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It begins as so many of their stories do, with a monster and an order. A monster stalking Camelot; an order from the King.

A monster stealing children in the night, and only first-born boys. An order to clear off the streets at sundown so the knights can do their job, though the thing has turned to mist each time they've cornered it.

A monster with empty white eyes and a red lolling tongue on prettily-illuminated parchment somewhere in the depths of Geoffrey's library. An order that Merlin, scrambling across the flagstones with an amulet in his hand, obeys no more than he ever has when it comes to Arthur's safety.

A monster that, so says the book, loses its preference for children on the third night after it rises, but it still has a taste for eldest sons: the more well-born, the better. An order that means nothing in the face of something pale and awful scaling the wall to Arthur's rooms.

A monster that falls screaming to its death when Merlin, no chance of reaching it in time, stands still in the courtyard and flings the stone on a chain up the castle wall with all the force a pair of golden eyes, a guttural shout, an extended arm can bear.

An order carried out at the sound of that shout. Merlin catches a breath for staring up at Arthur's casement, now thrown wide, bare shoulders and sleep-tousled moon-blond head thrust out to stare back down. Tosses a grin and one mad, cheerless wave before they drag him away. He's lucky, he supposes. They only heard his voice, didn't see his eyes. He's only run afoul of the curfew, not the law that would see him burn.

A monster that melts to a pool of foul-smelling slime before the knights even arrive, let alone by the time Arthur can get his sword belted on and race his way down a thousand steps. An order that echoes in more than one pair of ears that night: if any man is found out of doors after sunset until this creature is caught, I'll have him whipped.

 

***

"Father, you can't be serious." He knows his father is serious; it's just something Arthur has to say, like Merlin you raving git had been something he had to say. Was the kindest thing he had to say as he stomped back upstairs to find himself a shirt, then made his way to Uther's chambers.

"Of course I'm serious. I gave an order; it was disobeyed."

"It's Merlin. You want to punish him, put him in the stocks and throw turnips at his head. Confiscate every one of those stupid neckerchiefs he wears. He'll be crying into his porridge for days."

Uther looks up from early breakfast or late-night snack, weariness set in his face like it was carved there. "And because it's your manservant, he should be spared from a decree meant to protect both the people and your knights from a creature that is--"

"Gone. A creature that's gone. Not one boy was taken tonight. My knights have scoured the city and found nothing."

"Which means exactly that, and you know it. One night free of the creature doesn't mean it won't return." His father wipes crumbs from his lips. "Even if it is gone forever, the law was still broken. Your man got lucky. Your knights got lucky that they weren't attacked from behind while dealing with him, or some child wasn't snatched from its home."

"None of that happened."

Uther rises and knocks back his chair, a fast, steady kick. The sleeplessness drains from his face, but the stone is still there, a hearth for the embers in his eyes. "And the next time? The next time some witch-beast is loose in the streets of my kingdom and my people -- your people -- take the King's commands as a suggestion? Surely he won't punish me; I'm his tailor, I bake his bread, I'm the captain of his guard. Is this how you plan to rule when you are king? Camelot will fall about your ears."

Surely he won't sentence Gwen's father to death, Arthur lets slip through his mind but not his lips, or kill him when he tries to escape. As if anyone under Uther's hand expects such lenience.

Except his own child, and even that had been less expectation than hope. Now it's just stone. Like father like son, but the only heat in Arthur's face is the spots of colour high in his cheeks. "It's Merlin," he weakly repeats, the words the only part of him that isn't held stiff, at attention, the future ruler his father has just told him he'll fail to be.

"And?"

And if he were the son his father wanted, he'd answer anything but, "And he has the constitution of a dairymaid. Your men will kill him if you have him whipped."

"No, they won't." Uther turns his face away for a moment, but Arthur doesn't let his relax. As if that movement ever bodes well? Though he isn't expecting the words when along with the return of his father's gaze, they come: "You will."

"What?"

"You will, by your own hand -- and get that look off your face." The stricken one, half insulted, half aghast. "He's not going to die; at least I presume you can manage to flog a man without killing him. You've done it before."

"To criminals!" On direct command from the King, and it had hardly been his favourite activity even then.

Uther rounds on him, finger extended like a blade. "He is your servant. It is your knights who might have died defending him from that beast, and you are my son. You're the Crown Prince and you'll be seen to act like one!"

Hit him in the stomach with your boot, why don't you, Your Majesty. Right in the spot beneath his left kidney where the need for approval from you and the need to do what's right and the words it's MERlin meet up and churn in his gut like fish three days past fresh.

"I..." The hesitation shames him more than any of it. More than what he says, no matter what that might be -- it's the fact that he pauses. "Will not."

"We shall see."

***

Merlin hadn't believed he could sleep here, iron around his wrists and propped against the wall in the cell with no straw on the floor. (The other one must be the luxury suite, he'd thought long ago, the one reserved for kings from other lands and the odd rebellious ward. Him, he always gets the cheapest digs when he books a room in the dungeons.)

He was wrong, though, exhaustion winning out over cold and fear, and it's only a clank-clack-scrape against the wall of the other cell that finally brings him to.

"Get caught out after curfew as well?" he calls. "Sorry for your luck - wish I could say at least the weather's nicer in here, but I'd be lying." The floor's rock, not a sheet of ice, but when you're sitting on it knees drawn up and back to the wall, it might as well be. "I'm not sure I can feel my backside anymore."

"Wish I could say the company makes up for it," comes a familiar voice, and oh, it's manacles clanking. "But I'd be lying...and speaking to you."

"Arthur?" Merlin's on his feet, swaying for a moment from sitting so long, then across to the other side of the cell, to the wall that they share. "They arrested you as well?" For coming down and out after him. Wonderful.

He can see the rolling eyes and curled-up lip as if the stone were glass when Arthur answers, "They're my knights, you fool. I'm in charge of them; of course I have leave to be out after dusk."

It's almost comforting, that tone. "Then what're you doing here?"

"I'm the Prince, you know."

Merlin wonders if that's a sequitur and also if sequitur means what he thinks it does. His Latin is spotty at best. "Good, you remember who you are. Now can we move on to how you got here?"

"I'm the Prince and that means I get to ask you what you're doing here, you suicidal clod!"

"Oh." That might take some explaining. "I was out after curfew, you see." Or not.

"MERlin!"

Right, explaining it is, then. Of a sort. He slides down the wall to sit again. "I found something in one of the books in the library; a history of the region. About a creature that eats eldest sons."

That shuts the princely mouth up for a moment, at least, but soon enough Arthur's at it again. "Anything on how to kill it?" Then duty gives way to irritation again and, "You couldn't bring the news the long way round, through the passages?"

"It was--" Merlin's head thunks back against the stone that separates their backs. There's no body. No evidence that anything had been out there tonight except him. It's best that way, nothing left to show that the one who killed it is as magical as the beast itself. "I thought it was going after you."

"ME?" Merlin can see that face as well. "Do I look like a child to you, Merlin?"

