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An Unshakeable Desire

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Arthur never liked patrolling through the lower town. Unwashed bodies crammed together, people skittering away from the guards with shifty expressions on their faces, ragged children huddled under makeshift shelters. He didn’t like to see such things in Camelot. But for every outlaw they arrested, every thief they had flogged in the square—it seemed ten more sprang up in their place. And always the fear that the fraying tent in the alleyway, the dark corner of the tavern might harbor a sorcerer, incanting charms and brewing malefic potions.

That day it was raining lightly, and Arthur squelched through the mud, one hand on his sword, blinking through the smoke rising from damp, pitiful fires. There weren’t many people out—those who had homes were inside staying dry and those who didn’t were seeking shelter wherever they could. He was just leading the guards back to the main street that led up to the castle when he saw the boy, sitting in a doorway that offered only meager protection from the rain. His dark hair was wet, plastered to his head, and Arthur could tell he was shivering. He had only a thin jacket, and his boots were full of holes.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t doing anything that Arthur could arrest him for. In Arthur’s experience, young men hanging about the lower town were usually up to no good, waiting to snatch a purse or steal a horse. He stopped and glared at the boy. The boy glared right back at him.

“What are you doing?” Arthur demanded.

“Trying to stay dry,” the boy muttered.

Arthur scowled. “Do you know who I am?”

The boy glanced at the guards, ran his eyes over Arthur’s fine clothing, lingered on the sword. He dropped his eyes to the ground. “No.”

Arthur gestured at one of the guards, who stepped forward and prodded the boy with the butt of his spear. “You are speaking to his highness, Prince Arthur. Show some respect!”

Slowly, unwillingly, the boy rose to his feet. Arthur huffed in annoyance and repeated his question. “What is your business in Camelot?”

“I—” The boy paused, shrugged. “I live here now.”

The guard prodded him again, and the boy added a sullen, “my lord.”

“Well don’t loiter about in the streets,” Arthur snapped and stayed there, arms crossed over his chest, until the boy—after giving a brief bow that reeked of silent insolence—shuffled off, disappearing round a corner.

Arthur dismissed the boy from his mind, returning to the castle for a hot bath that shook off the chill from the wet weather. He dined with his father, argued with Morgana, and read through a few reports before retiring for the evening. But in the middle of the night he woke up, the blankets twisted around him, with images of dark hair and blue eyes, fiery in their presumption, hovering in his mind. A shiver of desire coursed through him. Sleepily, Arthur tried to ward it off, turning onto his side and seeking more innocuous dreams. But in the morning the desire was still there, a persistent buzz echoing through his thoughts.

***

The desire stayed with him all day, and the next day, too, despite his attempts to shake it off. The boy was just a peasant! He was dirty and coarse—Arthur was a prince. The boy hadn’t even treated Arthur with the proper respect. Scowling, Arthur stared out at the rain streaming down the window. He would probably never see the boy again anyway. Or if he did, it would be when the boy was walking to the gallows, finally caught stealing or committing some other crime. But still the thoughts crept up on him unawares—hazy images that resolved into pale skin, warm under Arthur’s fingers as he stripped away the threadbare clothing.

Two weeks later, and he was going to see Lord Eldred, visiting from Mercia. They had hosted a lavish banquet, but Uther wanted him to check on their guest personally, make sure that he was comfortable. Arthur knocked on the door and opened it when Eldred bade him enter. He started to speak and then stopped, staring.

Eldred was doing up the laces of his breeches, a loose robe draped over his shoulders. And in the corner, scrambling to pull a tunic over his head, was the boy; the boy he had met in the rain.

“Ah, your highness, please come in,” Eldred said, pouring two cups of wine.

The boy was staring at Arthur. His face was flushed, dark hair sticking in all directions. He blinked and looked away.

Eldred glanced at the boy and tossed a few coins at him. The boy dropped them and had to bend quickly to snatch them up. Arthur could see red marks on his collarbone where his tunic gaped open. “Get out,” Eldred said.

The boy started sidling past Arthur, not meeting his eyes now.

“I don’t usually use such common whores,” Eldred remarked, sitting down. Arthur thought he saw the boy flinch, and then he was out the door, the heavy wood closing behind him.

“But it can be rather diverting,” Eldred continued. “A certain roughness and naïveté that is lacking in those more practiced in the art of giving pleasure.”

“That boy—” Arthur had to clear his throat, take a drink of wine. “What was his name?”

Eldred smirked. “Thinking of trying him yourself?”

Arthur let his gaze settle into a frosty glare.

Eldred shifted in his chair. “I don’t know his name, my lord. Smelled like he had been sleeping in a barn.” Eldred barked a laugh. “I shall have to fetch one of the maids to change the sheets before I retire. As I said, I only rarely resort to such coarse companionship.”

**

It was worse after that. Now that Arthur knew he could have the boy if he wanted him—his desire intensified ten-fold. He still tried to resist for a while, but then one afternoon his control snapped. He was the prince, after all. If he wanted the boy, there was no reason he shouldn’t feel free to indulge himself. Besides, the desire, the clamoring need, would most likely fade afterwards. Once he’d allowed his fingers to brush against that skin—it would be enough, and he could put this peasant, this whore from his mind.

He sent his manservant, Hopkin, off to fetch the boy. Hopkin seemed to know everything that happened in Camelot and would have no trouble locating him, especially as the boy was still relatively new to the town. Sure enough, scarcely forty minutes had passed before there was a hesitant knock on the door.

“Enter,” Arthur called out, and the boy ducked inside. His head was down, and he was breathing hard, as though he had run up the stairs.

For several long moments, neither of them moved. Arthur finally gestured sharply. “Come here.”

The boy slowly walked over to where Arthur was sitting in his chair. He kept his head lowered. Arthur watched him.

“What’s your name?” he asked, and the boy looked up at that. His face was dirty—Arthur shuddered to think what his hands would be like—and a wary expression tightened the corners of his eyes and mouth.

“Merlin,” the boy said.

Arthur tapped his fingers impatiently on the arm of the chair. “Weren’t you told to address me properly?”

“Yes.” A pause. “My lord.” And the boy had the gall to smirk at him!

Arthur scowled. How could he have forgotten what an irritating creature this boy—this Merlin—was? And yet damned if he still didn’t want to claim Merlin’s mouth, pull him into his lap and see what sounds he could coax out of the boy. He wanted him begging, moaning

Arthur stopped that line of thought, appalled. This was a whore, not his lover. He was here to satisfy Arthur’s needs, not the other way around. “Well, get on with it then,” Arthur snapped. “I’m not going to pay you to stand there and gape at me like an idiot!”

The smirk—the slight hint of a happier warmth in Merlin’s eyes—vanished. His shoulders drooped a little, and he got down on his knees. He glanced up at Arthur once more, and Arthur felt a sudden twist in his chest, as though Merlin were searching for something, digging through Arthur’s mind and soul with those eyes. Arthur didn’t like it—didn’t like the thought that Merlin was measuring him in some way. It was not for a peasant to judge his crown prince.

He grabbed a handful of Merlin’s tunic and yanked, his other hand fumbling with the laces of his breeches. He was hard—almost painfully so—had been the second Merlin walked in the door, and his subsequent annoyance seemed to have done nothing to diminish his erection.

“Are you completely useless?” he growled.

“No more than a prince who has everything handed to him on a silver platter,” Merlin retorted, and before Arthur could chastise him for that, Merlin had shoved his hands away and was pulling at the last knots. His hand closed on Arthur’s cock, drawing it out, and Arthur stifled a moan.

