Thank you to everyone who's given me drabble prompts so far - I'll post what I've got tomorrow. If anyone else wants to prompt me here
that would be awesome!
Title: Backwards Lies the Precipice
Word count: 2,954
Warnings: Angsty PWP
Spoilers: Through all of season 1
Summary: They lay out their bedrolls as evening drags into full night, tired from days of riding and fighting and loss.
A/N: Written for kelene
and the pay it forward meme. She prompted me with: 'green, merlin, up against the wall'. Alas it turned out angstier than I'd planned; I blame the 'green' part (don't question the logic, my mind works in strange ways).
The ancient stone is cold and coarse against Merlin’s forehead and under his hands. His breeches lie discarded in the grass nearby, tangled and twisted like the restless knotting in his gut; his tunic feels scratchy and too-tight against his chest. The fleeting whispers of an evening breeze trail chills across his exposed skin but Arthur is a solid press of heat and muscle along his back, scalding warmth like wildfire into his body. Merlin closes his eyes and pants unevenly as Arthur pushes one slick finger up inside him.
‘I’m not going to apologise,’ Merlin says stubbornly, voice shaking just a little.
Arthur adds another finger in response, mouthing roughly at the back of Merlin’s neck.
Merlin wets his lips, swallows.
‘I won’t apologise for saving your life.’
Arthur adds his third finger with unnecessary force, driving bluntly up and in and finding that perfect spot that makes Merlin groan and jerk his hips back reflexively into the burn.
‘I did what I had to do,’ he tries again, struggling to get the words out.
‘What you did was stupid and reckless and nearly got you killed,’ Arthur hisses, low and angry, teeth sharp at the underside of Merlin’s jaw. ‘You may be a sorcerer but you’re not invincible.’ He shoves Merlin forward against the wall, one hand firm on his shoulder, grip curling demandingly over the sweep of his collarbone. Merlin turns his head, the pitted stone scraping across his cheek, and his breath catches as Arthur fucks him open with insistent fingers.
‘You know me,’ Merlin gasps out lightly, ‘I’ll do anything for a little excitement.’
‘This isn’t a joke,’ Arthur snarls. He presses his face into Merlin’s neck, bites him hard and scrapes his teeth down to the line of Merlin’s spine, tongue working messily over the stark red marks. ‘I don’t want you to die for me,’ he says, fierce and aggressive with entreaty. He reaches round and palms Merlin’s erection, jerks him slowly to the rhythm of his fingers inside him.
Merlin chokes back a moan and steels his resolve against the intensity spiking in his veins. ‘It’s not exactly my first choice but I will if I have to.’ He digs his fingers into the broad cracks in the wall, fighting for rational thought as the threads of his careful argument slip vainly from his grasp. This is a fight that’s been swelling on the horizon for months; trust Arthur to stack all the odds in his favour now.
‘You’re going to be King,’ Merlin grits out. ‘You need to be King, and I will do everything I can to see that happen.’
Arthur makes a frustrated noise and removes his fingers; Merlin reels at the loss, breathing deeply. His head drops back and his eyes fall open. The towering remains of the aging fortress swim into focus above him, jagged towers rising in silhouette against the red of the dying sun. He wonders idly what this place might have looked like long ago, who had lived there and why they left – he spares a moment to think of kingdoms and dynasties crumbling away into dust until all that’s left are riven walls and choking ivy and a nameless ruin crowned in the ember glow of dusk, and then Arthur thrusts up into him and wipes his thoughts clean.
‘I don’t care about that,’ Arthur snaps. His words are blunt and harsh but his body is far more eloquent: the protective clutch of his hand on Merlin’s hip; the tight hitching of his chest against Merlin’s back; the urgent proximity of his body, not a breath of space between them – each shift and flex, each panting breath maps out a world of longing and denial and stalled hopes, brands them into Merlin’s skin, into his bones, engraves them deep as muscle-memory into his every sinew and tendon. Arthur pulls him down, grinds up inside him, slow and deep and ruthless, robs Merlin of his breath and his will until he’s full and shaking with the weight of him inside and out and Arthur’s thighs are taut and trembling with exertion against his own; Arthur’s name breaks raggedly from his lips, echoing up from the decaying ruins like an acclamation from a hundred suppliant voices.
