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Feel Your Pain

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Feel Your Pain

The first hit of the last match is still a shock, though Merlin is braced for it, teeth gritted and fists clenched at his sides, muscles already so sore he’ll be feeling the strain for a week. The opponent’s sword strikes up against Arthur’s, the steel clanging and humming with a vibration strong enough to make Merlin gasp. He forces his eyes wide open and wills his next inhalation to be slow and steady in case Arthur happens to look his way.

Arthur cannot know what’s happening, and Merlin has to concentrate if he’s going to keep this from him. Arthur was once absurdly blind to his surroundings, but since the war and the subsequent patrols for looters and lingering rebels, Arthur’s sense of paranoia is honed sharp.

Not that it’s a bad thing, usually, because Merlin doesn’t often cast within the citadel walls now. He doesn’t want to force Arthur’s hand. Uther is still alive, though Arthur is King in all but name and crown and throne now, but they’ve all been so terribly betrayed, and Morgana had turned to dark magic to gain the upper hand.

Merlin’s not sure he didn’t miss his chance to sway Arthur’s opinion of sorcery. He doesn’t usually risk casting anything anywhere near Arthur and Arthur accidentally finding out.

Today is an exception, though, and Merlin had had no qualms about casting this spell, not even knowing full-well how voraciously Arthur would object to the premise of not feeling an opponent’s strikes to the fullest.

But Merlin hadn’t had much of a choice, had he?

Despite how much he’s matured over their years together, Arthur is still as thick as the rest of the knights when it comes to pride and physical competition. And so, when the proposal was laid out amongst the empty platters and emptier goblets at the welcoming feast last evening, Arthur had jumped at the chance to battle the visiting nobles from the conquered lands of Cenred’s kingdom.

There were only a handful of fighting-fit men left after Cenred and Morgause had scoured the land to create their undead army and then Arthur and his knights had scoured it again with their patrols. Of course the few who hadn’t gotten to fight wanted their chance to best the Prince who had taken their victory and King, tyrant though Cenred had been.

Arthur had eagerly agreed to the informal challenge, had set the very next day aside from court for it, naturally, since pausing to think never got a man anywhere but behind schedule, according to the Pendragon code of life.

Arthur is holding his own in the bout well enough, but thanks to Merlin’s spell, he isn’t feeling the strikes or strain as keenly as Merlin does. The pain has to go somewhere into the universe, and Merlin supposes the safest place is within himself, no matter how difficult it is to take. There he can contain the energy and let it follow its natural course instead of trying to twist it into the ground or drown it in a lake.

The spell is taking a goodly portion of the brunt of Arthur’s injuries, which was the goal, but it leaves Arthur with enough pain that he might not notice the spell at all, something Merlin is counting on.

Arthur would never agree to fight in such a manor - he would have found it appalling and deemed it cheating, Merlin knows, but Arthur is still nursing strained muscles and a cut across his ribs so deep Gaius had had to take string and needle to it and sew him back together like a doll. That had been less than a fortnight ago. Not for the first time in their history, Merlin hadn’t been able to heal him.

He certainly isn’t going to risk Arthur ripping open the sewing or tearing something on the inside that can’t be sewn back together.

With luck, Merlin will have tomorrow’s feasting day off to soak away Arthur’s hard-won aches and pains. Not that he truly believes Arthur will let him off his duties, but he can hope.

He hopes a little harder as the visiting noble throws his weight behind a lunge and takes Arthur off his feet entirely. Merlin coughs out as Arthur hits the ground on the flat of his back and twists, wrenching his spine as he leaps to his feet again. Merlin’s own shoulders and back scream in protest, arching with spasms that make it impossible to catch his breath.

This is the last challenger, thank God, or Merlin might not be able to continue. He wills Arthur to quit giving up hits, to grow impatient and end the match quickly.

Merlin jumps and jerks away as Gaius lays a hand on his shoulder. With a smile plastered quickly on his face, he steps back to Gaius, trying to look sheepish. “You startled me.”

Merlin bites his lips and turns his face away, wincing as Arthur’s opponent catches Arthur on the bicep with the edge of his blade. It doesn’t feel right – it isn’t right.

Merlin looks sharply up, eyes narrowing as he instantly slows time. The first thing he sees is the narrow slit in Arthur’s chainmail, just one row of links have been split apart. He takes a closer look at the sword. It swings through the air in slow-motion and Merlin can see the glint along the edge, the barest hint of the thin, sharp line that tells him Arthur is in more danger than Merlin had guessed.

And Merlin is, too.

