelot in the eyes as they rode slowly, side by side, towards the stables. “We nearly lost him this time.”
He knew Merlin’s friends deserved an explanation, though he’d put it off the whole way home with Lancelot because as intelligent as Arthur believe his decision was, it was going to seem weak now, especially in light of the fact that Merlin was back in Camelot and not yet strapped to the pyre-pole.
Lancelot looked off away in the distance. “I’m sure the knights will see your point clearly enough, Sire, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he said, finally looking back at Arthur. “But Merlin is a brother to all of us. There isn’t a reason for dismissing him that will seem fair.”
Arthur shook his head, swallowing hard, knowing there was nothing he could say. He felt awful, of course, perhaps worse than he’d imagine he could, but he still knew the decision was sound, whether any of the knights respected it or recognized that as truth.
“Not even if this saves his life,” he asked quietly, pulling Hengroen to a stop and dismounting. He slipped off his gloves and tucked them in his back pocket. “You’ll inform the squadron that, following this latest incident, I believed Merlin’s life to be in danger on our patrols and hunting trips and decided he would better serve Camelot as apprentice to Gaius. I assume that’s what he’s doing.”
“Sire, if I may,” Lancelot said, leaning down from the saddle to speak quietly. “I believe it would be better coming from you.”
“I think not. They will likely be unable to see past their anger and sympathy for Merlin long enough to hear me out,” he said. “No, you will tell them at the supper. By training tomorrow, perhaps they will have had time to think about it.”
He could not order them to understand or side with him, not even on the matter of his own servant. No, if he had to command their loyalty, it would be no kind of loyalty at all.
Lancelot bowed slightly and reached a hand for Arthur’s shoulder. His obvious fealty was something Arthur hoped would encourage the others would come around. If they didn’t, and soon, he would sway them by telling the story of Merlin’s near-drowning over mead, sparing none of the horrific details. He didn’t want to resort to that, wasn’t sure he could even form the words to describe what Merlin had looked like when they pulled him from that lake, but he would do it to regain his knight’s loyalty, their respect.
Letting his hand fall away, bowing slightly, Lancelot turned and slowly rode toward the cavalry stables, leaving Arthur alone in the nearly empty courtyard, the sun beaming over the top of the ramparts, throwing long rays onto the stones beneath Hengroen’s hooves.
As a young stable hand rushed forward, Hengroen shied. Arthur murmured reassurances to him, waving the boy off and leading his steed to the stables himself.
At journey’s end, no matter where or how long he’d been away, Merlin had always been there with him in the courtyard, whether he’d been along on the journey or no. On the rare occaision that Merlin stayed behind, Arthur knew he’d be watching for his return, watching out of a window as he did his chores or daydreamed. He’d rush to the courtyard and take Hengroen’s reigns, forever greeting the horse before his Prince. It made Arthur smile every single time, though he’d half-heartedly scold Merlin for being slow just after their hellos.
Stabling Hengroen, he flipped a coin to the groomsman and waved a hand in dismissal when the man began to protest. “Take care of him,” he said, as he always did, patting Hengroen’s neck firmly, praising him for another successful journey.
He walked quickly back to the main entrance, foregoing the shorter route through the knight’s quarters to where the King would be waiting for him.
At the end of every journey, no matter how short or long, no matter how exhausted or soaked through or late they were, they always walked together up the central steps and into the citadel, Merlin’s shoulder unfailingly brushing against his.
It seemed the smallest of victories to return that way, Merlin at his side.
Alone, the cavernous entry hall was less than welcoming, the two long flights of stairs only another trial for Arthur to overcome. No one smiled, no one dared touch him, no one even greeted him as he traversed the corridors, missing Merlin’s ridiculous lanky form beside him all the way.
The King’s Counsel Chamber was glowing warmly in the dying light of the day, a stark contrast to the blue-grey of the day before. The setting sun was likely the reason Arthur found his father staring up at the high windows from his place at the long, thin table.
“I’ve returned,” he said when Uther didn’t turn or acknowledge his presence. He cleared his throat and pulled out the chair across from him, sitting down.
“Minus a servant and with a squadron of angry knights, I’ve heard,” Uther said, finally looking at him with a teasing smile that fell quickly away. “You’ll do well to court their favour, Arthur. The knights can make your life a living hell if you’re not careful, believe you me.”
“Yes, they’ve grown rather attached to Merlin,” Arthur said, sure his father had heard the abbreviated version of the tale. He forced a smile to his lips. “News travels quickly, Father. I’ve only just arrived.”
“Camelot holds very few secrets from its King,” Uther said, frowning. “The knights are loyal to me first, and I do not enjoy surprises.”
“Of course, Sire,” Arthur answered, wondering which of his knights had thought it wise to inform the King of Merlin’s absence.
Uther took a drink from his goblet, gesturing to a servant to fill one for Arthur, who put a hand up, refusing.
“I understand the royal housekeep is vetting potential replacements as we speak and I’ve sent word that you’re not to be kept waiting.”
“Merlin was only slightly better than useless apart from his being in the right place at the right time on rare occasion. I can find dumb luck in any servant in the palace, I’m sure,” Arthur said, nodding his thanks, biting down on a protest.
He hadn’t thought far enough ahead to realize he would have to train or become accustomed to a new manservant. There had only ever been the household staff before Merlin, never a single servant assigned only to him. It had been a stretch of his patience to allow Merlin access to so much of his private life, his personal quarters and things, his every waking breath.
To do it all again from scratch with a new servant seemed an impossible thing to ask of him, especially so closely on the heels of losing Merlin.
“Father,” he began, pressing his lips together as he searched for words Uther wouldn’t take as disrespectful. “I believe my varied duties prohibit the efficacy of a single manservant. I feel it would be far better to allow me to send for a maid as needed than have a servant constantly underfoot. As you know, many of my missions require the utmost secrecy.”
“Which is why, Arthur, you will narrow the exposure of those secrets to one trustworthy, loyal man and not a gaggle of maids coming and going at your beck and call.” Uther’s fist closed on the tabletop and Arthur nodded quickly, knowing the battle was lost. “Furthermore, the time for dabbling with maids has long past. Were you to produce an heir in such a manner at your age, no respectable family would consider an offer of marriage. No. Insist on a single manservant as befits your station and age.”
“I’ll speak with Gladys in the morning and see what she’s found,” he said, standing. “With your permission, I’d like to take the evening meal in my chambers. I’m in desperate need of a bath and a bit of solitude.”
His father nodded curtly, and then caught his eye with a forced but sympathetic look. “We must all make sacrifices for the good of the kingdom along the way. I am proud of you for recognizing the need to replace this boy who’s caused such disruption. I know he can’t have meant nothing to you after years by your side, Arthur.”
That was all most people thought of Merlin, he realized, that he was a disruption. Even Arthur had, in the beginning. Nodding his head in surprised gratitude, Arthur turned to go. At the door, he looked back, his father’s small smile a welcome sight. “Thank you, father.”
“Merlin!” Gwaine shouted, waving and rising from the supper table as Merlin spotted him from the other end of the general assembly hall.
Gwaine walked quickly to the end of the cavernous room, putting an arm around Merlin’s slumped shoulders and pulling him close, guiding him to an alcove along the wall where they could speak in relative private. He was just about to ask if Merlin had got the job when he saw the disappointed look in Merlin’s eyes, the down-turned corners of his mouth.
“Are you all right?” Gwaine asked instantly, knowing how disappointed Merlin and Gaius both must be at the apparent failure. “We’ll think of another way. I’ll help you, I swear,” he said, knowing all of Merlin’s hope had been pinned on the success of their plan.
His friend’s eyes were over-bright as he looked up.
“No need!” Merlin said, his mouth lifting into a grin that reached from ear to ear. “She said I’m practically the only one qualified and she wants to present me to him tomorrow for consideration!”
“Well done, you! Although it sounds as if you’re cattle on the auction block,” Gwaine teased, laughing in relief at the news. “Now you just have to remember how to moo effectively and you’re all set.”
“I can low with the best of them,” Merlin said, but the smile fell from his lips as he looked into Gwaine’s eyes. Merlin lowered his voice to a whisper, leaning in closer to speak against Gwaine’s ear. “I have a favour to ask of you.”
The intimacy sent a thrill down Gwaine’s spine, but he tamped it down. “You have only to name it,” he answered without hesitation. Merlin was his dearest friend and more; he would do anything to see him happy.
“I need to speak with him.” Merlin bit his lips and closed his eyes for a long moment as if waiting for a scolding. “I know he’s likely still angry with me and I wouldn’t have us... well we’ve all but said our goodbyes, haven’t we? And I wouldn’t want him thinking ill of me for my last act towards him. Not after...”
“Merlin,” Gwaine said, sighing and pressing his forehead to his friend’s. “He may be angry that you’ve not honoured his wishes, but he can’t think ill of you. Think of what he’s denying himself in a ridiculous attempt to protect you. He has no one but you.”
Merlin nodded against his forehead, eyes closing again, hand reaching up to touch Gwaine’s face. “I know, and I’m afraid Sir Cavall will not be enough, for either of us. Promise to look after him when I cannot be there?”
“I’m a knight, Merlin. I look after my Prince every moment,” Gwaine said, pulling away and giving Merlin a soft shake. “I’m doing it even now, in scheming against him.”
Merlin’s mouth quirked up in a half smile. “For him, you mean.”
“Tell me when you’d like to see him and what I can do to help,” Gwaine said, glancing over Merlin’s shoulder at the unusually quiet table of knights. Leon, Elyan, Lancelot and Percival sat, not eating, looking anxiously in their direction. “And quickly. I believe there are some men who would like to make sure you’re not a ghost.”
Merlin looked back over his shoulder and gave a small wave and a smile to the knights, who called to him and gestured him to an empty spot on their bench. He looked back at Gwaine and whispered, “I only need you to go with me. I have some things in Arthur’s rooms. We’ll use that as an excuse to go to him tonight after supper.”
Gwaine looked doubtfully over Merlin’s shoulder at the growing number of knights calling Merlin’s name. “We’ll say Gaius told you not to indulge tonight or we’ll be stuck in a pub for hours while they all buy you mead.”
“Gaius would say that,” Merlin agreed. “I’ve an important day tomorrow.” He squeezed Gwaine’s hand but dropped it quickly as they left the alcove.
Supper was a farce, though an effective one, and a bit entertaining to boot.
Gwaine listened closely, ready to plead Merlin’s ongoing recovery if his friend made any slip-ups in his retelling of the story. When a newly-inducted knight demanded to hear the tale from the beginning, Merlin looked to Gwaine to tell the bits of the story when Merlin had been unconscious, or nearly so.
Gwaine made light of their warming methods when the table erupted in jeers and Merlin’s face burned scarlet, but the knights quickly subdued as he went on, explaining Merlin’s icy skin, shallow breath and sluggish heartbeat in harrowing detail. The table was uncharacteristically silent for a long moment as the men looked with genuine sympathy or concern at Merlin, even though he was sitting right there, well enough, as they could plainly see.
Gwaine knew how the others felt, though. He’d stolen more than his fair share of worried glances at his friend on the journey home and since, and he and Merlin both seemed unwilling to be apart for very long.
At that point in the story, Merlin’s fingers laced through his own beneath the square of cloth on his lap, clutching his hand until he got to the bit when Merlin woke in a panic and bashed his nose, at which point his friend laughed and clapped his hands over his face, shaking his head. Gwaine played down the severity of the blow, since his bruises were so well-healed already and Merlin smiled gratefully at him.
Lancelot covered the tale for a while then, moving it along by praising Merlin’s quick healing and circling back to the beginning, lauding Merlin’s actions as truly heroic before continuing on again. Merlin was pink to his ears and humble, ducking his head with a small smile.
The knights cheered when they finally ended the tale with Merlin waking in the camp, everyone asleep, and going straight to the cook-fire for food. If it hadn’t really happened exactly like that, no one but he and Merlin would know, and Gwaine was glad Merlin had seen fit to end things on a laugh. The story would be remembered with a smile that way and the small number of knights Camelot had salvaged after the war could use all the smiles they could get.
“You’re sure,” Gwaine asked hesitantly, a hand to Merlin’s chest as he reached to knock on the prince’s chamber door. “And you’re sure you want me with you in there?”
Merlin nodded and smiled softly, grateful for his friend’s forbearance but certain he would need Gwaine’s support, no matter that it meant he and Arthur wouldn’t be alone.
He knocked gently, then with more force, his hand coming away from the door shaking. He wasn’t sure why he was so nervous. It was only Arthur, after all, only the man he knew better than anyone, who knew him in return. There was little reason to fear Arthur’s anger, for he had few options for retaliation at this point.
Merlin hadn’t been to the stocks in ages, but he was sure he’d have a team of knights guarding him if Arthur sent him this time.
“Come,” Arthur ordered briskly, his voice flat and impatient.
Merlin pushed the door open and stepped inside the familiar chamber, keeping his back close to the wall as Gwaine stepped in behind them.
“Well?” Arthur barked, not looking up from his supper, brushing crumbs from the table with the edge of his hand.
“I need to gather my things,” Merlin croaked, swallowing hard as Arthur looked sharply up at him, eyes darting to Gwaine and back to Merlin again. “I have things,” Merlin said, nodding to the antechamber, “in there.”
“Of course,” Arthur said, waving him in, his voice carefully controlled. As Merlin headed for the small room, he heard Arthur order, “Sir Gwaine, you may wait in the corridor.”
It was clearly not meant as permission, and Merlin looked back over his shoulder, giving Gwaine a half-smile and a quick nod, letting him know it would be all right for him to leave.
He ducked into the antechamber as the door to Arthur’s rooms opened and closed again, taking a deep breath to calm his nerves. Arthur hadn’t seemed angry, but he’d been quick to get rid of any witnesses to whatever conversation might be had.
Merlin reached for the box he kept on the furthest shelf in the cupboard-like room. It was so small he could touch both walls if he stretched out his arms. Shelves lined one wall, but the other was hung with Arthur’s spare practice weapons, travel duffels and cloaks. Merlin had tucked a box there for emergencies – a neckerchief and old tunic, a sleeping draught and a tonic to soothe an upset stomach, a spare key to Gaius’ tower rooms and five pieces of silver. It was all the money he’d put away in four years of service, what little he hadn’t sent his mother or spent on necessities.
It was safest there, he’d figured, in the prince’s rooms, where there were much more valuable things for a thief to take.
The box itself was lined and beneath that lining, he’d tucked a scrap of paper with coded notes of spells Merlin had long-since learned by heart. He fished it out from under the cloth and formed a fist around it, crumpling it up, willing his magic to incinerate it.
“Merlin!” Seizing his wrist and prying Merlin’s fingers open, Arthur jerked him forward.
The box fell to the floor, the contents spilling over their feet.
“I’m fine,” Merlin snapped, trying to catch his breath. “It was just parchment.”
Arthur’s thumb rubbed down over his palm, smearing the soot across it, drawing it down his fingers as he let go of Merlin’s wrist. “You cannot cast here. Give me your word that you won’t.”
Merlin shook his head. “You know I can’t do that,” he said quietly, crouching to pick up his strewn belongings.
Arthur stooped to help, pausing as he found one of the silver coins. “You kept all of these things here? Your money? Clothing?”
“I never knew if we might need to flee Camelot. After the third time, I learned to stash a few necessities,” he explained, standing and balancing the box on one hip. “Now I’m basically without a job, I’ll need all of this.”
The closed-in silence of the small area seemed to fill his ears as he stood, staring down at the coin Arthur held out to him.
“You left,” Arthur accused, his voice tight with emotion.
Merlin swallowed hard. When he’d planned this visit tonight, he’d expected vitriol over his return to Camelot, not discussion about their time together in Ealdor. He wasn’t prepared for this. “You would’ve made me swear not to follow you.”
Arthur smiled and scoffed. “You’re planning on staying, then,” Arthur said, sounding as nervous about the almost-question as Merlin was.
“I need to be here. This is my home,” he said, looking down at the floor, hoping Arthur wouldn’t see the truth of what he was saying. He wasn’t speaking of the citadel.
The moment stretched between them, and Merlin filled it with thoughts he couldn’t voice, with every emotion he could never set free again. When he looked up, Arthur was staring at the wall, jaw clenched in an obvious attempt to contain his anger.
“I won’t come around, if it bothers you,” Merlin offered, though his heart felt like it was turning to ash in his chest as the parchment had in his hand.
Arthur’s eyes flashed to his, his hands reaching for Merlin, knocking the box away to the flagstones, the force of his lightning-quick movement slamming Merlin back into the rear wall of the cupboard. Arthur’s hand went to the back of his head, shielding him from cracking his skull on the stones.
Merlin panted, breathless, hands closing tightly on Arthur’s ribs, holding him apart and then yanking him forward as Arthur leaned in and took his mouth, lips bruising-hard, working Merlin’s mouth open, tongue delving in, twining with his own, their soul-born groans matching and melding together.
