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On a Dare

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“You’re joking, right?” Percival teased, casually reaching for his tankard with his free hand, taking a swig and wiping his mouth on his sleeve. His flexing arm jerked where it was locked in combat with Arthur’s, which bent backwards towards the table another few inches. “Er... no offence, Sire.”

Merlin swallowed his own mouthful of ale fast before breaking out in laughter, nearly missing spraying the entire group with it. Across the huge table from Merlin, sitting next to Percival, Leon choked, tears streaming down his face as he laughed and coughed.

Gwaine thumped Leon on the back and slammed his empty mug down. “Aw, come on, Arthur! You can do better than that!” He laid his palm over the knot of Percival and Arthur’s hands, standing up to put his weight into helping Arthur out.

“Get off!” Arthur growled through gritted teeth, taking a wild, laughing swing at Gwaine with his free hand and losing another inch of air to Percival for his trouble. “I’m wearing him down,” he ground out, his obviously reluctant grin growing until it reached all the way to his eyes as the other knights and Merlin all roared with laughter.

“Give it up, Arthur; it’s impossible,” Leon chuckled, shaking his head and wiping his eyes. “You don’t get down here often enough to know, but Percival’s a legend already. He’s never been beaten.”

Arthur glared at Leon, then at Percival, his smile dying away. Merlin had seen the same expression in Arthur’s eyes often enough to recognize the warning sign. There was only so much humiliation Arthur’s ego could laugh off before anger replaced the jokes and took over to cover his embarrassment.

Merlin licked his lips and held a finger in the air. “At arm-wrestling, sure, just look at him! But Arthur’s bested him on the paddock every single bout,” he proclaimed with a victorious nod to Arthur, whose brow furrowed as he threw Merlin a withering glare.

Silence held thick in the air for a moment, the murmur of the other tavern patrons just a hum in the background. Gwaine was the first to break, his infectious laughter catching and spreading around the table like wildfire as it always did.

“Leave it to you to defend a man who’s six inches from defeat,” Gwaine howled, throwing an arm around Merlin’s shoulder and scrubbing a fist against Merlin’s head. “Fetch a fork, Merlin. Your prince is about to be served a slice of humble pie.”

Merlin grinned, but swallowed hard as soon as he thought no one was looking. Beneath the table, Arthur’s knee bumped hard into his and he looked up just in time to see Arthur glance over at him. Thanks for trying, but you’re an idiot, his eyes seemed to say, and Merlin shrugged. What else were friends for, if not to defend you even when you were nearly defeated already?

When Arthur’s arm slammed to the tabletop, Merlin winced, but cut short the knights’ hoots of victory and congratulatory arm-punching for Percival by calling for another round of mead, to which everyone around the table cheered.

“Don’t worry, Sire, you’ll get him back tomorrow at practice,” Leon shouted across the table. He took a long pull on his ale and held his tankard out to be refilled by the serving wench who was making her rounds with a pitcher. “We’re none of us a match for your sword,” he added, raising his mug in a salute to Arthur before drinking deeply, foam clinging to his mustache and beard.

“Exactly my point.” Merlin leaned his admittedly drink-lightened head back against the wall behind him, rolling it to the side to look at Arthur. “Best sword in Camelot. Everyone knows that.”

Arthur looked at him for a long moment and Merlin suddenly realized just how gushingly admiring he sounded. He flushed hotly and reached for his mug, glancing back at Arthur, who was still watching him.

As Merlin was just about to change the subject, Arthur scoffed and shook his head. “I’ve never been so insulted in my life!”

“Now we know that isn’t true,” Leon quipped, glancing up from his drink. “I seem to remember a certain stepmother with a fairly sharp tongue dressing you down in front of the court.”

“Sharp tongue and cloven hooves,” Merlin said, snorting as he laughed, the drink possibly going to his head a bit more than he’d thought. He didn’t seem to be able to stop the words or girly-sounding giggles from bubbling out. “Do trolls even count as stepmothers, or are they more like-”

Arthur’s boot-heel found Merlin’s toes and he bit his lip to stifle his yelp of pain. And any further asinine comments. He could have kissed Arthur for the favour. No. No, not kissed. Gods.

“I could best all of you without my sword if I had to.” Arthur glared, but a smirk pulled at the corner of his mouth.

“Sure, and Merlin here could take down a griffin with his bare hands,” Gwaine teased, nodding at Lancelot. “Right, Lancelot? He was just on the verge of knocking it unconscious when you showed up and interfered, eh?”

“Hey!” Merlin exclaimed, shoving at Gwaine so his chair tipped precariously and Gwaine had to grab onto Merlin’s arm to steady himself. Merlin leaned away, laughing as he pressed against Arthur in an effort to put more distance between himself and Gwaine. “Don’t drag me into this! I’m not the one arm-wrestling the strongest man in Camelot!”

“You don’t have the bollocks.” Arthur’s shoulder jerked away and Merlin had to catch himself so he didn’t tip over onto Arthur’s lap. He was a bit more than unsteady, after all.

“Oh, I have the bollocks!” he shot back, face heating another impossible degree. “I’m just smart enough to realize I don’t have tree trunks for biceps,” he added, looking away from Arthur’s wide grin and raised eyebrows. “No offense, Percy.” He held up his tankard in truce.

“None taken.” Percival clunked his tankard against Merlin’s and nodded. “Although Gwaine’s got a point. I’ve never seen you fight without magic.”

“And you won’t, either,” Arthur said, throwing an arm over Merlin’s shoulders, jerking him closer.

Merlin took a deep breath, bracing himself. On the rare occasion Arthur stopped being careful and started being affectionate, it usually meant Merlin was in for a particularly humiliating punishment of some sort. “Merlin here has always used his magic to do anything remotely challenging. Even my laundry.”

“Because there’s a laundress in the palace but you insist on me doing it all myself! What do I know about cleaning clothes?” he answered back, grinning even as he wondered if Arthur actually thought that was true. Even after he’d revealed his magic to Arthur, Arthur had never treated him differently, giving him only a modicum of grudging respect and ignoring the fact that Merlin still chose to be his manservant. They’d never even discussed another position for Merlin, and Merlin hadn’t rocked the boat by asking. But how could Arthur think him lazy or incompetent now?

“After five years, you’d think you would have learnt something about being a manservant.” Arthur rolled his eyes and squeezed Merlin’s shoulder hard.

“I may not be as good at chores as someone who’s actually been trained to be a nobleman’s servant, but... well, I’ve learnt to put up with you, haven’t I?” It earned him another round of laughter, but regret still followed as soon as he’d said the words.

As the moment stretched without Arthur saying anything, Merlin wished more and more fervently that he could just slide beneath the table or disappear.

The laughter died away and left the knights watching him and Arthur, obviously having picked up on the awkwardness as Arthur stared at him. Granted, his and Arthur’s faces were just inches apart, Arthur’s sleepy-drunk smile a bit too tolerant, a bit too much like the one he only ever gave Merlin in private, and Merlin was sure his own expression gave him away completely.

Leon raised his eyebrows and nodded at Arthur, looking from Merlin to Arthur and back again as if urging Merlin to speak, and Gwaine bumped his elbow into Merlin’s back, the sharp nudge another obvious goad for him to say something.

Turning to look into Arthur’s eyes, Merlin drew up short. The intensity of Arthur’s gaze sent a jolt of passion through Merlin, his body responding as it always did, the desire to reach out and touch skin to skin so overwhelming Merlin forgot to breathe.

His chest burned and Gwaine shoved at him again, murmuring something behind Merlin that he couldn’t quite make out. He got the point though, and looked away, the spell of Merlin’s desire broken in an instant. He flushed, his face likely something close to Pendragon red at this point, but couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t sound ridiculous, even to him.

He cleared his throat and eased out from under Arthur’s arm, holding his half-full tankard in the air to get the wench’s attention.

Arthur’s hand closed on his arm, dragging it down out of the air. He narrowed his eyes and Merlin narrowed his in return, a teasing grin on his lips. “What?”

Arthur raised his eyebrows in challenge. “I dare you to go without magic for one week.”

“No way!” Merlin shouted, shaking his head. “I’ve only just got the freedom to use it, why would I stop now?” He looked to Gwaine for some kind of help, but Gwaine was laughing, obviously in favour of the idea.

“You’re just afraid you won’t be able to do it! How did you manage before the ban was lifted?” Gwaine asked.