‘There are enough people willing to die for me already; I don’t need any more,’ Arthur says thickly, and Merlin thinks of Peredur and Caherdin and Derrain lying cold and empty-eyed in hasty graves in the valley down below, of Owain and Pellinor spilling out their lives across the white sand of the arena, of Bedivere and Lewet and Sagremour who never made it back from the Questing Beast’s lair or the griffon’s talons and a hundred others fallen in war in service to king and country. He reaches back and tangles his fingers in Arthur’s sweat-damp hair, holds him in close, cheek-to-cheek, moves with him and against him as they fuck out their confusion and dismay and all the hard choices they have to make.
Arthur lowers his head to Merlin’s shoulder. ‘You’re an idiot and you’re a nuisance,’ he says, punctuating the words with a roll and thrust of his hips that sends white-hot sensation searing straight up Merlin’s spine and makes him groan. ’You’re completely incompetent and utterly hopeless; you’re the single most irritating person I have ever met, and if you ever try and lay down your life for mine again I will never forgive you.’
Merlin arches back, bucking up into Arthur’s hand wrapped firm and purposeful around his cock. ‘This isn’t about us, Arthur; this isn’t about what we want,’ he says, but ‘yes’ cry his traitorous thoughts, and ‘more’, ’harder’, and he wants, he wants so much, but he buries his face in the crook of his arm and sinks his teeth into his own flesh to stop himself from voicing the words aloud.
‘I know, ‘Arthur whispers, ‘I know that.’ His nose tickles at the side of Merlin’s throat, his mouth wet against Merlin’s pulse. His thrusts become uncontrolled and frantic in their urgency and Merlin thinks that he must feel it too, the same ache, the same snare closing fast around them. The future is a noose around their necks, thick cords of duty and destiny and necessity tightening by careful increments, grand concepts that leave no room for human feeling and no time for remorse. Arthur’s hand on Merlin’s cock speeds up to match the movement of his hips, quick and sharp, as though to outrun the worries and fears that dog at their heels. Merlin feels every exquisite inch of him as Arthur drives blindly on towards release and drags Merlin with him, helpless against the thundering tide of desperation and the heady knowledge of Arthur mouthing his name into his shoulder over and over again.
Merlin slumps into the wall, spent, his bitten-off moan raw in his throat and suddenly so loose-limbed and languid he could almost slide straight through the stone, sink away into the cool grey of oblivion. Arthur’s weight presses against him and anchors him, hands slipping round his waist and up under his now stained and sticky tunic, warm and familiar, seeking comfort as well as giving it; the burgeoning evening is quiet and broken only by unsteady panting as they wait to catch their breath again.
Arthur rests his forehead against the back of Merlin’s neck and when he speaks his voice is hoarse and rough-edged from his passion. ‘This king you want me to be – if that’s going to happen then I need you to live,’ he says. ‘I need you to be there.’
Merlin smiles into the stone, the finely coiled tension now unwound from his body and eased from his heart, its unrelenting pressure vanished like a spring suddenly released. ‘Well, obviously,’ he says with a fond twist of humour. ‘You’d be useless on your own. Not to mention you’d be such a bloody prat with no one around to remind you how stupid you look when you’re being an ass.’
Arthur huffs indignantly against his skin. ‘I never look stupid,’ he protests.
‘Yes you do – you get this sort of smug pouty look; makes you look like a fish.’
‘Just thought you should know.’
‘Thank you,’ Arthur says, sarcasm rich in his voice, ‘your counsel is invaluable.’
