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A Bird In Hand

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Merlin was a virgin. Arthur guessed as much by the way he'd behaved when faced with Arthur's erection. But Merlin himself confirmed it, once they'd finally made it to the bed together, their clothing abandoned and the both of them lazy and sated.

"How much experience do you have?" Arthur asked him, as he traced his fingers up and down Merlin's back.

"Um," Merlin said, and looked shy. "How would you define experience?"

Arthur's hand stilled. He gave Merlin a curious look. "No fumbles in the hay with the other village boys? Or girls?"

"No fumbling," Merlin admitted, hiding his face against Arthur's chest. "There wasn't anyone." He lifted his face, and his eyes were full of longing. "Until you."

The knowledge of it, that Merlin had somehow saved himself for Arthur, had given himself to Arthur specifically, did things to Arthur's insides. Merlin had thrown himself at him like a man possessed, barely allowing Arthur even the most token of protests. Merlin had invaded Arthur's chambers and bed and marked them like a base animal, even ruined Arthur's best pair of gloves in some obscene manner. It was hard to reconcile such depravity and such innocence, but somehow the combination suited Merlin perfectly.

Arthur would have liked nothing better than to linger in bed with Merlin all day, and explore both his innocence and his depravity, but he had a full schedule waiting for him and much of it involved his father. Arthur expected to send Merlin off to resume his recovery, but to his surprise Merlin insisted on going back to his regular duties with Arthur.

"Absolutely not," Arthur said, warding off Merlin's clumsy attempts to help him on with his clothes. "How long did Gaius say until your arm is healed?"

"Three weeks. But please Arthur," Merlin wheedled. "Sire. I've already been doing nothing for nearly that long. And I should--"

"Be by my side?" Arthur prompted. Merlin's overdramatic confession was quite seared into his mind, even apart from what followed it. "Merlin, even with two arms you're barely competent."

Arthur shouldn't have been surprised by the stubborn set of Merlin's jaw. "You can't stop me."

Arthur laughed. "Are you threatening me with your service?"

"If I have to," Merlin said, eyes narrowed with intent. Then his eyes widened with alarm. "You can't send me back to Morgana."

Arthur snorted. "You may have a point." She was going to be unbearable after this. She wouldn't tell his father, she wouldn't dare, but she would use this as leverage against him at every opportunity.

"She thinks it's adorable," Merlin said, and made a face.

"Because you are," Arthur said, surprising himself with his own softness. Merlin smiled and ducked his head, and it only made things worse. Merlin had a way of making Arthur foolish, of making him indulgent. All his life, Arthur had been trained to be stoic and austere and self-denying, and then Merlin had come into his life with his easy smiles and ridiculous devotion and ruined all his father's hard work.

"All right," Arthur relented, and Merlin lit up like a sunbeam. "But not on your own. Morris will help you until Gaius says you're fit for your duties."

Merlin's sunbeam clouded over. "I can do them on my own."

Arthur gave him a look. Then he reached up and brushed his finger across Merlin's lower lip. Merlin's eyes followed his finger, and his tongue peeked out to lick where Arthur had touched.

"Are you jealous?" Arthur asked, lowering his voice. "Do you think I let all my manservants into my bed?"

Merlin flushed, and pressed his lips together.

"Were you jealous of Cedric?" Arthur continued, enjoying himself far too much. "Is that why you launched yourself at him in my chambers?"

"I had to stop him," Merlin said, in that inexplicably brave way he had, sometimes. As if Merlin was all that stood between Arthur and some horrible fate. Arthur couldn't imagine Merlin standing between anyone and a horrible fate. He might actually be the horrible fate.

It was true that Merlin had been right about Cedric, who had revealed himself to be a scheming thief and then attacked them using stolen magic from Sigan's vaults, but Arthur attributed that to Gaius more than Merlin. Gaius had been somewhat parsimonious with the details when pressed, but that was typical of the physician. He never gave a full explanation when half of one would do. That was probably why his father liked Gaius so much, but it had always chafed on Arthur's nerves. He liked to have the full lay of the land before he went into battle, not merely as much as would flatter his ego.

"How much is Gaius letting you help him?" Arthur asked, thoughtful.

"Not much," Merlin admitted. "He says I'm a menace with a pestle."

"Is he letting you run errands? Deliveries?"

Merlin shrugged. "He followed the orders you left. I could probably manage that now that my ankle's healed."

"No," Arthur said, deciding. "You can fetch and carry for me, though you'll probably need to double your trips. Anything that absolutely requires two hands or a modicum of dexterity will be taken by Morris. Tell Gaius that I'm keeping you here until you're fully recovered. You can resume your duties for him then."

"Keeping me here?" Merlin asked, catching on quick.

"Do you really think I'd let you get away after that performance?"

Merlin managed to look both embarrassed and speculative at the same time. "But where will I sleep?" he asked, the speculative side of him clearly winning out.

It took every ounce of Arthur's self-control not to drag Merlin back to his knees and see how quick of a learner he was. Arthur could still feel the naive devotion of Merlin's lips on his cock, still feel the way Merlin had bucked and writhed and screamed for him when he came. Who knew Merlin had it in him? He was a sincere little puzzle-box, and Arthur wanted nothing more than to take him apart, and perhaps even see how best to put him back together.

"You'll sleep where I tell you to," Arthur said, and delighted in the way it made Merlin squirm and bite his lip, leaving it wet and pink. Arthur couldn't resist, and took that lip for himself, and the rest of Merlin's mouth besides.

"Yes, Sire," Merlin breathed.

"Now go get my breakfast. You're already late with it," Arthur told him, and amused himself watching Merlin try to pull himself together and hide his incipient erection. Merlin was unsteady as he left Arthur's chambers, but it had absolutely nothing to do with his injuries. Arthur allowed himself a few squeezes of his own arousal, then contented himself with leaving it at a pleasant hum. After weeks of tedious and stressful negotiations and days of hard travel, he had earned an indulgence or two.

Arthur contemplated the morning's revelations as he finished dressing himself for court. Merlin wanted him, needed him. No, it was more than that. Merlin was his. Merlin was his not because Merlin had given himself to Arthur, but because Merlin had claimed Arthur as his master. It was as paradoxical as anything Merlin did, and Arthur liked that about him. Merlin didn't take orders, he chose them, and followed them to his own satisfaction. Once Merlin made a decision, it was decided, and no court etiquette, no threats of danger, no promises could sway him.

Arthur had grown used to Merlin following him everywhere, into every danger, only ever concerned with Arthur's safety. He'd known from early on how consuming Merlin's devotion was for him, no matter how often Merlin complained about his duties, no matter how clumsy or inept he could be with everyday tasks. The slightest threat to Arthur would transform Merlin from generally useless and often insolent into a seemingly endless pit of faithfulness and determination. At first it had been baffling, and if Arthur was honest with himself it was still baffling. But he was beginning to appreciate the benefits it produced.

Merlin loved him. Inexplicably and completely, and apparently unconsciously until Arthur had been forced to abandon him for the trip to Mercia. Arthur wanted very much to know what had happened to release what had been locked away in Merlin's heart, but it didn't feel right to press him. Arthur had spent much of the trip haunted by the sight of Merlin sprawled upon the stairs, bloodied and limp. It had been hard to leave without saying goodbye, for his last sight of Merlin to be of him unconscious and bandaged and pale. It didn't matter how much he told himself not to worry, that it was foolish to worry over Merlin, over a servant.

The long days with Bayard had brought back unpleasant memories. At night he could hear his father sneering in his head, furious with Arthur for risking his life for a peasant. But Merlin had saved his life, and had been so brave for him. He had risked himself with the accusation against Bayard and then risked himself again by drinking the wine, and the sight of Merlin falling to the floor had been a rending in Arthur's soul. He'd had no choice but to heal Merlin, in order to heal himself. He'd blatantly defied his father, something he rarely ever did in thought much less in deed, and didn't regret it in the least.

He would do it again in an instant. He was already doing it again, silently defying his father with his actions, and he didn't care. Merlin was his. His father had given Merlin to him, and even though very little of Arthur's was his own, even though his life was pledged to Camelot and his service pledge to his King, Arthur knew that Merlin was his and his alone. He would take whatever Merlin chose to give him, even if that was everything. And if Arthur gorged himself on such a banquet, it was only what Merlin deserved.

§

Arthur had many responsibilities as Crown Prince, and none of them stopped just because he wanted them to. He had weeks of reports to catch up on, councils to attend, and the accumulation of little tasks that had mounted up in his absence. The Lords of the land had sent their youngest sons to follow in the steps of their elder brothers, who had lain down their lives in defense of Camelot when Cedric had set his stone monsters down upon them. It was fortunate that the nobles had so many sons, since his father would not break the First Code of Camelot and allow commoners into the ranks of his knights.

Arthur was still hazy on exactly how Cedric had been stopped. His father had proclaimed it the proud work of the knights, yet there had been no sword wounds to prove his words. Cedric's body had been unmarred and his expression vacant, as if he had simply emptied out. Arthur had held his tongue, not eager for an argument with his father on the matter. There had been Merlin's wild story about the ghost of Cornelius Sigan coming back for revenge, but it all seemed too far-fetched to be believed. Cedric had been a sorcerer, as greedy and malicious as all sorcerers seemed to be. Perhaps the stolen magic had backfired, and that was what killed him. However it had happened, Cedric was dead, and as he was no longer a threat he could be safely disregarded.

But even if Arthur couldn't strip Merlin naked and bend him over the Council table, it felt good to have Merlin back by his side, dogging his steps. The knowledge that Merlin wanted him, yearned for him, would fall to his knees for him and more, buoyed Arthur through the most tedious of tasks, and made the day hurry along. Merlin would steal little touches as he served Arthur, their hands grazing over a goblet, or their arms bumping as Merlin walked too closely by his side in the hall. Nothing that would give them away -- even Merlin had enough sense not to risk that. But enough to remind Arthur, and perhaps himself, that their relationship had gone far beyond what it had been before.

It certainly didn't hurt their situation that Arthur had always been tactile with Merlin, always generous with his own touches and eager to drag Merlin wherever he wanted him. Arthur reflected that it had perhaps been a sign of his own unconscious feelings to have always forced Merlin so close. Not that Merlin had ever required force to keep him close. Arthur found himself shocked at how intimate they already were, and had to resist the urge to pull away from Merlin, to let the fear of discovery change their behavior in public. If anything, it was that that would cast suspicion, or worse, make others believe that Arthur no longer favored Merlin at all. That would put Merlin at risk, and even though Merlin was largely oblivious to court politics, Arthur knew all too well how the games were played. They would go on as they always had. That it was both for the best and exactly what Arthur most desired was only an incidental benefit.

Morgana and Gwen could be counted upon for their discretion. Arthur wasn't certain how much Gaius knew, but Gaius loved Merlin like a son, and would certainly risk no harm to him. The situation was all in hand. Arthur felt himself relax in the knowledge, in the sense of control it gave him. He found himself sitting straighter, listening more attentively to the normally interminable discussions, not in spite of but because of the closeness of Merlin by his side.

"All of the modifications to the treaty are in order," Uther said, putting an end at last to the long review of the necessary revisions. "Arthur, excellent work."

"Thank you, Sire," Arthur said, with a formal nod. He hid his surprise. Ever since Uther had drugged him and fought in his place against the mysterious black knight, his father had become far more open with his praise, and Arthur still couldn't get used to it.

"I expect you to be busy with training for the next few weeks," Uther continued. His eyes flicked to Merlin, and the arm tucked into its sling. "Is your manservant recovered enough for his duties? I can assign you anyone you wish if he is insufficient."

Arthur felt Merlin tense beside him.

"That won't be necessary," Arthur said, with deliberate casualness. "He is perfectly able for the the tasks he is assigned. He only needs one hand with which to pour my wine and serve my food."

Uther smirked, amused as always by how little he thought of Merlin. His father's disregard had always rankled Arthur, even if he often lobbed the same insults at Merlin himself. Merlin was his to insult, and no one else's, not even his father. Arthur did not let it show.

Uther clapped his hands together, and stood from the table, and Arthur and the councilors stood in response. "This calls for a celebration," Uther declared. "In three days' time we shall have a feast in honor of our renewed friendship with Mercia, and to officially welcome our newest knights."

Arthur smiled, and mentally cursed his father. The last thing he wanted right now was another public demand on his time. At least they were done for the day. Arthur put his hand on Merlin's back and guided him out of the room, trying not to let his steps be too eager.

§

The moment they were alone in Arthur's chambers, Merlin flopped into a chair and slumped down, looking utterly worn out. Arthur sympathized; he often found that sitting around all day would exhaust him far more than a long hike, and Merlin wasn't quite back to his usual boundless energy.

Merlin rubbed at his arm like it was bothering him.

"Is it still hurting?"

"I banged it up again yesterday," Merlin said, blushing as he recalled exactly what had led to his renewed injury. Morgana had described the events to Arthur with obvious glee despite her sympathy for Merlin. Mostly she was vastly entertained by the whole affair, and relished how vulnerable she thought it made Arthur's position. Knowledge was power, and Morgana thirsted for any power she could get.

"Have you been exercising it at all?" Arthur asked.

"Course not," Merlin said. "Gaius threatened me if I didn't keep it still."

Arthur snorted. "I'm sure he did. But Gaius doesn't know everything. Here, let me." Before Merlin could agree, Arthur was removing his sling and then his shirt. Merlin was compliant, if confused, with an adorable little furrow to his brow and the beginnings of a pout. Arthur couldn't wait to kiss it away, but he wanted to do this first.

He unwrapped the stiff bandages and splints that kept the arm immobile. There was a fresh bruise on Merlin's arm, where he'd landed on it after his tumble from the bed. Arthur probed it, making Merlin hiss and revealing how tender it was. But the break in the bone that Arthur had felt on that day on the stairs was gone, and he was satisfied with the progress of its healing. Arthur stretched out Merlin's arm and moved it around, testing the range of motion and Merlin's reactions.

"Stiff?"

"Very," Merlin said, tersely.

Arthur folded Merlin's arm and stretched it out again. Then he repeated the motion from before. "See if you can do this on your own," he said, and released his grip. Merlin complied, if slowly and with obvious effort. Arthur stopped him before he could do too much, and began re-wrapping the bandages.

"We need to do this at least once a day," Arthur explained. "You must keep your arm limber and use the muscle or it will seize, and when you think you are ready to rely on it again it will take hard work to regain your strength. This way you won't lose all of what you have."

"Is that a knight thing?" Merlin asked, with a soft smile.

"A knight taught it to me," Arthur acknowledged. "And I teach it to my knights, and hopefully they will teach it themselves one day. It's important to tend to those who fight by your side."

That earned Arthur a Merlin look, overflowing with inexplicable devotion and gratitude. Arthur wasn't sure what he'd ever done to deserve those looks, besides treat Merlin like he mattered, on occasion and despite himself.

Together they eased Merlin's arm back into the sling, but Arthur wasn't finished yet. He gently massaged Merlin's arm from shoulder to wrist, careful around the healing break and the bruise. Merlin sighed and slumped anew, but this time it was because he was putty in Arthur's hands. Arthur's heart ached at the trust Merlin showed in him, and it renewed his desire to keep and protect Merlin, and all his strangeness.

Dinner had been served during the long council session, so Arthur had no cause to send Merlin from his chambers until breakfast.

"Did you get everything you need?" he asked. He'd let Merlin out of his sight long enough to check in with Gaius and gather whatever clothing and personal items he would require. Merlin had left it all in a pile on the floor, and Arthur knew that it contained essentially all that Merlin owned, since he owned very little. A stack of clothes including shirts and scarves of varying colors, his ever-present bag, his toiletries and medical supplies, and whatever personal trinkets he had accumulated.

It was unsaid between them if Merlin would be leaving Arthur's chambers and returning to his little room in Gaius' tower, when Merlin was healed. Arthur was starting to understand what his own answer would be, but it was too soon to speak of it. The three weeks would be a test for them, to see if they could make it work, between themselves as much as together against the castle at large. It was only the latter that gave Arthur any pause, as Merlin had lived so insistently in his pocket for over a year.

Merlin nodded. "I think Gaius figured it out," he admitted. "He gave me a 'be careful' speech."

Arthur chuckled. "I'll take that as his blessing," he said, and kissed Merlin's bare shoulder. Merlin roused at that, and drew him into a proper kiss, which went on and on until Arthur protested at the crouched angle he was in. He rose, stretched the ache from his body, and pulled Merlin to the bed.

This morning, they had fallen together in a heady haze of frantic lust. At the time, it had been such a shock that Arthur had not had a chance to truly appreciate what was happening. But now they could take their time, and he could see Merlin clearly; in the clarity of the moment, it seemed as if he had been barely paying attention until now, no matter how insistently Merlin's existence had pressed on his attention. How had he missed the way Merlin scrunched his nose before he laughed, or the tiny pout he gave whenever Arthur pulled away from him? He must have always done these things, but Arthur was too blind to see them.

He was not blind anymore. Certainly not to the soft love that overflowed from Merlin's eyes as Arthur stroked at his hair. Merlin smiled at him and Arthur smiled back like a fool.

"This is nice," Merlin said, smiling wider.

Arthur tried to sober himself, and looked Merlin in the eye. "No second thoughts?"

