The day passes in a faint, dreamy haze, and Merlin finishes his duties without any clear memory of doing them, remembering Arthur stretched beneath him when they finally woke, sucking Arthur off slowly, luxuriating in the feel and taste of him and how badly Arthur wanted it, wanted Merlin, thighs trembling beneath Merlin's palms, and Arthur licking his own taste from Merlin's mouth with his hand wrapped around Merlin's cock.
Merlin dressed him just as slowly, linen that covered the red crescents from Merlin's fingernails in his back, wool over long thighs marked with the shape of Merlin's teeth, and the tunic that edged the dark smudges at his collar. Nothing could hide the vivid purple on his throat, but Merlin didn't mind, licking slowly over the bruised skin so Arthur remembers where it is and who put it there before letting him go.
"Merlin," someone says--Gwen, Merlin realizes belatedly, surfacing from his thoughts and realizing that Arthur's sword can't possibly get sharper. Setting it carefully aside, he wonders how long she's been standing there, saying his name. From the look on her face, quite a while.
"Sorry," Merlin says, and he almost is, really. "I was distracted."
Gwen's expression doesn't change, eyes sharpening. "Lady Morgana wishes to see you."
Merlin gets to his feet, making himself concentrate on putting everything away before following her to Morgana's chambers. Gwen keeps shooting him sidelong glances, but he never catches her at it as she carries on a one-sided conversation that Merlin can't even try to follow, nodding when there's a pause and trying not to do something embarrassing like fall down the stairs or over his own feet.
Morgana's expression when she sees him shifts to match Gwen's, and Merlin could get heartily tired of that if he could bring himself to care. "My lady?" he says, trying to leash his own impatience. It will be hours until Arthur's back from patrol, and there's a court dinner tonight to get through, and--
"Merlin, have you heard anything I've said?" Morgana says sharply, and Merlin blinks, jerking his attention to the dawning suspicion on Morgana's face. "You aren't--you didn't…."
Before Merlin can work out what she's asking (care what she's asking), Morgana gives Gwen a sharp look and Gwen goes to the door, locking it. Abruptly, Merlin's the focus of two pair of suspicious female eyes.
"It's not--true, is it?" Morgana says slowly, and while it's a question, he thinks she knows the answer. "Merlin. I thought--you told Gwen--"
Merlin averts his eyes. "I don't know what you are talking about,"
"Oh my God," Morgana says faintly, sitting back in her chair as if Merlin had just told her that Uther had decided to enter a monastery. "What--"
"I don't want to talk about this," Merlin says, meeting her eyes. "What do you need, my lady?"
Morgana opens her mouth, then sets her lips together in a tight line, looking away briefly, and Merlin wonders if he imagined the flash of jealousy, or if he's merely projecting. Going to the chair she indicates, he waits for Gwen to sit as well, mending in her hands and looking between them, quiet and watchful.
"Gwen thinks we may have the person who is spreading tales," Morgana says after a moment, hands clasped. Merlin looks at Gwen, who nods. "Two, actually. One has been in service of Camelot since before Arthur was born. The other is rather new. It could be either, or both, but they seem to be the source."
Startled, Merlin realizes he had forgotten all about Melisande, and the sudden anger that accompanies the thought startles him even more. "I'll talk to them--" Merlin starts, but Morgana, alarmed, shakes her head quickly.
"No," she says, "Gwen will."
Merlin frowns. "Why?"
"Because this will take subtlety, tact, and the ability not to barge in like this is a tourney field. Gwen will handle it."
"If I wanted to kill them from fright, I'd just throw them to Arthur," she says with a frown. "Though God knows the way he's acting today, I'm not sure he'd hear three words together…" She drifts off, looking at Merlin for a second, then flushes again. "Right. You may go."
Merlin, feeling himself start to blush as well, gets up with a quick bow, trying not to stumble, going back out into the hall with a faint sense that once the door is closed, the subject of the conversation behind him will not, in fact, be about traitorous chambermaids.
Merlin has a bath prepared and waiting by the time Arthur rides back into Camelot; usually, there's a delay between arrival and when Arthur shows up, spent joking with his men or speaking to a groom about his horse, or possibly reporting to his father if anything unusual occurs. Merlin will guess, though, that nothing less than an actual war in progress will be thought to merit a personal report today, and one minute exactly after watching him dismount, the door opens.
Straightening, he watches Arthur close the door, locking it behind him almost absently (something that in memory Arthur has never bothered with; Arthur's privacy is sacrosanct, unspoken but crystal clear). Merlin pushes Arthur up against the door, gloved fingers curling in Merlin's hair and Arthur catches his mouth in a searing kiss, lips cold and a little chapped, mouth incredibly hot in comparison.
"How was patrol?" Merlin asks breathlessly.
In his head, Merlin has his timetable; two hours until the feast, so twenty minutes to bathe, ten to dress him, that leaves them almost no time at all and Arthur's still dressed, but Merlin does his best to fix that immediately, unbuckling his belt and throwing it to the side, sliding his hand down Arthur's breeches and feeling him hot against his hand, hips pushing eagerly into his touch. Merlin revises his plan accordingly, unlacing and pushing them away, dropping to his knees, Arthur gasping as Merlin wraps a hand around him, stroking curiously to see what kind of sounds Arthur will make for him.
Merlin remembers how this felt with Will, overwhelming and frightening and desperately eager, the first week that went by in a blur where he couldn't think of anything else. He'd done laundry for his mother and ended up sitting in the river with clothing winding their way downstream without any clear idea of how it had happened, chores he'd forget entirely between their start and his mother swatting the back of his head, indulgent and amused.
