Actions

Work Header

Ascension

Work Text:

Stillness thinned the air of Uther Pendragon’s chamber, only fractured by the King’s unsteady breath and Arthur’s own nervous shift in the chair at his bedside.

“What does the physician say?” Uther asked, his eyes closed against the daylight streaming in through the windows.

Arthur leaned back, fighting the urge to reach for his father’s hand. The gesture would not be appreciated, and he didn't think he could stomach his father's contempt just now, in this rare moment of perfect clarity. “Gaius is working to determine if the illness is magical in nature.”

A muscle in his father’s jaw twitched and Arthur held his breath, trying hard not to sigh in frustration. Magic was to blame for nearly every direct attack on his father, yet magic seemed the only hope to ward off or thwart the same attacks.
Though no one dared to throw it in the King’s face, it was obvious that the banning of magic and persecution of sorcerers seemed the sole motivation of each and every attempt on their lives.

Uther pressed his hands to the sides of his head, his eyes closed. “Has he a course of treatment in mind?”

Reaching into his tunic, Arthur withdrew the vial of sedating liquid, setting it on the bedside cabinet. “He said this will help you sleep, father. I assure you he is working through the night, and I will personally assist him, My Lord, as will Merlin.” Arthur bowed his head. “Father, I-”

Uther breathed out with obvious impatience. “You should take this opportunity, Arthur, if you need to speak with me. This is no time for hesitation or timidity.”

Arthur drew in a deep breath. “I’m not prepared, Father. I’m not ready.”

Uther’s eyes opened and he seemed on the verge of saying something, but turned his head away.

“I feel as though all of Camelot is watching to see what I’ll do next, to see if I can fill your shoes and I know I can’t.” Arthur paused, regretting the words as soon as they passed through his lips. Unable to take them back, he shook his head and tried to smile. “Perhaps I’m over-reacting.”

Uther positively glared and Arthur felt even worse, something he hadn’t thought possible.

“I have done almost nothing but dedicate myself to preparing you for the throne. You will take it, Arthur, when the time comes. By the laws of the Kingdom, if I am incapable of ruling for longer than a full moon cycle, I must permanently abdicate the throne and you will be crowned King of Camelot.”

Arthur’s chest felt as though it was caving in and he couldn’t draw breath. He stood, desperate for escape. He nodded once, and turned to go, but a hand closed loosely on his wrist. Though the weakness of his father’s grip made him sick with fear, he did not dare pull away from it.

“You must separate your... every emotion from your task. You will complete the Rites of Ascension and be wholly prepared to take this monarchy from me, son.” His father was adamant, but completely defeated. Arthur never imagined it would be he who usurped his own father.

“I will do as you ask, of course, though I’m sure you will recover.” Arthur closed his hand over his father’s. “I will not let you down, Father.”

“You will do this for Camelot, not for me, Arthur. Your motivation and first priority must be the kingdom.”

His spine straightened at the callous order, but he realized the practicality behind his father’s advice at once. “Yes, Sire.”

 

***

 

“I've nearly got it!” Merlin leaned precariously off one side of a ladder, fingers just brushing the book he was after, the library’s shelving a tad too tall for his usually ample reach. He glanced down, seeing only Gaius far below him, nose deep in the pages of yet another book, surrounded by stacks of the tomes they’d painstakingly searched through all day.

Freeing just a trickle of the power that continually thrummed beneath the surface of his skin, he summoned the book to himself wordlessly. He absolutely loved casting silently, a trick he’d been perfecting late at night in his rooms.

A sneeze caught him off guard - damn the dust - and the book missed his outstretched hand, hitting him forcefully square in the chest, knocking the breath out of his lungs. Four other books rushed along with the first, all of them falling like lead bricks toward Gaius’ startled, upturned face.

Merlin snapped the words out, froze the books as quickly as he could in the air above his mentor’s head, stripped the excess of power away and glided them to the work surface just as he lost his balance and toppled off the ladder. He held fast to the text and landed with a grunt and shock of pain along his spine and tailbone, the latter taking the brunt of the fall. Just as he handed the book up to Gaius and reached back to rub the stinging hip, Arthur rounded the corner. Yet another reminder that his secret and Arthur were only ever a hair’s breadth apart.

“He can’t be helping you,” Arthur laughed out, reaching down for a fistful of Merlin’s tunic, yanking him to his feet.

Merlin couldn’t think of a retort, not when he was still reeling from the shock of the fall. He grabbed onto Arthur’s shoulder and forearm for balance, the palms of his hands smarting as though he’d held them too close to a flame. He didn’t let go until Arthur did; a nod of thanks all he could manage.

Gaius turned back to his stacks, flipping open one of the books Merlin had nearly dropped on his head. “He’s more useful than he looks. It was Merlin who found the court physician’s medical records from the last three centuries when neither Geoffrey nor I could do so.”

Merlin turned back to right the ladder, which didn’t truly need straightening, but Arthur was looking at him again and Merlin’s face was flushing hotly.

“We’re doing all we can to find the cure, but you must prepare yourself, Sire. It pains me to say, but...” Gaius took a deep breath, his brow furrowed. “The King may be lost to us.”

Arthur’s eyes flared with anger and determination. “We will not give up on him.” He looked to Merlin, who nodded quickly, unable to think of anything to say.

“Clarity tonics and sedatives will only delay the dementia, I’m afraid. The King realizes this and has sent word to change our course.” Gaius glanced at the gilded manuscript at the end of the table, its title clearly visible to Arthur.

Rites of Ascension

Arthur huffed and rested a hand on his sword hilt. “Yes, well. My father is not himself at present, as you know, Gaius. His judgment is not to be-” Arthur closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

It was clear the Prince was having a hard time speaking of his father’s illness. Merlin took the next deep breath with him, willing him strength.

“His judgment is somewhat impaired,” Arthur finished, looking from Gaius to Merlin and back again as if daring one of them to respond. “We will continue researching a cure.”

“As you wish, My Lord.” Gaius nodded, his expression weary.

“We shall have to rely on your expertise and Merlin’s dumb luck, then, shan’t we?” Arthur grinned, but shook his head. “Gaius, truly, I have every faith that you - without the distraction of Merlin here - will be able to find a solution.”

Merlin looked up at that. “Surely I can do more good helping Gaius than mucking out your stables, can’t I?” He smiled, but at Arthur’s frown, he added, “I mean, don’t you think, Sire?”

“You will attend me this evening.” Arthur turned to go. He paused at the archway to the main room of the library with his head turned slightly over his shoulder in what Merlin recognized was a final summons before Arthur would be beyond polite requests. “I need to think.”

He should probably find a compliment in the juxtaposition, as if Arthur couldn’t think without Merlin attending him, but Arthur was far too used to roughing it with his knights to let himself be distracted by a cold room or lack of food. Merlin hadn't a clue why Arthur would insist on him being there, other than his uncanny ability to ward off other servants with his presence.

Merlin sighed and nodded. “Fine. I’ll only be a moment. I need to speak with Gaius.” He turned back to his uncle as Arthur left the room.

He reached under the table to the seat of a chair and pulled out his book of magic, flipping to a page he’d suddenly remembered seeing whilst studying locking charms. He wasn’t sure if it would work on books as well as doors and trunks, but it was worth a shot.

Ducking his head in close as if whispering, he lifted the book Gaius had been reading. “When I saw the actual lock on this other book,” he gestured at the tome that had made him fall, “I remembered this unlocking charm that might just... Lochsier, revelous Thevellus Pendragon medicino.

His vision flared gold and he knew his eyes did too, for Gaius was holding his breath, something he always did when Merlin cast in front of him, as though after 20-odd years without practicing it, magic made him nervous.

He quickly drew the book closer to their huddled bodies as the pages flew open, flicking by. Merlin glanced over his shoulder in alarm, but Arthur was gone.

The book stretched itself open midway, its spine cracking and the pages rustling to silence again.He looked down and saw the name he'd been searching for.

“There. We couldn’t see it before because it had a stubborn guarding spell on it - that’s ironic, isn’t it - but here it is, Thevellus’ medical record. Look, the Pendragon crest-” He pointed to a tiny shield in the upper corner of the manuscript’s ornate border. There was the stylized lion, the colours an exact match to the family shield. “Madness, and... suicide. Gaius, what if this isn’t some curse? What if it’s in the Pendragon line? We have to do something. I’ll be back as soon as I can get Arthur settled.”

Gaius sighed deeply. “Merlin, he is a young man likely about to lose his father and the only family he has left in this world while in the same instant becoming King of a divided land. It is understandable that he should need a friend by his side.”

Merlin smirked and stared at the book. “Then I should fetch one of the knights. I’m only a servant, after all.” At Gaius’ reproachful look, Merlin’s half-smile fell to a frown. “Listen to me. We will find a cure.”

The old man shook his head, but Merlin interrupted him before he could tell him again how hopeless the situation was.

“Don’t give up.” Merlin caught his eyes and waited until his mentor sighed. “Please, Gaius. He cannot lose Uther - not that way. I can’t imagine what it would do to him.”

Gaius put a hand on his shoulder, squeezing, and Merlin’s eyes stung as he thought of Arthur standing over his father's empty throne. “I know, Merlin.”

He nodded and attempted to smile. “I’ll bring him back with me, then. You are worn to rags already.”

Gaius scoffed and shook his head.

“Er... no offense intended,” Merlin said quickly; he hadn’t meant to insult his uncle.

“None taken, my boy,” Gaius laughed. “I am quite sure I am in desperate need of the bathhouse and a mattress, and in that order.”

Merlin slung his satchel over his shoulder, tucking the gilded book of Rites inside. “I can study it if Arthur sleeps. Just in case. It’s not as if he won’t eventually need to have the Rites completed anyhow.” He glanced away at Gaius’ knowing look. He refused to let doubt creep in and take over. “Send word if you find something, and I’ll convince him to return with me - tell him an evil sorcerer has conjured a murderous book or something.” Merlin sighed. “Honestly, this time I actually hope it is Morgana.”

Mer lin! Now!” Arthur ’s voice carried even better than usual along the arching ceilings of the library.

“If you leave, don’t forget my book. I mustn’t take it to Arthur’s rooms.” With a nod from Gaius, Merlin went.

He caught up quickly, not bothering to check his long strides to stay a few feet behind Arthur’s, though he knew all too well it was expected of him inside the citadel. The castle was quiet, the hallways all but empty in the late hours, but presuming to match step with Arthur usually earned him a smirk at the least.

The prince didn’t so much as raise an eyebrow when their shoulders bumped together as they climbed the stairs. Arthur didn’t notice or call him out on his impertinence. It was unsettling to see him so distracted. After all, insulting Merlin was one of his favourite pastimes.

 

***

 

Tea was laid out as royally as Merlin could manage, with the honey he routinely forgot present and accounted for, but Arthur hadn’t noticed, nor was he drinking the cup Merlin had poured.

He was pacing.

Merlin busied himself, tidying up the chamber, stoking the fire in the hearth and turning down Arthur’s bed. He would pay good coin for a bossy, “Hurry up, Merlin” or a sharp, “Stop fussing about!” but Arthur just kept walking, arms in a tight knot across his chest, head bowed.

He’d asked twice if the prince wished to bathe, but Arthur wasn’t likely to answer when he was so pre-occupied, so Merlin began heating the water and filling the tub anyway, the clink of the bucket handle and splash of the water soothingly familiar.

He pushed aside the tray of scented oils that somehow reappeared every time Merlin disposed of it. It was the maids’ idea of pampering, to be sure, but certainly not his or Arthur’s.

Arthur preferred the rough grit of the bar soap Merlin had assumed everyone used. He brought it in with the bathing towels his first day as servant and Arthur never complained, so he stocked the supply armoire with it whenever the housekeepers made up a new batch.

It was good for the trail, too: nothing breakable about a cake of soap.

He pushed his shirtsleeves up above his elbows, rested his forearms on the side of the tub and turned the soap in the damp cloth, looking up to watch Arthur still wearing a groove in the oak floor with his scuffed boots.

Merlin stood, the soap and cloth set aside, and reached for Arthur’s shoulders to stop him on his next pass by. “The water’s ready.”

Arthur nodded, his eyes focused on the wall beyond Merlin as Merlin waited.

Arthur didn’t often ask for help disrobing. He generally held to the notion that only ladies needed that degree of attention. His armour, some of his practice gear, the occasional dress jacket, sure. Those he expected Merlin to help him on and off with, but today’s simple breeches and tunic were nothing Merlin had ever handled while they were still on Arthur’s person. He’d picked them up off the floor often enough, of course, but to remove them himself, this was new.

“Do you wish me to-” Merlin’s hands made an abortive gesture at the closure of the crimson tunic, a simple tie that honestly didn’t truly need undoing. “Arthur?”

He just sighed and waved a hand in the air absently, still not looking at Merlin. “Yes, yes, fine.”

Merlin bit his lip and pulled the laces free, stoically ordering his libido to disconnect entirely from his body and let him get through this with as much respect as the situation commanded.

He clutched the hem of the tunic, his fingertips fairly tingling as they brushed along Arthur’s sides. Arthur lifted his arms in the air as Merlin tugged the top off over his head; Merlin had to go up on tiptoes for a second, but he managed it fairly smoothly.

His face burned and he turned his back abruptly under pretence of folding and discarding the tunic when Arthur’s hands dropped to work the laces of his trousers. Thank goodness Arthur wasn’t so distracted he expected Merlin to take care of that, too.

Merlin poured more heated water into the tub, slid the bearskin rug closer by, turned to the cabinet to retrieve two folds of linen and only looked back when he heard the telltale slide of Arthur’s body into the water, his long, soft sigh and the creak of the floor underneath as Arthur stretched out as much as the tub allowed.

The water was fogged with heat and a little soap, yet clear enough to bring a flush to Merlin's cheeks, though he truly couldn't see much. He averted his eyes, reaching for the cloth and dipping it in the water at Arthur’s feet.

He’d never been this involved in Arthur’s bathing, not since the time when Arthur had been too ill to clean himself. There hadn’t been a tub involved, though, or so much skin. He’d only done what cleaning he could as Arthur laid in Gaius’ sick bed.

And then there had been the time Arthur lay dying on the forest floor.

That time, Merlin’s mind had been on anything but Arthur’s nudity as he’d sponged the wound left by the woodsman’s arrow, desperately casting whatever healing spells he could think of, applying foul-smelling poultices and praying, cursing, even shaking Arthur. He’d touched Arthur then, not as a servant or... as he’d guiltily wished, but he’d lost all inhibition and sense of propriety. Knowing he was about to lose Arthur, he hadn’t been able to help himself, truly.

He’d taken only the barest of liberties, but it was more than he’d ever dared, more than he knew Arthur would ever allow.

While Arthur lay unconscious and dying, Merlin had slapped his cheek, smoothed his hair, propped Arthur’s head on his lap when night fell. He’d wrapped arms around Arthur, wishing he could strip him of his mail to be that much closer. He’d held Arthur all night, periodically pressing his cheek to Arthur’s to check his temperature, which had risen as the hours passed.

His skin remembered every one of those touches now that he was feeling Arthur again, though this was a decidedly different experience, with a healthy, conscious Arthur and the sharp, clean scent of soap filling the air.

It seemed such a basic, sensible thing to have a second set of hands when one bathed. As awkward as it might be to be seen so completely naked, he could only imagine how wonderful it would feel to have your feet lifted and washed, one at a time, to have your every aching muscle pulled out into relaxation by a soft, slippery cloth gliding along them.

Or hands. He could imagine hands, everywhere.

He pushed up his sleeves as they slipped down, reaching into the tub and picked up Arthur’s leg, his fingers circling under Arthur’s ankle to support it. The slippery cloth silk against his palm, Merlin closed his eyes and memorized the warm slide of Arthur’s skin just on the other side of that cloth as he began to wash him.

Arthur groaned as Merlin ran the cloth around the back of his heel, up the sole of his foot, scrubbed across the pads of his toes. Merlin's fingers made it up to the back of Arthur’s knee before his cowardice overcame him, anything higher too much temptation and he moved, switching to the other foot. That drew an equally impressive noise of appreciation and no protest, so he continued.

“You have no idea how that feels,” Arthur moaned.

Merlin guessed he would have said it, even if he had been thinking clearly and realized just how true it was. Obviously, they both knew that Merlin would never have had the opportunity to be pampered like this.

Merlin didn’t respond, but when he shifted up the side of the tub to take Arthur’s hand, he paused, waiting for Arthur to open his eyes, to give him a dismissive look or curt word.

When none came, Merlin took a deep breath, then left the cloth hanging on the ornate edge of the tub. He wouldn’t do this by halves, not when Arthur was either desperate enough to practically ask him for it or so far gone he hadn’t noticed he’d been practically asking for it. Either way, Arthur needed him, and at the moment, Merlin could think of nothing to give but this.

He shook his head, fought the urge to say anything because whatever it was, it wouldn’t be the thing Arthur needed to hear.

He only needed to hear that his father would live, that the illness was cured, that Gaius puzzled it out and fixed everything before coming to tell them.

But any reassurances Merlin could give would fall on deaf ears, and besides, Arthur finally seemed to be calming a bit in the bath.

Merlin bit his lip, hoping his fears were unfounded and this was just another bath to do just that: sooth a savage beast.

Truth be told, Merlin winced at the thought, this was likely Arthur’s last bath as Crown Prince. His next might be attended by Gods knew how many servants, and none of them Merlin.

Merlin knew they were accustomed to each other, thought Arthur even liked him most of the time, but he still couldn’t shake the fear that he would be relegated to a minor attendant when Arthur became King, reduced to almost nothing in Arthur’s daily life. He feared he wasn’t valuable enough yet, at least as far as Arthur knew, to be more to him.

He swallowed hard and blinked back too much emotion. Arthur didn’t need his selfishness on top of the grief; he needed only to be touched, to be distracted. And that much, Merlin thought, he could give.

He lifted Arthur's large hand - larger than his and that was saying something - and scraped his nail gently under each of Arthur’s, sure he was doing it crudely, but Arthur didn’t so much as flinch. He rubbed the lengths of every digit between his palm and fingers as he went, squeezing and pulling gently, pressing circles along each knuckle, moving slowly up to Arthur’s palm, to his wrist until Arthur’s entire hand was slack in his own.

Gods, how he wanted to bend his head and place his mouth on that wrist. It was so close and it was something he thought about, fixated on, whenever he caught a flash of wrist from under a cuff, saw Arthur draw on his gloves or spin his sword fluidly using only that flick of his wrist he was so famous for. His wrists were strong where Merlin’s were thin, the tendons standing out even in repose.

Sometimes in the still, blue night in the tower, he’d imagine Arthur there with him, the two of them tangled together on his small cot, Arthur’s arms around him. He’d close his eyes, bend his head and imagine the dizzy rush of freedom as he pressed his lips to Arthur’s wrist, his chest, his throat.

Merlin bit his lip and looked away, reached for the cloth again and ran it up the length of Arthur’s arm. “I’m going to keep going until you stop me.”

He’d meant it lightly, a sort-of joke to pull Arthur a little more into the present with him, but also as a warning, because while Arthur never prepared his own bath, he also never requested assistance like Merlin was giving him now.

Not that he was complaining. Gods, no.

Arthur’s mouth quirked and his eyes slit open to show the slightest bit of steel blue. “You stop and you’ll sleep in the stocks tonight, you have my word.”

Merlin grinned and shook his head. “Yes, Sire.”

That liberty granted, Merlin rewet the cloth and reached for the soap again, wincing as the back of his hand brushed against Arthur’s side. He slowly withdrew it, intent on keeping his eyes anywhere but beneath the water, wincing away from a reproach that never came. He lathered Arthur’s arm, circled his bicep slowly, rinsed the cloth out, lathered it up again.

Arthur’s chest rose with a deep breath and Merlin paused, the cloth dripping soap down Arthur’s shoulder, just over the ragged, silvery lines of the Questing Beast’s mark. “Um.”

“Get on with it. I won’t bite.” Arthur sounded half-asleep, and that was a very good thing.

It meant Merlin might have a chance to return to the library, to get back to work.

Back to work that wasn’t pleasure, and Merlin was at once in a hurry to go and adamantly decided against ever leaving Arthur’s bedchamber again.

Taking a deep breath to still his nerves, he scrubbed the cloth down Arthur’s broad chest to the waterline, forcing his hand to move slowly, to not rush in his embarrassment. There was no way Arthur could guess how much Merlin wanted this, how hard it was to separate himself from the half-accidental brush of his knuckles against the hard muscles of Arthur’s chest.

Arthur’s breathing grew deeper still and Merlin drew the cloth around again, slowly. He looked at Arthur's face, but Arthur had his eyes closed, his lips parted just a little, and Merlin took that as relaxation and permission in one. He trailed the cloth down below the water line, swiped over Arthur's stomach and up his side, across to the other side and up, then under Arthur’s chin, his throat, behind his ears and down his neck, gently urging Arthur to move forward with his other hand.

Arthur’s shoulder was wet and warm under his fingertips as Arthur leaned forward in the tub, ducking his head.

The firelight against Arthur's skin painted, long, inviting lines from Arthur’s neck down his broad back, but Merlin determinedly didn’t dip lower than the water line. He paused, rubbing slow circles over the place where Arthur would have had a scar if Taliesin hadn’t cast such a powerful spell.

He wished it had been his own magic that healed the wound. Though it was ridiculous even to him, he felt as though the smooth, unblemished skin there was a glaring reminder of his failure to protect Arthur.

A moan drew him back to awareness, Arthur’s head rising slightly as he spoke. “My back is all knots tonight, if you think you’re up to the task of working a few of them out.”

The wash rag slipped into the water as Merlin pressed his palms into the tight muscles of Arthur’s shoulders, eliciting a groan. Arthur leaned further forward in the tub, his back a smooth curve under Merlin’s kneading hands.

He kept his touch firm, but didn’t use his fingertips harshly as the knight-trainers tended to. He’d watched them carefully on occasion, knowing he might have to attend Arthur the same way while on campaign or a hunting trip someday. This wasn’t about treating a cramp or spasm, it was about Arthur relaxing.

And Arthur wasn’t laid out on the ground on some battlefield camp, he was in a gleaming copper tub, up to his chest in warm, soapy water and Merlin felt anxious about both his own reaction and about having no clue how to ask Arthur if the pressure was right, if he was finding the sorest places.

Just as he was about to ask, Arthur hummed his approval, sighing, “Perfect.”

Merlin took a deep breath of the warm, clean air. Truly, he knew what to do already, knew Arthur’s body almost as well as his own. He mightn’t have seen Arthur so thoroughly or all at once before now, but the Prince went about shirtless nearly every night and morning, and he’d had strained muscles before.

And Merlin could do this without letting his hormones run the show.

The knots under his fingertips were palpable, and it was easy enough to hear the deep noises of relief Arthur made when he pressed his knuckles in at just the right angle.

The sounds gave him confidence and filled him with something like pride. He was doing this, making Arthur feel better in the middle of this nightmare, giving him peace in chaos.

Still, it was impossible to not be affected by the smoothness of Arthur’s skin, by those low, satisfied moans, by the warmth radiating between his hands and Arthur’s body. It felt like magic thrumming between them, reflecting back and forth, building upon itself.

Merlin had bit his lip to soreness by the time he felt Arthur’s shoulders finally release their tension and Arthur shifted back in the tub again.

“Much better,” Arthur murmured. “Seems you’ve been paying attention.”

Merlin cupped his hands, scooping up the still-warm water, letting it flow down over Arthur’s back and shoulders. “I always do,” he whispered, not trusting his voice to be anything like steady.

Having lost the wash cloth somewhere in the water below, he trailed his open hand down Arthur’s other arm and smoothed his thumbs over the pulse point in his wrist, down the palm, opening the fingers.

He massaged Arthur’s left hand as he had the right, sure to clean under each fingernail and give each digit the attention he’d paid the others. He couldn’t resist touching all the way up the lines of muscle from wrist to shoulder, one hand smoothing over the scar from Kilgharrah’s talons, his other hand still literally holding Arthur’s hand as he silently cursed the dragon for ever having touched Arthur. All that talk of Merlin’s destiny being linked to Arthur’s, and with one swipe, he could have ruined everything.

Merlin paused, hands savouring the last calm, still moment of Arthur’s skin against his palms. He unconsciously squeezed the hand in his, then winced as he realized what he was doing, but Arthur seemed not to notice. Merlin squeezed again, quickly, and let go completely, setting Arthur’s hand on the edge of the tub.

He sat back on his heels and sighed. Gods, but Arthur was a vision. His hairline was damp with perspiration, his eyelids softly closed, lips parted as he drew in long, slow breaths, one after another.

Those breaths calmed Merlin as well, and he found himself matching them, breathing in sync with Arthur, who hummed in contentment as he rested bonelessly against the back of the tub, looking thoroughly sated.

That’s what someone’s hands- Arthur’s hands - would have done to him, too, he supposed. Perhaps more. Definitely more.

Merlin wiped his fingers dry on his trousers and reached to brush a fallen lock of hair from Arthur’s eyes.
Arthur’s face turned to press into his touch, and Merlin sucked in a breath, suddenly alarmingly aware of the boundaries he had crossed. He’d never touched him so intimately - not while Arthur was conscious. He hadn’t thought, he’d just reached out, and the bath was strangely liberating with Arthur so pliant and calm.His fingers froze, Arthur's cheek heating against his palm.

He was right to be cautious, for as soon as he’d stilled, those blue eyes snapped open and Arthur’s fingers closed hard over his wrist.

“Arthur, I-” He shivered, not knowing where the words were coming from, but they were little more than a whisper. The warm water streaming from Arthur’s hand down his own forearm and wetting his sleeve was just a goad to his nervousness. “Shall I wash your hair?”

Arthur’s hand fell from his wrist back to the tub’s edge, closing white-knuckled as he pulled himself forward again, his words echoing against the surface of the water beneath his bowed head. “Sorry, Merlin. You- caught me by surprise. Please, continue.”

Merlin went to the washstand for the pitcher and knelt at the end of the tub, filling the container with water from behind Arthur’s back. Silently casting a subtle warming spell, he dipped his hand in to make sure he hadn’t overdone it. The temperature was perfect. He was improving, or perhaps it was the motivation.

As gently as he could manage without seeming too cautious, he brushed his hand up Arthur’s shoulder and neck to warn him. “Tell me if the water is too warm.”

Arthur’s head came up then, eyes closed, chin tilting high, and Merlin realized he was meant to keep the water from pouring over the Prince’s face. How the nobility ever managed to clean themselves was beyond him.

He slid his hand into the blond hair, smoothing it away from Arthur’s forehead, then cupped his palm across as a barrier. Pouring the water slowly, he brushed his palm back over Arthur’s hair, following the flow of water with his fingers clear down to the nape of Arthur’s neck.

Merlin’s mother had done this for him once, when he was very ill. If he closed his eyes, he could still remember it, how he’d been able to feel how much she’d cherished him just through her touch.

His eyes had filled with tears at the flood of emotion then, and they did now, as he willed Arthur to feel him, to realize that Merlin would always be at his side, ready and willing to care for his every need, even something as mundane as this.

Arthur’s eyebrows rose and he moaned in pleasure, Merlin’s heart racing as he smiled and concentrated on letting his own deep emotions trickle to the surface and flow out through his fingertips. Is this how it was done? Could Arthur truly feel what he was feeling?

“Good God,” Arthur sighed and leaned back in the tub again, heedless of the water splashing on the stone floor and all over Merlin’s lap.

Merlin started but did his best to ignore the warm spread there, though it was somewhat grounding, which helped. It brought him solidly into the present, back to his task.

The same soap he’d washed Arthur’s body with seemed somehow inadequate for his hair, though it had always been good enough for Merlin’s.

Still, he wasn’t about to risk experimenting with the gaudily-coloured, pungent liquids the ladies had left. He reached for the bar of soap again and lathered his hands, pulling them slowly through Arthur’s hair, massaging the lather into his scalp from temples to the nape of his neck, then going back over it just for good measure.

“Keep your eyes closed.” Merlin bit his lip, wiped the suds from his hands on his legs - it hardly mattered, wet as his trousers already were - and reached for the pitcher, gently casting the same warming spell on the water again. “I’m going to rinse it now.”

Arthur gave a small nod and leaned slightly forward again, though not nearly as far as before. Merlin again lifted his guarding hand to shield Arthur’s closed eyes from the soap and let the water slowly pour over the Prince’s head.

When he heard Arthur’s hum of approval, he began stroking his hand back again, his fingers running through the hair this way and that to make sure it was completely clean. The warm water and slick soap flowed over the back of his hand, Arthur’s hair sliding through his fingertips. He slowly threaded them through one last time, then smoothed it from front to back and skimmed his fingers down Arthur’s neck.

If he didn’t stop there, he could all too easily slip beyond duty into something else, something that Arthur surely wouldn’t appreciate.

Sliding lazily forward, knees coming up out of the water and head settling back to the rim, Arthur sighed, hair dripping fat drops of water onto Merlin’s knees where they pressed against the tub.

When he set the pitcher again on the floor beside him, Merlin felt as drained as Arthur looked. His shoulders ached and his head was throbbing with all the carefully-concealed tension. Arthur, on the other hand, appeared absolutely relaxed, which was a rare and decidedly good thing, especially tonight.

Merlin sat back on his heels and stayed perfectly motionless, fighting the urge to rest his head alongside Arthur’s on the tub’s edge, unwilling to either break the peaceful quiet or risk another presumptuous invasion of Arthur’s personal space. He’d wager Arthur would be uncomfortable enough just knowing what Merlin had done already without the added humiliation of being quite so obviously adored by a servant.

He turned his face to the fire and blinked. Despite Arthur’s clear need for this coaxing into relaxation, Merlin felt clammy with guilt. How could he have enjoyed any situation that brought Arthur so low?

No. He hadn’t enjoyed the cause of Arthur’s distress, and he hadn’t precisely enjoyed the bath, either. He’d ached through every minute of it, just as he had when Arthur had been injured.

Along with the rather torturous thrill of touching, of being so close to Arthur and the desire he couldn’t quite quash as he let himself look, a humbling realization washed over him. Arthur hadn’t refused his touch, had even seemed to welcome it.

He jerked his eyes away. He needed to focus, and that could not happen half a foot away from Arthur’s bathing tub. He looked down at his own lap, a sodden mess where he’d been splashed, where Arthur’s hair was even now dripping on him, and sighed, pushing to his feet.

“There. Done. I’ll let you...er... finish up. Here.” Merlin handed him a fresh washing cloth and the bar of soap and quickly turned away, wordlessly casting a thorough drying charm at his legs and reaching to the bench for the lengths of linen Arthur would use to dry himself.

He could hear Arthur splashing and the rasping slide of the bar of soap along Arthur’s body. He dared just a glance over his shoulder before looking back to the fire. “Shall I return to Gaius after you're done bathing, or would you rather I-”

Merlin twisted around in alarm as Arthur abruptly stood, water rushing over the sides of the tub in waves. He snatched a cloth from Merlin and slapped the soap in Merlin’s empty hand.

Merlin kept his startled gaze fastened on Arthur’s shoulder as the Prince wiped his face and wrapped the towel around his hips.

“You’re to stay here with me, Merlin. Do you need a mandate from the King before you’ll get it through your thick skull?”

The words stung after such an - he wanted to think - intimate moment, but really, they shouldn’t have hurt. It was nothing to Arthur to be touched like that, he had probably always had someone bathe him before Merlin had shown up. They’d probably bathed him all over, too, and not once been grateful for the task as Merlin had been, wrong as he knew it was.

No, it was nothing to Arthur to be touched as Merlin had touched him.

He swallowed hard and shook his head, gently moving around Arthur, opening the second cloth over his unscarred shoulders, towelling away the drops of water that reflected the firelight. He wiped all the way down to the small of Arthur’s back before he realized Arthur had gone perfectly still.

“Did you not want me to- er...” Merlin stepped back, the length of cloth pulled taut between his upraised hands.

Arthur turned to face him, one hand clasping tightly on Merlin’s shoulder for balance as he stepped from the tub, heedless of the river of water that came with him. “My robe. And hang my nightclothes on the screen. I wouldn’t wish to offend your delicate sensibilities.”

“They’re not as delicate as you might think.” Merlin smirked and fetched the robe, holding it open and, belying his own brave words, averting his eyes as Arthur turned into it.

Arthur gave him an incredulous look, reaching inside the robe to pull the damp cloth from around his waist and press it to Merlin’s stomach with a smirk. “How they could possibly be after all this time is a mystery, Merlin, but you blush as prettily as Gwen and don’t believe for a second I don’t notice.”

Merlin dropped his head, hands clutching the damp cloth, his face blazing with equal parts anger and embarrassment. “Well, I’m not the pretty one here, am I?”

Arthur laughed, though it didn’t sound merry. “That’s true enough,” he teased. “You’re all gangly limbs and clumsiness like a fledgling colt.”

“And you’re dripping all over my newly-mopped floor like a wet rag, Sire . Here.” He thrust the crumpled linen to Arthur’s chest and turned to put another log on the fire. As he dropped the piece of wood in his haste, the embers rushed up and out, scorching the sleeve of his tunic and making him jump. He patted them down and clenched his fists. Why did he have to constantly prove every one of Arthur’s insults true as soon as the words were flung at him?

Arthur moved behind the screen and began dressing, the robe tossed to the flagstones for Merlin to pick up later. “Before you burn down the castle, go fetch your nightclothes and a tray of fruit. No wine. And find Leon.”

“Yes, Sire.” Merlin rose and made to leave, stopping short with his hand on the doorknob. “My nightclothes?

Because he had never, not even camping in the wilderness or staying in his own mother’s house, worn nightclothes in front of Arthur. He might have done, had he owned any nightclothes, but there had been no sense in spending what little coin he had on something so frivolous. He had to bathe and leave his previous day’s clothing with the laundress every morning anyhow, so what was the point in changing into something clean for sleeping?

“You’ll be sleeping here if we manage sleep at all tonight. I need a sounding board, Merlin, and you’re as good as I’ve got with father ill. I don’t fancy you prancing about my quarters nude, so yes, nightclothes .”

Merlin opened the door and nodded back over his shoulder, not meeting Arthur’s eyes. He was blushing again and had to bite back a retort to the prancing remark. “Of course, Sire.”

He’d known about the antechamber from day one, when Gwen had shown him where to put his things and informed him that he would be sleeping there. He hadn’t a home of his own, after all, and she’d just assumed he was in need of a bed. A bed with a real mattress, filled with down and bits of cloth instead of hay. Covered in clean, fresh linens and a thick pelt from a bear Arthur had felled himself. He’d considered it, for about a minute, but back then Arthur’s cutting remarks hadn’t been in jest and Merlin had been uncomfortable even helping him on with his coat.

Arthur had only looked a bit surprised as Merlin left for Gaius’ quarters when he was dismissed that first night. He’d never asked - or commanded - Merlin to stay.

Actually, Merlin had had a nap on that sweet bed sometimes when Arthur had a lie-in or was ill. Well, no, he hadn’t napped, exactly. He’d lain awake with the door cracked open so he could listen to the prince take each deep breath in his sleep. He'd listen for the rhythm to falter, or Arthur’s all-too-common mumbled sleep-speech. He’d rise and sort breakfast, then, knowing Arthur would wake soon. He’d only ever dared eavesdropping on a handful of occaisions, and felt awfully guilty after, every time.

Now he was commanded to stay there, on that sinfully comfortable bed, with Arthur sick with worry only a wall away. There was no way he could sleep there. No way he would so much as sit on that bed unless Arthur was already deeply asleep. And the door would stay open between them, just in case. As to nightclothes, well, he would kip a nightshirt from the laundry, he supposed, though he couldn’t fathom actually wearing it in front of Arthur.

The prince hadn’t been exactly wrong about his gangly limbs.

He strode quickly to the knight’s quarters, spreading the word that Leon was to go to Arthur as soon as he was found. He nodded his thanks and fled when the request was delivered, not wanting to be away from Arthur any longer than he had to.

The kitchen attendants scrambled to find enough fresh fruit and cheese to fill a large silver platter as he leaned on the scarred wooden table and closed his eyes.

The servants bustled around him, but left him be. His position, though he never actually felt it to be true, was one to be respected. Arthur’s manservant; trusted, relied upon, ever-present. They all knew how well he must know his master, how many secrets he kept so closely guarded that not even the most daring of the maids could pry them away.

Not that they had a chance using feminine wiles on him, but they didn’t realize that.

Yes, of course he knew Arthur’s every habit, knew every detail of Arthur right down to the way he sprawled across the bed in his sleep and the soulful pout he never, ever let anyone but Merlin see. He was probably the only person in the world who knew that when Arthur brooded, it was at the corner window nearest his bed, his arms crossed as if he was literally trying to hold in his pain or anger.

Not that it ever served to hide his distress as far as Merlin was concerned. The prince was actually considerably free with his emotions around him behind closed doors, but the second anyone else walked in the room, Arthur schooled his features.

Was he honestly that comfortable around Merlin now, or was it that he was just so used to Merlin’s presence that he didn’t bother hiding what he was feeling?

“'Ere you are, Sor.” A tug on his elbow startled him, but he didn’t jump. Too many brief naps on his feet left him accustomed to being woken abruptly. All the servants did it - took what rest they could get whenever and wherever they could manage.

He lifted the tray with a nod and a smile of thanks, setting it against one hip for balance. They’d loaded it down, that was for sure, at least two of every kind of fruit, some of which Merlin could have sworn couldn’t be grown this time of year. The scent of the strawberries was especially tempting, but Merlin resisted. Arthur would never finish them all, and he didn’t feel much like eating anyhow.

 

***

 

Leon gave him a nod and half-smile of encouragement as he brushed past Merlin on his way out of Arthur’s chambers. He held the door open behind himself and Merlin grinned. The knights were unfailingly chivalric towards him within the citadel, though on the road they tended to use him as badly as Arthur would tolerate, which, admittedly, wasn’t that badly.

He set the tray on the long dining table and leaned his hands on the back of a tall chair, waiting for Arthur’s next command.

Arthur glared obviously at Merlin’s satchel where it slumped in the corner. “Did you bring the Book of Rites?”

Merlin considered lying. He knew he was supposed to anticipate Arthur’s needs, but the tone of his voice told Merlin he wasn’t particularly happy with the idea that Merlin presumed quite so much. He nodded and pulled at a thread on his sleeve.

“Fetch it, then. I cannot very well sit here and do nothing, can I?”

Merlin retrieved the book, taking the liberty of opening it to the fifth marker. He’d placed the scraps of cloth there himself, what seemed like ages ago, and each time they'd finished another Rite, he’d changed the cloth to crimson to indicate its completion.

Arthur sighed as he began reading, his finger tapping on the base of the empty goblet in front of him. Merlin went to the sideboard and got the pitcher, filling the cup only halfway.

“Merlin, when was the last time you slept?” Arthur never looked up from the pages, but Merlin was sure he could hear Arthur daring him to lie.

“I got a few hours last night .” He rubbed his eyes at the thought of that bed again. “I’m fine, though. Farm-raised, remember? We were up days at a time during planting and harvest some years.”

Arthur nodded and hummed. “Perhaps you’d like to use the bath, then.”

Merlin flinched at the suggestion. He knew he was clean - well, he thought he was, though his idea of clean and Arthur’s rarely matched up. He didn’t know if he should be offended, but he absolutely was not going to have a bath in Arthur’s chambers. No. He grimaced. “No, I’m fine, Sire.” He swallowed hard at Arthur’s impatient look. “Besides, the water will have cooled.”

Arthur pulled a face. “Don’t be such a girl , Merlin! Toss a few bucketfuls of hot water in and you’ll be fine. Must I explain every task to you?”

Merlin shook his head, wishing the floor would swallow him whole. “No, really, if you wish me to bathe, I’ll return to Gaius’ quarters. I couldn’t-”

“You could and you will. And if you so much as suggest leaving here without my express permission again, I’ll chain you to the table.”

