It's another spoonful of syrup (for Merlin, who needs it), an hour, Arthur attempting to strangle him and then becoming bored and offering him a pillow, and Merlin realizing exactly how excellent Arthur's mattress is before they get any further along in that line of conversation.
"I think I'm upset about this," Arthur says musingly, tucking a pillow against his chest. "I'm probably going to try to kill you when this wears off, so I'd suggest starting to run within the next hour or so. Get a good head start."
Merlin nods agreeably, curled on his side. "Was thinking just that. Always wanted to go to Wales."
"I'll find you anyway," Arthur answers almost apologetically, reaching out to settle a comforting hand on Merlin's shoulder. "But I'll make it fast, I promise you."
"Thank you, sire." Shifting a little closer, Merlin wonders if he'll ever stop smiling. "Agravaine might be a limping for a few days. Just so you know."
Arthur grins. "Aren't you glad I taught you how to defend yourself? Next time you complain, remember that."
Merlin nods and follows the withdrawal of Arthur's hand, missing it. Pushing himself unsteadily up on one elbow, Merlin's startled how close he is to Arthur, blue eyes only inches away. "I would, you know," Merlin breathes. "If you asked. Or just, you know, looked. I don't need a lot of encouragement. Ask anyone."
"Encouragement for--" Arthur blinks, frowning slightly before his expression clears. "Right, that."
"That." Merlin can't help it; Arthur's so close, and he's not actively objecting, and Merlin was telling the truth. He does not, in fact, need a lot of encouragement. Leaning forward, he brushes a kiss against Arthur's mouth, pulling back after an endless honey-sweet moment. The faint frown is more surprise than anything else. "I just--" Merlin touches Arthur's face, day-old stubble rough against his fingertips, and it's just like he imagined, being able to touch him like this. "I want to."
"I've heard…." Arthur starts, eyes very dark, then licks his lips, as if searching for a lingering taste. Merlin leans down again, slicking his tongue over Arthur's damp lower lip, curving his hand to fit Arthur's jaw. When he draws back, Arthur breathes in sharply, flushing. "I never believe rumours."
"Believe these," Merlin says, feeling giddy, and this time, when he kisses Arthur, Arthur's lips part at the press of his tongue. It's amazing, and messy, and meltingly sweet, and Merlin pushes his hand into Arthur's hair and holds him still, licking into his mouth slowly and thoroughly, tasting the remains of the syrup still lingering on his tongue, coaxing Arthur's tongue into his mouth and sucking until he hears Arthur groan. It's wonderful, even if Arthur seems uncertain, fine tremors that seem to shake the surface of his skin like a stone thrown into a still, quiet pond, and Merlin strokes gentle fingers up his side until he feels Arthur begin to relax.
Reaching down, Merlin curls a hand around Arthur's hip, pulling them together and nipping gently at Arthur's lip when he gasps, hard against Merlin's thigh. Arthur jerks his mouth away, blue eyes wide, and Merlin takes the opportunity to lick down his throat, remembering the way the water had streamed down his skin as he left his bath and how much Merlin had wanted to follow the trails with his tongue wherever they would go. Arthur settles a heavy hand on his shoulder, then, more tentatively, curves it around the back of Merlin's neck, and Merlin sucks on the soft, vulnerable skin below his jaw before travelling down the side of his throat and biting gently at the join of neck and shoulder.
It's perfect; Merlin sighs, nuzzling at the fine, soft skin of Arthur's shoulder, mouthing across his collarbone, feeling sleepily content with the world. Arthur strokes slowly through his hair, and Merlin leans into the touch, finding Arthur's mouth again, warm and soft and wet, and abruptly falls asleep with his fingers still tangled in the laces of Arthur's shirt.
Some point much later, Merlin wakes up and gets all of five seconds of confusion to flail at whisper-soft linen with dawning horror before he sees Arthur seated at the table with every knife he owns spread out like a warning.
Merlin sits up and quietly thanks the gods he seems to still be dressed.
"I think," Arthur says, leaning forward and looking much less sick than one might hope, palming one knife with intent, "that we need to talk."
Merlin nods dumbly.
"Let me make sure I have the series of events in the correct order," Arthur says, no longer sitting, though the pacing isn't any kind of sane improvement. "Something I said after you drugged me--"
"It was syrup for your imaginary cold, and I got it from Gaius," Merlin objects and regrets it at Arthur's glare. "That's now real, granted. But it was for your cold. Which is suspiciously cured, I notice."
"We live in a time of miracles," Arthur says flatly. "To continue before you interrupted--I made an indiscreet comment and that led you to Morgana. Who is an idiot and told you the entire sordid--thing."
Merlin nods miserably, wishing Arthur would at least let him get out of bed to give him a fighting chance of reaching the door or perhaps a window. But no: every time he makes a motion toward the floor, Arthur stops short, glares, and Merlin meekly goes back to the middle of the bed. He doesn't really think Arthur will kill him. But he's not sure Arthur knows that yet.
