Codes: Merlin, Merlin/Arthur, Merlin/other
Spoilers: post-season one
Summary: Words can also be mightier than the sword.
Author Notes: My eternal thanks to tricksterquinn, transtempts and shinetheway for prereading and encouragement, and to shinetheway and frostfire_17 for beta. Whatever mistakes remain are my own and are likely the fault of society.
Merlin surfaces from sleep to the feel of lips pressed against the back of his neck. Sinking more deeply into the bed, he lets himself drift into a half-dream of early morning caresses and slow, sucking kisses that travel slowly down his spine. Merlin sleepily reaches back, curling his fingers in slightly damp, curling hair, sighing as a hand slowly slides over his hip and settles over his cock.
"Mmm, yes," Merlin mumbles, pushing his hips into the hard hand, catching his breath at the slick fingers rubbing up and down the shaft as he starts to harden. "Oh, yes, do that again." Arching his back a little, Merlin sucks in a breath at the twinge of strained muscles, thighs aching pleasantly, and turns his head enough to accept a bitter morning kiss. Cracking his eyes open, he can see the sky's still dark, and it's at least an hour before he has to be up and about.
Letting himself settle back, he arches his neck enough to invite teeth, covering the hand on his cock and speeding the strokes, holding tight to the slow drift of half-sleep that makes the world soft-edged and glossy. Rolling onto his back at a nudge, Merlin reaches lazily for his cock, giving it two slow strokes before a hot mouth descends, wrapping around him like a vice, lips pressed to his fist.
"Yes," Merlin murmurs drowsily, curling his other hand in soft hair. "That's it, perfect…."
Morning sex is always good. There's no premium on performance or creativity; it's about getting off as comfortably as you can with as minimal effort as possible, and there's really no wrong way to go about it. "Yes, that's it," Merlin says, and thinks of pink lips and blue eyes, of undressing Arthur the night before, impatient as he stripped away the layers of velvet and wool, the long length of his bare back, muscles rippling beneath golden skin, and catches his breath.
"I'm--" Merlin sucks in a breath as his cock is swallowed abruptly, and God, yes. "Stop," he says, pushing up with both thighs until cold air surrounds him, but he wants--he wants-- "Fuck you," he murmurs, tangling his fingers in blond hair and pulling until he can breathe it against his lips, "I want to come when I feel you come around me," and pushes Arthur on his back, reaching down to slide two fingers inside, hole still slick from last night and tight and utterly, utterly perfect.
Half-opening his eyes, Merlin kneels between muscular thighs and pushes inside, breathing out "God, Arthur," as he slides home, and may his mother never hear of this, it's three entire strokes before he realizes the man beneath him is not, in fact, Arthur.
Blinking, Merlin stares down at Agravaine with a faint sense of resignation.
"Right," Merlin says, leaning down to kiss the half-open mouth, circling his hips hard once. "Forget that part."
And mostly, Merlin thinks Agravaine does. At least for a little while.
Agravaine, of course, flees the scene of the crime, and since they were in Agravaine's quarters in the tower, that means Merlin has to drag himself down three flights of stairs to the tower door alone and let himself out. The courtyard is bustling with early morning merchants and maids on errands for their mistresses, none of whom are wearing clothes that obviously spent a considerable amount of time on the floor and not looking at all like they just had rather middling (though still quite good, if the way Agravaine carried on is any indication) sex and then were abandoned in a fit of terrible shame.
The shame, Merlin suspects, isn't in being a substitute, but more that truly, it's rather hard to care when you are coming hard enough to cry like a little girl. Stamping across the courtyard, Merlin glances briefly at Arthur's window and hopes to God Arthur isn't watching.
He's careful when he opens the door to Gaius' quarters, uncomfortably aware that Gaius doesn't even need to be awake to project vehement disapproval of Merlin's utter lack of morals.
Though perhaps Merlin is projecting, just a little.
Tossing his clothes into the corner, Merlin heats the water left in the basin, cleaning up as quickly as he can with an eye to the horizon, feeling irritable and less relaxed than he should be, considering. Upon reflection, he should have left the banquet early last night like anyone sane, slept in his own bed, and gotten up at a decent hour so he's not rushing about like an idiot, trying to find something to wear in the pile of laundry on the floor, and not show up at Arthur's door looking exactly like what he's been doing.
Wetting his hands, he forces his hair into compliance as he shoves on one boot, stopping just long enough to give up trying to untangle his boot laces and magic them into compliance. It's perhaps the stupidest use of magic ever, and he just doesn't care. Half-running, Merlin manages to not see anyone he knows, slowing at the kitchen long enough to get breakfast and a knowing look from the cook--what? Are his breeches open or something?--and takes the steps two at a time, already knowing--
Arthur's leaning against the open door of his room, smile bright with malice. "Good morning, Merlin," he says, looking him up and down with amused blue eyes before turning to go back inside, shift brushing against the long muscles of his thighs, and abruptly, Merlin remembers exactly why he tends to stay for morning sex.
To his credit (because he's a prat), Arthur doesn't say anything else, seated cross-legged at the foot of the bed, chin in his hand and watching Merlin rush about his morning duties with the long-suffering look of a man who has grown used to disappointment in manservants.
