Actions

Work Header

Such Fractured Shadows

Work Text:

Lionel is the first, approaching Merlin one late summer afternoon as the sun slants through the dust in the stables and turns the air into heavy fire.

“Come here, boy,” he says, and Merlin only just remembers not to scowl, setting aside the pitchfork and stepping out of the stall he’s been working in.

“Is there something I can do for you, my lord?” he asks, clenching his fists behind his back instead of lashing out. It’s not Lionel’s fault that Merlin’s working here, that he trusted Arthur with the wrong secret, not the tall knight’s fault that Merlin can’t help being who he is any more than he can help breathing.

Lionel reaches out, takes Merlin’s chin in hand and turns his head to and fro, eyes narrowed, inspecting. “Yes,” he murmurs, and when he lets go there is a strange light in his eyes; the places where he’s touched Merlin’s skin feel chilled, slimy with something creeping and invisible. “You will do nicely.”

Merlin is ready to flee, to obey the prickling warning between his shoulders, when Lionel steps forward, forcing Merlin to back further into the stall. “We were surprised,” Lionel says, his voice low and full of jagged promise, “when the prince acquired a new manservant.”

Merlin stiffens, the wound still raw and aching beneath the thick layer of guilt, but Lionel continues, lingering over his words, savouring each one. “We all saw how... close... you and the prince had become, how willing you were to die for him, to do anything for him.” Lionel has backed Merlin against the rear wall now, allowing the stall door to close behind him. His face is close to Merlin, his voice an unwelcome caress smoothing along Merlin’s ears and throat with his breath. His hands come up to brace themselves on either side of Merlin’s head. “Such loyalty should be rewarded, not punished,” he says, pale eyes staring intently into Merlin’s own.

“Prince Arthur had his reasons,” Merlin tells Lionel, irritation sparking briefly over the implicit slight to Arthur despite Merlin’s own banked anger toward the prince. Lionel is even closer now, leaning in until he is practically touching Merlin’s cheek with his own. Merlin folds his hands tightly into his sides and presses back against the wall, wanting to shove the other man away but not quite daring to overstep his place that much.

With Arthur, he thinks briefly, fleetingly, it would have been easy, so easy to push, to joke, to lean just so until their cheeks touched, fit together side by side.

Lionel chuckles; a deep, rich sound that feels out of place in the familiar plainness of the stable. “His reasons were all too clear,” he whispers into Merlin’s ear, lips just barely brushing the soft shell, and Merlin jumps, hitting his head painfully against the wall behind him. He turns his head slightly, looks at Lionel, and he can feel the dread rising up like bile in his belly, hollowing his chest.

“My lord?” he says, and the fear must shine through in his face, he is sure of it, because Lionel knows. Lionel moves one hand from the wall, smoothing up Merlin’s shoulder and onto his nape, threading his fingers into Merlin’s hair, which is dusty and matted from two weeks of work in the stables. Merlin can’t help but shiver under the touch, trying and failing to control his trembling because Arthur’s betrayed him, has told Sir Lionel and probably the other knights as well; it’s only a matter of time before Uther finds out and executes him. He waits for the accusations, for the threats, for the demands – because Lionel must be here to see Arthur’s sorcerer, the ex-manservant who won’t leave even though every minute he spends in Camelot is another moment closer to execution.

“Out of my sight,” Arthur says, and for a moment Merlin thinks he’s going to turn away – but no, Merlin is an enemy now, dangerous, and Arthur never turns his back on an enemy, will never trust Merlin that much again.

“Arthur,” Merlin starts, and Arthur lunges, pinning Merlin against the wall, his dagger cold against Merlin’s throat.

“Get out,” Arthur hisses, his face shuttered. “I will respect that you have saved my life and keep this from my father, but you are never to approach me again.” He presses with the dagger – just a little, just enough to make sure Merlin has fully understood his meaning – then steps back, wipes his hands convulsively, as if they’ve been contaminated by mere contact with Merlin.

Merlin blinks away the memory as Lionel’s hand twists in his hair, pulling it cruelly. He catches sight of Lionel’s expression again, and suddenly becomes far less sure that Lionel is here for a poultice or a charm to lure money or a reluctant lady. Lionel’s eyes are hungry, and when he sees Merlin is watching, he licks his lips slowly, considering.

There’s something making Merlin’s skin go uncomfortably tight, and he wonders hazily if calling for help will do anything.

“Shh,” Lionel says, as if he can see the thought laid out on Merlin’s face. “No one likes a whore who pretends he doesn’t want it.” His tone is clear, promises that Merlin will not like the consequences if he disobeys.

“Sir Lionel,” Merlin says, and he doesn’t care that the desperation rings clear in his voice. “You’ve got the wrong...” He halts, unsure, changes tactics. “Let me go. Please,” he adds, a last resort, his voice cracking. Lionel has him boxed in, cut off; the knight has a good two inches on him in height and more muscle than even Arthur has. If he yells it’s his word against a blooded knight’s, and he can’t use magic, because although Arthur might not go to the king Merlin has no doubt that Lionel will.

Besides, Merlin swore to himself when Arthur cast him out that he would never use his magic again except to help Arthur. He has to prove to Arthur that he’d never use his magic for anything else, never use it for harm, even if Arthur will never listen to him again. Merlin can’t afford to lose any more of Arthur than he already has, not when he has to stay in Camelot to protect Arthur, especially not when by all accounts war with Mercia is right around the corner.

Something flares in Lionel’s eyes at Merlin’s words. “That’s right,” he breathes, his smile going sharp and malicious. “Beg me.”

“You shouldn’t... I’m not...” Merlin can’t think; Lionel fills his every sense, overpowering him. “I’m part of the prince’s household,” Merlin protests. “I have his protection; you can’t do anything to me.”

“Protection?” Lionel laughs at that, his face ugly with mirth. His hand tightens at Merlin’s nape, pulling down, forcing Merlin to look up and bare his throat. “The prince made it abundantly clear when he threw you out exactly what protection you have.” He is suffocatingly close now, and Merlin can feel the hard heat of Lionel’s erection through his breeches.

He bites his lip to stop the whimper rising in his throat, scraping his fingers against the rough wood behind him as if by doing that he might find a secret door, a way out.

Lionel’s face is frighteningly joyful. “Scream and I make sure you leave Camelot in pieces,” he says pleasantly.

“What’s going on here?” another voice says, and Merlin’s heart leaps at the sound, hoping frantically that Arthur has had a change of heart, has come to apologize and ask Merlin to come back, to work for him again instead of shoveling out endless pounds of manure in the stables. But the voice isn’t quite right, too deep for Arthur. Lionel hasn’t released him, has barely even flinched, and Merlin can’t focus quite enough to figure out who it is.

“Nothing of interest to you,” Lionel growls. Merlin can hear the crunch of straw as the other man comes closer, and squeezes his eyes shut against the shame.

“On the contrary,” the other man allows, his voice cool, and all remaining hope Merlin had of rescue vanishes. “This is very interesting, though the boy’s a touch scrawny for my taste.”

“Fuck your taste, Agravaine,” spits Lionel. “I know for certain you’ve no company but your hand at night.” He shifts his weight, twists, and Merlin finds himself ripped away from the wall and spun around, one arm shoved up hard behind his back by Lionel’s callused hand. Lionel stands behind him, runs his free hand down Merlin’s chest; Merlin can’t help the cold shudder that runs down his spine. This isn’t happening, he thinks frantically, panic rising and closing his lungs in a vise. It can’t be happening, not to him, not in Camelot, in Arthur’s own stables...

Sir Agravaine is watching, his eyes hooded as he steps forward. “He does have a certain charm,” he says, putting a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and shoving, pushing him down. Lionel loosens his grip on Merlin’s arm, letting him fall to his knees, and Merlin seizes the chance.

He throws himself sideways, rolling as he scrabbles for the stall door, but Lionel stops him with a swift kick to the belly. Merlin gasps, curls around the sudden pain blooming in his gut. He reaches out again, blindly searching, but someone’s boot connects with his ribs and there’s a knee driving into his spine, pressing him down into the dirt and straw of the stable floor. One of them is kneeling on him, he realizes dimly before his arms are wrenched back, tied together behind him with a belt which bites painfully at his wrists.

Merlin kicks out with his legs, thrashing underneath the weight pushing him into the ground, but one of them seizes his ankles, pulls his legs out straight and holds them together. Before he can react to that, before he can think of a spell to get them off, execution and secret promises be damned, a hand is working underneath him, tugging at the laces of his breeches, wrenching them down past his knees. Someone far away is sobbing for breath, the sound distant and tinny in his ears.

“Such a lively whore,” he hears Lionel say. “The prince has been coddling you too long – we’ll show you how it’s supposed to be done.” The weight on his back shifts away, and hands are hauling his hips up, holding him in place when he tries to struggle, to get away. His feet are tangled in his breeches; he hears someone spit behind him. There are hands everywhere, shoving between his legs, and he gasps at the blunt pressure against his hole, his breath catching and hitching in his chest.

“Please,” he cries, writhing against his bonds. “No, no, please...” The plea becomes a keening wheeze when one finger breeches him, too-dry and agonizing. It retreats and he manages to take a breath, his forehead pressed against the ground, before two plunge back into him, ripping him open. He screams.

“Shut up, boy,” Agravaine says, and yanks Merlin’s head up, pulling until Merlin is on his knees, looking up at the knight in despair. His vision is blurry; he can feel the wetness from the tears and snot on his face. Agravaine’s cock is hanging out of his unlaced breeches, hard and enormous, and Agravaine is casually twirling a knife in one hand.

“Take it,” Lionel pants behind Merlin, twisting his fingers again roughly, and Merlin gives a ragged sob, tries to wrench himself away.

“No,” he begs, panicked, mindless from the fear roiling in his belly. He pulls wildly against the bonds around his hands, the rope rubbing his wrists raw. “No, let me go, please, let me go...” Agravaine tugs at his hair again and lowers his knife menacingly.

Merlin swallows his words, clenching his teeth against them. Agravaine is calm, dispassionate as he watches Merlin struggle, and that scares Merlin far more than Lionel’s greedy lust. He reaches blindly for his magic again – guilt and execution will not come until later; he needs it now – and cannot find it, cannot grip it, too full of terror to concentrate enough to bring it forward and burn the knights where they stand.

Sir Agravaine reaches down, his fingers trailing across Merlin’s face in a sick parody of a caress, and presses against the hinges of his jaw, forcing his mouth open. Merlin jerks back, shaking his head, but then Agravaine’s knife is whipping through the air, lashing against his cheek, leaving a thin stinging line behind before the knight pulls him forward, pushing his cock between Merlin’s lips.

Merlin chokes, gagging against the intrusion, but the knife is pressing heavy and cold against his cheek, reminding him, and he doesn’t dare move away. Agravaine thrusts deeper, into his mouth, his throat, and Merlin’s vision goes dark at the edges. In his struggle to breathe, he barely feels it when Lionel pulls his fingers out.

He tries to scream again when Lionel shoves into him, cock splitting him at the very core, hot agony spiraling out, but the scream gets lost in his throat, stifled as Agravaine fucks Merlin’s mouth.

Merlin can feel the blood trickling down on his cheek, down the insides of his thighs, and he squeezes his eyes shut as if that will help, as if it will make everything a bad dream, a nightmare he’ll wake up from to see the familiar walls of his own room.

Nothing happens: he’s still on his knees in a stable, fallen from Arthur’s graces in a world where that apparently means he is fair game for any of Arthur’s knights.

He goes numb then, his limbs too heavy to move as Lionel slams into him again, groaning, guttural and coarse. An age, an eternity later, Agravaine stiffens, pulls out of Merlin’s mouth to shoot thick stripes of come over his face, and Lionel hisses at the sight. He pushes at Merlin’s shoulder, shoving him down into the filthy straw beneath them.

“Fuck, that’s hot,” he moans, rutting faster now, his thrusts growing harsher, more uneven. “Come on, slut,” he whispers into Merlin’s ear, one hand reaching around to close around Merlin’s neck. Merlin struggles to inhale against the pressure, panicking, throat working helplessly. “That’s it,” Lionel growls, “That’s...”

He cuts himself off with a groan as he stiffens, tightening his grip. Merlin can feel him pulsing inside, feel Lionel’s come filling him before he blacks out entirely.

When he regains groggy consciousness the knights are gone and the sun has set, soft blue twilight barely lighting the stall. He shifts and has to bite back a cry as pain screams through him, lancing white-hot through the black curtains threatening his vision again. He opens his mouth, trying to cut the ropes on his arms with a spell, but he can’t speak past the aching burn in his throat. It takes him the better part of an hour to manoeuver his arms in front of him, gasping, trying to ignore the wet heat of the tears on his cheeks. He crawls into a far corner of the stall, curling in on himself and shivering, trying to forget.

For the first time, he is glad he no longer lives in Gaius’s spare storeroom, that there’s no physician to look at him with knowledge and sorrow in his eyes when he finally drags himself home. The shame is great enough without others sharing in it.

*

Gwen is worried sick, but she makes his excuses for him the next day as he lies flat on his hard pallet, breathing as lightly as he can, listening to the buzzing hum of the castle as it lives and moves around him. He knows she wants him to tell her what’s wrong, but he can’t; can’t burden her with it when she still doesn’t know anything more than that he and Arthur have had a fight. If Morgana were still in Camelot, maybe he’d be able to ask her for help, for protection at least in part, but Morgana has gone far beyond his reach.

He would have laid there hidden for longer than a day, unmoved by hunger, but the thought of Arthur urges him up, fuels his hobble back to his duties. He’s still the only one protecting Arthur, the only one able to bring the prince into glorious kingship; he needs to do it, needs to prove himself worthy of the task destiny has set before him. As much as he doesn’t want Arthur to see him weak, he cares more about not letting Arthur think he’s left Camelot, driven out by his disgrace.

The shirt he’d been wearing when he met Lionel and Agravaine is his only serviceable shirt, and he doesn’t notice until he arrives at the stables that it’s stained and ripped at the hem, a noticeable strip of fabric gone along the edge. He doesn’t pay it much mind, too occupied fighting back nausea, the horror that grips him as he goes about his duties, hits him hard enough to make him stagger and double over, all his muscles tense as he shakes.

He can’t avoid the stables entirely, but he doesn’t go near the back stalls. In his mind he knows that the straw has been changed, that there will be no evidence of his encounter with Lionel and Agravaine, but when he ventures too close his nose fills with the desperate ghastly scent of blood and sweat and semen; his ears still ring with Lionel’s moans.

Agravaine pays no more attention to him than he does to any other stable hand as Merlin tries to keep his head down and avoid making eye contact with anyone, but Lionel has no such reservation. He catches Merlin’s eye across the training field when Merlin clears away the debris from broken practice lances and smiles, slow and terrible, his teeth bared and glinting in the afternoon sun. The missing strip from Merlin’s shirt is knotted around his right arm, a mocking imitation of a lady’s favour.

Merlin glares down at his boots, too late to hide the hot ugly flush spreading up into his cheeks, and in turning around he nearly runs full on into Arthur.