He lets time slip and clasps a hand over his arm. That blow would have sliced Arthur’s arm open had it not been for the Arthur’s chainmail and the splitting of the severity of Arthur’s injuries.

The man is using live steel, and Arthur likely won’t even realize it because of Merlin’s spell.

Trying desperately to think of a way to stop the match that won’t disgrace Arthur, Merlin moves to lean against the fence surrounding the tournament grounds.

“What have you done now?” Gaius accuses, eyebrow raised and voice lowered to a whisper. “Tell me you aren’t using magic to help Arthur win.”

“No, no, of course not!” Merlin’s ill-acted affront is met with Gaius’ doubtful look and Merlin sighs heavily, sucking a breath in through his teeth as Arthur’s shield fails to absorb a blow and the force of it rings through the bones of Merlin’s arm instead. He clutches it to his body, cradling it gently as he glares at the field where Arthur is fighting to regain the upper hand.

“He never should have accepted... in his state...” he trails off, glaring at Gaius’ reproachful look, the pain and panic making him speak without restraint. “Did you want to re-stitch his leg, then? Or sharpen your knives? Because without this,” Merlin raises his seemingly-uninjured arm in front of Gaius to indicate the spell, “he’d be laid out on your worktable right now.”

“As if I want either of you there. Merlin, if he finds out...” Gaius says warningly, as if Merlin hasn’t considered that. Doesn’t always consider how Arthur will react when he does find out.

“He can teach Cenred’s nobles how to properly roast a sorcerer,” Merlin says lightly, though he grins past the horrid truth of the statement. Arthur mightn’t burn him, but Uther wouldn’t think twice about and the prince still consults with the king on every important matter.

A great barrel of a hit connects with Arthur’s helm and Merlin’s head snaps around. There is a long blistering moment while everything is blasted with light and silence and then Merlin’s cheek blooms white-hot with pain. He bends double, hands resting on his knees, Gaius’ arm hooking under his to steady him. He sways and leans heavily against Gaius, who tightens his bony fingers around Merlin’s forearm and urges him away from the arena.

“It will work just as well with you lying down. No need to add a cranium fracture to the list,” he says, tugging hard on Merlin’s injured arm as Merlin resists and turns back just in time to see Arthur take a hit to the chest. All the wind rushes from Merlin’s lungs and he stops fighting Gaius’ pulling to lean against the stone wall of the path.

“You there!” Gaius calls out to a great blur a little ways off. It Sir Percival, Merlin thinks, but his vision is fuzzy and his ears ringing with the volume of the crowd and Gaius and the clang of blades.

“He’s using live steel,” Merlin hisses. “Send Percival to Arthur – I don’t need him. I’m not even injured,” he rasps out, shaking his head and coughing.

“Your injuries are as real as they would be on anyone else,” Gaius argues, staring Merlin down until Merlin nods, once, hand covering his eyes as he tries to catch his breath and not throw up.

“Arthur needs to know now, Gaius.” Pushing off the wall, Merlin takes two steps, waving Percival back the way he’d come. “I’m fine. Go tell Arthur the blade isn’t dulled,” he manages to say, just before his thigh is sliced neatly down the side and blood begins to seep out, quickly soaking through his breeches. It feels as though he is flayed open to the knee. His first thought is that Arthur’s own leg must also be bleeding.

Percival’s arm comes around Merlin’s waist as he droops, reaching for the wall again. He knows it’s too much, knows he can’t fight the blackness that fuzzes everything around the edges and grows like an ink stain across his vision. “Go to Arthur. I’m all right.” He tries to take a step and ends up on his knees.

“Apparently,” Gaius says, calling out to someone else, the whole world tilting sideways as Merlin is lifted, Percival’s arms tucked under his shoulders and legs as if he were a child.

“Was he attacked?” Merlin hears through the thick fog in his head. “An accident? What was he doing - juggling in the armoury?”

Even through the haze Merlin knows it’s Gwaine. The man takes everything with a smile and a joke.

“Arthur,” Merlin whispers, but Gwaine is already sprinting away, sword draw and hair flying behind him as he goes. Not everything with a smile and a joke, then.

Arthur’s boot-heels clack against the flagstones as he paces, the noise slipping into Merlin’s dizzy half-wakefulness and yanking him back to the land of the living.

He moans, but doesn’t open his eyes. The light seems too bright as it is with them still closed.

“He’s a quick healer, always has been,” Gaius says, and Merlin feels the man’s cold fingers at his wrist.

“Leave us,” Arthur orders as Gaius moves away again, and Merlin flinches.