"Good morning, sire," Merlin manages belatedly as the fire finally stops fighting him and obediently comes to life. Turning around, he waits, resigned, as Arthur stretches, tousled blond head leaning against the bedpost and blinking sleepy blue eyes before nodding and getting up.
"That was a record," Arthur says mildly, sitting down and looking over the selection for breakfast critically. "I've never seen you run like that without something large and fire-breathing chasing you."
Merlin stares hard at the bed and doesn't imagine it on fire, and with Arthur still in it. "I have no idea what you are talking about," he lies. "Did you sleep well?"
Arthur reaches for his cup. "Better than you, I suspect," he says, but mercifully leaves it there. Going to the bed, Merlin strips away the bedclothes, trying to remember if he brought up clean ones from the laundry yet as Arthur draws up a leg and picks up a piece of fruit. The silence begins to stretch unnaturally, like Arthur knows that waiting just makes it worse.
Merlin lasts through breakfast, but the dressing process always breaks him; there's something about Arthur in an unlaced shirt and trousers without boots that does something unfortunate to higher brain function.
"Just say it," Merlin says, giving up as he goes back for a tunic. "I know you want to."
"I can't imagine what you are referring to," Arthur answers he puts on the tunic and takes his coat from Merlin's hands, padding to the table barefoot and picking up his cup. "It's a lovely morning, don't you think?"
"I am hunting today and will require your presence?" Sitting on the edge of the table, he looks at Merlin with such a lack of expression Merlin would almost think that Arthur was telling the absolute truth and not being the dirty liar he actually is. Gritting his teeth, Merlin kneels, concentrating on the scent and feel of the smooth, worn leather. When he's done, he glares up at Arthur, still finishing off an apple like his head is just as empty as Merlin used to accuse it of being.
"Arthur--" he starts, and then Arthur slides off the table, boots bracketing Merlin's thighs. Merlin blinks, mouth going dry as Arthur leans down, trailing a finger up his collarbone before pulling away.
"You forgot your neckerchief," Arthur says, grinning, and Merlin reaches up with numb fingers, still feeling the heated touch and wincing at what is probably a truly spectacular bruise. God dammit.
Turning on his knees, he watches Arthur hunt through his cupboard for his rings, blond hair catching the light of dawn with the unfortunate effect of making him look much more attractive than his personality might otherwise have otherwise suggested. "Sometimes," Merlin says, squinting slightly, "I think you're just jealous."
Arthur flashes him a grin. "Beyond words to describe. Take the plates down and be ready in an hour or I'll be very put out."
Merlin sighs, standing up. "You're such an ass."
"That's new and different. Now do as you're told. It is going to be a very long day."
Merlin doesn't exactly blame his mother for sending him off during the most impressionable part of adolescence, but he does think her timing could have been a little better.
Hunting, if nothing else, is excellent for distracting Arthur from anything that's not killing things, and by noon, Arthur's no longer asking if he's too tired to carry these rabbits or if he's sore when he shifts after crouching too long in a thicket while Arthur exercises that streak of terrifying patience that he never seems to have for anything that doesn't involve violence.
"I think it's going to rain," Merlin says, squinting up at the sky. While the clouds don't look any more threatening than they have the last four rainless days, there's a subtle feeling in the air that even Arthur seems to have noticed, or so his occasional glances up seem to indicate.
"Probably." Setting the crossbow down, Arthur reaches for Merlin's pack, hunting up the bread and cheese and cutting off a chunk of each with his knife before looking around. "Are they still after that boar?"
A faint, distant sound of cursing answers the question. Arthur rolls his eyes at the noise. "They'll be chasing it the rest of the day."
"It was a very nice boar," Merlin says uncertainly, cutting off a piece of cheese and making himself comfortable on the grass below a very wide tree, perfect for hiding from storms in the forest. "Do you want me to fetch them back?"
Arthur shrugs, looking content enough with being abandoned by his companions, possibly due to the fact he's usually responsible for the abandonment. It's not often he does this, and Merlin supposes the relative privacy must be something of a relief, when there's so little to be found in Camelot. Stretching out, Arthur leans against a rock and sighs, looking an odd cross between relaxed and irritable. "Something troubling you, sire?"
Arthur's eyes narrow. "How is it you sound less polite when using my title than my name?"
"It's a gift." Arthur rolls his eyes. "What's bothering you? You'd usually be first after the boar, and don't think I didn't notice how convenient your sighting of a small herd of deer seemed to be. I was looking that direction. There were no deer."
"They were very fast deer," Arthur objects, frowning. "And there's nothing troubling me, so keep your fancies to yourself."
Merlin snorts, offering the rest of the cheese. After a second, Arthur spears it on his knife and splits it, offering half to Merlin; it's nothing like an apology, and Merlin doesn't dare so much as smile as he takes it. It's nice, in any case; a quiet afternoon with a comfortable breeze, and Merlin thinks if any day could be called perfect, this might be it. Idly, Merlin kicks Arthur's foot, temptingly close, and Arthur looks up, rolling his eyes even as he kicks back, settling against his rock and the pensive look melting away. "You're quite irritating."
"That's why you like me," Merlin says comfortably, kicking again. "You might as well tell me, you know. I'll hear it about it sooner or later."
Arthur arches an eyebrow. "There's nothing to hear. And even if there was, who says I'd want to talk about it with you?"
