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Arthur loved the winter hunts. The way the forests became palaces of ice, vast cathedrals of white vaulted branches bare as bone, filled him with a hard, fierce love of his land. There was a beauty in the melancholy death of the green and the vital as they gave way to that fragile space between seasons, when time was briefly caught and trapped, a silvery fish frozen just below the river's ice. It was a time of oak and holly, a time in limbo, when anything was possible.

Arthur didn't mind the cold, how his breath would ghost in plumes around his head, the frost collecting on the nostrils of the horses and glittering like jewels on the canvas of the tents in the moonlight. The cold meant wool and fur, hot cider and roaring campfires and the closeness of companionship huddled against the night. In those times the hunts were more important than ever, the lean times when Camelot's winter stores began to dwindle and the days' catches meant food on tables and relief from the vague worry that winter always brought to the poor.

It was Merlin's first winter in Camelot, the first time he'd experienced the days of hunting, the far excursions into the depths of the forest to seek out the stags and the hares. It was a battle campaign of sorts, a slow march and silent sweeping of the land, though the atmosphere was one of camaraderie rather than grim determination. Merlin was not fond of hunting, Arthur knew, and was not skilled in stealth nor in wielding a crossbow or knife, but he was good company despite his eccentricities. Merlin was a warm reminder of home and Camelot, and so Arthur dragged his manservant into the forest with the first winter hunting party, ignoring Merlin's protestations and flimsy excuses.

It was a large party, several knights with their squires and servants, and the hunt-masters with their apprentices and hounds. Arthur took note as the first day went by of the changing expressions on Merlin's face as he went from surly and petulant to awed and reverential, seeing the same beauty in the winter forest that Arthur did. Merlin even stopped complaining about the cold by mid-afternoon, caught up as he was in the excitement of the hunt, although Arthur watched him shiver distractedly when the wind blew from the north.

Arthur had gifted Merlin with a winter coat before they left Camelot; Merlin had blushed and stammered and looked extremely awkward when Arthur held it for him to try on, and Arthur had rolled his eyes at the antics. It was not a strictly new coat, in the sense that it had been Arthur's years before when his shoulders had been a bit narrower, but it had served him well and would do the same for Merlin, Arthur thought with satisfaction. The castle seamstress had tailored the thick red wool to the slimmer line of Merlin's torso and refreshed it with new fur lining at the collar and cuffs, and it was as warm as anything Arthur himself wore now.

It pleased him now to see Merlin's eyes shining at the luxury of it as he burrowed his head into the turned-up collar, standing before the newly set campfire amidst the snow, his ears nearly hidden by the plush rabbit fur. Behind Merlin his shadow was thrown up larger than life against Arthur's white canvas tent, and Arthur was oddly reminded of the shadow puppet shows of his youth, the little carved wooden figures in silhouette with candles and sheets, Arthur and Morgana telling hushed stories to one another in their nightgowns, huddled in secret on Morgana's bed in the dark of night while the castle slept.

The ring of white tents was like a fortress against the night, wrapped around three central fires. Meat was cooked over two of them, and the third, the one Merlin stood before, had earthenware jugs of cider nestled in the ground just outside the coals, warming until the cider steamed and bubbled over the lips of the vessels. All around were the sounds of men laughing and eating, hounds yelping and horses snorting, and Arthur just sat in his camp chair at the fireside and watched, and listened.

Merlin caught his eye a while later over a strip of venison and a crust of hard bread, apparently realizing that he had not yet offered his prince any food but was thoroughly enjoying his own already. His eyes widened and he glanced down at the food in his hands, then hesitantly offered it toward Arthur with a wince and a lopsided grin. At any other time, Arthur knew, he might have cuffed Merlin soundly about the head for such a transgression, but there by the fire he just grinned back, shaking his head and feeling a laugh escape him unexpectedly.