"No, but I thought it might be fooled by how you act." There's no almost to the comfort of this routine, actually. The floor and the cuffs are no less cold, but Merlin is now, just a bit. "The book said it stopped snatching children on the third night, and would look for the highest-ranking first-born son, no matter his age." A perfect tool for magical assassination: hide an egg somewhere. Watch from afar as it hatches and destroys a kingdom.

"...And that would be me."

Merlin doesn't answer, just lets him chew on that and thinks it might have done them all a world of good if Uther Pendragon hadn't an elder brother who, Gaius told him, died in infancy.

"Nothing about how to kill it?" Arthur asks again, the anger mostly gone.

Yes. Magic, and Merlin did it. "No. I'm not even sure it was the right creature now." He lowers his voice. "It wasn't there, was it. So I must've got it wrong."

"Lovely." Merlin would swear there's an answering thunk of skull against stone, back of head to back of head, though he shouldn't be able to feel that through walls this thick. "So it's still out there. If we're lucky it's buggered off to bother some other kingdom, and all this is for nothing."

"All what?" It's not still out there. It won't be coming back, and Merlin can't say a word about it.

Metal off stone, and that, he can hear. "This, you brainless tit. You got caught out after curfew, remember?"

It'd be difficult to forget. Merlin was kidding before, but he really can't feel his arse now, the floor's that cold. But it's not for nothing, even if he and Gaius are the only ones to ever know that. Arthur's here, after all, to berate him for saving his life, so it was worth---

Oh. Right. Arthur's here. "Which doesn't explain what you're doing in irons."

"Do you remember what the King said he'd do to anyone out after curfew?"

"Vaguely." Not vaguely at all; Merlin's just not thinking about it until he has to.

...Merlin's just pretending not to think about it until he has to.

Still worth it. Still.

"Vaguely." Ah, the time it takes that snort to travel down the length of his high-born nose. "Well, let me refresh your memory, then: he wanted to have you flogged!"

"I hadn't actually forgotten." Merlin's voice is less sarcastic than he'd like, but then-- "Wait, wanted? You talked him out of it?"

"Yes, and then I thought I'd pop down here to have a chat for a few minutes before we head up for breakfast. I think I fancy quail eggs - you?" Finally now, Merlin recognises the repeated deliberate scrape. It's Arthur using the edge of his manacle to fidget at the wall in place of the ever-present knife they'd no doubt taken from him. "What I talked him out of was any kind of sense."

"...Come again?"

Each word is spat out tight and wet, like teeth from a punch in the mouth. "I told him you're a delicate fainting lily and his men would kill you if they took a whip to you; he ordered me to do it instead."

"I'm not--" he starts hotly, but the heat drains out fast enough at Arthur's words, sucked into the stone along with his breath and ability to reply for several long moments.

Moments turn to minutes, and it's a test of manhood now to see who'll break the silence first. Minutes turn to... more minutes is all. There's no candle down here to mark the time. There's only steady breaths and the stab, stab, scrape, and Merlin's skull every so often adding rhythm against the wall.

"You told him no." It's Merlin who loses, if that's how they're scoring the game. Somewhere outside in the hall, there's noise from the guards. Hushed voices; a wooden creak and footsteps coming their way.

"As if I'd want to wear myself out lashing your worthless hide."

That's a yes, then, not that Merlin needed it. That Arthur's here answered the question before it was asked.

"And yet you shall." It's not a voice or a face you could easily mistake. Merlin tries to rise, but can only manage bowing his head at the King, his pins-and-needle thighs locking on him halfway up the wall.

"I won't." From the jingling of chain, Arthur's more successful at standing. "Merlin was trying to help me; he thought my life was in danger."

Uther stands where they both can see him, but his gaze is all at Arthur. The guard behind him carries a candle, and the faint reflection in Uther's eyes is the first that Merlin has seen of the Prince since that last quick wave towards his window.

There's a space for escape there in Uther's concern for his son. "And was it?"

"Well. No. He was mistaken."

"Indeed." No, there was never a space, except the one between Uther's fingers before they snapped shut.

Arthur's voice goes tight. "Look, I'd hardly say he's not a fool -- but he's a loyal fool. There's no justice in punishing him for that."

"Thanks," Merlin mutters. It's half sincere. Three quarters, even.

"Shut up."

Merlin lets a daft bit of giggle escape his lips, because he can see it in the King's shadowed eyes: the movement of Arthur's hand slapping at the phantom back of Merlin's head and hitting the wall instead.

"Arthur." Uther's voice silences most things in Camelot; they might have stood a chance at drowning him out if Morgana were down here, but it's a dice roll even on that. "You will do this. You'll do this or I will give the order for my men to strip the skin off his back, if that's what it takes for you to learn what it means to be King."

Merlin hadn't thought his back could get any colder than pressed against an old stone wall, but it can. It does. Fear that he might not get out of this turned to fear of how much it would hurt hours ago, before Arthur even came. This is something else entirely.

"Arthur," he says when he manages to thaw his tongue enough to move it.

"I said shu--"

"Do it."

That's not the scrape of boredom and frustration; it's the slam of Arthur's hand against the stone. "Are you further out of your mind than ever?"

Very possibly, yes. Merlin's suspected it for some several seconds now. "Because I'd prefer to have you beat me than Aelfric the Headsman? He's built like three oxen stacked on top each other!" He could in fact flay the flesh from Merlin's body with a flick of his wrist if Uther gave the order. "I like my skin; I have to live in it and all. At least with you there's a chance you'll get distracted by deciding your boots aren't shiny enough, and miss a few blows."

He would swear that Uther almost cracks a smile but it has to be a trick of the barely useful light. "Even the boy sees reason, Arthur. Will you? I'll give you this, even: no witnesses but me there to see you follow through." When Arthur's silence lasts too long, Uther's voice goes harder and there's no chance he's smiling now. "Or will you watch while they take him apart in the public square? And I will make you watch; have no doubt of that."

A short inhale, and long, slow breath out the nose. "Merlin..."

It's the easiest thing he's ever said in his life, and the hardest at once, honesty cutting cruelly through the joke, leaving only, "I'd rather it was you."

What the hell is he saying? He'd rather it was Gwen with a feather pillow, is what he'd rather. He'd rather it was a week in the stocks throwing pumpkins at his head! He'd rather it was nothing. But it isn't nothing. So.

"If--" Clipped, clipped, Arthur holding tight to the word in his mouth before spitting it fiercely. Then steady. "If I do this, then it's over. No deciding it wasn't enough. No by the way, he's also banished and you're sharing rooms with Morgana for a month."

"I had wondered if putting you in the dungeon wasn't a kindness, comparatively speaking." It is, it actually is the phantom of a smile. Then it's gone as if it never was. "Something to note for next time."

"Father."

"Yes, Arthur. I give you my word. When I tell you it's done, it's done."

One more clank-scrape, and Merlin wonders what he was writing on the wall all this time, or was it just meaningless lines? His father's face as a target for punching? Probably Merlin's. "Fine. Then let us out of here. I'll do it in the morning."

"You're bargaining with me? You'll do it now."

"I'm cold, tired, and covered in dungeon grime. So is Merlin. At least give me a chance to clean up and put some bloody socks on, and him not to smell like a wet elk-hound."

"Hey!" He doesn't-- well. Perhaps a bit.