"So while copulating with one of my knights--"
"Not during!" Merlin objects, and then wonders why on earth he bothered.
"During the afterglow then, you gossiped about me with one of my knights--"
"No! I never--" Merlin pushes onto his knees, glaring at Arthur. "I've never, ever talked about you or anything like it. Not with your knights and not with any of the serving folk. But--"
"So why the hell did you tell him--"
"Because he said you were gelded!"
That, Merlin thinks sickly, could have been broken far more gently. Arthur goes white, mouth dropping open.
"I mean," Merlin adds desperately, "that such a thing might have been among the many, many unbelievable rumours that no one believes. At all."
Arthur shuts his mouth with a snap, staring at some point above Merlin's shoulder, face unreadable. "Gelded," he says, unnaturally soft, like he's checking it off some mental list. He looks at Merlin sharply. "When did that one start?"
"I don't know--recently? Agravaine said he heard it from the kitchen girls, who heard it from the chambermaids, but where they'd--" Merlin stops, startled by the sudden, oddly unsurprising conclusion to that train of thought. "You think Lord Antes is behind this? The envoy from Melisande's family?"
"It's to pattern," Arthur says, anger banked abruptly. Giving up the pacing, he drops on the foot of the bed. "It's certainly not the first time."
"But why? What would be the point? It won't help her get you."
Arthur leans back against the bedpost. "My father gets four marriage offers a year for me," he starts, taking out his knife and checking the edge with far too much attention. "When I was fifteen, we would get as many as four per month."
"That's--odd." Merlin leans back against the pillows, keeping a wary eye on Arthur's knife hand. "And by odd, I mean, that sounds like--"
"And their rank drops lower every year," Arthur adds.
"--like someone is deliberately poisoning the pool of potential wives," Merlin finishes. Agravaine had been very forthcoming about all the rumours he'd heard in his two and a half years in Camelot, and none had been pleasant or likely to make any highborn girl look forward to marriage with Arthur at all. They wouldn't make any girl look forward to going within ten feet of Arthur's bed, for that matter. "I never heard most of it," Merlin says blankly. "All this time, and I never knew."
"Merlin," Arthur says patiently. "You're known to be somewhat loyal," in a dramatic understatement of a truth they both know, "and I suspect they might have thought you would tell me what was said. They wouldn't risk their place here by telling you anything that I might hear and want to investigate."
True. "So she finds ways to spread rumours among the castlefolk--and in other households, apparently--to destroy your reputation in the most personal way possible, and in ways that you can't ever answer. She hates you that much?"
"She wants to be queen that badly. Wrecking my life is just a pleasant means to an end, until such a time as she can gain the crown and turn it into a life's calling."
Merlin licks his lips. "You're very calm about it."
Arthur slumps against the bedpost, and for a moment, he looks impossibly tired.
"That is not the worst of them," Arthur says, and Merlin nods stiffly, feeling sick. "If they weren't so--humiliating--I might thank her. I would have been married off years ago otherwise. As is, my father is still hoping for someone of political value and high estate, not merely wealth, which is all an alliance with Melisande could offer. Camelot is already very wealthy."
"But he's considering her offer now."
"Apparently not as much as I'd thought, if the envoy felt the need to continue the practice of spreading these things, especially one so easily proved false. But the possibility still exists. Morgana will continue to argue that selling the queen's coronet so cheaply is not in our best interests, and the council will continue to argue that her rank is below that of their own daughters and of no benefit to Camelot."
"And you?" Merlin says after a few seconds.
"I'll continue to pretend I know nothing of it, because my father made it clear long ago that my opinion on the subject of my wife is neither needed nor desired."
Merlin nods, looking away before Arthur can see anything on his face. "Right." Uncomfortably, Merlin straightens, changing the subject. "So, I guess the stocks for a week."
Arthur looks surprised for a minute, then smiles faintly. "Not this time. I think what you've already done is punishment enough."
Merlin, foot half-way to the floor, freezes. "Punishment?" he says warily.
"You announced to Agravaine--and by extension, the entirety of Camelot--that you have shared my bed. Recently."
"That was to help you, you ungrateful--"
Arthur waves it away. "In any case, I don't think it's appropriate for me to share your favours with the entirety of the castle," he says. "So consider yourself--unavailable for the foreseeable future."
Merlin stares at him. "But you're not. Sharing my favours. Enjoying them. Whatever."
"But you said I was," Arthur answers with maddening logic. "And rumour, as you are quite aware, is taken as fact. Especially when it's delivered by one of the two participants."
Merlin feels something in his stomach drop in sheer horror. "You. I have to be celibate because I tried to defend your honour?"
"And I thank you," Arthur says graciously, but there's an unfamiliar edge to his voice. "I feel better today, I think. Please returned to your regular duties, and avoid falling into anyone's bed, if you would? I would as soon avoid the further embarrassment of being seen cuckolded so early in our liaison."
Appalled, Merlin stares at Arthur. He's serious. "And you think everyone will ignore I was with Agravaine when I took up with you?"
