The Toybox

people for the conservation of limited amounts of indignation


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merlinfic: the tale of the sea serpent, 1/2
children of dune - leto 1
seperis
Title: The Tale of the Sea Serpent
Author: Seperis
Codes: Arthur, Merlin/Arthur
Rating: NC-17, very
Spoilers: 1.13 Le Morte d'Arthur, first season in general
Summary: Prequel to Job Orientation. Before anyone built towers or became kings that hide from councils or thought five hundred steps was some kind of actual challenge, there was a prince, a sorcerer, and a sea serpent in a river. But really, it started well before that. Because first, there was a prince, and silence, and a secret that was no secret at all.
Author Notes: This is entirely and completely mercurydraconix's fault for thinking the sea serpent deserved a starring role somewhere. I admit it, I had a dream. Please for the love of God, do not ask, just nod patiently. Thanks to chopchica, tricksterquinn and shinetheway for reading it in progress and petting me when needed and writing me fic so this would not all end in blood and toads on a distant riverbank after far too much rain. shinetheway corrected my sentences and mocked Arthur's angst mercilessly, which you know, he totally deserved.

Edit: Art by goss



Gaius examines his forearm briefly before nodding, taking out a length of clean bandaging and one of his hideous-smelling salves. "It's a clean cut, Your Highness," he says, fingers scooping into the jar before smearing it across the newly-cleaned wound. "Any numbness in your fingers or hand?"

Arthur looks at him and tries not to wince. "I would say no," he manages between gritted teeth. "There is no island of numbness in the burning pain."

Gaius looks down quickly, but Arthur's fairly sure he's hiding a smile. "It's the remains of the venom," he says in what he probably thinks is comfort. "Hold still, if you would, sire." Gentle fingers spread another layer of salve before he unwinds the bandage, easing it carefully from wrist to elbow. "It's shallow, though long; the burning should be gone by morning."

Arthur nods, mouth tight. It's not unbearable, but the constant irritation has been working on his nerves for hours, unfamiliar and impossible to ignore. He's used to the ache of blade-given wounds, not this deep burn like the constant press of a heated brand against his skin.

"Come to me in the morning if it has not improved," Gaius says as he finishes, pulling Arthur's sleeve down over the bandage and handing him a cup. Arthur doesn't make the mistake of either looking at it or smelling it, taking it in a single gulp.

"Thank you," he says belatedly, aware it's hours past dusk and Gaius is in his nightclothes, looking torn between exhaustion and amusement.

"I'm at your service, Your Highness." Going to a basin the corner, Gaius washes his hands with what must be icy water, turning to bow briefly. "Do you require anything further?"

"No, Gaius. Go to bed." Arthur picks up his helmet and leaves, trailing two worried knights that he sends to report to the King that he's returned to Camelot. Taking the stairs two at a time despite his own exhaustion, he comes to his chambers, closing out the chill hall for the warm darkness of the room. The few candles left sputtering give him enough light to finish disarming himself, discarding his soaked clothing at the foot of the bed before crawling into body-warm bedclothes. Merlin stirs when Arthur draws back the thick wool, the long line of his spine flexing against the cool air, eyes flickering half-open when Arthur palms his bare hip. "Arthur?"

Arthur answers the drowsy question with his lips against the curve of Merlin's throat, settling against the warm body that shivers more even as it curves back against him. Settling in a cocoon of skin and wool, Arthur draws him closer with an arm around his waist, the restless energy he's burned with through two endless days sinking into something unfamiliar and heavy like contentment. Half-asleep, Merlin hums, pressing back until Arthur's half-hard cock slides comfortably into the curve of his ass; Arthur sucks in a breath at the unexpected shock of the contact.

Merlin's soft hum checks, and Arthur feels Merlin come fully awake, hand settling on Arthur's bandaged arm before he turns his head, sleepy eyes slowly clearing. "You were hurt."

"Gaius treated it," Arthur says, closing his eyes at the clumsy kiss that grows more expert as Merlin turns in his arms, easing him back against the mattress before he can stop him. "Merlin--" he starts, and Merlin's hand on his arm tightens, drawing out a hiss at the sharp flare of pain, pushing it into the pillow above his head.

"Shh," Merlin whispers, shadowed and half-there in flickering candlelight, ethereal as a splash of moonlight. Arthur stares into the red hangings like drying blood as Merlin's kisses slowly down his chest, slow, sucking kisses that Arthur can feel in a line of crawling burn that reaches his cock when Merlin does. Arthur reaches for him, sucking in a breath when that wet mouth closes over his cock, when his hand knots in silky hair. Gripping the pillow behind his head, Arthur tries to hold still, Merlin's cool hands on his hips guiding him into something twistingly alive and burning bright like dry kindling touched with a spark.