"Shut up."

Uther steps closer to the other cell, and Merlin can no longer see his face, just the thick grey edge of his cloak. "You have an hour - if you give me your word. In one hour you'll be ready and waiting in your chambers, and I'll watch you punish the boy by your own hand."

There is... something, and Merlin believes for the longest, oddest moment that Arthur has some magic of his own after all, building in that silence to the unbreakable bond of his promise. "You have my word, then. By my hand."

"Release them."

There's no pause, as if once he has that, Uther has everything, but if that's so, then why is he insisting on watching, being there as Arthur... as Arthur...

Just like that they're free, except not at all free, are they now, Merlin babbles in his head as Uther turns to sweep away, as the guard who tends to lose at dice unlocks the doors and frees their hands. Arthur first, of course it's Arthur first.

Merlin's babbling in his head because his hands hurt more with the cuffs off than on, because the feeling's returning to his legs, because if he keeps reaching for words he's not speaking he can pretend for a second more that this isn't, that it's not going to happen, that it isn't--

"Merlin."

Right. The door's open. He can leave. Merlin rubs his wrists and stumbles a bit, but he's moving. Out the doors, past the guards, down the hall...

To the wall, as strong hands grab him by collar and arm and slam him lightly into an alcove. Yes, you can slam lightly; it's a talent only Arthur could possibly master.

"Mer-lin!"

His eyes are wide and his mouth is open and Arthur's giving him that look like he's the perfect gooseberry fool. It makes him break out of the staring to smile, and that smile earns a smack to his head and he stares again. Vicious circle, that. "If you're going to start beating me now, you might want to call your father back so he can watch."

Another smack; he'd almost call it fond if Arthur didn't look like he looks, all manly aggravation and ... that can't be fear. Not of this, not in him.

"No, this part now is just for fun." The hand on his arm is gone, because Arthur's sighing through his teeth and rubbing at his hair. "Right. Look. I don't want this any more than you do."

"Oh, I'd lay bets I want it less. Not that I could prove that, but it's not your--"

"Shut up." Perhaps if Arthur knocks Merlin out with these continued blows to the head, he and his father could get the whole thing over with while Merlin's unconscious and he'll just have to deal with the aftermath? Merlin's good with aftermaths, really. "It's my word," Arthur says. "I gave him my word." The next ones are slow. Careful. Precise. "If you're not there in my rooms in an hour--"

"You'll hunt me down and string me up by some important bit or other and slice the rest of them off for making you break an oath, I know, I know." Arm free, Merlin waves it at him. "I'll be there."

Arthur's eyes are inches from his own now, breath on his face, and he'd had grouse and peaches tonight, and more than one glass of wine. "If you're not there in my rooms in an hour," Arthur repeats, slowly, to a gooseberry fool, "I won't have broken my word -- and you never gave yours."

Arthur's not wrong that sometimes Merlin's just a bit thick. A bit slow. This is one of those times, and the wall at Merlin's back now feels as cold as the one in the dungeon, though a fire burns in a sconce not three feet away. "And where would I be, then?"

"Not there, you nincompoop!" This time it's the wall beside his head that Arthur smacks.

"Not anywhere in Camelot," Merlin shoots back. Not that thick. "I'd have to leave, or the King would hunt me down." Not that slow.

Arthur lets his head fall back, unlaced red shirt framing the long line of his throat, curtains at an open window Merlin can't help staring through. "Yes. You'd have to leave. But you'd part my service with that lily-white skin of yours intact. It seems like rather a decent separation wage."

"You're sacking me now?" He's less aggrieved than he sounds, but it might make Arthur laugh, and right now he needs to hear Arthur laugh.

Down comes the chin, and there's the eyes, and the twist of the lips, and "Merlin, I sack you every second Tuesday. What's so terrible about one more time?" It's not a laugh, but a puff of air, and it's enough.

"You wouldn't be hiring me back when your socks get so stiff they can stand on their own." What's so terrible is it would be the last time, and that's not how this destiny thing is supposed to go. Ever try slicing a coin in half down the edge, so both sides are intact, but apart? Yeah. "Look, I don't know about you, but I actually would like to wash up. Wouldn't want to stink up your room with the smell of wet dog, now, yeah?"

Arthur stares -- "You're mad." -- or maybe glares -- "I don't want to do this." -- but it's enough that his fingers are loose and Merlin can finally twist away.

"But you can. It'll be all right."

It's a long damned walk back to Gaius' chambers, and he's listening for footsteps behind him, and he's thinking yes, yes it would still be Arthur breaking his word, and he's thinking Arthur knows that, and he's thinking he really is mad, or an imbecile, or both.

And he's thinking he does smell a bit like an elk-hound, yeah.

***

An hour. He had an hour to wait, to convince that good-for-nothing fool to leave, to come up with something, and now Arthur has five minutes.

Five minutes and clean socks and a chant of don't come under his breath and those spots of colour back in his face again, but this time the shame is that he doesn't mean it.

He means don't go and he has four minutes and not a cunning plan in sight. Nor a manservant, so perhaps he won't come.

Three minutes and the sense-memory of a braided cat in his hand because of course he's done this before, just never to a man who didn't deserve it.

Two minutes and bad fish in his gut, though it was peaches and grouse for supper, and perhaps he won't come.

One minute and bootsteps in the hall but he knows those feet; he's known them for twenty-odd years.

One minute. Less than one. Uther has the cat in his glove and he tosses it on the table, takes Arthur's favourite chair, and watches the door.

An hour, and perhaps he won't come, and perhaps the look on his father's face, the shake of the head, is worth that. Perhaps this feeling like the fish weren't only old, they were poisoned, is happiness. Is relief.

"Shall I call out the guard?" his father asks, and that look of disgust is.... "Or is it even worth the time? I imagine he's halfway through the forest by now."

An hour and five minutes, and the door bangs open and the daft git is smiling, that stupid nervous grin as he huffs and bows. "Sorry! Sorry, I--"

"Stopped to help some maid with her fallen laundry?" Arthur asks, and oh. So that's relief -- and terror; he's never known the two could mix so well.

"Something like that."

"You're never on time for anything; I ought to have Gaius examine my head for thinking this would be different." Hello, cunning plan, where are you? Hiding under the table with the crumbs for the mice?

Merlin passes close enough as he walks towards the fireplace to lean in and whisper, still the smile, "You'll remind me later that this is the stupidest thing I've done in my life, right?"

"Count on it," Arthur breathes, turning back to face his father.

"Well, then." Uther is good at covering surprise; Arthur is good at reading his face. Draw? Only for a moment, then a gloved hand points to the table.

There's movement behind him, and Arthur would rather not look at the whip, so it's easy to turn and see Merlin taking off his jacket. It would have been easy, if he hadn't caught the bastard's eye, and fuck, Merlin's not smiling now, that's something else, and it hurts.

"It'll be all right," Merlin repeats, this time in front of his father, and Arthur does want to hit him just a little, because he doesn't need -- he doesn't need reassurance! (It doesn't occur to him that Merlin might have said it for himself as well as Arthur until much, much later.)