“Stop exaggerating. I managed fine.” Merlin rolled his eyes and lifted his tankard back in the air. “Weren’t we talking about Arthur, anyway? How none of you can beat him?”

Arthur scoffed and shook his head. “If you can go a week, I’ll fight without my sword the week after.”

“Here, here! Merlin you have to do it! I want a go at him without that bleeding weapon between us!” Leon whispered conspiratorially, leaning across the table as though sharing a secret.

Even tipsy as he was, Merlin knew this was a bad idea. He could do it, sure, but without his magic, he was just another peasant, just an untrained, admittedly unmotivated servant. He’d hated feeling useless and normal when he’d had to pretend, especially when all of his power was right there, just waiting to be tapped. Torturing himself with it all over again did not sound like his idea of fun.

“He won’t do it,” Arthur said, shrugging. “Or can’t.”

“Merlin! Are you going to let him talk to you like that?” Mouth twisting as he fought a smile, Leon pointed a finger at Arthur. “You can’t talk to him like that, Sire! He’s ten times the warlock you’ll ever be!”

The table fell silent for a moment while everyone processed the words, the silence cracking with Merlin’s snort and Percival’s booming laugh. The entire table erupted in laughter and it was several minutes before Merlin could catch his breath enough to speak.

“Alright, I’ll do it,” he said, sighing as though heavily put-upon. “But I want something in return when I prove you wrong.”

“That’s my boy! All right, men, pony up,” Gwaine said, pulling his coin pouch from the waistband of his breeches and plunking it down on the table. “Twenty sovereigns says he goes the distance!”

“Wait. That’s not what I meant, Gwaine. First off, we’re only talking about getting through a typical day at the castle, right? Nothing life-or-death, no magical creatures. Because we all know how effective you lot were against the griffin,” Merlin teased, looking around the table, even though most of them hadn’t been there for that particular embarrassment. “Or the questing beast,” he added, watching twin spots of colour appear on Arthur’s cheeks and revelling in being able to make Arthur blush for once, instead of the other way around.

“Oooh, terms,” Leon said, leaning forward, pulling his own coin purse from his belt. “All right, yes. Merlin’s right. No magical creatures or risking life or limb.”

“And he’ll be on his honour not to cheat when he’s alone,” Elyan said, answering the unspoken question. “We can’t be with him every second, but we all know he keeps to the knights’ code as much as we do.”

“He hasn’t always, but... all right, agreed. I’m with Gwaine – twenty that he does it.” Leon gave Merlin an encouraging smile and a wink.

“Well, I say he’ll make it through the entire week, too.” Lancelot threw in, adding his coins to the growing pile. “Don’t let me down, Merlin. It’d be nice to have a few of Arthur’s colours tied to the knights’ ribbon board for a change.”

Merlin gave him a grateful smile and turned back to Arthur. “I won’t take your money.”

“I’m assigning the tasks, so it’d hardly be fair for me to bet,” Arthur said, leaning close so Merlin could hear him over the ruckus the knights were making as they debated Merlin’s ability to withstand being Arthur’s manservant without the use of his magic. “Don’t think I’ll go easy on you.”

Merlin scoffed. “Have you ever?” he asked, ducking his head and scraping a thumbnail along the grain of the wooden table. “You know, I used to do almost everything without magic.”

“You used to wait until no one was looking, you mean.” Arthur’s hand closed over his thigh under the table, squeezing gently, and Merlin’s head swam with need and want, instantly imagining that firm, strong hand in other, nearby places. “Face it, Merlin, you’ll never last a week.”

“I will, and when I do, I want two days off and dinner.” Merlin shook off the haze of desire and grinned as though he’d already won. “Your dinner, served by you.”

The hand on his thigh tightened and Arthur nodded. “Fine, then. When you fail, I want some answers.”

Merlin still had a lot of secrets, a lot of things he’d spared Arthur knowing the whole truth of, things that still seemed as though they'd be as hurtful to Arthur as they had been to Merlin.

His role in freeing the dragon and lying to Arthur about it would have to come to light someday, he knew, but Merlin’s shame was unbearable. How could he tell Arthur what he’d done?

And then there was the obvious issue of his feelings toward Arthur, which seemed only to get more intense and certain as time went on. The stronger he felt, the more impossible it seemed that he would – or could – ever tell Arthur.

Still, he wasn’t in danger of being forced to tell now, was he? He had no intention of failing this challenge.

You’ll never last a week.

The words ran through Merlin’s head like a mantra as he knelt on the cold flagstones, the skin of his fingers puckered and the muscles of his back aching like Gaius’ always did when a storm was brewing.

“You’re not finished yet?” Arthur asked incredulously, raising his eyebrows in surprise. “I’ve been gone all afternoon!”

“You’ve not been gone two candlemarks,” Merlin said, glancing at the candlestick on the mantle. “And I had to stop twice to shoo Gwaine and Leon away. The more they check in to cheer me on, the more annoying it gets.”

“Have you sorted the day’s messages? I’d like to answer them before dinner so I’ll have time for a ride this evening.”

“They’re on your desk; nobles inviting you to visit or wanting to visit Camelot are in the stack on the right. Everything to do with the restoration is in the brown tray and all council matters are on the left, under the inkwell,” Merlin said absently, scraping his knuckles on the stone floor again and sucking in a breath. “Damn this useless cloth!”

“I’ve seen other servants use a kind of wet broom,” Arthur said, crossing to his desk and slitting open the seal on one of the councilman’s messages. “Or wrap the cloth around a broomstick and scrub it that way. At least you’d be off your hands and knees.”

Merlin flushed at the words, though he knew Arthur hadn’t meant any innuendo by them. “Right. Why didn’t I think of that?” he grumbled to himself, going to the supply closet and pulling the stick from an old, tattered broom. He fished a bit of twine out from a basket of odds and ends and proceeded to tie the washrag onto the stick as Arthur had suggested.

“Didn’t your mother do it that way?” Arthur asked absently as he rifled through his papers.

It probably hadn’t been meant to be an insult, and once, Merlin wouldn’t have seen it as one, but Arthur’s unintentionally stuck-up comments still needled him, even after all these years.

“I suppose she might’ve, if we’d had anything but a dirt floor in our house,” he snapped, pushing his sweaty hair back from his eyes. He blew out a breath. “Sorry. I’m just on edge.”

“Because you’re afraid you’re going to lose. I understand.” Arthur smiled at him so teasingly that Merlin couldn’t help but smile grudgingly in return.

Merlin tossed a spare rag in Arthur’s direction, not even coming close to hitting him. “Prat.”

“Lazy, magic-less Warlock.” Balling up the message in his hands, Arthur lobbed it at Merlin, who dodged it easily enough. “Feel free to thank me anytime now.”

Merlin was about to laugh when Arthur nodded in the direction of the broom-handle in Merlin’s fist. “Oh, right. Thanks,” he muttered, turning back to his work.

Things went a lot faster on his feet, pushing the rags along the stones, dipping them into the bucket of wash-water and squeezing the excess out before swiping the wet mop across the floor again. By the time Arthur was done with his day’s missives, Merlin was already finished mopping and was kneeling at the fireplace, cleaning out the hearth, scooping ash and charred bits of wood from the grate and carefully depositing it into a triple-thick cloth sack.

He worked in silence as Arthur spread a map over the dining table and weighed the corners down with candlesticks, bending over it and making notations with the quill that Merlin had sharpened and cured just that morning.

“Are you going on patrol again?” Merlin asked, the quiet making his skin itch with anticipation. “I should tell Gaius if we’re going to be gone.”

“Next week,” Arthur said, nodding, lips moving soundlessly as he jotted another notation on the map.

“Patrol without your sword, eh?” he teased, grinning over his shoulder at Arthur. “Should be interesting.”

Arthur glanced sideways at him, pursing his lips and nodding. “You really think you’ll make it through the week, don’t you?”

“I know I will. I’m not afraid of a bit of hard work.”

Arthur looked up then, crossing his arms over his chest and cocking his head to the side. “What are you afraid of, Merlin?”

Losing you. Having you. Being this close – only this close – for the rest of our lives.

Merlin could think of a dozen things that scared him so badly his heart seemed to leap into his throat every time he imagined them happening. He swallowed hard and held Arthur’s gaze for a long moment. “Plenty,” he finally answered, smiling wearily and turning back to the hearth.

