After surviving poisoned wine, evil sorcerers, magical creatures, and so many assassins he didn't like to think about it, it was a simple stair that was Merlin's undoing. He had his arms full of supplies for Arthur's journey, and his head full of the countless chores that needed to be done before they left for Mercia the next morning. It was important that everything go perfectly, that Arthur's ceremonial clothes be impeccably clean, that his crown bear not a single smudge, because the treaty with King Bayard was still tenuous even after a year of peace. And after the disaster that was Mercia's envoy to Camelot (poisoned manservant, prince disobeying his king to save the life of said manservant, near outbreak of war), Camelot's envoy to Mercia would have to be faultless.
Which is why, after running up and down the same stairs dozens of times over the course of the day, Merlin didn't bother to count the number of steps under his breath as he usually did. He put all his weight forward, fully expecting the turn of the landing between the two flights, and instead there was air. If his arms had been free, if he hadn't been holding a heavy pile of ceremonial clothes that he had just spent half the day preparing, he might have been fine, or at least dropped what he was carrying in time to keep himself from a nasty tumble. Instead he landed with an awkward jolt, turned his ankle, and the next thing he knew he was lying halfway down the second flight, braced crookedly against the wall with the stone steps digging into his side and an awful flaring pain in his right arm.
There was the sound of hurried footsteps, and then some shouting. It was very loud. Merlin tried to cover his ear, but trying to move his arm made his vision fade and spot. By the time the roaring faded from his head, someone was shouting loudly again, but this time it was Arthur.
"...can you hear me? Merlin, can you hear me? Tell me what hurts."
Merlin tried to respond, but there was a pain in his head that was growing fast, and the throbbing made it hard to think, much less talk. He felt hands patting him down, feeling for broken bones, and almost sent himself tumbling down the rest of the flight when Arthur reached his arm.
"Easy!" Arthur caught him as his body writhed, held him still until he slumped back down, breathing hard and fast. "Don't move. Your arm's broken. I have to get you off the stairs." Arthur shouted at someone to alert Gaius, and before Merlin could even think about trying to stand up on his own, the world spun dizzyingly around him, followed by a series of jolts as Arthur carried him down the steps.
"'m not..." Merlin tried, as Arthur carried him across the courtyard. Merlin's cheek was pressed to Arthur's shoulder, but he could just make out the tight clench of Arthur's jaw.
"Not what?" Arthur asked, grimly.
"Damsel," Merlin slurred. "'n distress."
Arthur snorted, but when he spoke again he sounded slightly less worried. "What have I said about you being a girl?"
More steps, then, and Merlin's world faded again. Who thought it was a good idea to build a castle this tall, and put everybody in towers? Too many bloody steps, and he knew he was in bad shape when the thought made him giggle because he'd just made them even bloodier.
Gaius was leaning over him, frowning deeply with concern. Arthur's face had a pale, haunted look, and there was blood smudging his cheek. And his shirt. He was always getting dirt and blood all over his clothes, just to make Merlin have to clean them. Merlin immediately thought of the ceremonial robes and the crown and tried to sit up, only to be pushed back down and held flat against the wooden table.
"His arm is definitely broken," said Arthur. "I didn't feel anything in his legs or ribs."
"His ankle is swelling," said Gaius, and there were fingers probing Merlin's ankle. "Could be just a sprain."
"What about his head?"
"I'm not sure. Let me clean him up. Head wounds are often less serious than they appear. The scalp bleeds easily."
"Hear that, Merlin? I knew your thick skull would prove itself of use eventually."
Gaius gave a dry, strained chuckle. "It is certainly that."
Merlin thought he ought to be offended by that. Before he could think of a retort, the pain in his head flared. Arthur's hands, unmistakable even now, were heavy on him, one steadying his head and the other on his chest, as Gaius cleaned the wound on his scalp.
"That's better," Gaius said, sounding slightly less somber. "Looks like he gave himself a nasty scrape, Sire. There's some swelling but the bone is intact."
"What about his arm?"
