Until The World Gives In
sometimes it seems like love
is just a fancy word for compromise
you gotta read between the years
you gotta write between the lines
you gotta try to understand
the grandness of the man behind the petty crimes
and let him off easy sometimes
The snow started to fall two days into the hunt. It began without any real conviction, dusting the treetops and teasing the whiskers of their horses, but a week out winter suddenly develops a grudge against the hunting party. They are trapped against a hillside, forced to huddle together until the storm breaks. The squires erect the tents and the cots, unloading bear-furs and the extra clothing needed to withstand the cold. The camp converges around a large bonfire at the middle, extending hands for much-needed warmth.
When they left Camelot, Merlin rode beside him, more talkative than he has been in months. After the battle, after Arthur rode back into Camelot with his Knights of the Round Table, after he kissed Guinevere right there in the courtyard, Merlin made himself scarce and hardly uttered a word outside of whatever was absolutely necessary. He even stopped talking back, which honestly worried Arthur for a while, but then Arthur was suddenly distracted with the fact that his future queen apparently fell in love not only with him, but with one of his beloved knights as well.
Arthur took it pretty well. He hasn't beheaded anyone, at least. He may have averted his eyes every time Guinevere tried to speak with him after the fact, may have all but shunned Lancelot for months, but he did it with the grace expected of one in his position. Besides, not a week after Guinevere came to him, tears clouding her eyes and apologies spilling from her lips, Merlin snapped out of whatever black depression he'd been hiding in and reappeared at his prince's side, as loud and obnoxious as ever.
It was a welcome distraction, and Arthur has a suspicion that Merlin knew exactly what happened (he and Gwen were friends, after all) and was making an effort on purpose. Arthur didn't want pity (as Gwen had offered) or apologetic guilt (as Lancelot was desperately trying to contain), but Merlin did not offer any of those things. He was just himself, a familiar and comfortable combination of vulgarity and insubordination and exaggerated gesticulations. Whenever Arthur happened to have time to dwell on the stupidity of the entire situation, he was always shortly interrupted by too-big ears and a face-splitting smile.
It helps that Arthur's still incredibly busy. He's officially been acting king for four months now, dividing his time between rebuilding the damage left from the immortal army, listening to the disputes of his subjects and hovering by his father's bed. He's only agreed to take over in lieu of his father's recovery, because his father will recover. Has to. Arthur isn't ready for the throne, isn't ready to step up and be the king and all that comes with it.
He's taken their newest recruits out on a midwinter hunt with his seasoned knights, unable to stay trapped within the cold walls of the citadel and his own mind full of worries with the promise of migrating deer so nearby. They found a few fresh bucks over the first three days, but by the fourth Arthur caught the trail of a seasoned bull and followed it in for the kill. It's a magnificent beast, fourteen points and weighing at least thirty stone; it'll feed them for a week, easily.
"Your father'll be beside himself," Sir Leon says, giving him a congratulatory slap on the back.
Uther would be, Arthur thinks, if his father wasn't currently holed inside of his chambers back in the castle, reduced to a mute, catatonic figure over a broken heart.
Arthur can tell at once Leon's had too much to drink, because the excessive force of the friendly slap nearly sends Arthur sprawling to ground. He stumbles a bit, not quite drunk but well on his way if he isn't careful. They really shouldn't indulge in this while still out in the woods, but he's made sure his knights are taking the celebrations in turns, so someone's always on alert. Thick snowflakes swirl around them in a relentless feathery downpour, causing everything to appear a little blurry around the edges. They'll be trapped here until another day, at least, with this weather.
Arthur blinks, trying to focus on the figures around the fire, and gives up. "I'm think I'm going to turn in," he decides.
Leon raises an eyebrow and leers. "That an invitation?"
Arthur rolls his eyes at the suggestive wink Leon graces him with; Leon may be one of the most honourable men Arthur knows, but at times he's also one of the filthiest. Arthur honestly can't believe some of things that come out of his mouth once his tongue's been set loose by one pint too many.
"And deprive the squires?" Arthur chastens, but it's in good humour. He doesn't mind the teasing because Leon always passes out before he causes any serious damage. "What kind of selfish bastard do you take me for? Go on," he continues, turning towards his tent and calling over his shoulder, "quickly, before they begin to pine."
"Suit yourself!" Leon calls cheerfully behind him.
It's not until Arthur's in his tent that he realises he hasn't seen his manservant in over an hour; at the last glance, Merlin had himself surrounded by the five new recruits, all of them listening with ill-contained awe to his exaggerated tales of Prince Arthur's So-Called Epic Conquests. They had all looked pleasantly horrified at the way Merlin almost exclusively referred to Arthur as nothing more than a stubborn prat who would have perished a dozen times over if not for his Loyal Manservant's heroic efforts. Which was complete rubbish, of course, but you could hardly tell from the look of awe and admiration on his audience's faces.
Arthur had left him to it because it's nearly impossible to effectively discipline Merlin when he's sober and a complete waste of effort when he's tanked – which is any time Merlin has more than a single cup of wine or half a flagon of ale, and Arthur's pretty sure he saw Gwaine refilling his mug a third time long before the sun had even set. If anything, it's that enabler that belongs in the stocks when they get back to Camelot.
So Arthur undresses himself, perhaps huffing a bit for good measure, tossing his long coat over a chair in a vain hope of it drying a bit before sunrise. They made a good meal out of the buck so he's not hungry, but the bedsheets and the mattress are cold and he shudders a bit as he climbs beneath the bearskin cover, skin breaking out into gooseflesh as he settles in.
He pinches out the single candle by his bedside. The fire outside appears as a bright rondure through the canvas wall across from him, giving everything inside a soft, orange outline along the edges. He can hear the clink of mugs and the mumbled laughter of the men outside. The familiar sounds are comforting, and Arthur burrows further under the covers and lets the noise lull him to sleep.
The sharp, sudden sound of laughter jerks Arthur awake. His eyes fly open at the noise, heart thudding painfully against his chest. His fingers are curling around the dagger hidden under his pillow when he hears another noise, quieter – hic! – and his fingers uncurl from the hilt as the air rushes out of his lungs in relief.
The idiot who's stumbled into his tent hiccups again, then giggles before collapsing on the bed beside him, carelessly loud laughter rippling out of his throat. Arthur has to forcibly restrain the urge to clock him one upside his stupid, giggling head.
Merlin doesn't sense the danger, it seems, for he sidles his bottom further up onto the bed and starts removing his boots.
"What in the Heavens do you think you're doing?" Arthur demands.
Merlin freezes. He's in the middle of pulling off his second boot, thin ankle poised over a bony knee.
"Sir Leon's comma – commaded – " he stumbles over the syllables, shaking his head as if to loosen his tongue. "Bugger. Commandeered the squire's tent," Merlin grunts at him, words horribly slurred, as he yanks off his boot with a flourish and tosses it to the floor. "You do not want to know why. And that git Gwaine spilt mead all over my bedroll. So, here I am. A friend in need! Budge up, Sir Erec."
Sir Erec's one of the new knights, the fourth son of King Lac, a bright-eyed and broad-shouldered youth. He's the youngest of them all, actually, barely seven-and-ten that autumn, but one of the more talented – and wealthy – of the five recruits. Of all the new knights, he seemed most taken with Merlin's drunken antics earlier that evening, daring to laugh openly as Merlin made ridiculous impersonations of Arthur being an "egotistical clotpole".
Arthur still doesn't know what a clotpole is, but it certainly hasn't endeared Merlin to him this night and he's about to kick his stocks-destined manservant off the bed when Merlin rolls his legs up onto the cot and collapses on top of the bearskin, trapping it against Arthur's side. Arthur could still shove him off if he really wants, but he hesitates – Merlin's on his back, shoulder wedged against Arthur's stomach, eyes closed, hair in a state and smiling like the pissed idiot he is.
It really should make shoving him off easier; but though Merlin likes to make outrageous claims that the prince is nothing more than a selfish, spoilt brat, Arthur's not completely heartless.
"So," Merlin begins, yawning. His breath smells of something truly foul. "How's bein' a shiny new knight of Camelot so far?"
Arthur raises an eyebrow. When he doesn't reply, Merlin cracks open an eye to peer at him. Arthur waits for it to sink in, for Merlin to realise whose bed he's stumbled into in the middle of the night like a drunken slag, but Merlin just continues to squint at him in the darkness. Arthur's breath hitches in indignation when he feels a fingertip prod his abdomen.
"S'Arthur, isn't it?" Merlin says knowledgeably. "Let me give you some advice, Erec – " he pauses long enough to hiccup loudly, " – don't worry about Arthur. I know he was really hard on you when you were trying out, but s'a big compliment to you, really. Means he thinks you can take it. He's just – " Merlin pauses for another hiccup and a deep breath, " – too much of an emotionally constipated prick to say so."
"Merlin," Arthur says, keeping his voice as low and neutral as possible so that Merlin doesn't realise he is, in fact, not in bed with a drunken Sir Erec; even though he knows he should put a stop to this, there's something frighteningly disarming about the conversation and, he is surprised to realise, he wants to hear more of what Merlin would never dare say to his face. "Merlin, you can't talk about the prince like that."
Merlin snorts. "The hell why not?"
"Oh, I don't know," Arthur says, deadpan. "Perhaps because he's the prince?"
"Pfff." Merlin waves his hand with a quick flick of a thin wrist before it flops heavily back onto his chest. "Prince, schmince. He's just a righteous, spoilt prat with a pedigree."
"Is that so?"