"Have you tried to carry on a conversation with some of your knights? Or have you forgotten Gareth so easily?" Merlin says curiously. "I'm not convinced he has any thoughts in his head at all to converse with."
Arthur scowls, but that's possibly because he did indeed try once, and the experience had been one that Merlin had been forced to rescue him from after an hour and a half discussion on the finer points of cleaning armour. Arthur's knights are his companions but they aren't his confidantes, and Merlin wonders sometimes if that's Uther's concept of kingly training or if Arthur had chosen that degree of distance deliberately. He hunts with them and trains with them and even drinks with them and goes to war with them, but there's always been that distance that Arthur keeps like a shield between them, invisible and unmistakable for all that. They let him keep it, too, their prince and future king, give him worship and trust and respect, eager to touch the surface but content to come no closer.
Maybe it's that way with royalty, Merlin reflects; Uther's no different, and the closest thing he has to a friend is Gaius. Merlin looks at Arthur, wondering if some day they'll be reduced to that, if Arthur the king will retreat into his kingship so deeply that even Merlin won't be able to reach him. It's a depressing thought.
"Something troubling you, Merlin?" Arthur says, slightly mocking, but the expression on his face doesn't match the voice. "Or given to melancholy that your--friend didn't stay with you today?"
Merlin frowns. "Who?"
Arthur's mouth twitches. "Never mind. It's about to rain, and we should get back."
Bemused, Merlin scrambles to his feet, putting away the rest of the bread and looking around. The other knights are so far away that even when he listens, Merlin can't hear them. "Should we tell them we're going?"
Arthur shakes his head, unwinding his horse's reins from a nearby tree and mounting.
"You know they'll stay out here for hours looking for you, right?" Much less gracefully, Merlin scrambles onto his horse, turning to follow Arthur back down the trail. "And it's going to rain a lot."
"I'm sure they'll be fine," Arthur says airily. "Race you back?"
Merlin grins, pushing his heels into the horse's side. "Everything's a competition with you, isn't it?"
"Only with things I refuse to lose," Arthur answers, and Merlin shakes his head and lets the wind carry away his laugh.
By the time they get back, they're both soaked, and of course Arthur won. Dismounting, Merlin leads the horses into the stables, where a cheerful groom takes them both as Arthur runs a hand through wet hair, scraping it back from his flushed face. Merlin's chest tightens just looking at him. As the groom leaves, Merlin joins Arthur at the door.
"I told my father I'd be out all day," Arthur says. "There was a council meeting today." Arthur watches the castle with vague alarm, chewing on a thumbnail. Merlin looks at the ragged edge of the nail and puts two and two together. No wonder Arthur looked pensive.
Arthur winces. "Lady Melisande," he says, sounding like he's speaking of the person who is planning his untimely death, which isn't all that far from true.
"She's pretty," Merlin says dubiously, having met the lady the year before. She'd been rather tall and very pretty, and she could ride very well, and she had hated Arthur with an intensity that rivalled Uther's for sorcerers. The feeling had been explosively mutual. "I really don't think she was trying to poison you. It was purgative in your wine at worst. Really."
Arthur slants him a disbelieving look. Either her dowry was utterly incredible, or someone, somewhere, has been reading those terribly maudlin ballads about people who hate each other at first meeting and then fall madly in love and truly believed that sort of thing could happen. Merlin had surreptitiously spent the horrible month of Melisande's visit learning new and exciting spells to detect foreign substances in Arthur's food and Arthur had lost fifteen pounds and refused to eat anything he didn't kill and cook himself. And Arthur was a terrible, terrible cook.
"I doubt anything will come of it," Merlin says hopefully. He's sure Uther won't actually marry Arthur to someone who wants to kill him. Pretty sure. Mostly sure. Unless she has a truly incredible dowry. "Should I ask Gaius for more cures for poisoning? Just in case?"
"She's not actually here," Arthur says with a sigh. "Yet, anyway. Just an envoy to press the suit again." Merlin tries not to think of the rows of empty stalls with fresh straw and a soft layer of sand beneath them, or the fact that the grooms are on the other side of the stables, or that Arthur looks like he's just heard his own death sentence.
Then again, he always looks like that when the word "betrothal" comes up, and considering the candidates Merlin's seen so far, he can't entirely blame him. Lady Gwyneth had been short and constantly nervous, giggling so incessantly that Merlin had thought Morgana was going to kill her to spare the world any possible giggling offspring she might produce. Lady Meredith had been almost terrifyingly obnoxious and made Arthur look like a model of courtesy and good manners by comparison, while the Lady Aidra had been--
Aidra had come the closest, and for once, Arthur hadn't found new and inventive ways to hide for perfectly legitimate reasons, but after only a few days, the tentative warmth between them had changed. Less than a week after her arrival, she'd vanished into the night with Sir Lionel, and the last Merlin had heard of her, they were quite happy together somewhere very far north.
Arthur's still staring at the door, bracing himself for an afternoon trapped in the council chambers while his marriage is treated as a commodity to be bartered to the highest bidder. Uther had loved his wife and had had, from all accounts, a happy marriage, and his grief over her loss had never weakened in the years since her death. Denying Arthur even the possibility of the same might be his idea of kindness, but Merlin thinks that Arthur might be willing to take that kind of risk when the other option was a lifetime sentenced to the company of a person who would be at best, a familiar stranger, and at worst, an enemy who would share his bed.