The hands shifted on him. "We'll have to set it. The break feels clean. I'm afraid he'll be in no condition to accompany you to Mercia."
"Sorry," Merlin slurred, feeling wretched. He was afraid that Arthur would be angry with him. The memory of Cedric and nearly being replaced was still fresh, even though Arthur later admitted that he'd only been trying to teach Merlin a lesson. If Merlin wasn't by his side, how could he protect Arthur? What about the trip? If Bayard tried something, or another assassin came after Arthur, and Merlin wasn't there because of some stupid stairs...
Arthur's hand covered Merlin's, the one that wasn't attached to a broken arm. Arthur squeezed, and Merlin tried to smile. Then Gaius pressed a leather strap between Merlin's teeth and told him to bite down.
When Merlin woke up again, his mouth tasted of glue and some foul aftermath of Gaius' potions. He was tucked tightly into bed, and the sun was in a different position. He tried to sit up and discovered that his arm and ankle were well-bound, and there was a bandage on his head. He reached for a cup of water that had been left on his nightstand, and knocked it to the floor. It shattered impressively, and Merlin despaired of himself. He felt his magic rise to put the cup back together and un-spill the water, but it was sluggish and as clumsy as the rest of him.
"Awake properly this time, I see." Gaius walked in, with another potion and a fresh cup of water.
"What time is it?"
"You were in and out all night. It's almost lunchtime, but I thought it best to let you sleep."
Lunchtime? "Arthur's already left," Merlin moaned.
"He came to say goodbye this morning," Gaius offered, and fed him the potion.
Merlin made a face. "Ugh, water please." Gaius obliged, not letting him hold the cup, which was just as well because he'd probably drop this one, too. "Why didn't you wake me? I could have gone."
Gaius gave him the eyebrow. "He'll be back in two weeks. I'm sure he can stay out of trouble that long without you hovering. Besides, weren't you worried about facing Bayard again, after making a spectacle of yourself last time?"
"I don't care about Bayard," Merlin said, mulishly. "I care about Arthur."
Gaius just made a neutral sound and went about checking Merlin's injuries. He changed the dressing on the head wound and replaced the pillow under Merlin's foot, which had been knocked askew.
"Arthur will be back in two weeks," Gaius said, with the firm tone he used on recalcitrant patients. "He left instruction that until he returns, your only duty is to rest and to heal. Think of it as a respite. You'll be up and about in a few days, but no riding and no magic."
"Not for a week. That was a nasty fall, and might have been a lot worse. You need to give yourself time to heal. Save your energy." He gave Merlin an avuncular pat on the shoulder. "Gwen said she'd stop by this afternoon. I'm sure Morgana won't mind if Gwen spends time with you to keep you out of trouble."
"I'm being punished for something. I know it." Merlin slumped back down onto the bed.
Gaius tried not to smile. "Certainly not," he lied. "Let me bring you some food. Would you like something to read? I'm sure I can pry something nonessential out of Geoffrey, as long as I don't mention it's for you."
The first week went by more easily than Merlin expected. Once he was deemed fit enough to hobble about on his own again, he spent much of his days outside, basking in the early summer sun. He joined Gwen and Morgana for picnics every day. Things were surprisingly quiet with Arthur gone, which confirmed Merlin's personal theory that Arthur was the trouble magnet of the two of them, and that Merlin was the long-suffering one. That did little to ease his mind about Arthur being on his own in Mercia (never mind the diplomatic retinue and the servants and the dozen knights), but Gaius, Gwen, and even Morgana continued to reassure him that Arthur would be back soon, and that nothing would go wrong. Merlin wasn't sure what they saw on his face that made them feel the need to reassure him, but he tried to stop visibly fretting.
He even found himself enjoying some of the books that Gaius smuggled out of the library for him. The medical books were dull, but he was surprisingly captivated by the histories. Having grown up in Ealdor, he knew little of Camelot's past prior to the Great Purge, and even less about Albion history in general. There was an awful lot about the Romans, who thought a tremendous amount of themselves and how they'd civilized the world. Merlin's opinion of them was mixed. On the one hand, the Roman histories showed little regard for the native peoples of Albion, calling them barbarians and brutes. On the other hand (and this helped explain Uther), a genealogy chart showed the Pendragon family was of Roman descent, with native Albion blood mixed in over time. And on the third hand, there was the magic.