"Mm-hmm," Merlin assures him contentedly, closing his eyes and shuddering, the vibration sudden and jarring against Arthur's chest. "Bugger, s'cold. D'you mind?"
Merlin sits up so quickly he nearly falls off the bed, and Arthur reaches out to steady him before he realises what he's doing. Merlin mumbles a slurred thanks, mate and the word, cast out so casually, cuts into Arthur like a dagger. Merlin's never called him that – no, not him, just some stupid youth he's known only a few days, only seen in passing for a mere number of weeks – and the careless word shouldn't hurt at all, shouldn't shove itself into Arthur's throat and twist.
Merlin's been at his side for going on five years now and the only thing he's called Arthur, aside from the occasionally grudging "Sire", is prat.
A hazy memory drifts through Arthur's mind, his newly pronounced Knights of the Round Table behind him, Merlin at his side, crouching in the undergrowth as they wait for their chance to rescue his father, to take Camelot back from Morgana and her army of immortals – 'You're almost like a friend, Merlin.' and, 'Yeah, almost.'
Arthur still needs to put a stop to this, but he doesn't. He merely releases Merlin once he's regained his balance enough to pull his knees up to his chin, and suddenly Merlin's underneath the covers with Arthur and stretching out alongside him.
"Mercy, you're freezing," Arthur hisses, wincing.
Merlin wriggles until he's pressed flush up against Arthur, once again lying on his back, shoulder shoved against Arthur's armpit. "Ooh," he coos, shivering, frozen toes curling against Arthur's bare ankles. "You're warm."
The shiver vibrates against Arthur's skin, prickly, tingly, transferring between their bodies. Merlin's hands and feet and clothes are icy, and yet something liquid and hot blooms in Arthur's chest, pooling behind his navel like a cat before settling deep in his groin, curled up and purring.
"You bloody nobles and your bearskins," Merlin mumbles contentedly. "Y'know, Arthur's got like five of these in his tent. I'd've gone to his but he'd've just chucked me out, the prat. Selfish, spoilt, grandiloquent prat. Like he can't spare one cover to keep my useless backside warm! And he calls me a girl! No, no, no, need to keep the princess' lovely arse all warm and cozy, wouldn't want her precious arse to catch a draft. She needs her beauty sleep, after all. That's another thing, y'know, that's bloody infuriating about him. It's bad enough he's the crown prince and arrogant and the prat of prats, but on top of all that he's got to look the way he does."
"What's wrong with how he looks?" Arthur demands indignantly.
"Exactly," Merlin says. "He's still a prat, though. Gorgeous, egomaniacal, blue-eyed prat. And what makes it worse, is he knows it, and he just – he'd think it was funny. Go on and on about me being jealous and having a little crush and isn't that so cute or some bollocks. 'You're such a girl, Merlin.' How is this my life, I ask you?
"And you know," Merlin continues before Arthur can think of anything to say in answer to this – Arthur's sleep-deprived mind began to consider what Merlin's neck might taste like and then completely shut down, "I don't care if he's the prince or king or the bloody ruler of the world, how d'you expect people to treat you with respect when you're like that? I mean, sure, most people would just bow their heads and take it, be all proper and respectful because that's what you're supposed to be just cos of his title, but when it's like that it's just – it's all fake. Fake respect. And what good is that?"
It's so unfair, Arthur thinks, that Merlin can say the words so casually to someone he thinks he hardly knows. It shouldn't bother Arthur that he says them at all, to know that Merlin feels this way; the words shouldn't make it feel like Arthur's stomach is being ripped out of him, tearing him wide open and leaving him to bleed out. It's stupid and it shouldn't matter and it makes no sense at all, and Arthur wants to grab Merlin and shake him, tell him he's wrong, that he has no idea what he's talking about, just shake him and shake him until he takes the words back.
"If you think so little of him," Arthur asks quietly, "if you hate him so, why stay?"
"Sometimes," Merlin says to the ceiling, "sometimes I really wish I could hate him. It would make it so much easier, just to hate him. I did, you know, when I first met him – I hated him because he just seemed like arrogant bastard, nasty and prattish and thought he could get away with it just because he was the son of the king, like that made it okay to treat other people like dirt. Like they weren't important. But there's – there's a lot more to him than that, I mean, and nowadays," Merlin expels his breath in a huff, making Arthur wrinkle his nose, "sometimes I just – well, no, it's just – sometimes, I can't tell what he's thinking, and it drives me crazy."
"If you want to know what he's thinking," Arthur suggests, "maybe you should try asking him."
Merlin laughs at that, sharp and loud, making Arthur blink. "Right. I'm sorry, are we talking about the same person? I know you've only known him for – how long ago did you get to Camelot? – anyway, he'd never – he'd give me a look, you know? Do that stupid thing he does with his eyebrow and laugh, 'What d'you care, Merlin?'" Merlin's impersonation of his drawl is horrific; Arthur doesn't sound like that, surely. "'You're just a servant. What would you know about anything?'" Merlin huffs and closes his eyes. "Prat. Such a prat! Sometimes I just want to, God, smack him upside the head with his scabbard until he stops being a prat long enough to realise that he doesn't have to put on an act all the time, that I know him better than that even if he won't admit it, that – that even if I'm just a servant – if I didn't care I wouldn't still be here."
The words shouldn't hurt, because Merlin is just that: just a servant (almost like a friend – yeah, almost). Not even a competent one, always getting Arthur's armour tangled and procrastinating his chores, to a point that even the King himself has told Arthur to dismiss him on numerous occasions. Arthur had always skirted the issue until his father gave up trying, the last time with Arthur saying I know, Father. He's just – an idiot, I know, but he's loyal one – surely that counts for something?
You trust him? Uther had asked him and Arthur had answered without hesitating: Yes.
And Arthur did. Trust him. Because he was Merlin, who was a third wheel more often than not whenever they got into anything dangerous (which was more often than not), and somewhere in-between the first time Merlin had called him a prat and many years later, it had started to feel like they'd known each other forever. Arthur can remember times before Merlin, but they're all indistinct, like the thoughts Arthur has about his mother, faux memories created by desperate childhood fantasies.
Maybe that's what Merlin always meant when he rambled on about destiny and how Arthur will be a king of legends, when Arthur always thought Merlin was just trying to kiss arse to avoid the stocks for taking liberties with insults. There is something about Merlin, Arthur thinks, that's always been there, he just never noticed it until Merlin arrived in his life and the rest, well, is history – will become history.
Merlin once joked that they were two halves of the same coin. Arthur had told him that that was stupid, because a coin couldn't balance on its end, so one side (Merlin's, obviously) would always be face down, and what did that say about him? No, Arthur'd thought later, musing on the phrase, a better analogy would be something like, they were more like two spokes of the same wheel – each taking their share of the strain, because without them both, the wheel wouldn't be able to roll.
He hadn't shared this with Merlin, though, because – well, because it was Merlin and Arthur is – as his manservant so eloquently put it – too much of an emotionally constipated prick to say so, or something.
The sound of Merlin's voice breaks Arthur out of his reprieve. His eyes are closed but he's still talking, words spilling over one another in a barely discernible, gushing stream –
Merlin tells him about how Arthur's a reckless hothead, more brawn than brains any time he's got a sword in his hands, like he's trying to compensate for something – no, not that, you gutter-minded twat, no, like he's trying to compensate for his shortcomings, few and far between as they are (Arthur raises an eyebrow at that), trying to make up for all the sins of his father, trying to right all that's wrong with the world with the swing of his sword, fighting the only way he knows how with everything he has because that's, that's just what Arthur does, you know? He acts like he doesn't care, but he does, he cares so fucking much it's going to be the end of him, because he'll just keep fighting and fighting against all the hunger and cold and injustice until it crumbles underneath him and lets his people live out their happy little lives in peace, because their happiness matters more to him than his own, matters enough that he'll keep fighting until the world just gives in, waves a little white flag in surrender and says, fuck, this one's serious, let him through.
"Or he'll die trying," Merlin finishes, and even in the darkness, Arthur can hear the crooked line of a frown his mouth makes. He takes a quick, deep breath like he's just come up from being underwater and Arthur can't blame him, he's been babbling for twenty minutes without pause. "And that's what scares me, you know? That someday," Merlin says, voice cracking over a quiet hiccup, dividing into a whisper, "that someday he will."
"For him being such a spoilt, selfish, emotionally constipated prat," Arthur says, teasingly, "you seem to care an awful lot about this prince."
"I do." The words are quiet, hardly more than breath over Merlin's lips. "I – I do. A lot more than I should."
There's a ringing silence following the words. Arthur turns them over in his mind, trying to make sense of them, because Merlin can't mean what Arthur's initial impression is, because that's just – no, Arthur thinks. Merlin's drunk off his arse and thinks he's talking to an equally drunk, complete (if friendly) stranger. He's obviously talking nonsense.
But everything else he's said – rash, wild accusations and observations, often harsh and bordering on treason – isn't nonsense, Arthur knows, because even if he's drunk, Merlin always says exactly what's on his mind, however painful it might be to hear it. Arthur could beat him within an inch of his life for some of the things he says, but won't, can't, because no one else will ever talk to him like this. It's unorthodox and ludicrous and he will never admit it but Arthur craves it, to be talked to like he's just a person as well as a knight, a prince – the king – and whatever else his people need him to be.
Arthur almost doesn't ask. But then, he can't not. "You love him."
Merlin sighs heavily, air rushing into the darkness between them. He rolls over towards the edge of the bed, back to Arthur, leaving a humid void between their bodies. It's a long, painful moment before he speaks.