He listens to Gaius packing his bag of supplies, bottles tinkling together. He considers speaking, but doesn’t know what to say, so he remains silent and listens to Gaius’ final instructions to Arthur, then the quiet shuffle of his mentor’s slippers across the room and out of the door, which Arthur follows him to and latches behind him.

“I know you’re awake.”

“Only just.” Merlin slits open his eyes and shies away from the light that streams in through the tall windows of Arthur’s room. And why is he here instead of in the tower, anyway? “I should go with Gaius.”

As he sits up and swings his legs gingerly off the side of the bed, careful not to bump his angry cut, Arthur rushes to his side and lays an arresting hand on Merlin’s shoulder.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” The hand is rough with calluses and feels gorgeous against his skin, his nerves jumping excitedly beneath the touch. “You’ll stay put if I have to tie you.”

“I’m bleeding all over your sheets. All I need is for you to give me a hand up the stairs. I can manage the rest of the way.” He thinks if he attempts a single step, he’ll puddle to the floor, but he means what he says nonetheless. He shouldn’t be in Arthur’s bed.

“And get back down the stairs how? When? No. You’re much more convenient to me here,” Arthur says, shaking his shoulder a little so Merlin looks up at him, face screwing up in pain he cannot begin to hide. “But for now, rest. We can argue about it when you wake.”

Merlin lets himself be pushed back, closing his eyes and sighing as he sinks into the soft, warm mattress. He almost doesn’t feel the sore aching stretch of Arthur’s back as Arthur reaches to draw the covers up beneath Merlin’s chin.

When he wakes, it is to the scrape of metal on stone, the slosh of water in buckets and the scuff of what sounds like dozens of pairs of boots on the floor. The water pours, the boots scuff again, over and over in an endless parade and Merlin is nearly asleep again, drifting on the soft sounds that echo against Arthur’s tall ceiling.

Every muscle in his body feels as though it’s been pulled taut and snapped free from its proper place. He feels boneless and hard as stone at once, his muscles lax when he can manage not to tense them, but coiled and tight the second he forgets and moves. He takes a deep breath and nearly whimpers at the pain in his neck, chest and back.

“Today won’t be the worst of it,” Arthur says, coming over and sitting casually on Merlin’s side of the bed, his weight tilting the mattress so Merlin’s body tenses. “Tomorrow will be hell, the day after little better.”

Merlin lets himself whimper then, all pretence of hiding the pain forgotten beneath the onslaught of ache. “Very encouraging speech, Sire. Anything else that might not actually make me want to throw myself on a pyre straight away?”

“Just Gaius’ potion,” he says, uncorking the vial that sat on the bedside cabinet and holding it to Merlin’s lips, tilting it up so Merlin has no choice but to swallow. “Oh, and that.” Arthur raises his eyebrows and pointedly looks across the room to the steaming bath, full to three-quarters deep and, judging by the mint-laced scent to the air, dosed with a healthy measure of Gaius’ heal-all they can never keep the knights supplied with enough of.

“I don’t think I can-” Merlin begins, imagining the bends and stretches it will take to get himself over the side of the tub and seated. He’s sure his arms won’t hold him. He may drown. “Can’t I just go back to the tower instead? I can make it and I’ll manage to get down again when you need me.”

Shaking his head, Arthur stands and peels back the covers, gives Merlin a frown that silences his protests and spreads an open palm over Merlin’s leg. At least it isn’t Merlin’s wounded, bandaged thigh on which Arthur is touching him with his warm, rough palm.

It’s just his other thigh, his bare thigh. And his bare shoulder.

Merlin slides his hand surreptitiously to his lap as Arthur folds the covers all the way to the foot of the bed. The cooler air hits his skin and it feels wonderful, and his shyness is unfounded. He’s wearing cotton trews that are pushed and rolled ridiculously high up his thighs like very short leggings with thick cuffs, but they cover the important bits and leave his wound undisturbed, which his normal breeches would not have done.

His leg twitches beneath Arthur’s gently stroking fingertips.

The smallclothes aren’t Merlin’s and he doesn’t particularly care whose smallclothes they are, not when the alternative is his naked flesh, but he does spend a moment of panicked worry over who stripped him down, shimmied these onto him and rolled them up so high as he slept.

He doesn’t want to hope it was Gaius, but he’s the safest choice Merlin can come up with. The thought of Arthur touching him so intimately, especially while he was in such a vulnerable and embarrassing state, makes his heart jump into his throat and stick there. “Why don’t you go first? I’ll just get the water all... mucked up.”