"Shouldn't I be the one asking you that?" Merlin asked, a hint of worry seeping into his face. "Arthur..."

"No," Arthur said, firmly. "I'm certain."

Merlin relaxed again. "Good. I'd hate to have to despoil your bed again."

Arthur laughed. "We're going to do that anyway."

"Yes," Merlin said, and gave a little thrust up against Arthur's hip. "Right now, if you please."

"Insatiable minx," Arthur purred, and kissed him deeply. They rubbed aimlessly together, Arthur covering Merlin's body with his own. It was easier for Merlin to be on his back, and Arthur was of a mind to trap him there for a while, and feast on him. Merlin clung to him with his available limbs, hooked his legs around Arthur's and let Arthur settle between his thighs, as if he belonged there. Arthur quite thought that he did.

He'd never realized how deep his possessive streak ran, until he had someone to possess.

Arthur mouthed and kneaded his way slowly down Merlin's body, tasted his neck and collarbone and the soft flesh of his nipples. Sucking on all of them made Merlin writhe and moan quite prettily. Arthur already knew that Merlin was ticklish on his sides and under his arms, but he confirmed it anyway, enjoying the familiar torment in its new context.

"Driving me mad," Merlin mumbled, and thrust his hips impatiently, his cock hard in his trousers.

"Second thoughts?" Arthur asked, smugly.

Merlin narrowed his eyes at him. "I'll give you second thoughts," he said, and tried to turn to push himself up, but Arthur pushed him back down again, and held him there.

"I'm not finished yet," Arthur told him, letting a hint of his dark desires seep into his voice. He was pleased as Merlin's eyes widened, and his lips parted with want. Arthur pressed his thumb against Merlin's lower lip. "So sweet for me," he purred, and then groaned as Merlin took the thumb into his mouth and sucked, hollowing his cheeks with promise.

"You want that?" Arthur asked, sliding his thumb back and forth in Merlin's mouth. "You want to taste me again? Suck my cock?"

Merlin moaned, and spoke his lust with his eyes. It sent a pulse of sharp desire through Arthur, and he had to brace himself against it. There was so much he wanted to do to Merlin, and more images came to him with every whimper and squirm of Merlin beneath him. He felt endlessly greedy, and was never so glad of the strength of his own restraint. This was a thing to be savoured, not rushed.

"You will," Arthur promised. "I'm going to teach you so much..."

Merlin closed his eyes and sucked hard at Arthur's thumb. Arthur pulled it free and smeared spit across Merlin's lips, then leaned down and took his mouth again, nipping and laving between kisses. Merlin followed his lead with stumbling mimicry. Each time Arthur could feel Merlin hesitate over something new, it sent a jolt of pleasure through Arthur, knowing that this and this and this were only his. Knowing that Merlin came to him so purely only made Arthur want to chip away at that purity, and carve some new and beautiful shape from it. He had to stop, then, and catch his breath, as the thought was a dangerous one.

Merlin wasn't going to say no to him. Something coiled in Arthur's gut knew this. Merlin might choose his orders, might choose his master, but once chosen, there was no going back. It was akin to the first time Arthur truly understood that to be a Prince, to one day be a King, was not about castles or soldiers or gleaming crowns. It was a responsibility, one not to be taken lightly. Supplication was essential to the rule of any crown, yet it was equally dangerous. Arthur had to guard himself from becoming drunk upon it.

Arthur pulled back, and lay down beside Merlin on the bed, trying to ignore the disappointment in Merlin's face. Merlin followed after him, and crouched over him, bringing their heads together. Merlin nuzzled him, breathed against the crook of his neck, basking against him. Arthur brought his arms around him and pulled him to lie flat against him, and Merlin curled against his side as he had that morning.

"Arthur," Merlin began, and Arthur could hear the creeping worry in his voice again.

Arthur hushed him. "I meant what I said. Do you doubt my word?"

"Of course not," Merlin said -- affronted on Arthur's behalf, the idiot. "It's only... I don't want us to go wrong."

"You belong by my side," Arthur said, and Merlin's response was that look again, that devotion so pure it would make an alchemist weep. That was what terrified Arthur, because physical purity was a fancy, delicious yet necessarily temporary. The devotion he saw in Merlin's eyes, deep and unshakeable... that was no fancy. But he knew that having claimed it, he could not bring himself to let it go.

"I do," Merlin said, so happily, his grin set to split his face. He began undoing Arthur's clothing with one hand, kissing the skin he revealed.

Arthur did not want his fears to poison this. He tucked them away with the part of himself that was constantly preparing to be King, and let himself just be Arthur for now. Just Arthur and his Merlin. He relaxed, recognizing the lingering strain from the day for what it was, that he was still shaking off the stress of Mercia and the treaty and Bayard and spending weeks trying not to allow himself to worry about Merlin.

He let a long breath out and smiled back at Merlin. He rolled them over so he was on top again, and rubbed himself against Merlin's thigh, and his thigh against Merlin's groin. Merlin moaned and thrust back, and they lazed like this as they slowly stripped each other bare, all barriers falling away.

This was what Arthur needed. Skin against skin, Merlin hot and wanton against him. The two of them tasting each other until their lips were tender, their bodies marked. Their cocks rubbed together and Arthur took hold of them both, fucking them against each other in his loose fist.

"Arthur," Merlin murmured against his lips. "Arthur, will you... want you to..."

"Say what you want," Arthur murmured back.

"Fuck me?" Merlin asked, wanting and hopeful and a little afraid. "Please?"

Arthur swallowed. "I will," he said. "But not tonight."

"But--"

"Not tonight," Arthur insisted.

Merlin pouted, but was too happy with what he already had to be greedy about it. "Then your fingers?" he asked, almost shyly. Almost.

Arthur's response was to release their cocks and slide two fingers into Merlin's mouth. It had the added benefit of shutting him up. Merlin hitched up his legs against Arthur's hips, and gave an insistent thrust.

"Wanton thing," Arthur growled.

Merlin moaned around Arthur's fingers, his tongue wet and sloppy against them. When Arthur had spit trickling down towards his palm, he drew his hand away and down between Merlin's thighs. He teased first with the ball of his thumb against the soft skin behind Merlin's balls, which made Merlin squirm in delighted surprise. Then he found the tight rose of his hole, and lost interest in distractions. He expected resistance, even rejection, and was shocked when Merlin opened for him, and Arthur's finger slipped easily inside.

Merlin laughed, a rumble that ran through his body and around Arthur's finger. "Don't look so surprised," he said, smiling. "Just because there hasn't been anyone..." He held up his left hand and wiggled two fingers, and then added a third, and winked.

"You little sneak," Arthur said, with mock anger and private delight.

Merlin giggled. Giggled, when Arthur had a finger up inside him and Merlin was lecherously waving the three he'd had inside himself. Arthur slid in another finger and stretched, pleased when it made Merlin's hand drop and his smile fade into an open moan.

"Did you stretch yourself out for me?" Arthur said, voice low with retaliation. "Did you push your fingers inside and imagine they were mine? That they were my cock?"

Merlin whimpered. "Yes," he breathed, thickly.

Arthur crooked his fingers, and was pleased to discover that Merlin might have been eager with his hand, but he still had things to learn about his body. Merlin's eyes widened, and he let out a loud, shaking groan, rich with disbelief.

"Feels good?" Arthur teased.

"Gods, yes," Merlin moaned. "Keep doing that."

Arthur had no intention of stopping. He left his fingers rubbing at the sweet place inside Merlin's arse, and with his other took hold of Merlin's cock, and drew it to his mouth. Merlin gave a high, desperate moan, and Arthur felt the now-familiar frisson of delight, knowing that here was another part of Merlin he had claimed.

Arthur showed Merlin how a cock should be sucked, and Merlin was wild beneath his mouth and around his fingers, all control lost. Arthur had to pin him down at the hip to keep him still enough, and his moaning was becoming dangerously loud. Arthur's chambers had thick walls, but there were limits. He stopped, pulling free and leaving Merlin to curl in on himself, shuddering and gasping.

"Going to have to shut you up," Arthur growled.

Merlin gave a soft, high keen. "Glove," he choked, eyes slitted and glazed.

"Glove?" Arthur echoed, then realized. The glove that Merlin had left behind, covered in bite marks. Of course. Arthur was off the bed and back before he could finish the thought, gripping the glove with a knuckle-white fist.

He fed the glove into Merlin's mouth, lining it up with the existing teeth marks. Merlin bit down, jaw clenching tight, and Arthur cursed sharply, and had to squeeze himself cruelly to stop from coming from the sight alone.

"Wanton," Arthur hissed, pushing three fingers into Merlin's loosened arse and pressing, stretching. "Are you a slut for me? A wanton little slut?"

Merlin clenched tight around Arthur's fingers, his body arching and straining. His moan was an unquestionable answer. Arthur took hold of Merlin's cock again, and found it slick with eager drippings.

Arthur licked broadly up Merlin's cock, and loudly savored the taste of him. "Do you want to come in my mouth, little slut? A peasant's come on his prince's tongue?" The filthy words came from somewhere deep inside of Arthur, wrong and crude but so right, so perfect the way they fit what Merlin had become for him. Arthur could picture him as a whore in the lower town like this, open for any who sought to take their pleasure. But Merlin was only for Arthur, would only ever be for Arthur.

Merlin nodded frantically, and his left hand pawed at Arthur's hair, trying to tug him down. Arthur smacked it away, and taunted Merlin by blowing air on his swollen cock, and ghosting his mouth close but not quite touching. Merlin cursed him through the glove, the words muffled but just barely intelligible.

Arthur had been determined to make Merlin come first, but a sudden image changed his mind. He pulled out his fingers and crouched over Merlin, heads close together. He took hold of Merlin's hand as he had that morning and brought it to his own cock, and dragged it back and forth. Merlin showed slightly more skill this time, but he was so sodden with lust that his hand was Arthur's to use. Arthur stared into Merlin's glazed eyes, stared and stared and soaked up the sight of him, face reddened and damp with sweat, the black leather stark between stretched red lips and the hint of teeth. The sound of his breathing, fast and noisy around the glove, and his flaring nostrils. Merlin made soft, desperate sounds as Arthur felt his own arousal rise and rise, moving Merlin's hand faster beneath his own, until he came with a strangled shout.

When he came down, his limbs were trembling, and he had made a mess all over Merlin's front. Arthur released Merlin's hand and smeared his fingers through the white streaks, painting Merlin's body in abstract patterns. Merlin's eyes rolled in his head, and he made a muffled choking sound, and thrust desperately up. Arthur pushed him back down, and took Merlin's cock into his mouth and sucked. Merlin came only moments later, pulsing hard. Arthur swallowed some of it but caught the rest on his tongue, and held it in his mouth while Merlin flopped back against the bed, panting and lost.

Arthur eased the glove from between Merlin's teeth and kissed him, feeding him the taste of himself from Arthur's tongue. Merlin whimpered and shuddered and clung bodily to Arthur, and took and took as Arthur gave. Arthur drew back and kissed his forehead, and then collapsed beside him, the both of them wrecked.

Merlin turned and nestled against him, lost for words, muscles jumping with fine tremors. Arthur pulled the covers up around them and held him tight. He tried to fight his drowsiness and failed, tumbling into deep, dreamless sleep.

Chapter Text

The next day, Arthur felt glorious. He awoke with a deep contentment, and smiled at the sight of Merlin still sleeping beside him, face buried against the morning sun. Normally Merlin would close the curtains before bed, but... well. They'd had better things to do.

It was early. Arthur decided to let Merlin sleep a while longer, and stood and stretched, loosening up for the day ahead. He was looking forward to breaking in the new knights, and felt energized, ready to fight and teach the pampered nobles what it meant to be a knight of Camelot. He cleaned himself up with a wet cloth and dressed, and stepped out into the hall. He flagged a passing servant and ordered a hot bath at once and a large breakfast, and she hurried off to obey.

Arthur returned to the room, and watched Merlin sleep until there was a knock on the door. Arthur drew the curtains around the bed and answered, and a small parade of servants entered with a large tub and bucket after bucket of steaming water. Arthur thought of all the times he had patiently waited for Merlin to lug water up the steps on his own, because Merlin always did everything on his own and never quite grasped the idea that he could order the lower servants to assist him. In his meaner moods, Arthur had taken a sort of grim satisfaction about it, letting it be a punishment for Merlin's general ineptness and tendency to talk back. But they were past that now.

Breakfast arrived shortly after the last of the water was poured, and Arthur picked at it as he waited for the sound of footsteps to fade away. He locked the door again and drew back the curtains around the bed. Merlin was awake, and let the blankets drop from where he had pulled them up around himself in fear of discovery.

"It's safe," Arthur told him.

Merlin peered around the room, then relaxed. He sniffed, and his stomach rumbled. "Smells good," he said, staring openly at the tray.

"It's mostly for you," Arthur said, casually. "I don't like to fight on a full stomach."

Merlin smiled shyly, clearly pleased. "You don't have to--"

"It's done," Arthur said, and left it at that. He tugged at Merlin's arm, and pulled him towards the tub.

"Do you want me to wash you?" Merlin asked, as he saw where Arthur was leading him.

"Right before I spend all day sweating in the sun?" Arthur asked, rhetorically. "Go on, get in. You're filthy."

Merlin looked down at himself, and blushed. His front was covered in Arthur's come, now dry and flaking. Arthur stripped off the sling and bandages again, then helped him step tentatively into the steaming water. Merlin sank down into it with a deep and happy sigh.

"You don't have to spoil me, you know," Merlin murmured, leaning back and closing his eyes.

"I'll spoil you if I wish it," Arthur replied. He brought over some food and fed him, enjoying how Merlin's sucked at his fingers and licked them clean for him. Merlin was limp and pliant, and didn't object as Arthur scooped and poured the hot water over his head, wetting his face and hair.

Merlin smiled up at Arthur through wet lashes. "Going to wash me, too?" he teased.

"I was going to, but now that you've asked..." Arthur said, making as if to drop the washcloth and leave. But he saw the little tell of disappointment that Merlin made, and decided that one more indulgence could hardly hurt.

Arthur wasn't sure why he needed to tend to Merlin so much, but it eased something in him to do it. And it was an excuse to touch Merlin without the urgency of sex, which he'd discovered could be rather mind-blowingly urgent. In the light of day, he supposed he should feel embarrassed by his performances, but he didn't. He wanted to do it all again, and more besides. There was a fire in him that was only being stoked, rising higher with every piece of Merlin that was fed into it.

Merlin roused from his torpor, and smiled dopily at Arthur. Arthur smiled back. Where last night had energized Arthur, it seemed to have left Merlin dazed. Arthur ruffled his hair and then pushed Merlin under the water, and Merlin flailed and sputtered his way back to the surface, outraged.

"That woke you up," Arthur smirked.

Merlin scrunched his face at him. "Prat," he muttered, but there was little heat in it.

"Come on, enough lazing about," Arthur said, and hauled him up and out. Merlin swayed as he stood, and Arthur tossed him a towel. Merlin rubbed his head dry, making his hair shoot in all directions, then wrapped the towel around himself. He rubbed at his arm.

"Do your stretches," Arthur told him, and Merlin complied. The hot water had loosened him up, and he moved through them with less trouble today. Once he was done and dried, Arthur rebound his arm.

"You'll squire for me today," Arthur said, as he helped Merlin on with his clothes. "I won't go easy on you in front of the knights, so I need to know if you won't be able to keep up."

"I can," Merlin said. He looked more awake now, his eyes clear. "But nothing with two hands." He crooked a smile.

"Morris will clean my sword, and mend and polish my armor."

Merlin looked annoyed at the idea, but shrugged in acceptance. "He'd better do it properly," he said, with a hard look.

Arthur chuckled. "That's your territory, is it?"

"Yes," Merlin said, firmly. "Your armor and your sword keep you safe. They're important."

It was true that of all of Merlin's various chores, he always put an unusual amount of effort into caring for those. Arthur never had to complain about Merlin leaving dents in his armor, or neglecting to oil his buckles, or letting his mail rust. His laundry might pile up in dark corners and there might be stale wine in his jug, but his swords were razor sharp, with a finish that put mirrors to shame.

Arthur gave a murmur of assent. He headed out of the room, grabbing a handful of grapes on the way, and ordered a servant to have the room cleaned in his absence. Merlin followed after him, stepping neatly into his shadow.

§

The sun was low in the sky when Arthur finally relented, and released the bedraggled nobles from their first day of practice. They were cowed as they limped off the field, no doubt feeling agony in muscles they hadn't even been aware of before. Arthur had been relentless with them, not giving an inch of mercy, for not one of them had earned any. Not a single man had passed his one-minute test, and Arthur had bawled them all out in turn for their shabby performances.

Not for the first time, Arthur thought regretfully of Lancelot. Now there had been a fighter, born to the sword. Arthur could have molded him into true knight, an example for the rest to emulate. Arthur had even toyed with the notion of making Lancelot his right hand in battle, his first knight when he became King one day. But all of that had been for naught because of the First Code and his father's unending stubbornness.

Arthur had nothing against the noble knights. He had been raised more by such knights than by his own father, in many ways. His formative years had been spent amongst them, and the older men had taken him under their wings. Taught him how to fight and defend, how to kill and how to survive. Taught him the ways of men and their heated comforts, between the cold ground and the dark night.