Arthur looks worn, the circles under his eyes dark and deep, but his gaze is bright and sharper than ever. Merlin swallows the urge to comment on the state of Arthur’s greaves, which still have yesterday’s dust on them.

The prince’s eyes flick between Merlin and Lionel, fastening on the strip of cloth on Lionel’s arm. Merlin is close enough to track the suspicion in Arthur’s face before his expression goes blank, forcibly impassive. He wants to scream, tell Arthur it isn’t what it looks like, but he’s conscious of Lionel behind him, of Agravaine somewhere to his left, watching, toying absently with his knife.

He says nothing, just stares beseechingly at Arthur’s knees, still red-faced in humiliation, until Arthur pushes by him. Merlin half-expects a shove, the friendly shoulder which always reminded Merlin before that everything will be alright, but it never comes.

Lionel finds him again that evening behind the kennels, traps him against the wall and pushes him to his knees, takes his mouth with hard, punishing thrusts and blacks his eye when Merlin tries to bite.

“Tell anyone,” Lionel hisses, leaning down after he’s finished, “and I will gut you and leave you for the carrion crows to find. Try to run and I’ll find the dirty hut your whore mother lives in and fuck her until her voice is raw from screaming before I slit her throat.” Merlin doesn’t look at him, can’t move. “Besides,” Lionel adds, contemptuous, “who would ever believe you?”

He leaves, striding confidently back toward the main gate of the castle, and Merlin thinks about how easy it would be to destroy him, incinerate him like Nimueh... but he cannot. If Arthur ever accepts him back, he cannot knowingly return with more blood on his hands; it would be too much for Arthur to cope with, too much for Merlin to explain. His magic is meant to protect Arthur, he reminds himself, wiping Lionel’s come off of his face, and nothing else.

*

Apparently Lionel’s warning to keep what happened secret does not apply to Lionel himself. Two days later, Merlin finds himself alone with Sir Dinadan, cornered in a little-used supply cupboard off of the armoury. He has to stifle the hysterical laughter bubbling up in his throat – is this really what his life is going to be like now, a parade of strangers coming to him and taking, ripping bits of him away until he’s left with nothing for himself?

Dinadan is more hesitant than Lionel, and there is less cruelty in his eyes, but he is equally as determined; he reeks of the sense of entitlement all of the knights have except perhaps for Gareth, who pretends he isn’t bothered by their callousness even as he blushes.

“Lionel told me you were discreet, boy,” Dinadan says, and Merlin remembers that Dinadan – gods, that Dinadan has a young, extremely pregnant wife at home, what the hell is he doing here? – “I trust you value your life enough not to try and prove a knight’s sworn word false.”

Merlin does nothing, either because of shock or because somehow he thinks standing still will make Dinadan go away, but Dinadan seems to take it as consent.

He’s not as rough as Lionel or Agravaine, though that’s not saying much, and goes about his business more quickly, too. He works methodically, brisk and impersonal as he orders Merlin to remove his trousers before turning him around, hands pushing Merlin’s wrists against the wall; Merlin shuts down his thoughts, ignores his body, ignores the way Dinadan’s cock slides hot and heavy along the crack of Merlin’s arse until the knight stiffens, arching with release, and bites hard at the join of Merlin’s neck.

Merlin nearly chews through his lower lip, concentrating on the scrape of his cheek against the stone instead of Dinadan’s weight against him. He can feel Dinadan’s come, sticky on his back, and though it makes his skin creep he waits until the knight has left before wiping it off with shaking hands.

He stumbles out a few minutes after Dinadan leaves him, desperate to be somewhere, anywhere else, and comes abruptly face to face with Arthur, who is sharpening his sword. Arthur stills, looks at him, and Merlin knows that even if Arthur hadn’t guessed what was going on before this, he sees it now, written out over Merlin’s skin in inescapable clarity. Merlin looks down at the picture he makes: shirt ripped and stained, neckerchief askew, new bruises overlapping old ones on his neck and wrists, mouth probably red and swollen a little where he bit it. When he looks up again, Arthur has gone back to his sword, running the whetstone down its length with stiff, controlled strokes, his face a careful blank.

Merlin runs, and spends the rest of the afternoon in the privy, retching until there’s nothing left in his belly.

*

Two weeks later, Merlin’s mending a bridle when he hears voices approaching and tenses, his knuckles turning white where he grips the leather in his hands. Two weeks of being waylaid by knights in dark corners and alleys have dulled the pain; every time is a little bit easier, but the dread still crawls through him, a dead weight hanging low in his chest. Not all of them are cruel, but the revulsion he feels when they touch him hasn’t gone away; sometimes it’s all he can do to keep from screaming.

It’s Arthur’s voice that rings out, though, confident and calm as it echoes in the dusty stable air. “Don’t you see, Gawaine?” he’s saying, and Merlin holds his breath, shrinks down and hopes furiously that they’re not heading for his corner, too-conscious of the bruised mark on his cheekbone. He hadn’t known Arthur was back from the skirmish with Bayard; it must have been a quick battle. “The Mercia campaign has only called more attention to the need for a different code. Things can’t go on like this.”

“Maybe, sire,” Gawaine says, his deep, slow voice doubtful. “I still say it’s the acts of a few individuals; there’s no reason to punish all of the men.”

“An example must be made, brother.” The new voice is lighter, younger; Merlin thinks it might be Gareth. “Everyone has to see what will happen to those who disobey, or how will we ever enforce it?”

“Exactly,” Arthur affirms. “How can I protect my people from outside attack if the soldiers who are supposed to defend them are looting and despoiling the countryside? Camelot has to hold herself to a higher moral code, and the knights will have to be that ideal. Chivalry will show the people that we are true to our promise of protection, and in return we gain their loyalty, their support. We might even be able to win more territory from Cendred; I know some of the towns on our borders are discontent with his rule, and if we can take enough of them we’ll be able to redirect the trade routes in our favour.”

Their voices fade again, preoccupied with strategy and supply routes now, debating the practical advantage of making a final move against Bayard before winter sets in. Merlin doesn’t move, stunned by the glimmer of hope stirring in his chest, afraid that if he shifts he’ll snuff it entirely. Slowly, carefully, he sets aside the leatherwork and leaves the stable, the spark growing stronger now. He breaks into a sprint once he clears the training ground, his head whirling with plans as he runs helter-skelter for his tiny room.

It takes him three days to work up the courage to talk to Arthur. Arthur is out-of-sorts all the time, it seems, and Merlin doesn’t need to go looking for trouble by trying to speak to Arthur when he’s in a glowering mood. He waits until after training one day, when most of the knights have dispersed and Arthur is relaxed, lounging against the fence and congratulating Gawaine on the progress the newest knights have made.

Arthur makes a stunning picture, Merlin thinks, not quite able to push the thought away. It’s not the first time he’s had it. Arthur’s always looked like a prince, even when he’s dirty and sweaty and exhausted; there’s something indefinable in his shoulders, the way he holds himself, which makes Merlin dizzy with the knowledge that this man is undoubtedly a king.

Merlin squashes the thought before it can grow any wilder. He stopped thinking about that when Arthur threw him out, not that it’s worked very well. “My lord,” he says, stepping forward, his eyes focused respectfully on the ground. “Might I speak with you?”

Gawaine gives an irritated snort, and Merlin wonders how much he knows, how much Arthur’s told him. “I’ll leave you to it then,” he tells Arthur before saluting and turning to leave.

“Wait for me,” Arthur calls after him. “We have next week’s tournament to discuss still.” Merlin doesn’t look, but he assumes Gawaine waves his hand in acknowledgement because his footsteps stop before they fade away; he must be waiting at the other side of the field.

Merlin tries to speak, and nearly chokes on the thickness of the words in his mouth.

“I couldn’t help but overhear,” he starts, still determinedly studying the ground. Arthur’s wearing new boots; Merlin wonders if rats chewed more holes in his old ones. “I mean, I was in the stables when you were talking about it. The code for the knights, that is. And I was wondering...” He flounders, trapped, all his prepared arguments gone from his mind. How is he supposed to accuse Arthur’s noble-born knights with no proof except his word?

Arthur would look casual to anyone passing by, his arms crossed, still leaning back against the wooden fence of the training yard, but Merlin is close enough to see the deep crease between his eyebrows, the frozen line of his mouth. He tries to read Arthur’s expression – it used to be so easy, to throw a glance at the prince and know exactly what he was thinking – but Arthur is closed off to him now, more unreadable than stone.

“What were you wondering?” Arthur asks, all politeness, but Merlin can hear the poison seething underneath. “Were you wondering perhaps how morality might apply to you? There’s a first. Or were you wondering how much Camelot will change with chivalrous knights?” The contempt in his voice is strong now, gutting as he adds, “I shouldn’t worry that it will affect your situation. Knights are still men, after all; who am I to deny them a tumble in the hay?”

Merlin barely registers Arthur brushing past him through the sick blackness that’s dropped in front of his eyes.

I shouldn’t worry that it will affect your situation, he thinks, and can’t quite catch himself before he falls, scraping his knees and his hands on the packed dirt, heaving for air, unable to breathe through the screaming burn in his chest.

*

He hadn’t realized just how bright the spark of hope inside of him had been until it was gone, snuffed by Arthur’s callous dismissal. He drags himself out of bed the next morning and makes his way slowly down to the stable – what reason does he have to hurry? There is nothing for him except day after day of the same slogging chores, boredom punctuated by the sting of humiliation when someone pulls him aside and pulls off his trousers; all hope of brighter destinies now gone.

Pitching hay down from the loft, he thinks about leaving Camelot, leaving Arthur alone to muddle his own way to the crown, but where would he go? He still has too much pride to go crawling back to Ealdor, can’t bear to see the look on his mother’s face when she realizes what’s happened to him. She sent him away to be safe; he can’t take that dream away from her. He remembers Lionel’s words, too, and whether or not they’re empty, Merlin can’t take the chance that Lionel was in earnest.

Sir Morholt finds him at loose ends after the noon meal one day, and Merlin goes with him without a word. He knows the routine by now; it’s getting easier each time to step back and separate his mind, close it away somewhere far above him, away from Camelot. He’s staring grimly at the join where the wall in front of him meets the floor, doing his best to ignore the rawness in his knees where the cold stone digs into them and the scrape of Morholt’s trousers against the backs of his bare thighs, when the storeroom door opens and Gawaine walks in.

“Oh,” Gawaine says, surprised, stopping for a moment, but he doesn’t hesitate long. “Excuse me,” he tells Morholt, and Merlin watches his boots cross the floor in front of him. Morholt stills inside Merlin, waiting for Gawaine to finish and leave; Merlin has to press his knuckles hard against the floor to keep himself from flinching away from the slick of oil he can feel running down the inside of his legs, from rearing back and just running, because as bad as this is, that would lead to something worse.

There’s a shuffling noise as Gawaine grabs whatever it is he needs, and just as he’s going back to the door it opens again.

“How long does it take to find a spare hood and jess?” Gareth demands, leaning in the doorway, and as Gawaine starts to answer Gareth stops cold, his attention focusing on where Merlin’s on all fours with Morholt behind him. Merlin knows what it looks like, knows it’s undeniable what they’re doing, and closes his eyes briefly against the queasy shame rolling through him.

“What’s going on here?” Gareth asks in a calm, dangerous voice.

Morholt shifts, braces himself on Merlin’s back and pushes himself further upright; Merlin has to lock his elbows to keep his face from slamming into the floor. “What the hell does it look like?” he snaps. “God in heaven, is every knight in Camelot going to traipse through here to visit?”

Gareth’s face is thunderous, but Gawaine none-too-gently shoves him out the door, closing it behind them.

Morholt gives a vicious thrust, pressing between Merlin’s shoulder blades until Merlin’s forced to bend his arms and rest his forehead against the floor. “Fucking Gareth,” he fumes, digging his fingernails hard into Merlin’s skin. “Fucking Cornish prick.”

He’s angry, either at Gareth or at himself for getting caught, and it makes him reckless, harsh; Merlin just grits his teeth and waits for it to be over.

Morholt’s not paying attention to anything apart from extracting his own ferocious pleasure, but Gareth hadn’t closed the door all the way as he left and Merlin can hear him arguing quietly with Gawaine outside.

“What in God’s name was that about, Gareth?”

“I could ask you the same question!” Gareth is livid, though Merlin can’t really imagine why. It’s not as if this is a secret among the knights, not anymore. “Were you just going to walk out without saying a word? How can you turn a blind eye to that?”

“It’s none of my concern what Sir Morholt or anyone else gets up to on his own time, and it’s none of yours, either.” Gawaine still sounds as steady as ever, although Merlin fancies he catches the undercurrent of exasperation in his voice, as if they’ve had this argument a hundred times already.

Gareth makes a strangled, impatient sound. “It’s our concern when we’re trying to institute a code of chivalry,” he argues. “In there – that goes against everything Arthur’s trying to change.”

“What’s happening in there has nothing to do with chivalry,” Gawaine replies, and there’s an edge to his voice now. “As far as I’m concerned if a discontent servant wants to make trouble for the prince by sleeping with his knights, that’s his own choice. I’d throw him out of Camelot, myself.”

“You think...” Gareth sounds almost breathless, as if the wind has been knocked out of him entirely. “My God, did that look consensual to you? Did you even look once at his face? Gawaine!”

The voices are fading now; they must be leaving. Merlin can picture them: Gawaine striding out confidently into the sun, with Gareth trailing after him, looking nearly apoplectic as he tries to understand his brother.

Morholt groans, shoving Merlin’s face harder into the floor as his dick pulses inside Merlin, and Merlin drags his thoughts away from Gareth’s concern. He’s already tried appealing to the prince, and Arthur made his decision more than clear: the new code doesn’t extend to Merlin the betrayer. It’s nice of Gareth to worry about Merlin, but he doesn’t really understand. If this is the price required for Merlin to stay in Camelot, then Merlin will bear it without further complaint.

Sir Morholt leaves without a word, and Merlin finds his trousers and goes back to work.

*

Merlin is relatively undisturbed for over a week after that day, and he savours every hour of it. Gareth sends him troubled looks and tries to approach him twice while he’s mucking out stalls, but Merlin makes himself scarce. Gareth probably could find Merlin anyway if he wanted to, but he doesn’t, for which Merlin is unashamedly grateful. He’s not interested in pity, and doesn’t really want to find out if Gareth is at bottom no more chivalrous than any of the other knights when he’s alone.

Late summer is finally giving way to the crisp chill of autumn, and Merlin’s found an out-of-the-way corner to enjoy the fading sunlight in while he polishes a saddle for the stable master. He doesn’t look up at first when a shadow falls across him; assumes it’s someone come to check on his progress. “Tell Master Dap that I’ll be finished as soon as I can, but hovering isn’t going to make my work go any faster.”

“I don’t give a fuck about Master Dap,” Lionel says, and Merlin stills, feeling every muscle tense. He doesn’t look up.

“Sir Lionel,” he says, careful, curling his fingers tightly around the cloth in his hand. “How can I help you?”

Lionel’s answer is to grab him by the front of his shirt and pull him upright hard until Merlin stumbles and stands, still not daring to look Lionel in the eyes. He watches the saddle tumble into the dirt and tries to relax. Fighting, he’s learned, only makes Lionel worse.