‘I live to serve, sire.’
Arthur sighs, squeezes Merlin back against his chest. ‘I mean it. No more careless stunts.’
‘I’ll be careful,’ Merlin says, ‘but I can’t make any promises.’ He wants to be able to give Arthur this but he can’t. There are too many unknown variables – curses and marauding beasts, scheming nobles and vengeful sorcerers. Danger is rife in the land and Merlin can feel an unsettled shifting in the balance. The knowledge is there, deep in his bones, that the scales are tipping with the weight of change and he’s not quite sure who’s going to come out on top. He thinks of chalices bearing poison and chalices bearing life: cunning games and furtive bargains on lonely isles; he knows that if it came down to it he’d do it all again without a second thought. Sometimes there is no other option.
‘That’s not good enough,’ Arthur says.
Merlin swallows. ‘It’s all I can do.’ He closes his eyes and fights back the doubt that has plagued him through so many sleepless nights, whispering cold and insidious in his ear and lurking in the back of his mind – the nagging, corrosive thought that for all his magic there will come a day when it simply won’t be enough. He remembers how it felt to harness the lightning and wield death in the palm of his hand, giddy with the ecstasy of limitless possibility; he remembers standing by while Arthur lay dying in his bed, impotent and helpless, a thousand spells on his lips and each of them worthless.
‘I’m not strong enough to make that promise.’
Arthur takes him by the shoulders and manhandles him round to face him. Merlin lets him, leaning back into the cool touch of stone, eyes on the ground until Arthur cups his cheek roughly in one hand and forces Merlin to meet his searching look.
‘Get stronger,’ Arthur says as if it’s just that easy, so earnest and full of conviction that Merlin’s tempted to believe that it must be. In his mind’s eye he can see Arthur out on the practice field, pushing himself through sword drills for endless hours in full armour long after his knights have admitted defeat and trailed off bruised and exhausted to warm baths and hot meals; it’s not easy, Merlin thinks, but maybe it can be done.
‘Okay,’ he says, ‘okay.’
Arthur stares at him searchingly and whatever he finds seems to meet his approval. ‘Good,’ he sighs, leaning to rest their foreheads together, breathing quietly against Merlin’s mouth and his thumb pressing firm against Merlin’s cheekbone. ‘If we’re supposed to have this great destiny then we’re going to have to take it for ourselves,’ he murmurs, and Merlin shivers as a thrill of prescience runs down his spine.
‘You’re cold,’ Arthur misinterprets, pulling back. Merlin nods – he’s not cold, not yet, but there’s a chill sweeping down fast on the heels of the fleeing light and he wants the comfort of a warm fire, strong and bright in the darkness. Arthur retrieves Merlin’s crumpled breeches and passes them into his hands, lacing up his own and crouching down in their makeshift campsite over a hastily gathered bundle of firewood, fumbling in his saddlebag for flint and tinder. Merlin pulls on his clothes and magics away the stains and creases, watching Arthur struggle stubbornly on even though the wood is clearly too damp to catch after the constant downpour of the past few days.
‘Ábiern,’ Merlin hisses at last and the branches ignite, flaring up with such sudden intensity that Arthur flinches back from the heat and the horses whicker and fidget against their tethers, magic-shy.
Arthur raises a reproachful brow. ‘No need to show off, Merlin,’ he says archly, moving back to sit on a broad chunk of fallen stonework.
Merlin sits next to him, nudging him with his knee. ‘We’d have frozen to death if I’d waited for you to do it the hard way,’ he says.
‘I’ll have you know I had it completely under control – if you’d just given me one more second I’d have been done.’
‘Of course,’ Merlin says drily; Arthur feigns a wounded look.
‘You doubt me?’
Merlin grins. ‘I would never,’ he says, and just like that they fall back into an easy rhythm of give and take, a companionable bickering that’s more a source of comfort than real argument as they needle each other over a meal of dried meat and cheese.