Arthur’s thigh slipped between his own, weight pressing Merlin flat against the wall, hands ripping away Merlin’s belt, jerking his tunic up and tucking it between their bodies. Arthur’s fingers trailed down his stomach, curling into his waistband and jerking Merlin closer with nipping kisses to his jaw, his throat, his collarbone.
Clutching at Arthur’s strong shoulders, Merlin groaned, body alive with Arthur’s rough, quick touches to his bared skin. He held on, pinned as he was, tilting his head back, giving himself up to whatever Arthur wanted to take.
Arthur rubbed hard over his arousal, Merlin moaning and biting his lips, rocking into the palm that pressed. He squeezed his thighs tightly around the one that slid in between his legs, shifted up and back, massaging his sac in a slow, lazy rhythm that made him as desperate and aching as the grasping, fast caresses to his cock, his ass, his stomach.
Merlin closed his eyes and threaded his fingers through Arthur’s hair as he sucked a line over Merlin’s chest, lips closing hard over his sensitive nipples, licking and sucking, thumb hooking in his bunched-up tunic and pulling it higher, fingers pressing between Merlin’s lips. He bit and sucked them, giving them the same attention Arthur was paying his tingling nipples, groaning as Arthur glanced up at him.
Merlin scraped his teeth over Arthur’s fingertips and felt the quick, sharp answering pinch of teeth on his chest. He groaned and whined unabashedly, moving into every touch, every rub, every sucking kiss and hanging on by a thread, by the thinnest of web-strings.
Arthur released him only to take his mouth again, fingernails etching lines down the centre of his chest to his laces, pulling his trousers open, then Merlin’s. The feeling of his waistband going slack and his aching arousal being drawn out of the confines of his trousers seemed like a promise. God, he hadn’t dreamed Arthur would do this again, would want him here in Camelot, would risk touching him.
Arthur wrapped a strong, tight grip around both of their cocks, his other arm a solid, reassuring strength behind Merlin’s shoulders. When he threw his head back at the first long stroke from sac to tip, Arthur’s hand spread on the back of his head again, protecting him as though he’d known exactly what Merlin would do.
Merlin opened his eyes, looking at Arthur, unable to hide a single thought or feeling and not wanting to, not wanting to hide anything from Arthur ever again. “I need this,” he whispered.
“I know,” Arthur said, eyes heavy-lidded and chest rising and falling rapidly with his panting breaths. “But-“
Merlin’s hand pressed to Arthur’s lips, stopping the words. Not now, not while they... he didn’t want to hear it, ever, but especially not like this. “Later. Tell me later,” he pleaded, leaning in to replace his palm with his mouth.
Arthur’s hand squeezed convulsively as he stroked up and down their shafts, their skin sliding fluidly together, wet with the evidence of their desperate need for each other. Faster, closer, tongues turning and seeking into one another as they rocked and pressed, Merlin gasping into their kiss and stilling, cresting and shooting out all over Arthur’s quickening fist, his come slicking the way as Arthur smeared it from root to head, gripping their cocks together, Merlin shaking with the sensory overload of so intense a touch so soon, before he’d even stopped shuddering.
He slipped his fingers through Arthur’s hair, pulling Arthur’s head down to his shoulder, his other hand squeezing and rubbing the back of Arthur’s neck. “You feel incredible. God, your skin, your cock, just... oh, God, don’t stop,” he murmured, heat rushing back into his groin, narrowing down until it was all he could think of, the warmth, the fire smouldering low in his belly, imagining Arthur’s heat was fuelling his, transferring into his body through touch alone.
His name, breathed like a benediction, like a desperate prayer for mercy and Merlin lowered his hand, laced his fingers through Arthur’s and ran his thumb over the tip of Arthur’s leaking arousal, smearing the fluid around the rim of the head, circling his fingers there when Arthur arched against him and jerked in short, hard thrusts, crying out through clenched teeth, coming all over Merlin’s belly and chest.
He let his fingers slip away, wiping them on his trousers before fisting Arthur’s hair and pulling him down for another kiss, the slow, gentle glide of their tongues together. The quiet, contented moan that hummed against Merlin’s lips was the sweetest thing he’d likely ever hear from Arthur and Merlin drank it in, memorizing it for dreaming of later.
When they parted, both breathless and losing the battle to contain their smiles, Merlin whispered a cleaning spell, the mess between them vanishing.
Eyes narrowing, Arthur turned abruptly away, putting his clothing to rights and combing his fingers back through his hair. He glanced impatiently over his shoulder and Merlin quickly moved to catch up, pulling his laces tight and smoothing his wrinkled tunic down his red-marked chest.
“I won’t watch,” Arthur ground out, crouching to pick up Merlin’s things, his back turned. “If you’re caught and my father... I won’t be there. I won’t watch.”
“I swear to you, you’ll never have to,” Merlin said, laying a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “If I’m caught, I’ll never even see the pyre.”
Arthur rose and turned, knocking Merlin’s hand away. He shoved the box into Merlin’s arms, looking at him with such raw emotion Merlin could barely stand to see it.
“You should stay clear of me,” Arthur said, his voice thick but stern. “This-” Arthur gestured between them, “can’t happen. From now on, we are strangers. If you won’t go, it’s the only way left to me.” Arthur faltered and Merlin began to reach for him, but Arthur shook his head adamantly. “Don’t touch me,” he said quickly, voice breaking. He closed his eyes for a moment, Merlin’s heart in his throat the whole time, choking him.
“Arthur,” he began, gasping around a sob, “don’t,” he begged. “You don’t have to do this.”
But he couldn’t stop Arthur breaking him apart a second time, voice still unsteady even as he looked at Merlin with undisguised regret. “You will not touch me again. You will not speak to me. You may not come here or follow me or seek me out. Take your things and go.”
“And this is your fitting goodbye?” Merlin whispered, the tears in his eyes born as much out of anger as they were of grief. “Why couldn’t you leave it as it was?”
Arthur turned and walked from the cupboard, back ramrod straight, without a word. Merlin sagged against the wall, the breath knocked out of him by Arthur’s words, his legs too weak to hold him up. He sank to the floor, the box on his lap, hands gripping his hair to still his reeling mind.
How could they ever be strangers when Merlin could still feel his skin, his touch, his lips? How could Arthur expect him to just stop knowing every single part of him as well as he knew himself?
“Merlin!” Gwaine hissed, striding after his friend, glancing back at the door to Arthur’s rooms and seeing the prince coming quickly towards the corridor. “Merlin, wait!”
“Sir Gwaine,” Arthur said, clearing his throat, “would you come in for a moment?”
Arthur turned into Gods-damned Uther when he was guilty of anything, and Gwaine did not want to be placating an angry prat when Merlin was high-tailing it Gods-knew-where with a red, blotchy face and his arms wrapped so tightly around a box that it threatened to cave in on itself.
“Yes?” he asked impatiently, stepping quickly into Arthur’s chambers.
“Close the door,” Arthur instructed, and Gwaine obeyed, rolling his eyes while his back was turned.
"One of us should follow him," Gwaine said. "He's-"
“I’m know,” Arthur said, looking up at Gwaine, firelight dancing across his narrowed eyes, “I have a favour to ask regarding him.”
“A favour? Now?” Gwaine asked through gritted teeth, not daring another word for fear his anger would break free and land on the Prince’s face in the form of a fist.
Arthur nodded curtly and reached for his goblet, avoiding Gwaine’s glare. “Take care of him.”
Gwaine pressed his tongue hard against a molar, mouth hanging open, head shaking. “The two of you will be the death of me,” he said, disbelieving what he was hearing.
“What?” Arthur snapped, setting the goblet down hard on the table. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“Only that I’m going to be doing an awful lot of taking care,” Gwaine said, scoffing. “Although I don’t know that even I can manage the likes of both you and Merlin on a daily basis. You should consider asking Lancelot to help out, too.”
Arthur’s hand came up so fast Gwaine barely had time to spin and duck away.
He straightened and stepped back toward the door, pointing at it. “Shall I go take care of him, then?” he asked, grinning to soften the tease and cocking his head to the side. "Or would you rather fight?"
Shaking his head, Arthur’s anger seemed to slip. He smirked and waved Gwaine out the door. “Hurry,” Arthur said, the word telling all he felt for Merlin, if Gwaine was any judge. “And watch that smart mouth on the paddock tomorrow or you’ll likely find yourself all-over bruises in the shape of my blade.”
Gwaine threw open the door to Arthur's chamber, sprinting to the tower steps and up them, dashing through the door to Gaius’ quarters and straight through into Merlin’s room, finding it empty, a note fluttering to the floor in the breeze Gwaine’s haste had caused.
“I need to be alone. I need to think. Just let me go, let me think and I’ll return when I can. I promise.”
It was addressed to no one, though Gwaine realized with a start that it could be meant for all of them, every single person who cherished Merlin.
As if Gwaine would ever leave Merlin alone in the state he must be in.
He stuffed the note in his pocket and ran full-out to the main courtyard, the stables; Merlin hadn’t borrowed a horse, thank Gods. Gwaine jerked the reins of a mare from the stable boy’s hand, promising coin for the trouble he’d brought upon the worker as he leapt into the saddle and galloped from the citadel, mind racing through the places he knew Merlin was familiar with.
The paddock and castle grounds were out – Merlin wouldn’t have run only to stay. The forest paths and gardens seemed a likelier option for wandering aimlessly than fleeing heartache.
The only place Gwaine could think of was also the most obvious, but it’s exactly where he would head if his heart had just been torn out and stomped on by Arthur’s fine boots.
He turned the mare and dug his heels into her heaving sides, reaching forward to pat her neck even as he urged her on, slowing only when he got to the main thoroughfare. He hitched the horse to a pole outside the tavern and dashed inside.
Coaxing Merlin from the corner table was easier than he’d imagined, though he’d had to pay for the tankard Merlin wouldn’t give up, not even when Gwaine had tried prying it from his fingers.
“Isn’t this what I’m supposed to do?” Merlin asked, taking another swig, tongue chasing the mead that ran down his chin. He leaned heavily on Gwaine as they walked outside to the mare.
“Not alone,” Gwaine muttered, clasping his fingers together and nodding at his hands. “Up, and hold on to the saddle as you go. I don’t want you falling off the other side.”
“I’m not even tipsy, you know,” Merlin said, resting the dripping tankard against Gwaine’s shoulder and stepping clumsily into his interlocked hands, swinging up into the saddle even less gracefully than usual.
“Well done. Let’s go,” he said, patting the horse and taking the reins.
“I’m not going back to the castle. You’re not taking me back.”
“No,” Gwaine agreed as he hooked a foot in the stirrup and hoisted himself up and over, careful not to jostle Merlin, who was less steady than normal, which was to say, not steady in the least. “How about the ruins at the far side of the forest paths?”
Merlin frowned as Gwaine looked over his shoulder, waiting for an answer. “Aren’t they for... isn’t that where couples go?”
“They’re quiet. We’ll find an unused corner and you can think,” Gwaine said, nudging the horse into a trot.
“Hey!” Merlin shouted as his mead sloshed over his tunic sleeve, dripping down onto Gwaine’s leg as Merlin tried and failed to hold it at a safe distance. “I was going to drink that!”
Gwaine snatched the tankard and threw it to the ditch along the road, smiling as he urged the horse into a gallop and Merlin’s arms grabbed hold around his waist.
Neither spoke as they raced through the forest, the quiet sounds of nightfall the only thing breaking the stillness as they slowed. Exiting the forest, the moonlight streamed brightly down on the jagged, broken walls and through still-beautiful arches of richly-coloured stone.
Gwaine dismounted first, holding the mare steady as Merlin came down after him, boots thudding onto the worn cobblestones. Gwaine led the horse to the edge of the ruins, tying her to a tree, giving her as much rein as he could and rubbing her neck in praise. He’d not had one moment of stubbornness from her, something of a miracle given they’d only just met.
He smiled at Merlin and took his hand, leading him into the ruins. They didn’t speak as they explored, the crumbling walls forming a maze, saplings growing here and there, bringing life back into the soil of the broken home.
“Gwaine,” Merlin said, tugging at his sleeve to stop him.
When he did, when he looked into Merlin’s eyes, he saw pain, the stripped, aching gap Arthur had left behind. “Come on,” he whispered, pulling Merlin to a darkened corner and down, wrapping his arms around Merlin’s shoulders and drawing him in, drawing him close. “Oh, Merlin,” he whispered, shaking his head.
Merlin pressed his face into Gwaine’s shoulder and shivered, though the night was fair, his entire body sagging against Gwaine. “How can he expect us to be strangers after...”
Gwaine’s heart leapt into his throat and stuck there, even when he tried to swallow it down again. “You slept with him,” he said, suddenly realizing the full depth of Merlin’s pain. It choked him with equal parts regret and sympathy as he pulled Merlin closer. “He couldn’t have meant-”
“That we weren’t to speak, to see one another,” Merlin said, his voice strained. “He... he touched me, he made love to me and then just like that. It was like blowing out a candle – light, then darkness.”
“Merlin, look at me,” Gwaine said, putting his hands on either side of Merlin’s face and lifting it, holding it so Merlin had no choice but to hear him. “He is hurting exactly as much as you right now. He is hurting and he is alone.”
“And I have you,” Merlin whispered, tears threatening to spill from his over-full eyes. “I always have you and he always had me.”
“He’ll have you still, remember?” Gwaine asked, pressing their foreheads together. “Sir Cavall will be his protector now, his confidant. He will have you.”
“He’ll have a craggily old has-been knight,” Merlin scoffed, pulling back, brushing Gwaine’s hair from his face. “He doesn’t want me.”
“Arthur's trying protect you,” Gwaine said seriously. “I know beyond a shadow of a doubt he thinks he’s doing the right thing, Merlin. He cares deeply for you.”
All around them the night fell, the waxing moon throwing pale blue light over the ruins above them but not touching their shaded corner.
Merlin nodded, licking his lips. He leaned in, pressing a chaste kiss to Gwaine’s lips, his mouth lingering, lips parting and pressing closer.
Gwaine held still, squeezed his eyes closed against the sight he knew he’d have to fight to resist. If he gave into this and took advantage of Merlin, if he was that selfish, then he didn’t deserve so great a friend as Merlin in the first place.
Merlin’s tongue swept gently across his lips, then slowly withdrew, the touch heaven and hell at once. His words were barely spoken, a soft breath on Gwaine’s mouth. “Will you kiss me?” When Gwaine didn’t respond, Merlin sighed against his lips, his voice pleading in a desperate whisper. “Please, I need you.”
It was pain speaking, and pain answered, Gwaine’s chest aching as he shook his head. “If that sigh had been for me, I’d take you on this very ground, Merlin.” He leaned forward and pressed a soft kiss to Merlin’s cheek, holding there, holding Merlin close as he nodded and dropped his head to Gwaine’s shoulder, trembling. "We both know I'm not the one you need."
Gwaine closed his eyes, breathed in Merlin’s scent, buried his nose in Merlin’s hair and let himself feel the warmth and weight of Merlin in his arms, the soft skin, the long fingers, the worn fabric of his clothing.
Enough, he told himself, opening his eyes and pulling away so their limbs weren’t entwined, their heartbeats no longer pressed together.
Merlin seemed to realize all at once what he had said, back going stiff beneath Gwaine’s hand.
“Shh,” he said, forestalling any apologies or declarations. “I’ve known you were his from the moment I saw you together. It’s enough for me to see you happy,” he said, realizing as the words passed from his lips that they were true.
Wiping at the tears that slid down his cheeks, Merlin looked at his damp sleeve and then at Gwaine, mouth quirking into a half-smile. “Yes, well, good thing I’m so happy, eh?”
Gwaine couldn’t help but laugh, the smile on Merlin’s tear-streaked face such a welcome sight. Merlin joined him, pushing back to lean against their corner of ruins, fingers lacing through Gwaine’s and not letting go .
Merlin woke to Gaius shaking his shoulder, as he did every morning in the citadel. The old man had a hard grip and bony fingers that dug in if Merlin didn’t wake quickly enough. “Up, Sir Cavall and to your duty,” he said, grinning.
Smiling back, Merlin sat up, lifting the neck of his tunic to wipe at his sore, swollen eyes. The room was still bathed in the pink of false dawn, the almost-mild breeze promising another beautiful day. “Shall I change here or find an empty chamber?” he asked, yawning into his fist and swinging his legs from the bed, his toes curling on the chilly stone floor.
“Here, I should think,” Gaius answered, tossing a bundle of clothing to Merlin’s lap. “I found these in a rag-box at the old tailor’s shop. They’ll be fitting enough for a poor old knight.”
“Great,” Merlin grumbled, laying the clothing aside and standing to stretch, his fingertips nearly reaching the rafter above. He went up on tiptoes and touched the wood, sighing. “At least I won’t feel old this time.”