Merlin’s hands were filthy.

“Haven’t you heard of washing?” Arthur sneered, batting Merlin’s hands off him. “Use your mouth.”

Merlin glared, but he bent forward. Lightly sucked at the tip of Arthur’s cock before taking more into his mouth. Arthur groaned in relief and allowed himself to push forward just a little, wanting Merlin to take him deep. Some clinical part of Arthur registered the fact that Merlin wasn’t the best at this, but that part was overridden by a stronger, shattering pleasure. He opened his eyes because he needed to watch. He needed to see the fine bones in Merlin’s hands, clenched at his sides. Needed to observe the jerk of Merlin’s head and the bob of his throat as he swallowed. Arthur reached out and fisted his hand in Merlin’s hair, drawing him closer.

Merlin made a little noise of protest, and it hummed around Arthur’s cock, and he couldn’t help thrusting, coming, holding Merlin there—right there. Merlin managed to swallow some of it, although he was left choking and gasping when Arthur pulled away. Arthur sagged back in his chair, waiting for his heartbeat to slow. Merlin stayed on his knees.

Arthur finally managed to struggle up, tuck himself back in. He drew out his purse, found a few coins.

Merlin had lifted his head, and now he slowly held out his hand. Arthur dropped the coins into it, and his fingers brushed against Merlin’s—just for a second. Just a second, but it was enough. Enough to make it clear to Arthur that his desire for this peasant hadn’t faded in the least. He wanted to take Merlin over to his bed, lay him down, slowly open him and then thrust in while covering that mouth with kisses so that Merlin couldn’t talk, couldn’t come up with more obnoxious things to say.

Arthur pushed his chair back, the wood screeching along the stone, and went over to stand by the window. He heard Merlin clamber to his feet. “You may go,” he said and waited until the door closed to lean his palm against the cool glass and bend his head.

**

Merlin stumbled into an empty corridor and pressed against the wall, trembling. His prick throbbed, and he rubbed himself through the cloth, imagining what Arthur’s hands would have felt like on him. He could still feel the sensation of Arthur’s fingers in his hair, the strength in the prince’s calloused palm. Merlin bit his lip and slid his hand into his trousers, stroking himself. He came quickly, trying to hold back his gasps, thinking about how the dim light coming through the glass had stained Arthur’s face with shadows, kept his expression soft even as his voice hammered against Merlin, derisive and commanding.

If only— But no, Arthur had sneered at him, hadn’t even wanted Merlin to touch him. Merlin had been nothing more than a whore to the prince, a convenient way to slake his lust.

You’re wrong, he thought bitterly in the direction of the dungeons deep below the castle. This—this destiny you spoke to me about—you must have gotten the wrong person. I’m never going to help Arthur become king. He thinks I’m worthless.

And Arthur was no better than the rest of them, the rest of the nobles who looked down their noses at Merlin like he was dirt. For a second, when Arthur had asked him his name, Merlin had thought that perhaps Arthur would be different, that Arthur might see him as a person. He had been so arrogant the first time they met, and the second time, Merlin had practically died of humiliation. This time, though— But all Arthur had cared about was getting Merlin’s mouth around his cock.

And yet Merlin couldn’t help growing hard. He hardly ever became aroused with the others he had been with, and they never cared whether he came or not. The others—gods, it sounded as though he had been doing this forever, when it had only been a few weeks. But it felt like forever.

He had come here, come to Camelot because it offered the best hope of going unnoticed. The dark glances, the muttered threats, the shouted insults had finally become too much in Ealdor. Merlin had been terrified they would do something to his mother, and so he had slipped out one morning, leaving behind a note and taking a pack with some food and a change of clothes. He hadn’t had any money, and when he reached Camelot, he couldn’t find a job either. No one had any use for a farmer.

But a smaller village, a tiny hamlet—they would know. They would sense that there was something different about him, and it wouldn’t take long for the rumors to start. At least here he was able to fade into the crowds.

His food had run out, and he had been hungry. He could have used his magic, could have used it to steal food easily. But even the thought made him sick with fear. If anyone saw—he had already watched one man executed for sorcery, and the shrieks of pain still stalked his dreams.

So when a man had come up to him when he was hanging around in an alley behind a tavern—he couldn’t say no. Not when his stomach was cramping with hunger, and he was cold and wet from sleeping outside. The man had shoved Merlin down onto his knees right there in the mud. Merlin didn’t have much experience, just fooling around a few times with a boy in another village, but the man hadn’t seemed to care. He had pulled out and come over Merlin’s face, then dug around in his pocket for a coin before walking off again.

Merlin had eaten, although he felt queasy and sick. The next day passed in a haze of tiredness and the knowledge that he would have to do it again. And then—and then the dragon’s voice, persistent, forcing him to use his magic to go see it and hear its absurd tale about destiny and Arthur.

Sliding down the wall, Merlin crouched on the floor, resting his head on his knees. Soon, he knew, some guard would come along and he’d be thrown out of the castle. But for now—for now he would just rest a moment. He would rest and try not to picture how Arthur must look when he smiled, and the way his hand would feel gently covering Merlin’s own.

**

Arthur lasted three days before he summoned Merlin to his chambers again. Merlin didn’t bow, didn’t say anything, just stood there, his hair slightly damp from the rain. This time Arthur stood next to him and put his hand on the back of Merlin’s neck, fingers brushing his hair. A little shiver jerked its way over Merlin’s body.

“Take off your jacket and boots,” Arthur ordered softly, “and get on the bed.”

Merlin obeyed. He stood with his jacket in his hand for a moment, unsure, and finally dropped it on the floor, piling his boots next to it. Arthur watched him climb slowly onto the bed, all sharp angles and bony feet. Merlin lowered himself onto his back and stared up at the canopy. They could both hear the rain, pattering against the window, and for a minute all else was silent.

Then Arthur walked over to the bed, still fully dressed, and straddled Merlin’s legs. He stayed there a second, just looking at Merlin. Any other whore would have been all over him, pawing at Arthur’s tunic, sticking his hand into Arthur’s breeches, whispering about how much he wanted Arthur to take him. But Merlin stayed silent. It bothered Arthur, although if Merlin had started to fondle him or moan with false pleasure, Arthur thought he would have thrown him out. He didn’t want that. But he felt as though silence was unnatural for Merlin; that he should have been laughing and talking. He wondered what Merlin looked like when he smiled.

Arthur put his hand under Merlin’s shirt, felt Merlin’s stomach tighten as he drew in a quick breath. Slowly, Arthur pushed his hands upwards, drawing Merlin’s tunic up and off. Merlin finally moved, lifting his arms and struggling to get the material over his head. His hair was sticking up everywhere when he emerged, and Arthur ran his fingers through it. Merlin shivered again and bowed his head.

He explored Merlin’s chest, noting the prominent ribs, flicking his fingers over Merlin’s nipples. A noise escaped Merlin, a choked off moan. Arthur liked it, wanted to hear it again. So he reached down and cupped Merlin through his breeches. Merlin whimpered at that and thrust into Arthur’s hand, his face flushing.

When Arthur started pulling his breeches down, Merlin apparently recollected that he was supposed to be an active party in all of this, and he tentatively reached up to touch Arthur’s shoulders. “My lord—” he started to say, but Arthur stopped him, let go of rough cloth and closed his hands around Merlin’s wrists instead, pressing them to his side.

