Merlin doesn't so much lose the animation as have it drained right out of him the second Morgan and Gwen leave. It's not very flattering.
"I don't care what you said to him," Arthur hears himself say into the silence.
Merlin looks up, startled. "What?"
It's impossible to stand still; Arthur doesn't even try, pacing the clearing. "To Pustilius. Whatever his name is. I don't care. I don't care if you insulted his lineage and implied his mother plied her trade among the wolves. It doesn't matter."
Christ, Morgana was right; maybe this *is* like a marriage. At least he and Merlin get along better than most of the couples at court; so far as he knows, they have yet to try and stab each other to death in their sleep or run away with a disturbingly underage stableboy or chambermaid in a fit of pique. Considering that Arthur's future wife will be chosen less for compatibility than for her political value, Merlin may be the only marriage he'll have that won't end in bloodshed or a great deal of fortifying wine.
Merlin frowns. "I don't understand."
Arthur comes to a stop in front of the log. "I don't care if you insult every knight in Camelot. God knows they do it to each other enough. The songs alone…" Arthur could live the rest of his life without listening to a few dozen drunken men with neither vocal talents nor understanding of rhythm empty a tavern of people running in defence of their sanity. "Never mind. That's not why--that's not why I'm angry. Not with you."
Merlin looks concerned, the way he does when Arthur's bleeding copiously. It's not reassuring. "Are you feeling--"
"So your men say, quite loudly. Without prompting. While Gaius treats them."
Arthur stops short. There's the faintest trace of a smile curving the corner of Merlin's mouth. "Do they now?"
Merlin nods solemnly. "Even while Gaius sews them up."
"They've been inattentive."
"It's been that sort of week." Merlin shifts on the log, looking anywhere but at him. Dropping on the log beside him, Arthur sighs.
"The drapes are very nice. Very red."
"Your bed hangings are currently drying in the kitchen garden," Merlin says mischievously. "It's difficult to get that particular shade of prat red, you know."
Arthur stops the shudder before it starts. "I won't apologize for Midsummer." Hesitating, he looks at Merlin, at the warm smile he's never seen Merlin turn on anyone else. "But perhaps next time, I'll--consider your objections."
"I would have stayed if you'd just asked." Merlin looks away quickly, flushing, as if he'd said something he hadn't meant to. "Gwen said it wasn't terribly interesting anyway."
Arthur swallows, throat tight. "I'll keep that in mind."
The silence stretches out between them, waiting for--something.
"I am sorry." Merlin says suddenly. "About Pustilius--Persivance--"
"Pustilius," Arthur says darkly.
"Him. I didn't--think. He was very--" Merlin's eyes narrow in memory. "Irritating."
Any other knight would have probably knocked Merlin around and then left him bruised but otherwise unhurt; a knight of Camelot wouldn't have baited Merlin at all. And only Pustilius would go to Uther.
Then again, Pustilius isn't a knight of Camelot.
"What did he say to you?" Merlin's smile vanishes, and Arthur backtracks immediately, wanting it back. It's been too long since he's seen it turned on him. "Very well, if you insist on the secret, so be it. How do you feel?"
"Quite well," Merlin says, sounding so relieved that Arthur raises an eyebrow. Standing up, he does his best to look quite at ease and perhaps could even have carried it off if he hadn't been listing to port so badly. "Another week--"
"Yes, another week." Arthur catches him when his left leg collapses; he's so light, it feels as if a breeze could steal him away. Arthur tightens his grip, shifting Merlin's weight and picking up his discarded sword.
"Let me take that--"
"Just hold on," Arthur answers, pulling Merlin's arm over his shoulder. "Let's get you back. And eat something. Does Gaius never feed you? Need I supervise that as well as your swordsmanship?"
Merlin mutters something, pale skin flushing, and Arthur listens to the cadence of his voice as they return to the castle, Merlin's long fingers locked trustingly over the curve of his shoulder.
Gaius isn't in; frowning, Arthur leads Merlin to the table, hearing Merlin's sigh of relief when his feet no longer touch the floor. "Where's Gaius?"
"With your father. I think." Even that short walk had exhausted him; Merlin sinks back onto the table with a groan. "I pity your knights if this is what they go through every day with you."
"They know what to expect." Arthur says absently. "Where--never mind, I remember." Opening the cabinet, Arthur studies the array of bottles with a frown. "At least he uses Latin for his labels," Arthur says. "He used to threaten to put them in Frankish if I kept skipping my lessons."
"Because that was the lesson I was skipping." There, third row. Taking out the bottle, Arthur opens it, sniffing only long enough to feel nauseated. Yes, this one. "Sit up."
Merlin does, eyebrows drawn together tightly. "What--"
"I wasn't told he hurt your back."
Merlin blinks, mouth open. "How did you know--"
"I'm a prince. Omnipotence comes with my exalted station. Take off--or don't, I'm not sure you can mange to remove your shirt without tearing it. Though truly," and Arthur takes a second to study it with narrowed eyes, "it would be no great loss. The household has competent seamstresses and I certainly pay you enough. Please consider dressing appropriately to your station."
Not chamber pot. And oddly, still not what Arthur wants to hear. "Never mind. Hold still."
Steadying Merlin with one hand against his shoulder, he pulls up the thin cloth, and it's only years of watching the thousands of ways men can kill each other that keeps him from reacting. Tucking the shirt up under the hand on Merlin's shoulder, Arthur ghosts the line that bisects Merlin's back with one finger, so perfectly straight he couldn't have been moving at all when it opened up his skin. Without treatment by someone of Gaius' skill….
"Looks nasty, but it's shallow enough. Hold still." Dipping one finger into the salve, Arthur pretends it doesn't smell of the garderobe. It doesn't work, but he pretends it does.