Arthur shrugs carelessly. "With your skill in manipulating rumour, I'm sure you can think of a reason you would decide to embrace fidelity to a new lover and spread accordingly."
Actually, Merlin can think of three without much consideration required.
"And warn Gaius you won't be returning to your room tonight. God knows, there will be expectations now and we'd best fulfil them adequately." Shoving the knife back in its sheathe, Arthur crosses to the cupboard, getting his coat. "I'm going riding. I'll see you tonight."
Getting a second knife from the table, Arthur leaves, and Merlin wonders how the hell this can possibly be happening.
Gaius listens, occasionally contributing an understanding nod or an encouraging noise in Merlin's general direction, but otherwise is utterly useless.
"There's always been talk," Gaius reflects over his glass of ale. "Few people believe it."
"But people do believe this!" Merlin answers, frustrated. "I mean, I had to go into the kind of detail I had to make up words for to convince Agravaine that Arthur was normal and not deprived of his manhood or devoted to sheep or unnatural practices involving leather straps…" Merlin breaks off at Gaius slightly glazed eyes. "Right. Less detail. I know."
"Hmm." Gaius leans back, looking at him thoughtfully. "It's odd that there seem to be so few rumours involving Prince Arthur's partners. You would think that anyone with whom he had a liaison with would refute them immediately."
Merlin had thought of that. "Arthur's--very private." Though not above mocking Merlin about his various attachments. In the almost three years Merlin's served him, Sophia is the only one he remembers Arthur showing any public interest in at all, and that had required magic. "He's never been the kind to--talk about that sort of thing." Even with his closest knights, or they would have known better than to listen to rumour. Maybe he'd thought discussing such things with them would alter their companionship, or that it was beneath him, or something; Merlin has no idea.
Now, of course, that's all changed. Merlin buries his head in his arms on the table, wondering if Arthur's currently plotting the most horrifying revenge he can think of. "Do you know how far the negotiations have gone?" Merlin mumbles to the scarred wood.
"They go, with no decisions made," Gaius answers with a comforting pat to his shoulder. "Don't worry too much. From what I understand, the length of the negotiations is stretching the king's patience. All will be well."
Merlin sighs. No help at all.
Merlin contemplates the unfixed period of celibacy in his future on his way to Arthur's room that afternoon. It's unfair; Merlin had been trying to help and now he's trapped in a lie that he's wanted to be true for almost as long as he's been in Camelot. Picking up a discarded shirt, Merlin resentfully adds it to the pile of laundry; Arthur can't watch him every second. God knows they'd go insane if they spent that much time together. A quick moment in the stables, if his nights are now off-limits. Camelot is filled with people who like quick, easy fun. It doesn’t mean anything. And everyone knows that he--
Everyone, Merlin thinks, stopping short. There have never been rumours of Arthur's lovers, and this is the first one, he's the first one. And if he's caught now with someone else--if someone talks--and they will, they do--it won't be Merlin that they'll mock. It will be Arthur, who can't keep a new lover faithful, even his own manservant.
Bad enough what's already gone before; adding this would be unconscionable and possibly undo what little Merlin's done already. Six years of this won't be undone with a single word in Agravaine's ear (or shouted to his face, in terms that had made them both blush). If it's to be done, it has to be done well. Merlin rubs a hand across his face, thinking of Arthur's carefully guarded privacy and the fact that nothing can be private any longer; that's the entire point of doing this.
Taking the clothing to the laundry, Merlin goes to Gwen, who takes one look at his face and draws him into Morgana's chambers, eyes widening in shock as he tells her, "So. I'm going to need some help with this."
There's no way to avoid the court dinner. Dressing Arthur isn't the unalloyed pleasure it usually is; tonight is too much like the hours before a tournament or a fight, when Arthur's quiet and pensive, or loud and aggressive, or both at once. Merlin watches as Arthur clothes himself in the pride that he wears like his armour, to ward off six years of lying tongues and malicious whispers and all the lies that a castle of bored people can create.
Following Arthur into the main hall, Merlin feels every half-hidden gaze and amused smile like they crawl across on his own skin, speculation and disbelief and malice by turn, and wonders how on earth Arthur could have done this every time a new rumour began and not killed everyone where they stood.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs pleasantly, hand wrapped white-knuckled around his eating knife, hidden by the edge of his plate, "smile and stop looking as if sleeping with me is a nightmare from which you feel you will never awaken. It is not helping."
Merlin draws in a breath and pastes a smile across his face, filling Arthur's cup with a hand that's not quite steady. At least that's normal enough; he's never not been clumsy.
"Why is this bothering you?" Arthur asks later, as the second course is taken away. Merlin's dropped a napkin and spilled the wine twice, and has never been so aware of the eyes on him, on them, on Arthur. "You've never minded what people said of you before."
Startled, Merlin almost drops the jug at the edge Arthur's voice. He thinks of Aidra, who in the end could hardly stand Arthur's presence and ran away with a knight she had never met to escape him, and spares himself some of the contempt he feels for those who caused this.