But Camelot was constantly at war, with the other kingdoms and with threats from within, both magical and otherwise. And war took its toll. The men who had given Arthur their bodies had, one by one, given Uther their lives, and few who replaced them could measure up. The best that the nobles had to offer were gone, having given King and Prince all that they could.

The boys and men who followed after were callow and untested, and lacked fire. The fire he had seen in Lancelot, the burning need to fight and to protect. It burned in Arthur himself, hot and fierce, but it could not burn alone. He needed men he could rely on, men he could trust. He needed the best of all of Camelot, and not merely her nobility. But his father would not break the First Code, no matter how dearly Camelot needed it to be broken.

Arthur did not follow after the nobles right away. He stayed on the field in the lengthening light, feeling the burn in his muscles as he swung his sword again and again. So often these days, he felt as if he stood alone in defense of the land, and it drove him to push himself more and more, to make himself more than the best, more than any single man could be. To be an army unto himself, to be a bulwark against all invaders, all threats. If he could not have the men he needed by his side, he would have the strength to fight alone.

Well, alone except for Merlin. Merlin who still waited for him, patient and attentive, at the edge of the field.

Perhaps he considered Merlin such a part of himself that Merlin didn't count as someone else anymore. Not because Merlin loved him; that was far too new a thing between them. But Arthur could not deny that at some point, he had simply begun to expect Merlin to be there, as ready to his hand as any weapon. It made no sense, because Merlin was not a fighter, was utterly defenseless, did not even carry a sword unless Arthur thrust one into his hand. Merlin was a simple servant, and worse was even prone to vanishing in moments of true danger, appearing again only once the worst was over.

Yet he always survived. In the midst of monsters and bandit attacks and treachery, Merlin emerged unscathed to set himself back by Arthur's side. Men who had trained all their lives to the sword, who were hardened and battle-scarred, would fall around them like autumn leaves, and only Merlin and himself would be left standing.

Arthur had amused himself more than once with the idea that Merlin was some sort of lucky charm: his own personal rabbit's foot, keeping them both alive. He liked the idea, and it seemed oddly true, even if the thought of Merlin as some sort of guardian spirit was laughable. Merlin was somewhat fey, with his high cheeks and slight build and wide blue eyes, but he was as magical as a potato.

Arthur glanced at Merlin again, and found Merlin's attention had wandered at last, and he was gazing out at the darkening woods beyond the fields. Arthur had felt Merlin watching him all through the day, his gaze almost smoldering in its intensity. Perhaps Merlin was trying to prove himself, to show that he could serve Arthur perfectly well with only one arm, so that he could stay as close to Arthur as he so clearly desired to be. Merlin had been the perfect squire, fetching and carrying without complaint, almost anticipating Arthur's needs before his orders were said. His devotion was pleasing, and a satisfying contrast to the battered, scowling nobles.

Arthur snorted at the idea of holding Merlin up as an example to a bunch of knights, no matter how raw and untrained. Yet there was something to the thought. Merlin did not burn with the same fire that Arthur and Lancelot did, but there was a flame. Or perhaps some other element like water: to match his blue eyes, and the deep devotion that crested in them like a wave. Or earth, with his solidity and support, his certain belief in Arthur as a good man, a good ruler.

At long last, Arthur let down his sword. It had been a long day, and there were long, hard weeks ahead, with the challenge of breaking the nobles down and building them into fighters. He would shape them as he had the many before them, make them proud to serve him and to wear the red and gold of Camelot. He felt a rush of pride in anticipation of what they would become, and a dark pleasure in the suffering they would take from him in the process.

Merlin met him before he reached the edge of the field, and took Arthur's sword before it could leave his hand. He tucked it under his broken arm and took gauntlet and shield, and that was as much as he could carry at once without dropping things. The armory was empty when they reached it, and Arthur made a note to reprimand the men for the sloppy care of their armor and practice swords. He watched with satisfaction as Merlin tended to his own with fastidious care, pouring over the plating for scratches and dents, and eyeing the polish and hammer with longing. But he was obedient to Arthur's rule, and turned away from them with a screw of his mouth.

Good boy, Arthur thought, pleased, and resisted the urge to say it. Merlin would probably glare at him for it, and Arthur was enjoying his quiet focus and his compliance.

Arthur allowed Merlin to help him with his mail, though Merlin struggled with it and nearly dropped it. The removal of the weight and the warm metal was a relief; sometimes when all of his armor was removed after a long wear, he felt almost weightless. His padded undercoat was soaked with sweat, and he let out a soft groan as it too was stripped away, and cool air breached his thin shirt.

Arthur was suddenly aware that Merlin was kneeling before him, settled between his spread thighs, and was gazing up at him with dark, wanting eyes. Merlin held his gaze, tongue peeking out to lick his lips, which were as red and full as any girl's. Arthur didn't move, almost couldn't move, not daring to break whatever moment was nascent between them.

Merlin didn't look away as he slid his hand beneath Arthur's shirt and dragged it up, revealing his flushed and dampened stomach. Merlin's hand slid up and up, exposing his chest, and then Merlin leaned in, only breaking his gaze at the last moment, as he brought his mouth to Arthur's body. He licked Arthur's chest in a broad swipe of his tongue, and breathed in deeply, and groaned with want.

"You smell so good," Merlin breathed, nuzzling and tasting him.

Arthur chuckled, surprised at the flicker of self-consciousness he felt. "Do I now?"

"Yes," Merlin purred. He rubbed his cheek against Arthur's body, hot skin against hot skin, as if trying to soak him up. He sucked at Arthur's nipple, and pressed his nose to the damp cloth bunched under his arm. Merlin nipped at it, then at Arthur's skin beside it, then latched his mouth against the skin and savored it.

"Filthy," Arthur swore. He grabbed at Merlin's hair with one hand, not to pull him away but to urge him on, to stroke at the soft, short hairs and the sweet nape of his neck. Merlin had shed his scarf in the heat of the day, and his sharp collarbones had been a distracting temptation; Arthur had taken his frustration out on the men, not that they had known it.

Merlin merely hummed in reply, the vibrations fizzing through Arthur's body. He let go of the shirt, letting it fall against his face, and reached down between them to slowly unlace Arthur's trousers. His hand was almost cool against the wet heat of Arthur's groin, and Arthur breathed in sharply, let out a shallow groan as Merlin drew his cock out into the air.

Arthur's skin was sensitized by the long hours of practice, with the salt and damp of his sweat and the chafe of his clothes beneath his armor. After a day like this, he often liked to dip into a cool stream, the water still chilled from mountain snowmelt. Or a lake would do, to dive deep into the cold, silted depths and then float, all the strain carried away from him. But tonight he wanted heat; the heat of Merlin's mouth, his body, his hand. He wanted Merlin to lick the salt from his skin and leave him clean.

And as if Arthur's thought had commanded it, Merlin moved. Arthur's shirt dragged and draped across the back of his head as he leant down and brought his mouth to Arthur's cock, and drew eagerly upon it. Arthur shifted and leaned back, giving Merlin room to work, and watched through lowered lids as Merlin's head moved beneath the thin fabric. Merlin's mouth was sweetly muffled, and Arthur felt every moan and whimper.

He lifted his hip as Merlin's left hand tugged at his trousers, pulling them crookedly down. Arthur was about to push Merlin off to remove them properly when Merlin's hand dipped down between his legs and cupped his balls, drew them out. Merlin's mouth dragged down his shaft and nuzzled at Arthur's exposed balls, and sucked eagerly at them. Arthur bit back a deep groan at Merlin's depraved hunger for him, for the taste and sweat of his body, and thought of Merlin like this when he was rutting alone in Arthur's sheets, wearing his clothes and crooning his name into his glove.

Merlin hadn't been rubbing his scent all over Arthur's things. He had been trying to rub Arthur's scent all over himself, to mark himself because he did not know Arthur would do it for him. The realization made Arthur's cock jump against Merlin's cheek, made him hiss and grab cruelly at Merlin's hair, forcing him to burrow deeper into Arthur's groin. How had he captured such a creature, who yearned so completely for him? And how best to keep him?

Arthur dragged Merlin's head back, out from under the drape of his shirt. Merlin's head was tilted back in Arthur's hand, mouth wide and wet, eyes almost black with lust. His face was rubbed with Arthur's sweat, flushed with his heat.

"Tell me what you want," Arthur said, low and dark. He touched Merlin's swollen lips, traced them and knew the shape of them against his skin.

"I want you," Merlin said, sounding drugged with desire. "Inside me. Filling me up. Fuck me, Arthur."

Arthur's toes curled in his boots. "No," he said, though he wanted it to, wanted to drive deep and mark Merlin inside and out. Wanted to come and know that Merlin would carry it inside himself until Arthur chose to clean it away.

The refusal sparked a fire in Merlin's eyes, bright against the blue of his devotion. "Fuck me," he demanded.

Arthur tightened his grip, making Merlin's eyes water from the pull of his hair. "No," Arthur repeated, firmly.

Passion flared in Merlin, and something like anger, as if Merlin deserved to be fucked, as if he had earned Arthur's cock and the right to have it inside him. "I can take it," Merlin told him, haughtily. "You have no idea what I can take."

Arthur laughed at him. "You really don't," he said, because how could he? It was one thing to shove a few fingers inside himself. It was another to be fucked, to have a man against your back, heavy and hot, splitting you open inside. Merlin was wanton, but he was ignorant, and Arthur would decide what he could take, and when he could take it.

To Arthur's alarm, Merlin started to strip, pulling awkwardly at his own clothes and trying to bare himself for Arthur, as if to seduce him into changing his mind. Arthur cast a wary glance at the door, which was closed but not locked. It was one thing to let Merlin suck his cock, something that could be easily covered up should there be footsteps on the stone outside. But Merlin stark naked at his feet was not an option, and Arthur felt a sharp twist of fear, followed by cold anger.

Arthur released Merlin's hair, and slapped him. Merlin stared at him in open shock, his hand frozen, gripping his trousers as they slid halfway down his thighs.

"If you wish to be mine," Arthur said, low and close, "you will do as I say. I will not have you making a scene of yourself and endangering the both of us."

Merlin's mouth worked, then fell back into a gape. He sank down onto his heels, chastened.

Arthur stood, and clenched his jaw as he tucked himself back into his trousers and straightened his clothes. His cock throbbed and his balls ached, and he wanted to be back in his chambers immediately. Merlin was standing up and pulling at his trousers, and Arthur waited for him to make himself presentable before giving him a pointed look and walking out of the room.

Merlin followed, only a little out of step before he slid himself back into Arthur's shadow. His obedience took the edge from Arthur's anger, from his fear at the risks they were taking with this, at the chance they might have been discovered. There was too much at risk to be so careless, but he blamed himself for letting things go so far. His chambers were a safe place, but the rest of the castle was not; it was a public place where he was constantly on display, constantly judged by everyone around him. Arthur had always known that, had grown up with that knowledge deep inside him, but Merlin had to learn.

By the time they reached his chambers, and the door was safely locked behind them, Arthur's anger had evaporated. The point still stood, but he had lost the desire to force the issue. His gut was sour at having slapped Merlin. It felt poorly done, with nothing like the rightness of beating a man on the field until he begged for mercy. It even felt wrong for Merlin to be silent behind him, without defiance or mindless cheer.

Arthur pulled off his shirt, eager to shed himself of the stink of sweat and of the day. The servants who cleaned his chambers had left fresh wine and a clean goblet; he poured himself a full cup and drank deeply. He offered the empty goblet to Merlin, but Merlin shook his head once. He looked wary, defensive, and it rubbed Arthur's nerves the wrong way. He felt sick, and regretted being hasty with the wine.

He shouldn't have hit Merlin. He wanted to believe that the slap was nothing, in the same class as throwing a pillow or a boot past Merlin's head when Merlin woke him in the morning and he didn't want to get up. And maybe that wasn't the kindest behavior either, but he didn't mean anything by it. It was horseplay, and no worse than what the older knights had done with him, when he had squired for them. It was what men did with each other, a sort of affection. It was only Merlin that made it different. Merlin made everything different, whether Arthur wanted it to be or not.

Arthur cursed under his breath, and wanted to curse again when he saw Merlin take a step back from him and glance at the door like he thought it would be better if he left. Arthur could feel him slipping away and hated it, wanted Merlin back now, whatever it took.

"Merlin," he began, stopped and tried again. "Come here."

Merlin stepped forward, his eyes level but guarded. Arthur thought of the difference of them, how Merlin showed everything with his eyes, even too much. He could see Merlin trying to hide the pain in them, the sadness, and Arthur hated that he'd put any of that there, hated that he'd made Merlin need to hide it from him. Merlin was honest and open and Arthur liked that about him, liked that there were no secrets between them, that he could read Merlin like sentences on a page. Even if he didn't know the meaning of all the words, or why they had been written.

He wanted to see the soft love there from that morning, see the desire that filled them all day, as Merlin admired him from afar. Wanted even the deviousness, the lust that made Merlin foolish for him, and he for Merlin. He wanted to take back what he'd done.

Arthur touched the flushed mark left by his slap, and gave it a light, apologetic caress. Merlin didn't move, didn't respond. A dozen explanations danced on Arthur's tongue -- that he had only trying to protect them, that it had been a lesson, that Merlin had been out of control and reckless -- but they all felt empty and false.

He reminded himself that all of this was still new to Merlin, both the sex and the hiding of it. Merlin had never carried such a secret before. This was more dangerous than his tumbles with the knights; such a thing was half-expected, even for a prince. To take a servant as a bedmate was perilous, especially when his father was in the midst of trying to arrange marriages with every available princess in Albion. Arthur's heart rebelled at the reality that even that part of his life didn't belong to him, that his desire was a bargaining chip to be sold for the highest price. That he would be forced into a life with someone he did not love for the sake of a convenient alliance. Arthur wanted peace, but he did not want to sell himself to achieve it. It should be won through the shared needs of the people of the kingdoms, not the arbitrary traditions of the nobility.

Arthur wanted to be loved, to spend the rest of his life being loved. His father had been loved, and that love had been torn away from him. Arthur still believed that his father blamed him for his mother's death, and that on some level his father wanted to punish him for it. Wanted to keep Arthur from ever knowing that kind of love for himself.

Arthur was beginning to realize that he and his father wanted very different things. And the knowledge did not bother him as it once would have. He tried not to consider the traitorous nature of where such knowledge might take him.

"I'm sorry," Arthur said at last, breaking the silence. The apology felt clumsy on his tongue. He rarely apologized to anyone besides his father, who he felt he was constantly failing. His father thought a King apologized to no one. Arthur was starting to think he might be happier if he followed Morgana's example and accepted that he would never be what Uther wanted him to be, and stopped trying. Sometimes he envied her the distance she had from Uther as a mere ward, that she could defy him openly and still have his love. She might want power, but he had been burdened with it all his life, and knew power was no succor for the soul.

"Did you just apologize to me?" Merlin said. His face softened at last, a crooked smile gracing his lips.

"Maybe," Arthur said, the ache in his chest easing. "Though I've no idea why."

But perhaps it had been too soon for their usual sparring, because Merlin's smile faded, and he looked sombre again. "You were right. I shouldn't have put you at risk like that. I can't let anything happen to you."

Arthur shook his head. "Merlin, I'll be fine. You're the one at risk. The worst that will happen to me is that my father will yell at me, and he'll find reason for that anyway."

"My life doesn't matter," Merlin said, sternly. "Yours does."

"You sound like my father," Arthur said, frowning.

"Maybe he's right for once." Merlin pulled away, hugging himself with one arm. "All of this is my fault. Wanting things I can't--"

"Stop it," Arthur said, quietly. "Do you think you forced me into this?"

Merlin turned away, looked at him sideways. "I didn't exactly give you much choice."

"I had every choice," Arthur replied. "I have all the choices. It's one of the few perks of being Crown Prince. But you have none. You're the one risking his neck. And if you tell me one more time that your life doesn't matter, I will... I will... do something unpleasant."

Merlin snorted, unimpressed.

"I don't want you to die for me, Merlin," Arthur said, trying to get through to him. "I want you to live. I want you to stay. You need to be careful. Locked doors are our friends."

Merlin smiled at that. "Locked doors. Got it."

"Finally," Arthur said, and scruffed Merlin's hair in his relief. Merlin scrunched up his face and smoothed it back down. "Now go fetch us some dinner. I'm starving."

Merlin smiled then, a genuine Merlin sunbeam of a smile, and Arthur felt like all the weight had lifted off his shoulders at once. "I'll go fetch our dinner," Merlin said, and stole a quick kiss before hurrying out the door.

Arthur leaned back against the wall, letting the cool stone leech the last of the heat from his body. He rubbed at his face, wondering what had just happened, how Merlin turned his life so resolutely on its head, then right side up and then down again, without even trying. He only had to smile, and Arthur was wrapped around his little finger and ready to risk everything for him, for a servant who was foolish and clumsy and couldn't even walk down the stairs without nearly breaking his neck. Arthur wished he could stay mad at Merlin, yet wanted never to be angry with him again. He rubbed his hand against his leg, as if to scrub the memory of the slap from his palm.