“Oh, that’s not for you! Well, not directly, anyhow.” Arthur runs his fingers through his hair and grins in such a blatant, teasing, what-else-did-you-expect kind of way that Merlin has to stifle a laugh, his mouth twisting until he has to actually bite his lips to keep from smiling.

Even that hurts, since one of them is split.

Arthur’s staring at his mouth, noticing the cut, his free hand coming up in an abortive gesture as though he’s reaching for Merlin’s stinging lip but, at the last second, catches himself doing it. The hand drops away and Arthur smirks. “If it hurts to laugh, you might want to avert your eyes until I’m in the tub, eh?”

“I’ve never laughed at you before, have I?” The rush of blood to Merlin’s cheeks does nothing to help his aching head, and he looks away, picking at a loose thread on Arthur’s soft sheet. “I really should go, anyway. Gaius will need me to help tend the wounded.”

“He might if there were any,” Arthur says, and Merlin hears the soft slide of fabric against his skin, feels the stretch and burn as Arthur strips his tunic off over his head and then feels a twinge at his ankle as Arthur steps out of his breeches.

“Why aren’t there any? You didn’t let them get away!” How could he have, though? The man he’d been fighting was using a sharpened blade, a clear violation of the terms of the match and a threat to the prince’s life. There was no way Arthur would let him go free.

“I sent the knights after them. They didn’t make it out of the citadel.”

Arthur’s shirt hits the floor as usual and Merlin turns his head further away, gasping as Arthur’s entire tall, fit form is suddenly front and centre as Merlin sees it in the dressing mirror on the side of the room he faces. The tanned skin hides their shared bruises better than Merlin’s pale flesh does.

Merlin props himself up, shoving pillows behind his back, and reaches down to unwind the loose gauze dressing from his wound. He wants to see how bad it is, to compare how deep his cut is to Arthur’s. When he gets to the last layer, it’s soaked with blood that’s crusted and sticking the gauze to the wound. If he pulls it off, the cut will reopen, no doubt.

He gasps and his entire body jerks clear off the bed when Arthur’s hands cover his own, taking them away from Merlin’s leg and holding them tightly between Arthur’s. “You don’t want to do that. Gaius told me how to change it, which I will do – properly. Let me clean my hands.” Thumbs rubbing firmly along his wrists, Arthur moves Merlin’s hands to rest on the bed and squeezes them as if to say “keep them there, or else.”

“I think I know by now how to change a wound dressing,” Merlin says, though he truly had been thinking about pulling up a corner of the gauze to take a closer look.

“Of course you do,” Arthur placates, and Merlin licks his sore lip and smiles as much as he dares.

“Bring the basin? I feel disgusting and the longer I lie here, the dirtier your sheets get.” Merlin reaches for the pile of used gauze strips and drops them over the side of the bed, then wriggles his toes to hook the sheet. If he can just get a bit of it over his foot, he can bend his knee and pull it up over his lap and at least have that much dignity restored.

Arthur pauses with one hand again on Merlin’s good thigh. He watches, smirking as Merlin tries to catch up the sheet, then sighs and reaches for it himself. “Oh, let me. You can’t be cold – it’s sweltering in here with this tub.”

“No-” Merlin chokes out as Arthur’s hand cups his cheek, slides up to smooth across his forehead, then drops to curve over his shoulder.

The touch is the closest he and Arthur have ever been in nearly five years of spending day in and day out in one another’s company. The proximity is jarring, but the feel of Arthur’s fingertips pressing against his skin for no reason at all is dizzying.

“You’re not feverish. I’ll have the servants fetch more hot water when I’m through and we’ll see if we can’t get you all the way in the tub,” Arthur says, nodding as if satisfied with the decision. “Do you need more than the single sheet? A blanket?”

Merlin shakes his head slowly, genuinely perplexed by the care Arthur is taking with him. He obviously knows what Merlin’s done. “Shouldn’t you be yelling at me instead of coddling me?” He worries the cut on his lip and doesn’t know where to look, but wants to be watching Arthur’s face when he answers. His gaze settles on Arthur’s mouth, though that brings a distraction all its own.

“You saved me.” Easing himself to stand up straight, Arthur rubs his hand along his thigh in a caress that Merlin feels ghosting along his own skin, as if he is the one still wearing breeches and not Arthur. “I’m not naive, Merlin. I know this would have killed me, and too quickly for even Gaius to save me. Whatever you did to take that risk away was as brave as me facing those men on the field. As brave and as foolish. We neither one made good decisions today, did we?”

