'Water!' Gwaine's delighted cry echoed through the forest, thick with relief. Around him, the other knights perked up, urging their horses forward to take in the tumbling cascade and the crystal-clear pool at its base. 'Last one in cooks dinner!'
'That'll be me, then,' Merlin muttered, shaking his head in wry amusement as the entire patrol practically fell out of their saddles and started stripping off their chainmail. Arthur at least allowed himself a bit more dignity, but with the midsummer twilight pressing down on them like hot velvet, even he could barely restrain himself from flinging himself into the river's cool embrace.
'Come on, Merlin!' he urged, shoving his hauberk in the saddlebag and peeling off the tunic beneath. Even topless, the air felt baked and close: sweltering in all the worst ways. 'You must be as miserable as the rest of us.'
'You'll be more miserable when the horses have all wandered off and you've got nothing to eat.' Merlin swung down from the saddle and took the reins of Arthur's gelding. He'd long abandoned his jacket and had rolled up the sleeves of his red tunic. No neckerchief bound his throat, leaving the pale stretch of his throat and the sweat-damp hollow at its base on display.
Arthur licked his lips, his next breath straining beneath his ribs as his throat ran dry. Yes, maybe it was for the best if Merlin didn't join them. Between the general tom-foolery and Gwaine's incessant flirting whenever Merlin got close, it might be a bit too much for Arthur's disposition to bear.
'All right, fine,' he acceded, rolling his eyes as Elyan whooped in delight, followed by the bright laughter of the other knights. 'Thank you, Merlin.'
He turned away, his hands on the laces of his breeches as he stripped them off and all but ran towards the pool, jumping in with the kind of reckless abandon he would never normally show. It was different here, though, on patrol with a handful of men he trusted with his life and had come to consider his best friends. They did not judge him from shedding the trappings of his station and revelling, however briefly, in the simple joys life had to offer.
They played like boys, splashing and ducking one another, treading water over the depths created by the falls barrelling over the small bluff. It was an idyllic retreat after a gruelling patrol, and by the time they emerged panting and cool at last to dry off and dress, the smell of stew wafted through the air.
How Merlin had made camp so quickly on his own, Arthur could never guess. He had long ago suspected his servant's general ineptitude was little more than an act, so he could surprise Arthur with moments of dazzling competence such as this. The horses were groomed and chomping on oats, and the bedrolls had been spread. Merlin had cleared away the leaf litter, dry like kindling, before digging a fire-pit the better to prevent embers sparking off a forest fire. The cauldron lay upon glowing coals, bubbling and steaming and smelling as good as any feast that graced the royal table.
'Merlin, you are a gift from the gods!' Gwaine enveloped him in a bare-chested hug, ruffling his hair as Merlin laughed and shoved him playfully away. 'What would we do without you?'
'Starve, probably, if we had to rely on Leon's cooking,' Elyan laughed.
'As if you're any better.' Leon grabbed the bowls from one of the packs on Merlin's request, accepting his fair share of dinner eagerly.
They settled in a loose circle, chatting and laughing amongst themselves. More than once, Arthur caught himself sneaking glances at Merlin. If he had looked hot and bedraggled before, time spent tending a warm dinner had only made things worse. Now the heat flushed the crest of his cheeks a wanton red and his dark hair clung to the nape of his neck. His loose tunic stuck to his skin, hinting at the shape of the lithe form beneath.
Perhaps it was the summer warmth making Arthur feel like this. The air, heavy and fecund, turning his mind to the thought of cool sheets and a hot body beneath his own. Merlin had never been that with him, although palace rumour had said otherwise from almost the moment Merlin came into his service. He never lay at Arthur's side and chased away the darkest hours of the night with long kisses and the press of lean limbs.
Arthur swallowed, knowing he could never ask for such things. Merlin had gone from being an irritation to a stalwart companion. Against all the odds, he had become the one person in all of Camelot that Arthur considered his truest and best friend. Yet for all that Merlin had come to mean to him, Arthur could never be certain how much of Merlin's own feelings were rooted in obligation. He was a servant, and while Merlin had never shown even a hint of propriety and respect when it came to rank, Arthur still could not shake the notion that Merlin might be acting out of duty, rather than anything like sentiment.
No, if Merlin ever came to Arthur's bed, it would be because it was what Merlin himself wanted. It could never be any other way, and so Arthur was left to admire him from afar, spending heady summer days half-breathless with the sharpness of his own longing.
The evening swept on around them, the candlemarks passing in laughter and jest. If anyone noticed Arthur's preoccupation, they did not mention it. He had a dozen excuses lined up ready, but no one seemed to begrudge him his distracted tranquillity.
Merlin tidied up after dinner, kicking soil over the embers to stifle the fire. Through the leaf-decked canopy of the woods, the moon shone bright and strong, etching the world in an unearthly white light as one-by-one, the knights settle onto their bed rolls and sought out their slumber.
Arthur tried to do the same, but he found his gaze drawn back to Merlin as he settled the horses in for the night, stroking along their flanks with quick, competent hands, oblivious to hi audience.
With a nod of satisfaction, Merlin stepped back, his body poised on the brink of some unknown decision. He looked like a deer about to take flight, Arthur realised, all subtle tension and consideration before he turned away from the camp, slipping off between the trees.
Heading for the waterfall and the blissful pool at its base.
Arthur swallowed, biting his lip as his imagination ran riot. Merlin no doubt wanted to bathe in peace and privacy. He deserved it, after the day they'd had. Yet even as Arthur argued with himself, he could feel the inevitability of his own decision.
It was not safe to be alone. Even this close to Camelot, there were bandits and beasts alike in the woods, and Merlin had no weapon to his name: no sword to save his hide should he need it. Anything could happen to him, and they would be none the wiser until they woke up in the morning to find him gone.
His excuses rang hollow in his own ears, but Arthur shouldered aside the slick feeling of his guilt. He crept from his bedroll, reaching for his sword where it stood sheathed in the earth and pulling it free as he followed Merlin's meandering path through the forest.
The dull roar of the waterfall grew with each step, and the air filled with a thin mist that sparkled in the moonlight. Merlin's clothes were a slick of fabric left out of reach of the water, red and brown on the forest floor.
Arthur hesitated, knowing he should call out: to at least tell Merlin he was there, not watching him but watching his back from whatever ills the forest might bring his way. Still, something held his tongue, capturing him in silence as he stood on the shore and stared.
The water lapped at Merlin's hips, its veils protecting his dignity even as the mists swirled around his body. Merlin was a man of contrasts, dark hair and white skin, but there in the moonlight he looked other-worldly and fey, brimming with a power Arthur didn't understand. He stood on a shelf of stone under the water, letting the cascade sluice down on his head and shoulders as it swirled in white, silken eddies around his form.
If Arthur didn't know better – didn't know Merlin's clumsiness and his faults – he would swear Merlin was not a man at all, but some sort of God or spirit given form: starlight itself made real and brought to earth.
Beautiful and untouchable.
Arthur sucked in a sharp breath, closing his eyes and pursing his lips as his body hummed with desire. Every fibre of his being ached to step forward, to make himself known and see what Merlin would do. To join him beneath the waterfall and kiss those slick lips, but he could not.
He could only turn his back and retreat to camp, his heart heavy with the knowledge of all that could never be his.