No need for that; he literally couldn’t move. Between the thought of disrobing and the thought of Arthur in there mere minutes before, he’d developed a quick phobia of bathing tubs. It seemed explicitly dangerous, a hated thing far too close to Arthur and the bed and- Gods. He’d never been naked in front of Arthur before.

“Get on with it. We haven’t all night,” Arthur barked, no mirth in it. “Well, we have, but I’d like you awake for this. And set the kettle before you bathe.”

Merlin was frozen, hands clenched on the back of the chair opposite Arthur, unsure where to start. At Arthur’s glare, Merlin forced himself to not think about what he was doing, to go to the tub, to fill the metal pail with water and hang it on the hook in the hearth, fill the kettle to hang beside it, pull another log from the stack and place it on the fire.

There. Nothing to be afraid of. Nothing but what came next.

He looked over at Arthur, who reached for an apple Merlin was sure he wouldn’t eat, tapping it absently on the table as he began reading about the fifth Rite.

Distracted and not looking; that was good. Great, even.

He took a length of cloth with him behind the screen anyway, peeking shyly out as he disrobed. Arthur’s back was still to him and Merlin wrapped the cloth around his naked waist, tucking the end in securely, feeling completely ridiculous but unwilling to walk across the room naked.

He stepped quietly to the fire and crouched there, lifting the bucket and pouring it into the tub, repeating the motion, silently casting warming charms to hurry the process. He stuck his arm in to make sure the tub was warm enough, then slipped into it, facing away from Arthur’s back, pulling the towel from around his waist when he was fully seated.

Face heating despite the fact that Arthur couldn’t have seen anything, he wrung out the sodden towel and hung it on the side of the tub. Eyes closed, he struggled to ignore Arthur’s presence, losing the battle when he heard a chuckle.

“Delicate sensibilities,” Arthur teased, but Merlin stoically ignored the jibe, trailing his hands through the too-warm water.

A proper bath was not something he’d experienced often, unless rivers counted. He’d washed in a basin every day for as long as he could remember, as had all the servants and everyone he knew back in Ealdor. Soaking in a tub - especially in winter - seemed like courting illness, though Gaius had explained it was common enough and seemed not to increase one’s chances of falling ill.

And Merlin could see the appeal. He’d never been so warm all over, the chill of the castle seeping out of every inch of his body, even his toes and fingertips.

He washed slowly, the heat burrowing into his aching back and bottom where he’d landed on them in the library. The water touched the tips of his too-long hair, and Merlin wondered if he could ignore precedent and just dunk his head as he usually did in the river back home. Why not?

Coming up spluttering, he blindly reached for the soap and lathered his hair quickly, then slid under the water again, pushing his hands back through to rinse the soap out.

Shaking the excess water from his head and swiping a hand over his eyes, he heard Arthur laughing again.

He turned to look over his shoulder. “What’s so funny?”

“You. You wash like a hound, Merlin.” Arthur was leaning back in his chair, turned with arms crossed and one foot propped up on the next chair, watching him.

“Don’t look if you don’t like it.” Merlin grinned, eyebrows raised in challenge, though he felt anything but brave at the moment. “You’re the one who insisted.”

“I insisted you wake yourself up and bathe, not flood my chambers.”

Glancing over the side of the tub, Merlin grinned. The floor was rather damp, though he was sure at least some of that water had been Arthur’s.

“Yes, My Lord,” Merlin sighed dramatically, resting back against the tub as Arthur had, his legs stretched out, toes curling at the feeling of being held in such totality.

Though he was clean, he lingered in the tub. It was luxurious, the warm water moving gently along every inch of his skin felt like heaven, like someone touching him, and he sank lower, his whole body relaxing while his mind drifted, though he carefully kept his thoughts away from Arthur.

Merlin had read the requirements of the Ascension the day Arthur had first shown him the book. They only had three Rites left, and, though the seventh task was customized to each prince and only stated that it would 'make itself known.' The next two seemed straightforward enough, nothing so vague as a quest inspired by a day of purification and another of meditation, or random as the first task, helping 'one truly in need.'

After they’d realized only a child or an infirm adult could truly be in need, they’d breezed past that Rite and the following two as well- leading a hunt and winning a melee.

Well, okay, they hadn’t so much breezed as stormed and stumbled, but still. They’d managed them well enough, and completed the quest, too, which had been by far the hardest to this point. Arthur hadn’t been so keen on him or Gwaine being along for that one, but in the end it was clear they’d always been meant to follow him.

Lead him, to be honest, at least as far as Merlin was concerned, though Arthur could never know just how much he’d done.

He thought about Arthur watching him so closely on the ride back to Camelot afterward, as though he’d guessed there was more to Merlin’s stumbling upon the trident than he’d let on. He thought Gwaine might have his suspicions, too, but they hadn’t spoken of it.

The scrape of the chair along the floor startled him and he opened his eyes and glanced back at Arthur, who closed the book and stood.

Merlin carefully didn’t move as Arthur looked him over. “Enough, you’re clean. You’ll either turn into a prune or fall asleep if you stay in any longer.”

“If you wanted me awake, you shouldn’t have suggested the warm water. This is heavenly.” In truth, he was ready to get out, but Arthur was mere feet away and Merlin could feel that intense concentration on his bare, wet skin. “Turn your back.”

Arthur raised an eyebrow and smirked. “You didn’t turn yours.”

“I wasn’t allowed to,” Merlin glared, but kept his voice light. He couldn’t help throwing a retort; it was too wonderful to see Arthur smile. “Also, I’m not accustomed to anyone attending my baths, unlike some people.”

“Fine, keep your modesty.” Arthur ’s grin fell and he turned away, walking to the window.

Ballocks! Merlin felt as though everything he said tonight was wrong, that just as soon as they fell back into their easy banter, his foot would somehow find its way into his mouth. Arthur was over-sensitive this evening, of course he was, but Merlin couldn’t seem to avoid upsetting him further.

He pushed up out of the tub and reached for the nearest and driest piece of cloth, which happened to be Arthur’s bathing robe. He hesitated for a moment when he realized what it was, but wrapped up in it and stepped quickly to the screen, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind.

Once back there, though, he saw his clothes on the floor and realized he’d completely forgotten to ‘borrow’ a nightshirt from the laundry. He had nothing clean to change into and there was no way to hide it from Arthur. Damn his sleep-deprived brain.

“Arthur?” He peeked out from behind the cover of the screen, carefully holding the too-large robe around himself. “I haven’t nightclothes.” It was the truth, and he’d be more comfortable in his usual clothing anyhow.

“What do you mean you ‘haven’t nightclothes’?” The taunt in Arthur’s voice was half-hearted at best.

“Servants don’t generally-” Merlin folded his arms across his chest. “I sleep in my clothes.” Not wanting Arthur to think him lacking in hygiene, he added, “I take them to the laundry in the mornings. It’s fine, really.”

He pulled the robe off, reaching for his tunic, when Arthur’s hand appeared, thrusting a wad of cloth around the edge of the screen. “Wear these.”

Merlin took the bundle and looked out again, frowning at Arthur’s retreating back. Arthur was giving him nightclothes? His own nightclothes?

The pyjama bottoms Arthur had worn the night before, which, God, meant that not only had Merlin forgotten to clean Arthur’s clothes that day, but Merlin was going to be wearing. Arthur’s. Nightclothes.

Careful not to look too much, or let himself feel the soft, warm fabric too much, or imagine Arthur inside it, he stepped into the loose cotton sleeping trousers, tugging the drawstring tight and knotting it. He considered his own rumpled tunic on the floor; he loathed the idea of spending time with Arthur this way, both of them bare-chested.

Apart from the fact that it would be impossible not to blush at the contrast between his pale, thin chest and Arthur’s broad one, the room was cool. He already had goose-bumps.

The warm slide of Arthur’s nightclothes against his thighs did make up for the room’s temperature a little, though, and he could sit by the hearth, could build the fire up so Arthur wouldn’t be cold, either.

He stepped out from behind the dressing screen to find Arthur again at the window, the firelight flickering orange along the planes of his chest, his crossed arms making his muscles stand out, the curve of them holding the shadows like a marble sculpture.

Merlin stood staring for a moment, fighting the urge to go to him and touch him, soothe his anxiety again. His chest ached with the need, it was so great.

Walking to his satchel instead, he stuffed his balled-up breeches, trousers and tunic inside, his fingers brushing against the small wooden carving he always kept with him. He pulled the tiny dragon out and slipped it into the pocket of Arthur’s pyjamas, his hand closing tightly around its smooth weight.

The fire crackled invitingly and Merlin took a seat at the hearth, stretching out his legs to warm his bare feet, taking the carving out again and tracing the intricate lines of the wings as he stared at the flames.

“Merlin, tell me Gaius knows what he’s doing.” Arthur wasn’t looking at him, his eyes focused somewhere in the dark sky outside the window. “Tell me my father will live.”

Stroking his thumb down the dragon’s back, Merlin nodded. He could say this, because whether or not Uther recovered from his madness, it would be true. “The King will live, Arthur. And Gaius is the best there is. Your father’s trusted him for years.”

“He has.” Arthur turned to him then, his expression so wholly exhausted it made Merlin ache. “Leon is personally guarding him tonight, to make sure he doesn’t...”

“He’s safe with Leon, I’m sure of it.” Merlin met his eyes and held them as he closed his fist over the dragon again, hiding it as casually as he could. “Your father is a strong man, stronger than most.”

Arthur nodded and looked back out of the window, but his arms fell to his sides and Merlin saw the muscles in his shoulders relax a bit.

He wished he knew something better to say, wished he knew what to do to reassure Arthur. He knew what it felt like to be in danger of losing your only remaining family, but he couldn’t imagine the complicated sort of fear Arthur must be feeling. There wouldn’t be a royal throne and all the responsibilities it came with waiting for Merlin on the other side of his mother’s death, after all.

He could clearly see that Arthur was feeling as alone as Merlin typically did, and he desperately wanted to somehow show Arthur he wasn’t on his own, never had to be unless he wished it, but Merlin couldn’t feel right about promising that until Arthur knew everything about him until he was sure it would be a welcomed assurance.

He wouldn’t deepen the betrayal of keeping his magic secret by encouraging Arthur to trust him further, though he wanted that badly.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for your father, remember?” Merlin smiled at the thought of Arthur’s face when Uther had given Merlin his ‘reward.’ “He gave me to you.”

Arthur huffed out a small laugh. “You weren’t any happier about it than I was, were you?”

Merlin squeezed the dragon in his hand, the memory of Kilgharrah telling him of their entwined destinies as clear as the day he’d first heard it. “I’d just arrived in Camelot from the country, become apprentice to the royal physician and saved the Prince. I suppose you could say I was a bit overwhelmed.”

“You were put off- admit it, Merlin.” Arthur levelled a stare at him. “You were as disgusted as I was at the thought of you being my manservant.”

Merlin shook his head. “I didn't know you. And I was... nervous. I still get nervous.”

“Is that why you’re always dropping things and knocking over my armour?” Arthur laughed again, this time a little more solidly.

The jibe smarted a little. He knew he was anything but smooth and at times bordered on incompetent, but he always tried.

He grinned a little to hide his hurt feelings. “Most servants grow up serving, or at least have parents who are servants. My mother is a farmer in our village. Now, if the King had assigned me to the gardens or sent me off to tend the royal crops, you wouldn’t be laughing.”

Arthur gave him a thoughtful look. “No one’s bothered to take you aside and teach you anything?”

“Only when I asked, which was usually too late to avoid having helms and cups thrown at my head,” Merlin smiled. “I’m a fast learner, though.”

“Could have fooled me,” Arthur laughed, and his smile reached his eyes, sending heat from Merlin’s head to his toes.

“Not hard to do,” Merlin mumbled, quickly dodging the aptly-named throw pillow Arthur tossed at him. “I rest my case.”

Arthur gave him a quick, broad grin, then nodded down at the pyjamas he’d lent Merlin. “Those fit well enough.”

Merlin felt his face heating, but this close to the fire, what did it matter? “They’re warm, too. Maybe I should find some at the market after all.”

Arthur shrugged and looked back out the window. “If you’re going to be sleeping here.”

The words sent a shiver down Merlin’s spine and he watched Arthur’s profile for a long moment before looking back down at the statue in his hands. He wanted to know if that was what Arthur preferred, but he couldn’t summon the courage to ask it, or to hear the answer, either.

The fire was warm against his bare skin, at once a familiar and foreign feeling to him. He’d never had quarters to himself where he could sit like this, half-dressed in front of the fire. He was beginning to understand why Arthur did it so often.

The waves of heat against his face and chest were strangely dizzying. It lulled him into a sleepy haze, and he stared at the tiny likeness of his mighty dragon. His dragon; he smirked. No, not his.

Merlin was weak, had done everything wrong in the beginning, but Balinor had been powerful, so strong he’d escaped Uther and commanded the same dragon Merlin had bargained with, had been fooled by.

It was no comfort, knowing he’d finally taken control far too late for so many in Camelot.

Arthur had already surpassed Uther’s accomplishments in battle and, with only a bit of encouragement, was shaping up to be a more fair and compassionate ruler than Uther, but how could Merlin ever live up to Balinor’s greatness?

He knew in his heart he wasn’t equal to his father, at least in strength. How many people had already died because of his weakness? Kilgharrah had killed more than a hundred by the time Merlin braved the dragon’s wrath.

And Balinor, who’d thrown himself in front of a blade to save Merlin. If Merlin had been faster, stronger, Balinor would still be alive, and a hero, for he would have saved Camelot, Merlin was sure.

Merlin hoped that they were alike, somehow, that he just didn’t know about any similarities they’d shared. Maybe they had a lot in common, but Merlin had never had a chance to find out.

Had his father been as misguided and alone as Merlin had been before Camelot and Gaius? Had he taught himself to be a Dragonlord as Merlin must now do, in case Kilgharrah ever turned on him, on the Kingdom again?

Merlin would never know the answers; he’d barely gotten to speak to his father before he’d lost him forever. He could still feel Balinor’s slick blood on his hands, smell the sharp metallic scent of it and old leather and something like the air just before a big storm. “Sleep well, Father” had been almost the last words he’d spoken to Balinor, the first time he’d ever called anyone father. And the last.

Despite Arthur’s disdain of crying, Merlin had tasted the salt of tears whenever he’d licked his lips for weeks afterward, though he did his grieving behind the closed door of his bedroom or a locked stall in the stables. Arthur hadn’t really seemed to notice, but he’d been overly busy with Camelot’s recovery from the attack and the formal court recognition of his defeating the Great Dragon.

There was a feast, and Merlin had hastily learned a concealing spell to hide his puffy eyes. He hadn’t heard a word of the ceremony, and Arthur let him go early that evening, saying he was sick of Merlin’s moping.

He’d wanted to tell Arthur everything, why he’d wept in the woods that day, why he’d been so cold just when Arthur had decided to be kind to him. He clung to all the things Arthur had said about their friendship during that trip, repeating the words in his head whenever he needed reminding that Arthur truly considered him a friend.

Merlin knew there would always be the line of demarcation between their classes, he couldn’t expect Arthur to overlook that completely, not when Merlin still emptied his chamber pot and mucked out the stables on a daily basis.

Still, he wished he could tell Arthur about Balinor. He was sure Arthur would understand and not think him as weak as he thought him now, but there was no way he could do that without Arthur suspecting him of sorcery as well.

It would be common knowledge that Dragonlords passed their magical talent down through their line and Merlin was not naive enough to think Arthur would not look into it further once he found out that Balinor was his father. Merlin would be locked up, at best.

As close as he sometimes felt they’d become, who was to say when Arthur finally learned his secret, that in his mercy, Arthur wouldn’t spare his life and banish him from Camelot instead? He’d have to flee from Arthur, leave Camelot and Gaius. He couldn’t bear it, couldn’t even stand to think about it.

If Arthur or Uther didn’t burn him alive or lock him in the dungeons, he would be just as exiled as Balinor had been.

Merlin might still share the exact same destiny as his father in the end, alone in a cave. Dead by a bandit’s arrow, or a knight’s sword.

He wouldn’t have a son, though, no matter where he ended up; he’d decided when Balinor died that he wouldn’t leave this legacy for anyone else to carry, not that he was drawn to a life with a woman, anyhow. He’d still dreamed of children, though; the heart didn’t always make sense.

He cupped his hands around the statue and brought it to his lips, something that had become a habit of sorts whenever he thought of what he’d lost when Balinor died.

“What in God’s name is that ?” Arthur shouted.

Merlin jumped to his feet, Arthur’s hands stopping him abruptly, one grabbing onto his shoulder, the other tight on his hip. Arthur’s thumb mashed hard against the corner of the long abrasion left on the small of his back by that bullying tournament contestant’s whip only days before.

Merlin winced and looked back over his shoulder, grimacing.

“Did you fall on a sword, Merlin?” Arthur leaned over, peering closely at the scar, his thumb rubbing hard along it now.

Merlin's back arched in pain and he tried to jerk away, but Arthur’s hands yanked him back and Merlin lost his balance, dropping the statue as Arthur clutched at his arm to steady him.

It splintered on the flagstones.

“No!” Arthur let him go and Merlin fell to his knees, hands hovering over the broken statue as he stared in disbelief.

Absently he saw Arthur kneel beside him, picking up a stray piece. “Was it valuable?”

As if Merlin owned anything valuable.

He shook his head, then nodded, his eyes blurring with tears he knew he couldn’t let fall in front of Arthur. He blinked them back, swallowing hard, not looking up, just in case. “The Dragonlord gave it to me.”

He scraped together the shards of wood, the carving nothing but chunks of sharp points and smooth curves in his palms.

Arthur laid a hand on his shoulder and Merlin felt guilty at once. He should be the one comforting Arthur, the one reassuring him that his father would be alright.

Arthur’s hand stayed on his shoulder, a comforting weight as he rose to his feet.

“It was the dragon, then?” Arthur asked quietly, and at Merlin's nod, he squeezed Merlin's shoulder. “Balinor meant a lot to you, I can tell, though you’ve never said why.”

“It’s nothing, really.” Merlin bit the inside of his cheek to stave off the tears. His heart was sick, his father so much more gone now that the statue was gone, too. “He reminded me of someone, that’s all.”

Merlin took the shard from Arthur’s outstretched hand and went to his satchel, pulling out a scrap of fabric that served as a handkerchief. He placed the pieces inside and screwed it up tight, tucking it in under his dirty clothes. He hoped against hope that he had every piece.

“You never answered my question, Merlin.” Arthur stood at the hearth, arms crossed over his bare chest, his face tight with anger. “What happened to your back?”

“A tournament contestant wished me to attend him,” Merlin closed the flap on his bag with a sigh and turned to Arthur. “When I refused....”

“What did he do to you?” Arthur took a step toward him, fists clenched at his sides.

Merlin sighed. They’d just gotten settled and now Arthur was fuming, and it was Merlin’s fault, as usual. “He whipped me.”

“Only once?” At Merlin’s nod, Arthur glared. “Once too many times, then. What was his name?”

“He didn’t exactly introduce himself.” Merlin shrugged and grinned at Arthur’s fierce protectiveness. When Arthur’s glare narrowed, he quickly added, “He’s dead, so it hardly matters. Gaius gave me a salve, and it’s healed well enough. Just a bit tender, still.”

Arthur grunted with what sounded like reluctant acceptance, but clasped a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, a warning finger raised in the air between them. “In future, you will tell me if and when anyone so much as slaps your hand, Merlin. It is my right to know these things and I won’t have you treated like a dog.”

“Yes, alright,” Merlin nodded.

“Even if you wash like one,” Arthur said, ruffling his hair then clapping his hands together. “Let’s get to work.”

Merlin followed him to the table, still a bit stunned by the casual touch.

“We’ll organize the next task for the following days and one each week thereafter. By month’s end, hopefully the seventh will reveal itself and we’ll be through with the Rites. The sooner I can put my father’s mind at ease, the better, though I hope Gaius will have found a cure before then.”

Merlin nodded, taking a seat beside the one Arthur sat on, pulling the book to him and beginning to reread the fifth Rite. Finishing a task a week would be challenging, but they could manage. They’d been through worse together and from what he’d read about the Rites, the worst was behind them, with the possible exception of the seventh, though Merlin guessed it would be more of a celebratory Rite than a trial, since the other six seemed designed to prove the best traits of a future king.

As things stood now, Arthur had little control. He couldn’t make any decisions of a permanent nature or command the knights with full authority. Surely it would help the King’s mental state to know his son was prepared to rule in his stead if necessary.

If only that was all that was troubling Uther’s mind.

 

***

 

“Well, we’ve done that already, so let’s move on to the sixth Rite.” Arthur waved a dismissal at the page, but Merlin didn’t turn it just yet.

“Yes, you defeated the Questing Beast, I know.” Merlin rolled his eyes, having heard - no, having told this story one too many times.

“You were there, too,” Arthur reminded, shoving at Merlin’s arm, which Merlin then rubbed, giving him a wounded look. Arthur ignored it. “Tell me again, Merlin, how exactly did you escape?”

“You knocked me out of the way and killed the Beast. Could we please just read the passage?”

Arthur took a swallow from his goblet and began reading aloud. “’Destroy a being that possesses a magical nature and is a threat to Camelot’s general population. The candidate must act alone, accept no offered aid and seek no assistance in eliminating the creature.’ I’ve done that, Merlin, and seeing as you weren’t even there for the actual killing, I think I’d be considered unaided.”

Merlin sighed. This was getting ridiculously close to dangerous. How could he tell Arthur he hadn’t defeated the Beast at all, let alone unaided? Arthur had dealt a few blows to it before he’d been bitten, sure, but Merlin finished it off and it was all downhill from there. Honestly, he didn’t see how Arthur could believe he’d killed the creature himself - he’d been nearly dead by the time they’d ridden back into Camelot.

“We should keep an eye out for violent magical creatures, though,” Merlin suggested, already considering purposefully seeking one out as soon as possible and letting Arthur kill it by himself, just to be sure.

Merlin shrugged and turned to the next chapter, doubt itching along the back of his neck like a cold breeze. “Then I suppose we’re on to the sixth task, which is...” Merlin tapped his finger on the name and grinned. “Recover and claim an artefact from the Old Religion in the name of Camelot.”

“Well, we seem to have covered a lot of ground on our - my - quest. The Fisher King’s trident should be old enough to serve.”

“We don’t know anything about the trident. Are you willing to take that chance? Perhaps it wasn’t forged with sorcery.” Merlin smiled as if he’d just been given the week off stable duty, but it was better than that, because he was about to be brilliant.

Arthur looked at Merlin suspiciously. “Why do you look so satisfied, Merlin? It’s unsettling.”

The pleasure of openly knowing something Arthur did not, of being able to say it out loud and best the Prince in just one small thing was too sweet to contain his smug grin. “I happen to know where one such artefact is hidden.”

Shaking his head in obvious disbelief, Arthur sceptically laughed. “You? You know where an artefact of the Old Religion is? How is that possible?”

“Someone gave it to me for safe keeping. To hide.” Merlin lowered his gaze to the book, wondering what the Great Dragon would have to say about them claiming the sword for Camelot. He’d said it was for Arthur, hadn’t he? “I threw it into a lake about a day’s ride west of here.”

Arthur pursed his lips. “Of course you did, because anywhere I couldn’t possibly drown would be far too simple, wouldn’t it?”

Merlin huffed in frustration. “I didn’t know we were going to need it, did I? And they told me it had to be where no man could find it; I couldn’t think of anywhere else.”

“Who exactly is ‘they,’ Merlin?” Arthur glared at him, which usually was sufficient to get him talking, but this time, Merlin shook his head.

“I can’t say. You’ll just have to trust me.”

“I suppose I have no choice,” Arthur sighed as Merlin turned the page and pointed to the gilded script along the bottom.

“’The object must be recovered and claimed in the name of Camelot. It cannot be bestowed upon the candidate by any person. It must be sought out and retrieved alone and unaided.’” Merlin sighed. “Did they not realize a future king might need protecting?”

He couldn’t imagine sending Arthur away from Camelot alone right now, not even if Merlin knew exactly where to send him.

Arthur frowned. “I can handle myself, Merlin.”

He shook his head, “That’s not what I meant. I just meant... it’s not very smart for the Crown Prince and sole heir to go traipsing off on these quests, stumbling blindly into danger on his own.”

The frown turned into a scowl. “I do not stumble blindly, Merlin! I’ve been trained as a tactician as well as a knight, not that it would ever occur to you.”

Merlin sighed. “Yes, you’re a born planner, Arthur, what was I thinking?”

“You think?” Arthur smirked. “I wasn’t aware you’d learned that trick, Merlin. You should be proud of yourself.”

Merlin tried not to smile as Arthur patted him on the head like a puppy. “Oh, I am, Sire.”

Arthur gave him a quick smile, then turned back to the book. “Alright, so you draw up a map and leave it lying about, I’ll stumble upon it and leave at first light for this lake.”

“No!” Merlin grabbed Arthur’s arm and nearly knocked his chair over as he turned to face the Prince, swallowing hard to hide both his alarm and the thrill that skittered through him at the feeling of flexing muscle beneath his palm. “I mean, I don’t believe that’s a wise choice, given the perils of the situation.”

“The perils - oh for God’s sake, Merlin! I’ve only to find some antique staff or some such and bring it back to Camelot. How is that any more perilous than what I’ve done before?”

Arthur looked pointedly down at where Merlin still clutched at the Prince’s bicep and Merlin quickly let go, holding his hand in the air for a moment before dropping it to grip the arm of his chair.

Merlin licked his lips and flushed as he saw Arthur’s eyes follow the movement. “By now, word will have spread that the King is ill and Camelot is vulnerable,” Merlin said quietly. “You shouldn’t travel alone.”

“Fine, then you’ll go with me.” Arthur propped one foot up on the rung of Merlin’s chair. “Apparently a servant doesn’t count.”

Merlin winced, but covered it quickly with a laugh. “Apparently not.”

“Well, the sky didn’t fall when the Beast was killed or when we returned from the quest, did it? No. As long as no one knows you’ve... accompanied me, we’ll be fine.”

“I’ll go as far as the lake with you, but you’ll have to be the one who actually gets the... object.” Merlin looked down at his hands, unable to meet Arthur’s eyes. “We’ll have to figure out how you’re going to get it from the bottom of the lake.”

Arthur squared his shoulders. “I’m an excellent swimmer.”

“Yes, Sire,” Merlin mocked softly, remembering the weight of Arthur against him as they rose to the surface of the lake he’d been drowning in, how warm he’d felt to Merlin’s hands, even in that frigid water. “But it’s winter and you’d be courting illness at best.”

Arthur cleared his throat, his face drawn and pale in the firelight, all mirth drained away. “Perhaps we should wait until father is recovered.”

Merlin heard in Arthur’s voice the fear that his father would never recover, that Uther was in danger, even now, even here in the castle with Leon guarding him.

He laid a hand on Arthur’s bare, warm shoulder. “Your father will be safe with the knights, you know he will. They are as loyal to him as they are to you.”

Arthur nodded thoughtfully, his eyes staring at the candle flickering on the table. “Let’s go help Gaius search for a cure, then.”

Merlin moved his hand away, resting it on Arthur’s chair back, just inches away from Arthur’s skin. He suddenly felt over-warm despite his state of undress.

As hard as it was to believe, Gaius seemed to know what Arthur needed. Merlin had been able to get Arthur talking, to make him smile. Perhaps they shouldn't bother going back to the library. It was late, or very early, and Merlin's mind was starting to get fuzzy around the edges.

“No, Arthur, he has Geoffrey,” Merlin reasoned. “And besides, what good are we in the library? We’d only be underfoot.”

Merlin had paired them together to soften the insult. Despite his display with the books earlier, he was generally a great help to Gaius. His uncle had said so often enough, anyhow. Arthur, on the other hand, truly would have been in the way, pacing and snapping at Merlin every minute.

Arthur thought best outdoors, on the trail, on horseback, or on the practice field, not up to his nose in dusty scrolls. And Gaius could find a cure, or figure out if Morgana truly was behind it all; he was an amazing apothecary and a skilled detective as well as physician.

Still, Merlin knew it would be next to impossible for Arthur to leave his father. He trusted the knights implicitly, but the King would surely protest the invasion of his privacy if Arthur ordered a constant guard within his chambers.

“It would serve better for us to go on with the quest, don’t you think? We could leave at first light for the lake, like you said. Wouldn’t it be worth it to be able to tell the King we’d- you’d completed another rite?”

“How far did you say it is to this lake?” Arthur asked, his scepticism showing in his voice.

“Nearly a day’s ride. We can sleep there and make it back before nightfall the day after tomorrow if we start back early.” Merlin closed the book and rubbed a hand down its embossed cover, then looked up, holding Arthur’s gaze a little too long for comfort, but he could sense Arthur needed him, his reassurance.

“He’s going to be alright, Arthur. Gaius will figure it out, and the knights will keep him safe in the meantime. He may resist being so closely guarded at first, but if you tell him you’re going to seek another Rite, I’m sure he’ll agree.”

“I swear you’re practically inside my head sometimes, Merlin.” Arthur stood and raised his arms in the air, pulling his stiff shoulders this way and that. “I’ll post Erec and Cador to alternate shifts with Leon. I trust them to be discreet.”

Merlin couldn’t seem to look away from the smooth expanse of Arthur’s chest and stomach as he stretched, though he tried, he really did. He glanced to the left and saw the turned-down bed, then the bathing tub.

Apparently his libido was back in full force from wherever he’d tried to banish it earlier, because everywhere he looked reminded him of Arthur in that tub.

He stood quickly, reaching to gather up the tea things and set the tray in the hall for the night maids to clear away. Seeing all the leftover food, he thought of Gaius, wondering if he'd stopped long enough to eat today. He knew he'd worked through the night before as well. “Gaius is probably asleep on his feet.”

“Merlin.” Arthur had that ‘you’re-a-total-moron’ tone to his voice and Merlin started wincing even before he finished. “Didn’t you just say we’d be underfoot? We’ll sleep, get a good night’s rest and be ready for tomorrow.”

Merlin’s heart sank. Poor Gaius. The worst part was that he knew he could help. Having him there to aid in the search was invaluable, and though Gaius had probably always gotten on well enough before Merlin came to Camelot, he knew Gaius had started to rely on his help more and more over the last couple of years. And Gaius had been awake and researching just as long as Merlin, without even the benefit of the bath Merlin had been granted.

“It’s just, sometimes Gaius needs my help with the tomes and-”

“Go, then,” Arthur sighed and went to his bed, climbing under the thick pile of blankets and furs. “After you mop up that mess, clear away those clothes, lay another log on the fire and put out the candles. And Merlin? I expect you to be in that bed,” he pointed at the antechamber, “when I wake.”

Merlin swallowed hard and nodded, not daring to ask Arthur why he was so insistent on Merlin sleeping there. “I will be, I promise.”

He watched as Arthur rolled away from him, pulling the bedclothes to his neck. “I’m sorry about your carving, Merlin,” he said softly, and Merlin swallowed the lump that formed in his throat.

That Arthur remembered and bothered to apologize when the accident obviously hadn’t been his fault floored him. He’d put the broken statue out of his mind, but a flood of emotion pulled him under as he thought of the splintered pieces resting in his satchel, as he realized Arthur felt guilty enough to apologize.

“It wasn’t your fault.” His voice was little more than a whisper. He folded his arms across his aching chest and added, “But thank you, Arthur,” then quietly began clearing away their damp towels.

Arthur’s breathing still hadn’t found its usual sleep rhythm by the time he was through with the chores and ready to leave, but Merlin couldn’t bring himself to interrupt the stillness with a goodbye. He was returning, anyway, after all.

Not bothering to change into his still-damp trousers, he pulled his rumpled tunic from his bag and shrugged it on, smoothing the wrinkles as best he could. He slung the strap of his satchel over his shoulder and left silently, taking a long look back at the bed and Arthur before he went.

 

***

 

Gaius was half-asleep, more so, to be truthful, when Merlin finally came back to the library that night, but he couldn’t possibly fail to notice Merlin’s - Arthur’s sleeping bottoms.

“Tell me you didn’t steal those, Merlin,” he smirked, one eyebrow raised at Merlin’s legs. “I’m not precisely sure what Camelot’s punishment for pyjama thievery is, but I’m fairly certain it involves rotten tomatoes.”

Merlin gave a little laugh and shook his head. “Arthur insisted.”

Arthur usually did insist, when it came to Merlin, on many occasions and a variety of topics. Gaius had watched their - relationship - grow over the past two years with a purposefully quiet approval. He tried to stay out of it, tried not to sway either of them in any direction in particular; they had plenty of outside influences doing so already.

If push came to shove, however, he was not above meddling, or giving advice.

He hummed and straightened as best he could in the high-backed chair, one hand rubbing the base of his neck to ease the crick there. “Yes, well, it’s fortunate he let you keep your tunic. The library is perhaps the coldest place in the castle apart from the dungeons.”

“No fires,” Merlin nodded, looking sympathetic. “Arthur’s rooms were warm enough, as are ours. Go get some sleep. I don’t have to be back until just before dawn.”

Gaius looked at him sceptically, doubtful that Arthur would be waking so early after such a late night. For all his responsible nature, the Prince enjoyed lying in as much as the next royal youth. “Has he an early audience?”

“No,” Merlin sat down beside him, pulling the book away from Gaius. “I want to be there before he wakes, that’s all.”

Even in the dim candlelight, Gaius could see the slow flush creeping up Merlin’s cheeks. Not for the first time, he wondered if there was already far more between his young protégé and the Prince than even he had suspected.

The potential existed for a fantastically powerful partnership.

He nodded and pushed his chair back, slowly rising and steadying himself with hands on the table in front of him. “I think it’s best you stick close to him, Merlin, especially now. For all his irascibility, you really are his most intimate friend.”

He’d chosen the words with care, knowing they could be interpreted differently depending on Merlin’s own feelings for the Prince.

“I sometimes think the knights know him better than I do, that he can talk to them like he can’t talk to me.” Merlin looked down at his lap, hands resting on the pyjamas there. “But then Arthur always seems to surprise me.”

“His relationship with the knights is more closely associated to camaraderie, I believe,” Gaius nodded, moving to the opposite side of the table and reaching under the edge for Merlin’s spell book, the same book he’d used himself when he was a young sorcerer. “You’ll need this. I thought you might conduct a search for magical causes of madness, now that I’ve eliminated all poisons as the culprit. I’m afraid at this point, barring a spell or curse, we’re simply left with...”

“Madness in the Pendragon line. But Thivellus might’ve been under a spell.” Merlin looked up hopefully, but Gaius could only shake his head.

“We’ll likely never know, Merlin.” He stepped slowly around, gathering up his carryall and a candle.

“We’re planning a journey for the next Rite. Arthur is reluctant to leave, but I think we will go in the morning.”

“I will keep close watch on Uther, then,” he agreed, hearing what Merlin was subtly asking of him. “Be careful, Merlin, but do what you must to protect Arthur. He is Camelot’s future.”

Merlin laid a hand on his arm and smiled softly up at him. “I’ll take care of him, Gaius, I promise.”

Gaius returned the smile and patted the hand on his arm. “I know you will, my boy.”

He wearily left the library’s chilly stacks with relief, but a sense of dread coated his thoughts like a thick ice on stone. Uther was a bitter, harsh king, a misguided king in many ways, but Gaius did not look forward to his death.

He believed in the man Uther had once been, the man he was sure, someday, he’d see again.

Even if it was in the form of Uther’s son.

 

***

 

Arthur woke to the bright light of dawn filtering into his chambers, the curtains on the window nearest his bedside having never been drawn in his and Merlin’s distraction the night before.

He looked towards the antechamber and rolled his eyes, fighting the urge to yell for Merlin. If Merlin was even in there, he was likely sound asleep after too many hours of near-constant effort to help the King, and he deserved the rest.

The floor was icy under his bare toes and Arthur leapt for the window pane, yanking the curtains shut and hurriedly climbing back under his cocoon of bedclothes. He looked at Merlin’s doorway again, noticing this time that it was ajar, and narrowed his eyes. Was the dolt even in there?

Arthur was just about to shout for him, despite the early hour and Merlin’s lack of sleep, when he saw Merlin’s faded red tunic spread along the low bench near the banked fire, his knapsack just beside it on the floor.

He rolled onto his stomach and kicked at the covers, the cool air of the room so sweetly shocking along his spine. He was used to the cold as much as he was the warmth of a fire, used to rain and snow and scorching sun.

In truth, he revelled in it all, for harsh weather typically meant he was on some campaign or other, usually with his knights and, most often, Merlin as well.

He enjoyed the icy cool air freezing his lungs as he lay in his bedroll under the stars almost as much as he did a warm summer’s night or the sun beating down on him, drying his skin after he’d cooled off in a lake.

Being cold in his chambers was something different, though, and the quiet here was deafening, while the silence out in a snow storm or just after a hard rain was always peaceful, calming.

He shifted again, turning onto his back and tucking his hands behind his head, sighing. He might as well get up; the day would be a long one and there was no use delaying it.

He opened his eyes and saw Merlin’s dark hair disappear behind the crack of the antechamber door, then reappear slowly.

“I’m here,” Merlin said, opening the door wide and shrugging. “Breakfast?”

“So you are.” Arthur sat up, swinging his legs over the side of the bed, giving Merlin a false-bright smile. “And so am I, and awake, thanks to someone forgetting to close my curtains last night.”

Merlin glanced at the curtains and winced a little, then smiled back at him. “Breakfast,” he repeated, as if he hadn’t heard the dig.

“Do you think with your stomach? It would explain a lot, actually.” Arthur stood and quickly stepped to the thick carpet near the fire. “Yes, Merlin, we shall have breakfast, but before you fetch it, light the fire and lay out my clothes. I’d rather not freeze to death in my own rooms.”

On his way to the hearth, Merlin lifted the robe from where it hung on the dressing screen, holding it open for Arthur to slip into. He did, with a nod of thanks, a little taken aback at Merlin’s forethought.

“I’ll get straight to the packing after breakfast. We’ll be ready to leave when you return from court.” Merlin knelt at the fire, blowing gently on a piece of smouldering kindling, and Arthur realized Merlin had not - not once - looked him in the eye since he’d first come out of the servant’s room.

“Merlin,” he stepped closer, his robe brushing Merlin’s arm, but even that didn’t earn him the young man’s full attention. “Look at me.”

Arthur was beginning to suspect bad news. Merlin tended not to look him in the eyes when he had bad news to deliver. Not that it could get much worse than his father slowly going mad.

Merlin glanced up at him, then back to the small fire that began to take light. “Yes, Sire?”

“Out with it,” Arthur commanded, taking a seat on the bench beside Merlin.

“Um,” Merlin began nervously, and Arthur steeled himself. “I believe - the text I found last night indicated - that the King may be under a variation of an enchantment, one that feeds itself and grows, even after the casting is finished.”

“Well, we suspected magic or madness, didn’t we? I’m relieved it’s not the latter.” Arthur dropped his eyes to the fire. “Do you know how to break it?

Merlin bit his lip nervously. “I know someone who would like to attempt to, but you won’t like it, and neither will your father.”

“Gaius.” At Merlin’s nod, Arthur shrugged. He’d been prepared for this. Gaius had magic, though he had given his solemn oath never to use it - Arthur had overheard enough of Gaius’ and his father’s whispered conversations to deduce that long ago. “Tell him to do whatever it takes. Give my father a sleeping draught beforehand.”

Merlin looked shocked, his eyes wide, then smiled softly. “Alright. I’ll go now.” Merlin rose and took a few steps away before stopping abruptly and turning on his heel.

Arthur was already grinning.

“If that’s alright with you, I mean.”

Arthur laughed and waved him away. “Go, and tell Gaius he should meet me directly in my father’s chambers. I want this finished.”

Merlin slammed the door in his enthusiasm, but Arthur didn’t really mind. He went to the windows and pulled open the curtains, letting the morning light flood the room, then went to get dressed.