“You’re alive,” Merlin whispers, refusing to believe any that result isn’t worth a thousand bad decisions. He’ll take whatever punishment Arthur deems fit. “That’s all that matters.”

“That’s not all that matters, but the rest can wait awhile,” Arthur says softly, stretching his arms to the sky and going up on tip-toes, groaning.

It’s maybe the most beautiful thing Merlin’s ever seen – Arthur in just his smalls, his body alive and moving, bending and arching, twisting and reaching. Merlin’s muscles go as bowstring-taut as Arthur’s with every stretch and he fights the urge to reach up and grasp the headboard.

Arthur fetches a washbasin then, setting it on the bedside cabinet and soaking a cloth. He holds the cloth over the basin, raising his eyebrows as if asking permission.

Merlin nods, a bit grudgingly. He could take care of the blood himself, cast and be clean in the space of a breath, but he hurts and anyway, he can’t get away with casting like that in front of Arthur.

Arthur lays the dripping cloth over Merlin’s blood-stained bandage and pauses, thumb rubbing into the muscle beside the wound as if Arthur doesn’t even realize he’s doing it.

When the bandage is wet through, Arthur gently peels it back, wiping away the dried blood beneath and wincing along with Merlin as the slicing pain stings from knee to hip.

“That should do it,” Arthur says, bending close to make sure the wound isn’t still oozing. It’s not, thank God, and Arthur leans away, rinsing the cloth and wringing it out. He lays it on the rim of the basin. “I’ll let you finish getting cleaned up on your own.”

As he turns, Merlin reaches for the cloth and dips it in the fresh, hot water, rolling the bar of soap in it. He washes everything he can reach except his hair, which will have to wait. It’s not any dirtier than usual, though, so he decides not to worry about it. “Thank you for helping me.” It seems inadequate for all Arthur’s done when he easily could have ordered someone else to tend Merlin. “You didn’t have to do all of this yourself. You didn’t have to let me stay here.”

“You’ve done as much for me before.” Arthur glances up at him then, smiling as he pulls the drawstring on his smallclothes and pushes them down. Merlin keeps his eyes on Arthur’s lips, but he can see everything at the edge of his vision. “Time I returned the favour.”

Arthur turns his back and Merlin nearly gasps at the sight of all that uncovered, gorgeous flesh. He’s waited years for the chance to just look without restraint, without feeling like some sort of peeping Tom and here he is, looking, and he feels like a thief but can’t make himself look away.

Arthur stretches across the tub for a cloth and bar of soap and the curve of Arthur’s backside makes Merlin shift uncomfortably.

“Oh, God, that’s good,” Arthur moans as he climbs into the bathtub.

And suddenly, Merlin remembers just how connected they are by this spell, suddenly and without so much as a moment to process and he’s crying out, pressing his hand hard against his knee, the other going to clasp around the back of it to keep his leg from moving as his body warms heats with Arthur’s in the steamy water.

“What is it?” Arthur asks, moving as if to get back out of the water.

“Nothing,” Merlin says quickly, shaking his head. “Just a spasm. I’m fine.”

As Arthur lowers himself back into the water, it’s as if someone has poured warmth over Merlin, soft heat that works its way to every sore muscle, every bit of skin. Everywhere. It spreads all the way up to his chest, up under his armpits, up to his chin as Arthur sinks into the tub, leaning back against the rim.

Merlin draws in a long, slow breath and forces himself to exhale just as slowly. The heat feels amazing, different than bathing because he’s not wet and he’s never been in a tub as deep as Arthur’s anyway, but good. Fantastic, actually. He flexes his toes, bends his knees and tilts his head back on the mound of pillows, sighing in relief. His cut stings a bit, but the rest of him feels less sore already. He hopes Arthur never leaves the bath; just has servants keep changing the cooling water for more heated all night.

“I’ve known for years, you realize.” Arthur says after they’ve both relaxed into the sensation. “You should have told me.”

Merlin can hear the resentment beneath the words. It’s subtle, but it’s there. It should be. He deserves Arthur’s resentment. It’s a little surprising that Arthur has had him figured out for so long and never said a word, never once confronted him. Merlin wouldn’t have thought him capable of keeping it a secret.

The thought almost makes him smile, but his eyes flood with the realization that all of his worries and fears of rejection have been unfounded. Arthur’s never once treated him differently over the years, unless it was to treat him a bit better, a bit more like a friend.