"This isn't about me," Merlin says, cheeks aching from the smile he doesn't dare relax or lose it to the anger he has no right to express.
Arthur gives him a curious look, then moves his cup toward Merlin when he begins to pour too soon. "Actually, it is."
"No, it's about you, and it's--" There's not a word for this eager malice studying their every move. "Obscene. When can we leave?"
Arthur looks at him in surprise, hand curving around his cup, then leans back, the practiced smile fading into something much more real. "Whenever I choose," he says, as if he just realized there were actual benefits to this entire mess. "After the last course, I'll make my excuses."
Merlin finds himself smiling back, and for a few minutes, he almost forgets they're being watched at all.
"So wouldn't it have been better to have a go with a chambermaid or something for people to see?" Merlin hears himself ask just as he takes Arthur's coat. For a second, he honestly has to wonder if he's become as idiotic as Arthur's always accused him of being.
Arthur, though, only gives him a pained look, as if Merlin suggested Arthur strip naked and sing at the next court dinner while sober. "I think not."
"Because this is so much better?" Hanging up Arthur's coat, he unfastens the tunic, trying to ignore the memory of how soft Arthur's mouth had been, and how he'd felt beneath Merlin's hands, concentrating on the formalities of their respective stations the way he's never really bothered to before.
"I won't lie my private actions open for public discussion," Arthur says, almost as if by rote, like a promise or a long-held resolution that he's lived with so long he's forgotten any other way. "Though I suppose that's come to an end." Arthur eyes Merlin unfavourably, but Merlin only rolls his eyes and strips away Arthur's shirt ruthlessly, ignoring the scowl and the way Arthur rubs his ear.
"I'm never defending you again," Merlin says, tossing Arthur a clean shift and closing the cupboard. "Even if they mention sheep."
Arthur pauses, shift halfway over his head, then jerks it down. "Sheep? Really?"
"That would be spreading rumours," Merlin answers snottily and stares at the chair expectantly until Arthur sits down. Kneeling, Merlin reaches for the laces of his trousers and suddenly remembers how much he'd wanted to do this last night, before the stupid, stupid syrup screwed it all up.
Arthur hasn't so much as looked at him in a way that conveys he's thought of it at all, though Merlin can see the imprint of his teeth on Arthur's throat and the thin, fading red lines from Merlin's nails on his shoulders, the back of his neck.
Shaking himself, he veers to where he should have gone in the first place, taking each boot off with unusual care, concentrating on not thinking of anything at all, and he's still clutching the other boot when Arthur reaches down and takes it away, sliding off the chair and cupping Merlin's face. Merlin sees something very like uncertainty in Arthur's eyes before he leans forward, and Merlin, feeling less idiotic by the second, meets him halfway.
It's awkward and fantastic at the same time, and Merlin wonders vaguely which one of them is trembling and finds he doesn't really care. Tilting his head, Merlin fits their mouths together better, and Arthur sighs and leans into him, easy and surprisingly careful, as if he's afraid Merlin will run away, like maybe that he might run away himself.
Arthur's cautious, which Merlin hadn't expected at all, edged with curiosity, the way he is in the tourney ring or on the practice field, testing an opponent's skill, when he practices a new skill, focused and intent. Merlin can't remember a time in his life when something as simple as a kiss seemed so huge, all-encompassing like there's nothing else in the world but his mouth and Arthur's, and the thousand ways they fit together.
And it doesn't go anywhere, no scrabbling for clothing to remove, finding more comfortable positions, just Arthur eventually straddling his lap, fingers stroking through his hair and exploring Merlin's mouth like an undiscovered country. Merlin hasn't done anything this chaste in longer than he can remember: maybe ever.
After an endless period of time that Merlin forgets there's anything else in the world, Arthur pulls away, gold-tipped lashes fanning dark against flushed skin, mouth vivid red and swollen. Merlin can't help licking the seam of his lips, press a kiss against the corner of Arthur's mouth. "Arthur," he murmurs, voice scratchy, and Arthur's eyes snap open, dazed. "Do you want--"
Arthur licks his lips distractedly, looking at Merlin, almost startled before he pulls away, sliding to the rug before catching himself on one arm and pushing himself to his feet. Before he turns his back, Merlin sees him touch his mouth, thumb pressing briefly to where Merlin had last set his lips.
"We should get some sleep," Arthur says huskily, and Merlin fists his hands to stop himself from reaching down, palm his cock at the sound of Arthur's voice. "Have a good night."
Merlin looks at Arthur incredulously, warmth dissipating. "I have to sleep on the floor?"
He can't see anything but Arthur's back as he rifles pointlessly through the cupboard. "Of course. You can't sleep with me."
"Why not? Isn't that the entire point?" Crossing his arms, Merlin's scowl falters as Arthur steps out of his breeches, and disappears completely at the sight of long, bare thighs.