He's not the one being punished here (except he is, because the King wouldn't doubt his sworn word, he's only here to make this horrible because Arthur dared to argue with him in the first place), he's not the one who'll feel the leather on his skin (except he thinks he might and he knows what a stupid womanly thought that is and he hates himself for it so thank you for that one too, Father), he's just the one who'll hold it in his---

"Arthur, let's have this done." The whip is in Uther's hand, but he's holding it out.

There's rope on the table for tying Merlin down, and any other time it might send Arthur's head somewhere funny, that thought, or maybe it's only now that it even could, but there's nothing funny now.

A breath, and Merlin's jacket's on a chair. Another and the ragged red kerchief joins it. Another and he's lifting up his shirt, all pale skin and ribs, and for God's sake what does he do with all that food Arthur knows disappears from his trays because he's sure as hell not eating it and--

"Stop."

Is this a cunning plan, then? It feels like indigestion, but maybe it's a cunning plan.

Merlin twists round, clean but threadbare shirt still half up over his face, hair poking out at odd angles; Uther just looks as if he's going to slap his forehead before he remembers his hand's full, but they both say "What?" at the same time.

"I said stop. Put your shirt down, Merlin; nobody needs to stare at your spotty back." There are no spots that Arthur can see.

"We're not doing this again," his father says, slapping the whip down before him on the corner of the table, then tossing it towards Arthur. "Spare us all whatever you're playing at and get on with it. You gave me your word."

"I'm not playing at anything." That is, very suddenly, a lie. "I'll keep my word." That's not, though it stings to have to speak it aloud. "But I didn't say anything about this."

He picks up the whip, feels the swing of it cutting through the air though it's coiled in his grip, then drops it on the table with a thud. Grabs the chair at the end, the one with no arms, the one that's not his, and spins it out to sit in the middle of the floor. Is this a cunning plan?

Merlin doesn't seem to think so. Merlin seems to think - as much as Merlin ever thinks - that Arthur no longer gets to tell him what to do, as he's still not let his shirt fall down. He's just standing there half pointed towards the fire, staring back over his shoulder like a loon.

"You said--" Uther begins, half rising from his chair -- Arthur's chair, the one he slouches through breakfast in, more of a throne than the stiff-backed gilded seats that flank the King's in the audience hall -- as Arthur drops to sit in the other.

"I said my hand." Which rises to cut Uther off as sure and as rude as the words. Not quite as rude as the grin that follows seconds later off the gobsmacked look on his father's face.

This is a cunning plan. Yes. "Come on, then, Merlin. Over the knee, there's a lad." He could only say something like that while laughing, so the words drag the laugh from his mouth, and yes. This is good. A slap to his knee like some comic minstrel, just to make the point.

Turning the grin to a smirk. Lifting his face to his father to say I GOT you. This time I got you. Beaten you fair and square, my word and yours.

Even the law would be technically satisfied; what mother in the lower town hasn't called her child in from the streets with that threat when the only thing she's wielding is her palm? I win like they're playing at trumps by the fire. Make him laugh, turn this thing on its ear from one more stormy Pendragon test of wills to the joke of a thing that it is, because really, Merlin? Merlin?

"This is ridiculous," his father snaps, and yes. Exactly. Exactly. Recognise the depth of that inanity, Uther, and call the whole thing off.

"I can't see how," Arthur lies, but it's not that sort of lie, not the sort where he's breaking his word. "He's got the mind of a nine year old boy at best." It's an unexpected gift to be able to get Merlin back for that crack he made in the cells. Arthur shows his gratitude by smirking again. "Merlin, come here."

"You're off your head," Merlin blurts, gangling over to stand awkwardly in front of him, and for once in his misbegotten life it's the right thing to say; it makes Arthur laugh again.

"Right, that's extra for you, young man." There was a nurse, long ago; he can't recall being attached to her. This might well be why. "Breeches down, come on."

They're only coming down by magic or if Arthur takes them down (head gone funny again but maybe that's all right now because this is funny, he's made it funny now), since Merlin's glaring with his arms crossed and a pink in his cheeks that makes Arthur want to crow out loud.

He looks to Uther, the black-snake braid of the whip on the table between them, and grins. And waits.

Grin back. Come on, I know you can, just laugh. You can do it. Come on. Any time now. I'll give you the draw, we'll never speak of it again, just cut this now before it gets any sillier.

"Yes. All right." That is not a grin.

"What?" This time it's Merlin and Arthur who sing it in unison and he rather hates that his sounds the more surprised, though at least his voice is lower.

That is not a grin; it's a grim, self-satisfied smile. "I thought you'd learnt about the letter of the law and the spirit when you were as young as you say he is," his father says, picking up the whip and pointing to Merlin.

It's another kind of ridiculousness, because this is all about the letter of the law, the law that Uther won't back down from, the oath that Arthur can't, but any words to that effect have tumbled silently from Arthur's gaping mouth in no particular order, like his brain.

"But if it's a lesson you need to learn again," says the King, "all right." There's something wrong with him holding the whip in his hand, still, as he crosses his arms and leans back. "You heard him, boy."

Here's Merlin gaping too, his own arms dropped to his sides. "Sire?"

"There's a certain irony to someone with your ears turning out to be deaf. Take your trousers down and bend over his lap."

How is it Uther can say something like that without laughing? It isn't fair -- but none of this is fair. Unfairest of all is that it's not just Arthur's head, still faced like a frog, that goes funny at the words. At Merlin's pink turning red, at fingers fumbling slowly for the ties at his waist and wrong, wrong, wrong.

This is not a cunning plan.

This is Arthur shutting his mouth with a snap and Merlin's shirt, well. This is that falling down now, you can bet, once the waist is undone. This is blue shirt-tails covering places Arthur's not staring anyway and not covering knobbly lanks of legs that could blind you worse than the sun peeking in behind Uther's head because they've all been awake that long.

This is Merlin failing to be anything like graceful as he bends over Arthur's splayed legs because for God's sweet sake he's a few inches taller than Arthur. This is Arthur only catching on after long enough that he feels like a prick -- which he hates -- that he ought to be helping or something, reaching for Merlin's shoulder to guide him down. This is Merlin turning his face to Arthur's in the second that it passes him and muttering, "In case you're wondering, this is the stupidest thing you've ever done."

That helps, somehow, God help them all. It helps distract Arthur for a moment from the weight on his legs and not just his head being funny. Fuck, this is awful, he's ... fuck. He can tell, of course he can tell, he's draped right over it. Distracts him from that shirt-tail right there next to his hand now, that he's got to slide up, but not before he whacks Merlin one hard on the back of his head.

His father still holding the whip as he finally laughs now, a short bark of bone-dry amusement, and says "Wrong end..." does not help. Not at all.

The world's most girly ow helps a bit, but not long enough to stave off the roll of Uther's eyes and the wave of a tightly-grasped whip and the fact that Uther has to say "Get on with it, Arthur" as well.

So... so right. Lifting that shirt, and there's a joke in there somewhere but Arthur's breathing too carefully to make it, trying too hard to be smooth, like he does this every day. Like he's ever done this. Like that's not Merlin's bare, white arse staring back at him and like he's not about to giggle like he's Merlin at the thought of a staring arse.