They lay out their bedrolls as evening drags into full night, tired from days of riding and fighting and loss, and lie down together on the hard ground, curled into each other like children huddled close and fearful at the toll of midnight. Merlin’s hand fists in Arthur’s tunic and he buries his face in the curve of Arthur’s neck, inhaling the familiar scent of him layered with sex and sweat and the tang of metal. The warmth of the fire ebbs and flows with the flames at his back and he can see the firelight flickering dimly over uneven stone beyond the protective line of Arthur’s body, skittering over the smooth planes and arcs of his discarded armour. The ruins of the fort loom around them, indistinct blocks of deeper black against the sky, blotting out the stars; the last thing Merlin thinks as his eyes drift shut is that this empty place might once have been a match for Camelot in its time, and visions of deterioration and decay hound him into dreams he won’t remember.
They ride out early the next day in the fresh light of dawn, Merlin shifting uncomfortably in the saddle.
‘Sore?’ Arthur asks smugly and Merlin shoots him a withering look.
‘Insensitive bastard,’ he mutters.
‘Take it like a man,’ Arthur tells him.
Merlin snorts. ‘Next time,’ he says, ‘you’ll be the one ‘taking it’ and then we’ll see what you have to say.’
Arthur laughs and his eyes are wicked.
It’s easy to let the morning light soothe their worries away and leave their confessions to the dark intimacy of night. The sun is bright in the blue sky, hovering blindingly above the horizon. In front of them the road winds on forever through rolling hills and the gentle dip of valleys, the barest glint of sunlight on water in the distance; behind them they leave the remnants of a kingdom-that-might-have-been, a ruin wearing slowly away into nothing – ten years down the line and there might be nothing left at all.
Merlin feels it like an ominous weight at his back. He looks at the extra set of reins looped around his wrist and the three riderless horses in their wake and decides that maybe Arthur had a point there in the quiet evening, framed between the scrape of stone from a dying era and the warm hands of a tangible prince; destiny will not fall willingly into their lap: it is a fickle creature that demands to be mastered.
He looks over at Arthur and grins. ‘Come on,’ he calls, ‘I’ll race you to the ford!’
‘Don’t be such a child, Merlin,’ Arthur says with regal disdain, but in the next moment he’s spurring his mount to a gallop with a shout, the two horses in his care surging forward with him.
‘You dirty cheat!’ Merlin shouts after him and sets his heels to his own mare. The nudge of a whispered spell and he closes the gap to draw level with Arthur. The wind whips through his hair and lashes across his face as the landscape flashes by in a smear of green. The air is startlingly cold in his lungs compared to the heat of the animal between his thighs, the strong bunch and flex of muscle, the effortless power of each stride as its hooves thunder over the dirt road. He glances over and sees Arthur, spots of colour on his cheeks and fire in his eyes, leaning intently forward over his horse’s neck as he urges it on to greater speed; Merlin laughs, exhilaration like the rush of magic wild in his veins.
They will return with news of Peredur, Caherdin and Derrain – three more sons lost, three more lives paid in service to Camelot. Arthur will give his condolences to their families in person as he always does, and Merlin, as usual, will stand one step behind him and take his share in the responsibility of their loss. Arthur will talk of how bravely the knights fought and how valiant, how righteous they were; he will not say that they never stood a chance or that they fell screaming in a welter of blood and severed limbs at the claws of a sorcerous abomination.
The road back to Camelot is yet long before them, the sight of its high white walls still days away. Grim tasks lie in wait for them there but they will not hesitate or drag their feet in apprehension. Instead they race, hurtling down the road to chase the sinuous curve of the river far ahead, the would-be castle brooding lonely and abandoned against the horizon at their backs, standing sentinel over their dead. This is how it will be from now on, Merlin thinks: spitting defiance in the face of uncertainty, he and Arthur side by side, charging headlong into the future.