"I have to," he says, and stops. He sits up, and Arthur can see him shaking. The careless daze of drink must be leaving him, Arthur thinks; his words carry a little more weight, and Arthur wonders if he's given himself away. "I need to – um – you know," he laughs a little breathlessly. "Too much mead. I'll – yeah."
The canyon of warmth between them begins to shift, and Merlin gets up before Arthur can stop him, wavering only a little as he locates his boots and pulls them on. Arthur wants to say something, to ask if he's coming back, but Merlin slips out of the tent before he can find the words.
It's a long, chilly while before Merlin comes back.
Arthur spends half the time analyzing Merlin's words and the other half debating whether or not he should go look for his manservant. It is bloody freezing outside; the walls of his tent shudder against the wind as it roars past, dumping another layer of snow on the forest.
So, that's what Merlin really thought of him. Arthur isn't sure if he should be flattered or offended. It certainly shed some light on Merlin's behaviour when Arthur had been courting Guinevere. Arthur flushes at the memory, and then immediately feels annoyed; there isn't any reason he should feel guilty about it, he knows, because it's not like he had any idea that Merlin – and anyway, Merlin's just a –
Yeah, right, Arthur thinks, tossing under the bearcover. Who the hell is he kidding? Merlin isn't just anything. Hasn't been in a long time.
More than a little fed up with his train of thought, Arthur gives into weariness and is slipping quickly back towards sleep when a gust of cold air accosts him. Merlin comes back in amidst a swirl of snow, flushed and shivering. He holds open the flap as he stands there for a moment, back-lit against the fire outside. Arthur can't see his eyes, but knows he's looking around, squinting, indecisive.
"Will you close that?" Arthur finally demands. "It's bloody cold enough as it is, without you letting the storm in here."
Merlin starts and the flap flops back into place as he drops it. "Um," he says, "I'm in the wrong tent, aren't I?"
Arthur doesn't answer, and that seems to be enough answer in itself. Merlin reaches for the flap again, mumbling apologies and Arthur – rolling his eyes, even though he knows Merlin can't see it – says, "Merlin. Come here."
Merlin does, charily, as if he's approaching a wild animal that might suddenly decide to bite. The cold air seems to have sobered him further: his steps are a little surer, and as he comes close enough to make out his expression, Arthur can see the apprehension there. He's shivering, eyes downcast, and rubs the back of his neck with a hand that is as florid as his cheeks from the cold, or perhaps something else.
"Er," he says as he reaches the bedside. "So, um, the night watch's on, it's Eylan and Lance, they're uh – did you need something?"
"It's cold." Arthur pulls back the bearskin cover and jerks his head in invitation. "You'll catch your death out there."
"No, I couldn't, I should – shit." His voice cracks, and he laughs weakly in an attempt to cover it up. He starts to move away, running a shaking hand through his hair. "I should go."
Arthur reaches out quickly, grabbing a wrist. "Don't."
Merlin stills, arm going rigid in Arthur's grasp. Arthur realises he's holding on rather hard and loosens his grip, but doesn't let go.
"Don't," Arthur repeats, softer, less of an instruction and more of an invitation. He lowers his voice, trying to ease the tension curling between them. "If you sleep out there in a wet bedroll you'll die of the cold, and how'll that reflect on me?"
Merlin relaxes a bit, but still hovers a little uncertainly. "You sure?"
"Yes," Arthur says.
He kicks off his boots, movements fumbling and unsure, and as Merlin slowly starts to slide back into the bedsheets, Arthur adds, "But at least take off that tunic, it's bloody soaking."
Merlin huffs a small laugh, sitting up enough to attempt to wrench the article off his head. The damp fabric of his neckerchief snags on an elbow and his chin, and he ends up tangled and Arthur watches for a moment, amused, before taking pity and helping him wriggle out.
"Drat," Merlin mumbles, tossing the clothes somewhere over his shoulder and collapsing beside Arthur. His skin is clammy, but warm, and it sticks to Arthur's side. "Um. Thanks."
It's quiet for long enough that Arthur thinks Merlin's finally succumbed to a post-drunken slumber, and Arthur can feel his own eyelids drooping heavily even as he tries to stay awake to think about everything that's been unsaid for so long. Then Merlin shifts beside him, the friction causing Arthur's skin to flush, and he feels a warm breath close to his ear as Merlin turns on his side towards him.
"So," Merlin says abruptly, "this is – a little awkward. Um." He huffs another little laugh, trying to cover the tremor in his voice. "It'll be the stocks again, I suppose."
Arthur rolls to face him, propping himself up on one arm to look down at him; the fading glow of the fire outside is still casting the room in a dull orange haze and Arthur's close enough that he can see Merlin's pupils, blown wide inside the thin ring of stormy blue.
"Stocks?" Arthur repeats innocently. "Wouldn't do well to order the prince's manservant in the stocks, seeing as I've just got myself knighted and all. I mean, now knowing how spoiled and arrogant the little princess can be, he might take offence."
Merlin frowns, squinting at him. "You're not funny."
Arthur raises an eyebrow, lets the back of his knuckles graze Merlin's cheek and watches those eyes flutter close, long lashes coming down to meet heated cheeks. Merlin's mouth parts invitingly as Arthur's fingertips trace his jaw and come to rest on his chin. It is so, so tempting to just lean in, to capture that mouth and dig out every secret with his tongue, to bite down on every insult with his teeth. "Who's joking?"
Merlin opens his eyes, the suspicion there now laced with trepidation. He finally looks away and says, "So... you won't, um, say anything to Arthur, then? About all the," he waves a hand to indicate the previous hour's worth of confessions, "you know?"
"Don't worry," Arthur tells him, thumb tracing the wet crevice between his lips, the curled heat behind his navel deliciously pleased that Merlin's playing along. "Your secret's safe with me."
Merlin exhales heavily, lips parting beneath his finger. The tip of his tongue, dark and glistening, swipes the pad of his thumb, and – just like that – Arthur looses any ounce of self-control he has left.
Merlin hums appreciatively as Arthur dips his thumb into his mouth – so hot, so wet – and swirls his tongue around the digit before sucking it in up to the knuckle. The knot of fire in Arthur's groin tightens and Arthur wants to reach down and palm himself to relieve the pressure, but he's leaning up on one hand and the other is currently in Merlin's mouth so instead he grinds against the hard bone of Merlin's hip, groaning. Teeth scrape lightly across the pad of his thumb, dragging as Arthur pulls his finger back, nipping sharply as his thumb leaves Merlin's mouth. He trails his hand over Merlin's jaw as Merlin tilts his head back, exposing the long line of his throat, the bump there bobbing as he swallows. Arthur traces the movement with his index finger, keeping his wet thumb raised as he follows the flexing tendon-beneath-skin to his collarbone, the dip there, down the line of his chest –
There's a gasp from the pillows as Arthur swirls the wet pad of his thumb over a nipple. Merlin fists his hands in the sheets, cursing. Arthur smirks and lays his head down on the pillow beside him, tucking his nose into the junction of his ear and jaw. Dark curls tickle his forehead as Merlin shudders.
"Do you dream of this?" Arthur whispers. "That I do this to you, touch you like this?"
Merlin actually whimpers when Arthur pinches him, lightly, rubbing the hardening flesh between his fingers. Arthur swears he would gladly relinquish his right to the throne if only to hear him do it again.
Arthur presses into him again, grinding purposely into Merlin's hip while pinching the nipple once more before drawing his hand away. Merlin mumbles something incoherent and spreads his legs, rubbing the length of his thigh across Arthur's groin. He's still got his damp breeches on, but the flesh beneath them is firm and hot. Arthur's eyes flutter closed at the sensation, rolling his hips, burying his nose deep in the curve of Merlin's throat and gasping against his skin.
"Please." Arthur feels the words more than hears them, the sounds vibrating against his lips as he sucks a bruise into the flesh there. "Touch me. I – just – touch me." His neck flexes against Arthur's mouth, his teeth, as Arthur bites down and gets another whimper in reward. "God. Please – "
Arthur lays his hand on Merlin's chest and draws it down, palm lightly rubbing along the abused nipple on the way. Merlin keens quietly, arching into the touch, but Arthur keeps going, gliding his hand down over the crest of his ribs, the valley of his stomach, the smooth rise of his navel. Merlin's chest is hairier than he imagined, which is ridiculous because he's never actively thought about it. But while Arthur's chest has a thin, all-over covering of dirty-blonde strands, Merlin has an exquisite pattern of soft, dark curls blooming out of his pale skin that converge like an invitation down to the waistband of his breeches. He lets his fingertips play in the trail, raising himself up on an elbow again to watch Merlin's skin flutter under his touch with every hitch of his breath.
"Like this?" Arthur murmurs over him, eyes flickering briefly to Merlin's face – eyes closed, mouth invitingly red and open, breath coming in shallow, uneven fits – "Do you touch yourself like this when you're alone, imagining my hands on you?"
Merlin shudders and turns his head to the side, burying his face in the triangle of flesh between Arthur's neck, shoulder and forearm, nuzzling and murmuring. Arthur's view of the heaving body beneath him is interrupted briefly; his eyes close as Merlin slicks the hollow of his throat, leaving a stripe of saliva cooling in the wake of a hot tongue.
His eyes fly open as Merlin presses his thigh into his groin again, hips rising and falling to rub his leg against the heat there. Arthur's hand moves on, skimming above the waistband of Merlin's trousers, sliding along the fabric, down, down – and makes an abrupt detour to the line of his hip as Merlin arches up to meet the touch. Merlin groans disappointment deep in his throat.