“You’ve been talking, slut,” Lionel hisses, and throws Merlin backward; Merlin trips over the stool he’d been sitting on and crashes into the wall, cracking his head hard against its solid face. “You’ve been spreading filthy lies against me.”

Merlin tries to see past the bursts of light dancing across his vision, tries to scramble away out of Lionel’s reach, but the knight is too fast. “I didn’t,” he cries when Lionel gets a fistful of his hair and yanks him back. “I haven’t talked to anyone.”

“Really,” Lionel says, furious. “Then why did Gawaine take me aside this morning for private questioning with the prince himself? Answer me that, boy.” He gives Merlin’s hair another cruel twist for emphasis.

“I don’t know,” Merlin says, still dazed, sprawled on the ground and trying to get his feet under him again as Lionel hauls him up. “I haven’t said anything though, I swear.”

“Your promises mean nothing,” Lionel informs him, and backhands him across the face.

Merlin realizes, heavy cold dread collecting in his gut, that Lionel is angrier than Merlin’s ever seen him before, and that the corner he’d chosen to work in is in a small, deserted courtyard far enough away from the bustling stables that probably no one can hear him if he screams.

Lionel wrenches him up by his hair again while Merlin’s still gasping from the blow and twists his arm behind him, pressing him face-first against the wall, an echo of the first time this happened. “I’m going to remind you who owns you,” Lionel growls, pushing Merlin’s arm up the wrong way until the pain makes Merlin cry out. He’s working at the laces of Merlin’s breeches, and Merlin tries to squirm away, angry now through his fear.

“You don’t own me,” he manages, trying to elbow Lionel in the stomach with his free arm. That earns him another blow as Lionel pulls back, sending Merlin stumbling to land hard on the ground, his legs tangled in his breeches.

Lionel’s on him before he can crawl away, catching Merlin’s hands and pinning them against the dirt by Merlin’s head. He must have undone his own breeches at some point; Merlin can feel the hot length of Lionel’s dick sliding along his crack, leaving a damp trail where the head touches. “You’re very much mistaken,” he whispers, leaning down until his lips just brush Merlin’s ear. Merlin shivers and tries to jerk away, but Lionel has him fast.

“You’re mine,” Lionel says, readjusting his position. “I might share you around, but you’re mine, boy; remember that.”

Merlin realises what Lionel’s doing as the head of Lionel’s cock nudges up hard against his hole, and he panics. It’s never not painful, being fucked, but since that first awful time even Lionel’s always made a cursory effort at stretching Merlin, or at least slicking his cock with something before plunging in, even if it is only Merlin’s spit from a messy blowjob. Merlin doesn’t want to imagine what this will be like without even that meagre preparation, with nothing but Lionel’s precome easing the way. He struggles harder against Lionel’s grip, trying to press his legs together, but Lionel has his knees between Merlin’s, keeping them spread apart, and his weight keeps Merlin pinned to the ground.

“No,” Merlin begs as Lionel presses forward, the burn starting sharp and horrible where Lionel’s breaching him, ripping him apart. “No, no, stop, please stop—” His voice is getting louder, wilder, he knows, but he can’t control it, can’t ignore Lionel the way he ignores all the others, and Lionel snarls, moving Merlin’s hands to the centre of Merlin’s back, where he can hold them still as he snakes his free hand around to wrap around Merlin’s mouth.

“Shut your mouth,” Lionel advises as Merlin pulls in short, sobbing pants through his nose, then drives his hips forward hard.

Merlin screams against Lionel’s hand, thrashing against the agony, but he can’t escape, can’t break free, and he must be hallucinating because he can hear other voices now, shouting words he can’t make out over the roar in his head.

The pain eases suddenly and Lionel’s weight lifts off of him, letting him roll away and curl up, shaking, unable to do more than give wordless thanks that it’s over. It doesn’t take him long to recover enough to realize that there are other people in the courtyard, other knights facing off against Lionel. None of them pay Merlin any attention; it’s like he doesn’t exist, as if Lionel had been caught fucking air instead of a stable boy. He doesn’t listen as the knights argue, too busy yanking up his breeches and scooting himself backward out of reach into the far corner of the courtyard, just in case anyone does notice him and get ideas about whose fault this is. He has no desire for more bruises.

Once he’s got his back against the wall, he takes a closer look at the fracas unfolding before him. Lionel’s breeches are still undone, but at least his tunic hangs down far enough to cover him. He’s nose to nose with Gareth, bellowing, while Gawaine looks on in disapproval. There are at least five other knights with them, mostly new to Camelot; Merlin doesn’t think any of them have pulled him into dark corners yet. And directly behind Gareth, arms crossed and feet firmly planted, looking every inch the sovereign, is Arthur.

The world reels crazily around Merlin, and there’s something squeezing the breath out of him, a vise around his chest. He hasn’t seen Arthur since the day he tried to ask for protection; what’s Arthur doing here now?

Merlin can see now that Lionel is yelling at Arthur, not Gareth, and shakes himself into paying attention to the words just in time to hear Lionel call Arthur a hypocrite and a liar.

“Watch yourself,” Gawaine growls, stepping forward. “That’s the crown prince you’re talking to.”

Arthur puts a hand on Gawaine’s shoulder, wordlessly calling him off. “Really,” he says to Lionel, and Merlin recognizes the cold iron behind his calm tone. “You think I’m a liar?”

Lionel is angry past the point of reason. “You’re nothing but a greedy whoremonger who won’t let honest men have even his castoffs,” he spits out, drawing a collective shocked hiss of breath from the other knights, and he’s opening his mouth to add something more when Arthur punches him squarely in the jaw.

Things blur again after that. Lionel stumbles back, mouth bloody, before lunging forward, or maybe turning to run at Merlin, or both, but there are more knights, yelling, their arms and solid shoulders everywhere, blocking Lionel in. Merlin’s shaking. He can feel his hands shuddering where they’re wound into the fabric of his breeches, and he can’t quite bring anything into focus anymore. There’s a fierce kind of joyful rage running through him as he remembers Arthur hit Lionel – Arthur never strikes anyone except in combat, certainly never with his bare hands – and if Merlin lets the world go distant he can pretend the punch was for him, for what Lionel did to him and not because of an insult to Arthur.

Someone’s kneeling by him, gathering his limbs together and lifting him up. He pushes at them, but his fingers won’t quite uncurl enough to give a good shove. He can’t manage more than gulping breaths, can’t stop the shivers tearing through him. The knight carrying him smells familiar, and holds him carefully, gently, doesn’t try to make him uncurl. Merlin turns his face into the man’s shoulder for comfort and doesn’t open his eyes when he’s laid somewhere soft and dark and left alone.

*

Merlin wakes to find himself in a small chamber somewhere in the castle, just big enough to hold the narrow bed he’s on and a small cupboard. It’s even smaller than the room he had with Gaius, but the ticking under him feels like feathers, not straw, and there are two heavy blankets over him, too well-made to be meant for servants. He pushes the blankets off his arms and sits up, scrubbing a hand across his eyes as he tries to remember how he got to wherever he is. There’s a window, the light coming through it cool and blue with twilight, but he doesn’t especially want to move in order to see through it, doesn’t want to do anything until the floor stops tilting.

There are voices outside the door. Merlin knows he’s probably not meant to hear, but he listens anyway.

“Have they escorted him out of town yet?” Arthur sounds worn, strained.

“A full hour ago, sire, with all his effects. He knows he’s not welcome in Camelot anymore.” Gawaine’s deep voice is harder to understand, but if Merlin concentrates he can still make out the words.

“Good.”

There’s a pause; Merlin wonders who they’re talking about until Gawaine speaks again. “There’s nothing more you can do,” he says gently. “Gaunnes is too powerful a fief to risk anything further. Lionel’s father and brother are influential men, and they will not take kindly to more drastic measures. You can’t be sure they won’t go to Bayard if you push them too far.”

“I know that.” Arthur’s irritated now. “It’s not right to let him go, though.” Gawaine makes a sound, but Arthur overrides him. “You know it isn’t; what he did is unforgivable, Gawaine. I don’t care what his justifications were.”

“He wasn’t the only one.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Arthur demands. “They’re all just as guilty as he is. How am I supposed to change things when my knights themselves ignore the rules?” There’s a muffled thump; Merlin thinks Arthur might have slammed his hand down, palm open, on the table. “Are we any closer to finding out who the others were?”

“Leon and Geraint are working on it as we speak,” Gawaine tells him. “They’ll all be gone by morning.”

They lapse into silence, and Merlin lets out a slow breath. Lionel, gone from Camelot. He wishes the knowledge brought relief, came with anything but an uneasy hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. Lionel is gone, maybe the others as well, but that doesn’t mean the nightmare is over; Lionel was only one man in a castle, a town of hundreds, and he knows now he cannot defend himself against all of them, not if he wants to stay to watch over Arthur.

It’s a long time before Arthur speaks again, softly enough that Merlin almost doesn’t hear him. “Thank you,” he says. “For making me see. I would have... I was blind, until you came to me with Gareth.”

Gawaine sounds uncomfortable. “You should be thanking Gareth,” he tells Arthur. “He’s the only one who saw things clearly.”

“I will,” Arthur says, and Merlin hears Gawaine’s heavy footsteps.

“You can’t blame yourself, sire. There was no way you could have known what was happening.”

“Thank you, Gawaine,” Arthur says again, and although he’s courteous, this time there’s a clear dismissal in his tone. Gawaine bids him good night, and Merlin hears a door close – presumably Gawaine leaving. He draws his knees up to his chest and winds his arms around them, running his fingers in little circles over the woolen blankets. Arthur’s still moving around in the other room, and Merlin tries to figure out what he’s doing from the sounds: the scrape of a chair against the floor, the soft noise of water being poured into a basin.

He’s almost worked up the strength to lie back down when the door opens and Arthur walks through it. Merlin stiffens, his body buzzing with things he can’t, doesn’t want to name. He locks his hands in the thick blankets, grounding himself as fear tries to claw its way out through his throat.

Arthur looks supremely uncomfortable and is very carefully not meeting Merlin’s eyes, but his shoulders are as square as ever when he steps further into the room, reaching for something at his belt. Merlin can’t help the flinch that pulls him closer to the wall, away from Arthur, and Arthur stops short, his face going pinched with hurt and anger.

“I’ve brought you the key,” he says, carefully untying a small iron key from the bunch of keys at his hip. He holds it out, but Merlin doesn’t move; in the end Arthur ends up laying it on the ledge of the window. “It’s the only one there is; there aren’t any other copies.”

“The only key to what?” Merlin’s voice is gravelly, hoarse from sleep and the bitter aftertaste of panic. Arthur looks at him in surprise for a moment.

“To this room, of course.”

Merlin examines the weave of the blanket where it’s stretched over his knees. It’s easier than watching Arthur, trying to figure out what’s going on behind the narrow corners of his mouth, between the creases on his forehead. “Why would I need the key to this room?”

“Merlin—” Arthur begins with a sigh, and stops, as if he realises he’s lost the right to that kind of familiarity. “These are your new quarters,” he says instead. “I’m having you reinstated as my manservant.”

“Oh,” Merlin replies, because he can’t think of anything else to say, can’t begin to sort through the thoughts tearing through his head at those words. It’s always easy for Arthur, he thinks suddenly: a wave of the hand and the world falls neatly back into order. He knows well enough that Arthur’s life isn’t anywhere near perfect, but the idea that Arthur thinks this is enough, that this even begins to fix the mess he’s made... Merlin can feel anger buried in himself now, a slow creeping rage moving slowly up his spine.

Then it dawns on him that Arthur’s chambers are through the door, just a step away, and fear crashes over him again like freezing iron around his limbs: what if this is no rescue at all, but trading one cruel man for another?

Arthur has always been intelligent, and when he notices Merlin’s trembling his face goes dark. “I would never take advantage of anyone under my protection,” he says harshly. “Never. And I swear to you that is the only key to this room; once you lock the door no one can enter against your will.”

Merlin doesn’t move, except to steal another glance at where the key sits, but the fear eases a little, letting him breathe. He wants to believe Arthur entirely, wants to trust him, but he thinks maybe the break has gone too deep between them, betrayal and counter-betrayal irrevocably severing the easy camaraderie they once shared.

Arthur turns to leave, but he hesitates at the door, one hand raised to rest lightly on the wall, steadying himself. “I didn’t know,” he says quietly, without looking back, as if he can’t bear to look at Merlin anymore. “I’m... I didn’t know that was the way of things.”

He shuts the door behind him, and Merlin’s left staring at the smooth grain of the wood, wondering if that’s all the apology he’ll ever hear.

*

They fall into a cautious routine. After Merlin brings up Arthur’s breakfast, he retreats to his own room and waits until he hears Arthur leave for training or patrol before reemerging to find the lists of chores Arthur’s left for him. None of them are ever near the stables, and none of them require him to interact very extensively with any of the knights who are left.

When Merlin feels everything pressing in on him, when the horror rushes back in and he has to retreat to his room, lock the door and huddle in the corner, knees pulled up to his chest and back firmly against the wall while he tries to remember how to breathe, Arthur doesn’t say anything, never scolds him for shirking his duties. Sometimes he can hear Arthur’s footsteps outside; not trying to get in, just pacing, like he’s guarding Merlin’s door.

The only time Arthur ever tries to enter Merlin’s room when it’s locked is the first time Merlin wakes up screaming, soaked in clammy sweat and shaking from a dream he tries not to remember. Arthur rattles the door handle, yells for Merlin, demanding to know if he’s alright, and all Merlin can bring himself to do is pull his blankets over his head and shiver, his eyes shut tight against the darkness as he listens to his shattered heartbeat echoing Arthur’s pounding on the door. Merlin’s not sure, but he thinks Arthur sleeps just outside his door all night.

They don’t speak much. Merlin can’t think of anything to say to Arthur, and Arthur seems content enough to leave him alone. He flinches, sometimes, when he looks at Merlin, and when he thinks Merlin isn’t looking he lets his shoulders drop, as if they’re bowed under a heavy weight. It bothers Merlin; he wants to trust Arthur, still mourns the loss of their old easy friendship, but he feels the betrayal too keenly still, and to see Arthur show that he feels guilt only silently makes Merlin inexplicably angry, feeds a slow simmer beneath his skin.

He finds a vial of one of Gaius’s nightmare remedies outside his door one morning, after Arthur has left for the day, and stands for a long time just looking at it. There is a distant kind of gratitude he feels at the edges of his consciousness – he knows that Arthur knows that he doesn’t sleep well anymore, and wakes up drenched in sweat five days out of every seven – but anger is a more comforting reaction: anger that Arthur thinks he can bribe his way to absolution, that he thinks he’s entitled to help Merlin when Merlin wants nothing more than to be left alone.

In the end he burns the vial without so much as touching it, concentrating to focus his magic until the remedy is nothing more than a tiny pile of ash. It’s taken him well over a month to coax his magic back into order; it feels wilder now from being pent up, as if it wants to make up for the time he held it back by obliterating whatever it can reach.

He wakes up screaming that night, and in the morning Arthur is sitting in a chair, waiting for him, looking tired and worn.

