Hauling Arthur away from the melee, even after the battle had wound down considerably, took Merlin's full attention. He'd got them down the hall a ways, pulled a weird-looking arrow out of Arthur's sleeve, and had stopped the bleeding from the shallow gouge beneath by the time it really registered that Arthur was talking to himself.
"Merlin's terrible about interruptions," Arthur was saying, "And his timing, that's even worse."
"Oh, you're one to talk," Merlin shot back, but Arthur kept on speaking over him, and Merlin stopped, confused.
"He doesn't even know it half the time. Like this morning! Maybe I should shout at him when he walks in on me touching myself instead of pretending I wasn't. It's my right, anyway. He ought to learn to knock! And now dragging me away from battle; I should be back there—"
"I beg your pardon?" Merlin tried to cut him off, with no result whatsoever. Arthur gazed blurrily over Merlin's shoulder and rambled on.
"As if I needed cosseting, particularly by him. He can't even defend himself. One stray sword-thrust and I'd be out too much — he doesn't understand. Seeing him in danger makes me crazy."
"I'm right here, you know," Merlin said, indignation lost behind the panicked muddle that came with hearing something he was certainly not intended to know.
"And this place was supposed to be neutral ground. It was pretty obvious we were going to win, I wonder why they even started something? Wretchedly laid-out castle, wretched people in it, wretched weather. Though the fight wasn't bad. Nor the food. Morgana's young cousins aren't entirely horrible. And Merlin's here."
"Arthur, look at me," Merlin touched his face, gingerly feeling for whatever was influencing the Prince: not a poison, and not only a spell, perhaps some sort of potion? He nudged Arthur's chin with the back of his knuckles, gently angling his face so their eyes would meet. "Arthur. I'm right here."
Something must have lined up for Arthur; his focus sharpened. "Merlin," he said softly, followed by a quick intake of breath and a redoubled rush of words. "Shit, your eyes," he said with a wild look, "Oh, shit, your hands. Get away from me, I want to touch you. I just want you to think I'm a good person." Arthur choked, words still spilling out of his mouth. "I can't stop this, you've got to help me! I feel very strange. It's got to be your fault somehow. Things were never so interesting before you became my servant. What would I do if I hadn't met you?" His tone wandered as a drunk's would, from frantic awareness of what he was saying to a sort of absent semi-lucidity. "All these dreams about you, only half are fit to talk over with Morgana, and the rest... I wonder how it would be. I've never seen you naked, which doesn't seem fair. I'm guessing you're well-endowed, but you'll never hear that from me."
"You'll thank me for this later!" Merlin shoved his hand over Arthur's mouth, who tolerated it for moment, then twisted out of his hold easily while Merlin struggled to grab onto him somehow, finally latching onto the front of his ruined jacket, wary of Arthur's wandering attention.
"What are you thinking? As pleasant as that is, it's no solution. I've obviously been cursed somehow. Haven't you seen anything in those sketchy herbalist's books to shake something like this off?"
"Did you drink anything in the hall?" Merlin interjected hastily, diverting Arthur from a tangent on the sorts of books Gaius probably kept on the highest shelves. He balled his free hand into a fist; he could still feel the ghost of Arthur's lips against his palm.
"I hadn't even touched my wine. Nothing since breakfast, which you brought to me yourself. Are you saying it was some kind of drug? Could something have been on that quarrel? Though it barely nicked me. Must have been a shoddy excuse for a crossbow, or an absurdly long way off, unless somebody ran up behind me and tried to stab me in the arm with it while I was busy restoring order. There's a pathetic image."
"That's an idea." Merlin relaxed his death grip on the cloth of Arthur's jacket with some reluctance. Arthur carried on talking as Merlin retrieved and examined the arrow, something about the relative painfulness of various injuries Arthur had received in combat. "We have to get out of the open," Merlin told him, "someplace you won't be overheard, at least. Come on." He got Arthur by the sleeve, tugged him out of the alcove they'd sheltered in, picked a direction, and started towing him down the passageway.