Arthur got to his feet and went around the fire to get his own food with his own capable hands, passing close behind Merlin on the way and cupping his gloved hand on the nape of Merlin's neck. He ran his palm roughly up over the top of Merlin's head, ruffling the dark mop of hair in a way that was meant to both soothe and chastise, and Merlin's resulting shiver warmed Arthur all the way to his toes. Merlin cast Arthur a sidelong glance as he passed, some combination of uneasiness and amused chagrin on his face.

Later after all the food had been eaten and the cider jugs were passing around the fires where the men had gathered, fragrant steam making patterns in the air above warm tankards, Arthur settled back in his chair and thought that this, here, was contentment. His men, in all their ranks and diversity, chatted amiably amongst one another, free and loose like they could never be within Camelot's walls. There were no women here to be chivalrous to, and the conversations skirted the ribald and the profane as the men all seemed to be testing out Arthur's limits. Arthur never contributed himself, wanting to be above such things in their eyes, but sometimes he would find himself not in the mood to listen either, and the men would sense it and the topic would shift to something more mundane.

Tonight, however, Arthur was feeling indulgent, and was more inclined to let the voices ebb and flow around him regardless of what they said, and as the evening wore on one of the squires brought out a lute and began to play while a few of them sang bawdy songs into their cups.

Merlin looked both fascinated and uncomfortable, listening with attention so rapt that Arthur would have expected his large ears to perk up like the hounds'. He was sitting on a fallen log with another servant on the opposite side of the fire from Arthur, his image hazy from where Arthur sat, a wavering figure in gold and red and black above the flames, and Arthur was content to sit and watch him while the cider warmed his belly. Merlin kept glancing over at him periodically, as though for some sort of reassurance against the earthiness of the topic, and Arthur was struck by just how sheltered Merlin must have been in Ealdor, tiny little village that it was, so simple and isolated.

It made his blood run hotter, made his protective instincts rise within him at the same time that he wanted to examine that purity and turn it over and over in his hands until it was more gloriously soiled.

It was not a new feeling, directed at Merlin, but one he had chosen not to act upon rashly. His seduction of Merlin, if one could even call it that, had been a slow falling thing that had begun the moment they had met, and he didn't think Merlin was aware of it yet. He could wait. Arthur had learned patience the hard way in his father's shadow; he could appreciate a conquest hard won and long sought.

But then Sir Bedevere leaned over to Sir Tristan, one of the newer knights in Arthur's rank, and said in a tone that seemed to suggest secrecy but was loud enough to carry beyond their fire, "You know the best part of winter campaigns?"

Tristan grinned and shook his head, being a sharp lad who already guessed the direction of the question and was disinclined to be offended.

Bedevere pointed across the fire and jostled Tristan's shoulder with his own, his stocky bulk nearly unseating the slighter man. "Sharing body heat, of course."

Tristan looked in the indicated direction at Bedevere's manservant Martin, who was sitting beside Merlin. "Ah, the comforts of the flesh," he agreed woefully. "Alas, I have no servant to tend me as you do, my friend."

"More's the pity," Bedevere laughed, "For I am well-tended indeed."

Arthur felt a vague frisson of alarm as he watched Merlin become aware of the conversation and what it entailed, watched his eyes widen slowly, looking between Bedevere and Martin, who was smiling knowingly, unashamed. Merlin flushed deeply when Martin leaned over to whisper something in Merlin's ear too quiet for Arthur to hear, and his gaze flew to where Arthur sat, horrified and fascinated together.

It was an easy thing to hold Merlin's eyes, to give him silent confirmation that the knights were not in jest, and that Merlin should keep his mouth shut if he knew at all what was good for him. He saw Merlin swallow, saw his gaze dip down briefly in acknowledgment of foreign ways and of a world that was beyond his understanding or experience, and then he looked back up at Arthur with an expression of poorly hidden curiosity.

Arthur felt his cock swell unbidden beneath the folds of his winter coat in his lap. He gave Merlin a slow, knowing smile just to watch Merlin blush harder and look away.