Like he's not hard as a sodding dungeon wall now and yes, he will hang Merlin by every important bit he can find if there's ever a word breathed of that to anyone. Speaking of breathing, he does that again, and Merlin doesn't smell like wet dog anymore; he smells like skin and soap. Something with lavender -- of course there are flowers, bloody hell, whose arse smells like flowers besides maybe Morgana's? Oh, thank you, more cellars full of wrong; he could almost believe that's as far down as this can go if it wasn't that he's got to draw back his hand now, and.... yeah.

Who knew a smack could echo so loud? It can't be loudest he's ever heard in this room, because he's had people here, you know, and there's other sorts of smacking. He's certainly made them groan louder than that tiny embarrassed squeak, yet both of those are the only things filling the spaces in Arthur's funny head.

"Dairymaid," he says because it holds him to some semblance of sane.

"Ass," Merlin mutters back, or perhaps it's the other word that sounds like it, and well. Arthur wasn't going to look but... Oh.

What fiend from Hell bewitched him into looking down so he can see the hand-print in Pendragon red blooming on that ridiculously smooth, pale haunch?

"If you're going to spend the day exchanging pleasantries, perhaps we'll go with the original plan." Uther should put down that whip, because wrong. Wrong in a way that's hard to define, but Arthur knows it when he sees it.

For instance, it's just unfair to Merlin that the next smack splats harder out of anger at his father (not fear of, shut up, shut up, shut up); it's wrong that it lands on the other cheek because he wants to see them match.

It's something else entirely when the squeak comes again and it's followed by a low short huff and a shift and ahhhhh ok then. Perhaps there won't have to be any hanging by bits after all.

Centuries from now, they'll call it mutually assured destruction; Arthur just knows his secret's safe. This doesn't make it any less humiliating now; it just tucks away a fear.

Stop LOOKING at me, he thinks at his father, who's watching like it's Arthur who's the dairymaid. It's taken this long and there's only been two, and clearly they're not getting out of this thing until he's gone completely bonkers.

So Arthur watches Merlin instead, because that's conducive to sanity, as the third blow falls and Merlin's head jerks where it hangs, dark hair wild. How is the back of his neck so pasty pale when his ears are flushed pinker than his rear?

The fourth, and the squeaks get stifled. The fifth's a little harder because Arthur hears a cleared throat from the table, and faster because Mother of GOD, Merlin, stop breathing like that, stop MOVING like that, and the handprints start to disappear into blotchy patches of red and there is the squeaking again.

He's on ten or twelve before he loses count because he's trying to decide if it's Merlin's rump that's getting hotter or the palm of his hand.

He's forgotten for a moment that they're being watched, when it finally becomes a rhythm in place of a number and he realises the heat's both places and his hand rather hurts and is it possible to be harder than a wall?

Then he remembers and his face flares up warm as his hand, as Merlin's arse, as he imagines Merlin's face must be too, hanging down there near his hands braced on the carpet, all the blood rushing down. Almost all the blood, and speaking of: Arthur's prick must be the fiend from hell in question because damn if it doesn't twitch when he remembers their audience, instead of shrinking away to hide somewhere.

It's a terrible, laughable wrong, worse that his movements make Merlin squirm more, and it sends Arthur furious, utterly round the bend, makes his hand fall harder and faster still. Spiraling down and down into wrong, wrong WRONG where the sounds that Merlin makes are clearly yelps of pain now but what's grinding against him says otherwise and yes. Yes it is possible, the walls in the dungeons must be made of goat cheese they're so soft compared to this, and---- AND.

Fuck. Bloody fucking things that Princes don't bloody fucking say, Merlin I hate you so MUCH or maybe that's -- WOUNDS OF THE SAINTS I will not think of my FATHER while I'm -- Merlin, I'll just stick with hating Merlin, did you just LIFT your arse up to me oh....sodding hell my hand hurts and you have the most terrible, beautiful backside I've ever seen and I -------- Fuck..

At least, he thinks as Merlin stiffens on his lap and Arthur loses any sense of rhythm in his hand because it's all tied up in shoving up against Merlin's down while not looking like he is and trying to breathe like he's not--- not --- is--- yeah -- fuck. At least he manages to keep his mouth shut when he comes, and miracle of miracles, a few half-wild arse-smacks later, Merlin does the same.

Though the hope that his father has no clue what's going on is dampened a bit by his own hand resting still and hot on Merlin's right cheek while he wipes at the sweat on his forehead with the other. What the hell are either of them going to do when they have to stand up?

Which is seriously a concern, because he is done. Done. Looking up at his father no matter how hot his face because hanging his head in shame is not an option DONE.

"I would say the law is satisfied, wouldn't you?" he asks, as even and as lightly as he can (which isn't, he can barely breathe to a beat, forget speaking). He searches Uther's eyes and brow and mouth for the telltale signs of triumph or disgust. Arch, knowing boredom. Anything at all that Arthur's ever seen before. "It's done."

Oh, stone. Arthur knows that one, yes; just never what it means. And for the sake of all that's holy or profane, stop squeezing that thrice-damned whip!

"It's done when I say it is. Now, I believe you said something about extra?"

Somewhere near the carpet, there's a groan.

***

I've drunk poison for you, Arthur Pendragon. It's been the running chant in Merlin's head all along when he's had enough wit to remember the language he thinks in. I've lied for (to) you, stolen for you, made myself a laughingstock so you could go chat up fairy girls, bargained with witches and dragons and other things almost as irritating and smug as you but not quite, and worn that STUPID. BLOODY. HAT. for you, and this is still the most humiliating thing I've ever done. You've ever done. We've ev--

So that was all sometime before the third or fourth smack on his arse, yes. After that, wit leaves the castle on a fast horse heading for the hills.

There's only ow and unh and oh God the KING is watching this and what, a lot of what as Arthur's magic trousers that Merlin can't believe fit the Prince on the best of days go impossibly tighter, hard beneath Merlin's belly.

Hard enough to distract him for a moment from his arse in the air and ow and pleasedon'tlethimnotice------I GUESS HE NOTICED THEN and OW and cnych--- which he actually grunts out loud, the both of those, and other words his mother doesn't know he knows that he swallows with the blood from the lip that he bites so he doesn't make any sound at all when Arthur lifts up against him and hey watch those please I might like to father children if I live that long in your company or at least OH NEVER MIND I LIED DO THAT AGAIN and there's one shirt ruined AND.... yeah.

Centuries from now, they'll call it mutually assured destruction; even now the French know it as Little Death. Merlin doesn't speak French.

Just when he's about to slide off to the carpet and die now thanks, his ears (only those, though) cool down to a bearable temperature, start working again and "...something about extra?"

Want to know something about extra? When you're lying in your own sticky mess with nothing like a hard prick, royal or otherwise, to distract from a sword-hand landing on your hot, sore bum, extra hurts.

It hurts more when you find yourself thinking between the gulps and the slaps that you're doing this for him and he'll never get it. That he's doing this because his father's in the room and it's one more game of Staring Down The King. Just a battle of who can keep it up longer, father or son, with Merlin in between like Arthur's whipping boy or-- his mother doesn't know he knows words like that either.