"But I wish you'd try putting your hand over my mouth sometime when we're in my chambers with time to spend. Give me an excuse to wrestle with you. I wouldn't hold you down unless you wanted me to, but I wouldn't let you win either."
Arthur might not forgive him for hearing something like that, but knowing the idea was in his head at all was enough to make Merlin foolishly breathless and more than a little lightheaded. If he'd never considered that specific fantasy before, he certainly would from now on. "Shut up, shut up, shut uuuup, shut up shut up shut uuuuuuup," Merlin started up a little song, but it wasn't enough to distract him from Arthur's constant stream of words.
"You had better not turn your back on me when you find out I want you," Arthur said. "I'd hate you for that. I'd hate myself for that. I wish I could stop talking, my mouth is getting dry," he meandered, his voice growing vague again. Merlin braced himself, wishing fervently for some safer topic to pass through Arthur's mind. "Hope whoever did this found his end on some sword tonight. I wonder what they were after, Camelot's secrets or blackmail material? Our defences would stand even if the enemy knew about the passages below the gardens, which are guarded now in any case. Perhaps they only meant to sow havoc. Did they go after others of our party too, or only me? It's laughable. My only real secrets are personal ones, nothing life-ending unless Merlin and Guinevere are mortally offended by the idea of a threesome. But it's shameful that I'm lusting after our servants. Gwen must never know. Merlin might realise eventually, if we stay together — we'd probably recover from it, even if he was disgusted. It'll be hard if he only laughs, but at least he's not likely to try to fight me or leave his post. He's been really faithful."
"Prat," Merlin muttered, and changed his grip from Arthur's sleeve to his hand.
They edged past the entrance to the main hall again — the battle was more or less over, Merlin didn't know what Arthur's big problem was — and kept going. Ideally they could have returned to Arthur's guest chambers, but two days had not sufficed to orient Merlin to the layout of Lord Hoel's fortress. The best he could do was one of the courtyards inside the keep, the windows that lined it shuttered against the drizzling rain. Two doors on opposite ends of the courtyard meant a back way out if the battle were to spill in, but Merlin doubted they had anything to worry about on that front.
Fat raindrops clung to the edge of the overhang along one wall, and the area open to the sky was so much mud around sodden plants and one sorry-looking tree. Merlin picked his way along the stone path and pulled Arthur into the sheltered side. Arthur still seemed dazed, rambling about something Merlin was putting serious effort into not listening to. It was a bit of a lost cause either way when Arthur eyed him sidelong and slurred out Merlin's name. "Here you are. There's something wrong, I think. Can you fix it?"
"I'll try," said Merlin, not with any intention of making himself heard, but talking to himself wasn't anything new.
"I wonder about you," Arthur was saying. "You've got dimension, it's so strange, I've never known anyone else like you. Well, if they were like you they were hiding it better." That had to be consciously spoken, Merlin thought, from the way Arthur grinned over it. "I do think you haven't the common sense god gave a root vegetable. But look how lovely you are. And you look out for me, it's hard to acknowledge because I don't need defending, but you look after my happiness more than anyone else has ever done. I wonder how I came to have you chasing me around? I didn't even have to work for it; that's not how my life usually goes at all."
Merlin wondered the same thing, quite often. "You can't do it all yourself," he told Arthur, somewhat at a loss. His plan hadn't extended much past finding a safe place for Arthur to ramble.
"I think you're the only one who would say that. Or at least, the only one I would actually listen to, saying it, not that I'd let you know it. I show you far more than I should, but it was so much harder without you. And I can't help wondering," he said on a sigh, "how it would be. If it could be even better. Are you shy? Would I have to coax you?"
Strangely charmed, Merlin risked a reply, unsure whether to hope Arthur would remember when the spell was lifted. "No. I'm not shy," he said, even as Arthur spoke on over him.