At the next fire someone was laughing, having heard Bedevere's words, and another voice began to sing, "Oh to be on winter campaign, lost in the sin of your thighs again." Other voices joined in, singing in various tones and rhythms of the well-sauced, and Merlin jumped awkwardly to his feet, disappearing quickly as he stumbled away from the firelight. Arthur thought he saw the flap of their shared tent move in the darkness, and he forced himself to sit still and finish his cider, waiting long minutes before rising and quietly bidding his men a good night. Snow had begun to fall softly, a new layer forming over the old and hushing the voices of the men into something more benign.

He felt Bedevere's eyes following him contemplatively away from the fire, but he squared his shoulders and ignored him. Arthur was the crown prince; his ways and motives were not to be questioned aloud, even by his knights, though he knew they wondered about his own relations with his manservant. As far as he was concerned, they could continue to wonder. For all his enjoyment of Merlin's slow fall from grace, Arthur had no desire to share that with anyone else. Merlin was his alone, a secret to be guarded jealously.

It was almost as cold inside his tent as it was outside, and there was no warm fire in there to make it more appealing. Merlin was a thin shadow huddled in the corner of the tent, ungloved fingers shaking as he lit the small oil lamp that hung from the tent's crossbeam. Meager light flared and glowed softly against the canvas walls, and in the silence Arthur could hear the almost imperceptible sound of snowflakes landing on the tent above them.

Merlin sat on the edge of his little cot and didn't look at Arthur as he tugged his boots off.

"What did Martin say to you?" Arthur asked, and the tone of his voice implied that the truth was required.

"He, um..." Merlin trailed off, his eyes glancing off Arthur's face like an ill-aimed blow. "He said that he didn't mind Sir Bedevere, but he would have preferred a master such as you. He said he was jealous of the duty I owed you."

Arthur frowned, watching Merlin carefully and trying to read his mood. "You don't owe me that duty, Merlin," he replied after a minute, turning to his own larger cot as something bitter settled in his chest. He turned down the furs on the cot and shrugged out of his thick coat, despite the fact that it was Merlin's job to help.

"But it's a duty that some servants do perform for their masters?"

"Yes. Some do, willingly or not." Arthur sat on his cot and yanked at his boots, shivering as the chill crept through his woolen tunic without the coat to keep it out. After a moment Merlin remembered himself and came over to kneel on the carpeted floor and remove Arthur's boots.

"The way Martin said it, he sounded willing," Merlin said, a hushed comment directed at Arthur's knee.

"I'm not surprised. Bedevere is a kind enough man; I imagine it would not be a hardship for Martin," Arthur said, watching the top of Merlin's head and the way the rabbit fur collar brushed his ears as he worked.

Merlin fell silent, his bare hands resting on Arthur's calf, only a slight warmth against the chill air. Outside the sound of the lute seemed very far away.

"If there are...things expected of me," Merlin said slowly, and Arthur found himself holding his breath on each whispered word, "you will have to instruct me, my lord."

Arthur's half-hard cock throbbed once, a painful acknowledgment that he was not unmoved. He wanted to reach out for Merlin, who knelt so close before him, but he didn't trust the reasons Merlin had offered. "I told you, Merlin," Arthur said firmly, shifting his legs so that Merlin's hands fell to the side, "that is not a duty I require of you. Some knights and lords may do so, but I do not. God knows you have trouble enough with the duties I do require of you."

Merlin looked up at him, finally, his eyes clear and dark in the lamplight. "Arthur," he said once, hesitantly, all ghostly breath like smoke in the frigid air.

"Go to sleep, Merlin," he said, rueful and deliberate. He slid beneath the heavy furs on his cot, which felt wet with cold, and listened to Merlin do the same a few feet away. A moment later he heard Merlin curse softly and stand up again to put out the lamp above Arthur's head, and so the last golden image burned into Arthur's vision was that of Merlin's full lips pursed in a blown breath, his eyes aglow with the little light.

