Camelot is all about lying. Power-plays are built upon the foundations of words; intangible. Words send men to war, and words can stop a war, can turn a head, can break a heart. Power lies in the perfect manipulation of the words, and the one whose mastery of words is complete dominates the Court at Camelot.
The master is not Uther, nor any of the silver-tongued diplomats, or verbose barons.
It is Arthur, though nobody knows it: this is his greatest triumph to date.
He remembers that he was very young- less than five- he didn't know that he lacked a mother. He had no framework for the concept: he had a father, and servants, and a nursemaid and a tutor who came in to teach him letters and sums. He had no children to play with, no one he could look at and see that they had something he did not.
His world remained steady until he was five, and a new nursemaid was brought in. The old one died when sickness gripped Camelot tightly.
That was the first time Arthur heard whispers of magic; how the sickness was revenge. He didn't know what it meant, it was something adults talked. Arthur was never interested in things that weren't about him as a child, and he could not see how this was about him.
He owes quite a lot to his second nurse, whose name he never knew. She used to whisper about his mother to him, tell him he was a "poor dear lad," and kiss his head when no one was looking.
She gave him nothing he wanted. If he screamed for a toy she didn't, as his first nurse had, promptly give it to him. Instead she pretended she couldn't hear him, and it never occurred to Arthur to get it for himself.
He began to stop asking. He would sit in the corner of his chambers, and watch her. She grew worried, creases marring her face.
The more despondent he became- the more disinterested and aloof- the more he was offered. Toys, sweets, walks, visits to his father. When he was six years old, Arthur learned that he could not get things by wanting them and asking. If, however, he expected things to be given to him, but acted as though he neither wanted nor needed them, he would be offered the world.
Over the years he has found this applies to almost everything: women, food, servants, a body in his bed, tribute, objects, clothing. He must expect that which he wants: arrogance and entitlement, they all are the means to an end, and Arthur learns by watching his father.
It doesn't work when it comes to swords. Simple arrogance, simple expectation that his knights should lose to him does not suffice. Arthur learned that when he was seven, with a heavy sword in his hand and his newest tutor running at him full-tilt and swinging a blade of his own. That was the day that Arthur learned that in that arena he is not Arthur Pendragon, Crown Prince. In a fight, he will always be simply another soldier.
As the years progress he becomes a knight, a champion. When he is twenty and the head of his knights he commands the respect of men far older than he, demands it, refuses to let them keep it from him. And when they are reluctant to give it, he beats it out of them. There is something tangible behind his status on the battlefield when compared to his status as prince.
Being a prince is an illusion which they maintained by all. Arthur feels, some days, that he is the only one who knows that it is an illusion at all, but its weight rests heavy on his shoulders when he feels the eyes of Camelot fall on him, whether it be a tournament or as he rides out for a hunt.
Arthur does not have friends. He has allies, sparring partners, fellow knights, fellow nobles. His father. Morgana. Gaius, perhaps, though Gaius is a servant.
Arthur has servants of course, but he doesn't see them. They are like the tapestries in his quarters, part of the landscape of his life, but nothing remarkable. He couldn't tell anyone who asks which servant prepares his morning bath, or which helps him dress, and which keeps his cup full. He can't even say if they're the same person or not.
When one of his knights lusts after particular maid, Arthur merely smiles sardonically into his ale, and wonders what it would be like to look at a servant and see them as a partner in any sense. It is, perhaps, the benefit of his station: Arthur can bed any number of visiting ladies, all of whom will marry better for having been shown favor by the prince.
Arthur forgets that he is lonely, or perhaps he never knew he was. After all, he lives in a castle full of people; there are always people around him, cleaning, bathing, dressing him, caring for his things, simpering at him, gossiping with him, fighting against him and looking to him.
Morgana may have been a friend, once, when they were younger, but he is not allowed to see her freely anymore: she is of age, he is of age, and there would be talk should he be caught in her chambers unattended, and Gwen, when he notices her, seems harmless enough. But her presence changes Morgana, and Arthur knows the rules of the game. Knows Uther would not permit Arthur and Morgana in any sort of relationship, and Morgana is already in trouble with his father so often that Arthur would not add to that willingly.