"I sort of want to and I sort of don't. But I'd let you," he said. "I'd let you do things to me, anything you wanted, anything that turned you on. It's dangerous what I would do for you, Merlin, I think I just love you too much." A certain tension crept into his stance, which Merlin thought entirely understandable; he thought he might be in some kind of shock himself. "I've already lied and killed to protect you and who knows how many idiotic quests you've sent me on, most without even asking. I don't understand how you got so far into me, and it makes even less sense how much farther I want you. And it's very frustrating. You're frustrating. I wonder whether you'd pull my hair the right way or the annoying way? I wonder if— fff," he stuttered, his eyes desperately aware, "Help me—"
"Ic gehæfte þin gespræce!" Merlin bit out, swiftly directing magic to quiet the sound from Arthur until even his rapid breathing was perfectly silent. "God in heaven. I am so sorry, Arthur."
Arthur rubbed his hands over his face with the air of a man with a severe headache coming on, and swayed on his feet, mouth still moving, mute.
"The compulsion will probably just go away on its own," Merlin told him, trying to sound reassuring. Arthur pinned him with a furious look, mouthing something Merlin was extremely glad he couldn't hear, and he added hastily, "But we'll definitely get you an antidote as soon as possible anyway. Of course. Sire."
"There you are!" Morgana came into the courtyard, dressed in violet silk from the feast, her hair falling down wildly from its decorative knots and a narrow-bladed sword ready in one hand. Instantly panicked again, Merlin dashed to meet her at the archway.
"We're fine, my Lady," he said hurriedly, "I mean, Arthur's fine." She smiled at him wryly. "But could you please find Gaius? I just want him to look at a scrape on Arthur's arm. And he might have got thumped on the head a bit." Morgana's brow creased in concern, and she started across the muddy yard towards Arthur, but Merlin got in her way before she could get close enough to notice anything unnatural going on. "But he's fine! Trust me, please just trust me, you don't want to go over there right now. He's... saying things he'll probably regret later." Giddy from nerves, Merlin congratulated himself on being technically truthful about the entire situation.
She winced a little. "He's in a mood? I'm sure you'll have more luck talking him 'round than I would. I'll inform Gaius. And Merlin?" He straightened his shoulders, trying to look capable and trustworthy. "I'm glad you're both all right." Turning with a swirl of her formal half-cloak, she strode into the shadows of the corridor, boot-heels clicking.
Merlin slumped a bit when she was out of sight, and wiped his rain-wet hair back from his forehead. A very quiet, "Oh god," was all the complaint he allowed himself before turning to deal with Arthur again.
"You got rid of her very quickly!" Arthur said approvingly as Merlin rejoined him beneath the overhang. "Faster than I likely could have. It's no small thing, shaking off Morgana, she's the most persistent person I've ever known aside from you. Well, no, my father is persistent. You and she are nosy."
"It's worn off already?"
"Yes, you'll have to do it better the next time. I have wondered if maybe you weren't working magic, at times, from so many of the ridiculous things that happen around you, although I wasn't sure, but I almost wanted it to be true so you'd be as powerful in your way as I am, so I wouldn't have to be careful with you—"
"Ic gehæfte þin gespræce," Merlin hissed again, trying to mean it more, and Arthur went quiet again. "Fuck," he said. "I really wanted to hear all that. But not if you don't mean to tell me. I hope you will, sometime."
Arthur yawned in perfect silence, still mouthing words throughout. The unhappy set of his jaw was obvious even outside his little pauses for breath.
"Is it all right with you if I use magic on you to stop the curse? I'll have to take the silence off first to trace the source of it. Arthur?" Merlin waited for Arthur's focus to come back to him, reassuring, "I won't listen to what you're saying, I'll be very quick." When at last Arthur seemed to grasp what he was asking and assented with a nod, Merlin said, "Þu bruce spræce," as clearly as he could. The sound returned unceremoniously as if Arthur had simply started speaking in the middle of a word.