The accounts of the Romans were full of magic. Sometimes they couched it in unfamiliar terms or explained it as the acts of their gods, but the truth was obvious to Merlin. It staggered him to think of Arthur's ancestors freely practicing magic, holding court with sorcerers, breeding magical beasts. He had known, of course, that Uther was once on quite friendly terms with magic, but Nimueh was only one part of a much, much longer story. There was even mention of Cornelius Sigan, who indeed had built the castle with his magic (and probably insisted on all of the stairs), and whose might towered over the Five Kingdoms. It was even implied that a curse of his was what doomed the Fallen Kings.
Merlin tried to imagine what it must have been like to have magic so accepted, so completely a part of everyday life and noble court alike. He shivered at the memory of Sigan's power lust, which he had felt as he forced Sigan out of him with the dragon's spell.
Not that he wanted to think about the dragon. He didn't care what it wanted, not after it nearly let his mum die. He wasn't going to let it out, not if he could help it, even if he had made a promise. It was a very sneaky creature. Who knew what it was capable of?
Perhaps it was the mentions of Sigan that put him off of histories, but by the start of the next week he was tired of reading. He was barely limping now, his head was healed, and even if his arm was useless, he was tired of sitting around. Besides, although he wasn't cleared to ride, Gaius had relented about his magic. It felt as restless as the rest of him, and he needed to let off some steam. After his usual lunch with Morgana and Gwen, he struck out into the forest for somewhere private.
He found a quiet spot away from any patrols or paths, a stony nook cut out of a hillside, surrounded by a wall of trees and vines. No one would stumble across him, unless they could see through solid rock or the impenetrable wall of greenery. He sat down, his ankle bothering him again after the long walk, and held out his left hand. Fortunately, he didn't have to be ambidextrous to use his magic.
He shaped a dragon in the air, then frowned and dissolved it. He didn't want to think of dragons.
He hadn't thought to bring his grimoire. He'd been in a hurry to escape the castle, and it wasn't as if he needed spells to do magic. But now that he was here, he found himself craving structure. Having nothing to do all day was boring. He had spent more than a year going nonstop for Gaius and Arthur and destiny, and he seemed to have forgotten what to do with himself for more than an hour at a time.
He dug through his pack to see what he had brought, besides the bread and cheese he'd shoved into it before he left. There were so many emergencies and sudden trips in his life that he kept it stocked with a variety of useful items. He never knew when he was going to need a bit of rope or a small knife. There was a thin blanket shoved down at the bottom, and he pulled it out and laid it out on the softest bit of ground, and sat on it. He poked through the bag, thinking structure, structure.
He missed Arthur.
Perhaps Arthur's love of structure was contagious. He smiled to himself at the thought that if he needed something to do, Arthur would find more than enough chores for him to complete. Not that Merlin could do any of them right now. He used his right hand for everything: polishing, sharpening, washing, cooking... and other things.
He hadn't wanked in ages.
He usually used his right hand for his cock and his left... His left he liked to press inside himself, with one or two fingers, slick with pilfered oil from Gaius' supplies. He wondered if he could adjust his sling and sort of angle his arm enough... Maybe at least get a grip on himself...
Ow. That wouldn't work.
He scrunched up his mouth and considered his options. He could just pull on his cock, which was fine enough despite it being weird with his left hand. Or he could just use his fingers, but that wasn't usually enough on its own.
His mouth spread into a private, naughty smile. Or he could use his magic.
Not that he'd never used it for that, of course, but he hadn't had enough control over it before Gaius helped him to do anything creative. And he couldn't exactly experiment with Gaius just outside the door all night, since Merlin did tend to be loud when he really got going. Even when he was just having a quick wank, he would bite down on a rag to muffle himself, just in case. He had needs, but he did not want Gaius opening the door on him while he was in the middle of fulfilling them.