Soft leather brushes his cheek, tentative and hopeful, and Merlin licks the head for a few cruel seconds before being merciful and opening his mouth, sliding slowly down the length, knowing Arthur watching by the small, choked sounds until his lips press against rough, springy hair and the warm skin at the base of his cock and Arthur's shuddering like he's about to fall apart. Pulling back, he kisses the head, wet and ripe, pressing his tongue against the slit and Arthur makes some sound half between a groan and a whimper.
Curving his hands over Arthur's bare hips, Merlin pins them against the wood, and Arthur stills with an enormous effort Merlin can feel in the tension in his thighs. Rewarding him for good behaviour, Merlin pulls back, licking the length until only the head is still in his mouth, then back down, cupping the warm, fragile weight of Arthur's balls in his hand, heavy and soft, tightening in his palm. Breathing through his nose, Merlin keeps it slow and careful, wrapping his free hand around the base when Arthur shudders with a gasped, "Please," and shifts his hand farther back, scratching his nails gently against the warm skin just behind Arthur's balls and tightening his hand at the surge of Arthur's body.
"Christ, Merlin," Arthur breathes thickly, and Merlin pulls back, looking up at Arthur, entranced by how he looks, utterly incredible and completely focused.
"Spread your legs," Merlin says, not recognizing his own voice, and licks his own fingers while Arthur watches him before sucking him back in. Distantly, there's the sound of something hitting the door that might be Arthur's head, panting wildly as Merlin reaches between Arthur's legs, pressing wet fingertips against him.
"Merlin," and Merlin shivers at the way Arthur's voice breaks, breaching him with a fingertip and swallowing around him, letting go of his cock to brace a hand on his hip and Arthur comes with a breathless sound, shaking all over. Merlin sucks him through it, swallowing until he's done, then holds him in his mouth until Arthur whimpers.
Sitting back, Merlin wipes his lips and gets to his feet, kissing Arthur through the shuddering aftershocks, holding him up against the door, Arthur wrapping an arm around his waist, gloved hand pressed to the base of his spine. A while, Arthur shivers and pulls away, eyes glazed and satisfied. "Do you want," he starts, thigh moving against Merlin, and he does want, just looking at Arthur makes him want, but Merlin shakes his head, kissing Arthur again and reaching for his tunic.
"Later," he breathes, licking Arthur's bitten lips. "Your bath's ready."
"Did anything unusual happen during patrol?" the king asks Arthur, an edge of disappointment in his voice that his son hadn't reported to him when he arrived. Arthur turns his head lazily, oblivious to tone, and Merlin, pouring Arthur's wine, is beginning to think Morgana's assessment of Arthur's attention span today is more accurate than he'd thought.
"Some bears, sire," Arthur answers briefly, eyes fixing on Merlin as he fills the goblet. "Nothing terribly interesting."
"I see." It's the fourth attempt at conversation, and the king gives up, turning his attention to more attentive dinner companions. Arthur's a relaxed, nearly boneless presence in his chair, responding with the automatic, practiced courtesy that he almost never bothers to use, rather like Merlin had thought princes were supposed to be when his experience with them had been solely via ballad and tale and well before he met the real thing.
Morgana, on the other hand, is thoroughly unnerved, losing her own threads of conversation every time she looks at Arthur, and Merlin fights down a smile every time her sharp, dark eyes fix on him. Standing patiently beside Gwen, Merlin shifts enough to stay in Arthur's line of sight; the one time he'd gone out of it, Arthur had roused himself enough to start looking without any care at all how it appeared to anyone watching.
The only thing that even vaguely captures his attention is food; to that, he devotes the entirety of his energies. Merlin lets his eyes skim the room and sees Lord Antes, smile stretched across his face and going nowhere near his eyes. Negotiations aren't going well at all, and apparently, neither are the latest attempts to slander Arthur.
When Arthur absently replies to a barbed comment--and until today, Arthur's never bothered to hide his loathing--the smile fixes further, and Arthur loses interest halfway through the stilted conversation, finishing his wine and staring at Merlin until Merlin unlocks his knees and approaches the table.
Christ, Merlin thinks, pouring a fresh goblet unsteadily. Arthur's fingers slide as if by accident against the side of his hand and of all the things to make him catch his breath….
Dinner ends eventually, with Arthur surprised when the dishes are gathered up and taken away. Morgana catches him as he starts to stand, already looking toward the door, and Merlin watches uneasily as she smiles, trying to draw him into conversation with a few of the knights, all of whom hideously aware that Arthur probably has no idea what any of them are saying and cares even less.
On one level, Merlin understands that Arthur really can't go about like this forever, but--
Merlin nearly drops the jug, wondering how on earth Agravaine had gotten so close and he hadn't noticed. Drawing back a step, Merlin puts the jug between them, almost feeling the second Arthur's attention fixes on them. "My lord," Merlin says warily.
"Merlin, there's no need of that between us," Agravaine says, brows drawn together, taking a step toward him. Merlin looks frantically for Gwen and edges down the wall. "I wanted to speak to you."
"I'm on duty, my lord," Merlin says, and gets another step away, dodging behind a serving girl with a stack of plates. On the other side of the room, Arthur's turned away from Morgana completely, despite the hand his arm, and Merlin thinks that perhaps, this would be an excellent time to remember how to be clumsy.
The next girl that passes, Merlin stumbles against her and drops the jug with malice aforethought. He doesn't even pretend that the splash that soaks Agravaine's polished boots isn't incredibly, incredibly funny.
"You're lucky he didn't challenge you," Arthur observes as Gwen patiently finishes cleaning and bandaging the rather minor cut from a piece of flying pottery. Merlin scowls at him. "He just commissioned those boots. His squire will be hours working over them."
Sliding off Gaius' table, Merlin helps Gwen clean up. Gaius had tried to talk to Arthur three times, and after Arthur had absently agreed to a trade order that included a box of unicorn horns, Gaius realized what everyone else already knew and left him mercifully alone.