Merlin finished up at the fireplace, tying off the bag of soot and dusting his hands on his breeches, which looked as though they’d been through battle. They were stained and torn and worn from just a single day without magic. He’d caught them on the edge of a rolling cart in the kitchen that morning, then backed into an already-unsteady page with a sloshing pitcher of wine at breakfast and had spent so long scrubbing the floor on his knees that he’d worn pale patches on both legs. He wouldn’t be surprised if his skin had bruises to match the wear and tear on his breeches, what with all the mishaps. He might survive the week, but his breeches were going to be fit for the rag-pile at the end of it.

Still, it was nearly evening of his first full day without magic and he’d not even come close to casting, not even when that wine had splashed over him. It was actually somewhat freeing to just let things happen like that, let whatever was going to be just... be, good or bad. Stained or clean.

Across the room, Arthur stretched and groaned, sounding every bit as exhausted and achy as Merlin felt. “I’d like my dinner brought up. I’m too knackered to dine at the great table tonight.”

“Understandable,” Merlin said, a small smile escaping. He turned, taking up the basket of freshly-laundered sheets and began to fold them, pulling a face as he noticed that a bit of soot from his fingers left smudges along one corner of the cloth. If Arthur saw it, well, he would just have to live with it. “Would you like anything special? I could ask the cooks for ham instead of fowl if you’d like.”

Even before Merlin realized his preference for men, Hunith had been giving him advice, and she’d always touted that a way to a man’s heart was through his stomach. Merlin hadn’t had reason to object, since his stomach always appreciated any attention given it, and when he’d met Arthur, he’d had even more evidence she was right. He’d never met someone so fond of meat as Arthur. Even on patrol, he insisted they carry dried venison in their packs in case game was scarce.

“Yes, and bring an extra serving of everything,” Arthur said, stripping off his jacket and belt and tossing them on the bed as usual, obviously without a thought to making extra work for Merlin. “I’m famished.”

“That makes two of us,” Merlin murmured as he finished the folding and tucked the sheets into the cabinet by the wall. “I’ll be back shortly,” he called over his shoulder on his way out the door.

He’d not had a moment to stop and breathe, let alone eat, since breakfast. Perhaps he could kip a roll or a chicken leg whilst waiting for Arthur’s tray to be prepared.

Stepping from behind the dressing screen, Arthur folded his arms over his bare chest, going immediately to the wardrobe and pulling out a tunic. Odd, he didn’t normally need a tunic at night with how warm Merlin generally kept his chambers-

The thought was cut off – as so many of his thoughts had been that day – with the realization that he was missing yet another benefit of Merlin’s magic.

Shaking his head, Arthur slipped on the tunic and went to the fireplace. He tossed three logs in, kneeling with the flint and lighting the kindling at the bottom of the grate. Merlin had done a decent job cleaning it, but had forgotten to re-light it when he was through.

Well, lighting a fire was no hardship, and neither was sleeping in a rumpled bed or having to rub Hengroen down himself after his ride that morning. He’d left that particular job up to Merlin or a stable boy far too often, if the way the stallion seemed overly-eager for Arthur's affection was any evidence. A few apples had done the trick, though, and he resolved to spend more time on the care of the horse in future, especially given Merlin’s recent workload.

He’d seen Merlin work hard before, of course, but today he’d watched a bit more closely, reveling in the determination and dedication Merlin put behind every chore. Since the ban on magic was lifted, Arthur had to admit, things often seemed to come a bit too easily for Merlin. He couldn’t help but be a bit jealous, though that he would never admit, not out loud at any rate.

The fact that Merlin had broken a sweat just cleaning, had done his best, but done nothing to perfection, well, it was... reassuring. His bumbling, clumsy, sorry excuse for a manservant was still inside there somewhere, merely masked behind the magic.

Not that he didn’t also appreciate the new, confident, competent version of Merlin, but still. As loathe as he was to admit it even to himself, there were times when he’d like to feel like the most powerful man in the room again. It seemed he’d just won that right over his father when Merlin’s strength became to light.

Sometimes he missed this Merlin, though in truth, Merlin was just as clumsy and awkward and humble with his magic as he was without.

The door swung open without warning just as Arthur retrieved his jacket and belt from the bed, hanging them on the corner of the dressing screen. He didn’t want to have to sleep on them if Merlin forgot them, after all.

Merlin had his chin on the edge of the large platter in a vain attempt to balance the no-doubt heavy tray as he kicked the door shut behind him and held the pitcher away from his body as if avoiding splashing the liquid. “A little help?” he gasped as the tray tilted precariously, and Arthur dashed over, grabbing the pitcher and freeing Merlin to steady the tray with both hands.

Merlin set it quickly down on the table, sighing as he began unloading the plates. “You’ll never be able to eat all of this.”

Arthur followed behind him, setting the pitcher on the table as well. “Oh, I think we’ll manage to make a dent,” he said, holding a hand out in offering as he scooted a chair from beneath the table. “Have a seat. We can discuss next week’s patrol while we dine.”

Merlin’s eyes went wide, then curved as he smiled gratefully and sagged down into the proffered chair with obvious relief. To his credit, he let Arthur get settled across from him and waited until Arthur had taken the first bite of his meal before tucking into his own.

And tuck in, Merlin did – he ate like he hadn’t seen food all- of course. Arthur hadn’t ordered Merlin to take a lunch, and with the workload he’d assigned, Merlin wouldn’t have thought he had time. Well, he wouldn’t have had time, would he?

Arthur cleared his throat, breaking the silence, about to speak, but Merlin quickly dropped his knife and fork and went to the pitcher, beginning to fill Arthur’s still-full cup.

“It’s full, Merlin.” Arthur pushed the pitcher away and took the cup, smiling as he sipped.

Merlin went back to eating, a blush spreading up from beneath his ever-present neckerchief. The colour high on his cheekbones, the way he ducked his head and glanced up through his fringe – it was fetching to say the least, and Arthur relished the sight, wondering if Merlin’s propensity for blushing was due to his modesty or something more. It certainly seemed, at times, as though Merlin blushed only for him.

“How was your first day without magic? More difficult than you thought it would be?” he asked, hoping to put Merlin a bit more at ease. He seemed strung tight as a lyre.

“It was hardly my first day without magic,” Merlin replied, ducking his head again when Arthur gave him an impatient look. “It was difficult, yes. I’ll be feeling it for days to come, that’s for sure.”

Merlin rubbed his shoulder, then dropped his hand to rub at his thigh, Arthur gulping his wine as his eyes followed the movement. He couldn’t see under the table, of course, but the suggestive motion of Merlin’s spread-open hand, his flexing elbow, the up and back as he stroked were enough to heat Arthur’s own face.

Of course Merlin wasn’t doing anything he hadn’t done to Arthur a hundred times over, working knots from a sore, strained muscle as Arthur himself had taught him. Obviously, Merlin wasn’t going to be healing himself with magic. If Merlin could implement Arthur’s lessons to get through this week without magic, so much the better.

“Whatever you didn’t get finished today, I’ll allow you to do tomorrow.” It was a small allowance, but one Arthur hadn’t offered Merlin in all the time he’d been working for him. Not that Merlin hadn’t assumed that very allowance would be granted on occasion, but Arthur still felt it was a kindness. This was a contest, after all.

“Mmm,” Merlin hummed and nodded his thanks as he chewed another mouthful, the next bite already speared on his fork. “This is amazing. Gaius nicks ham for us when he can, but it never tastes like this. Royals must get the happy pigs.”

Arthur furrowed his brow and chuckled, lifting his mug in a toast, only then realizing Merlin had no mug. He went to the sideboard, waving Merlin back to his seat when he tried to rise from the table and get it himself. He came back with a mug and filled it, handing it to Merlin and beginning his toast again. “May the best man win,” he proclaimed, deliberately not specifying who he thought was going to win.

Despite his laxity in rules and the relatively light workload, not to mention the exceptional meal, Arthur still thought Merlin was going to fold long before the week was through.

He just didn’t see the need for Merlin to suffer too terribly while he was failing. When Arthur got his answers, when he finally knew all of Merlin’s secrets, it would be victory enough to satisfy, and then some.

Despite being waylaid by Elyan, Leon, Lancelot and Gwaine on his way to the tower the night before, Merlin had made it to bed early.