"—d have let you in any case just to see what your eyes do, that's quite good," he chattered. "I wonder why it lights up like that? Are your eyes important to casting spells, do you have to be watching what you're magicking? Did you learn by yourself or did someone teach you? Can you do anything dirty with it? Damn, I wish I actually agreed with my father's ban, it'd sound much better if I supported him."
"I'm not listening," Merlin reminded Arthur with all the serenity he could muster. "I'll need to touch your skin to feel where the compulsion is coming from."
Arthur held out both hands for Merlin to take, and Merlin's heart thudded out of rhythm at the openness of that offering. He accepted them, holding Arthur's hands as a friend would, while Arthur talked on: "I wish it was you with this curse instead of me, although maybe not if you'd tell me things I don't want to hear. I'd take care of you too, if something like that happened. If anyone's to hear my idiotic secrets, I am glad it's you. There's no one I trust more. You said you weren't listening," Arthur said archly, "but you certainly look like you are."
"Sorry," Merlin said, shifting his attention hastily back to the magic he meant to work. "I don't know a spell for this," he said, partly to Arthur and partly to distract himself from the enthusiastic and weirdly sensual tangent Arthur began on the subject of having Merlin fitted for his own armour when they returned to Camelot. "It'll be okay, though. I just have to feel out what I'm looking for, and the source of the magic should show itself to me." He let his eyes fall closed — ignoring the prompt complaint from Arthur — and pushed his awareness against Arthur's hands. His magic seeped past the skin to be tugged swiftly through Arthur's blood with no sign of a potion to be found. "There's..." he heard his own voice along with Arthur's, strange-sounding through Arthur's ears, "some kind of, what is that?" The back of Arthur's neck, there was something...
He snapped back into himself abruptly when a flare of magic from whatever-it-was burnt his fingers, and Arthur said, "That stings! What was that, what have you—?" before he managed to pry the thing, which seemed to be a flat, faceted piece of stone, off with his fingernails and flick it away. Arthur's voice stopped instantly.
Merlin rubbed a fingertip over the welt where the stone had been affixed, and sent a little push of magic to deaden any pain with a murmured, "Sorg beo gelytlod." He opened his eyes to Arthur's disgruntled moue, up very close, and realised exactly how near they were standing: both of Arthur's hands clasping one of Merlin's, and Merlin's other hand cupping the back of Arthur's neck. He could feel Arthur's breath on his face.
"If anybody saw, you can tell them you were stealing a kiss," he said, stupid with relief. His heart sank when Arthur stiffened and pulled away, dropping Merlin's hand, and he actually felt a curl of fear at the grim look the Prince turned on him.
"If you're my friend, you will not speak of it. And you'll forgive me. I was not myself."
"I know. It was a spell. So... you remember everything?"
Arthur swallowed, something pained and raw in his expression. "I can forget what I know, if you forget what you know."
And that felt like a physical blow, but Merlin forced himself not to avoid Arthur's eyes. "I'd never hold it against you. I care for you so much, I'd." He took a deep breath, the air around them seeming too thin somehow. "I'd topple the world for you. I'd do anything. So please."
He was about to turn away; Merlin could see it playing out, with horrible clarity, all the years ahead with this fear between them, and this his only chance. "Do you imagine I don't love you?" Merlin burst out. "Is that what you're telling yourself? That you're rejected?"
"I am not asking anything of you," Arthur said intensely, sounding almost furious, but it wasn't anger on his face.
"Well I am!"
Arthur's eyes darted down to Merlin's clenched hands, then back up. He said nothing, just made a few upset breaths.
"If you want to turn me over to your father, go ahead! I did it to save your pride, not your life — this time — and I don't care, do whatever you're going to do. Didn't you hope for this? All I wanted is for you to take this, this thing I can't rid myself of even if I wanted to, and give it some kind of purpose. It was supposed to be for you. If you don't want it..." Merlin ran out of words and stood, one hand against his chest not easing the ache at all.