“No,” he said. He didn’t want Merlin saying the words that had tumbled blithely out of the mouths of other whores he had fucked.

Merlin stared at him, looking confused, but he held still, only his breathing speeding up when Arthur pulled away the last piece of clothing separating them. He wrapped his hand around Merlin’s hard prick, curving up towards his stomach. Merlin shut his eyes, and another moan of pleasure—half-reluctant, trembling with uncertainty—hovered in the air between them.

“I like that,” Arthur murmured, stroking slowly. “Those noises you make.” They were still slightly off, though, Arthur sensed. He suspected Merlin could be very vocal in bed—that was how Merlin should be, not tense and quiet, holding himself back.

As Arthur urged Merlin to turn over onto his stomach, Merlin grew even tenser. Arthur stroked his back, trying to get him to relax, wondering how long Merlin had been doing this and how others had treated him.

“Come on,” he whispered. “I don’t want to hurt you. Just let me—just spread your legs a little for me.”

Merlin buried his face in the pillow and complied.

Arthur coated his fingers liberally with oil before starting to open Merlin. And now Merlin was gasping and whimpering, and when Arthur had two fingers in and touched something that made Merlin jerk and actually cry out a little, Arthur knew that no one had ever done this for Merlin, had ever watched him come undone like this, responding so beautifully to the touches and the strokes.

He took Merlin slowly, pushing himself forward until he was stretched over Merlin’s back. Merlin clenched around him, and Arthur bit back a gasp, pressing his mouth to Merlin’s skin. He was still dressed in his tunic, his breeches only pushed down to his knees, boots heavy on his feet. He thought that if that last barrier fell away between them, he might never be rid of the desire that consumed him, that made him thrust almost desperately into Merlin and finally come, the wave of pleasure arching his back and digging his fingers into Merlin’s hips. Merlin came a second later, and the feeling of his muscles tightening made Arthur groan and pull away, collapsing onto the bed, trying to catch his breath.

Merlin slumped down to the bed, too, face turned away.

Arthur stared at him for a long moment. He should pay him, tell Merlin to leave, get this peasant out of his sight, out of his mind. Instead, he rubbed his thumb over the edge of Merlin’s ear.

“Get up,” he said. “Go over to the cabinet and fetch a robe for me.”

Merlin raised himself up and glared at Arthur. “I’m not your servant!” he snapped.

“No?” Arthur asked softly, trailing his fingers down Merlin’s arm. Merlin flushed and pulled away.

“No,” he said firmly.

“As a subject of Camelot,” Arthur said lazily, “you are most definitely my servant.”

Merlin’s glare intensified, but he got out of the bed. He stalked over to the cabinet and jerked it open. “What am I looking for again?” he growled.

“The red robe hanging in the corner,” Arthur replied, smirking. “And there’s another one next to it. Put it on.”

Merlin shot an indecipherable look over his shoulder at Arthur before shrugging on the robe. It was made of a dark green fabric, edged with a thick braid. He brought the red one over to Arthur and tossed it to him. Arthur caught it with a laugh. He started undressing, and Merlin sat down on the edge of the bed, back to Arthur.

Arthur belted the robe and stretched out. “Come here,” he told Merlin.

Merlin crawled over, and Arthur wrapped his arm around him, pulling Merlin back against his chest. “There,” he murmured, fiddling with the collar of Merlin’s robe. It was too big for him, and Merlin looked slightly lost in it, and very uncomfortable, but Arthur liked it on him.

A knock on the door and Hopkin’s voice asking if he might enter made Merlin startle and stiffen in Arthur’s arms. Arthur tugged, got Merlin to turn around, and let Merlin press his face into his chest before he called out for his manservant to come in. He stroked Merlin’s hair, trying to let him know it was all right.

Hopkin entered, face impassive even after he noticed Merlin. He bore a tray of food and set it on the table, bowing. “Some supper for you, my lord,” he said. Arthur waved him off, and Hopkin retreated, closing the door behind him.

Arthur thought Merlin might pull away, but he didn’t, so Arthur kept stroking his head. The smell of the stew, thick with spices, drifted over, and Merlin’s stomach growled.

“Hungry?” Arthur gave Merlin a little push. “Go on. Have something to eat.”

Merlin looked at Arthur, glanced at the table, then back again. “Go on,” Arthur repeated.

Merlin went over and slowly lowered himself into a chair. He looked at Arthur once more and then grabbed the bread. At first he only took a small bite, but when Arthur didn’t say anything, he started tearing off large chunks, stuffing them hungrily into his mouth. He picked up the spoon and hesitated, apparently waiting for Arthur to tell him to stop.

“You can have it,” Arthur said, and Merlin ate the stew quickly, looking as though he wished there was more when he was done.

“Pour me a cup of wine,” Arthur said, “and come back here.”

Merlin brought Arthur the wine, and this time he put his hand on Arthur’s side, just above his hip, and rested his head on the pillows. Arthur sipped his wine and twined the dark, soft strands of Merlin’s hair around his fingers.

“You should go,” Arthur finally said, and he thought Merlin might have looked a little reluctant when he got up and started dressing.

Arthur pulled out a heavy gold coin. It was too much, really, and Merlin’s eyes widened when he saw it. Arthur saw the conflict on his face—whether to tell Arthur that it was too much or not—and then Merlin snatched it away, curling his hand tightly around it. He looked ashamed, and Arthur didn’t want that; he wanted Merlin to smile for him. But he had already let Merlin wear his clothes, eat his food. He already wanted Merlin more than he should. So he stayed silent and didn’t call Merlin by his name or pull him into a kiss.

**

Merlin slept in a real bed that night for the first time in weeks. After leaving the castle, he had immediately found an inn and ordered (another) supper and a room. The innkeeper looked doubtful, but Merlin showed him the money, and the man reluctantly waved Merlin up the stairs. He had a bath, too, before falling into the bed, although part of him hated to wash away Arthur’s scent, which lingered around him.

The prince—for the first time, Merlin thought that perhaps the dragon hadn’t been wrong. Arthur had been gentle and generous, too, letting Merlin eat his supper, paying him with the heavy gold coin that had glinted so beguilingly in the candlelight. Oh, he had still been arrogant and demanding, and had looked annoyingly smug when he found that Merlin had grown hard under his touch. But there had been those moments that suggested Arthur might genuinely care about Merlin, wanted him to be happy as well. It had made Merlin reluctant to leave Arthur’s embrace, even though the fine silk of the robe had prickled uncomfortably against his skin, a subtle reminder that he must respond to Arthur’s commands, must try to pleasure the prince. Although Arthur had seemed upset when Merlin tried to touch him, tried to tell Arthur how much he wanted him—words that would have been only slightly untrue. It left Merlin confused and unsettled. Part of him wanted to return immediately to Arthur’s bed, and another part longed to creep away from Camelot—away from the smoky threat of execution, the gnawing hunger and homelessness, and the prince holding him while bright promises of destiny crawled over their entwined limbs.

**

The clash of swords against armor, the sticky sweat running down his back, the sword balanced in his hand—they grounded Arthur, cleared his head, let him think. He couldn’t keep giving in to this desire for Merlin. It needed to end.

That afternoon, dining with his father and a few other guests, he had looked at the ladies in their delicate gowns, hair held back in thick braids, the sweet curve of their lips. Or the young nobleman, with his strong fingers wrapped around a wine cup. These were appropriate lovers for a prince—not some peasant whoring himself around Camelot.

Arthur slammed his sword into his opponent’s shield. He could see what the problem was, now. He had been treating Merlin like something he wasn’t. Like someone worthy of Arthur’s affections.