The knights had wanted reassurance that he hadn’t quit or failed and, having given it to them, Merlin firmly told them to sod off so he could nurse his wounds and get some sleep. Grabbing a jar of salve on his way to his bedroom, he’d quickly smeared the stuff over his thighs, shoulders, arms and lower back, pulled on a nightshirt and collapsed, asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

Waking up and stretching, Merlin groaned and whimpered, remembering at the last second not to cast a healing spell over his tight, knotted muscles. A little scrubbing and folding and lifting had done far more towards making him suffer than he remembered his chores ever doing before. Of course, this was nothing compared to his first day as Arthur’s servant, when he’d withstood a literal beating in a field, the borrowed armour and padded tunic useless against the blows of Arthur’s sword and elbows.

“Let’s have you, lazy daisy!”

Arthur’s cheerful voice cut through his revelry, slamming him back into the present. Wondering that he’d been so lost in thought that he hadn’t even heard the door open, Merlin sat bolt-upright in bed, wincing at the wrench of his stiff back, rubbing his bleary eyes as he tried to focus on Arthur’s grinning face. “What are you doing here?”

“See how it feels, Merlin?” Arthur snatched the pillow from behind Merlin before he could lay down again, then whacked him over the head with it.

As if Merlin could dodge it. As if he could move.

“You’ll have to carry me down, I’m afraid,” he moaned, falling back onto the thin mattress, sighing as Arthur threw open the shutters. Merlin threw an arm across his eyes to block out the light. “And shut that, will you?”

“No can do! You’re overdue in my chambers and have chores from yesterday to make up yet before you start on today’s list.” Arthur clapped his hands together and yanked the blankets from Merlin’s weak grasp, whipping them onto the floor. “So, I repeat-”

“No, please,” Merlin begged, sitting back up. “Don’t repeat. Look, I’m up.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do I get breakfast, at least?”

Arthur was already bounding down the stair into the main workroom. “Gaius left you something that looks like muck, but there’s fresh fruit in my rooms if you’d rather have that,” he called back over his shoulder.

At least he was eating better, he thought as he wriggled into his breeches and shirt, knotting his belt and neckerchief and stepping into his boots. He ran his hands through his hair and scrubbed some of Gaius’ chalk-paste over his teeth, rinsing and spitting into a waste bin before following Arthur across the citadel to his rooms, where Merlin promptly took full advantage of Arthur sudden and inexplicable need to feed him as he listened to Arthur go over the day’s chores.

The second day went much like the first, only Arthur dragged Merlin to practice that morning, making him carry the heavy armour to and from the paddock. While he was there, though, Merlin got to relax somewhat, soaking up the sun and cheering Arthur on as he battled several of the newest knights, stopping to teach them at each mistake they made.

When Arthur made one of his own, underestimating his opponent’s reach, Arthur had nodded his approval at the knight who’d managed to penetrate his defences and paused to point out his own error to all of the soldiers assembled.

When Merlin had first met Arthur, such an admission would have been unacceptable and unthinkable in Arthur’s eyes. He’d grown so much in the past five years, Merlin could barely recall the stubborn, foolishly proud young man Arthur had been.

Later that evening, Arthur stopped him as he was taking inventory of their patrol gear and packs in preparation for the following week.

“I wish a bath, Merlin. Ask two pages to help you carry the water – I don’t want to be kept waiting.”

Arthur sat at his desk and went through the day’s letters as Merlin summoned his two helpers and began hauling buckets of water from the kitchen two floors down.

The repetitive, simple work was torture to his already-sore muscles, but Merlin was glad to get away from Arthur’s chambers and company for a little while. They’d been together almost constantly from the moment Arthur woke him that morning, and he was beginning to feel a bit stifled. He’d spent two candlemarks in the supply closet already and his work wasn’t yet complete.

“Can’t you move any faster?” Arthur leaned against a bedpost and smirked at him, winking at one of the pages when he looked terrified of Arthur’s disapproval.

“Go easy,” Merlin whispered, nodding at the pages, “They’re not used to your brand of humour. You’re scaring them.”

Arthur made as if to kick Merlin in the rear on his way out the door, laughing and thumping one of the boys on the back. “You’re not scared of me, are you?”

“No, Sire!” the page stammered, slipping out past Arthur and stepping up close to Merlin.

As they went for the last round of bucketfuls, the page shook his head and whispered, “How can you stand it day in and day out? He’s such a bully!”

Merlin grinned all the way back to Arthur’s chambers, not saying a word.

“Strip off, then.”

Merlin blinked and stumbled back a step, away from the tub he’d just finished filling. Surely Arthur hadn’t meant him. “You want me to... to help you disrobe? I’m not sure- don't you want-” Merlin sighed heavily and clenched his fists. “Shall I get a maid for you, Sire?”

He never called Arthur ‘Sire’ anymore, and Merlin mentally flogged himself for being so stupid, for showing his hand so stupidly and obviously.

There was a long pause, a moment that seemed to slow in time as though Merlin was casting and making it creep by, but he hadn’t cast and Arthur was just staring, eyes narrowed as though he was confused. “What are you on about? What would I do with a maid? I meant you!”

Was Arthur saying he did want Merlin to help him undress? Gods damn it! Every word from Arthur felt like a signal, but he knew, he knew they couldn’t be. Could they?

Merlin took a deep breath. This was ridiculous. Arthur fancied girls. Women. Elena and Gwen.

Still, despite knowing that and having seen Arthur’s attentions toward women, Merlin couldn’t avoid thinking that Arthur was flirting with him at times.

His winks and smirks seemed a dead giveaway. The solid, warm hand Arthur laid on his shoulder every single day felt like a lover’s touch, or at least a beloved’s. The thing that resonated the most was the way Arthur always looked back at him whenever they had to part for some reason, even if it was only for a short while, even if they were only going to be on opposite ends of the citadel for the day.

He always looked back, as if memorizing Merlin, as if giving Merlin one last moment to hold onto while they were apart. There was no reason for it but affection, no reason he could think of. And he'd never seen Arthur look back at Gwen or Elena.

No. Gods, Merlin needed to get a grip on his thoughts. Whatever it was between them that pulled at Merlin’s heartstrings and made his breeches tight in the blink of an eye, it surely didn’t affect Arthur the same way.

Arthur was his closest friend, nothing more, and Merlin was grateful for that, awed by even that much of Arthur’s attention.

He stood, staring, shaking his head and waiting for Arthur to say something. Because Arthur had never asked him to help him disrobe and there was just no way Arthur had meant for Merlin to strip off in his chambers. In front of him.

Arthur shook his head too, smiling and laying the reassuring weight of his hand on Merlin’s shoulder, guiding him to the dressing screen. “The bath’s for you, idiot. You were as stiff as Gaius this morning. I won’t have you crippled come tomorrow.”

Merlin stepped behind the screen, trying not to think about what he was about to do. He looked around, wondering that he’d never before really looked back here. He’d only ever been gathering Arthur’s discarded clothing if he stepped around the screen. It was a small space, but lavish. A bowl sat on a tiny table, Arthur’s leather cuff and a necklace Merlin had never seen him wear curled up in the bottom. The screen itself was red cloth and the light of the fireplace shone through, casting a crimson glow over his skin. There was a fancy candle sconce above his head, but it wasn’t lit and Merlin couldn’t remember the last time it had been.

Merlin reached for his belt, untying it and letting it slip to the floor, nerves bubbling up, making his voice a bit ragged. “Isn’t this cheating? I mean, it could be construed as helping me, you know.”

“That’s ridiculous. I’d be helping myself lose, wouldn’t I?” Arthur stuck his head around the edge of the screen, eyebrows raised, and Merlin folded his arms over his chest as if he had anything to hide. Arthur looked him up and down and huffed out a breath. “Why are you not undressed?”

“Why are you looking if you thought I was?” he asked, laughing as Arthur waggled his eyebrows and withdrew. Merlin’s face felt like he’d been sitting too close to the fire. Maybe he wasn’t wrong about the flirting after all. He couldn’t imagine Leon or Percival looking at him as Arthur just had.

“If you hurry, there might still be some food left when you get through soaking.”

Still not believing he was actually taking his clothes off in Arthur’s chambers, Merlin lifted his tunic over his head and kicked off his boots. His leather bracelet went into the bowl with Arthur’s things. As he hooked his thumbs in his breeches and smalls and pushed them down, Merlin heard the door open again. He covered his groin with his breeches and listened carefully, staying very still so whoever it was wouldn’t hear him there.