“My lord,” Merlin acknowledges, pressing his back against the comforting wood of his door and reaching up unconsciously to make the key is secure on the thong around his neck.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, and hesitates. “Are you... content, living here?”

Merlin isn’t sure what Arthur’s trying to tell him, and so he says nothing.

Arthur is staring somewhere beyond Merlin’s left ear. “What I mean,” he says determinedly, “is that if you would be more comfortable living elsewhere or taking other work, you shouldn’t think that I’d try to stop you. I know you aren’t—” he stops, changes what he was about to say. “I know Camelot has not done well by you; if you wish to leave I would give you my blessing and a full purse.”

Merlin isn’t prepared for the hot rage that nearly swamps him at Arthur’s resolute speech, and leans hard against the door to hold himself upright. “Are you sacking me?” he inquires.

Arthur looks at him in surprise. “Of course not.”

“Then,” Merlin bites out. “If it’s all the same to you, sire, I’d just as soon stay where I am.” With that, he lets himself back into his room; if Arthur’s hungry he can fetch his own damned breakfast for once.

*

They spend a week after that day in even terser silence, until one evening Merlin brings up a few covered dishes after Arthur misses supper to find the prince well into his cups with an empty goblet and a pitcher half-full of wine in front of him.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, barely glancing up as he pours himself another cup of wine. “I’m not hungry; you needn’t have bothered with that.”

“You haven’t eaten a thing today,” Merlin points out, setting the dishes down on the table hard enough to rattle the pitcher. “But suit yourself. Let it all go cold if you want.”

He’s almost made it back to his room, fully intending to lock the door and let Arthur drink himself into oblivion and a splitting headache if that’s what he wants to do, when Arthur speaks again.

“Why are you here?”

Merlin stops and half-turns, just far enough that he can see Arthur running his finger around and around the rim of his goblet and frowning at the table, the furrows in his brow deep and unhappy.

He takes a moment to breathe before he answers, because what he wants to say isn’t going to help the situation. “Because I have a job here,” he says, his voice strained despite his best efforts, “and it’s difficult to eat if you don’t have work.”

“You could find work elsewhere,” Arthur points out, taking a mouthful of wine. “I know you hate Camelot. You hate me. Why don’t you leave?”

“Forgive me if I’m not interested helping you feel good and sorry for yourself,” Merlin snaps. “Don’t flatter yourself by thinking I care enough about you to hate you anymore.” Arthur is insufferable at the best of times and downright terrible when he drinks enough to turn maudlin; Merlin has no patience for it, has no strength left to deal with Arthur at the best of times, when Arthur doesn’t push him and he can keep his mind clear of the darker things that lurk in the corners of his thoughts, waiting for his guard to drop.

Arthur goes still at that, freezing for a fraction of a moment before he sets his cup down. Merlin can read the anger in the tendons of his bared forearms, and smiles in grim satisfaction. There’s something broken between them, and maybe it’s time he says as much if Arthur can’t or won’t see it himself.

“You don’t hate me,” Arthur says, and although Merlin thinks he meant it as a question it comes out as a statement, low and very nearly dangerous. “Maybe you should.”

“Maybe I should,” Merlin replies curtly. “If that’s all, sire—”

“What do you want from me?” Arthur demands before Merlin can slip into his room and lock the door. “Are you just going to hide away there for the rest of your life not speaking to me or anyone else?”

Merlin spends a moment absolutely breathless with rage before he’s able to speak again. There’s a fleeting look Arthur gives him, something like regret for the words, spoken too-hasty and after too much wine, but it’s gone in a flash.

“There’s nothing I want from you,” he manages finally. He can’t help the quiver in his voice – nothing to do with any kind of fear, just the heat rising higher in his throat. He lets it carry his words out of his mouth, feels surreally detached from the situation. “Nothing I would ever ask for.”

It’s a lie. He knows on every level of his being that it’s a lie, but ravening wolves wouldn’t pull the truth from him, not now. Arthur’s become so necessary to him, even through the betrayal, maybe especially because of it: Arthur’s the reason he stayed, the reason he didn’t burn everyone who dared touch him where they stood, and there’s a fear lodged deep inside now that Merlin only acknowledges on his blackest nights. While he’s been gone, while he’s been outside of Arthur’s life looking in, nothing changed except that he became less essential. Arthur’s already dismissed Merlin once, and he could do it again with no cost to himself – except that he acts like he expects Merlin to be the one to up and leave at a moment’s notice. Arthur holds the power and yet refuses to acknowledge it, and that burns at Merlin, galls him more than he’d cared to realise before.

“Yes, you’ve made that clear.” Arthur’s cup is empty again, his voice bitter. “You don’t want anything anymore, except to blend into the stonework here while you creep around doing your job.” He tilts his head back; Merlin knows him well enough to know that means he’s dangerously drunk, past the point of being able to judge what he says. “You used to argue with me, you know. You never do that anymore.”

Merlin gives up all hope of being able to shut his door on this thing he refuses to call a conversation. “Maybe you should have thought of that before you put your knife at my throat,” he snaps, and turns again to leave. “You don’t have the first idea about anything; I don’t need to you sit here and judge me for what I do now.”

Arthur goes quiet then; no less angry, but nastier about it. “No,” he replies, his voice a harsh kind of grate. “No I don’t. All I know is what I thought I felt when I saw someone I wanted go to the back of the stables with anyone but me.”

“You,” Merlin says flatly, his back to Arthur, nearly blind with fury now – how dare Arthur pull this kind of stunt, how dare he – “you think that makes this any better? You threw me out, Arthur; the moment I trusted you I was lost, and when I tried to trust you again you pushed me back into the pit.” His voice keeps rising, and Arthur has to yell to interrupt him, loud again.

“I know! Fuck, you think I don’t know that, haven’t thought about it every single day?”

“Have you?” Merlin demands, spinning around. “Have you really? Should we go to the king now, then? Should you march me down there in chains and call everyone in to see the snake in the grass, the servant turned sorcerer?” He holds his wrists out, shaking with the force of everything pouring out of him. “Let’s go, Prince Arthur. I promise I won’t pull the castle down around you until after the king’s decided to cut off my head.”

Arthur’s gone pale, looks sick with too much wine. “Don’t make jokes about it,” he says. “I’m not going to go back on my word. Don’t... my father isn’t well, anyway, not well enough to pull a stunt like that on him; do you want to make him worse?”

Merlin doesn’t answer, at least not with words. Instead he flings out a hand, sending the room into a whirl of movement, chairs and drapes and anything that isn’t bolted down going flying in a maelstrom centered on where Arthur sits.

“What about now? Still comfortable with having a sorcerer so close to you?” Merlin inquires coldly. “Still want me to argue with you?” Arthur’s eyes are frightened now behind the bravado, and Merlin echoes the question Arthur had asked. “What do I want from you? I don’t know, Arthur.” But that’s a lie too. He wants Arthur to stop flinching when he looks at Merlin, wants Arthur to stop simultaneously treating him like an invalid and pretending nothing has changed. “What do you want from me? Do you want me to be this, a sorcerer you can use to strike down whoever stands against you? Do you want me to hide who I am; do you want me to leave, crawl back into whatever hole I came from and leave you alone?” He’s been stalking forward slowly, and he leans a hand on the back of Arthur’s chair, leans cruelly close, puts a foot up on the seat of it to spread his legs wide in a clear signal. “Do you want me, my body? Would you take it, or are you too honourable to fuck a wizard?”

“Stop,” Arthur says, harsh, breaking out of his frozen state at last and shoving Merlin away. “For God’s sake, Merlin, stop it!”

Merlin pulls away, feeling bleakly triumphant, sending the room back into order with another swift movement of his hand and feeling the heat of the magic fade reluctantly from his fingertips. It wants out; at the moment he’s of half a mind to let it go.

Arthur’s standing now, tenser than Merlin’s ever seen him before, arms half-crossed in front of him, a protective stance. Merlin thinks he’s probably guessed how inebriated he is: Arthur’s always been quick to stage a retreat whenever he makes that realization. Too bad he hadn’t thought of it earlier, Merlin thinks sourly.

“I don’t care about any of that,” Arthur’s saying, his gaze fixed somewhere behind Merlin’s left shoulder. “I know I lost my chance at wanting anything from you a long time ago. There’s only one thing I care about now. I want you to be safe, Merlin; it doesn’t matter if it’s here or in Ealdor or wherever you want to go.” He pauses. “That isn’t exactly right. I’d like it if you were happy, too, but at this point I know better than to think happiness is anything more than a dream.”

He draws a breath, looks like he’s about to add something more, and walks out of the room instead, letting the door swing shut behind him and leaving Merlin to stare after him, still blazingly furious but more confused now than ever.

*

Merlin packs his bag that night, goes so far as to leave his key on Arthur’s table and make his way out of the castle, using his magic to slip around the guards at the city gates. He should have known better, should never have put so much trust, so much faith in one man, and he is doubly the fool for keeping that faith when every trust had been betrayed, thrown aside like so much chaff. I’m not going back on my word, Arthur had said, but he’s already done that and more; he has no ground to stand on to make promises. Merlin needs to do what he should have done the day Arthur dismissed him: leave Camelot far behind and find another place. Not Ealdor, because Merlin still knows he cannot face the memories there of his childhood and of Arthur, and not Mercia, because he has no desire to be involved in any sort of war. There are plenty of other places in Albion, though; some of which would even welcome him as a sorcerer.

He makes the mistake of turning when he reaches the crest of the hill outside of Camelot, of taking one last look at the town he’d come to love despite everything. His gaze goes directly to the battlements and the lookout points on the turrets, where he knows Arthur is from experience. Arthur always makes for the highest point he can get to when he wants to be alone sobering up.

What Arthur’s done, what he failed to do, it’s unforgivable still for Merlin. He wants to feel disgusted by himself, by everything he made himself endure for a man who in the end didn’t turn out to be worth the sacrifice, but the thought just makes him feel empty, miserable because he’s seen that Arthur could be worthy of it, could be worthy of everything Merlin has to give, and despite everything it’s hard to let that dream go.

“That’s it, then,” he says aloud, to make it real, but still he hesitates. There’s a noise behind him and for a single, mad moment he thinks it’s Arthur, come to truly apologise and to ask Merlin to come back with him so he can prove himself worthy of trust again.

There’s nothing there, of course; just the first few flakes of snow falling silently to earth. Merlin curses his naivety and turns his back on Camelot, pulling his jacket close around him as he heads into the woods.

He doesn’t go far before he stops and leans against a tree, resting. He shouldn’t be tired, hasn’t walked more than ten minutes, but his steps are heavy, dragging. Most of him still cries out with the desire to leave, to seize his chance to get as far away from Arthur and his total lack of comprehension of anything important as possible, but one small, treacherous part of him still refuses to dismiss Arthur out of hand, still wants to see what might happen if he gives Arthur another chance.

Arthur doesn’t deserve another chance. He wants to shout it out, listen to it echo off the frozen branches, but the snow is falling thicker now, building up quickly on the ground and on his shoulders, muffling every sound.

Two halves of the same coin. The thought flits into his mind unbidden, but that had just been the calculated ravings of another manipulator. Merlin scrubs a hand across his face, pinches the bridge of his nose.

In the end he sighs and turns his steps around, back toward the familiar walls, feeling more tired with every step. One more day can’t hurt. A week, no more. Just to make sure he’s doing the right thing by leaving.

*

If Arthur noticed Merlin’s short-lived departure, he doesn’t say anything. In fact, he doesn’t speak at all when he finally returns to his rooms. Merlin waits for him to come to his senses and throw Merlin out, but things go on – not normally, not even what passed for normal before, but without any more scenes. A week passes, but Merlin’s lost any momentum he’d felt before toward leaving. Camelot is his home, for better or for worse; she deserves another chance even if Arthur doesn’t.

He feels guilty for thinking it but he’s glad Arthur’s spending more and more time with the knights, training for the war with Bayard that’s no longer a question of if but when. Now that Merlin’s paying attention he can tell that Uther’s illness is more than a passing cough, as well: Arthur has to spend more time with him, more time taking care of the day to day running of the kingdom instead of just being with the knights. Arthur is the one holding councils and hearing the pleas of the few villagers who make their way through the snow for an audience; Merlin barely sees Uther anymore, except at the occasional supper in the great hall.

Merlin begins testing himself, pushing himself further back into his own life and out of Arthur’s. It’s nothing to do with Arthur’s drunken words about hiding away, although that does sting a bit – Merlin realises that he can’t remember the last time he had a conversation with Gwen, can’t remember how long it’s been since he so much as waved to her in passing, and he hates the feeling that settles deep in his gut at that knowledge.

“Oh Merlin,” she says when he finds her, and digs bread and cheese out of her apron for them to share. They sit in one of the old towers, eating and talking about nothing: the weather, the odd prevalence of bell-shaped sleeves in ladies’ fashions this year, slipping almost easily back into a friendship. Merlin leans back on the warm stone and looks at the fat white clouds scuttling along above. He thinks about telling her – sweet, solid Gwen – thinks about opening his mouth and letting the whole story come pouring out, but in the end he doesn’t say a word. It’s too much right now, and when Gwen brushes herself off and goes back to work, leaving him with a smile and a little press of his hand in hers, he doesn’t feel much regret.

It takes him another week to knock on Gaius’s door. Gaius opens it with a quizzical look that softens immediately at the sight of Merlin, who’s been pacing back and forth in front of the door for most of the afternoon and thinks it probably shows. “My dear boy,” he says. “You don’t need to tell me a thing you don’t want to.”

Somehow, though, that’s the right thing to say; it loosens whatever’s been tied back deep inside Merlin’s chest, and before he registers what’s happening he’s sitting on one of Gaius’s stools, telling everything in stops and starts while Gaius grips his shoulder more and more tightly. It’s the first time he’s spoken the words out loud, let the story spill out; it feels easier than he thinks it should, almost a relief to stop being the only one who knows his story. Arthur knows a story, but it isn’t Merlin’s, stretches beyond Merlin to where Arthur’s looking ahead at Camelot and his own future; Merlin’s only involved in part of it.

Gaius doesn’t say anything when Merlin finishes, just draws him up into a crushing hug. “Well,” he says gruffly, and coughs. Merlin can feel his own throat closing up, and swallows hard against it.

“I don’t,” he starts, because he doesn’t want to turn this into something heavy, too, something else to weigh at him, “I didn’t tell you because I’m looking for, for pity, or anything—” Pity, sympathy, the words people can say without really meaning them, just because they think they should. Merlin doesn’t want any part of it.

Gaius gives him a look Merlin can’t decipher. “Of course not,” Gaius agrees, soft. “Of course you didn’t.” He pauses. “Well,” he starts again, more briskly, straightening. “Does – does Arthur keep you running for him all day, or can an old man borrow you in the afternoons? You’re still technically my assistant.”

“I’ll ask,” Merlin says with relief. The tightness in his chest has eased immeasurably.

“Good,” Gaius says, giving his shoulder a last pat. “You probably have other duties now, though.”

Merlin gets to his feet, feeling drained: empty and tired in an entirely pleasant way. “Yes,” he admits, and heads for the door.