Arthur turns around with his most irritatingly condescending expression that begins to evaporate as Merlin gets deliberately to his feet, pulling off his own tunic and tossing it carelessly toward the foot of the bed. "Merlin--"
Merlin toes off a boot, holding Arthur's slowly widening eyes. "I am not. Sleeping. On the floor," Merlin says, getting his second boot off by dint of sheer will. Or possibly, magic. "I am sleeping in your bed, and if that bothers you, you sleep on the floor." Dropping his trousers, Merlin steps out of them and defiantly crawls up from the foot, jerking back the covers and burrowing inside, still hard and with the horrible knowledge that he's going to most likely stay that way for the rest of the night from how Arthur's acting, the bloody cocktease.
"I'm not sleeping on the floor!"
"And I wouldn't take up with anyone who made me sleep on the floor!" Merlin shouts through his pillow, trying to will down both his erection and the wild and crazy impulse to get out of bed, drag Arthur onto it, and make every lie he's told today true. Maybe all of them tonight. It's a long list, and Merlin's had two years to imagine it. "So stop arguing!"
"Fine!" There's irritating muttering, but Merlin ignores it, sinking into the mattress with the weight of the bedclothes a pleasant warmth surrounding him. Not as good as Arthur would feel, but it looks like that's out of the question.
Poking his head up as the bed shifts, Merlin stares resentfully at Arthur's back and reminds himself Arthur's an utter ass. "What was that? On the floor?"
"Verisimilitude," Arthur answers without hesitation. Lying back stiffly, Arthur stares at the draperies above them with a grim expression. "Though I didn't expect to need to do this."
"What, do you throw everyone out when you're done with them?" Merlin says incredulously. "I'm surprised you can get anyone at all."
Arthur's eyes narrow. "I can push you off onto the floor," he answers tightly. "So shut up and go to sleep!"
With Arthur imitating a corpse two feet over, Merlin's not sure how he's supposed to do that, but eventually, Arthur pulls up the bedclothes and rolls onto his side, and Merlin has a feeling the bed's just been demarcated, as clearly as if Arthur had put his sword between them, as obviously as if Arthur told him, "Do not come closer or I will stab you. And enjoy it."
Despite the wonders of sharing Arthur's truly amazing bed, it's a long time before Merlin finally finds sleep.
Merlin's internal time sense has been set to dawn since the earliest childhood, and he wakes just as pale grey light breaks across the sky outside the window. Merlin stretches luxuriously, rolling drowsily onto his side, and comes face to face with Arthur, less than a full foot away and utterly breathtaking.
Abruptly, Merlin's body reminds him of exactly what it missed last night.
Pushing himself up on his elbows, Merlin thinks of all the reasons this is a bad idea, then ignores them all, cupping Arthur's cheek and kissing the soft, slack mouth, easing Arthur onto his back just as he starts to respond.
"Merlin?" he says, bemused, and Merlin captures his lips again, licking the words off his tongue and breathing in the warm, sleepy scent of him, cradling his face between his hands. Sliding a leg over Arthur's thighs, Merlin deepens the kiss, nipping gently at his lower lip before mouthing down his chin, pressing his lips against the soft, smooth skin just beneath his ear, sucking gently until he feels Arthur shiver, then increasing the pressure. He can feel Arthur's hips shift, move, cock hard and sliding against his thigh through the thin cloth between them as Arthur's fingers tighten in his hair. With a final nip, Merlin pulls away, lifting his head to look into drowsy blue eyes, running his tongue over his lower lip.
"Verisimilitude," Merlin whispers, staring at Arthur's mouth, then gets out of bed, not daring to look back or there's no way he'll leave. "I'll get your breakfast, sire," he adds, pleased with how easily the words come as he dresses, taking none of the care he usually does when leaving someone's chambers in the morning, leaving his laces unfastened and messy, like someone who was just dragged from a highly pleasant time in bed for duty only.
He looks back only once, as he goes out the door, and Arthur still hasn't moved. He wonders if that means he won, and then wonders why he'd wanted to.
Gwen catches him just after the midday meal at rare loose ends; Arthur hadn't given him any orders this morning, and his usual duties are nearly complete. And a wonderful morning it had been, too, with Arthur unable to hide how badly he wanted Merlin out of his sight, flinching with narrowed eyes and the promise of violence at his least approach.
Merlin's used to Arthur's flashes of temper like dry twigs set alight, brilliant and brief; the other is far more rare, a slow, implacable burn like the heart of a bonfire or a funeral pyre, his inheritance from the father whose eyes reflected it at every mention of sorcery. Merlin had seen it in when Melisande's name was spoken, with one of Uther's former councillors, once, and this morning felt it touch himself, the first taste of a world where he was someone Arthur Pendragon hated.
And the worst part is, he can't be sure why, or how it can be fixed. Merlin had expected to return to a temperamental Arthur, angry that Merlin had played the tease, not one that measured him with eyes that judged him one step from an enemy.