“Yes,” Gaius said, giving him an exasperated look, “that must be such a relief to you.”
Merlin laughed and pulled his tunic off over his head, reaching for the worn old shirt Gaius had brought.
Two icy fingers stopped him, pressing hard against his collarbone, just next to a tender bruise Arthur had kissed onto his skin.
Gaius’ appraising touch drifted up to his throat, touching another bruise, then down to clasp his arm. Gaius sighed heavily. “What am I going to do with you, Merlin?” he asked, turning Merlin back around and pulling him into a tight hug.
Merlin tucked his flushing face in to the soft fabric of Gaius cloak and closed his eyes, drinking in the rare show of Gaius’ sympathy. “I’ll be fine,” he mumbled against the cloth. “The glamour will hide them. He won’t see.”
“That’s not what concerns me,” Gaius said, holding Merlin at arm’s length. “Can you put aside your... can you put aside what’s been between you and become his protector? Only his protector?”
“Of course I can,” he said, looking his mentor in the eye and doing his best to believe every word. “I’ve done it for years, haven’t I?”
Gaius dropped his hands away and looked at the ground, nodding. “I suppose you have, at that, my boy.”
When Gaius patted his shoulder and walked away, Merlin pulled on the clothing and went to the looking glass. He closed his eyes and formed the image of Cavall in his mind. He kept it simple: shoulder-length, greying brown hair, dark, leathery skin, a beard long enough to disguise the bones of his face but nothing as dramatic as the one he’d had before when he’d been an ancient man. His dead-giveaway ears transformed, flattening almost to his head, his wavy hair tucking neatly behind them.
Sir Cavall was in his fifties, a respectable age for an injured knight. The library now held a record of his service, should anyone bother to check or wonder why they didn’t remember him. He’d served in a large regiment of knights who’d fought in the first wave of the Great Purge. His squadron had been all but annihilated, all but him.
Granted a small stipend and pension and his wound healed by Gaius himself, Cavall had lived, but had left Camelot to be with his family, a sister, in the North.
Returning to the citadel upon her death, he was honoured to be considered for the position of manservant to the Prince himself.
And Gladys adored him.
“It is a great honour, Sire,” he said, bowing and taking the Prince’s offered hand in a firm, friendly handshake. “I’ve heard astounding tales of your bravery and triumphs,” he added, looking Arthur in the eye so he wouldn’t think Cavall was being facetious.
“Have you?” Arthur said, smirking. He was flattered, Merlin could tell by the flush high on his cheeks. “Well, I’m sure you have some triumphs of your own to tell.”
“Yes, but the final defeat overshadows them all,” he said, shaking his head and frowning.
“Come now, I’m sure that isn’t so,” Arthur said, actually putting a casual arm around Cavall’s shoulders and leading him to the chairs by the fire. Merlin saw him nod at Gladys, who swept from the room, closing the door softly behind them. “Sit here and tell me whether a man of honour can stomach household chores,” he said, chuckling.
“I’ve had little need for my honour and great need for clean clothing and food on the table for many years, Sire.”
Arthur tilted his head, looking impressed. “You can cook, then?”
“Of course, Sire,” Cavall answered, grinning beneath his beard. “What kind of manservant couldn’t prepare a meal for his prince?”
“You’d be surprised,” Arthur said, grinning and pouring two cups of wine from a decanter on the table at his elbow. “My last servant thought rat a bit of a delicacy.”
Merlin took the offered drink, waiting patiently for Arthur to take the first sip. His politeness didn’t go unnoticed. Arthur raised his cup, gestured at Cavall and said, “To the Knights of Camelot, old and new.”
“To the Knights,” Merlin repeated, smiling as he sipped, happiness spreading through him as thoroughly as the strong royal wine.
Arthur hadn't a clue who he really was, and it seemed he and Cavall were going to get on just fine.
Thank you so much to all the readers who have stuck with Springes and cheered me on and motivated me with your comments and kudos! You guys are so fantastic and have made me feel so welcome in Merlin fandom!
This chapter was beta'ed by the lovely and talented lolafeist, archaeologist_d, nu_breed, iamnotjkr and otpendragon! I tend to tweak until the second I pub, so any remaining mistakes are entirely my doing! *g*
I'm hoping to have Chapter six up in the next 10 days (maybe sooner!).
Chapter 6: When the Blood Burns, How Prodigal the Soul
Merlin resumes his duties in the guise of Cavill, but being so close to Arthur is harder than he thought it would be.
Special thanks to piscaria, andraste_oz and sabriel75 for beta, and to my flist for endless hand-holding and encouragement!
“Is there no such thing as a quiet servant?” Arthur muttered, wincing as Sir Cavall lost hold of the second gauntlet. As if that weren’t enough, he practically dropped the shield and shoulder-plate down on the table with a clatter to bend for the gauntlets, legs awkwardly splayed like a knock-kneed chicken.
“Pardon, Sire, I’ll just get those,” Sir Cavall said, looking up sheepishly from beneath the hair that constantly fell in his face. Arthur sometimes wanted to hack it off just so he could see both of the man’s eyes once in awhile. Cavall was forever pushing it behind his ears or flipping it back from his face like some girl. “Nearly... have it...” Cavall ground out, his half-lame leg buckling as he bent and reached under the chair, tipping dangerously forward, knocking his head against the edge of the table. “Ow!”
“For Gods’ sake, man, just leave them!” Arthur wasn’t quite shouting, but it was near thing. His patience was worn down to nothing by Cavall’s constant interruptions and the grating way they reminded him of Merlin’s inability to resist being noisy at just the worst possible moment. The last thing he needed was to be reminded of the one thing he could never put far from his thoughts. “Can’t you see I’m trying to concentrate?”
“Leg’s not cooperating today, Sire,” Cavall said quietly, rubbing his thigh. “My apologies. I’ll find something else to do.”
“Why don’t you go muck out the stables?” Arthur suggested, making another mark on the parchment in front of him, gritting his teeth as, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Cavall flipping his ridiculous hair again, much the way Gwaine did, only with far less finesse. “Or get a haircut,” he said under his breath.
Cavall’s back straightened stiffly, head jerking a quick nod. “Yes Sire. But if I may,” he began, and Arthur sighed impatiently. His new servant was turning out to be as verbose as Merlin, as well.
“Can’t you see I’m trying to work?” he asked, exasperated, sighing at the chiding look Cavall gave him. It reminded him so much of Merlin and Gwen’s contemptuous warning glares that the guilt set in instantly. How did they do that with just a look, as if they were part nursemaid? “Fine. What is it?” He gestured with his quill for Cavall to get on with it.
“Surely you are aware that there is an entire team of men who care for the royal horses ‘round the clock? I’m happy to clean the stables if you wish, of course, but perhaps my time might be put to better use than doing someone else’s job for them?” There was not a hint of disrespect in Cavall’s voice, not even after Arthur had taken that shot at his hair. The man really did display the honour of a knight, if not the coordination, and the last thing Arthur wanted was to strip Cavall of that honour. The minor noble-turned-soldier-turned-servant had lost pride enough for any man’s lifetime as it was.
“I suppose punishing my manservant with the stable-work has become a knee-jerk reaction, Cavall,” Arthur conceded, laying the quill down on the desk and drawing in a deep breath. The bookkeeping that his father had delegated to him was grating on his nerves with its tediousness. Cavall had a point, though, and perhaps it was time for a break anyway. “Mer- my former servant tended to need quite a bit of... guidance. You’re right in thinking your time could be better spent elsewhere.”
He tapped his fingertips against the parchment and pushed back from the desk, crossing to the window.
Though Arthur knew about the constant care of the horses, Merlin had never once in four years pointed it out to him or complained about being told to rake shite while another servant got to sit and watch. Had Merlin been ridiculed for that all these years?
It must say something about Merlin - and about his replacement - that in one week, Cavall already felt more comfortable challenging Arthur than Merlin apparently ever had.
Arthur knew he’d been hard on Merlin, of course he had. Merlin had come to him as green as grass and knowing nothing about serving to boot. He’d had to teach Merlin how to strap on armour, how to polish boots, what a proper breakfast actually consisted of. But that had been years ago, and Merlin should know by now he could trust Arthur.
Merlin didn’t know, though, did he? The realization struck him like a fist to the chest.
If Merlin trusted him, he would have told Arthur about his magic, would have known beyond a shadow of a doubt that Arthur would never let harm come to him, no matter how angry or conflicted Arthur may have felt about it. It had taken Arthur’s life being at stake for Merlin to reveal his magic to him and even then, Arthur guessed Merlin still would have hidden it, if he’d been able to.
At the scuff of boot-soles along the floor, Arthur turned, realizing Cavall was watching him, waiting patiently for a new assignment.
He took a deep breath and tried, rather unsuccessfully, to push Merlin from his thoughts once again. It seemed he only ever got a few moments’ worth of concentration on any given subject before Merlin somehow found his way back to the forefront of his mind. He considered the trials, trying to come up with an appropriate task for Cavall and in his mind’s eye, he could already see Merlin perched on the fence alongside the other servants, one leg propped up, leaning back on his elbows as he waited for the next weapons’ change. He wouldn’t be there, though, likely as not, and he certainly wouldn’t be seeing to Arthur’s needs.
“The team of pages don’t always attend their duties as they should on such a fine day. Go to the paddock and see that everything is in order for the trials this afternoon,” he ordered, “I don’t have to remind you that means every practice sword and bit of chainmail examined and the field thoroughly checked for divots, do I?”
“Of course not, Sire. I can still recall what it meant to pull another man’s ribbon from his sword belt,” Cavall said, smirking as if remembering a particularly satisfying victory. “No need to risk your neck or any other man’s during a trial, though, is there? A wounded recruit wouldn’t do the squadron much good,” he said with a smile. “I’ll make sure the field is safe.”
Arthur smiled back, feeling that despite their age differences, there was something between him and Cavall that connected on the most basic of levels. They were both fighters, warriors trained to put the good of others ahead of themselves. Cavall spoke to him with obvious deference to Arthur’s position, but he also spoke his mind, and Arthur respected him in turn for not cowering when a situation clearly warranted a second opinion, asked for or no.
“When you’re through at the paddock, you’re excused for the remainder of the afternoon,” he said, knowing Cavall would be at the field for the trials despite being freed from his duties. No knight – not even a former knight - would miss the chance to watch if they happened to be at the castle when trials were being held. Cavall opened his mouth as if to protest and Arthur held up a hand to stop him. “There will be a flock of servants nearby this afternoon to help me on and off with my armour and hand me my weapons. Get off that leg so you’ll be of use to me tomorrow,” he said, smiling.
“Then may I inquire – will any of the other knights be working the recruits, or will it only be yourself?” Cavall asked, brow furrowing as if puzzled.
The question took him by surprise. Cavall seemed to pay attention to the oddest details at times. “I prefer to run the candidates through their paces myself, get a feel for who they are as men and soldiers,” he answered, realizing as he asked that the late afternoon start might be prohibitive in completing all of the trials in a single day, as was the plan. “Now that you mention it, though... how many am I to put to the test today?”
“Twenty-three if I’m not mistaken, Sire,” Cavall answered. “Last evening, your knights were discussing the large number of nobles come to try out. They seemed anxious to get a crack at the boys since there were so many. They wondered if you might ask for their help today,” Cavall added, grinning as he turned away, going to the armoire and beginning to pull out the clothing Arthur would wear under his uniform later, laying it out on his neatly-made bed.
It was something Arthur could have done himself and hadn’t requested, but Cavall seemed to think five steps ahead of the moment at all times, another mark of a good knight, and of an excellent servant. He wished, not for the first time, that he could have seen the old man in his youth, in action.
“Did they think I would let them at the recruits today?” Arthur asked, genuinely interested. He hadn’t realized Cavall was taking meals with the knights, but now that he knew, he was certainly going to take full advantage of having an insider’s ear to their casual banter.
He rose and crossed the room, leaning against a bedpost and folding his arms.
Cavall smoothed the wrinkles from Arthur’s under-tunic, pulling Arthur’s uniform boots from beneath the bed and rubbing his sleeve across one light scuff until it vanished.
“They didn’t seem to think you would, but they seemed hopeful nonetheless,” Cavall said, glancing at him before looking quickly back to the boots in his hands, inspecting them with care. “They seemed to be of the mind that you might split the trials over several days rather than give the honour of final-trial to one of them, even the greatest of them.”
“Tell me, Cavall,” Arthur prodded, giving him a conspiratorial smile, “Which among them believes himself to be the greatest?”
“Oh no, it wasn’t them that judged – it was I,” he answered hurriedly. “Your knights – well, they’re all yours, aren’t they?” he laughed, shrugging. “I meant the three most in your company off the field, I suppose: Sirs Gwaine, Leon and Lancelot. Those three are clear leaders, real examples for the younger knights, though I think Sir Gwaine would take my head off for saying so.”
“I’d rather enjoy seeing him try,” Arthur said, reaching out to punch Cavall lightly on the bicep. “Sir Gwaine never went through trials himself, though I suppose he’s seen enough since he was knighted to know the general routine.”
Cavall smiled at the blow to his arm, then shrugged. “Seemed as though they knew what they were about. More so than I and I suppose I was a knight longer than any of those three have been.”
“Leon’s been a knight for years; the other two joined up during the war, but I’m sure you know that if you’ve been dining with them.” Arthur reached for the boots, wondering if Cavall realized there might be a limit to the shine a soldier should have on his feet. “They’re fine. Leave them,” he said, tossing them onto the bedspread and going to the sideboard, picking up the decanter and an empty cup.
Almost instantly, his hand was covered and brushed insistently away.
“Let me, Sire,” Cavall said, shaking his head. “Have you never gotten used to being attended to? You make me fight just to be allowed to do my job, you know,” he said exasperatedly, but with a teasing smile.
“Thank you.” Arthur took the cup of water and walking to the window. Merlin had taught him to fight like that. No one had ever done anything but bow and scrape before Merlin came along. But Cavall wasn’t the scraping sort, either. He’d once been a noble, of course, and was more... polite and thoughtful than Merlin, but he had something of Merlin’s grudgingly-servile way about him, too.
In all honesty, Arthur wished Cavall hadn’t anything in common with Merlin. Thinking about Merlin constantly was worse than having him around. At least with him there at his side, Arthur had been able to balance the good with the bad, the annoyances with the shared laughs. So far he’d found nothing to laugh about with his new servant.
“Shall I help you dress before I go?” Cavall asked, sounding every bit as though it would actually be a pleasure for him to do so.
Arthur shook his head, not looking away from the courtyard below his window. “I can manage,” he said absently, gesturing at the door with his cup. “Go enjoy your afternoon.”
Cavall slipped quietly out the door and Arthur swung his window open on its hinges.
Basking in the gentle breeze with the sun on his face, Arthur closed his eyes and leaned his head against the stone wall. It was nearly as warm as the day after Merlin’s fall, the day they’d ridden together, the day they’d travelled to Ealdor. It was difficult to believe that it had been only a fortnight ago, just a handful of days since he and Merlin had been together.
He’d seen Merlin around the castle since their last encounter, naturally, but Merlin hadn’t sought him out or come to his chambers as he’d fully expected Merlin to do, especially since Arthur had expressly ordered him not to.
Why had the idiot not stayed in Ealdor?
Why had he ever allowed Merlin to get so close to begin with? They’d been friends – actual, tried-and-true friends, the kind Arthur had never been allowed as a child. And now... well, now he was as alone as he’d been before Merlin became his manservant, only without a band of ridiculous, immature friends backing up his every bullying move. Merlin had put a stop to that, and to every false friendship Arthur had collected as a young man.
He found himself even more alone, in fact, since now he didn’t even have Morgana’s sharp wit to amuse him and keep him on his toes. They’d all lost a sister in her when she’d betrayed them, though Arthur couldn’t think of her as she’d been in her final days in Camelot. Instead, he thought of her banter and bravery, her determination to best him at the smallest task. He missed her company as he went about his days alone, missed having a sister, for she had always been one to him, truly.
He might have turned to the knights if they weren’t all behaving their formal best, apart from Gwaine and Lancelot, who looked at him with disappointment or not at all. Arthur wanted to make amends, wanted them to understand, but he didn’t try to explain it to them further. They should be able to see how dangerous it was for Merlin, how much Arthur was trying to protect him, at any cost.
And if they were on Merlin’s side, so much the better. Arthur couldn’t stand the thought of Merlin sulking alone in his tower room, and he’d heard snatches of conversation on the paddock – the knights were sticking close to Merlin, taking care to make sure he wasn’t left to brood too much or too often.
Arthur had spent years without a true confidant. He was used to the isolation, and he would be fine on his own, even more so knowing Merlin wasn’t alone.
Outside the window, a dark-haired young man in a red neckerchief caught Arthur’s eye and he straightened, leaning forward to get a better look. He couldn’t quite tell if it was Merlin or not from this angle, though it certainly looked like it could be.