"Tell me," Arthur breathes down over his ear. "What you imagine me doing to you."
"Fuck." Merlin is trembling against him, like he's shivering, but Arthur knows it isn't because he's cold. The bearskin's been pushed down past their waists as a result of their movements, and is casting a deep shadow over the join of their hips: Merlin's left leg slipping between his own, sliding, pressing against his cock through the fabric of their clothes with delicious friction. "I don't – I – "
Arthur arches into the pressure between his legs and Merlin lets out a soft cry into Arthur's shoulder, forehead pressing against his neck. His bangs are slick with sweat and sticking to his temples, mingling with the sweat and saliva beading along Arthur's skin.
Arthur reaches down and splays his hand on the top of Merlin's thigh, stilling his rutting. "Tell me."
There's another groan against his shoulder, only this one sounds less desperate and more like a growl. And then Merlin's talking, babbling like he had earlier, hardly any sound to his voice at all: how he'll have his hands working Arthur's shoulders and back as he bathes him, working out the knots from a hard day of training, and Arthur ordering him lower, lower, until Merlin's working out the tension of his cock instead, fisting that hot, hard muscle until Arthur's spent and boneless in his grip; or when Arthur's angry and acting like a spoilt little brat about something and shouting, gesticulating, and then throwing Merlin up against a wall and pressing against him from behind, grinding him into the wall until they're both so delirious that whatever was wrong in the first place is a long-forgotten memory; coming early to work for once, lulling Arthur to wake with the feel of his mouth swallowing down his morning heat, sliding the flat of his tongue along the spine of his cock, holding down his hips and going slowly, so slowly until Arthur's mad with it and begs Merlin to let him fuck his mouth, fuck it until he chokes –
Arthur groans and runs his hand along the inside of Merlin's thigh, locking his own knee over the leg and grinding down. Merlin presses back gratefully, mouthing the line of his neck. Arthur slides his hand down, feeling the soft flesh of an inner thigh through the damp fabric before coming to rest on Merlin's groin, the heavy heat resting against his stomach. Arthur palms the cock, digging the heel of his hand into the base with every stroke.
Merlin's hips rise into the touch as he keens, head shaking in short, quick movements against Arthur's neck. Arthur pulls his head back, nudging his face back with his nose. "I want to see you."
With a shuddering breath, Merlin rolls his head back, panting. "What I want," Merlin says, breathless. His eyes are open, all-pupils and staring dazedly at the ceiling. Arthur cups him through his pants, runs a finger along the ridge, teases the head until Merlin is bucking. "What I – really want, I – I think about you, lying on your back. That I – God – climb on top and ride you like a fuckyesArthurplease – "
The thrusts against Merlin's hip become frantic as Arthur crashes over the edge, thighs clamping down over the leg between them, hand tightening on the bulge of Merlin's cock through his breeches. Merlin moans loudly at the pressure, the sound cutting through the night. It's the loudest they've been so far and it's surely audible to the rest of the camp but Arthur finds himself not caring at all as he forces his gaze back to Merlin's face to watch him, watch him tumble into the moment of complete abandon. He drops his hand lower, cupping the tightening balls beneath before running the heel of his hand up his cock, pressing with a twist as he passes the head.
The unlit candle by the bedside flares into life for a heartbeat – Merlin's head jerks back as he cries out, eyelids fluttering, feverish, over a flash of gold in the darkness – before flickering out, the lazy trail of smoke the only tell that it burned at all.
The air in the room stills – frozen – and despite the sweat and the heat, a chill creeps along the back of Arthur's neck. Merlin's eyes are closed and dark, and he shudders through the aftershocks of his orgasm and buries his face back into Arthur's shoulder, catching his breath, too dazed with pleasure to notice how Arthur's gone rigid beside him.
When he doesn't move, Merlin takes Arthur's jaw in his hands and pulls him down; Merlin's mouth is open and hot, their noses crushing uncomfortably together as his tongue invades Arthur's parted lips to lick his tongue, teeth, the roof of his mouth. Arthur's tongue moves of its own accord, curling and sucking on automatic because his mind is half-dead with pleasure and – Merlin obviously has no idea what Arthur has seen, the biggest and worst revelation of the night, and then Merlin pulls back just enough to speak against Arthur's lips –
"I do, you know," Merlin whispers, breathing into his mouth. "Love you."
You shouldn't. Arthur doesn't say it, doesn't really mean it, and the pleasure Merlin's words stir within him war with the shock of anger and something worse – betrayal –
Merlin settles himself against Arthur with a deep, contented sigh. "Sleep," he mumbles into Arthur's skin, lips still sticky with both their spit.
– and Arthur just stares down at him in the darkness, mind and body thrumming with indecision.
Arthur doesn't sleep.
Even though he's exhausted from the hunt – amongst other things – his mind refuses to quiet, which is annoying, because he could surely think about this more coherently if could get some sleep. As it is, his conscious chases the tornado of confusion and doubt around his head, making the blood to rush to his head, the muscles in his arms to tighten, his fists to clench. Every time he tries to concentrate on one, trying to make sense of it all, the whirlwind of his thoughts disperse like a shoal of fish only to reform their sporadic dance just out of his reach.
By the time Arthur gives up on sleep, he's already given himself a headache. No, sod that, Merlin's given him this headache – Merlin, curled into Arthur's side, still slightly damp and sticky and comfortingly warm – but it shouldn't be a surprise, as Merlin's always giving him headaches.
Simple, stupid Merlin, the worst manservant and best friend he's ever had, and –
He has magic.
Arthur almost reaches out, almost shakes Merlin awake to demand answers, to make sense of it all, but pulls his hand back. It wouldn't do any good to wake him now, because Arthur has no idea what to say. What to do. In the short time Arthur's been a prince and acting king to boot, he's faced all sorts of of trials, difficult decisions and judgements to be made, and he's never failed to make a decision. The right decision, however hard or not it may be.
It should be easy: Merlin's committed treason. Plain and simple. He has magic. There's one punishment for that by the laws of his kingdom, and it doesn't give the opportunity for repeat offence.
Yet Arthur can't deny that nothing about this is simple – but then, is anything about Merlin ever simple?
With a quiet groan, Arthur carefully disentangles himself and rolls off the other side of the bed. Merlin makes a small noise, curling in tighter at the loss of warmth, and a brief shiver of regret for leaving him tugs at Arthur's stomach. He shakes his head, pushing away the feeling – Merlin's lucky Arthur doesn't slit his throat in his sleep.
The grey light of early dawn is beginning to make the horses stir, eager for a rub-down and their morning feed. Amongst the shuffle of hooves, Arthur can hear a few of the early risers moving around. He shrugs on his coat and boots before stepping outside. The air's crisp and bites at his skin, stinging the corners of his eyes. The sky is grey and it's still snowing, lightly now, and Arthur can see a fresh foot of snow covering what was already there from the night before. They'll have to wait for the midday sun to set out, assuming the sun remembers that it's supposed to make an appearance at all.
Eylan's stumbling off in the woods to relieve himself, a few squires are seeing to the horses, and there's one solitary figure attempting to coax a fire to life just below his tent. Lance looks up as he approaches and grins a bit too knowingly –
"Merlin's still asleep, then?"
Arthur blinks down at him, his mind too occupied to feel embarrassed or smug or whatever one should be feeling in this situation. Lance just raises his eyebrows when Arthur doesn't answer, eyes wide and unconvincingly innocent.
Arthur scowls at him and takes a seat on the log beside him, eyes on the fire. He and Lance haven't spoken very much directly in months – since the whole ordeal with Guinevere – but Arthur suspects it's more out of Lance's own fear that Arthur is still angry. He doesn't seem to understand that Arthur was never angry, not really, more resigned than anything. Arthur knows better than most that one has little control over who they love, however unfounded or unwise they may be.
Arthur's love for his father is testament to that.
"Don't take this the wrong way, your Majesty," Lance says, prodding the embers with his sword, "but you look like shit."
Arthur watches the sparks spray up around the steel of the blade, dancing around the kindling. He sees the sudden, vivid image of flames crawling up a wooden pyre, roaring to engulf the stake and – a wave of nausea washes over him – the figure tied to it.
His shudder doesn't go unnoticed. Lance gives him a long look, brows knit in concentration. "What is it?"
Arthur closes his eyes and pinches the bridge of his nose.
"Arthur," Lance prods. "What's wrong?"
Arthur shakes his head, letting his hand fall as he looks back at the fire, now crackling cheerfully. "I don't know. Maybe nothing."
Lance cocks an eyebrow, perhaps to try to hide the sudden shadow of worry in his eyes. Arthur doesn't even have to ask, because the truth is written all over Lance's face. Has everyone been hiding this? Have they all been lying to him? Do they take him for a bloody fool?
Arthur narrows his eyes and looks away, the anger he shoved away in the night rushing back to pool in his stomach. "By law, I should have you both killed."
Lance watches him thoughtfully for a while before stabbing at the fire again. "They're sort of your laws, now," he says, voice unnervingly even. "By law, it's up to you, what you should do."
Arthur grinds his teeth and exhales heavily through his nose, blinking the snowflakes out of his eyes.
"I can tell you for a fact that Merlin's made more sacrifices for your sake than any other man here," Lance continues. "At the very least, hear him out before you condemn him. You owe him that much."