He spun around, deflected a blow, and heaved forward, the knight toppling to the ground, sword flying from his hand. Arthur backed away, concentrating on the burn of air in his lungs and the smell of trampled grass.

He had ordered Hopkin to summon Merlin, have him ready in his chambers when he returned from training, and when he opened the door, Merlin looked around quickly. A last glimpse of sunshine, slanting through the window, caught Merlin’s hand, resting on the back of a chair.

“Help me off with my armor,” Arthur ordered without preamble, and Merlin frowned but came over and started tugging at the straps. He kept dropping pieces, which clattered painfully onto the floor. Arthur glared at him, focused on the dirt under Merlin’s fingernails, his ragged hair and chapped lips.

“Bend over the table,” Arthur told him when he had lifted his chainmail over his head. “And lower your breeches.”

Merlin’s face, which had been nervous but carried a hint of something hopeful and eager that Arthur had tried to ignore, grew still. He did what Arthur said, resting his head on his arms.

Arthur came up behind him, set a jar of oil down, and drew his hands over the exposed skin of Merlin’s hips. “How many others have you spread your legs for today?” he asked, feeling the harshness of his voice scrape over his throat.

When Merlin didn’t answer, he leaned closer, pressing the bulge of his cock against Merlin’s arse, and Merlin pressed back a little. “You’re such an eager little slut,” Arthur whispered, listening to his words and not the way Merlin’s breath caught. “So ready for my cock. Now answer my question—how many others?”

“No one,” Merlin replied in a choked voice.

Arthur dipped his fingers into a jar of oil, pushed one into Merlin. “You’re becoming spoiled. Getting fucked by royalty, a peasant like you.” He added another finger. “Tell me how much you want it.”

Silence, and then, “I want it. Please, please, sire.” Merlin’s voice breathy but dull.

Arthur snorted. “You really are terrible at this, aren’t you? Just be quiet. I’m not paying you to talk, anyway.”

And gods, it was as perfect as ever, sliding his length into Merlin, the tip of his nose just brushing Merlin’s hair as he thrust forward, hearing those sounds Merlin made, couldn’t help making, feeling a silent resonance inside himself. He reached around and stroked Merlin, and Merlin gasped out yes, even as Arthur murmured words like “slut” and “whore” and not the Merlin, Merlin, Merlin that clamored so insistently in his mind.

And when he saw Merlin’s face, after he had finished and Merlin had straightened and quickly pulled up his breeches—it was pale and confused and hurt. And Arthur had to slam the money down on the table and turn away because Merlin was just a whore, that was all, and Arthur didn’t need him.

**

“Fuck, yes.” The guard’s hand tightened in Merlin’s hair. “You take it, now. Open that sweet mouth of yours for me.”

Merlin slid his lips around the man’s cock. The stony ground was cold against his knees, his feet—wet from the rain that pooled in muddy depressions along the streets—were freezing, both a disorienting contrast to the heat in his mouth, the guard’s hand pulling him closer, the warm skin under the breeches that Merlin gripped in his fingers. He could hear loud laughter and conversation through the window of the tavern behind them.

The guard grunted, shoved forward, his seed filling Merlin’s mouth. Merlin spat it out onto the ground when the man pulled back, but he didn’t seem to care, just did up his laces and fished out a coin. “I think I’d like that mouth of yours again,” he said, smoothing a large thumb over Merlin’s cheek. “Or maybe I’ll give you a good fuck. Bet you’d like that, wouldn’t you?”

Merlin dropped his eyes and nodded, rubbing his cheek into the man’s hand.

The guard chuckled. “You just come back here two nights from now. Maybe I’ll bring a friend of mine. You could do us both—get paid a little extra.” He didn’t wait for Merlin to reply, just gave his hair one last tug and walked off, adjusting his belt.

Merlin got up and leaned against the wall for a moment before going back into the close warmth of the tavern’s common room. He didn’t bother trying to get the mud off his knees.

His money from Arthur—and Merlin stopped—not Arthur. His money from the prince had run out days ago, but he had managed to convince the innkeeper to let him sleep in the stables in exchange for doing some odd jobs during the day—fetching firewood, scrubbing the floor—occasionally supplemented with a coin or two. The innkeeper wouldn’t feed him, although one of the kitchen girls sometimes slipped him a piece of bread. He did let Merlin sit in the common room in the evenings, however, which was better than hanging around in the cold.

Merlin had taken a few steps inside when he saw Hopkin, the prince’s manservant. A flash of shame and anger and disappointment coursed through Merlin, leaving him shaking in its wake. He started to turn, to escape back out into the darkness, but it was too late, Hopkin had seen him and started over.

“The prince desires your services,” Hopkin said in a low voice when he reached Merlin.

“No,” Merlin said. “I won’t go.” And he would have laughed at the expression on Hopkin’s face if he hadn’t wanted to run, run away to somewhere he never had to hear the prince’s name or catch glimpses of him in the streets or hear the dragon’s mad voice whispering in the night about a future as far away as the stars.

“He is your liege lord,” Hopkin retorted, his voice shocked. “You will do as he commands.”

“I will not.” Merlin sat down, crossed his arms.

“The prince could have you thrown in the dungeon,” Hopkin hissed, leaning down. “Don’t be a fool, boy!”

Merlin didn’t answer, didn’t move, and after a moment, Hopkin turned and left, muttering angrily.

Merlin stayed where he was, staring down at the floor, at the dirt embedded in the cracked boards. He could have left Camelot. There was nothing keeping him here. Nothing except some foolish, impossible hope that what the dragon said might be true. That his magic wasn’t some sickening infection, driving him away from his home, but a force he could use for good. That perhaps Arthur hadn’t been playing with him, hadn’t been making him feel safe and wanted before treating him so callously.

They were silly hopes, Merlin knew. Every day he told himself to give up, to leave. But every time he started towards the gate, he thought of Arthur’s face, that last time. Right before the coins had fallen on the table, and Arthur had turned away from him, he had seen regret and a deep vulnerability on the prince’s face. At least, that was how it seemed in his memory now.

Merlin didn’t hear the approaching footsteps over the loud voices around him, over the serving girl starting to sing a bawdy song in the corner. The hand on his shoulder startled him, and he looked up to see a man in a cloak leaning over him, and then the man spoke, and—Merlin jerked away, and the prince’s hand fell to his side.

“I told you to come to my chambers,” Arthur said, his voice low and furious. Merlin could just make out the angry glimmer of his eyes under the hood.

“And I told your servant that I wouldn’t,” Merlin replied and added bitterly, “Can’t I say no? Or are peasants not allowed to refuse the prince?”

Arthur flinched and suddenly his hand was gripping Merlin’s arm. “Come with me,” he growled and hauled Merlin to his feet, shoved him through the tables and out the back door. A few people glanced up, but they didn’t interfere.

Merlin stumbled down the steps and before he could regain his balance, Arthur was on him again, pushing him up against the wall. “What have you done to me?” Arthur demanded. The hood had fallen back, and Merlin could see the prince’s face in the moonlight. The rough stubble on his cheeks, the tightness around his eyes. “What have you done?” he asked again, shaking Merlin.

“I—I don’t understand,” Merlin gasped, struggling, feeling the magic simmering. “I haven’t done anything!”

You can’t say no!” Arthur’s fingers tightened on his arm, bruising in their desperation. “What about me? Why can’t I—why can’t I stop thinking about you?”