"You shouldn't--ohhhh." Merlin shivers at the first touch, going quiet and very still. Arthur's treated his men before, far from Camelot and Gaius' skill, unwilling to trust their lives to hired leeches who put their faith in superstition and bleeding ill humours away, so there's nothing unfamiliar in this, as impersonal and clinical as--
As it's not, at all; it can't be. He doesn't want it to be. Taking a breath, Arthur forgets the smell, focusing on the carefully sewn cut. It's not deep, but Arthur suspects it was meant to be. Working the salve into the wound, Arthur follows every shift of Merlin's body, lightening his touch as he nears the vulnerable spine. He'd never realized how well he knew Merlin, reading his body as easily as he reads his own.
"There might be a scar," Arthur says huskily. Merlin nods, a bare rise and fall of his head. Arthur straightens briefly; Merlin's hands are white-knuckled, locked around the edge of the table, but Arthur doesn't think it's from pain. "Almost done."
"I--" Merlin swallows audibly. "It's--it's fine, Arthur. Sire."
For his age and rank, Merlin's skin is remarkably fine; Arthur eases the shirt higher, sliding his thumb along the faintest line just below the first knob where neck and shoulders meet. "What was this?"
"Hunting," Merlin says thickly. Arthur snorts. "Really. We all had to at home. We--me and Will would go out for a day or so."
"Were you any good at it then?"
"As I needed to be." Arthur skims a thumb down the knobs of Merlin's spine from nape to the loose waist of his trousers and feels Merlin lean back into it, breath catching. "It's different. When you--you know. That you won't eat otherwise."
"Granted." A small, easily ignorable part of Arthur's mind is appalled at what he's doing; a willing chambermaid is one thing. A wounded--servant is another thing entirely. Under a death sentence, for that matter, and while neither of them say it, Arthur knows Merlin knows it. Resting his hand on the curve of Merlin's back, Arthur releases a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. "I wish for you to leave Camelot."
Merlin stiffens; Arthur tightens his grip on Merlin's shoulder and reaches for Merlin's hip, holding Merlin in place. "Sire--"
"Albion is large and even Pustilius can't hunt you forever. I'll find another way to satisfy him and my father."
When Merlin stills, Arthur lets go, shirt covering the glistening wound. Circling the table, Arthur looks at the bent head, waiting until Merlin looks up, defiance mixed with resignation, as if he's already given up.
"You'd die for me," Arthur says flatly, holding Merlin's gaze. "I'm asking you to live for me."
"What would the court think, if I ran away? What I do reflects on you--"
"Don't you dare throw that back at me--"
"In this, it does. On Gaius. On--on Camelot. On you." Mouth tight, Merlin looks down. "There's nowhere else. This is my home. I can't--I won't give that up."
Arthur brackets Merlin between his arms, hands pressed into the rough wood of the table hard enough to ache, forehead pressed to Merlin's, breathing him in: an afternoon in the sun, the scent of fresh leaves and new grass and clean sweat, Merlin warm and familiar and valued beneath it. "I can't watch you die."
Tentative hands cover his, warm and rough with new blisters and new calluses that won't do anything more than delay the inevitable. "I'll try not to die, then."
The sound of the door jerks Arthur back into the room, but what he regrets most is the loss of Merlin's hands. Stepping back, he turns to the door just as Gaius comes in.
"Merlin, are you--oh, Your Highness." With a bow, Gaius looks at Merlin with a frown. "What have you--"
"His back gave him some trouble," Arthur says flatly. "It needs to be examined." Before Gaius can answer, Arthur turns away, salve still slicking the fingers he locks behind his back.
Arthur opens the door to his father's study; the steward breaks off mid-sentence, bowing as Uther looks up. Arthur glances at the papers scattered over the desk, recognizing supply reports, household accounts brought for his father's approval, the neat columns of numbers that represent the treasury. Uther's crown is set aside, dressed in an old doublet worn thin with time, very little the glittering man that presides over Camelot's court.
Yet Arthur thinks sometimes that here is where his father is most truly King; stripped of ornament, bent over accounts and studying reports, involving himself in the minutia of the land and the people he rules and loves more than his own life.
Uther raises a hand to his steward. "Leave us."
The courtesy surprises him; Uther tends to prefer an audience when dealing with his son. The man bows to them both, gathering his papers in both arms. Arthur keeps his gaze on his father.
When the door shuts, Uther leans back in his chair, every inch the faintly dissatisfied father. "Is there something you wish to say?"
He knows; Arthur fights the urge to straighten under the steady gaze. "I wish to take Merlin's place when he faces Percivance."
"Persivance will not accept the exchange." Hands folding on the desk, Uther watches him thoughtfully. "And you know that as well as I."
"There is no possible way Merlin can hope to challenge him," Arthur answers, hands locked behind his back, salve slick between clenched fingers. "Percivance knows that as well."
"I would guess that is why he challenged him." Because he wouldn't dare to challenge you is unspoken; Arthur clenches his teeth. "I will not order it, if that's what you desire. Your manservant accepted his challenge--"
"When the other option was flogging, he can be forgiven for thinking it the lesser of two evils."
Uther's mouth tightens. "Careful Arthur--"
"He is not yet well enough to return to his duties--"
"But well enough for you to instruct him daily." For a horrified second, Arthur wonders if Uther knows of Morgana and Gwen's participation, but no. His expression remains stern, not homicidal. "His own actions condemned him, Arthur."
"He was provoked."
Uther shrugs dismissively; Merlin is dead and burned already as far as he's concerned, with no more thought given to him than an aged horse or broken sword. Arthur feels his fingernails break skin, blood welling up hot and sticky against his palms. "He should have considered the consequences more carefully before assaulting a member of the nobility."
"He will be killed," Arthur says flatly. "And publicly, for the amusement of this court. I did not think we were willing to revive the circuses of Rome, but if we are to do so, let me suggest we not begin with spending the lives Camelot's subjects so cheaply. Perhaps we could begin with prisoners of war and watch them fight for our amusement--"
"Enough!" Uther stands up, both hands braced on the desk, face reddening. "You forget yourself."
"I do not forget what is owed to the people who depend on--"
"He broke the law, Arthur." Uther says, voice hard. "He chose his method of punishment. If it costs him his life, it will serve as an example--"
"An example of *what*? What possible good could come of this? To show we care so little for our people that we allow them to be slaughtered like *sheep* for our entertainment? Is that the kingdom you have built?"