"That's not all you wanted," Arthur observed.
Merlin bit his lip. "All right, maybe not all. I don't want you to forget."
"And... and I don't know."
The corners of Arthur's mouth tilted up — just a little, but it changed his whole face. "Thought you said you're not shy."
"Well then? You may as well tell me, while you're listing your demands."
An inkling of what Arthur was asking for now trickled into Merlin's mind. Arthur had been forced to speak with no censor, and now he wanted some of the same from Merlin, more voluntarily. Which actually sounded a bit fun, since he had a choice about it. Merlin took a moment to decide what to say, but when he spoke it was the artless truth. "If you're taking demands, I'd love it if you stopped flicking your eyes down to my mouth when we talk in front of other people. Just, the only other people besides you who have ever looked at me like that kissed me right after. Nobody else needs to know that makes me a bit excited, sometimes, because I can't help imagining you're going to."
"You mean, makes you hard?" Arthur leered.
"Yeah," Merlin admitted — rather boldly, he thought. Arthur was staring at him still, but a little of the strain in his expression seemed to have eased.
"I never noticed," Arthur said, his tone more curious than gibing. "You must've done the same thing to me yourself a dozen times since you pulled me out of there. I thought it was just... a thing."
"Did I?" He grinned at Arthur and took a step forward.
"So you did think of this, before I spilled every last humiliating daydream in front of you?"
Merlin thought probably there were at least a few Arthur hadn't got around to mentioning while under the compulsion, but. "This?"
"Frankly, you're a little out of my league."
Arthur's face went incredulous. "I can't believe you think so. I think I'm flattered. Answer the question."
"Well, not seriously, but I suppose I can say I've pictured it."
"Ohh," said Arthur, so infuriatingly knowing.
"Shut it! I didn't laugh at you when you were—"
"Morgana," Arthur said, quietly but very meaningfully.
"I came as soon as I could!" said Morgana, and Merlin whirled to face her. She strode into the courtyard, entirely unconcerned by the streaks the rain was leaving down the skirts of her gown. Arthur walked past him to greet her, eyeing the sword she was still carrying. "You're all right, then, Arthur?" she inquired. "You've a thick enough skull, I'm sure. The Lindsay delegation has agreed to a truce and given us hostages, and we've set up an infirmary in the gallery as the physician's rooms are quite small. Gaius is there now. There weren't so many casualties, but someone had laid a curse on Uther you wouldn't believe! The things he was saying... I wish I could wash my ears out."
Merlin and Arthur both stared at her.
"What? It's not as though Merlin's going to tell anyone. Are you?"
Merlin shook his head, and Arthur looked at him and said, "I trust in Merlin's discretion," a bit pompously. Despite the delivery those words sent a flush of happiness through Merlin, compounded by Arthur's gaze dropping deliberately to Merlin's lips before dragging back up, his eyes smug and safe once more. "Lead on, then, my Lady," Arthur said. He cocked an eyebrow at Merlin before sauntering through the archway after Morgana, leaving Merlin scrambling to find the cursed stone in the pebbly mud of the courtyard. He spotted it soon enough by the shine, and crouched, tugging his sleeve over his hand to pick it up (soaking his sleeve, of course). Pulling his neckerchief off to wrap the stone into, he sprinted around the corner and trotted to catch up along the dim main corridor.
"Arthur!" At Arthur's shoulder he ducked his head to make himself heard without being overheard. Arthur shot him a sideways glance, his mouth pulling to one side in the smirk that meant he was struggling to conceal real glee, which actually answered the question Merlin had been about to ask. So he asked something else: "Which way is the right way and which way is the annoying way?"
"Show you later," Arthur said, then they passed together into the gallery and chaos.
If Merlin spent most of the rest of the year completely preoccupied with devising spells to pin a person's wrists, or touch them all over without laying a hand on them, or bypass skin and give pleasure directly to the soul — Arthur was the only one who seemed much to care.