“I don’t know!” Merlin tried to kick, but Arthur slammed his own body against Merlin’s, trapping him. Merlin opened his mouth to shout again, to demand that Arthur let him go. But even as he drew breath, there was the rasp of steel and then a cold blade pressed against his neck. Merlin froze, heart pounding.

“Are you a sorcerer?” Arthur’s breath was hot on Merlin’s mouth; he was so close, leaning in, his eyes wild. “Did you put a spell on me? I’ll kill you—I’ll kill you if you did!”

Merlin couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think past the fear that was drying his mouth, pounding in his ears. “No,” he managed to whisper. “No.” It was all he could say because suddenly the magic was there fighting to get out and hurl Arthur away, and he had to stop it—couldn’t let Arthur know. Not now. Not now.

Arthur stared into his eyes for a struggling eternity, and then his shoulders slumped, and the knife fell, and he stepped away.

Merlin slid to the ground, his legs too shaky to hold him up anymore. And he couldn’t help the tears, the sob that lodged in his throat. He crouched there, not looking up, hunched over his knees. Minutes dragged by, and Merlin still couldn’t look up, although he sensed that the prince was still standing next to him.

And then a warm hand covered his own, and Arthur knelt by his side, whispering, “Shhh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.” His hands fumbled at Merlin’s shoulders, wanting, pulling. “Merlin.”

Hearing his name, knowing that Arthur remembered it—Merlin scrambled forward, clung, held tightly.

“It’s all right. It’s all right,” Arthur murmured, hands soothing, touching. “Merlin. Merlin.” He buried his face in Merlin’s neck. “I need you. Merlin, please. Please, I want—I want you, so much. Please, please come back with me.” He was kissing, fast, pleading kisses that tickled Merlin’s skin. “Of course you can say no. Of course you can. But please, Merlin. Come back with me.” He found Merlin’s fingers, clutched them. “I didn’t mean what I said to you the last time. I’m sorry. I just—just—”

Merlin kissed him, clumsily tried to find his mouth in the dark, ended up half-kissing Arthur’s nose, but then Arthur responded, so fierce and hard that Merlin lost his balance and slipped backwards, and Arthur followed him, pressing down into the muddy ground. Merlin didn’t care, reveling in the feel of Arthur under his hands, his magic slowly calming. Arthur kept kissing him, over and over, until finally he laid his head on Merlin’s chest, gasping.

“I’ll get mud over everything now,” Merlin said quietly.

“You can have a bath. A lovely warm bath,” Arthur told him, nuzzling against Merlin’s cheek.

“I’d like a bath.”

“You’ll come with me, then?” Arthur asked, and Merlin nodded.

Later, when he was lying in Arthur’s arms, the heavy blankets cocooned around them, he whispered Arthur’s name. Just his name, no added title or honorific. Arthur raised an eyebrow and pulled Merlin a little closer. “You’re never going to change, are you?”

“No,” Merlin replied. And he whispered it again, Arthur, and Arthur tilted his head, resting it against Merlin’s.

**

It felt good, to have Merlin with him. That raging desire that had pulled at him, always so restless, settled down, only sparking to life when Merlin was panting under him, just as vocal as Arthur had imagined, telling him to move faster, harder, calling him by his name. And Merlin smiled now, propped up on his elbows in the morning, looking down at Arthur. Or when Arthur woke first, and he moved lazily against Merlin, waiting for him to blink awake and arch into Arthur’s touch, smiling drowsily.

Merlin spent most nights in Arthur’s bed. They would share a late supper together, a few cups of spiced wine. Sometimes Merlin straddled him in his chair, kissing, teasing with his tongue and fingers. He liked Merlin on his hands and knees in front of the fire, too, watching the light play across Merlin’s body while he thrust slowly in, holding Merlin still even when he tried to push back, little sounds of want and frustration escaping.

Arthur often let Merlin sleep late, after first rousing him in the early morning and wrapping Merlin’s hand around his cock or spreading Merlin’s legs open and taking him, loving how Merlin’s arms wrapped helplessly around his shoulders. He would leave money by the bed—plenty of money so that Merlin could buy decent clothes and enough food, and he slowly lost that starved, hunted look.

It still bothered him sometimes, that his desire for Merlin seemed unabated, that it was perhaps even deepening into other emotions that Arthur dared not name. Arthur had decided that the best thing was not to think too much about the situation. He wanted Merlin, and he was the prince. And Merlin wasn’t sleeping in stables or getting on his knees in alleyways anymore. He was still a peasant, but not just anyone could have him now.

“Where are you from?” Arthur asked one evening when they were lying in bed. He lifted one of Merlin’s hands, sucked a finger into his mouth.

“Ealdor,” Merlin replied, running his thumb over Arthur’s bottom lip. “Just a little village.”

“And why did you leave?” Arthur switched to sucking on the delicate skin of Merlin’s wrist, nipping a little.

Merlin’s breath caught. “Oh—I—I didn’t fit in.”

“Good thing you came here then, isn’t it?” Arthur tugged on Merlin’s arm, and Merlin wriggled closer. He reached down to find Merlin’s half-hard prick, started coaxing it into an erection again. “You’d never have met me, otherwise.”

“You’re insufferable, aren’t you?” Merlin said, sounding fond. He pushed encouragingly into Arthur’s hand. “But—” He paused and stopped moving.

“What?” Arthur gave Merlin a little shove, wanting him to move again.

“I just—I meant that I didn’t come here—I didn’t come here to—to—” Merlin faltered, and he stared at Arthur, eyes wide, and Arthur felt that weighing, measuring gaze turned on him again, just like the first time he had brought Merlin to his room. He didn’t like it any better now. Yes, he had accepted the fact that he liked bedding a peasant. That, if he were truly honest with himself, Merlin was far more to him than just a whore. But that didn’t give Merlin the right to expect things from him. Arthur was already treating him far better than any other noble would have. Frowning, he squeezed Merlin’s prick, knowing it would make Merlin’s eyes flutter shut. He pressed Merlin into the pillows, and Merlin seemed to sense his displeasure, for he didn’t speak again except to moan his name when Arthur slid into him.

**

“How long will you be gone?” Merlin asked quietly. He was sitting up in the bed, blankets bunched around his waist, still looking half-asleep.

“Hopefully not too long,” Arthur replied, holding up one of his tunics and looking at it critically. Not too pretentious but clearly hinting at Camelot’s wealth with its elaborate embroidery and fine fabric. “Although the gods know that Bayard will draw out the negotiations as long as possible. You’d think we were asking for his entire kingdom! He knows that outlaws and raiders are worse than ever along our borders, and yet he leaps to the conclusion that we’re going to attack him whenever we try to move more troops into the area.”

“So, a week or so, then?”

Arthur laughed and couldn’t resist going over and ruffling Merlin’s hair. “Hardly. More like a month or two. There will be endless banquets and meetings and just when it seems we’re getting somewhere, Bayard will insist on going back and debating a point we settled weeks earlier.”

“Oh.” Merlin stared down at the blankets.

“You’ll have to be extra good tonight,” Arthur whispered, sliding his hand down Merlin’s chest. “Give me something to remember while I’m away.”

“You’ll remember all right,” Merlin retorted, but he sounded a bit half-hearted about it, and after a moment he added, “Arthur, would you—” He paused.

“Would I what?” Arthur cupped Merlin’s chin, tilted his head for a kiss.

“Nothing,” Merlin said, and he kissed Arthur back. Arthur tossed the tunic to the floor and crawled onto the bed. Packing could wait.