“Merlin,” Gaius says quietly, and Merlin turns, already almost out the door. “Thank you. For trusting me with this.”

Merlin nods, blinking hard, and ducks out as quickly as he can.

*

There is still the question of Arthur. Every hard, angry feeling Merlin has harboured toward him is still there, but it’s more muddled with every passing day. Nothing’s resolved between them; Merlin hardly knows what he wants from Arthur anymore. A signal, maybe, that Arthur understands what happened on more than a selfishly guilty level, a sign that he comprehends that what he does affects lives, whole lives, not just the parts he chooses to see.

It’s late afternoon on a clear, bitterly cold day, the distant sun nothing more than a taunting reminder of summer’s warmth. Merlin’s taking care of a few things in Arthur’s chambers while Arthur hears petitions in the throne room, not expecting Arthur back until after supper, since Arthur’s giving the audiences alone – Uther has been confined to his chambers until the cough he’s developed improves. Secure in that prediction, Merlin’s let himself exercise a little of his magic, in part as a way to measure his control and partly because he enjoys the feel of it, like stretching a limb left sitting too long.

It’s nothing much – just a few clothes folding themselves before being whisked away into the wardrobe, the fireplace cleaning itself because the ashes always get in every pore of Merlin’s skin and itch – but it’s obvious enough to anyone who walks in, which is exactly what Arthur does while Merlin is distracted by examining the links of Arthur’s mail shirt.

He whirls around at the sound of the door closing, dropping the magic at once, but it’s too late. Arthur’s eyes are wide, wary as he stares back at Merlin over the fallen clothes as the fireplace gives one more forlorn puff of soot.

Merlin says nothing, waiting for Arthur’s tenuous acceptance to snap, for him to slip back into the habits of a lifetime and call the guards to get rid of the sorcerer for good. But Arthur doesn’t breathe a word, doesn’t open the door or leave; instead, he edges around the corners of the room, trying to look nonchalant until he reaches his chair and slides into it, putting the parchments he holds on the table.

He bends his head to work, leaving Merlin staring at him. After a moment Arthur looks up, raising an eyebrow.

“By all means, don’t stop working on my account.”

Merlin gives a start and lets his suspicion show through his expression, but he picks up the mail again, more than slightly bewildered. Arthur nods at the fireplace. “Relay the fire; it’s colder in here than it is outside.”

It is freezing in the room, and Arthur doesn’t have the benefit of the warming charm Merlin had whispered earlier to keep the air around his body warm. Merlin stands and makes for the fireplace, but Arthur stops him before he can take more than a few steps.

“Not that way,” Arthur says, meeting Merlin’s eyes steadily. “The – how you were working before.”

Merlin crosses his arms and blusters to hide his shock. “I’m not doing anything if you can’t even say the words.”

Every line in Arthur’s body is tense, but he doesn’t drop his gaze as he says: “Relay and light the fire with your magic, please. Before I freeze to death.”

Merlin raises a hand and in a flash the fireplace is clean and the logs are rearranging themselves, flames already licking up, hot and hungry. Arthur nods in acknowledgement, and turns back to his papers, leaving Merlin to stare at him.

“I’ve been looking over some of my father’s laws,” Arthur says after a long silence, without looking up. “I still believe my father has been a good king, but in some ways he has been unjust.”

Merlin would put it another, less polite way, but he stays quiet, listening.

“There are laws he made that are wrong,” Arthur continues. “I’m having them looked at. Nothing will happen quickly; only the king can repeal a king’s decree.” He looks at Merlin. “It will be changed eventually, though. I swear it to you.”

Merlin knows that Arthur doesn’t apologise as a rule, in part because he was raised that way as a prince, in part because he’s emotionally stunted and possibly physically incapable of it. He hears the heavy layers in Arthur’s voice, though, and nods his acceptance. It’s costing Arthur to say these words, costing him to look at revising the law – especially now, when Uther retreats further into illness by the day. It isn’t enough, but it’s a start.

Arthur turns back to his papers then, and Merlin pretends to polish the mail in his hands, eyes fixed not on his work but on the angle of Arthur’s head, bent in thought.

Something eases between them after that day. There’s something new broken inside Merlin, a healing kind of wound; it’s raw, but there’s a clean ache to it, like earth scraped over in the spring before planting. Arthur acts differently, as if he’s trying to act normally – not trying to ignore everything, like he had been before, but like he’s making an actual effort now, a conscious choice to accept the present and move on.

He’s in his chambers nearly all the time now that deep winter has driven them all indoors, poring over maps and reports and long lists of numbers that he gathers up and stacks neatly when he isn’t using them. Merlin looks occasionally at the stray parchments which sometimes litter the table when he passes by, never studying them very closely until one morning, when he happens to catch a glimpse of a familiar landscape. He’s only seen a map of Ealdor once before, a rough sketch, but he remembers it surely, and here on Arthur’s table is a beautifully detailed map of the border between Camelot and Cendred’s kingdom, Ealdor marked out in Arthur’s clear, careful hand.

“Our spies in Cendred’s kingdom tell us there is talk of pressing the border come spring.” Arthur’s standing in the open doorway, and Merlin jumps back, guilty. “We’ve been looking at ways to strengthen it without taking forces away from the Mercian border – Bayard’s still the more immediate threat.”

“Oh,” Merlin says. He isn’t sure why Arthur’s telling him this, isn’t sure what he’s supposed to say. Arthur keeps watching him, unreadable, and eventually Merlin makes his excuses and escapes to see if Gaius needs any help that afternoon.

Odd, he decides, sorting dried herbs, and doesn’t think anything more of it, even when Arthur starts talking aloud to himself, verbally sketching strategies and supplies every night while Merlin tidies around him. He’s just processing information, Merlin thinks, fixing things in his memory for later.

Life moves on from day to day, the nights growing longer and longer before the earth shifts around and the light starts returning. It feels almost normal after a while, soothingly so. Merlin has a routine, meets Gwen to talk or to walk to the market together on clear days, finds dreamless sleep potions and sweetmeats tucked into the baskets of medicine Gaius sends him through the castle distributing.

He spends the evenings increasingly in Arthur’s chambers instead of safe behind his own locked door. It’s part of testing himself, testing Arthur’s limits and his own, and besides, Arthur’s talk of fortifications and siege tactics is interesting, though Merlin would as soon cut off a finger than tell Arthur that: it would only make him insufferable when he’s just beginning to be bearable again. Uther’s recovery helps. Merlin hadn’t realised how deeply Arthur had been worried until Uther starts presiding over the court again, pale but still looking as strong as ever; something unbends in Arthur’s shoulders, smoothing out some of the lines in his face.

One evening when the snow is howling around the eaves, Arthur’s discussing the placement of bridges and potential fords with himself when Merlin interrupts him without thinking.

“You can’t cross at Dunhill,” he points out. “Not a whole army. The dam there broke last spring, with the rains.” Arthur had said as much himself the week before, and the name had stuck with Merlin.

Arthur pauses, blinks, and looks at his maps again. “You’re right,” he says, and though he tries to hide it Merlin can see the grin spreading wide across his face.

Arthur starts leaving more papers out on his table during the day after that. Merlin only snatches glimpses at first, looks them over quickly before hurrying on with his duties. It’s fascinating looking at what makes an army march, the sums and sweat and coordination and sheer blind luck that ensure each soldier has bread to eat and that every horse that throws a shoe will have a new one put on quickly and efficiently.

He notices an error in one of the sums one late afternoon, when the sun is just setting. He looks at it for a while, sets aside the last piece of Arthur’s armour, and goes to fetch Arthur’s dinner. When he comes back, it’s still there, and he watches it for a minute more before throwing caution to the wind and pulling up Arthur’s chair to fix it.

He very nearly doesn’t notice when Arthur comes in; he’d been so engrossed in the columns of numbers. Arthur comes to look over his shoulder, and Merlin jumps, leaping out of the chair. “Sorry,” he says at Arthur’s puzzled look. “I just – that is, your sum. It was wrong. I fixed it.”

“You fixed more than that,” Arthur says, craning his neck to inspect more of Merlin’s work. “You’ve – Merlin, you’ve found a way to save Camelot three months’ worth of grain.”

Merlin shifts uncomfortably. “Your dinner’s going cold,” he points out, and picks up the polishing cloth he’d abandoned earlier, studiously avoiding meeting Arthur’s gaze.

The next day there are two chairs pulled up to the table, and Merlin takes a deep breath before sitting in one and pulling a map of Mercia’s borderlands toward him. Arthur comes in late and doesn’t say a word, just pulls up his own chair and tosses his bread at Merlin before digging into his cold chicken and bending his own head over the papers spread between them.

The days bleed into one another as the snow melts and the knights start speculating about mud and the feasibility of getting wagons over the mountain passes. It’s no longer just Merlin and Arthur at the table now: sometimes Leon is there, sometimes Gawaine or Gareth, often all three or more. At their questioning looks Arthur only says, “Merlin’s amazing with sums. Have you seen the work he did with the barley stores?” which should make Merlin uncomfortable but only gives him a warm feeling.

*

He should have anticipated it, Merlin supposes. He has, after all, been receiving an excellent if informal education in the art of waging war; combined with what he’d heard as Arthur talks with his knights and advisors, it was foolish to forget that the sums he’s been working aren’t just for fun, that they’re for a real, deadly purpose. It still comes as a surprise when Arthur comes back late one night from a meeting with his father and slumps into his chair, looking exhausted.

“It’s done,” he says, playing with the hilt of his belt knife, spinning it on the table. “My father’s officially given me command of the armies of Camelot. We march next week.”

Merlin stops folding spare tunics and looks at him. “To Mercia?”

“Yes, to Mercia,” Arthur snaps. “Unless there’s someone else we’ve decided to declare war on I don’t know about.” He stops himself, sighs, and rubs at his eyes with the heel of one hand. “I won’t require your services any more tonight,” he says, and Merlin hears the apology in his words. “It’s late; you should rest.”

Instead of leaving, though, Merlin comes to sit cautiously across the table from Arthur. “Have you ever been in a war before? A real one, I mean.”

Arthur looks at him, considering.

“Once,” he replies after a moment. “I was fourteen. One of Camelot’s allies had been overrun by a rival kingdom. My father sent a company of knights and soldiers to help drive them back. I was still a squire, hardly more than a boy.” He gazes down at the table moodily, using his knife to pick a few gouges in its surface even deeper. “All I had to do was watch the commanders and follow orders. This time...” He doesn’t finish, but Merlin can guess what he was about to say: This time there won’t be anyone else to blame if things go wrong.

Merlin wants to assure Arthur that nothing will happen, that they’ll secure the border and Arthur will return strong and sure and triumphant as ever, but what he says instead is: “What happened, before? Did Camelot win?”

“Camelot always wins, Merlin,” Arthur says, and for a moment there’s a trace of his old cocky pride. It fades quickly, though. “They had no harvest that year. The fields had all been burnt. We declared victory and left them to rebuild themselves.” In the candlelight his face looks hollowed out, worn.

Merlin sucks in a breath at the image, at the knowledge that Arthur would have seen the suffering around him and even as a boy would have been cut to the quick by it, would have chafed at his orders to do nothing.

They sit together in silence at the fire dies down; they hardly need its heat anymore. There’s a spring breeze finding its way into the room, still damp and chilly from the lingering frosts of winter, but it carries with it a promise of coming warmth.

*

Merlin hardly sees Arthur after that. There’s no training; the knights are all too busy riding out along the rows of tents that stretch out longer by the day as more soldiers – peasants, really, Merlin knows – arrive. Arthur rises early and burns candles late into the night, meets with his father and the quartermaster and countless other advisors Merlin can barely keep track of.

It isn’t until the night before the army is due to march that Arthur tells Merlin he isn’t going to be marching with them.

“Why not?” Merlin demands. He has no desire to stay behind in Camelot with nothing to do but brood and wait, jumping at every scrap of news that trickles back to them from the front.

“There will be squires to do anything you might do, and they have to go. You don’t.”

“They’ll all be busy looking after their own masters,” Merlin argues. “My place is—”

“Your place is where I decide it is,” Arthur cuts in sharply, fixing Merlin with a look that says he knows it’s a cruel thing to say but he means it anyway. “Why would you ever want to go to war, anyway?”

Merlin glares in response and says nothing, choosing to bang angrily around the room instead as he packs Arthur’s bags as haphazardly as he can bear.

The next morning, Merlin’s up before dawn. He finds Arthur asleep in his chair, candle burnt out in front of him, and throws a blanket over him before heading down to the dark kitchens to scrounge up something for breakfast. When Arthur wakes, Merlin’s already relaid the fire and set out all of Arthur’s armour, carefully giving each piece one last final polish.

“What’s this?” Arthur asks groggily, and Merlin slides bread and cheese in front of him.

“Eat,” he says. “Don’t ask questions.”

It doesn’t take Arthur long to eat and dress, and when he turns to reach for the quilted padding he’ll wear beneath his armour, Merlin’s already holding it ready for him.

“Merlin?” Arthur says, stopping short. Merlin doesn’t move, just holds the padding. His fingers aren’t trembling, but it’s a near thing.

“Come on then,” he says gruffly when Arthur still doesn’t move. “You haven’t got all day to stand there.”

Arthur finally does move at that, taking the padding from Merlin and slipping it on over his head. Merlin moves in to straighten it, fingers fumbling a little as he tries to remember which tie goes where. Neither of them speak as Merlin works steadily, tugging at leather straps and readjusting the position of each piece, his hands moving Arthur smoothly. It’s the first time he’s touched Arthur since before Arthur threw him out, before everything, and the moment feels heavy with that fact; a quiet sacredness hangs around them, and neither of them dare to break it with words.

Merlin steps back when he finishes and hands Arthur his sword to inspect, but Arthur sheathes it almost without looking at it. “Merlin,” he says, and stops. Merlin’s glad.

“Don’t do anything stupid,” he tells Arthur, and Arthur gives a brief half-smile.

“You’re usually the one doing stupid things.”

“Not true,” Merlin argues. “You do stupid things all the time and then I have to come sort it out for you.”

Arthur grows sober again. “Take care, Merlin.”

Merlin fidgets, picking dirt from beneath his nails, and doesn’t quite dare look up. “You too,” he says quietly, and waits until Arthur leaves before sitting down heavily at the table, resting his forehead on the worn wood.

It takes most of the morning for the army to clear out of Camelot, and Merlin half-listens to the faint shouts and creak of leather and wagon wheels as he putters around Arthur’s chambers, picking things up and putting them down again. Lunch has come and gone before he realises he’s listening for noise that isn’t there, and when he looks out the window the courtyard and streets are empty. He stands there for a moment, deliberating, then sighs.

“Oh hell,” he says, and goes to pack a bag with an extra shirt and a few other necessities before sneaking down to the kitchens and armoury. He knows where the army’s due to camp that night, remembers Arthur and Gawaine arguing over maps and marking lines. He isn’t worried about catching up: armies move notoriously slowly and he knows a shortcut to boot.

The little mare he borrows from the stables makes good time even through the woods, and he’s fully expecting to arrive long before anyone else who set out this morning, which is why it’s such a surprise when he finds fifteen hard-bitten men waiting in the wide clearing.