Arthur instructed the servants who entered to set the platters on the table and leave them covered. He dismissed the servant and as the door opened and closed again, Merlin heard the bolt slide on the door.

“You can come out now,” Arthur called, chuckling. “They’re gone.”

“Hand me a cloth, will you?” Merlin asked, looking out into the room. Arthur was lifting the lid on a tray, picking at some kind of meat, nibbling it and licking his fingers.

Arthur went to the cabinet and got a cloth – a tiny one – and held it out between his finger and thumb. It was so small it wouldn’t even wrap around Merlin’s waist.

“Ha bloody ha. This was your idea, you know. The least you could do is not insult me in the process.”

Arthur threw his head back, laughter filling the room, and threw the small towel over the side of the tub. “Alright, alright. There’s no need to be so modest, you know. I’ve seen it all before.”

“Not-” Merlin bit his tongue hard to stop himself from humiliating himself further.

“Not?” Arthur prompted, eyebrows raised as he handed Merlin a long length of cloth.

Merlin took it and wrapped it around his chest so it reached clear to his knees. He felt silly, but he wasn’t exactly ready for Arthur to see quite so much of him.

At least, not like this.

“Nothing,” he said, stepping past Arthur and into the tub, hissing as his toes hit the heat of the water, holding his breath as he lowered himself, the towel opened away from Arthur’s view. He dropped it at the last second and sat down hard and fast, all finesse sacrificed in his hurry to get into the tub.

Hands squeezing tightly on the smooth, wet wooden edges, Merlin held on for dear life and took quick gasping breaths as his body tensed and then just melted as the heat invaded everywhere, penetrating his skin and muscles and very bones.

He moaned, low and needy, eyes closed and arms sinking into the water at his sides, hands rubbing long, hard strokes down his thighs as the muscles relaxed. It felt far too good for his embarrassment to last even one instant more.

“Good, isn’t it?” Arthur’s voice was like silk, smooth and soft through the steam that drifted up around Merlin.

Merlin started as though he’d forgotten Arthur was there and, for a moment, he supposed he had. His limbs weren’t quite able to go tense, wrapped in the onslaught of wondrous warmth as they were. He cleared his throat, fighting back another moan. “Gaius just has a big wash basin, and the baths in town are never this warm or deep.”

“You don’t use the ones in the servants’ quarters?” Arthur asked, sitting down and kicking his feet up on the edge of the table, leaning back and watching Merlin as easy as you please.

Merlin frowned and reached for the soap and cloth. “They're too crowded, and... not divided.”

“Divided?” Arthur lifted the lid on a platter of game hen, pulling a piece off and eating it. “Oh, you mean there are women there! Well, all the more reason to go, then!”

That hadn’t been what he meant and he thought Arthur knew it, but... perhaps not. Turning the soap in the cloth, Merlin began washing up, grateful for the excuse not to look at Arthur. He took a deep breath, deciding there would never be another time when he could say it in an actual conversation. It had never come up before, and likely never would again.

“It’s more that the tubs are so public. There’s no privacy at all,” he said, chin ducking down as he scrubbed the cloth over the back of his neck. “And actually, the women aren’t the ones who make me nervous.”

There. He’d said it. Merlin glanced up then. He wanted to see Arthur’s reaction, good or bad.

Arthur wiped his hands on his breeches, sitting forward on his chair, leaning towards Merlin though they were yards apart. “Do I make you nervous?”

Merlin turned away, staring at the wall as his eyes filled. Of course Arthur would make fun of him at a time like this. At the moment he chose to tell the biggest secret he had left.

“You make everyone nervous, not just me,” he said, swallowing hard and scrubbing a hand over his face, tossing the cloth into the water and scooping up a double handful of water, splashing his face. The warmth would hide his flush. He swallowed hard, leaned back and closed his eyes.

He could just soak. He could just lie there and let his muscles unfurl, let his mind go blank and Arthur just disappear from his awareness.

“I can see you’re exhausted,” Arthur said quietly, and Merlin heard the soft click of his boot-heels on the flagstones. “I need to take care of something,” he said, and Merlin turned his head, opened his eyes.

“I didn’t mean you had to leave,” he said quickly, sitting up in the tub, ready to get out if Arthur felt so put-upon by Merlin’s talk of privacy, or worse, if Arthur was offended by Merlin's confession. “I don’t mind if you make me nervous.”

And Gods, that is why he’s spent the last five years biting his tongue and trying not to run off at the mouth. He sighed and shook his head as Arthur chuckled.

“It’s all right, Merlin. You take your time. The food will keep.” Arthur opened the door and left, the sound of the key slipping into the lock just one more piece of proof that Arthur truly was looking out for him.

As if the hot bath and huge meal weren’t proof enough.

Merlin slapped his palm to his forehead, water dripping down his nose and cheeks. “Well if he didn’t know before, he does now!” he growled, sliding down under the water and screaming out his frustration beneath the surface, the water catching his shout and holding it where no one but Merlin would hear.

By the time Arthur had gotten back, Merlin was dressed and sitting by the fire, writing a list of all of the chores he hadn’t finished that day. It was longer than the day before, and he felt like he would never get caught up.

Dinner wasn’t as awkward as Merlin had feared after his little pseudo-confession. Arthur talked to him as he always did when he was in a particularly good mood, going on and on about his victories on the field, the knights’ excitement over their little experiment, and how he was practicing with mace and bow and staff now, just in case.

The last he said with a grin as he pushed the plate of steamed parsnips toward Merlin. “The cook always insists on sending them up whenever you aren’t in charge of fetching my meal. I think she’s teasing me. She knows I hate the vile things.”

Merlin speared one on his fork, holding it in the air for a moment as if considering it, then slowly slipped it off the fork with his teeth, chewing as if savouring the mouthful. In truth, he wasn’t all that fond of parsnips, either, but the disgusted look on Arthur’s face reminded him of when they were younger. It was worth eating a few vile vegetables to see Arthur looking so carefree again.

Arthur grimaced. “No one will kiss you now, you know.”

Merlin stopped and swallowed hard, choking so violently that he had to take a gulp of wine to clear the parsnip from his throat. “I wasn’t-” he gasped between coughs, “planning on kissing anyone tonight.”

“No?” Arthur took a drink from his own goblet, lips red and wet with the wine, his expression perfectly serious. “Too bad.”

Merlin blinked in disbelief, not even pretending not to stare as Arthur brought bite after bite to his full, sensuous mouth, a small smile spreading on his lips as he pushed half the meat on his plate over onto Merlin’s.

Merlin nodded his thanks and returned the smile but found himself surprisingly speechless for the remainder of the meal, his mind replaying the evening over and over before it was even ended.

Was Arthur trying to make a clumsy confession of his own, or was Merlin just imagining things?

He lay awake that night for a long while, letting himself believe it was true. Remembering Arthur’s intensely-focused expression at the table that night, Merlin slipped his hand beneath his night shirt and pressed his palm hard against his straining arousal.

He gave in to his need, biting his lips to keep quiet instead of casting a silencing spell as he usually would. His oil-slicked hand became Arthur’s wet, wine-stained lips. He rolled onto his stomach, fist crushed beneath him, and thrust again and again into the vividly-imagined, tight, warm, slippery glove of Arthur’s mouth. When his arousal crested, he breathed Arthur’s name, wishing desperately he could shout it to the heavens.

He knelt up and caught himself at the last second before he almost cast his bed clean. Instead, he stripped the sheet from his mattress and fetched a cloth and another sheet from the cabinet, jumping across the icy floor, rolling his eyes as he cursed the knights and their stupid honour code.

The third day, Merlin was a target.

He supposed he should take it as a compliment, that Arthur believed Merlin to be doing well enough without his magic that Arthur actually needed to practice with other weapons, but he just couldn’t manage to be flattered as Arthur pummeled him and struck the shield Merlin cowered behind and knocked him to his arse again and again.

“On your feet, Merlin,” he’d said, over and over until Merlin was growling as he pushed up again, wishing he had a weapon of his own to wield.

That night, Merlin polished Arthur’s armour by the fire, his swollen feet propped up on a footstool as he buffed a shine over every inch of bright silver metal.

As he was finishing up, Merlin heard Arthur speaking to someone at the door and turned just in time to see the two pages from the night before bobbing in awkward bows and rushing out the door.

He shouldn’t have been surprised when they brought in a second tub, but he was.