"Finished?" Arthur asks, with the faintest trace of impatience, and Merlin thanks Gwen, who rolls her eyes completely unnecessarily, and nods to Gaius, who looks his pleasure that he'll be left in peace. Following Arthur into the hall, Merlin winces at the slight pull of the bandage, and Arthur's expression changes.
"Was he bothering you?"
Merlin almost stumbles, surprised by the edge in Arthur's voice. "Yes. No."
Arthur frowns. "Which one?"
"I'm really not sure," Merlin admits as they cross the courtyard toward the stairs. "I would think our last meeting was discouraging enough."
Arthur snorts, not saying anything else until they reach his chambers. Merlin locks the door behind them, wondering what Arthur's thinking.
"He won't, again," Arthur says abruptly, draping his coat over a chair so carelessly it falls on the floor. Merlin hesitates, then picks it up and takes it to the cupboard, trying to form the response he should, not the one he wants to make. Turning around, Arthur's removing his knives, one by one.
"What did you do?"
Arthur shrugs, watchful. "Does it matter?"
Merlin reaches for his belt, buckle loosening in his hands, and nips Arthur's lower lip. "Not at all."
The next day is a little better; Merlin's duties require actual attendance on Arthur in more than theory, and drilling is always interesting when he's not the one Arthur's instructing. Seated a safe distance away, Merlin watches the almost formal movements as Arthur puts his knights through their paces.
"I have no idea why you find this so interesting," Gwen says, seated beside him. Morgana and some of the other ladies of the castle had just returned from riding, and the knights are preening under all the feminine attention and occasionally making asses of themselves.
"I don't know," Merlin says vaguely, watching Arthur, quick and deliberate, energy barely leashed, blond hair bright in the sun.
"I see," Gwen says patiently.
Merlin flushes, trying not to smile ridiculously. "Is it that obvious?"
"Yes and no. You've been like this almost since you came here. Admittedly," and Gwen looks at Arthur as he starts again, letting them both enjoy the show, "he's something to see."
Seeing at her sudden flush, Merlin fights the urge to comment. "Did you talk to them? The ones spreading these rumours?"
Gwen nods, hands curled in her lap. "They'll stop."
That's not enough, though; Antes will find someone else, and it will start all over again, the whole sordid mess. "Are they leaving?" Merlin asks impatiently, ignoring Gwen's frown. "They can't stay here. Not if they're betraying him."
"Merlin, it's gossip. It doesn't--they weren't doing anything that most of the court doesn't do when they hear something interesting."
"They knew it was a lie."
"Merlin," Gwen says slowly, "most of it is a lie. Everyone knows that. It's--it's harmless, for the most part."
"You call this harmless?" Merlin wants to shake her. "It's not harmless, not for him. It was meant to humiliate him in front of everyone, in front of other kings of Albion--"
"They didn't know that!" Gwen retorts, flushing with anger. "Now stop acting like this. They aren't leaving--"
"Tell me who they are."
Gwen gives him an incredulous look. "Do I look mad? No, not the way you're carrying on. Leave them be."
"I'll tell Arthur."
Gwen rolls her eyes, gathering her skirts around her. "He won't do anything, any more than Morgana would. It's beneath their notice, this sort of thing. To acknowledge rumour is to give it power--"
"It has power!" Merlin answers hotly, and realizing they're drawing attention to themselves. Gwen stands up, giving him a stiff nod, and there's no way to stop her and not make a public idiot of himself. Turning back to the field, Merlin hopes Arthur was too involved in acts of wholesale destruction to notice, and turns his full attention back to watching Arthur.
"What were you and Gwen arguing about?" Arthur asks as Merlin takes his hauberk, checking it carefully to see just how much cleaning will be required.
Merlin almost sighs. "I didn't think you'd notice."
"It was rather obvious," Arthur says, studying the practice blade with a frown and running a thumb along the edge. "And it's the talk of the castle."
Merlin almost drops the armour. "What?"
"It isn't," Arthur assures him with a grin, apparently satisfied with the sword and putting it away. "But I still want to know."
"You've never been interested before," Merlin mutters, flushing when Arthur raises an eyebrow. "Well, you weren't!"
"I am now. Tell me."
Putting the hauberk aside with a mental note to oil it later, Merlin looks around the armoury; it's odd, how aware he is of people now, the way he never was before. There's no one around, and both doors are closed, which Merlin supposes is as close to private as they'll get outside of Arthur's chambers. "I was just wondering--if you found out who was responsible for the rumours, spreading them about, what would you do?"
Arthur looks uncharacteristically thoughtful, leaning an elbow against the table, gloved hand against his cheek. "This isn't rhetorical."
"Pretend that it is."
"All right. If I found out, I wouldn't do anything at all."
"Acknowledging such things," Arthur starts, sounding eerily like Gwen, "gives them a veracity they didn't have before. It makes them more believable, and therefore that much harder to stop."
Merlin frowns at him. "Because they've been so harmless up to now."
"People talk," Arthur says with a sigh. "I don't like it, but I don't like rain when I want to hunt, either."
"But you can stop the rumours. Or at least, get rid of the ones who started it." And technically, Merlin could stop the rain if Arthur really wanted him to. If Arthur knew he could do it. Which is an entirely different subject altogether, and not one Merlin wants to think about at all at the moment.
"And where would they go?" Arthur answers, and now, he just sounds tired. "I could hunt them down and dismiss them, throw them out of the castle and leave them to their own devices. And they will carry that with them the rest of their lives, that they were found unacceptable to the crown prince of Camelot. They'd never find work anywhere in the kingdom, and I don't rate their chances good managing on their own to go anywhere else, without references, and far from everything they know. It would destroy them, and very well might kill them. That's not a fair trade for mindless gossip."