Arthur stands quickly, hands fisting at his sides. He glares down at Lance, who leans back to meet his gaze, nonplussed. "He has done nothing but lie to me," Arthur snarls. "I owe him nothing."
"If you really believe that," Lance says, holding his gaze, "then with all due respect, your Highness, you're the idiot."
Merlin's still curled in on himself when Arthur re-enters the tent. His features are softened by sleep, and it's odd that unlike most, Merlin actually looks older while he's asleep – without those big, blue eyes sparking mischief and the face-splitting grin, he could easily be older than Arthur. His skin looks as white as the snow outside, except for the flush along his cheeks and lips, and Arthur's chest aches and he almost leaves, goes back outside – he can pretend he's seen nothing, pretend he doesn't know, and every thing can go back to the way it was –
Only, it can't. Arthur knows he can't ignore this, can't turn a blind eye to all the lies.
He sits at the foot of the bed, perched on the edge, just below Merlin's curled-in knees. He listens to the sound of the forest as it wakes, the crows cawing from the treetops, creating a buffer between the camp and the sky. It's not until he hears Merlin stir, mumbling and half-stretching into consciousness, that he speaks.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
Merlin halts mid-stretch. Arthur isn't looking, but can feel the sheets bunch up behind his back as Merlin struggles to sit up. Arthur can hear a hand scritching at hair, a sigh. "You said – " Merlin's voice is hoarse and he stops to clear his throat and cough. "I'm – I thought – well, shit."
It occurs to Arthur that they're both talking about different things, and that Merlin had no idea the night before that he'd given away one more secret that he meant to.
"That's not," Arthur says, and stops himself. He shifts, hooking his knee over the edge of the bed so he can half-turn to face Merlin, who is bleary-eyed and pale, staring at his own hands fisted in the cover. He looks upset, and he should, but for entirely the wrong reason. Even now, in the face of all he's revealed, he's still lying to Arthur, still lying when Arthur knows. "Tell me," Arthur says, voice low, "how can you love someone, and lie to them?"
Merlin looks up and the moment he meets Arthur's eyes, Arthur knows Merlin realises what he's talking about – his entire expression crumples, sanguine complexion paling in record time and he opens his mouth to speak –
"I swear to God, Merlin," Arthur warns, looking away, "if the next thing out of your mouth is anything but the truth, I will kill you."
Merlin closes his mouth and Arthur hears him swallow. "I never wanted to lie to you," he says finally. "I – hated lying to you."
Arthur does look at him then, hard and furious.
"You have to," Merlin begins, before Arthur can say anything, "you have to know that I, I never intended to – look, I was planning on telling you. Every day, every damn day, I thought, now's the time, I need to – but then something would happen and I couldn't risk, if you – you have no idea how many times, without my – my, dammit all, you'd have – " Merlin does look at him then, scared – but not of him, Arthur realises, but of what he's saying. "And if I'd told you, and you'd told your father and he'd, or if you just sent me away, and I wasn't here – "
Merlin stops himself, clearly unable to finish the thought out loud. "I'm sorry," he says.
He looks so sincere and utterly pleading that Arthur almost feels sorry for him.
"Say something," Merlin says. "Please."
Arthur inhales deeply through his nose. He wants to scream. He wants to hit Merlin, hurt him, make him feel like what Arthur feels inside.
Merlin looks a little startled and very worried when Arthur laughs. It's not a nice sound.
"You've lied to me for years," he finally says, the laugh still darkening his words. "Years. After everything we've been through, after everything, all you've got to say is you're sorry."
"I know it's not enough," Merlin says quickly. "It can never be enough. But I am. Sorry."
"My father would see you burn," Arthur says.
"Uther's an idiot and a bigot," Merlin snarls. Arthur is actually shocked speechless; Merlin has always been disrespectful of Arthur, but he's never spoken out against the king in Arthur's presence. "So are you, if you believe that – that crap he's filled your head with." Merlin sounds furious – which is stupid, because he's got no reason to be angry. He swings his legs off the bed and scoops his tunic and neckerchief off the floor, pulling the damp articles over his head with a vicious tug. "You'd be dead. A dozen times over, you'd be dead and we'd all be dead, and – for fucks' sakes, Arthur!" He whirls on Arthur, pointing an accusatory finger. "You wouldn't have even been born if it wasn't for magic!"
Arthur flinches at the motion of his hand, and Merlin looks like he wants to be sick. He drops his hand and opens his mouth, closes it, and sits down on the chest across from the bed with his head in his hands.
The silence allows Arthur to hear the sudden quiet in the camp. He wasn't worried about being overheard – the walls of the tent are thick, and it's pitched far enough away from the fire that any actual words they speak would be muffled unless someone was actively trying to listen. But Merlin was shouting, and now the knights and the squires are likely paying much closer attention.
"I'd never," Merlin eventually says, not looking up. "How can you think – I wouldn't – "
"What do you mean," Arthur interrupts, "that I wouldn't have been born without – " he hesitates on the word, but Merlin gets the idea.
"I can't tell you," Merlin says, looking at him and then wincing. "I really – Uther knows. It's why he's so, why he hates – look, it's not my place, all right? I don't want to lie, I never wanted to lie, but if you really want to know, you need to ask your father."
"Oh, sure, and when he asks me where I got such a crazy idea, I'll just bring you in to explain, shall I?"
"I'm not scared of Uther," Merlin says. Arthur is surprised to see the conviction in his eyes. "I've never been scared of your father," he goes on. "Don't you understand, Arthur? It wouldn't matter. It never mattered."
"He'd have you killed!"
"He would try," Merlin corrects, looking away again. "He can try all the hell he wants. I don't care. I'm sorry for what happened to him, to your – I'm sorry he's so full of hate it blinds him, but – look, I'm sorry. I'm so, so sorry and I know it isn't enough but I'm fucking sorry anyway. But I never cared what Uther would do if he found out about me."
"Then why didn't you tell me?"
"Because." Merlin looks at him again, and all Arthur sees is fear. "I was afraid of what you would do."
It's absurd that Merlin can be scared of him, but then Arthur realises he misunderstood. It's not the kind of terror Arthur's enemies have but the kind he and his knights experience when they're elbow-deep in battle and one of them is cornered and the rest of them might not get there fast enough.
It's the fear that dissolves all of Arthur's anger and uncertainly of betrayal. He should be angry. Hell, he should be furious. He sort of is, even if he knows he's already forgiven Merlin. He wonders if Merlin knows, knows that Arthur could forgive him anything, even this, however pissed off it makes him. He wants to hit him and he wants to kiss him, to strangle him and to run his hands into that black hair and get lost in it, get lost in Merlin until he can't remember why he was angry to begin with.
Arthur acknowledges that some part of his mind is angry at himself, at how he never made it clear to Merlin that he could trust him with anything, and that Merlin had to hide it and hate himself every day, every year they spent together because he didn't know that he could trust his prince, his friend with his secrets.
When Arthur doesn't say anything – he has no idea what to say to stop Merlin from looking at him like that – it must seem like Arthur's taking his time deciding whether he wants to just banish Merlin from Camelot forever or run him through right then and there. Merlin bows his head and takes a shuddering breath and mumbles something at the floor.
"What?" Arthur says.
Merlin doesn't look up and Arthur has to strain to hear him. "Do you hate me?"
"Sometimes, I really wish I could," Arthur says, echoing Merlin's own words. "I think it would be so much easier, just to hate you."
Merlin does look at him then; he still looks scared and as if he wants to be sick, but there's a little gleam of hope in his blue eyes. He seems to think for a moment before nodding and then: "So, now what? I mean, what do you want to do? About – me?"
"I want to kiss you," Arthur tells him, and Merlin blinks. "I also want to hit you."
"Um," Merlin says, frowning. "Is there a third option?"
"Show you? "
"What you can do."
Merlin's eyes dart back and forth and then he squints at Arthur. "Is this a trick?"
Arthur folds his arms over his chest and raises an eyebrow.
"Um," Merlin says again. "Anything in particular?"
Merlin sucks in a long breath, seems to think for a moment, then extends his right arm, palm open. Merlin's eyes glow golden in the shadow of his brow; it's distracting and Arthur shivers, and suddenly Merlin is holding a blue, translucent sphere that fills the tent with a soft glow.
Arthur's seen that light before.
"That was you?"
"Do you want me to make a list?" Merlin asks, hand flopping down to his side. The globe stays there, bobbing in the open air, spinning gently. The colours reflect on Merlin's face like underwater light. "It'll take a while."
"I just want the truth."
Merlin gives him a look that challenges that statement. "Not now," Arthur amends, scuffing the floor with his boot. "There's too many – it's not – " He jerks his head towards the general direction of the camp and Merlin glances at the tent flap, understanding. "But you will tell me. Everything."
Merlin nods. "All right."
"And spend the rest of your life in the stocks," Arthur feels compelled to add.
Merlin almost smiles then, the corner of his mouth twitching. It actually hurts, Arthur realises, how much he wants to see Merlin smile again. "If that's what you're into, your Highness."
Arthur thinks now he'll never be able to condemn Merlin to the stocks again without flushing, the image now forever burned into his mind. Merlin sees him blush and does smile then, radiant and spontaneous, and continues carelessly, "Although, I'm sure you could find more... constructive forms of punishment, if you used your imagination."
"I could have you whipped within an inch of your life," Arthur returns, barely missing a beat. He feels a little better when he notices Merlin's cheeks go pink. "I'm still angry," he adds, not wanting Merlin to think that this is it, that even if Arthur forgives him that he is no where near done being angry about it.
