Merlin wakes abruptly at a tug at his arm.
"Mmm." He pulls against it, trying to hover close enough to the glittering edge of sleep that he won't remember the heat that's soaked the castle for what feels like the length of his life. "Not--"
"Merlin. Wake up."
Merlin doesn't open his eyes. "I quit," he murmurs, rolling over into damp, sweat-slick sheets, trying to find a cool spot. Sleep's farther away by the second no matter how hard he clings. "'S late."
"So I noticed." Arthur's voice lowers. "I will drag you if I have to."
Merlin opens one eye. "If I confess to sorcery, will you let me sleep in the dungeons? They're very cool, or so I've heard."
Arthur sighs. "Father's getting suspicious about all the recent confessions, so no." The bed bounces as Arthur sits down, and there goes even the hope of sleep. Rubbing his eyes, Merlin rolls onto his back and sits up, feeling sticky and disgustingly damp. A life at court's stripped away more of his country upbringing than he'd suspected; all he wants now is a bath.
(A visit to his mother in winter had brought that vividly home to him; no one bathed during winter. And Merlin's nose has unhardened serving a prince with a propensity for cleanliness. The Pendragons show more of their Roman origin than perhaps they like to admit.)
"Can't you do anything about this?" Arthur says finally, running a hand through sweat-slicked hair. Of the two of them, Arthur actually has it worse, impossible as it is to believe he's admitting it. Merlin's duties are confined to the castle, with short trips to the practice field as Arthur ordered before sending him back in, because Arthur has pity for others even when he has none for himself. Arthur carries his duties like an invisible cloak he can never shed, a prince who still practices every day even when he allows others to shirk, who rides the circuit of villages and takes their reports dressed in wool and steel, returning to Merlin every day pounds lighter and years more haunted by what he sees. Even fresh air can't compensate for the bright glare of the sun overhead, stripping the land to bare browns and sickly yellows. They won't starve this winter (not yet, not if this passes, not if it passes soon), but the possibility looms closer every day.
Merlin winces, closing his eyes. He won't starve. Gwen won't starve. Gaius won't starve. The privilege of their station in Camelot protects them, at least for now. But nothing can protect the people.
"No." It's rare that Arthur would speak of what he can do; rarer still he would ask. Pulling his knees up, Merlin looks at the flushed face and then away. Uther's fear is mirrored in his son, but even more. "I--don't think it's magic. At least, not any magic I can sense." He can sense something, though; oddly muffled, unfamiliar and familiar both. Nothing useful. Nothing real, perhaps, but his own hope.
Arthur sighs. "A spell for rain wouldn't go amiss," he says, reaching behind him to push Merlin's legs out of his way before lying down, staring at the ceiling with blank eyes. "Blah blah old gods, bring rain and so forth." He waves his fingers tiredly, hand dropping on his chest like it's too heavy to lift again.
Merlin bites his lip, drawing his knees up further. "You would think so." Closing his eyes, he murmurs the only spell he knows will work, feeling the temperature reluctantly drop one degree, then two. It's a massive effort; working against the elements themselves always is. "I'm too far from the earth," he admits, thinking of the Druids he's met, few and far between, the way they blended into the land and earth as if a part of it. They could probably figure it out.
Without Uther's purges, he might have been one of them, raised by and bound to the land by magic and blood. Maybe then the elements wouldn't slip from his grasp like eels in water. They'd know him.
Opening his eyes, Merlin hangs on to the spell, pouring energy thoughtlessly as he studies the delicate purple shading the skin beneath Arthur's eyes, the prominence of his cheekbones and the hollowing beneath. You're too hard on yourself, Merlin wants to tell him. You're not even king yet and you already feel its weight far too heavily.
The blue eyes flicker open, pupil blown wide. "Stop."
Merlin thinks he's been working for Arthur too long; the command is enough. Merlin gasps when the spell breaks, and the heat rises around them like fire, making it hard to breathe.