 

***

 

Merlin paused at the entrance to Uther’s chambers, one ear cocked toward the conversation at the King’s bedside.

“His Majesty must never know what we have done today. Sire, you realize this is treason,” Gaius whispered harshly, and Merlin quickly waved his hand in a wide arc that swept the breadth of the doorway, murmuring a spell to stop any noise from the room being overheard.

He was within the parameters of the spell, but he didn’t need to be. He could read Arthur like an open book, as incautious as the Prince was being in his desperation.

“You’ll cast whatever magic need be performed, Gaius.” Arthur leaned both hands on the bed at his father’s side, his head bowed. “I will have your cooperation in this, or I will seek out the Druids myself.”

Gaius shook his head. “You misunderstand me, Sire. I believe you should not bear witness to my actions; you are not immune to Camelot’s laws, and you must not be held responsible should the King discover what we’ve done to spare his life. He would very likely see this as the ultimate act of betrayal.”

“Yes,” Arthur looked up at him then, as determined as Merlin had ever seen him. “He would, but I will not, Gaius. I will watch, and I will see this as the most loyal of my father’s subjects performing his duties to the benefit of the crown.”

Merlin smiled softly and nodded when Arthur noticed him walking into the room.

He’d known Arthur would refuse to leave, but Gaius had insisted they try. They were going to have to work in concert to strip the enchantment from Uther’s mind, though Merlin anticipated doing the casting, pulling strength from Gaius instead of magic. Mind-magic was infamously tedious, the intricate web of the enchantment they suspected a particularly terrible spell. Merlin didn’t trust his own endurance enough to attempt it alone.

“May I stay and assist Gaius, Sire? I’ve read that magic tends to drain a sorcerer’s life force considerably.” Merlin looked hard at Gaius, willing him not to contradict his words. “You may have need of me.”

In truth, many sorcerers did feel the draining effects of magic when they cast, especially when they cast something as powerful as what Gaius and Merlin were about to attempt. Gaius told him of several instances when he’d been too exhausted to move after a powerful casting, and that was when Gaius had been his age.

Arthur shrugged and sighed. “Merlin, if you think you could possibly help, then I will accept it. As my manservant, you are bound to secrecy. I assume you will not forget that the moment we leave these chambers?”

Merlin smirked and bowed slightly. “Of course not, Sire. My lips are sealed.”

“Well, that would be a first, but I very much doubt it will ever happen.” Arthur sat at the foot of his father’s bed, facing Uther. “Let’s begin; the sooner we finish this, the sooner things can get back to normal around here.”

Merlin nodded and turned to lay his hands on Gaius’ arm. His mentor was likely on the verge of calling the entire thing off, but Merlin gave him the slightest shake of his head at Gaius’ inquisitive, concerned look. He smiled his most reassuring smile. “You can do this, Gaius, I know you can,” he said quietly, willing Gaius to understand.

With a sceptically-raised eyebrow, Gaius turned to the bed and leaned down over Uther, his hand centred high on the King’s chest. “I require complete silence from this moment until I instruct you otherwise.”

Merlin knew they wouldn’t be interrupted; he’d cast a variation of a masking spell on Uther’s chamber door to dispell visitors and instructed the maids to work in Arthur’s quarters for the morning. They were more than happy at the opportunity to serve Arthur instead of a semi-lucid Uther, although they hadn’t known Arthur wouldn’t be in his rooms that morning.

Arthur nodded his compliance and laid a hand on his father’s ankle, his hopeful face all the motivation Merlin needed. He turned away, toward the King’s head. As Gaius began speaking the spell, Merlin also began, chanting it in his mind.

Gaius’ breath became audible between his words as his energy poured into Merlin. Merlin wasn’t sure he needed it, but he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth, as it were.

Halfway through the incantation, which he was performing so forcefully it made his head ache, he felt a sort of pop, the snap of a strand in the matrix of the enchantment. It seemed to fray slowly but steadily after that, unravelling and dissipating more quickly than Merlin had ever hoped. He chanced a look at Gaius, whose eyes were wide.

Gaius nodded at him and gave him a small smile as he finished the incantation and they both sensed the spell completely obliterated. He grinned hugely, not even trying to hide his excitement.

They both lifted their hands from Uther’s chest and turned to Arthur, who still stared at his father, his eyes shining in the morning sunlight.

“Sire, I believe the enchantment is broken,” Gaius said, his hand patting congratulations on Merlin’s back, where Arthur couldn’t see it. “It was as I suspected, and had progressed to an alarming degree, but the danger is passed now.”

Arthur looked up at them, both of them, and shook his head. “What would I do without you?” He didn’t say, “Gaius,” but Merlin grinned and looked at his uncle.

“See, Gaius, I told you he wouldn’t burn you at the stake,” Merlin joked, but it fell flat and the three of them looked at the bed in the awkward silence that followed.

Was he never going to learn how to speak to people without embarrassing himself?

“When will he wake?” Arthur looked up, his eagerness written plainly on his face as he looked from Gaius and Merlin to his father. “I should like to speak with him as soon as possible.”

“It will be some hours yet, My Lord, possibly not until evening,” Gaius glanced to Merlin, who smiled to let him know that was accurate. “You and Merlin should continue with your plans. The fresh air will do you both good.”

Arthur started to shake his head, “I will speak to him before we leave. If he is cured, we will continue as planned.”

Merlin grinned and reached into his pocket. “Thought you might say that! I brought the counter-potion to the sleeping draught.” He handed the small vial to Gaius, who leaned down to press it to the King’s lips.

“Good work, Merlin,” Gaius said approvingly, the slightest of winks as good as a hug. “It didn’t occur to me to bring it.”

“Yes, Merlin, good-” Arthur broke off and Merlin’s grin died away, all of their attention focusing on the stirring King.

“Either someone drugged my wine or stuffed a pound of wool into my head while I was sleeping,” the King said groggily, and Arthur moved quickly to his head.

“Father? You were under an enchantment, but it has finally broken. Are you alright?” Arthur didn’t take his father’s hand, though Merlin could see from how closely he rested his fingers next to the King’s that he wished to.

“Apart from this thunderous headache.” Uther pressed his fingertips to his forehead and temples. “An enchantment? That certainly explains the confusion. Was the culprit apprehended?” Uther asked, seeming to gather his wits quickly.

Arthur shook his head, “No, our first priority was bringing you out of the spell. We’ll be better able now to focus our resources on detecting the sorcerer responsible.”

Merlin looked at Gaius nervously. How could Arthur still automatically differentiate those with magic as evil? He hadn’t called the person who cursed his father a villain, traitor or attempted murderer. A sorcerer was far worse, having an inborn weapon to use against anyone they chose.

Gaius quirked his mouth up in a look that clearly said, “I told you so,” and Merlin wanted to shout at him and at Arthur in turns.

“You’ve been given a sleeping draught, your Highness. You may feel rather cotton-headed for a few hours, but once that passes, you’ll be right as rain.” Gaius slipped the vial of antidote into his robe pocket and put a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, wordlessly guiding him from the room.

As much as he’d liked to have stayed, he knew Arthur needed time with his father. He knew how badly he’d wished he and Balinor could have been alone for just a little while without Arthur there when they were reunited, and he imagined Arthur felt the same way, that he’d been given his father back.

He smiled and pulled the door closed behind them, wiping away the silencing charm but leaving the one that made the room less... noticeable, though it was more as though it just wouldn’t occur to people to go inside that day.

Gaius gave him a level, icy stare. “You're getting quite adept at wordless casting, Merlin.”

Merlin tried to look sorry, but he couldn’t help but smile just a little. “I guess I’m finally learning when to keep quiet.”

“Highly doubtful, but I was impressed with your control,” Gaius complimented as they walked toward the physician’s quarters. “And your recovery time? Are you tired even in the slightest?”

Merlin stretched and yawned. “I think it’s just left over from last night. The bed in the antechamber in Arthur’s room is too comfortable.”

“Yes, I imagine warmth and soft down would be absolutely miserable,” Gaius laughed. “You must have Arthur switch your bed with that one, so you can sleep on your hard, straw mattress and shiver all night.”

“I’m never cold in your quarters, Gaius. You wouldn’t let me go cold.” Merlin stared at his shoes as they climbed the stairs slowly. “Besides, I doubt Arthur will have need of me again now.”

“Neither of you will sleep on a bed tonight.”

Opening the door to their rooms, Merlin let Gaius go in first. “True, although I doubt if Arthur will still be so keen on going now that the King is better.”

“You’d best pack for it anyhow, and do as you’ve been instructed to prepare for the journey,” Gaius advised, busying himself at the work table. “And Merlin, why don’t you pack your clothing and move it into Arthur’s room for the duration of the Ascension? I’m an old man who needs uninterrupted sleep, you know.”

It was said with a smile, but Merlin felt guilty at once. How many times had he disturbed Gaius’ sleep? Reluctant though he was to stay downstairs, he knew it was unusual for a servant to sleep anywhere but in their master’s chambers. Gaius had been gracious to let him sleep in the tower this long.

“Alright, but promise to send for me if you need me, Gaius. And no more falling from balconies.”

Gaius chuckled. “Fair enough, Merlin.”

 

***

 

The King had been awake and perfectly lucid for over an hour before finally falling asleep, his hand still clasping Arthur’s. He’d felt such profound relief as his father had reached for him, pulling him in for a rare hug.

Arthur poured a glass of water for his father, unwilling to break their revelry by summoning Merlin or any other servant. Uther drank, nodding his thanks as he held up the goblet for Arthur to remove. He placed it on the bedside cabinet and stared at it as he spoke. “I thought I’d lost you, father.”

Uther’s hand reached for and squeezed briefly against his own. “I’m here, Arthur. You’ll not get rid of me that easily,” he said softly, his eyes smiling in jest.

As they spoke, Arthur told him about the Rites, his plan to complete them within the month, and their immediate plans for finding a magical object. He carefully didn’t mention Merlin beyond the fact that he assisted him with pertinent information along the trail he would follow loosely.

“You shall leave immediately, Arthur. No sense wasting the daylight on me. I’ll be here when you return and we can speak then,” Uther urged. He held up a hand when Arthur began to protest. “I insist, son. The Rites are far more important than us spending an evening discussing land disputes or the latest marriage prospects. If we’ve learned nothing else from this experience, we have learned that the Rites should be completed sooner rather than later. Go on, now. I’m perfectly healthy, and would like to make myself look it before attending court.”

Arthur released his father’s hand, but turned back to him. “I have a request, My Lord.”

“What is it?” Uther asked warily.

“Allow my knights to remain at your side until I return. I cannot in good conscience leave you unguarded so soon after you’ve been attacked, especially with the traitor still among us.”

His father frowned, his chin lifting in obvious pride. “It is unnecessary, Arthur.”

“It might well be, but I cannot go unless you agree. It will be of no inconvenience to you. Leon, Erec and Cador are silent as ghosts when they want to be. You will not even notice their presence.” Arthur had little hope his father would agree, but then Uther nodded.

He was frowning deeply, nearly glaring at Arthur, but he consented. “Very well. Only those three then, and only until you return. We will not make a habit of this.”

“No, Father,” he acquiesced, and smiled. “I’ll just go see to the readying of my supplies so I can be off. I expect to return tomorrow night.”

Uther nodded and waved him away, calling after him, “Send in my servants. I wish to bathe and dress immediately, and I’m famished.”

Arthur closed the door and leaned against it, grinning widely. His father was back, all of him, and Arthur was no longer responsible for Camelot. He sighed in relief and smiled at everyone as he walked to his chambers. He received some odd looks in return, some bowed heads and nervous-looking servants, but in the end he found he couldn’t stop smiling.

Pausing in his door, surprised to see three maids re-sorting his folded laundry, he quickly dismissed them to the King and set about loading his pack. No doubt if he left Merlin to do it, some essential thing - like clothing - would be forgotten.

Just as he was smiling to himself at the thought of trying to fit into one of Merlin’s tunics again, Merlin burst into the room, breathless and somehow managing to look both elated and anxious at the same time.

“We’re to go today, then?” he asked, and Arthur noticed the large pack slung across Merlin’s back.

“Yes, we will leave as soon as our gear is readied. What did you bring,” he asked, nodding at the over-sized pack, “the whole of your armoire?”

“Nearly.” Merlin ducked his head and flushed, and Arthur wondered what could have motivated such a reaction.

“You said we’d be gone just under two days, did you not?”

“Yes, but....” Merlin’s flush deepened and Arthur couldn’t help but smile just a little.

“But...?”

“Gaius suggested I should keep some things in the antechamber, just until the Rites are completed.” Merlin looked humiliated, as if Gaius had put him out, which Arthur was sure he hadn’t. “If you have no objections, Sire.”

He considered the notion, realizing it had its merits and very few drawbacks. In fact, he could think of none, save the loss of his own privacy, and that was not something he’d had an over-abundance of since Merlin became his servant, anyhow. That time Merlin had been hiding under his bed - and he still didn’t know how long he’d been there. That could have been truly embarrassing, for them both.

“He’s quite right; it only makes sense that you should move a few spare things down here, where you won’t wake him coming in at all hours,” Arthur said with a nod and an incredulous look. “Did you bring your entire bedroom, Merlin?”

Arthur frowned as Merlin’s face fell and flushed a deeper crimson at the same instant.

Knowing Merlin, he likely had brought everything he owned, and what’s more, it all fit in one rather smallish duffle. Arthur carefully ignored the entire realization and turned his back, waving in the general direction of Merlin’s room. “Put it in there; we’ve got to get packing if we’re to leave before long.”

Arthur went to his clothing cupboard and began rummaging through it for things he knew he would need: extra socks and breeches, two thin tunics to go under his mail, a change of boots. He wasn’t sure just how much he could get away with wearing when he dove into the lake, but he couldn’t imagine stripping off more than his chainmail before he did so. It wasn’t the dead of winter, but they were nearing the Yule and the air at night was bitterly cold.

Reaching for yet another pair of stockings and over-socks, he turned and saw Merlin through the door of the antechamber, sitting on the bed there, one hand stroking the fur blanket as if he longed to climb beneath it.

“Merlin, snap out of it! Next thing you’ll be saying goodbye to the fire and waving farewell to the kitchens!” Arthur laughed, tossing his collection of necessities onto the bed. “Well, where are your clothes?”

“Looks as though you’re bringing enough for the two of us,” Merlin smiled, standing up and reaching for his pack. He pulled a small bundle out of the top and leaned the duffle back against the foot of the bed.

“I can’t be expected to share my clothes every day, can I?” As Merlin walked up to lay his things next to Arthur's, he bumped his shoulder against Merlin’s lightly to show he was teasing. “Besides, I need more clothing - you’re not the one who has to drown himself in a lake.”

Next to him, Merlin shivered and Arthur wondered, not for the first time, if Merlin might be afraid of the water, or not know how to swim.

“I’ll have us ready to leave within the hour,” Merlin promised as he walked away. “I’ll just go to the kitchens and fetch us some trail packs, then fetch your armour and shield.”

“No, Merlin. I’ll not be wearing either. We cannot draw attention to ourselves. We’re supposed to be on a short hunting trip, remember? I’ll wear only chainmail and my sword,” Arthur reached for his weapon, ran his thumbnail up the side and, satisfied, sheathed it smoothly. “When did you sharpen this? I can’t imagine you had the time.”

Merlin shrugged. “Last night. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Hmm.” Arthur hadn’t heard so much as a whisper of metal on whetstone in the night, and he was surprised Merlin hadn’t collapsed on his cot when he’d made it back from the library. “Well, it looks in order. Done packing? Off to the kitchens with you, then. I’ll meet you in the courtyard in half an hour. Don’t keep me waiting.”

Merlin smiled. “Wouldn’t dream of it,” he whispered, but Arthur heard him. He’d decided pretty early on not to tell Merlin just exactly how good his hearing was.

 

***

 

“Good thing you packed the crossbow,” Arthur complimented, handing the empty weapon to Merlin and starting for the field where the boar lay dying. He knelt at its head and murmured a prayer of thanks to the creator as it breathed its last.

In truth, Arthur detested killing for sport now, ever since the unicorn, though this could hardly be considered sporting. He felt as though his kills should have meaning now, that sport-hunting was for young men who hadn’t yet learned that without a purpose, death is useless.

“Couldn’t you have just wounded it?” Merlin asked as he tied the crossbow back in place at the rear of his saddle, then led the horses to a stand of trees and looped their reins on the limbs there.

“Have you ever had a wounded, angry boar after you, Merlin? It’s vastly diverting, but I thought we might need to save our energy for the task at hand.”

“You don’t have to be so sarcastic all the time, you know,” Merlin groused, falling to his knees beside the dead boar, fingers reaching out to warily touch its tusks.

Arthur couldn’t resist. He grabbed Merlin’s shoulders and growled, squeezing and laughing as he felt Merlin jump and mutter under his breath. He knelt to pull the arrow from the boar’s body. “What was that,” he asked, smiling. “Did you mean to say you don’t appreciate your Prince’s sense of humour?”

Merlin pulled a face at him, which only made him laugh harder, then joined in. They walked back to their horses, leaving the boar where it lay. Arthur looked back, once, wishing there was at least a way to salvage the meat. Ah well, at least it wasn’t impaling them.

“How much further, Merlin?” he asked, just to get the reaction. He’d already gauged it and had a fairly good sense of distance, but he’d made a point of asking every couple of hours throughout the day.

“If you ask me that one more, time, Sire , I swear I’ll...,” Merlin trailed off as he untied the saddle bag full of food and pulled out a blanket for them to sit on.

Arthur had already found a tall boulder and climbed it, shaking his head. “Up here, in case our little friend has any, well, little friends. We wouldn’t want to be surprised in the middle of our meal.”

“I wouldn’t precisely call it a meal, but alright.” Merlin tossed the bag up and began climbing, but his uncoordinated efforts were slow-going, his feet slipping on the smooth surface of the rock. “You had to pick something difficult to climb, didn’t you?”

Arthur nodded. “That’s kind of the point, you realize. Are your boot-soles bald, or are you just that clumsy?”

“Yes to both, now could you please give me a hand?” Merlin reached up, and though it wasn’t high at all really, looked a bit rattled.

“Are you all right?” he asked, grasping Merlin’s wrist and pulling him up the rock face, wondering what had Merlin so worked up. “You weren’t injured during the chase, were you?”

“Which chase do you mean? The one where he chased us, or the one where we chased him?” Merlin huffed, finally reaching the crest and throwing a leg up onto the top of the boulder. “Or the one where basically I’m only chasing after you, whenever and wherever you decide to run?”

“Any of those, yes.” Arthur grabbed his upper arm and hauled him upright to sit close by. He didn’t want Merlin tumbling off in his absent-mindedness. “Were you injured?”

“Only my pride,” Merlin mumbled, and Arthur smiled, but didn’t respond.

Merlin passed out the food with a regretful look at the empty cloth that had wrapped the hot meat pies they’d eaten mid-morning as they’d ridden.

“Wish we had half a dozen more of those,” Arthur agreed, nodding at the wrappers. “My fingers are freezing, even through my gloves.”

“My mother used to make them for us to take into the fields every morning. Kept us warm for hours, and gave us enough energy to keep moving,” Merlin smiled.

“You miss her.” It wasn’t a question, but then, he didn’t really need to hear the answer. It was written all over Merlin’s face. “Perhaps we can visit her for Yule this year, or she could come to Camelot.”

“You’d allow me to go?” Merlin asked sceptically.

“Of course, Merlin, what do you take me for?” He softened his voice, adding, “I’ve never said you couldn’t visit her.”

“But who would fetch your breakfast, polish your armour, saddle your horse and heat 80 buckets of water for your royal bath?”

“Same servants who did it before you came along, I suppose,” he answered, grinning at Merlin’s frown. “But you’re right. I’d miss the burnt toast, grease spots and boiling bathwater too much. Better invite her to the castle, then. Perhaps she can stay with Gaius now you’ve moved out.”

Merlin smiled, handing out the last two meat pies and thick slices of bread, giving Arthur the lion’s share, though Arthur had stopped expecting them to be anything but equals when they were on the trail. He’d long since begun to think of Merlin as one of his youngest, most naive knights anytime they were away from Camelot. The boy had more courage than any six recruits, for all Arthur’s teasing.

Courage, in stupid abundance, and as much loyalty as he could ever demand from one of his knights, as well. Merlin was a farmboy-turned-servant, yet he’d stepped in between Arthur and death no less than five times, and without hesitation or expectation of royal gratitude.

“You saved my father’s life this morning, Merlin.” Arthur kept his voice soft, his eyes focused out over the field of tall grass in the distance. “There aren’t words to describe how grateful I am.”

He looked over, then, hoping Merlin would be able to see how sincere he felt.

Merlin’s hand rose to his arm and for a moment, Arthur thought of taking it in his own, but Merlin drew it back into his lap, smiling. “You should thank Gaius.”

Arthur waited until Merlin’s eyes met his. “I’m thanking you.” He put his arm around Merlin’s back, hand on his shoulder, squeezing. Merlin stiffened, lean muscles going rigid against his arm. Arthur held it there, hoping Merlin would understand the depth of his gratitude without him having to spell it out. “Without you, he could not have been cured.”

He’d never felt as though it needed to be said; it had always seemed an unspoken understanding between them, but perhaps Merlin needed to hear it, just this once. He certainly deserved to hear it today.

“I know you’ve done a lot for Camelot, Merlin. A lot for me. I haven’t said it enough, I realize. I owe you a debt larger than I could ever repay.”

Merlin looked down at his hands, his voice quiet. “I don’t do anything but what I’m told, Sire.”

“Now, we both know that’s not true.” Arthur smirked, “But you are, very occasionally, remarkable.”

Merlin began to pull away, but Arthur tightened his grip.

“I’m honoured to serve you and the King.” Merlin looked up again, then, and Arthur looked for mockery or laughter, but all he saw was admiration and loyalty. “It’s cold. We should make camp. No chance you’d find the lake in the dark, anyhow.”

“In a moment,” Arthur stalled, staring off at the brilliant pinks and oranges on the horizon. Merlin finally felt as though he was beginning to warm beneath his arm. “You do realize I would likely be king right now if it weren’t for you?” he asked softly. “To be honest, I don’t know what I would have done if... well, I’m not ready to be King.”

Merlin swallowed audibly. “Well, we haven’t completed the Ascension.”

“No, we haven’t,” he said, wondering if Merlin had truly understood him. “But we will, also thanks to you.”

Merlin ducked his head and sighed. “I’m just doing my job.”

“And I’m just doing mine, but it wasn’t I who saved the King today,” he smiled, lowering his head to try to catch Merlin’s eye. They were inches apart, and not for the first time at this close proximity, he felt warmth spread throughout his chest and rise up into his throat. He could just lean down, as naturally as that, and their lips would be touching.

He closed his eyes and gathered his strength. He could not ask that of Merlin, not when Merlin had no repercussion or even the right to refuse. And Arthur guessed, though Merlin sometimes made jokes to the contrary, he wouldn’t ever actually refuse Arthur anything.

He leaned away, slowly, smiling. “Thank you, Merlin.”

“You’re welcome,” Merlin whispered, and a thrill of realization sang through Arthur’s body, mingling with the heady feeling the almost-intimacy left behind.

No denial, no shuffling the praise onto someone else’s shoulders. It was as good as an admission, and Arthur thought it must mean they were close, closer than ever before to Merlin trusting him fully.

When Arthur finally slid smoothly from the boulder, Merlin rolled his eyes at him, tossing the pack so it landed a couple of meters away. Arthur went to pick it up, and when he turned back, Merlin was on the ground, impossibly fast for Merlin’s meagre climbing skills, looking smug.

“Well, I don’t fancy smelling of dead boar or having wolves mistaking me for one, so let’s head back to that stream. We can have a fire under the canopy of the wood, too.”

Arthur nodded and followed Merlin back to the horses, impressed at the level of forethought. Some men never learned the skill of anticipation, but if they did, it usually ended up saving their lives at some point.

They rode in silence back the way they’d come, stopping at a likely-looking clearing inside a thick stretch of forest. The stream provided water for drinking and washing, though they did the latter quickly, spluttering and gasping at its iciness. They dried their faces on the hems of their over-tunics and got to work making camp.

Untying their bedrolls, Arthur spread them out in a double-layer near the fire circle as Merlin coaxed a spark to life in some pine needles. He knew Merlin wouldn’t mind a joint palette, as this was how they’d slept in Merlin’s family home, sharing a blanket, though Arthur wasn’t sure he fancied waking to Merlin’s feet in his face ever again.

He rolled their packs into tight bundles for pillows and laid them out side by side, solving the foot issue. This way they would be able to talk, as well; he hoped to learn more about Merlin’s plan and this mystery object he’d been so tight-lipped about.

When he looked up again, the fire was a crackling blaze, pushing heat against his face. “Way to go, Merlin!” he laughed, turning to warm his fingers. “You’re getting faster at that, you know.”

Merlin nodded and smiled, his palms rubbing together beside the flames. “Practice, Sire.”

“We’re not in the citadel any longer, and my knights aren’t here,” he said, letting only a slight bit of his impatience seep in under the words. “That,” he waved a hand at Merlin dismissively “isn’t necessary out here. Now come to... well, bed, I suppose.”

Merlin’s brow knit in obvious confusion. “Sorry? What isn’t necessary?”

“The formality,” he explained, glaring at Merlin’s look of incredulity. “Don’t look at me like that.”

Merlin covered his mouth with his fist, obviously stifling a laugh.

“Fine, call me what you will, then. See if I care,” he mumbled. “Get in before you freeze.”

Arthur climbed in under the blankets, wriggling down the palette until he was covered to his chin.

The fire cast an orange glow on their small clearing, silhouetting Merlin as he stood. He had a pleasing form, Arthur thought, tall and lean, but whipcord-strong beneath his pale skin. Not for the first time, Arthur wondered that he could look at Merlin with such ease, that it neither disgusted him nor made him feel guilty to watch a servant so closely, so often as he did Merlin.

“Yes, Sir Clotpole,” Merlin barked out, saluting as he lay down, his long legs stretching out, on top of their pile of blankets.

Arthur laughed and shook his head, “What the devil are you doing?”

“Coming to bed?” Merlin took a deep breath and let it out, obviously exasperated. “You told me to.”

“You’re impossible, Merlin, you do know that?” Arthur lifted the top three blankets and yanked, sending Merlin rolling to the dirt. “I’d rather you not lose your fingers and toes,” he jerked his head at the space the raised blankets left. “Under, and move it. You’re letting all the warmth out.”

He knew what Merlin was about - and propriety was something he usually had to coax out of Merlin, or flat-out order him to respect, but freezing for the sake of Arthur’s non-existent modesty was completely moronic.

“Sire-” Merlin started, and Arthur slapped the back of his hand hard into Merlin’s chest. He oomphed and coughed, then continued, “Alright, alright. Arthur . I keep forgetting.”

“You keep forgetting my name?”

“No, that you don’t mind me using it.” Merlin laughed and lay down on his side, facing Arthur, jerking the covers over himself and tucking them in behind.

“You’ve been calling me by my name for months, Merlin.”

“Yes, but only when I forgot and slipped up, or you were ignoring me,” he explained, shivering and pulling the blankets tighter over his shoulder.

“If you pull any more of those blankets over you, I’m the one who’ll be losing fingers and toes,” he complained, giving the covers a jerk of his own. “Move closer, Merlin. Haven’t you ever shared a bedroll before?”

Merlin blinked and looked at him a bit oddly, then scooted a handful of centimetres toward the middle of their makeshift palette. Arthur huffed and shifted over a goodly space, still on his back, until his shoulder touched Merlin’s forearm.

When Merlin made to pull away, Arthur turned his head and glared. “You move and I’ll throw you in the stream.”

“You’d have to get out from under the blankets,” Merlin taunted, tucking his hand under his cheek and settling against him by degrees.

The idiot actually seemed nervous about sharing the blankets; didn’t everyone know it was the only way to find warmth when camping in the winter?

“I’ll throw you in the lake tomorrow, then.”

Merlin lifted his chin just a little. “I was going in anyway, so that’s no threat.”

“You can’t go in, Merlin, you know that. Alone and-”

“Unaided,” Merlin interrupted, rolling his eyes. “As if I don’t have that part etched into my brain by now. And we’ve ignored it so far, haven’t we? What’s the use in playing by the rules this late in the game?”

“I know. I just hope my future as Camelot’s king doesn’t depend on us playing by those rules.”

Merlin’s breath ghosted across his face as he sighed. “I know, Arthur. I’m sorry I keep interfering.”

Merlin had said his name naturally enough that time, Arthur thought triumphantly, but bit his tongue. For all his strength of character, Merlin was always just a little bit fragile, too. The irony of the statement was not lost on him, though he couldn’t tell Merlin that. Apologizing for what amounted to saving Arthur’s life? And at what risk to himself?

With a start at his own stupidity, he realized if Merlin got wounded tomorrow, he had no idea what he was looking for. “I want to know what it is I’m after at the bottom of the lake. We’re nearly there and if something happens to you, I should know so I can complete the Rite.”

“Thanks for caring,” Merlin joked, but nodded and took a deep breath. “It’s a sword, the sword your father used to defeat the black rider.”

Arthur turned his head to look at Merlin, gauging if he was joking or not. “Where did you get it?”

“I- I’m not at liberty to say.” Merlin closed his eyes and Arthur watched in fascination as his entire body went tense, right down to the shin that pressed against Arthur’s knee.

“You’re bringing me to the place where you hid it so I can very possibly die trying to retrieve it and you aren’t at liberty to say?” Arthur pushed up on his elbow, turning fully toward Merlin. “I am the Crown Prince, Merlin. Unless you are under orders from my father not to tell me, then you bloody well are at liberty to say.”

Merlin rolled to his back, his eyes flashing darkly as Arthur had rarely seen them. “If I tell you, it means my life is forfeit,” he said softly, turning away again, “but I will, if you command it.”

Arthur growled in frustration and threw himself back on his pack. “You can’t still believe that I would allow anyone to... execute you?”

“We both know there are forces in Camelot stronger than you,” Merlin whispered. “I am not afraid to die, but, given a choice, I’d rather stick around and listen to you complain about what an incompetent servant I am, if you don’t mind.”

All anger drained from him like sand through a sieve, and he turned to Merlin, pressing close along Merlin’s back. He shifted his legs closer, almost touching. He wondered if Merlin would ever be truly comfortable in his presence, let alone with his touch. “I don’t need to know where it’s been, then. Tell me where it is now, and be more specific than ‘the bottom of the lake,’ please.”

He wasn’t sure Merlin was going to speak - the moment stretched out, the only sounds their breathing and the crackling of the fire. A rock dug in to his arm where he held himself up, but he didn’t move.

“The lake has a sort of rounded inlet on the Eastern side. There is a fallen tree covered in moss there. Well, it was covered in moss, but probably isn’t now. It’s a huge tree, large enough for a man to crawl into. Follow the direction it points, near enough to dead centre in the horseshoe of the inlet. The blade went straight in, tip down when I threw it, and it’s heavy, so I’m guessing it didn’t shift a lot in any storms or currents.”

Arthur listened carefully, cataloguing the details, repeating them in his mind once, again before he spoke. “And you do not believe any harm will come to you if I claim this weapon for Camelot? If it belongs to a sorcerer....”

Merlin shook his head, but Arthur couldn’t really see his face. “It doesn’t. It belongs to you. I meant it for you from the beginning, but the King... well, you know.”

Was the sword even Merlin’s to give? What claims did the unnamed enforcers of its secret past still hold over it?

The blankets shifted further down his chest and he reached to draw them up, realizing they’d both been lying there growing colder this whole time.

He pushed his pack into a more comfortable position under his cheek, then reached an arm around Merlin’s waist and pulled, tightening his grip as Merlin gasped and immediately tensed as if to fight him.

He shifted closer, flush all along Merlin’s back, legs tucking up against Merlin’s. “Calm down. The only way we’re going to get warm on a night like this is by sharing body heat. Haven’t you learnt anything, Merlin?”

“Oh.” The body under his arm tensed and then stilled , not moving so much as a muscle. He could feel Merlin holding perfectly, impressively frozen, his back a wall against Arthur’s chest, Merlin’s hips locked in place up against his lap, their legs matched up all the way down to their boots.

Not one muscle.

It went on and on and Arthur found himself stifling a laugh, though he honestly did feel a bit sorry for making Merlin so entirely uncomfortable.

“If this offends those non-delicate sensibilities of yours,” he chuckled, “I’d be happy to reverse our positions. It makes no difference to me as long as one side of me stays warm.”

Merlin shook his head, his hair brushing against Arthur’s face, making him blink and wrinkle his nose.

“No, no.” Merlin’s head stopped shaking, but his body tensed even further, if that were possible. “No... Arthur. This is, well....”

“Getting warmer already,” he said softly, chin tucking in at the juncture of Merlin’s neck and shoulder. “The knights sleep two and three to a palette on winter campaign, especially when there are no tents to be had.”

He took a deep breath, savouring the way Merlin’s tunic hitched up, Arthur’s fingertips just barely touching the warm skin of Merlin’s stomach.

“Like this?” Merlin asked softly, his legs shifting against Arthur’s. “Don’t you always have a tent?”

Arthur closed his eyes and sighed. No, not like this, it was never like this with his knights, he thought, but Merlin couldn’t know that.

“I know you think I’m an arrogant prat, Merlin, but I would never put myself above my men. They would hardly respect me if I didn’t treat them as equals.”

“Equals?” Merlin asked, as if he literally could not fathom the meaning of the word. “Apart from ordering them about, eating all the best food and bringing your servant along to tend your horse for you?”

Merlin pressed against him as he laughed, his head tilting back, hair tickling Arthur’s chin and lips.

“I bring you along so I don’t have to ‘order them about,’ and we share meals from the same supply bags. Haven’t you noticed that I never follow any of them into a skirmish? I put myself in point position, the first to face any danger.” He was rather proud of the fact that he did it without thinking, that his instinct was to lead, to defend.

The laughter stopped, but Arthur could feel Merlin’s smile in his words. “I’m only teasing, Dollophead. Of course I’ve noticed; I’ve been just behind you for more than one of those skirmishes. Plus, I helped cook most of that food, so I know you eat with the knights.”

It was true, Merlin had been there, just behind him, nearly every time they’d knowingly walked toward danger. He’d signalled like mad for Merlin to stay put, to move out of harm’s way, to retreat, but Merlin refused to understand every single time.

“Why won’t you learn my signals?” he asked, suddenly curious to know Merlin’s reasoning.

“I know your signals,” Merlin said, as if Arthur was incredibly thick. “I just choose to ignore them.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Merlin,” he threatened, but there was no bite behind it. That Merlin chose again and again to risk his life in order to provide even the smallest amount of protection to Arthur was enough to make his throat tighten. His knights were loyal, but they were trained to be so, brought up hearing nothing but the virtues of fealty to one’s king. Merlin wasn’t even from Camelot, yet he stood unfailingly beside Arthur at every test of his honour.

“Let’s get some sleep.” Merlin turned just a little to look over his shoulder and Arthur nodded.

“If you steal the blankets in the night, you’ll learn firsthand why the stocks are a worse punishment in winter,” Arthur smiled and tucked in tighter, drawing the covers to his ears. “Goodnight, Merlin.”

 

***

 

Arthur woke to the frozen morning with a start, all around them the ticking crack of ice falling from tree limbs. He supposed that is what woke him, since Merlin’s body was still in a warm, languid sprawl before him. Or it could have been the leg rubbing rhythmically against Arthur’s.

Gently extricating his arm from around Merlin’s waist, Arthur laid his hand on Merlin’s hip to still the inexorable movement. It wasn’t unpleasant - well, not in the strictest sense - but it was a problem. He shifted his hips away, careful to keep his chest against Merlin’s back. He didn’t want to wake him just yet, but he certainly didn’t want Merlin realizing the reaction he’d provoked.

His sensibilities might not be as delicate as Arthur liked to joke, but they surely wouldn’t approve of the state Arthur was in, despite it being so warm and well... morning. He held his breath and moved his arm a little lower, shifting as if in sleep. He could feel Merlin's arousal, high against his belly, and it was all the permission he needed. He tucked his face into Merlin's neck and let his lips rest against the warm, smooth skin there.

The near-silence of the woods held them tightly, a cocoon of nature and no one nearby but them and the horses, who huffed and brayed softly. They knew he was awake, of course, and that meant food and warmth for them, too.

They’d have to wait, he decided, and closed his eyes, breathing in the crisp morning and the clean scent of Merlin’s hair. He was glad he’d forced the bath on Merlin, now, and not only because of their close proximity. It was time Merlin learnt to relax a bit, at least when they were alone together.

They truly were friends now, after all, however awkward the beginning. He didn’t know what else to call Merlin, really. Servant was not only a misnomer, but inadequate. Merlin did more - and less - for him than any servant he’d ever had.

As much as he hated to admit it, and as much as he refused on principle to stop, it was beginning to feel odd barking orders at him, though Arthur supposed it was the best and only way to keep him at hand. Well that, and the fact that the thought of anyone else being so constantly in his presence was irritating.

Merlin rolled away from him, curling in on himself and moaning as if in pain.

Arthur laid a hand on his back. “Merlin, you’re dreaming.”

Another pained sound and Merlin kicked out, jerking the covers off of them both, while Merlin jumped to his hands and knees, gasping. “What- shite, oh!” He sat up quickly, pulling the covers into his lap, face flushed and breath fogging the air between them.

Arthur sat up, too, sighing. “Bad dream?”

Merlin nodded, then reached for his pack, turning abruptly away, pulling out and drawing a clean tunic over his dirty one. “I’ll tend the fire.”

Breakfast was a quick affair, heated water in tankards that warmed their hands even through their gloves and rolls with thick crusts and soft centres, and bits of sausage here and there inside them. Merlin asked if he’d like more, but Arthur refused. His stomach was already nervous, and he knew from experience he moved faster the emptier it was.

The lake was close, only a couple of leagues away, their horses barely warmed up by the time they reached it. A thick fog spread across the lake surface, but the sun was peeking through the cloud cover and Arthur guessed the lake would be clear by the time he was ready to dive in.

He followed Merlin for once, gesturing for him to lead when they dismounted and
tethered the horses to a tree at the edge of the woods. They went the rest of the way around the lake on foot, the circular inlet just as Merlin had described.

Merlin knew how to pick memorable landmarks, that was certain.

The tree was bare now, frost crystals sparkling on its bark, the sheer size of it startling. It stretched nearly the length of the knights’ practice field, at least thirty metres, and its height matched Arthur’s shoulder, even lying felled as it was. He laid a hand on it in awe, and smiled at Merlin’s broad grin.

“See why I chose this place? Save burning, that thing is going to be here for a while.”

Arthur nodded. “It must be hundreds of years old.” He turned and stripped off his jacket, tossing it on the tree. “Now, help me off with my mail so I can find this blade of yours.”

Merlin set down the pack of extra clothing they’d brought to help Arthur off with the heavy mail apron. He laid it on the tree next to Arthur’s jacket and clapped his hands together. “Boots?”

“Yes, good idea,” he agreed, leaning back against the tree and lifted one foot, then the other, tugging off his boots and throwing them to Merlin, who rolled his eyes and tossed them to the ground beside the pack, then bent to untie his own boots. “What do you think you’re doing, Merlin?”

“I don’t fancy riding home with frozen feet, either.”

“Well, that won’t be a problem, seeing as you’re not to step one foot into that water,” Arthur glared, pulling Merlin to his feet and shoving a finger sharply into his chest. “Not one foot, Merlin, do you hear me? No matter what happens.”

Merlin grinned broadly at him, but dropped the laces of his boot. “Fine, then, take all the glory for yourself,” he joked, and Arthur backed away, looking out at the lake. “It’d serve you right if I had to come in and rescue your royal backside anyway.”

Arthur shook his head and began unbuckling his sword belt. “It’d serve you right to have to come in. That water will be colder than my belt buckle, I’d wager.” Shoving his scabbard into Merlin’s chest, he raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t you get a fire going while I... right.”