"Angry enough to hit me?" Merlin asks, blushing further. "Or kiss me?"
What Arthur's been steadfast ignoring all night – all morning – is making itself very apparent now, urging him on as he approaches Merlin, who looks poised to flee. It's hard to define, this feeling; it's similar to what he had with Gwen, but more urgent, like if he doesn't act on it now, then – then that'll be that, he'll never get another chance.
"Both," Arthur says, finally.
"You can hit me, if you want," Merlin says, flinching a little as Arthur pulls him to his feet by his collar. "I deserve it."
Arthur doesn't hit him, as much as Merlin does deserve it. Hitting Merlin wouldn't solve anything. It won't even make Arthur feel any better. He doesn't know if this will, but he wants to do this anyway, has wanted to since Merlin had confessed how he felt, what he really thought about Arthur, because Arthur feels he's been an idiot for years not having seen it – the adoration, the want and the need, the magic – because now, knowing it all, Arthur doesn't understand how he could have possibly missed it.
"We're – I think we bring the idiot out in each other," Arthur says, and kisses him.
It's nothing like the first time. Merlin goes stock-still as Arthur leans in, purposefully and eyes open, staring hard through the shards of all the lies as they shatter; this, Arthur thinks, is the first time he's ever seen Merlin for who – what – he actually is; not a servant or a sorcerer, but just Merlin. Someone who is a bit more than a friend and a little less of an idiot and a whole lot more than Arthur's ever given him credit for.
Merlin's lips are chapped. His breath, Arthur thinks, smells horrific, but this somehow doesn't matter in the least as Merlin finally moves, tilting his head to the side just like that, and lets Arthur in. His tongue moves against Arthur's, timidly at first, and swiftly gaining confidence as Arthur pulls him in by the hips. Arthur scrapes Merlin's bottom lip with his teeth, probing deeper, and Merlin sucks at his tongue and makes a little noise as Arthur's grip tightens.
Arthur's backside hits the edge of the cot before he realises they were even moving, and then he's falling and Merlin goes with him, pushing him back and straddling him. He's heavier than he looks, and Arthur can feel the hard heat of his cock at his hip and arches up, trying to turn them over; Merlin growls into his mouth and shoves Arthur's hips back down.
In an attempt to get Merlin's tunic off Arthur has, somehow, gotten his hands tangled in the stupid neckerchief that Merlin wears. He curses, pulling out of the kiss, and Merlin laughs, eyes bright, and then – and then they're both very suddenly very naked. Arthur blinks and looks at Merlin, all of Merlin, his pale skin flushed and soft and hot against his own, his cock hard and resting on Arthur's stomach. It's longer than Arthur's, but thinner, pale like the rest of him aside from the deep pink at the tip, nestled inside dark curls.
To see Merlin like this, pupils blown, open-mouthed and panting, is surreal. Arthur wonders if the faint glow from his skin is real, a reaction to what they're doing, or if maybe it's the magic. Arthur realises he doesn't care. He pulls Merlin down by his neck and kisses him again, groaning appreciatively when Merlin shifts his hips down, bringing their cocks together. The friction is hot and delicious, and Arthur is quite content to just lay there, kissing and rutting against him; Merlin, on the other hand, keeps shifting, leaving messy kisses over Arthur's jaw and neck and chest as he trails lower and lower... oh, sweet God in Heaven...
Over the years, Arthur had decided that of all the things he hated about Merlin, his mouth was the worst. His manservant never knew when to shut up and has embarrassed Arthur in front of his knights with childish banter more times than he cares to remember. Arthur now realises how stupid that is, how could he hate that mouth, when it's obviously the best part of Merlin he's only now beginning to discover.
He hisses through his teeth as Merlin sucks down, agonizingly slow, all the way to the base. Merlin hums as he pulls back, teeth scraping just a little and Arthur fists his hands in Merlin's hair, tugging and pushing at the same time. Merlin ignores him, taking his time, up and then down again, breathing heavily through his nose, lips stretched so tight it's obscene. Arthur can feel the back of Merlin's throat and then Merlin swallows, and Arthur's vision blacks and he bucks into the heat.
Merlin chokes, but only for a moment, raising himself up and angling his head, using his hands to hold himself up as Arthur thrusts upward again and again, cursing. Arthur makes a completely undignified sound as Merlin sits up, hips heavy on Arthur's legs and panting, red mouth slick and dripping saliva.
"I can't," Merlin attempts, pausing to lick his lips. "Can we? I mean, I don't know if you've – have you?"
Arthur stares at him, perplexed. Half the time he never knows what Merlin's talking about, and right now, he really can't concentrate on anything aside from the red inside of Merlin's mouth. "What?" he manages.
"Have you, you know," Merlin says, and makes some completely indecipherable motions with his hands, "you know? With another bloke?"
Arthur hasn't, but that isn't to say he hasn't thought about it. Hard not to, with Gwaine's escapades with Elyan and Leon using the squires' tent as a portable brothel. He's been tempted before, when the nights ran long and cold, but...
"I'll take that as a no," Merlin says, raising an eyebrow.
Arthur wants to protest, but then realises: "Wait, have you?"
Merlin rolls his eyes. "Just because I spend most of my time scrubbing your bloody armour doesn't mean I don't have a sex life."
"But," Arthur says, "you – who – no, you know what, I don't even want to know. Because then I'll have to have them killed." He's only half kidding. It's stupid, he knows, because how can he be jealous that Merlin's – well, and anyway, Merlin's his. They should know better, whoever they are.
Merlin gives him that disarmingly wide smile again, and Arthur suddenly feels less jealous and a lot more solicitous. Merlin takes a deep breath and runs a hand through his hair. "So, anyway, I wanted to – I mean, if you want to, and if you don't, we don't have to – "
Arthur reaches out, catches his arm. "Show me."
This time, Merlin's smile is wicked.
Arthur doesn't know where he finds the oil – his magic aiding them again, perhaps – but smells like lavender and gets everywhere when Merlin slicks Arthur's fingers with it. Arthur no longer needs instruction, because what Merlin wants is ringingly clear as he also applies the substance to Arthur's cock. As Merlin guides his fingers, Arthur watches from what feels like far away, and thinks this entire affair is rather insane and terrifying and even quite disgusting; from the expression on Merlin's face, also quite painful. It looks painful, and feels too tight, and then Merlin raises himself up high and lowers himself – so, so painfully slowly – onto Arthur.
No, Arthur realises, not insane or terrifying – still, possibly, a little disgusting – but Arthur can't care less about that right now because Merlin is tight and hot and... oh... oh God.
As Arthur bottoms out, Merlin stills; he's arched his body, knees by Arthur's ribs and back tilted over Arthur's thighs. His expression is pinched, and Arthur swallows thickly and wants to tell him that it's all right, they don't have to – that he doesn't want to hurt him, not really, not like this –
"Just," Merlin hisses, neck working furiously with the effort, "just, I just need to... ahh... fuck."
He clenches once, twice, and Arthur squeezes Merlin's thighs, his head thudding back against the pillows. "Don't."
"Sorry," Merlin says, and relaxes. Arthur somehow manages to collect himself, focusing on breathing and breathing alone, because if he thinks for an instant about that tight heat this'll be over before it can start. "I think I'm – sorry, you're just so," Merlin lets out a shaky breath, "so, well, you know."
Arthur has no idea what Merlin is talking about. Arthur can't even begin to try and understand, because he has to focus on breathing, not on how Merlin's starting to move, slowly – too slowly – rocking his hips, raising himself up just so; Arthur breathes out slowly, his entire existence converging on the air rushing out of his lungs and Merlin sinking back down with a slight twist with his hips. The focal point of their entire stupid relationship is right there, in the joining of their hips: hard, hot, too tight and perhaps a little disgusting and the most cardinal connection they've ever had.
Merlin's moving in earnest now and, Arthur realises, talking. This isn't surprising because Merlin never stops talking, not even in this, but the things coming out of his mouth are more vulgar and raw than Arthur's ever thought him capable of. He's pleading with Arthur, begging him to move with him, threatening him if he won't. Merlin's voice is harsh and frantic and Arthur can barely discern the words over the blood roaring in his ears.
"Please, for fuck's sake, Arthur, move – "
Arthur redoubles his grip on Merlin's hips and thrusts up, once, flesh smacking against flesh. It makes a wet schlap and Arthur holds it, pressing up with his shoulders and his heels and Merlin's head thrashes, hair flying wildly.
It's easier after that, easier for Arthur to focus on moving and watching as Merlin rises and falls against him, his chest pink and shining with sweat. Arthur shifts himself down a bit, going for a better angle, and when he pushes upward Merlin cries out, loud and sweet; his arms are shaking, eyes clenched tightly shut, and he clamps down on Arthur's cock like a vice.
Arthur can't take much more of this and, it seems, neither can Merlin. It's too much too soon, or maybe too much after too long; either way, Arthur uses what strength his limbs have left to flip them, rolling Merlin beneath him in the cot and this – this, Arthur decides, is much better, more familiar. He knows how to do this, has done it before, just never with a man and never with Merlin, who isn't fighting him any more, just thrashing and cursing and squeezing. The wet slap of their hips connecting again and again is the only sound Arthur can hear second to Merlin's incessant babbling, nagging and commanding and profanities pouring out of his mouth. Arthur raises himself higher, searching for that angle again and grunting in triumph as Merlin cries out underneath him.