Just exactly what he needed – another reminder of what he’d lost. What he’d purposefully pushed from himself.
There were reminders of Merlin everywhere; even things that had always been a part of Arthur’s life before Merlin arrived in Camelot were now linked to Merlin in his memory. Arthur’s only moments with his mother – illusion though she may have been – had been with Merlin at his side. Merlin had saved Uther’s life that evening. It was a day he would never – could never – forget.
That night, he’d struck Merlin, truly struck him, for the first time. And then he’d turned his back and ordered Merlin away from him. Merlin hadn’t left him then, either, had stayed and laid a hand on Arthur’s shoulder as he leant against the fireplace. He’d not said a word the entire night, not one word.
It was the night Arthur realized Merlin knew him better than anyone in the world.
He reached for the boots Cavall had been polishing as they’d spoken, scoffing as he saw the shine Merlin had never achieved on them, not since he’d brought them up to replace the ones the rat had chewed through.
Tossing them back to the bed, he leaned back against the wall and looked out the window, hoping for just one more glimpse of the man’s ridiculous red neckerchief, but the young man he’d seen was gone.
Limping back into the castle after setting everything to rights down at the field, Merlin ducked into an unused chamber, shutting the door quietly behind him and whispering a locking spell for the door. He was beginning to think of it as his chamber, as many times as he visited it in a single day. Three, four – one day it was nine. The tower was just too far away from most of his duties and friends and he’d had to find somewhere on the main floors to change.
This chamber was just further than mid-way between Arthur’s rooms and the knight’s barracks, in the castle proper, still in the main wing but having the unfortunate placement on the inside ring of rooms, the ones with no windows and down on the damp lower level of the castle.
It was a fortunate enough location if you happened to need a place to change your visage on the run, though. No one knew he came here, not even Gwaine, who had, in all honesty, been fantastic to him over the last week. He’d checked on Merlin each night, dragging him out to the tavern and getting him properly sloshed after his first full day of being Cavall. Gaius hadn’t even lectured the next morning – he’d just handed Gwaine and Merlin each a vial of that foul-tasting headache cure that happened to be his most-demanded potion.
Merlin closed his eyes, lifting his arm and then dropping it. He’d been trying to rid himself of that habit, since there was no real reason to do it other than to give himself a physical focal point as he cast. Since it was just one more thing that could get him caught, it was only smart to stop doing it.
He cast the spell to remove Sir Cavall and looked around the room, sighing. If there was a mirror in here, it was covered, and he was tired of the place looking full of ghosts as it was. He cast again, fingers twitching to raise, but he stopped them, smiling to himself. The thin cloths covering the furniture and wall-hangings slipped to the ground, then slid into a pile beneath the bed.
He’d not realized the bed was nearly identical to Arthur’s when the posts and canopy had been covered, but he recognized the material and carved patterns on the bed now. Running his fingers along the carved lines of the bedpost, Merlin leaned forward and rested his forehead against it, closing his eyes. If the chambers smelled of Arthur, he would have crumpled to the ground right there and then.
As it was, the room smelled only of dust and disuse and Merlin inhaled deeply, reminding himself that Arthur was off-limits, that somehow he’d been complicit in that decision, somehow he’d agreed.
He spotted a large dressing mirror on a stand next to the bed and went to it, rubbing a sleeve across the top half of it to clear it of the dust its covering hadn’t kept at bay. Merlin frowned at his reflection, sighing.
A week had passed with no word from Arthur, no summons or even a note, not that he’d expected either, but... he’d hoped. It was time he faced reality. They weren’t going to be together. If Arthur had it his way, they’d not even speak, not even be friends, and there was the worst of it.
They were strangers now.
Merlin would learn to see Arthur through Cavall’s eyes, as servant to master, as Merlin should have always done. He’d never quite managed it before, but the guise of Cavall was giving him opportunities to change, to be a better, more patient version of himself. He found that as Cavall, he could distance himself from Arthur’s impatience and annoyance and calmly find a way to remedy more problematic situations without goading the prince further into irrationality.
As Cavall, he could be wise and not be ridiculed for it, though he found himself missing Arthur’s awkward, reluctant thank yous and the moment of equality and respect that always followed. He wondered what it would be like between them now, if Arthur would still treat Merlin the same as he had before they’d been together. He would never know, would he?
Merlin was never going to be able to distance himself completely though, not when the sight of a bed could reduce him to brooding and pining. Arthur was so close, literally within his reach all day, every day. Of course, as Cavall, Merlin would never be allowed to truly talk to him or kiss him or touch him. Not that he wanted Arthur kissing Cavall, either, but the short distance between them made their separation all that more unbearable.
And more bearable, too. He was still at Arthur’s side, and he had to be grateful for that. Had to remind himself over and again to be grateful for that. It was the most important thing.
Thank the Gods Arthur hadn’t yet requested any of the more physical services Merlin had provided on occasion. That, like being near Arthur day in and day out as Cavall, was both a relief and a vexation. If Arthur asked Cavall to fetch the salve and apply it to his thighs or shoulders, to wash his hair or back, to sit with him and talk if Arthur couldn’t fall asleep, well, Cavall would of course do all of those things without hesitation and Merlin would at least have that much, but he’d also feel a bit betrayed that Arthur was finding solace in someone else’s company.
Merlin’s life was so different to what it was just a fortnight ago, before the Serkit, before Arthur and the knights had saved him, before he’d shown Arthur the depth of his feelings. What they’d shared... it was more than Merlin ever expected for himself, more than he ever thought he deserved.
Arthur had clearly and rightly chosen Camelot over Merlin before he’d decided it was too dangerous for Merlin to return to the city. The fact that Merlin was defying Arthur’s wishes and remaining in Camelot as Gaius’ apprentice changed nothing about Arthur’s devotion to his duty and Kingdom. And in the same heartbeat that he wished for Arthur’s affection, Merlin reminded himself that Arthur was right - Camelot was a worthier cause.
Shaking his head to rid himself of the thoughts, not that it worked, Merlin crouched and felt for the sack of his normal clothing beneath the ancient bed. There was a space between the ropes and the mattress, a gap where he could fit his satchel. He’d had to use the last of his coins to purchase some props for Cavall: a cane, an old leather rucksack, a pair of gloves, a hat and boots. The slipper-like shoes Gaius had brought him served well enough in the palace, but the moment he stepped outside in the rain or mud, they were useless. He’d stopped wearing them as soon as he had the boots. There were advantages to buying used footwear – the boots he’d gotten were old and soft enough not to rub blisters on his heels, and in fairly good condition, not to mention the price.
He’d also bought a small, pocket-sized looking glass, one that was always with him now, as were the long robes and belt he’d gotten just in case there wasn’t time for a full change of clothes. Constantly lugging around a bag was a small cost to pay for the reassurance that any time he wanted or needed, he could swap personas without much fuss.
The first couple of days had been a nightmare of doubt – was his hair the same shade of gray it had been the day before? Was he limping on the right leg? When he’d reached for the handle of the door to Arthur’s chambers for the first time after their interview, he’d realized his young hands should already have given him away. It was a miracle no one had noticed before then. He decided to disguise his arms to the elbows, just in case his tunic sleeve slipped. It would be too obvious if Merlin’s fish-belly-pale skin showed above his tanned, age-spotted hands.
As he stripped off Cavall’s simple long tunic and baggy trousers and dressed in his own clothing again, he drilled spells in his mind, concentrating to keep all will and magic far from the words as he repeated them over and over. If he slipped and let his magic connect with the words, he might cast. As often as not, now, he didn’t need an incantation for control when he brought forth magic. The words were there to help him focus, he knew that was their sole purpose, but there were times now when all he needed was his will to achieve the same effect.
The attempt at distraction didn’t work. It never did. Arthur was still there, as always, in the forefront of his mind. He gave himself a moment to lean against the bedpost and close his eyes, imagining Arthur breathing against his ear, telling him to strip off and come to bed. Arthur was bossy even in Merlin’s fantasy, but any sharp words or curt orders were always followed by a lingering, passionate kiss that left him ready and willing to obey. He could have climbed onto that lookalike bed and taken the imagined scenario further, but decided he’d stick to his conviction and hold off until he could have the real thing.
The ache of separation, torturous though it was, would make it that much better when Arthur finally caved.
Merlin’s body tingled in anticipation, his fists clenching in the fabric of his breeches. When he opened his eyes, the feeling stayed with him. He smiled as he double-checked for any sign of himself or Cavall in the room, then sealed it and made his way to the tower, willing Arthur to hurry up and come to him.
“Hello in there!” Elyan called a second before banging on the door to Merlin’s room, startling him into dropping his book of magic, which he promptly kicked under his bed, popping the floorboard up with his magic so the book slid right down into the secret hole there.
He planted a smile on his face as he opened the door. “Elyan! Aren’t you supposed to be at the paddock?” Fear tightened his chest as he realized what the knight’s presence must mean .
Someone was injured, and badly.
“I was. Gaius sent me. He says you’re to bring the blue bottle of heal-all, more bandages and be quick about it. That last was him, too, not me, but you should, honestly.” He peered curiously around Merlin’s shoulder at his room. “Is that your bed? It’s rather short for a bloke as tall as you, isn’t it?”
“Is it Arthur?” Merlin asked, ignoring the comment on his bed and grabbing his satchel, waving Elyan back down into the main room in front of him. He hurried to the cabinet to get the things Gaius had asked for, worn boots sliding on the stone floor as he rushed.
“Arthur’s just being stubborn,” he answered, too casually to allay Merlin’s suspicions. “Gaius is up to his elbows in wounded trainee candidates. And why aren’t you there already? I think half the citadel is watching today!”
“I’ve seen it,” Merlin said, looking at Elyan meaningfully. “We’ve had a lot of new recruits in four years.”
Elyan shook his head, grabbing the large glass bottle from Merlin as it teetered precariously in his arms. “You haven’t seen this – Gwaine, Lancelot and Leon are whipping those boys around the field every bit as hard as Arthur is. They’re all having a go at the best candidates. It’s vicious.”
“Really?” A small grin pulled at the corners of his mouth, despite his concern. Arthur had taken Cavall’s advice, then!
Merlin turned away, reaching for a bag and stuffing it full of every size and material of bandage he could find, then added a couple of small jars of numbing salve, too. Gaius wasn’t always the most considerate of physicians and those nobles, spoiled as they typically were, wouldn’t be used to the kind of bruises the four toughest knights in Camelot would inflict just to prove a point.
Gods knew the salve was sometimes the only thing that took the sting away when Arthur was in a foul mood, which, if Elyan’s report of wounded candidates was founded, Merlin knew Arthur would be. He had no patience or respect for soft, pompous fools in their finest, sparkling armour, wielding a sword that hadn’t left the practice field. Arthur wanted competence, and when he didn’t get it, he could be a royal prat.
Leon and Lancelot were more patient with the newest knights, so their opponents that day might find a more fair assessment of their skills, but woe to the candidate that went first against Gwaine’s cocky, no-rules-apply attitude, or the one that went last, facing the culmination of Arthur’s impatient fury at every candidate that went before them.
He and Elyan skipped steps as they ran down and out of the castle, Elyan’s quick pace making up for his shorter stride so he and Merlin stayed in step nearly the whole way there. They were both panting as they jogged along the edge of the paddock to the large tent Gaius had ordered erected for the trials.
Elyan clasped Merlin’s shoulder and drew him up short about ten paces from the infirmary tent. “When you see him, don’t be alarmed. Arthur is wounded and anyone with eyes can plainly see it’s not good, but he insists it’s only a scratch. He refuses to stop the trials long enough to see Gaius for it.”
“I knew it!” Merlin craned his neck and spotted Arthur across the field, examining weapons, a very nervous and scrawny-looking noble staring at him with dread as he waited for Arthur to indicate that the glass should be turned and their time begun. “He’s so damned stubborn!”
Elyan tightened his grip on Merlin’s shoulder, making him wince. “He’s also the Prince, so you’d best mind your tongue,” he reminded in a low warning tone, glancing obviously to the row of benches that had been set out for members of the court.
Uther sat front and centre, his back straight and eyes on his son. They weren’t in hearing-distance, Merlin thought, but Elyan was overly cautious from his experiences in the war, which obviously wasn’t a bad thing.
Merlin strode to the tent and flung open the flaps, stepping inside. Three cots lined the small, muggy space, a fire burning in the centre, the smoke drifting up through an opening at the tip of ceiling. Gaius stood over a moaning noble, hands gently manipulating the man’s wrist and arm, shaking his head.
“No fractures, Sir,” Gaius said, laying the man’s arm at his side and reaching for a flask of what Merlin knew to be a false heal-all. It was foul-tasting and thick as gravy and Gaius always administered it with the straightest, most sincere face Merlin ever saw. “Drink this up. It’ll ease the pain and prevent further swelling.”
Merlin sighed impatiently and went to Gaius’ side, tugging on his robe sleeve. “You sent for me, Gaius?”
Frowning, Gaius took the now-empty vial from his patient and followed Merlin to the far end of the tent. “Did Elyan tell you?”
“Why don’t you go to the King?” Merlin whispered, unshouldering the pack and setting it on the ground by the supply table. “Surely he would want Arthur seen to.”
“Arthur is nearly as much king as Uther now, Merlin. I cannot undermine his authority by running to his father over a cut. As court physician I am sworn to uphold the dignity of my patients, no matter their status.”
Merlin rolled his eyes, jerking his chin at the man Gaius had just tricked into drinking a mixture of tea and herbs. “What of your infamous heal-all, then? Is that preserving dignity?”
“As a matter of fact, it is. He’s been treated. He can say as much when someone asks how severe his injury was. Never mind him.” Gaius waved at the nobleman in dismissal, wrapping an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and turning him into the corner of the tent furthest from the cots as one of the noblemen sat up. “Arthur refuses even to be examined, Merlin, but he’s bleeding profusely. A fortnight ago I would have sent in reinforcements, but...”
“Reinforcements? Oh, you mean me. He’s not likely to listen to me now, though, is he? Not when he isn’t speaking to me and we’re supposed to be strangers,” Merlin said, crossing his arms over his chest, unable to rein in his resentment entirely.
“I couldn’t very well send for Sir Cavall, could I?” Gaius asked in an overly-patient tone. “At next break, go to him. Try to explain that even a seemingly small wound can be dangerous if left untreated. Convince him he’ll appear weaker to the audience if he collapses or loses a bout because he’s in too much pain. There should be no objection to your speaking to him about this, Merlin. Remember, you’re supposed to be acting as my apprentice.”
Merlin sighed and took the sack of supplies he’d brought for Gaius. With luck, Arthur would listen to reason and let him at least bandage the wound.
The sticky-wet feel of blood seeping down his side and through his under-tunic was as distracting as the pain of the wound itself. Arthur had managed final trials of two more candidates before it became a real problem, shortening his reach and slowing his swing.
He’d already denied needing treatment. To request it now would make him look weak, and he was not willing to sacrifice his honour in front of the newest knights of Camelot, not even for a wound. Later, he would teach them the importance of promptly caring for injuries. Today was not the day for that.
The peel of the bell signalling their next break couldn’t have come at better time. Arthur passed his weapon to a servant and slipped into his tent with a nod and wave to his father. Once inside, he yanked off his helm, dropped it to the ground and squeezed his eyes closed. As he tried to take a deep breath, he gasped with the clenching, burning pain in his side. He bent double and staggered over to lean against a table that held food and cold water.
“So, not merely a scratch then?”
He turned toward Merlin’s whisper, hand dropping from his side, straightening up and pulling a mask over his features to hide what he’d thought he was free to let show alone in the privacy of his tent. He once would have considered Merlin a staple in that privacy, but now...
“What are you doing here?” he asked, though he knew the instant he saw Merlin’s face.
Stepping from the shadowed corner of the tent, Merlin shrugged. “I’m to tend to your wound. If you refuse to let me, Gaius has instructed me to give you a long-winded lecture about your safety and your competence. I’d rather not, if it’s all the same to you.”
Merlin reached for the buckle on the chest-plate of his armour, nimble fingers getting it opened as quickly as ever. There were four fastenings and before Arthur could say a word of protest, Merlin had them all undone. He took the armour in his hands and nodded at Arthur, only then pausing for permission as though Arthur truly had a choice in the matter.
He was in too much pain and bleeding far too freely to ignore the wound now.
He gave Merlin a sharp nod and ducked his head as Merlin lifted the armour off, setting it aside. Without looking up, Merlin took a deep breath and began untying the laces of Arthur’s tunic with obviously-trembling hands. He pushed the shirt open and off of Arthur’s shoulders, his fingertips brushing lightly over the skin of his biceps as he gingerly pushed it down. It fell to the ground and neither of them moved to pick it up.