Behind closed eyes, flickering memories of hours on horseback loop endlessly through his mind, the days of rain falling with no respite, rivers bloated and overrunning their banks in muddy black waves, homes like twigs in a fast-running stream and bodies surfacing blue-white before vanishing before the blank eyes of their families, lost to burial or pyre. They burned the ones they could with green, wet wood, the smoke filling the sky until they joined the clouds in the ash-grey sky.

"Please," he tells the slowly swaying drapes, and he doesn't know if he's asking Merlin or God or even what he's asking for. Merlin pulls off with an obscene sound before he crawls the length of Arthur's body, licking into his mouth dirty-slow, cock dragging against his belly before he reaches back, braced on one arm, and Arthur feels Merlin guide him inside, tight heat closing around him like a fist. "Christ."

"Shh," Merlin whispers, lashes swept down while he takes Arthur with a slow twist of narrow hips, and Arthur reaches out, holds them the way he held his reins, tight and hopeless because nothing he could do would ever change a fucking thing.

"Arthur," Merlin murmurs, a ripple like the rising water, darkly intimate, and Arthur watches through half-closed eyes as Merlin shivers, riding him with slow, sinuous curls of his hips, "you can--you can," and Arthur wants not to want to take what Merlin offers with his body, as casually as he fills Arthur's cup or cleans his sword or sucks his cock. Merlin takes the decision out of his hands, shifting upright and barely-there, only the heat of the hand on his chest and the tightness around his cock connecting them when Arthur lets him go.

He walked into a river, half-frozen and half-awake, dragging another body from murky water to add to the dozens he couldn't save, their bodies smeared with his blood--

"Come on, Arthur," Merlin whispers, voice as steady as the rise and fall of his body, and somewhere far away, a dozen pyres will burn this wet, endless night away.

He pushes Merlin off him, forcing him belly down on his bed and kneeing apart his willingly-open thighs, "Yes, Arthur, please," licking two fingers and pushing them inside, hand hard on the back of Merlin's neck, "Please, Arthur," and he can't wait another second and pushes into Merlin, licking up the line of his spine and sinking his teeth into the offered shoulder, aching and sweating away even the memory of cold. Merlin moans, fingers digging into the pillow beneath his head, and Arthur looks at the shadowed face and pretends that this can make him forget how many people died this night.

There's just Merlin, moaning and shaking beneath his hands, and Arthur covers his body, the flat, needy press of damp skin to damp skin, shoving inside him until they're both shaking. He can taste blood and comes with Merlin's cock in his hand, pressing his forehead against Merlin's shoulder and whispering, "Come on, Merlin, come on" until he shudders, arching up, burying his face in the pillow as he comes, and Arthur can finally breathe.

Pulling out as slowly as he can, he rolls onto his side, watching through heavy-lidded eyes as Merlin stretches, head turning slowly to smile lazily before he curls up, asleep between one breath and the next with long inches of colorless linen between them.

Arthur dozes fitfully and waits for dawn wrapped in the cool scrape of linen and wool, the burn of his arm throbbing in counterpoint to the soft breath of the man beside him.

*****

Merlin checks his arm the next afternoon when Gaius is out for his rounds, stretching it carefully on the table beside the dishes from the midday meal, touch impersonal and professionally careful as he unwinds the bandage with a frown, picking up the salve he'd taken from Gaius' stores and uncapping it. "How were you injured? Did something attack you?"

Arthur looks at the scrape blankly and remembers black water and sharp, burning pain. "A serpent of some kind," he says, watching Merlin measure the slice with his fingers. Merlin frowns again. "What?"

"How big was it?"

Arthur remembers the winding pressure against his legs, something huge pressing by his thigh, gone between one sucked-in breath and the next with only a bright warmth that turned to blood on the shore. "Big."

Merlin looks at him like he's an idiot. "Well, that's helpful." Turning his attention back to the salve, Merlin coats the wound, getting a clean bandage and winding it into place, the discarded one burning in the fireplace. Arthur didn't bother asking why; he doubts he would understand the answer Merlin would give any better than he would Gaius. "Maybe we should check it out."

Arthur stretches his newly bandaged arm, reviving the flickering heat, then looks at Merlin. "We?"

Merlin shrugs, sliding off the table, brushing by him to the basin in the corner, washing his hands clean of salve and Arthur's blood. Sliding his sleeve down, Arthur watches as he turns back. "Or you," he says casually, going to the fire. "I'll take these back down to Gaius' workroom and finish cleaning your hauberk."

"How's the left arm?" Arthur asks.

"Like something big sliced through it," Merlin says, flickering a smile. "I'll send it for repairs when I'm done."

Arthur nods his thanks, watching Merlin leave before he gets up, going to the basin and running his fingers through pleasantly warm water from a basin left overnight in the coldest part of the room, pale pink and cloudy yellow. Picking it up, he dumps it in the bucket by the door to cool, to be discarded without thought when Merlin comes back.