One smack and then another lands where one too many have landed, sharp and hot enough that maybe he is still nine for a moment. Eyes that were prickling and moist from the start spill over and Merlin's glad that whatever else of him is on display, his hair is hiding his face. Not that it does any good when the noise he makes can't be mistaken for anything else but a sob.

Then it's a whole different kind of hurt, to something Arthur could never touch with his hand. The blows cease for a moment, and Arthur leans low as he yanks Merlin closer with an arm round his back, some pretext of adjusting the royal knees so he won't go sliding off, and whispers, "Sorry."

Just that, and now a hand in the sweat on the small of his back as the other moves lower. Away from the bits that already hurt, to the backs of his thighs.

It smarts like Hell and Merlin can't even tone the wet gulping rasps back down to ragged breaths, but it doesn't matter. He's biting his lip again and When does Arthur ever say no to the King except over what he thinks is right? It could've been that whip in his hand. It could've been that whip in someone else's hand. Instead it's this, and he's doing this for me. He doesn't even get it and he's doing it for me, the best he can manage to do.

He might be more shamed by that than the position that he's in, cool air on his arse and his legs kicking out at the smacks to his thigh, and the sound of Arthur holding back his breath.

There, and there, and there, and then it stops, and Arthur's hand rests again on his skin, just there. Just resting on the curve of his arse.

Merlin can't see what's going on above his back. The air is heavy with it, though, whatever the Pendragon men are saying without speaking a word. It pushes Merlin down over Arthur's lap to the point where he has to grab a leg to stop his head from spinning, even though he knows Arthur won't let him fall.

"And that is done, I think," he hears at last, with the sound of Uther rising.

He'd like to move, and he'd like to stay right here because he thinks he might just fall if he tried to stand, and then there's the matter of his clothes. Boots across the floor, and still whatever isn't said is hanging in the air like a stone about to fall. Arthur's fingers drum an odd little pattern on his back.

"You won't get that mercy again," the King says at last, and Merlin wonders what he's supposed to say. Probably thank you, Sire, but there's something in the idea of speaking to the King when he's looming over your freshly-smacked bum that's enough to close your throat lest you giggle like a loon. "I trust you've learnt not to play tricks with your word on me."

"Yes," Arthur answers, his voice stiff and tight, and Merlin bites his lip to taste the blood. Nobody was talking to him at all, though maybe Arthur says it for him too, or maybe just himself. "Thank you, Sire."

"Then I'll take this back where it belongs. You'd both do best to act as if it got its use."

Whatever this is. Merlin can't see, but he can hear feet across the floor at least, and the door finally closing behind him as Uther leaves.

He ought to move. He ought to move... now. Before this gets ridiculous, before Arthur thinks he's... something. Afraid to ever face the man again. Because he's not. At all. He's just still here over Arthur's lap because--

"Oh, for God's sake, shift yourself." The arm round his waist is suddenly shoving him off, so he does tumble down to the floor. Arthur steps to the side, almost tripping over Merlin's flailing legs, then away.

Right. Well. There's that moment over, then. Merlin stares at his hands as he pushes himself up, then his feet as he yanks up his -- ow, ow, did they get two sizes smaller -- breeches, then his shirt and the mess that's been left there. Anywhere but up.

He can hear Arthur fussing with his belt and darts a glance to see... ah. Then Arthur's shirt is pulled free and at least one of them isn't standing there with the obvious signs of something that obviously never happened being ever so obviously wet.

"Don't just stand there like a simpleton." Where Arthur even finds words, let alone the breath to make them breezy and indifferent, Merlin hasn't a clue. He looks up finally, but finds he's looking at Arthur's back, disappearing behind his changing screen. "You can't wear that shirt back to your rooms. Take one of mine and get out of here."

"Right." Right. Well, looking at him won't be an issue then, will it. Merlin walks slowly -- painfully -- to the cupboard and takes the oldest shirt he can find, pulling his own off over his head with a sniff of disgust as the wet spot scrapes his nose.

He's turning around, donning Arthur's brown shirt as he goes, when their eyes finally meet, dark blond hair and blue eyes sticking out from the edge of the screen. Merlin stares for a second with nothing to say, then reaches to wipe at the mess of his face as the shirt falls loose across his stomach.

It's his eyes, red-rimmed and wet, that he thinks Arthur's staring back at, and some vestige of pride or just heat makes him rub them again and spit out , "Of course I cried; it bloody hurt."

Arthur's eyes flick up, unfathomable as his father's in their way, and Merlin realizes that wasn't where he was looking at all. "Dairymaid," he says again, then, "Have that lip seen to," and he's gone behind the screen once more.

Right. "Right." Merlin grabs his jacket and scarf, passes the empty table as he turns to go, and sees what Uther didn't leave there, what never touched his skin.

He ought to say something. He wants to say something. He can't bring the words to his tongue.

"Merlin, go home. Take the day; God knows I've seen more than enough of you this morning."

Right. He doesn't answer, just balls his own shirt into something he won't have to hide from those he passes in the halls, and goes, shoving the door shut hard behind him. What prompts the sullen kick to it, he doesn't care to say.

Two steps down the hall, then three, and certainly not looking back. It's slow going when you're walking like a stiff old man, but with any luck he can make it back to Gaius' rooms without seeing anyone he--

"Merlin. Are you all right?"

--knows. Morgana. Brilliant. In her pristine white morning gown, dark hair spreading over her shoulders, not even put up yet, and him with his own wet shirt crumpled up in his hand, covered only by the jacket hanging over his arm. He considers trying to vanish it, he really really does, but he'd never get away with it.

Merlin keeps walking because if he stops, he's not sure he'll start up again. "Of course, my lady."

"Don't lie to me, Merlin." (Oh, where to start, with that one.) "You're clearly not. I saw Uther leave Arthur's chamber before you. He was carrying a whip."

Of course she did. Of course. What's she even doing here? Did she dream about me getting my arse beat? He knows the thought is mad; he only answers again, "Thank you for your concern, but I'm really all right."

"Really." She looks like she believes that about as much as he does. "Merlin, I know why you were down in the cells; it's hardly much to guess the rest. I know what he did-- " Some other time, he'd feel grateful for the loathing in her voice, instead of awkward. "What Arthur did to you."

He does stop then, because the tone doesn't change when she says that name, and that's something other than awkward, and hot as the pain in his-- well. "Morgana, no. Arthur didn't--"

"Do what his father told him?" At least she's bright enough not to touch him, though she looks like she wants to; she wouldn't increase the pain he's not feeling where she thinks it is.

"Not exactly."

She hmms, but her dark brows stay knit. "That explains why Uther stopped to bang his head against the wall a couple times, I suppose."

Merlin isn't going to ask.

"Whatever Arthur might have said to his father, though, I can still see he hurt you."

Merlin starts moving again, a little ahead of her because with his back to Morgana's fierce eyes is the only way he can utter, "Arthur was the only thing that made it bearable, and if you tell him I said that I'll--" What? He can't threaten Morgana. "--lose anything like pride I've got left," he finishes, straightening his shoulders, because it's all he's got. "And I'd rather you didn't."