Morgana, though, does not understand that she must not show what she wants. She is the ward, not the daughter; this life is not all she has known. When she speaks of her father, she sometimes recalls reading with him, helping him with his armor. Her face goes soft and far away and her lips bow into a smile, and Arthur is jealous of her freedom to look that way. To speak to his father about her own opinions, to express herself forcefully. Arthur does not have that liberty- must temper and choose his words carefully, because every word he utters, once gone from his lips is no longer his own, but rather belongs to the ears which hear it, and the mouths which repeat it.
And then Merlin comes along, and firmly refuses to give in to Arthur. Refuses to become part of the landscape, and Arthur finds himself becoming accustomed to Merlin's presence. Easy in the back-and-forth, in having to do more than merely expect; with Merlin he has to articulate, demand, cajole, and sometimes threaten. Merlin he can insult without sending a ripple through the servile hierarchy, because Merlin (astonishingly) insults back.
When Arthur is worried, it's easier to sit, tense in his chair watching the fire devour a log, and let Merlin voice those worries,. Easier to let them hurtle from Merlin's lips and echo around the room until they become too much, and Arthur has to tell him to shut up, tell the fear and concern and worry to shut up. And Merlin will look at him, and there will be something like relief in his eyes; as tough Arthur has made things better; as though he hears that in Arthur's command to shut up there is Merlin's own concern mirrored back. It is as though somehow (inexplicably) Merlin knows that he is Arthur's release, articulating those thoughts which may haunt Arthur. And so whether it be a tournament, an illness, a duel, a visiting baron and his "gorgeous" (single) daughter, or the possibility of impending war, or sickness, or anything which Arthur cannot banish with a word or a flick of his sword and must wait to confront, Arthur lets Merlin talk, and Merlin never fails him.
Arthur wonders if Merlin has any idea what he's given him; what he's doing to him. Merlin is slowly unravelling Arthur, and Arthur isn't sure what will be left of him when Merlin is done.
"You have changed," Morgana says as he dances with her at yet another ball. Another treaty for Uther, and Merlin didn't have to nearly die for this one. "For the better."
"I think I'm insulted," he teases, and she rolls her eyes at him, but later he catches her watching him speculatively, and he looks away quickly.
"I can pour wine, you know," Merlin says.
Arthur blinks at him, and Merlin smiles, eyes dipping to Arthur's mostly-full goblet.
"Usually by this time you're on your fourth," Merlin informs him.
It is almost an hour before midnight. Arthur frowns. "No."
"Oh yes. Completely sloshed." Merlin sounds far too cheerful, and Arthur sees Lord Idrin and his wife turn to see to whom Arthur is speaking, and Arthur gives Merlin his best sneer, shifting subtly to lean against a pillar so that Merlin is forced to shift slightly; just enough to present the Lord and Lady with the back of his head.
"Merlin. I do not require your presence tonight, clearly, so get lost."
"Yes, sire," Merlin replies. Arthur doesn't think Merlin's even aware of the fact that he turns that single syllable into a mockery of the title. He places the pitcher of wine down on the table and slips out like a fleeting thought. Arthur feels cold- almost as though he is going to a tournament and has forgotten his cape, which is absurd. No one fights in the cape, but its presence is comforting, red and billowing behind him. He makes a face, downs the contents of his goblet, and goes to circulate.
He sees his father watching him with proprietary pride, and thinks, as he chuckles at an anecdote and leans against his chair in a lazy sprawl, that Merlin may be be a good influence. Arthur once had a dog whom he loved. It vanished within a week. His favorite tutors, his favorite nannies, all swept away. Arthur knows not to get terribly attached: it was a lesson. Kings rule alone.
Arthur does not want to be that kind of king.
For the next week whenever they are in public he hurls abuse at Merlin. Merlin shouts back at him untl Wednesday, when he catches Uther watching, and then something like understanding flickers over his face and for the rest of the week he's deferential.
Well, deferential for him, which is to say not very. But it is enough.
"No enchanted shields this time," he says, when Merlin is putting on his armor for a smaller tournament than the one with Valiant. "No snakes. No undead knights?"
"I don't know why you think I'm the one to go to when people are out to kill you," Merlin mutters, frowning at the clasp as though he's never done it before, and must concentrate. "You're the one with the sword who likes to hit things."