“You the replacement, then?” one of them asks, getting to his feet, sword very much in evidence. “About time you showed up. Prince’ll be here any minute.”

“The prince?” Merlin asks, too flummoxed to think about retreating, and the man cuffs him around the ear.

“Yeah, the prince. Or did you think we hired on to kill just anyone walking through here? Now hurry up, show us.”

Merlin just gives him a blank look, confused, every nerve screaming for him to get out, and the man’s scowl deepens. “Your magic, fool! You think we’re going to chance blowing this on some idiot who can’t even light a candle?”

“Oh,” Merlin says witlessly, and reaches out a hand. He calls a flame to his palm, but the men look less than impressed until he fells a tree and strips it of its branches in a matter of seconds.

“You’ll do,” the leader grunts, stepping back. “Remember, you’re only to slow him down, tie him up if you have to. We’ll do all the hard work. He’s to die by the sword, so don’t get carried away, hear?”

“Isn’t,” Merlin starts, and clears his throat. “Isn’t there an army with Ar... with the prince?”

The man dismisses that with a snort. “Prince always rides with the scouts in front, doesn’t he? Easy target. Now get in place.”

“Right,” Merlin says. There’s a curious ringing in his ears. “Right. Where... uh, where should I stand, then?”

They stick him behind a tree with an excellent view of the path and fade into the undergrowth of the forest expertly, weapons at the ready and eyes all on him, watching, waiting.

Merlin closes his own eyes and takes a deep breath, then another. Arthur’s been growing accustomed to Merlin’s magic slowly, given Merlin tacit approval to perform small works in the safety of Arthur’s locked chambers, but all he’s seen so far is mostly little tricks, harmless things. This will go far beyond that, will push Arthur more than Merlin feels comfortable with yet. He just hopes it doesn’t push things too far.

His magic flows easily to his fingertips, and he knows the men behind him can see it when the leader makes straight for him, glowering.

“Put them fancy sparks out,” he growls. “You want to warn off the prince before he even gets close?”

Merlin turns around. “Actually,” he says thoughtfully. “I do.”

It’s shamefully easy to overpower them. He wraps them each in thick ropes of power as they charge him, a fierce, exultant joy making his skin grow hot. He snaps out a hand imperiously, and their yells are stifled as vines spring up from the earth, winding around their limbs, forcing their mouths shut and their hands open so they drop their weapons.

He arranges them neatly in a pile, stretches, and turns to find Arthur himself at the edge of the clearing with the rest of the advance party, staring with something that might be wonder and might be horror at the scene before him. Merlin stiffens. He hadn’t expected Arthur to see the actual magic itself, just the aftermath, but he supposes the reckoning will be the same either way.

“Assassins,” he explains, because there isn’t anything else he can say, and waits, every muscle pulled agonizingly tight, for Arthur to say anything, to make his decision.

It takes a long time for Arthur to meet Merlin’s eyes, but when he does there’s a cautious warmth there that surprises Merlin. “No one,” he says forbiddingly to the knights with him, “is to speak of this with anyone, or he will answer to me. Merlin has informed us of the presence of some very dangerous spies, which we have captured. Leon, find out what they know. I want the name of whoever hired them.”

Arthur’s always had a way of turning words into actions, and before long the clearing is abuzz with movement. Merlin watches until he realises how the knights are planning on getting information out of the prisoners, and then he turns away. He knows it’s part of war and part of him is terribly glad they’re getting their due, but it still turns his stomach.

“There’s a river through the woods to the west if you want to wash up.” Arthur’s come up silently to stand next to him. “In case you wanted to take a walk.”

Merlin breathes out slowly, grateful. “I think I will.”

“Merlin,” Arthur calls after him, and when Merlin looks at him his face is open, honest. “I just wanted to say... that is, thank you.”

Merlin nods and keeps walking, something small and warm uncurling in his chest.

*

Arthur never mentions returning to Camelot, and Merlin settles easily into the life of an army on the march. He shares Arthur’s tent. The first night he’d nearly refused, but there’s something about being away from the thick air and heavy stone walls of Camelot that relaxes some of the sour leftover fear; besides, he realises, there’s nowhere else to sleep. Arthur is asleep almost as soon as he lays his head down, most nights, and on the nights he lays awake he talks softly, usually about nothing more than a hart the men had sighted that day, but his voice is comfort in the dark nonetheless.

It takes them more than a month to reach the borderlands, and another three days after that before they have their first skirmish with Bayard’s men. Merlin almost doesn’t even realise it’s happening, riding as he is far back among the supply wagons; he doesn’t pay attention to the shouting until an arrow nearly skewers his hand. Arthur is an idiot, of course, and nearly gets his head bashed open, but refuses all treatment until they’ve chased the Mercians back to their castle stronghold on the border.

“Ow,” Arthur says irritably, late that night when he finally lets Merlin look at the gash on his skull. “Ow, Merlin, that hurts.”

“Don’t be such an infant,” Merlin orders, swabbing at the wound again. “It serves you right. I hope you weren’t planning on going anywhere soon; you shouldn’t ride for a day at least.”

“Good thing we’re not moving on in the morning, then, isn’t it?”

Merlin blinks. “We’re staying here?”

“My father has instructed us to hold the border,” Arthur informs him. “We are not to advance into Mercia itself, only to defend Camelot against all comers. Besides,” he adds, a craftiness creeping into his voice. “Bayard’s sons were both in the battle today, which means they’re both in the castle we’re currently laying siege to. Which, incidentally, used to belong to Camelot before Bayard went mad and greedy last autumn, so I know firsthand that it is a small, cramped, godforsaken place. It’s not much more than a keep with a portcullis, and neither of the sons are known for their mild tempers.”

Merlin thinks this over for a minute, reaching for the bandages to wrap around Arthur’s head. “Two sons,” he muses. “So there’s a possibility their leadership will be divided, and their strategy will suffer?”

Arthur’s grin is full of teeth and far from reassuring. “Exactly.”

A foot soldier Merlin doesn’t recognise sticks his head in the open tent flap nervously. “Sorry to disturb, sire, but Sir Leon says you’re needed right away.”

“I’m on my way,” Arthur replies, standing and grabbing for his sword before batting Merlin’s hands away as Merlin tries to adjust the knot in his bandage. “It’s fine, Merlin,” he says, and Merlin glowers.

“Try not to get killed walking across camp,” he retorts, and Arthur makes a rude gesture over his shoulder as he leaves.

Arthur doesn’t return to the tent that night, and after three solid hours of pretending he isn’t worrying Merlin decides that if Arthur really had been killed or gone missing there would probably be a lot more noise outside, and goes to bed. It takes him a long time to fall asleep; he’s grown used to hearing Arthur’s even breathing, and the tent feels too large and empty without him.

Dawn comes early, and Arthur still hasn’t returned, but another servant comes to fetch Merlin.

“We’re all to go to the river,” he tells Merlin soberly as Merlin drags his boots on. “There’s going to be a hanging.” Merlin fumbles with the buckle on his boot at that, his fingers clumsy with surprise.

“A hanging? What for?”

The servant shrugs. “Dunno. We’ll find out soon enough.”

Merlin ends up near the front of the crowd, near enough to see Arthur, on horseback, deep in conference with Percival and Gawaine. There are two nooses strung up on a sturdy oak, two blindfolded men Merlin doesn’t recognise also mounted on horses nearby, their hands bound behind their backs.

Arthur and Gawaine seem to reach an agreement of sorts, and Arthur rides forward until he’s facing the assembled soldiers squarely, and waits for the low hum of talk to die away.

“Hear this,” he says in a voice meant to carry over battlefields, and if there’s one thing Arthur’s learned from Uther it’s how to catch the attention of a crowd, how to unconsciously ensure that all eyes are fixed on him, rapt. His own eyes are moving, though searching for something. “These men were accused last night of raping a village woman in her own home before beating her and leaving her there to die, taking with them half of her stores left from the winter.” He pauses, his eyes locking with Merlin’s and holding steady. “They were given a trial, and found guilty. By law, the punishment for this crime for all those not of noble blood is death.”

He lets the words sink in a little. Merlin digs his fingernails hard into the palms of his hands and wonders, a little hazily, what kind of game Arthur is playing here.

“Too often this is not the case,” Arthur continues. “Too often the crime is passed over, ignored because it was an enemy wrong, some poor, unwilling girl from the wrong town or the wrong side of the border. No longer.” There’s a stir at that, which Arthur ignores. “No longer will we draw lines between kin and enemy, between rich and poor. One crime, one punishment, no matter if it is a knight or a foot soldier, lord or servant.” His voice drops, and the men on either side of Merlin lean in to catch his words. Merlin can’t move, can barely hear – he feels removed from everything but for where Arthur’s eyes bore into his own. “I take no pleasure in any of this. I do not want to lose loyal men. But the law against their crime is just, and injustice cannot go unpunished. There is a new justice, a new day coming in Camelot, and it begins now.”

He might say more after that, as the two men are brought forward and the nooses placed around their necks, but Merlin doesn’t hear it. Arthur’s still looking right at him, as if willing him to understand something deeper at work, and Merlin hears that message all too clearly. This is for you, Arthur is saying. I would go as far and further for you if I were able. I will never forget that justice was denied you.

Merlin watches the legs of the hanged men kick until they both go slowly still, stands with his face set and stony until the soldiers, subdued now, disperse. He feels rather than sees Arthur walk up beside him.

“It doesn’t fix anything,” he says tightly, because it doesn’t, even though there’s a rush of savage joy running hot below his skin.

“For the woman?” Arthur says, and Merlin hears For you? “No. But for others; for the ones who will come tomorrow and the day after. I have a duty to protect them.” He bows his head, just for a moment. “I haven’t – haven’t always done my duty in the past. That’s changing. Camelot is changing.”

His voice is thick with such conviction, such belief, that Merlin can’t help but look at him: tired, worn-looking in yesterday’s bloody tunic, and still exuding a quiet power that makes Merlin’s breath catch in his throat.

This, he thinks. This is what I came back for.

Merlin reaches out, hesitant, and lays a hand carefully on Arthur’s shoulder, feels Arthur’s muscles jump beneath his fingers. “It’s a good thing,” he says at last. “You’ve done a good thing, Arthur.”

Arthur reaches up and places his own hand over Merlin’s warm and calloused, and they stand there together, not speaking, until the men’s bodies are taken down and taken away.

*

War, as far as Merlin can tell, is boring, but he’ll take boring over bloody, at least for now. They build up a wall of wood and earth around what has become their central camp, dig trenches around the palisade and plant sharpened, fire-hardened stakes at the bottom to slow any enemy attackers, but the attack never comes, not directly. Men leave in companies to build other camps, other fortifications along the border; more men arrive to take their place. Once or twice they exchange a flurry of arrows with the Mercians holed up in the castle stronghold as Leon and Gareth bicker about the plausibility of building a trebuchet; every few days or so they send war parties out to head off Bayard’s increasingly bold forays into Camelot.

Arthur has been expressly forbidden from going on any of these missions, which makes him irritable, so most days he prowls the camp on foot or answers correspondence while he complains to Merlin. Once a week he rides out to inspect the new fortifications being built along the ridgeline of the valley, strongholds against the army they get new reports on every day.

“Cendred’s just sent a hundred men to Mercia under the guise of trade negotiations,” Geraint says one evening when the knights have gathered in Arthur’s tent. Merlin’s ostensibly there to serve the wine, but he knows Arthur will ask his opinion about things afterward, draw out Merlin’s conclusions once the knights have gone and it’s just the two of them again. Merlin isn’t sure things between them will ever be as effortless as they once were, but the combination of being away from the stifling familiarity and memories of Camelot and the way Arthur’s quietly letting Merlin into his every confidence without asking anything in return has done much to heal the broken things between them.

“Undoubtedly he has heard of my father’s condition and wishes to take full advantage,” Arthur replies dryly, and Merlin, passing behind Arthur’s chair, spares a moment to touch his shoulder in silent support.

“What news from Camelot, sire?” Gawaine asks, following up on the point. “What news from the king?”

“There has been no change,” Arthur says, perfectly controlled. “Gaius expects my father to continue improving with the heat of summer to dry up his cough. Now, about supplies for the men in the south. We can hold the border against the combined forces of Cendred and Bayard for longer than they can afford to attack us, but only as long as we hold the higher ground. Leon, you rode that way last week. What do the new camps need?”

It’s nearing the third watch by the time the knights finally leave. Merlin cleans away the remains of their meal and wipes down the table, keeping one eye on Arthur, who’s oddly quiet, pensive.

When he does speak, it isn’t what Merlin expected.

“My father won’t last another winter,” he says bluntly, and Merlin swivels his head around to stare at him. Arthur’s playing with a parchment Merlin recognises as Gaius’s latest missive, folding and refolding it as he smoothes the edges with his fingers. “If he stops all stressful activities and stays confined to his bed he might live to see the spring, but,” he snorts, “ordering my father to bed rest is like ordering a wild boar to use courtly manners.”

Merlin tries a tiny smile for that, but Arthur doesn’t see it; he’s dropped his head down, resting his elbows on his knees and letting his hands hang, the letter still dangling from his fingers. Merlin sets down the cloth he’s holding, wanting to do something against the slump of Arthur’s shoulders, but in the end he doesn’t move, stands held back by the privacy of Arthur’s grief.

“I’m not ready to be king,” Arthur whispers at last, and at that Merlin does move, dropping to his knees in front of Arthur and raising his chin, forcing him to look up.

“You will be,” Merlin tells him firmly, and when Arthur shakes his head Merlin grips his chin harder and says: “No, listen to me. You will be ready when the time comes.” Merlin’s been thinking about this, has felt the tremblings of these new thoughts growing quietly in the back of his mind, taking shape as he watches Arthur move through the days, leading and encouraging his men in ways Merlin’s not sure he even realises.

“Even if you don’t think you are,” Merlin says when Arthur looks like he’s going to argue, “you’ll be ready. You were born to this, Arthur.” He means that in more than the obvious sense: Arthur was born ready to shoulder this load, has spent his life unconsciously learning how to bend with its weight instead of snapping, breaking like his father had.

“How can you believe that?” Arthur demands, emotion making him harsh. “How, when I failed you so completely, so terribly?”

“Because,” Merlin says, speaking slowly because it’s the first time he’s tried putting this into words, and he wants to get it right, “that isn’t who you are anymore. You aren’t perfect,” and here he pokes Arthur with a finger, just to lighten the mood a little, “but I don’t want a perfect king. I want a real one, one who really cares. Arthur,” he says, all levity gone. “You’re my king, the only king I’ll ever serve.”

Arthur just stares at him, struck silent completely, and Merlin takes advantage of the moment to slowly, carefully, reach up and brush his lips along the corner of Arthur’s mouth, too fleeting a touch to properly be called a kiss, but it jumbles his insides hopelessly regardless. He hadn’t planned on it – part of him is horrified at himself – but it feels right in the moment, feels like an oath. “I pledge my life to your service.”

Arthur closes his hand over Merlin’s in a crushing grip. “And I will do everything in my power to deserve that loyalty,” he swears. He still looks lost, almost unbearably young, but the old strength is growing up again, a familiar fire behind his gaze.