Arthur listened to Merlin settling in, shifting restlessly under his blankets and sighing with little short huffs, quickly stifled. He stared at the wall of the tent, at the darkly silhouetted shadows cast from the campfires outside, and again thought of Morgana and their sweet, secret children's games, innocent of all sin.

"Are you warm enough?" Arthur asked finally, his voice deeper than he'd intended.

"No," came Merlin's answer, short and honest.

Arthur opened his mouth to speak but closed it again a moment later.

"You said you don't require such a service," Merlin whispered, almost too quiet for Arthur to hear. "But do you wish it?"

Arthur found he couldn't answer, that the words were caught in his throat. He'd wished it on such a deep level, had deliberately kept the wanting down for so long, and now that it was almost--almost--being offered to him the wanting swallowed him up, crashing over his head until it drowned him. Silence stretched between them in the darkness, and Arthur realized his lack of an answer would be taken as confirmation rather than denial.

"What would..." Merlin stopped to clear his throat. "What would Martin do, in the service of his knight?"

Arthur took a shuddering breath. "Martin might share Bedevere's bed for warmth on a winter's night."

The furs covering Arthur lifted suddenly, letting in a startling draft of cold air and Arthur jumped, not having heard Merlin move from his cot. Merlin was a long, lean weight on Arthur's side as he slipped in and let the furs drop again, shrouding them in heavy, musky warmth. Arthur shifted to the side, letting Merlin sink down half on top of him on the narrow cot, forcing himself to stillness while Merlin arranged himself carefully by degrees, touching lightly and tensely at first and then relaxing onto Arthur's chest as the minutes passed and he stopped shivering.

Merlin's hand crept up between them to rest on Arthur's breastbone, no heavier than a bird's wing, and Arthur reminded himself to breathe again. Merlin's chin was sharp against his shoulder, his exhalations stirring warmly on Arthur's neck. Arthur waited.

"What else might Martin do?" Merlin asked, his voice low in his throat.

"He might offer his lord a kiss on the mouth, to show his willingness to be there."

Merlin shifted up a few inches, and then Arthur felt chilled fingertips tilting his face in the darkness, and then Merlin's mouth was a closed bud against his, a new flowering of fruit and spices. Arthur tasted cider on his breath and did not push, waiting. Patient.

Cold air swirled across his moistened lips when Merlin lifted away. "What then?" His voice trembled, and Arthur shut his eyes. The darkness behind his lids was the same.

"Then Martin might put his head down and go to sleep, that his lord would be able to do the same and sleep contented that he had not taken advantage of his servant," Arthur said on a sigh, reaching up to tuck Merlin's chin back down against his shoulder. Merlin, naturally, resisted.

"Arthur," he said, hushed and frustrated.

"Merlin," Arthur retorted, looking and finding only the barest glint of ambient light against Merlin's open eyes. "I told you--"

"You aren't requiring, I'm offering," Merlin interrupted softly, and Arthur felt then the half-hard length of Merlin against his thigh through layers of wool. "I just don't know what--no one has ever--"

Arthur's fists clenched into the empty furs beneath him as he called again on his patience. "Kiss me again," he ordered, a test.

Merlin's mouth was surer this time, having lost some of its tense pucker and trembling against Arthur's with innocence but no lack of desire. Arthur let him explore with soft lips and breath for long minutes, unable to recall the last time someone had taken this sort of time and care with him. When he teased at the seam of Merlin's lips with his tongue, Merlin began to shake, a light tremor that began at his chest and shivered all the way down to where his stocking feet had tangled between Arthur's, and Arthur felt an almost violent surge of triumph as Merlin's mouth opened for him finally, hot and slick.

Arthur reached up to touch Merlin's cheek with fingers still gloved for warmth, and Merlin shuddered into his hand, arching against the soft leather as he let Arthur lick into his mouth, his own tongue joining the dance once it had learned the rhythm. Arthur tugged him harder into the kiss, fighting the urge to just toss Merlin over and pin him to the cot.