She's quiet for a moment, and there's only his footsteps, so perhaps he's been blessed by the gods and she'll let him alone. "Of course," she says finally, and yes, she's still standing where she was. Her tone's artificially light, but there's a laugh there somewhere, skirting round the edge. "I'd hardly give him the pleasure of hearing that."

Merlin makes his own laugh certain; he can't quite turn back or he'll stop again and he just wants to get home, but over his shoulder he gives her a lip-bitten smile. "Thank you."

She doesn't follow, and he thanks her for that as well.

His muttered prayers to make it back to Gaius' place without passing anyone else don't come true, but it's no one with an interest in stopping him. A couple knowing looks, yes, but they don't know what they think they know, and if he keeps walking, slowly but sure, he'll be past them in no time, and back where he belongs.

Gaius, at least, didn't wait outside Arthur's door to ambush him, but then Gaius had known. Gaius had been the one to hand him clothes, wash his back -- "It's less likely to get infected if it starts off clean" -- and only point out once that Arthur was right: he could disappear into the dawn and never come back. Then he'd traded Merlin's dark look for silence and the jar of soap.

Inside his own door, though? That's another story, and the trade Merlin knew he was making for not getting fussed at beforehand. Honestly, when he'd left, he wanted to be fussed at after. Before, he couldn't bear it; the only way to make himself go was just do it and go. After, he'd expected to need all the help he could get.

"Merlin!" That's Gaius up from the table, then, and moving to take Merlin's arm like he's the one with the bad back and achy limbs, instead of Gaius.

"I'm ok, Gaius." Merlin fends him off with the hand holding... ergh. That one could go behind his back, perhaps. Because that isn't suspicious at all.

Ow, the eyebrow, ow. "Of course you aren't. Now come here--" He goes for the other arm instead, tugging Merlin towards the table with the least amount of books and food and scientific somethings spread across it. There's water in a bowl, and linens. Jars of salve. "--and let's have that shirt off."

Then his arm's let go and it's the shirt that Gaius tugs, firmly but carefully. "Gaius, no, I don't need--" To wince at the worry on the old man's face, but he does.

"Merlin, if you don't let me take care of you, it could get in--" He twitches the shirt up over Merlin's untouched back. "Merlin?"

A breath and a guilt-laden glance at the table. "I did say I'm fine, you know."

"I watched you walk in here, my boy. Whatever you are, it's hardly 'fine.'" But Gaius lets it drop -- the shirt, not the subject. "You're moving like-- is that Arthur's shirt?"

Sigh. And sigh again. "Yes. If you care for me at all, Gaius, you'll never ask me why." Nor is that guilt-inducing at all, but honestly. There are limits.

The eyebrow goes up farther than Merlin's ever known it could. "I'll make you a bargain, then: if you'll tell me what happened -- so I know what to do for you -- I won't."

"You don't need to do anything." Except let him stumble up to his room, toss his shirt in a corner to try to forget about, and fall face-first on the bed. "I'll be fine."

"MERLIN."

How did he learn that voice? Only Merlin's mother knows that voice! Unfair. Unfair.

"He used his hand, Gaius. All right? He caught Uther in a loophole and he used his hand." The flush he'd thought had faded from his face has just been hiding, so it seems, because suddenly there's burning in more than the obvious place.

He'll be sorry for snapping later. He's sorry now, but his pulse is louder in his ears than the guilt.

Oh, both eyebrows now. It's an auspicious day indeed. Gaius glances at his shirt -- Arthur's shirt, not the one in Merlin's hand, thank whatever gods may be -- and finally, thankfully, turns away, going over to putter with another set of jars. "I imagine I don't need to say you got lucky. Not that you feel terribly lucky at the moment," he says, his back turned.

"No," Merlin answers to both, and starts heading for his room.

"Merlin, wait. I've got something that should help, here. If you'll--" The gesture he finishes the sentence with involves Merlin's trousers and possibly the table, or possibly the bed, and either way it will be imprinted in Merlin's brain until the day he dies, under NO, NO, NO.

Which he says, but just once, to whit, "NO!" Then his manners or something kick in, and he's casting his eyes down. "I mean. Sorry, but no. I can do it myself."

There's a kindness in Gaius' eyeroll that's almost more comfort than the smile, as wry as that is. "Here you are, then." He presses the jar into Merlin's hand, and Merlin's off to his room like someone lit his tail on fire, and he's never going to use that phrase again. "If you change your mind, I'm--" Merlin hears as the door swings shut.

Another "NO!" but at least this one's followed by "...thank you." Then Merlin falling face-first on the bed. That part of the plan hasn't changed.

***

He'd have been here sooner, Arthur thinks of saying to Gaius when he opens the door, but he met a terrible shrieking she-creature with a giant nose in the hallway and had to slice its head off with his sword. (Despite the fact that his sword-hand stings like fire right now.)

Knowing the way that rumour travels here, though, he'd be back before his father in an hour, explaining with a pained sigh and a pike-stiff back that he'd only meant Morgana.

Morgana, who'd asked after the health of his shirt as she'd seen it wandering the halls without him, then sworn if he didn't go speak to Merlin, she'd tell about the thing with the frog and the horse when he was twelve, which was utterly unfair and dishonourable beside.

He'd paid her in staff lessons not to say a word, and besides, as he told her in the hallway with heaven-cast eyes, "If you're quite finished threatening to break years-old oaths, you might consider where it is I was already going."

Gaius opens the door, and instead Arthur says nothing. He doesn't know what Merlin's told him, but he knows how close they are, so he can guess, and... there's nothing to say, beyond an uncomfortable cough.

The old man eyes him silently as well for a moment, giving Arthur the raised brow that he's known for long enough to withstand with his own face immobile, then shakes his head. "He's in his room. Not, as you can imagine, in the best of moods."

"Yes. Well." What can he say to that either, as Gaius steps out of his way? "Could you leave us alone for a bit?" Apparently that.

As if he's used to being asked to vacate his own chambers every day, Gaius nods. "Of course, Sire." He reaches for a book from the bench near the door. "I've been meaning to return this to Geoffrey; I'll pop off to do that now." To the library that's halfway across the castle.

Arthur just nods back. He's the Prince; he is used to answers like that. He does have the manners instilled to say "Thank you," though. "How is he?" he finds himself blurting afterwards, softer and with far more concern than he ought for something as cracked as this whole thing had finally been.

"He'll survive." Gaius pauses in the doorway, his hand on the frame, looking back at Arthur. "He won't thank you for that, and you shouldn't ask it of him."

Gaius has known Arthur long enough to always be able to break his statue-face with something. "I wasn't-- I didn't come here for that."

"He won't," Gaius says again, dropping his head a bit -- perhaps it's a nod or a bow, perhaps it's both. "But I do. I know what you spared him."

Now Arthur is back to, "Yes. Well," and then Gaius is gone.

There's only the door to Merlin's small room up the steps: one, two, three and he's there -- and knocking, unlike some people, Merlin.

"Gaius, I said I can do it my--"

Granted, knocking and waiting for an invitation are two different things. "I'm not Gaius," says Arthur as he steps inside.

"--self," says Merlin as Arthur stares.

