Title: Doubled Over With the Hunger of Lions
Word Count: 23 445
Summary: There's something in the air, pulling them together and pushing the kingdom apart.
Notes: General spoilers for the first series. Immense thanks to snglesrvngfrend for being there even before there were any words, and then betaing all ensuing words. Title from Joanna Newsom's "Sawdust and Diamonds."
The first thing Arthur says after – the only thing he says—is, “This will never happen again, right?”
No, Merlin wants to say, watching the late spring sun glint off Arthur’s exposed collar bones and his hair.
Arthur is looking anywhere where Merlin is not. His eyes linger over the shivering yellow-green of the trees and the dirt they’ve scuffled through. He takes exquisite care to brush the moss off his breeches before his face hardens and he meets Merlin’s eyes.
I want to do it again right now, Merlin wants to say, watching Arthur’s shaky hands.
He takes one look at the dark blue shadows of Arthur’s eyes and says, “Of course not, sire.”
Arthur turns away, striding towards the path they cut through the underbrush. There’s a long swath of green down the back of his tunic, more crushed moss from the tree Merlin forced him against.
“Come on,” he says gruffly, voice echoing off ahead. It’s a better warning than an invitation. Merlin rubs the sore spot on his jaw once and follows Arthur’s footprints and the tense line of his back, so far ahead.
The walk back to Camelot is drawn out by silence, and by the time they reach the gates Merlin’s feet are sore from walking across the hard, dry ground.
He and Arthur part ways before the castle and Merlin doesn’t look after him at all. He walks away, staring at the crowd milling around the market and thinking his way through his spell book.
It’s been a long day and Merlin feels sore and used. All he wants is a good wash.
Gaius is gone, so Merlin drags out the huge tub, and doesn't even pretend to do anything himself. The water is conjured from thin air and heated the same way. He doesn't even fold his trousers or his shirt before he gets in, just sinks up to his ears and listens to the thump of his own heart slowing down until it is how it should be. He washes slowly --chest, arms, legs, belly-- but the bruises stay on, curious marks in the shape of Arthur's hands.
Merlin dunks himself, and stays under for as long as he can, even though the soapy water burns his nose.
Everything is put away and Merlin is mostly dry by the time Gaius gets back.
"You two didn't get into trouble, I see," Gaius says, setting down his satchel. "Did you still enjoy yourselves?"
Merlin pokes at a bundle of herbs, the smell of thyme and sage rising up. "I'm starving," he says.
The next day, Merlin wakes up early, hours before dawn will come. He’s completely awake before he even knows it, staring up at the ceiling, listening for whatever woke him. It’s quiet except for Gaius snoring in the next room. Merlin waits for the Dragon’s call to boom through his head, counting to five three times, but it’s only him and his heartbeat and a faint sense of unease.
Blowing out a long breath, Merlin turns onto his stomach and covers his head with a pillow. He starts counting again. He gets to three hundred and six before he admits defeat and sits up.
It’s cold below the castle and rhythmic gusts of wind coming from the Dragon’s cavern keep the circle of light from Merlin’s torch low. When he passes the gate at the bottom a powerful puff of sour smelling air blows the fire straight out, leaving Merlin standing on the edge of the cliff with a dragon he can’t see.
“Hey!” He calls into the dark, “What do you want?” Merlin hears the creak of old bones and the scrape of rock, and he mutters the spell for his torch. Firelight licks up the walls and shows the Dragon blinking at him, curled up tight on the rock precipice.
“Why did you wake me up?” Merlin demands, shaking his torch in the Dragon’s direction.
“I could ask the same of you, warlock.” The Dragon snorts smoke and stretches out all of his claws, each one scraping the edge of the rock and extending out towards Merlin.
“You didn’t call me?”
“I did not. My attention was clearly focused elsewhere.”
Merlin’s not sure if dragons can sigh, but they can talk, and he can’t think of another word to describe the huffing breath the Dragon blows out.
“Oh,” he says, scuffing his boot on the ground, “sorry.”
“Well,” The Dragon shakes out his wings and resettles them across his back, “since you’re here, why not tell me of the world above.”
If Merlin squints, he would swear that the Dragon seems amused. He certainly sounds like he is.
“Um, well, there’s…I’m not sure what. A lot of magic going on.”
“Yes?” Definitely amused.
“No one really knows what’s going on. Things just keep happening to people. Magical things.” Merlin swallows, unwilling to admit that one of those people is himself.But, he reminds himself, It happened and it’s over now. He passes the torch from one hand to another, and wipes his palm on his shirt.