Arthur stared at the tent wall, refusing to look down as Merlin knelt to examine the wound, face so close to Arthur’s body he could feel Merlin’s breath against his skin. “It’s fine, really. Certainly not worth all of this fuss.”
“It’s not a large wound, but it’s deep. You’re lucky you can breathe,” Merlin said, shaking his head and walking over to the cot at the far side of the tent. “I need to stop the bleeding. You should lie down. You’ll need to hold very still, Sire.”
Glancing at the cot and then at Merlin, Arthur smirked. “Surely that’s not necessary. You can dress the wound just as well with me standing.”
“You’re heavier than you look,” Merlin said, returning his challenging expression. “I don’t fancy asking your father for help dragging you back to the castle after you faint.”
Oh, it was low of Merlin to bring his father into the argument. They both knew that all it would take was one word from Gaius and the trials would be stopped, Arthur would lose a bit of his carefully-honed honour and Uther would have yet another failure to throw in Arthur’s face. Merlin knew him well enough to know Arthur wouldn’t risk any of that.
But that was the price of being so close to someone, Arthur supposed. One knew precisely where to strike to inflict the most damage.
“Fine, then,” he said, sitting down hard on the cot. Merlin waited, an expectant look on his face, until Arthur huffed out a breath and lay back on the cot, arms at his sides, impatient for this to be over-with. He was angry at this obvious manipulation, but the strongest feeling in the tent wasn’t anger at all, and somehow he knew that Merlin knew it, too.
Merlin opened his satchel and took out bandages and a jar of salve, setting them on the cot beside Arthur. Before the jar was even opened, Arthur could smell the fragrant salve inside.
Fingertips trailed along his ribs and he clenched his fists in the blanket beneath him to keep from moving. Merlin’s touch was gentle, quick and cool as he examined the wound, but the prodding seemed to double the pain, nonetheless.
“Sire,” Merlin began hesitantly, in that tone that told Arthur he wasn’t going to like whatever Merlin was about to ask. “This needs more than salve if you’re to continue today.” Merlin looked up from where his hand pressed a cloth hard against the wound, determination and pride flaring in his eyes as brightly as his magic had. “I need to heal you.”
The amount of nerve it had taken Merlin to say those words must’ve been tremendous, Arthur knew, but Merlin still had to realize Arthur would refuse. “You know I won’t allow that, Merlin. Wrap the wound and I’ll see Gaius later for stitching.”
“It’s too deep for stitching,” Merlin said, shaking his head and peeling the cloth away from Arthur’s side, holding it up. It was already soaked through with bright red blood. “See? You’re bleeding too quickly for this to be simply a flesh wound. If you’d like, I could get Gaius, but he won’t slip in under the back wall of the tent as I did. If he knows how severe the wound is, I’m sure he wouldn’t allow you to continue the trials, even if I do heal you.”
Blinking to focus as his vision blurred a bit, Arthur drew in a deep breath and clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t wince, his head swimming with the pain. “It will be fine with a bandage. Get on with it or leave me be.”
“With all due respect, you aren’t thinking clearly. I’m frankly surprised you’re conscious at all. You’ve seen wounds like this before, Arthur. How long did those men last on the battlefield with no attention?” Merlin shook his head, eyes pleading even as his voice challenged. “Let me take care of you.”
Together on their search for Morgana, they’d seen knight after knight with stab wounds. Every one of them had died either on the cold ground or soon after, in the physician’s tent.
“I’m...” Arthur tried to sit up, but his vision went almost blank at the sudden movement, Merlin just a blur before him, and he closed his eyes. “Merlin-” He reached out, fist closing weakly on the front of Merlin’s tunic, ready to threaten and stand his ground despite his condition.
“Shh. You can yell at me later,” Merlin whispered, as if reading his mind. He carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair again and again as he spoke. “I won’t let you suffer, Arthur. I won’t let you die. Not when I have the power to help you.”
Merlin’s cool hands spread on his skin, one across his forehead and one over the wound on his side, the sibilant whisper just on the edge of Arthur’s consciousness, so distant that he couldn’t bring himself to protest, though he wanted to. He wanted to lash out, shove Merlin away from him, scream at the idiot for casting magic yet again, and this time only a tent-wall away from a hundred witnesses. He groaned his frustration, but Merlin’s whispered spell touched his bare, torn flesh and the groan transformed into a heavy sigh of relief.
His pain was there one instant and not just gone, but gone the next. Every ache and twinge in every muscle he’d been pushing to the limit all afternoon was wiped away as if chalk on a schoolboy’s slate. His fingers sought out the wound-site and found it clean and dry – no blood stained his fingertips as he drew them away.
“Unbelievable,” he whispered, blinking hard in wonder, letting his anger and resentment slip beneath the awe of what he was feeling. “What did you do?”
“I pulled your pain, healed your wound and then cast a general mending over you.” Merlin’s hand slid lightly, tentatively to Arthur’s forearm, the touch of Merlin’s long, gentle fingers on his skin sending a pleasant shiver through Arthur’s body.
Arthur took a deep breath and pushed to sit up, hand clasped on Merlin’s shoulder. For a long moment, he considered the anger that flared inside of him and, though he believed it justified, he knew where it stemmed from. It wasn’t a hatred of magic, or some irrational fear that Merlin had cast upon him.
He brushed his thumb beneath the edge of Merlin’s neckerchief, then tightened his grip, fingers digging in hard to make sure he had Merlin’s full attention. “Do you even think, Merlin? Do you not bother with thought? If you had, you’d have realized you just risked your life and committed treason against Camelot in front of the Crowned Prince. Again.”
“And I would again, if the Crowned Prince was in danger again,” Merlin said, grinning. “You could thank me, you know.”
“For making me your accomplice? For disobeying me? I should set you to cleaning every piece of equipment we use today. How would that do for a ‘thank you?’”
Merlin sighed and stood, taking a step back. The warm air of the tent seemed closer and thicker with him an arm’s length away. Already Arthur felt the pull to reach out and draw Merlin back to him, despite his anger. Merlin had saved him, once again, and Arthur wanted nothing more than to pull him close and thank him properly.
“No one has to know. You should be fine to continue the trials. Just try not to get yourself injured again.” Merlin picked up the blood-soaked cloths, his eyes flaring gold for only an instant before the soiled rags went to ash in his palm. He dusted his hand on his breeches and gathered his things, turning to leave. “Do you want help with that?” he asked, jerking his chin in the direction of Arthur’s armour.
“No,” Arthur said, intending the word to be a dismissal. It came out in a choked whisper instead. “Thank you,” he added, knowing it cost him little and would mean much to Merlin. “You may go.”
Merlin nodded and slipped out of the tent, and Arthur watched the flap of the doorway drop behind him, staring at it for a long moment. Merlin had healed him, his magic and the feeling of his touch lingering pleasantly on Arthur’s skin.
He’d thought he was making progress in forgetting his desire. In the fortnight since he’s last spoken to Merlin, he’d nearly managed to stop thinking of him every moment of the day and half the night. He’d gotten to the point that he didn’t tense in anticipation of the news of Merlin’s capture every time a page brought some word from the King. Arthur had even managed to stop looking for Merlin at the knight’s table at every meal.
If he happened to notice Merlin sitting with the knights, that was altogether different to looking for him, and he couldn’t help it if he saw Merlin’s ridiculous red neckerchief in a crowd of servants, could he?
He was used to Merlin. It was going to take awhile for that to wear off, apparently.
Closing his eyes, Arthur shook his head. “Stupid, ignorant, arrogant-”
Arthur’s eyes snapped open as the tent flap raised, light streaming in. He straightened, reaching for his tunic and slipping it on.
“No need to kick yourself when you’re down,” Gwaine teased, poking his head inside.
“May we?” the knight asked, gesturing inside the tent. At Arthur’s nod, Gwaine and Lancelot stepped inside. “How’s the wound?”
“Healed, but we’ll be keeping that to ourselves,” he answered, pulling on his mail so effortlessly it surprised even him. “Seems it was rather deep.”
“I expected as much,” Lancelot said quietly nodding. “That recruit is long on enthusiasm and short on direction. Will you have him?”
“He did get a hit in on you,” Gwaine added, smirking.
Arthur shoved his shoulder-plate into Gwaine’s chest and the knight oofed out a breath. “Accidental hits are not something Camelot can rely on.”
“No, but neither should we look a gift horse in the mouth.” Lancelot smiled and stepped forward, taking the armour from Gwaine and helping Arthur on with it. His hands were quick and precise, never touching Arthur – only the straps and buckles of the chest and shoulder-plates. “Shall I bring him up for another bout?”
“Each of you have a go at him, too,” Arthur decided, not willing to concede the point to a novice who got in a lucky strike. “If he survives both of you, he’s in.”
Lancelot tapped his fist against Arthur’s shoulder as he finished. “Merlin healed you?”
“Yes.” Arthur turned away, taking his helm from Gwaine’s outstretched hand. “Against my wishes.”
“Then you’d rather be bleeding in Gaius’ tent than finishing the trials?” Gwaine asked, folding his arms across his chest and glaring. Beside him, Lancelot sighed and looked away.
“I’d rather Merlin live than risk the pyre with foolish-” Arthur gritted his teeth. No. He was not going to justify his reasons yet again to two men who claimed to be Merlin’s friends. “They’re waiting,” he said instead, gesturing impatiently with his sword.
When the three of them emerged from the tent, a round of applause met them. Arthur wondered if anyone so much as noticed Merlin leaving the tent moments before, or if they saved all of their praise for the man who’d been naive enough to let himself be wounded in the first place.
Arthur pulled off his armour and mail, laying them on the table for Cavall to see to in the morning. A palace servant was just finishing filling the steaming bath and Arthur dismissed him, stepping behind the dressing screen to disrobe, anxious for the hot soak. He wrapped a long cloth around his waist and looked out from behind the screen. The servant was gone, but everything was in readiness: a fresh change of clothing was spread over the bed and laid cloths and soap laid out on a low stool beside the tub.
Arthur dropped his waist-cloth and stepped over the side of the tub, sighing as he lowered himself into the water. The heat seeped into his muscles and held him close, taking his weight and beginning to ease his aches instantly. He leaned his head back against the edge, stretching his long legs out as much as possible. His knees still stuck out of the water and he let them fall to the sides, the heat deliciously intense along the insides of his thighs, against his sac and cock and arse.
He groaned, dropping his hands from the rim of the tub into the water, letting his arms float as the tension eased from his aching shoulders.
The effects of Merlin’s magic hadn’t lingered in his muscles, which felt as though he’d been through combat and not just at knight trials. True, he’s pushed every last recruit to their breaking point – he had to in order to make sure they were well-suited for Camelot’s squadron – but he’d reached his own limits as well in the process. His thighs shook as he shifted and he pressed the heels of his hands against them, rubbing back and forth slowly to work the spasms out.
As he reached for the cloth and bar of soap, he sucked in a quick breath at the twinge in his side, hand going to cover the puckered scar the wound had left behind. He ducked his head and looked down through the water at it as best as he could, brushing his fingertips over the tender new skin. He gave an experimental push, expecting pain, but felt nothing more than the slight pain of a bruise beneath the skin.
That he could be so severely wounded and then so completely whole again was astounding. He could think of dozens of instances when Merlin’s magic would have been invaluable. And then, he realized with a grudging smile, dozens of instances when it obviously had been crucial to their success. The dragon, the spiders in the cave, the avank, the griffin, Morgana.
The door to his chamber creaked open, boots scraping along the flagstones, and Arthur turned, lifting his hands to the sides of the tub again, ready to leap for his sword if need be.
Merlin raised his hands as if in surrender. “Gaius sent me to deliver some salve for your wound. I didn’t tell him that I healed you.”
Arthur clenched his fists on the edge of the tub, unwilling this time to let his anger get the better of him. Merlin would never see reason if Arthur only ranted at him. “Bolt the door and sit. I’d like to speak with you.”
Arthur was half expecting the latch to secure itself at a thought from Merlin, but Merlin crossed the room instead, coming back with an oddly content expression.
“How is your wound?” Merlin asked, leaning against one of the high-backed chairs by the table, ankles crossed as if Merlin was trying to look casual and failing miserably.
“I said ‘sit,’ Merlin.” Arthur reached over the side of the tub and shoved the low stool in Merlin’s direction, the bar of soap sliding to the floor.
Merlin moved slowly, bending to pick up the soap and the stool, taking them both to the head of the tub and sitting behind Arthur’s back. The position unnerved Arthur, but just as he was about to chastise Merlin for it, Arthur felt Merlin’s hand close over his shoulder, the touch both soothing and arousing the instant Arthur felt it. It was a confusing juxtaposition, to say the least, but Merlin had always done this – had always unsettled him, turned the familiar and mundane on its ear.
“I may as well be of some use while we speak, don’t you think?” Merlin’s hand withdrew, cupping water and spilling it slowly over Arthur’s neck and shoulder, the warm flow not even holding a candle to Merlin’s gentle touch as his fingertips followed the water along Arthur’s skin.
Arthur closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment to savour the feeling of Merlin’s skin sliding along his own. He missed Merlin’s touch, missed feeling the tingle of energy that dancing between them whenever they were this close.
Missed Merlin beyond description.
A fortnight. They’d not been this long apart since they’d met, and Arthur never would have guessed they would be. He’d imagined them hobbling around as old codgers, arguing over the weather or his ever-missing breakfast sausages.
“Is the healing holding fast?”
Arthur opened his eyes, looking down into the water and tilting onto his hip, offering Merlin a good view of his side. “See for yourself.”
Merlin slid his fingers down Arthur’s arm and reached into the water, pressing gently against the scar, his chin brushing Arthur’s shoulder as he looked down at the wound site. The caress – for Arthur had no doubt it was a caress - drifted up and fell away, and Merlin once again began scooping up handfuls of the hot water. It flowed in a cascade over the back of Arthur’s head now, wetting his hair, warming the tension that stretched from the base of his skull down his spine.
The feeling of Merlin’s hands on him like this, so familiar and tantalizing, was too much. Arthur turned, catching Merlin’s wrist and halting the touches. “Merlin,” he said, voice sounding strained though he willed it not to. “I cannot speak to you this way,” he finished, and though it was the truth, it was hardly the reason he needed Merlin to stop touching him.
Glancing over his shoulder, Arthur watched as pain and longing washed across Merlin’s face.
“I need to touch you. Just let me do this.” Merlin’s whisper was just a breath, but it was more than Arthur could resist with his will worn down and Merlin so close after what seemed an eternity.
He slid forward in the tub and let his head fall back into the water so his hair was soaked and dripping. As he leaned back into place against the wall of the tub, Merlin’s gentle fingers carded through his hair, smoothing it back from his forehead and behind his ears. Merlin’s touch fell away for a moment and came back slippery with soap, working lather into his hair.
Merlin was thorough, his hands working the soap carefully along Arthur’s hairline, brushing his hair this way and that to get to every strand, it seemed. He rubbed gentle circles, drew his fingers back in long, combing motions, then rinsed one hand. He ran his thumb along Arthur’s jaw, cupping his chin and urging him to tilt his head back again.
He closed his eyes lest he see Merlin above him. He held onto the sides of the tub again, pressing his feet against the far end of the tub as though it might help to brace himself, as though that might assuage some of his desire. The wood creaked with the pressure, and Arthur forced himself to ease the tension in his thighs, even as his arousal grew thicker beneath the water.
If Merlin saw, if Merlin knew what this was doing to him, would he stay? Would he think Arthur cared only for physical intimacy and didn’t miss his every annoying habit, his voice and scent and smile as well?
“Cavall seems to be working out nicely,” Merlin said softly, clearing his throat as he carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair, rinsing again and again, not bothering to get a pitcher, but using his cupped hand. Arthur might have pointed out the stupidity if it hadn’t felt so damned good, if he hadn’t wanted this to last as long as possible.
He hummed his ascent and shifted in the soft, soapy heat of the bath. Merlin’s touch seemed to be everywhere as the water sloshed and swirled against his skin with his every movement.
“He’s a former knight?” Merlin asked, slipping to kneel on the floor at the side of the tub, reaching for the cloth, wetting it beneath the surface of the water and rolling the soap bar in it. “That must come in handy for training.”
“Cavall is lame. Haven’t you met him at the knight’s table?” Arthur moved to sit up, but Merlin laid an arresting hand on his arm. They both looked down at Merlin’s clutching fingers and the grip loosened but didn’t fall away.
“I suppose I didn’t notice,” Merlin said quietly, leaning in close as he reached across Arthur’s chest, drawing the sudsy cloth from shoulder to shoulder. He kept his eyes on the cloth, trailing it back and forth. “Do you miss me?” Merlin looked up through his lashes and quickly back down to his working hand.