If the question Could today get any odder or more uncomfortable had been asked of Arthur five minutes ago, he'd have asked Is Morgana involved? and said no, after hearing she wasn't.

He'd have been wrong, so very, very wrong, because Merlin is lying on his front on the bed with his trousers round his ankles and his arse in the air, twisting round in a clumsy doomed-to-failure attempt to rub some sort of cream on his reddened backside.

There is nothing less fair or more wrong in Heaven and Earth than the fact that the sight makes Arthur's second pair of trousers of the day go tight. Nothing.

(Yes, fine, perhaps slavery and murder and the wholesale slaughter of wizards and the punishment of innocents for something someone else has done, but Arthur's young and there's bare skin before his eyes and he's had a very trying night.)

It's Arthur who catches on soonest that this particular contest of manhood will be won by he who finds words for it first. "For God's sake, are you going to ruin my shirt as well?" Not the best he could have chosen, but it stops him freezing in the door, if not the staring. He strides towards the bed and the door slams shut behind him as Merlin scrambles to cover up. "Stop that; you'll only make it worse."

Seriously: Merlin's already dropped the pot of whatever it is onto the sheets, then let go of his breeches in his haste to stop it spilling, by the time Arthur makes it to his bedside. "Arthur!"

It's not that Arthur can't hear GO AWAY in that particular dialect of his name; he just doesn't feel obliged to care. He's also fast enough to snatch the stuff from Merlin's hand.

"Uhnff..." is the only thing he gets in response to that, Merlin's face buried into the pillow in sheer frustration. Then, somewhat muffled, "Have you brought Gaius with you too, or is it Gwen this time? Morgana? Perhaps Sir Leon..."

"Sir Leon? Now you're just being silly." Arthur drops to the chair beside him and dips his fingers in the jar, though there's already a smear across the top of Merlin's arse. The stuff smells like sage and something mintish; it's only the things you have to drink that Gaius always makes taste like toad spit.

Merlin turns his face away, but out of the pillow, so his next words are clear. "Shouldn't you be someplace pretending this never happened?"

Yes. "I'm the Prince; I can be where I please."

His hand on Merlin's arse again today (he'd say ever but he's not that pure of heart) : something Arthur had never imagined until he walked in the door. The skin's still warm, and Merlin jumps when his fingers touch. It still hurts, what Arthur put there, and the sight of it still makes him hard and sorry, all at once.

"Besides, I had to come remind you that this was the stupidest thing you've ever done. I always keep my promises; you know that."

At least now his hand is spreading something cool across that skin, as Merlin wriggles beneath it and mutters things into the pillow that Arthur pretends he can't quite hear. It's also the other hand; his sword-hand just drums fingers on his thigh, the palm as pink and aching still as Merlin's rear must be. No, less, he supposes. There's calluses on Arthur, after all.

"Arthur..."

"Shut up, will you?" When he turns his head to glare at the back of Merlin's, his fingers slide to the land in between that's not pink because they never landed there. Merlin tries to twist away, or maybe escape downward through the mattress and into some hole in the floor, and it pokes Arthur hard in a sore spot of his own, just not the one in his hand. "Just let me do this for you, damn it. Just give me that, at least."

Merlin lifts his head from the pillow to face him this time. The shell of his ear is red, like the stripes along the tops of those cheekbones that some might say are wasted on a man. "It's not that; it's--" His lip is still wounded, split and red from the bite. Arthur isn't staring though, just processing what Merlin means. Yes.

Fingers slide a little more and Merlin groans, and oh.

"Yes. Well." It's a useful phrase for many occasions in Arthur's life. Perhaps not this one.

"You could leave me with some shred of dignity, you know."

"As if you ever had it to begin with." He hasn't moved his hand. He ought to move his hand. This isn't something he can't shut down because of where they are and who's watching. It's only them here, Arthur and Merlin. "Balls, though... I'll have to grant you that."

"Yes. Well." Merlin ought to be whipped for mocking the Prince, but Arthur thinks he'll let it slide this time. "It's hard to deny what you've seen with your own royal eyes. Quite enough of me today, didn't you say?"

"Shut up. I'm the Prince; I'm allowed to change my mind." He ought to move his hand. Where he ought and where he wants are lands so far apart that you'd have to flip the map over. He ought to say... nothing like what he says. "No, don't shut up - tell me to stop and I will."

The flush goes deeper above those cheekbones, and how did Merlin's eyes get that blue when half the time Arthur would swear that the damned things are black? "Which is it, my Lord? Shut up or don't?"

Arthur ought to smack him for that grin pulled out of nowhere, at least, but one hand's busy, and the other hand stings too much. "Do what you like; as if you ever listen anyway."

One hand's busy, yes, again. Sliding, sliding, over places warm and cooler, pink and white, shadowed and already slick with sweat.

Merlin's decided to go with not listening again, not shutting up but not telling him no, just groaning in a way that he couldn't have hours ago. A groan that led to that reddened lip when he swallowed it whole, Arthur thinks.

He's thinking a lot now, more than he expected, more than he ought if he wants to stay sane, but then he thinks that may be a lost cause anyhow.

Merlin pushes against the bedclothes and Arthur thinks that's wasted on the sheets. His hand, the one that's not slipping, slipping down to someplace dark where it's certainly never been before, the sword-hand hurts but Arthur thinks he doesn't care, as Merlin lifts and he darts it to reach underneath.

It never gets there, and Arthur thinks Merlin got that fast exactly when, with his wrist grasped in Merlin's own hand? That might be a stop; he thinks the only way to know is to ask, and wonder of wonders, he does. "Is that stop, then?"

But Merlin's just looking, staring at his palm. It's pink, still, yes, with white bits that aren't blisters, they're the calluses from his sword, but he could understand the-- no, that's Merlin's thumb, sliding softly across his skin, so the boy knows exactly what they are.

That's Merlin's hand drawing his closer, like Arthur isn't three times as strong, couldn't yank it back in an instant, and that's Merlin's mouth pressing against it.

Arthur's just staring, not even Yes. Well. on his tongue, and Arthur thinks nothing, just nothing at the touch of Merlin's lips, but that sore spot that's not in his hand feels like someone is kissing it better.

There was a nurse like that once, too. She didn't last long, when the King caught her coddling his heir.

Arthur thinks he's been thoughtless long enough, and pulls his hand away more gently than he ever thought he could. "I take it back," he says, voice too rough. He moves his hand where he'd meant it to go in the first place. "That was your stupidest thing. For the day, at least. I'm sure you'll surpass yourself tomorrow."

Merlin's over-bright eyes slit shut as Arthur's fingers wrap around him, but even blind, he can pull off that gormless, maddening grin. "Ahhh-and that's the stupidest thing you've ever done."

"No, this is," Arthur says as he slides to his knees and smashes his mouth to Merlin's. There's blood beneath his tongue, but it's old, and Merlin arches in his hand.

This is not a cunning plan either.

***

It ends as so many of their stories do -- or will, rather, now, though they don't know it yet -- with Gaius poking his head into his chambers. He cocks an eyebrow at the sounds from behind Merlin's door, and remembers a book that he needs to go back to the library and read. Right now. Perhaps for several hours.

~0~

Fin