“Fancy a soak? I’d wager you’re as sore as I am.” Arthur took the helm from Merlin’s hands and turned it this way and that, then set it aside and offered Merlin a hand up. “We can set the dressing screen between us if you’d prefer.”

Merlin shook his head, not believing his ears, and Arthur beamed as though Merlin had just agreed to something.

“Good! We can talk about the route for patrol next week,” Arthur said, gesturing Merlin towards the screen and pushing him gently behind it. “You first. You take as long as a girl to undress, you know, though I don’t see why.”

Merlin took a deep breath to steady himself and smiled softly as a long cloth like the one he’d worn the night before was thrown over the top of the screen. “Maybe I have more laces than you,” he said, pulling a face and wondering what the hell he was thinking. The words were just coming out without checking with his brain first.

“Do you?” Arthur asked, and Merlin could hear the smile in his voice. “That sounds... tedious.”

Merlin grinned as warmth spread from his chest, through his body, all the way to his fingertips and toes. “Oh, it is,” he said, rolling his eyes at his own fumbling attempt at flirtation.

He wrapped the cloth around his waist and stepped out just as the pages came in with more bucketfuls of hot water, two more young boys hefting the heavy buckets over the rims of the tubs as the older boys brought them in.

The two by the tubs had been there the whole time and had heard every word, Merlin was sure. His face felt like it might catch fire, and Arthur’s was little better, a bright pink flush spreading over his cheeks.

“Your turn,” Merlin said, taking a seat by the fire, warming his blistered fingers. His back was to the pages and the tubs and the dressing screen where Arthur was taking off his clothes.

When the tubs were full, they both stepped in quickly, sucking in twin breaths as they sank down and stretched out in the near-scalding water.

“I’m used to it being a constant, perfect temperature,” Arthur said after a while, and Merlin lifted his head from the edge of the tub, looking over at him. “You’ve gotten really good at baths over the years.”

“I seem to remember you burning your toes once,” Merlin said, paddling his hand through the water. “Did I ever apologize for that?”

“I’m sure you did. If not, well, you were distracted that day,” Arthur said, waving a hand in dismissal. “You’ve not over-heated it since, though.”

Merlin leaned his head back down and closed his eyes. “I like knowing things like that about you.”

“My favourite bath temperature?” Arthur asked with a soft laugh.

“Yeah.” Merlin breathed in the steam and the rich, earthy scent of the soap that smelled like Arthur. He felt so relaxed, so at ease. Taking a bath in Arthur's room was different tonight, having Arthur just as exposed and vulnerable as he was, on the exact same level. It made him brave, made him comfortable. “No one else knows things like that.”

“I’m glad it’s you who does,” Arthur said, his voice gravelly and soft. “I wouldn’t want anyone else. You know that, right?”

Merlin didn’t know, hadn’t known. He shook his head. “You don’t have to say that. Without my magic, I’m not even as good as a normal servant. I know how bad I am at this.”

Arthur reached across the space between their tubs, hand closing on Merlin’s forearm, squeezing. “You are worthy of standing at my side with or without your magic, Merlin. I wouldn't keep you there if you weren't. Don’t even think about believing otherwise.”

Merlin opened his eyes and turned to look at Arthur as he spoke. Arthur’s mouth turned down a little at the corners, not quite a frown, but close.

“Alright.” What else could he say in the face of such a declaration, made so seriously and genuinely?

Shivering despite the heat surrounding him, Merlin fought back the ridiculous smile that tried to spread on his lips. Daring the intimacy, he laid his hand over Arthur’s arm and closed his eyes again.

Arthur didn’t move his arm away until the water was lukewarm and the skin on their fingers and toes were wrinkling.

They’d eaten well that night, too, and the next, though they didn’t soak the fourth night. By the time they’d stuffed themselves with venison and chicken and cheese and washed it all down with a generous amount of spirits, they agreed that they were both too exhausted and would likely have drowned in the tub if they’d tried to bathe.

That night the tower seemed as far away as the moon, the stairs a mountain Merlin had to conquer to get there. He’d crawled the last spiralling flight on hands and knees, thankful there was no one around to see him do it. Gaius had poured a concoction down his throat and ordered him straight to bed, though Merlin was well on his way by the time Gaius finished the instruction.

He couldn’t even remember falling asleep that night, but Arthur woke him the following morning, pulling open his shutters and yanking his blankets away again.

Merlin swore under his breath and pushed up, eyes still closed, growling. “How can you be awake?”

“You have no head for wine,” Arthur announced, as though it was some new, grand revelation. “And we’re due at the paddock in a quarter-hour.”

It was the fifth day and Merlin felt as though he’d been without his magic for a year already. His room was so cold that he expected to see his breath as he huffed in frustration and pushed up out of bed, stumbling to the cabinet for a change of clothes.

He didn’t realize that Arthur had stayed until he turned around, laces in hand, and saw Arthur reclining on his tiny bed, Merlin’s boots on his lap.

“Let’s go,” he managed, head spinning with embarrassment and the after-effects of too much alcohol. “Gaius will have something for my head.”

“He’s already given me mine,” Arthur said, smiling as he tossed Merlin his boots and jumped down the steps into the workroom, Merlin following behind, pulling on his boots as he went.

He drank down the foul concoction, the only thing keeping him from upchucking was the knowledge that soon his head would stop pounding and he would begin to feel human again.

He followed Arthur to the paddock, a few steps behind but not minding in the least as Arthur kept looking over his shoulder as if checking that Merlin was still there. It was almost as good as Arthur’s hand on his arm had been.

He could still feel it, the weight of it, Arthur’s calluses and the soft skin around them, the broad, warm palm and each individual fingertip laying gently on Merlin’s skin. He’d had time to memorize it all, and he savoured it as they ran through the drills, Merlin fetching each weapon as Arthur called for them.

Arthur fought the knights that morning, not Merlin, for which Merlin was eternally grateful.

“Rough night, eh?” Gwaine sidled up next to him as Merlin slid the crossbow into its bracket on the rack, slipping the quiver of bolts from his shoulder and hanging it on the hook at the rack’s edge.

“Fantastic night, more like,” he answered, his voice low and smile unstoppable. “I could get used to this.”

“He’s treating you well, then, even without your magic?”

Merlin frowned, wondering what Gwaine was up to. “Of course he is. He always has.”

“Is there... anything else?” Gwaine asked breezily, looking out over the field to where Arthur and Percival were running through a series of attacks together.

“You mean, like the fact that he’s... he's acting..." Merlin leaned in close, whispering. “Gwaine, do you think he could feel the same way I do? What if I’m just imagining it?”

“We wondered if he might see you in a new light, with your magic out of the picture.”

“He saw me in this light for four years,” Merlin laughed out, though there was little mirth in it. “Why would this bet change anything?”

Gwaine turned to him then, laying his gloved hands on Merlin’s shoulders. “It’s easy to forget you’re still our Merlin sometimes. When we see you doing with a thought what our entire battalion together could never achieve, it’s easy to forget.”

“I’m still me. I’m just... Merlin.” His eyes burned and he squinted, pretending the sun was hurting them.

“Of course you are,” Gwaine said, sliding his hands down Merlin’s arms. “We just thought Arthur might need reminding.”

“But...” Merlin shook his head, not able to piece together what Gwaine was saying. “But it was Arthur’s idea for me to go without my magic.”

“You’d be surprised what the knights can manage when we put our thick heads together.” Gwaine laughed and ruffled Merlin’s hair. "We put the idea in his head weeks ago."

Merlin ducked away, feeling so young and naive he may as well have been the green boy who’d trotted into Camelot with no clue of the danger he would face or the destiny that awaited him. “He knows who I am,” he whispered, more to himself than to Gwaine. Arthur couldn’t resent him or fear him for his magic. He couldn’t.

“I think he knows you better than anyone,” Gwaine said, looking back at Arthur, nodding. “And you know him, as well.”

The fire was warm and bright against Merlin’s face as he sat beside Arthur, soaking up the heat and trying not to think about what Gwaine had told him earlier. He wasn’t having much luck turning his mind to other things, even with Arthur shirtless, sprawled nearby, his hair still damp from their bath.

Arthur threw a grape at him, pegging him on the temple. “You’re awfully quiet this evening.”