Arthur snorts, and says, "Speaking of which, we should work on your footwork."
Merlin's groan is genuine and pure, and Arthur feels something in his chest loosen and laughs. Merlin smiles, almost shyly, like he's not sure that they do this (whatever this is). Arthur punches him in the shoulder, and Merlin winces and grins. Whatever it is, this is them.
When Arthur backhands and sideswipes Sir Fanaigh, sending him careening, it is not the crowd of people who surge to their feet to cheer for him, not Morgana, who he knows will have that strangely fierce, proud smile on her face, nor his father, with his satisfied smirk and a finger pressed to the corner of his mouth; it is Merlin, who is standing right in the entryway to the arena, shouting and wincing and gesticulating wildly throughout a match whom Arthur's seeks out. And Merlin is flushed with Arthur's victory, and Arthur grins at him before raising his sword into the air and giving the crowd permission to go entirely berserk. And somewhere, in the depths of his stomach, unfurling, Arthur wants.
In his room, after the victory banquet, he is laughing as Merlin tells him of the things he could not see, both of them slouched in front of the fire, shoulders touching. Arthur leans into it as much as he dares, and still wants.
"You should pay more attention to their faces," Merlin admonishes him, his eyes sparkling with his mirth. "When you stop playing with them and start- "
"I don't toy with them!" Arthur protests, half in earnest and half to see the disbelieving look Merlin sends him.
"You do. You very much do, don't deny it. Anyway, when you start actually fighting them, I swear all the blood drains from their faces. I thought poor Sir. Drendith was going to faint." Merlin looks pleased by this, and slightly disappointed, as though he'd been hoping for it.
Arthur laughs again.
"I'm not the one toying with them," Merlin shoots back. He gets up with a sigh and then bends to pick up a book Arthur has left on the floor.
"Leave it," Arthur dismisses, pulling off his shirt and yawning as he stands. "It's late. It was a good day, today."
"Another day where nobody tried to kill you," Merlin agrees from the door.
Arthur pauses from unlacing his breeches and stares at him, incredulous.
"Apart from the men with swords," Merlin amends, grinning. "But nobody with a sword is going to kill you." He slips away, and Arthur stills, thinking about that.
It's telling; Merlin is careless. Clumsy with both his words and the magic. Arthur is sure that Gaius is telling Merlin on a daily basis that he must be more careful, must keep the magic secret at all costs. Arthur is equally certain that Merlin thinks he is, and that Arthur is doing him no favors by pretending that he believes Merlin when Merlin lies to him about Sofia; pretends not to see the sheet fall upon a book that Merlin would burn for having. Doing him no favors when he pretends that he doesn't know that it was Merlin who brought to life the snakes in Valiant's shield; pretends that he didn't see that it was Merlin's hand raised in the village when the winds rose up.
Nobody with a sword will kill Arthur, but a sorcerer someday might. There will someday come a day when Merlin will not be able to protect him. Will be too slow, will be dead, and then Arthur will die. There have been far too many close-calls as it is. Now that he is of age it seems that all the magic in the kingdom, which has lain dormant his whole life, is coming awake. He doesn't know if it's because his father wishes to leave him a stable kingdom and is thus rooting out all the magic, causing a backlash, or if this is the moment of weakness the sorcerers have all waited for: the beginning of a transition from Uther to Arthur.
Someday, Merlin will not be able to protect Arthur.
There will not, however, ever be a day when Arthur does not protect Merlin. And so he spins tales about Merlin's infatuation with Morgana's maid for his father's counsellors, laying the foundation for denials should he ever have to defend Merlin's actions again.
"A boy in love," he explains with a wry grin. "Country boy." Virgin, daft, inexperienced, overwhelmed, impulsive they hear. Arthur knows how to make his words mean something else entirely with a smile or a lift of his brow. Subtle cues Merlin will never pick up on, because Arthur wants to protect him, not hurt him. Arthur twists his father's men about his finger while pretending he to confide in them.
Magic, his father had once said, is the use of words. Arthur wonders if words themselves have magic. Sometimes it seems that they must.