Arthur kisses him, swallowing the noise, teeth scraping against Merlin's lips. Merlin moans long and low into his mouth, the sound cutting off as Merlin jerks his head away, head arched back. A rush of warmth engulfs them, the heat turning the crisp air in the tent heavy as Merlin's eyes burn gold, the molten colour lingering as Arthur leans in and bites down on the first available flesh he can find to muffle the noise he makes as he follows Merlin, tumbling into his own orgasm.
The warmth engulfing them both slowly ebbs away as they lay there, tangled and sticky, Merlin boneless beneath him and Arthur still struggling to breathe. Sex has never been something he associated with anger or pain and, somehow, he knows that those things weren't really a part of it, but it was – violent, really, beautiful and rough and mind-blowing.
Against all sense, Arthur feels a lot better.
Arthur realises that, somewhere beneath the lingering haze of pleasure, he's still angry – but it's edged with panic now, because Merlin's still not moving and his eyes are screwed shut and he's lying limp beneath Arthur's weight, chest rising weakly as he tries to breathe.
He opens his mouth to say something, to ask – and Arthur realises he doesn't know what, or what words to use. He shifts his weight instead, giving Merlin a little more room to breathe, but Merlin's hand shoots out and wraps around Arthur's waist, holding him there. Arthur stills, uncomfortably aware at how their chests are sticking together, their mingled sweat rapidly evaporating in the returning cold.
"I'm," Merlin says, voice rough. He clears his throat and swallows; he opens his eyes, which are dark and familiar. "Arthur, I'm – I am so, so sorry – "
"Shut up," Arthur orders, shaking his head against the slick curve of Merlin's neck. "Don't – just shut up. Are you – are you, I mean, did I – "
Merlin grasps Arthur's chin and pulls him up into a kiss, slow and deep and so unlike the ones before. Arthur wonders a bit idly if kissing Merlin will always be like this, a new experience every time, magic humming quietly at the back of his throat, tongue warm and slippery and leaving Arthur completely brain-dead.
"You," Merlin says, surfacing. "God, Arthur. It – you – was perfect."
It's stupid and sappy and Arthur is entirely in agreement. He lets out a breath and kisses Merlin again, chaste and soft and pulls the thick bearskin over them both, burying the anger for now. It can wait. Merlin isn't going anywhere.
Ever, if Arthur has anything to say about it.
Arthur groans, pressing his forehead back into the warm expanse of Merlin's neck. "Can't you," he pants, waving a hand ineffectually in the vague direction of the voice, "I don't know, give us a few minutes?"
Merlin chest vibrates under him with suppressed laughter. "Um," he says. "I've uh, paused – er, time, before," Arthur's head snaps up, eyes wide, and Merlin continues quickly, "but it was totally unintentional and I've no idea how I did it and anyway, it seems rather risky because – well, what if I couldn't figure out how to start it again?"
Arthur stares at him and slowly opens his mouth, unsure of whether he should laugh or not, but –
With another groan, Arthur turns his head and shouts, "What?"
"Arthur, you need to see this!"
It's Leon this time and, unwilling to have him come stomping in to ruin the moment, Arthur grunts some mangled form of confirmation before rolling out of the bed. Naked and slick with sweat, the air assaults him like a wave of cold water and he grimaces, rubbing at his shoulders.
"Couldn't you warm it up in here?" Arthur demands over his shoulder as he locates his trousers and tugs them on. "May as well put that talent to good use before I have you beheaded."
Merlin's still in bed, ruffled and rosy-cheeked and naked, curled happily under Arthur's bearskin cover. He raises a lazy eyebrow at the empty threat, face half-hidden in the pillows. "M'tired," he murmurs, curling in further. "Move 'round a bit, you'll warm up quick 'nuff."
Great, Arthur thinks, rolling his eyes as he yanks on his boots. As if Merlin doesn't escape reprimand for his insolence enough as it is, now he can use post-coital allure to get away with it, too.
Arthur stumbles out of the tent, legs still weak from sex, blinking into the blinding light of the sun. When the sun came out, Arthur has no idea. Spots still dancing in his eyes, he squints at Leon. "What couldn't wait five bloody minutes?"
Leon doesn't blink at his tone because Leon has known Arthur since he came up to the knight's knee and isn't that easily intimidated. If anything, he looks amused and bewildered, but by what Arthur doesn't really give a shit about right now, because Merlin's still naked and they won't be going anywhere for at least another day with all this bloody snow –
Arthur blinks as the landscape comes into focus. Leon nods, "It just happened, like," he glances back at the tent and seems to think about it and decide some things are better left unsaid. "Just, one minute it was snowing and then – "
And then, it could have been spring. There aren't any flowers and it isn't exactly warm, and there is still snow on the ground, but it's only in small clumps where the snow had been deepest last night. The trodden paths made by the knights while camping has melted through to the ground, revealing packed brown grass that, only half an hour ago, had been hiding beneath a foot of snow.
Arthur rubs his eyes and takes a better look around. The phenomenon isn't limited to their camp; as far as his eyes can see into the now-sunlit forest, the snow has thinned out, still clumping at the base of tree trunks.
Somewhere overhead, a sparrow whistles happily in the sudden sunshine.
Behind him, the tent flap opens. He can hear the squelch of the wet grass as Merlin comes to stand beside him. Arthur's eyes flicker to his knight; Leon takes the hint and walks away.
"What's all the fuss about?" Merlin asks, yawning, still rubbing his eyes. "And – my God, it's bright. When did the sun come out?"
Arthur just looks at him, speechless. Merlin opens his eyes fully and, seeing the look on his face, takes a look around. He blinks.
"Um," he says. "Wow. Did I do that?"
Arthur looks back at the landscape, still floored with disbelief. If this – if Merlin can do this without thinking, without trying to, what would he be capable of if he put his mind to it? Arthur isn't sure he wants to know the answer.
He realises, for the first time, that it's a damn good thing Merlin's on his side.
Merlin's still bare-chested from the waist-up, only wrapped in Arthur's bearskin for warmth. There's a blooming welt on Merlin's neck, red and angry-looking, a vivid memory of Arthur's teeth. Merlin sees him looking and shivers.
"Pack my things," Arthur tells him. "We're going home."
The journey back to Camelot is over quickly because Arthur drives them at a hard pace; Merlin may have quite literally made the sun come out and wash the land in an early spring, but it is still mid-winter. The journey takes two days, the party only stopping a few hours to sleep before carrying on. The sky is already overcast and sprinkling them with fresh snow by the time they reach the castle gates. Merlin immediately goes to see to the horses as they dismount; Arthur hollers for a squire, takes the reigns from Merlin's hands and passes them along, before hauling his manservant inside by the elbow.
Merlin gives him a dubious look but doesn't complain, just lets himself be absorbed into Arthur's wake. He leaves Merlin in the throne room as he goes to check on his father; Uther is as lifeless as usual and doesn't even give Arthur a glance of recognition. Arthur sits there for some time anyway, clasping his father's hand, wanting desperately to ask the questions Merlin's filled his head with, but he's unable to find the words. He wonders if Uther would be able to hear him anyway.
When he returns to Merlin, the man is sitting on the steps by the throne, elbows on his knees and chin resting on his hands. He looks nervous and guilty and, oddly enough, rather sad. Arthur doesn't have to tell Merlin to follow; halfway out of the room, he hears Merlin scramble to his feet to catch up.
In Arthur's chambers, they fall back into routine. Merlin helps Arthur out of his armour, fingers lingering no longer than usual, but his eyes watch unabashed as Arthur's disrobes. Arthur sees Merlin's eyes change, and the tub in the corner begins to fill of its own accord, the water already steaming. Arthur lets Merlin bathe him, wondering idly why Merlin is bothering – before, he had to pretend to do this, because Arthur knew him as a servant and nothing more, but now it seems ridiculous, that this man – this sorcerer is bathing him, even if he's using magic to do it. Neither of them have spoken since they left camp (they even slept in separate tents), words failing them both, and while Merlin may not be touching him more than he ever has, Arthur feels as if he is violating him with his eyes alone and shivers.
Misunderstanding, Merlin's eyes turn briefly gold again and the soapy water runs hot once more. Arthur sinks in a little further, letting the heat massage the tension from his shoulders. "To think," he says, breaking the uneasy silence, "all this time, I could have had hot baths without waiting for you to boil the water."
Merlin smiles, a little uneasily. "I always had a hot bath," he says, smile wavering. "Is this – is this okay?" he asks, hands fidgeting in his lap as he kneels by the tub. "Using it, I mean. I could – not."
"If it means I get a hot bath and you not shirking your chores, I suppose I can tolerate it," Arthur says. He's joking, mostly, but can see the line of Merlin's jaw tighten. "Look, it's – it's just a lot to get used to."
"I'm sorry," Merlin whispers, and suddenly the anger is back and Arthur wants to hit him again.
Arthur rises from the tub in one fluid motion, hot water cascading off him in a rush and leaving his skin steaming. Merlin watches him, mouth slightly agape; he flushes and averts his eyes as Arthur climbs out, scrambling to his feet to fetch the clean robe.
Arthur takes the robe off him, perhaps too roughly. Merlin's hand flops back to his side. Arthur stalks to the bed and stands beside it. "Come here."
Merlin does, and Arthur's anger wavers a little when he sees that look in Merlin's eyes again. It should be infuriating but what is really is, is sobering. "I don't want to know," Arthur tells him. "Everything. I mean, I do. Just – I have other things I need to do. So, not now, maybe not for a while. And probably not all at once, because I can't – I can't." What Arthur is trying to say is that he can't be angry all the time, can't possibly be as angry as he needs to be all at once. What he can do, is take the anger a little at a time, and perhaps this – perhaps this can help balance it out.