He couldn’t help it, couldn’t help thinking how Arthur was so different this week. This was the nicest, the most open Arthur had been with him, not just recently, but ever. Sure, he still insulted Merlin and threw fruit at him, but he also stood closer, touched him more, spoke to him as though they were truly equals almost all the time now.

That kind of affection from Arthur had been sporadic for years, and now, as soon as Arthur’s chamber door was bolted behind the page boys and their empty buckets, he and Merlin seemed free to speak and act as Merlin had always dreamed they someday would.

Apart from the fact that Merlin wasn’t a warlock this week. He was a servant, a friend at best, and weak again. His power lay in his magic, it always had, and without it, Merlin was basically defenseless. Helpless. He hated the feeling, but he hated thinking that Arthur might resent or fear him even more.

He looked at Arthur, his Arthur, and sighed. He would do anything for him, whether or not it meant they could continue like this.

Arthur jostled him with his bare foot, smiling at him when Merlin batted it away, laughing. “Talk to me, Merlin. It’s too quiet without your incessant prattling.”

Merlin swallowed hard, nodding, deciding it was now or never.

“Do you want me to stop?” he asked, heart in his throat. If Arthur said yes, Merlin would try his hardest, though he didn’t know if it was even possible for him to never cast again. It had been an option for Gaius, but Gaius hadn’t been born with magic as Merlin had been.

“Stop?” Arthur raised his eyebrows and held out a hand as if waiting for Merlin to give him more. “Stop what?”

“Using my magic. I think I could, if you wanted me to. If it bothers you.” Merlin looked away, staring into the dancing flames.

Next to him, Arthur sat up, arms wrapped around his knees as he faced the fire. “Your magic is a part of you, just like my knighthood is a part of me. It isn’t who you are.”

“No, but...” Merlin watched Arthur’s face closely as he spoke, “Do you resent it?”

Arthur shook his head slowly, turning to face Merlin, one hand reaching out in that familiar, reassuring touch to Merlin’s shoulder. “I envy it sometimes, but I don’t resent it.” Arthur’s hand squeezed and Merlin looked up, looked into his eyes. “I wish you’d told me sooner.”

“I should have. I should never have kept it from you,” Merlin said quietly, fear and anxiety over his magic slipping away only to be replaced by nervous excitement as Arthur’s hand rubbed down his arm, then back up. Merlin leaned into the touch, closing his eyes. “Arthur, I-”

He felt Arthur move closer, felt the cool shadow his body cast over Merlin’s skin as it blocked out the fire’s warmth. The hand on his arm turned, Arthur’s knuckles ghosting up over Merlin’s collarbone, then his jaw, his cheek.

He didn’t dare open his eyes, didn’t want to flinch away or let the tingling nervous energy get the better of him. He took a deep breath, wetting his lips, and felt Arthur’s exhalation against his cheek as he spoke.

“Do you...” Arthur’s fingers curled back over his neck, his thumb stroking over Merlin’s cheekbone again and again. “Do you want this?”

Merlin smiled softly, opening his eyes and reaching for him, his thumb brushing across Arthur’s full bottom lip, his other hand spread wide on Arthur’s bare chest. He marveled that Arthur was letting him touch, that for the first time, he was free to take what he wanted. He stared at Arthur’s mouth, looking up only when Arthur’s lips pursed, obviously fighting a smile.

“Merlin,” he said, just a hint of impatience slipping out with his name.

With a blush, Merlin realized Arthur was waiting on him to answer.

“Yes.” Merlin scooted closer, his thigh touching Arthur’s knee, his hand sliding up to circle behind Arthur’s neck and up into his soft, damp hair. “Of course I do.”

Arthur tightened his hold on Merlin’s neck, his other hand closing on Merlin’s shoulder, pushing him gently back to lie on the bearskin rug. Arthur shifted so he was stretched out beside him, propped up on an elbow, fingertips trailing down Merlin’s chest as he finally leaned down and took Merlin’s mouth.

There was one moment of gentleness, a long, sweet moment as Arthur's lips pressed warm and pliant against Merlin’s, Arthur pulling back just a fraction to look into his eyes.

Merlin licked his lips, breath already difficult to control, Arthur's flavour just a hint on the tip of his tongue. He needed more of it, wanted to memorize it and keep it with him always.

He surged up, lips pressing against Arthur’s, tongue sliding out to lick Arthur open, chasing the flavour, the passion, the strength.

Arthur’s arms tucked in around him, one hand on the back of Merlin’s head, the other sneaking low on his side, palm as warm as the fire against Merlin’s skin. Arthur’s body flexed and moved above him, one thigh urging Merlin’s legs apart, hips rocking down against his own the instant he responded to the intimate press between his legs.

The moan that escaped him hummed through their mouths, and Arthur pressed closer, strong lips moving against Merlin’s, tongue sweeping in, deepening their kiss. Merlin moaned again, hand rubbing down Arthur's spine to close over his hip, pulling him in and in, down harder, urging them into a hard, inexorable rhythm and there was no going back.

Pulling suddenly away, Arthur rolled onto his hip, the cool air of the room raising gooseflesh on Merlin’s arms, tightening his nipples and making him shiver. “What-” he began, his question choked off as Arthur’s fingers flicked open the laces on Merlin’s breeches, then his own.

“Touch me.” Arthur took Merlin’s hand from his hip and pushed it down into the waistband of his breeches.

Merlin gasped at the feeling of Arthur’s cock beneath his fingertips, the soft, hot slide of skin over the steel of Arthur’s arousal felt even better than Merlin had imagined it. Like his own, only thicker, longer. He shoved the fabric down over Arthur’s hips, wanting to see, wanting to make this feel so amazing that Arthur would never forget it.

Merlin stroked from base to tip and back down, hand sliding down and back, cupping Arthur’s sac, rubbing back up and closing his fist around the shaft that flexed in his grip, his thumb swiping the slickness from the tip and smearing it along as he stroked.

Head thrown back, muscles flexing with the effort to hold himself up, the firelight licked along Arthur’s throat and chest, throwing dancing shadows along the lines of taut muscles.

Merlin followed the lines with first his eyes, then his fingertips, then his tongue as Arthur arched and pushed up through his fist. Merlin tightened his grip, sucking in a breath as Arthur’s hand slipped into his breeches, freeing his aching cock, stroking it in time with Merlin’s steady, even pace.

They were too far apart, close as they were, the space between them completely unacceptable. Merlin leaned up and took Arthur’s mouth again, urging him to follow as Merlin laid back, guiding Arthur fully on top of him. The weight of Arthur’s body pressed him deep into the rug, the soft fur beneath his back a gentle caress and goad to his passion at once. Merlin rocked his hips and slipped his hand away just as Arthur did the same, their cocks lining up and rubbing slickly together.

He wouldn’t last long, he knew, his arms circling Arthur’s back, palms spreading open on the sweat-damp skin, the slide and bunch of muscles beneath his touch as sensual and rhythmic as the feeling of Arthur’s arousal, hot and slick, sliding against his own.

“I can’t-” Merlin whispered against Arthur’s lips as they parted for breath. He shook his head just a little, moaning and arching as Arthur ground down against him, giving him no quarter. “Arthur-”

Arthur tucked his face against Merlin’s neck, his breath warm and humid against his skin. “I know, Merlin,” he whispered, hips jerking, rhythm stuttering and skipping as Merlin’s control slipped. “Me, too.”

Merlin cried out as he came, unable to stop himself as he pulsed hard and strong between their bellies, Arthur sliding and sliding into the slickness, spreading it between them. His mouth covered Merlin’s, catching his uncontrollable moan, lips guiding Merlin back into a kiss, a kiss Merlin held and didn’t break. He swallowed Arthur’s own loud groan of release as he spilled over Merlin’s cock and stomach, shaking and shuddering in Merlin’s arms.

The bruising kiss quieted, changing gradually into something else entirely, their passion spent, leaving only the raw truth of their mutual feelings between them.

Merlin ached to cast, to clean the mess from between their bodies and wrap them in a cocoon of warmth and comfort so they never had to move again, but he resisted. He only had one day left.

As Arthur pushed up off of him, kissing the corner of his mouth, his jaw, his shoulder, Merlin closed his eyes and held on to the moment as long as he could.

His breeches slid from his hips and down his legs, Merlin moving at Arthur’s silent urging, the warmth of the fire licking along his bared skin in the most delicious way.