While Merlin was gone he washed himself down and changed into clean clothing. His arousal was long gone, had vanished the moment Merlin had looked at him with betrayed shock. He felt stupidly relieved when Merlin returned, barely balancing a heavy tray, and only just let him finish sliding it onto the table when Arthur went to him to kiss him.

Merlin stopped him. "Locked doors are our friends," he said, and stepped away to secure the door.

Arthur's chest felt suddenly light. "They are," he agreed. They would be all right. He hadn't ruined everything. Merlin closed the distance between them, and kissed him firmly.

"You should eat something," Merlin told him, and started putting together his plate. Arthur took it, and the smell of the hot food overcame his lingering upset. He found that he was starving, and he and Merlin ate in a companionable silence together.

When they were done, they lay in bed together, Merlin curled up against him as was becoming his custom. Arthur felt another wave of fear, and tightened his arms around Merlin, held him close to keep him. Merlin's left hand stroked his back in soothing circles.

I'm sorry. Arthur thought again, silently. And Merlin seemed to silently reply, I know and maybe even I forgive you.

Merlin drew himself from Arthur's hold, but it was only to kiss him. He kissed softly, without the frantic urgency that had so defined their intimacy so far. Arthur stopped Merlin and looked into his eyes, and there was only love there, all trace of fear gone. There was so much love that it made Arthur's heart hurt, plunged him to the lowest low because he didn't deserve such love, and to the highest high because he had it anyway.

He hadn't thought he could love Merlin back. He hadn't thought he was allowed to, and perhaps even that he was incapable of it. What did he know of love? His mother must have loved him, but he kept no memory of her. The love of his father was elusive and distant, and he chased after it with no real hope of ever catching it. Morgana was like a sister to him, but she was all claws, defending herself even when there was no threat at all. He thought he'd loved his knights, but it had been comfort and companionship, and nothing like this, which terrified him and made him fear himself and made him want so much. Was love supposed to hurt? Was it supposed to make him feel as if he had been dragged from sleep into icy waters, shocked awake from the pain?

Merlin looked down, then met Arthur's eyes again. "Do you want me to...?"

"No," Arthur said, not wanting sex tonight, not wanting Merlin to finish what he started in the armory. "Can I just hold you?" he asked, feeling small and vulnerable and hating it, and needing Merlin to make him feel safe again.

"Of course," Merlin said, wrapping around him again, settling happily.

Merlin's ease gradually seeped into Arthur, and Arthur wondered if this was what Merlin had felt like when he realized that he loved Arthur, while Arthur was away. If he needed and hurt like this, and if it was worse because he had no one to hold him, no solace to seek. It was no wonder that he had been driven to Arthur's chambers, to claim some piece of Arthur, however small, as a balm to his heart.

Arthur wished so much that he had been there for Merlin, but was glad that he had not. If Merlin had not been so desperate for him, he would never have taken Arthur as his own. Arthur might have gone on as he was and never have known this heartache, this pain like a blade in his chest, more welcome than all the joys he had known.

§

The men gathered on the field the next morning. Some of them were so sore they could barely walk, but Arthur was impressed that every single one of them came back to him. Usually there were at least a few who gave up after their first failures, to slink back home with their tails between their legs. Arthur was never sorry to see them go, for he had no time for cowards. But it seemed that there were no cowards here today.

The best cure for them was more of the same, so Arthur got them going again, running the perimeter of the field in their mail and armor. Once they were warmed up and panting, he drilled them on the basic motions of attack and defense, over and over again, because it was only reflex born of arduous practice that would save their lives one day.

He felt himself starting to care about them, just a touch; there was none of the dark satisfaction from yesterday, when he'd beaten them down almost wanting them to crack, to have the field empty the next day so he could shout at his father about needing more than another gaggle of useless nobles. Maybe these men weren't the best of the best, but they were trying. They were trying to fulfill their duty, and they deserved respect for that. It made him want them to become strong, to survive, to be the strength that Camelot needed. Every man was needed.

The afternoon was hot, with not a cloud in sight, so he showed mercy to the men and allowed them to slump in the shade of the trees to cool off. He took the opportunity to see how they interacted with each other and listened to them talk, because if he was going to keep them then he needed to know what they were made of. He was glad to find that they were an earnest lot, and had already started to bond with each other, probably to cope with the brutal pummelling Arthur had dealt them.

Merlin chatted comfortably with them, as heedless of class boundaries as ever; he had plowed past their initial coldness with a cheery smile and offers to one-handedly massage away their pains. Once the first man overcame his reluctance, the others pooled around Merlin to wait their turn, relaxing in the face of Merlin's serenity in a manner eerily similar to how Arthur had the night before.

In his unlikely and unexpected way, Merlin fit, and even eased the way for the men to fit with each other. Arthur had never seen a group come together so easily and quickly. He felt almost jealous to see Merlin adopted as some sort of mascot, to see him laughing and easy, and wasn't sure if he was more envious of the men or of Merlin. Half of him wanted to steal Merlin away from them and lock him in his chambers forever, and the other half wanted to put Merlin at the center of everything and see if he was somehow the grain of sand that caused the oyster to form its pearl.

Foolish thoughts, both of them. Merlin was only a servant.

"A giant boar?" Merlin asked, his voice carrying through the trees, high with interest.

"Larger than a horse, they say," said Merek, whose family lived at the far south of Camelot's borders, and who had something of the sea about him. "Big enough to swallow a man whole!"

"I hear it is headed this way," said a wide-eyed Jarin, the youngest of the group, barely a man. "That it is magic, and comes to Camelot for revenge."

"What could a boar know of revenge?" mocked Borin, the eldest and roughest. He had been something of a black sheep to his family, and Arthur had expected him to be the first to give up and succumb to the bitterness that had clearly taken root in him. But he had stayed.

"I led a group of men against such a boar just weeks ago," Arthur said, finally joining the conversation. "It was killed handily by one of the beaters."

Merlin faltered at that, then resumed rubbing the cramp from Ronald's calf. His mouth twisted into a frown.

"There," said Borin, smugly. "Just a stupid animal following in the path of another stupid animal. Nothing to be jumping at shadows over."

"I am not afraid," Jarin protested, though he flushed as it said it. "If it is magic then it is no mere animal."

"Perhaps it comes in search of its lost family," offered Ronald, who so far showed the best potential with the sword.

"Or its mate," suggested Althalos, with a bawdy gleam. He elbowed Ronald in the side, and Ronald thumped him on the arm.

"You should send that beater off into the woods to kill it," Ronald said, and then winced. "Ow, Merlin, have a care."

"Sorry, Sire," Merlin said, releasing Ronald from a punishing grip.

"It's all right, lad, you've done a fine job on my cramp." Ronald stood and flexed his leg.

Merlin smiled at him, clearly pleased to be of help. He looked adorable and foolish, and Arthur wanted so badly to kiss him. He looked around at the men, who had lost the sweat and flush of too much heat, and clapped his hands together loudly.

"Gossip like that will turn you all into old women," Arthur chided. "Now get out there and run until I tell you to stop. You've been lazing about long enough."

The men complied, falling into a line as their feet pounded out onto the flattened grass. Arthur held back, watching Merlin as he slowly cleaned up and re-packed his bag. Bringing up Cedric had had the predictable effect, and stolen away Merlin's serenity.

"We should do something about the boar," Merlin said.

Arthur raised his eyebrows in surprise. "You mean I should do something about the boar."

Merlin rolled his eyes.

"Don't act so offended," Arthur told him. "It is not as if I expect you to wield a spear the way Cedric did. I don't think I've even seen you kill a rabbit."

"I can kill things," Merlin said, obliquely.

"You don't have to," Arthur reminded him. "It's not a manservant's job to kill. It's your job to carry what I kill and not make a mess of it."

"It took ten men to carry back that boar."

"It fed Camelot for weeks," Arthur said proudly.

Merlin looked suddenly green. He pressed his hand to his stomach. "Please don't remind me of that."

"What? It was delicious."

Merlin cast about as if looking for the best place to throw up. "Please stop talking about eating."

"All right, all right," Arthur said, holding up his hands. "Don't know what's got into you all of a sudden."

Merlin threw up. He bent over on the ground, hawking up bile over the remains of his lunch. Arthur leant over him with concern, rubbing his back.

"Sorry," slurred Merlin, and he fell back onto his arse, pale and unsteady. "Must be the heat. Too much sun."

"Must be," Arthur replied, not believing it for an instant, but lacked any better explanation. Merlin had eaten the same food as the rest of them, yet Arthur felt fine, and the men showed no sign of complaint. "Maybe you've been overdoing it."

"No," Merlin said, wide-eyed and already clambering to his feet. "I'm fine, honestly."

Arthur pressed a hand to Merlin's forehead. It was sweaty and clammy, with not even a hint of fever. "You should go see Gaius."

"I saw him this morning. I'm fine. Maybe I just need to lie down?"

"Go see Gaius," Arthur ordered him. "Then you can lie down in my chambers. We'll have dinner--"

Merlin looked green again. "Don't talk about dinner."

Arthur shook his head, bemused. "I'll have dinner with the men. I do need some time with them before the feast tomorrow."

Merlin relented. "All right. But don't stay too late." He gave Arthur a longing look, and Arthur looked back with equal fervor.

Arthur could not kiss him, even though they were alone at the edge of the woods and the men were facing away from them. It was too much of a risk. But he did brush his hand once through Merlin's hair, and stroked down his arm before letting his hand settle on Merlin's back. He grabbed Merlin's bag and nudged Merlin forward. "I'll take you to Gaius," Arthur told him, not brooking any argument, and unwilling to give Merlin the opportunity to sneak off. "I want you well for tonight."

Eagerness overcame Merlin's queasy stomach. He smiled broadly. "Have I ever praised your skills at motivation?"

"You can flatter me tonight when you moan my name," Arthur murmured.

§

Arthur went easy on the wine that evening, having his own watered down to quarter strength as he ate and spoke with the knights. He walked them through what would be expected of them at the feast tomorrow, and spoke individually with each man about his strengths and weaknesses.

He found that he enjoyed leading the men. They would serve well for him, and felt that at the end of the training, he would be able to trust them at his back. Perhaps their lower status as the younger and unwanted sons made them more willing to follow than their elder brothers had been. It was often those who had been shown the least care that responded best to it. They had even asked after Merlin, which showed that they were good men at heart, even the roughest of them. Most of the knights they were replacing would never have lowered themselves to show concern for a servant.

He left as soon as it was reasonable to do so, excusing himself that he might make his own preparations for the day ahead. He had thought about Merlin almost constantly since he'd left him in Gaius' care that afternoon. Gaius had assured Arthur that Merlin would be fine, and been so confident about it that Arthur had returned to the training field with a lightened step. Gaius might equivocate on many things, but if Merlin's health had been of any concern, it would have been plain on Gaius' face. If anything, Gaius looked eager to have Merlin back with him for a while, perhaps to help him out with some tricky preparation.

Arthur took a detour by Gaius' tower, on his way back for the night, and peeked his head in to make sure that Merlin hadn't ended up working all afternoon instead of resting. The room was its usual organized chaos, with brightly-colored vials and strange powders on one table, and an array of opened books on the other. Gaius was dozing in his chair, and there were two empty bowls next to the books. Arthur scowled when he realized that Merlin must have been working all day despite his order, and hoped it hadn't left him a bad state. He was surprised that Gaius would push Merlin that way when he was ill.

Arthur closed the door quietly and made his way back to his chambers. He half expected to find Merlin asleep in his bed again, perhaps even pale and ill, but he was happy to be wrong. Merlin was wide awake and full of energy, cheeks flushed and eyes sparkling. Arthur immediately relaxed, locking the door behind him and smiling.

"Finally!" Merlin said, skipping across the room to greet him. He pressed Arthur against the door and kissed him, and his mouth tasted of cherries and honey. Out of the corner of his eye, Arthur saw a tray with a plate of cherries and a little bowl of honey; Merlin must have nibbled his way through half of them while he was waiting.

"I'd almost given up," Merlin murmured, nuzzling Arthur's cheek.

"No patience," Arthur chided, grinning like a fool. He could get used to such a warm welcome every night. Not that he wanted Merlin to spend any time away from him, but there was something to be said for anticipation, and when Merlin wrapped himself around him, Arthur felt treasured.

They kissed for a long while. Aside from the cherries and honey of his mouth, Merlin tasted clean and slightly floral, as if he had stolen a sliver of Morgana's bathing soaps, the ones full of lavender and rose petals. The image of Merlin preparing himself, of prettying himself for Arthur, made Arthur moan and suck hard on the crook of Merlin's neck, to clean away the fragrance with his tongue so he could taste the skin beneath.

"Missed you so much," Arthur admitted, pushing his hands under Merlin's shirt to touch him all over.

"Me too," Merlin hummed, rubbing himself lazily against Arthur's hip. "Couldn't stop thinking about you. Gaius said I was a... a hopeless lovesick fool."

Arthur felt a jumble of reactions to that: that Gaius did know the truth, and that he tacitly supported them. That Merlin could be open with Gaius and still be safe.

"My fool," Arthur said at last, and his heart twanged at the broad, wonderful smile that Merlin responded with.

"And you're mine," Merlin said, as if he might possibly explode with happiness. He kissed Arthur again and again, moaning Arthur's name into his mouth, alight with love for him.

They didn't stop until they were both flushed and breathless and half-undressed, clothes pulled and askew from each other's hands. They had made it to the bed somehow, Arthur's back against the headboard and Merlin squirming over his lap. Arthur's hands were gripping and pawing at Merlin's arse, and he brought one hand up to slide it beneath the fabric and feel Merlin's arse directly. He slid his fingers between the crack of Merlin's arse, and in the soft heat he was surprised to find the slickness of oil.

Merlin smirked at him, and wiggled his arse in solicitation.

"Temptress," Arthur growled.

"Not a girl," Merlin said, with a pointed thrust of his erection against Arthur's.

"Vixen," Arthur continued, pulling at the rim of Merlin's hole, making Merlin moan as he laughed. "Hussy." He wanted to paint Merlin's lips red with cherry stains, then lick them until they were red from his tongue, and then paint them with the dyed beeswax that Morgana used, that matched the red of Camelot itself.

"Prettying yourself for me," Arthur continued, as Merlin squirmed and moaned in his lap. "Opening yourself up with your fingers. Did you do it in my bed, rubbing yourself against my sheets again?"

"Yes," Merlin groaned, clenching around Arthur's fingertips. "Can't stand to be away from you, Arthur. I can't bear it. Want you all the time."

"You have me," Arthur said, knowing it was true. His heart hurt with certainty. Some day soon he was going to make Merlin touch himself alone in Arthur's bed while Arthur watched, so Arthur could have Merlin's desperation and his need laid utterly bare before him. He wanted to see the enormity of it and then drink it down, take it into himself, become drunk and sodden upon it.

"Never enough," Merlin said, voice and mouth tender against Arthur's jaw. "Need to feel you inside. Know you."

"Merlin," Arthur warned, not wanting to deal with this again.

"You won't hurt me," Merlin said, straightening up to face him. His eyes were full of intent and longing. "You'll fit inside like I was made for you. The sheath to your sword."

Arthur swore, gritting his jaw against the bolt of lust that surged through him at the image. It felt like it was somehow true, and his cock ached with fullness at the thought of Merlin around it, tight and hot and slick with oil. But Merlin didn't know, couldn't know what Arthur knew, that it would hurt. Arthur had hurt, and he wouldn't hurt Merlin that way. Couldn't put that pain into his eyes.

"So brazen," Arthur groaned, desperate to take back the control that Merlin kept stealing from him. He pushed a third finger into Merlin's oiled hole, tugged and rubbed and stretched the rim, until Merlin was keening high and fast against his ear, his left hand grasping at Arthur, his body pressing hot and desperate. Arthur muttered filthy insults under his breath, calling Merlin a slut and a whore, calling him rude and impertinent, telling him he deserves exactly what Arthur will give him.

Merlin came hard, sobbing and shuddering against him, his hole clenching over and over around the tips of Arthur's fingers. He slumped bonelessly, every pant edged with a whimper, his chest heaving. He buried his face in the crook of Arthur's neck, and Arthur held him as he calmed.

"Ngh," Merlin said.

Arthur smirked. Merlin's arse was still spread around his fingertips, and he began slowly toying again with the rim, making Merlin shudder and twitch and make beautiful little choked sounds, right at his ear.

"Have to... have to stop... ruining my trousers," Merlin gasped.

Arthur gave a rumble of a laugh, but the fact of it made him lightheaded. Merlin needed him so badly that so far they'd barely made it to bed, couldn't even stop to get undressed first. Arthur was certain that he could just keep going like this, with his fingers barely pushing into Merlin's slick hole, just make him come over and over until he was so loose, so open that Arthur really could just slide his cock into him all in one thrust. He was reminded sharply of his own erection, aching and hard and trapped.

He pried Merlin off of himself, no mean feat, and pushed him flat on his back across the bed. His eyes caught on the sight of the darkening spot on Merlin's crotch, and traced a finger over it, thinking of Merlin's softening cock within, soaked in its own come. "Stay," he said, and climbed off the bed, and stripped quickly. His cock was heavy and high, and he could feel his pulse throbbing hot within it.