Merlin was laughing - laughing - at him. “Can’t stand the cold at all, can you? Squash up beside me, Merlin, all the knights do it! Get a fire going, Merlin, my fingers are freezing!

“On second thought, since we’ve decided not to mind the rules at all now, why don’t you go in after this sword?” Arthur asked, crossing his arms and leaning back against the tree. “I’ve already got one.”

Rubbing his chest, Merlin hefted Arthur’s scabbard. “Oh, I know, believe me. And I think you’d better at least give it a try. If you can’t manage it, I’ll give it a go.” Merlin’s smile was infectious, though Arthur tried not to let his own show.

“Right then, here I go,” he said, walking slowly toward the lake, exactly in the direction the log pointed. He didn’t believe Merlin could have thrown a blade - any blade - very far, so when he was waist deep, he started feeling along the bottom with his stocking feet.

The water was definitely cold; he had to clench his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering, and his shoulders hunched up as he stepped off a sort of ledge underwater, going in up to his chin without warning. He felt something brush along his leg, perhaps a fish or an eel, and he couldn’t help but jerk away from the touch.

“Everything alright out there?” Merlin called from the shore, looking for all the world as if he really was about to come in after Arthur. “You’re near the spot where it fell, I believe.”

Arthur turned back around, gingerly feeling along the slimy lake bottom again. His toes caught up on something solid, but when he followed it to its end, it turned out to be a large stone. “You believe? Do you know where it landed or not, Merlin?”

Behind him he could hear the water splashing softly along the lake’s edge, and Merlin’s sharp intake of breath. “ARTHUR! To your left!” And his sword sang as Merlin unsheathed it and threw it into the air.

It sailed straight to him as if being guided, straight into his upraised hand, so forcefully that his elbow splashed back down into the water as he caught it. He whirled about and saw what Merlin had seen: A slick, black form just beneath the surface, not four meters away. He braced his foot against the rock he’d found moments early and raised his sword, though he knew at this depth, he would have almost no momentum behind any swing.

The dark shape rose and broke the surface, and Arthur fell as he instinctively leapt backwards, which was a stupid thing to do neck-deep in a lake. The woman who emerged from the water did so slowly, slowly enough that he could have run her through, even submerged as he was. He didn’t, though.

Her countenance was so peaceful, her eyes so expressive, and she shone an emerald green - not black at all - in the soft morning light. “You have come seeking Excalibur, young Prince Arthur. I did not expect to see you so soon.”

He shook his head in disbelief, frozen in place, though he couldn't stop his shivering. He heard a splash at the water’s edge and glanced toward the sound, jaw clenching. “Merlin, don’t you dare come out here. Leave this to me.” When the splashes continued, he barked, “That’s an order!”

There was a scoffing laugh and the sloshing of Merlin wading into deeper water. “I’m not one of your knights.”

Arthur stared at the lady before him, and she looked like a lady, too, dressed in what seemed a fine silk which flowed in the air around her as if it were still underwater. Her hair, too, seemed to swim through the air, though there was only a whisper of a breeze. It brought the sweet, sharp scent of fresh-cut greenery to him, and he took a deep breath of it, unable to help himself.

Merlin came to his side, tripping on nothing, probably, going face-first into the water and grabbing onto Arthur’s sword arm for balance, nearly taking him over as well. As it was, his sword fell from his raw, frigid fingers and went beneath the water before he could catch it. He caught Merlin, though, yanking him upright and jerking out of the way as he shook the water from his hair, blowing out like a bellows.

He looked back to the lady, who held one hand to her mouth to cover a small laugh. “Emrys, you never fail to amuse, my dear.”

As if they were well-acquainted, Merlin shrugged and grinned, then held out one hand to take the lady’s, leaning over to kiss the ethereal flesh. “It’s so good to see you, too. If I’d known you were here, well, I wouldn’t have tossed a sword on your head,” he laughed, and she giggled along with him.

“What the bloody hell is going on, Merlin?” he whispered, staring in shock. “Do you two know each other? And who is Emrys?”

“Uh,” Merlin shook his head at the lady, who was giving him a quizzical look. “It’s my family name. And yes, you could say we’ve met. Arthur, this is-”

“The Lady of the Lake, if you please,” the woman said in a gentle voice. “You may disregard the sword you’ve dropped, Prince Arthur. I have another for you.”

With that, she dipped her hand below the surface of the water and drew up a gleaming, gorgeous weapon, the one Merlin had spoken of, he assumed.

“Arthur must retrieve the blade himself to fulfil the sixth Rite of Ascension, my Lady,” Merlin said, stepping between her and Arthur, who shoved Merlin back behind him and gave him a glare he hoped would keep Merlin in place.

“We are on a quest to claim an object of the Old Religion for Camelot, my Lady,” he explained. “I must complete seven such quests to receive the blessing of the Gods upon my reign.”

“You may not take up this sword without my permission, Arthur,” the lady said. “I will allow you to retrieve it yourself on one condition.”

Arthur’s hand itched to reach beneath the water and clutch his sword. He didn’t believe there was a single condition a magical being had ever set that didn’t involve some calamity or curse. “What condition?”

“When you are dead, the sword must be returned to this lake by a trusted friend.” The lady gestured at Merlin, who smiled and nodded.

“Thank you, my Lady,” Merlin said, giving Arthur an impatient look and jerking his head in the Lady’s direction. “Accept it, Arthur,” he whispered.

Arthur took a tentative step forward and the Lady began to sink beneath the water again, her beautiful gown spreading all around her until it almost touched Arthur’s outstretched hand. She laid the sword flat on the surface of the water and bowed her head.

“You will do great things with this weapon, Prince Arthur. You will bring such peace to Camelot as has not been seen in its history. Take it up, Once and Future King.” Her voice was compelling, strong and sure, and he cautiously took a deep breath, wanting and not wanting to let the words sink in.

“I will do as you have asked, Lady, and my thanks.” As she let the sword go, it slowly began to sink and Arthur held out his hands underwater to catch it. It gleamed, a brilliant spot of light that blinded him for an instant, and when he had recovered, the Lady of the Lake was gone.

Merlin was already turning to wade out of the lake, his shivering so hard his clicking teeth sounded like a rabid woodpecker.

“Merlin?” he asked as he followed, as though the question wasn’t obvious. “Who the hell was that?”

At the edge of the lake, Merlin sat and pulled off his boots, dumping water from each in turn, looking at Arthur with laughter in his glare. “Told you I’d have to come in after you, Prat.”

Arthur stripped off his tunic, skin tightening in the icy air, and pulled another from his pack, using the hem to mop at his face. “I want to know who that was and how you knew her.”

Merlin shrugged, fishing through the pack for one of Arthur’s spare rolls of socks. “I knew her when she was alive. Her name was... well, it doesn’t matter.” He looked down at the socks as though he’d forgotten how to put them on. “At the time, I thought I... loved her. I did, in a way, I guess.”

Arthur’s jaw dropped, but Merlin didn’t look up to see it. He threw his arms up in the air. “You thought you were in love with this girl, she died, and now she lives in a lake, handing out swords?” That earned the idiot’s attention. “Merlin! How do you get into these convoluted messes?”

Another shrug, and Merlin smiled up at him. “Usually I just follow you,” he grinned. “Sometimes I lead, if you’re unconscious.”

He cuffed Merlin upside the head and snatched the pack away from him, getting a new pair of breeches and trousers out. He threw them at Merlin’s head. “Get changed before we both catch our deaths and you have to toss this sword back in.”

Merlin stood and began undressing, his back turned. “I hope I never have that honour, Sire,” he said quietly, and Arthur laid a hand on his shoulder for a moment in thanks, then turned his back, sheathing Excalibur and laying it atop the fallen tree.

He stripped off as well, pulling on his dry clothing and reaching for the scabbard again, strapping it on. The weight was a comfort against his hip, and he wondered if the blade’s magic had something to do with it.

He carefully didn’t turn his head until he heard the soft slide and pull of Merlin’s leather belt, though neither of them was in any shape to enjoy that sort of view, aching and frozen with the cold as they were.

“Look at it - it’s the most perfectly-balanced blade I’ve ever felt,” he said in awe as he drew the sword, holding the hilt flat along two of his fingers. “And the inlay of metal is exquisite.”

“Gwen’s father made it before- well, before he was executed.”

“You’re joking. Tell me you’re joking?” he winced, holding the shaft of the sword in his gloved hand to examine it more closely. “Will she recognize it?”

Merlin shook his head. “I doubt it. It was a good blade before, but it was transformed when it was burnished with magic.”

“How do you know so much about it, Merlin?” he asked carefully, knowing it was a tender subject but too curious to stop himself asking.

“I was there when it was done.” Merlin looked at him warily. “These were formed by the magic,” he added, pointing to the engraving on the blade.

Arthur looked at the detailed lettering, resisting the urge to demand more information. Merlin had been there when the sword was burnished with magic? Had he done it himself? He bit his tongue and stared at Merlin’s distorted reflection on the surface of the blade.

Excalibur. It felt like a rope pulling taut between himself and Merlin, another mystery he couldn’t unravel without Merlin’s trust.

“Take Me Up. Just what the Lady told me,” he said, turning the blade to the opposite side, “Cast Me Away.” Arthur ran his fingertip down the etchings and at once felt as if he’d always owned it. “When I am dead, it will be cast away. Not before.”

Merlin gave him a small smile and tied on a dry handkerchief, a dusky blue one Arthur had tucked into the pack. It didn’t suit him; it was too dark and made Merlin’s skin look positively translucent, but it was all Arthur had had and he’d guessed Merlin wouldn’t want to do without, not in this chilly air.

They picked up the pack, Arthur sheathed Excalibur, and they dragged themselves to the area Merlin had begun clearing for the fire he had never got around to setting.

“I’ll gather kindling; you start the fire as best you can. If we don’t warm up soon, Camelot will have to change its royal colour to blue.”

“I can’t believe I’m in your clothes again,” Merlin joked as he cupped his hands and blew into them. “Hurry up with the kindling; I think my hair is actually icing over.”

Surely he hadn’t gotten the flint to spark that quickly. He hadn’t even heard Merlin tapping the stones together, but there was a thin stream of smoke rising from beneath his hands.

“You may be lacking as a manservant, but you’re a hell of a fire-starter, Merlin,” he complimented as he handed down the small bundle of twigs and pine cones he’d gathered at the edge of the woods. “You’ll have to show me your trick sometime.”

“Oh no, Sire, I couldn’t do that,” Merlin teased, only just dodging the punch to his arm. “ Arthur , I meant Arthur!”

“And why won’t you show me?” Arthur asked, holding out his hands to the fire, which wasn’t big enough to warm a cat yet, although it was growing quickly.

Merlin raised his chin and gave him a small smirk. “A man needs some secrets.”

Arthur laughed. “You couldn’t possibly have any secrets. We’re together constantly, and I’m very observant.”

“Yes, you were so observant that you saw me courting her ladyship.” Merlin nodded at the lake. “When she died, you thought I was upset because you’d thrown water over me.”

“Well, I might not have recognized it as a broken heart, but I noticed something was amiss,” Arthur prevaricated, his fingers finally starting to thaw. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“She had magic,” Merlin said quietly, his grin dying on his lips. “I couldn’t have protected her from the King, even if she had lived.”

“You were in love with a sorceress?” Arthur asked, hardly able to believe his ears. Merlin, his Merlin, that close to so much danger and he’d had no idea. “Merlin, what were you thinking?”

“It wasn't love, not the way you mean.” Merlin poked at the fire with a stick and didn’t look up, not even after several minutes. Finally, he said, “She was a good person. Kind and beautiful. She needed me. We... we understood each other,” he said, his voice just above a whisper. “I thought I could ease her pain, but...”

Normally, with his knights, he would have ribbed them, teased them, bothered them for details of any encounters they might have had with such a beautiful girl, but this was Merlin, and not only did he know it wouldn’t be appreciated, he didn’t want to hear it.

“You should have told me,” he said quietly. He stared into the flames, wondering what he would have said if Merlin had told him. Probably something cutting, but he liked to think he would have been understanding, that he could rise above his feelings and be happy for Merlin. If the clutching of his gut was any indication, that just wasn't true.

Merlin threw a twig onto the fire and sighed. “I wanted to, but I knew you would see her as a threat.”

“Of course I would have,” he snapped. If his suspicions were well-founded, then it was far more dangerous for Merlin to associate with sorcerers than even himself. “You cannot just go around befriending sorcerers, Merlin. Don't you realize how dangerous they can be?”

Merlin glanced up at him, his eyes over-bright in the fire’s glow. “Magic is always within reach, and not often in the hands of evil warlocks, even if you refuse to see it,” he said, his voice edgy, and that just wasn’t like Merlin. At his quizzical look, Merlin took a deep breath and went on. “The King is wrong to ban sorcery. Take the Lady for example - she was attacked and made into a magical... person. It wasn’t her fault, she didn’t ask for it, and yet Uther would have had her burned just for existing.”

Arthur held his gaze, then laid a hand on his shoulder, squeezing. “I worry for you, but I would not have you lose someone you love for the sake of my father’s edict. When Gaius was- I would have done anything to spare him. I’m not my father - you should know that by now.”

“I do, Arthur, but the way you speak about sorcery...,” Merlin had his eyes closed, one hand brushing across them as though he were very tired. “I know you have reason.”

“Yes, sorcery has opened wounds in me that will never heal, that is true enough. That I wanted revenge could hardly be held against me.”

“No, Sire.” Merlin whispered, and Arthur sighed.

So they were back to ‘Sire,’ and sorcery was once again between them.

“How did you light the fire so quickly?” he asked gently, eyes steady on Merlin’s as they opened. “I need to know. Tell me?”

Merlin shook his head, swallowing hard. “I cannot.”

“You will not.”

“I will, one day.”
Merlin’s answer was a whisper, but it rang in Arthur’s ears.

They didn’t speak for a long while, warming themselves by their small blaze, dawn burning the fog from the lake completely by the time Merlin stood and shouldered the pack, kicking sand over the flames.

“We’d best be off if we’re to return to Camelot before sundown.” Merlin led the way back to the horses, and Arthur let him, his hand on Excalibur’s hilt the whole way.

 

***

 

“She’s actually quite stunning, isn’t she?” Arthur asked lightly, obviously trying to break the tension that had lingered between them after breakfast despite their best efforts at normalcy.

They’d ridden in near silence for over an hour, until Merlin began jabbering on. It never failed to elicit a response, and before long, they’d laid the issue of sorcery aside once again, though it hung like an undercurrent beneath their banter.

Arthur poked at his boot with the tip of the sword, holding Excalibur up so the point nearly touching Merlin’s arm as their horses sidled just a step closer together. “Look at the etching.”

“Yes, she’s even more beautiful from a distance, you know,” he laughed, pushing the tip away from himself and reaching back to draw open the strings of his travel pouch. “Shall we eat in the saddle, or stop?”

“Let’s break at the next clearing,” Arthur said, sheathing Excalibur and shifting in his saddle. “The horses need a rest.”

Merlin knew that was knight’s code for the growing need for a tree, and since he was beginning to feel the same urge, he just nodded. “Yes, Llamrei seems very antsy today, have you noticed?”

Arthur gave him a sceptical look and a snort. “You wouldn’t know ‘antsy’ if it knocked you upside the head. Your mare is the calmest thing in Camelot’s stables, Merlin, including the stable-hands.”

“Well, you gave her to me, so you have no one to blame but yourself if you don’t like her,” he grinned. “Besides, I am the stable-hand, more often than not, in case you haven’t noticed.”

He pulled the ties on his bundle tight again with a bit of regret. He was starving, and he’d never managed to get used to eating on someone else’s schedule. Arthur could go hours late for meals, caught up in over-long practice sessions or drinks with Erec or Leon, to which Merlin was never invited but always followed anyway, just to make sure the Prince didn’t do something he’d regret the next morning.

He was a third wheel. It was his purpose in life to be a spare, to stand when everyone else sat, to eat last, to wake first. And it was miserable, when he was alone and finishing his chores for Gaius, or running back and forth across the citadel on the least important of errands.

But then again, there were benefits. No one much noticed him if he kept quiet enough, which let him watch freely when others would have been dismissed. And he could come and go throughout the castle as he pleased, as long as he walked with purpose, as if on some errand for Arthur.

And if he woke early enough, so early only he and the first cooks were awake, he could steal a hot roll to eat on the way upstairs. He’d soft-step into Arthur’s rooms just after dawn, lay out the tray of covered breakfast plates, hang the kettle over a roaring fire for Arthur's morning ablutions.

If Arthur was still sprawled across the bed, Merlin would go to him, lean against a bedpost and wait for the sun to kiss the window sills as he watched Arthur sleep. It was the best part of his days, those silent, stolen minutes when Arthur wasn't a prince and he wasn't a servant.

He watched Arthur then and every minute in between the serving, when he was fighting, laughing, drinking too much, riding his horse into a froth. Merlin stayed by his side and kept him comfortable. If he did all he could in the menial day-to-day things, Arthur would learn to trust him, to depend on him.

Years from now, Merlin kept telling himself, those ever-full cups of wine and his ever-present shoulder to lean on would mean Arthur would look to him to help rule Camelot, and hopefully, would realize that all sorcerers were not vengeful and homicidal.

It didn't hurt that they got on well, though it was a surprise when it began. He hadn't truly expected Arthur to actually learn from his mistakes, but the royal prat turned out to have a king-size heart, even if you had to dig deep to find it and never, ever throw it in his face.

And as many years as Arthur had been trained in first-class arrogance and pride, he was quick enough to throw off all the trappings and, well... play. He joked, wrestled, played stones - mostly with the knights, but sometimes, on the days when his princely duties were the lightest, he'd lark about with Merlin, too.

Catching up his reins, he nudged his horse into a trot, passing Arthur and turning in his saddle to grin back at him. “Race you!”

Arthur’s broad smile was acceptance enough and Merlin turned back, ducking his head low over his stallion’s neck, whispering encouragement even as he dug his heels in. A couple of years ago he’d barely been steady enough on horseback to keep his seat. Now he rode almost as well as Arthur, and as swiftly, if not as regally. He was rather proud that he hadn't resorted to magic to learn to ride.

He pulled up just a bit when he saw the trees thinning ahead. Glancing back, he saw the road was thick with dust behind them. Merlin’s horse shied and skidded to a halt, rearing up on its hind legs and throwing its neck high in alarm. Before Merlin could even blink, he flew from his saddle and landed in the tall grass on his stomach, the blades lashing his skin on the way down. His hands flew instinctually up to cover his head and face, and now his elbows were skinned to bleeding, his breath knocked from him so swiftly he couldn't seem to catch it.

The impact jarred his head and he shook it, only realizing when he was rolled onto his back and saw Arthur yelling over him that he must’ve been calling out all along. He looked panicked, his eyes darting from Merlin’s bloody elbows to his face, which Arthur took in both hands, pushing Merlin’s own fingers away.

“Can you hear me?” Arthur ’s voice broke through the ringing silence in Merlin’s ears. “Merlin, answer me!”

Merlin took a deep breath and let his head fall back, wincing as it thudded on the ground. “Sort of. Rang my bell is all. Give me a minute.”

Arthur breathed out, a sort of impatient sigh of relief, turning Merlin’s face gently from side to side, yanking off his glove with his teeth and feeling all over Merlin’s head for lumps. Merlin closed his eyes and tried to plant the memory in his addled brain. It wasn’t often he was cared for, and almost never by Arthur, who usually just handed him over to Gaius.

“Can you sit up?” Arthur asked, taking Merlin by the shoulders and raising him up into a sitting position without waiting for his answer.

“I guess so.” Merlin laughed, then winced and sucked in a breath, winced again. “Ow, my chest - God, is this how it feels every time you break a rib?” He didn’t want to sound weak, but this was an entirely new kind of pain.

“Does it feel like shards of glass cutting into your lungs when you take a deep breath?”

“Exactly like that,” Merlin answered, nodding, then stopped and held his head with his free hand. It ached, a dull pain at the base of his skull, probably just from the impact of the fall. He tried not to take a full breath, though his lungs burned for one.

“Then yes, and you're lucky you're breathing. Tell me if you start having more trouble getting your breath. In the meantime, let’s get you cleaned up.” Arthur reached for the pack on Merlin’s saddle and pulled out yesterday’s tunic. It was still damp and smelled of the woods and the lake. Arthur twisted the cork on the water skin and drenched the tunic, pressing it to Merlin’s oozing elbows.

He shied away, looking regretfully at the ruin of his best tunic as Arthur continued swiping at the blood. “I’m fine.” At Arthur’s doubtful look, he sighed, “I’ll be fine. I told you she was antsy! Just- did you see what spooked her?”

Arthur turned to look at the now-calm horse, shaking his head. “No idea. I’ll take a look around as soon as we’ve gotten you squared-away.”

“Go on, and be careful. I can tend this,” he said, taking the tunic from Arthur and pressing it to one elbow. “I'm breathing fine, aside from the excruciating pain.”

As Arthur stood to go, drawing Excalibur smoothly from its scabbard, he looked back at Merlin. “Whistle if you need me - I know you remember the signal, so I’ll not ask,” he smirked, then whistled the high, sharp notes anyway, as if he wasn’t willing to leave it to chance.

When he was clear of earshot, Merlin whispered his thanks and a quick mending spell, which stopped the blood but did nothing for the sharp sting in his side as he pushed himself to his feet and went to check on his horse.

Arthur returned quickly, shaking his head. “Nothing. See anything here?”

“No, it’s been quiet and she’s perfectly fine. Must’ve been a snake or something.”

“Must’ve been,” Arthur agreed, sheathing the great sword with what looked like a bit of remorse. “Are you able to eat, or should we ride on?”

“Eat, please,” Merlin smiled. It was almost worth being tossed from the saddle to get to eat sooner rather than later. “I’m famished.”

“When are you not?” Arthur teased, pulling the bags from Merlin’s saddle and kneeling to spread the cloth that would serve as their table. He held out a huge chunk of wheat loaf and a wedge of cheese that could feed a mouse family for a week. “Here, I’m not fond of this bread and the cheese is too mild. You have it.”

Merlin wasn’t about to turn him down, but he hesitated before taking the food. It meant Arthur would have almost nothing today, not until they reached the citadel that evening. They’d been making good time, but he knew riding made Arthur hungry and now they’d be going a bit slower, he supposed.

“There’s not much left in the pack. You might want to rethink your offer,” he said, setting the food down on the cloth. “I’ll eat what you can’t. Don’t want to fill up on bread and cheese, anyhow. I’m sure Gaius has something for tonight cooking on the fire as we speak.”

Arthur waved a hand in dismissal. “No, really, I’m not even that hungry. Go on, Merlin. I insist.” He glared, although one side of his mouth was twitching into a smile.

“All right, but if your stomach complains later, I don’t want to hear about it,” he laughed, taking the cheese and biting into it. It was delicious - he had no idea how Arthur could possibly think it too mild. Maybe he hadn’t thought that at all; maybe he was just being nice because Merlin was hurt.

The thought warmed his cheeks, though Merlin guessed he’d never know for sure. Arthur’s poker face was the exact opposite of Merlin’s expressive one. He envied Arthur that, and there honestly wasn’t much he envied about Arthur’s life.

“How are your ribs?” Arthur asked after they’d finished eating, reaching halfway across to lay a hand on Merlin’s side before pausing and drawing back his hand. “Are they easing up?”

“No, not even a bit,” Merlin hissed as he touched his side gently. “I think they’re getting worse, actually.”

“Hmm, let me...” Arthur murmured, this time knocking Merlin’s fingers aside to feel gingerly all along Merlin’s ribs. He nodded as Merlin winced and jerked away, his other hand going to the juncture of Merlin’s neck and shoulder to steady him. When Merlin jerked in surprise, Arthur's thumb began rubbing there, as if to calm him.

He kept still, concentrating on that slow, soothing touch as Arthur pressed his fingers against the worst of the pain from his chest all the way around his side to his back. “Well, at least you know how to fall well. I’d say it’s either two or three you’ve cracked, and you’ll be feeling them for a while, too.”

“Great. I’m sure riding is going to be a joy now.”

“Yes,” Arthur smirked, shaking his head as if in sympathy. “You’ll feel every hoofbeat, I’m afraid. I'll wrap them. It'll be easier on you.”

Merlin nodded - what else could he do - and grabbed onto Arthur’s arm to steady himself as he rose, hunching his shoulders around the white-hot streaks of pain along his ribs. “Well, let’s get on with it, then. I want some arnica on my chest and could use a litre of Gaius' mint leaf tonic for this headache, too.”

“You’re starting to think like him, you know,” Arthur laughed, pulling Merlin’s uninjured arm over his shoulders and wrapping an arm carefully around his waist to support him as they walked to a stand of trees.

“Am not,” he shot back weakly, trying very hard not to make any sounds of pain or cringe too much.

“Go ahead - you can, um,” Arthur waved in the general direction of Merlin’s trousers and suddenly Merlin understood what they were doing.

“Oh, right,” he mumbled, his face heating as he reached for his laces and pulled them open. He relieved himself as quickly as he could manage and laced himself up again, making a mess of the knot in his haste.

“Better?” Arthur asked as Merlin turned back around to see him standing not two meters away, leaning on another tree.

“Yes, thanks, and I can walk by myself, you know,” he grumbled, though besides the pain and his own embarrassment, he had no reason. “I mean, you don’t have to....”

“I’m aware,” Arthur smirked. “Stop being such a mule and come on.” He held out his arm for Merlin.

Merlin nodded and reached up to wrap his arm around Arthur’s shoulders again, a hiss escaping as his ribs ground in his chest. Arthur’s other arm wrapped tightly around Merlin’s back, fingers carefully holding onto his belt instead of his injured side.

“I think your spare tunic is the best we can do for a wrap until we reach Camelot, though it’s still a bit damp,” he said, helping Merlin lower himself onto a log, then pulling Merlin’s riding cloak from his shoulders. He threw it over the log beside Merlin, then reached for the bloodied, damp tunic and, Merlin wincing, began ripping it into long strips, which he tied together. “Lift your shirt. The tighter you can stand the wrapping, the better. There's no getting around it - this is going to hurt. Just tell me when it's unbearable and I'll back off,” he instructed.

Merlin did as he was told, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from making a sound as Arthur bound his chest with the long strand of material. Not even the feel of Arthur’s touch on his bare skin or the thought that now he was down to two shirts instead of three was enough to cut the pain. Arthur wrapped the length of cloth around and around, hair brushing Merlin's chin as he leaned close and reached around Merlin's back on every pass. When Merlin gasped and grabbed his wrist to stop him, Arthur nodded, loosening the tension so it was just shy of agony. Then, as Merlin stared, Arthur pulled off his leather belt and cinched the wrapping into place, so tightly Merlin lost his composure and sucked in a breath.

When it was done, Arthur stood and looked down at him with obvious pity, though Merlin tried to smile up at him. He leaned down, pulling Merlin’s shirt back into place and tied his cloak back around his shoulders, asking, “What are we going to do with you?”

Merlin laughed, shaking his head. “A hot bath? That would be my first choice. Pain tonic is running a close second.”

“Camelot has both. The sooner we get going, the sooner you can have them,” Arthur laughed, carefully helping him to his feet and walking him across the clearing. “We're coming up on five leagues away now, I believe. If we keep the horses to a walk, we'll still be there by nightfall.”

When they reached the mounts, Arthur made him stand still and not help as the Prince gathered their food supplies from the ground and tied the pouch to Merlin’s saddle.

“Up you go. Best not to think about it,” Arthur said, his face nothing but sympathetic.

“Oh, God,” Merlin groaned, looking up at the saddle and realizing just how high he had to climb to get there. His head was spinning just thinking about it. “I don’t know if I can do this.”

“You will do it. I’m not dragging you back to Camelot on a litter for a couple of broken ribs. Here,” Arthur knelt on one knee, the other propped up, hand slapping his thigh. “Use me for a stepping block and keep that arm tucked into your chest. The closer it stays to your body, the less it will pain you.”

Merlin gritted his teeth and smiled as he did what Arthur advised, his good arm reaching for the saddle, the one that was meant to stay against his chest inadvertently going to Arthur’s head when he lost his balance. He pushed hard with his legs and Arthur’s thigh wobbled under his boot, but they managed to get him into the saddle well enough.

Arthur swung up on his stallion in such a Princely fashion that Merlin grinned. There were some things about Arthur that would never change, he supposed, and he found that, really, he didn’t mind Arthur’s arrogance so much anymore now that it was tempered with kindness.

“We’ll start at a walk, Merlin. I don’t think you could tolerate a trot right off.”

Merlin didn’t answer - he couldn’t, not with his horse now a torture device, his breath half-deep at best. He bit the inside of his cheek to keep from screaming and was nearly drenched in sweat almost instantly, his teeth aching from clamping them together. Arthur had said ‘every hoofbeat,’ and he hadn't been exaggerating.

It was agony, and all the silent casting he could muster only dulled the edge of the pain enough so tears didn’t stream down his cheeks, but only just. If he healed himself completely, if he was even capable of doing it without botching it up, Arthur would undoubtedly be suspicious. There was no way he could convincingly fake this level of pain.

When they stopped a couple of leagues down the dirt road, Merlin was dizzy and shivering, the sweat having chilled in the winter air as they rode, absolutely sure he was not getting off his horse until Arthur dragged him off in Camelot.

“Take this,” Arthur said, stretching up to wrap his long cloak around Merlin’s shoulders. “Tie it on, if you can manage. How's the head?”

“Still throbbing.” Merlin reached up to fasten the cloak, hiding the shock of pain as he knotted the strings at his throat. “Thanks.”

“You should have some water,” Arthur said, pulling the stopper from his horn flask and holding it up for Merlin to take. He did, drinking deeply, but making sure to leave plenty for Arthur.

“You know,” he said, his vision going a bit blurry as he tried to take a deep breath, “I think I have a new respect for you.”

“Why’s that? I was right about the cheese, wasn’t I?” He smiled, taking the reins of Merlin’s horse to still it when it began fidgeting.

Merlin paused a moment, until he was sure Arthur was listening, was seeing his sincerity. “You’ve done far more than ride when you were injured ten times as badly as I am. I never knew what it took. You’re made of tougher stuff than me, that’s certain.”

Arthur looked puzzled, then shrugged. “Some things are worth a bit of pain. What-”

“It's Sir Erec!” Merlin called, as soon as he saw the knight's face.

The galloping of hooves shook the ground and Merlin’s horse started to shy back, but Arthur jerked on the reins, holding it still.

“Sire!” Erec called, hand waving frantically in the air, “Oh, thank God we found you. You must come at once, Sire!” Erec and the two guards who rode with him turned their mounts, Erec waving an arm for Arthur to follow, but Arthur stood where he was.

“What’s happened?” he asked, looking from Erec to Merlin, as if Merlin somehow knew.

“It’s... it’s the King, Sire. He’s not well. You must come quickly. I apologize, but there really is no time for explanations.”

Merlin nodded as Arthur quickly asked if he could continue, then grimaced as Arthur tossed the reins up to him, his hands flying up to catch them without thinking.

“Erec, Merlin is injured - his horse threw him a few leagues back.” Arthur shook his head as if impatient to get moving.

“I will drop back and ride with him, Sire, if he cannot keep apace with us,” Erec answered, though Merlin was already protesting.

“I’m fine on my own; I’ve travelled this trail before, you know. Go on, Ar- Sire,” he said quickly, nodding at Arthur’s doubtful look. “If I can’t keep up, I’ll only be a league or two behind you.”

They kicked their horses into a trot, quickly beginning a cantor that was swift and smooth, Merlin could actually let his eyes un-focus and the pain diffuse across his entire body, which was only slightly better than the focused torture he'd felt at first. He was nearly numb with fear as well as pain, his mind reeling - what could have happened to Uther in the short time they were gone?

As they thundered into Camelot, the guard leaping aside as they passed, their horses blowing hard, an icy fear spread down Merlin’s spine.

They stopped at the courtyard, Merlin swinging his leg across and sliding down from his saddle as carefully as he could, though he had little thought for his ribs now. Arthur took the front steps two at time, glancing back over his shoulder. Giving Merlin a grateful look, he stopped and grabbed Merlin’s arm. “Stop it, idiot! You’ll just make your ribs worse if you try to keep up.”

“I’m not leaving you. Let’s go.” Merlin gestured up the long staircase and Arthur looked at him warily, then flew up the stairs, Merlin close behind, his chest burning with every stretch of his legs.

Gaius met them in the hallway outside Uther’s chambers where a small gathering of worried-looking servants were mumuring their relief at seeing Arthur.

“Sire,” he said with a slight bow, his voice lowered to a near-whisper, “your father is recovering well from his injuries, though I am ashamed to admit I have failed.”

“You’ve failed? What injuries?” Arthur dodged to the right, but Gaius put a hand on his chest to block his way.

“Let me prepare you, Sire.” At those words, Arthur’s entire body seemed to drop.

Merlin grabbed hold of his arm, stepping up close behind him. He could only imagine the sort of injuries Gaius would have to prepare Arthur for, and he guessed Arthur was doing the same.

“Tell me,” Arthur barked, but he didn’t pull away from Merlin’s squeezing hand. “ Now , Gaius, or I’m going in there regardless.”

Gaius cleared his throat and glanced at the group of onlookers, then ducked his head in to whisper to Arthur. “The King appears to have injured himself by breaking a window,” Gaius said, taking a deep breath. “He has several severe wounds on his arms and neck.”

“He broke his window? It was an accident, then?” Arthur shook his head, obviously not understanding, though Merlin could see the truth in Gaius’ downward gaze.

“He broke the window to obtain the shards of glass. It seems he purposefully injured himself,” Gaius said, his voice full of unguarded sadness. “Just before I gave him the sleeping draught, he told me he doesn't wish to live a madman. Sire, I don’t understand it - I was sure he was cured.”

Merlin stepped closer, his shoulder against Arthur’s back in support without hesitation. He was half-afraid the Prince would collapse, though he should have known better.

Arthur stepped away almost immediately, hand reaching for the door. He halted, turning, eyes shooting daggers. “Merlin, you will come with me, and you will be silent. The rest of you, get the hell away from here and do something useful. The King will not be a spectacle for your amusement.”

'Be silent' was an order Merlin hadn't heard since his first week as Arthur’s servant, when it ‘d been replaced with “shut up” and, usually, a smirk.

Merlin ignored the surprised murmurs from Gwen and the guards; none of them would question Arthur’s orders, not now.

He pulled away, for once truly resenting Gaius’ reluctance to intervene with magic even in dire circumstances as his uncle leaned in to whisper, “Do not risk it, Merlin, not in front of Arthur.”

Gaius could have healed the wounds a bit, at least, he thought as they entered Uther’s rooms and saw the state the King was in, arms tightly bound from wrists to elbows, and, Merlin cringed at the sight, a length of cloth wound around his throat as well.

“Father,” Arthur gasped, going to Uther’s bedside, head bowed as he leaned down over his father.

Merlin had seen Arthur in this position once too often already, but this time was different. He looked away, staring at the velvet curtains that had been pulled, closing the King’s room to all but the dimmest light. He felt like an intruder on a particularly painful, private moment.

“Merlin, draw the curtains open - I want light. Fetch that pitcher and bring a cloth.”

Arthur didn't so much as look at Merlin as he handed him a handkerchief from Uther’s dressing table and held the pitcher out to him.

Arthur dipped the cloth and squeezed it quickly, mopping his father’s forehead and cheek, down to his neck, eyes glazed as he stared at the bandage there. “He slit his throat.”

Merlin nodded, swallowing hard to find his voice, his eyes filling with tears. “I thought we cured him,” he choked out.

Arthur rounded on him, knocking the pitcher from his hands, splashing them both, the clang of metal on stone ringing in the silence. “Well, you didn’t, did you? But how could you have? You’re nothing but a servant , right, Merlin? Nothing but a lazy, ignorant, stupid, good-for-nothing servant who spends his days emptying chamber pots and his nights- what? Chasing after sorceresses he can’t save? How could you have possibly cured him?”

Feeling he deserved every possible insult Arthur could throw at him, Merlin only lowered his head. He didn’t know what to say. “I- we thought he was fine. You saw him, spoke with him, before we left. Wasn’t he... he was fine.”

“Look at him, Merlin. Do you call this ‘fine’?” Arthur gestured at the King, his face red with anger.

“Of course not, Sire. Gaius and I-” Merlin grunted in pain as Arthur grabbed his tunic and hauled him to the door, tossing him out onto the flagstones. The sharp, quick jolt of his broken ribs grinding together blinded him for an instant, left him blinking up as Arthur loomed over him.

“You,” he pointed at Merlin, then at Gaius, “and you will go to the library or the laboratory or the bleeding ends of the earth and figure out why my father's condition has relapsed.”

Gaius bowed and Merlin pushed up to kneel, his head lowered in absolute shame, wishing it was him lying near death instead of Uther. Anything but this, anything but Arthur losing his father because of a mistake Merlin made.

“If he dies, so help me, Merlin, you will burn,” he shouted, storming back into Uther’s chambers and slamming the door behind him.

The last two remaining servants scattered, but Gwen rushed to Merlin, putting an arm under his, helping him to his feet. He hissed as his ribs protested being jostled around, but the pain truly meant nothing, now. He closed his eyes and cast, healing them as well as he could in the space of a thought. He hadn’t believed he could fake the pain realistically before, but now Arthur wouldn’t be worrying about Merlin’s ribs or watching him at all, never mind closely. He needed to be able to move quickly and think, and he couldn’t do either if he was in agony every time he breathed.

“He didn’t mean it,” Gwen whispered, her hand going to his face. “He was speaking out of fear.”

Merlin nodded and took her hand, pressing it between his palms. “He meant it, but I understand why.” He turned to follow Gaius, who was already heading in the direction of their quarters.

“Well, I don't.” Gwen drew him back with a hand on his arm. She stretched up on tip-toes to speak softly in his ear. “Why would he say such a thing?”

“It's his father,” he sighed and gave her a small smile, pushing her hand away. “Gaius and I - we thought we'd cured him. If he dies, it won’t matter if Arthur liked me, he will need someone to take the pain out on.”

“He won't hurt you.” she said firmly. “Believe me, Merlin, you're too important to him.”

“Have you seen the state of his rooms?” he asked, shaking his head, not able to manage more than a short, forced smile. At her huff of exasperation, he said, “He meant it, Gwen.”

Gwen's eyes blazed up at him. “Besides the King, you're all he has.”

“I'm his servant, Gwen. That hardly makes me his friend.”

“I've seen him with you. It's different when he's with the knights - he has to be in charge, even if he acts like they're friends. You didn't hear him ordering any of them into that room, did you? He didn't even ask about Leon.”

“Leon.” No one had mentioned how Uther overpowered his guard. “Was he injured?”

She shook her head. “Apparently Uther dosed his water with something. He slept through the entire thing, window and all; he sleeps still.”

“I’ll tell Gaius,” he said, but knew the drug was likely a harmless tonic left in the King's chambers.

“Leon will be devastated when he wakes,” Gwen said, biting her lip and looking at Uther’s chamber door. “Arthur will never forgive him.”

“And Leon will blame himself,” Merlin sighed. “Arthur’s knights are as loyal to him as he is to them.”

“As you are to him.” Gwen looked down at her clasped hands. “And he is to you. You know that, don’t you?”

Merlin shook his head. “I have to go, Gwen. Gaius will need me,” he said, stepping backwards with his hands raised as if to keep her from following. “Send for us if Leon worsens.”

He was glad to hurry away; Gwen shouldn’t have said those things, not now. He’d just been getting used to the idea that he and Arthur were truly more than Prince and servant, but that gradual build would have to begin all over now, if it ever did.

By the time he reached their quarters, Merlin’s eyes were filled with tears. He paused outside the door, breathing deeply and shaking himself. He didn’t want Gaius to see.