The wanting doesn't burn. It just simmers in the base of his spine, at the back of his neck, in the pit of his stomach. It is the unthinkable thing: Arthur wants something he does not know how to ask for, that he is fairly certain he will not be given. He cannot expect Merlin to fall into his bed, and Merlin would not understand the subtle indicators of that expectation. And Arthur is uncomfortable with feeling entitled to Merlin's body, to his person. He is entitled to Merlin's servitude insofar as Merlin is his (awful) manservant. But no more. And it is a strange thing, not to feel entitled to someone else's body. He has never had a moral dilemma in tumbling a maid or stable hand- but Merlin is different.
Arthur does not remember how to pursue something he wants, because to expect Merlin to come to his bed would be an exercise in futility. And so for the first time in his life, he does not pursue it.
Merlin is different, and his difference is turning Arthur inside out.
"Do you know what I heard a woman say to me today in the market?" Morgana asks him, her arm artfully linked through his. Gwen and Merlin are somewhere, likely off bickering or flirting or gossiping about their master and mistress. It is a cool spring morning, and a mist lies over the gardens. Morgana, Arthur knows, is particularly fond of moments like these, which is why he offered to escort her on her morning walk.
It is her birthday; even Uther will allow the slight impropriety (and they do have their servants, if in name only).
"'Buy my wares'?" he hazards, lifting a brow at her.
She gives him an exasperated look, eyes flitting heavenward as though seeking strength to deal with him.
"I heard a woman, who not a year ago was calling you a bully, say how good you are," she informs him.
"I'm thrilled to hear a woman who wanted you to buy something thought flattering me was the best route to take," he teases.
She jostles their entwined arms.
"You have everyone quite convinced that Merlin is a fumbling, hopeless case; in love with Gwen, and that you yourself are a saint for putting up with him, and yet," she pauses, most likely to ensure that she has his attention, and so he stills and turns to look at her fully, letting their arms fall away. "And yet," she continues, tilting her head with a slight smile, "you spend more nights in your chambers than out these days. You're drinking less, and you smile more."
"You make me sound like a man in love."
"No, not in love. But still. Merlin is a good influence on you. He seems to have quieted something in you." She breaks the moment of gravity with a sudden smile and a teasing lilt, "And you are never so persuasive as when you speak about him to the Court."
Arthur frowns at her, and she laughs, pressing her cheek to his and kissing the air next to his ear. It is old habit; a smear from the paint on her lips would cause gossip, which they do not need.
"Gwen?" she says, pulling away from him and raising her voice. "I think it's colder than I'd expected."
Gwen appears and smiles at him faintly before falling into step with Morgana as they go back to the castle, linking their arms as they whisper to each other. Arthur thinks once he was envious of their camaraderie, but he isn't any longer.
"What was all that about?" Merlin asks, apparently completely oblivious to the fact that that is an entirely inappropriate question for him to ask. "She almost seemed to like you just then."
"She says you're a good influence on me," Arthur says. He wants to provoke a reaction; he wants to see how Merlin will respond to that.
"I clean my room when I'm exhausted," Merlin remarks.
Arthur rests his hand on the pommel of his sword and waits, because there has to be more. Either that, or Merlin's finally lost his mind.
Merlin shrugs with a rueful grin. "I think I'm in your chambers and have to clean. Gaius is thrilled- my room is spotless."
Arthur understands, and he cuffs Merlin upside the head. "Idiot," he says.
"Prat," Merlin replies.
Arthur thinks, sometimes, that Merlin truly is an idiot. That when Arthur says things about magic and sorcerers Merlin takes them as Arthur's opinions, not as the warnings they are intended to be. Arthur cannot say more without endangering them both, and Merlin will never tell him, and so it is a dance they do around each other.
He thinks that despite the dance, despite the fact that Merlin doesn't trust him with that secret, they are friends. Arthur doesn't have to hunt Merlin down as regularly anymore to find him, and there are times Merlin comes to find Arthur. Arthur has come to expect that when he is in a truly foul mood Merlin will pop up, teasing smiles and a blatant refusal to leave, and by the time Arthur goes to bed, he will be calmer.
"It wasn't your fault," Merlin says as the door bangs open before him. He shuts it and then whirls on Arthur, as though afraid to let him out of his sight for an instant. "What she did. That was not because of you."