Suddenly the Dragon’s face is much closer than it was before, golden eyes peering closely at Merlin.
“Are you unwell, Merlin?”
Merlin steps backwards and almost drops the torch. He’s never been so close to the Dragon, has never seen light gleam off his teeth like that.
“No,” he stutters. “I’m just tired.”
The Dragon pulls back and hunkers down on the rock again. “As you should be,” he says lightly, “it is late. Return to your bed, young wizard, but feel free to come back at a more acceptable hour. Tell me of how this situation annoys Uther.”
“Alright,” Merlin says. He hesitates, wanting to ask, but before he can, the Dragon has turned to him again.
“Goodnight,” the Dragon says, and blows out Merlin’s torch with one long and sour breath.
“That’s disgusting,” Merlin mutters as he turns to the gate. He leaves his torch on the staircase and goes all the way back to his bed with only memory to guide him.
Waking up again is torture. Dawn is barely breaking, but that’s the beginning of the day for servants. Merlin’s never been less happy to see the sun. It takes four tries for Merlin to sit up, two to get his trousers on properly and he almost chokes himself with his kerchief before he remembers how to properly tie a knot.
“Ah, there you are,” Gaius says as Merlin stumbles down from his room and throws himself into a chair. “I was beginning to think you’d died.”
“Still here.” Merlin closes his eyes and resists the urge to rest his face in his porridge. Instead he fumbles for his spoon and manages to get it and some porridge in his mouth on the first try.
“Good.” The table rattles as Gaius sits down to his own breakfast. “I need you to collect some things for me today, whenever you’re done with Arthur.”
Merlin gets another spoonful in his mouth. “Right,” he mumbles around it. It’s the sun warming his face, not a blush.
“I’ll leave you a list,” Gaius says, oblivious. “I imagine it will be as nice in the forest as it was yesterday.”
Pushing his bowl away, Merlin finally opens his eyes. Gaius is eating methodically as usual, the fingers of his free hand sifting around the table for a scrap of paper and something to write with.
“Right,” Merlin says again. “I’ve got to go.”
Arthur’s up and dressed when Merlin gets to his chambers, digging through the cupboard farthest from the door. It looks like a hurricane blew through, clothes spread across the floor, keys, gloves and an unsheathed dagger on the table, the bedclothes barely clinging to the mattress. Arthur must have been awake the whole night to craft this level of mess.
“Hello,” Merlin says, and Arthur stops pawing, still elbow-deep. “What are you looking for?”
Arthur turns, empty-handed and frowning. He stares at Merlin like whatever it is he’s missing will fly out of Merlin’s pocket and into his hands. But nothing happens and they end up both looking away at the same time.
“Nothing,” Arthur mumbles, slouching into a chair at the table. He plays with his keys while Merlin negotiates the detritus on the table and the breakfast tray, but abandons them as soon as Merlin’s hands leave the tray, ripping a piece of bread in half and stuffing it into his mouth.
Merlin leans against the table, watching Arthur chew furiously and swallow hard enough to leave himself gasping. His mouth is mesmerizing, working quickly and drawing up vivid memories. Merlin shifts, just enough, and Arthur’s mouth stills.
“Stop that,” he snaps, and swallows once more, looking quite pained. His chair scrapes back as he stands, but his hands are sure as he gathers his things from the table and settles his surcoat. “I’ll be gone all day.”
“Where—” Merlin thinks better of that question when he sees Arthur’s eyes. “Well, what shall I do?”
Arthur’s almost at the door. He waves his hand at the room. “Fix this.”
The slamming door is loud, and it hurts Merlin, a little.
Afternoon finds him back in his and Gaius’ quarters, sorting through the giant pile of Arthur’s laundry, feeling fairly miserable. Arthur’s clothes reek of him, sweat and wine and smoke. It’s almost too much for Merlin to handle.
He’s trying to decide if it’s better to mend the rip in the breeches Arthur was wearing yesterday before or after he washes them when Gwen comes in, empty basket on her arm, walking slowly.
“Merlin, is Gaius here?”
“Nope.” Merlin balls up the breeches and drops them back onto the pile. He gives it a little push with his foot, useless spite. “He’s with Uther, talking about the—” Merlin twirls one finger vertically, “you know. What do you need? Maybe I can help.”