Merlin sets his teeth together over his counter; why the hell should Arthur care what happens to them? They betrayed him, and they will continue, and as long as they do without repercussions, everyone else will continue to do as they've always done, and the whole mess will start all over again.
He doesn't say it, though; Arthur's smile isn't quite as bright, the warm happiness of the morning dimmed, and Merlin hadn't wanted that.
"It was mostly rhetorical," Merlin lies easily, going to Arthur and unnecessarily straightening his tunic. "I was--trying to find out who in the castle was doing it, that's all." Arthur turns into his hands reflexively, and Merlin lets his fingers brush against the sweaty skin of his throat, just above the new mark of his teeth, watching Arthur's eyes darken. "I can be vindictive, you know."
"Really?" Arthur says, surprised, and Merlin grins at him, pressing their foreheads together just to breathe him in and wondering how he ever lived without this, brushing a teasing kiss against Arthur's mouth before retreating with a quick bow.
"I should fetch your midday meal, sire," he says, wanting to see him flush. "That is, if you're hungry."
Arthur's eyes are fixed on his mouth. "Yes," he says huskily. "I think I am."
Luckily, there's another council meeting mid-afternoon that Arthur is required to attend, leaving them hours longer than they'd have if he went on patrol. Merlin has no motivation at all to let Arthur out of bed, and Arthur shows even less interest in leaving.
Stretching on the mess they've made of the linen and wool of the bedclothes, Merlin arches into the feel of Arthur's mouth on his throat, slowly mapping his skin with teasing licks and long, luxurious kisses that make Merlin shudder, pressing their hips together for the rippling pleasure of drawing it out as long as he can. Arthur's hands on his hips tighten, like he wants to leave his fingerprints behind on Merlin's skin, and Merlin thinks he wouldn't mind that at all, stroking his hands through Arthur's hair, liking the way Arthur presses into every touch like he's starved for it, like even everything will never be enough.
"Keep doing that," Merlin murmurs; Arthur's unbelievably responsive to Merlin's voice, and Merlin's found it almost impossible not to talk, though it's never something he'd really done before. It had always seemed a little silly, but he loves hearing Arthur's voice, broken and raw and needy, wanted to hear him ask for what he wanted, beg for what he needed, what he didn't have words to ask for and Merlin has to teach him how to say. Arthur would fall apart completely when Merlin told him, "I'm going to suck you until you can't remember your name" and "Put your hands above your head and don't move," and "Don't come yet. Not until I say you can."
Merlin sucks in a breath as Arthur sucks a slow kiss into his shoulder, teeth sinking into Merlin's skin, and Merlin says, "Yes, that," tightening his fingers in Arthur's hair, cock hard and leaking between them. "God, your mouth," Merlin says breathlessly, rutting against Arthur's stomach, teasing himself, "I want to feel it everywhere, I want to feel it around my cock, and I want to watch you suck me, and I want to come in your mouth," and Arthur pulls back with a final bite and looks at him, eyes dilated black and glazed over with lust.
Merlin cups his face, kissing him, filthy and messy with no skill at all, pulling back only when he has to breathe. "Please," he murmurs, feeling Arthur tremble, just a little, the way he does each time he tries something new. "You'll like it. And I will, too."
Licking swollen lips, Arthur nods, ducking his head to press a kiss to the centre of Merlin's chest, and Merlin lazily spreads his legs, cradling Arthur between them as he kisses slowly down Merlin's body until he wraps a hand around Merlin's cock and tentatively licks the head.
Merlin looks at the blond head bent over his cock and wonders dazedly if its the feel of Arthur's mouth, uncertain but growing more sure, or the sight of him bent over and taking Merlin's cock that makes him shudder. Curling a leg over Arthur's, Merlin holds as still as he can, petting Arthur as he opens his mouth, the head sliding over his tongue, and it's unbelievably good. Running his heel down Arthur's calf, Merlin whispers, "God, yes, that's good, Arthur, take more, you can do it," and losing his breath when Arthur does. Stroking shaking fingers over Arthur's cheek, Merlin fights the urge to close his eyes, wanting to see Arthur do this, the first time anyone's ever breached that perfect mouth.
"Keep going," Merlin mutters, tightening his grip in Arthur's hair. "I like that, I love that, I want more, keep doing that," and Arthur spreads one hand on Merlin's hip, bracing himself, and Merlin slides effortlessly into the wet heat of Arthur's mouth until Arthur meets the hand he wrapped around the base of Merlin's cock Drawing his fingers over Arthur's jaw, thumb pressed to the stretched skin at the corner of his mouth, wetting it, Merlin breathes, "Perfect," and shows him the rhythm he likes best.
It won't take long, and this time, Merlin doesn't want it to anyway, wants Arthur to enjoy doing this for him. He watches Arthur learning from him, tells him, "Use your tongue," and "Christ, Arthur, yes," and "That, the head," and unable to stop himself, "I'm going to--don't move, you can take this--Arthur," and he can't keep his eyes open, but the image of Arthur's mouth stretched pink and obscene around his cock is burned into mind, and he comes with a gasp, shuddering through it. Arthur takes it all, as easily as if he'd done this a hundred times before.
Sated, Merlin pulls weakly until Arthur comes back to him, licking into his mouth to find his own taste, reaching between them until he can take Arthur in hand and two strokes has him come hot and slick between their bodies, Arthur groaning helplessly and shuddering in his arms.
Gwen's avoiding him, which Merlin doesn't go out of his way to remedy. He can't help looking at the serving girls and the kitchen girls and the chambermaids now, watching them in huddled groups and giggling behind their hands, wondering which of them were the ones Gwen spoke to, which think so little of their prince that they'd spread malicious rumours for a foreign envoy just because they can.