"Of course it was," Arthur sneers, staring out the window as servants hastily wash the blood away from the courtyard. The Lady Alonia had thrown herself from the high walk when it became clear to her that Arthur would not be marrying her. For his part, Arthur had seen too much need in her eyes, and refused to take her to bed.
Gently, of course, though, perhaps, not gently enough.
Perhaps this was Merlin's fault- Arthur is losing his touch with words because of Merlin's influence. He feels two again; ready to throw everything he owns around his room just because he can; because Merlin will have to pick it up.
His training has taught him that fighting like this, he will only injure himself, and Arthur is not stupid, but his veins thrum with the need to do something, to go back an hour ago and stop this somehow; find her and stop her from stepping off.
"Get out of my sight," he commands, staring into the fire, his arms braced on the back of his chair. He cannot sit. Cannot let Merlin see him pacing (it would be too much of an admission of…something- guilt? Fear? Agitation?).
"Arthur, that girl was sick before she ever came to Camelot. Even Morgana said she had prospects, it wasn't like she was going to die an old maid, and she was pretty and- "
"Stop talking about her in the past tense!" Arthur snaps, and turns his head to level his sharpest glare at Merlin. Merlin takes an actual step back, and then swallows and his eyebrows lower in that obnoxious look he gets right before he starts being a completely useless waste of space.
"She's dead. She took her own life, and now she's making you suffer for her weakness." He looks utterly furious on Arthur's behalf.
Arthur huffs out a breath, circles the chair and throws himself into it, ignoring the bite of wood against his back and arms. "Shut up, Merlin."
"It wasn't. Your. Fault," Merlin persists, standing in front of Arthur so he is backlit by the fire, his left hand coming down hard on the last three words.
"No. It's yours," Arthur agrees, and is gratified by Merlin's uncertain look, the slouch of his shoulders and the shift of his weight on his hips. "Do you know, before you came to Camelot I used to be content?"
"You were not." Merlin sounds almost hesitant, and Arthur is glad: glad that Merlin doesn't understand, because that means that Arthur still has a bit of himself. It is possible that Merlin doesn't lie: that Alonia would have found a way to end herself even if he had been his most charming. But he cannot help but think that however Merlin has changed him, in this at least, it is not for the best.
"I was. And if I was lacking anything, I didn't know it!" he snarls. "I do not have friends, Merlin."
Merlin starts to flinch, and aborts the movement and opts to frowns and looks at Arthur. He shifts so the firelight plays on half his face. Arthur hates it when Merlin is quiet and just watches him, because he cannot say, "Stop watching me!" without sounding like a child.
Arthur looks into the fire, because it's easier. "You said, a while ago, that I toy with knights in tournaments."
"You don't toy with women. And certainly not the ones who aren't toying with you. You aren't cruel," Merlin snaps at him, as though he is angry with Arthur for entertaining such thoughts about himself. "This was not your fault!" he repeats, folding his arms over his chest. "You didn't lead her on."
Arthur glowers at him, and Merlin (because he's the worst servant in the world) glowers right back, the firelight turning his eyes gold.
No, but it's not the firelight, because the fire starts crackling a bit more, and the goblet on the table is quivering.
Arthur pretends not to see, shoves himself out of the chair and snaps, "Get out, Merlin."
Merlin grasps his wrist as he walks by, long fingers closing over his skin like a manacle. It's too much and Arthur shudders, then shoves Merlin against a wall, crowding him in with his body, caging him.
It's sudden, Arthur didn't make the conscious decision and Merlin stares at him, eyes gone wide.
"Arthur- what're you- ?"
"I told you," Arthur says, low and smooth, lips a breath away from Merlin's and he knows it and doesn't care, "to get out."
He stays there, keeps them both there where he can feel the rapid staccato of Merlin's heartbeat against his chest. Then, abruptly, he lets go of Merlin. He stalks to his bed, sitting with his back to the door, sliding his boots off and slipping out of his shirt.
The door closes softly behind Merlin.
Arthur still feels full of energy, but it's a different sort now. He closes his eyes and slides a hand down his stomach, and does not think of Merlin.
"You're drunk," Arthur sighs.
"'M-'m not," Merlin informs him with all the sincerity only the truly soused can conjure up.
