Title: And the Earth held its breath
Rating: R (Series rating: R)
Character/s: Arthur, Merlin, knights of Caerleon and Camelot.
Summary: Arthur struggles with shame, guilt and desire.
Warnings: Angst (+ minor spoilers for 5x02)
Word Count: Onethousandand*COUGHHARKCOUGH*
Prompt: #29 Misunderstanding
Author's Notes: Sequel to "While the stars froze above you". The poem is from Alfred Lord Tennyson's Idylls of the King.
... I KNOW! I can't make it any shorter! I even cut bits out for a part three! Fuuuuck.
You can find the rest of this series on AO3, or here at Camelot Drabble.
The cold is slowly creeping into Arthur’s bones from the ground beneath him, and the air is like ice against his exposed cheek. He pushes his numb hands further into his armpits and bows his head against the elements. Even surrounded by bodies and horses, and having made camp in a hollow that should protect them from the wind, Arthur is frozen through.
“Can’t you sleep, Sire?”
Percival, big and solid behind him. Arthur glances over his shoulder, but gives no other reply. He doesn’t want to complain, seeing as he’s been wrapped in several cloaks while some of his men are sharing one between them. There is a moment’s pause, and then Percival shuffles closer, putting one arm around Arthur slowly, as if he’s dealing with some easily frightened hart and not a man. Then again, Arthur hasn’t felt like a man since …
Arthur can’t disappoint the boyish hope in Percival’s tone. “Yes, thank you.” He has already hurt the knight once, when he snapped at him for suggesting that Arthur lie next to the fire. Arthur couldn’t. Merlin is sitting by it, on first watch with Gwaine, and Arthur can’t watch the firelight on Merlin’s hair.
Morgana, the dragon, the Diamair, it all seems like some dark dream, less real than the darker, colder night that came before. When he held Merlin in his arms. The events of today are already fading from his memory, but last night he remembers vividly, from the pressure of Merlin’s fingertips in his hair, to the silky heat of his lips against Arthur’s skin, and the solid weight of him on Arthur’s lap.
The pit of Arthur’s stomach is a tight knot. It keeps him from relaxing, from eating, and from looking Merlin in the eye. Merlin, who was willing to throw away his pride to keep Arthur warm. Merlin, who even kissed Arthur’s neck, all to help him reach the edge.
It was what they wanted to see. Ragnor would have done worse if you hadn’t let yourself come undone.
It doesn’t justify the way he used Merlin to get there. Merlin, who never gives less than his all for Arthur.
Arthur closes his eyes and tries to divorce himself from his own body, to become one with the icy air and the hard ground.
Caerleon is not like Camelot. It lies to the North, in wilder, more rugged terrain, and the people reflect their land. Queen Annis’ knights live in the lower levels of the castle, and grudgingly open their doors to the bedraggled knights of Camelot. That evening, before the feast that will celebrate the successful mission, the great bath house is readied for a different sort of party.
More than anything, Arthur wants to have a private bath and then curl up under his furs and sleep for days, but there are too many reasons why he shouldn't and can't. While the Queen has forgiven him, her men still think of Arthur as the man who killed their King, and as if sensing this, the knights of Camelot are all the more eager to show their pride in him. If Arthur does not attend the bath, he would not only be disappointing his own men, but giving the men of Caerleon a chance to talk behind his back. That would cause fighting for sure, and there has been enough fighting. He needs to cultivate the spark of trust he gained by rescuing the men Morgana kidnapped from the villages of Caerleon.
Also, a private bath would mean that he and Merlin would be alone, and that, Arthur cannot yet bear. He could order another servant to do for him, but it would raise too many questions, and hurt Merlin’s pride. He won’t do that again.
So to the bath house Arthur goes, and he is greeted with rousing cheers as he enters. For a moment he is blinded by heat and steam, and then the room comes into view. It's been dug out in the side of the hill that the castle is nestled up against, the ground is hard-packed and strewn with rushes, the walls panelled with sturdy wood. Two great fireplaces have been lit with roaring fires that cast an orange glow over the room. There are three big tubs, all built into the floor, and steam rises from the water to curl under the ceiling.
The beer is already flowing freely, and the men are loud and full of cheer. They are also naked as babies, which would not have bothered Arthur before. Now he hardly knows where to look. Sir Ulfius appears with a tankard for Arthur, and he drinks it down in one.
“Woah there, your Majesty,” calls Sir Bedivere, a veteran knight who used to give Arthur piggy-back rides when he was just a tot. “The night is young still.”
Arthur raises his empty tankard in salute, but makes no other answer. Speech has come hard to him ever since they left the Citadel of Ismere and he was no longer high on adrenaline.
He goes into the adjacent room to undress, but has to make himself pull his shirt over his head. The drag of cloth over his skin triggers fever-pain, that tingling ache that usually accompanies sickness, and he shudders as his heart thuds harder in his chest. Merlin isn’t here, but he is still with Arthur, filling his head, heart, and body. Arthur wants Merlin, wants to feel Merlin strain against him as he finds completion on Arthur’s command.