The sound of breaking glass startled him and he burst through the door just in time to see a dripping Gaius collapse onto a stool next to his swept-clean worktable. The floor beside him was littered with broken test tubes and vials, their former contents splattered across the floor and Gaius’ robes.

“That isn’t what they mean when they say ‘drown your sorrows,’ Gaius. Try mead,” he said, raising his hand and whispering the spell to right every broken bottle and return everything to the worktable.

“I need to think,” he murmured, going to his room and closing the door. He should probably have stayed and talked with Gaius, but he wanted to be alone.

Uther was nearly dead by his own hand, but Merlin knew he’d been just as responsible as if he’d been wielding the shards that had cut the King. Arthur was right to threaten him, and honestly, better Arthur burn him than execute Gaius, for Merlin had been the one who truly failed.

That spell had felt so tangled and knotted, and when it had broken, it pulled so completely loose Merlin had almost been able to see dozens of strings of magic. Harmless, he’d thought, as he’d swept them from existence.

He’d been wrong, and Arthur had almost lost his father.

Merlin went to his satchel, the only thing he’d kept with him when they’d gone to Uther’s quarters, and opened it, pulling out his little dragon carving. It was nearly perfect, almost exactly as it had been before he’d dropped it. He’d been devastated when it was broken, but as Arthur had slept, tucked in his gigantic bed two nights ago, he’d sat on his own bed just meters away and silently repaired it easily enough, though it was left with one tiny flaw that would always remind him of the night it had splintered.

Why couldn’t he work magic like that when it truly mattered? It seemed he was forever bumbling along, accidentally saving Arthur or himself, sometimes getting small spells to work just at the moment he needed them, but for the most part, Merlin thought that was just dumb luck. Arthur had been closer to the mark than he could have imagined when he said that was what they’d have to rely on.

Only dumb luck wouldn’t save Camelot, or Uther.

And he knew what happened to young men who lost their fathers in horrible ways, before their time. They never were free of the pain, never able to live without the taint of that sadness, that mourning again. Even he felt as if he'd forever be living in Balinor's shadow, and they had never really even been father and son, not in anything but name.

He didn’t want that for Arthur, knew Arthur couldn’t be the man he was destined to be if he was forever mourning for Uther, never feeling as if he’d fully, rightfully come into the reign as he should.

Uther’s reign would never end if he died now, for Merlin could see as clear as day that, out of respect, Arthur would honour every single edict and law his father had ever passed and never truly claim Camelot for his own.

Something had to be done, and the statue gave him an idea. He set it gently on his windowsill and went to the common room, where Gaius was reading from the book of magic, his shoulders hunched in defeat.

“Gaius?”

His uncle sat heavily down on the bench again, his head falling into his hands, shaking. “What went wrong, Merlin? I felt the spell disintegrate. You pulled it apart, I was witness to it.”

“I must’ve left something behind, missed some piece of the spell, something that then regenerated itself,” he said, closing the book of magic and looking down at it. “I really thought I had done it.”

“As did I, my boy, but we cannot give up. Is there nothing else to try?”

Merlin nodded, wanting to ask why Gaius hadn’t healed Uther’s wounds before he and Arthur arrived, but not able to question the old man in a moment of clear weakness. “I’m going to call Kilgharrah.”

“Is that wise?”

“It’s the only thing I can think of.” Merlin shrugged. “I’m sure that was the right enchantment, but even the two of us together weren’t strong enough to break it. We can’t risk Uther doing this again.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Gaius frowned, then handed him the long blue cloak Arthur had worn to disguise himself as a peasant such a long time ago. “Wear this, and Merlin? Arthur is not himself right now. What he said...”

“He has every right to blame me,” Merlin said quietly, tying on the cloak and going to the door. “Get some sleep, Gaius. I’ll wake you when I return.”

When Merlin reached the courtyard of the citadel, he turned to look up at the King’s chamber window. A thick cloth had been fastened across the empty space where the stained glass window had been, but a soft light shone through the glass next to it, blood-red in the darkness.

 

***

 

Arthur stormed into Gaius’ quarters, sure he’d see Merlin and Gaius both hunched over dusty tomes on the workbench, but saw only Gaius, bleary-eyed, struggling out of his blankets to sit up. He rubbed his eyes, his voice anxious, “What news, Merlin?”

As he finally realized it was Arthur at the door, Gaius quickly rose to his feet, bowing his head. “Sire?”

Arthur had no patience for formalities and spoke quickly, his anger at finding Gaius sleeping barely held in check. “Why are you abed? And where is Merlin?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, but strode to Merlin’s bedroom door and flung it open, stepping inside. He found it empty and cold, but a candle still flickered on the crate Merlin used as a bedside table.

Moonlight poured in through the open window shutter, and Arthur held his breath as he saw a silhouetted form on the sill. It was Merlin’s dragon statue, exactly like the one Arthur had seen the Dragon Lord carving in the woods before he was killed, the one he had seen splinter in a dozen pieces on his own chamber floor.

He crossed to it and took it in his hands, turning it this way and that for any sign that it had been repaired. Under one wing, a thin sliver of wood was missing. Not broken off or even split away, just missing, as though- of course.

Merlin had collected every piece from the floor of Arthur’s chamber, though he’d apparently missed one small sliver.

This was proof of Merlin's abilities, finally, and tangible. As he held it in his hand, he heard Gaius’ soft footsteps coming to stop in the doorway.

Without turning, he placed the statue in his cloak pocket and looked out over Camelot. Merlin’s view was breathtaking.

“Where is he, Gaius? The library?” When Gaius didn’t answer, Arthur turned and gave him an impatient glare. “Where did he go?”

“Sire, he...” Gaius bowed again. “He has left Camelot to seek help.”

Arthur couldn’t believe it - Merlin went alone to seek help? “From whom? And where?”

Gaius hesitated again and Arthur found himself clenching his fists to keep from shaking the old man. It wouldn’t do to lose control, not even if it would make him feel better.

“Sire, he knows someone who might have experience with this type of magic. Though he cannot return to Camelot with Merlin, he may be able to give valuable advice about curing the King.” Gaius looked nervous, and he was obviously choosing his words with even greater care than usual.

“Which direction does he travel?” Arthur asked, with every intention of following on his swiftest horse. Merlin couldn’t have gotten far with his broken ribs. When Gaius shook his head and raised his hands as if he didn’t know, Arthur gritted his teeth. “Fine, if you will not tell me, I'll track him myself.”

As he pushed past the old man to leave, Gaius sighed and sat heavily down on Merlin’s bed. He looked as if he’d lost Merlin already, and Arthur instantly regretted his earlier, hastily-shouted threat.

“I would not murder him, Gaius, nor you.” Arthur placed his hand over his cloak pocket, the statue a solid weight inside. “I will, however, have the truth, and his loyalty.”

“The truth can be a dangerous weapon, My Lord. But whatever else he is, Merlin is loyal to you and to Camelot. You have my word.”

Nodding, Arthur left to find Merlin.

 

***

 

Arthur flew down the tower steps to the armoury, slipping on a mail apron and sending word for his horse to be prepared. By the time he reached the stables, all was ready. He leapt into the saddle and rode north at the stable-hand’s direction, then west by the guard’s description of Merlin’s route out of the city.

He was easy enough to track, Merlin being the least subtle of anyone Arthur knew. When the broken blades of tall weeds gave way to the scent of crushed grass and the distance between hoof-prints showed Merlin’s pace slowing from canter to trot to walk, Arthur dismounted. He placed his steps on the very outline of Merlin’s, the dew not yet frozen to frost.

He could see his breath in the air, it was so cold, and when he held it to better listen, he heard a sound like the wind gusting along the tree-line. As he neared the stand of trees, he saw the bows bending in the unnaturally strong wind, his hair whipping around wildly.

Pushing through the arching saplings, he saw Merlin standing in a clearing, looking up at the sky as if stargazing, arm outstretched to the heavens. Arthur followed Merlin’s line of sight and had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep from shouting a warning. His hand tightened on Excalibur and his legs shook with the suppressed urge to run to Merlin’s aid.

But Merlin wasn’t running; he didn’t even have a weapon in his upraised hand. In the darkness, Arthur could see his eyes, those eyes that smiled and filled too often with tears and spoke truths Arthur wondered if Merlin even realized - those eyes were glowing.

Merlin opened his mouth and hissed into the sky, smooth syllables loud and clear, though they seemed like whispers as they were carried away on the wind.

And then Merlin's arm fell to his side, the light in his eyes dying away as the great dragon landed before him.

 

***

 

Merlin never heard Kilgharrah speak in the dragon’s tongue, though he knew on some level that they were neither one speaking the King’s language. He’d used magic to call the dragon, of course, but it had been a request, an urgent request with a bit of a reminder of how much Kilgharrah owed him behind it.

The dragon always came, though sometimes he complained about the hour or the long journey.

“You are fortunate I was so nearby and the game was so thin on this cold night, Young Warlock,” Kilgharrah laughed, his head ducking low as if to look Merlin directly in the eye.

“I would not have called if I hadn’t good reason.” Merlin took a deep breath. “Arthur is in trouble and I don’t know what to do. Everything I’ve tried has failed. I need your help.”

Kilgharrah’s deep chuckle shook the earth beneath his feet. “You are not skilled in deception, Merlin, haven’t you been told that before?”

“But Arthur is in trouble!” he protested, knowing that if he so much as said Uther’s name, the dragon would refuse to help.

“Arthur is not in danger. You seek me out to find a cure for Uther. Yes, I know of his... affliction.”

Merlin looked at Kilgharrah’s brow ridge, hoping if he didn’t meet the dragon’s eyes, his face wouldn’t give so much away. He shook his head. “It’s not just the King. We haven't completed the Rites. We don’t even know what the seventh task is, and if Uther dies, the throne will be in limbo until Arthur finishes the Ascension.”

“You wish to know what the seventh Rite is, then?” Kilgharrah asked, sceptically.

It wasn’t the whole truth, but Merlin figured while he had the great dragon here, it could do no harm to listen. “Yes, Arthur cannot take the throne without it - you must know of Camelot’s ancient pact with the Old Religion.”

“I am aware of it, and I know that which you seek, Merlin,” the dragon nodded. “But I will not tell you again, for you obviously do not heed my advice.”

“I’ve done almost everything you’ve ever told me to do! What advice have you given that I have not taken to heart, if not acted upon?” Merlin was angry, but he was careful not to let it show in his voice.

“Think, Merlin,” Kilgharrah said with amusement. “Think about the first thing I told you, about what I’ve been telling you all these moons.”

Merlin nodded, his hands spreading to show how unhelpful the answer was. “Arthur and I have a joined destiny. We are - I don’t see how this is relevant to the seventh Rite!”

“You are making things far too complicated.”

“How am I? You speak in riddles and all I’m left with are more questions,” Merlin shouted, his patience slipping. “We share a destiny; I am to help him become a great King.”

“You began that task the day you met him, Young Warlock. What’s more, you’ve seen him through every Rite, have you not?” Kilgharrah narrowed his eyes as if daring Merlin to contradict him.

“I have,” Merlin admitted. “Will he have to begin again without my aid? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”

Kilgharrah’s laugh boomed this time, and Merlin covered his ears until the dragon began speaking in a low rumble again. “No, Merlin, he will not ascend this throne without your aid. You are the seventh Rite.”

Merlin gaped up at the dragon, taking a step back. “I- how can I be? I can’t be! How can I help him if he must defeat me?”

Kilgharrah rose up on his haunches, stretching his head high into the air, laughter shaking the ground beneath Merlin's feet. “That would be something to see, but again, you have assumed incorrectly. He will not face you in combat.”

Merlin’s head was spinning, and he couldn’t for the life of him suss out what Kilgharrah was trying to tell him. “I don’t understand. Please tell me, Kilgharrah.”

“I have not been speaking lies to you, Merlin. You truly are two sides of the same coin, your destiny is his and his yours,” The Great Dragon said, lowering his head again to look Merlin in the eye. “Your souls must be bound together. You will complete the Rites of Ascension as one.”

The wind churned around him as Kilgharrah spread his wings and drew them forwards and back, pushing himself into the air. “You must do this, Merlin, or Camelot and her king will suffer throughout the Pendragon dynasty.”

Unable to process what the dragon had just told him, unable even to think, Merlin threw his hands into the churning air, pleading for the dragon to wait. “Don’t go! I don’t understand. Help me understand, please!”

Kilgharrah hovered before him, great wings beating gusts that took Merlin’s breath away. “Very well, if you cannot reason it out for yourself,” he teased. “Morgana is being influenced by a token she keeps on her person always. Find and destroy it, and the King may be cured, though I can hardly hope for your success. The sorcerer responsible is close to Morgana, but I will not tell you who has used her magic to injure Uther. You must be far more vigilant from now on, Merlin. Sorcery is deep within Camelot’s walls, and Uther has murdered many warlocks who would have aided him rather than turn against him.”

Shocked that he hadn’t noticed such a magical item on Morgana before, Merlin nodded and yelled, “My thanks, Kilgharrah. Tell me, before you go, how I am to bind myself to Arthur. Are we not already bound by destiny?”

“You are destined for many things, Merlin, but destiny can be swayed, therefore it alone does not hold sway with the Old Religion. Do not assume you are the only one who must submit. Neither of you will succeed alone.”

“But how can it be done? How can I explain all of this to Arthur without revealing my magic?”

“You are stronger than you think, Warlock, and I do not speak of your magic. You have a heart full of mercy, loyalty and courage, whether you are able to recognize it or not. Arthur will submit to the bonding, and not only for the good of Camelot.”

Merlin shook his head in disbelief. “Why would he agree, if not for Camelot?”

The dragon tilted his head as if surprised. “You do not know? Well, then, open your eyes, Merlin. The answer is very nearby.”

“Not close enough,” he whispered against the wind as he watched the dragon disappear into the night sky.

 

***

 

“Are you mad?!” Arthur shouted, sheathing Excalibur and grabbing Merlin by the shoulders to look him over, then to shake him. “What were you thinking, Merlin? You could have been killed!”

Merlin stared at Arthur, disbelieving, his heart thick in his throat. He tried to speak, tried to move, but Arthur knew now... it was over. Just like that, he and Arthur-

“Merlin! Answer me!” Arthur shouted in his face, giving him another hard shake.

Merlin blinked, swallowing hard. He looked at the ground, shaking his head. “He wouldn’t kill a Dragon Lord.”

“What-” Arthur stepped away from him, hand going to the hilt of Excalibur.

That simple, unconscious act completely ripped Merlin apart. He closed his eyes and fell to his knees, expecting Arthur to strike him any moment. He braced himself, fingers digging into the cold, damp grass beneath his legs, determined not to move. “I know you cannot let me go, but I’m begging you, Arthur, please let me do one last thing in Camelot before...,” he trailed off, unable to say the words.

“Oh, get up, Merlin,” Arthur said in obvious disdain, kicking hard at his leg. “No one’s taking you to the dungeons or lighting the pyre.”

Merlin looked up, his face heating with shame at Arthur's glare, his vision nothing but a blur as he took the arm that abruptly yanked him to his feet.

“Did you know?” he asked. That had to be the explanation for Arthur’s leniency, though even at that, Merlin didn’t understand. Arthur was loyal to Camelot and his father first.

“That you could talk to dragons? Of course I didn’t know,” Arthur gritted out, “but I will know, and every detail. Explain yourself.” Arthur ’s eyes flashed angrily, and Merlin knew he wasn’t entirely in the clear yet

He took a deep breath and reined in his emotions as best he could. “I am a Dragon Lord.” Merlin shook his head as Arthur began to interrupt. He knew what he was going to ask. “I didn’t know until we found Balinor. As he was... dying, he told me. He said it was up to me to try to tame the dragon and save Camelot.”

“That’s why you insisted on going with me to kill it,” Arthur accused, eyes narrowing. “Which I obviously didn’t do.”

“No. Kilgharrah knocked you unconscious and I-. I spoke with him. I became a Dragon Lord, though I didn’t know if I would succeed until that moment. I still can hardly believe it, but-”

“Kilgharrah,” Arthur said as if in an angry daze. “That beast has a name, and you use it as casually as if you two were friends.”

“Believe me, we are not friends.”

Arthur positively scowled at him. “I heard him laughing, Merlin.”

“He was laughing at me, as you do daily, I might remind you,” he snapped, though where his anger was coming from, he couldn’t say. Arthur was as much thrown into this destiny as he was. “The dragon swore allegiance when I spared his life. He knows he will be killed the instant he harms Camelot in any way.”

Arthur shook his head, looking as disappointed as Merlin had ever seen him. “Even you can’t possibly be stupid enough to trust dragons.”

Merlin smiled, though he didn’t feel a bit of it. “Well, only just the one, seeing as he’s the last of his kind. Wyverns, too, a bit, though they don't speak back and I wouldn't trust them as far as I could-”

“Will you shut up, Merlin!” Arthur yelled, face screwed up in a mixture of pain and confusion. He took a deep breath and glared, but his voice was a bit calmer. “You’re really a Dragon Lord?”

Merlin nodded. “It passes from father to son when the father dies,” he said, hoping his careful annunciation would get his message across. “He... Balinor was the last one, and now I am.”

“Balinor was... your father?” Arthur furrowed his brow and stepped back from Merlin again, this time as if Merlin had dealt him a blow to the chest.

“I never knew, not until the night we left Camelot to find him. Gaius told me then.” Merlin shook his head, looking away at the trees in the distance, pulling his regret away from the surface. “I never knew he was alive.”

Arthur wiped a hand over his face, pity written plainly on his features. “Why would you not tell me as much? Surely I’ve earned that much of your trust by now.”

If he was bitterly honest with himself, he’d known Arthur wouldn’t have had him killed. He knew if Arthur could, he might even help Merlin escape. After all, Arthur had helped him flee Camelot before.

But Arthur wasn’t King yet, and Uther clearly had no mercy left in him.

Merlin continued carefully. “Your father hunted down and executed every other Dragon Lord, remember? Only Balinor escaped, and you saw how he lived in exile. Would you wish that for me?”

Arthur scowled at him. “You know I would not, but neither will I be lied to by my-,” he broke off, lips tightly closed on what he’d been able to say.

“Your servant?” Merlin asked, swallowing the thick lump in his throat. “Or your friend?”

“You should not have kept it from me,” Arthur shouted. “You should have told me, damn the consequences.”

Merlin nodded his agreement, keeping his voice calm. “You have every right to be angry. I was, too - I was furious when I learned of Balinor’s existence, then of Uther driving him away. When I saw him, living in that cave...” Merlin kept his voice low, but stepped closer to be sure Arthur heard him. “Not only would the King have me dead if he knew what I am, he made certain I could never know my father.”

Arthur stared him in the eye for a long moment, then sighed, his anger seeming to slip. “I am not him, Merlin. I would not execute you for something you cannot control and did not choose. As for exile, well, you'd never survive it.”

Merlin smiled just a little, wondering that Arthur could recover his sense of humour so quickly he’d just seen and heard. "I planned to tell you when you became king, but, anxious as I was for that day, I couldn’t let you lose your father. I had to ask Kilgharrah for help.”

Arthur looked at the sky where Kilgharrah had been. “My father is a stubborn man, but I cannot imagine life without him.”

“I have lived my entire life without mine, and I’ve always... felt his absence.” Merlin wiped his sleeve across his eyes and swallowed hard, trying not to cry. “That blade was meant for my heart, not his, you know. I sometimes think he came after us just to protect me. He didn’t even know about me. I told him and not a day later, he died to save me.”

“He wouldn’t have sacrificed himself if he hadn’t been an honourable man, Merlin,” Arthur said softly. “He would be proud of you.”

Merlin shook his head, knowing it wasn’t true. His chest ached as he spoke, but he couldn’t stand to hear Arthur’s pity. “What for? I’m a servant, and a bad one, at that. I’m not honourable in the least-” he stopped himself. No, Arthur had heard enough for one night, and if their friendship died here, well, Merlin only deserved that. “Never mind. We need to get back to the citadel.”

“Merlin,” Arthur said warningly, “We’re not done here.”

“The rest can wait, Sire,” Merlin said, picking up his satchel. “Kilgharrah told me what needs to be done. We should get on with it.”

He was determined to get it right this time, and to cure Uther. He would think about the seventh Rite after.

“You were speaking another tongue, but I distinctly heard the dragon say my father’s name, and Morgana’s. Tell me what was said.”

“There is too much to explain right now. We’ve wasted enough time already,” Merlin said, striding from the clearing, Arthur calling after him.

“Merlin, get back here!” Arthur yelled as he followed. “I will know what that dragon said. Now.”

“Do you want to save your father or not?” Merlin asked, untying his horse’s reins and nodding at where Arthur’s horse whickered impatiently a few metres away, not waiting for Arthur’s answer. “We should hurry, Sire.”

Merlin watch him as he turned to jog to his horse, wishing there was time to explain everything, to properly ask for Arthur’s forgiveness. He could never make up for the lies he’d told, whether or not they had been necessary.

They quickly mounted and began down the road to Camelot at a fast walk.

“Well?”

“Promise to hear me out?” Merlin asked, deciding then and there that Arthur should know the truth. There was no way he could come up with a plausible story that fast, and besides, he would need help getting to Morgana and finding the amulet.

Arthur gestured impatiently. “Yes, Merlin, now out with it!”

Merlin took a breath and continued. “Morgana is the traitor, but not by choice, and no one else need know. She has been controlled by way of a magical item Morgause gave her. She apparently keeps it with her at all times. She may be wearing it-”

“That God-awful bracelet she says helps her sleep! She never takes it off!” Arthur said, the light flooding back into his eyes. “But she’s had that for ages. Do you think- oh, God. She cast the spell on father? But how? If the magic is Morgause’s and she’s not in Camelot - she’s not, is she?”

“Not that I know of. There’s something I- Arthur-” He broke off, a sinking feeling in his stomach. What would he do if someone gave up his own secret so casually? But he must, so Arthur would understand that it wasn’t her fault. “Morgana has magic.”

“What?” Arthur looked devastated, as though Merlin had just told him Morgana had a fatal disease.

Merlin bowed his head, looking at the leather reins in his hands. “She’s had it since before Morgause came to Camelot.”

Arthur pinched his nose between his finger and thumb, shaking his head, his entire body looking heavier somehow. “How can you be sure?”

Taking a deep breath, Merlin softly answered, “She told me herself when the nightmares started coming true.”

“Yes- She... she told me of them, but I never believed her. I thought she was ill, or...” Arthur scoffed, “or in love with me. God, she was trying to tell me, wasn’t she?”

“Yes. She just wanted someone to talk to.”

“You helped her?” Arthur ’s head was bowed, but Merlin watched him carefully.

“No, I tried, but... I couldn’t really do anything to help. I hoped she’d tell you, that you’d believe her.”

“I’m sure I knew on some level,” Arthur said, his eyes catching Merlin’s and staring for a moment, their horses matched step-for-step. “I must’ve known.”

“That’s exactly what I thought when she told me,” Merlin agreed, feeling as though he was discussing himself and Arthur instead of Morgana. He hoped, he prayed that someday Arthur would remember this conversation. “I kept thinking back to different situations, wondering if this moment or that was her trying to let me see what magic was doing to her.”

Arthur rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, sighing.

“When she came to Gaius about her magic... Arthur, I’ve never seen a girl as terrified as she was. I think it’s why Morgause chose her - she was already so vulnerable and, well, she has ties to the crown.” Merlin looked at the ground, unable to meet Arthur’s eyes.

He could have been describing himself.

His steed shied as its flank touched Arthur’s leg, and Merlin pulled away, regretting the distance between them. Arthur’s head was bowed, his eyes closed.

“Are you all right?” he asked, worried that Arthur was barely reacting to the news.

Arthur shook his head once, then gave Merlin a false-bright smile. “It’s difficult to know what to think about someone so close to me having magic. My father drilled his beliefs into me, but I know Morgana. I love her as a sister. If she has magic, I cannot hate it or her.”

“You’re taking this better than I imagined,” Merlin said, not allowing hope to wriggle in.

“You’re a Dragon Lord, Merlin. There’s not much that could shock me about anyone else at this point,” Arthur scoffed, and Merlin thought he heard genuine amusement underneath it. He straightened in the saddle, his smile falling away. “I bet Morgana re-cast the spell on my father after we left Camelot.”

“Yes,” he replied. “That would be my guess. I’m sure she didn’t know what she was doing, Arthur.”

They rode in silence for a long while, clearing the forest and riding alongside a field of withered wheat.

“If that is the case... you and Gaius didn't fail.”

“No, I don't think we did fail, not at removing the curse, anyway. Kilgharrah said we will be able to cure him again.”

“When this is over, when she realizes what she's been made to do, I imagine Morgana will be inconsolable,” Arthur said. “Will you... help her somehow?”

The question was loaded, and Merlin wasn’t sure what to say. Did he confess his magic now and get it over with? It seemed too much to put on Arthur’s shoulders after everything the night had already revealed to him.

Merlin hadn’t expected compassion from Arthur for Morgana, or concern, but both were written all over Arthur’s face.

“I doubt I could do any good, but I’ll send for Gaius. He’ll have a calming draught, and we can research to see-”

“Stop it, Merlin.”

He bit his lips closed, but his questioning look only seemed to fuel Arthur’s anger.

“I meant it when I said I didn’t want you lying to me. I don’t expect you to tell me every detail of your life, but I won’t have you mincing words to get around the truth, either.” Arthur turned away from him, his chin lifted as if daring Merlin to reply.

He thought carefully about what Arthur had asked him, and what he’d said in response. He’d asked Merlin to help Morgana, but how did he think a manservant was going to accomplish that? “I don’t want to mislead you, Arthur, but the King-”

Arthur rounded on him, his voice low and angry. “Listen to me, Merlin. You will not lie to me. I don’t tolerate lying from my knights, and I won’t tolerate it from you. If you need to protect yourself, then find another way to do so.” He took a deep breath as if trying to rein in his anger. “If you lie to me, I cannot trust you, no matter what your motivations. Do you understand?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes, Sire.” He understood, but Arthur didn’t. Merlin was so deep in his web of lies, he wasn’t sure he could ever be really truthful again.

Arthur shifted in his saddle, leaning close to lay a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. “You and I will talk later, but father is still in danger as long as Morgana’s wearing that bracelet. I’m going to ride ahead.” Arthur jerked his steed into a cantor toward the city and called back over his shoulder, “Unless your ribs are well enough to keep up!”

Merlin’s hand flew to cover his injured ribs, which hadn’t so much as twinged after that last healing. Had Arthur noticed Merlin wasn’t favouring them anymore? Surely not.

Digging his heels in, Merlin tightened his hold on the reins and grinned. Relief washed over him as swiftly as the frigid night air, relief that the King would be all right, that he hadn’t been responsible for Uther’s regression and that Morgana wasn’t acting of her own volition all these months.

Above all, though, he was grateful. Arthur knew he was a Dragon Lord.

And whatever happened tomorrow, tonight he was riding side-by-side with Arthur, galloping back to Camelot.

 

***

 

Arthur started to signal to Merlin to wait where they hid behind the large dining table in Morgana’s room, then rolled his eyes at Merlin’s confused look.

“Follow, then, as quietly as you can manage,” he whispered instead, his lips almost touching Merlin’s ear.

Merlin nodded, one hand rubbing over his ear, shoulders hunched as though the words had tickled him.

“Stop being such a child and check the servant’s bed - make sure Gwen isn’t there, or if she is, stop her coming in while I grab the bracelet.”

“Right, got it,” Merlin said, hand clapping over his mouth and eyes going wide as he realized he’d not bothered to lower his voice.

“Idiot!” Arthur hissed, quickly rising up on his knees to look over the edge of the table to see if Morgana had heard. She stirred in her sleep but didn’t wake. “Go!” he ordered, pointing at the side door.

Merlin’s boots scuffed along the floor as he crawled to the ante-chamber, but other than that, he was silent as Arthur crept toward Morgana’s bed and slowly lifted up to peer over the edge of the mattress.

Morgana lay in a regal sprawl across the slippery sheets that Arthur never got - and why was that? Merlin, probably. Merlin could likely have waved his hand and changed straw to gold, but it didn’t occur to him to bring better sheets from the laundress.

Dragon Lord, he thought, shaking his head. That wasn’t the half of it. Actually, that was the half of it, but it wasn’t the half he’d been suspecting for months already. It was absolute confirmation of his speculation, though; Dragon Lords had magic, which is precisely why they’d been sacrificed in the Great Purge. He supposed they were sorcerers in their own right, though he didn’t know just how much magic Merlin possessed.

Looking down at Morgana’s sleeping face, he wondered how powerful she was, too. She was feisty already; he could only imagine her anger with magic behind it. Well, he didn’t have to imagine. His father’s wounds were testament enough.

The bracelet looked like any other. He carefully reached for the wrist that lay daintily on Morgana’s chest, just between her... well, on her chest.

Arthur cringed as he slid one finger, then another under the edge of the cuff on her arm, pulling as gently as he could to ease it first off one side, then the other. It was a tight fit, and more than once he thought Morgana would wake. She sighed and shifted, but never opened her eyes.

Why didn’t Merlin use his magic all the time? He should be the one doing this, not Arthur. Merlin could have magicked the bracelet into his pocket for all Arthur knew, but there he was, crouched like a fool, peeking under the door of the servant’s room, looking for Gwen.

Arthur sighed and wriggled the bracelet just a little, stilling as Morgana moved in her sleep again. He took advantage of the motion and pulled a little harder, the bracelet giving a little bit more, then altogether.

He’d just managed to slip it completely off her arm when Morgana sat up with a gasp and cried out. He jumped to his feet, hissing Merlin’s name over his shoulder and tossing the amulet in a tall arc toward Merlin’s startled face, praying to every God he’d ever known for Merlin to not be a clumsy oaf just this once.

“Shh, Morgana, it’s just a bad dream,” he tried to soothe. “Go back to sleep.”

He hadn’t heard a clatter or any other sound heralding disaster, so maybe Merlin had caught the amulet after all.

“Arthur?” Morgana asked, obviously confused. “What are you doing here?”

He froze; he had no possible explanation for being in Morgana’s rooms in the middle of the night, let alone hovering over her bedside and comforting her.

“I’m not here, really. You’re dreaming. I’ve fought off all the evil spirits and you can sleep in peace now. Just lie back, there you are,” he urged, a hand gently pushing against her shoulder. Her eyes seemed to struggle to stay open.

“They’re all gone? You killed them?” she asked, her voice so soft and pitiful Arthur couldn’t help but remember what she was like long ago, when the nightmares had just started.

“I killed them, Morgana, I swear it. Now sleep.”

“All right,” she whispered, and closed her eyes. “Thank you, Brother.”

Arthur looked askance at Merlin as he stepped silently to his side. He pointed at Morgana and mouthed, “Brother?” and Merlin looked away guiltily.

Merlin had so much explaining to do.

 

***

 

Amulet in hand, Arthur led the way to the practice ground, pulling Excalibur from its sheath with a ring that echoed through the still, frigid night air, against the castle walls.

“Shouldn’t you say something?” Arthur asked, looking at Merlin impatiently as he held Excalibur ready for the strike. It wasn’t a light blade, but he didn’t want to make any mistakes.

“Like what? Just smash the damned thing and be done with it. It’s freezing out here,” Merlin complained, adding a quick, “Sire.”

Sighing only because he knew it was expected, Arthur gave him a small smile and let the sword fall, his knees bent and shoulders aching as metal crashed against metal and the stone in the bracelet cracked into a hundred tiny shards, each giving off a dazzling light that burned itself out as they flew apart.

Arthur jumped back, avoiding the small explosion, but Merlin reached down to rub at his shins. “Have to be faster than that, Merlin. Come on, we’re not done yet.”

“I’ll go see Morgana, after we make sure the King is all right,” Merlin said, sounding cautious. “If that’s all right?”

Arthur gave a quick nod, clapping a hand on Merlin’s shoulder in thanks. Perhaps Merlin would truly try to help Morgana.

They strode to his father’s rooms quickly, both of them a little out of breath for their almost-run up the stairs. From inside the chamber, they could hear Gaius’ low, steady voice answering the King, who was obviously pleading with him.

“Stand aside,” he said, waving the guard away and yanking on Merlin’s sleeve to make sure he knew he was to enter, too.

Gaius stood, head bowed, in the centre of the room, apologizing to the King. Arthur instantly saw why, and gave Gaius a nod of understanding. “You did what had to be done, Gaius, and my father understands that, I’m sure,” he said, looking at the King. “Don’t you, father?”

“Arthur, get them off, son,” he commanded, jerking at the ties on his wrists. “The spell is broken, I can feel it, but Gaius will not take my word.”

“Yes, I’m sure you’re right, father.” He turned to address Gaius as well. “Merlin and I discovered that the enchantment was linked to an amulet. We searched the castle and found it in an unused chamber. We destroyed it.”

Arthur went to his father’s bedside and pulled a dagger from his boot. “Gaius, check if the enchantment has lifted,” he ordered, watching as a careful look passed between Merlin and the physician.

“Your Highness, if you’ll just look into my eyes and try not to blink,” Gaius asked.

Uther sighed with impatience but did as he was asked.

The King’s attention diverted, Merlin stepped closer. Arthur saw Merlin’s eyes narrow as he looked at the King, but Arthur looked away before they began to glow again as they had in the clearing that night.

“Well?” the king asked impatiently.

Merlin gave Gaius the tiniest nod of confirmation.

“It is lifted; I can see it now. I apologize, Your Highness. I could not see it clearly until just this moment,” Gaius said, his voice sounding relieved.

“Quickly, you know how I detest being restrained.” Uther hissed as Arthur cut the ropes that bound him to the bedposts. “Thank you, and thank you, Gaius.”

Arthur grinned at him, then back at Merlin and Gaius, who stood watching with smiles of their own. “You should thank Merlin as well. You wouldn’t be here without his assistance.” At Uther’s doubtful grin, Arthur nodded. “It’s true. It seems Merlin has a few tricks up those stained sleeves of his.”

Merlin laughed, his eyes shining in the candlelight.

“We’ll leave you, Your Majesty, Sire,” Gaius said, bowing in turn to each of them, then took Merlin’s arm and pulled him from the room as Arthur quickly signalled to the candle and held up his finger and thumb to indicate the length of a candlemark.

Merlin gave him a smile and, at his signal for Morgana, a nod, then closed the door behind himself.

Arthur turned back to his father, who was touching his throat gingerly.

“Perhaps there is something further Merlin could do for me,” he rasped, his face a mask of seriousness.

“I’m not sure you could stand his insolence, but I will ask anything you wish, father,” Arthur replied tentatively.

“See if I can borrow one of those neckerchiefs he wears, will you, son?” he asked, his composure crumbling. “Just until this heals up,” he laughed, and Arthur joined in, relief as thick in the air as the fear it had replaced.

“I’ll ask him in the morning when he remembers he has no clean clothes in Gaius’ quarters and comes barging in without knocking,” he chuckled, somewhat satisfied to tell someone that Merlin was finally living in his ante-chamber like a proper servant.

“He’s a handful, that one. I’m not sure I’d want him in such close proximity,” his father warned, as if Arthur didn’t know. “Don’t let him slack off, even in the slightest, or he’ll walk all over you.”

Arthur shrugged. “He manages to pull his weight, between saving my life and yours.”

“I owe him a debt of gratitude,” Uther nodded, and Arthur put a hand out to silence him.

At his father’s startled look, Arthur said, “Stop right there. Next thing you know, you’ll be giving me to him.

They fell to laughing again, then spoke quietly until dawn shone through the remaining stained-glass window in the room.

“I’m for bed, father, and I suggest you hold to yours at least a day. Give those wounds a chance to mend. Perhaps Gaius can speed along the process now that you are well. Camelot needs you at full strength.”

“Yes, thank you, Arthur,” his father said, one hand brushing over the bandages on the opposite wrist. “I think that would be the best course.”

 

***

 

Gaius grinned all the way to the tower, something that Merlin loved to see.

“I deduced that the spell had been recast,” Gaius explained, “though it was very weak, only just beginning to take hold again.”

“Well, you did, it, Gaius!” Merlin patted him on the back, genuinely proud of his uncle. “I’m so glad it’s over.”

“Is it, my boy?” Gaius asked, one eyebrow raised.

“It will be soon. I’m heading down to Morgana’s room to make sure she’s all right,” Merlin grinned. “Kilgharrah said the amulet we destroyed was controlling her. Gaius, I think we might have our Morgana back.”

“This truly is a night for celebration, then.” Gaius shook his head, as if he didn’t believe their good fortune.

“Yes,” Merlin agreed, forcing a smile. Speaking of the dragon had reminded him what else Kilgharrah had told him, about the seventh Rite. He moved back to the door, hoping to escape without Gaius questioning him further.

“I’m off, then. I’m sure I’ll see you tomorrow, Gaius.”

“Shall I come with you,” Gaius asked, looking more tired than Merlin had ever seen him.

“No, Gaius, she’ll be more at ease if she doesn’t wake to the court physician hovering over her.”

“That’s true enough. Come find me tomorrow, then; I’ll be attending the King most of the day. I’m going to brew a salve for his wounds before I retire.”

Merlin grinned, holding his hand out in the air. “You should add a bit of healing magic to it; I’m sure the King won’t want all of Camelot seeing those scars.”

Gaius looked at him reproachfully, but smirked as though the thought had already occurred to him. “Goodnight, Merlin.”

Merlin walked quickly down the tower steps, guessing about half his candlemark was already spent. He would just have to be late, he supposed. It was the least of what Arthur would be angry about, anyway.

He turned his thoughts to Morgana, hoping the amulet had been responsible for the majority of her anger towards Uther, and that, if not, what ties that had been damaged could somehow be repaired. He’d missed her the last two years, not the Morgana who’d been kidnapped, but the one who’d come to him, desperate but braver than Merlin himself had been, looking for someone to reassure her at her weakest moment.

He’d wished he could have been a better friend to her then.

They had been friends once, after all, or nearly, Merlin thought. They would have been, and things would have been so different, had Merlin helped her as he should have, instead of pawning her off on the Druids.

When he reached her chamber, Morgana wasn’t in bed as he’d expected; she was standing at her open window, shivering violently, tears flowing down her cheeks as Gwen struggled with her to let her wipe them away, to pull her from the window.

“Please, My Lady, come to bed. Shhh, calm yourself, it was only a dream,” Gwen soothed. Hearing Merlin enter, she looked up gratefully. “Thank goodness! She’s hysterical, Merlin. Can you fetch Gaius? I don’t want to leave her alone.”

“Best you go, Gwen. I’ll stay with her and do what I can to calm her,” he said, an arm around her shoulders, urging her out the door. She went readily enough, obviously anxious to be away from Morgana.

They'd all had reason to fear her for the past year, Gwen not excepted.

And in that year, too, Merlin had learned a lot of spells, just to deal with the aftermath of Morgana’s exploits. Healing magic, for the most part, basic survival spells such as food and water-finding, fire-starting, general protection spells and, not coincidentally, memory magic.

He’d hoped for this chance, that Morgana would somehow come to this point, where she either realized her horrible mistake and repented, or that she had, indeed, been controlled by some outside influence and could be restored to the Morgana he had truly come to care about before all of her treachery and anger began.

He loathed the idea of using memory spells; they absolutely terrified him in their unpredictability. But Morgana, their Morgana, was broken.

Broken and all who once loved and trusted her now doubted her loyalty and affection. She would not recover from her own deeds alone, even if she could come to terms with what she’d done to her own family.

He reached around her and closed the window, latching it.

“I almost killed them, Merlin,” Morgana whispered, her body shaking like a reed. “I wanted them dead and I almost - oh, Merlin!”

“Yes, but it wasn’t you,” he assured, turning her to face him, taking her arms in his hands and rubbing them, trying to put some warmth back into them.

“Wasn’t it? Something in me wanted revenge, I remember wanting revenge. Uther lied to me, all those years, he lied to me. I could have had a father, a real father, all this time.”

“You were hurt,” he said, nodding in understanding. “But you would never have tried to-”

“To kill him? To kill Arthur? But I did!”