He is slouched against a pillar, and enough people have returned to their rooms (most likely not their own) that Arthur isn't worried about picking Merlin up.
"'M notta grl, y'know," Merlin informs him as Arthur wends his way down the unused passages of the castle towards Gaius' chambers. He knocks with his boot, rolling his eyes as Merlin's arms wind around his neck as though Merlin really is a damsel in distress whom Arthur has just rescued. It's amusing, and Arthur will give him hell for it in the morning. He doesn't think about Merlin's fingers playing with the hair at the nape of his neck.
Gaius blinks. "Arthur- Merlin." He inhales and frowns, his eyebrow lifting even higher. "Is he drunk?"
"No!" Merlin shouts, right in Arthur's ear.
Arthur closes his eyes and shakes his head to clear it and get the scent of Merlin's spectacularly bad breath out of his nose, and then says, wryly,
Gaius waves him in, and Arthur picks his way carefully through Gaius's workroom up to Merlin's small quarters, laying him gently on the bed.
"You're a goo' fr'nd," Merlin informs him with a stupid, open smile.
"You're very drunk, and I'm going to remind you of this moment for the rest of your life," Arthur replies, putting Merlin's boots on the floor by his bed before pulling the covers over him. Merlin reaches up and touches his face and Arthur stills, frowning a question.
"Be a goo'- a goo' king," Merlin predicts. He seems utterly, utterly convinced. His fingers trace Arthur's cheekbones, down his jaw, his smile fading away into a strangely serious expression. "Just lonely," Merlin sighs, as though this is breaking his heart. His hand falls away, and he smiles up at Arthur before he falls fast asleep.
Arthur straightens, eyes falling on that book. He sighs, lifts it, and hands it to Gaius, who looks guarded and terrified.
"Tell him when he's cleaning his room, this should be his first priority," he commands, and then stalks out.
He stares into the fire until the cock crows. Merlin is becoming more and more careless, and that's clearly Arthur's fault.
The door opens and he turns to look, because there was no knock and so it can only be one person.
Merlin blinks at him, clearly not hung-over and Arthur thinks it must be nice, to cure the ache of too much drink with a word?.
"You look awful," Merlin decides, lips twisting slightly as he fails to erase a grin.
"Sit down," Arthur replies, gesturing to the chair at the end of the table.
Merlin looks at him, frowns, and obeys.
"You- you know what?"
"I know what you can do. What you are. I figured it out after you'd been in my service a month."
"I…don't know what you're talking about," Merlin says, laughing nervously as his eyes slide to the side, fingers clutching the arms of the chair.
"I saw the book. Valiant, Sofia, that windstorm. I'm not an idiot, Merlin."
"Arthur- please. I won't- I haven't hurt anyone- " It's amazing how fast he changes from denial to admission, pleading for clemency.
"Shut up," Arthur says, rubbing his forehead. Sometimes it feels like Merlin is simply one big trial, especially when Arthur hasn't had any sleep worrying about his manservant. "Merlin. You've got to be more careful. You have to- I've done what I can but you…" he trails off, unsure of how to finish the sentence. For the first time in his life, words fail him.
Merlin stares at him.
"You really knew," he says, looking utterly floored. "But, when I told your father, you- you said I was in love with Gwen- " he breaks off, frowning and then he leans forward. "You knew. And you lied for me. Arthur, why would you do that?"
"Because I'm selfish, and every time you use magic you're using it to save my life, or someone else's, and I'd like to stay alive." He almost sounds convincing to his own ears, which means that Merlin will buy the not-quite-entire-truth without question.
"I didn't want to lie to you," Merlin says.
Arthur rolls his eyes and laughs.
"Merlin, you're the worst liar at court. In fact, you're so bad that I don't count it as lying."
"Oh, thank you, sire," Merlin scoffs before he thinks, and his quick gaze asks if it's all right- if they still do this.
"I'm not lonely," Arthur says abruptly, thinking back to last night.
Merlin snorts. "Yes, you are. It makes me crazy because most days I don't think even you realize it." He leans his head back in the chair, and smiles. "Or maybe, you're best at lying to yourself."
"Get out, Merlin," Arthur sighs.
Merlin stands and then sits on the table in front of Arthur's chair. "You can have everything you want. I don't understand- "
"So can you. You could say a word and have whatever you desire before you- "
"Not the same."