"It's not fair," Merlin says suddenly, viciously, and regrets it when he feels Arthur looking at him. "Er. The rain?"
Arthur rolls his eyes, but a warm arm circles his shoulders, resting heavily for a second, as if Arthur understood what he hadn't meant to say. "The kitchen stairs. Can you make a distraction--"
Merlin grins. "Give me thirty seconds."
"You've turned out surprisingly useful, for such a terrible manservant," Arthur says, hand shifting to the centre of his back. "Go."
Sneaking up the stairs on Arthur's heels, Merlin watches for inconvenient servants or wandering nobles, following a twisting route through long-unused suites and corridors rarely patrolled when the castle had no guests, giggling into the back of Arthur's coat as they hide behind a tapestry from an unexpected chambermaid while Arthur kicked him and promised that if they were caught, a week in the stocks wouldn't be long enough to satisfy the loss of dignity being found crouching in a dusty corner.
"Stocks, I swear to God," Arthur hisses in his ear as Morgana pauses to look around with a frown. A hand clamps down on Merlin's mouth, trapping him between Arthur's thighs and the wall. Morgana becomes less interesting; Arthur's very warm, even through his wet clothes, and the smell of clean, damp leather and the oil used on Arthur's weapons surrounds him. When Arthur eases into the hall, Merlin almost forgets to follow, stumbling behind him mostly due to the hand clamped around his wrist.
Eventually, they slip into Arthur's chambers, and Merlin locks the door behind them, sinking down to the floor fighting the urge to collapse laughing while Arthur strips off his damp coat and looks at him like he's gone completely mad. "Stop that!" he says, tossing the coat over a chair and moving closer to the fire. "If she'd caught us, I'd never hear the end of it."
Wiping his eyes, Merlin grins. "Sorry," he says, trying to sound sincere. "Need some help, sire?"
Arthur rolls his eyes, spreading his arms briefly, eyes flickering to the window with a faintly amused expression, and Merlin wonders how long the knights will scramble around before they realize their prince is a prick. Getting shakily to his feet, Merlin turns Arthur toward the fire, methodically removing each piece of clothing while imagining the disgruntled looks they'll hide until Arthur mocks them into good humour again. The thin linen shirt somehow managed to get soaked despite the protection of coat and tunic, clinging to Arthur's skin in a way that snaps Merlin right out of any urge to laugh, and he blinks, fingers still wrapped in the laces.
Merlin meets Arthur's eyes and reaches for the hem, jerking the shirt up and off, taking it to the pile of wet clothes instead of tossing it. "There's a tear," Merlin says over his shoulder, feeling Arthur watching him curiously. Pushing his fingernail against the seam, Merlin tries to coax the threads to tear already and curses the lack of shoddy workmanship in Camelot. "I'll mend it tonight."
"All right." There's the sound of boots being kicked off and Merlin braces himself, going to the cupboard for dry clothing before Arthur and his trousers part ways. "Merlin? You seem distracted."
I am, Merlin thinks viciously. You are naked and very, very dense.
"Perhaps you are still tired from last night?" Arthur says lightly, and Merlin grabs the nearest shirt and tries not to look any more than he has to.
The knights finally return, worried and disgruntled both, and Merlin is sent to inform them that Arthur's been with them all day. Facing the crowd of tired, damp men (and Agravaine, who still seems torn between great sex and personal shame), Merlin thinks uncomfortably that there should never be a time when the number of people you have slept with outnumber the people you haven't in a single room.
With that unsettling thought, Merlin returns to his room, waving a greeting at Gaius, currently bent over something that looks faintly like green pudding. "Tell me that's not meant for consumption," Merlin says as a bubble slowly forms on the surface like a giant pustule, bursting with a faint hint of rotting beans and cabbage.
"Muscle cramps," Gaius answers, stirring it warily as another bubble begins to form. "Do you need anything?"
"Arthur has a cold," Merlin says, remembering the startled look on Arthur's face when he'd sneezed, followed by what on the surface had seemed at the time a brilliant idea. That was often the way of it, though; Arthur had many ideas, and he can make even the stupidest of them sound like utter genius while wet and half-naked. "Tell me you have something to fix it."
Gaius smiles down at the pudding. "You can't cure a cold, Merlin. Pulling the ladle free with a wet pop that makes Merlin blink, Gaius goes to the cupboard, taking out a bottle of thick, dark syrup. "This should help ease the symptoms."
Merlin holds up the bottle, squinting at the unfamiliar contents. "Is this new?"
"Somewhat. It's a variation on the original recipe to help encourage rest and relaxation," Gaius answers. "No more than two spoonfuls, however. It's a bit stronger than what I usually use."
Merlin nods, taking it to his room and stripping off his damp clothes before hunting for something both clean and dry. On his way out, he sees Gaius pouring the pudding into a container that Merlin hopes he will never, ever need to ever use on anyone, ever.
"Does the prince require my services?" Gaius asks as he reaches the door.
Merlin hesitates; he hadn't thought of that. "Let me see how he's feeling," Merlin prevaricates. "After dinner?"
Gaius nods agreeably, and Merlin flees before Gaius can ask for more information than Merlin can give and not lie through his teeth. Getting a tray from the kitchen, he sends a page to tell Uther that Arthur is indisposed and returns to Arthur's chambers.