After a second, he's aware Arthur's sitting up, hand cradling the back of his neck, murmuring, "…idiotic, stupid peasant…", fear rippling beneath from the last time Merlin attempted this. "Right, then. You try to kill yourself for a few degrees difference and I almost let you. We've been in the castle too long."
Arthur stands up; he looks a little better, even if it's only temporary. Merlin's done magic for lesser reasons. Boots land abruptly in Merlin's lap. "Up. Out of here. Just--out."
Merlin blinks, then nods, trousers hitting him in the face before he has a chance to remember that he should put them on. "Thank you, my lord," Merlin mutters. "Too kind, my lord."
"So I've been told."
Merlin jerks the trousers on,, then his boots, following Arthur past Gaius, sleeping the sleep of the exhausted on the relative coolness of the table. Merlin feels his hands clenching into fists at the sight of his pale, drawn face; for all his power, he's helpless against this, the vagaries of time and weather, unable to do something as simple as cool a room or bring the rain. Make Gaius' sleep, Arthur's sleep just a little easier.
Outside, it's still and dark, the heavy heat hanging around them like a sodden blanket; Merlin wants to turn his head from the sight of the browning fields, but he makes himself look anyway.
Two horses are ready, tethered just outside the guards' barracks. Merlin almost smiles; Arthur had assumed his compliance. He wasn't mistaken. Merlin's found there's nowhere Arthur would go he won't follow. Mounting, he follows Arthur's easy canter out of the city and onto the road, letting his body fall into the rhythm of the ride, eyes fixed on Arthur to keep from falling asleep. He's fallen asleep in the saddle before. The ground is not a pleasant method of awakening.
They ride for a while, going off the road in the direction of the lake where Excalibur still sleeps. Merlin awakens a little more for that; Arthur hasn't been there since he made Merlin take him to see where he almost lost his life when Merlin told him his secret.
Water sounds good, though. Arthur's knights go to the closer lake near daily, and the castle household trek out at any excuse even as the banks slowly recede, summer stealing even that comfort away inch by inch. Merlin had escorted Morgana and Gwen, once, discreetly turning his back so they could feel free to abandon even the pretense of modesty, stripped to bare skin long after dusk had fallen.
He's not entirely aware he was sleeping until he feels something close around his shoulder; opening his eyes to see Arthur bracing him. "Clever," Arthur remarks, pushing him straight again and dismounting . "We're here."
The forest is slightly cooler than the castle, though not by much; Merlin follows in a vaguely more-awake haze, aware of the cling of his shirt to his back and the sweat pooling in his boots.
Reaching the shore, Merlin drops, jerking the boots and socks off immediately. "Tell me you can remember how to undress yourself," Merlin says, looking back, but Arthur's apparently been inspired, shirt and belt and sword discarded, boots already half-off. Merlin blinks, too surprised to remember he's supposed to be able to look and not see; Arthur's worth looking at, always.
Arthur pauses, grinning. "I think I can take care of it." Peeling boots, socks, and trousers away, he stands, approaching the water with no reluctance, as if the last time he entered that, it wasn't Merlin who had dragged him out.
Merlin pushes the memory away, averting his eyes from the shadowed body, painted colorless in the moonlight as he wades in with a sigh Merlin can feel like a breath of cool air against his bare skin.
…and he needs to finish undressing without embarrassing himself.
"Are you just going to watch?" Arthur says, and Merlin scowls, jerking at the recalcitrant laces of his shirt before finally snapping the lace and jerking it over his head.
"I've seen better."
"And how was Morgana by moonlight?"
Merlin jerks his head up, startled. "I didn't look."
"Then you aren't a man. Or alive." With a sharp grin, Arthur disappears beneath the water, and Merlin jerks his trousers down, ignoring the laces entirely, wading in with his breath caught in his throat before he stops himself.
Arthur emerges only a few feet away, blond hair pasted to his scalp and forehead, eyebrows raised.