**

Merlin watched Arthur ride out of the gates, a long column of knights and soldiers following. His magic sang mournfully within him, echoing Merlin’s unhappiness. He wanted to be with Arthur. He had almost asked Arthur to bring him along. But the idea was ridiculous. Arthur liked Merlin in his bed, but he couldn’t have a—a whore riding next to him on a formal, diplomatic visit to another kingdom.

The sound of the horses’ hooves faded away, and the usual sounds of Camelot returned—squeaking carts, people talking, guards rattling by in their armor. Turning away from the gate, Merlin walked slowly over to a sunny patch by the wall and sat down. He couldn’t go back to Arthur’s chambers, which had become almost like a home to him these past few weeks. He’d just have to hope that the money Arthur had given him, which he had tried to save, would last until Arthur returned. He didn’t want to go back to selling himself.

A bitter smile twisted his mouth. In truth, he had never stopped whoring himself out. Maybe Arthur did treat him more like a lover, but that didn’t change the fact that he paid Merlin and could abandon him at any time. Like he just did.

Merlin knew that Arthur didn’t mean it that way. He had kissed Merlin so gently that morning, whispered how much he would miss him. But would he? Or would he forget all about him? And even if he didn’t—Merlin sighed, rubbing his hands over his face. He had tried to tell Arthur—tried to tell him that he hadn’t come to Camelot intending to become a whore. That he didn’t want to keep sleeping with Arthur for money. It had gone so far beyond that for Merlin. He was becoming tied to the prince—body, mind, and soul. But he had been afraid that Arthur would get angry, would misunderstand, would think that Merlin didn’t want to be with him.

And it was so hard to read Arthur. Merlin thought his feelings ran deeper as well, but perhaps they didn’t. Maybe eventually Arthur’s infatuation with him would end, and he would send Merlin away as easily as he had summoned him to his side.

**
The weeks dragged by, filled with fretful hours that Merlin spent wandering around Camelot, often finding himself just standing by the gate, staring out at the road that Arthur had disappeared down. Visions appeared in his mind, too—Arthur sitting at a banquet table in a brightly-lit hall, Arthur sleeping in an unfamiliar bed, a tall window and Arthur standing in front of it, a frown creasing his face. Merlin didn’t know if they were real or simply the product of his own fantasies, the longing and love and trepidation he felt whenever he thought of the prince.

He went down to see the dragon again, but the beast only rumbled something about different paths all leading to the same end, and then it stared at Merlin, its yellow eyes glowing slits in the darkness. The fetid air of the cavern choked him, and he finally fled back up the tunnel, the dragon’s heavy silence chasing his heels.

One month. Two. Eventually he couldn’t buy food again, had to find shelter curled up in doorways. Eventually he followed a guard into an alleyway, licked and sucked as the man murmured how good it felt, how lovely he was—and Merlin could hear the words in Arthur’s voice, lonely echoes that somehow drowned out everything else.

**

The first one that evening was a wine merchant, in town on business. Merlin could feel his gaze from across the room, where he was crouched in a corner. He went over, rested his fingers lightly on the man’s chair, asked if perhaps he was looking for a bit of company.

The merchant took him upstairs to his room, shut the door behind them. He wanted to hold Merlin at first.

“What’s your name?” he asked, reaching down to fondle Merlin’s cock.

“Allan,” Merlin said, because his name belonged to Arthur.

The merchant wanted Merlin on top, riding him. He stretched out on the bed and watched as Merlin worked himself open before easing down.

“Move, now,” the man gasped. “Fuck yourself hard. Tell me how good that feels.”

Merlin lifted up, back down onto the thick cock, moaning how much he wanted it. The merchant kept Merlin there after he came, one hand tight on his hip, the other stroking Merlin’s prick until he spurted onto the man’s stomach.

“You lick that up, Allan,” the merchant said. “I know you’re hungry for it.”

The second one found Merlin outside when he was leaving the tavern. Merlin could tell he was drunk. He was angry, too, but Merlin didn’t realize that until it was too late. A tool shed, with the lock rusted off, and the man urged him inside. He slammed his fist into Merlin’s face the second the door swung shut.

He wasn’t angry at Merlin—Merlin was just a convenient target, someone the man could take out his anger on without having to worry about any consequences. Merlin tried to get past him, but the man grabbed him, shoved him against the rough wall, and Merlin felt a sharp sting and blood trickling down his scalp.

His magic roared within him, and Merlin struggled desperately with it, tried to think past the pain and blind instinct. This pain was nothing—not compared to flames licking over his skin or a rope tightening around his neck. The man hurled him onto the ground, one hand gripping Merlin’s tunic, choking him. Merlin wriggled, trying to get away, and his magic rose up, ready to lash out.

But before he could let it go, flinging the man aside, knowing he would hear the cry of “sorcerer!” ringing into the night—one of the visions consumed him. A vision of Arthur standing in front of him, holding a sword aloft in the sun, water dripping down the blade, a crown on his head. Merlin knew this wasn’t the present, but the future. Every detail was so strong. He felt he could reach out and touch Arthur, feel the cool rings of his chainmail. He could smell water and mud. He could hear wind rushing through grass and the flutter of a bird’s wings.

Time slowed in the vision, each second oozing honey-slow, each beat of his heart ponderous in his chest. He couldn’t move, couldn’t speak. Distantly he was aware of pain, knew the man’s fists were battering at him. But the vision held, each drop of water gliding down the blade to fall for an eternal moment into the water below. He wished he could see Arthur’s face.

And then it ended, and he was shivering on the ground, feeling sick, tears blurring his vision. The man stood up, jerking at his cock, coming over Merlin’s face. He kicked him in the ribs, again when Merlin tried to curl into a ball. He spat on Merlin and then left.

**

When the walls of Camelot appeared in the distance, Arthur felt the gnawing unease and unhappiness that had shadowed him ever since he left fading slightly. Almost three months trying to hold his temper with Bayard, three months of fighting the urge to send someone back to fetch Merlin. To hell with the fact that Merlin was a whore, that Arthur would be ridiculed in court, that his father would probably have Merlin hanged or thrown in prison if he ever found out about Arthur’s feelings towards such a common peasant. He never did send for Merlin, of course, but he had wanted to every day.

It was more than a physical desire, although that was part of it, and Arthur often spent the nights staring into the darkness, missing Merlin’s warmth by his side. It just felt wrong not to have Merlin with him. He kept thinking about what Merlin would say and how he would understand what Arthur was trying to do. Bayard didn’t give a damn about the villages on the border, most of them too poor to pay their taxes year after year, always a problem, never worth the effort expended to protect them. Arthur argued, cajoled, shouted that they couldn’t simply abandon these people to marauders and outlaws and all the while Bayard looked at him with a blank stare and returned to the subject of taxes and money and profits.

Arthur had finally managed to wrangle a grudging agreement from Bayard that Camelot could send more troops to the borders. And as soon as the ink was dry, Arthur had packed and ridden for home.

He had to meet with his father first, of course. But then he went to his chambers, pacing impatiently while Merlin was found and summoned. The door opened, and Arthur turned, eager, and then stopped, a rush of anger clouding his eyes, only the livid bruise spreading across Merlin’s cheek, the dried blood matted in his hair, the way he held himself gingerly, breaths shallow and halting, staying clear and vivid.

Merlin.” Quick steps took him to Merlin’s side, but he stopped, worried Merlin would shy away if he tried to touch him. “Who did this to you?” he demanded.