He went back to the bed and crawled over Merlin, batting away his reaching hand. He cupped Merlin's cheek, stroked the high of his cheekbone with his thumb. Merlin licked his lips, let them part again, and Arthur stared at the dark gap between them for a long moment before finally kissing him.

"Do you want to put your mouth on me again?" he crooned, soft against Merlin's teeth. "Snuffle at me like a beast? Take my come into your throat?"

"Please," Merlin groaned, and reached for him, only to have his wrist pinned against the bed. He struggled but Arthur held him fast, having the advantage of strength and leverage. Arthur loved the way he struggled, how he writhed and pushed and bared his teeth, all conviction but without the barest hint of technique. He thought of Merlin throwing himself at Cedric, the way he'd fought fierce and wild and completely ineffectually, the way he'd gone limp when Arthur pounced him.

"I should make you walk on your knees for me," Arthur purred. "Make you bow and beg for your prince's come. You're so hungry for me."

"Please, Arthur," Merlin begged, so open and desperate that it almost broke Arthur's heart.

Arthur hushed him, and released his weight from him. Merlin didn't move at first, and his stillness tendered Arthur further. He tugged off the sling and started stripping Merlin, who complied and wriggled from his clothes as Arthur pulled. Then the sling was replaced, and Arthur took in the sight of him: his body long and flushed, his cock reddened but quiescent and sticky with come. Arthur stroked down Merlin's body, admiring his prize, measuring up the strength in it. Merlin's skin was soft, the last traces of baby fat fading away to reveal lithe muscle. There was a copse of wiry hair across the top of his chest, and in a trail leading down to the dark thatch at his groin.

There was nothing girlish about Merlin, Arthur was certain of that. But there was something indefinable about him. Maybe it was that he was so unlike the men that had always surrounded Arthur, rough and brusque and large, from the stablehands to the knights to the highest nobles. They were men who worked hard, who fought battles, who commanded kingdoms. But Merlin was slim and soft and sweet, prone to daydreams and fond of flowers. Merlin ducked his head and blushed when he was complimented. Merlin would give a hundred times rather than take from another by force. Merlin didn't fit into the way the world was supposed to work, and when the world tried to make him fit, the world simply broke itself around him.

"Tell me what you want," Arthur asked, as he had in the armory, before it all went wrong. "One thing that will make you happy."

Merlin didn't reply at first, but his eyes burned into Arthur, the want in them almost shocking. "You know what I want," he rasped.

"Not yet," Arthur said, firm but gentle. "Then tell me what you thought about as you waited for me. Was there something special?"

Merlin took in a shuddering breath, let it out again. "Maybe," he said, shyly.

"Come on, tell me," Arthur prodded, smiling.

"Promise you won't laugh."

"I won't laugh," Arthur promised.

"Your gloves." Merlin flushed bright red. "You were wearing your gloves and you, um."

Arthur was intrigued by Merlin's sudden shyness. "What did I do?"

"We were in the armory, and there was a barrel," Merlin said, eyes unfocused as he dragged the words out. "You bent me over it. You were... you were rough and I... I was too loud, too wild."

Arthur found that he was almost holding his breath. "You would be," he said, roughly, picturing it clearly.

"You told me and I couldn't... I couldn't help myself. So you had to make me quiet. Held your hand over my mouth." Merlin let out a little sob of lust. "Grabbed my cock and squeezed and--"

Arthur groaned, and his cock twitched, dripping. If he'd touched himself right then, he would have spent himself all over Merlin's front again, made a mess of Merlin as he marked him. But he held himself back, because he wanted more. And because Merlin's cock was already swelling again, moving slowly back to life. Arthur grabbed it and stroked it once, twice, and then saw Merlin looking across the room to the desk.

Arthur squeezed Merlin's cock as he stared at the gloves, one ruined and the other pristine. Stroked again and again, feeling Merlin thicken in his hand, the both of them staring across the room. He didn't stop until Merlin was writhing again, thrusting up against Arthur's hand, his left hand clawing at the sheets.

Arthur suddenly released him, and stood, hauling Merlin up after him. He pushed Merlin against the bedpost and pinned him with his body.

"You have to be quiet," he murmured, letting a hint of threat seep into his voice. "Tell me you understand."

"Yes, Sire," Merlin said.

"Tell me," Arthur repeated.

"I'll be quiet," Merlin said, voice trembling. "I'll be good."

"You're never good," Arthur told him, darkly. "Always so wanton, so wild for me. Don't make me punish you."

Merlin breathed in sharply, but there was no fear in his eyes, only lust and dark desire. Arthur bent in and nuzzled Merlin's jaw, kissed the cord of his neck. Merlin was hot against him, pinned against the bedpost and trapped in Arthur's arms. Arthur kept him there for a long while, caressing and kissing and leaving trails of shallow pinches along Merlin's back and his sides. All the while he watched Merlin out of the corner of his eye, as Merlin kept his gaze fixed upon the gloves, yearning for them.

Finally, Arthur stepped away, pleased when Merlin wobbled and had to steady himself against the post. "Serve me," he commanded, and nodded at the desk.

Merlin hurried to the desk and picked up the gloves, holding them in his hands like something precious. He hurried back to Arthur and stilled, frozen until Arthur held out his hands. Slowly, Merlin dragged the unmarked glove onto his left hand; Merlin's slim fingers danced lightly across the leather, tugging and twisting until the fit was perfect. He dragged his fingertips so lightly across the taut leather as he withdrew, then brought up the second.

The ruined glove was covered in deep bitemarks, whited with dried spit, but otherwise intact. Merlin was even more reverent with this one, caressing every finger smooth, running his thumb over the deep grooves left by his teeth. He bit his lip and grazed his cheek against the soft black leather, then nuzzled it, trying to pet himself against it.

"Be still," Arthur told him, and Merlin froze. Arthur took Merlin's face in his hands and straightened him up, petted him with tiny strokes of his thumbs under Merlin's eyes, which fluttered closed.

Arthur kissed him, soft against Merlin's swollen lips, tender as he held Merlin's head in his hands. He could feel speech deserting him, overcome by the swell of his heart, the ache of his cock. He felt too much to express.

"Tell me what you are," Arthur rasped.

"Yours," Merlin said, opening his eyes, bright and blue.

"How much of you is mine?"

"Everything," Merlin said, the words strikingly sober against the sight he made. "All of me. My body, my heart, my m--" He cut himself off with a shaky breath. "My life," he finished. "It's yours, Arthur, please, please."

There was such pain in his pleading, such desperation, that Arthur would have done anything to soothe him, then. Would have given Merlin any riches, any favors; would have given him the world, if it made him smile again. But Merlin didn't want the world.

Arthur released him, and took Merlin roughly by the scruff of his neck. Merlin cried out as Arthur dragged him over and shoved him against the desk, and he barely caught himself with his left hand.

"You are mine," Arthur snarled, and it hurt so good to say it, to mean it, to know how deeply it was true. He pushed himself against Merlin's back, forcing Merlin down so that his chest lay flat across it, rustling the papers Arthur had left there. The shaft of his cock rested against Merlin's arse, and Arthur thrust against him, again and again until Merlin cried out from his own cock pressing into the edge of the desk.

"You are mine and I will do with you as I please," Arthur told him, promised him. "Is that understood?"

"Yes," Merlin sobbed, arching against Arthur's grip.

"I don't think you do," Arthur said, kneading at Merlin with his gloved hands, admiring the contrast of the deep black leather against pale skin, and the reddening marks he'd left behind. "I think you can't control yourself. I think you want me to do it for you."

Merlin bit his lip, and let out a noisy groan.

Arthur tutted. "See? You can't even be silent for me." He brought his right hand up to Merlin's neck, the bend of his jaw. "If I touch you now, you'll be so loud. Everyone in the castle will know what you are. How you spread yourself for me. How you worship at my feet, and beg, and beg, and beg for me to fuck you."

Merlin let out a loud, open sound, almost painful with want, and Arthur captured it, sliding his hand over Merlin's mouth and holding tightly as the vibrations deadened in his palm. Merlin writhed, arm flailing and knocking things askew, and Arthur hooked his other arm around and pulled Merlin up against himself.

Arthur's cock was pressed into the cleft of Merlin's arse. He could feel the heat of him, the slick oil that Arthur had smeared around his hole. It would be so easy to press the tip of it against his loosened hole, to press and press and sink into that trembling heat. He couldn't. He buried his face against Merlin's hair and nipped at the nape of his neck, nosed at his ear, thrust along the slick wetness instead of inside it. He needed to come but something held him back.

He released his punishing hold on Merlin's waist and gripped his cock. It was strange to touch him this way, with the leather in the way, but it was worth it for Merlin's reaction. He was wild in Arthur's arms, moaning constantly against the hard hold of Arthur's gloved right hand, his hips bucking senselessly against his gloved left fist. Arthur wanted more hands, hands to pull at Merlin's hair, hands to hold him down, to spread his legs and arms and keep him still so Arthur could drive him utterly, utterly wild. But it was enough for now to have Merlin trembling against him, absolutely desperate for him, and so close, so close.

"Shh, shhh," Arthur hushed, his fist stroking faster and faster. "Show me. Let me see."

Merlin sobbed against his glove and bucked hard, and Arthur caught him: caught his cries, caught his come, caught his body as Merlin lost control. Merlin fell back against him and then against the desk, tears streaking down his cheeks even as his body twitched and spasmed. Arthur stared at him even as he soothed him, uncomprehending of the emotions he had torn open. He didn't understand, couldn't fathom it, but it was his. Merlin was his, and Arthur had to take care of him.

The stone floor was cold and uncomfortable, but Arthur sat on it anyway as he held Merlin in his arms, and did his best to calm him. Merlin sought out the gloves, and Arthur touched him with them, stroked him, let him lick the mess of come from his left glove, tongue pink and eager in the gaps between his fingers. When they were clean and shining with spit, Merlin nuzzled past them to Arthur's erection, and latched himself onto it before Arthur could think to stop him.

Merlin was even hungrier for him now than he had been in the armory, and devoured him with lips and tongue and hand, leaning on his healing arm to hold himself up. If Arthur tried to pull him away, his hands were slapped back with a snarl, so he rested his gloved hands in Merlin's hair and let them play aimlessly there as Merlin's head rose and fell. It was Arthur who felt vanquished now, Arthur who was lost as Merlin took what was his, and claimed what he was owed. Merlin took and took, until Arthur was writhing on the stone floor, half-curled, and then Merlin pressed a wet finger into the crack of his arse and Arthur came.

Merlin's face rose into view. He was a sight, his hair in utter disarray and his mouth so red. He was smiling like the cat who'd got the cream, which is exactly what he'd done. He gave a deliberate swallow, and licked his lips.

"I think you're going to kill me," Arthur said, distantly.

"But what a way to go," Merlin grinned.

After, they lazed in bed together, and Arthur fed Merlin cherries. Arthur would bite each in half, spit out the pit, and then smear the gleaming red flesh against Merlin's lips, staining them and then licking them clean, over and over. Merlin returned the favor with the little bowl of honey, smearing it strategically on Arthur's body and then lapping it away.

Chapter Text

While Merlin was down in the kitchens retrieving their breakfast, a page knocked on Arthur's door and told him that his training of the knights had been cancelled for the day, and that he was to report to the King at once. Arthur passed Merlin on the way there, and told him to wait in his chambers. Merlin had a worried look, obviously concerned that Uther suspected what they were doing, but Arthur gave a short shake of his head. If his father had found out about them, Merlin would already be in chains and halfway down to the dungeon.

When he reached the council chamber, he found Gaius standing beside his father, looking sombre.

"Ah, Arthur, good," Uther said, waving him over. "I need you to sort out this boar problem we're having."

Ah. "The men have spoken of another giant boar," Arthur acknowledged.

"It's causing trouble," Uther said, as if the boar was imposing on him personally. "No one will go into the forest until the beast has been dispatched, and it's interrupting preparations for the feast. Take some men and kill it." He smirked. "Perhaps there will be time to roast it. Better than that hog they're cooking now. It's hardly big enough."

Gaius blanched. "I'm sure there will not be sufficient time to prepare a beast of such size, Sire."

"I suppose you're right," Uther admitted. He nodded his chin to Arthur. "I expect you to return on time for the festivities, as you will need to present your knights to the court. Do not dally."

"Of course," Arthur said, with a bow of his head. If he was going to dally, it would be in training his knights as he was meant to, not chasing after giant boars, no matter how delicious they were. But he was his King's to command. He turned on his heel and walked out, telling himself that at least he was protecting the people against the beast. It didn't help, and he had entirely lost his good mood by the time he reached his chambers.

"Bad news?" Merlin asked, seeing his frown.

"Father wants me to go kill the boar. Prepare my hunting clothes, and I'll need my crossbow and some spears."

"Oh!" Merlin stood there instead of obeying, and was looking hopeful for some reason. "Gaius mentioned that. Um, did he say anything else?"

"Who, Gaius? No, just stood there as usual, frowning at my father." Arthur shoved food into his mouth and chewed quickly. "Father wants to serve it at the feast, can you imagine? Cook will have a fit if she hears."

Merlin blanched in a fashion remarkably similar to how Gaius had. "Best not," he said, grimacing.

"Is your stomach bothering you again?" Arthur frowned.

"No, no! Absolutely fine. Let me just..." Merlin scurried to Arthur's wardrobe. Arthur's orders must have finally penetrated his thick skull. Sometimes Arthur wondered if he was hard of hearing, the way Merlin blatantly ignored his orders. Or if he really was a bit touched. Arthur smirked as he thought of Merlin begging for him last night, and decided that even if Merlin was a bit touched, it was a very acceptable mental deficiency.

"I'll need some men to bear the spears," Arthur said, as Merlin dressed him. "The last beast wasn't much trouble, so I don't expect this to take long. Perhaps I should take the knights with me, see how they respond to the danger."

"Perhaps we can manage on our own," Merlin offered, as he struggled with a buckle.

Arthur gave a pointed look. "Very funny."

Merlin had a pinched look. "That's not-- I mean, maybe we don't have to kill it."

"What on earth are you babbling about?"

"Gaius said the boar is enchanted," Merlin said, all in a rush. "We can't kill it."

"Of course we can kill it," Arthur scowled. "We didn't have any trouble with the last one."

"Yes, we did," Merlin insisted. "Your spear bounced right off it, remember? It almost ran you down!"

It was adorable how Merlin fretted over him, but it also wasn't the time for Arthur to indulge his theatrics. "And Cedric took it out with one blow," he said, knowing it would upset Merlin but not especially caring. Merlin often came to him with wild stories, his head full of fancies from floating around in the clouds all day.

Merlin looked stony, and tried to cross his arms. With one arm it wasn't quite the same effect. "Cedric isn't here. And in case you forgot, he was a sorcerer. He probably killed it with magic."

"He killed it with a spear," Arthur said back, aggravated.

"An enchanted spear!"

"For an enchanted boar?" Arthur laughed. "You need to stop listening to Gaius. He's always filling your head with stories."

Merlin looked outraged. "Stories?! Filling my head?!"

"Yes, stories. I know you care for him, but it is actually possible for Gaius to be wrong. Sometimes I wonder why my father took him back, after he retired."

Merlin looked like he might break something, possibly Arthur's nose. "How can you say that? How can you doubt him after he's saved our lives so many times?"

"He makes mistakes," Arthur shouted. "He's getting old."

"Name one time," Merlin shouted back. "Name one time he failed you."

"Easy," Arthur snapped. "The griffin."

Merlin stared at him as if he'd been struck. "What?"

"Gaius said the griffin could only be killed by magic. And do you know what killed it? Lancelot, with a bloody jousting spear!"

Merlin looked utterly betrayed. "Fine," he said, struggling to hide his anger and his incipient tears. "Don't trust Gaius. Don't believe him. But believe me. I'm telling you the truth, Arthur. Why can't you trust me? Why doesn't anything I say count in your stupid thick head?"

"Get out," Arthur ordered, coldly. "Get out of my sight this instant, and I will pretend this never happened."

"I don't care," Merlin shouted at him, trembling with fury. "Go get yourself killed. I don't care." And with that he stormed out of the room, slamming the heavy door behind him so hard it shook the room.

Arthur forced himself to unclench his fists. His short nails had dug crescents into his palm. Regret and anger warred in him. He was outraged that Merlin had spoken to him in such a manner, yet felt the barb of every accusation in his chest. Merlin was a fool, a daydreamer, a servant, he was nothing. Merlin trusted him, believed in him, loved him more than life and would do anything to protect him. Merlin came to him with wild stories and expected Arthur to just trust him, with no evidence, with nothing but his word. And the word of a servant was worthless.

Merlin had been right about Cedric. And Valiant. And the poisoned chalice. And the unicorn. And...

And every time, he had scoffed at Merlin and disregarded him. Every time. And every time, Merlin had been right. Not completely, but he had been correct enough to earn the right to be listened to. Even without evidence. Maybe it was part of whatever made Merlin a survivor, whatever made him Arthur's lucky rabbit's foot.

Arthur felt the same sinking sensation that he had after he slapped Merlin. He hoped that this time the damage had not been too great.

He found Merlin in Gaius' chambers. Merlin was shoving glass phials into his bag and startled when he saw Arthur standing in the doorway. He had that determined set to his jaw that meant he was going to do whatever had to be done and damn the consequences and damn anyone who got in his way. It reminded him a little of Morgana.