Wrong, says the knot in Arthur’s stomach. Wrong, wrong, wrong!
Beautiful, says Arthur’s heart.
This room is isolated to keep the damp from getting in and soaking clothes and equipment, and there is no fire here. Gooseflesh breaks out over Arthur’s arms and thighs as he takes off his boots, trousers, socks and smallclothes.
Naked, he re-enters the bath, and the heat envelops him, heightening his fever, but failing to chase the chill in his bones. He’s barely taken three steps into the room before Gwaine bursts through the door, a struggling Merlin slung over his shoulder.
“Look who I found hiding in the King’s chambers!” the knight shouts.
There's another cheer and several cries of “Merlin!”.
Arthur is never more proud of his knights than when they show their devotion to Merlin, which has grown so strong over the years that they would die for him as readily as for Arthur. It's ridiculous, he knows, but Arthur has even begun to judge potential knights on how well they get along with his manservant. Good men cannot help but love Merlin, bad men cannot help but dislike him.
Gwaine turns around so that Merlin is facing the room. Arthur holds his breath and stands very still, hoping to go unnoticed.
“Everyone,” the knight says over his shoulder. “This is Merlin. He needs a bath. Merlin, meet everyone.”
The men of Caerleon laugh, and the sound makes Arthur’s heart stop beating altogether. Merlin’s mouth is smiling, but his eyes are wounded and uncertain.
Arthur wants to howl. He can’t move. He wants to hide his nakedness, but he won’t be able to dress himself again before Gwaine overtakes him. It seems so inane, because Merlin has dressed and undressed Arthur a hundred times, and helped him in the bath just as many. Arthur has always been proud of the body he has built, the scars he has earned, and he has, he must admit, enjoyed showing off for Merlin, who had blushed and turned away at first but then come to be proud too, because it was a body he helped to take care of.
In turn, Arthur is proud of how Merlin has grown, from a soft boy, through a skinny youth, to a strong man with scars of his own. And they will be revealed in a breath or two if Gwaine has his way.
“Come on, Merlin. The King’s manservant can’t run around smelling like a troll.”
“Oi, Gwaine!” Percival shouts from the depth of one of the tubs. “You’ll be joining him, I hope?”
“Socks and all,” Gwaine replies.
And then he’s coming towards Arthur and Arthur still cannot move.
“My King,” Gwaine says with equal parts reverence and mocking, making as big a bow as carrying Merlin will let him. Merlin’s head is bowed.
Arthur inclines his head shortly, looking away. Then they are gone, into the next room. Arthur grabs another tankard of beer and climbs into the furthest tub, where Percival is.
“We need to build one of these at home. It’s fantastic,” Percival says, grinning from ear to ear.
“Yeah,” Arthur says and drinks to hide that he can barely speak.
He means to look away, but when Gwaine struts back inside like he’s God’s gift to mankind and he knows it, Arthur’s eyes are drawn to him despite themselves. Drawn to Merlin, coming in behind Gwaine, all bare, white skin and dark hair that’s already curling at the tips. He is broad-shouldered and tall, and elbowing Gwaine aside with a playfulness that covers desperation, so he can get to the water. Merlin moves quickly through the team, nodding to the knights he knows and bowing lower to the ones he doesn’t.
Arthur’s mouth has gone dry. He is relieved when Merlin stops at another tub, but then Gwaine is there to drag Merlin on, and it doesn’t take them ten steps to reach the tub where Arthur would like to be hiding behind Percival. Gwaine splashes noisily into the water, and Merlin slides, more hesitantly, in after him.
For a moment only, Arthur and Merlin look at each other, eyes meeting, the weight of their secret hanging over them both. Then they look away. Arthur drains his second tankard and is happy that his head is beginning to spin. He wonders if the gooseflesh on Merlin’s arms is from the lingering cold of the other room, or from fear and disgust.
Another veteran soldier, of Caerleon, raises his tankard. “Here’s to the King of Camelot, who rescued our men from hell and led them back to their homes, their women, and this bath house.”
The room shakes with the loudest cheer yet, and then the soldiers of Camelot begin to sing. Any other time, Arthur would have been blushing with pride to hear his coronation song, but not today. He blushes for shame today.
Blow, trumpet, for the world is white with May;
Blow trumpet, the long night hath rolled away!
Blow through the living world—"Let the King reign."
Blow trumpet! he will lift us from the dust.
Blow trumpet! live the strength and die the lust!
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand! Let the King reign.
Blow, for our Sun is mighty in his May!
Blow, for our Sun is mightier day by day!
Clang battleaxe, and clash brand! Let the King reign.
Arthur doesn’t feel mighty. He feels small and sick and guilty.
“Die the lust,” Gwaine repeats, laughing because if there’s one thing that will never die, it’s lust. Gwaine’s especially.
And yet lust is the beast within that Arthur would give anything to kill, so that he would not feel so conflicted over what should have been a crime, but felt more like a gift. Across the tub, Merlin’s dark eyes and pale skin sing to Arthur. It’s a melody altogether more haunting, and it won’t leave him alone.