Wandering through the mucked stables and staring at Arthur's perfectly groomed horses is a lot less interesting than he'd thought, and he hadn't thought much of their entertainment value before.
"It's all over the castle," she says, making herself comfortable on a bale of hay after Merlin checks to make sure the grooms and stableboys are well out of the way. "Bettina and Elian are placing bets--"
"They bet on everything," Merlin says glumly. "Find out anything about who is doing this?"
Gwen purses her lips. "There are ten chambermaids that are responsible for the guest chambers," she starts, looking grim. "Even narrowing it down to the ones that have direct access to Lord Antes, he's not above a tumble with a servant, and never the same one twice."
"God," Merlin says, burying his face in his hands. Did the man have no shame? "Give me something, anything. Someone here is spreading this deliberately and with some kind of--of reputation for veracity or it wouldn't be so--"
"Prevalent? I know." Gwen twists her skirt uncomfortably. "The thing is--"
"I mean, the castle is full of women--and men for that matter--and Arthur's discreet, but surely someone has talked about what it's like to bed the crown prince!" Merlin says irritably. "I mean, is he killing them after he's done with them or--"
"The thing is," Gwen says, raising her voice slightly, "that no one has."
Merlin blinks. "What?"
"I've lived in Camelot all my life," Gwen answers slowly. "And I've served Morgana for half of it. There's never been anything. Not even Evan, and he still claims the king got him with child. There's no one."
"That's impossible. No one is that discreet." Merlin falters at Gwen's slow nod. "No one can be that--" Merlin pauses, turning it over in his head, something impossible trying to press to the surface. "He only beds visiting noblewomen? Or serf girls when he is on patrol--" and stops there, because that doesn't even make sense.
"Merlin," Gwen says doggedly. "No one. No one in memory. Even Lady Melisande--no one knows about that. It's as if he--" Gwen hesitates, looking at him desperately, waiting for him to say what both of them are completely not thinking. "He's killing them after, yes. I'll look into that."
Merlin stares at her, mouth dry. "You do that," he manages, and Gwen nods enthusiastically, picking up her basket and slipping out the door. Merlin stays where he is, not sure if his legs will hold him if he tries anything complicated like standing.
For lack of anything else to do, Merlin goes to watch drills and is almost immediately co-opted by the other squires with a kind of desperate gratitude that makes Merlin wish he'd followed his first impulse and hidden in his room. Letting them herd him toward the training field, Merlin tries to pretend that this is any day that he comes out here to watch the knights and be on hand in case Arthur gets bored and has a pressing need to give Merlin insane orders to amuse himself.
When they come to a stop, abruptly gathering behind him like he's a castle wall, Merlin sees exactly why boys who will one day be knighted are under the impression they might not make it to knighthood.
Arthur hadn't bothered with anything so sensible a helmet, face sweat-slicked and flushed, a force of pure, methodical destruction, sword almost a blur as he fights two obviously terrified knights who probably hadn't thought that today would be the day they would die. Frozen, Merlin watches his attention skim between them, keeping them both easily at bay, and doesn't wonder why the men who have faced him in combat fear him.
It's as inevitable as watching the rise of river during a storm, as fast as the floods that wipe away villages in the blink of an eye, watching the first knight stumble, hesitate, and fall, spread full length on the ground as Arthur brings his sword around in a blur that stops a breath from the throat of the other one.
Merlin swallows, feeling dizzy. "How long?"
"Since mid-morning," one of the squires whispers. From the look of the men scattered around the field like forgotten chess pieces, Merlin would say that practice is going to end early today.
God, practice had better end early today; Merlin doesn't see anyone else left standing.
"Sire," someone says, voice rippling across the field, and Merlin wonders for a moment who was mad enough to interrupt living, breathing chaos. Arthur's head jerks up, and even from the edge of the field, Merlin can see his pupils are blown wide, ringed in the dark blue of a rising storm.
Then Merlin realizes he'd been the one who had spoken.
On not entirely steady legs, Merlin makes himself cross the wet, muddy ground between them, knowing there was no one not watching every second of this. Somehow, the length doubles, then trebles, and Merlin feels like perhaps he'll never get there at all, until Arthur's just there, sword still unsheathed, like anyone who wants to survive the day is going to face him after this.
"Do you require orders for every second of your day or can you think for yourself?" Arthur says flatly, breathing hard. Merlin stares at him, unable to find a single thing to say. "Merlin. I asked you a question."
Merlin swallows and looks for something, anything, but he can't quite think past how Arthur looks right now, and how he looked when Merlin left him this morning, and finally manages, "I need to speak with you, sire."
Arthur opens his mouth, probably to protest he's busy and then seems to realize that in fact, he isn't busy at all, unless he plans to start on the squires, and even Arthur wouldn't--usually--do that. With a narrow look, he shoves the sword back in its sheathe and grudging offers a hand to the knight who hasn't yet dared to so much as shift his position.
Somehow, Merlin isn't entirely surprised to see Agravaine, who hesitates before gingerly letting Arthur pull him to his feet.