Arthur was seventeen the last time he pushed his father too far; a room full of knights watched as Arthur found himself kneeling at his father's feet, mouth smeared with his own blood. As an example, it had been both instructive and lasting. The memory of humiliation had checked him more times than he can count, tasting blood every time he bent before his father's will. His pride would never allow him to be shamed like that again, before his own men and his father's court.
He had arrested Gwen for witchcraft; his men slew her father like a common criminal; he's watched sorcerers burn and ordered their executions himself. There might be shame to be put on his knees, bloodied by his father's hand before the court, but now he thinks it can never match Gwen breaking before his eyes, the scornful rise of Morgana's chin, or the chilled turn of Merlin's back. It's not the crown prince of Camelot they condemned, not the knight, not the disappointment he is as son and heir; they looked at Arthur, the man who should have protected them, fought for them, and found him lacking.
He's not seventeen; he's slept in a dungeon for a flower; he helped a child sorcerer escape his father's justice; he left Camelot to follow his conscience to Ealdor and led peasants in insurrection against bandits.
Arthur doesn't flinch when his father circles the desk; he can't taste blood, not this time. He sees Gwen's father burned on a pyre for a mistake; Gwen curled small and pale in the dungeons; Morgana's bruised wrists and haunted eyes; Merlin falling beneath the sword of a man not fit to wipe his boots, whatever his birth might be.
So he waits for the blow; he would take it before his father's court, if it meant this time, he wouldn't break. He'd take it before the world itself, if it would spare Merlin's life.
Uther stops less than an inch away; Arthur looks at the man who is his king and his father, and forgets how to be afraid.
"If Percivance withdraws," Uther says, voice low, "I will consider this matter closed." Arthur blinks. "Otherwise, your servant will die. If you interfere, you will spend the last hours of his life in the dungeon. Now. You have wasted enough of my time, Arthur. This behaviour is beneath you. You may go."
Pustilius is an idiot.
Arthur leans against the walls, barely hidden in the shadows, watching as the man comes in, playing absently with a heavy pendant circling his thick neck that Arthur's often thought would look far better if the chain were far, far tighter.
"It's strange," Arthur says. "There were no fatal wounds."
Pustilius stiffens, reaching for the sword that's no longer in the chair by his bed. Narrowed eyes dart here and there, looking for the source, and somehow, against all odds, miss Arthur entirely.
It's irritating. Arthur sighs, stepping into the full candlelight, waiting patiently until Pustilius finally looks his direction. Shock strips the colour from his face before he recovers himself, but nothing can erase that second of utter fear.
"You don't have the subtlety to wound without killing, and so the wounds were too light. You meant to maim him."
Pustilius straightens, trying imposing and failing. "I have no idea--"
"You don't notice anyone below your rank. You never have. It's beneath you. So why would you notice him?"
"I told you--"
"Your squire was with you. There was nothing you required."
"I resent these insinuations--"
"You never notice servants. Yet you noticed him."
Pustilius stills. "What do you think, Sire?"
"That you were too afraid to challenge me."
For a second, Arthur almost thinks the man is going to try to deny it. His expression shifts, affronted innocence replaced with what Arthur's felt since the first time they met. "It's been a long three years, Arthur. I should have been knighted when I arrived."
Arthur nods, unsurprised. "And you thought this way would work?"
"I thought you needed the reminder of who I am."
Arthur leans back against the wall. "Remind me, then."
"Better born than any of the men you call knights. And far better born than the man who forced my father to kneel and beg for what was his by right of birth." Arthur straightens, but Pustilius only laughs. "Please. You can't kill me. You need my father. Uther can't hold the kingdom if we rebel."
"You cannot win."
Pustilius smiles. "In a civil war, the winner is the last one standing. It might be you. Or it might not. Not everyone is so comfortable beneath your father's boot."
Arthur hadn't brought his sword; good luck or bad, he's not sure. Pustilius' death is something he would enjoy too much. "So you plan to kill my servant for revenge."
"I won't kill him when he faces me this week. But he won't walk away from that field, Arthur. Nor will he crawl. A man needs hands and feet for that. I want him to be a living reminder of what I am due."
Arthur swallows; somehow, his hand found its way to his knife, fingers clenched so tightly he can feel the metal imprint itself into his skin. "Do you think you can continue here after this?" Arthur says softly.
"I can. And I will. Or there will be war. And you value your power far more than you could ever value one servant's useless life."
Pustilius smirks, turning his back; so stupid, Christ, Arthur can imagine how it would feel to bury his knife in that broad back.
"If you were offered the knighthood in exchange for withdrawing, would you accept it?"
Pustilius snort, turning to Arthur with a triumphant smile. "No. I'll have my knighthood either way. Your father will insist after this. I'm sure a physician of Gaius' reputed skills can ensure he will live a good long while in--whatever condition I permit him to be left in."
Pustilius sits on the bed, looking at Arthur with naked amusement. "It is late, Your Highness, and I'm quite tired. It's been a very long day."
Arthur waits, watching Pustilius' smirk, pasted onto his face like an ill-fitting garment to an uneven body, letting Pustilius see the many ways Arthur would kill him if he could. Some of them might even involve a blade.
When the smirk fades to trembling uncertainty, Arthur pushes off the wall. "Have a pleasant evening."
The corridors are silent; Arthur pauses long enough to catch himself on the wall, bile sour on the back of his tongue. Then he straightens and walks away.
Gaius freezes, and not only because he didn't hear Arthur come in. Leaning against the doorway, Arthur glances at the table, at the new stains that Gaius hasn't had a chance to sand away that mark the places that Merlin had bled for the easing of Pustilius' pride.
"Sire?" Turning around, Gaius frowns, a glass bottle in one hand. "Is something--"
"My father couldn't purge the realm of magic without using it. It's polite fiction that he had no sorcerers in his ranks, hoping, quite futilely as it turned out, to buy their lives by betraying their kind. You were not the least of them, and yet you lived. You must have been very good."