The moment lingers until Merlin sits back on his heels, wincing a little at the burn in his knees. Arthur gives a suspiciously thick cough and blinks.

“Honestly, Merlin,” he says gruffly. “Call yourself a proper servant? Can’t even remember the right words for the oath of fealty.”

“Just trying to keep you entertained, sire,” Merlin answers, and Arthur makes a half-hearted swipe at him.

“Well, entertain me by doing your job. This place looks like Bayard already invaded.”

They don’t talk about it afterward, any of it, but later, when they’re both tucked into their bedrolls and Merlin’s blown out the last candle, Arthur says, suddenly: “Before, when you – I want you to know that you don’t have to, that I’d never—”

“I know,” Merlin says quickly, to save them both. “I know.” He hesitates, but here in the dark it’s easy to say anything, even the truth. “I... it’s always been you.”

Arthur doesn’t answer, but Merlin doesn’t mind. He doesn’t know what else he might have said if Arthur had spoken back.

*

A week later, Arthur’s taken Merlin to look over the wooden palisade at the western end of the camp when the messenger rides up hard and fast, grey with exhaustion and his horse dark with sweat.

“Message,” the boy gasps, swaying in the saddle, and Arthur darts to catch him before he falls off entirely. “Message for Prince Arthur.”

“Here I am,” Arthur tells him, and his voice is steady but Merlin can see that his face has gone white and pinched. “What’s the message?”

“You’re needed in Camelot immediately,” the boy says. “The king is gravely ill.”

*

What took them weeks to cover with an army loaded down with supply wagons and hampered by muddy roads takes them four days on horseback, riding as hard as their mounts can go. Gawaine had wanted to send a guard with them, but all their recent reports warn of an imminent, large-scale attack from Mercia, and Arthur had expressly forbidden the knights from sending anyone with him and Merlin.

Arthur doesn’t speak much, and what he does say is limited mostly to telling Merlin to fetch water or start a fire. Merlin doesn’t push him to talk. He thinks it’s probably no great secret that he doesn’t care for Uther as a king and has little respect for him as a father – but the fact remains that he is Arthur’s father, the only family Arthur has. Merlin remembers the anguish losing Balinor, of seeing his own father snatched away just when they’d found each other. He remembers Will being consumed, soured by grief after his father’s death, and can only try to imagine what it must be to lose a father after knowing him a lifetime, even if that father is Uther.

He still means what he’d said in Arthur’s tent: he knows Arthur will be a good king, better than Uther ever was, perhaps the greatest king Albion has or will ever see, and he means to help Arthur achieve that in whatever ways he has to. But first, he knows, he has to make Arthur believe it himself, and that might prove in the end to be the trickiest thing of all.

When the walls of Camelot finally come into view before them, Arthur slows his horse, pulling up short on the path as he stares hard at the familiar towers of the castle. Merlin lets him, hanging behind a step to allow Arthur a little privacy. After a few minutes, though, he urges his mount forward so he can see Arthur’s face.

“Are you ready?” he asks, voice quiet.

Arthur shakes his head. “I won’t ever be,” he replies grimly, and kicks his horse back into a trot.

The Camelot they ride into is a sober, frightened place. No matter how unpopular Uther is, he’s still the king, and with Bayard and Cendred both circling the borders everyone knows war is coming; it seems like the worst kind of bad luck to lose Uther now. Merlin keeps close to Arthur as they pass through the town and then the castle, winces every time someone draws back and bows to Arthur because he knows it’s only making Arthur more uncomfortable.

The corridor outside Uther’s chambers is full of counsellors and more than a few of the most important and influential lords of Camelot, but Arthur strides through them without pause; for their part they move aside to let him pass, murmuring things in his wake that Merlin knows Arthur doesn’t hear.

Gaius meets them at the door. “Thank you for coming so quickly, sire,” he begins, but Arthur interrupts him.

“How is he, Gaius?”

Gaius bows his head. “He’s been asking for you.”

When Arthur enters, Merlin catches only the briefest glimpse of Uther, propped up on pillows, looking skeletal and frail and nothing like the powerful man Merlin remembers, before Gaius grabs his arm and pulls him back, shutting the door firmly.

“I think it would be best to give them privacy,” he says, stern, so Merlin slumps back against the stone wall of the corridor instead, to wait. Gaius stifles a yawn with one hand, and Merlin gives him a worried look.

“How are you, Gaius?” he asks, because they can’t lose Gaius too, not now, and Gaius looks grey, like he hasn’t slept in weeks.

Gaius gives him a weary smile. “I’ll be fine, Merlin. Don’t worry about me. How are you feeling? Are you taking proper care of yourself?” Merlin shrugs and Gaius pulls his eyebrows together.

“Arthur will need you a great deal in the coming days,” he says. “You must be strong.”

“I know,” Merlin replies. “It’ll be... it’s going to be difficult. For both of us. He’s going to need someone to remind him not to be an idiot.”

Gaius studies him closely.

“Are you ready?” he asks, and Merlin starts a little to hear his own words coming back at him. Gaius is asking a different question, though, and they both know it.

Gaius probably wants Merlin to think about his answer, to deliberate, but Merlin’s already done the thinking he needs to do. “I’m ready,” he says, and when Gaius gives him a searching look he repeats himself. “I’m ready, Gaius. Maybe it’s difficult to believe, but I am. Arthur...” he trails off, watching the door to Uther’s chambers. “Arthur isn’t perfect. He’s not infallible. But he knows that now, and that’s only going to make him better, stronger.”

He looks at Gaius, hoping he’ll understand, and Gaius reaches out to pat him a little awkwardly on the arm. “Arthur is very lucky to have you,” is all he says, and then: “Now go on, you look famished. I’ll send someone to the kitchens for you when Arthur leaves.”

Merlin tucks himself away into a corner of the kitchens to wait, a loaf of rough brown bread and cold leftover meat he thinks is venison in hand. He eats slowly, but the food is long gone and the sun nearly setting when someone finally comes to fetch him. He finds Arthur in his chambers, looking out the window at the thatched roofs and familiar winding streets of Camelot, burnished gold now with the setting sun.

“Arthur?” Merlin asks, and when Arthur turns around Merlin can see that his eyes are a little red, the skin underneath them puffy. The sight twists something behind his ribs, makes him want to go destroy whatever’s hurting Arthur – only he can’t, not this time.

“It’s bad,” Arthur says, barely more than a whisper. “I’d hoped – I was foolish. I knew they wouldn’t call me back for anything less than...” He stops himself forcefully, looking so utterly miserable that Merlin doesn’t think twice about crossing the room and putting his arms around Arthur, pulling him into a cautious embrace. Arthur freezes at first, tense under Merlin’s touch, but then he drops his head to rest it on Merlin’s shoulder and wraps his own arms around Merlin, fingers digging in hard, as if Merlin might disappear.

How long they stand there, Merlin doesn’t know; long enough for his knees to grow stiff and for dusky twilight to fade into night.

“Could you,” Arthur asks at last, his voice scratchy, not raising his head from Merlin’s shoulder, “would you do anything to... for him? If I asked you to?”

Merlin strokes a slow, comforting hand across Arthur’s back. “You don’t really want that.”

Arthur pulls him tighter before relaxing with a long, shuddery sigh. “You’re right,” he says softly, lifting his head to look at Merlin. “I don’t, not really. Not if it’s truly his time.” He pulls in another measured breath, as if he has to keep reminding himself to fill his lungs. “God, I hate this.”

“You’ve never been good at waiting,” Merlin tells him. “You’re always insufferable.” He feels a little tug of triumph when a tiny smile ghosts across Arthur’s face.

Merlin reaches carefully up and smoothes Arthur’s hair back from where it’s stuck to his forehead. He can feel his heart thumping hard, and there’s a part of him that wants to run, to wrench himself away out of Arthur’s arms and hide alone somewhere safe, but Arthur stands perfectly still, eyes wide in the dark, and Merlin makes himself breathe deeply instead, running the pads of his fingers slowly down the side of Arthur’s face, tracing the stubbled line of his jaw. He can’t deny that this is something that’s been growing in the back of his mind for longer than he knows, can’t deny that it had sprouted before Arthur’s betrayal and somehow survived the dead months afterward, taking seed again while Merlin was paying attention to Arthur discussing tactics by the soft light of the candles, silhouetted against the window and the falling snow.

When his fingers brush across Arthur’s lips, he can see Arthur’s throat work as he swallows.

“Merlin.” The whisper gusts warm over Merlin’s hand, and he shivers. He wants, despite the hard little knot of fear, of aversion, still wedged deep beneath his breast. He wants to say something, anything, but in the end he just rests his hand on Arthur’s chest and leans in to kiss him properly.

It’s chaste, just a dry press of lips together, but neither of them step back when it’s over. “Merlin,” Arthur breathes again, and presses soft slow kisses to the corner of Merlin’s mouth, to his cheeks, to first one and then the other of Merlin’s eyelids until Merlin feels woozy from it all. He digs his fingers into the cloth of Arthur’s tunic, holding on, and turns his face into the kisses, enjoying the soft brush of Arthur’s lips against his skin.

“I should go,” Arthur says at last, regretful, though he doesn’t move. “I should be with him.”

Merlin sighs, but the moment is over. “You probably should,” he agrees. He lets go of Arthur when Arthur still doesn’t move, stepping back. “Do you want me to go with you?”

“No,” Arthur tells him. “No, this is – I’d rather do this alone.” Merlin nods and watches Arthur leave, his shoulders sternly square again as the door closes behind him.

*

Merlin keeps his own vigil that night in Arthur’s room, watching the candles burn low and trying not to think of Arthur hunched by Uther’s bedside, helpless to do anything but watch his father die.

The bells begin ringing before dawn, tolling out slow and steady as Merlin sits bolt upright in the chair, rubbing the tiredness from his eyes furiously. He doesn’t remember falling asleep, but the candles are little more than cold puddles of wax and there’s the faintest sliver of paleness against the dark of the eastern sky. The bells don’t stop as he brushes the worst of the wrinkles out of his shirt and leaves Arthur’s chambers, and that alone would tell him everything he needs to know, but in the corridors everything is barely controlled chaos, which removes all doubt.

Uther is dead. Camelot has a new king.

Actually, Merlin learns as he tries and fails repeatedly to see Arthur, who is closeted away with who knew how many people supposedly more important than Merlin, Camelot won’t have a king until Arthur is officially crowned, which, with the situation with Mercia the way it is, will be as soon as possible, as Bayard’s spies in Camelot have undoubtedly already left at a gallop with the news of Uther’s death.

“Usually we get at least a month to prepare,” one of the cooks explains, puffing as Merlin helps him carry an entire boar carcass in from the smokehouse. Merlin had been caught loitering around the door to the council chambers, and had subsequently been conscripted to help in the kitchens. “Gives everyone time to get used to the idea. But now they want it all done and final by tonight. Less chance for things to go wrong, see?”

“Tonight?” Merlin nearly drops the boar. “That’s ridiculous!”

“Don’t think you need to be telling me that,” the cook grumbles at him, and sets to work viciously on the boar with an enormous knife, still muttering. Merlin wisely makes himself scarce after that, one eye on the knife as he slips out and away.

He still wants to see Arthur, because doubtless Arthur is trying to do something stupidly noble like suffer in silence and pretend nothing is wrong, but he still can’t get closer than the wrong side of a locked or guarded door. Morning stretches into afternoon, and evening has arrived again, cooling the warm spring day with a light breeze, before Merlin sees Arthur, this time in the throne room surrounded by advisors.

“They’ll redo the coronation properly later on,” Gaius had explained earlier, “with all the pomp and jewels and cheering crowds. Right now the important thing is to make Arthur officially the king as quickly as possible so the enemies of Camelot have no chance of weakening her further.”

“Does everyone really think Arthur’s that weak?” Merlin had demanded. “Uther just died this morning. He hasn’t even been buried yet; doesn’t Arthur get any time to mourn?”

Gaius had softened somewhat at that. “No one thinks Arthur is weak. But a country is always vulnerable when its leader changes; everyone’s holding their breath, waiting to see which way the wind will blow, and there are many who would take advantage of that – of Arthur – before he even begins his rule.”

Merlin had scowled at that, and left to skulk around the throne room, trying to wheedle his way inside. He’d finally managed it by getting himself drafted to carry the heavy trestle tables for food and drink before hiding in a corner until the crowd was thick enough for him to wander around more or less unnoticed.

Now he watches Arthur advance slowly through the room to the throne, flanked on all sides by grave-faced guards and councellors. He’s dressed in clothes Merlin’s never seen before: rich, opulent-looking, entirely black. They make him look somber and about ten years older than he is – though to be fair, Merlin thinks, that might be the effect of the entire day as well.

The ceremony is almost disappointingly brief. Arthur walks the final paces to the throne alone, where the crown waits for him on a scarlet cushion. There’s no one to crown him, so he merely kneels to pick up the crown and slowly, deliberately, places it on his own head. The hall is absolutely silent as he rises again and turns around; Merlin’s not sure anyone is actually breathing as Arthur faces the assembled nobles, proud and stern and every inch of him looking like a king.

He doesn’t know who starts it. It seems to ripple out from every corner of the room, drawing them all in until every one of them is cheering: “Long live the king! Long live the king! Long live the king!”

*

It’s long past nightfall when Arthur finally returns to his chambers. Merlin’s been waiting for him for hours, passing the time by spinning a coin he’d found in the back corner of Arthur’s cupboard. Arthur slides into the chair across the table from him, and for a long time neither of them speak.

“I won’t be returning to the border,” Arthur says at last. “I’m needed here more.”

“Leon and Gawaine are perfectly capable of managing things,” Merlin points out, and Arthur puts his head in his hands.

“I know,” he says. “I know; it’s what I’ve been training them for. It’s just... this doesn’t feel real.” He makes a sweeping gesture with one hand without looking up. “None of this feels real.”

Merlin gets up and walks around the table, leaning back against it when he reaches Arthur and pulling Arthur’s hand into his own. Uther’s signet ring is heavy on Arthur’s finger, winking in the dim light of the room. “It won’t,” he tells Arthur frankly. “Not for a long time. Doesn’t mean it isn’t, though.”

“I know that,” Arthur huffs. “I managed to figure that out myself.” He pauses, looking up at Merlin for a long moment. “Merlin,” he says slowly. “As king I have a whole new household. I’ll have a new manservant, probably more than one, and all of them more competent than you.”

Merlin holds very still. He wonders distantly if he’s completely misjudged the last few months, if he’s been seeing only what he wants to see rather than true reality.

Arthur takes a deep breath. “I was wondering if you’d want to be my advisor, instead.”

“Won’t you have more than one of those, too?” Merlin asks, perhaps slightly more waspishly than he’d meant it.

“Well, yes,” Arthur says. “But they’re all my father’s counsellors. I’ve worked with them, but he hand-chose them. For now I don’t trust most of them and they certainly don’t trust me. I need someone I can rely on, someone I know will be honest, will look at a situation and give me sound advice.”

“How do you know I can do that?”