"Merlin," Arthur began.

"Shouldn't you be out killing something?" Merlin said, coldly. He closed his bag and shrugged it over his shoulder.

"What are you doing?" Arthur asked, frowning.

"An errand for Gaius," Merlin said, stopping when his exit was blocked. "Get out of my way."

"No," Arthur said, and blocked Merlin as he tried to shove past. Merlin tried to duck under his arm, and Arthur grabbed him and shoved him back. Merlin's nostrils flared and he came at Arthur at a run, and Arthur seized him by his shirt and slammed him against the wall.

"Let me go!" Merlin shouted, squirming wildly.

"I'm trying to apologize, you idiot!" Arthur shouted back.

"What?" Merlin stared at him, stunned.

"I'm trying-- I'm sorry, all right? I'm sorry I never listen to you."

"You are?"

"Yes." Arthur let him go, now that Merlin was calmed. "Don't make a fuss about it."

Merlin looked hopeful at him. "You believe the boar is enchanted?"

"I believe you," Arthur said, though he was stern about it so Merlin didn't get too many ideas. "I take it Gaius gave you some idea of how to stop it, if we can't kill it?"

"Yes!" Merlin said, smiling. He tugged at his bag. "Yes, there's a potion."

"Of course there is." Arthur sighed. "Can I at least bring some men, in case Gaius is wrong?"

"Gaius isn't wrong," Merlin said, with complete certainty.

"Fine." Arthur didn't like this. It wasn't the way he did things, going off on his own, half-cocked and against all sense. Except when he'd had to get the Mortaeus flower. And gone across the border after Merlin to save him from being impaled on some bandit's sword. And...

Arthur was starting to see a pattern.

"Tell me what we need," Arthur said, resigned, and tried not to feel better about the whole business just because Merlin smiled at him.

§

Merlin didn't need anything, except for Arthur to assist him. Apparently he and Gaius had worked out a plan. As they walked through the woods, Merlin told it to him. Arthur thought it was a stupid plan, and said so.

"It's a perfect plan," Merlin said, with enough stiffness that Arthur knew he wasn't entirely forgiven for his lack of faith. "We knock the boar out, make the potion and pour it down its gullet."

"And how, pray tell, do we knock out a gigantic boar? We should have brought a dozen men at least, maybe some heavy netting. We could have tipped an arrow and shot it in the leg."

"No, we can't hurt it," Merlin said.

"We can't hurt the gigantic, possibly man-eating boar?"

"We can't hurt it," Merlin repeated, firmly. "All we have to do is break the enchantment and it will be harmless."

"What's it going to do, turn into a tiny man-eating piglet?"

Merlin gave him a sour look, but said nothing.

"Fine," Arthur said, certain he was going to be paying for this for days, if not weeks. "How do we knock it out?"

Merlin tugged at the pack that was swung over Arthur's shoulder and reached inside. He pulled out a large ball, something brownish wrapped in ratty old cloth. Merlin held it up proudly. "It makes sleeping smoke. That's how Cedric got past the guards into the vault. And it's why you found me face-down in manure in the stables. Did you really think I was taking a nap on some poo?"

Arthur wasn't sure what he had thought. Merlin had seemed almost intentionally hopeless when Cedric was around, messing up left and right. It was obvious in hindsight that Cedric had been sabotaging Merlin, but at the time Arthur had been annoyed and more than a little concerned. He'd never actually intended to replace Merlin, but had thought to use Cedric to teach him a lesson, maybe serve as an example. That had been a spectacular disaster.

"Why would a sorcerer need sleeping smoke?" Arthur asked, changing the subject.

"I don't know," Merlin said, looking away. "Maybe he wasn't very powerful. Maybe it was easier to do some things without magic."

"Seems unlikely, given how he nearly smashed the walls in."

Merlin gave a neutral sound. He tossed the ball in his hand. "There were a few hidden in his things when I took them away. Gaius held on to them in case they came in useful."

"Gaius might have some sense left in him after all," Arthur admitted. He watched Merlin out of the corner of his eye, and was pleased to see him quirk a smile.

It wasn't that difficult tracking the boar down. It was near enough to Camelot to frighten the townspeople, and the giant hoofprints were a dead giveaway. They found it snuffling through the leaf litter, chewing on whatever it could root out of the soil. Arthur lit two balls and threw them into the clearing, and he and Merlin ducked down and covered their mouths until the smoke lifted.

"It worked!" Merlin whispered, grinning.

"It does not fill me with confidence that you sound so surprised," Arthur said. But Merlin was already headed for the unconscious beast, charging in too quickly as usual. Arthur hurried after him, hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Now what?" Arthur said, as Merlin took back his pack and burrowed into it.

"Now you cut the hair off the very top of its head," Merlin told him, handing him a knife.

"I have to give it a haircut?" Arthur said, skeptically.

"I need it for the potion," Merlin said, and waved him along. "Hurry, I'm not sure how long it will stay asleep."

"This just keeps getting better," Arthur muttered. He went over to the boar and pulled its coarse hair into a bundle, then cut it free. He handed it to Merlin, who was balancing phials on his slung arm and pulling out a glass beaker.

"Let me help, you'll spill it," Arthur said, and tried to take the beaker from him.

Merlin pulled it away. "No, I have to do it. It has to be done the way Gaius showed me." Then he cursed as the phials tumbled out of his sling and onto the leaf litter.

"You can't do this on your own," Arthur told him. "I'll hand you each ingredient as you need it." He gathered up the small glass bottles before Merlin could stop him.

Merlin frowned, looking very dubious. "Fine," he relented. His frown deepened, and he looked around the clearing. "I might need you to get something from the forest to finish the potion. A fresh herb."

Arthur's eyes widened in alarm. "Don't tell me you left behind an ingredient for your ridiculous potion."

Merlin narrowed his eyes at him. "Maybe I should let the boar eat you and then break the enchantment."

Arthur glared at him. Merlin glared back.

Arthur broke first. "Which of these do you need first?"

Merlin needed the fresh herb last. He described it for Arthur, then bent over the murky, hair-filled beaker and peered at it as Arthur set off. It didn't take long; there was a copse of the stuff just on the other side of the clearing. By the time he came back with it, the sludge had brewed itself into a simmering, colorful liquid that looked entirely unnatural. Merlin stuffed the leaves into it, but they didn't do much to improve the look.

"How are we going to make it drink?" Arthur asked, and Merlin grimaced.

Which was how Arthur ended up holding up the boar's gigantic and very heavy head, its huge tusks menacing in the dappled sunlight.

"This thing better not wake up."

"You're not the one sticking your arm down its throat," Merlin shot back, his voice muffled. There was a pause, and then he wriggled out of the boar's mouth. "There," he said, holding up the empty beaker. His hair and clothes were smeared with boar spit and half-chewed forest muck. "Now we just have to wait for it to kick in."

"How long is that supposed to take?" Arthur asked, easing the boar's head back down to the ground.

"Not long. Maybe a few minutes?"

A few minutes passed, and nothing happened.

"It's not working, is it?" Arthur said.

Merlin scowled at him. "You're the one always telling me to have some patience."

"You're the one--" Arthur stopped as he realized something was happening. He watched in amazement as the boar began to shrink before his eyes, and change shape. To Arthur's shock, where the boar had lain, now there was a man. He was naked and about his father's age, with a bald spot at the top of his head, and he was looking around with utter confusion.

"What... how?" the man said. Merlin hurried over to him with a blanket and a bundle of clothes that he must have had squirreled away in his pack, and Arthur realized that Merlin knew the boar would turn into a man, and hadn't told him. Why hadn't he told him?

"I'm so sorry," Merlin said, helping the man up and draping the blanket around him. "I'm so, so sorry. I didn't know."

"It's all right, young lad," the man said, his eyes clearing. His accent was a noble one, and familiar. It sounded as if he had come from the north. "You were not to know. The mistake was made by many before you."

Merlin gave him a grimacing smile. "Yeah," he said, weakly.

"Could one of you please tell me what is going on?" Arthur said, angrily. "You knew what was going to happen. Why didn't you say anything? You're the one who threw a fit about me not trusting you!"

"I remember you," said the man, looking at Arthur with eyes that were weary but somehow wise. "I must apologize for nearly killing you. I was not myself." He gave a sad chuckle. "But I should introduce myself. My name is Terit."

Merlin's brow furrowed, then his eyes widened. "King Terit? From the histories? I read about you!"

"King Terit of Mercia?" Arthur gaped. "Everyone thought you were dead. You're Bayard's grandfather!"

"Has it been so long?" Terit murmured. "How old is my grandson?"

"As old as my father. I am Prince Arthur of Camelot. My father is King Uther."

Terit frowned. "Uther? That young scamp conquered Camelot? My, how the world changes." He shook his head.

"What happened to you?" Arthur asked. "Were you enchanted by some evil sorceress?"

"What? Of course not," Terit frowned. "My seer tried to warn me, but I was stubborn and greedy. I trespassed into the holy forest and killed a holy beast. For my arrogance I was punished, and cursed to crawl the earth in the shape of the beast that I had slain. To be hunted as it was hunted, consumed as it was consumed, until the crown was cut from my head. And that at last you have done, so I must humbly thank you."

A horrible feeling was coming over Arthur. "You mean, both boars..."

"I was cursed to be consumed and to rise again," Terit said, apologetically.

Arthur swallowed, bile rising in his throat. "We took you back... and roasted..." Arthur doubled over and was very, very sick. Oh gods. He was never going to eat pig again. He heaved again, but brought up only bile.

"We ate you for weeks," Arthur said, distant and wretched.

"Yeah," Merlin commiserated, offering him his water flask. Arthur took it and rinsed the sour acid from his mouth. He wanted to rinse the flesh from his bones, he was so horrified at the knowledge that he had eaten someone, even if they had been an enchanted boar at the time.

"Who else knows about this?" Arthur asked.

"Only Gaius," Merlin said. "We thought it best to keep it quiet."

"Yes," Arthur agreed. He could only imagine the reaction if everyone found out. It would not be pleasant. His father would have to be told, if only to explain Terit's sudden return from the assumed grave.

They were subdued on the short walk back. Arthur felt positively green, and understood now why Merlin had been so wretchedly ill the day before. Merlin had said he'd seen Gaius that morning, and Gaius must have told him. And then they must have worked together all that afternoon, finding the solution, making a plan. They couldn't bring it to his father, because his father would have only ignored them, the way he had countless times before. His father never wanted to listen to anyone, unless they were telling him something he wanted to hear.

And Arthur had nearly done the same, ignoring Merlin when he came to him, asking for his help. Merlin hoping Arthur would finally trust him, only for Arthur to snub him as he always did. Merlin had been prepared to go out and do it all on his own, the idiot. He probably could have just managed it too, even with only one working arm. He must have done this before, gone out to face some threat that Arthur hadn't listened to him about, out of that boneheaded need to protect Arthur. It really was amazing that he hadn't got himself killed long ago.

What about Cedric? Could Gaius and Merlin have done something to stop Cedric, something that left no wound? Merlin had been stuck down in the cells at the time, but maybe Gaius had done something. Gaius had been a sorcerer before the purge, though he swore up and down that he no longer practiced even the smallest of magics. His father would never tolerate otherwise. Maybe there was more to the old man than Arthur had assumed.

His father took the news about Terit with slightly more grace than either Merlin or Arthur had. He didn't actually throw up, but it was probably only because he was too stubborn to allow his body to rebel against him. He insisted that Terit join them at the feast, and then immediately ordered that everything pig-related be removed from the kitchens and burned to ash.

Arthur later heard that there was a brisk trade in smuggled pig following the edict, but he wasn't going to be the one to tell his father about it.

Chapter Text

"What is it with the two of you?" Morgana asked, as Arthur nibbled at a potato. "You and Uther have barely touched your food all evening."

"Morgana," Arthur warned.

"Fine, don't tell me anything. As usual. Perhaps I'll set Gwen at Merlin later and see if she can drag it out of him."

Arthur snorted. "I wouldn't think so."

Morgana looked over at Merlin, where he was leaning against the wall and looking bored. He was lucky that he didn't have to eat anything, though presumably he'd already gotten the worst of his nausea out of his system, since he'd had more time to react. Arthur was still angry at Merlin for not telling him the whole truth sooner, but was uncomfortably aware that his initial reaction would not have been any better. Perhaps even worse.

If this was what self-reflection was all about, Arthur didn't much care for it.

"Speaking of Merlin," Morgana began.

"Let's not."

"Oh, you want to spoil all my fun. I think it's exciting. Some proper court intrigue at last." She took a bite of meat and chewed it with blatant relish, taking even more enjoyment in Arthur's queasy reaction. "Is he any good?"

"Morgana!" Arthur whispered, sharply.

"I hope he has more skill between the sheets than he does at changing them," she continued, gleeful. At least she kept her voice low enough to be circumspect, and his father was entirely occupied in conversation with King Terit. Former King, Arthur supposed. "It was fun having him around for a few days, but he really was dreadful, even accounting for the one arm. I've always wondered why you put up with him."

Arthur wanted to throw something at her, but he forced himself into composure. "Merlin has always been perfectly serviceable," he lied, and then realized how that sounded and quietly fumed.

Morgana gave a low chuckle. "Gwen is a perfect dream as a servant. But I suppose she wouldn't be to your tastes."

"I think you've had enough fun," Arthur told her, coldly.

"Uther will be so disappointed if he finds out. He's often talked to me of potential princesses. Just think of how happy he would have been to bounce a grandchild on his knee."

Arthur knew he was doomed. "Just tell me what you want and get it over with."

Morgana laughed. "Nothing yet. Consider this a test. You failed miserably, by the way."

"So glad to hear it."

"Are you going to tell me why you've spent the whole feast moping? Usually you've tried to start a food fight at least once by now."

"You really don't want to know," Arthur told her, and meant it.

Morgana actually started to look concerned. "It's not Merlin, is it? Have you two already had your first spat?"

"Something like that," Arthur admitted. He pushed a limp piece of cabbage around his plate. "I didn't trust him with something important, and he didn't trust me."

"Hardly surprising. You don't trust anyone."

Arthur frowned at her. "That's not true at all."

"Arthur, I don't trust anyone. Uther doesn't trust anyone. This whole court is full of people who wouldn't dare risk baring their throats because there would be a dozen others ready to offer their knives. That's the way things work. I thought you of all people understood that."

Arthur looked around the room, at his father's court. It was true. Of course he had known it, but he'd never questioned it before. It was just the way things were. And of course it was Merlin who was making things different again. Making him want to trust and be trusted. Making him want to be vulnerable. It was madness. It would probably get them both killed.

It was just... it felt good. It felt like a relief. It felt like it was something he had been missing all of his life. He'd always thought it was his mother that was missing, some gentler, feminine influence in his life to counter his father's brusque masculinity. Who would have thought that influence would end up being Merlin?

"You're smiling," Morgana said, like she was glad to see it.

"I am not," Arthur said, not meeting her eyes. He tried to school his features into something impassive, but they wouldn't obey him.

"Oh!" Morgana said, eyes widening. "Oh, this is too good. I knew Merlin was besotted, but this is fantastic. Are you... are you actually blushing?"

Arthur refused to look at her. He gulped at his wine and refused to look at her.

"This explains so much," Morgana said, happily. "No wonder he was the first one to make you finally stand up to your father. I thought you were going to spend your whole life kissing his boots, and then all of a sudden you had a spine. Had you been pining away for him? Lying awake at night and dreaming of his lips?"

"I do not pine," Arthur said, through gritted teeth. "And Merlin's lips are-- are lips."

Morgana was absolutely in ecstasies. He had never seen her so happy. And worst of all, Arthur couldn't believe that he actually didn't mind it. That he was glad Morgana was happy, even at the cost of his own embarrassment. What was happening to him? It was all Merlin's fault, somehow. Merlin and his-- his Merlinness. It was infecting him. Next thing he knew he would be gathering flowers instead of hunting.

Merlin would probably like it if Arthur gave him flowers. Maybe it would help make up for Arthur not trusting him. They'd passed a lot of daisies on the way back to the castle.

"Kill me now," Arthur said, miserably in love.

Morgana patted his arm. "You can't fight these things," she told him, sympathetically. "If you do, it will only be worse. You have to let them run their course. Either you'll be sick of the sight of each other soon enough, or..."

Arthur was afraid to ask, but he did anyway. "Or?"

"Or you'll be stuck with each other for the rest of your lives," she finished, with false sympathy. "In which case Uther will eventually find out, and you'll become king because he'll keel over on the spot." She said the last with rather too much excitement and hope. Arthur knew that his father and Morgana had had a bumpy relationship of late, but he really didn't want Morgana to use Merlin as a weapon against Uther. It would be exactly like her to try.

"Morgana," Arthur began, thinking of throats and knives and wanting to trust. It was hard, almost ridiculously difficult, but he looked her in the eye and let her see the truth, just for a moment. "Please don't hurt him," he said, his heart in his throat.

Morgana stared at him, stunned. A whole series of reactions flickered across her face; he could almost see her considering how utterly cruel she could be before she softened.

"I wouldn't do that to him," she said at last. "Merlin doesn't deserve it."

"Thank you," Arthur said, honestly.