“I couldn’t leave,” Merlin says simply, closing his eyes and turning onto his side, his body protesting the movement but the words are just too raw now that he’s finally saying them. “I couldn’t ask you to let me stay, but I couldn’t leave you.”

Merlin shivers as Arthur runs the soapy cloth up his arm, his shoulder, across the back of his neck. “I want no more secrets between us. You will tell me everything,” Arthur says, and Merlin turns to look over his shoulder at Arthur.

Merlin nods, smiling softly, and lays back down, scrubbing the heel of his hand over his eyes. He’s in as much pain as he can ever remember being and he feels like cheering, like he can breathe again, like the biggest burden of his life has been lifted away.

“But not until you’re well,” Arthur adds, slipping the cloth under his arms and across his chest.

The soap lets the cloth glide along Arthur’s skin and Merlin inhales deeply, the feeling as clear to him as if Arthur were bathing Merlin and not himself. He bites his lips and turns his face into the fluffy pillow, stifling a groan as the cloth trails down over his stomach. The water sloshes in the tub and Merlin arches as Arthur rubs his lower back. He can’t hold back the moan and pushes his face hard against the pillow as he arches, the stretch at once painful and so, so good.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, voice full of realization. “I thought you only took my pain. You can feel that?”

What can he do but turn onto his back, breathe and nod? The sound that Arthur makes is strangled and Merlin opens his eyes and turns his head so he’s looking at him, finally.

“The warmth is...” he begins, but he can’t finish, not with Arthur’s shocked, wide-eyed expression morphing into something else entirely as Merlin shifts, wriggling down into the mattress. Arthur’s eyes follow the movement and the heat that’s been diffused over his skin suddenly pools and focuses to a very specific part of his body.

He bends his knees so the sheet is tented between his legs, his thighs burning with the effort. Arthur sits up a bit in the water, clears his throat, hangs the cloth over the side of the tub where it drips on the stone floor. “The heat will help your muscles. The more you relax, the better off you’ll be,” he says, running his wet hands back through his hair, then clearing his throat again. “Will it disturb you if I wash my hair?”

Merlin takes another deep breath and shakes his head, though he’s not sure how he’ll fair with the feeling of water being poured over his face – will it feel as though he’s drowning? He doesn’t have to find out.

Arthur scoots forward in the tub, takes hold of the edges and leans back, head tilted so the water closes around his face, just to the hairline. Merlin arches so his head is back, too, the urge to keep his mouth and nose above water too great to resist. Arthur sits back up, soaps his hair quickly enough that Merlin cannot get lost in the heavenly feeling of fingers combing through his hair and then Arthur’s leaning back again, rinsing the soap out.

Thoroughly clean, Arthur reaches for a folded cloth and stuffs it between his head and the back of the tub as he settles back against it to soak. Merlin sighs in relief that it’s not over, though he wishes now more than ever that he was as clean as Arthur. He closes his eyes and slips his feet along the cool, soft sheet beneath him, concentrating on the warmth and the scents of soap and Arthur that seem to surround him and drown the itchy, unclean feeling.

He doesn’t notice that he’s rocking his hips until the bed creaks beneath him and he stills, instantly, hands fisting in the bedclothes, muscles burning as he tenses from shoulders to ankles.

Arthur hums and Merlin looks over at him. He has his eyes closed, his chin tilted up so the firelight silhouettes his profile and his hands are sliding slowly up and back along the edges of the tub. The water sloshes gently around his chest, tickling at Merlin’s nipples and making him arch again, and the pain in his back seems so distant, so irrelevant now.

The stirring at his groin isn’t a surprise. He’s seen Arthur aroused in the mornings sometimes, though he’s always shooed Merlin away with either a tedious task or a goblet to the back of the head.

But in the instant before Arthur realized he was there, Merlin had seen him. He looked then just like he does now, a sense of peace and unmistakeable pleasure easing the lines of his face, the tightness at the corners of his mouth and eyes.

“Arthur,” he says, because he can’t believe Arthur would forget he was there, but he has, he’s forgotten that Merlin is mere yards away in his bed. “I should leave.” He exhales sharply as Arthur turns his head and opens his eyes.

“Don’t you dare move.” It’s not a command, not even the request of a prince to his servant. It’s as if he needs Merlin to stay, as if Arthur wants him to. “I’ll stop.”

And that is a question, Merlin is sure of it.

“No,” Merlin says, at once agreeing to stay and willing Arthur not to stop, never to stop. He swallows hard and reminds himself. No secrets between them, ever again. “It’s... it feels amazing. I didn’t think you’d want...”