He heard Arthur wring a cloth from his bath, then felt Arthur settle beside him again. Suddenly, wet heat spread over his groin, surrounding his spent cock and smoothing through his curls, down the crease of his leg and up beneath his sac. The intimacy of the touch, even after what they’d just shared, heated Merlin’s cheeks.

He kept his eyes closed until he felt Arthur lay down next to him again, body stretched out and touching Merlin’s from ankle to shoulder. He opened his eyes, rolling up onto his side and looking down at the dishevelled mess of a prince he’d help create.

Arthur was completely relaxed, his gentle smile content and satisfied. "Come here." He reached for Merlin, pulling him to lay half over Arthur, strong arms holding him firmly.

Merlin combed his fingers back through the sweat-damp mess of Arthur’s hair, then leaned in for another kiss and Arthur obliged, though Merlin could feel him slipping into the lassitude that lead straight to sleep.

He pulled away slowly, regretfully, intending to get up, find his breeches and slip quietly out the door and back up to his rooms. Arthur’s hand closed over his shoulder, the touch exactly the same as it always had been, stilling him before he could so much as sit up.

“You’re staying.” Arthur pulled him back down, not waiting for Merlin’s answer to the non-question, urging Merlin’s head onto his strong, broad shoulder, reaching down to lift Merlin’s thigh up over his own. “Go to sleep, Merlin.”

Nodding, his cheek brushing the soft, smooth skin of Arthur’s shoulder, Merlin spared a thought for the thick, warm blanket on Arthur’s bed but let it go easily enough. The fire was warm, and so was Arthur.

“Last day,” Merlin said, stretching and rolling onto his stomach, propping up on his elbow, one arm circling Arthur’s waist. He could hardly believe he was still lying at Arthur's side, that they'd woken up together with matching, sleepy grins. “Think I can make it?”

“You’d better not.” Arthur’s teasing smile was a brilliant relief to Merlin in the wary morning-after moment. “I don’t want to have to fight bandits with a club.”

“I’ll be there,” Merlin said, grinning down at him. “You can just pretend you’re clobbering me.”

“Hmm.” Arthur’s lips twisted as he tried to look serious. “Tempting. But I think I’ll stick to the sword, thanks.”

Merlin shook his head, clicking his tongue. “You just can’t live without it, can you? Not even for a week?”

Arthur’s smile slowly died on his lips, his eyes bright with emotion as Merlin replayed his own words in his head and realized they could just as easily be applied to him.

“I’m rather attached to it, you know.” Arthur’s hand closed on the back of Merlin’s head, pulling him down so their lips just brushed together as he spoke. “I wouldn’t be without it for a day if I had a choice. Besides, I’m determined to ask my questions.”

“I’ll tell you everything,” Merlin whispered, closing his eyes, fingers tucking in behind Arthur to rub gently against the warm skin at the small of his back. “But not now.”

Merlin hummed into the kiss as Arthur’s tongue slipped between his lips and took his mouth hungrily, the gentle, firm press of their lips stirring nerves all through his body.

With a start, Merlin pulled back, sighing and grinning. “Nice try, Sire,” he teased, slapping Arthur’s shoulder as he pushed up, grabbing his breeches and stepping into them.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“Removing myself from temptation,” Merlin threw over his shoulder, bending to pick up his tunic and belt. He dressed quickly, glancing at where Arthur lay sprawled on the fur rug, watching him, a rueful smile on his lips.

“If you're getting breakfast, bring enough for two,” Arthur called after him as Merlin stepped through the door, on his way to the kitchens, a ridiculous grin plastered to his face.

Let the other servants stare.

Their day together was as tedious and difficult as all the others that week had been, Merlin working his fingers to the bone and Arthur taunting him now and again. He wasn’t sure if or when Arthur might touch him again, might stop and pull him in for a kiss.

It didn’t happen until that afternoon, when Merlin had just finished changing the bed, resisting the urge to press his nose into the rumpled mound of sheets as he carried them to the laundry basket. When he’d finished spreading a fresh duvet and coverlet across the bed, he reached down to smooth a wrinkle and felt Arthur’s hand close on his arm.

He turned, hoping this was the moment he’d been waiting for, his breath held as Arthur’s hand slipped up behind his neck. When Arthur leaned in for the kiss, Merlin moaned, unable to keep his need quiet. He slid his fingers into Arthur’s hair and parted his lips, welcoming every second of contact.

It went on and on, the bed pressed to the backs of Merlin’s thighs, Arthur’s arm strong around his waist, holding him up. He would have fallen otherwise, fallen back and pulled Arthur down with him onto the soft, thick mattress, and they wouldn’t have gotten another thing done that afternoon.

When Arthur pulled away, Merlin licked his lips and kept his eyes closed, savouring the moment just a bit longer before coming back to reality.

Actually, he realized, this was his reality now, unbelievable though it may seem. Arthur wanted him, had claimed him, and Merlin felt whole and happy and content.

For the first time all week, he didn’t even miss his magic.

The knights burst through the door at dinnertime, pulling chairs out from the table and sitting without so much as a by-your-leave. They were grinning triumphantly, every one of them, glancing at Arthur and then back to Merlin but not saying a word.

“He’s not won yet,” Arthur said, taking another bite of his roast lamb, waving his fork in the air. “You might as well shove off until morning.”

“We were thinking you might want to concede victory now,” Lancelot ventured, his tone careful and cautious. “Given the... situation.”

“The situation?” Merlin asked, shaking his head and shrugging. “What situation?”

Gwaine laughed, short and loud, his grin even more mischievous than usual. “The situation in which we don’t want to walk in on the two of you-”

Lancelot cleared his throat and slapped his hand hard onto Gwaine’s chest, cutting him off before he could go any further.

Merlin’s heart skipped in his chest, but Arthur looked calm as could be, cutting another bite and spearing it with his fork.

“I’ll concede victory at midnight, if Merlin makes it that long,” Arthur said, eyes locked on Merlin’s, one eyebrow raised as if in challenge.

“Oh, he’ll make it! He’s made it this far, hasn’t he?” Leon threw an arm around Merlin’s shoulders and Merlin tensed as Arthur’s eyes flashed.

Gwaine pounded his fist on the table, breaking the awkward silence that followed. “Are the two of you up for a night at the tavern, then? A bit of mead won’t do any of us harm, I’d wager.”

“You’d wager against a frog hopping if it meant mead was involved in the bargain,” Merlin teased, looking across at Arthur and nodding slightly at Arthur’s questioning gaze. They might as well give in. Otherwise the knights would barrel into Arthur’s chambers at midnight, and Merlin didn’t even want to think about them seeing him and Arthur in some compromising position.

They finished their supper and pulled on their cloaks, Merlin borrowing one of Arthur’s rather than going all the way back to the tower to get one.

They drank and laughed, played a game of dice that ended with several lost sovereigns and a bit more ammunition to use against Gwaine sometime when he needed reminding that he couldn’t best every trickster in Camelot.

Just before midnight, Arthur ordered a fresh round of drinks, the serving wench circling the table, topping off all of their tankards.

Merlin reached beneath the table and took Arthur’s hand, lacing their fingers together. He thought the spell, their palms heating. Arthur looked over at him in wonder, then quickly wiped his expression, taking a deep drink of mead.

Merlin let go his hand, turning it face-up on Arthur’s thigh so Arthur could see the writing on his palm.

The words were drawn in an elegant script, and Arthur smiled as he read them.

“You win.”

Arthur shook his head softly, glancing at the large candle on a shelf behind the bar, the wax pooled and dripping over the sides as it burned over the midnight-hour mark.

As Merlin watched in awe, Arthur raised his glass and toasted Merlin’s victory, the knights whooping and jumping to their feet, thumping Merlin on the back and hugging his neck.

He looked over at Arthur when they’d settled a bit, letting him take his seat again.

Arthur grinned and shrugged. “Looks like the best man won, though I have to be honest. I doubted he would.”

Merlin bumped his shoulder against Arthur’s, the subtle jibe turning his forced smile into something genuine. “Looks like you’ll have to make do with the mace and cudgel on patrol this week.”

Arthur shook his head, hand closing on Merlin’s shoulder. “You’re weapon enough to make up for the loss of my sword.”

Merlin grinned, not taking his eyes off of Arthur as the knights all chimed in with ideas on how Merlin could fight bandits and face the rumoured beasts of the forest along their patrol route. They were obviously eager to see more of Merlin’s magic in action after a week without a single spell.

Well, almost a week.


~ finis