"Syrup," Merlin says, holding out the bottle and wishing that Arthur had dressed just a little more. The room's too warm for anything but a shirt, which is making Merlin resent the invention of fire. "For your very convincing cold." Arthur makes a vague sound that could be mistaken for suffocation. "Gaius wants to check on you. After dinner."
Arthur sneezes, shrugs, and takes a spoon from the tray. Pouring out the thick black syrup, he looks at it with disfavour. "I've never seen this before," Arthur says suspiciously, and Merlin gestures until, rolling his eyes, Arthur takes the spoonful. "Did you tell my father--"
"I sent a page to tell him that you were indisposed, which Gaius can now verify" Merlin says, adding maliciously, "so you will be excused the banquet honouring your potential intended's envoy. Two spoonfuls, now. Gaius' orders."
Arthur pours another spoonful. "Good health is important." Merlin nods enthusiastic agreement. "Lord Antes didn't go near the food, did he?"
Merlin doesn't sigh, but it's very hard. "No, the cook promised me that she was the only one who touched that chicken. And I'm telling you, it was a purgative."
"So you think," Arthur mutters darkly, licking the spoon clean. Merlin watches the pink flickers of his tongue over the metal before he sets the spoon aside. "Have you eaten?"
"Have you had dinner? You will have to attend me at least until the banquet is over, you know."
Right. Banquet. "Not yet." Then, "You want me to taste everything to make sure you're not poisoned, don't you?"
That, Merlin decides two torturous hours later, is not syrup for a cold.
"And then," Arthur says, sprawled out on the rug and staring up at the ceiling, "I told him I never judged a man by his taste in sheep." For some reason, this seems to be most hilarious joke in the history of mankind, because Arthur laughs so hard he rolls onto his side, panting into the floor. Easing toward the table, Merlin picks up the bottle, running a finger around the top and tasting it warily. It does taste nice, and apparently, feels quite good, because Arthur is the happiest Merlin's ever seen him.
"Perhaps you had to be there," Arthur observes, lifting his head slightly, and Merlin finds himself staring at the soft pink of his mouth for far longer than he should. Merlin quickly makes himself look at the dinner tray and wonders what sort of definition "relaxing" Gaius had been using. Whether or not it cures you of a cold may be debatable, but apparently it can make you care not at all if you have one or not.
Merlin's seen Arthur sick and well, injured and drugged on whatever Gaius has in stores after injuries, but he's never seen him quite like this. It's almost like he's drunk, except Arthur drunk is faintly brooding and manic by turns, while the loose sprawl of golden prince on the floor is just happy, wrapped up in a glow of contentment like the world just cannot get better than this.
Sneezing again, Arthur pushes himself up on one elbow hopefully. "What are you doing? Is it time for more?"
Merlin puts the bottle behind the nearly empty wine jug. "No, no, we'll wait for Gaius," he says quickly. "To make sure you are--improving."
Warily, Merlin returns to the fire, watching Arthur study the rug with the kind of concentration he usually turns on dealing death to enemies, or making Merlin's life miserable. When Merlin sits down, though, he smiles, blue eyes bright and slightly glassy.
"Maybe you should get into bed?" Merlin starts, and then blanches, because God, such a bad idea, such a tragically, wonderfully bad idea.
Arthur tips back his head to look at the bed, loosening the laces of his shirt still further. "I'm not tired," he answers. "Is it too warm in here?"
Merlin watches in slowly growing horror as Arthur plucks discontentedly at the laces of his shirt, but he gives it up when it obviously requires more hand-eye coordination than he has at the moment. Relaxing back onto the floor, Arthur turns his attention to whatever entertainment the ceiling seems to bring him with a faint, delighted smile.
A discreet knock at the door brings Merlin to his feet; Gaius looks at him quizzically as Merlin drags him inside. "What was that?" Merlin demands in a heated whisper. "That--that syrup?"
Gaius frowns, eyes going to Arthur and pausing thoughtfully. "I told you it has a very relaxing effect--"
"Relaxed is an understatement!" Merlin hisses, pasting a smile on his face when Arthur looks at him.
"He looks well," Gaius says, crossing the room to smile down at Arthur, much as he did at small children and those with incurable head maladies. "How are you feeling, sire?"
Arthur sneezes cheerfully. "Very well, Gaius, thank you. Your skills are on par with legend. Can I have more?"
"Every four hours," Gaius says heartlessly, kneeling awkwardly and lying one hand against Arthur's forehead. "You seem a bit warm. Do you have a cough?"
"Yes," Merlin answers hastily. "Once in a while. And he says it's too hot."
Gaius looks at Merlin for a moment, then at Arthur, mouth twitching slightly before he braces himself on the chair Arthur had long abandoned for the comfort of lying full length on the floor like an idiot. Getting to his feet, he nods briskly. "I see. I'll report to the king that Arthur will need a few days to recover, so as not to aggravate his condition." Picking up his bag, he gives Merlin a smile that's not terribly reassuring. "Two of the knights have fallen ill this week as well. Make sure he doesn't come in contact with anyone else, and he should be fine."
Merlin looks at the bottles dubiously. "So one more dose tonight and another tomorrow?"