“Merlin.” This was no way to maintain his position, no way to behave. He stilled Merlin’s hand and pushed it away, setting it on the edge of the tub. “What happened when you were last here – that was a mistake. We should be honourable in our separation as in all things. I shouldn’t want- I shouldn’t take advantage-”
Merlin’s hand slipped beneath the water, the slippery cloth rubbing hard over Arthur’s crotch, fingers cupping his sac, tracing the outline of his erection through the thin cloth. “You’re wrong. This,” Merlin said, his hand closing gently over Arthur’s cock, “this is the only evidence of our connection now. The dishonour lies in denying me. In denying us.”
Shifting back, Arthur tried to move away from the insistent touch, unable to bring himself to push Merlin away. “I won’t toy with you. Find someone else to slake your lust until you can forget me.” The words twisted into a knot in his throat, strangling him even as he spoke, though he spat them with enough force that Merlin backed off, his hand moving to rest on Arthur’s thigh.
They stayed frozen in the horrid tableau for an endless moment, Arthur as hard as he could ever remember being, Merlin’s eyes wide and shocked and filling.
“Gods damn it, Merlin. You know I don’t want that,” Arthur said softly, resisting the urge to reach out and touch Merlin’s face. “But it’s not right for me to lead you on, no matter how tempted I am.”
Merlin stood and turned away, scrubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I shouldn’t have come. You were right; it’s better that we not see one another. It’s just... I can’t forget my feelings the way you seem to be able to.”
It was a knife to his chest; it was meant to be, Arthur was sure. But there was little sense in pretending there would never be another person in both of their lives. Arthur rose from the bath and wrapped a cloth around his waist. He laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, the feeling of the soft neckerchief triggering a tightness in his chest. “Don’t be daft. You coming here, this... this won’t change my mind. I won’t relent, Merlin. I can’t.”
“Is Cavall taking care of you,” Merlin asked, so quietly Arthur barely heard him. “Do you get on with him?”
“Well enough.” Arthur sighed, pressing his forehead between Merlin’s shoulder-blades. “If you left Camelot, you wouldn’t be tempted to seek me out and I wouldn’t be tempted to send for you.”
Merlin didn’t reply, turning slowly as if afraid he might startle Arthur. He threaded his fingers into Arthur’s damp hair and smoothed it back behind his ear. “Are you, then? Tempted?”
“You know I am; stop making me say it.” He closed his eyes to block out the warmth of Merlin’s smile. He didn’t deserve that warmth. “Will you leave the city?” He’d never actually asked Merlin to leave. Perhaps that was all it would take.
Merlin’s fingertips brushed down through his hair to the nape of his neck, lower and lower, trailing down Arthur’s spine and slipping along the line of the cloth at his waist. “I saved your life today,” he whispered, leaning in so his breath ghosted over Arthur’s ear, fingertips sliding up to his new scar and pressing gently in. “Camelot needs you here, alive and well. I won’t leave until I make sure you become king.”
“And when I do? My father-” Arthur shook his head, cutting off the thought. It needn’t be said. Merlin surely knew how poorly the king was, and how close Arthur was to taking the throne.
“Perhaps things will be different then.” Merlin’s hands slid up Arthur’s chest and wrapped around his shoulders.
When Merlin pressed their mouths together, Arthur didn’t resist, but allowed himself a moment’s indulgence, drinking in Merlin’s scent and flavour, the softness of his lips, the way Merlin poured so much emotion into the glide of his tongue and the caress of fingers on Arthur’s neck.
When they broke the kiss, Arthur pulled away only far enough to touch his forehead to Merlin’s.
Perhaps things will be different then.
He’d thought the same thing, though even now it was hard to allow himself to hear such words. It meant his father would be dead, and that wasn’t something Arthur could exchange for anything, not even for Merlin.
And, Arthur knew, even if he changed the laws condemning magic, he would still have to marry, would still have to produce an heir. He could do neither with Merlin.
“Stop thinking and kiss me,” Merlin said, tilting his head back up and smiling against Arthur’s lips.
Arthur drew a breath in sharply through his nose, arms wrapping around Merlin and pulling them tightly together as their lips touched. Merlin curled into him, arms around his neck, hips rubbing against Arthur’s. Through the thin, damp cloth at his waist, Arthur could feel Merlin’s eagerness, could feel how desperately he needed to be touched.
Fighting the irresistible pull of his soft, warm bed, Arthur swept his tongue through Merlin’s mouth and focused on the torturous slide of his bare chest against the rough weave of Merlin’s clothing. He moaned as Merlin’s braided belt pressed against his arousal, digging in through the cloth at his waist. Merlin’s fingers twisted into his hair and Arthur deepened the kiss, bending Merlin back in his quest for more sensation.
Just as he lost the last of his conviction and took two stumbling steps forward, pushing Merlin toward his four-poster as they kissed, Merlin whined against his lips and pulled away.
“Let me stay,” he whispered, “In Camelot. Here.” Merlin looked toward Arthur’s bed, eyes over-bright as though he already knew Arthur’s answer, which he supposed Merlin did.
“Your life is worth more than this,” Arthur said, smoothing the pad of his thumb across Merlin’s kiss-reddened lips.
Merlin nodded quickly, though Arthur could see it was in disappointment, not acceptance. He stepped away, not meeting Arthur’s eyes, hands squeezing on Arthur’s arms then falling away. With one brief glance at Arthur, Merlin hurried across the room and pulled the latch on the door. He stepped through without a backward look.
Arthur clenched his fists and stared after him, desperate to follow. They couldn’t keep tearing each other to shreds like this. Something had to give.
The tower was empty when Merlin made it to the top and pushed open the door to his and Gaius’ rooms. Gaius must have been called to tend to some wounded man or other from the trials that afternoon. None of them were in any real danger – even Merlin could see that – but many of them were a bit on the pampered side, requiring the most trying of a physician’s skills – that of patience.
Merlin had none of it, obviously. Why he hadn’t gone to Arthur’s chambers as Cavall, he still couldn’t explain. He’d known he couldn’t resist Arthur as himself; he didn’t want to resist him.
Not that Arthur had been the one instigating things tonight.
Swinging open the door to his room, Merlin went in, letting it fall heavily shut behind him, flopping down on the bed and scrubbing his hands over his face. His fingers brushed over his kiss-swollen lips and he left them there, remembering the feeling of Arthur’s mouth on his, of his gentle, insistent tongue pressing between and taking Merlin’s mouth as if it belonged to Arthur.
With his other hand, he reached between his legs to adjust his half-hard cock, groaning in frustration. He didn’t want to touch himself, though he was sure it was only a matter of time before he did. He’d not done that since before he and Arthur had been together, but his hopes that he wouldn’t need to were rapidly dying.
Arthur was determined to keep them apart, and Merlin had no clue what might break Arthur’s resolve at this point. He hadn’t gone to Arthur tonight to tempt him, but he also hadn’t been able to resist touching him once he was there, either. When Arthur responded, it seemed like Merlin might be able to sway him a bit, at least.
A noise in the workroom startled him, the scuff of shoes on the flagstones and the scrape of bench legs as someone bumped into the edge as Merlin did a half-dozen times a day. Arthur had even bashed his shin on it once. Merlin smiled at the memory of Arthur’s screwed-up expression as he tried not to show how badly it had smarted.
Every memory of Arthur twisted Merlin’s chest and clogged his throat, even the happy ones.
Even the happiest one: lying in Arthur’s arms, Arthur’s spent cock still filling him, his head on Arthur’s shoulder, strong arms surrounding him. He wanted it back, wanted Arthur so badly, wanted to be able to breathe again, to be in the same room with Arthur without his chest aching and his body tense with the effort to not touch. He rolled onto his stomach, pressing his face into the pillow and screaming in frustration, the sound muffled enough that he didn’t think Gaius would hear, even if he was back.
“Now what’s all this fuss about?” Leon asked, pushing the door to his room open on creaking hinges.
Merlin jerked his face from the pillow, looking back over his shoulder at the knight, who cocked his head to the side and looked at Merlin as if he were a pouting child. “Don’t you knock?”
“We’re off to the tavern and you’re coming with us. Get your boots on,” Gwaine said, pushing past Leon and plopping down beside Merlin on the bed, which protested their combined weight by creaking loudly.
“They’re already on. Now shove off before the ropes of my bed decide you need to lose a stone.” Merlin grinned and gave Gwaine a push, sitting up. “You go on without me. It’s been a long day.”
“It has,” Gwaine agreed, pulling Merlin up by a handful of his tunic, “which is precisely why we’re in need of good ale and better company.”
“Oh, Gwaine, I don’t know,” he hedged, shaking his head and giving Gwaine a hard look, hoping he’d get the message. “I’d rather just go to sleep.”
“No you wouldn’t,” Elyan said, poking his head in the door. Merlin leaned around Gwaine to get a better look and saw Percival and Lancelot standing on the steps behind Elyan, grinning as well.
“Percival’s volunteered to use brute force if you refuse.” Gwaine winked and mimed tossing Merlin bodily over his shoulder. “Spare yourself the humiliation. And leave your purse. Drinks are on us tonight, in honour of all the recruits who didn’t make the cut.”
“We’re celebrating the ones who failed?” Merlin asked, chuckling. “Isn’t that a bit ridiculous?”
“Why shouldn’t the poor rejected lads have a night of carousing and toasts in their honour if we’re to do the same for the new knights tomorrow?” Elyan asked, shrugging.
“Bit of a tradition to get pissed on the eve of a knighting ceremony,” Leon said, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall of Merlin’s room. “Makes us less likely to get carried away tomorrow.”
“Do I really look gullible enough to believe that?” Merlin asked, looking around his room at his friends.
“Yes,” came the answer from every man in the room – and just outside of it, too.
“In that case,” he said, standing and slinging an arm around Gwaine’s shoulders. “I’ll walk, thanks.”
“That’s the spirit!” Leon clapped him on the back as he moved to duck out of Merlin’s room.
“It’ll be good for you,” Gwaine whispered, rubbing his hand back and forth over Merlin’s head, mussing his hair. “Take your mind off of things for a while, eh?”
Merlin ducked out from under his hand and smoothed his hair back into place as well as he ever could. “Yeah. I could use a stiff drink.”
Gwaine looked at him curiously, and Merlin realized he’d never, not once, spoken those common words before. Gwaine seemed to read Merlin’s mind and frowned, sighing and threading his fingers through Merlin’s hair as if helping to straighten it. “Did something happen?” he whispered, waving the others on down the steps when they paused and called to him and Merlin.
Gwaine was infinitely patient, could nearly always make Merlin smile, could light up a room or a bar or a squadron of knights with his easy, witty banter and tales of life on the lam. But he was absolutely brilliant at this, at eking out Merlin’s secrets and patiently, selflessly listening as Merlin told him time and again how Arthur was crushing his heart.
Now, after their evening in the ruins outside the city, Merlin could see that all the while, he’d been torturing Gwaine. It tore him apart to know that Gwaine was hurting, had been hurting all along. He wouldn’t ever willingly put Gwaine through that, never again now that he knew just how deeply Gwaine cared for him.
“Nothing happened,” he answered as casually as he could. “It’s just been a long day, like I said.”
Gwaine shook his head gently, glancing out the doorway over Merlin’s shoulder, sighing as the knights whooped and called and whistled. “We’ll talk after a tankard or two.”
Merlin nodded, though he had no intention of crying in his cups tonight, and gestured for Gwaine to go ahead. As the man stepped through the door, Merlin made shut it, laughing at the surprised look on Gwaine’s face. Surely they wouldn’t break down the door to get him to go to the pub with them. Would they?
As he slammed the door closed behind Gwaine, the wood caught up on something and was shoved back at Merlin, sending him sprawling onto his arse on the dusty floor. The fall jarred him, and he looked bashfully up as Gwaine jerked his throwing knife from the door-jam and grinned, offering him a hand up.
“You’ll not escape us that easily,” he said, clasping Merlin’s forearm and dragging him to his feet.
“I have service all day tomorrow – I won’t be feasting like you and the others,” he whispered, shaking his head. “I can’t be wool-headed or losing my stomach all morning.”
Gwaine’s mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “Gaius has cures for that, as we all know well. Come with us. I’ll make sure you land on your bed at the end of the night, I swear.”
“Fine, but if I get reprimanded, I’m holding you responsible.”
Gwaine nodded and grinned, grabbing a fistful of Merlin’s tunic in one hand and Merlin’s jacket from its hook in the other, dragging him out the door. As they headed out after the knights, Merlin looked back over his shoulder at his empty, inviting bed, knocking his knee on the corner of the workbench and stumbling along behind Gwaine as they went.
Chapter 7: Of That Dye Which Their Investments Show
Can Cavill sway Arthur where Merlin has failed?
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
The pub was a riot of noise, the knights joining right in and adding to the ruckus as the redheaded barmaid came flouncing over to their table. She plopped down in Leon’s lap, looping her arm around his shoulders so her bosom was presented like two plump apples on a platter beneath Leon’s chin.
Leon looked hungrily at them, then at the barmaid’s mischievous grin, then stood quickly, catching her up around the waist as she stumbled. Before she could do more than squeak in surprise, Leon scooped her up and strode through the curtain at the back of the tavern into the rooms Merlin had only heard boasting tales of.
Merlin grinned and took a long drink from his tankard, returning the bartender’s friendly smile and absently worrying his fingers over a rough knot in the wood of the bench where he sat.
He watched as Gwaine bellied up to the bar, one foot propped on a rung of a stool, arms folded on the bar top so he could lean in close to the barman, the hand running back through his hair a dead giveaway for what he must be saying. Merlin could just imagine the flirtatious words, the low drawl and seductive tone of Gwaine’s voice.
Merlin looked away, the ache in his chest an entirely different sort of torture to the kind he’d been feeling all night, since he’d gone to Arthur’s chamber to check on his wound.
Arthur hadn’t needed tending, truly – Merlin shouldn’t have gone – but he couldn’t stop thinking about how angry Arthur likely was about Merlin healing him with magic. Merlin had turned it over and over in his mind until his thoughts were a tight loop of worry and guilt. He’d needed to make sure Arthur wasn’t livid – and if he had been, Merlin had intended to somehow placate him. He couldn’t have Arthur angry with him; he wanted things to be civil between them, if nothing else.
He took another gulp of his ale and sighed as Lancelot slipped in alongside him on the bench. Lancelot patted his thigh, and Merlin was glad for the simple gesture. Lancelot could read him far too easily for him to hide anything. He must’ve guessed that by this point, Merlin wasn’t capable of keeping up a mask of indifference over Arthur or Gwaine with someone who knew the truth already.
“Gwaine makes it look so easy,” Merlin whispered, looking across the bar and smirking as Gwaine grinned over his shoulder at him and Lancelot.
“Yes, he certainly knows how to put his best... uh... foot forward, doesn’t he?” Lancelot said, smirking and nodding in the direction of Gwaine’s round arse. It was pushed out at them as if on display for the entire tavern.
“If my bony arse was that attractive, I’d put it forward, too,” Merlin said, snorting. “It’s a wonder he doesn’t walk around backwards.”
Lancelot chuckled into his tankard, taking another drink and leaning his shoulder into Merlin’s. “He’s going to be all right, you know. Cat with nine lives, that one. Eight spent, of course, but he’ll land on his feet this time, I think.”
Merlin nodded, but couldn’t meet Lancelot’s eyes. “You know, he’s... tempting. It would be so much easier with him than... well. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it, the two of us being more than friends?”
“It does,” Lancelot said, tapping Merlin under the chin so he’d look up. “Or it would, if you hadn’t already lost your heart to another.”
Sighing, Merlin sank back against the wall, banging his head so hard it smarted. It was meagre punishment for the mess he’d made of things. “Arthur really does want me to leave. Perhaps I should just go. He’d be happier if I did.”
“Horseshit. You’ve seen how miserable he is without you at his side. His new manservant may be capable enough,” Lancelot said with a knowing look, “but make no mistake. Arthur is miserable. Just imagine if you were completely out of reach. Does he know why you won’t leave? Have you told him?”
“I’ve tried. Every time we speak, we just end up-” Merlin shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. He won’t admit that I’m protecting him every bit as much as he wants to protect me. He’ll never admit he might actually need my help.”
“Not with you sitting here feeling sorry for yourself and him up in the castle doing the same. Keep at him. You know how stubborn he is.” Lancelot threw an arm around Merlin’s shoulder, ducking his head to catch Merlin’s gaze. “He needs you. And he cares for you.”
Merlin looked back over at the bar, at Gwaine, who was turned toward them now, leaning on his elbows, oozing confidence, scanning the crowd. “Gwaine needs me, too. He doesn’t deserve to have his heart broken.”
“Maybe this once, it’s his turn,” Lancelot murmured, and when Merlin looked at him in surprise, Lancelot’s eyes were narrowed at Gwaine. “He’s broken his fair share, you know. He’ll be fine.”
Seeing Lancelot’s attention so focused on Gwaine, a realization tickled at the back of his mind. What if...? “Lancelot?”