He doesn't say these things because he doesn't know how, but it turns out he doesn't need to. Merlin is watching him carefully and nods, understanding. "Okay," Merlin says eventually. "I – that makes sense. I – thank you."
"Don't thank me yet," Arthur says, shrugging off the robe. "Lie down."
The fear's gone, replaced by something else – trepidation? excitement? it's hard to tell – as Merlin, unbidden, begins to disrobe. It's as if he knows exactly why Arthur is doing with this, even if he's unaware of how or where Arthur is going with it. It's Merlin's way, Arthur supposes, of trying to trust him now, after years of lying to him. Arthur feels a little pleased and slightly sick.
Merlin doesn't say a word, doesn't so much as flinch as Arthur ties him down. Arthur watches his eyes as he works, securing his wrists to the bed posts, daring Merlin to stop him. Because Merlin can, if he wants to. He wouldn't even have to use his magic; he'd only have to say the word.
But maybe Merlin understands a little better than Arthur gives him credit for, and that's why he just lies there and lets Arthur bind his wrists. He looks ridiculous, Arthur thinks, lying spread there on his prince's bed, when Arthur knows Merlin only needs to blink and their roles can be reversed. It helps when Arthur notices Merlin is blushing as Arthur's eyes rake over him, drinking in the sight of him exposed and – hah! – supposedly helpless.
It's also kind of a huge turn-on.
Arthur takes his time, exploring Merlin with his hands, touching all the places he's touched before by accident and drunk on exhaustion now with careful, slow purposeful sweeps of his hands. Merlin tenses under the touches, flinches and hisses when Arthur finds a spot that's ticklish, but doesn't speak. Well, that won't do.
Arthur takes Merlin's cock in hand, savoring in the groan that coaxes from him. Arthur leans over him, mouth exploring his chest as he works Merlin with his hands, letting his teeth dig in when Merlin tries to withhold those sounds from him. Arthur trails lower, biting more than kissing, leaving a cross-stitch of red trails down Merlin's chest as he goes. Merlin's hips shift under his hands, arching up, and Arthur places his palm on the hollow of Merlin's hip and shoves him back down.
He keeps his teeth to himself as he explores Merlin's cock, though. It's unfamiliar territory; daunting but not insurmountable, because Arthur is not afraid of doing something wrong but simply curious, mirroring Merlin's own ministrations from before. Merlin gasps hotly and twists underneath him, wrists tugging at the bonds holding him down.
Arthur forgot about the oil, up until now. He considers leaving the bed to find something suitable, or ordering Merlin to see to it, but hesitates, pushing Merlin's thighs up high and out of the way instead. Arthur licks his lips, then his fingers; Merlin goes completely rigid as Arthur's finger traces his hole, considering. Arthur leans in, burying his face at the base of Merlin's cock, inhaling his scent. Well...
There's a dull thud that Arthur suspects is Merlin's head hitting the heavily carved wood of the headboard. Merlin curses harshly, whether from the pain or Arthur's tongue or both, Arthur doesn't know – doesn't frankly care. He's entirely absorbed in his task, marvelling at the effects it's having. He can hear the creak and feel the shake of the bed as Merlin fights against his bonds, and Arthur has to hold him by the hips to keep him from twisting away (or closer; it's hard to tell). And then Merlin's thighs clamp down on his head and he makes a noise that sounds like either pure, unadulterated bliss or terrible, agonizing pain. Arthur grunts, inhaling desperately, and fucks the little bastard with his tongue, relishing in Merlin's wild scramble of movement and noise, trying to push himself closer while the bonds hold him where he is.
"Oh oh ohohohGodArthur, fuckfuckfuckfuck – "
The last curse is cut off because Arthur pulls away, because it's either that or suffocate – although, really, if he had to chose a way to go – and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. It comes away sticky.
Merlin's watching him, open-mouthed and panting, hands fisted in the pillows and pink everywhere. It's a good look on him.
"Arthur," Merlin says, pleading. His eyes are gold and shining, and Arthur notices with some fascination that all of the furniture in the room, save for the bed, is hovering about three feet off the ground, spinning and vibrating with magic. Arthur wonders, not for the first time, if this is a bad idea – a trunk floats by the bed next to his head, a cool reminder of how easily this could end badly if Arthur's wrong and Merlin's still lying to him. But Arthur has to know, has to know for sure, because how else will he every be able to trust him again? Because Arthur has to keep fighting, pushing, until Merlin gives in, just waves a little white flag in surrender and lets him through.
Arthur licks his lips and sits back. Merlin follows him with hungry eyes. "Arthur – "
"You know, you were right," Arthur says. Merlin's eyes are so bright it's unreal, terrifying and beautiful and completely unreadable. I have to know, Arthur reminds himself. Maybe this is a stupid, juvenile way to find out, but it's either this or really hurt him, and Arthur can't do that – won't – couldn't, even if Merlin let him. "I think this is much more constructive then the stocks."
It takes all of Arthur's self-control not to flinch when it happens; the air crackles, and as Arthur wonders if he really did arse this up, there's an echoing series of thuds as all the floating furniture comes crashing back to the floor.
"You complete bastard," Merlin says, eyes dark again. He sounds more furious than he looks – and mostly, he looks relieved, which Arthur thinks is ridiculous. Merlin's head drops back onto the pillows and his legs flop heavily back onto the rumpled duvet. "Such a prat. Are you going to untie me?"
"No," Arthur says, and when Merlin looks back up to meet his eyes, raises an eyebrow in challenge. "You're going to stay there."
"For how long?"
"As long as it takes," Arthur tells him, and means it. "If you want to leave, well, that's up to you."
Merlin just looks at him for a long moment, then sighs and sinks back into the bed again. Something deep inside of Arthur stirs, a little bit of a hope to help soothe the anger there. "Can I at least," Merlin says eventually, "um. It's just, it's rather cold, in here."
Arthur doesn't answer. He intended to leave Merlin here for an hour, maybe two, while he attended to other things that required a king's attention. But this, this is important, too, he realises, however angry he might be, because Merlin's trying very hard and if Arthur tries only a little this won't work. He stretches out beside Merlin, pulling the covers over them as he brings their bodies together to share the warmth. "You can light the hearth, if you like."
Merlin glances at him sideways. "Look, I know you're – I'm not going to be your little slave magician," he says finally. "Because I can – you know I could leave, if I want."
"You would try," Arthur corrects.
Merlin glares at him, and Arthur thinks it's less out of frustration and more to hide the relief in those blue, naked eyes. "Such a prat," Merlin says again.
The hearth roars to life, filling the room with golden light. Maybe it's Arthur's imagination, but Merlin seems a bit warmer underneath the bedsheets. Arthur just looks at him, and idly wonders if he'll ever be able to trust the man again. Even if he's forgiven Merlin (and Arthur has, it's the only reason Merlin still has his head) it's not the same. There's still a shadow of doubt squirming in Arthur's gut, perhaps for the truth Merlin has yet tell him, making Arthur uneasy; there's an awkward rift between the two of them that is going to take some time to heal. And even then, well, it's not as if anything Merlin can say or do will make Arthur feel any better about being lied to – made a fool of – for all these years.
Forgiveness is the easy part, Arthur thinks. Trust has to be earned, and Merlin spent nearly five years gaining Arthur's only to throw it all away with a simple trick of candlelight.
Still, it's not as if this – whatever the hell this is – isn't helping. It's helping a rather lot, if Arthur's to be honest, because after the fiasco with Guinevere and his father's continued failing health, Arthur had begun to feel horribly alone. If Arthur is going to be honest, he can't possibly imagine a world without Merlin's extravagant antics and vulgar tongue. The fact that he has magic complicates things, but when doesn't Merlin find a way to complicate things?
Merlin grumbles as he tries to get comfortable, wiggling against Arthur's side. Arthur is a little pleased by his discomfort, but it's awkward trying to lie beside a man whose arms are tied to the headboard; Arthur sighs, giving in, and reaches up to tug the knots loose.
Blue eyes blink in surprise and Merlin massages his wrists, shooting Arthur a sideways look. "I knew you'd be a pervert," he says finally. When Arthur just raises an eyebrow, Merlin hastily adds, "A merciful pervert."
Arthur snorts and rolls over, putting his back to Merlin. It's quiet in the room aside from the crackle of the fire and, after a while, Arthur thinks Merlin must have fallen asleep, until:
"You know how you can love someone, and lie to them?"
Arthur feels the bed shift as Merlin sidles up beside him, chest to Arthur's back. His fingers are light and cool along Arthur's hip as the line of his body aligns perfectly with Arthur's. "You love them enough that, even though you know they'll hate you for it, you do the right thing."
Arthur is silent for a few moments as he considers this. "I don't hate you," he says eventually.
He can feel Merlin's lips curve against his back. "I know."
"You're still in trouble."
"And you'll be my little slave magician until I decide otherwise."
"If that's what you're into, Sire," Merlin whispers, as he plants a chaste kiss on Arthur's shoulder. A warmth floods Arthur from the spot, blooming across his chest and enveloping him in magic.
It's uncanny how quickly Arthur deflates at the touch, sinking back against Merlin's chest with a sigh. Arthur supposes that this is just another chapter in this insane, esoteric bond between them, a connection that nothing can ever hope to breach. They may hit the occasional bump in the road, but the spokes of the wheel hold strong, each taking their share of the strain; because without them both, the wheel wouldn't be able to roll.
.o: fin :o.