Gaius closes his eyes. "Sire--"
"Kestrel Inn was where Elwyn of Cornwall made her final stand, and before the night was over you watched her burn in the city square. Some said it was the protection of God, and maybe some even believed it, that you walked through fire without a scratch."
"That was--a very long time ago."
"I remember very well. Camelot is anathema to bards, but minstrels who bowed before my father's will are willing enough to tell the tale of that night. How you faced her, a powerless physician cloaked in your own righteousness and brought her low. We both know what part of that story is a lie."
Arthur sees his hands shake as he sets the bottle down, eyes flickering to Merlin's door and then away. "I cannot."
"Cannot, or will not?
"I *cannot*." Gaius opens his eyes. "I went on my knees before your father and swore when the purge was done, I would never use magic again."
"I don't care if you swore on God's own *throne*--"
"And it left me." Gaius' mouth twists. "Some sorcerers are made from study, and some are born. I haven't worked magic in over fifteen years. There is little left of what I was." Something hot and angry flares in his eyes. "Do you think I would scruple to use it if it would save him?"
"Then find me someone who can."
Gaius' eyes widen. "This is treason--"
"It is treason to cross my will. My father will not live forever, but you will not see the end of his reign. You won't burn. But you will wish you had."
"The next words you speak will be directions to a sorcerer who will do as I command or you will never speak again. I will cut out your tongue." Arthur's not sure when he took out his knife; he just knows he wants to use it more than he's ever wanted anything in his life.
"He won't have to go very far, sire."
Arthur's head snaps around; Merlin's leaning against the door of his room. For a second, the blue eyes look into his in resignation, then there's a flare of brilliant gold. Arthur watches with a curious lack of surprise as his knife settles in Merlin's palm.
The gold fades, swallowed by the blue, before Merlin looks away, shoulders slumping in defeat. "I'm sorry. I didn't--I couldn't tell you."
No, Arthur thought distantly; he couldn't. Merlin sat outside the door of Gwen's cell when she was arrested and held her hand when her father died. He hid a sorcerer with Morgana and brought her poultices for her bruised wrists to ease her pain. He watched from Arthur's window as sorcerers faced the axe or the pyre, watched Arthur stand beside his father and ordered the deaths of men and women for no better reason than what they were born.
Merlin hadn't told Arthur, the man who should have protected him, should have fought for him, because he found him lacking.
Merlin's head jerks up, eyes wide. "Sire--"
"Use it when you face him. In whatever way will save you."
Merlin's eyes flicker to Gaius, then away. Licking his lips, he looks at Arthur. "I can't."
"If you will not obey, perhaps you can be persuaded. You will do what you must to survive that fight, or Gaius life is forfeit."
Merlin straightens abruptly; Arthur makes himself ignore Merlin's flinch of pain. "Sire--*Arthur*--"
"You will use it. Or Gaius will be accused of sorcery against the crown and I will light his pyre with my own hands. I hope that this is clear."
Arthur doesn't remember the walk to his room, newly cleaned by an attractively compliant chambermaid who smiles honey-slow in invitation.
Whatever she sees tears the smile away; bowing awkwardly, she turns toward the door, almost stumbling to get away, and Arthur looks at a room that's been touched and cleaned by unfamiliar hands. The vivid drapes are the only thing of Merlin that remains.
Merlin cares for his clothing and his chambers and his weapons, arms him for tournaments and for hunts and for battle. Merlin's slept at his side and fought at his back and saved his life. Merlin argues with him and fights for him and doesn't know that he's supposed to fear him.
He's a sorcerer, his fate in Camelot written on the sharpened blade of an axe, and yet he stays, polishing armour and serving wine and risking treason with every breath he takes to protect Arthur. And Arthur can't protect him; he can't even make Merlin protect himself.
Arthur asks permission to go on a hunt; his father raises an eyebrow but nods acceptance. Pustilius declines; he can see the crossbow bolt Arthur would place in his back without a moment's hesitation every time Arthur looks at him.
Arthur doesn't see Morgana or Merlin at all. He's not sure if he should regret that.
Six days have never passed so quickly or so slowly; Arthur forgets what it was like to sleep. Every time he closes his eyes, he sees Pustilius standing over Merlin's bleeding, breathing body; he sees the blood-splattered room Gaius will take him to afterward and try to save whatever Pustilius leaves of him. He drives his knights mercilessly through Camelot's forests, a gruelling, endless chase broken with exhausted collapse that brings nothing like rest.
Camelot's dark when they return; he told himself he wasn't counting the days, but it's a lie that his men recognized long before he did. He's too exhausted to think of sleep; it's hours until Merlin faces Pustilius and after that…
Pushing open his door, Arthur frowns at the candlelight, then the mess of clothing and equipment he abandoned on the floor for the chambermaids to deal with.
"I told the chambermaids they weren't needed any longer," Merlin says from somewhere in the shadows. "If you throw that, I'm not sure I can get out of the way in time. It's tricky, and you have better aim than that sorceress."
Arthur lowers his arm, unclenching his fingers from around the hilt of his knife. Taking a breath, he drops it on the table, then pauses to look at what appears to be food. Still hot. "You will not commit treason to save your life, but will for my dinner? I'm not sure whether to be touched or appalled."
Merlin ignores that, no surprise. "Take a bath first," Merlin answers, emerging from the far side of the bed. He looks somewhat better than he did when Arthur left, but candlelight can lie as easily as men. "So there weren't any rivers about?"
"None that I was interested in exploring." But he can't help staring at the bath, steaming temptingly only feet away. At least now he knows how it was always the perfect temperature. "I should have known."
"Hmm?" Merlin turns him slightly, fingers quick on the laces at his throat before he frowns, peering at Arthur curiously. "Is there blood in your *ears*?"