"Morgana could do better," Arthur says contemptuously, voice like a cracking whip. Turning away, he strides toward the edge of the field, and Merlin belatedly struggles to keep up, wondering where they're going, then realizes exactly where they're going to go. As soon as they're out of sight of the field, Merlin reaches for Arthur, ignoring his scowl as he pulls him toward the stables.
"Merlin, what are you--"
"Shut up," Merlin manages, and pushes him into the empty stall he'd cleaned out this morning while thinking of Arthur, warm and willing beneath his hands, and slides his tongue into Arthur's mouth before he can say another stupid word.
Arthur braces both hands on his shoulders, and perhaps he'd meant to push Merlin away, but Merlin sucks on his lip, biting once, hard, and slides a hand down until he can feel Arthur's cock, hard and almost shockingly hot through the thin cloth of his breeches.
When Merlin pulls back, the look on Arthur's face is confirmation of every single thing Gwen hadn't said and Merlin hadn't thought.
"Arthur," he hears himself say helplessly, and then, "Right. The thing is--" Suddenly clumsy, Merlin twists his fingers in the laces of Arthur's breeches, reaching for the waist with both hands and jerking them down, following them until he's on his knees. "The thing is--"
"What are you--" Arthur's fingers brush against his face, and Merlin turns enough to catch one between his lips sucking slowly and watching Arthur flush, wide-eyed and shocked silent.
Pulling away with a scrape of teeth, Merlin runs his hands up Arthur's thighs and says shakily, "I'm making this true," and leans forward, licking up the length of Arthur's cock before taking him in his mouth.
Arthur doesn't last long at all, but then again, Merlin doesn't either; he's still swallowing when he reaches down, and the brush of his own fingers is all it takes, shuddering, face buried in the warm skin of Arthur's thigh, breathing in the scent of him and mouthing the skin helplessly until Arthur sinks down the wall, still trembling.
Shifting to lean against Arthur's knee, Merlin struggles to catch his breath, still half-hard and aching a little. Looking at Arthur's face, shocked and wondering and destroyed all at once, it hits Merlin all anew; he's never done this before. No one's ever done this for him before. There's never been anyone else that's ever touched him like this.
He's hard again so fast he can barely see. Pulling back, he shoves Arthur's knees, down, crawling into his lap, kissing him frantically and thinking of all the things he wants to do to Arthur, with Arthur. Very distantly, a bucket drops and there's a voice making a terrified apology, but Arthur is sucking on his tongue and Merlin thinks he'll kill anyone who tries to come near them.
Reaching between them, Merlin feels him, hard again, slick from Merlin's mouth, and pulls away for a gasp. "Arthur," he pants, one hand tangled in Arthur's hair and trying to unlace his breeches one-handed, laces knotting rebelliously with every tug. "God, I want to--" Desperate, he pries Arthur's hand free of his hip, pressing it against his cock, and even through the wool, it's impossibly good. "Arthur," he whispers, shuddering, forehead pressed to Arthur's shoulder. "Please--"
For a second, he can feel Arthur hesitate, hand stiff, then abruptly, he's pulling at the laces, growling something that makes Merlin shudder. Mouthing the column of his throat, slick with sweat and a tang of copper that might be blood, Merlin fights the urge to just rub up against Arthur until he comes. It would be good. It would be bloody amazing.
Then Arthur pushes him back, and Merlin hears himself hiss, but Arthur unsheathes his knife, and Merlin watches as Arthur cuts neatly through the laces and pushes his hand inside, curling around him rough and perfect. With a groan, Merlin finds Arthur's mouth, shoving his tongue inside for a breathless second before groaning, "Do us both, come on, please--" shoving his hips forward until Arthur's cock rubs against his and the world goes white and brilliant, like staring at the sun.
After a while, Merlin lifts his head from Arthur's shoulder, feeling shaky and sated and wanting to do it again right now.
When he looks at Arthur, eyes glassy, mouth bruised with stubble burn on the edge of his jaw, he feels fierce satisfaction, almost painfully focused, and Merlin presses their foreheads together, breathing, "You have no idea what I want to do to you."
Arthur's tongue swipes across his lower lip, utterly wrecked. "I--" His voice cracks, and Merlin wants to kiss him again, push him down on the straw and do everything he can think of, show Arthur everything Merlin can do to him and know no one, no one's ever had this before, no one's had him like this (and never will, some part of him murmurs, low and dark and certain, never); an unmarked page never stained by ink, unknown territory that Merlin wants to claim in its entirety.
"I have to--my father," Arthur manages breathlessly, and Merlin wonders for a fascinating moment if he can keep Arthur here despite that, despite a hundred fathers and a thousand councils and any number of useless drills. He thinks he could; Arthur doesn't move, and Merlin lets the moment stretch before sliding off to the side, lazily climbing to his feet, pants loose around his hips as he knots what's left of the laces beneath Arthur's unblinking stare.