“No, Morgana, you didn’t. Morgause was the madness inside your head. She played upon your pain, your fear.”

She trembled, but seemed to focus on him for the first time. “Morgause? She... she’s my sister. Why would she use me against Uther?”

“She saw you as an opportunity to reach the heart of Camelot,” Merlin guessed, and Morgana let out another sob, this one more controlled than the hysterical panting tears.

“I’m so sorry, Merlin,” she cried, her hands covering her face, then reaching for his own and holding them in a tight grip. “And I can never be what I once was to them. Oh, and Gwen, poor Gwen! How can I ever make it up to her? She must’ve been so frightened.”

“They will all forgive you, Morgana. They only want you back,” he promised, feeling her sincere desperation, knowing that the Morgana of a year ago had never quite gotten past her arrogance regarding the servant class. She had never held onto Merlin as she did now. “They know it was the amulet, that it wasn’t you.”

She nodded and pushed off the bed, going to the window, though she didn’t open it again. “Thank you, Merlin. I think I would like to be alone. Could you tell Gwen and the guards?”

Merlin rolled his eyes. Did Morgana truly think him that stupid?

“Of course,” he said, but stepped forward, laying his hand on the back of her head, his fingers twining in her silky hair. “Sayhalith chechuney recollaturne finalite,” he hissed, offering up a prayer that Morgana not come out on the other side of the spell brain-addled.

Merlin let his hand brush down her hair, then stepped closer to catch Morgana as she slid into unconsciousness.

He hooked his hands under her arms and dragged her to the four-poster bed, awkwardly hefting her onto the thick, high mattress. He lifted her feet, then, pulling her slippers away, tucking her in under the thick covers.

He felt nothing as he touched her, though he’d once thought her the loveliest woman of his acquaintance. She was soft and curvy where he desired strength and clean lines of muscle.

He brushed her hair from her face and laid her arms across on her stomach.

Stretching over to whisper in her ear, Merlin took a deep breath and gathered his courage, fixing a memory in his own mind to give him something solid to base her memory regression on.

“You will remember nothing beyond the afternoon when the Witchfinder was caught committing fraud. We - Arthur, Uther, Merlin, Gwen, yourself - we saw him expel a toad from his mouth, found his hoard of magical items. He struggled when Arthur tried to arrest him and he fell out the window.”

Merlin shuddered as he remembered that day.

“Mmm,” Morgana agreed softly, though her eyebrows knit together.

“Shh, he cannot harm you; he is dead. Your secret is safe, and Morgana, Merlin can be trusted with it if you find need of help. Gaius as well, for he was once a sorcerer.”

Morgana’s face relaxed, though she did not smile.

“When you wake, you will go to Arthur and ask him to tell you what has happened. Do not be afraid. He and Uther will help you, My Lady. They love you, quite as sister and daughter. They are so thankful you have returned to them.”

Of that, Merlin was sure. Neither Arthur nor Uther knew the depths of Morgana’s treachery. As far as Arthur knew, this was Morgana’s first attempt on his father’s life and it was indirect, at that.

He would have to go to Gaius, who could speak with the King and convince him that it was for the best if Morgana did not learn every detail of the last year straight away.

Gaius could tell the King she was either repressing the memories, or that the spell was such that it eliminated all recollection of events that took place during the period of enchantment.

Merlin drew back, offering up another silent prayer, not particular which God, old or new, heard him. He wanted Morgana to survive this. Although, he’d tried to kill her himself, had nearly succeeded, he'd always felt as though he should have done more to help her before Morgause ever came into the picture.

Merlin backed away from the bed, walking as silently as he could to the door. He peeked out, saw the hallway empty and left quickly. He found Gaius and Gwen in the tower, Gaius digging aimlessly through his potions.

Going to the worktable, Merlin surreptitiously pocketed a small vial, then brought it out and held it up. “I gave her something to help her sleep. She’ll be fine, Gwen. We’ll all help her through this.”

And they would, Merlin vowed.

And if Morgause ever summoned her again, Merlin would answer in Morgana’s stead. He looked forward to that meeting.

 

***

 

Merlin knocked quietly on Arthur’s door, far later than the candlemark Arthur had allowed him. He waited there, hand on the doorknob, half-anxious for and half-dreading the conversation he knew was about to take place.

The door jerked open and Arthur scoffed. “Decided to knock now that these are your rooms as well?” he said, walking to the table and handing Merlin the goblet of wine there.

Shrugging, Merlin took it and peered into it, not sure if he should drink or not.

“It’s not poisoned, if that’s what you’re thinking.” Arthur took the glass and drank deeply, then handed it back to him. “Funny, Merlin, how I find out you’ve been lying to me for months and suddenly you don’t trust me. Why is that?”

Merlin set the wine down without drinking. He knew how quickly it went to his head, and he wanted to stay as sober as possible right then, hoping Arthur wasn’t too far into the bottle yet, either. “Could be because what I am and what I do is illegal.”

“Then I’d say it’s a good thing you’re not actually subject to the laws of Camelot, or I’d have to turn you in, wouldn’t I?” Arthur lectured, obviously struggling to hold his serious expression.

“I don’t understand,” Merlin said, completely at a loss.

“You’re from Ealdor, which, as you know, is in Cenred’s Kingdom.”

Merlin nodded, still confused. “But why should that matter? I live here, I work here...”

Arthur scoffed, “I’d hardly call it working, but, yes, I thought of that. The thing is, Merlin, I’m not in any particular hurry to fight Cenred’s battles for him. Seems I have my hands full here in Camelot without worrying about my enemies’ enemies, as it were.” He held a hand out to indicate Merlin, as if it weren’t obvious.

Merlin grinned. “So you’re not going to tell your father that I’m-”

“Let me finish!” Arthur interrupted, his hand slicing the air to silence Merlin, his smirk disappearing. "As Crown Prince, I am allowed a certain amount of latitude in judging such matters. So, I forbid you from speaking of your... gifts. You shall not, unless threatened with death, tell another living soul. Do you understand me, Merlin? No one is to know what I know.”

“Arthur, wait,” Merlin started to object. There were so many unforeseeable ways he could break that kind of vow without intending to. “There is more you should know before I agree.”

“There is nothing to agree or disagree with, Merlin. It is done and that is my final word on the subject.”

“I won’t tell anyone else, not unless lives are at stake, but there is something you must hear. You must listen to me.” Merlin swallowed hard, not knowing if he could really say the words out loud.

“You cannot give me an order, Merlin, no matter how many times you try to.” Arthur crossed to the mantle, facing away from him. “I know all I need to.”

Wordlessly, Merlin held his hand out, palm up, and thought a small flame into existence. He could tell Arthur this way, and he wouldn’t have to find the words.

“Arthur, look at me.”

“I’d rather look at this pitiful excuse for a fire you’ve got going. What happened to your fire-starting prowess, eh?” Arthur said, kneeling at the hearth and poking at the smouldering logs with an iron.

Merlin couldn’t believe what he’d just heard, but he wasn’t about to challenge the prince’s calm reaction. He went to the fireplace, depositing the flame onto the pile of charred wood, but Arthur turned away from him, reaching for a few pieces of wood and tossing them on top of Merlin’s flame.

“That should hold us for now,” Arthur nodded, finally meeting his gaze. Merlin swore he saw sadness there, this time. “But you’ll need to tend to it again soon, Merlin.”

“Of course,” he answered, his throat thick with doubt. He truly didn’t think Arthur was talking about the fire anymore. “Arthur, I-”

“Leave me now.” Arthur ’s voice was low, and Merlin knew that command well. It was never what the words meant, and he never obeyed them.

“No.” It sounded more like a request than a refusal, and he supposed it was. “Are you angry with me?”

Arthur carefully leant the iron against the wall in the corner by the fireplace. “I was. Now? No, I’m not angry, precisely.”

Merlin slumped back to the bench and sat, unable to speak. Arthur was beyond angry, then. Beyond caring, had already written him off, perhaps. Or hurt, so hurt he couldn’t even say how much pain Merlin had caused him.

Sitting down just beside him, so close that their thighs and arms touched, Arthur stared at the fire.

The brush of Arthur’s shoulder against his own sent tingles to his fingertips and up his neck. Arthur didn’t seem to notice, but Merlin’s entire body was hypersensitive.

Arthur looked at him, then, but Merlin couldn’t turn his head to look back at him. What if Arthur saw this, too? He couldn’t confess his true feelings, not before Arthur knew everything. Or ever.

Merlin’s throat constricted and he closed his eyes, resting his elbow on his knees, dropping his head into his hands. He ached to his marrow, the quiet just as cutting as if Arthur had been screaming.

A hand rested on his upper arm, warm and strong. “There is so much you could do, Merlin.”

Merlin heard the regret clearly, because he felt it more keenly than Arthur ever could. “So much I should already have done, I know.” Merlin’s fingers tightened in his hair, the pull helping him hold himself together. He owed Arthur this conversation, this and many others.

“I didn’t say that,” Arthur countered, though it sounded as if he had to bite down to keep from saying more.

“You didn’t have to; I know I’ve failed you. I’ve failed everyone I care about, everyone who died because I wasn’t brave enough or fast enough or smart enough to do something when I had a chance. I do try - I'm just not...” He couldn't admit every detail of his shortcomings yet, but he could voice that much truth out loud.

Arthur’s hand squeezed tightly on his arm, then released him. “I’ve felt the same way in combat. If I’d feigned this way instead of that, if I’d driven my horse just a little harder and arrived a moment sooner. I’ve seen people die because of my mistakes.”

Merlin looked up then, still unable to look at Arthur. “Please don’t do that. I know what I am.” Merlin lowered his head again. “I am what you say, Sire, every word.”

“Despite your general distraction, I know you aren’t dim enough to believe I actually mean those names I call you, Merlin.”

Incompetent, ignorant, clumsy... good for nothing, lacking a spine, a brain, useful skills. It was true. Well, he was sometimes good at cleaning up messes, but he was just as apt to make them unless he used magic and if he did, he was stupid for using it to such a menial end. Arthur’s insults hadn’t hurt because they’d been insulting, they’d dug in deeply because they were true.

“I know you say them in... anger, or to get me to do better, but that doesn’t make them any less true.”

“You have been hiding - very well, apart from the occasional need for my unconsciousness - a secret that could mean your death. Even after you knew it, you stayed in the heart of the most dangerous place you could possibly be and kept doing a job you hate. I’d like to know why.”

His heart was pounding so loudly he was sure Arthur could feel it. “You.”

“Me?” Arthur put a hand on the back of his neck, urging him to look up, and Merlin did, reluctantly. “What do you mean, me?”

Merlin looked at him, finally, and his eyes filled as soon as they met Arthur’s. He couldn’t help it, he was losing everything, everything that meant anything to him. Even if he stayed in Camelot, things would never be as they were.

“Kilgharrah told me of a prophecy. It says that you and I... we share a destiny. It says if Albion is to be united in peace, I must stay by your side and help you, protect you. That you must reconcile Camelot with magic.”

He watched it happen, because he had to. He had to be sure, if it was over.

Arthur blinked and it was like a shield fell between them, Merlin felt so completely cut off from Arthur in that instant. He’d known it was coming and still, it felt like someone had cleaved him in two.

“I came to Camelot seeking knowledge, and in truth, I hoped I’d find friendship as well,” he whispered, “You’ve given me both, and I will always be grateful. I never meant to... I never meant for any of this to happen. If this is my destiny, I don’t understand why it...”

“Why it’s not easier?” Arthur scoffed. “You’d think those ancient prophets would cut us a break now and then.”

Arthur bumped his knee against Merlin’s, giving him a small smile and Merlin couldn’t help but return it.

“I’ll understand if you want me to leave Camelot.” Merlin looked at the fire, nodding. “I would be fine. There’s plenty of work on farms, and I can always go home.”

“You’re saying you wouldn’t end up in a cave?” Looking up, Arthur nodded at the fireplace. “You are just as unobservant as you accuse me of being, Merlin.”

He looked up, noticing for the first time what sat in the centre of the mantle: his dragon statue. He stood and picked it up, looking it over. “You took it from my room?”

“I think it's the only thing you left behind when you moved down here.” Arthur came to stand beside him, his arm going around Merlin’s shoulders as he reached out to touch the carving. “I suppose I wouldn’t mind too much if you wanted to keep it on the mantle. It’s not badly done. The rest of your things will have to go in your room, though.”

Merlin gaped at him. “You want me to stay?”

“It’s been a long day,” Arthur said, stretching and walking over to step behind the dressing screen. “I’ll bathe in the morning. Bring me clothes to sleep in.”

Going to the armoire, feeling as low as the flagstones, Merlin pulled out a pair of Arthur’s pyjama trousers, his hand stopping on a second pair for himself. He rubbed his fingertips over them, the softness and warmth calling to him.

“Get yourself something, too,” Arthur said from behind the screen, though how he knew, Merlin had no idea. “We’ll send to the market for nightclothes of your own tomorrow.”

“No prancing around naked for me, then,” he asked, his face heating despite the fact that it was meant to be a jibe at Arthur.

“Not unless you’re prepared for the consequences.” Arthur said lightly, reaching out from behind the screen. “Now give me those and go to bed before you fall over and I have to carry you there.”

Merlin smiled as he placed the pyjamas into Arthur’s outstretched hand. “Thank you, Sire.”

He turned down Arthur’s bedding, then ducked into the antechamber and lit a candle. He stripped off and stepped into Arthur’s nightclothes for the second time that week.

Arthur was clearly trying not to be upset with him, though just how upset the prince was, Merlin couldn’t guess. He might never forgive Merlin, might only be keeping him close so he could keep an eye on him.

Or maybe Arthur just needed time, more time to process and accept. As much as Merlin hated to wait silently, he would do it. He would earn Arthur’s trust again, no matter how long it took. And then break it all over again with the whole truth?

His hands went to his thighs, fingers curling into the soft material. It felt like he was somehow touching Arthur, like if he just held on tightly enough, Arthur wouldn’t be able to slip away from him. Merlin blew out the candle and silently swung the door open on its hinges with a thought. Arthur’s room was dark and quiet, save the sound of the prince’s breathing.

As he listened to the inhalations evening out, he realized what Kilgharrah had been saying all along, though he’d never once heard it: He wasn’t the one who would complete Arthur. Arthur was the one who would complete him. And if that never happened, if Merlin had ruined everything... he’d be alone again.

Arthur mumbled something in his sleep, his bed creaking as he turned over. Merlin could see Arthur’s shoulders and hair catching the flickering light from the fire. Even now, he wanted to touch, wanted that smooth, glowing skin against his own. His cock hardened at the thought, and he pressed his arm against it, sighing at the sweet pressure. How he could be aroused after the week he’d had was beyond comprehension.

He closed his eyes, willing away the desire, but when he opened them, Arthur was still there, bare to the waist, covers kicked low around his hips, arms wrapped around his pillow. The firelight licked up his back and over his arms, orange and yellow against tanned skin. The angle brought to mind Arthur training in summer with the knights, all of them stripped to their trousers in the heat, pulling their strikes because none of them were protected as they usually were.

Merlin didn’t compare. Arthur would never look at him like this; He was nothing to look at.

It was ridiculous, thinking of Arthur like that, ridiculous and pathetic. He refused to behave like some love-struck chamber maid, simpering and drooling all over her master’s feet. He would never let Arthur know, especially not now.

He closed his eyes and let his tears fall. He pulled the blankets higher around his shoulders and pressed his face into the damp pillow-case, thinking how some men had earned his tears.

If they remained- well, friends, he wanted to think, - then Merlin would do his duty, his job, and forget all the rest. He had to - no one could live with this kind of gaping hole in their chest for long.

 

***

 

The King returned to court a week later, his scars miraculously healed and no one the wiser, or no one speaking up if they suspected something, which Merlin thought likelier.

 

Arthur was being a prat again, full-fledged and with a vengeance, it seemed. Merlin had already mucked out the stables, groomed the horses, cleaned out the fireplace and done the Prince’s laundry by the time Arthur asked where his dinner was. He’d seemed thoroughly unimpressed with Merlin’s list of chores as well, though Merlin would like to have seen him doing it all before supper and still being awake enough to go to the library afterwards.

He’d begged off each day for a few hours in the afternoons, when Arthur was training or holding court with the King, with the excuse that he was trying to find the ancient prophecy Kilgharrah had said included the two of them.

He’d also asked off every night after the evening meal, something Arthur complained about, but he didn’t ever say no.

When Merlin had been dismissed, he’d go to the tower and check on Gaius, grab his book of magic and head for the library.

It made him sneeze.

The dust always made him sneeze, that and the musty smell in the tiny room where the oldest books and scrolls were kept, which is where he found himself every night that week. There was no comfort to be found in that room, cramped and full as it was with hundreds of mouldering parchments in small square cubby holes lining every wall. He felt like he was in a honeycomb, without the sweetness.

Somewhere in here, Merlin would find the instructions for the binding of souls. He didn’t dare cast within the tiny room - the parchment and skins were far too fragile and Geoffrey always reminded him to keep the door open, more out of concern for the scroll than Merlin, he suspected. He did, however, cast before he entered, and this was where his spell had indicated the instructions for binding of souls could be found.

The seeking spell was almost Merlin’s favourite thing to cast, and no wonder, given his tendency to misplace, well, everything.

The table and chairs were proportionately-sized for the room - far too short for Merlin’s legs. His knees pressed tightly up under the table if he sat there, so he chose to sit cross-legged on the icy floor instead, though he did cast a warming charm on the one flagstone beneath his bum, aiming very carefully, and that did wonders for the chill that crept in as soon as he stepped foot in the scroll room.

Geoffrey checked on him so often he had to actively bite his tongue not to scream at the nosy man. He already knew everything about everyone in the citadel, couldn’t he be satisfied with that and leave the ancient history to Merlin? But Merlin would just shrug and shake his head, unroll another scroll and shake his head again, and, apparently satisfied that he wasn’t destroying valuable knowledge, Geoffrey would soon leave him to it.

Being careful to replace each paper where he’d gotten it, Merlin read until his vision was blurry and his eyelids wouldn’t stay open. After the first night he’d spent in total frustration, he’d found a language revelation spell in his book of magic. It worked a charm, and he cast it upon himself each night, spending hours upon hours deciphering ancient writing, hoping upon hope that he’d somehow, miraculously, find it.

When he finally saw the words “soul-binding,” he could hardly believe it. He jumped to his feet, spreading the parchment carefully on the table, using the smooth stones Geoffrey had given him to weigh the corners down so he could better read. The lettering was tiny, though surprisingly in English, the text itself so formal and stilted Merlin felt as though he were reading a religious text.

He was, he supposed, in a way, for this was a ritual of the Old Religion. From the beginning of the document, intent was emphasized. If either party doubted his own or the other’s intentions, the binding would not hold fast. The same seemed true for unwillingness to bond, ignorance of the bond or its purpose and the incompletion of the ritual.

Merlin took a deep breath as he began the section on the ritual itself. He’d imagined all sorts of heinous things - sacrifices and blood-letting - because this was the Old Religion and his only experiences with it had been violent or involving some cold, callous rule that only made sense to those enforcing it.

What he found as he read on was quite the opposite.

To begin the ritual, both candidates must purify themselves, spending one night in solitude together. They must each bring nothing to an uninhabited location, be cleansed in a natural body of water, dressed in white linen and left on their own to fend for themselves until morning. No preparations may be laid or servants may be present.

Though they may speak to one another, they may speak to no one else during the ritual.

At dusk, they would be allowed to touch - at that Merlin sucked in a breath. No, not allowed. Required. Oh, God, not... it wasn’t dark magic they were going to perform.

Merlin continued reading, holding his breath and biting his lip so hard he could feel the sting even through his haze of shock.

Required to touch, to share breath, physical bodies joining fully as the incantation was spoken and their souls locked together. Merlin took a step back, then another, and stumbled on the uneven floor, falling hard on the cold stones, flailing arms taking a few scrolls with them on the way down.

He sat, stunned, unable to move.

“Any luck finding that recipe for rat stew? I’m a bit over-tired of the old one, you know.” Arthur stepped into the low-ceilinged room, smirking as he saw Merlin sprawled on the floor.

“I didn’t give you the afternoon off so you could kip a nap in the library, Merlin. Bloody hell! This room is smaller than your own, and that floor can’t be as soft as your bed.”

Merlin rubbed the back of his head where he’d knocked it against the shelves, quickly gathering up the scrolls and taking Arthur’s offered hand to pull himself to his feet. “Ha bloody ha. Did you need something, or did you just come to make fun of me?”

Arthur glanced at the table where the scroll lay spread and anchored for the entire world to see. Merlin felt as though his clothes had suddenly disappeared and left him standing there naked.
Naked and aroused.

“Have you found something, then?” Arthur asked, starting to lean down over the parchment to read it. “What’s this?”

“Oh, nothing, it’s-” Merlin brushed the stones onto the table and rolled the parchment tightly, tucking it into a cubby at the top right of the room, hoping he’d be able to find it again later that night. “I think it was just something Geoffrey left out.”

“Uh huh,” Arthur said, shrugging. “Well, if you’re not making progress, why don’t you run along and fetch my dinner from the kitchens before it actually ices over?”

Merlin grabbed his satchel and made for the door, though Arthur’s hand on his arm stopped him. He looked up and saw Arthur grinning.

“I was only joking about the rat stew, you know.”

“Oh, yes, I know you love my original recipe best!” he grinned, ducking out the door and fleeing to the kitchens as fast as he could.

 

***

 

Merlin could be downright imbecilic when he was nervous, excited or upset, which is exactly what made Arthur so damned curious about the scroll Merlin had hastily stowed away in a conveniently easy-to-remember cubby.

Well, and he had seen the words “soul binding” at the top of the parchment when he’d glanced at it, before Merlin had swept it out from under his nose.

Arthur only had to open three scrolls before he found what he was looking for.

Soul binding. Well, that was something new, and altogether un-Merlin-like. He skimmed through the paragraph explaining the purposes and appropriate circumstances for the spell.

The Old Religion had some strange ideas of romance if it thought binding your soul to another’s was some sort of ritual appropriate for “intimate partnerships.”

Then again, it sounded far more considerate and well... focused than any of his own affairs had ever been. There hadn’t been many, and the few had been brief, fun flirtations. All but one had been with visiting nobles, and that had been a knight who patrolled more than he stayed in Camelot, as it turned out.

But this was about long-term, permanent binding of souls. This was about giving yourself to another person, trusting them with everything you are and accepting them, accepting their trust as fully as you gave yours.

There was no talk of submission or degradation, no one partner more or less than the equal of the other.

Merlin couldn’t be thinking of doing this with someone, could he? How could he have found the time to meet someone and fall so far in love that he would willingly become that person’s future?
The thought tripped into another, his own future, himself as King.

Oh, God. The seventh Rite. Arthur had studied the Rites, he’d read the histories, and he knew that rarely, the seventh Rite involved another person, someone close to the heir. It was usually a spouse or beloved friend, someone who would rise to the throne with the heir, but not rule with them.

He’d never imagined it would be that way for him, since he had no lover and only ever confided in his father. And Merlin.

Merlin, who was a Dragon Lord and very probably also a sorcerer, powerful enough to ascend the throne alongside Arthur.

Merlin, who apparently shared his destiny, who would help him usher Albion into an age of united peace and prosperity by binding his soul to Arthur’s and receiving Arthur’s binding as an equal.

He stepped back from the table, leaning on the nearest shelf, his shoulder pushing against the dusty scrolls.

No wonder Merlin had fallen on his arse.

Brushing the dust from his hair and shoulders, he went back to the scroll, reading from the beginning, slowly, in case Merlin decided to do a better hiding job later that night.

The ritual was very like the one he had undergone for his quest to the Perilous Lands, cleansing and being dressed all in white. After that, though, things became somewhat more heated.

He tried not to substitute himself and Merlin every time the scroll referred to each bonding candidate, but by the time it gave permission for sharing breath, Arthur’s trouser laces needed loosening. He purposefully thought of Merlin’s reaction, of how shocked and offended he’d seemed, of how nervous he’d been even sharing a pallet when they’d made camp the week before.

The joining of bodies was impossible not to picture, though. He closed his eyes and imagined Merlin willing and eager beneath him, those teasing expressions he saw all day long replaced with heat and passion, with longing.

He could almost feel Merlin’s skin against his own as they fit together like two pieces of the same puzzle. He’d thought of it before, how seamlessly they matched, Merlin’s sharp angles and expressive eyes, looking up at him with pure, uninhibited trust.

Geoffrey’s footsteps clicked on the stones, heralding his approach, and Arthur quickly rolled the parchment and tucked it back where Merlin had left it.

He’d read it all, the ritual was simple enough, but it was going to be anything but simple getting Merlin to comply and be completely willing about it.

 

***

 

Merlin’s back bowed under the weight of Arthur’s shoulder-plate as Arthur tossed it into his waiting arms. The gauntlets and gloves joined it, the whole pile a little slick with sweat and condensation from the muggy afternoon. It wasn’t a glorious thing to smell, either, stuck right under his twitching nose.

Arthur waved a hand at him, raising his eyebrows with obvious impatience.

“I’m coming already!” Merlin griped, half-dropping the pile at the corner of the bed. “Sheesh, you’d think a knight could wear his armour until he got up the stairs to his room, at least.”

“You’d think a servant would learn not to drop the armour he’s responsible for mending,” Arthur said, kicking the pile, then shook his head and sighed. “Damn it! I cannot stop, even when I’m actively trying.”

“Sire?” Merlin questioned, pointing back out the doorway. “Should I come back?”

“For God’s sake, Merlin, just-” Arthur growled and turned his back, clutching the edge of the table, jostling the pitcher of cool water and fruit Merlin had laid out earlier.

Merlin heard him take a deep breath and blow it out, which was never a good sign.

Arthur had just turned around and opened his mouth when a maid, nearly as tall as Merlin and as thin, stepped lightly into the room with two full buckets of water dangling from her arms as if they weighed nothing. “Your highness,” she trilled, setting the buckets down and putting her hands on her hips, never spilling a drop. “Nearly done heating your water. I’ve done most of it in the guest chamber down the hall, so you’re nearly filled up now,” she said, nodding at the steaming tub by the fireplace.

Merlin couldn’t believe his eyes, and when he looked at Arthur, expecting the same amazement, he found him smiling at the tart.

“What’s she doing here?” he scoffed, resisting the urge to glare. She probably had no idea the sort of possessive tendencies most servants had for their masters, but she was going to learn, one way or another.

“Don’t be rude, Merlin. Say ‘hello’ to-” Arthur gestured at the girl, then snapped his fingers and scrunched up his face. “Um, what was your name again?”

“Mary, Sire,” she said and curtseyed .

That was it.

“You can leave, Mary. I serve Arthur and I’m sure you’re needed elsewhere,” he said sharply, but with a smile, since Arthur was watching him closely.

The girl looked at Arthur, who smiled and shook his head at her. He then put an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and clapped a hand to his chest. Merlin flushed and tensed at the feel of Arthur literally surrounding him, but gave the maid a quick smile like this was totally normal behaviour for the two of them.

“Merlin’s just a bit over-tired, Mary. He’ll be leaving now.” Arthur led him over to the door and shoved him out, a hand to his back. He followed Merlin into the hallway and pulled him out of the way of a dining cart just in time, shoving his back against the wall.

“I am not over-tired,” he yelled before he could stop himself. He looked around guiltily and added “My Lord” in a quiet voice.

“I’ve arranged to have a maid prepare my baths and lay out my clothing from now on, so... go make a nuisance of yourself elsewhere for a little while.”

Merlin bowed, looking at the ground, embarrassed to be grovelling in a hallway full of passersby, but unwilling to leave if Arthur was genuinely displeased with him. “I apologize if I’ve somehow offended-”

“Oh, please! You’ve never apologized for any of your cock-ups or shortcomings before, Merlin, why would you start now?” Arthur laughed, knocking him on the forehead so he would stand up straight.

Merlin grinned a little and shrugged. “So, what did I do wrong this time, Sire," he asked, making his voice go high like Mary’s and thinking Arthur usually responded better to laughter than anything else.

Arthur narrowed his eyes and looked about to say something, but paused, then answered, “Nothing. It just seemed to me that we would both be... more comfortable with these arrangements. But I want you back in my quarters in a candlemark, Merlin. There is something I wish to discuss with you.”

Leaning his back against the cold stone of the corridor, Merlin watching in absolute disbelief as Arthur turned on his heel, strode back into his chambers and, with a grin back at Merlin, closed the door.

He stared at the door, blinking when Gwen walked past and clapped her hands in his face. “You okay, Merlin?” she asked, looking from him to the door. “Oh no, what did he do this time?”

Merlin smiled wide and shook his head. “What? Nothing? He’s about to take a bath, that’s all.”

Gwen’s brow furrowed, but she began walking backwards away from him, her thumb pointing back over her shoulder. “Morgana and I are going shopping! Not as much fun, I’m sure...” she grinned and walked quickly up the passage, throwing a laugh over her shoulder at his stunned look.

He propped a foot on the wall, realizing he must’ve been standing there a long time. He’d heard the water stop sloshing into the tub, the buckets being set down, and now the maid’s high-pitched voice speaking rapidly, though he couldn’t make out what she was saying.

And he could have, if he’d wanted to, but no sooner had he thought of the spell than he’d realized that, first of all, he didn’t really want to know what was going on in there and secondly, Gaius would most definitely not consider this an emergency situation worthy of using his magic in a public corridor of the castle.

Pushing off the wall, feeling as though he was leaving a string of himself a kilometre long pulling all the way back to Arthur’s chamber, he climbed the steps to the library.

It was the only place he dreaded more than Arthur’s chamber right now, though he’d much rather hear Geoffrey’s deep voice scolding him for not properly ordering the scrolls the night before than that maid’s giggle or Arthur’s answering moans.

Okay, so he hadn’t actually heard that, but he may as well have, for all the difficulty he was having breathing around the tight achein his chest right now, and for once, it had nothing to do with the dust.

Geoffrey opened the scroll room for him and he stepped inside, went to the table, bruised both knees as he sat in the chair, folded his arms and dropped his head onto them.

How was he ever going to tell Arthur about the seventh Rite? Arthur wasn’t the least bit interested in men; so uninterested in fact, that he couldn’t even stand for Merlin to help him wash up.

And that wasn’t exactly fair, he guessed, since he’d done a bit more than help him wash up, but then Arthur had seemed like he’d wanted what Merlin had done, like it wasn’t anything for Merlin to be rubbing his shoulders or washing his hair.

And what about their quest for Excalibur? Arthur had been the one to sidle right up behind him in bed, arm flung over his waist, breath hot on his neck...

God. Merlin groaned and clutched at his hair, willing the thoughts back where they belonged, the tiny box at the back of his mind where he’d shoved them and ordered them to stay since they’d gotten back. They weren’t very good listeners when it got dark and quiet and he had such a soft, warm bed to tuck into.

Or now, in the musty, cobwebby old scroll room of the freezing library. He scoffed and raised his head, wiping his face on his sleeve.

So what if Arthur wanted a pretty tart for a bath-maid? It was no surprise that he preferred a pretty girl to Merlin’s churlish retorts, apart from the fact that he’d given Merlin a candlemark off in the middle of the day with no barked orders of 'polish my armour' or 'mend my boots,' which, by all rights, Merlin actually did need to be doing.

Even so, he couldn’t imagine Arthur being so crude as to actually seduce a maid who called him ‘Sire,’ though Merlin had of course heard stories of visiting nobles with quick, pinching fingers and quicker, groping hands, but Arthur wouldn’t go in for that - he wouldn’t have tolerated even that if he’d heard of it, Merlin was sure.

And Arthur hadn’t had anyone - maid or not - attend his bath in the time Merlin had been his manservant.

Not trusting his ability to hide his feelings, Merlin had made himself scarce every day after heating the water in the tub and leaving out the bath-things, most often escaping up to the library.

One night, Arthur had donned his robe and scrubbed while wearing it, though when he’d realized what Arthur was doing, Merlin had excused himself to his room and shut the door tightly. Arthur had called for him to turn down the bed and bank the fire, by then fully dressed in both sleeping trousers and under-tunic. That had been another thing, Arthur wearing a shirt to bed. Merlin didn’t think he had every evening, but it had been more often than not over the last dozen nights.

So maybe he really was just uncomfortable with the way Merlin had touched him, or looked at him, even, since Merlin’s face was just so unabashedly open, damn it to hell.

To be honest, he knew what had probably motivated Arthur to get a maid more than anything.

Merlin, himself. He’d been especially off-kilter since he’d touched Arthur and washed his hair and...

So, not surprisingly, Merlin had kept an extra distance between them. He figured he was just beating Arthur to the punch, since Arthur had given him his fair share of odd looks since then, too.

Punch was exactly how it felt to find himself living not five meters from Arthur’s bed and dining table and bath and not able to make himself the least bit at home even closed in his own tiny side-chamber. His things were all neat and organized, in case Arthur ever decided to check. He woke and changed before Arthur could even see him in his new nightclothes. He never wore them in the evenings, not after that second time. He’d not gone shirtless, either, but he never had before, so it wasn’t like he was doing that for Arthur’s benefit, not really.

He still couldn’t make it through the night with the door shut between them, but he’d tried, and Arthur never woke before him, so he would never know.

Merlin hadn’t watched him all that much. Just an occasional glimpse now and then when he heard Arthur make a noise in his sleep, or the creak of the wood floor sounded too much like Arthur’s footsteps coming toward him, or once when he hadn’t been able to sleep and had given in, hands twisted in the fur of last-winter’s prized bear pelt that he was sure, absolutely sure, Arthur had purposefully laid across his bed when he was off on some errand.

Who else would have done that for him? Who else could have gotten in? Merlin was so careful to lock Arthur’s rooms now, even if it meant keeping the key on a thong around his neck all day long.

So if Arthur was so uncomfortable that he needed even more space between them, if that was the case, then he was glad Arthur had banished him from the baths. If Arthur wanted his bath to himself - or himself and a maid - Merlin would gladly be down in the stables cleaning up shite or up here in the library, brooding for the nine billionth time.

And he should be, instead of pouting in a room where his biggest problem rested.

The seventh Rite was all that had been on his mind for days. He couldn’t figure out a way of telling Arthur without it sounding entirely contrived. It wasn’t as if it would ever occur to Merlin to devise a plan to forcefully seduce Arthur, as if he could ever manage to do anything having to do with Arthur forcefully anyway, but still. Arthur would take it badly, and Merlin truly didn’t want to give him one more iota of bad news right now.

Things between them hadn’t been as easy as before that blasted bath. Merlin almost would have given it up to be rid of the awkwardness, but... well, not quite.

He would never forget how it had felt, the heady fog of arousal so forbidden and thrilling that close to Arthur. The memories were going to be with him forever, he knew, for as much as he’d believed it when he’d slid his hands through Arthur’s hair, he believed tenfold now that those moments would be the closest he would ever come to intimacy with Arthur.

He’d gone over and over the ritual for the seventh Rite a hundred times in his head and a dozen on paper, and he just could not bring himself to believe that Arthur would ever, on any terms, consent to the things it required.

Merlin groaned again, scrubbing his hand through his hair and standing, bussing his knees on the table again on the way up.

Maybe he could go to the Isle of the Blessed and resurrect Nimueh, then ask her to give Arthur another seventh Rite if Merlin let her live this time. Would the Old Religion think that was a fair exchange? Because he thought it was perfectly on balance.

He rubbed his knees as he hobbled to the wall and began looking for the parchment once again. He found it where he’d left it the night before, in the top corner shelf, and took it carefully back to the table, this time staying on his feet as he unrolled it and set the river rocks on the corners to weigh it open.

His eyes flew to the middle of the page, the words he’d thought, pictured, whispered, dreaded and thought again over the last few days.

At dusk, the candidates are required to touch, to share breath, physical bodies joining fully as the incantation is spoken and their souls are bound together.

He traced a finger over the looping, fluid script, his vision blurring and eyes closing, images from dreams he’d had playing across his closed eyelids. Arthur smiling down at him, running a hand through Merlin’s hair and down his neck, a hug that became a slow, soft kiss, Arthur’s hands on his bare back, thumb brushing over his whip-scar.

He didn’t let himself think further, never any further than that. He was afraid if he went too far, it would hurt too much to not have it.

Knocking the stones to the floor, he leant down on elbows over the scroll, hands covering his face. He would not cry over Arthur Pendragon and his silly, freakishly-strong new maid. He sobbed out a laugh, stood up, took a deep breath and rolled the parchment up tightly, securing it with the faded crimson ribbon as always. He pushed it back into place in its cubby and gave it a salute.

He would tell Arthur and get the whole thing over, rejection and confession all in one fell swoop.

 

***

 

It was nearly nightfall when he'd returned to Arthur's chambers, the maid and her washtub both long gone. He banked the fire and turned down the bed, then fell asleep in his small room, the door wide open between he and Arthur.

He woke with a start at Arthur's hand on his shoulder, gently shaking him. “Up, Merlin, and be quick about it.”

Merlin wiped at his eyes and nodded, sitting up. “Did you need something” he asked sleepily, still in a daze from the vivid dream he'd been having.

“Put on another tunic and your cloak,” Arthur commanded, shouldering a good-sized pack. He waited just long enough for Merlin to dress and tie on his cloak, still not fully awake, before Arthur lead the way out of his rooms and down the hall. “I’ve got your things, don’t worry,” he said casually, as if it needed no further explanation.

“My things? Arthur, wait! I have to lock up,” he whispered, pulling the key from around his neck.

Arthur barely waited for him to lock the door behind them before he was striding down the corridor and running down the steps, not even looking back to see if Merlin was keeping up.

He was.

Whatever Arthur had planned, it wasn’t as important as what Merlin wanted to tell him, but he figured if they were alone wherever they were going, he’d still have a chance to tell him.

Still, it was very likely going to end with Merlin dragging most of his things back to the tower when they returned, trying not to wake Gaius, then lying awake the rest of the night wishing he would wake up in Ealdor, wondering what he’d eaten to give him such a nightmare.

Arthur turned and Merlin nearly ran into him, catching himself on the stairwell wall and following Arthur through the huge wooden door, out onto the castle ramparts, just above street-level.

They had a clear view in all directions, and it was a gorgeous, crisp night.

Arthur stopped and went to the wall, hands leaning there, the pack dropped to the stones beneath their feet. “You’re not going to ask where we’re going?”

Merlin grinned, though it was an effort. “Where are we going?”

“I can’t tell you,” Arthur smirked, bending over the wall to look in both directions, then waving Merlin to follow again. “Hurry up, and bring the pack.”

Their horses were tethered to a rung in the West wall, but there was no one waiting with them. They both shied as Merlin and Arthur approached, probably spooked to be alone in the city at night. They both had a feed-bag and emergency supply kit tied behind their saddles, but no food for he and Arthur, water or any of Arthur’s typical gear.

“How long will we be gone?” Merlin asked, worrying that the packing had clearly been left to Arthur, who only thought in extremes and never remembered the basics.

“A few days, I imagine, but tell your stomach not to panic. I’ve got my bow and we’re not going very far.”

Arthur’s bow wouldn’t do them any good if all the game was hibernating or in their dens. Merlin strapped the small pack Arthur had brought beside the feed bag and patted his horse’s neck to soothe her.

“Mount up. We can’t have very long before someone notices they’re missing and the alarm is raised.”

Merlin froze, his boot in the stirrup. “No one knows we’re leaving?”

“I’ve left word with Gaius, and Leon will tell my father when he wakes, I imagine.” Arthur nodded at the switchback in the Wall. “The guard will be back soon. Let’s go, Merlin.”

With that, Arthur kicked his horse into a walk, and Merlin followed as quickly as he could get in the saddle.

 

***

 

Arthur brought more logs than they could burn in a single night, and Merlin tried for half a candlemark to get the blasted fire to take, but couldn't get the damp wood to hold a flame. He was just about to cast when Arthur once again came into the clearing, this time carrying a fat hare by the ears.