"Probably." He's too tired to react appropriately and gives up trying; closing his eyes, he gives himself up to Merlin's familiar hands. "I used to have squires do this, you know." They'd been terrible, torn between the terror of touching him at all and touching him far too much, clumsy in their eagerness until he'd sent them away, unable to stand another moment of their company. Merlin from the first was so much easier; he'd learned his skill from Arthur's body alone.
"I know." The heavy metal pulls away with a grating sound; Arthur had forgotten how his arm felt without the weight of the vambrace. "They ran away or you ate them or something. The stories were never clear, but I understand their ghosts haunt the armoury. Have you--have you even taken this off since you left? It's buckled completely wrong." Merlin's fingers slide between leather and the chafed skin of Arthur's wrist. "I didn't know you could do this to metal."
Arthur can't remember dressing in the first place. "I prefer competent assistance." Yes, he's tired. He just complimented Merlin. "Or as close as I can get to it."
"Better." He can hear the laugh buried in Merlin's voice. "Hold still. Your mail is glued to your tunic and--oh. That's your skin."
Arthur shrugs, obediently following the pressure of Merlin's fingers against his neck, tipping his head forward at the gentle push. There's a distant, sharp pain, the scratch of metal against his face when he lifts his arms, before Merlin moves away briefly, mail set aside. When he returns, finger slide in the collar and he hears a knife slicing the cloth from neck to hem, cool air brushes across his bare skin. "There, that's--oh."
He doesn't have to look to know what Merlin must see. "Finish."
Merlin peels away the linen and wool with careful fingers, pulling it free from caked blood and days of sweat, tossing it somewhere in the mess of clothes already on the floor. Warm, callused hands skim the length of his bare back, over old bruising and sore muscles. Arthur sucks in a breath at the press of fingers against his skin, hard so abruptly he can barely think.
"You were injured." Merlin's palm rests lightly against his back, a centre of vivid heat.
"I'm used to it."
"That doesn't mean it doesn't hurt." Merlin hesitates. "Let me get--"
Merlin snorts softly before circling around, giving Arthur an irritated look before he goes to his knees. Arthur's mouth goes dry at the first touch of fingers on the tangled laces of his trousers. "Christ, Merlin."
Merlin looks up, hands stilling. "Arthur?"
That's what he's been waiting for.
Reaching down, Arthur gets a handful of rough wool and pulls, hearing seams split before Merlin can find his balance. Pushing Merlin against the bedpost, Arthur pins his wrists on the other side, looking into eyes that flicker amber and gold in their depths. "Use it."
"If I do, what makes me different from Tauren or, or Edwin? Or any of the other sorcerers that come here and use their powers to hurt people?"
"I don't care about them."
"That's not a good reason."
"It's my reason."
Merlin looks away. "You'd hate yourself. And you'd hate me for being the reason you--" Merlin licks his lips, eyes closing briefly. "Have you ever beaten a servant?"
Arthur tightens his grip on Merlin's wrists once. "Trick question."
Merlin's mouth softens, corner sliding up in amusement. "Fine. Would you beat Morgana?"
"No. Though I have been tempted."
"And you won't spar with her."
"No. Are we playing twenty questions? Because I have one, and I think it's my turn."
They're too close to the same height; Merlin doesn't intimidate easily, even now. "Because she's not your equal. Because the disparity of skill between you gives her a disadvantage that cannot be evened. Because--"
"You've used your magic before.
Merlin ducks his head. "It would be so easy," he says finally. "I've thought of nothing else. And sometimes--sometimes I almost convince myself that it would be such a little thing. But even I have honour, Arthur--"
Arthur steps closer, leaning close enough to breathe into his ear, "I meant--."
Merlin swallows, shaking his head. "And if he were a bandit, or a sorcerer, or a marching army, it would matter not at all. This--this isn't any of those things. And you know the ban on charms in single combat is older than the purge."
"If it were me that would face an unequal contest, would you do it?"
Merlin stares at him helplessly. Arthur doesn't need his answer; he can read it in his face.
"But not for yourself." Pausing, Arthur takes a deep breath. "This has nothing to do with honour, because yours is mine. It is my duty and my right as your master to protect you, or to give you the means to protect yourself."
"By taking advantage of someone who cannot defend themselves from what I can do?"
Something's shaping in the back of Arthur's mind. Merlin's somehow managed to convince himself that this makes any kind of rational sense, so Arthur sets it aside for now. "Were your ribs broken?"
Merlin blinks, then winces. "Yes. Gaius--we found a--thing. To help with that."
Sliding a hand beneath Merlin's shirt, Arthur trails his fingertips across unbroken ribs that never pierced a lung. Merlin shivers, eyes half-closed, mouth softening as his head tilts back against the post.
"It was about me." Merlin's eyes open, startled. "What he said to provoke you. You cannot lose an opportunity to defend me, can you? Even when you're still angry with me."
Merlin almost smiles. "You would have done the same for me. And have."
"Was it true? What he said?"
Studying the sudden hot flush, Arthur thinks he can guess. "Tell me."
"He--he said that your preference for--for taking--that it would be difficult for you to rule a kingdom when you made no secret you preferred to lie with your servants."
Not so far from true, then.
Shifting his grip on Merlin's wrists, Arthur drops to his knees, shoving the thin cotton higher. The mottled bruising is yellow-plum, shading in sick green to clear skin. Arthur ghosts a touch over the darkest bruising where blood flooded beneath the surface of the skin, then presses his lips against it, feeling the shift of muscle, Merlin's sharp intake of breath.
Pulling back, Arthur touches it. "This is mine."
Freeing Merlin's wrists, Arthur unfastens the laces of his trousers. Merlin's breath hitches, one hand falling to Arthur's shoulder. Carefully, Arthur eases the material away, running both hands down the back of Merlin's thighs until he finds the healing ridge of the scar just below the knee. "And so is this."
"What--Arthur." Merlin's voice breaks, fingernails scratching restlessly against the side of Arthur's neck.
Arthur reaches up, pressing his thumb against Merlin's wrist, rubbing against the scar before turning his head, brushing a kiss against it. "This too."
