Title: From What I've Tasted of Desire (I Hold with Those Who Favor Fire)
: conclusivelead.
Fandom: Merlin.
Genre: Angst, AU, angst, romance, angst. Did I mention angst?
Rating: R.
Warnings: Vagueness, introspective, insinuated nonconsensual sex.
Word Count: ~2,500.
Challenge/Inspiration: Written for the reel_merlin challenge at LJ.

Summary: Loosely based on the film Moulin Rouge. When I say loosely, I mean loose-as-an-extra-large-shirt-on-Merlin-loose. "What will make me happy," Arthur says, stepping away from the warm siren call of Merlin's body and into the cold dark of the night that awaits him with Beiod, "does not matter anymore." - Uther wishes to ally Albion with a neighboring kingdom, but the price of the union is his son's freedom. Arthur knows he cannot deny Beiod, but he's not sure if he can deny Merlin, either.

Notes: Is the plot completely improbably? Yes. Is it half as long as it should be? Probably. But Real Life decided to be a bitch throughout the entirety of the writing of this fic, hence is terseness. This is a very introspective fic. I know, all I do is character studies, but I couldn't resist. Also, this is probably the angsty-est thing I've ever written, which is a lot coming from the Queen of Angst. You've been warned. .

From What I've Tasted of Desire (I Hold with Those Who Favor Fire)
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I've tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.

I. - "The difference between sex and love is that sex relieves tension and love causes it." – Woody Allen

Arthur is burning.

The hands that hold his tunic are pale and long-fingered. Despite the annoyed look on Merlin's face, he is never anything but gentle and helpful when assisting Arthur in the mornings.

Arthur knows that Merlin has every reason to refuse subservience, but he never does. Merlin gets the brunt of every ill emotion Arthur experiences – anger at his knights, annoyance with Morgana, anything and everything. Every unhappy thought or disturbing dream drive him to lash out, and Merlin is always there, either to help or hinder.

And, Arthur admits silently as Merlin's careful fingers smooth the fabric as it settles across his shoulders (rush of warmth), he does much more helping than hindering in the long run. Sometimes he will be biting and snappy and refuse to take any of Arthur's arrogance, but he is usually more interested in making things right, and in making Arthur see how to best accomplish this.

Merlin makes his way round to stand in front of Arthur and tuck in his tunic. His long fingers quickly and efficiently push the white fabric past the waist of Arthur's pants, and even though they are in, out, gone and moving away, Arthur feels his heart crawl into his throat as Merlin's hand moves through the cloth of the tunic against his skin.

Push in, out, on to the side – it's neatly folded and tucked in, and there is a stirring (more and more heat) in his belly that he very much wishes would go away.

Merlin works from back to front, doing his best to ensure that the shit will stay tucked in all day and inadvertently driving Arthur absolutely crazy. Push, pull, tuck, straighten – it's a simple, familiar routine, and Arthur tries to swallow around the lump in his throat as familiar (burning) feelings crash through him.

"You dine with the Lord of Mercia tonight, don't you?"

It's the last thing that Arthur wants to talk about, but Merlin pauses in his activity and looks up at his master expectantly.

"Y-yes," he replies, swallowing once more. "The king has requested it."

Merlin begins tucking again, hands moving more slowly. He opens his mouth, a question seemingly on the tip of his tongue, but then his lips shut and he shakes his head silently, looking as though he very much wants to ask it anyway.

Arthur watches Merlin's face as it journeys through an interesting string of emotions – curious, resigned, mischievous, impatient, and then back to curious.

Merlin sees Arthur watching him and gives him a small smile, lips upturned and beckoning. Arthur smiles back, but his eyes are empty.

After a few more seconds, Arthur's tunic is completely tucked in, and Merlin moves away to the table to give his boots a quick polish.

The prince settles stiffly into a chair, watching Merlin's back, studying the scratchy brown material of his jacket as it stretches awkwardly across his thin shoulders. The blue of the neckerchief peeking over the collar of the brown jacket is in stark contrast with Merlin's fair skin, and Arthur contemplates dragging his tongue across the skin there, tasting…

"I'm meant to sleep with him."

He's not sure what makes him say it. It's out before he can give it a second thought, and he doesn't regret it, not really, but he's not sure how Merlin will react – and maybe that's what makes him say it in the first place.

He says it very casually, as casually as if commenting on the weather or something equally miniscule.