"Oh no." Gaius taps the bottle. "Every four hours on the dot. So I shan't expect you to return to your room tonight." Not that it is often you are there, Gaius doesn't say, though his eyebrows telegraph his amusement well enough. Closing his bag, Gaius gives Arthur a bow, which Arthur returns with a cheerful wave, then makes his way to the door. "Good night, sire. Merlin."
The door clicks closed behind him like inevitability, and Merlin turns back to look between the bottles and the carefree sprawl of crown prince with a feeling of incipient doom.
This must be what people mean when they speak of hell.
It's inevitable that the imaginary cold will turn true; honestly, Merlin doesn't think it could have happened any other way. There is coughing, low and rough, and sneezing, but mostly, there's just Arthur finding shoes funny and Merlin funnier still when he's trying to coax him toward his bed, where at least he might fall prey to the sheer comfort of it and fall asleep, leaving Merlin at peace.
"But I'm not tired," Arthur argues stubbornly, not really fighting so much as engaging in aggressively passive resistance. "I'm ordering you to leave me alone and bring me more of that syrup."
"Not for another hour, sire," Merlin snaps. "You are ill and shouldn't be on the cold floor."
"I don't feel ill."
"That's because we lied and I'm being punished for it. As usual. Now you will get in that bed and you will contrive to go to sleep."
Arthur tilts his head back. "How are you being punished?" he asks in interest, and Merlin hates the entire world.
"Never mind," he grits out. "Sire--"
"If I go to bed, you will leave," Arthur says in his most reasonable voice. "And I am not tired, so I will get bored."
Merlin closes his eyes and counts to ten. "If you go to bed, I won't leave."
Arthur smiles, startlingly bright, and holds out his hand. "Very well. How are you being punished?"
"God," Merlin mutters feelingly, but Arthur goes abruptly tractable, letting Merlin take his boots and stare at his breeches for longer than is really necessary, trying to make a decision. Arthur decides for him, rolling lazily toward the centre of the bed and making some effort to pile the pillows into some kind of mound before losing interest and collapsing in a boneless heap across them.
"You should sleep," Merlin says half-heartedly, sitting on the edge of the bed with a sigh. "Or at least pretend to. You could actually get ill, which the way my luck is running, is fairly inevitable at this point, and you are very unpleasant when you are ill."
"I am a perfectly pleasant companion." Settling on his stomach, Arthur kicks in the general direction of Merlin's thigh and misses dramatically. "I can converse on a wide variety of truly abysmally boring subjects and look interested no matter how incredibly stupid the conversation may be."
"That," Merlin says flatly, "is a filthy, filthy lie."
"'It's not. I can." Arms curling beneath his chin, Arthur eyes the air pensively. "That's what went wrong, you know."
Merlin pushes Arthur's foot away before the kick can land. "What went wrong?"
"With Melisande, of course. I was quite nice--"
"You called her a sow," Merlin says slowly. What is in that syrup anyway? "And that she had all the attractions of falling on your own sword, which is the only way you would--"
"Not that time," Arthur murmurs, waving it off. "Before. At her father's castle."
Merlin straightens; Morgana hadn't said anything about them meeting before, and Merlin had asked after the first time he saw Arthur and Melisande stare at each other in utter loathing. "When?"
"Years ago," Arthur says dreamily. "It was quite pleasant until she told her father she wanted to marry me."
"How old were you?"
"Fifteen? There was a great deal of pastry." There's the faintest trace of a pout. "No one makes anything like that here. It's irritating."
"Right, very," Merlin answers, intrigued. "But Melisande. You were nice to her and she wanted to marry you and--"
"I said I would fall on my sword. She took it badly."
Merlin blinks slowly. "Why would you--"
"Well," Arthur says thoughtfully, "I suppose it's insulting to be compared to suicide for the sake of escaping--"
Rolling his eyes, Arthur stares off into the distance for a while, apparently bemused by dust motes. "I think," he says finally, "the garden might have had something to with that," he says, eyes fluttering closed, and before Merlin can make any sense of that, Arthur's asleep.
It takes nearly two days before Merlin can find the time to track down Morgana, as Arthur in fact is miserably sick, and Merlin ignores yet another important lesson on the value of honesty. "You never said they met before. My lady."
Gwen looks up from sorting through her morning purchases on the table, mostly consisting of a bewildering variety of thread in various shades of blue. Apparently, nothing is just blue, no, there have names, though Merlin can't honestly tell the difference between them at all. They're blue. "What's that?"
Morgana, however, looks distinctly uncomfortable. "I forgot all about that," she says with an unconvincing shrug, picking up a skein of thread to compare it to what appears to be an identical skein, except apparently not. "It was a long time ago."
"Six years give or take?" Merlin asks, making himself comfortable on the chair. "In a garden?"
Morgana drops the thread, startled. "He told you about that? He said--"
"Ha! No. He fell asleep." Merlin crosses his arms, waiting patiently as Morgana rearranges the skeins again and Gwen gently stops her and puts them back in their original order. "My lady," he starts, trying to look determined, "I'll ask. And he's ill. And there's this syrup that makes him very talkative--"
"All right!" Frowning, Morgana sits back. "It was just a stupid joke."
Somehow, Merlin had thought it was something like that. "What happened?" At her hesitation, Merlin leans forward. "He set himself on fire in the kitchen the last time she visited. To avoid eating in her presence."