Sitting back on his heels, Arthur tugs once, and Merlin obeys, bare thighs spread across Arthur's own. Curling his fingers in the loose cloth, Arthur drags the shirt over Merlin's head, pressing his forehead against Merlin's as he slides his hand up the length of bare back, fingers spread along the scar he claimed days ago. "All of it," Arthur says thickly.
Merlin's eyes are dilated black, as wide and dark as the sky outside. "You can have anything of me you want. You know that."
Arthur close his eyes, swallowing. Cupping the back of Merlin's head, he licks his lips, tasting days-old blood and fresh sweat. "Swear it."
"I swear, Arthur." Merlin's hands flex on his shoulders, and Arthur wants his touch so badly he can barely think. "You can have anything."
Arthur pulls back, taking Merlin's face in his hands, catching and holding his eyes. "Swear that there is nothing you will deny me."
Arthur runs his thumbs over the high jut of Merlin's cheekbones, wishing he could leave fingerprints here, everywhere. The world seems to still around them as Merlin's eyes widen, lips parting. Flickers of anger and fear chase each other through his eyes, but then they settle, coalescing into a relief so intense Arthur can almost taste it. "I swear it."
"I accept it," Arthur whispers against his lips, and kisses him, shifting until he can stretch Merlin out on the floor, cushioned by the rug and the clothes Arthur ripped from the cupboard before he'd left, before he'd realized he'd left half of himself behind. Arthur swallows every broken sound, every breath Merlin gives him, reaching between them to shove both their trousers farther down, pulling away long enough to toss them aside. Merlin's as desperate as he is, one leg hooking over Arthur's hip, cock leaving shining trails behind that Arthur follows with his tongue. Tangling his hands in Merlin's hair, Arthur kisses him again, pinning him to the floor with the weight of his body, biting Merlin's lip as their cocks slide together, not wet enough and too good to think of stopping. And it's not enough; it's not even close.
"Merlin," Arthur says; he can barely understand himself, but Merlin stills, blinking up at him with pleasure-glazed eyes, pale skin dappled in candlelight-gold, the healing purple at his ribs and the darkening red blotches where Arthur left the mark of his teeth. It takes a long second for Arthur to remember what it was he meant to do. Standing up unsteadily, he jerks open the cupboard, finding the bottle of oil disturbingly stored exactly where it was supposed to be.
Merlin smiles up at him with swollen red lips when Arthur kneels, eyes flickering to the oil before he starts to turn over. "Don't," Arthur says, easing him back to the floor. "I want to see your face."
Nodding, Merlin watches him, fingers clenching in tunics and trousers, eyes falling shut when Arthur slicks his fingers and lifting his hips when Arthur slides them inside him. Arthur traces the pale skin of his inner thigh to the knee, curling a hand behind it and easing it up until Merlin reaches out, grabbing his wrist. "It's--you can--" and loses words after that and Arthur can't wait another second.
Bracing a hand on the floor, Arthur guides himself inside, sucking in a breath at the tight heat that opens to him slowly, inevitably, watching Merlin's tongue catch between his teeth.
Settling, he pulls Merlin's leg over his hip, cupping Merlin's jaw. When Merlin's eyes flicker open, Arthur rocks his hips slowly, feeling the tension winding through Merlin at every movement. "Give this to me," he says, leaning down to lick open his mouth, tasting fresh blood from his bitten tongue. The tension eases, just a little, and Arthur takes a breath when he can, slicking Merlin's lip with his tongue before he rocks again, harder. "There. Let me. Let me--"
"Oh!" Merlin twists up, looking startled, opening up to him. "Arthur, please--"
"Perfect." Kissing him, Arthur grins, shifting his weight and thrusting back in, fascinated by the quicksilver changes of expression, the hunger that begins to match his own. Merlin's hands unclench, one settling on his hip, short nails digging into the thin skin every time Arthur moves into him. Reaching down, he feels Merlin's cock swelling against his belly and finds for the oil by touch, pouring it between them and closing his fingers tightly along the slick, hard length, shuddering himself as Merlin gasps, hips jerking up involuntarily. "Yes. Do that. Merlin…"
He doesn't understand the words, the roll of consonants that slide from between Merlin's lips as easily as his native tongue, but he can feel it, the glittering warmth that surrounds them. Tangling his hand in Merlin's hair, he watches the gold consume the blue. "Yes," Arthur whispers; if he listens long enough, he thinks he can learn what Merlin's saying. "I want this, too."
"Arthur," Merlin breathes, and Arthur can feel the tremors start, sudden tightness surrounding his cock.
"Come on," Arthur murmurs against his lips. "Give it to me, Merlin. I want to feel it."
He pushes Merlin's knee higher, sliding his tongue into Merlin's mouth when Merlin stills, tasting his name with a wash of heat slicking his hand and both their bellies. When Merlin goes limp, flushed and slick with oil and sweat and his own release, Arthur licks down the column of his throat and comes with his mouth buried in Merlin's shoulder, almost shocked by the strength of it.
It would be polite to move, but Arthur can't make himself do it. Reaching up, Arthur runs his fingers through the sweat-slicked hair, kissing the line of his jaw, the soft skin just below his chin as Merlin's hand sliding lazily down his back, bonelessly content beneath him.
Pushing himself up on an elbow, Arthur looks down at Merlin's flushed face, mouth a swollen, pink smear, and wants him again so badly he's almost shaking with it.
Merlin opens his eyes, blue still faintly rimmed in gold. Arthur runs a thumb across Merlin's cheek. "I want to know everything."
Merlin nods sleepily, head tilting to reveal the long stretch of his throat. Arthur's getting hard again just looking at him. Merlin hesitates, eyes flickering down, then up, meeting Arthur's. "Again? Really?"
"Yes." The stone's hard beneath his knees, and even a pile of clothes aren't as good as a bed. With an effort, he draws himself out, and it's like he never finished at all. Merlin hisses softly. "Get on the bed."