Merlin’s eyes stayed on the floor. “I don’t know,” he finally mumbled, his swollen jaw thickening the words. Slowly, he put his hand on Arthur’s arm and shuffled a little closer. “I’m glad you’re back.”

The anger drained out, replaced by a burning shame. All his talk about protecting his people—and he had left Merlin here, never even thinking about what would happen to him, never seeing past his own desires to what Merlin needed, wanted, deserved from him. From his prince.

He had stayed silent, unmoving while facing this bitter truth, and Merlin let his hand drop, started to turn away. “I understand if you don’t want me now,” he said quietly, resigned, a long memory of disappointments and sorrows and hurt lying exposed, naked in his words, and Arthur couldn’t understand how he had never heard it before. How he had been so deaf and blind to this person even as he had allowed Merlin into his heart.

Arthur stopped him, gently grabbing Merlin’s wrist. Merlin stilled, and Arthur pressed a soft kiss to the side of his mouth. “I’m taking you to the court physician,” Arthur said, and a little of the sadness left Merlin’s eyes.

Gaius immediately sat Merlin down and began cleaning the wound in his scalp. He didn’t ask how it had happened, just where Merlin hurt. He kept talking as he worked, trying to soothe Merlin, who winced from the pain and kept flinching away before he managed to catch himself and hold still to let Gaius help him.

“The cut isn’t too deep,” Gaius said, “and I don’t think you’ll need stitches. I’m going to put some salve on that bruise that should help with the swelling.”

He opened a jar and a sweet, pungent scent filtered into the room. Arthur smelled it and thought of his last tournament, when the cheering had died away, and he had struggled out of his armor, sweaty and tired, and Gaius had smeared the stuff onto his bruised chest before he put on a clean tunic and went to join the feast. Merlin smelled it and blinked back tears.

“My mother used to rub that on my knees when I would fall and scrape them,” he said quietly.

“In Ealdor?” Arthur asked, remembering what Merlin had told him.

“Yes,” Merlin replied. He was staring down at his hands, clenched in his lap. “In Ealdor.”

“I knew a woman who lived there,” Gaius said, holding Merlin’s head still while he applied the salve. “Hunith was her name.”

“But that’s my mother!” Merlin exclaimed, pulling away to stare at Gaius. “How did you know her?”

Gaius paused, and when he looked at Merlin again, Arthur thought his gaze was sharper, considering. “I was just passing through, and she kindly let me spend the night in her home,” he said, cleaning his hands on a rag.

“Oh.” Merlin sighed.

“Now take off your tunic. I can see by the way you’re holding yourself that you have some bruised ribs.”

Gaius went on tending Merlin, and Arthur watched. Merlin kept glancing at him, as though he expected Arthur to get up and leave, to disappear out of his life once more. Arthur finally reached over and took his hand, rubbing his thumb over Merlin’s knuckles. Gaius noticed, but didn’t say anything.

Merlin struggled back into his tunic after Gaius had bandaged his ribs. “Thank you,” he said. “I—I don’t have any money—”

Gaius waved his hand. “No matter, my boy. I am glad I can help you after your mother showed me so much kindness. In fact, if you need a place to stay while you are in Camelot, I would be happy to let you sleep here.”

“I—” Merlin looked at Arthur.

It was on the tip of his tongue to tell Gaius that Merlin already had somewhere to sleep, but then he stopped. He couldn’t ask Merlin to keep doing that. It could never last, and here was a chance for Merlin—a chance to have someone to look after him, someone sure to be better at it than Arthur had been. “You should stay here,” he told Merlin and squeezed his hand.

“But—”

“There’s a spare room up those stairs,” Gaius said. “A bit cramped, but I can move some of the books out of there, make some more space. Why don’t you look at it?”

Merlin hesitated, and then slowly walked up the stairs. Arthur followed him. The room was small, but there was a window and a low bed. “You should stay,” Arthur repeated.

“If I stay—will I ever see you?” Merlin asked softly, his back to Arthur. “I—I missed you, when you were gone.”

“Of course you’ll see me—I do live here, you know,” Arthur replied, but he let his feet wander over to Merlin, let his arm wrap around Merlin’s shoulders.

When he left, Gaius was ladling out a large bowl of stew for Merlin, telling him that he needed errands run, medicines delivered—that he hoped Merlin wouldn’t mind assisting him for a few days. Merlin smiled, and Arthur felt something ease within him. His chambers seemed very empty when he returned, though, and he fell asleep imagining that Merlin was there, whispering his name.

**

He went to visit Merlin the next day and found him carefully measuring out herbs under Gaius’s watchful eye. He wanted to press his nose to the smooth angle of skin between Merlin’s neck and shoulder, smell the soap and salve, work his way up to Merlin’s lips and kiss, reacquaint himself with how Merlin tasted. But he wouldn’t just take from Merlin again, wouldn’t lose himself in the pleasure of Merlin’s body and ignore everything else. So he leaned against the table and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Are you sure it’s a good idea, Gaius, letting Merlin prepare medicines?” he inquired, arching an eyebrow.

Merlin gave him an aggravated glance. “I can count, you know. I’m not going to poison anyone.”

“Just so I’m not the one taking them,” Arthur drawled.

When Gaius moved over to the hearth to stir a pot of something that smelled truly awful, Merlin came over to him. “You came back,” he said softly. “I wasn’t sure you would.”

Arthur allowed himself the torture of touching Merlin’s shoulder, lingering, wanting to pull him closer. “Well, I had to make sure you weren’t annoying Gaius. I know how irritating you can be, remember?”

Merlin’s mouth tilted into a smile. He reached up and put his own hand over Arthur’s where it rested on his shoulder. “Oh, I remember.”

Gaius cleared his throat, and Merlin pulled back, returned to his task. Arthur watched awhile longer, still feeling stirrings of anger whenever he looked at the yellowing bruise on Merlin’s face, still feeling guilt dragging at his heart that he had allowed it to happen, still feeling a harsh yearning to have Merlin next to him, with him, his, his for always.

It was when Hopkin was helping him into his coat with a diffident air that the solution occurred to Arthur. Before, he might have simply dismissed the man with a few curt words. Now, he went and talked to the steward, talked to Hopkin, secured him a place with another noble whose servant was leaving to marry. And if Hopkin’s eyes flickered when Merlin’s name was mentioned, he was loyal enough not to say anything.

Arthur found Merlin struggling up the stairs to Gaius’s chambers with a bucketful of water, trying not to spill any. He paused when he saw Arthur and set the bucket down. “In this part of the castle a lot today, aren’t you?”

Arthur didn’t reply, just snatched up the bucket and herded Merlin the rest of the way up, into Gaius’s room that smelled of clean linen and strange concoctions that tickled Arthur’s nose. “You’ll be happy to know that there are ten fewer stairs on the way to my chambers,” he said, a knowledge born of racing over the worn stones as a child, chasing Morgana, eluding his nurse, dashing up to the topmost tower to look out over the thatched roofs and green fields and feel an aching pride in the knowledge that it was his to protect.

“Why would I care how many stairs there are?” Merlin asked, sitting down on a chair. One of his hands reached up to cradle his ribs.

“You’ll care when you’re hauling up water for my bath,” Arthur told him in lieu of holding him and trying to soothe away every pain, erase even the memory of it from Merlin’s bones.

Merlin laughed. “And why would I be doing that?”

“Because that’s what a manservant does,” Arthur replied.

Merlin still looked confused.