Morgana winces. "I did offer to taste his food for him."
Merlin narrows his eyes.
"Fine, fine. It was a state visit to her father, there was a banquet, Arthur was being an ass, so I told Melisande he was in the garden. Alone. And that he liked--" Morgana looks at the far wall. "That he liked being persuaded."
"What does that mean?" Though Merlin has a bad feeling he can guess.
"Apparently, she interpreted that rather liberally and stripped to her shift and pinned him to a tree. And Arthur--" She sighs, pushing back a strand of hair. "Up until then, Arthur hadn't been permitted to spend much time with girls, and the sudden attention made him insufferable. I didn't think he'd react quite so--dramatically."
Merlin swallows hard. "How--dramatically?"
"Ran away when she tried to remove his breeches." Morgana smirks in memory, then winces again. "Uther had him drilling or riding around the kingdom almost constantly, so he had no idea what to do when she decided to try to bed him against a tree. I suppose we should count ourselves lucky he didn't challenge her, but he took it extremely badly." Morgana pauses thoughtfully. "At the time, it was very funny."
Merlin considers the story and tries to pretend it wouldn't have been. But it was. "I don't see why--"
"Arthur didn't really hit his growth spurt until the next year. So when I say pinned to a tree, I mean, lifted off the ground and held there while she tried to have her way with him. Melisande was two years his senior and quite tall."
Oh God. Merlin covers his face with both hands, torn between horror and sheer hilarity. Of course. This is Arthur. It really couldn't have happened any other way. "And he's still angry about that?"
"Well, not wanting to marry her aside, it might have blown over," Morgana says, and her flat stare at the wall tells Merlin that it does, in fact, get worse. "But after his rather colourful refusal of her in her father's hall, she had her maid spread about that the maid had been with him and he was--"
Merlin stares at her. He can't think of anything to say.
"And it got back to Camelot after we returned and there was--" Morgana drifts off with a look that tells Merlin exactly what had happened when that story spread through the castle. "It grew quite a bit in the telling, and even the serving girls gave him odd looks. However, it was somewhat inspirational for Arthur; he became extremely devoted to training for his knighthood. Every waking hour, one might say. Consequently, talk died down rather fast as it became impolitic to make such remarks when Arthur was close enough to throw a gauntlet."
"And Uther is negotiating their marriage," Merlin says, wishing suddenly for wine. "This is a disaster."
"Of that, I'm aware." Picking up a skein of thread, Morgana frowns as she methodically unwinds it between her fingers. "Uther doesn't really--see how their--dislike of each other should be considered a matter of state. As he does not know Melisande and assumes Arthur is merely a very large five year old. Which granted, often he could be mistaken for one, but--"
"Uther is negotiating their marriage," Merlin repeats blankly. "And Arthur will kill himself with his own horrible cooking long before she can poison him."
"I did offer to taste his food," Morgana says again as Gwen patiently takes away the tangle Morgana made of the thread. "Trust me, I have talked to Uther, but this is a matter of politics. He doesn't think personal--quirks should affect affairs of state."
Merlin looks his opinion on that.
"I know," Morgana sighs.
"We have to stop this," Merlin says urgently. "Even if she doesn't kill him, she'll live here. And she will make him miserable, and he will make us miserable, and--"
"She has already told me she will marry me off to the oldest and least attractive knight she can find when she's queen," Morgana says flatly, picking up a knitting needle with a determined expression. "She is not marrying Arthur, if I have to marry him myself."
Just beyond Morgana, Gwen mouths, I'll look into it and Merlin nods his gratitude, answering with a meet me later? glance at the window. At her smile, Merlin settles back, content.
Uther is just leaving Arthur's chambers when Merlin arrives, looking a cross between vaguely worried and in general high spirits, which Merlin finds ominous; Merlin missed the visit with a strategically timed trip to the kitchen to acquire Arthur's lunch. The ominous feeling is proved correct when he opens the door to see Arthur, looking feverish and determined, making a staggering step away from the bed.
"Merlin," Arthur says seriously as he tries and fails to remain upright, staring at his cupboard calculatingly, "come here and get me all the sheets in that drawer."
Setting down the tray, Merlin crosses the room, looking down at the flushed face of his lord and master. "Why?"
"I need to make a rope."
Merlin sighs. "I wish I could attribute this to the fever, but--"
"My father," Arthur says, staring up at Merlin with glassy eyes, "is happy. He did not remonstrate me for my absence, and he did not express disappointment in my lack of sufficient constitution to ward off ailments. He smiled. He wished me well. Do you see the problem here?"
Merlin takes a deep breath to cover abject terror. "Maybe breakfast was excellent?"
"Maybe he's come to an arrangement to marry me off to my future murderer? What do you think?"
"I'm certain she will keep you alive to torture you further," Merlin offers weakly. Arthur's eyes narrow. "Fine. One, the sheet rope doesn't work, or don't you remember the incident with the stables and my ankle? Two, you can barely stand, much less ride. Three, I am not staying behind to be beheaded for losing the crown prince. We'll think of something."