Gwen sets her basket on the worktable and sits next to Merlin. “Do you know if Gaius has any balm on hand? I just got a new pair of slippers, and they’re chafing.” She holds up one foot in its new yellow slipper, and flexes it before pulling the slipper off, dropping it to the ground. Its twin appears from under the hem of her skirt a moment later
“I think he does, right here on this shelf.” Merlin rummages for a second, and comes up with a small container. “Best in the land.”
“Thanks,” Gwen says, unscrewing the lid and scooping out a little. She spreads it across the tops of her feet and her toes, one foot at time, and then tucks the tub into her basket and her feet into her slippers when she’s done. “This should help until the leather stretches.”
Neither of them move for a moment, and then they both do. Merlin sits back down at the table and Gwen stands up, taking her basket in hand. They grin sheepishly at each other.
“What are you doing?” Merlin points to the basket.
“I’m going to the forest. Morgana wants some flowers for her room.” Gwen looks down at the basket and the little tub of balm and then back at Merlin. “Would you like to come with me? Not because I think you like to pick flowers, but I just thought maybe you’d like to—”
“Gwen,” Merlin laughs, holding up his hand to stop her flood of words, “I’d love to. I need to get some things for Gaius anyway.” He holds up the list filled with Gaius’ scratching for Gwen, and she takes it.
“Oh,” she smiles crookedly, “alright then.”
Being in the forest with Gwen is nothing like being in the forest with Arthur. Merlin feels light, free of cares beyond the list in his hand and herbs in his basket. He can’t roughhouse with Gwen, or tell bawdy stories, but the sweetness and peace of mind that come from Gwen’s easy company is worth it.
They’re still laughing when she leaves him at his door step, her smile brighter than the day’s late sunshine as she turns to cross the courtyard. He’s smiling and humming as he lets himself in and settles his basket –half herbs and half flowers Gwen made him pick—beside the door.
Gaius is sitting at the table, staring down at the wood’s grain intently.
“What?” Merlin asks. He wonders if he’s late for something.
It’s much worse than that. Five people died in the middle of a field today, untouched by human hands.
The funeral pyres are lit at sundown and they burn just outside the city, the King’s soldiers out to guard them until dawn or ash stops falling, whichever comes first.
The magic flitting all around Camelot has nothing to do with Merlin, no matter how many times Gaius looks at him like that. He can cause windstorms, yes, but Merlin doesn’t have the knowledge or power in him to create windstorms that sweep around the kingdom and cast spells on whoever they blow across.
“I have to concentrate really hard to make the floor scrub itself,” he says suddenly, two afternoons later, after Gaius hands off his fifth anti-nausea draught of the day and shoots him a sideways look as soon as the door closes, “you really think I can keep a spell that does all kinds of things to people up for weeks?”
“Of course not, Merlin,” Gaius says quietly, like Merlin’s a cranky child on the verge of a tantrum. “I figured you did it by accident.”
Merlin throws up his hands and goes to lie down. He doesn’t feel well.
Since that day, Merlin’s hardly seen Arthur at all. Uther is using his son to his full advantage, the way he does any time there is a crisis of state. Arthur is patrolling the city and beyond from dawn until dusk, searching for something no citizen of Albion has seen, asking questions no one can answer.
Arthur’s ragged, this much Merlin knows. Every day Arthur is more tired looking: a touch paler, his eyes darker, his mouth more drawn. He’s letting himself be consumed by this and it makes Merlin sick. Each glimpse of Arthur as he slips out of his chambers before Merlin can get to him or as he shadows his father twists Merlin’s belly into a tighter knot.
There’s nothing to be done. Arthur is as he always is, and he will give until a solution can be found or he dies.
Merlin worries, about Arthur and about his destiny. It keeps him up at night, staring at the ceiling and twisting his fingers in the sheets. He can’t drug Arthur. That offense would never be tolerated twice. But there’s not much hope of coaxing Arthur, and even if there was, Merlin wouldn’t be the one to do it.
As busy as Arthur is, it’s not chance that has Merlin missing him at every turn. Arthur’s steering clear whenever he can, and when he can’t it’s like dealing with a statue that has the power of simple speech.
Arthur’s blankness is even worse than the look of him. No amount of teasing or cajoling will bring life into Arthur, so they’ve slipped into a heavy silence tense with something they won’t admit to.
Merlin hasn’t slept in days. Each one passes just like this one, hours of silent dark broken only by the endless circle of Merlin’s thoughts. He’s sure it’s driving him mad.