Finally Merlin jerked back an inch to pant in fragrant gusts against Arthur's mouth. The heat between them had grown enough to warm the furs and cocoon them in decadence, a small pocket of pleasure amidst the winter air. Arthur lifted his own hands and took the fingertips of his gloves between his teeth, biting and pulling them off with fierce satisfaction as Merlin watched him and gave the tiniest whimper. Arthur slid his naked hands beneath the hem of Merlin's tunic, spanning the planes of his lower back and holding Merlin snug against him. Merlin was fully hard now against his hip, and Arthur felt at that moment that he could rule the world if it only knelt for him.

"What would Martin do next to please his lord?" Merlin asked, his weight now heavy and deliberate against Arthur. Outside someone threw another log on the nearest fire and the light flared up with a heavy crack, softly illuminating through the canvas Merlin's reddened mouth, his dark eyes with their lowered lids, pleasure-filled and frightened all at once.

Arthur took a breath, trying to clear his head. "What do you know of the relations between men?"

Merlin's blush was a tangible wave of heat against Arthur's face. "I've heard the stories," he admitted, nodding towards the campfires where it sounded like most of the men were still enjoying the cider. His eyes in the darkness were burning with the last flare of innocence. "I have a good imagination."

"Then..." Arthur said, taking a deep breath and a chance, "Martin might offer his mouth to his lord, for pleasure."

A moment later, Merlin's hands were sliding down Arthur's body, mapping the flatness of his chest and belly in a way that showed he already knew exactly where the dip of Arthur's navel would be from months of dressing and undressing him. There was a familiarity in Merlin's hands that surprised Arthur, a feeling of reunion, of not being strangers despite the newness of touch. Those hands were deft at the ties of his trousers, slipping inside without removing them, and Arthur hissed at both the contact and the cold. Merlin stilled until Arthur lifted his hips, a nudging reminder, and then Merlin's inquisitive fingers were exploring and Arthur flung an arm over his eyes as he bit back a groan.

"I might not be good for you," Merlin said, his lips bumping against Arthur's as his fingers stroked a careful rhythm, "but I'm a fast learner."

"I know, I know you are," Arthur said in a rush of words and breath, reaching for Merlin and trying not to push him down. "Merlin, your mouth..."

"Do you require me now?" asked Merlin, a hint of laughter in his tone.

"Yes, yes, I bloody well require you, Merlin." He leaned up on one elbow, grasping Merlin's neck with unsubtle desperation as he kissed him hard and deeply, thrusting with his tongue and then sucking on Merlin's when it eagerly darted out to join Arthur's. He shoved Merlin back, panting quietly.

"I'm getting there," Merlin gasped, faintly exasperated. "Have patience."

Patience. Arthur gritted his teeth as Merlin disappeared beneath the weight of the furs, his breath ghosting hot across Arthur's groin. Arthur had more patience than Merlin would ever know, to have waited this long at all.

Merlin's mouth brushed the tip of his cock, smearing the wetness there. He felt Merlin lick his lips, testing the taste, then latch on a moment later, incredibly light suction on the head of his cock. It would have been teasing, except that Arthur knew it was simply Merlin educating himself with touch and taste, and that artless innocence thrilled him more than all the skilled mouths that had ever served him in pleasure.

"How, what do you--" Merlin's voice was muffled under the furs, and Arthur reached down beneath to find Merlin's face, brushing his fingertips over Merlin's cheekbones, his full, wet lips, his ears.

"Like I just kissed you. Do that," he ordered, his voice hard but his hands gentle, trying to convey kindness.