"How is it different?"
"It just is. If I made people love me, it wouldn't be real. They wouldn't be true friends."
"You would be creating an illusion," Arthur agrees, and smiles when Merlin nods. "I would merely be participating in one."
He's shattering Merlin's view of Court into a million pieces, except Merlin smiles slightly. "Well. I haven't cast a spell on you."
"I know, because I don't like you that much," Arthur retorts, and Merlin grins at him, seeing it for the lie it is.
Merlin reaches out again, the way he did last night, and Arthur stills under the gentle touches.
"I hate when you take them to bed," Merlin whispers. "I hate that you settle for them."
It's possible that Arthur has misread everything- and then Merlin's lips are there, chapped and dry against his own, his hand curving around the base of Arthur's skull, and as soon as Arthur tilts his head up to it the kiss goes hot and intent, with Merlin's tongue sliding possessively into his mouth, staking claim to Arthur, and it's-
It's so good, not to have to be in charge, and it seems natural to let Merlin strip this away too…
Arthur lets his mouth go slack against Merlin's, lets Merlin press him back into the chair as Arthur's hands reach for and settle on Merlin's scrawny hips. Merlin pulls back, lips full and red and smiling, eyes dark with lust and something else.
"Arthur," he whispers.
"Please," Arthur whispers back. "I want- please? Merlin."
And it is impossible that Merlin should understand how big this is; that Arthur is asking for something, except that he seems to understand instantly, smiling faintly and letting Arthur surge up against him, kissing his neck, his jaw.
And it's a strange thing, that dressing and undressing should be erotic when for almost a year Merlin has been doing just that, except now every touch of Merlin's fingertips against Arthur's flesh makes him shudder, and Merlin isn't doing the job, now, he's almost predatory, proprietary, and Arthur thinks, yes.
They lay back on the bed, Merlin tracing old scars along Arthur's sides, his kisses robbing Arthur of everything until he is nothing but want, need. Merlin slides down his body, and when his mouth closes over Arthur's cock, Arthur can't help but moan into his fist and can't stop the little stutter of his hips, because this is like nothing he's ever experienced before. It goes on forever, Merlin's tongue swirling and the suction never staying just right for long enough, and Arthur is on the edge but cannot fall over and it is making him mad.
"Please," he gasps, and Merlin pulls off, kissing the head of his cock, and Arthur looks down and meets his wild eyes and it would be enough- he could come from that but Merlin's hand squeezes the base of his cock cruelly. Arthur barely stifles a cry.
"I need-" Merlin starts, kissing Arthur again and his mouth is bitter but Arthur cannot stop licking into that mouth, tasting the bitterness of himself and then Merlin pulls away and whispers, "Turn over."
And Arthur does. Without question, without thought Arthur rolls over, lets Merlin's clever hands guide him into the position he wants him in and Arthur's cock is heavy between his legs and he's fairly certain that the whimpering he's hearing is him.
Merlin's hands are on his cheeks, pulling them apart and Arthur freezes because Merlin licks and kisses him there. Arthur's about to rip the sheets to ribbon and it's all he can do to stay on all fours. He sucks for breath and can't help pushing back, seeking against Merlin's tongue, and that was the moment the bastard pulls away.
One hand reaches around to play with Arthur's cock while the other slides a finger coated in an oil of some sort into him. It's strange and burns but it's Merlin and Arthur relaxes and then Merlin crooks his finger, stretching and pushing, another joining the first at some point and Merlin pressing hot kisses to the small of Arthur's back.
Suddenly he's gone, and thenhis fingers are holding Arthur's hips. There's pressure before his cock slides in. Arthur shudders at the slow burn of it, hard and foreign and good, so fucking good and he convulses involuntarily with the pleasure of it, breathing harshly through his teeth almost as he would with pain though this is- this is not pain. This is something else.
Merlin is gasping as his hips move against Arthur, panting and mouthing the back of Arthur's neck, breathing hot on his shoulder and then they're moving together, Arthur shoving back as Merlin presses in and it's good, too good, and Merlin only has to reach around and graze Arthur's cock with the pads of his fingers and Arthur is coming, his whole world gone white. He almost collapses, but locks his elbows and braces himself, shoulder muscles tightening even as they scream protest.