*****

Gaius' organization is a mystery, but one Arthur is familiar with from a childhood spent being treated for bloody knees and skinned palms, sitting impatiently on the wide workroom table that's never changed in the nearly-two decades of Arthur's memory. Fingering the books, Arthur reads the titles to himself, the Latin as familiar as his native tongue, pulling down the one he recognizes from a childhood fever isolated in this room with the restless energy of pre-adolescence, reading about sphinxes and gorgons and wondrous beasts that his father called myths, from a time before the executioner's axe took their place in the nightmares of the people of Camelot.

Merlin will be hours in the armoury; Arthur goes into the small, warm room where Merlin lives, no matter where he spends his nights, stretching out on the messy bed with a pillow pulled to his chest, fingers tracing out the picture of something large and green that sleeps far beneath the surface of the ocean. Looking at his bandaged arm, Arthur thinks of teeth the length of a short sword and the hard matte of green and black scales that felt like armour against his calves, rushing water stilling around him for the length of time it took to stagger to shore and look back at the fast currents stealing away everything that proved the existence of a man's life.

"Thank you," he tells the picture. "That river was running a bit fast, wasn't it?"

He marks in his memory the details of vulnerabilities that he'll carry beside the parts of him that know every gap between plates of armour and the twist that can slide a blade through mail and split a living, beating heart. Ocean creature, but the rains have gone so long that lakes are stretching out long arms onto land far from its banks and mild streams turned to rivers impossible to cross How it got to fresh water inlets is a mystery; Arthur pulls up mental maps of Albion, tracing routes that twist beyond mountains and through valleys, giving up leagues from the banks of the south. Too many possibilities.

Leaning over the edge of the bed, Arthur pushes discarded shirts and socks aside, finding nothing. Rolling over, he sits up, searching the room like he would if he were looking for contraband, then again like Merlin would, remembering every time he's watched Merlin clean his chambers. There's very little of Arthur left in those chambers, fingerprinted with that unique mind that thinks around corners and beneath them, too, controlled chaos wrapped up in a tall, thin body, hovering behind blue eyes sheened in gold.

Right. Merlin. Getting up, Arthur opens the cupboard and pushes aside another shirt, finding it trapped innocuously between a treatise on medical herbs and Cicero, book dusty beneath it from disuse. So much for Gaius' insistence on education, Arthur thinks, taking it back to the bed and flipping it open, scanning the pages quickly. Magical creatures, a footnote in a different hand than the rest of the book, faded from age, not dangerous, it reads, and Arthur sighs, looking at the spell above it that brings sleep to any creature before putting it away with any and all memories of long hours reading Cicero's speeches and wishing heartily for the executioner's axe himself.

He replaces Gaius' book on the shelf, waiting patiently until Gaius returns, letting him fuss over Merlin's work approvingly and leaves with a slow burn that's the memory of venom beneath his skin.

Merlin's refilled the basin and removed last night's ruined clothes by the time he returns. Arthur closes the shutters against the chill fall of rain and pulls his coat closer as he waits in front of the fire, trying to remember how to be warm.

*****

This is what he wanted, he thinks, watching Merlin strip for him bathed in firelight, outlined in yellow-red and soft gold. He feels too young to be this tired and too old to be this easy, when just watching Merlin turn toward him, fingers teasing on the laces of his shirt is enough.

"You want to chase a sea serpent?" Arthur asks lazily, sprawled at the head of the bed. Merlin, currently occupied with the laces of his trousers, looks at him with an incredulous expression.

"You want to talk about that now?"

Arthur shrugs. "Why not?"

Merlin hesitates, and Arthur wonders where he goes when his body is here. Ealdor, maybe, but Arthur doubts Merlin thinks of Ealdor when he looks like that, like the walls of Camelot are closing around him, shrinking him uncomfortably into too-tight skin. Arthur taught him to ride as easily as any knight, but he more often roams the forests on foot for Gaius' make-work errands, playful and light and bright like the golden burn of dawn in high summer stretching over the sky like a miracle. Noting like he is in Camelot, not since Arthur woke from what should have been his death to Merlin, pale and hollowed out, closed-mouthed at his bedside while Gaius gave him potions and refused to meet his eyes.

Picking up the goblet of unwatered wine, Arthur waits for Merlin to return, to the room if not to him.

"It's not dangerous," Merlin says finally, coming to sit at the foot of the bed, unlaced and a little obscene even mostly-dressed. "It's an ocean creature--"

"The name 'sea serpent' does tend one's mind in that direction," Arthur offers, and bites back a smile at the familiar exasperation he pretends to himself is fondness and affection both. "All right. So not dangerous?"

"Not dangerous. Moving it, though--" Merlin frowns, then sighs. "I can't even figure out how it got this far north."

"So from the south?"

Merlin nods absently. "I think it's lost."