"You deserve anything you get," Morgana added, because no one in his family, blood-kin or otherwise, was allowed to be soft.

Arthur opened his mouth, bracing himself for another round of mutual insults, when his father stood up and cleared his throat. The roiling noise of the hall gradually fell silent.

"I propose a toast," Uther said, raising his goblet. "To the rescue of King Terit from a long and terrible enchantment. Truly our kingdoms will never be safe until the last traces of magic are banished from all of Albion."

Terit frowned, clearly displeased by Uther's attitude towards magic, but said nothing. It was a wise move. Arthur knew all too well how quickly his father could turn on anyone with the slightest whiff of magic about them, even a king. It would be easy for Uther to accuse Terit of being an imposter, or even a sorcerer. It was probably only his father's unending love of nobility that stopped him from ordering a fresh pyre to start off the feast.

"To Prince Arthur," Uther said, toasting him. Arthur obediently toasted back, and everyone drank.

"I have already sent my fastest messenger to Mercia," his father continued. "I expect his return within the week. If Bayard accepts, Arthur shall escort King Terit back to his lands."

Arthur nodded stiffly while he mentally grabbed an axe from the armory and swung it at his father's head. He had just got back from Mercia, he didn't want to have to drag himself all the way there and back again already! He had responsibilities, he had men to train. Merlin's arm needed weeks to heal completely, and Arthur couldn't risk him riding for days with one working arm. He would probably fall off his horse and break his other arm. Arthur would have to leave him behind, and every inch of himself rebelled at the thought. He would not leave Merlin, absolutely not. He would have to find some way to convince his father to keep Terit in Camelot a while longer, and hope that Merlin was a fast healer.

As he sat down again, he looked over at Merlin, who was no longer looking bored. Now he looked determined, exactly as he had that morning. Arthur knew with utter certainty that Merlin would refuse to stay behind this time. If Arthur couldn't work something out, if he tried to force Merlin to stay, Merlin would sling his bag over his shoulder and follow after him. He would probably take the fastest horse in an attempt to catch up with Arthur and end up thrown from the saddle and die in a ditch. No, Arthur would have to take Merlin along, even if he had to strap Merlin to his horse like a sack of grain. Arthur would put him on the gentlest, calmest horse in Camelot and help him on and off no matter how often Merlin complained that he wasn't a bloody girl and could do it himself. Because he was a girl. Clearly he was a girl, because Arthur wanted to give him flowers.

Towards the end of the feast, Terit excused himself for the night, saying he was still adjusting to his return to the world and needed to rest. Once he was gone, Uther beckoned Arthur to sit next to him, and leaned in, his breath heavy with wine.

"King Terit is absolutely to our advantage," Uther said, with quiet relish. "I don't trust him, but he'll be Bayard's problem soon enough. That will teach Bayard to try and force a land concession."

"You think Terit's return will be a problem?" Arthur asked.

"With any luck, it will cause a massive succession crisis," Uther said, grinning. "Mercia will be paralyzed by internal politics for months, perhaps even years. This will neuter them." He raised a gloved hand and mimicked grabbing all of Mercia by the balls and squeezing. He threw his head back and laughed. Then he slapped Arthur hard on the back. "Fantastic work, son. Absolutely fantastic."

"Ah, thank you," Arthur said, faintly. "I think perhaps I will follow Terit's lead and retire early. It has been a long day."

"Of course, of course," Uther said, waving him away. "You will sleep well tonight, for all that you have done for Camelot."

Arthur took his leave, catching Merlin's eye with a gesture and motioning for him to follow. Arthur strode through the quiet halls, impatient for the privacy of his chambers, a headache forming from the noise and the wine and his father and Morgana. He rubbed at his temples but it didn't help.

"I can't believe him," he said, the moment the door was locked.

"What?" Merlin said, baffled.

Arthur knew he should let it rest. He knew he should push all his anger back down and do his best to ignore it, the way he always did. What other choice did he have? He was trapped, and if he acknowledged the extent of it to himself, he would end up like some poor beast, gnawing off his own leg to escape.

"I can't," Arthur said, shaking his head, pacing back and forth. "My father, the King, he..." He made a frustrated noise.

"Arthur?" Merlin asked, concerned. "Is this about going back to Mercia?" His eyes widened. "Do you think Bayard won't believe us? That we'll be walking into a trap? We have to tell your father."

Arthur gave an unhappy laugh. "You know he wouldn't listen. He never listens to anyone! And he's made me just like him!"

"Arthur, no," Merlin said, all sympathy. "I mean, yes, you need to listen more, but you're not like him. You're not."

"How can you say that?" Arthur shot back. "I never listen to a word you say."

"Sometimes you do," Merlin said, quietly. "When it really matters, you try. You listened today. You rescued Terit. You've stood up to your father when Camelot was in danger. You helped Ealdor after he turned my mother away."

"I carry out his orders. I do whatever he wants of me." Images flashed through Arthur's mind, of blood and fire and dying screams. There was so much he regretted, so much that should never have happened, and he did everything he could not to face it. Life was easier if he kept only to the surface of things and didn't acknowledge what roiled underneath. But his armor had cracked under some blow, and now his wounds were bleeding out.

Arthur realized he had stopped pacing, because Merlin had stopped him, standing in his way with his hand on Arthur's chest.

"Do you think I would believe in you if you were anything like him?" Merlin said, eyes clear and bright with that certainty of his, that Arthur wanted so badly to accept. "He is not my King, and if I do anything to help him it is only for you. You are my King, Arthur."

"How can you say that?" Arthur asked, shaken.

"Because it's true," Merlin said, eyes shining with belief. He stepped forward, his grip loose on Arthur's shirt. "I see the King inside of you. The King you will become."

"You can't," Arthur croaked.

"I do," Merlin said, smiling now. "I think... that's why I'm here. Maybe. Not just to protect you."

Arthur had to laugh, because Merlin was being absurd again. "When I'm King, I should make you my court jester."

Merlin looked briefly pained, but his smile came back with force. "Make me anything you want," he said, lightly. "My King."

Arthur took a sharp breath. "Be careful with such words."

"Which ones?" Merlin asked, pressing forward and forcing Arthur back a step. "That I am pledged to my King? That I have given myself to his service? That I will jest on my knees, if that is his command?"

It was treason for Merlin to speak that way, but it was a balm to Arthur's soul. He wanted to be the man that Merlin saw in him, wanted to be fearless and pure of heart, and not a slave to his father's whims, helpless against his cruelties.

Merlin pressed forward until Arthur felt his legs collide with the mattress, and he fell back onto the bed. Merlin sank between Arthur's spread thighs, down upon his knees, and everything was in his eyes, so much love and faith and want that it was like gazing upon the sun, how it hurt to look.

"You're only a servant," Arthur said, faint and dizzied.

Merlin's eyes hardened, but only to focus everything in them, sharpen every feeling to a point. "I am your servant," he said, determined. "Your jester. Anything you want of me."

Arthur rested his hand in Merlin's hair, holding him lightly. Searched in his eyes to try and understand him, how this boy, this man, could love him so. "What does my servant want?" he asked, distantly. He felt a thrill. My servant. He wondered, abstractly, if Merlin could transform him through sheer force of will, turn the muck of his soul into something pure and brilliant.

"Only his King," Merlin said, and a smile spread across his face. "All of his King."

Arthur shook his head, amazed. "You are the most single-bloody-minded--"

"I wouldn't have to be, if you would take what is freely given," Merlin said, frustration edging into his voice, breaking his calmness. "Is it something I've done? Are you... Do you not..." He looked away, and seemed to wilt before Arthur's eyes. "I'm sorry. I have no right."

The sudden shift left Arthur bereft, chasing after the vanished heat. "Merlin," he began, searching for the right words to bring it back.

"I'm just a servant," Merlin said, with a brittle smile. He seemed to draw on some internal well of strength, and straightened his head. "It's all right. I won't ask again. I'm sorry."

"Stop being sorry and let me talk," Arthur said, annoyed. Merlin flinched at his sudden sharpness, but shut his mouth and waited.

And waited. Arthur was having trouble finding the words he needed.

"My first time was..." he began, halting and strained. "It was an older man. A knight. I trusted him, looked up to him." He remembered the man's hands, broad and heavily calloused, with a network of scars from where knives and swords and other weapons of battle had sliced deep, because better his hands be opened than his throat or his chest or his belly. "We were headed out for my first battle. I think he thought... it would comfort me. Or himself." He swallowed. "I had liked the way he touched me, before. He said that I was eager for him, that I was sweet and soft, and I wanted... I suppose I wanted to prove myself. To prove I was a man, as hard as any other."

Arthur took a shuddering breath, let it out. He'd never spoken of this before, not a single word. Barely acknowledged it to himself, forcing it out of his thoughts until he forgot it. Except that he had never forgotten. And now Merlin's insistence dragged it out of the safe, dark silence and onto his tongue, into the light.

"It hurt. It hurt so much, but I didn't... I thought that it was supposed to hurt. I thought it was like everything else, another test to pass. I bled, and the next day I could barely walk. I was slow and distracted and because of that... because of what I did, men died. Men died that should have lived, and that was my fault. My father accused me of cowardice, and I couldn't dare tell him the truth. I..."

Merlin rose up from his knees and hugged him tight. Arthur held him back, fiercely hard, a few tears escaping his eyes and falling into Merlin's shirt.

"How old were you?" Merlin asked, gently.

"Fifteen," Arthur said, and shook his head. "I felt so old. Old enough to lead men into battle. But I was so young."

"Did you ever... was that the only time?" Merlin asked, carefully. He eased out of Arthur's arms to sit down beside him, but kept close enough to be touched.

"Yes," Arthur admitted. "Just for that. I've done other things, plenty of other things. I've taken women in the usual way. But I wouldn't let anyone else take me, and wouldn't take another man. I know it doesn't have to hurt, I know that now, but..."

Merlin gave a warm, understanding smile, his eyes free of any judgement or mockery, and Arthur breathed out sharply, relieved.

"You don't have to be afraid of hurting me," Merlin said, fondly. "I know what I'm doing."

"You don't," Arthur protested. "You can't. You're a virgin."

Merlin laughed. "Arthur, I... I can't explain, but... I do know what I'm talking about. We just have to take it slow. Use plenty of oil. I trust you. I trust you not to hurt me. I want us to do it because I know it will feel good."

"You're always doing this," Arthur said, torn between bemusement and irritation. "You're always asking me to trust you when it makes no sense that I should."

Merlin raised an eyebrow, and he was clearly spending too much time with Gaius because it was actually intimidating. "Is this about this morning?"

"This morning?" Arthur laughed. "It's every day with you."

"And all the times I've come to you, asking you to trust me? Am I just like Gaius to you? You just said you didn't want to be like your father because he doesn't listen to anyone. Why won't you listen to me?"

Arthur had no response to that. It wasn't because Merlin was wrong, because so often he was right. It wasn't because he thought Merlin was stupid or losing his faculties, because Merlin was an idiot about plenty of things but he had moments of remarkable insight. He didn't believe Merlin would lie to him. He didn't believe Merlin would try to manipulate him for his own advantage. It wasn't even because Merlin was a servant, because Merlin was already far too many things to him, far more than a mere manservant.

"Morgana says I don't trust anyone," Arthur admitted. "I suppose she's right. But I can't. I can't be weak."

"You can be weak with me," Merlin said, holding his gaze. "If you want to be."

"I do." It terrified Arthur and it felt like stepping right off a cliff, but he wanted to fall, wanted to be caught. If anyone would catch him, Merlin would. "I want that," he said, softly.

Merlin beamed at him. "I love you, you know that?"

"You may have mentioned it," Arthur said, fighting a smile. "Stop making things easy."

"You don't want things to be easy?" Merlin asked, cocking his head.

"It's... unfamiliar."

"Then you'd better start getting used to it," Merlin said, and kissed him to make a point of it. "It's my job to take care of you, whether you like it or not."

"Giving yourself a promotion?"

"I think you already did that," Merlin said, with a smirk. "This is much better than washing your socks."

"You still have to wash my socks," Arthur reminded him. "I've seen you kick them under my bed. Rolling them in the dust won't make them any cleaner."

"If you keep talking about your laundry, I won't let you fuck me," Merlin said, his sternness belied by the way his voice wavered at the end.

"Then I'd best not mention the shirts you crammed behind my dresser," Arthur said, as he kissed him. "Or the state of my best dining jacket. Or the come-stains on my bedclothes."

Merlin whimpered against his mouth. "Shut up. No, don't shut up. Wait--"

Arthur chuckled, and kissed Merlin deeply. He didn't resist as Merlin rose up against him and pushed him down against the bed. Merlin covered him, lithe and hot, and he was as eager and soft and sweet as ever. But Arthur wasn't some old man who should have known better, and Merlin wasn't a boy who was too proud to admit his own pain. Merlin knew what he wanted and he wasn't afraid of it. He probably even had oil in that bag of his, which was never far from hand so Merlin could pull out whatever they might need. Arthur would bet his tournament winnings on it.

They undressed together, remarkably unhurried, kissing and touching as their clothing fell away. Arthur wanted to do this properly. To take his time and not be caught up in his own lust. He wanted to have Merlin in his bed and keep him there. Possibly forever.

"Oh!" Merlin said, pausing as he was halfway onto the bed. "Just a second." He scurried over to the corner where his bag was, and rifled through it, pulling out a small phial of oil. He smiled as he hurried back to bed.

"I knew it," Arthur laughed. "How long have you been carrying that around?"

"This particular oil, or oil in general?" Merlin asked, shiftily.

Arthur took the phial from him and turned it, seeing how the viscous liquid caught the candlelight. "Is this from the armory?"

"I was using up Gaius' supplies," Merlin admitted, fighting a blush. "He gave me the eyebrow."

Arthur laughed. "I'm amazed you survived."

"Death did seem an attractive option," Merlin said, grimacing. "I, um, may have used a lot of it. While you were gone."

Arthur ran the edge of the phial across Merlin's lower lip. "And what did you do, exactly, to selfishly use up Gaius' expensive oil?"

Merlin's blush was intense. "Um. Things."

"What sort of things?" Arthur prodded. He could guess, but he wanted to know.

Merlin bit his lip. He ducked his head. He mumbled something.

"What was that?"

"Experiments," Merlin repeated, reluctantly.

Arthur felt a warm curl in his belly. "Tell me," he said, eagerly.

Merlin covered his face with his hand. "I can't." He peeked out between his fingers. "It's um. Embarrassing."

Arthur laughed. "After everything we've done together, what could possibly be embarrassing?"

"It's not... I was... I got carried away," Merlin admitted. "A bit. Um. Thinking about you. I thought I wouldn't be able to look you in the face ever again."

"And now?"

Merlin dropped his hand. He met Arthur's eyes, then dropped his gaze again, to where Arthur was tracing the end of the phial along Merlin's collarbone.

"I want you to show me," Arthur said, bringing the phial back up to Merlin's lips, and letting the glass click against his teeth. Merlin's lips parted, and he sucked lightly at the phial. Arthur dragged it back and forth over Merlin's tongue, then held it still as Merlin's cheeked hollowed for him.

"Is this what you imagined?" Arthur asked, soft and curious. "The taste of my cock, as you touched yourself?"

Merlin slid his mouth from the phial. "Not your cock," he said, roughly. "Your hand. First it was your hand."

Arthur shift his grip on the phial so two fingers were free, and he touched them to Merlin's mouth. Merlin kissed his hand, then took it and guided it down, down. The phial was abandoned as Merlin wrapped Arthur's hand around his cock.

"Like this?" Arthur asked. He kept his fist loose, the way Merlin had left it, and stroked back and forth.

"Yeah," Merlin said, with a slow blink. He breathed in sharply, perhaps in remembrance, and breathed out in a long shudder. "Arthur," he sighed.

"What else did I do to you?" Arthur continued.

"You put your fingers inside me," Merlin said, in almost a whisper. "You held me so tight. You let me kiss you. But it wasn't... I couldn't make it real enough. It wasn't you."

"Did I fuck you?"

"No," Merlin said, meeting his eyes again. "I couldn't. It wouldn't be you."

Something bloomed in Arthur's chest at that. "You have no more need of fantasies," he said, and released Merlin's cock. He found the phial and pressed it to Merlin's hand. "Show me how you were. Open yourself for me."

Merlin tugged open the phial with his teeth and dribbled oil onto his fingers. He let Arthur take the phial back and stopper it, and then positioned himself. Arthur could see the moment Merlin's hidden fingers pressed inside, from the flex of his arm to the way his brow furrowed in concentration.

"That's it," Arthur said, voice low. He watched as Merlin writhed slowly before him, eyes fixed on him, staring as if to soak him up with his eyes. Merlin bit his lip, and made tight whimpers as his arousal rose.

"Arthur," Merlin pleaded, softly. "Touch me, please."

"Is that what I did?" Arthur asked, as he rested his hand on Merlin's belly.

"Yes," Merlin said, tight with need. "You have to touch me."

"Like this?" Arthur asked, rubbing low on Merlin's belly. He slid lower. "Like this?"

"My cock," Merlin groaned, flexing his arm faster.

Arthur smiled as he wrapped his hand around Merlin's erection. He held it lightly, not stroking, as he watched Merlin's reaction. He couldn't get enough of Merlin's desperation for him. Sometimes it seemed that every time he touched Merlin, it was the first time again. As if every night, Merlin forgot that Arthur was his, and was shocked anew at what he had.