"She's a lady." She'd been breathtaking, like Gwen, smooth skin and soft breasts, the swell of hips. They'd chased each other through the water, cavorting like children, and he could do nothing *but* see, Gwen's dusky skin and the weight of her hair clinging to shoulders and back, Morgana cool and pale, giggling and laughing and touching.
He'd not dared look again, listening to the ripple of their voices, the weight of their silences, the splash of the water, holding the memory of Morgana's long-fingered hands on Gwen's glistening skin.
It's a secret the way nothing is a secret in the castle, the way all are blind and deaf and pretend they can't see what is known to be true. Of all Morgana's handmaidens, Gwen alone is the only one Arthur's never touched. Gwen, who could have made a dozen matches, from men both of her station and some even above, who would happily marry the daughter of a blacksmith to gain the favor of Uther's ward and the rich dowry Uther would provide. Station means little compared with the ear of a woman who might one day be a queen, the approval of a king, a foot in the court of Camelot.
She's content where she is. Merlin, looking at Arthur, thinks he might be, too. The dragon always spoke of destiny as if written in stone, but Merlin thinks he would have chosen this man even without it. "She was beautiful. They both were."
Arthur smirks, all teeth and careless pleasure. "Of course. Though I haven't had the pleasure of Gwen." He winces theatrically. "I like my balls attached, thank you."
Merlin has to agree.
The water is lukewarm, not quite cool, but better by far than anything has been for the last week. Merlin learned to swim from his mother, exploring the shoreline of the river his mother did her washing in, ducking beneath to burst out suddenly and make her laugh, chasing escaping tunics and underwear, pretend to be a fish that could swim to the very ocean itself and explore its depths.
It's nice; the quiet of the woods and Arthur, letting himself be free and a little wild, the way Merlin suspects Uther never permitted. A magic-born child paid for with the life of his wife could be nothing less than perfect. That Arthur could meet impossible demands was never questioned; that was his price for being born at all.
Fingers around his ankle are his only warning; Merlin sucks in a breath just before the water closes over his head, kicking out and finding nothing but water. Surfacing, he pushes his hair from his eyes, looking at the stillness of the water. Arthur's good at everything, everything, and holding his breath isn't the least of those things. "Not fair," Merlin says, panting. "You know I can't--"
Water again. When Merlin comes up, he spits out water that tastes of cool metal, sharp like melting ice, and something in him seems to expand cautiously, thoughtfully. The Sidhe live here, bridging earth and other, both here and not.
The earth feels very, very close here.
"Something on your mind?" Cool air brushes against the back of his neck, and Merlin forgets to move when Arthur's lips brush against the side of his throat, tongue chasing the water rolling down Merlin's skin.
That's new; Merlin turns abruptly, looking into blue eyes with the faintest sheen of gold. It's gone in the blink of an eye, so quickly Merlin could almost think he imagined it. "Why did we come here tonight?"
"To cool off?" With a raised eyebrow, Arthur dives beneath the water, and Merlin finds himself touching the skin Arthur's lips rested. It feels cool.
The next time Arthur emerges, he's just Arthur, amused and playful, flushed and pleased; Merlin pushes the uncomfortable thoughts aside, chasing him because he wants to, just for a few minutes, not be a failed sorcerer or destined to serve a future king who still expects him to pick up his socks and won't bother to pile his clothes neatly for Merlin to find. He just wants to be Merlin, who gets to play outside when his chores are done, and dawn is very, very far away.
A long time later, Merlin crawls up the shore, the heat hitting him like a mace to the head, air like rock filling his lungs; gasping, he drops to his knees, cool rock digging into his knees and cooler water brushing his ankles.