Merlin pushes himself up slowly, glancing down the length of his body before curiously running his fingers through the mess on his stomach. Getting unsteadily to his feet, Arthur reaches for him, circling his scarred wrist and pulling him to his feet, turning his head to suck those fingers into his mouth, licking away the taste. When he pulls back, Merlin's staring at him like he's watching a miracle. "Bed."
He's never been obeyed so quickly in his life; it's a pity that it won't last. Kneeing Merlin's thighs apart, he pins his hips to the bed and takes Merlin's half-hard cock in his mouth and two fingers inside him, still slick and open, closing his eyes as Merlin twists beneath his touch, breathing his name like a benediction.
Arthur wakes long before dawn, watching it paint the sky in soft pinks and delicate golds; Arthur remembers mornings when he'd wake to see Merlin at the window, watching the sun rise over Camelot with a wondering smile.
This morning, it's less likely; Merlin's all warm, tangled limbs, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted. It takes time for Arthur to find the motivation to move, easing Merlin off his chest and onto the bed, brushing careful fingers through the hopeless mess of dark hair. Merlin makes a protesting noise, reaching across the body-warm bedding for Arthur.
"Go back to sleep." Arthur picks up Merlin's hand, brushing a kiss against his wrist, and Merlin settles with a sigh, boneless and safe in Arthur's bed, streaked with blood and dirt from Arthur's body, darkening bruises smeared across the bare skin of his throat and shoulders. Noting the dark circles beneath his eyes, Arthur wonders if he'd slept at all the last few days.
Sorcerer, he thinks at the sight of the fragile length of Merlin's spine, the soft, swollen mouth open in sleep, dark lashes swept down on too-pale skin. He needs someone to watch out for him, more than anyone Arthur's ever known.
Slipping reluctantly from the bed, Arthur finds an uncreased shirt and breeches he'd somehow overlooked piling on the floor. He can't remember removing his boots, hunting the room until one shows up beneath the bed, the other improbably sitting on the chair.
Picking up the apple left from last night's dinner, Arthur takes a bite, palming his knife on the way out of the door. The hall isn't empty; Gwen is hovering a few feet away, hands twisted in her skirts. Seeing him, she straightens, then blinks, eyes widening.
Arthur reflects that he currently is not in the proper state for a prince. And his ear does itch. He fights the urge to scratch it. "Gwen?"
Her eyes flicker away, then back with something like morbid fascination. "I--Merlin, sire. Gaius said he hadn't been back tonight."
"Oh." There is that. "I required his services. Gaius is awake, then?"
Gwen nods. "I don't think he's slept, sire."
"Come with me." Turning, Arthur takes another bite of the apple. "Do you know which chambermaid is assigned to Pustilius?"
She nods, a faint frown creasing her forehead. "Yes, sire. Bettina."
"Is she fond of him?"
An unmistakable look crosses Gwen's face, and Arthur files that away, not letting his own expression change. He should have known. Pustilius wouldn't hesitate to abuse the chambermaids if he felt free enough to attack Arthur's own household. He watches her face, weighing truth against her own fear, her trust in him. "No, sire. I do not think she is."
"That," Arthur says, taking a final bite, "is good to hear. After we see Gaius, there is something you will do for me."
Pustilius hasn't even dressed yet; Arthur eyes the tray lying on the bed in disfavour before crossing to the foot of the bed. "So I've been informed you're leaving," Arthur says. Pustilius jerks, straightening, hand groping for his eating knife.
"I--" He turns to look at the empty tray, frowning, then back at Arthur. Holding up the knife he'd taken from it before the man awoke, Arthur turns between his fingers, then throws it, watching in satisfaction as it buries itself in the headboard an inch from Pustilius' ear. Arthur would give the man credit for courage when he doesn't flinch, but he's reasonably sure he isn't truly awake yet. "I am not leaving. Sire."
"You are. You will make your apologies to my father for the suddenness of your departure. He will be, in all honesty, quite pleased."
"No." The blue eyes narrow. "There is nothing you can do. I will have my knighthood, and you may have your crippled servant."
Circling the bed, Arthur goes to the window, pulling back the heavy drapes. Pustilius makes an unhappy sound as sunlight floods the room, then frowns at the sounds that drift inside. "Perhaps you might want to look outside."
With a frown, Pustilius pulls himself out of bed, lumbering toward the window. Looking out, his frown deepens. "You--you're burning a sorcerer?"
"This morning, two of my knights will be alerted by a frightened chambermaid of an object she found within the bedroom of a great lord. It will be studied and found to be a charm to incite dissent. Among the ingredients that will be discovered within it is a lock of my servant's hair."
Pustilius straightens, the colour draining from his face. "You do not dare--"
"There will be questions, accusations. Speculation that your father's oath to purge magic from his lands was not sincere. I daresay my father will be obliged to order me to investigate. I imagine it will not be hard to discover evidence."
Letting the curtain fall, Arthur smiles into Pustilius' eyes. "There is no protection of rank for sorcerers."
Pustilius seems without words. Arthur wishes it could always be so.
"You will leave," Arthur says softly. "All I will permit you to choose is the method."
"This will mean war."
Arthur shrugs. "I will fight you. Your people will not rise against me, for they hate you fully as much as I do, and that you know. None will come to your aid, because I will offer up their choice of your holdings for their own. When I am through, there will be nothing left of you. Not even a memory."
"I think you've forgotten who I am. Let me remind you. I am the son of the man who brought your father to his knees and keeps him there. You've insulted my honour. And you will pay for it."
It's ridiculously easy to duck the first punch, even easier the second; Pustilius never learned the difference between skill and rank and how the latter does not confer the former. When he turns again, hands raised in fists, Arthur presses the tip of his blade against the thick, vulnerable throat. For a wild, hopeful moment, he thinks Pustilius will try to fight anyway. "Please," Arthur says softly, watching blood well around the point of the blade. "Give me a reason."
But he doesn't. Eyes closing, he slumps in defeat. "I will leave."
"That's the first sign of intelligence I've ever witnessed from you," Arthur says, stepping back with a vague sense of disappointment. "I would suggest morning as an excellent time to travel. You have until noon."