“Well, there’s breakfast for us,” he said, throwing the animal to the stones of the fire-ring and giving Merlin an impatient look. “Still not lit? What’s wrong with you this morning?”

Merlin shrugged and cupped his hands together, blowing warm air into them. “Guess I’m just cold.”

“There’s no call for that, is there?” Arthur crouched beside him and Merlin shifted over, making room. “Does this make you nervous - would you rather I turned my back?”

“While I strike a flint?” Merlin laughed, holding up the stones in his hands.If Arthur was actually hinting that Merlin should use magic, well... He'd said things like that before, though, and Merlin could never quite be sure if Arthur was actually asking.

“Whatever it takes to get the damned thing going. My fingers are numb,” Arthur complained.

Merlin waited until he got up again, this time to check on the horses, and spread his cloak wide, cupping his hands as if blowing warmth into them and cast a tiny flame as quickly as he could manage. He tucked it in under the kindling and leaned low to peer inside. It took quickly, and he breathed a sigh of relief. If Arthur saw, he didn’t say anything.

They cleaned the rabbit at the nearby stream, Merlin making faces and Arthur laughing at him the whole time, asking how Merlin managed to stay alive back in Ealdor where there weren’t servants and Gaius making sure he didn’t starve.

“Mum traded for our meat, but we mostly lived off the vegetables we grew.”

“Which explains why you showed up in Camelot a bean pole,” Arthur grinned.

“Not that it kept you from waving those fancy foods under my nose every chance you got. Do you know how hard it is to stand there, three feet from roast goose or veal for hours and never get a taste?”

Arthur looked surprised, as if the thought had never occurred to him, which it likely hadn’t. “I would have thought you’d eat what was left-over from the feast.”

Merlin smiled and shrugged. It wasn’t like it mattered that much. “I usually leave with you after the feasts. By the time I get to the kitchens, it’s down to the usual bread and cheese or stew upstairs with Gaius.”

Arthur rinsed the meat of the rabbit one more time, murmuring his prayer of thanks. Since the unicorn, Arthur did it every time he killed something, as though even the smallest creature’s life wasn’t below his notice.

Although Merlin frequently was.

It didn’t bother him usually, though Merlin couldn't help but wish things could be different between them.

Merlin had, in fact, wished for Arthur's friendship on every wish-able thing - shooting stars, spiders he didn’t kill and once, stupidly, on a three-legged dog that followed him back to the castle and stood there the whole day like it knew him and was just waiting for him.

When he went back out to chase it off, he’d seen a pin at its feet. Arthur had lost it off his jacket the day before. It belonged to Arthur’s mother, and Merlin had been looking everywhere for it all day. The dog had gotten a juicy bone from the kitchen and Merlin had gotten a half-hug from a very grateful Arthur for finding the pin.

Still, for all his wishing, nothing ever changed. Well, things changed, but Arthur was still Arthur, royal prat of Camelot, and Merlin was still a bumbling fool most of the time, embarrassing himself on a regular basis, when his magic could have saved him the humiliation.

They speared the meat on sticks and cooked it over the fire, eating breakfast in silence. He thought he should compliment Arthur for the food, or thank him, but all he could think of was the Rite and telling Arthur. If he did it now, Arthur could rage or laugh all he wanted and no one would hear him.

Merlin could ride back to Camelot by mid-morning if Arthur dismissed the idea and decide to begin the Rites again on his own. It wasn’t too late, Uther lived, and Merlin could concentrate his efforts on keeping Uther that way until Arthur was finished completing the Rites on his own.

Arthur’s eyes met his and he flinched, tossing his now-empty skewer into the fire. “What?”

“You look like you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, Merlin.”

Yes, it felt as if he did. He bit his lip to keep from saying so, but decided then and there if he just said it, well, nothing could be worse than knowing and not knowing what Arthur’s reaction would be.

He nodded and looked at his hands, then caught himself and looked up. Arthur deserved to be looked straight in the eye for this. “I found something in the library. It’s not the prophecy, but it’s to do with us, with what Kilgharrah told me about the seventh Rite.”

The look Arthur gave him was unreadable. Something like confusion, then amusement. “The bonding ritual, I know.”

Merlin blinked and sat down hard on the ground, his back against a tree. Arthur followed him down, his upraised knee draped in his long red cloak, flush against Merlin’s.

“I read it after you first found it in the scroll room,” Arthur said quietly. “Well, I presume, since I found you on your bum and you couldn’t get out of there fast enough.”

Merlin looked at his folded hands, pushed his head back against the bark of the trunk behind him to feel the support. “You can start over. I won’t interfere. I won’t follow you.”

“Merlin, when I arrived at the bridge in the Perilous Lands, the guardian knew you were on your way. He was waiting for all of us. He asked me ‘which one’ I was.”

“He did?”

“Yes, and I don’t know exactly how you managed it, but I don’t believe for one second that I killed the Questing Beast. My knights told me it was annihilated, and I know for a fact a man with the kind of wound I had doesn’t annihilate anything. You were the only one there.” Arthur smirked. “And you’re a terrible liar.”

“I know,” Merlin agreed, stunned. He hadn’t given Arthur enough credit. “I killed the Beast.”

“Tell me how,” Arthur said, though it wasn’t a command at all. It was as if Arthur just needed to hear him say it.

“Magic,” he whispered, closing his eyes.

“Thank you.”

Merlin snorted. “You’re thanking me for lying to you?”

“I’m thanking you for finally telling me the truth, dimwit,” Arthur said, cuffing him upside the head.

He ducked and couldn’t help but smile, just a little, but he sobered quickly. “I couldn't, not even when you asked. You must’ve been angry.”

Arthur smiled and leaned closer, his voice low. “Yes, but after I saw you with the dragon and realized your confession might cost you your life, I knew I didn’t have the right to force such a confidence from you.”

“I wish I had told you sooner,” Merlin said, swallowing hard. The least he could offer was honesty from this point forward. “I'll tell you whatever you wish to know.”

“I want to see it.” It wasn’t a whisper, but he heard Arthur’s trepidation behind the low words. “Show me.”

Lifting his hand in the air between them, Merlin stared into Arthur’s eyes as he cast. He wouldn’t hide from this.

He slowly gathered the condensation of their breaths together and wove it into a snowflake, the most intricate he’d ever made, as large as his hand and lacy, the crystals perfectly uniform around the edge. It spun on one thin tip in the centre of his palm, Arthur’s eyes shining as he looked up at Merlin.

The proof of his magic, of his trust, turned on his hand between them for only a moment before Arthur covered it with his own, his fingers twining with Merlin’s. The snowflake melted between their hands, but Arthur didn’t let go.

“We can do this,” Arthur whispered, sounding a bit less unsteady. “Together.”

He nodded; he couldn’t refuse Arthur anything, least of all his trust.

He held still as Arthur unfastened his red cloak and nudged him forward off the tree, then draped the royal fabric over Merlin’s shoulders.

The cloak held Arthur’s scent close against him and he closed his eyes, breathing Arthur in deeply, startling at the whisper of Excalibur being unsheathed. He opened his eyes and saw Arthur offering the hilt to him.

“If we do this, Merlin, we do this as equals. Swear to it.”

“Equals, then.” Merlin laid his palm on it, and Arthur curved his hand tightly over Merlin’s. “Though I supposed I’ll still be expected to polish this thing in the morning.”

Merlin couldn’t hide his laugh, but Arthur’s hand squeezed hard on his as they still held Excalibur.

“I won’t order you to do this for me.”

That was the last thing that would have occurred to Merlin, that he was doing this for Arthur.

“You aren’t making me. I want to.” Realizing just how that sounded, he flushed and closed his eyes. “That came out wrong . I mean, I think it will help me, too. Kilgharrah never made it sound like we were anything but equals. For all I know, you’re the other side to my coin.”

“Coin? What are you- what do you mean, ‘coin’?” Arthur asked, tipping Excalibur’s point to rest on his outstretched leg.

“He said - and I quote, so don’t laugh - ‘You are two sides of the same coin.’” Merlin pulled a face and shrugged. “He was always saying things like that, about you and me being connected in the ancient prophecies. Practically every time I went down to that bleeding cave-”

Arthur pursed his lips and Merlin realized his blunder. He let go of Excalibur’s hilt, pulling his hand from beneath Arthur’s and covering his face with his hands. God, he was wearing Arthur's cloak, the royal seal right there on his chest, swearing on Excalibur and even then, in such a moment, he couldn’t stop putting his foot in his mouth.

“Just how long have you been speaking to dragons, Merlin?” Arthur asked, his eyes narrowing.

Merlin cringed and turned his head to look at the clear sky. He took a deep breath. “Since I came to Camelot. He’s why I stayed. I mean, you are, but he told me how important it was that I stay.”

Arthur looked away, then back, his eyes wary. “You’ll do it, then?”

“Of course I will,” he answered, looking down at the cloak draped over his shoulders. He ran his fingers over the Pendragon insignia embroidered on one side. He would always speak with dragons, then, even when Kilgharrah was dead and gone.

Arthur gently pulled Excalibur away, sheathing it and standing, offering Merlin a hand up. He took it, then held his breath as Arthur’s hands closed on either side of his face.

“Intent is the key, Merlin,” he said, leaning their foreheads together. For a moment, Merlin thought he was going to kiss him, but Arthur just took a breath and whispered, “If you don’t wish this, I'll find another way.”

Merlin shook his head gently, not willing to break their contact. “You never listen,” he laughed, his hands going to Arthur’s waist, then pulled back to look at him. “I’m happy to serve you until the day I die.”

“Then we serve one another, Merlin.” Arthur nodded and dropped his hands away, the cold rushing painfully back in against Merlin’s heated face.

Arthur went to the horses and pulled off the pack he’d brought. “I have our clothing for the ritual here, and I’ve told Gaius we’ve gone on a hunting trip. We can tell him and my father the truth when we return if you wish, but I thought performing it in secrecy was best.”

Merlin swallowed the nervousness that bubbled up. “Now? We’re- where are we going?”

“If you’re willing, I think we should move forward with it.”

They were beginning the ritual, the bonding that would tie them together for the rest of their lives.

Merlin nodded, unable to say anything.

Arthur seemed to understand, continuing. “Gwaine and Lancelot have been at the Fisher King’s castle. It’s an uninhabited location. They have stayed there off and on since the quest, and there are comforts there, though none of them left specifically for us.”

“No preparations?” he asked, just to be sure, his head spinning as he realized they were discussing so calmly. “The ritual said-”

“I know. No, they don’t know we’re coming, or of the ritual. As far as I know, you and I are the only two who know what must be done. I’ve sent word ahead for them to make sure the castle is vacant. They should be long gone by the time we arrive.”

Arthur tossed the pack to him with a wary look.

“What?” he asked suspiciously, glancing down at the pack and then back to Arthur.

“We should start the purification.” He nodded at the satchel and Merlin opened it, seeing pure white cloth inside.

“Oh, right,” he laughed nervously, looking back over his shoulder at the stream. It was nearly solstice and Merlin knew the water would be dangerously cold. He didn’t think he could heat an entire stream, but he could try to make things a little better for them. “I can take the worst of the chill off, I think.”

Arthur led the way to the water, kicking off his boots and unbuckling his scabbard as Merlin stood, watching dumbly.

“I’m not going in alone, Merlin.” He grinned, jerking his head toward the rushing water.

“Right, okay,” he sputtered, reaching first for his belt, then his boots, then freezing as Arthur’s hands caught the hem of his tunic. “My ribs are better. I can do it.”

And why he had said that, he had no idea. Nerves, he supposed.

“Of course you can,” Arthur’s voice mumbled behind him, their skin brushing together as Merlin’s tunic was lifted over his head and off his raised arms. “Come on, and put your clothes in the pack so we won’t need to touch them after we’re purified.”

Merlin stumbled as he stripped off his trousers and trews, looking carefully at the ground as Arthur splashed into the stream.

He bent to pick up the pack, shoving his old clothing into it, on top of Arthur’s, pushing his boots in last.

When he looked up, Arthur was chest-deep and already clenching his jaw against the cold, though he was looking down at the water, which helped tremendously as Merlin was standing starkers on the bank, only his hands to shield him from view.

“Didn’t you say something about warming this up?" Arthur was obviously trying not to let his teeth chatter.

Merlin smiled and raised his hand, aiming his palm at the water three meters upstream from Arthur. He formed a line of pure heat across, attaching it to two large stones on either side of the stream.

“Oh, God, that’s good.” Arthur groaned, sinking to his neck as Merlin grinned and quickly stepped into the water. “I’ve not been taking proper advantage of you, Merlin.”

Laughing, Merlin walked to the deepest part of the stream and, chest-deep, leaned his head back, wetting his hair. "Me, either.”

Steam rose off Arthur’s shoulders and head as he dunked under and came up, wiping his face. “I’m guessing it’s sufficient to fully immerse ourselves and be on our way, but I’m not willing to go just yet, are you?”

Merlin shook his head and went all the way under, coming up and swiping his eyes, only to see that Arthur had moved closer. He was just an arm’s span away, hand coming up to touch Merlin’s shoulder, eyes watching Merlin carefully, clearly gauging his reaction.

Arthur stepped up to him, one hand closing on his arm as he started to back away. “Wait. I just need to-”

Merlin looked down at Arthur's wrist, swallowing his nervousness. “Are we allowed to touch now? Before dusk, I mean?”

Arthur shrugged and leaned in, his other hand taking Merlin's jaw in his palm, thumb rubbing gently across his cheekbone. “We'll go under again.”

“Oh-” he whispered, heart thudding so hard he could hear it in his ears.

Arthur leaned in and kissed him lightly on the cheek, then the corner of his mouth, murmuring, “I want-” Arthur pressed their foreheads together, his voice just a breath on his lips, “I want to kiss you.”

Merlin took a deep breath, his heart in his throat, his shaking hands reaching under the water for Arthur's waist before he knew what he was doing. He licked his lips. "I'm not sure we should.”

“I am.”

The hand on his face slid around to the back of his neck and he closed his eyes, not even trying to hide the fact that he wanted this more than he'd ever wanted anything.

Arthur's warm breath touched his lips, and a hand pressed to the small of Merlin's back, spreading wide, urging him closer.

Under the water, his hands slid along Arthur's waist and up and down his sides. Arthur's skin felt like velvet.

With a soft moan, Arthur's mouth pressed lightly to his, then firmly, the hand on his neck squeezing and rubbing, sending shivers along his spine. Arthur's tongue teased, sliding between his lips, smoothing along his own, dipping inside, taking his ability to think with it as it retreated.

He breathed hard through his nose, not willing to be the one to end this, though he knew he should. He groaned against the mouth that moved lazily on his, arching as Arthur's hand drifted lower on his back, almost touching his backside, the kiss going on and on, their bodies so close, but not touching.

He'd never dreamed he would feel anything like this, Arthur holding him, waist-deep in warm, flowing water, kissing him so slowly, so breathlessly he thought he would go mad.

Merlin held onto Arthur's waist, resisting the instinct to pull Arthur against him. He ached to feel him everywhere, but just seeing Arthur had been exciting enough to harden him, let alone being touched and kissed. He leaned back as Arthur took a step forward, not wanting Arthur to see or feel just how much his kiss turned him on, though he didn't exactly believe the water was hiding anything.

The hand on his lower back pulled him forward and he panicked, fingers digging in on Arthur's waist, then letting go to push against Arthur's chest, separating them.

They stood, staring, breaths panting visibly between them, his hands spread on Arthur's wet skin, Merlin flushed hot in the cold winter air, Arthur's cheeks as pink as his own felt.

Taking a step away, Merlin looked up at the sky, wet fingers touching his tingling lips in awe, trying to find some kind of control in the dizzy rush of arousal and anticipation. Being so close in the warm, swift water and not touching was unbearable. He ached for Arthur to reach for him again, pull them together and kiss every bit of hesitation into nothingness, but the second they touched, Merlin’s body would give him away and he would lose all sense of perspective. They'd ruin the ritual. He turned and headed for the shore, not intending to get out, but... he needed some distance.

One brief touch of a hand to Merlin's shoulder and he started. “Arthur, I-”

“Hold still.”

They were waist-deep, Arthur just behind him, and he clenched his fists under the water, not sure he could go through with the ritual after all. Every touch made his chest ache.

Warm water poured down over Merlin's shoulder, Arthur's hands brushing along its path, smoothing down his back to his waist. Before Merlin could breathe, he felt the flow of the heated water over his other shoulder, and Arthur's hands repeating the motion.

His hands opened, relaxing despite his nervousness. He tilted his neck to one side, his body melting under the warmth and touches, and the hands pressed in at the nape of his neck, rubbing over and over along the tense muscles there until they released their tension.

Sighing, Merlin let his neck be tilted gently to the opposite side, biting down on his lips to keep himself from moaning aloud. The heat spread through him like warm honey, a slow, thick pleasure that settled low in his belly. He tensed his legs, which threatened to buckle as Arthur's strong fingers kneaded his shoulders, trailed down his spine, poured water over his skin again and pressed slow circles against the small of his back.

He took a breath and sighed, a small laugh escaping. “God, that's good.”

“I know.” Arthur's hands closed on his arms, squeezing, then slid up to his shoulders, pushing against them gently. “Kneel down.”

His knees shook as he knelt unthinkingly, Arthur's hands steadying him. He closed his eyes, the sound of the stream rushing by filling his ears as Arthur's hand pressed across his forehead, tilting his head back.

Merlin let go and concentrated on the warm sun on his face, the current heating him through, the feeling of water caressing his scalp, his neck, his shoulders, and Arthur's hands, Arthur's gentle, firm touch everywhere the water went. Slipping back through his hair, slowly, again and again, up from the base of his neck, back over his ears, brushing across his forehead.

He swayed with the water, let it move him as he sank further into relaxation under the warm touches.

When they stopped, Merlin turned and looked up, Arthur bright as the sun above him. “Should I-”

“No.” Arthur helped him to his feet, hands smoothing one last time over his shoulders, down his arms. He backed away then, dunking under, water droplets gleaming in the sun as Arthur came back up. “I'm getting out,” he said, brushing the water from his face and sloshing out of the stream, stepping easily up the short embankment. “Don't forget to go under again. I’m leaving you a cloth and a change of clothing here on the bank. We’re supposed to wear only white, so I’ve brought tunics and trousers for us.”

Merlin nodded, still in a daze, and dipped all the way under once more, the warm water difficult to abandon for the cold air and awkward situation that was waiting for him when he got out.

“I’m going to check on the horses. We should get going soon,” Arthur called over his shoulder as he crossed the clearing.

Merlin watched surreptitiously as he dressed, strapping Excalibur under the edge of the saddle, looking like he regretted not being allowed to wear it. He also left off his belt, but had on soft, white leather boots. Merlin had never seen their like. He waited for Arthur to turn away, then climbed from the stream and wrapped the cloth around his waist. There in his pile of white clothing was an identical tunic, trousers and pair of boots.

They were the finest clothes he’d ever put on his body, including his formal servant’s uniform, and he couldn’t help running his hands down the front of his tunic when he was done dressing. The fabric was soft and warm but smooth, not the coarse wool he was used to. Everything was cut just a tad too big, the legs and sleeves a bit too long, but he supposed Arthur couldn’t very well have requested Merlin’s sizes, could he?

Merlin turned back to the water, looking for a long moment at the steam rising from the surface. It reminded him of Arthur’s bath, of him heating the water in the pitcher as he'd washed Arthur’s hair, and he shifted, the new white material taunting him as it rubbed against his skin.

Shaking his head, trying to will his body to cooperate, Merlin held out his hand and drew away the band of heat from across the stream, letting it dissipate and float down with the current, blending in as it cooled.

Arthur’s hand on his shoulder startled him and he turned, jerking away from it. “You touched me!” he yelled, before he could stop himself.

“No, I touched your tunic,” Arthur said calmly. “I think we’re safely within the rules of the ritual. Did you take care of the heat?”

Merlin nodded. “Yes. And I’m going to have to tie bells to you if you keep surprising me like that.”

Arthur smiled and laid his hand back on Merlin’s shoulder, eyebrows raised in obviously exaggerated patience. “Better?”

“Well, yes, I suppose. But you’re right, we should get going,” he said, avoiding Arthur’s eyes.

He busied himself for a few more minutes until his body caught up with the rest of him and calmed itself. There was no getting on a horse in that state, and he wasn’t sure how much he could hide in the white clothes, anyway.

He pulled all air from around the campfire until it went out completely. By the tree, he saw Arthur’s red cloak lying on the ground and went to pick it up, then stopped himself. Thinking of pure, white snow, he cast towards the cloak and drained the red and gold away until the dragon was just shimmery white silk on smooth white wool. He carried it to Arthur, who was already mounted on his horse, and held it up to him.

“No, Merlin, I gave it to you. You wear it.”

“Won’t you be cold?” he asked stupidly, kicking himself as soon as he’d said it. “I’m fine without it.”

“Give me yours, then,” Arthur smiled, nodding back to where Merlin’s blue cape hung, rumpled and tucked beneath his saddle strap.

Merlin wiped the colour from that one, too, then took it to Arthur, though he didn’t much see the point of the exchange. “Why don’t I just cast a warming charm?” he asked as he pulled himself into his saddle.

“The stream made me think. Maybe you shouldn’t cast anything else until tonight. You don’t know how much strength it will take.”

Merlin had no doubt Arthur wasn’t talking about the act, but the spell. He did have an idea, though, and it would take quite a lot, especially since Arthur had no magic of his own. He would be casting for both of them, but he wasn’t concerned. He could pull energy from just about anywhere if the need was great enough.

“All right,” he agreed, “it’s probably best I not get used to casting it in front of you, anyway. I might slip up in front of someone else.”

“That’s actually clever, Merlin. Are you sure you didn’t knock your head when you fell and broke your ribs?”

Merlin smiled and sighed. “I don’t suppose there is a rule about candidates being nice to each other during the ritual, is there?”

“Not a one, I’m afraid.”

And honestly, Merlin wouldn’t have it any other way. They rode on, mostly in silence, though Arthur seemed overly cautious once they’d entered the Perilous Lands, which truly needed renaming, Merlin decided.

The fields stretching to either side of the road looked green, even this far into winter. The ground was even and smooth, his horse didn’t misstep once all day. They found water and nuts, wild berries Arthur swore weren’t poisonous, though Merlin silently cast a spell to check before he let Arthur eat any, and Arthur speared a fish from the bank of a calm river using only one of his arrows.

The journey was pleasant, the sun shining warmly down on their faces through the clear blue sky. When the castle loomed before them, the sun was just setting on the horizon, throwing pinks and purples across the landscape.

Merlin took one long last look and nudged his horse into a trot behind Arthur’s.

They were here, and the ritual was well underway.

 

***

 

Merlin declined to eat, though Arthur did offer to hunt up what would pass for a meal in the storeroom. He had no idea how he would have cooked anything, so it was a good job Merlin hadn’t been hungry.

Or had been too nervous to eat, more like, and Arthur didn’t blame him. He was having second and third thoughts about going through with this.

Merlin’s obvious reluctance didn’t help, but the fact that every time Arthur so much as brushed against him, Merlin’s body responded did help, and very much.

He’d noticed it more frequently in the last month or so, then had been sure of it the night before they left to find Excalibur, during that bath. God, the bath, with Merlin forward and brave enough to just touch him without so much as a request.

Arthur never wanted to order that, never could bring himself to. Some servants just knew the routine and went ahead with it. If not, he’d wash himself. He’d never, not once since Merlin had begun as his manservant, had someone else bathe him.

And if he couldn’t order Merlin to do what most servants saw as a chore, how could he possibly order him to participate in what this bond was about to require of them?

He needed to know just how willing Merlin was, if this was duty driving his actions, or if there was anything more to help them along.

Their intentions had to be equal, and he knew once he started touching Merlin, they might no longer be.

Merlin had a fire going in the huge stone fireplace already. Arthur suspected he’d used magic, but he didn’t remark on it. They needed the fire - the palace was colder than the air outside.

He'd chosen a room low in a corner turret, only one window showing the darkening sky through blue-coloured glass. The sunset filtering in bathed the room in soft blue-white light, coating the huge four-poster bed and the light grey stone. Everything seemed to glow with it, even Merlin, their white clothing so stark against his raven hair and pale skin.

He crossed to where Merlin crouched at the hearth, putting a hand on his shoulder and guiding him up to his feet. “All done?”

Merlin nodded and smiled softly, clearly unwilling to trust his voice.

“Then...” Arthur slid his arm around Merlin’s waist, pulling him in close. “Ready?” he whispered, Merlin’s hands closing on his biceps.

 

***

 

Merlin had hoped for a little time to... he didn’t know what. He wouldn’t ever be ready for this, ritual or not, and the longer they waited, the worse it seemed to get. He’d killed a bit of time lighting a fire by hand, amazed that he’d gotten it going so quickly for once, damn his luck.

Arthur wasn’t hesitating, not much, and it helped a bit to know he was confident, at least.

Merlin stood and closed his eyes as Arthur’s arms went around him, one on his waist and one on the back of his neck. He shivered, spine straightening at the touch there, and leaned against all that strength. When he opened his eyes, Arthur was smiling.

“Ready?”

He saw the bed over Arthur's shoulder, made up in thick blankets and half a dozen pillows, all pale grey, shining silver in the last of the sunlight. He lifted his hand, squinted his eyes and wiped the colour clean from every inch of fabric on the bed. It wasn't clothing, but he wouldn't have the ritual fail because he hadn't been careful enough.

“Your eyes-” Arthur whispered, looking over his shoulder at the bed.

He blinked slowly as Arthur's thumb brushed his too-long hair from his face and he smiled, embarrassed to be so aroused by just that small touch and the sound of awe in Arthur's voice.

“Does it bother you?” he asked, staring into Arthur’s steel blue eyes with a bravery he found somewhere between his aching cock and the firm press of Arthur’s fingers against his throat.

The thumb rubbed down his cheek, smearing across his parted lips as Arthur shook his head and smiled. “Can I-” Arthur ’s thumb swiped across his mouth again. “Kiss me.”

Merlin nodded, but turned his head away, breathing hard, voice just a whisper under all his fear. "I- I don't know-"

"You do know, Merlin, even if you think you don't. Let me-” and Arthur's lips were an inch away, less than that, blue eyes so close that Merlin had to shut his.

He inhaled, half-holding his breath, willing his heart to stay within his chest, to stop pounding out the wild staccato against his ribs. Arthur’s scent was intoxicating this close, his breath tickling along Merlin’s throat as he leaned in closer.

"You don't under-" he trailed off, words suddenly lost to him as Arthur’s lips slipped wetly against his ear and the hand on his neck squeezed tightly.

Lips ghosted across his cheek, then against his own mouth, full and soft, not pressing, just touching. "Shut up, Merlin."

And then, finally, Arthur's lips pressed warm and soft on his, moving languidly, undoing him, dismantling his doubt systematically, so thoroughly his nervousness had little room to creep in, little air to feed on. He let himself be guided; let Arthur guide him.

And how different to what he’d imagined, how much more visceral. The closeness of it was overwhelming, Arthur’s hold on him, the fingers sliding into his hair and fisting there, pulling him against those lips, thumb strong along his jaw, breath on his cheek, the heat of Arthur’s body radiating all along his own.

He’d thought a kiss was just about mouths but, God, had he been wrong, so wondrously wrong. He clutched at Arthur’s shoulders, fingers spreading wide over the flexing muscles. All that strength he’d only ever touched with purpose, cloth or sponge or layers of steel between his fingertips and this liquid warmth. Arthur groaned and pressed forward, pinning Merlin to the stone wall, tongue stroking slowly into his mouth now, a steady compulsion for Merlin to just not think.

God, how he wanted to feel Arthur’s smooth skin everywhere against him. His hands weren’t enough, couldn’t feel enough.

Their lips matched the rhythm they’d found, Arthur’s hips thrusting, crushing against him and all the while, those soft, full lips worked against his, leading him down a winding path. And at the end was Arthur, Arthur’s tongue tracing along his teeth, the roof of his mouth, twining with his when Merlin dared to try it himself.

The fingers in his hair tightened and Arthur pressed up against him, breathing hard through his nose and Merlin groaned, holding perfectly still, desperate to say something, to take his clothes off and feel Arthur everywhere, but completely unwilling to pull away and strip when it was so good, so exactly as it should be.

Except, and God, there was the rub. He let go his hold on Arthur, dropping his hands and gently pulling his mouth away.

Arthur’s eyes flared, that hard concentration so focused, and all on him.

Merlin reached for the arms that reached for him, hands closing on Arthur’s forearms, pleading for a moment’s reprieve. “Arthur-”

Arthur shook his head and closed the space between them. “We can do this.”

“Yes,” Biting down on the slice of regret he absolutely could not let Arthur hear, he turned his head away, slumping back against the wall behind him.

Arthur’s mouth was back on his neck an instant later, and Merlin fought to keep his wits about him. That steady suction just under his ear joined the hand that pushed up under his tunic, nails skimming along his stomach and down, down to his leg. Arthur’s hand squeezed his thigh, rubbing and rubbing as their mouths met again.

That teasing tongue parted his lips, catching his groan as the hot, strong hand slid up, covering his arousal. He let his head fall back to the stone wall, dizzy and panting as Arthur’s teeth grazed along his jaw and his hand closed tighter, squeezing.

“You’re hard,” Arthur breathed against his lips, hand cupping him firmly, fingers rubbing strong, smooth strokes up and back between his legs.

Merlin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his head swimming with need, unable to speak.

Those wet lips trailed along his shoulder, his throat, his jaw. “For me?”

He nodded again, licking his lips, savouring Arthur’s mouth on him like air filling his lungs.

“Merlin,” Arthur ’s voice was a whisper against his lips, the softest touch of them brushing as he spoke, “God, me, too.”

He groaned as Arthur’s hand clasped tightly onto the back of his neck as if to focus his attention, but Merlin's mind was everywhere. His cock ached, rising flush against his body, nestled between his own skin and the smooth slide of fabric under Arthur’s rubbing fingers. He tilted his head back to feel more of that hand on him and bit his lip to stifle a moan as Arthur’s teeth grazed his throat.

The fingers brushed up under the edge of his tunic, pulling the laces of his trousers free and yanking them open, the sound of the cord as it slid loose thrilling.

When the hand dipped inside and pulled him out, Arthur groaned against the skin of his neck. “You want this, don’t you?”

Merlin moaned his assent as Arthur stroked his cock, head dizzy and vision blurring.

And then Arthur moved, hands never leaving his skin, mouth capturing his as they stumbled across the room. The backs of Merlin’s thighs hit the bed and he sat, fingers digging into Arthur’s white tunic to pull him down, too. But Arthur didn't follow him down. He licked his lips, and bent over him, hands closed on Merlin's legs, rubbing up the insides of his thighs, pushing them apart.

“Let me- God, Merlin-” Arthur leaned down to take his mouth again, hips pressing in between his parted thighs and Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur's neck.

Opening his eyes, he watched as Arthur kissed his way down, absolutely intent on Merlin's body, so completely consumed with touching him everywhere, kissing him everywhere, mouth closing on his chest, his arm, sliding wet on his belly. Merlin bit his lip, fighting down his embarrassment, clenching his fists in the bedclothes, giving up, letting himself be opened and looked at and touched.

Arthur’s fingers curled into the waistband of his trousers, tugging.

Merlin lifted his hips, letting Arthur slide the white cloth down his thighs, grateful when Arthur's hand closed over him again and he leaned down, mouth pressed tightly to Merlin’s, swallowing his gasp.

And then Arthur pulled back, undoing his laces with impressive speed, shoving his white trousers to the floor, nothing underneath, and the look on his face was pure need as he took Merlin's hand and pressed it against his flushed, straining cock.

“Oh, God.” Merlin whispered, face on fire as he looked down, fingers curling around the weight of Arthur's arousal, shivering as the hand on his own cock mirrored the motion.

He could hardly breathe, he was feeling so much, so intensely. He shook his head, still watching as his hand stroked up and down, slowly, feeling Arthur repeat the movement on him. “I don't know what to do,” he whispered, his frustration and shame clogging his throat.

“Whatever we do, we do together.” Arthur whispered, hand falling from his erection to close over Merlin’s hand and draw it away. Their fingers woven together, Arthur leaned down over him, looking him in the eye. “I trust you.”

“I trust you, too,” he breathed, meaning it more than he ever had.

“Then I want to- I’m going to keep going.”

Merlin nodded again, yes, whatever, anything.

It was enough, apparently, because Arthur nodded too, and then he was stepping out of his clothes altogether, stripping his tunic off over his head, eyes hungry as he looked down at Merlin.

He leaned back down over Merlin, stroking a thumb across his cheekbone, then rested his hand on Merlin's shoulder and took his mouth again, fingers moving slowly to his neck where he felt a tug and a pull of fabric, Arthur untying the laces of his tunic. The fingers fell away, the bed shifting as Arthur sat down beside him, then the heat of Arthur's fingertips skated up his sides and he sat up, raised his arms, let his shirt be lifted off over his head.

Arthur bit gently along his throat, breath the merest heat slipping against his ear, making him shiver. “Lie down.”

Merlin bit his lip, hoping to keep Arthur from seeing how good it felt, how much he wanted everything Arthur was doing to him and more, so much more.

Arthur’s hand spread wide on the centre of his chest and guided him to move, the two of them scooting all the way up to the pillows as Arthur urged him back down with a kiss. Arms framed his body, all that smooth, perfect skin hot against his, the strength and weight pinning him there.

He lifted his chin as Arthur's lips moved along the underside and dug his fingers into the bedding. The scent of rumpled sheets was usually Arthur’s and something he couldn’t get enough of, but these were freshly laundered, the bed made up crisply by someone other than himself.

Burying his face in Arthur's neck, Merlin breathed him in, the ache in his chest sharpening from dull to piercing as Arthur pushed up off of him.

Merlin squeezed his eyes closed as hands smoothed down over his bare chest, up to his neck, his face, then all the way back down, Arthur's fingers curving against his waist and gliding down his thighs, taking his breeches with them, down over his knees and all the way off. And then, then, the perfect, smooth brush of Arthur’s naked skin sliding up and up, touching all along his own, Arthur’s knee pressing between his thighs, and he spread his legs, letting Arthur lay down between them.

Arthur's gaze never left him, eyes half-lidded and so focused. His arms tucked in under Merlin’s shoulders, body pressing him into the soft bedding. Merlin’s breath hitched and he leaned up for another kiss, unable to wait to see if Arthur would take one. He wanted Arthur to always look at him like this: unhinged, undone, a little out of control, Merlin the focus of his universe.

Arthur’s mouth closed on his, harder as he began moving against Merlin, propped on his elbows, sliding and rocking his hips, their cocks lining up and slipping wetly between their flexing stomachs.

Arthur moaned approval against his tongue as Merlin rubbed everywhere he could reach, neck, hard, flexing shoulders, smooth, strong arms, all the way down his sides, down to the hips that moved up and back, the rhythm a dizzy-drunk cadence of promise and fulfilment.

Braving the waters, Merlin spread his hands on Arthur's backside, drawing them tighter together. As if in answer, Arthur thrust against him, a solid stroke of urgency from base to tip, the hot smear of their arousal slicking the way as they slipped together.

Groaning and giving in, he rolled his hips, Arthur pushing back hard, staring at him intently, and Merlin threw his head back against the pillow, surging up against him.

It was too much, the heat and skin, Arthur naked and hard for him, that hand closing tightly on the back of his neck again, Arthur’s bare legs twining with his own, the slide of one foot along his calf, Arthur’s lips holding him there underneath it all. It was unbearable torture, as painful as flame and exhilarating as magic everywhere they touched, and they touched everywhere, as if Arthur couldn’t touch him enough.

It wasn’t true, though, he knew it wasn’t. They weren't together.

He let out a shuddering breath and looked down between them, then up at Arthur, who was breathing hard, eyes locked on Merlin’s.

He saw heat there, and determination, but not what he ached for, what he needed most.

His body tensed, hands twisting in the blankets beneath him. He was naked in bed with Arthur, they were here and this was happening, going to happen, he couldn't stop it, couldn't change it, couldn't think of a single spell that would fix this. He was out of time, would never have the chance to have Arthur any other way than this.

Forced, reluctant, resigned. For Camelot, not them.

The ache in his chest spread like wildfire to his belly, the pain thick in his throat.

He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, no. No. He turned his face, eyes burning.

Arthur knelt up, breathless and obviously confused, hands in the air as if to prove he hadn’t meant to hurt Merlin. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Merlin shook his head again, unable to speak. He pressed his open palms against Arthur’s chest, and rolled out from under him, onto his side, dying to disappear, to run. He took a deep breath, tears held tightly back behind his eyelids, and whispered, “Give me a moment.”

He'd known it was inevitable. Arthur would sacrifice anything for Camelot, for his father, and still Merlin hadn't realized until now that he'd held ridiculously fast to the hope that somehow, somewhere in this-

No, not somewhere. Here, right here at this point, when they were finally touching and kissing, finally feeling each other, he'd believed with almost his entire being that Arthur would just know, that he'd realize and stop.

Or not stop, no, but really see him, see that from Merlin's perspective, their connection had always been what Arthur was asking of him now - total and unwavering. Arthur had been a fool to request such a thing when it had been there almost from the start. From the moment Arthur defied his father, slept on the floor of Merlin's house, shifted against him in his sleep that night for warmth and fought like a devil the following day, just for Merlin.

There had never been the slightest need to ask for this.

And Arthur wasn't being cruel, not knowingly, not even now when Merlin had interrupted what had quite possibly been their only chance at enjoying this.

He looked over his shoulder as Arthur sat propped up against the headboard, one hand wrapped around a spindle of carved wood behind his head, the other resting on his thigh, looking at the ceiling as if he had no idea what to say or do. He’d rarely seen Arthur like that, and never because of something Merlin had done.

He knew that if he truly hadn't wanted to do this, had only been doing it for Camelot, then Arthur was doing his utmost to make the whole thing bearable for both of them.

“Do you want to stop?” Arthur asked, no trace of anger in his voice.

Never, he thought, but he whispered, “No. It- it was just... so fast.”

“Merlin,” Arthur breathed out, reaching to run his fingers through Merlin's hair, his hand curving around the back of Merlin's neck, a reassuring, sensual touch Merlin was fast becoming addicted to. “Are you sure?”

He hated being an open book, always obvious, always predictable, but hated it even more that even knowing about his magic and seeing everything else about him, Arthur still didn’t understand this without Merlin having to tell him. He knew he hadn’t hidden his loyalty, his dedication, his willingness to do anything, be anyone, to die for Arthur. How could his overwhelming feelings not be as obvious?

“Yes,” he whispered, sounding nervous and far too young, even to his own ears. “I just didn't expect it to be so... I didn't know it would be this...”

"There's no reason we shouldn't make this... pleasurable." Arthur's hand smoothed down his arm, fingers lacing into his. "You don't have to worry. I'm here with you, and... I know what I'm doing."

Yes, years of experience, with which Merlin was very familiar, since he’d been there to witness almost every one of Arthur’s affairs with burning eyes and knots of jealousy in the pit of his stomach.

And despite knowing he had no chance with Arthur, Merlin was still untouched, had only ever kissed Freya, and only then because he’d been trying so hard to be a man and in love and be loved in return.

He wanted to be something, someone Arthur could want. Confident, smooth, adult. Not the serving boy who always ducked out of the conversation to polish armour, to find dry wood, to prepare Arthur's bedroll, any excuse when the subject of sex arose. And it always did - honour slipped amongst the knights when they'd had a tankard of mead or two and the jokes and questions went beyond bawdy at times. Merlin's face heated far too readily for him to hold his own.

The raw ache in his chest at the thought of Arthur telling tales about him to the other knights over tankards of mead threatened to crush him, turn him to dust right there in the ritual bed, and then where would he be? Sweeping himself off the floor the next morning, invisible and certainly beneath Arthur's regard.