He can't find his feet; turning clumsily, Merlin opens his eyes on the lake and realizes that there's no moon tonight. Arthur standing naked in a shallow lake of glowing water is a sight to see; Merlin wishes he could enjoy it without the panic. "Sire--"
Merlin licks his lips; it's easier to breathe. The air is still hot around him, impossibly thick, but the water isn't lukewarm. It's cool. "Sire, there's something--"
Merlin straightens. A hundred spells hover on the tip of his tongue, but his instincts stop them all. Licking his lips, he tastes it again, stronger, a glacier in the coldest ocean, the pure snow of the highest mountain, a breeze from Camelot's deepest winter. "Why are we here?"
Arthur looks at him, head tilted in un-Arthurian thought, blue eyes very dark, unfamiliar and yet familiar both. "It seemed a good time to come."
"What does that mean?" Merlin wonders abruptly if this is how people feel when they meet a sorcerer, the taint of otherness that makes their humanity suspect enough to send them so easily to their death. He wonders if this is how Arthur felt when he told him, showed him what he was and what he could do. Wonders how in the name of God he never felt this before; he's shared Arthur's meals and slept at his side, lived with him and breathed him until Merlin could hardly remember a time Arthur didn't suffuse every part of his life.
"The chief sorcerer of Camelot was sent on behest of his king to seek a son--"
"I know the story!" Unsteadily, Merlin gets to his feet, cold water rippling around his calves, chilling him until he forgot the heat.
"--at the behest of his wife, who knew he could not claim the land without fathering a son on its queen."
Merlin takes a breath; even before the purge, the Pendragons had paid no more than lip service to the ways of the lands their ancestors had come to conquer. "No one follows those ways anymore. Not here."
"She did. So did he, for the promise of a crown." The water seems to cool even more, swirling toward his knees. "Come here, Merlin."
Merlin's taken four steps before he realizes what he's done, stopping himself with an effort that hurts, grinding deep in his belly and twisting through every nerve. "How did you--how *would* you--"
"I asked." Arthur hasn't moved, but he's so much closer. "You can ask Gaius, if you like. He'll tell you what he told me. Come back in the water, Merlin."
Merlin stops himself after a single step; he wants to go so badly it scares him. "This isn't--this isn't you."
"And now you don't trust me?"
Merlin flinches at the bitterness rolling beneath every word. "It's--"
"Easy, I would think." Arthur says flatly. "As easy as it was to trust you."
That was different, Merlin wants to say, but maybe it's not. Maybe it shouldn't be. Merlin unlocks his knees, and his legs carry him cheerfully into deeper water that curves around his waist. Arthur waits with unnatural patience, then reaches out, and Merlin braces himself for--
Oh, that prick. Merlin surface from icy water, tasting snow on his tongue, and Arthur almost falls over laughing. "You--you--" There aren't words for what Arthur is. There never have been. "You can't be enchanted. You'd be nicer." Frowning, he looks around. Nothing particularly dramatic seems to be happening. "So what are we supposed to do?"
"How would I know? You said you couldn't touch the earth. Here, you can."
"Gaius never tells me things like this." And Merlin's resenting that right now.
"Gaius has never had to treat so many people with heat rashes in places that he will apparently remember on his deathbed." Arthur shrugs. "Besides, he didn't need to tell me where to go. That part, I already knew."
Merlin frowns. "You could have told me."
"I didn't know what I was looking for."
Merlin wants to be alarmed, but he's standing in water that's cooling more by the second and he just can't bring himself to care. With a sigh, he pushes at Arthur's shoulder, hopefully to make him fall over (no luck there; Arthur's balance is always perfect) and instead his fingers want to cling. Something uncoils in his belly, warm and hopeful, and it's more than just arousal (though God, it's that, too). Something that trembles like the earth beneath his feet. The earth actually *is* trembling beneath his feet. "Oh."
"Oh," Arthur parrots in his ear, breath surprisingly warm, hand settling beneath the water on his hip, pinning him in place. Merlin opens his mouth to protest and kisses Arthur instead, and it's like it's years ago, when he first fell in love and realized how utterly fucked he was all over again, but with the benefit of knowing exactly what he's been missing along the way.