Dark dark dark, Merlin thinks, willing every thought away into the blackness so he can rest, if only for a few moments. It works, and the world behind Merlin’s eyelids is blissfully empty.
He sighs, holding onto his one safe word, repeating it slowly until it’s just a black blur. He starts slipping, drifting away from everything.
“Merlin,” The dark whispers.
Merlin gasps, jolting up. It was soft, muffled, but by now Merlin’s familiar with being called to. He peers into the dark, but there are no eyes and no motion.
“Merlin,” Again, as before, except now there’s a gentle scrape. Merlin waits, magic spells swimming into his mind, all of the ones he learned to protect himself –Arthur—drifting there, ready to be used.
The door opens, just enough to permit a slice of firelight to highlight golden hair and a tall frame.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, his voice weak. He unclenches his fist from the blanket and tucks it under where Arthur can’t see it. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry. I couldn’t stay away,” Arthur whispers mournfully. His voice is hoarse, like he’s been talking for hours. His shape moves closer to Merlin’s bed, slow shuffling steps.
Something that’s only half fear darts through Merlin’s stomach and he’s up before he knows it, one hand outstretched into the darkness. Arthur sees the motion and he lurches forward, his hand barely catching Merlin’s shoulder.
“So sorry,” he mutters, and sniffs.
“It’s alright,” Merlin soothes, holding onto Arthur’s hip. It’s not cold in the room at all, but Arthur’s shivering fiercely.
Merlin suddenly feels too warm.
“No, no,” Arthur moans softly. He squeezes Merlin’s shoulder. “I’ve been so horrible to you, but I’ve just been tryin’ to keep myself from doing it. But I couldn’t—I can’t stop myself. I wan’ you—” He sways dangerously, and Merlin has to scramble to grab his shirt and haul him back into place.
“It’s fine,” Merlin whispers, petting the sweat-damp of Arthur’s shirt gently. “Arthur, are you ill?”
“Days,” Arthur grunts, leaning in to Merlin’s hands.
“Okay,” Merlin says. “Let’s go to the fireplace so you can sit down.” Arthur doesn’t say anything but he shuffles backwards, guided by Merlin’s hands. They get to the door and have to stop. Merlin needs to get the door all the way open and get Arthur down the steps, but Arthur’s holding on so tight, shaking under Merlin’s grip.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispers, gently. Arthur’s head is dropped, mostly out of the light. He sniffles again. “Arthur, here, look at me,” he risks his grip to get a hand on Arthur’s chin and tilt his face up, bring it into the light. Touching Arthur’s bare skin sends hot prickles racing up Merlin’s arm, catching him between wanting to yank his hand away and wanting to smooth his palm over Arthur’s cheek and down his neck. He doesn’t do either though, too busy staring at the face Arthur leans into his palm.
Arthur looks gaunt, shadows resting in all of the hollows of his face. He’s sweaty, shining with it, skin clammy and hot under Merlin’s fingers and his eyes are swollen and dark, half-closed. His mouth is dry and slack, pale like a corpse’s. There’s a thin line of blood trailing from his nose to the cracks in his upper lip.
The coppery smell of Arthur’s blood hits Merlin and he inhales sharply and lets go of Arthur. Heat spikes in his belly and he suddenly feels dizzy. But it’s Arthur who sways again. He goes to his knees limply, face barely tilted up to Merlin’s.
“Had t’come,” he mumbles, swiping at his bloody nose. He looks dully at the blood on his fingers and then up at Merlin. His eyes close and he slumps down to the floor.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispers. There’s no answer. He hits his knees too, hands sweeping over Arthur’s chest, searching for his heart. “Gaius!” He thinks he shouts it, but his ears are filled with buzzing so it’s hard to tell.
It seems like Arthur is whisked away before Merlin can breathe again, and he’s left sitting on the steps outside his room, bare feet on the cold stone floor and his arms around his knees. There’s a curious ache in his stomach, as if he hasn’t eaten for days, but Merlin can’t think about that right now. He has Arthur’s blood on his hands.
He’s busy staring at the floor, waiting for Gaius to come back and tell him Arthur’s well again when a stroke of black crosses his vision and someone touches his forehead. It’s Uther standing above him, stiff and pale.
“Gaius said that it was you who found him,” Uther says, his fingers trailing away from Merlin’s face.
“He found me,” Merlin says, curling his fingers over his toes, hiding the blood away.
“Why? Did he say anything?”