A hand settled on his shoulder, pulling so gently Merlin knew Arthur didn't mean to force him to move. “Tell me what’s stopping you.” It was quiet, and the patience there wasn’t strained, Arthur’s thumb rubbing back and forth on his neck.

"You can’t want this. I know you don’t-" Merlin rolled back onto his side, away from Arthur so he wouldn't see his vulnerability. He couldn't breathe without it catching behind the constriction in his chest, and his words were choked, "Our intentions have to match up and they... they aren't the same.”

“Let me worry about that, all right?” Arthur's voice was so gentle, so sure, and Merlin wanted desperately to let go and do as he said.

He shook his head, trying to swallow down the misery, grasping for a mantra, something to do with this being his only chance, this being Arthur and Arthur and Arthur. Nothing would stick, thoughts skittering along his brain, across fear and regret and, despite it all, intense desire.

"You trust me, Merlin." Against his ear, raising goosebumps.

It wasn't a question, and he couldn't voice a reply, though he supposed they both knew what his answer was, what it always had been and always would be. He managed to jerk his head into a nod. He opened his eyes, looking back over his shoulder as the bed dipped and Arthur lay down behind him, their bodies touching from neck to feet, the thrill of touching again singing through his skin.

Blue eyes caught his before flicking away, following the hand that opened on his arm and trailed all the way down his side, his hip, his thigh, then Arthur's gaze slid back up to meet Merlin's again with a concentration that made him shiver.

“I want you at my side when I take the throne. I need your help to bring peace to Albion.” Arthur's fingertips brushed up along his neck, gently carding back through his hair, sliding slowly down his shoulder, his chest, then circling over his hip to rest on his belly. "I want to complete the Rites with you, I swear it.”

Merlin closed his eyes before they gave him away entirely, then bit his lip hard and buried his face against the pillow. The Rites, yes, but nothing more.

Arthur took a deep breath and sighed behind him -not the impatient sigh Merlin was so used to. Close, but somehow he heard sadness in it, resignation.

As much as he wished to roll to Arthur, to fall into him, under him, to stare and never blink, not once, as Arthur took this from him, as Merlin gave it to him, he couldn't bring himself to risk fouling up the ritual with his own selfish intentions. He wasn't thinking of Albion, or Camelot or the people. He could only feel Arthur behind him, feel him there, but not there for the same reason Merlin was.

He didn't know how to tell him, to damn Arthur to repeat every ritual again, alone, how to say the words and lose this, to watch Arthur dress and leave. Leave him here.

He clutched his arms tighter against his stomach, desperate to hold himself together at all cost, to not allow his crushing pain to come across as fear.

Arthur's warmth moved away for a moment; Merlin heard a cork popping softly behind him, the telltale clunk of a glass bottle being set on the bedside table, then Arthur pressed his slick palms against Merlin’s shoulder blades, urging him to lie flat on his stomach.

Allowing himself to be guided, grateful to hide as much of his honesty as possible, Merlin tucked his arms underneath himself and tried to breathe normally.

Arthur pushed gently against the muscles of his shoulders, kneading all the way up to his neck, thumbs gliding into his hair, hands spreading wide as they worked down his spine, over his sides, the heels of his palms digging in at the small of Merlin’s back, pressing a groan of pleasure from his raw throat.

Arthur moved to kneel above his hips, knees pressing in against him, the weight of Arthur's thighs, the heat of Arthur against him.

Then Arthur insistently drew his arms out from their hiding place, strong hands reaching beneath him to catch both of Merlin’s wrists, placing them firmly on the pillow on either side of Merlin’s head. Fingers encircled them like manacles, so much tighter than the stocks, pushing his wrists into the cool cotton, ordering him with a squeeze that he was not to move them.

He dug his fingers in and held his breath.

Daring himself to look, he opened his eyes to stare at the wall as Arthur paused, weight shifting, more of him spread out on top of Merlin, their bodies lining up.

Arthur’s hands pressed once more against his wrists and Merlin nodded, slightly, yes, he understood, he wouldn’t struggle. He wouldn’t resist. He knew what was at stake, why they were here. He would remember and not stop them again.

Arthur’s fingers never left his skin as they traced up from his wrists, pressing, squeezing, nails skittering here and there, fingertips ghosting, then kneading. His neck, arms, shoulders, sides, the small of his back, all the way down to the place where Arthur’s open thighs pressed against his hips, Arthur’s cock sliding back and forth with the smallest motion, as if Arthur couldn’t help but move.

One tight squeeze on his shoulders and Arthur shifted again, Merlin tensing in anticipation.

Wet, warm suction on the back of his neck, tongue trailing up to his ear and God, oh, God, his head was swimming, racing, dizzy and drowning. He let out a shaky breath and let his body sink into the bed, gave up the tightly-coiled control and did as Arthur was ordering. Merlin could hear it - could hear Arthur commanding it without having said a word. Relax, Merlin.

He breathed deeply, his stomach smouldering with the regret now, his need to stop this, to either escape or confess so overwhelming that he whimpered, whimpered when that slick mouth and the weight above him slid away.

“Hold still, all right?” The inside of Arthur's thigh pressed against the backs of his knees, holding him down, as Arthur stretched out beside him and that sure hand stroked a slick trail down his spine. “I won't hurt you,” Arthur breathed against his ear, sending a spark down to follow his touch.

The fingers were firm but slippery, sliding fluidly into the crevice between his legs, smoothing up the inside of his thighs, squeezing lightly before moving higher, one fingertip caressing his entrance, so lightly.

The touch grew more insistent, circling and pressing firmly against him, finally slipping inside, stilling for a moment with utter care, It was unbearable, his body thrumming as he struggled to keep still. Arthur’s heated cock flexed hard and slick against his hip, rocking against him in slow, steady strokes. He clenched his jaw but shuddered as the finger wriggled deeper, grateful for the weight of Arthur’s leg on his. He needed to run.

Merlin took a quavering breath and pushed up on his elbows. There had to be a way. There had to be time. He could fix this. He shook his head, no, no, he couldn’t.

“All right, it’s all right ...” The fingertip pulled gently away, Arthur shifting them to lie facing one another. Catching his eyes, Arthur nodded, leaning in to murmur calming words in Merlin’s ear, one arm snaking in beneath Merlin's side and wrapping strength around his back. Arms holding him, Arthur's voice was more patient than Merlin had ever heard him as he whispered, “We’ll stop, then. It's all right.”

Merlin breathed deeply to feel the arm tighten, to feel it holding him together. He shook his head, but his voice broke on his pained, “No.”

“I will not force you, Merlin,” Arthur 's stubborn tone made him tense.

He ducked down, pressing his forehead to Arthur’s chest and squeezing his eyes shut, hand closing tightly on Arthur’s bicep. “I want this, I do. Just- please. You don’t have to pretend. Just do it. Quickly, please, I can't-”

Arthur pulled him tightly against his body, hand closing hard on Merlin’s hip, drawing him forward, pelvis crushed against Arthur's arousal, as long and thick as it had been moments before.

Merlin held his breath.

“You think I’m pretending?” Arthur's lips pressed to his ear. “Look at me, Merlin.”

He allowed himself one deep breath and raised his head to look into Arthur’s eyes.

“I would never lie to you.” Arthur kissed him lightly, his forehead pressing to Merlin's as Merlin nodded. “There’s no reason to be frightened.”

He took in the furrowed brow, the twinge of desperation in Arthur’s eyes, the soft, serious reassurance he’d only ever heard from Arthur in their direst circumstances.

God, he was making this worse for Arthur, making it harder. It’s not like this is what Arthur signed up for, either, and here Merlin was, turning it into rape. Turning Arthur into a... no. He would not.

He pulled back a little to get Arthur’s attention. “I’m not frightened. It’s just- Sire. Arthur.” His eyes filled and he fought to hold them steady. He needed Arthur to see, to know. “I need to tell you-”

“This isn’t how you imagined it happening,” Arthur looked away, his chin resting on Merlin’s shoulder, his voice low, even that close to Merlin's ear. “Have you never-? I’d hoped you’d found someone before now, but...”

Merlin closed his eyes and shook his head, the pain twisting his mouth when Arthur’s hand turned his chin back to face him. He held his tears in, but he knew Arthur would see everything. He noticed Merlin’s every weakness.Please, please see.

“There isn’t anyone.” Else. He bit his lips to keep from saying more and a thumb smoothed across them, then up his cheek.

“There is,” and those lips closed on his again, coaxing them open slowly now, Arthur kissing him deeply, so thoroughly Merlin’s head was swimming by the time it was over.

When Arthur pulled back, Merlin kept his eyes closed. He couldn't say it if he knew Arthur was looking at him. “I'm sorry it wasn't someone- I'm sorry. I know you wouldn’t have chosen me to be the one.”

Arthur’s thumb stroked his jaw, then down, rubbing along his throat, his voice a whisper. “I could never ask this of a servant. It wouldn’t be-”

Merlin nodded and choked out, “Proper, I know.”

Arthur’s hand smoothed back through his hair. “I was going to say ‘fair.’ As my servant, you might not feel as though you had a choice if I invited you to my bed.”

Merlin forced himself to smile though his chest was caving in with grief. He looked up, saw the confused crease of Arthur’s brow and swallowed. “You think I would sleep with you out of a sense of duty?”

Arthur’s small grin was like a beacon in the dim glow from the fireplace. “I’m not naive enough to think I ever actually make you do anything, but you might feel a certain obligation as my personal servant to... well. And I couldn't ever want that.”

Merlin nodded, his breath coming in short gasps, though he tried to steady it. He hadn't thought Arthur would actually say it, but he had. He couldn't ever want Merlin, not really.

A hand brushed up under his chin, but he held still, unable to look up.

“Equals, remember? Not servant and master. Didn't you understand that?”

“I'm not going back to Camelot, am I?” His body felt like a serpent was coiled around it, squeezing, instead of Arthur’s steadying arm. He wanted to struggle away, to run and be alone with his gut-wrenching grief, to lose everything and fade into nothing, but the arms circling him held tightly to him.

Arthur leaned in to whisper in his ear. “Of course you are. Camelot is your home. We’ll just have to think up another station for you.”

Merlin scoffed lightly. “I’ve never been anything else.”

Arthur’s breath ghosted over his cheek, his lips. “We both know you’ve never been a servant a day in your life. You’d be lousy at it.”

He dared to lean in and take a slow, lingering kiss, sure it would be their last, then pulled away gently. He looked into Arthur's eyes and saw a deep understanding, and the heat of desire, too. “I want to say something, but- I don't think I can.”

Arthur's hand brushed along his cheekbone, his temple, fingers feathering through his hair, his smile gentle but teasing. “You don't always have to be talking, you know.”

Merlin couldn't smile. “I want you to know, before...,” he paused, taking a deep breath as Arthur watched his lips, nodding. “Do you understand?”

Looking into his eyes again, Arthur smirked. “That you’re a lousy servant? Yes.”

Merlin shook his head and squeezed his eyes closed, then opened them, determined to get the truth out.

Arthur's smile faded and he nodded before Merlin could speak. “I know how you feel.” Arthur’s voice was careful, his words obviously chosen to fit more than one scenario, but it was clear that he’d guessed.

Merlin closed his eyes as it slipped into the air between them, felt like he was floating apart from himself. His heart thudded sluggishly in his ears as he ducked his head again, tucking it against Arthur’s chest, breathing him in. “This won't work, will it? Our intentions...”

Arthur shifted away and for one jagged, breathless moment, Merlin thought he was leaving. The hand on his hip lifted away for a moment but came back, pressing between his shoulder-blades, guiding him to lie face down on the bed again.

One knee, then another, urged his own to spread apart. He capitulated after a tense pause and Arthur stretched out over him, against him.

Had Arthur heard him?

A hand smoothed down his side, fingers curling into his skin as they urged his hips up and back, flush against Arthur’s arousal, then slipped beneath him to stroke his aching cock.

Their moans twined together, Arthur’s breath hot against his neck, a twinge of awe in his voice as he whispered, “I intend to make love to you, Merlin, to complete the ritual, and to keep you closer to me than anyone. I intend to take whatever you give, and give whatever I can in return. I intend for you to rule at my side, for us to go on saving one another, for you to always remember this night, not for the Rite, but for the bond we're creating.”

Merlin only hesitated for a second, sending up a prayer that their intentions matched well enough to fulfil the ritual. He nodded and let out the breath he'd been holding, pushing his hips forward, his cock sliding through the ring of Arthur's fingers with a groan.

Arthur's mouth closed on his neck, licking and biting all the way to his ear and he turned his face for a kiss, parting his lips for Arthur's insistent tongue. Hips pushed against him and Arthur's hummed against his mouth, encouraging him as he rocked back against the thick, slippery cock, then forward into that hot, tight hand, the tension and ache of moments before transforming into something feral, something he didn’t know if he could control.

“Yes, that’s it,” Arthur murmured against his lips as he stroked harder, faster, and Merlin flushed hotter, embarrassment and pleasure warring inside him at Arthur’s approval.

His mouth moved away, panting, a quick inhalation against the back of Merlin's neck and Arthur’s nose pressing into his hair, lips and tongue working along his throat, Merlin writhed and arched. The thick length of Arthur’s arousal slid along the cleft of his arse, the head of his cock slick as it brushed all the way up to the small of Merlin’s back.

Fear skittered through his stomach and Merlin arched, ducking his head to catch his breath. He wanted Arthur to feel like this, to feel as unhinged as he did, to be this desperate. Pinned beneath him, barely able to form a thought, Merlin turned his face to whisper over his shoulder, “Tell me what to do.”

Shut up, Merlin” A hot, wet bite to his neck drew a panting gasp from him, his feet sliding against the bedding helplessly. “Stop thinking and just feel this.”

Arthur’s hand opened wide at the curve of his side, the other still wrapped tightly around his cock, Arthur bent to press against him, holding him solidly back against Arthur’s body as they slowly began rocking together. Merlin followed the movement, then braved to move against it and Arthur surged forward, his hold twice as strong as he groaned into Merlin’s hair.

Fingers slipped down his side, his hip, and Arthur let go of his arousal and the body behind him moved away. With a harsh breath, Arthur's hands opened wide on the backs of his knees, pushing them apart, rubbing firmly up the inside of his thighs, all the way up between his legs, pushing his thighs wide open. Merlin moaned and arched his back, unable to stop himself lifting his arse in encouragement, he wanted this, the ache of his body sharpening and narrowing to Arthur's touch on his backside. He wanted - needed Arthur inside him now.

Arthur groaned, quickly circling a slick finger against him and pressing past his body's resistance. Up and in and Merlin bit his lip as his hips moved up and back, rocking gently, savouring the odd, wonderful feeling of Arthur's touch inside him until the finger was as deep as it could be, moving counterpoint to it as it began slowly sliding in and out.

“God, Merlin, you’re tight.” It was low and thick in the air, warm against his ear. He shivered and groaned, nodding, hips jerking as he clenched around Arthur's touch, drawing a low gasp from Arthur.
The pressure grew as another finger slid along the first, pushing into him, pulling out in short, steady strokes.

The sudden stretch was delicious, felt like an impossible itch finally being scratched, the feeling of part of Arthur inside him as dizzying and overwhelming as he'd always imagined. The sensation spread, Arthur pressing so perfectly where Merlin hadn’t even realized he could feel before, those strong fingers touching places that made his spine sing with energy. He squeezed his eyes closed and ducked his head, his heavy breathing embarrassingly loud.

“I want-,” Arthur’s body hot against him, hand pressed between them as his forehead pushed between Merlin's shoulder-blades, a third fingertip slipping around his entrance, sliding along the stretched skin as the first two pulled almost all the way out. “Let me hear you.”
Merlin let go, gasping and arching, crying out as the third finger pressed in with the first two, the thick bundle circling and twisting up inside him, the widening stretch frightening and painful and sweet like nothing he’d ever felt before.

He whined breathlessly, it felt like so much more than he knew it was. He bit his lip, flushing at the thought of Arthur's entire hand inside him as he gasped. He rubbed his face into the pillow, then raised his head and breathed as Arthur moved off of him, moved down the bed between his legs, the fingers inside never leaving him, never slowing their steady, deep slide.

A gorgeously rough squeeze that left the back of his thigh tingling and Merlin’s arms nearly gave out as Arthur’s mouth closed on his lower back, trailing down his spine, open and slick, the steady suction drawing a wet line down his hip. It slicked along his skin, down into his crevice, and he held his breath, mouth open in shock as Arthur's mouth kissed all the way down to the fingers that thrust deeper, gliding smoothly in and out of him in a maddeningly slow, easy rhythm that let him feel them every inch of the way.

Soft, slick warmth and wetness traced the taut skin around his entrance for a moment, just long enough for him to realize what he was feeling, oh, God, and Arthur's fingers pulled out, pulled away entirely, the emptiness left behind instantly filled with the wettest, softest pressure against his entrance, Arthur’s hum of pleasure vibrating into him, straight up his spine.

He shook his head, God, it was- it wasn’t- he groaned and raised up on his hands, his knees sliding further apart on the soft sheets. Arthur’s fingers dug into his hips, pulling him back to meet the tongue that pushed against him, the pressure growing and retreating, stronger with every- Oh, oh - every lick against his opening.

He cried out, reached back and clasped a hand on Arthur’s arm, every thought no, please, no, but every breath caught and hitching, every nerve in his body reaching down and back, reaching for more. “Don’t, no, God-”

Despite his humiliation, his burning face and the image that locked in his brain, he felt like he would turn inside out to get more of it, groaned and sobbed as the sensation won and he pushed shamefully back, pushed onto Arthur’s tongue.

“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur ’s voice hummed against him, that tongue pressing in as hands stroked soothingly on his arse then tightened there, spreading him open, mouth moving to the inside of his thighs, nipping, then tongue trailing up again, circling, pushing insistently into him.

God, it was wrong, it was beyond what he’d imagined, was something he never thought, never let himself think about.

Arthur was licking him, silky, wet tongue opening him. Merlin moved, rocking as he cried out, thighs pushed up and pulled apart, Arthur moaning against him, into him and thrusting deeper, the point of his nose pressing sharply in above all that slick, feathery softness.

The sensation drew another image, God, God, another moan, another flush of shame and arousal and he shook his head, pressed his forehead into the pillow and opened his eyes, looking down between his legs.

“God, I can’t-” His cock was swollen and aching again, swaying heavily as he moved back and forth. Coaxed open, so open he couldn't hope to hide how his body was begging for it as Arthur’s knees pushed against his calves, his throat a long stretch, working as his mouth closed and sucked and laved. His cock was the twin of Merlin’s, flushed and full, straining up, rubbing back and forth against the downy white sheets.

Merlin closed his eyes and pushed up on his hands, the angle sending shockwaves of pleasure up his spine. The hands tightened their grip on his thighs, holding him open as the tongue drove deeper and another moan shivered up his spine.

“Arthur, please-”

He bit his lip and tensed his back, holding his hips impossibly still, mind reeling as he thought of what he must look like, what Arthur must look like, eyes closed, face flushed, breath hard against Merlin’s arse, mouth open as he strained to push deeper and he did, God, and Merlin braced himself, fists tight on the bedclothes, and just leaned into it. Against hot, slick warmth, against Arthur’s lips and the moan that had him shaking, arms and legs and head.

Arching his back, Merlin raised his face to the cool air of the room and breathed, breathed as Arthur pulled away.

He groaned with need as Arthur’s mouth traveled down, breath humid against his sack, strong fingers slipping back inside, twisting hard, Merlin’s gasp half relief and half need for more.

He rocked back onto Arthur’s hand, onto the tongue that dipped to the base of his cock. Merlin dropped his head to bite his fist as he groaned, the sharp thrill of teeth grazing along the inside of his thigh racing through him, intense pleasure laced generously with thin, streaking pain.

The bed shifted and Arthur’s hands urged his hips higher, the cool air of the room tingling along the wet skin of his back and bottom.

“Just- just stay like that,” Arthur panted, and Merlin didn't even try to protest. He twisted his hands in the sheets and braced himself, arching his back, the thrusting of Arthur’s fingers rocking him forward, it was so hard now.

His legs trembled with the light brush of hair along the insides of his thighs and he looked beneath himself. Arthur lay face up between his shaking legs, one hand reaching to wrap tightly around his cock and draw it down to Arthur’s open, eager mouth.

“No, oh... Arthur, no!” He shook his head, biting his lips so hard he tasted the tang of copper. He wouldn’t be able to stand it, no, he knew he couldn’t. “I’ll-I don't want to-”

But Arthur smiled softly and took him in, slowly, so slowly and Merlin gritted his teeth and held on, held on because it would be too absolutely humiliating to come this soon, to come before Arthur, to come in his mouth, especially knowing what they still had to do. He closed his eyes and let his head fall forward.

The fingers within him slowed and rubbed gentle circles deep inside, the stretch sharpening as they opened and turned within him. Arthur’s lips closed around his shaft, the burning, wet glide of the circling, tight suction nearly did him in. Arthur pulled off slowly, mouth sliding up his cock, tongue licking all around, a long, firm line from base to tip, slipping under his foreskin and God, he was so close he was dizzy with the effort to hold back.

He felt Arthur’s hum all the way to his toes, then Arthur’s fingers thrusting their deepest yet, the palm pressing hard just behind his aching balls, almost as if -God, no, he wanted Merlin to move?

As if he had a muscle left in his body capable of any sort of control.

He focused on the inexorable rub inside him, the blazing, soft sleeve of Arthur’s mouth, the palm pressing insistently against his arse, and he couldn't hold still another second, not even when his brain was screaming for him not to move.

He rocked gently down, sliding deep inside Arthur’s smeared-red mouth, and just as he thought he might have found a bit of control, the bundle of fingers inside him pressed hard against something that made him see stars. Bursts of pleasure as hot as embers exploded all over him, under his skin, behind his eyes, up his spine.

He cried out and clawed at the sheets and when the fingers pulled gently back and the palm eased its pressure against him, he jerked hesitantly upward and back down again, his body desperate to take and take and drive back down into Arthur’s throat with abandon.

He wouldn’t - would never, but God, how he wanted to. The lure of Arthur offering him so much control was nearly irresistible, completely irresistible when the palm urged him up and down again. He nodded against the balled-up pillow and slipped back into Arthur’s mouth, the bright pleasure being coaxed from inside him again, those fingertips working to find that brilliant place again.

When they brushed along it, he jerked and gasped, unable to keep from wrenching his hips back, but Arthur’s hand stayed in place and Merlin couldn’t go far. He wiped his brow against the pillow and held his breath, his head spinning and body straining for control so hard it hurt.

Arthur pulled his mouth away and whispered, “Breathe, Merlin, or I’ll stop.”

He gulped in air and breathed, God, how he breathed.

Arthur brought him close to the edge over and over, only to slow everything down, calm him until he was boneless, then bring him back to the heights of ecstasy again and it was too much, just too much.

Arthur hadn’t lied - he knew what he was doing, knew in ways that Merlin hadn’t even fathomed, wet, soft, slick ways that had Merlin writhing on his hands and knees, had him pumping shamelessly down into that slippery, hot mouth, rocking unabashedly back onto Arthur's strong, brilliant fingers.

Arthur pushed his thighs up and slid out from under him and Merlin took a deep breath, letting his head fall forward onto his arms.

He heard Arthur swear, fingers digging roughly into his backside as two long thumbs slid in, circling the slick ring of flesh that clenched, holding him open. Merlin had only a second to catch his breath before the thumbs sank all the way in, then disappeared, too and the bed shifted, Arthur’s hands moving to grip his hips tightly, a thick bluntness pressed insistently against him.

“Wait!” Merlin's face burned; he hadn’t meant to shout, but he could hardly breathe and he had to stop him.

Arthur stilled against him, not retreating but not ignoring him, either.

“Merlin-” It was desperation, not annoyance, and Merlin looked over his shoulder, looked into his eyes.

“I want to turn over. I want-” Merlin swallowed his fear and just moved, pushing Arthur’s hands away, his whole body trembling as he rolled to his back and parted his legs around Arthur's hips.

Arthur was staring down at him, hair dishevelled, mouth open and panting, eyes a little wild in surprise.

“Like this- we should be looking at each other.”

Arthur nodded, rocking against him, their cocks lining up and sliding together, Arthur’s back arched, his eyes closing in pleasure, then opening to lock on Merlin’s again. “I’ve been looking all along.”

Merlin tried to turn his head, embarrassment flaring in his cheeks, but Arthur wouldn’t have it, a hand sliding along his neck, thumb rubbing hard on his jaw to hold him still.

And Merlin looked. Arthur’s complete focus, every ounce of his attention, was on him, so intense that Merlin could feel it brushing along the skin of his face, his throat, then lowering to his stomach, his cock.

Arthur shifted, leaning down, one hand pressing deep into the mattress beside his chest, the other trailing down the centre of Merlin's stomach.

“Arthur?” Merlin asked, his whisper a little shaky, betraying his nervousness and saying much more than he could ever voice aloud.

With a nod, Arthur leaned down, answering with a long, slow kiss, his fist closing around Merlin's aching cock. When Merlin was breathless and moaning, pleading against his lips, Arthur moved, hands catching up under Merlin’s knees, lifting them, opening his thighs with the press of his body. Merlin held still, staring up in wonder as fingers touched briefly to his entrance.

Arthur looked down at him, then, and Merlin saw his own awe reflecting back at him, desire burning away the veil over Arthur's emotion. He closed his eyes and lifted his head for a kiss, lifting his hips in encouragement, permission.

Arthur’s cock pressed thick and slippery against his entrance, then pushed insistently, pausing as it breached his body, the strong arms at his sides flexing with the effort to hold still.

He swallowed Arthur’s groan and wrenched his mouth away to cry out, his hands closing fast and tight on Arthur’s shoulders, squeezing against the shock of the stretch and pressure. Arthur slipped a bit deeper with a gasp, his face tucking into Merlin's neck, breath panting hot against his skin.

Merlin breathed and held on, body aching for more as he groaned and rocked his hips, pushing further and further onto Arthur's cock. With a low growl, Arthur took his mouth roughly, tongue pushing between his lips as Arthur slid into him, spine curving beneath Merlin’s hands, moaning as he began to pull out, just a little, then push himself deep inside.

Slow, sure movements, careful and so, so wet, gliding in and out of him, so completely breathtaking they made Merlin ache for the bright burn of the stretch again as it began to fade into nothing but tingling pleasure.

Merlin tried so hard to keep his eyes open, to see every expression that crossed Arthur’s face. It was so open now, so unguarded and free and he wondered if that was how Arthur saw him, all the time.

Another kiss, the gentle thrusts building in speed and strength, and Arthur pulled back to look at him. “I need you. I need this,” he murmured against Merlin's lips. “God, I want-”

He wove his fingers into Arthur's hair and kissed him with everything he was, willing Arthur to feel what he was feeling, to understand how desperately he needed him, too.

Their groans twining together, Arthur slipping all the way into him, his hips flush against Merlin’s. Arthur stilled for just a moment there, completely inside, warm and hard and strong above him. Opening him, hard and full inside him, filling him completely.

“Merlin, God, you feel amazing.” It was little more than a whisper against his temple, but Merlin felt a wave of heat spread from his face down his chest. He was still so tight, could feel every inch of Arthur as he pulled out, the first thrust back in sweet and shocking. Arthur leaned up on his elbows, breath against Merlin's chin.

Merlin's body arched beneath him, his head tilting back against the pillow, eyes drifting closed as Arthur began thrusting in earnest.

Arthur's mouth closed on his throat, pulling sparks of desire through him, all the way down to his cock. The lips trailed along his jaw, Arthur's breath just a soft whisper against Merlin's lips, “No, don't close your eyes.”

Merlin nodded, opening his eyes, locking onto Arthur’s unwavering gaze, focusing to feel their movements, the long, thick heat pumping into him, the bare skin of Arthur's hips pressing his thighs apart, the mouth that moved over his skin, nipping and sucking on his throat, his shoulder, his fingers.

Arthur’s thrusts quickened and deepened, slick and sharp, his muscles flexing rhythmically under Merlin's fingers, their bodies sliding together, slick and warm. Arthur's stomach rubbed steadily against Merlin’s aching cock, the sweet pull of Arthur out of him nearly as sensual as the push back inside. They found a hard, fast cadence far sooner than Merlin had guessed they could, as if they’d done this before, as if they’d always known each other like this, too.

Merlin clung to him, arms wrapped around Arthur's neck as they kissed, moving down under Arthur's arms to stroke his back as he arched up.

He held on tight, holding Arthur to him, humid skin gliding along his everywhere they touched, the bunch and stretch of Arthur’s muscles delicious under his palms, against his stomach, Arthur's mouth biting at his jaw, closing hard on his own, one hand closing on the back of his neck in a gorgeous, rough hold as their movements became full of purpose, as they neared the end.

He shivered and squeezed his eyes closed against the sudden, unbearable knowledge that this was it, they wouldn’t need to do this again. Wouldn’t have to do this again.

“Merlin.” Arthur ’s whisper was followed by a soft kiss, eyes steady on his as he opened them, so he couldn’t escape. “Intentions, remember; I can’t hold out much longer.”

Intentions were easy, were simple. He intended to feel this way as long as he lived, intended to fill himself with Arthur and pour himself into Arthur and give and take and be a part of Arthur as long as he possibly could, as long as he was allowed. The hope behind those intentions flooded him, burned as hot as his desire, and he directed it toward Arthur, holding tighter above him as they moved and moved together.

Another kiss, one sweeter and softer than the rest, though he was dizzy and breathless when Arthur finally broke it to bury his face into the crook of Merlin’s neck, breathy whisper like a secret against his ear. “I'm close.”

Merlin nodded and slid his arms down to hug tightly around the small of Arthur’s back, pulling him in deep, tilting his own hips and raising his legs to wrap around Arthur’s waist, heels digging into the backs of Arthur’s thighs, holding as still as he could as Arthur glided fast and hard and so, so deep inside. “God, me, too.”

He felt as though he might shake apart as he let the magic begin to flow through him, his body was humming so intensely with brilliant pleasure he couldn't breathe. His eyes flared and he felt a surge of energy just as powerful as when he commanded the dragon thrumming along his skin. It was inside him as it had never been, though, not without. It skittered along his muscles, pulling them taut, then sang up his spine and he arched, shuddering, eyes flying open.

He took a gasping breath and began the incantation from the ritual scroll,out loud so Arthur could hear every word , “Merlin Emrys y Carmarthen, tribuo meus vinculum. recipero vestri vinculum, Arthur Pendragon y Camelot.”

He felt his eyes burning, his vision going golden and hot, his body tingling everywhere Arthur’s skin touched his own. “Arthur, this is it,” he warned breathlessly.

“I’m- don’t stop-” Arthur ’s voice was ragged, panting hard and hot against Merlin's neck as he continued to slide frantically in and out. He lifted his head for a kiss, not even flinching as he saw the bright golden glow Merlin could feel behind his eyes.

He breathed the final words against Arthur's lips, eyes squeezed closed, every doubt and hesitation fleeing beneath the intensity of their certainty as he pulled magic through his entire body, through Arthur, through the stone of the castle and the very earth beneath. “Iunctum per quondam quod posterus rex rgis.”

A hand slid beneath Merlin’s hip, pulling him up into every thrust, the crush of Arthur’s stomach against his cock pulling a deep moan from him. He shivered and gasped, fingers digging in to keep Arthur tight against him. The glide of Arthur inside him deepened, the angle shifting as Arthur leaned down and took his mouth again with an almost-growl, the smooth slide of tongue and cock matching rhythm and Merlin sobbed into his mouth, body tightening everywhere, around Arthur’s cock and hips and back as Arthur thrust against the spark inside and ignited every nerve in his body.

Merlin clutched at him, arms sliding up to wrap tightly around Arthur's neck, shame forgotten as he surged up, pleading for more, for harder and deeper and all of Arthur, all of him.

Arthur gave him everything, his strength a tightly-coiled bastion for Merlin as he broke and cried out against Arthur’s lips, arching impossibly hard into the thrusts that never slowed or stopped, just kept going, kept rocking into him as he clung desperately to Arthur and came, came all over them both, the slick heat smearing between them with every roll of their hips.

Arthur’s strength never left him, his arms tucking beneath Merlin, holding him steady, holding him together. He held on, too, face tucking into the crook of Arthur's shoulder, mouth slipping along his throat.

With a soul-deep groan, the strength and speed moving into him, above him, all over him, doubled, tripled and flew apart, Arthur’s hips jerking wildly against him, arms closing vice-like around Merlin, holding him still as Arthur's entire body shook and arched in absolute release.

He shuddered hard as Arthur came deep inside him, panting against his neck, arms easing but not letting go as he slowly, gently pushed in and out of Merlin as if he couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, not even now.

Every inch of him hypersensitive now, Merlin shivered, clinging tightly even as Arthur sighed and moved above him, the brush of Arthur’s hair against his shoulder a sinfully soft caress that threatened to light him on fire all over again.

Desperate to feel only Arthur within him, without the magic coursing between them, Merlin slowly released the power he’d pulled to himself for the casting. The magic peeled away slowly, painfully, leaving a gaping hole inside him, a gradually-building emptiness that made him squeeze his eyes closed and grit his teeth.

But on the other side of it was Arthur, still pressed tightly to him, still so warm, so deep inside.

“God, that was-” Arthur ’s voice hummed along his neck, hips finally stilling as he leaned down for a kiss.

Merlin opened to it, as slowly and sweetly as he had the first time, savouring Arthur’s taste, the feeling of Arthur’s full lips against his own, the way Arthur led, but somehow asked permission at the same time. Merlin unfurled under his touch all over again, sighing into Arthur’s mouth when a hand closed around the back of his neck again and squeezed, fingers sliding into his hair. God, he loved that, loved the solid, strong reassurance of it.

“Yes,” he whispered his agreement into Arthur’s mouth, against his tongue, and didn’t pull away until every last spark of magic had flared its last, leaving only the two of them.

Arthur breathed heavily against his shoulder, lips pressing to his skin. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” He opened his palms on Arthur’s chest, turning his face away as Arthur pushed up and sighing, slowly, very slowly, withdrew. As soon as they were parted, Merlin rolled onto his side, this hollow feeling worse than letting go of the earth energy he'd used for the spell.

He felt too boneless to get out of bed just yet, but he reached for his rumpled tunic and drew it across his hips. He didn’t want Arthur seeing him like that. Silly, he knew, after what they’d just done.

Doubt and grief flooded his chest as he sat up, Arthur a world apart from him again.

Before he could so much as begin to move off the bed, Arthur’s arm slid around his chest, pulling him back down on his side, back into the curve of Arthur's lap as though he hadn’t noticed Merlin turning away.

“I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Arthur kissed his shoulder, opened his hand to stroke Merlin's chest.

“It was- only at first.” Merlin flushed hotly and laid his hand on Arthur's to stop the movement. “I'm fine.”

“You're astounding.” The smile pressed against his shoulder chased away his fears as thoroughly as the fingers that wove between his own. “It worked, didn't it?”

Merlin nodded, sinking into the reassurance of Arthur's body curving against his.

“Is it always like that?”

“Sorry, what?” He couldn’t follow, his brain completely addled.

“The magic, Merlin, is it always so... all over you when you cast?” Arthur sounded sleepy and curious, nothing more.

He tensed, then forced himself to remember, to relax. There was no pyre waiting for him back in Camelot. “ No, never like that. Seems to flare harder when I’m saving your skin, though.”

“I don’t want to know how many times you’ve done that,” Arthur mumbled against his ear, sending shivers down his neck. The arms around him tightened. “Could you clean us up? I don’t think I can move.”

He swallowed hard, imagining casting directly at Arthur, something he’d rarely done. He knew what the cleansing spell felt like: a warm wave that left a brief tingle behind it. He closed his eyes, then opened them and let go of Arthur's hand, spreading his hand wide over their hips. In the space of a breath, it was done. “Better, Sire?”

Arthur’s hips rolled against his backside. “Mmm, yes, much.” The arm around Merlin’s waist squeezed in playful warning. “But no more ‘Sires.’ I’m Arthur. You’re Merlin. Now, go to sleep.”

Arthur drew in a deep breath against Merlin’s neck, then another and another, and Merlin grinned. Typical knight, falling asleep with his conquest pinned beneath him.

He wasn’t a conquest though, and, despite the way they fitted together so perfectly, Arthur might not thank him to still be naked in his bed when he woke. When he felt the pressure against his belly slacken, he took hold of the heavy arm draped over him and slowly lifted it, inching himself out from under it.

Until, of course, it closed tightly around him again, drawing him back, Arthur’s nose digging in sharply at the base of his neck. “Where do you think you’re going?”

Merlin shrugged, settling back down as casually as he could manage with eleven stone of prince bear-hugging him. “To find a bed.”

Arthur lifted his head and cracked open his eyes, looking around them at the bedclothes. “I think we’re in one already,” he smiled, then pulled Merlin around to lie half on top of him, Merlin’s head against his shoulder. “Comfortable?”

Merlin closed his eyes and took a deep breath, writing the scent of Arthur's skin into his memory. “You’re letting me stay?” Merlin shook his head, his heart racing. He couldn’t stop himself asking, though he was terrified of the answer. “Do you... do you want me to stay?”

Arthur hooked a hand behind Merlin's knee, pulling his leg a little higher until it rested across Arthur’s thighs. In that position, he could feel Arthur’s cock, already beginning to harden again. “What do you think, Merlin?”

“I think you should kiss me,” Merlin breathed, his entire body heating with bravery and need as he suddenly felt free to truly savour every inch of bare skin against his own. He brushed his fingertips over Arthur's wrist, lifting it to his lips, then trailed his fingertips up his arm and neck, along his jaw. Over his full, parted lips. “Just once more?”

“No,” Arthur said, opening his eyes again to look into Merlin’s. “Not just once.”

Their lips met, Merlin sliding further on top of Arthur’s chest, his leg hooking high around Arthur’s waist, his own arousal returning full-force as Arthur’s tongue slid slowly into his mouth, their bodies fitting perfectly together, moving in instant synchronicity.

Merlin pulled away to breathe, cheek hot against Arthur’s, his whisper a confession that stuck in his throat. “I've wanted this... you.” He propped up on his palms, sitting fully across Arthur’s hips now, looking into Arthur's eyes. He could say it. It was the biggest confession he had, larger than the magic, his father, the dragon, everything. He took a breath and let it fall from his lips. “I want this. Always.”

Arthur arched up to kiss him again, and Merlin let himself be enveloped in those strong arms as Arthur took his mouth slowly, then lay back, guiding Merlin to lay down on top of him.

His answer was a quiet roar with Merlin’s ear pressed to Arthur’s chest. “Sleep first, then we’ll begin ‘always.’”

Merlin nodded, his eyelids suddenly heavy as feed bags. He sighed and wriggled closer. He’d never figured himself or Arthur a cuddler, but they fit together like two halves of a whole. The coin analogy made far more sense in this light.

Closing his eyes, he trailed his hand down Arthur’s side, then back up his arm to his shoulder, ghosting over the scar where the Questing Beast had left his mark. He felt every confession he’d ever bitten back now ready to pour out of him. He could finally ask forgiveness; he could finally share everything with Arthur.

Taking a deep breath, heady with the scent of the two of them mingled together, Merlin opened his mouth to begin at the beginning.

“Shut up, Merlin.” He could feel Arthur grinning against his hair. “Shut up and go to sleep.”

It was a long time coming, a quiet, peaceful length of time, listening to Arthur’s deep breathing, savouring the feel of those breaths against his skin, the warmth of Arthur’s thigh between his own, the rise and fall of Arthur’s chest under his cheek.

It seemed a warm, calm eternity before Merlin finally managed to still his thoughts and obey.

 

~ FINIS ~

 

Latin translations:
“Merlin Emrys y Carmarthen, tribuo meus vinculum. recipero vestri vinculum, Arthur Pendragon y Camelot.” is “I, Merlin Emrys of Carmarthen, give my bond. I take your bond, Arthur Pendragon of Camelot”

“iunctum per quondam quod posterus rex rgis” is “Unite with the once and future King”