There are a hundred rivers and streams running through Albion in lines on the map, circles and twists that end in solid land or streams that even now would be unsuited to something that damned big. It could go forever in circles, or until the rains end and the rivers drop, leaving it stranded far from its home while the water evaporates around it.

Not dangerous, the book had said, but not something to be approached easily, either. Venom, mild, used to paralyze its prey. Arthur was barely brushed with sharp teeth, numbness that eased away in less than an hour. Big and eats everything; no river in all of Albion could support it. It will eat until it starves the people, then starve itself in empty waters.

"Dangerous for anyone who wants to eat fish," Merlin says ruefully. He looks at Arthur measuringly, and Arthur wants to tell him that he doesn't mind that Merlin now finds him wanting. A year is longer than Arthur had ever expected to have, a surfeit of surprises in a life long without them, and this strange boy glittering with the promise of something uncontained by stone castles and the inexorable routine that was duty and disappointment both. I don't mind, he wants to say, and maybe, I'm sorry, I never meant to trick you into thinking I was anything else. And maybe, maybe, don't leave. I can try. I just don't think I'll succeed. "I'll ask Gaius," Merlin says, dismissing the subject as he twists out of his shirt, smiling at Arthur with dancing eyes.

Arthur takes another drink of wine and wonders why he can't taste it. "Did I ever tell you I had a nurse from the countryside?" he says, watching Merlin go on his knees at the foot of the bed, pulling at the knot of his trousers.

"I bet you were a very difficult child."

Arthur smiles slightly, watching Merlin's fingers slide across the bared expanse of skin with every loosening lace. "I was. She'd feed me sweets whenever I was unhappy. Which was often."

"A difficult, fat child."

Arthur watches the trousers slide from Merlin's hips, down the length of pale thighs smudged with fading yellow fingerprints. "That as well," he says, breathless as Merlin crawls out of the trousers, kicking them to the floor. "The kitchens were warm compared to the rest of the castle," he continues as Merlin eases into his lap, hot through the thin material of his trousers.

Merlin takes the cup from his hand, fingers brushing his as he drinks the rest and drops the cup on the floor. "So you outgrew your love of too many pastries?" Merlin says, eyes fixed on the laces of Arthur's shirt before his fingers tangle in them, thumb rubbing at skin beneath.

Arthur tips up his chin, looking into bright blue eyes, and wonders if it will ever hurt less to be this much in love, like burning up inside with no relief in sight. Licking the corner of his mouth, Arthur can taste the sweetness of the wine. "No."

*****

Bedwyr looks up at him from the muddy ground with a faint smile despite the blood smeared across his nose and upper lip. Extending his hand, Arthur pulls him to his feet and smiles back, feeling lighter than he has in days. A short lull in the rains can do wonders for one's mood, he thinks. Well, that and a decent opponent. "Your left wrist is weak," he says, pulling away with a punch to the shoulder. "But better."

"Thank you, sire," Bedwyr says without irony, taking the water skin a nameless squire offers. Craning his neck, he drinks, splashing water over his face before eyeing the sky. "Another hour, maybe."

Arthur glances back at the mud-splattered, miserable knights, who definitely aren't looking at him in hope. "Until you actually can't stand due to copious flooding," he says, watching them sigh en masse before going back to work. "You're much improved," Arthur admits, taking the skin when offered and seeing Merlin talking to Gwen at the edge of the field, waterskin forgotten in one hand.

"I'm not all that fond of being muddy," Bedwyr answers, eyes following Arthur's curiously. Arthur turns his attention to the knights, watching them as they struggle to hold their footing on slick, sopping ground. It's rare they have the luxury of perfect weather, and if the rains have done nothing else, they've given form to flaws that badly need correction. "Sire, I have a request."

Arthur waits while Bedwyr avoids his eyes. "Hearing it would help," Arthur says, and Bedwyr flushes, looking at the ground. He's very young, Arthur realizes; his sheer size makes him seem so much older, but if he's less than two years Arthur's junior, he'd be very surprised.

"There's been some strange--thing in one of the villages on my father's land," Bedwyr says warily. "The flooding has been bad for everyone, but the river fishermen say that their fish are vanishing."

From the corner of his eye, Arthur sees Merlin saying goodbye to Gwen and belatedly become aware he is in fact on duty. Merlin searches the field, frowning slightly; when he finds them, he looks briefly surprised before the blue eyes narrow unexpectedly.

Fish. Bedwyr is talking about fish. "Did anyone mention perhaps seeing something--unusual in the river?" he says carefully. Bedwyr's eyes widen. "Something like a very large snake? A serpent, perhaps?"

Bedwyr blinks. "Yes. Do you know what it is?"

"Sorry," Merlin says, shoving between them and handing Arthur the waterskin. Arthur takes it because he's not sure what else to do as Merlin looks Bedwyr up and down with a measuring look that Arthur knows from experience is not terribly pleasant to receive.