Merlin closes his eyes, and tries to remember. Except for the feverish touch of Arthur’s skin it’s all so hazy, spectres behind a silk screen. It feels like it happened a thousand years ago instead of mere minutes.
He ends up shaking his head. “I don’t remember. It was…He was delirious, I know that.”
Uther steps away from him and collapses into a chair, one hand over his mouth. He stares at Merlin, clearly puzzled.
“I don’t understand why it is, but it’s you,” he says finally.
“You’re the one who does this to him.”
Merlin grips his toes harder, bites his tongue before saying, “What do you mean?” He presses his chest tighter to his knees to hide the wild thumping of his heart.
“Before you,” Uther says, pointing gently at Merlin, “my son was so, so safe. He didn’t disobey me, attract the attention of dead men, or come so close to his death.”
Merlin ducks his head. Nausea waves upwards and he has to swallow hard to keep the sick down. It’s true. Most of what happens to Arthur is because of Merlin and his destiny.
Beyond the valley of his knees, the chair Uther was sitting on creaks and he listens to the steps. Uther touches the crown of his head, spread his hand out to let it rest on Merlin’s hair. His voice is softer when he speaks again.
“But, before you, I was also the only one keeping my son safe. Without you, he would have surely died tonight. Thank you.”
The hand lifts and Uther leaves. Merlin hides his face in his knees and waits for Gaius to come back, to tell him Arthur is not well as he washes the blood from Merlin’s hands and give him something to stop the shaking.
It’s hours before Merlin can see Arthur. Gaius makes him both sleep and eat before he’s allowed to go, and the sun is high as Merlin passes through the courtyard.
There’s a maid sitting by Arthur’s bedside, a pad of gauze in her hand. She doesn’t seem startled to see Merlin there and she stands without being asked and hands him the gauze, tucking it into his fingers carefully.
“His nose keeps bleeding,” she says by way of explanation, gesturing to the pile of extra gauze beside Arthur’s limp hand. “And he can’t be left alone. King’s orders.”
Merlin nods and watches her leave, shutting the door softly behind her trail of skirts. Then he’s alone with the sleeping Arthur and there’s nothing to do but sit.
The sun is cutting lines across the room and one cuts Arthur in half, undisturbed by his still sleep. It shines over his head and chest, bringing his sickness to full light. He’s so pale he almost matches the white of the pillowcase, broken only by faint pink smudges underneath his nose.
Merlin opens his hand and unfolds the gauze, revealing a bright flower of blood blooming across it. There’s a basket beside the chair filled with gauze similarly soiled. It’s not full but it’s getting there.
“No,” Merlin says quietly, crumpling up the gauze until it’s a tiny ball of pure white.
“I need your help!” Merlin shouts into the dark. He hasn’t even bothered with a torch this time. There’s light seeping in from somewhere above that allows for Merlin to see that the Dragon’s not on the precipice, which is where he’s supposed to be, helping Merlin.
He doesn’t have to wait long for the whoosh of the Dragon’s wings and the sight of him landing, chain clanking around his claws and the rock. It takes an absurdly long time for him to settle.
“What is it you need so urgently, Merlin?” he finally asks.
“Ah, well then, it is not my council you seek, but that of the court physician. It is still Gaius, is it not?”
“Of course it is. But I don’t think Arthur’s just sick. I think he’s sick with magic.”
“Oh?” The Dragon scratches one set of claws over the other and tilts his enormous snout into the weak light.
“He’s bleeding on and off, no matter what Gaius does and he stumbled into my room, delirious. He’s never been sick like that,” Merlin insists, “Arthur doesn’t get sick like that.”
“Hmm.” The Dragon closes his eyes for a long moment, and then slowly blinks them open. “I cannot help you. Go be with him.”
“What do you mean you can’t help?”
“There is nothing I can do for your ill prince. I am certain your company will do him good.”
Merlin holds his tongue as he stalks away. Time has taught him that dragons have very good hearing.
Late afternoon makes Arthur’s drawn face glow. He looks more like a painting than a man, an artifact of beauty that will hold still forever. Merlin ruins the picture by undoing anything the maid who took over from him before has done. He ruffles the covers, untucking them from Arthur’s hips and pulls Arthur’s hands from his chest, letting them lay at his sides.
“There,” he says, admiring his work. This is closer to an Arthur he knows. There aren’t even that many more additions to the basket.
Then he’s not sure what to do. His earlier visit didn’t seem so baldly strange. Merlin rests his head in his hands, watching the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest. He finds himself worrying about the spaces in between breaths though and has to look away.