A beat later Merlin's tongue was swirling over the head of his cock and then down the length of it, slick and sloppy and wonderful, and Arthur was biting the heel of his palm to keep quiet. Then he was engulfed in heat and suction, deep at first and then then a little bit less when Merlin started to choke with the unexpected fullness, backing off to a safer distance which was just fine with Arthur, head bobbing slowly in a rhythm not unlike a heartbeat. His fingers, warmer now, explored Arthur's balls with independent fervor, cupping and rolling them and tracing the delicate skin beneath with a reverence that Arthur highly doubted Martin had ever showed to Bedevere.

A muscle in Arthur's thigh started to shake and he realized he was about to come apart, trying not to thrust up into Merlin's virgin mouth the way his every instinct told him to. He grabbed Merlin by the neck and ears and yanked him off roughly, pulling Merlin back up to his level. Merlin emerged from beneath the furs with his hair tousled on end, blinking into Arthur's eyes as Arthur flipped him onto his back and straddled him, Arthur's trousers gaping and his flushed cock pointing lewdly at Merlin's covered one.

Arthur hastily stripped off his own tunic and shoved his trousers as far down his thighs as they would go, and then started ripping at Merlin's clothes with an embarrassing lack of finesse that had Merlin grinning into the darkness, white teeth flashing. Merlin helped get rid of his clothes and then finished removing Arthur's trousers for him, and when Arthur sank down against Merlin, skin to skin, he had to bite his lip hard against how truly perfectly they fit together. He felt Merlin's lush mouth open against his, rescuing his bitten lip and suckling it gently, and Arthur had to admit that yes, Merlin was in fact a very fast learner after all.

"Arthur," Merlin gasped into his mouth, bony fingers clutching at Arthur's hips. "I don't know what--what Martin would do next, but I want--I want to do whatever you require of me, anything at all, just--you have to tell me because I don't--"

Arthur sealed his mouth over Merlin's, trapping his beautiful, stammering, inflaming words and grinding their hips together, pressure and heat and friction perfect as Arthur had always known it would be. He explored Merlin's chest with callused fingers, rasping over nipples and counting the sweetly angling pattern of muscle across ribs, too prominent under his hands and heaving with pleasure. He found the sharp indentations of Merlin's hipbones, the places his fingers could grip and nestle, and Merlin sobbed when Arthur stroked across the soft skin of his lower belly, just above the dark curling hair at his groin.

He kissed Merlin to distraction, until he had to smother the small whine on each of Merlin's inhaled breaths, and then he slipped one hand down between Merlin's legs, skirting past his cock as he held Merlin down with his other hand. Arthur teased behind Merlin's balls, stroking until Merlin's thighs fell open naturally, his hips trying to rise to meet Arthur's more fully. Arthur was watching the moment Merlin began to understand what was being asked of him, watched him swallow and his eyes grow grave and wide, watched him weigh his options.

"You don't have to," Arthur said softly, dipping his head down to rest his lips in the hollow of Merlin's arched throat. "But if you do, I'll make it so good for you, I promise."

"The promise of a prince," Merlin murmured, almost to himself. His hands stroked tentatively up Arthur's back, causing Arthur to shiver and his fingers to twitch over Merlin's arse, which in turn made Merlin's fingers dig into Arthur's skin, and almost without meaning to they began to rock together in a complicated tidal motion.

"The promise of a friend," Arthur corrected him, surprising himself even as he said it, but feeling their differences in rank evaporate like snow on a campfire, there in the dark where it was just the two of them. They had already saved each others' lives more than once; surely friendship was inevitable and right, regardless of rank.

Merlin's unfocused gaze slowly returned to him, sharpening on Arthur's face as comprehension dawned. He took Arthur's face in his hands and held it, looking at him until Arthur began to feel like one of Gaius' undeciphered texts, until Arthur felt that Merlin had broken him down symbol by symbol until he could read the whole of Arthur's heart in his eyes.

He hadn't meant for hearts to be involved, but there they were.

Merlin spread his thighs and wrapped his legs around Arthur's hips, tilting his chin up in a deliberate challenge. Arthur had no choice but to kiss Merlin or drown in the flood of tenderness that threatened to overtake him.