"Get on with it" and Merlin huffs a laugh and does, hips snapping against Arthur's ass and then his breath stutters and he whimpers, "Arthur" and he pulls out, come striping Arthur's back and then he collapses on top of him.
It's too much to take, and Arthur falls into the bed, huffing a laugh.
Later, he is distantly aware of Merlin informing someone (probably one of his father's servants) that Arthur is ill today, and that it isn't serious, just an illness of the stomach, probably something he ate last night.
"Get back here," he groans when the door closes again, rolling over. He feels sore, hand falling towards Merlin before he realizes what he's doing.
Merlin laughs, and walks over.
"Your father can put some of us in the stocks," he informs him, and takes Arthur's hand. Arthur smiles sleepily, and then yanks, sending Merlin flying back into the bed. "Oh, well," Merlin snorts.
"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur sighs, pressing his face into Merlin's neck. Merlin's fingers drag through his hair deliciously, and Arthur is still for a moment. Calm. At peace.
It's possible, he thinks, that he doesn't have to tell Merlin what he wants- maybe Merlin knows.
"I should never have told you, I see that now," Merlin snaps, face drawn and pale. Arthur grins, mouth full of the taste of his own blood.
"You love this," he gasps.
"Oh yes, I particularly love being up to my elbows in your blood and would you please, please, please stop moving?" Merlin begs, his voice cracking. Arthur grabs for his hand.
"I'm going to be fine."
"Clearly you cannot see yourself," Merlin argues.
"You," Arthur specifies, "are going to make me all right. Come on, Merlin."
"What? No, no, Arthur, no. No. What if I hurt you more? I don't know what I'm doing!"
"That," Arthur retorts, vision blurring, "is nothing new for you, so I don't understand what your issue is." He keeps his voice steady, and it is a lie of its own. His confidence in Merlin is not, though.
"This is such a bad idea," Merlin moans, which is an acquiescence if Arthur ever heard one.
He forces his eyes to clear, blinking away the fuzzy so he can watch Merlin's eyes go golden, his mouth purse and his shoulders slide back. Once Arthur knew what to look for, it was easy to spot the exact moment Merlin casts a spell.
That fact alone is terrifying, and Arthur has yelled at him about predictability at least a dozen times.
Apparently to no avail.
Then, suddenly, he's warm, the freezing cold of blood loss counteracted by the words that whisper from Merlin's lips and find purchase in Arthur's skin.
Then it's over, and Merlin looks tired and frightened and Arthur leans up and grasps him firmly in a kiss.
"Right. Well done," he says, standing.
Merlin gapes at him. "Well done?" he repeats. "Well- you almost died!"
"And you stopped it. Just like you always do." Arthur looks around at the leveled bit of forest. "Though, Merlin, we need to discuss this obsession you have with wind."
"The first time I ever cast magic around you, when I didn't mind you anymore," Merlin says, handing Arthur his coat and helping him into it, gestures gentle and touches too frequent, like he's still not confident that Arthur is whole, "was in the caves, remember? You were fighting that mud monster- "
"And the torch flared."
"Right. Well, the monster was of earth and water, and so fire and wind destroyed it. You were fire, and I was wind."
Arthur stares at him, unable to decide if that's possibly the most romantic thing he's ever heard or the stupidest- he's finding that the two keep close company.
Merlin blushes and shrugs, and says, "Anyway, wind's easier to explain."
They come back to the castle with Merlin protesting that he is too literate, thank you very much, and Arthur's eyebrows conveying his doubts adequately.
Uther is watching them, but Uther is always watching these days. His father is not stupid, and his love for Arthur will make him all the more dangerous. He will not be able to understand that Merlin acts out of l…affection as well. He will see Merlin only as a sorcerer and a threat. Uther would destroy Merlin in a heartbeat, and so Arthur continues to scoff at Merlin's ineptitude, offer him up for the stocks, and continues to sigh about Merlin's supposed infatuation with Gwen.
In the end, Merlin's words save his life with the power they contain.
Arthur's words save Merlin's life with the weight of Arthur's name and the deftness with which he wields them.
Somewhere in the middle they meet, where words have no bearing at all.