The room is perfectly clean, and much too quiet. There’s nothing for Merlin to do but sit in the chair and watch Arthur.
“Hello,” Merlin says suddenly, trying out his best normal voice. He reaches out to take Arthur’s hand. “Hello, Arthur.”
Arthur’s hand is cool, but his fingers flex when Merlin wraps his own around. On the bed, Arthur takes a deeper breath, as if he might wake up. But he doesn’t do that, only turns his head more towards Merlin.
Merlin grins and has to remember not to squeeze Arthur’s hand too hard. “Arthur, I’m here, wake up.” He settles for pressing his palm against Arthur’s, feeling the sleepy heat warm him.
Arthur takes another deep breath, stretching out under the layer of blankets. He squeezes Merlin’s hand back, face still turned, still breathing deep.
“Hey, are you in there?”
Arthur doesn’t respond further, so Merlin scoots the chair as close to the bed as he can, leaning in. He doesn’t say anything, just looks over the lines of Arthur’s face, the slow motion of his eyes behind his eyelids. The bundle of their hands stays tucked under his chest, safe and secret in case someone comes in. They’re both holding on quite tightly, but it doesn’t hurt.
Merlin does his best to match Arthur’s breathing, letting the deep waves of Arthur’s breath lull him. But at the same time, Arthur’s breath makes him restless, makes him want to pace across the whole world.
He finds himself leaning in further, until his nose brushes Arthur’s cheek. Arthur twists, as far as he can, to press his cheek to Merlin’s. When they touch Merlin has to stop and close his eyes, listening to the sudden heave of Arthur’s breath.
Arthur moans then, clutching Merlin’s fingers tight enough to make the bones creak and Merlin yelp.
“Arthur!” He tries to draw back from Arthur and his grip but freezes halfway. Even through the covers that Arthur’s squirming under, Merlin can see he’s hard. He drops Arthur’s hand and it lands outstretched on the bedspread. Arthur moans again, his face looking agonized as he pushes up against the blankets.
A part of Merlin wants to scramble away, get out of this stifling hot room, but he can’t. Can’t move, can’t stop staring as Arthur groans and ruts, his fists balled weakly in the top blanket.
He’s finally able to pinch his eyes shut, but then it’s only to see the long arrow of Arthur’s throat when he pressed his head back against the tree, letting Merlin lick the taste of leather and dirt off him.
Merlin remembers that, remembers the heat of him where they’d pressed together, rough and frantic.
He has to open his eyes because it hurts not to look. Arthur’s got his teeth gritted and the blankets down by his hips, still jostling the air. It can’t be enough pressure to get anywhere. It must be just enough to hurt Arthur, the same way this is hurting Merlin.
That’s how the decision gets made. Merlin can’t stand to see Arthur like this, sick and helpless, needing his help. Still, his hands shake when he pulls the covers the rest of the way over Arthur’s hips, down to where the nightshirt they put Arthur in is rucked up.
They keep shaking, right until the moment when he presses his palms to Arthur's thighs. The skin there is soft, untouched by the sun and barely scarred, just one short white jag from a dagger on his left thigh.
Arthur inhales sharply, but when Merlin looks his eyes are still closed. He's trapped in his sleep, held down by sickness. Merlin can't decide whether it would be better to know Arthur's aware of this or not.
He sucks in his own tight breath and skims up higher, his thumb tracking the crease of Arthur's thigh, feeling the hair roughen and skin get thinner and hotter. He doesn't stop until his thumb and forefinger are bracketing Arthur's erection, and then it's only a matter of curling his fingers around.
It's a punch of sensation, right in Merlin's middle. Arthur's cock is warm and thick, silky smooth against his calluses. Just holding his cock is better than Merlin remembers touching his own being, and his hips half-arch off the chair with the buzzing hum of skin on skin.
At the head of the bed Arthur whimpers, his head slipping around the pillows. His body's tense, as if he's being held in place by a spell, but his hands are shifting restlessly.
"Shh," Merlin says quietly. He can barely understand the timbre of his own voice, but it's not Arthur speaking. "You'll be alright," he says, starting to stroke.
It doesn't take long at all. Merlin finds it hard to keep his eyes open, hard to keep from shifting in the chair, shifting his own erection to set off bursts of pleasure. But it's not hard to keep the pace of his hand, slow and steady, listening to Arthur pant and grunt softly. There’s comfort in the regularity of his hand and Arthur’s noises, in the hot-cold shivers running up his spine.