The servants aren't as friendly anymore, but Merlin can't bring himself to care, and if they quiet suddenly when he passes, he doesn't acknowledge it, or the whispers that follow him as he leaves.
It's not lonely, though, not like it was those first days in Camelot, when he knew no one and everyone disliked him because he'd been given the job of serving the prince. Arthur takes up the entirety of his attention, seeking him out during the day at odd times that increasingly grow more and more frequent, waiting with amused patience in the stables and mocking his skills at mucking stalls, long hunts where Arthur corrects his aim and rolls his eyes when Merlin shoots at a deer and hits a tree.
"That was better than last time," Merlin points out. "I didn't hit anyone else."
Arthur snorts, resetting the crossbow and handing it back. "There is that."
They arrive back to the castle with a page already waiting for Arthur. Handing off his gear to Merlin, Arthur sends him put it away and get him something to eat with a smile that Merlin carries with him all the way to Arthur's chambers.
Gwen's waiting for him, face pale, and Merlin feels the warmth of the day vanish.
"I need to talk to you," she says urgently, and Merlin looks both ways, checking for anyone watching, then nods, letting her into Arthur's chambers and piling everything on the floor.
"The king has completed the negotiations for Lady Melisande," Gwen says. For a second, Merlin thinks, thank God, that man is leaving, then the sense of the words penetrates.
Gwen's hands twist together, the skin of her knuckles yellow-white with strain. "I don't know--I mean, she doesn't entirely--"
"Who told you?" Merlin doesn't recognize his own voice.
"One of the serving girls who served them their wine," Gwen says urgently. "The council--they don't like it, but they don't have any reason other than her rank, and her father's offered his entire estate as her dowry. He has no sons, and this way, the estate passes to the crown instead of a distant cousin. I'm not sure of the specifics--"
"The king summoned Arthur," Merlin whispers, and Gwen bites her lip, eyes closing.
"Maybe he'll refuse," she says hopelessly, and he might, but in the end, Uther will prevail. Arthur loves his father, and he'll obey when the cost is only to himself. Merlin reaches for the wall, dizzy and sick and so angry he can barely see. Arthur will agree, and he'll marry her, and be miserable with a wife who hates him as much as she wants the coronet of a queen. And all she had to do was destroy Arthur's life to get it.
"I can't," Merlin starts, taking a breath, trying to put his thoughts in some kind of order. "Gwen, you know who did this."
"This isn't about gossip now, is it?" Merlin snaps. Gwen's eyes widen. "It's not about gossip, it's about him, it's about his life, the woman he has to marry. What will happen to Morgana, have you thought of that? You don't think she'll find a way to revenge herself on her, too?"
"I know," Gwen whispers. "I do, I just--"
"The ones doing this," Merlin starts, feeling something like the outline of a plan forming in his head. The king will keep Arthur for at least an hour, and if Arthur argues, it might be longer. "I think, if I talk to them, I can--"
"Get them--that empty room near winter storage, the one the traders use, get them there. Make sure they stay." Gwen looks uncertain, but she doesn't refuse. "Gwen. It's Arthur. It's Morgana. If we don't--"
"Right." Straightening, the uncertainty melts away. "Give me half an hour."
"I'll see you there."
Anna has served Camelot all her life; she'd been the one to help Merlin find his way around the castle and tell him when the cooks were distracted so he could raid the pantry when Arthur suddenly decided he wanted a snack. She'd been kind, even when he first came, and Merlin is surprised to realize how little that means to him now.
The other turns out to be a stableboy that Merlin rarely saw and thought of even less. Gwen tells him his name is Evan and then stands in front of the door, ignoring their imploring looks.
"You spread gossip for Lord Antes," Merlin says, looking down at them, unable to temper his voice and not wanting to. He wants them scared; he needs them terrified, willing to do whatever he wants. "This has caused problems for the prince. And I don't believe you didn't know this."
Anna licks her lips nervously. "It was just--"
"I'm not interested in hearing excuses or asking questions I already know the answers to. I am going to tell you what you are going to do and you are going to do it."
Evan, shivering, nods, but Anna isn't quite so easy. "You can't," she says, drawing herself up to her full height. At still a foot shorter than even Gwen, it isn't terribly impressive, even if Merlin had been the mood to be impressed. Pushing back a strand of straw blonde hair, she crosses her arms over her chest. "You don't have any right to order us--"
"I have every right to order you on behalf of the prince," Merlin answers flatly. "It's been two years since I came here, and I do know now what I am and am not permitted to do."
"Just because you share his bed for a bit doesn't mean that you can--that you can do whatever you want," Anna answers, equally flat.
"We could ask His Highness," Gwen says unexpectedly. "We could bring him here, and you both can face him with what you have done, in slandering his name through Camelot. Or you can face us and hear our terms for our silence."
Anna doesn't move, watching them both, colour draining from her face. "My place here would be forfeit," she whispers, voice shaking. "You wouldn't--not to--you're one of us, Merlin. Gwen, you can't--"
"No," Merlin says softly. "We're nothing like you."
Evan grabs Anna's skirt desperately. "We'll do it," he says. "Whatever you want. Just--just tell us what it is. We'll do it."
"You are going to tell the King's chief councillor a story you heard from Lord Antes the last time he had you. It's quite shocking, so make certain you tell it as exactly as I tell you." Gwen is going to hate him for this, but it can't be helped, and in the end, this protects Morgana too. "When he asks how it can be proven, you will tell him that Lady Morgana witnessed it all."
Behind him, Gwen makes a soft sound, but she doesn't contradict him. Taking a deep breath, Merlin says, "Six years ago, the Lady Melisande lost her honour to Prince Arthur in the garden of her father's castle, when she played the wanton to trap him into marriage. That is how you will start."