For a minute, maybe Merlin thinks he is talking about the weather, because he continues rubbing at the leather boots with a rag, shoulders shaking with the movement, but then – stillness. He stands there, frozen, and Arthur studies the tension that is clenching in his arms, shoulders, neck. He watches the blood pulse through a vein in Merlin's neck, white skin gone even paler.

"Sorry?" Merlin's voice cracks.

"I'm meant to sleep with Lord Beiod. You know." Arthur leans back in the chair, crossing his legs and folding his hands in his lap. He needs the illusion of composure. "Sex."

Even from this angle, Arthur can see him swallow. His fingers tighten, knuckles white, and he is calm. Completely calm.

"Sex," Merlin repeats bluntly, turning to look at his prince. Twin spots of color are high in his cheeks, and the blond man resists the urge to touch the other's face, to run his fingers down those cheeks.

He wonders if the skin is as soft as it looks, wonders if those cheeks would be hot. Wonders what Merlin would say, what he would do.

"Yes, Merlin, sex," Arthur says, staring at him. "Apparently it's a clause of the contract the King has agreed to."

Merlin's skin grows even more mottled at Arthur's words. The prince struggles to continue to appear calm as Merlin's dark brow furrows, impossibly blue eyes wide – enraged.

"What kind of sick joke is this, Arthur?" Merlin asks, voice quiet but Arthur can see the desperation, the anger, the hurt. He tells himself that there is nothing there, just disgust, but he sees it. The pain is blazing plainly in those blue, blue eyes, reaching out to him and stabbing at his gut with all the agonizing intensity of a knife between the ribs.

"No joke," he replies, swinging around in the chair so that his back rests against one arm and his legs dangle over the other. He looks away from Merlin, no longer able to look at the repressed something in his servant's eyes. "As far as I can tell, it's a completely serious order of business. Father-" the word is harsh, hard with unspoken emotion "-seems compelled to brush it off as part of a fair deal, I suppose. Camelot gets peace and Beiod gets…me."

There is silence now - loud, ringing silence that is heavy with unspoken words and unshared desires and even though all Arthur wants is to press his face into the slope of Merlin's neck and slide his hands around that slender waist, he says nothing, does nothing, and tries to convince himself that he feels nothing.

The quiet drags on and on, turning into the few feet between them into a ravine, into miles and miles and miles and Merlin has those questions, that pain, written visibly in his features, but Arthur is loyal to his king and to his country and says, "It's not any business of yours, Merlin. Bring me my boots."

Blue eyes rage, but Arthur ignores them, ignores Merlin's visible pain and disbelief and turns away, trying to ignore his own, too.

II. - "Sex is the last refuge of the miserable." – Quentin Crisp

It is unbelievable – sad and wrong in the way it's sad and wrong when a child is too curious to mind his mother and the parent looks at their child and asks, "What's wrong with you?" in a way that completely destroys that natural, innocent curiosity forever.

It is shameful, unfair, unbelievable.

"I don't understand." Merlin's voice is insistent, desperate, straining. He leans forward in the dim light of the candle. "I thought you didn't know."

Arthur doesn't look imperious, pulled-together, or haughty – for the first time since Merlin began to work under the prince, Arthur is looking decidedly un-princely.

"I did know," he replies softly, candlelight reflecting in his dark, watchful eyes. "I do know."

"I…I don't…understand." Merlin huddles against the wall, arms draped across his knees and shoulders hunched up around his ears. "I thought that…"

"You thought what?" Arthur asks, pulling off his gloves. He places them on the table beside his jacket and begins untying his tunic strings. Merlin scrambles to his feet, attempting to assist him, but Arthur swats his hands away. He forces himself to be hard, to be emotionless, to be a blank slate with no feelings or sympathies. He is still; he cannot be read. "That I would be unwilling? Beiod's agreement to peace depends upon this, Merlin. I…" He allows his eyes to shut. "I must do what is best for Camelot and her people. I will do what is best."

"Best?" It's a question, but it somehow doesn't sound like that. It sounds more like a reproof; it's as though Merlin is indirectly scoffing at him. "And…and what about what is best for you?"

The question is quiet, dark, full of unspoken intention. Soft fingertips trace barely-there patterns against Arthur's cheekbone, movement, contact, that is almost nonexistent.

Breathe in, breathe out.

His eyes open, icy and cold. Merlin sees it, but doesn't move away. When the dark-haired young man exhales, it is shaky and barely controlled.