He’s caught up in that rhythm, drunk on the tide of their shifting bodies and that hum of skin when Arthur groans, his hips jostling up. The paces slips and stutters and Merlin has to stroke faster to fix it. Arthur whines then, deep in the back of his throat, and the smell of bitter sweat fills Merlin’s next breath.
Slickness coats his palm and he stills, hand cupped around Arthur’s cock to feel the pulses. He breathes deeply and feels his own cock throb in time, but he stays perfectly still until he feels Arthur’s body settle. Then he lets himself go, and the first touch of his hand, even outside his trousers, makes him gasp.
It happens like that, one hand cupped around his cock, rocking into that sweet pressure. He grits his teeth and tries to think about nothing but he can’t, not with his trousers slowly soaking through and Arthur there.
“Ah,” Merlin says, heels ground into the floor, pressing up and up and up, high enough to reach the clouds. Then he’s sliding back down into the pleasure, satisfied down to his bones.
The room has dimmed in the time since Merlin closed his eyes, but it’s by no means dark. The sun has melted just enough for him to almost believe that Arthur’s eyes are still closed. But they’re not, and Arthur’s watching him. His face is as pale as before, but now it’s adorned with two bright spots of colour across his cheeks.
“I—” Merlin says, suddenly aware of his hand and Arthur’s bare hips and every mote of air between them. He didn’t realize shame like this could exist.
“I have to get Gaius,” he says, and bolts from the room, Arthur’s gaze scratching down his back the whole way.
Gaius tends to Arthur and Merlin paces outside of the room, imagining all of his possible future deaths. He almost falls to his knees to beg for mercy when Gaius emerges, his eyes shaded from Merlin’s eager watch.
“Merlin, what did you do?” Gaius asks, pacing in front of the fire, hands pressed into tight fists at his sides.
“Nothing,” Merlin says. “I didn’t do anything!”
“Really?” Gaius rounds on him. “Are you telling me then that Arthur just happened to wake up on your watch? You didn’t use any magic on him?”
“Gaius, I swear, I didn’t use magic on Arthur!” Merlin yells, but he’s immediately surprised by his own force and looks away. He sits in the closest chair and wipes his palm over his face. Arthur’s and his own smell is thick on his skin, a reminder of what he’s not telling.
“I’m sorry,” he says softly through his fingers, tasting salt and earth. “I shouldn’t have yelled at you. But I didn’t use magic, Gaius. I promise.”
“It’s alright,” Gaius replies, equally quiet, coming forward to touch Merlin’s shoulder. “It was wrong of me to assume. I can only imagine how difficult this is for you.”
Merlin nods. He feels the touch distantly, but he’s only thinking of how badly he wants to suck his fingers into his mouth.
Later, Gaius comes back from tending to Arthur for the night and he tells Merlin that Arthur has requested a bath.
“He says he feels dirty,” Gaius says, washing his hands in the basin. The water foams greenish-yellow and smells of all the herbs Gaius uses to cure people, sharp and bright and muddled.
The pale ghost of Arthur watches Merlin fill the tub with steaming water, but he doesn’t say anything and his eyes slide away each time Merlin looks. He gets up without being told, and a light touch on the bedpost is all he uses to anchor himself before he steps forward.
Merlin has to help him with his nightshirt though, pulling the fabric up and off, seeing the place where it’s stiff and quelling any sort of reaction at all. Underneath, Arthur’s body is the same as it always has been, a lean and strong weapon, but it’s different looking now that Merlin can see places his fingers have been.
Arthur keeps his face turned away, but he bats Merlin’s hand away when getting in the tub and huffs gently, like Merlin is still just a constant nuisance. He lowers himself carefully and sighs when he’s all the way in. Merlin watches him stretch, pressing the soles of his feet against the tub, hands splayed across his thighs. It’s a very consciously relaxed position, Arthur purposely putting himself on display, mimicking himself at another time before this one.
Merlin shuts his eyes, just for a moment, to gather his courage, and then he opens them to see Arthur staring at the wall as if he hasn’t ever seen a care in his life.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin blurts. “I never should have—”
“Cloth, please,” Arthur interrupts, palm outheld. Merlin gapes at him and Arthur jostles his hand, waiting. Merlin gives him the cloth and the little pat of soap and they make skating eye contact before Arthur drops the cloth in the water and gives his attention to washing his right knee.