Merlin is back in Arthur's chambers well before he returns; ordering wine and dinner and a bath, Merlin wonders if maybe Gaius' syrup wouldn't go amiss. Impatient, he checks the fire three times, remakes the bed chasing the shadow of a wrinkle, and breaking his own rules on using magic in Arthur's chamber to find and hunt down every insect that might make its home here.
With nothing else to do, Merlin hunts up an old tunic that Arthur ruined in a fit of temper after a bad day of hunting and begins to cut the seams; the wool will be excellent for cleaning, and at some point, horrifyingly enough, Merlin had realized he has a decided preference on the quality of his tools and become proactive in getting the best of the discarded wool and linen and even the rare and expensive cotton for his duties.
It's almost as if he takes pride in his work, and Merlin sighs to himself, concentrating on the fabric over his knees.
He almost drops his knife when the door opens abruptly, and Arthur comes in, paler than he was this afternoon, eyes downcast as he shuts the door. Leaning back, he doesn't move, and Merlin wonders if he should say something, make a sound, remind Arthur that he's not alone.
"It seems my father has conveyed an offer to Lord Antes," Arthur says slowly. "And if Melisande's father accepts it, the betrothal will be contracted immediately. I will be married by midsummer."
Merlin gets unsteadily to his feet, kicking the tunic and knife away. "Sire--"
"I don't want to think of this," Arthur says flatly. "I do not want to speak of it. It is enough that it--"
"Her father might not accept."
"He'll accept." Arthur starts to remove his coat, stopping half-way through, incredulous. "I can't believe this has happened."
"He's selling me for an estate," Arthur says, jerking off his coat and throwing it on the floor. "To a woman he knows I cannot bear to share a room with, much less a bed, a woman that--"
"Something could change," Merlin says desperately. "Midsummer is months away--"
"I can hope for a terrible fever to wipe through her household, that's comforting, thank you for that bit of brilliance," Arthur snaps, making a mess of the laces of his shirt, and Merlin finally gets him and pushes him into a chair before he strangles himself. Straddling his lap, Merlin patiently unknots them, then traps Arthur's wrists on the arms of the chair. "Or a riding accident," Arthur adds, almost absently, attention shifting. "Someone to poison her food, perhaps."
"I'll have to wait until she gets here for that," Merlin whispers, leaning forward for a kiss, using everything he's ever learned to chain Arthur's attention, and he feels Arthur respond instinctively, mouth opening and welcoming, offering Merlin whatever he wants.
"Would you?" Arthur says in interest, cupping his jaw, and Merlin rolls his eyes and kisses him again.
What Merlin wants is Arthur, naked, and that's the easiest thing to do, working off tunic and shirt while still in the chair, feeling Arthur hard beneath him and pressing down to feel him shudder, Arthur's hands skimming up and down his back, locking around the back of his neck when they kiss. Twining his fingers in the pendant Arthur wears, Merlin slides back to the floor, pulling Arthur to his feet, licking teasingly at his mouth, his jaw, whichever is closer before drawing back, saying, "Take off your clothes for me. All of them."
Arthur doesn't hesitate, and Merlin watches, rubbing the heel of his hand against the front of his trousers as Arthur skins away his breeches, his boots, straightening before Merlin, and just looking at him is enough to steal Merlin's breath and most of his sense. But--
"Get on the bed."
Arthur watches as Merlin undresses, slowly, taking his time to remove his tunic, his shirt, pulling off his boots and trousers, leaving them in a pile behind him before pacing to the bed and kneeling at the foot, the mattress soft beneath his knees.
"Spread your legs." Merlin crawls between them, pressing a kiss to the inside of Arthur's knee, drawing his tongue up the muscled length of his thigh, stopping to suck a slow kiss into the silky skin there, hairless and warm, easing a hand beneath Arthur's knee and lifting it before biting lightly at the soft, warm skin where thigh and groin meet. Ignoring Arthur's cock, red and already wet, Merlin leaves a trail of bites up his belly, soothing each with a lick before moving on. Arthur's trembling, watching him with wide, dilated eyes, reaching for Merlin as soon as he's close enough to touch, and Merlin buries a smile against his throat, ignoring the hands urging him up until Arthur's hips push up against him, almost involuntarily.
Bracing himself on one hand, Merlin thrusts his tongue into Arthur's mouth, taking his time, while his entire body screams at him for not just going for it right the fuck now.
"Arthur," he murmurs, shifting his hips so their cocks slide together and catching his breath, "let me--" He loses his train of thought as Arthur's hands tighten in his hair, pulling him into another kiss, rough and filled with everything Arthur's still learning how to ask for, and they only pull apart when they have to breathe. "Arthur, I want to be inside you," he says, panting out the words between kisses, and Arthur stills, licking his lips.
"You'll love it," Merlin promises, reaching between them and stroking them together, thumb rubbing along the head. "You will love it, it feels," Merlin breaks off, unable to stop kissing him, tangling his fingers in Arthur's hair and breathing against his ear, "amazing. I'll feel you come around me, and I want that, Arthur; Christ, that's all I think about. Tell me you want it, too."
Arthur trembles, just a little, turning his head, and Merlin can read the answer in the glassy eyes, something deeper than surrender and better than the greatest spell Merlin's ever mastered. Arthur nods, breathing out, but Merlin waits until he says, "Yes. Yes, I want to, I want that," and kisses him silent, because hearing Arthur say more just might kill him.
Merlin gets the oil from under the pillow; he's done this twice before, slid his fingers in Arthur's body, and Arthur had liked it every time, pushing down against Merlin's fingers and coming shaking and boneless after. Merlin settles between Arthur's knees, pouring out enough to slick his fingers, watching Arthur's face as he presses them inside, as Arthur opens up easily around him, head tilting back and eyes drifting shut. Merlin adds a second finger, shifting his weight until he can kiss Arthur while he does this, lick into his slack mouth and swallow his first gasp when Merlin twists his fingers, stretching him open.