"We?" But after a last hateful look at the cupboard, Arthur lets himself be taken back to bed. Merlin looks at the syrup hopefully, but Arthur had woken with a distinct dislike of it and refused another spoonful no matter how much he coughed. Settled back among the blankets, Arthur curls up into a miserable ball, wiping his nose absently with the handkerchief crumpled in one fist. Merlin fights not to find this utterly, utterly adorable. "I'm sending you to the stocks," Arthur says darkly. "As soon as I can stand long enough at the window to watch."
"Of course, sire," Merlin says, not ruffling the messy blond hair or smiling idiotically at all. "Would you like to eat? I tasted everything first."
"Could be a slow acting poison," Arthur mutters petulantly. "Yes. Bring it here."
Merlin later blames the fact that he had to be present while Arthur bathed for fear he'd drown himself from spite, or fall asleep. After threatening to bring Morgana to entertain him in his illness, Arthur reluctantly took a spoonful of syrup and drifted off almost immediately while Merlin tried to pretend he hadn't been watching Arthur lounging miserably in warm water for above half an hour without so much as blinking.
But he did, and then he left Arthur to Gaius, who kindly offered to allow Merlin a night of uninterrupted sleep and watch over Arthur himself, which logically Merlin did not use for sleep at all.
Still panting, Merlin rolls off Agravaine and thinks that one day, he's going to look back on this and be utterly sickened with himself, but that day is not today.
"Christ," Agravaine mutters breathlessly. Merlin waves a lazy hand in agreement, still seeing Arthur's dark frown before allowing Merlin to assist him out of his bath and the way he looked drying himself perfunctorily before crawling into bed naked, still wet, tangled limbs gold against the stark white linen. Despite recent activities, he can feel his cock twitch a little. "Rumour for once was right."
Merlin grins, not opening his eyes. "You should never listen to rumours," he says, stretching slowly and feeling better than he has for days. "I was taught to draw my own conclusions."
Agravaine snorts, big hand resting on Merlin's stomach, nosing gently at his ear. "Still," Agravaine murmurs, voice husky, "sometimes, they exceed expectations."
Merlin snickers, arching his neck to give better access. "It's all probably true," Merlin admits with a sigh. Agravaine fits his teeth against his shoulder, biting lightly, and Merlin nearly purrs. "I can't stay long. Gaius is with the prince, and I shouldn't make him stay the whole night just to please myself."
"Then we'll make the most of the time you have." Agravaine nips sharply, hand drifting lower. "Wouldn't want to send you back to His Highness still unsatisfied for a long night of waiting on his every breath."
Merlin thinks of the way Arthur slept, loose and soft. "There are compensations," he murmurs.
"None like this, though, yeah?" Agravaine licks a line down his throat, shifting to press a kiss against his chest. Merlin frowns slightly, wondering if Agravaine is referring to that unfortunate morning incident.
"Prince Arthur never discusses his private activities with me," Merlin says, a little stiffly, and Agravaine looks up, eyes softening.
"That's not what I meant. All know of His Highness'--peculiarities. It's no reflection on you. God knows," Agravaine breathes almost reverently, bending down for a slow lick, "if he could, he would have by now."
Merlin gets a handful of rather lank blond hair and jerks hard, using his knee the way Arthur had taught him, and in short order, Agravaine's spread out beneath him quite uncomfortably and staring up at him with watering eyes, hands pinned above his head.
"If he could?" Merlin says quietly, putting a knee against Agravaine's groin. "Try to move and you'll discover just how competent an instructor the prince is in hand to hand and what an excellent pupil I am. What peculiarities?"
"It's--it's merely a rumour. I don't listen to rumour--"
"What. Peculiarities?" Merlin breathes, and pushes his knee in, hard.
Agravaine tells him.
Arthur seems somewhat better in the morning, even taking a spoonful of syrup when Merlin holds it out grimly, and settling into bed instead of trying to drag himself toward his clothes like has some hope of staying upright. Merlin checks for a fever in hope, but it seems as if the cold is clearing, which is just the kind of luck he has.
"Are you hungry?" Merlin asks nervously as Arthur settles down, eyeing Merlin suspiciously as he pours another spoonful.
"I don't want another dose. It makes me--" Arthur gives the bottle a pained look, "--feel strange."
"I think it would be better for us both if you took it," Merlin says, trying to convey how very much he believes this by expression alone. Arthur looks at him, then pushes himself up, glancing at the door with worried eyes, then at Merlin, mouth opening. Merlin takes the opportunity to shove the spoon in his mouth.
Arthur sputters, pushing him away. "You--have you heard about--did my father--"
"It's not about Lady Melisande," Merlin says grimly, pouring a spoonful and taking it himself before sitting on the edge of the bed. "I hid all your weapons while you were sleeping. Because I think you would regret it if you killed me. Eventually. And my mother would be so upset, and you know she likes you a great deal."
The syrup's working, at least on Arthur--instead of immediate panicked aggression, Arthur eyes him with vaguely homicidal alarm. "What are you on about?"
Sadly, the syrup isn't working on Merlin at all. Clasping his hands, Merlin takes a deep breath. "The knights may be under the impression that I share your bed," he says, getting it out in a rush of breath. The only thing in his favour right now is that it's likely he might get away before Arthur finishes killing him. Or at least the syrup might dull the pain.
"What?" Arthur frowns. "Where would they get such a ridiculous idea?"
"Well," Merlin says nervously, picking up the bottle and preparing the second spoon, "that would be because that's what I told them."