“Idiot,” Arthur murmurs, eyes raking over Merlin's body from sliding feet to bent knees, up his stomach and chest and throat. His gaze lingers on Merlin’s mouth so long that Merlin parts his lips and licks them, just to see Arthur's reaction. When their eyes meet again, Arthur nods once and looks away, eye closing, and tilts his head back against the tub again.

The second Arthur touches himself, Merlin’s hand snakes under the sheet and trails down his stomach, following the too-light feeling of Arthur’s fingertips ghosting along his skin. He wants Arthur’s touch so badly – has wanted it for so long - that he’s hard as steel in an instant, despite the fact that he can barely feel it.

As Arthur’s hand explores, Merlin follows his lead and cups his sac, rolls it gently, fingertips pressing against the flesh just behind it. He’s an instant slower than Arthur is, mimicking the touches as best he can, long fingers sliding up the underside of his hard length, lifting it to lie flat against his stomach as it throbs and leaks.

His strokes match Arthur’s, the warmth of the water lapping at Arthur’s chest driving Merlin wild with need and he lets slip a moan, the sound of it hanging in the steam-thick air of the room. He licks his lips, takes his bottom lip between his teeth and dares to turn his head and look at Arthur.

He’s breathtaking, the firelight catching and glowing in every droplet of water on his skin, the gentle sounds of his arm moving through the water as he strokes slowly up and down his shaft, the way he’s watching Merlin as he does it, just looking at him through heavily-lidded eyes for once without judgement or demand or expectation.

“Just let me,” Arthur whispers, and it takes Merlin a moment to understand what he’s asking, to realize that this isn’t just some novel experience to satisfy Arthur’s curiosity. He wants more than this, wants maybe as much as Merlin does.

Maybe everything.

Merlin lets his hand fall away, closes it at the top of his thigh and pushes the fabric of the borrowed smalls down, works it all the way down off his legs so he’s free, open to whatever Arthur wants to do. He’s kept this overpowering desire to himself almost as long as he’s kept his magic a secret from Arthur. Merlin’s more than ready to tell him everything, show him everything he’s been thinking and feeling for years now.

He looks back over to Arthur, who’s sitting up straighter in the water, knuckles white with their grip on the tub now. He pushes up, standing, stepping from the tub. He grabs a cloth and swipes it over his skin, his erection standing out flushed and thick from his body as he walks to the bed.

Merlin is trembling, skin chilled from the abrupt end to the bath, but he doesn’t protest as Arthur’s hand closes on the sheet and smoothes it down and off of his legs.

“Sit up,” Arthur tells him, an arm slipping beneath his back as Merlin hurries, aches and soreness just a current beneath the dizzy rush of anticipation that sings along his skin.

Arthur props him up, slides onto the bed behind him, sitting against the headboard with his legs spread on either side of Merlin’s body. “Lie back.”

Merlin lets himself be guided flush against Arthur’s body as Arthur pulls him into a strong embrace, arms circling Merlin’s chest, legs pressing closer along the outside of his thighs, though Arthur is careful with his injured thigh.

“That’s it,” he whispers against Merlin’s ear, “Just relax.” Arthur’s fingers card through his hair, lips pressing gently against Merlin’s temple, his forehead.

Taking a deep breath, Merlin gives up his weight, his body, his tension as best he can. He’s equal parts hesitation and desperation, the two warring beneath his skin and only ending in making him sigh.

“Don’t fight me,” Arthur says, reaching to rub up the inside of Merlin’s thigh, easing his legs further open. “All right?” he asks, hand stilling at the top of Merlin’s leg, patiently waiting for his reply.

Merlin nods slowly and rocks into the warm palm that cups his arousal. It’s ten thousand times better than his own hand has ever been, and Arthur’s not even stroking yet.

He’s rubbing hard with the heel of his palm, fingers tracing through the hair there as he does, the touch more intimate than anything Merlin’s ever felt. He sighs and lets some of the tension in his muscles drain away, lets his legs fall open against Arthur’s, let’s his head tilt back onto Arthur’s shoulder bonelessly.

“That feels amazing,” he whispers, turning to bury his nose against the side of Arthur’s throat, inhaling deeply and just floating on the slow, easy rhythm Arthur is building with his touch.

“You’re just as I imagined.” Arthur’s free hand trails down Merlin’s body, over his chest and nipples, fingertips dragging slowly over each of them, fanning out wide as his hand drifts down over Merlin’s side and all the way back up.

The idea that Arthur has thought about him like this is as scintillating and arousing as the hand that finally, finally closes in a tight sheath around his length, stroking from base to tip again and again.