Merlin drags it out as long as he can stand it; he loves to watch Arthur like this, skinned bare and beyond thought or reason. Hand shaking, Merlin pulls his fingers free, hating even the brief seconds it takes to slick himself, reaching for Arthur's hand and lacing their fingers together, pinned to the bed as he lines himself up and starts to slide inside.
"God," Merlin gasps, feeling Arthur close around him, tight and slick, Arthur's fingers tightening in his. He'd thought of this so many times, and this is everything and nothing at all like he could have imagined, panting helplessly as Arthur shifts his hips, relaxing around him, letting him in. "Arthur. I--" He pulls back a little, pressing in again, and Arthur groans, shuddering, spreading himself wider, and Merlin kisses him when he draws back again, thrusting in to the hilt and biting Arthur's lip when he closes tight around him. "Do you--do you know how much I--" and Arthur's short nails skid the length of his back, making him arch and hiss, settling hard against the small of his back.
"Yes," Arthur bites out with a groan that shakes them both, lifting his hips, and Merlin thrusts again, helpless, "Christ, Merlin, move," and Merlin forgets everything but the hot burn that rushes down his spine, the tight heat surrounding him, Arthur beneath him, slick and wonderful and everything, everything.
It stretches out forever, and Merlin can't track from one second to the next what he's saying or what Arthur is, just how they move, how good this is and how it's Arthur and there's never been anything he wanted more. "I'd do anything for you," Merlin chokes out, and it doesn't scare him like it once did; he's done so much already and he'll do so much more, gladly. "Arthur," he starts, then has to kiss him. "You were made for me," Merlin breathes, so close he can almost taste it, hovering just out of his reach. "This is what--"
"Merlin," and Merlin had thought he'd heard every way Arthur could sound, but never that, like a chasm opening in the earth, endlessly deep, secrets spilling out after an eternity locked away, "you--you know that I--that you're the only one that--"
"I won't let you go," Merlin tells him, pressing their foreheads together, trying to make him understand. "Not to anyone, not ever, Arthur," and Arthur nods and kisses him like a promise made in blood.
It's too good, and Merlin feels Arthur begin to shake and gropes between them until he closes tight around Arthur's cock, blinking the sweat from his eyes as he strokes him hard, almost shocked by how Arthur tightens around him, arching with a wordless shout. Merlin manages two more thrusts before he follows, slick hand wrapped around Arthur's hip as ecstasy swallows them both.
Somehow, there's something distinctly unfair that Arthur's awake before he is, and--
"You're getting dressed," Merlin observes drowsily from under the heap of blankets that are far too warm, but he can't find the energy to move them, even a little. "Why?"
"Because it's morning? I was summoned by my father, or no, I wouldn't be dressing, I'd be asleep, like anyone sane."
"Your father?" Merlin sits up, blankets pooling around his waist. "Why? And why didn't you wake me?"
Arthur pulls on his coat, straightening the collar, half caught between the prince that has to face Uther and not look like he'd been fucked through the mattress the night before, and the man that had actually been fucked through the mattress last night. Merlin nervously pushes his hair out of his eyes.
"I thought about it," Arthur says, getting his knives, "but you seemed tired. And I don't know what my father wants." Arthur slides both knives into his belt, crossing to the bed, and Merlin lifts his face for a kiss, quick and gentle, drawing it out as long as he can before Arthur draws back. Merlin forces himself to unclench his fingers from Arthur's coat. "Stay here."
"I have--duties," Merlin answers absently with no clear idea what those are, watching Arthur smile, a private look Merlin's never seen him turn on anyone else.
"I assign your duties. I'm assigning one now. Go back to sleep." With a brush of fingers against Merlin's cheek, Arthur leaves, and Merlin lies back, still drowsy, wondering at Uther's summons. The king rarely wakes this early, and even more rarely sees anyone before breakfast.
Getting out of bed, Merlin pulls on his trousers, wincing at the scrape of the wool against his oversensitized skin and finding his shirt, pulling it over his head. He should go find out if Evan and Anna have started, talk to Gwen and explain--though she hadn't been exactly happy with him last night when he left her--
There's a brief, frantic knock at the door, and Merlin frowns, wondering who else could possibly have reason to interrupt Arthur this early.
"Merlin!" Gwen hisses, voice muffled by the wood. Chest tightening, Merlin opens the door, pulling her inside at the first sight of her face, ashen and frantic. "The council is meeting!"
"What?" Merlin checks to make sure he didn't misjudge the time. "It's dawn. Half of them don't even get out of bed until noon--"
"The king summoned them. And Lady Morgana."
Merlin manages to get to the table and sit down before his knees go out. "That was rather--" he stops, swallowing hard. He'd thought he'd have more time. At least a little. "Fast."
"I think your little speech encouraged them to hurry it along," Gwen answers tiredly. "It's all over the castle already."
Merlin stares at her. "But it's dawn," he says helplessly. "Did they wake people or something--"
"It doesn't matter how they did it. It's done."
Merlin takes a breath, then tries another one. It's done, and he wouldn't take it back even if he could. "Did you tell Morgana--"
"Not yet." Gwen stares at the floor. "I will, when she comes back--"
"Don't. Blame it on me," Merlin says in a rush. "Just pretend you knew nothing of it--"
"I'm not ashamed of what we did!" Gwen says fiercely, surprising him. "I'm not ashamed of protecting her. I'm not ashamed of protecting the prince. They--they couldn't do this, what we did. This is our job. To do--to do what they can't. And they should know we will, that we want to." Taking a breath, she pushes off the table. "I'd best be ready for her return."