“Mmm hmm?” he asked absently, drinking deeply from his tankard, still staring at Gwaine.
“Nothing. Nevermind.” Merlin shook his head and fought down the grin that twitched at his lips. He was probably just imagining things.
“Go on, Merlin,” Lancelot said, finally looking away from Gwaine and giving Merlin’s shoulder a shake. “Go talk to Arthur. I’ll keep an eye on Gwaine.”
“Will you tell him to meet me in the tower later if he’s not... busy?” Merlin asked, watching as Gwaine held out his hand to a dark-haired young man who’d just sidled up to him.
“Looks like he might be a bit preoccupied just now,” Lancelot said, gesturing toward the man as he leaned in to whisper something to Gwaine. “That one looks a bit like you, doesn’t he?”
Merlin glanced at the two of them, and a wave of embarrassment heated his face. The young man was of Merlin’s height and build, and had raven hair only a bit longer than Merlin’s. He even had ears that suck out a bit too far.
Merlin’s stomach curled into a tight knot as Gwaine reached for the courtesan’s shoulder, his thumb rubbing circles on the bare skin exposed by the man’s unlaced tunic. Merlin knew the warm, soft strength of Gwaine’s touch, the way Gwaine’s focus narrowed in a way it almost never did.
It was impossible to steel himself against the shock of seeing Gwaine’s interest directed toward someone else, for all of Merlin’s well-reasoned refusals.
He stood, holding onto the table to steady himself. “Never mind the message – I’ll tell him myself,” he said, swallowing down the guilt. He’d never intended to hurt Gwaine, and the fact that he felt any degree of attraction and attachment toward him just made the whole thing more complex and painful. He wouldn’t stay and torture himself, wouldn’t wait to see if Gwaine would run fingers through the man’s hair, or press close when he kissed him.
Merlin had to leave, needed to speak to Arthur. “You just make sure he doesn’t drink half the bar. Arthur won’t foot the bill again if he does.”
Merlin crossed to Gwaine, who was obviously very carefully ignoring him. Merlin waved a hand in front of his face to get his attention, giving the man Gwaine was talking to a quick apologetic look. “A moment, please?” he asked.
The courtesan nodded curtly, leaned in to whisper against Gwaine’s ear, then stepped away, looking back at Gwaine with beckoning eyes as he stepped through the curtains.
Gwaine watched him go, his smile fading as he turned back to Merlin. “He saw me with the recruits today,” he said, jerking his head in the direction of the man. “Thought I looked fit, apparently.”
“He’s not the only one, I think,” Merlin said, glancing quickly back at the table, smiling as Gwaine’s gaze slid to Lancelot. “You know what my mum always used to say?” he asked, reaching out to touch Gwaine’s arm, unable to resist reassuring himself that he still had that liberty.
The feeling of Gwaine’s warm skin beneath his fingertips was comforting and familiar. He paused, letting himself imagine for just a moment that there was no Arthur and he could tug his best friend out the door, run away with him and never look back. He would spend his life laughing with Gwaine, loving him, letting Gwaine’s passion spill over him and be enough for both of them.
But the red fall of Gwaine’s cloak caught his eye, the Pendragon insignia bold as the sun on his shoulder, and Merlin let his hand slide away.
“She used to say that opposites attract,” he said, looking pointedly at Lancelot, then back to Gwaine. If he was going to encourage a transfer of Gwaine’s affection to anyone, Lancelot was the one man Merlin could trust not to wound him. The courtesan waiting for Gwaine behind that curtain was only a temporary bandage, one that would soon wear thin and leave Gwaine’s wounds gaping and raw.
“Smart woman, your mum,” Gwaine said, lips quirking into a smile. As Merlin set his tankard on the bar and waved off another offered round from the barkeep, Gwaine straightened. “You’re not leaving already, are you?”
“Seems there’s a prince up at the citadel in need of a good talking-to. I think I know just the man for the job. Meet me in my tower in a couple of candlemarks? Unless, of course, he kills me this time.”
“Or unless you get him pissed and have your wicked way with him,” Gwaine teased, holding up his tankard in a mock toast.
“Or Cavall does,” Merlin joked, laughing as Gwaine shuddered comically at the thought of it.
Merlin gave him a quick pat on the shoulder and flagged down the bartender, calling for a bottle of wine. Gwaine was full of good ideas.
It was simple enough to change on the way to Arthur’s chamber, to duck into the disused room and go through the now-familiar ritual of transforming his visage and pulling on Cavall’s clothes. He cleared his throat and lowered his voice, practicing the slightly deeper tone he used as Cavall. He hefted the bottle of spirits he’d brought from the tavern and tried out some lines. “Thought you might need a nightcap, Sire... Excuse me, Sire. I thought some wine might speed your recovery. Let’s get you sloshed and see how handy you are with that sword.”
He sounded like a moron, he was well aware, but he made his way up to Arthur’s rooms anyway. Just as he raised his fist to knock, the door opened. Merlin half-hid the wine behind his back, trying to act nonchalant, as though Cavall routinely camped outside Arthur’s door with a bottle of wine, just waiting for Arthur’s orders.
“Good, you’re here,” Arthur said, brow furrowed as if confused. He leant around to see what Cavall held behind his back, then shrugged and waved Cavall into the room. “You read my mind, Sir Cavall. Pour some of that for us and have a seat.”
He sagged down onto one of the regal armchairs by the fire, gesturing for Merlin to join him.
That Cavall showed up just when Merlin’s absence was becoming unbearable was pure luck. Arthur’d been brooding over their encounter all evening. He’d caught himself touching his healed wound more than once, as if he wanted any small reminder of Merlin and that one was literally palpable. Tangible proof that Merlin was still close by and didn’t loathe him.
“Here you are, Sire.” Cavall handed Arthur a full goblet, taking a seat beside him in front of the fire. “You look as though something is weighing on your mind.”
“What do you know of my predicament?” he asked, too exhausted to keep up pretenses. It only made sense that Cavall would have overheard something of the situation with Merlin by now, especially if he’d been taking meals with the knights as he’d said. “You must’ve heard my men speaking of it.”
“Very little,” Cavall said, shrugging as Arthur arched an eyebrow at him. “Your knights generally believe that you ... are wounded.”
Arthur’s touched his side again, ready to protest, but Cavall shook his head slightly and Arthur’s hand fell away. Cavall hadn’t meant his physical wound, then, which meant he knew about Merlin and was trying to be discreet. Normally, Arthur might’ve appreciated the consideration, but he was sick of pretending tonight.
“I hadn’t thought them concerned enough to notice. They’re all very put out with me.” Arthur took a deep breath and sighed. What harm would it do to speak openly with Cavall? The man had proven himself a devoted servant of Camelot from the time he was a youngling. “But they’re not wrong, Cavall. I’m beginning to realize just how deep the wound is.”
“Sire,” Cavall began, pausing until Arthur looked over at him. “May I speak candidly?”
Arthur gestured with his goblet for Cavall to continue. “You might as well.”
Cavall nodded. “Your men say the young man in question is honourable and brave, that he risked his life for you and you turned him away for foolish reasons. They say he’ll be lost without you, and... and you without him.”
“They say all of that, do they?” Arthur murmured, surprised at just how much Cavall knew. The knights must trust him very much to speak so freely in front of him.
That Cavall hadn’t shown even a hint of contempt whilst referring to Merlin as “the young man” didn’t go unnoticed. He must not hold prejudice against men taking other men as lovers, but obviously he didn’t fully understand the situation. Arthur took a long drink and stared into the fire, wondering just how much the knights had told Cavall. “Do you know who he is?”
“I... yes, I do. I know quite a bit about him, actually. I’ve heard the tale of how he saved your life and those of Gwaine and Lancelot as well. He is either as brave as they claim or – forgive me - incredibly stupid.”
Arthur scoffed. “A bit of both, in my mind. He puts no value on his life whatsoever. He refuses to see just how complicated it would be for us to...”
“Perhaps he does see, Sire,” Cavall interrupted, leaning forward, arms resting on his knees. “Perhaps he chooses a life with you and all of the complications that would pose over a life without you.”
Arthur looked over at the old knight. “I cannot let him gamble his life on me. Not if I can stop him.”
“Your father would exile him? If he knew about the two of you?”
“My father wouldn’t hesitate to burn him for it.” Arthur closed his eyes and bit the inside of his cheek, willing himself not to imagine Merlin tied to a stake in the courtyard beneath his window. He couldn’t make Cavall truly understand without also telling him of Merlin’s magic, which was out of the question, of course. “I’m meant to marry and produce an heir. Father overlooked my past... indiscretions, but he wouldn’t overlook this. I have a duty to ensure the future of the Pendragons..”
“There are ways around that. You’re not the first ruler whose inclinations ran in this direction. And he was your manservant. Your father might never have realized there was anything between you if you’d left things as they were.” Cavall leaned closer, lowering his voice though they were utterly alone together here. “What’s really stopping you?”
Arthur looked hard at him for a moment, then shook his head, reaching for the bottle, refilling his own cup. “We’ve not acknowledged the connection between us for very long – at least I haven’t. There was the war and before that, well, every woman was bewitched and the men...” Arthur gestured vaguely with his goblet and sighed. “I’d hoped the men were a passing fancy.”
“From what I’ve gleened, Merlin isn’t a passing fancy,” Cavall said gently
Arthur flinched at Merlin’s name on the old knight’s lips, as though not having said it up to now had made everything he’d admitted somehow less true.
“No,” Arthur admitted, staring into his cup. “I can’t imagine my feelings changing anytime soon.”
“And why would they?” Cavall went on. “The bond between you is as strong as any I’ve seen.I’ve seen how much he cares for you, Arthur.”
At the sound of his name, suspicion sliced through the warm, thin haze of the wine. Eyes narrowing at Cavall, Arthur set his mug down, anger flashing up hot and quick behind his eyes. He tensed, ready to throw the man bodily from his rooms. “Who sent you here tonight?”
“What?” Cavall asked, looking genuinely surprised. He pressed back in his chair as Arthur leaned forward.
“You seem to know a very great deal about Merlin and myself. My knights ‘ tongues may loosen when they’re in their cups, but they wouldn’t have confided so completely in you, and I can’t imagine Merlin would do so, either. You’ve never seen Merlin and I together, not once that I can recall. I won’t be played for a fool!” Arthur stood, hovering over Cavall, one word away from grabbing him by his collar and hurtling him out on his arse.
“Just how stupid do you think I am?” Cavall asked, jaw clenching as he stood chest to chest, meeting Arthur’s challenge without fear. “Your men didn’t send me and I didn’t need to hear a confession from Merlin, either! A man doesn’t pine the way you have without reason. He doesn’t seek out ways to be close to someone he claims to want gone. He doesn’t wake himself calling out their name or sit and stare out the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of them.”
“I do not pine for him!” Arthur spluttered, face heating.
“Do you know that Merlin does all of those things, too? It’s obvious you two are both breaking your hearts over one another. A blind man would see it. No one sent me tonight -. I certainly didn’t need anyone to tell me you could use someone to talk to.”
Arthur took a step back, then another, leaning against the cold, smooth stone of the fireplace, closing his eyes. He should sentence Cavall to the stocks for such insolence, but what was the use? It was all truth and the only harm Cavall had done was force Arthur face it
Arthur scrubbed his hand through his hair and shook his head. “I spoke hastily.”
“You spoke as though I guessed rightly about something you’re ashamed of,” Cavall said, turning to go. “I won’t disturb you further, Sire.”
Arthur grabbed the sleeve of Cavall’s tunic before he could take two steps. “It isn’t shame.”
“Regret then,” Cavall said, not looking Arthur in the eye but not pulling his arm away, either. “I understand perfectly. He’s only a servant, a man.”
“Sit down, Cavall. I won’t have you thinking I’m some sort of arrogant prat or bigot.” Arthur let go his sleeve and went to sit back down in his chair, waiting until Cavall was seated again. “I couldn’t care less that Merlin is a servant. My father- well, that’s beside the point. I don’t regret Merlin because he’s a servant, or because he can’t give me an heir.”
Cavall didn’t look convinced. “But you do regret him?”
Arthur sighed. “I should never have allowed what happened between us, knowing I was going to lose him. And I am going to lose him, Cavall. In truth, I’ve likely lost him already.”
Cavall rested his cane against the arm of his chair again, stretching his leg out and rubbing it as he spoke. “You seem to be determined to be rid of him and dreading it at the same time. Which is it?”
“You don’t pull your punches, do you, old man?” Arthur scoffed, grudgingly impressed. He needed this, needed to talk it out with someone who wouldn’t simply bow to his opinion. “If we’re together, he risks his life. If he stays in Camelot, it’ll drive me mad. Seeing him around the citadel is... But if he leaves...”
“If he leaves, you’ll lose yourself as well as him,” Cavall finished quietly, laying a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “You know that, don’t you?”
Arthur looked up, surprised at the gesture. No one touched him so intimately but Merlin and, rarely, the knights.
“I know what it’s like to be separated from the man you care for above all others,” Cavall said softly, squeezing Arthur’s shoulder once more before letting his hand fall away. “I don’t recommend it.”
Arthur shrugged. “It’s not as if we’re truly separated while he’s still in Camelot. We’re constantly crashing into one another, as if we’d rather have the pain of separating again and again than nothing at all.”
“Doing as much damage as you can before pulling away again,” Cavall said, nodding, staring into the fire. “I know what that’s like, too. It’s as if you’re punishing yourselves, and each other.”
Arthur heard the anguish in the knight’s voice, saw it etched on his face. “What kept you apart from the man you... were in love with?” he asked, feeling more connected to Cavall for his admission. Somehow, Arthur knew he’d be forgiven for asking such a personal question.
“He pushed me away. I thought it was because he didn’t truly want me, or he wasn’t brave enough to stand up to his family. But now I see that he thought he was protecting me much the way you’re protecting Merlin. He would have done better to keep me close to him rather than push me away if he wanted to protect me,” Cavall said, rubbing at his thigh and looking up with a smile. “Still, I’ve never strayed from the hope that someday we’ll work things out. I suppose that makes me a foolish old man, doesn’t it?”
“Have you never found anyone else?” Arthur asked quietly, hoping and dreading to hear that Cavall had moved on as Merlin might.
“No.” Cavall’s eyes shone brightly before he stood and fetched another log, leaning down to lay it across the dwindling fire. “I don’t have the slightest desire to look elsewhere.”
“I hope Merlin feels differently. I wouldn’t want him to be alone his entire life,” Arthur said, taking a drink to wash away the lie and the lump in his throat. It didn’t work.
“From what I hear, he doesn’t. Perhaps someday he’ll move on from you, but I sincerely doubt it. If you’re anything like myself and... well, you will only ever truly be suited for one another.”
Arthur scoffed. “We’re hardly a good match.”
“Aren’t you? After all, it must take a strong man to love a Prince, servant or no.”
“That’s an ill-disguised insult, I believe, Sir Cavall,” Arthur countered, smirking at the man’s audacity. Actually, he sounded a bit like Merlin - that much, at least, was comforting.
“Of course not!” Cavall said with mock-surprise as he took his seat again and raised his goblet in deference to Arthur. “I was merely complimenting Merlin.”
Arthur lifted his cup to meet Cavall’s, his mirth slipping away as he brought to mind memories of the strength Merlin had displayed throughout their friendship. Ealdor, the quest, Merlin at his side through every bit of intrigue and every battle. Facing danger no other man but the two of them dared face.
“You’re not wrong, actually. If anyone could put up with me, it’s him. He may be the strongest man I know,” he said quietly, remembering the sight of Merlin rushing headlong between Arthur and death without hesitation, then falling fearlessly over the cliff for him.
Merlin woke with a start, nearly falling from his chair at the sound of Arthur dropping a fresh log onto the fire. He pried open his eyelids and scrubbed his hand over his face, feeling Cavall’s wrinkled features and at once panicking. Had he somehow maintained the guise even in his sleep? He must’ve, though he had no idea how he’d managed it.
The light filtering in through Arthur’s windows was pale grey, and Merlin couldn’t hear the busy bustling of servants in the corridor, either. “Is it yet dawn?”
“Only just,” Arthur answered, stoking the fire. “Lay out a change of clothes for me, will you, Cavall?”
Merlin stood and stretched, not even needing to pretend the aches in his body after spending the night in Arthur’s chair. “Wouldn’t you like to sleep a bit longer?” Merlin looked over at the still-made bed, frowning. “Did you sleep at all?”
“I did a bit, despite you sawing logs all night.” Arthur grinned and stepped behind the dressing screen, flinging his breeches and tunic over the top and gesturing impatiently for Cavall to hand him a change of clothing. “There’s something I need to do before my duties begin today.”
“What could be so urgent?” Merlin passed the clothing around the screen, surprised when Arthur popped his head out again, grinning.
Arthur was never this cheerful of a morning.
It was all the explanation Arthur gave, but behind his name was everything Merlin longed to hear.