"What about what will make you happy?" It's a whisper so silent that Arthur must rely on the feel of Merlin's lips at his ear to confirm the words, the meaning.

For a few seconds, Arthur is drawn into fantasies of what might be, of what could be, of what he wants to be. He wants so much – to feel content in his imperfection, for one. He wants to feel free to show himself for who he is, to allow Prince Arthur of Camelot to fade into the background and give just Arthur free reign.

He wants to show Merlin just how much he appreciates the consistency of his presence, that he doesn't just need him around, he wants to need him around. There's a distinction between the two that he's not sure even he comprehends, but he can feel it, feel the difference between understanding that he wants and needs the best manservant and understanding that he wants and needs Merlin.

He needs Merlin to always be by his side, to be there in the mornings when he wakes up and can't properly locate anything in the dark without a guiding hand and a cold splash of water to the face; he wants him to be there when he takes his meals, to eat with him, to keep him company; and he wants him there in the night, to help him undress and so, so much more.

But these are just fantasies, desires for a future that cannot and will not come to pass, and Arthur only pains himself in allowing these hopes.

"What will make me happy," Arthur says, stepping away from the warm siren call of Merlin's body and into the cold dark of the night that awaits him with Beiod, "does not matter anymore."

He leaves.

III. - "Isn't it interesting how the sounds are the same for an awful nightmare and great sex?" - Rue McClanahan

Beiod's hands are too hot on his back.

They rip – nails dig, tearing, scraping against the knobs in his spine and sending white-hot pain across his skin.

It's strange how he concentrates on the pain at the base of spine and between his shoulder blades. It's not the worst of the pain he is currently experiencing; in fact, it's probably the least of it.

There is tearing in other places, in far more sensitive places, but all Arthur can feel is the stinging burn of drop after drop of sweat falling into the torn skin between those big, gripping fingers.

He's vaguely aware of movement above him, below him, inside him. There is heat of skin against the back of his thighs; that is such an intimate place, and in Arthur's experience the feel of skin on skin in such a place would be a comforting, loving, welcome.

It is not so right now. He wants to pull away, but there are fingers holding him in place, gripping along and between his ribcage, dragging through the skin against the bone there.

Arthur's skin is hot, but he's not sure if it's from the strain or the humiliation. He wants to cover his face, to hide the pain from Beiod and himself and for a second he imagines everyone he knows and cares about is standing in the room, watching – disgusted.

He sees his father, refusing to watch. His face is dark, closed off, much like it was when Arthur was first informed of Beiod's terms.

Bile rises at the back of Arthur's throat, and he realizes that Beiod is grunting, moaning above him, whispering things against his ear that strike at his pride.

He sees Morgana, hand against her mouth as though she, too, is nauseous. Her eyes are wide, dark brow furrowed. Her face is white - appalled.

He gags.

Finally, he sees Merlin. Blue eyes are dark, pained, betrayed.

His eyes water. Nothing comes up – his stomach is empty – but he keeps gagging, retching over and over and over. With a stunted groan, Beiod reaches his peak and it dimly registers when he pulls out and away.

Then he sees nothing.

IV. - "Sex is a momentary itch; love never lets you go." – Kingsley Amis

When morning dawns, Arthur is unable to take any pleasure in the ending of it.

It doesn't feel like it's over, but it is. Beiod is nowhere to be seen.

As per the agreement between the Lord of Mercia and his father, he is gone as soon as the cock begins to crow.

Arthur peels himself from the bed and wraps one blanket around his waist. The air is sharp, cold, biting at his flushed skin harshly. The other he wraps around his shoulders, huddling, trying to draw comfort from the warmth. But it only reminds him of what happened, and he throws it away, shivering furiously.

He can't believe how freezing he is.

It is early enough that not even the servants are awake. He scampers through the hallway, ridiculous but not caring. He manages to make it to his room without being seen. The door opens easily. He slams it shut and leans forward to rest his forehead against the tarnished wood.

The closing door causes a draft that raises goose bumps along his bare legs and arms. He shudders.

"Should I fetch some clothes?"

The words are cold, colder than the air against his skin. The voice burns him, but in an entirely different way than usual. It is an icy burn, one that starts in his cheeks and spreads down the length of his body into his frozen, frozen toes.

He turns to see Merlin standing near the chair in front of the fireplace, much as he is every morning.

Those blue, blue eyes are no longer burning. They don't spark, they don't flare, they…nothing.

Arthur is so cold.

But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
- "Fire and Ice" by Robert Frost