Dear gods, no.
He shook the image off and rummaged through his pack again, this time with intent. He gave a triumphant sound as his fingers closed on the little glass phial of pilfered oil. Definitely an essential supply in case of emergencies. He shoved off his trousers and lay awkwardly on his left hand, and started working the oil into himself with a finger.
He tugged on his magic, trying to shape it into a hand. His own right hand, at first, then thought better of it. He wanted someone else’s hand. Wanted to know what it felt like.
He’d never been with anyone. It wasn’t on purpose, he’d just never had the chance to sort things out. There weren’t exactly any opportunities in Ealdor, what with everyone in the little town hating him except for Will, and Will was resolutely not interested in him that way. He’d barely set foot in Camelot before his entire life had been hijacked for destiny. If he didn’t even have a spare hour to himself, he hardly had time for romance. He’d thought about going to the lower town and purchasing a friendly hand, but he didn’t want his first time to be so sordid. He wanted romance, wanted someone handsome and strong. Someone like Arthur.
He blushed at the thought. Not that Arthur would be any more interested in him that way than Will was. He had a tough enough time figuring out where he stood with Arthur at the best of times. Sometimes Arthur treated him as nothing but a nuisance, as the inept manservant that he so plainly was. Sometimes Arthur would torment him, tease him relentlessly, tackle Merlin to the ground and wrestle him until he begged. Sometimes Arthur turned to him as a friend, as much as a prince could have friends, and talked to him about things that mattered deeply, and relied on his advice, even if he pretended later that he hadn’t. And sometimes...
But no. They didn’t mean anything, all the times that Merlin caught him staring. Watching Merlin with an indecipherable look in his eyes. He didn’t know which Arthur was behind those eyes, in those moments, except that it was a quiet one.
He shook himself from his thoughts again, and focused on the hand. He tried to make it less like his own, and more generic. His own fingers were narrow, so he made the phantom fingers broader, and a little shorter. His were rough with callouses from work, so he tried a softer hand, but that didn’t feel right so he made it rougher. He tried an experimental stroke, and his cock liked it, so he set up a familiar rhythm. Then it was too familiar, so he tried changing the tempo, adding a bit of a squeeze at the end. It felt almost like someone else, and he abandoned himself to the pretense, shifting to work a second finger inside himself. He turned a little on his side, and closed his eyes.
He pictured himself alone on a journey, maybe the one he took between Ealdor and Camelot. Pictured meeting a stranger, his features generic but handsome, maybe with dark hair, no, red hair. He would have magic, too, and Merlin wouldn’t have to tell him, he would just know, but he would be a friendly sorcerer. And they wouldn’t use the magic yet. They would take each other’s hands and walk off the trail into the woods, and the stranger would press him against a tree and kiss him.
A kiss. His lips tingled at the thought, and he let a ripple of magic cross his lips, mouthed against it. He wanted to be kissed so badly. He’d kissed Will once and it had been comically bad in every possible way, and Merlin had been so embarrassed that he had hid from Will for days afterwards, until Will caught him, punched him on the shoulder, and told him to quit being such an arse. It wasn’t a sexy thought, so Merlin went back to the fantasy of the red-haired stranger.
The stranger would kiss him, proper kisses, deep and wanting. His hand would cup Merlin’s groin, feel his erection. Would press and rub until Merlin was desperate for him, and then he would slide his hand inside Merlin’s trousers and grip him. Merlin tightened the grip of the phantom hand, and thrust against it, moaning loudly, openly. He moved his left hand more eagerly, trying to find the right rhythm between his fingers, his hips, and the phantom hand.
Merlin would slide his hands under the stranger’s shirt and feel his muscles flexing. He would try to push off the stranger’s shirt but the stranger wouldn’t let him, would take Merlin’s hands and pin them above his head. And then the stranger would thrust against him, rubbing their cocks together through their clothes, and murmur filthy promises to him, about all the dirty, wonderful things he would do to Merlin now that he’d found him. That he would fuck him, that he would fuck--
Merlin came with a choked cry, his teeth clacking together as he bit down expecting the rag to be between his teeth. He bit his tongue, and pulled his hand out abruptly, wincing as the pain cut into his afterglow.