Turning his back, Arthur goes to the door; Pustilius doesn't have the courage, even now, to so much as move.
"Also. I would pray for my father's life," Arthur says, pausing with a hand on the open door. "The dawn of my reign will see you on your knees before me. I won't kill you. But what I let live will no longer be a man."
Pustilius makes an odd, broken sound before Arthur shuts the door behind him, turning to Gawain. "Accompany him to the border of his lands. If he gives you trouble; well, there are many bandits on our roads. No questions will be asked."
Gawain bows. Arthur brushes a hand against his shoulder in acknowledgment. "You will be rewarded."
As he passes, Gawain straightens. "I desire no reward other than to serve you, sire."
Arthur smiles at him, watching him light up as brightly as a new morning. "I will remember that."
"My bath is cold. Merlin. *Merlin*."
Merlin pushes up from the blankets, looking around the room blearily, finding Arthur with a confused look that changes to horror. "Did you leave the room--" He stops, mouth opening and closing, then with a flicker of gold and a breathed word, steam rises from the bath. "Did no one ask you if you were dying?"
Arthur winces, reaching up to run a hand through his hair and finds it more difficult than expected. Vaguely, he wonders if he should acquire a decent mirror. Or use it, even. "It can't be so bad as that. No one said anything."
"Perhaps because they thought you were returned from the dead." Getting out of bed, Merlin frowns at the clothes that cover the floor of most of the room. The pale morning light highlights every bone; Arthur can't look away, breath catching in his throat. "I--suppose I need to clean this up, then." He looks at Arthur in irritation. "Was it necessary to walk on them with muddy boots as well?"
"Could we return to my problems, not yours?" Now that he's thinking about it, his knees are aching, and vaguely, sometime two or three days ago, something bit him. Somewhere.
Merlin gives him a narrow look. "Get in your bath, sire," he says, like he's speaking through his teeth. But there's no sign, Arthur notes, of *chamber pot*. Arthur hears another whispered word as he places one foot in the tub and turns to watch, fascinated, as Merlin's clothes float up from the pile and fly neatly to his hand.
Enchanted, Arthur almost forgets his bath. "Show me more."
Merlin blinks. "You want to see--" Merlin gestures helplessly with his shirt, then seems to remember he's naked. Arthur bites his lip against a laugh as Merlin dresses, waiting until Merlin turns back around, flushed and oddly shy. "I mean--will you sit down? There's--Arthur, did something *bite* you?"
Arthur follows his gaze to his own forearm as he lowers himself into the water, seeing the edges of something very red that looks like it will start hurting any second now. "Ah. Yes. Apparently so."
"You're sort of an idiot, aren't you?" Going to the cupboard, Merlin blinks at the neat arrangement of bottles and minutia, as if he hadn't been the one to turn Arthur's rooms into a pattern of terrifying organization. Picking up the salve, he closes the cupboard carefully and turns back to the tub.
Arthur grins as Merlin comes close enough to capture, reaching to wrap his fingers in Merlin's shirt, pulling him down into a kiss, licking slowly into the warmth of his mouth before pulling back, pressing another kiss against the soft skin of his temple, the point of his jaw. "Show me what you can do."
Merlin lets out a shaky breath. "What do you want see?"
Reluctantly letting him go, Arthur breathes out as muscles he didn't know were tensed begin to ease in the hot water. With a groan, he sinks further and pretends he never has to get up again. "Surprise me."
Closing his eyes, he feels Merlin kneel behind him, one hand cupping the back of his neck. "That's specific." Careful fingers smear the salve over his arm, so lightly Arthur can barely feel them. Though that could also be the slowly emerging pain. "I could--could show you--what Gaius showed me. Something that won't be suspicious, that I can use today."
Arthur tilts his head back, trapping Merlin's hand against the side of the tub. "There is no need. Pustilius left unexpectedly."
Merlin looks down at him, brows drawn together tightly. "Did he."
"Your punishment is mucking the--well, actually pristine stables. It doesn't seem like much punishment, does it? Perhaps there are more drapes that do not suit your aesthetics?"
Twisting around, Arthur braces a hand on the edge of the tub, catching Merlin's hand under his. "I don't ask your permission to protect you," he says slowly, measuring every word. "That is my right and my duty. But I would prefer to have it."
Merlin studies him thoughtfully, head tilted, then nods, eyes flaring gold. Arthur watches with wondering eyes as the clothes begin to sort themselves around them.
"What else can you do?"
"I don't know. I mean--I'm not all that practiced and--Arthur, what are you--" He frowns as Arthur reaches for the hem of his shirt, pulling it impatiently until Merlin finally takes it off "There hasn't been time to--oh, stop it, I'll do it." Merlin bats his hands away from the trousers, flushing as he slips them off, tossing them aside. "What--"
"You're filthy," Arthur offers lightly. "Come here."
Merlin eyes the tub warily, but he stands up, circling the tub as Arthur straightens, setting one foot tentatively in the water near Arthur's hip. "I don't think there's room to--"
"Oh, there's space enough." Taking his wrist, Arthur pulls, one hand resting on his hip, directing him into Arthur's lap with a startled breath. "There. You should trust me. I'm not often wrong."
Merlin stares at him blankly, opening his mouth, so Arthur leans up and kisses away the words, shifting his grip on Merlin's hip to run his fingers up the hardening length of him beneath the water. Merlin shudders, pulling back with a startled breath. "Perhaps. Sometimes."
Arthur smiles, mouthing along the rough skin of his jaw, licking the outline of teeth he left in Merlin's shoulder last night, stroking the water-slick length of his back, gentling his touch as he slips his fingers against Merlin's entrance. Merlin pushes back into his touch with a shaky sigh. "Arthur. What do you want? With--with what I can do?"
The offer is dazzling in its simplicity. "I want Albion at peace," he whispers, one fingertip sliding inside, feeling Merlin relax around him, letting him in. "I want my people to be safe."
"Pax Artorius?" Merlin looks down at him, flushed and smiling, the blue of his eyes swallowed by gold. "We can do that."