Arthur looks askance at Merlin. “Because you’ve been doing it since the winter, idiot; what else did you think you were doing?”

“That was just – sums, and pointing out what you already knew,” protests Merlin, but he knows he’s already been won over, can feel the creeping delight spreading up and out through him.

Arthur senses it too. “Sums is half of what runs a kingdom,” he informs Merlin.

“And the other half?”

“Blisters and arguing and hard, sweaty work. And not mortally offending every foreign lord that comes visiting; you’ll have to work on that.”

“Hmm,” Merlin says as the last of the worry falls away, lifting Arthur’s hand to kiss the skin of his knuckles just above his ring. “I suppose, if it’s that important to you.”

“You’ll do it?” Arthur asks. He sounds a little breathless.

Merlin kisses his hand again. “It would be an honour to serve you,” he says solemnly. “My king.”

A look of relief crosses Arthur’s face, and Merlin hold up a finger. “But,” he warns, “I want to choose my own wardrobe. No hats.”

Arthur stares, then laughs, a startled, delighted sound. “No hats,” he agrees.

Merlin links their fingers together snugly. “Good,” he says without thinking. “I knew you loved me.”

The sudden look on Arthur’s face makes Merlin want to crawl into a dark hole until he figures out how to reverse time. “Arthur—”

“It’s still true, you know,” Arthur says quietly, almost too soft to hear. “If you wanted it to be.”

Merlin swallows. “And if I don’t?”

“Then I’d never mention it again.”

Merlin looks down, traces along the back of Arthur’s hand with one finger. “This is a terrible time to be doing this,” he says, and Arthur immediately starts to draw back, trying to tug his hand free from Merlin’s grip.

“I know,” he answers. “I know; I was... carried away in the moment, I’m sorry—”

“What are you sorry for?” Merlin asks, tightening his hold on Arthur. “I meant for you, you prat. Your father just died.”

“Oh.” Arthur sits for a moment, looking at Merlin. “But you don’t – you don’t have any objections?” Merlin shakes his head, and Arthur gets slowly to his feet. “Then,” he says in a low voice, “you’re an idiot, if you’re trying to stop this on my account. I don’t think I’ve ever wanted anything more.”

“Oh,” Merlin says, worrying with Arthur’s ring again. “Well. That’s good.”

“Merlin,” Arthur says, very serious, “I don’t want anything you don’t want to give me freely.”

Merlin tries to sound offhand, but his voice still cracks twice. “Then it’s a good thing you can have everything, isn’t it?”

Arthur sucks in a breath, and Merlin kisses him to see what surprise tastes like on his lips.

Arthur’s mouth is hot and sweet and opens readily for Merlin, who takes full advantage to explore it. Arthur lets him, at first, but when Merlin nips at his bottom lip he growls a little and leans back into Merlin, his hands coming up to brace himself on the table as he kisses Merlin back fiercely, with a zeal that Merlin’s unprepared for. Merlin nearly steps backward in surprise, but the table blocks his way, so he reaches up to take hold of Arthur’s tunic instead, twisting his fingers tight into the rich black cloth as Arthur drinks him in. He stays like that for a moment, steadying himself, before running his hands up to Arthur’s neck, stroking a thumb along the thin skin just behind Arthur’s ear. Arthur shivers at the touch, but he doesn’t move, just stands there kissing Merlin, letting Merlin explore wherever he wants.

Merlin strokes his fingers down Arthur’s neck, smoothes them along the faint gold embroidery on Arthur’s collar before moving them down further. Arthur’s hands are resting light on Merlin’s hips, warm and steady, although as Merlin moves his own hands slowly across Arthur’s chest and down over his belly he can feel Arthur trembling, a thin vibration beneath his palms.

When Merlin pushes his hand up underneath Arthur’s shirt to feel the skin there, warm and firm, Arthur makes a small sound which gets lost in their kiss, and when Merlin runs his fingers lightly over the curve of Arthur’s ribs Arthur tightens his own hands on Merlin’s hips and draws him forward away from the table. Merlin goes with him willingly, taking one hand away to wrap around Arthur’s neck for support as he pushes the other further up beneath Arthur’s shirt. Arthur’s skin is smooth and soft to the touch, the curling ends of his hair damp at the curve of his neck where Merlin twists it around his own fingers, and he never stops kissing Merlin, pours himself out until Merlin feels like his knees might give way entirely beneath the force of Arthur.

Arthur stops when they reach the bed, breaking the kiss at last to look at Merlin with dark, heavy-lidded eyes. Merlin resists the temptation to raise a hand to his own tender lips, swollen from Arthur’s attentions.

“Do you trust me?” Arthur asks, and any offhand answer Merlin might have contemplated dies at the serious look Arthur’s giving him. In the end, all he says is:

“Yes.”

Arthur moves his hands then, strokes one low across Merlin’s belly. “Then let me take care of you.”

Merlin hesitates, half-wanting to protest because it’s Arthur who’s just lost a father, Arthur who’s in need of comfort, but Arthur looks at him and says, “Please,” and Merlin goes willingly when Arthur eases them down onto the bed.

Arthur undresses Merlin slowly, with infinite care, tracing paths with his lips and fingers as he uncovers more and more of Merlin’s skin. Merlin closes his eyes, winding his fingers into the fine cloth of the bedclothes, concentrating on the hot flutters Arthur’s touches are sending through him and trying to ignore the way his heart is thumping wildly against his chest.

When Arthur starts to loosen his belt unreasonable panic fills him despite his best efforts to soothe it, knotting in his chest and pooling thick in the back of his throat. He sits up fast, one hand reaching to stop Arthur as he scoots backward until his back is securely up against the headboard.

Arthur draws back immediately, watching Merlin carefully from the far side of the bed. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” he says. “Was I moving too quickly?”

Merlin puts his hands in his lap to hide that they’re shaking. “I don’t know,” he admits. “Maybe... maybe a little.”

“We don’t have to—”

“I want to,” Merlin interrupts, because he does. He wants this, wants Arthur; wants Arthur’s soft touches, his kisses, to drive away the sense and memory of Lionel, of every person who ever touched Merlin when he wanted to be left alone.

Arthur looks unconvinced. “If you’re sure,” he says, and Merlin answers him by finishing undoing his own belt, pushing his trousers down and wiggling until he can kick them off. This is better, easier: being in control of himself, of his own body. He resists the urge to draw his knees up to shield himself, barely, and gestures at Arthur.

“Your turn,” he says. “I want to watch you.”

Arthur undresses slowly, his eyes on Merlin as if he’s gauging Merlin’s every reaction, looking away only to pull his shirt smoothly over his head. The uncomfortable prickling of fear over Merlin’s skin has eased again, though, faded against the wonder of looking at Arthur, about being able to stare as long as he wants at the smooth planes of Arthur’s muscles, at where his cock rises hard from his groin. Merlin watches until he has to touch, has to run his hands over Arthur’s bare chest and down over his hips to his legs, fingers brushing along the insides of Arthur’s thighs.

That surprises a noise out of Arthur, a quiet oh that sends a little thrill racing along Merlin’s spine. Arthur catches at his hands, holding them still against his own legs, and Merlin gulps a little at the soft look Arthur gives him.

“Will you let me taste you?” Arthur asks, and hot, heavy want comes crashing hard into the pit of Merlin’s stomach, turning his muscles liquid and sending white sparks to dance briefly at the corners of his vision.

“Yes,” he husks, voice scraping along the word. “Yes.”

Arthur crawls slowly up toward Merlin, pausing before gently moving Merlin’s legs apart, fingers stroking smooth up from Merlin’s knees to the sensitive skin at the join where his thighs meet his body. Merlin takes deep breaths, eyes locked with Arthur’s, and grips the bedclothes hard when Arthur finally bends his head down. He surprises Merlin, though, presses his lips first to the fine trail of hair running down from Merlin’s navel, then makes his way across to Merlin’s hips, working slowly in from there. At the first nip of Arthur’s teeth, Merlin sucks in a breath and forces his hips to stay still; his cock, half-hard, jumps.

He’s never had anyone touch him like this, never felt worshipped like this: it’s as if Arthur is treasuring every reverent touch as a gift. He reaches out carefully with one hand, pushes his fingers through Arthur’s hair, pushing it out of place before he smoothes it back down again. Arthur hums against his skin at the touch, and the vibrations send hot sparks racing out along Merlin’s limbs.

“Arthur,” he breathes, and in response Arthur finally, finally tilts his head and lips at Merlin’s cock, pressing slippery, open-mouthed kisses along its length before running his tongue up around the head, tasting.

One of Merlin’s hands flies back to grip at the headboard; the other he uses to grab Arthur’s shoulder, holding on hard. “Arthur,” he says again, feeling the first stirring of pleasant desperation pulling somewhere beneath his navel, and Arthur takes Merlin’s cock into his mouth entirely.

Merlin can’t help his hips rocking up this time, can’t help the surprised whimper that leaks out of the corner of his mouth. Arthur’s obviously not practiced at this – Merlin winces when there’s a brief, accidental scrape of teeth – but his hand is firm around the base of Merlin’s cock, pulling up a little in small strokes to meet where Arthur’s mouth is working, sinking down, all slick heat and swirling tongue. Arthur takes him in a little further ever time, until Merlin can feel his throat working as he swallows around Merlin’s cock; at that Merlin gasps lets his head tilt back as his legs fall further apart, inviting.

There’s a delicious tightness gathering deep down in his belly, making his breath come faster and sending tingling flashes scorching out to his fingers and feet. He wants to squirm away, to scratch until the deep itch goes away, but then Arthur’s hand drifts lower to caress Merlin’s balls as he takes Merlin’s cock deeper than ever, and all Merlin can do is cry out and dig his fingers deeper into Arthur’s shoulder, his grip bruising.

Arthur’s getting sloppier now, his mouth making obscene noises as he sucks, rolling Merlin’s balls gently between his fingers, and it takes Merlin a few moments to realise that the gulping breaths, the gasps and half-uttered, choked pleas are coming from his own mouth. The tight heat in his belly is growing, bubbling closer to the surface, and he tries to warn Arthur, pushes at him, but Arthur just sucks harder. That’s all it takes for Merlin to come, his vision going white as the pleasure drags a groan out from deep in his chest.

Arthur doesn’t let up, doesn’t pull away until he’s coaxed every drop out of Merlin. When he finally pulls off and rolls to the side, leaving Merlin to try and recover some of the feeling in his limbs, Merlin can see that Arthur’s already come, his cock softening.

Merlin would have been content just lying there – he’s never felt this way before, not even with the few he’d followed into the woods or pushed down into haystacks; never felt this peacefully empty, wrung out, as if he’d be content forever if only he could stay here on Arthur’s rumpled bed, listening to Arthur’s slowing breathing – but Arthur has other ideas. He twists until he can look at Merlin, half-propped on pillows, and reaches out to rest his hand flat on Merlin’s hip.

“You alright?” he asks, quiet.

“Mmm,” Merlin says, half-asleep and not really fighting to stay awake. “Yes. I am.” He slides down the pillows and tucks his head onto Arthur’s shoulder because it’ll probably reassure Arthur, and closes his eyes. Arthur might say more after that, but Merlin doesn’t hear a word of it. He’s fast asleep.

*

Merlin wakes to the faint, soft light of early dawn, and at first he’s confused, surprised by the sight of the stone walls when he’s expecting the drab oilcloth of a tent. It takes him a moment to orient himself, and another moment after that to register Arthur lying next to him, peaceful, the fine lines around his eyes gentled by sleep.

Merlin slides out of the bed without disturbing Arthur, searching for his clothes, suddenly horribly uncomfortable in his skin. He itches all over, feels a sharp prickling at the base of his skull and behind his knees, and he scratches hard before he catches himself, stills his hands. He’d let himself get carried away, let whatever fragile thing they’ve built up around them fall to pieces – for what? A distraction? Empty comfort?

He can’t look at Arthur now. He needs a bath, needs to soak away whatever it is that’s driving the itch beneath his skin, scrub off whatever’s fueling the metallic tang at the back of his tongue.

It doesn’t take much effort to ready Arthur’s tub: a wave of his hand brings it to the middle of the room, another fills it with steaming water and sets a screen in front of it for privacy. Merlin slides into the water gratefully, submerging as much of himself as he can, holding his breath as he slips down so that his head is underwater, stays there as long as he can manage. The water is hot, not quite scalding, and as he scrubs himself he can feel some of the wrongness ease. In its place the memories come trickling back – of pleasure, the remembered caress of Arthur’s hand, tentative against Merlin’s skin, the look of wonder on Arthur’s face as he uncovered more of Merlin, laying him bare. He remembers that Arthur never once asked for anything but permission to make Merlin feel good.

He squints at the screen, shrinking it until he can see the bed again. He still feels odd, not quite settled in himself, but as he watches Arthur sleep, golden hair spread in its own kind of crown around his head, Merlin discovers he doesn’t regret it. He doesn’t regret kissing Arthur, doesn’t regret letting Arthur explore his body; doesn’t, in fact, regret anything.

The realization soothes the last of his restlessness, and he leans his head back, enjoying the water until Arthur wakes in a series of muffled movements and quiet, contented sounds.

“Morning,” Arthur says, rumpled and sleepy, after looking around for Merlin, patting the bed as if Merlin might be hiding underneath the tangled blankets.

Merlin smiles. “Morning.”

Arthur rolls himself up out of bed, taking the sheet with him, and pads over to the tub to kneel beside it. “How are you?”

Merlin reaches out a dripping hand and wraps it around Arthur’s chin, bringing Arthur’s mouth close for a kiss. “I’m fine,” he says, and repeats it, just for the sheer delight of the truth in the words. “I’m fine.”

Arthur’s smile is wide, joyful. “Good,” he says. “Me, too.”

“Good,” Merlin says, and they sit there for a moment, Merlin feeling foolish but a little giddy with it, until Arthur stands up again, pulling the sheet more securely around his waist.

“Council meeting this morning,” he says, pawing through his wardrobe. “And if you unlock your door the servants can start moving your things.”

“Moving my things?”

Arthur gives him a quizzical look. “To your own chambers. They’re just down the hall; there’s a set of rooms that’s been vacant for months. There’s an excellent view. Unless you’d rather move somewhere else—”

“No,” Merlin interrupts. He bites his lip to stop his smile. “No, they sound perfect.”

“Oh,” Arthur says, sounding relieved. “Good. Now, at council, Ector and Bors will almost certainly try to challenge you on everything; let them think they win sometimes and they’ll leave you alone after a while. The others shouldn’t give you any problems, but you’ll have to remember—”

Merlin brings the screen back up while Arthur talks on, climbing out of the tub to dry himself and slip into his clothes. He slips, and in the fragmented seconds between falling and catching himself on the lip of the tub, he sees the potential of the years before them: councils and knights flocking to the banner of Camelot, tables filled with equals and Albion slowly uniting beneath one man – beneath Arthur. He sees himself at Arthur’s side, sees the look on Arthur’s face when Arthur looks at him, and the knowing of it all takes his breath away, nearly makes him fall again.

Not such a bad life to live, he thinks, stepping out from behind the screen to where Arthur’s already waiting. Not such a bad life at all.