His heart thudded heavily in his chest and he turned away, ducking his head so Arthur wouldn’t see the emotion on Cavall’s face. He swallowed hard around the lump his throat, reaching for control but completely helpless to stop the overwhelming feelings of relief and affection that poured over him.
He nearly couldn’t breathe. He only wanted to reach out for Arthur, to touch him, to tell him he needn’t say another word.
But when Arthur stepped around the screen and reached for his belt, Merlin’s eyes went wide with realization.
Arthur was going to find him right now.
He knew where Arthur would surely look first - Merlin’s room in the tower.
“Won’t he still be abed?” Merlin asked as casually as he could manage, though his voice was a bit shaky. He cleared his throat. “You wouldn’t want to wake him, would you?”
Arthur fairly beamed at him. “Somehow I think I’ll be forgiven for it,” he answered, grinning.
“I’ll just fetch you some breakfast, then? For two?”
At Arthur’s nod, Merlin made a hasty, clumsy retreat. He tripped over a footstool as he crossed the chamber and then slammed the door so hard his hand stung with the force of it.
He ran full-out to the chamber he used for changing, praying to the Gods the entire way that no one would see the supposedly-crippled old knight running like a youngster. Luckily it was as early as Arthur had said and Merlin flew unseen through the corridors. He stripped Cavall off quick as lightning, yanking on his usual clothes and stomping into his boots, pausing only long enough to glance in the mirror and make sure he was fully himself again.
He skipped every other stair on the way up to the tower, gasping for breath, his thighs burning and his heart racing in anticipation. He forced himself to stop outside the tower door and take a deep breath, then open it silently so he wouldn’t wake Gaius.
But he was too late. Arthur was already there.
Gwaine stood at the bottom of the stairs to Merlin’s room, practically lewd in only his smalls with his morning erection outlined by the clinging fabric. His bare arms were spread wide, hands resting on either wall of the staircase, literally blocking the door to Merlin’s room.
“What are you doing here?” Arthur’s fists clenched at his sides, the words ground out in a harsh whisper through gritted teeth.
Merlin stood frozen and speechless as he watched the disaster unfold.
“I stayed the nigh- oh...” Gwaine said quietly, looking down at himself and then shrugging, a huge grin on his face. “It’s not how it looks,” he offered with false-sincerity, his smirk obviously designed to make Arthur think he was lying.
Merlin couldn’t imagine what Gwaine was thinking, why he would goad Arthur into believing he and Merlin had slept together. Was he mad? He knew what Arthur was capable of!
Arthur took a determined step forward and Gwaine moved to intercept him, still barring the way into Merlin’s room.
“Could I give him a message?” Gwaine asked coyly, crossing his arms over his bare chest but not moving an inch. His tone was breezy, as though he wasn’t actually challenging Arthur in the slightest, though Merlin saw the telltale dare in the flex of Gwaine’s biceps. “Or shall I just send him down to you when he wakes?”
Arthur’s rage rolled off of his broad shoulders in waves, the air of the workroom thickening with tension until Merlin could scarcely draw breath. He dared not make a sound. If Gwaine saw him, he didn’t glance in Merlin’s direction or otherwise give him away.
“Well?” Gwaine persisted, a bit impatiently. “I’d like to get back to Merlin’s warm bed if you don’t mind. Do you have a message for him or no?”
Arthur took a step back and Merlin thought he was about to turn and see him standing there. It would all be over and they could just laugh about-
“You can give him this,” Arthur roared, no longer bothering to keep quiet, and reared back.
He moved so fast that Merlin couldn’t believe what he was seeing.
Arthur’s fist landed squarely in the middle of Gwaine’s face with a sickening crunch and Gwaine’s cry filled the otherwise-silent chamber. Gaius leapt up out of bed at the noise, hand on his chest in alarm, looking first to Merlin, then to Arthur and Gwaine.
“Merlin!” Gaius shouted, as if it was all his fault, and Arthur whirled, eyes wide as he saw Merlin standing dumbly in the middle of the room.
“Merlin!” Arthur gasped, his rage draining away. He looked back and forth from Merlin to Gwaine.
“Told you it wasn’t how it looked,” Gwaine groaned out, stomping his foot in pain and cupping his hands over his face. Blood seeped through his fingers and dripped to the flagstones. He swore and slapped his red-smeared palm against the stone wall, tears squeezing from his eyes. “Hell, Arthur, hit a bit harder next time!”
Merlin took a step towards Gwaine and stopped, realizing that Arthur was still between them. “I- I didn’t sleep with him,” he choked out, wincing as Arthur rolled his eyes and threw his hands up in exasperation. Merlin cleared his throat and waved a hand at Gwaine. “Obviously, I mean. I wasn’t here.”
“Where were you, then?” Gaius asked sleepily, getting to his feet and collecting a cloth from the worktable.
“It doesn’t matter,” Arthur interjected, though Merlin could hear the lie in his voice and had no doubt everyone else could, too.
“Apology accepted,” Gwaine scoffed, shoving at Arthur’s shoulder and stepping past him to sit on Gaius’ examination table. “I’m bleeding here, in case no one noticed.”
Gaius muttered and sighed, giving Merlin a pointed, disapproving glance as he moved to the table and held the cloth to Gwaine’s nose. “It’s a bit early for so many misunderstandings,” he complained.
“You’re absolutely right, Gaius. Outside, Merlin,” Arthur ordered, glaring at Merlin as he stalked past him to the door. “Now.”
Merlin looked to Gwaine for help, having no clue how to explain to Arthur where he’d been all night, but Gwaine was staring up at the ceiling, pinching the bridge of his nose as Gaius tried to staunch the flow of blood.
Merlin hurried over to him, taking his nose in hand and whispering a quick healing spell. The bone shifted and snapped back into place, and Merlin sent a second spell just behind the first, soothing away the worst of the pain.
“I’ll never get used to that. Go on,” Gwaine urged, shoving Merlin towards the door. “He’s waiting.”
“He’ll kill me,” Merlin groaned, looking over his shoulder at the door and then back to Gwaine. “Tell me what to say.”
“Oh no, my friend. You got yourself into this mess, you get yourself out,” Gwaine laughed, touching his nose gingerly. “And let’s leave my nose out of this from now on, alright?”
Merlin sighed, wondering if Arthur really was angry enough to hit him as well. He couldn’t very well defend himself against Arthur, could he? He was strong enough magically, yes, but he would never-
Gwaine’s hand fell on his shoulder, squeezing gently. “The only reason he’s being so stubborn is that he cares about you. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t be so worried about your safety. Remember that and don’t let him convince you otherwise, no matter what he says this time.”
Merlin nodded, though he had a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. All the progress he’d made as Cavall through the night had been wiped away and here he was, their relationship a tangled mess once again.
Merlin slipped out the door, shutting it behind himself. He braced himself for harsh words, every muscle coiled in anticipation.
Despite expecting Arthur’s anger, he flinched as Arthur crowded him against the wall, hands gripping his shoulders, shaking them hard.
“You didn’t sleep with him.” Arthur’s voice was barely audible, a tight, low murmur. His face was just a hands’ breadth from Merlin’s, his jaw tight.
Merlin barely shook his head. “No.”
“But he would,” Arthur accused, pressing Merlin harder against the cold wall. “He wants you.”
Merlin jerked his head in a tiny nod, closing his eyes against Arthur’s angry gaze. “I wouldn’t, though. He isn’t... you,” Merlin whispered, swallowing against the hard knot of pain in his throat. Pain for this, between he and Arthur, and pain for his bruised-nosed friend who loved him so dearly.
He wouldn’t rob Gwaine of finding a person who truly loved him, even if it meant Merlin would spend his life alone, watching as someone else made Gwaine happy.
Arthur stepped forward, his hand drifting down to rest on Merlin’s waist, his gaze dropping to focus on Merlin’s mouth, all anger draining away. "Merlin," he breathed, fingers squeezing on his side, Arthur's other hand closing warmly on his neck. His thumb brushed over Merlin's lips, his jaw.
Merlin licked his lips, chasing Arthur's touch, breath already failing him, and fought the urge to lean in and take what he wanted. Every fibre of his being needed Arthur’s touch, his kiss. He yearned for it as desperately as he’d ever wanted anything, so absolutely that he almost couldn’t feel the pain anymore.
Arthur pressed against him, slipping his arm around Merlin’s waist and holding him so close that they touched in a dozen places. The rigid line of Arthur’s arousal pushed unabashedly against Merlin’s thigh, and Merlin squeezed his eyes closed.
“Don’t,” he breathed, turning his face away, pressing his palms against the wall to steady himself. Unable to think, he reached for magic instead, drawing energy from the very stones beneath his touch, letting it gather and swirl in his chest. He wouldn’t use magic against Arthur, but he felt stronger knowing the power was there if he needed it.
Arthur’s hand closed on his jaw, turning his face back. “You’ve changed your mind?” he asked, though he didn’t move away.
Merlin opened his eyes and shook his head. “I’ll never change my mind. But you’re torturing me. You’re torturing both of us. Every time you do this - touch me – kiss me – it takes days for me to....”
Lowering his gaze, Arthur let his hand slide along Merlin’s cheek, down his throat, tugging at his tunic and resting over his chest . “There will be obstacles, you realize, if we’re to together. Until I am King, the laws of Camelot will not change..”
Merlin drew in a deep breath and let it shakily out, not daring to believe that Arthur was truly willing to be with him, to be together. “I understand it won’t be easy,” he whispered, and Arthur nodded once, apparently satisfied.
“When I am crowned, it will be different, but I cannot wish for my father’s death.”
Merlin understood, truly. For all the power being a dragonlord brought, he wouldn’t have given Balinor up for any of it.
Still, the words held such promise and surety that Merlin couldn’t help but believe them. The tension drained from him as if through a sieve and he sagged against the wall. He looked into Arthur’s eyes, seeing nothing but hope and heat.
“Of course not. I understand, Arthur,” Merlin said quietly, reaching to lay a tentative hand on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Do you?” Arthur whispered, pressing his forehead to Merlin’s. “I want you to stay in Camelot, Merlin. But if you do, I’ll have your word that you won’t be stupid about when and where you use your gift. Promise me you’ll be more careful with it. No more chores or lighting fires. And what’s between us must remain secret as well.”
“You have my word,” Merlin vowed, pulling back to look into Arthur’s eyes. He felt as if his heart was swollen and crowding his lungs, making it impossible to breathe. Was Arthur his, then? Is that what this meant?
Arthur’s arms encircled his waist, his hips pressed tightly to Merlin’s, his breath ghosting over Merlin’s lips. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered, and finally, finally took Merlin’s mouth in a slow, possessive kiss.
Merlin opened to him, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s back, rubbing from his strong shoulders all the way down to the round of his arse. He hummed in contentment, breathless and dizzy with the lingering kiss. Pressing his open palm against the base of Arthur’s spine, he pulled him impossibly closer, then let his hands explore, squeezing and kneading.
Arthur rubbed up and down his side, fingers slipping up beneath Merlin’s tunic to caress his skin. His touch was warm and firm, insistent but calm, the kind of calm that transferred to Merlin with every caress.
Merlin clung to that calm, willing his racing heart to slow. He pulled gently away from the kiss, tilting his head back against the wall and gasping for breath. He moved his hand between them and up around Arthur’s neck, fingers curling into Arthur’s hair and holding him close. He didn’t want to stop, didn’t want Arthur to ever stop, but he had to catch his breath.
Arthur chuckled softly against Merlin’s throat, nuzzling, kissing, nipping a path along Merlin’s jaw and up to his ear. A warm tingle tripped along his skin as Arthur nibbled his earlobe, then whispered his name.
Merlin’s toes curled in his boots, his cock thickening in his breeches. “We should-“ he managed, but didn’t finish.
Footfalls echoed up the staircase from below. They froze, then flew apart, Arthur looking down the stairs as Merlin turned to press his forehead to the stone wall, grasping for control. He used the magical energy he’d gathered to ground himself, sending it in a torrential rush back into the castle but holding onto the end of the stream. It helped steady him, and by the time the servant appeared on the staircase, Merlin was breathing normally, at least.
“Prince Arthur, I’m so glad I found you!” the servant cried, obviously trying to hold back the panic in his voice. “There’s been word from the East.”
“What news?” Arthur asked quickly, urging the servant on.
“There’s been another Serkit attack. The villagers tracked it to its nest. They’ve found the entire swarm, your highness!”
Arthur’s stunned silence lasted only a moment before he straightened to his full height, throwing his shoulders back and resting his hand on his belt, though he didn’t wear his scabbard. It was as if he’d pulled on another skin, transforming into a valiant knight, a prince, a commander.
“We ride as soon as we’re assembled. Find Cavall and have him rouse my knights. Help him gather our gear and have the cook pack trail rations for the seven of us.”
Merlin stepped forward, shaking his head. “Cavall’s practically lame – he won’t withstand the journey. Take me instead.”
Arthur held up his hand to silence Merlin. “Cavall is far more capable with a sword,” Arthur told him, cutting off Merlin’s protests with a glare. He glanced back to the servant, who shifted from foot to foot, nearly vibrating with overexcited nerves. “Go on, then. Hurry, man!”
The servant bowed quickly and turned, running down the stairs. When they could no longer hear his footsteps, Arthur laid his hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “I want you where I know you’ll be safe.”
Merlin’s heart lodged in his throat. He would have to make the journey as Cavall, and as Cavall, part of his concentration must be spent on maintaining the guise. His magic would be that much weaker for the drain on it, and there was no time to find another way to make the transformation.
“I belong at your side. I could be of use against the swarm – you know I could,” Merlin argued, crossing his arms over his aching chest. “I’m coming with you.”
“I’ll chain you in the dungeon if I have to, Merlin,” Arthur threatened, though his lips quirked in a half-smile. “Wouldn’t you rather spend the time getting reacquainted with my laundry? I wonder if you’ve forgotten how to wash a floor. I’d hate to have to teach you that lesson again.”
Merlin huffed out a short laugh, remembering the dirty rag splatting against his face and the bucket poured over his head. “I’ve not forgotten.” He shook his head and tried again. “Arthur, you know I’m more useful than-“
“I’ll be back before you know it,” Arthur said sharply, cutting him off. “I’ll bring you a stinger for a trophy.”
“Please don’t,” Merlin said, scoffing despite himself. He would get his own stinger. He held power beyond any Gaius had ever known. Surely he could maintain his disguise and fight the Serkits at once.
“Obey me,” Arthur said, his voice low and commanding, his hands tightening on Merlin’s shoulders. “Think of it this way: When we return to Camelot victorious, I’ll be returning to you.”
“I like the sound of that,” Merlin whispered, pressing his lips to Arthur’s for one last, lingering kiss before Arthur dashed off, leaving Merlin to stare after him.
A moment later, Merlin opened the workroom door and rushed through the news, hurrying Gwaine into his clothes with a smack to the back of his head for his antics. “He could have killed you for making him think we shared a bed.”
“It worked, didn’t it?” Gwaine laughed, pulling on his boots and looking Merlin up and down. “You look well-tousled enough, don’t you?”
“I think I convinced him last night,” Merlin said, stripping down and pulling on Cavall’s breeches and tunic, stuffing extra socks and trousers into a pack. He changed into Cavall and glanced in the bit of broken mirror hung on his wardrobe cabinet. “Arthur wants Cavall along instead of me, so be sure to tell him you left me here in the tower.”
Gwaine looked Merlin up and down, then reached over to tug on his beard. “Merlin is definitely staying behind.”
“I’ll need to practice casting something powerful while keeping the guise in place. I’ll need your help. We’ll have to contrive a reason to leave the others along the way, or somehow get out of camp at night.”
“No problem.” Gwaine clapped a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “I’m happy for you, my friend.”
Merlin smiled back at him, then pulled him in for a tight hug. “Don’t be,” he murmured against Gwaine’s shoulder. “Not yet.”
“He’s a fool if he doesn’t see how lucky he is to have you. Let’s go find the others,” Gwaine said, clearing his throat and turning to leave, looking back over his shoulder. “I bet a sovereign Leon’s cursing up a storm right about now. He’s a bear before dawn and he’ll not want to leave whoever’s warm bed he’s in.”
Merlin followed Gwaine out and down to the courtyard, nearly forgetting to assume Cavall’s limping gait and lower voice when Percival greeted him with a yawn.
They rode out of the citadel just as the sun crested the horizon, its brilliant rays washing over the castle behind them and the road ahead.
Many thanks to my betas: Prplhez, Sabriel75 and Gwylliondream and to my many cheerleaders, especially archaeologist_d, who nudged me along when I needed it most! <3 <3 <3
The final chapter (or two) will hopefully be completed in January!
To all of the Springes readers out there - Thank you all SO much for your patience and faith in me! Your comments, kudos and emails over the months have kept me going and reminded me what it was I adored about writing Springes!! <3