She shakes her head, reaching to straighten her skirt. "Don't, Merlin. I'm not sorry, not at all."
Merlin nods slow agreement. "Neither am I."
Merlin gets breakfast, hearing snatches of conversation around him as he waits. It's grown in the telling already, and by the time Merlin returns to Arthur's chambers and sets the tray on the table, he's not entirely sure Arthur won't kill on sight.
Unfortunately, Arthur's armed, so there's no use hiding the weapons. Setting out breakfast, Merlin looks around the immaculate room and wishes he hadn't been so thorough yesterday, then wishes he'd brought the hauberk up last night. He doesn't dare go to the armoury; Arthur could return at any time and Merlin thinks it could in fact get much worse if Arthur has to hunt him down.
The morning drags on impossibly slow, and Merlin imagines the council chamber, where Arthur is standing before his father, forced to give the entire hideous, humiliating story in all the detail Uther will require, then thinks of Morgana doing the same, and wishes he had more of that syrup from Gaius right now.
It's midmorning before the door opens, and Merlin braces himself, standing up from where he'd been perched at the foot of the neatly made bed. Arthur walks in, looks at him, then at the table, and says, "Breakfast. Brilliant."
Merlin watches, incredulous, as Arthur attacks the tray with no grace at all, pausing only to say, "Have you eaten yet?" and "You still look tired," while demolishing everything in sight and afterward eyeing the empty dishes like he just might send Merlin for more.
"It was a closed meeting, no servants were allowed in; consequently, we were not fed. God knows we can't serve ourselves, or something," Arthur says with a snort, finishing the goblet, then pausing. "You're still dressed. Why?"
Merlin hasn't quite been able to make himself move since Arthur sat down; now, looking between the door, Arthur, and the tray, he wonders if perhaps he fell asleep, and this is a very strange dream. "I--so there was a council meeting, then?"
Arthur pauses, staring at him before putting down the cup gently and looking at the tray for a long time. Then back at Merlin. "So you were struck deaf the entire time you were downstairs? Or is Gwen not speaking to you now?"
Merlin opens his mouth, then shuts it, shaking his head. "Fine, yes. I heard talk while I was in the kitchen, but you can't trust gossip--"
"Not even when you're the one that started it?"
Merlin closes his eyes for a second. Here it is, then. "Especially when I started it."
Arthur watches him thoughtfully; Merlin can't read his expression at all. "Do you know why I was summoned?"
"I can guess."
"So you can." Arthur sets his goblet aside, standing up, and Merlin watches him approach, not sure what to do. He won't apologize for what he did; he's not sorry. And he wouldn't change anything. "I'd avoid Morgana," Arthur says, reaching up and sliding his fingers idly through the laces of Merlin's shirt. "Maybe forever, but at least for a few weeks. My father wasn't easy on her. Well, on me either, but it's more rare that it happens to her, so she takes it much worse."
Merlin licks his lips. "I wasn't worried about that."
Arthur quirks a brow, looking amused. "You should be. Her silences are rather loud, and they follow you. It can be unnerving when you're not used to it."
Merlin reaches up as the knot loosens, grabbing Arthur's fingers. "What are you going to do?"
Arthur cocks his head, like he has no idea what Merlin could possibly be talking about. "I thought I'd take you to bed, as there will be no use rousing anyone this late in the morning for anything productive, and even if there were, I'm not in the mood for anything else. Then I thought I'd send you to get me something to eat. There's patrol this afternoon, of course--"
"That," Merlin says between his teeth, "is not what I meant."
Abruptly, Arthur pulls away, and Merlin has a second to ready himself for whatever Arthur will do--dismiss him, maybe, or throw him out of his room, at least, but yell first, about how it isn't Merlin's place, or that Merlin's shamed him, or--but there's just a push, then another, then he's stumbling backward onto the bed and Arthur tosses his belt on the floor and says, "See, I'm not even armed," before leaning over and kissing him like they're about to start fucking, and Merlin can't remember what he was going to say.
"I had to sit on a very hard chair in front of my father and all his council and Morgana," Arthur breathes, straddling Merlin's hips. "It was uncomfortable and I thought every time I moved, someone would know what you'd done to me last night." Arthur mouths briefly along his jaw before lifting his head again. "My father asked me if Melisande seduced me in her father's garden in hopes of forcing me to marry her. And I told him that I could not speak so against a lady. So he asked Morgana, who told my father what happened that night and then forgot to mention that she left after I did, not before."
Merlin draws in a breath. "So there won't be a betrothal."
"No, there won't. Of course," Arthur says, bracing a hand above Merlin's shoulder, "council meetings are private, and what is said within those walls is never spoken outside of them, but you took care of that as well."
"I had to be sure," Merlin breathes. "Even if--even if he didn't believe it, it wouldn't matter as long as everyone else did. He wouldn't allow you to marry a woman who was know across Albion to have seduced the crown prince of Camelot when he was hardly more than a boy."
"You've ruined her," Arthur says, lips brushing Merlin's. "The story grows with each telling. By the time it reaches her again, I'll have had her twice in her own bed and my knights had her after. She'll never receive another offer of marriage from anyone of any rank."
Arthur nods, so close Merlin can feel his breath against his lips. "The serving girls, it wasn't a rhetorical question. You found out who they were. What did you do?"
"I instructed them in their duty and sent them to do it. They won't fail in it again."
Arthur smiles slowly. "You were thorough. Now take off your clothes. I want you."
Merlin stares up at Arthur, mouth dry. "You're--not angry?"
"I ordered Agravaine to leave Camelot this morning," Arthur murmurs against his ear. "By now, all the castle can guess what he did to displease me, and that the next time, I will not be so merciful. I will not share. Are you angry?"
Merlin shakes his head, reaching for the hem of his shirt, whispering into the next kiss, "No."