"If you can delay your return until tomorrow morning," Arthur says, weighing the skin, "I think I can accompany you."

"Sire, I don't expect you to inconvenience yourself--"

Arthur doesn't look at the mended arm of his hauberk, skin burning beneath. "It won't be an inconvenience. I'll meet you at dawn. Come along, Merlin," he says, handing Bedwyr both skins as he passes, Merlin trailing him until they reach the courtyard.

"Who is he?"

"Bedwyr?" Arthur looks back at Bedwyr, trying to look casual holding two waterskins, and smiles. "He arrived a few months ago."

"I don't recognize him."

Arthur pushes open the door of the armoury with his shoulder. "Why would you?" Leaving the practice sword, he pauses, noticing Merlin is still frowning even as he helps Arthur free of his armour. "What?"

"I just realized--you haven't ordered me down there in a while," Merlin says slowly. "Months, you say?"

Arthur opens the door to the castle, heading toward the stairs. Behind him, he hears Merlin catch the door and the quick fall of his feet behind him.

"In fact," Merlin says, as if he had just discovered something unpleasant, "I had to ask this time. If I was needed. And you took a bit to respond."

"I did find it odd you asked for extra duties," Arthur admits, taking the stairs two at a time, still feeling flushed from an afternoon of work. So few of the knights can match him; Bedwyr's the only one that even comes close. "Why did you, by the way?"

Merlin keeps up with him, only feet behind when they reach the top of the stairs. "I didn't--wait, you're changing the subject."

"I didn't need you," Arthur says as they go inside. Someone had left fruit on the table, and Arthur picks up an apple, wondering who had thought of it. Taking a bite, he looks at the fire and neatly made bed and comes to the unlikely conclusion that it was Merlin and is surprised into telling the truth. "You hate it. I didn't think you would notice."

"I don't, really," Merlin says, looking at him oddly. "Hate it, I mean. I like watching you."

Arthur wonders what on earth he's supposed to make of that, buying himself a few seconds with continued chewing before he swallows. "I see. Then continue to--"

"But why would you care if I hated it?"

Christ. "Merlin," Arthur says, sitting on the table when his chair seems a very distant two feet away he really doesn't want to bother crossing, "I don't actually live to make you miserable."

Merlin gives him a disbelieving look, crossing from the door to go down on his knees, reaching for Arthur's boots. Arthur stills instinctively at the sight of Merlin at his feet.

"I don't. It's more a pleasant hobby than anything." He takes another bite, mouth dry.

Merlin tosses the first boot toward the bed with more force than strictly required. "Arthur," he starts, and Arthur looks away as Merlin's hands pause on the second boot, with an expression on his face like perhaps he has something to say.

"Bedwyr has a fish problem," he says.

Merlin looks up, neatly distracted. "Really?"

Arthur kicks him lightly until he returns to the task at hand. "Yes," he says. "And a mysterious snake-like creature wandering his river. Sound familiar?"

Merlin's eyes flicker to Arthur's arm, then away, so quickly Arthur wonders if he imagined it. The second boot joins the first, and Merlin stands up, bracing his hands on Arthur's knees, palms warm. "What sort of fish problem?"

"Something eating all of them." Arthur offers Merlin the unmarred side of the apple. "A non-dangerous sea serpent in a river, eating all the fish. Rather mundane, don't you think?"

Merlin contemplates the apple, reaching up and turning it in Arthur's hand before leaning close, teeth overlapping the last bite Arthur took before pulling away, eyes dark. Arthur stares at the pink mouth for a long moment, then looks at the apple. "Did you talk to Gaius?"

"This morning," Merlin says, licking the corner of his mouth. "One of his books had a bit on them."

"Anything on how to move them?" Arthur flickers through the words that send an animal to sleep and wonders that he didn't look to see if there was a spell to move them. He should make more time to read, somehow. "Unless you would like for me to set you on a raft and have you lead it to the promised land."

Merlin grins, and Arthur smiles back, surprised by the warmth, offering the apple again. Merlin tilts his head, and Arthur has a second of flickering regret for the impulse, but Merlin leans forward, taking a slow bite, then closing a hand over Arthur's wrist and easing it aside, offering half the bite from between his teeth.

Arthur takes it, and the tart-sweet tongue that follows, letting go of the apple when Merlin pushes him back on the table, hearing it and three dishes fall to the floor and laughing when Merlin says, smiling against his lips, "I'll clean that up later."

*****

Merlin's left with the dishes by the time Arthur awakens, still humming with the bright energy that followed him from the training field and tasting apple on the back of his tongue. His muddy boots are gone, the mud cleaned from the floor, and Arthur gets another pair, wondering how long it's been since he had a lie-down in the middle of the day. That would be never, barring near-death, that is.