"I need something--oil," Arthur explained shakily, levering himself up but caught in the tangle of Merlin's limbs.

"Wait," Merlin said, shimmying over onto his stomach beside Arthur and snagging the pouch that lay just within reach on the floor of the tent. He retrieved a small glass bottle and Arthur took it from him. "For sore muscles," Merlin explained when Arthur peered at it, looking for a label.

Merlin started to turn over again but Arthur took one look at that naked expanse of shoulders and back and smooth white arse glowing in the darkness and let his hand fall heavy to the small of Merlin's back, pinning him flat. "Stay like this," Arthur murmured, dropping the bottle in favor of pressing his mouth to the nape of Merlin's neck and sucking a kiss there. Merlin turned his face to one side and Arthur caught a glimpse of his profile, utterly trusting with eyes closed.

He kissed down the plane of Merlin's shoulder, the thin column of his spine, the slim rise of his arse and then just between the cheeks, dipping his tongue against the fragile skin there while Merlin fretted and twisted beneath him, caught between acute pleasure and embarrassment. Merlin shivered, his skin growing colder beneath Arthur's touch, and Arthur pulled one of the furs up over both of them. The dark fur was such a startling contrast against Merlin's white skin that Arthur played with it for a moment like a painter with a still life scene, arranging the fur over Merlin's shoulders at different angles, dragging the butter-soft pelt against Merlin's skin until he was writhing against Arthur, thrusting his arse back like a natural wanton, like he knew what he was doing to Arthur's equilibrium.

The oil was cold on Arthur's fingertips, nearly solidified with the chill, and he rubbed his fingers to heat it up before leaning over Merlin's back and spreading it over Merlin's delicately puckered hole. Merlin moaned loudly when the first finger penetrated him, and Arthur stilled his hand briefly, shushing him. Merlin was as tight as anything Arthur could have imagined, a slick, untried channel that tightened against his finger instead of loosening, and Arthur had to press his forehead to Merlin's shoulder and pray for just a little more patience.

"Merlin, relax," he whispered, trailing distracted kisses across the wing of Merlin's shoulder blade. "It won't hurt if you relax."

"That's counter-intuitive," Merlin gritted back at him, clearly fighting the involuntary spasm around Arthur's finger.

"Hmm, that's a big word for you," Arthur commented, slipping a second finger in and scissoring gently while Merlin was busy being indignant, and then Merlin wasn't offering up any coherent speech at all for a while, muffling his moans against Arthur's pillow while Arthur thrust gently with his fingers and ground his cock against the globe of Merlin's arse.

When the furs had slid down again and Merlin was clearly too flushed and hot to even notice, Arthur added a third finger and could have crowed with triumph at the easy give of muscle, the eager acceptance, and he withdrew his fingers to the long, needy sound that clawed its way from Merlin's throat.

"Merlin," Arthur coaxed, drawing him back with his voice. "Look at me."

Arthur poured viscous oil into his palm, waiting until Merlin had looked slowly and dazedly over his shoulder, before slicking up his cock and jerking it in a rough and uneven rhythm, showing Merlin exactly what he would be feeling in a few moments. Arthur reveled in the last gasp of innocence, the way Merlin reached for him with a shaking hand, catching Arthur and drawing him closer.

His heart pounding like a war drum, Arthur lifted Merlin's hips and shoved a pile of fur beneath them, imagining the decadent slide of the pelt against Merlin's untouched cock. He positioned himself between Merlin's thighs and aligned himself in the semi-darkness, dropping a biting kiss to Merlin's shoulder as he pressed inward to only slight resistance.

For long moments Arthur couldn't remember how to breathe, so he struggled for air and to hold back inside the perfect tightness of Merlin's arse. Merlin was a statue beneath him, pale marble carved into life like a Greek story, and Arthur didn't have the words to ask so he just wrapped himself over and around Merlin and held him until Merlin's muscles fluttered and he began to push back against Arthur in tiny forgiving motions that caught Arthur in a gentle tide and dragged him under.