He flopped loosely on the ground. It wasn’t the most elegant of finishes, but it was definitely a start.
The next few days were a revelation.
Merlin never had so much time and privacy to explore his body. The limitation of his broken arm became an inspiration for him. He learned different positions he could prop himself up with using his magic. He tried switching to his left hand for his cock and the phantom hand for his arse. He even made a phantom cock, but almost hurt himself with it by making it too big at first.
Then he went hands-free, and used magic for both ends, and phantom hands on his body, and phantom lips against his own, and dear gods it was amazing.
He rushed through his picnic lunches, earning curious looks from Morgana and Gwen, and hurried to his private spot and stayed there all day, experimenting. He washed in a stream before he went home at dusk, gloriously sore, his head a fog of afterglow and lust. He was sure that Gaius was going to notice that he was running low on oil, or ask why Merlin was coming home every day so exhausted, but Merlin was greatly relieved when he did neither.
The only problem with it... well, it wasn’t exactly a problem. Yet.
It was Arthur.
Merlin had tried, he really had. He’d done his level best to keep the strangers in his fantasies strangers. He didn’t want them to be anyone he knew, anyone he might have to actually face afterwards. But even on the first day, the red or black or brown hair began to slide to blond. The muscular builds took on a painfully familiar shape, borne of countless hours of training and fighting and riding. Strong, muscular thighs, dusted with golden hair. A perfect back leading down to a perfect, firm arse. That nearly hairless chest that Merlin so often touched as he dressed Arthur in the morning and undressed him at night.
The eyes always changed to blue. The lips would pinken and become slightly sensuous. The nose would have that hint of Roman nobility to it. The jawline would be firm and Merlin could always feel it, phantom against his mouth.
He was doomed. Utterly doomed. He was never going to be able to face Arthur again. It would be so much worse than it ever was with Will. He would just have to die before Arthur got back. It was the only answer.
He would kill himself tomorrow, so he could have one more day of Arthur’s perfect, phantom body.
The next morning, a messenger arrived, and Merlin forgot all about killing himself. Arthur was staying in Mercia for an additional week, at King Bayard’s request. The letter said something about negotiations for crops in case of drought, issues with disputed territories, but Merlin didn’t believe a word of it. He was certain it meant Arthur was in danger, and he had to do something about it. He was already halfway down the corridor, headed directly for the stables, when Gaius caught up with him and pulled him aside.
“Merlin,” Gaius said, warningly. “I know what you’re thinking, and I absolutely forbid it.”
Merlin wished he could cross his arms properly. He pouted much better when he could cross his arms.
“Magic or no magic,” Gaius continued, in a low voice, “you are in no fit shape to be riding anywhere, and certainly not on your own. Even if you did somehow make it to the border in one piece, what do you think would happen then? Bayard would hardly appreciate you making more unfounded accusations.”
“That’s not fair,” Merlin said, angrily. The chalice had been poisoned. It wasn’t his fault that Nimueh had been the one to poison it, and manipulate him into the public accusation.
“You’re right, I’m sorry. But you have no evidence that anything is wrong. If there was trouble, Arthur would have said so in his message.”
“He could hardly have written it down,” Merlin protested.
“There are protocols for such things,” Gaius said, gentler now. “Codes, special phrases. If there was trouble we would know about it. In all likelihood it’s a simple matter of diplomatic necessity. Arthur may even be back sooner than he expects.”
Merlin nodded, but he hated this. He hated being apart from Arthur, hated not being sure he was safe. He slumped against the wall.
“Try not to worry,” Gaius said, patting his left arm. “He’ll be back before you know it.”
Merlin nodded, but didn’t believe it.