With the clouds and rain turning every day into an endless, miserable evening, he's not entirely sure it counts anyway. It's odd to be without anything in particular to do; usually his father knows when he's finished training and a servant is hovering close, ready with new orders and new expectations. The absence is unsettling and freeing both, and he thinks that perhaps for a little while, he'll take the freedom. Getting his coat and checking his knives, he checks the empty hall and goes out, trying to look as if he's on the way to something very specific instead of nothing specific at all.

He's never cared for being left with the company of only his thoughts, preferring furious activity to too-long contemplation, a preference left from his father's punishments and the hours he would spend alone in his room to stare at grey stone that reminded him he would never clear the debt he owed for taking his mother's life.

The servants don't notice him with more than a bowed head, busy at their own pursuits as he follows nothing in particular, emerging outside under black skies and to the stables, spending a peaceful hour checking his horse, immaculate from Merlin's and later the groom's attentions, wondering why he'd allowed himself to give up a routine that's been part of his day since he was old enough to have his own pony. Finding the kit neatly put away, Arthur goes over her inch by inch, familiarizing himself all over again with the sleek coat and smooth flex of her muscles beneath his hands before finding her tack and making himself comfortable on a bale of hay to oil the leather, metal jingling between his fingers like the sound of perfect contentment with the world.

The rain strengthens, and Arthur hears the doors open and voices, feminine laughter and the groom's indulgent "Yes, my lady,"; going to the stall still holding the bridle, watching Morgana dismount, having probably taken advantage of the lull in weather for a ride and stayed out too long. Water sparkles in the lengths of wind-whipped hair, and her cheeks and lips are stained pink. She looks happy.

"My lady?" Arthur hears Gwen say, and Arthur sees her come down the ladder, looking surprised. "You said you would be back an hour ago." The subtle reproach isn't as subtle as Gwen probably meant it, and Arthur hides a smile as she flushes, but Morgana just laughs.

"And you waited for me?" Shaking her hair back, she crosses to the ladder, picking the hay from Gwen's hair and her smile widens, peering up into the opening. "Merlin, come down."

Arthur catches the bridle when it starts to fall from numb fingers.

Gwen's eyes widen. "My lady, we weren't--"

"Do I need to speak to him on your behalf?" Morgana says, mock serious. "Merlin, should I ask Arthur to speak to you about your intentions toward my maid? I will, you know."

Merlin says something unintelligible, but Arthur recognizes the flickering something that it had taken him far too long to recognize as magic. Then he comes down the ladder, giving Morgana an irritated look.

"Thank you, no, I'm not that fond of the stocks, my lady." Picking straw from his hair, he shrugs. "I thought Gwen might want company when I was done with His Highness' horse."

"I thank you, then," Morgana says with a grin. Arthur watches her shake her cloak. "I thought I had time to get back before it got worse. I'm soaked through."

"You know," Merlin starts with a smile, "I learned--"

"Uh," Gwen looks worried.

"Hold on, just--" And he waves a hand, eyes narrowing with a flare of gold as he murmurs a phrase. There's a crackling sound, then the smell of burnt straw, enough to make his horse shy, and Arthur steps back, catching her head and soothing her with a hand while Morgana says, "That worked?" and Gwen says, resigned, "He lit himself on fire last time. And His Highness' boots as well."

Arthur sits carefully on the bale, drawing his nervous horse with him, rubbing her soft nose until he feels her relax, breath warm against his hand, and thinks of nothing at all.

*****

Arthur sends a message that Merlin isn't needed for the remainder of the evening and instructs the kitchens to have a pack prepared for dawn. Bedwyr looks surprised but amenable enough when Arthur requests his company, and over three ale at the most local tavern possible, Arthur discovers the fish problem is a week old and apparently growing worse.

He also finds out more than he ever wanted to know about Bedwyr's fear of very large reptiles, but it's his own fault, so he bears with it.

So not the same serpent, which opens up an entire train of thought over just how many sea serpents wander into rivers and why in the name of God they'd want to.

"Twenty, thirty feet," Bedwyr slurs by his fourth glass while Arthur nods and pretends to drink his first. "No one ever believes it until they see it," he tells Arthur like a secret, which it probably is. With Uther's stand on magic, it's usually better to err on the side of caution when it comes to speaking of, or believing in, magical creatures. Arthur supposes it helps if it's attacked the crown prince a few times to gain some kind of credibility. "They used to be in moats, you know," Bedwyr says with the wide-eyed sobriety of the very drunk. "Read about it."

Arthur leans an elbow on the table and pretends that he isn't trying to work out how to build a moat around Camelot and have a sea serpent to look down on and perhaps throw irritating people to. Though his limited experience with them tends him toward the idea it would swim around them and perhaps help them onto the shore, which would rather defeat the purpose, but still. A sea serpent in a moat. Just knowing it was there would be enough.

"I wanted to build a moat around our castle when I was younger," Bedwyr tells his glass with the air of a childhood dream crushed. Arthur wishes he'd drank more after all; it would be an excuse for the acute feeling of sympathy.