“Hopkin is no longer my manservant,” Arthur explained. “You are.” It occurred to him then, too late, that he should have asked Merlin if he wanted to do this. He had been so caught up in the knowledge that Merlin would be there, that he wouldn’t have to hide or be ashamed, that he could have Merlin’s fingers smoothing out the wrinkles in his tunic, that he could wake to Merlin drawing aside the curtains, the sun catching his eyes and promising another day that he would hear Merlin’s voice, calling him by his name. Arthur. Not Morgana’s teasing, challenging tone or his father’s iron-hard intonation that demanded obedience, but a softer, gentler sound that he thought must be closer to what his mother would have sounded like, if she had lived. A sound that promised understanding and love and loyalty—everything that Arthur would never have imagined finding in the voice of that boy he had met in the rain.

“You want me to—to pour your wine and carry your shield and—and be your servant?” Merlin stammered, and Arthur couldn’t tell, couldn’t tell if he was upset or happy.

“Yes,” Arthur said, wanting Merlin to understand but unable to speak plainly. Up until now, Camelot had taken his oaths, his promises, his dedication. He had never given his heart to another person. And he was afraid of the quiet urge that was growing stronger daily—the desire that wanted to protect and love Merlin above all other things—because he knew it was a dangerous desire for a prince, for a future king who must always remember his duty to his kingdom. But he didn’t know how to end the desire, and the selfish part of him did not want to.

A strange, secret smile was hovering around Merlin’s mouth. “My destiny,” he whispered in a tone that Arthur couldn’t interpret—ironic, but also hopeful, perhaps?

It wasn’t anger, whatever it was, and so Arthur said, “I’ll expect you to attend me this evening,” and waited just long enough to see the fond smile in Merlin’s eyes even as his mouth grimaced and muttered something about arrogant princes before turning and clattering back down the stairs, ordering his horse saddled and riding, riding fast over the fields so that he didn’t think about the coming night and how he must keep from pressuring Merlin, keep from coaxing him back into his bed, unless—unless Merlin desired it as well.

**

Merlin was terrible at his duties, of course. Clumsy, talking when any other servant would have maintained a detached silence, casually tossing Arthur’s finest tunic onto the floor like it was a rag. Arthur snapped at him a few times and could already envision the disaster that Merlin was going to be when he tried to put on Arthur’s armor, but for the most part it was good—good to have Merlin there.

And when Merlin was helping him undress, and his fingers lingered on Arthur’s skin, and he pressed a kiss to Arthur’s jaw, Arthur sighed and leaned back, letting Merlin catch him, hold him against his chest. “This doesn’t have to be a part of it, anymore,” Arthur murmured.

“And if I want it to be?” Merlin whispered back.

“Then yes.”

Merlin was still sore, still healing, and Arthur was gentle, caressing, kissing. Sometimes Merlin tensed, his breathing quickening, and Arthur would pause, kiss the side of his mouth until he nodded, urged Arthur to continue. He let Merlin roll him over, let Merlin grind their hips together, reach down with eager, fumbling fingers, stroking until they both came. Then he held Merlin tightly. “I never want anyone else to touch you again,” he whispered, not caring how greedy the words sounded, there in the dark with Merlin against him.

**

It wasn’t always easy. Merlin challenged him, pushed him, tested him in a thousand ways, often just by simply speaking his mind, and Arthur had to fight down his instinctive response, to say that Merlin was a peasant, that he was the crown prince, that Merlin had no business voicing an opinion. And then the tournament, and Valiant giving him a sidelong glance as he bowed before the king, and Merlin fumbling with his shield when Arthur’s nerves were taught, ready to break with a twang like the string of a lute, coiling into an off-key shudder. Merlin’s ridiculous claims about Valiant using magic, swearing that he was telling the truth…and Arthur couldn’t help losing his temper, shouting at Merlin to get out, not with his father actually entertaining the idea that Arthur might be a coward.

Waking up that morning, with the sun too bright on the field, the glaring silence of his father’s throne, the unfamiliar fingers on his armor—Arthur felt off-balance, shaky. He scanned the crowd, looking for Merlin, and he wasn’t there. Just his father, looking grim, and Valiant, a victorious smirk already on his face. He felt so alone, and it made him angry, angry that Merlin had abandoned him, even when he knew that wasn’t true.

But then the snakes appeared, and Valiant slid to the ground, unmoving, and he saw Merlin, smiling, cheering, and the world righted itself, and he felt steady again.

**

Merlin rubbed his thumb over the heavy clasp that locked in the pages full of spells and incantations. He thought again of his magic flowing out, summoning the snakes, of Arthur, whole and unharmed. Arthur had even managed a bit of an apology at the feast, and he had kissed his way over Merlin’s body later in the evening, each press of his lips silently asking forgiveness.

“That was better than you buying me a drink,” Merlin had murmured, after Arthur had taken him, thrusting steadily until Merlin couldn’t think past the pleasure.

Arthur had laughed and ruffled his hair.

Merlin opened the book, his magic hovering eagerly as he skimmed over the spells. A moment of blessed stupidity had revealed his magic to Gaius, but Merlin knew he couldn’t tell Arthur yet. Sometimes, when he was lying in bed, watching Arthur sleep, the seconds slowed, and Arthur’s face changed, becoming older, tired and yet peaceful—the face of a king. And then time returned in a rush, revealing an Arthur who was still learning, still struggling with the uncertainty of new ideas. His Arthur who could be aggravatingly stubborn and arrogant, but who also trusted and loved him, even though Merlin was just a peasant from some insignificant village, a boy who had been used by others before coming to Arthur’s bed, a servant who dared to tell Arthur when he thought he was being an idiot.

Arthur saw past that, and Merlin loved him for it.

**

“Is it so unreasonable for a king to expect his subjects to obey him?” Katrina sneered, her voice jarring against Arthur, shaking loose words that he could never say to a lady, to his father’s wife.

“They’ll starve,” he said instead, looking at his father, unable to understand why Uther was doing this.

“Nonsense,” Uther said. “We’ve grown too soft. Remember, these are your subjects, not your friends.”

“Why can’t they be both?” Arthur demanded.

“Because we rule the people, not the other way around,” his father snapped.

“I think you’re wrong.” He had to say it, couldn’t stay silent, even though his father’s contempt seared against him, and he could feel Katrina’s gloating satisfaction oozing into the room.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I said you’re wrong.” His voice wavered, and he grabbed onto a thought—Merlin, looking up at him as he eased on Arthur’s boots, still shirtless, the morning light glancing across his pale skin. How Merlin laughed and tilted his head for a kiss, smiling. How he had once thought that Merlin had no right to expect things from him, just because he was a peasant. “Without the people there is no Camelot. We’re as much their servant as they are ours.”

“You allow him to address you in this manner?” Katrina queried, false disbelief coating her words.

“I do not.” His father’s eyes caught him. “And it will not be tolerated. You will take your men out into the town and go to every house collecting the payments I demand.”

“I will not.”

“Get out of my sight,” Uther snarled, and already Katrina was reaching for him as Arthur turned away.

He wouldn’t challenge his father, not now. But he wasn’t going to back down, either.

He returned to his empty chambers, trying not to worry about Merlin, telling himself that Merlin would be all right, that he would see him again. And when he did, and when Merlin looked at him with that measuring gaze that still crossed his face sometimes, that gaze that searched along the boundaries of Arthur’s soul, wondering if Arthur was truly a prince, truly a king—this time, Merlin would find what he was looking for.

 

~Fin~