"I need to--Merlin--can I--"

"Move," Merlin said, and his voice was unlike anything Arthur was used to hearing from him, commanding and sure and powerful in his surrender.

Arthur flexed his hips and slid forward, nudging the place that made Merlin's back bow and arch in surprise, made him shove sharply backwards on a wordless sound, and then Arthur fitted his fingers to the notches of Merlin's hips and began to fuck him harder, as hard as Arthur felt he could without hurting him. Merlin reached back with one hand and caught Arthur's thigh, tugging him and urging him onward, and Arthur had to press his open mouth against Merlin's neck to keep from shouting aloud, remembering the hunting party on the other side of the thin canvas.

Merlin remembered no such thing, clearly, his groans coming louder until not even the pillow could muffle them, and Arthur jerked Merlin upright and sat back on his heels with Merlin stretched across his lap. He clamped one hand tightly over Merlin's mouth, perversely enjoying Merlin's struggle against the hold and fucking him harder until Merlin was limp in his arms, moaning quietly against Arthur's hand. Merlin's head lolled back on Arthur's shoulder and Arthur watched his profile, lashes dark against flushed cheeks, nostrils flared for breath. Merlin lifted his arms and held on to Arthur, let Arthur silence his mouth in complete capitulation, and Arthur rewarded him by wrapping his other hand for the very first time around Merlin's neglected cock.

Merlin's eyes flew open and he tensed as Arthur stripped his cock in a grip that gave no quarter, and within a few pulls Merlin was seizing around Arthur's cock and coming in long pearly strings across the dark fur of their bedding. His sharp cry strangled itself against Arthur's palm and Arthur pressed his face into Merlin's neck and pulsed out his own pleasure inside Merlin's body.

They sat for a long moment locked together, swaying in the cold as it settled across their sweat-beaded skin. Arthur's hand fell limply away from Merlin's mouth finally and Merlin took a deep, shuddering breath and then another, shifting slightly against Arthur and dragging at his still-buried cock. Merlin's moan was sweet and soft, barely a sound in the frigid air, and Arthur could hear the strange muffled brushing of snow across canvas. Outside only a few voices broke the silence, and Arthur took Merlin down into the furs with him and tucked them into the warmth again.

They breathed as one, Arthur's chest to Merlin's back, arms and fingers tangled together, and it was inevitable that Arthur would begin to thrust slowly again in the shallowest of movements as he swelled within Merlin, slipping easily in his own come. He rose up just enough to look down at Merlin's exhausted face, watching the pleasure make him pliable, stripped down and vulnerable.

"Tell me," Arthur ordered, sensing there were words on Merlin's tongue just waiting, his hips urging Merlin to speak.

"I wanted so much, so many things," Merlin said, his voice loose and bare, reed-thin. "I wanted you to see me, more than anything. I guess this is close enough."

Arthur frowned, resting his forehead against the sharp angle of Merlin's cheekbone and thrusting deeper to try to bring the joy back to Merlin's voice. "I do see you, Merlin. If I saw any more of you you'd be inside out."

Merlin smiled and curled an arm back to touch Arthur's neck and hold him close. "Maybe someday I will be," he whispered inexplicably, and flexed his muscles experimentally around Arthur.

"This is not what masters and servants share, Merlin," he said after long minutes of soft silence broken only by shuddering breaths, suddenly needing him to understand.

"It's not?" Merlin stretched luxuriously against him like a cat, rocking back into the gentle thrusts.

"No. I doubt Martin or Bedevere have ever had anything like this."

"What is this then?" Merlin asked, sounding curious and unsure.

Arthur opened his mouth behind Merlin's ear, tasting salt and woodsmoke and something spicy that he recognized as uniquely Merlin. "This is just us."