The tavern has food, hideous stew made from God knows what and a hard black bread that Arthur had, by sheer determination, learned to eat as it traveled very, very well. Alcohol would help with this, too, he thinks, and doesn't think of rat stew no matter the similarity in flavor.

By the time they leave, Arthur's still unfortunately quite sober and helping an agreeable Bedwyr back to his quarters with a faint, thankful thought that at least Bedwyr, despite his height and weight and relative intoxication, isn't impossibly hard to direct, and he doesn’t wince at the weight of him leaning on his shoulder, ale-scented breath warm against his ear as Arthur pushes him into the knights barracks, leaving a message with a page to tell the man when he awakens that their journey will have to wait until the rain lets up enough to see more than a foot ahead of them. More importantly, so the horses can actually get some kind of footing on this kind of ground.

Of course, he could ask Merlin to do something about that, and while he's at it, about moving a serpent a great and terrible distance as well, but that would require Arthur knowing something about that sort of thing and what do you know, Arthur doesn't know anything at all about Merlin's magic.

Merlin's not in his chambers when he returns, and he buries his knife in the rough wood of the table, through the apple that had been left at the center, dark red skin splitting open to reveal the yellow-white center like a bared belly. He reminds himself that he'd always known what this was and puts away his own clothes, piling them neatly in the corner and going to bed, tossing a pillow toward the door that still smells of apple and the afternoon's sweat.

*****

As it turns out, the page was quite unnecessary; Bedwyr's hangover meets a rain-bourne cold. Merlin tells him at presumed dawn, a faint lightening of the sky somewhere that could be east, beyond rain falling like sheets from the sky.

"Miserably sick," Merlin says, reaching to pluck something from his hair when Arthur surfaces blearily from beneath the pillows and wishes he could excuse his headache with a hangover. "It's early yet, but I can get you breakfast, if you wish."

"Not--yet," he says drowsily. Looking at Merlin's pale face hovering over him, eyes shadowed, Arthur forgets his pride. "Come to bed."

Merlin slips off his boots and tunic with gratifying speed, shucking trousers as he climbs in, and maybe he's tired too, letting Arthur wrap around him as he likes and pulling the blankets over them both, stroking through his hair with slow, gentle fingers. Arthur falls asleep again between one slow, sleepy kiss and the next while the rain falls outside like it will never end.

*****

"I know there were clothes here," Merlin is saying when Arthur returns from the enforced midday meal with his father and a lecture about various things that Arthur's luckily expected to have no opinion on himself. Afterward, he checked the granary by habit and their stores and thought of rationing and of wheat and rye rotting in the fields, ordering supplies be sent to the river-decimated villages.

"I sent them down already," Arthur says, looking around the narrow confines of the room with a feeling of incipient claustrophobia. Merlin pulls out from under the bed and looks up at Arthur with unreadable blue eyes.

"You did."

Arthur plays with his knife and wishes he had a firmer reputation as one who is too fond of the wine and could order a skin, but then again, he has reputation enough in other things and keeping track of that and everything else as well would be a bother Adding overfondness for drink would be nearly impossible to maintain without wasting it out the window.

"There was a passing chambermaid," he hazards, and Merlin goes still and stiff, jerking himself to his feet and looking anywhere but at him.

"I see." Merlin looks around the room as if he just realized how small it is. "Do you have anything else you need, Sire?"

Arthur fixes his gaze on the expanse of stone above the fireplace and imagines a world he could answer that question honestly. "No. Does Gaius not require your services?"

Merlin looks at him incredulously. "So that's how it is?" he says slowly, each word sharply edged like a unsheathed blade, and Arthur doesn't look at him, hands locked behind his back. There had to be a time they weren't like this, when he could shout and Merlin would argue and they might once in a while hear each other, but he doesn't know how to go back and find it.

For a wonderful second, it looks like just maybe, Merlin will break, shout, do something, and Arthur wants to see it so badly he can't imagine wanting anything else.

"Well," Merlin says instead, whip-edged voice meant to cut, to wound, "if that's all you think of me," and Arthur's not sure when it changed, but the narrow confines of stone become even closer, and Merlin's kneeling at his feet, fingers on the laces of his trousers, blue eyes flickering in gold. Arthur grabs for the table behind him and looks down at the dark head with a feeling of inevitability before he reaches down, slapping Merlin's hands away.

Dropping on his knees, he jerks Merlin into a kiss to drown out the apology running through his head, I'm sorry he tells him with his tongue, I love you and I'll be what you want if I can, and the humiliation of it makes him rougher than he wants to be, pushing up Merlin's chin, licking promises and apologies and all the things that have no words and never will. It wasn't supposed to be like this, Arthur thinks, jerking his tunic off and spreading it behind Merlin, easing him down on his back; he wasn't ever going to make his father's mistake and fall in love like this and have so fucking much to lose.