"Touch me," Merlin begged, rutting between their hands, pushing against his own fingers and then thrusting into Arthur's loose fist. "Please, Arthur, please."

Arthur released him, then slicked both his hands with oil. He gripped Merlin's cock with his left, then reached around and touched the join of Merlin's fingers with his body. He traced around the stretched skin, and when he pressed, Merlin writhed against his fist. He swallowed Merlin's moans with his mouth, leaning down and kissing him as he pressed a finger in alongside Merlin's, and felt Merlin clench tight around him. He kept going, kissing Merlin over and over, letting Merlin rut into his fist, and rubbed and pressed his finger alongside Merlin's two until Merlin bucked and came with a sob.

Arthur stilled his finger as Merlin clenched rhythmically around it, and pulled tight strokes on Merlin's cock, dragging him through his aftershocks and smearing him with his own come. He didn't stop until Merlin was whimpering and pleading into his mouth, begging that he couldn't take any more, he just couldn't. Arthur relented, and kissed him deeply.

Merlin was still trembling as Arthur pulled away and turned him over, his finger and Merlin's still pressed inside. Merlin's hole was stretched and glistening, and swollen from use. Merlin started to pull his hand away, but Arthur stopped him, and held him in place. He pulled out his own finger, and leaned in and licked at Merlin's hole, and at the long fingers half inside it. He nipped and sucked at them, laved them like a cock.

Finally, he released Merlin's wrist, pulling his fingers free so Arthur could taste his hole. He lapped at it, tasting the familiar tang of the polishing oil, the musk of Merlin's body. Merlin tasted rich and dark and good, and he writhed and clenched deliciously under Arthur's mouth. Arthur feasted on him until Merlin was hard again, and bucking at the sheets.

"Gods, Arthur," Merlin moaned, voice thick with need. "Fuck me, please just fuck me. I can't take any more."

"Yes, you can," Arthur told him, and pressed two fingers into Merlin's loosened hole. He ignored Merlin's pleading, his protests; held him down with his left hand as he fucked him with his right. He added a third finger and stretched him and fucked him until Merlin came again, until he collapsed, limp and shuddering and whimpering noisily into the pillows.

Arthur found the vial again and tipped the last of the oil right into Merlin's hole, which gaped open as if hungry to be filled. He pressed two fingers back inside, smearing and pushing the oil deep, and coaxing more strained whimpers from Merlin.

Finally, he turned Merlin over. Merlin glared at him, but he was so addled from his afterglow that it was only adorable. As Arthur leaned over him, the proximity made Merlin's eyes cross, and Merlin blinked and shook his head, trying to clear it. Arthur kissed him tenderly, then deeply, pressing his tongue into Merlin's mouth with promise.

"Ready?" he asked.

Merlin made an incoherent sound. "Don't make me hurt you," he said, tightly.

Arthur just laughed. He rose up and moved into position, hooking Merlin's legs over his shoulders. He stroked his slick fingers on his cock, and gave it a squeeze to dampen his own arousal. He wanted this to last, wanted to take his time. He wanted to give Merlin something he would remember, so when the morning came he would not forget that he was Arthur's.

He bent over Merlin, meeting his eyes as he pressed the head of his cock to his hole. He sank in slowly, and gasped at the initial tightness, despite how open Merlin was for him. He pushed past it and the slight burn of friction, and Merlin's body welcomed him deep. Arthur thought of what Merlin had promised, that he would be the perfect sheath to Arthur's sword. Arthur thought that perhaps he had just used too much oil, but could not shake the notion despite himself. Merlin's body felt made for him.

Merlin was lost. He was trembling, his eyes unfocused, his mouth slack. He was breathing shallowly, but not from any pain. When Arthur finally pulled back to thrust again, Merlin roused, arching and gasping and tightening around Arthur all at once. He reached up and grasped at Arthur with his left hand, trying to drag him down. Arthur thrust deep, all in one smooth glide, and Merlin cried out.

"Feels good?" Arthur asked, smugly.

"I hate you," Merlin gasped. He met Arthur's next thrust and clenched hard. "You are the worst. Go faster, you clotpole."

Arthur buried himself deep and stopped, his stomach muscles jumping. "Did you just call me a clotpole?"

"Fuck," Merlin groaned, writhing on his cock, trying to shallowly fuck himself on it despite his lack of leverage.

"You can't order me around," Arthur taunted, and gave a sharp thrust that made Merlin arch his back.

A desperate sound wrenched itself out of Merlin. "If you don't fuck me hard right now, I am going to die."

Arthur laughed. "Can't have that," he said, and thrust again.

Finally, he gave in to his own pent-up need. He fucked Merlin hard, making up for the extra oil by fucking through it. Merlin was loud, and Arthur knew he should have gagged him for this but he needed to hear everything, needed to hear every whimper and groan and plead, to hear that Merlin's voice was full of only need and lust and ache. He wouldn't let Merlin be hurt, wouldn't let him bleed, but he wanted Merlin to feel every inch of the cock he begged for. Wanted him to be so sore that in the morning that he would still feel Arthur inside him.

The thought of it, of Merlin sore from him and full of his come; the tight, slick heat of Merlin's arse; the constant, desperate pleading, and the way Merlin writhed and clung and clenched for him: all of it was too much to hold back from. Arthur drove himself as deep as he could and came hard, pouring himself into Merlin's body, into the core heat of him, bending Merlin almost in half as he gripped him wholly.

He was aware of Merlin crying out and clenching around him; of wetness between their bodies.

When he came back to himself, he released Merlin slowly, shaken by the strength of his own reaction. He felt as though he had nearly crushed Merlin, but Merlin didn't care, was seeking after him as he pulled out despite being sodden with afterglow and utterly limp. He caught Arthur and pulled him down onto the bed, then splayed himself around him like tangling vines. Merlin snuggled happily, and Arthur's anxiety eased, and he held Merlin back, stroking and petting him as they recovered.

"I can't help but notice I'm getting the better deal," Merlin slurred, breaking the quiet..

"That's what you think," Arthur said, smiling dopily. He fancied he could still feel Merlin clenching around his tongue and his fingers and his cock. He nuzzled Merlin's soft hair and kissed his head.

"Just you wait," Merlin said, and yawned. "I'm going to tie you down and make you come three times in a row. That'll show you."

"Looking forward to it," Arthur slurred, sleepily. He rather thought he would order another bath in the morning, and that this time they would share it.

§

The council session started late the next morning. Everyone seemed to be hungover except for Arthur and Merlin. Especially Uther, who looked greener now than he had after he'd found out he'd feasted on an enchanted Terit for several weeks.

Their morning bath had been refreshing, and Arthur had enjoyed himself. He'd especially enjoyed teasing Merlin's tender hole with the tip of his finger, and then pushing inside to wash Merlin out until he came, pulsing into the hot water. More of the same was always the best cure. Arthur was certain that Merlin had appreciated that, even if he was shifting restlessly where he stood by the wall, too sore to keep still. After all, Merlin had returned the favor with a groggy but enthusiastic blowjob. Arthur had kissed Merlin's mouth clean, after that, and rubbed Merlin's belly, deeply satisfied to know that Merlin would be walking around all day with Arthur's come inside him after all.

Merlin was his, and it was time that Arthur made that fact as clear as possible.

"Before we begin," Arthur said, as Uther stared blearily at a document, "I request a delay in escorting King Terit back to Mercia. I require several weeks to complete my training of the new knights."

"Absolutely not," Uther said, shaking his head and then regretting the action. "Terit's removal from Camelot is imperative. You will escort him as soon as the messenger returns with Bayard's response."

"Father," Arthur began, his annoyance leaking out despite himself.

"The decision is made," Uther said, with finality. "The interruption of one week won't make a difference in their training. If you think they have the skill, take them along as your guards. Give them a taste of the real thing."

Arthur thought with surprise that it was actually a good idea. "I shall, Sire."

"Good," Uther said. "That's settled."

The rest of the session went quickly, mostly because everyone was too hungover to argue, and some of the councilors were barely even willing to read the documents in front of them, as they winced and squinted from their headaches. Arthur could have passed around a document that authorized their own hangings, and they would have signed without a second's thought.

Before they finished, Arthur interrupted again.

"I do have one more matter of order," he said, casually. "I've decided to accept Merlin as my manservant, full-time. I'll be moving him in today."

Out of the corner of his vision, Arthur saw Merlin's eyes widen with shock, alarmed that Arthur appeared to be outing them publicly, right in front of his father. Across the table, Gaius looked at him with sharp eyes, suddenly clear of any liquored haze. But his father just laughed.

"Finally," Uther said, slapping the table and then regretting it when the noise was too loud for his sore head. He rubbed at his temple. "I was starting to give up hope."

Arthur smiled graciously. "I apologize for my long resistance."

"This is excellent news," Uther said, proudly. "The people of this kingdom exist to serve you, Arthur. You must feel no guilt over the use of them." Then he laughed. "By the time that boy arrived, you'd turned away half the staff. Didn't you actually nail up the door to your servant's chamber?"

"The foolishness of youth," Arthur lied. He'd been adamant at the time, and in a temper. He'd been sick of the manservants his father assigned him, who grovelled and bowed and sniveled, and who all belonged to his father. He hadn't trusted any of them, and had hated the thought of them in his chambers, in his one safe place.

His father had interpreted his resistance as another case of Arthur having too much regard for the lower classes, and there had been truth to that. His father thought that servants and commoners were worth little, and that they were meant to be used by the nobles above them; that their service and their lives were pledged from birth, to be taken and discarded with no regard, because they were worth no regard. It didn't matter that common hands grew and harvested the grain that filled their bellies, that common hands wove the cloth that kept them warm, that common hands fought and died for them, and were lucky to have the dignity of a grave for their trouble.

"I understand now," Arthur continued, obsequiously. "Merlin is mine to use as I see fit. He may not be the most polished of servants, but he has proven his loyalty. I have accepted his desire to serve me."

"I hate to deprive Gaius of his apprentice, but the boy never did show much talent for it," Uther said.

"As you say," Gaius nodded, as unreadable as ever. Arthur thought that he should bring Gaius along for any future treaty negotiations. The eyebrow alone would win them endless concessions.

"I'm certain I could spare Merlin should an emergency arise," Arthur allowed. "It would be a shame to waste the few skills he has acquired."

"Good, good," Uther said. "You know, the boy has shown rather extraordinary loyalty to you. I saw it myself. That sword he bought for you. Whatever happened to it?"

"Sword?" Arthur asked, confused. He glanced at Merlin, who looked back with wide-eyed innocence.

"Yes, he'd had it made for you to use against the black knight. I left it in the armory. There was writing on the blade, very distinctive." Uther's eyes went distant with memory. "It had almost perfect balance."

"I'm afraid I never saw it," Arthur said, and noticed that Gaius was frowning even deeper than usual. "I'm sure it's just been misplaced."

"See that you find it," Uther said, and rubbed his temples again. "Council is dismissed. Gaius, I require one of your cures."

"Of course, Sire." Gaius cast a concerned glance at Arthur, then rose to obey.

Arthur left them to it, and Merlin followed him back to their chambers. Arthur grabbed a passing girl and gave her orders, and in minutes a small swarm of servants descended on Arthur's chambers. They moved the dresser that blocked the door and pulled out the nails, and then pushed inside to clean. The room was dusty and cobwebbed from disuse.

Merlin peered inside, obviously still reeling from the announcement. He blinked at the room. It was small, but bigger than the little room in Gaius' tower, and there was a larger bed with a proper mattress.

"Make sure they arrange everything to your liking," Arthur told him. "Settle in when they're done. I'll be back soon."

Merlin nodded, and Arthur left him to it. He walked down the steps and across the courtyard to Gaius' tower, considering the right words for what he was about to say. When he walked inside, Gaius was puttering around the room, cleaning up from preparing the headache cure he'd made for Uther.

"Sire," Gaius greeted, with guarded concern. "Do you also have a headache from the feast?"

"No, no," Arthur said, pausing at the end of a long table. "I wanted to talk to you about Merlin."

"Yes," Gaius said, warily. "I hope you know what you're doing."

"My father sees what he wants to see," Arthur said, confidently. "That's a trick you understand, is it not?"

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean, Sire."

"Exactly," Arthur said, trying not to smile. Gaius was a sly one. Arthur was beginning to realize he had been as easily fooled as his father, where Gaius was concerned. The old man was as sharp as a tack.

"I will let no harm come to him," Arthur continued, sobering. "And I would not keep him from you. He is free to help you as time allows, as he always has."

Gaius looked relieved. "I appreciate that, Sire. Merlin is of great help to me. He would not be easy to replace." Then he quirked a smile, perhaps as something of a peace offering. "But I'm certain he will be glad to no longer have to clean the leech tank."

Arthur laughed. "That he will be."

Arthur wanted to ask more, but he took his leave. He wanted to press Gaius for answers: about how he had known about Terit; about the mysterious sword; about all the times Gaius had pulled Merlin aside for some private conversation. If Gaius was involved with magic somehow, Arthur wanted to find out. He wouldn't tell his father, because to endanger Gaius would be to risk Merlin as well, both his life and his trust. But he needed to know for himself. Magic was one of his father's biggest blind spots, and Arthur wanted his own vision to be clear.

Perhaps magic was as evil and corrupting as his father had always declared it to be. Magic had so often been used against Arthur, to threaten his life or his father's or Camelot itself. Countless sorcerers had sought to harm them, Cedric only the latest in a long line. Arthur could not deny that magic was a danger to be guarded against. Perhaps his father's singular rage was justified, and nothing good could ever come of it.

But Arthur had never forgotten the mysterious ball of light that had saved him in the Forest of Balor, when he had been so desperate to reach the Mortaeus flower. Whoever or whatever had sent that light, it had protected him, and in doing so had saved Merlin's life. For the sake of that, Arthur could not blindly hate.

§

When he returned to his chambers, the bustle of servants was absent. He locked his door and walked into the little side room, and found Merlin had made himself at home. A row of trinkets rested on the windowsill, his bag rested on his chair, and his pile of clothes had been stuffed into his dresser, with one battered scarf hanging from a drawer. Merlin was stretched out on his bed, basking in the morning light, a peaceful smile on his face.

"Settled in?" Arthur asked, sitting on the edge of the bed beside him.

Merlin gave a contented hum. "I love this bed."

"Even more than mine?" Arthur asked, with false dismay.

Merlin pretended to consider the question. "Maybe not that much," he relented. "But it's really nice."

Arthur smiled at him. "Shame you're not going to be using it much."

Merlin smiled back, and gave a wriggle, then winced.

"Is your little bottom sore?" Arthur teased.

"Terribly," Merlin pouted, then looked worried. "Arthur, I'm all right. Really."

"I know," Arthur said, and he did.

"Good," Merlin said, relaxing again. "I can't believe you said that to your father. I thought he was going to have me killed on the spot!"

Arthur leaned over him. "Did you like it? Me saying you were mine, right in front of the council?"

Merlin squirmed again, and bit his lip. "Maybe."

"Taking you into my chambers," Arthur murmured, leaning down to kiss Merlin's neck. "Taking your life as my own."

Merling gave a delicious groan, and Arthur tasted the vibrations with his mouth. "Arthur," he sighed.

"Keeping you," Arthur continued, and Merlin writhed beneath him, clung to him. Arthur was going to take him on this bed, fuck him on it until he was loose and lost the way he had been last night. He would ruin Merlin's sheets with come and oil, and knew that Merlin would leave them dirty for too long, just so he could rub himself in the scent of them. Arthur nipped at his neck, thinking of Merlin snuffling at the sheets and touching himself, perhaps while Arthur worked at his desk, with the door between them open wide.

"You're coming with me to Mercia," Arthur told him, suddenly.

"All right," Merlin sighed, happily.

"I don't care if I have to strap you to your horse. I'm not letting you out of my sight," Arthur insisted.

Merlin laughed. "You don't have to strap me to my horse. Though that is an idea. The strapping, I mean."

Arthur's momentum was entirely halted by the image of Merlin straining against leather bonds. "So it is," he said, voice tight. Merlin was absolutely going to be the death of him, and it was going to be glorious.

Then he smirked. "Perhaps I should bring that sword with me as well. It sounded very impressive. What did it say, the lettering on the sides?"

Merlin went still beneath him. "Um."

"It must have been expensive, a fancy sword like that."

"It wasn't," Merlin said, tightly. "Gwen gave it to me."

"Did she?"

"Yes," Merlin said, sobering. "It was her father's finest work. The best sword in all of Camelot. She gave it to me so I could keep you safe."

"Of course," Arthur said, and kissed him for that. For being so hopelessly protective of him. "So what happened to it?"

Merlin looked away. "I had to take it somewhere. Your father used it, and it wasn't... I shouldn't have let him. It was supposed to be for you."

"Maybe you can bring it back to me," Arthur said, tracing Merlin's cheek.

Merlin looked back at him, smiling again. "Maybe I can."

Arthur smiled. "So what did it say? The writing?"

Merlin looked at him, devotion cresting in his eyes. "It said 'take me up.' Take me up."

Arthur followed his command and took Merlin up into his arms, where he belonged.