Merlin rubs his head back against the fingers that comb up through his hair. He feels like a cat on the verge of stretching, it’s all so languid and slow and sensual, but one arching movement and he’s reminded how badly he hurts, why Arthur is supporting him as he touches him.

“You’re so...” he hears, barely a whisper against his hair, and then Arthur tilts Merlin’s chin up and kisses his lips, kisses him softly, gently, and hums as Merlin kisses back.

Arthur’s fingers twist in his hair as he deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue along Merlin’s, and Merlin turns into it, rolling to his side, his waist fitting against Arthur’s groin, that big, strong hand letting go of his cock to spread open over his ribs, pulling him tightly against Arthur’s bare, damp skin.

He feels the bruises along the surface of his body as Arthur’s hands roam his back. The wounds are points of brilliant sensation under Arthur’s touch, though Merlin can feel the restraint there, a gentleness and awareness of Merlin’s battered body that Merlin would never have guess Arthur capable of.

Merlin’s barely capable of it himself as he turns fully, lying on top of Arthur, between his legs. Merlin moans into their kiss and arches, hips rubbing down against Arthur’s, their cocks pressed together, slipping side-by-side on Arthur’s still-wet stomach.

Head spinning, the scent of them swirling together, all soap and mint tincture and clean sheets and skin and arousal, Merlin rocks down harder, groaning. He’s drunk with the heady scents, with the lingering effects of the potion, with the raw honesty between them now, with Arthur’s skin and mouth and gentle touch.

On his next arch up, Arthur’s hand slips between their stomachs and wraps around them both, squeezing and slicking them against each other, their cocks rubbing together as they slide up and back through Arthur’s strong, firm grip.

Merlin pulls his mouth away to breathe and Arthur’s nuzzling, sucking mouth works slowly along his jaw, his throat, his shoulder. “Easy, Merlin,” he warns quietly, hand spreading open on the small of Merlin’s back as Merlin arches again, moaning with the pain of the stretch and the pleasure of his bare flesh slipping all along Arthur’s. The hand presses down, slowing the movement of Merlin’s hips. “Slowly. Yes, that’s it,” Arthur murmurs against his throat, then captures his lips again, the fist around their lengths closing tighter.

It’s a matter of heartbeats, of gasped breaths and strokes of Arthur’s tongue against his, of the slow, steady rhythm of Arthur’s hand around them, holding them together, until Merlin breaks their kiss and buries his forehead against Arthur’s shoulder and pulses in long, hard waves all over Arthur’s fist and cock and stomach.

Arthur doesn’t let him go, just wraps his arm around Merlin’s waist and holds him tightly, sliding up through the slickness and heat again and again. He tucks his face in against Merlin’s neck and holds his breath and tenses beneath Merlin, groaning low against Merlin’s skin and letting go, hips jerking against Merlin’s, come spreading slick and warm between them.

Arthur kisses him then, kisses him breathless but does it slowly, thoroughly. Merlin doesn’t shift off of him, doesn’t turn or roll away. He stays still in Arthur’s arms, in the circle of Arthur’s strong, warm embrace, listening as they calm against one another, their breaths slowing, their bodies settling.

“Are you strong enough to cast?” Arthur whispers against his ear and Merlin nods, closing his eyes and wiping away the slick fluid between them, drying all traces of bathwater from Arthur, himself, the sheets and the pillow in the space of a blink.

“Better?” he asks sleepily, entirely too comfortable to stay awake another moment.

“Yes, but that’s not what I meant. I want you to take the spell off of us,” Arthur says, arms tightening around Merlin as he tries to push up. “I can handle the pain. You’ve had it long enough.”

He hums against Arthur’s shoulder to show he’s listening, but even in his lassitude he can’t resist. He casts again, lifting the smallest injury free of the spell, sliding his hand down to Arthur’s forearm where a bruise has just darkened and spread. He pushes his thumb into it and Arthur starts at the unexpected pain.

“Seems I need a bit longer to heal,” Merlin says, leaning up and smiling his way into another slow, lingering kiss. When he pulls away this time, he’s feeling every ache more acutely, his exhaustion overwhelming. Even so, he’s reluctant to let consciousness go for fear he may wake to find this all just another of his cruelly vivid dreams.

“Sleep,” Arthur commands him. "I'll be here when you wake."

Merlin rubs against Arthur’s shoulder until he finds just the right cushion for his cheek. Fingers slip through his hair, the touch more reassuring than anything Arthur could say, but the words are a balm to his worry anyway.