This kind of vulnerability is like a bleeding wound that will never heal, and Arthur knows why sorcerers burn in the city square for a woman long dead and almost beyond memory; there's nothing that his father's done that he wouldn't do and do better. He'd tear apart a kingdom if Merlin asked it of him, mouthing frantic kisses down Merlin's narrow chest, hands shaking until he jerks out a knife and cuts the knotted laces away and the thin linen too, licking a slow line down Merlin's belly before taking him in his mouth.

Merlin arches with a gasp, thin fingers scratching helplessly against his shoulder, tangling in his hair, and Arthur rides each rough thrust; he learned this from Merlin like he's learned so many things, relaxing his throat and breathing through his nose, letting Merlin set the pace, rough and jerky and too fast, tongue slick against the round head and cupping his balls to feel him shudder, twisting up and in and fucking his mouth.

Over the roar in his ears, he hears Merlin talking, strings of syllables that joined together might even make words, going tight and still beneath his hands, and Arthur swallows, vaguely surprised he doesn’t choke, but he's always been good at what he chooses to learn. He stills until he feels Merlin go limp and sits up, mouth sore and raw, throat aching and feeling bruised and so very, very tired.

Pulling away, he looks at the mess of flushed Merlin on his floor, eyes glazed and mouth open, and braces his back against the foot of the bed and closes his eyes.

After a while, he hears Merlin sit up, but he doesn't go away, and Arthur feels him take up footboard space a long foot away. "There was straw," Merlin says, voice cracking.

Arthur looks at him, but Merlin's leagues away and going farther by the second.

"This morning," Merlin says, staring at the fire with unseeing eyes. "In--in your hair, straw from your horse's stable, I know because I put it there and it was the only dry straw left. I know you didn't go riding because I had your boots and the others aren't muddy enough." Merlin licks his lips. "You dismissed me and I couldn't find you. I always know where you are, and I didn't know you went to the stables yesterday."

"Always." It's not a question.

Merlin looks at him now. "In the back of my mind, you're always there," he says bleakly, and Arthur thinks this is an admission, a confession. "I could always find you, and now I can't and I don't know why. I can't find you anymore."

That makes two of us, Arthur thinks, rubbing his face tiredly.

"I was with Bedwyr," Arthur says, then rethinks the phrasing. "At the tavern. About the sea serpent."

"But you were in the stables before."

Arthur hesitates, then nods. Merlin closes his eyes, swallowing.

"You didn't ask about your boots," Merlin whispers, offered like a olive branch or a sword, hilt-first. Arthur can't tell the difference between a treaty or unconditional surrender anymore. Maybe he never has.

"No, I didn't."

Merlin braces his arms on his bent knees, head buried in them, and Arthur can see his shoulders shaking. "That--that explains it," he says, so softly that Arthur almost doesn't hear him. "Everything. How long?"

Arthur thinks there are more answers to that than sea serpents in the sea.

"When?" Merlin says, voice flat and terrifyingly blank.

Arthur stares at the fire. "I thought you did it on purpose," he says finally. "I thought--and it turns out you were merely tired. You didn't even know you did it."

"When?"

Arthur looks into gold sheened eyes and almost laughs. "When the fuck do you think?"

*****
*****

"…hauberk and could you clean my sword as well?" Arthur said, amused at the way Merlin looked at him with utter hate. "You've been lazing about enough while I've been in that damn bed--"

"Lazed about?" Merlin stared between Arthur and the pile of laundry that had grown steadily into a small but easily identifiable mountain over the last few weeks. "You have got to be joking."

Merlin pushed a tunic toward the pile with one foot, and Arthur thought of the last few weeks of utter misery for them both, trapped in this damnable room and endless games of dice and chess and finally some incredibly plebian game with rocks and sticks that Merlin had sworn all children played in Ealdor all their lives, which was why he always won. Merlin had never been more than three feet from his bed waking and possibly sleeping if Gaius' frown was anything to go by.

Turning away, Arthur picked up a piece of fruit from the table and turned in time to see Merlin wave a hand, muttering under his breath, and the lukewarm bath that Arthur had waited too long to take began to steam.

It had been like revelation, like epiphany, like a puzzle where all the pieces suddenly slid together, locking of their own volition before his eyes, and he dropped the fruit, letting it roll where it would.

Merlin turned around, looking at the laundry with a faint frown from black-circled eyes and then Arthur said "Merlin" and "Come here" and everything, he'd thought when he kissed him, everything changed

As it turned out, that was true and a lie as well, as most things tended to be; he'd woken warm and impossibly content to a manservant cleaning his room, wrapped in coarse linen and lying without a word being spoken, willing to share his body but never his secrets.

*****

In retrospect, he hasn't handled this well at all, but then again, he's not sure Merlin did any better.

*****
*****

Part 2

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