As Arthur gets slowly to his feet, Merlin reaches for his breeches, feeling Arthur lean into it and hiding his smile. "I'll help you dress," he says, and holds Arthur's eyes while he slowly laces them back up.
Merlin doesn't see Arthur again until the evening meal; there's no dinner with the court tonight, and Merlin ignores the cook's knowing smirk as he takes the tray, unsurprised to find Arthur restless in his skin, impossibly still everywhere but his eyes, fixed on Merlin as soon as he comes in the room.
"Sire," Merlin says, setting the tray on the table and going back to the door, sliding the lock into place. When he turns around, Arthur's still watching him, all the intense focus that Merlin's only seen him turn on tournaments, on fighting for his life, concentrated on Merlin like nothing else exists or ever will. It's almost drugging, like the feeling of magic when he gets it right and it bends to his will, but so much better, like all the power in the world is beneath his hands and he could do anything with it he wanted, anything at all.
They're only inches apart when Arthur starts to speak, then stops when Merlin reaches for the hem of his tunic, and Merlin presses his lips to the hollow of Arthur's throat, warm and slightly salty, the faint trace of soap from the quick wash Merlin had given him in the stables before sending him away.
He'd thought of Arthur in that meeting all afternoon, seated irreproachably beside his father, and how they would all see the crown prince fresh from drilling his men and never see the places Merlin had touched him, invisible and unmistakable. Pulling back, Merlin eases the tunic up and away, and Arthur sways toward him almost before it's forgotten on the floor behind them, mouth soft and Merlin kisses him, slow and almost lazy, Arthur coiled like a spring when Merlin touches him, running his hands up beneath his shirt and up his back, skin smooth beneath his fingers.
"Merlin," Arthur murmurs, breathing fast already, and Merlin curls his fingers over the sharp bones of Arthur's hips, pushing a thigh between his legs and swallowing the startled gasp at the sudden pressure, hands restless on Merlin's skin, unable to settle and unable to stop touching, wanting so badly Merlin can taste it with every kiss, rough and inexpert and greedy for more. Merlin keeps it slow, easy, sucking on Arthur's tongue as he eases Arthur's breeches down, spreading his hand low on his flat, muscled belly, sliding over his side and up his chest beneath his shirt, flicking a nipple with one fingernail and feeling Arthur shudder all over, hand tightening in Merlin's hair.
"I've been thinking about this all day," Merlin breathes against the shell of Arthur's ear, licking gently along the curve before pressing his tongue in. Against his thigh, Arthur's hips are moving helplessly, as if he can't stop himself, and Merlin doesn't want it to occur to him to even try. Pulling off the linen shirt, Merlin kisses the centre of his chest and placing his hands on Arthur's shoulders, urges him down on his knees.
For a second, Arthur resists, but Merlin smiles at him, looking at his mouth for a long moment, then presses down again, and this time, Arthur goes, eyes wide and dark, hands dragging down Merlin's body like he can't let go.
"Stay there," Merlin says roughly, swallowing as he pulls of his own tunic and shirt, unlacing the top of his trousers as Arthur watches. Arthur's attention has weight, pressure, and right now, utter desperation, and Merlin likes to see him like this, stripped bare and open.
He likes it even better when Arthur's touching him again, better when he can taste it in Arthur's mouth, feel it in every shiver and groan and half-spoken sentences gasped against his skin, "Merlin, I want--" and Merlin whispering, "You can have anything you want."
Merlin strips him on the floor and stretches him out in front of the fire where Arthur had left him the night before, greedy to see everything, golden skin and muscled body and utterly, impossibly beautiful, faint scars in relief that Merlin learns one by one with his tongue. "God, you're perfect," Merlin murmurs, sucking a bruise into his hip, hand wrapped around Arthur's cock and making it slow, making it last until Arthur says "Merlin" and "Please" and "Anything" like a promise, and Merlin kisses him through it until he goes limp and boneless and kissing him again until he shudders, needing more.
Merlin rubs his cock slowly against Arthur's belly, gasping against Arthur's neck until Arthur's hard again and almost vicious, tangling their fingers together around both their cocks and showing Arthur how he likes it, how he wants it, excruciatingly slow, Arthur's come slicking them both until Merlin can't stand it another second and buries his mouth in Arthur's neck, coming with Arthur groaning wildly in his ear and Arthur's fingernails scratching down his back.
Eventually, Merlin gets them both to the bed and they do it all over again.
Arthur's already awake when Merlin emerges from sleep, aching and warm and impossibly comfortable, unable to summon even vague worry at the way Arthur lies beside him, careful inches away, somewhere between guarded and where Merlin took him last night.
Merlin checks the window drowsily, then rolls over, hooking a knee over Arthur's thighs and burying his head against his shoulder, muttering, "Not dawn," and pressing a sleepy kiss against the skin beneath his cheek. "Go back to sleep." Eyes closed, he clings to the edge of awareness until Arthur softens by degrees, arm draping around his shoulders and pulling Merlin closer, and Merlin settles in, content.