He works quickly, concentrating on the dips behind his knees and the lines of his calves, hunching over to reach his toes.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, watching him scrub furiously.
“Shut up!” Arthur shouts. He squeezes his eyes shut and breathes deeply before speaking. “Just stop, Merlin. I don’t want to hear it.” The cloth drops, floating across the surface, spiraling when Arthur pulls his knees up closer to his chest. He huddles up tight, belly and groin protected from view and touch, glowering at the ripples in the water.
The silence is enormous and deafening, separating them by miles instead of feet. Merlin can hear the soft quick steps of a servant passing through the corridor over any noise of Arthur’s. His sigh seems to echo back to his mouth from the skin of Arthur’s shoulders and the bowed line of his spine.
He wants to pause, rethink his motions even as he moves, but this is not the time to hold back. All the same, Arthur doesn’t flinch when Merlin shuffles closer on his knees, doesn’t even twitch when Merlin fishes the wet square of cloth from the bath water, squeezing out the excess. He stays held-breath still while Merlin rubs the soap into the fabric, working up a brisk lather.
When Merlin touches the cloth to his shoulder his body goes as tight as the string on a bow and he shivers. But beyond that, nothing.
Don’t do this to me, Merlin wants to say. Don’t go away.
We’re better than that, he wants to say.
Instead, Merlin keeps his silence and tries to let his hands speak for him. He strokes slow soap circles across and down Arthur’s back, washing away sweat and sickness, feeling Arthur loosen up every moment.
Finally Arthur says, hardly more than a whisper, “I’ve never felt like that before in my life.”
Tucking his tongue into his cheek to sidetrack any actual words Merlin settles for a non-committal noise. His hand never stops circling around Arthur’s back, and he keeps his eyes there too, counting the damp whorls of Arthur’s hair where it brushes his neck.
“Not even Sophia. Not anything,” Arthur says. “Not except for the time before.”
“In the forest,” Merlin says, remembering dizziness and heat and needneedneed.
“Yeah,” Arthur breathes, head tipping down just enough to expose a quick flush on his nape. He must be remembering too, and that makes Merlin want to bend over him, brush his mouth over the spot Arthur can’t hide.
But he doesn’t. He manages to hold on, even when the flush deepens and Arthur whispers, “It felt good.”
It did. It felt hot and wrong and wonderful to give in to what he so badly needed, and to give to Arthur, too. To make him better.
“You were ill, but it—it made you better.”
Arthur nods, his face still tilted almost to his knees. “I’d felt sick for days.”
“Me too,” Merlin admits. Arthur jerks under his hand and half-turns to see Merlin’s face, his mouth a thin line.
“We’ve been cursed,” he spits.
The sudden gust of wind, churning the leaves and stirring the smell of new spring growth up for them. The deep-down fierce ache that had followed, the swirl of motion and grappling before they thumped against the tree.
“It was the wind,” Merlin says.
Arthur nods, face stricken. “They haven’t caught the sorcerer who’s responsible for that, have they?”
Merlin shakes his head. He’s been looking, but there’s not even a trail to follow, not that he or Gaius can see. And there’s no tell of how long this spell will last. Once the magic touches someone, they’re changed. Death has been the only escape.
“We need to tell Gaius,” he says.
“No!” Arthur hisses, gripping the edge of the tub tightly. “My father would be furious if he found out. No one must know.”
“Merlin. No one must find out. I cannot be of service to my people if they know about this. Promise me you’ll not tell.”
Merlin looks over Arthur’s face, sees the pride and the fear there, and the lingering tiredness and he nods. Arthur turns back around, settling in, finally truly relaxing.
“What are we going to do?” Merlin asks, not washing any more, just holding the ball of cloth at the top of Arthur’s spine, dirty warm water trickling down between his shoulder blades.
Arthur looks at him over his shoulder, unwavering eye contact, before nodding minutely. His voice is not as confident as it could be when he says, “What we have to,” but it’s answer enough.
“Yes,” Merlin agrees, shifting just enough so his bare knuckles skim Arthur’s nape.
The next day Arthur appears on the castle balcony beside Uther, smiling regally while Uther assures the gathered crowd that Arthur is perfectly well, that this was nothing like last time, no matter the gossip they had heard.
Arthur never says a word, but Merlin watches him wave down to the square, and he sees the joy and relief on the people’s faces as they looked up at their prince, backlit by the sun. He can’t help but think of this as a sacrifice.