He didn’t want to go back to his hidden spot after that. He wanted Arthur to be back. He missed Arthur, missed everything about him, even his insults and the way he threw things at Merlin’s head. He missed Arthur’s smiles, the smug ones and the laughing ones and the soft, unexpectedly sweet ones. He cursed his broken arm, cursed his feet for missing the stairs, cursed the stairs for existing in the first place. He daydreamed of flattening the entire castle down to one level.
He sulked through lunch with Gwen and Morgana, even though they gave him sympathetic looks and plied him with sweets to cheer him up. He tried to smile for them but there were knots in his stomach and in his chest, and he kept imagining what might be happening in Mercia. Imagined assassins sneaking up on Arthur unawares, and plunging knives or swords or poisoned arrows into him. Imagined Arthur’s food had been poisoned, or his wine again, and this time Merlin wasn’t there to take it for him. Imagined him pale and ill, his lips blue, his chest barely moving. Imagined that Arthur might already be dead, and it was all a trick by Bayard, maybe even revenge for Merlin humiliating him about the poisoned chalice. It could even be all his fault. He should have gone with Arthur, and sod his broken arm!
Merlin felt on the verge of tears all day long. He picked at his food. He couldn’t focus on anything. He sulked in his room, sulked around Gaius until Gaius shooed him off, sulked in the halls like he was haunting them. He didn’t want to, but he just felt so helpless. He hated feeling helpless. He hated not knowing and being stuck in Camelot and wished he was at all decent at healing magic so he could just fix his stupid useless arm and go save Arthur.
Finally, he found himself in Arthur’s chambers. He barely remembered walking there, or letting himself in with his key. He was just there, surrounded by Arthur’s things, in Arthur’s space, and it was too much. He needed to feel Arthur, to smell him, to know he was safe. He kicked off his boots and crawled into Arthur’s bed, and sobbed as he realized he’d never changed the sheets, and Arthur hadn’t told someone else to do it before he left. The bed still smelled of him. Merlin pressed his face against the pillow and cried a little, his tears leaving wet spots on the soft fabric. He burrowed himself down under the blankets and pressed his face against the bed and breathed in, trying to fill himself with Arthur’s scent, trapping it around him with the blankets.
Somehow, he must have drifted asleep, because when he woke up it was dark, and his stomach hurt from hunger and tears and wonky sleep. He rubbed the sand from his eyes and tried to orient himself, tried to clear his head. His head thumped down onto the pillow, which was blissfully cool against his heated cheek. His arm ached from being leaned on while he slept.
“Arthur,” he whispered, his voice trembling and bereft.
He had to pull himself together. He had to believe that Gaius was right, that Arthur was safe. He had to believe it or he would break into a hundred pieces and never recover. The thought of Arthur was a great weight in his chest, making it hard to breathe. He realized all at once that he was in love with Arthur. He didn’t know it happened, just that it had. And he didn’t care about anything but having Arthur back.
He thought of Arthur’s soft smile, and his rough hands, and the way he was always so warm and lazy in the morning. Imagined Arthur beside him, looking back at him, and touching his cheek so softly. And Merlin gasped as he felt the phantom fingers do just that. A gentle caress, just the pads of his fingers on Merlin’s cheek. It made his heart ache.
It was wrong. It was so wrong. He shouldn’t do this, it would only make things so much worse. But what could be worse than this? What could be worse than maybe never seeing Arthur alive ever again?
He opened his eyes, and just for a moment, he saw Arthur in front of him. Saw him, just for an instant, and then he was gone. Merlin gasped and flailed frantically backwards until he landed on his back on the floor, legs tangled in the blankets and his arm painfully jarred. He lay quite still until the pain dulled down to a throb, and then eased himself to his feet.
Of course Arthur wasn’t really there. It was just his magic, giving him the illusion of what he wanted. It had felt so real, but that was only because he wanted it to be real. And it couldn’t be, not ever, and he was going to drive himself mad if he stayed in the room any longer. He hurried out as if chased, and locked the door behind him, swearing to himself that that would be the end of it.
"Without Him" by @consulting-mutt