He's always known Arthur would break his heart, one way or another; keeping his body apart was never going to change that. Hooking an arm around Arthur's neck, he pulls him closer, feeling him hard against his belly, brushing against his cock and making him gasp into the kiss.
He can feel the earth in Arthur's skin, desperation in every touch, sickly heat and parched land crying out for relief, thirsty, making his mouth go dry and he pulls back, licking the water from Arthur's jaw, his throat, Arthur's fingers carding through his hair, tightening to pull him back up, mouth soft and coaxing and hard by turns, hands restless on his hips and back, cupping his ass, and Merlin gasps out--something--when teeth scrape down his throat, and he's supposed to--supposed to do magic like this?
This is not a clever plan. Trust Arthur to come up with something that mixes two things that require concentration and at least one that requires thinking. Like that can't go wrong. "This--is a bad idea."
"Not really." Merlin shivers as Arthur's tongue curves below his ear, dropping a kiss there that's decidedly proprietary. "It's a very good idea. In fact--"
"Is this even you?" Merlin whispers. Everything in him wants it, not just his magic finally able to touch what's been so long out of reach; he does, and so badly he stops caring. Arthur pulls back, stiffening, and Merlin captures his mouth before he can agree or deny or both. It doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. "Ignore me. Really."
Arthur relaxes by degrees, and Merlin can feel the earth again, wide-open and hopeful, desperate and pleading, and God, it loves Arthur, he'd never realized that, and how could he have not? Of course it does, the prince it was promised in exchange for Uther's crown, the king it waits for, that it suffers Uther's reign for: it would do anything he asked of it, anything he wanted of it. Anything at all.
And Merlin doesn't know what to *do* with it.
"Show me," Merlin says, and Arthur looks at him with all the world in his eyes, ancient and eternal and incredibly, incredibly amused. There are spells to do everything, everything, but none of them were created by sorcerers with a world trembling obedient beneath their hands. "I don't--I don't know how--"
"Sometimes," Arthur says, voice half him and half something else entirely, "words just get in the way."
Words aren't what shape magic; there was magic long before words were ever spoken. Merlin kisses Arthur like falling down a chasm and wills Rain. Now.
The world goes blindingly bright, like no time he's ever touched his magic, pulling it out of him in a limitless rush, the earth dropping from beneath his feet and leaving him far behind. Words impose *limits* and he gave it none, believing it would take from him only what he could give, but it doesn't love him, it has no reason to--
I said trust me.
Everything goes dark.
Merlin realizes he never knew what a hangover really meant; the Honey Mead Experiment is left far, far behind. His mouth tastes like grass and he wants to die. The problem is, he has no idea where his knife is.
Or his pants, for that matter.
After a long, horrifying five minutes where his stomach tries to do horrible, horrible things while he's *lying on his face*, Merlin shoves himself by will alone onto his back, staring up at the dark sky.
"Give it a minute."
Merlin slowly, slowly turns his head. Arthur (in pants), is sitting cross-legged less than a foot away, looking neither hung-over nor particularly worried. Merlin (not wearing pants) hates him.
Licking his lips, he tries to talk, coughs, and then coughs again. Weirdly, that seems to help. At least enough to sit up.
(And look discreetly for his pants.)
"Raining, yes, I noticed." Arthur peers at the sky with a frown. "Let's get back before it starts."
"It--" The nausea is clearing and so is the headache. The memories don't go anywhere at all; Merlin's not sure whether he's sorry about that or not. Mostly, he's tired, in a weird, unbalanced way, like part of him isn't here at all. "I need--"
Pants drop on his belly. "Hurry. I don't think there's much time."
Arthur takes his reins, one less thing to worry about, and Merlin turns his attention inward, letting his body remember how to stay on a horse. His magic is turned from him entirely, like it's found something far more interesting to capture its attention. That it's Arthur isn't a surprise; it's a wonder to Merlin that all the world isn't at his feet.
The road passes in a blur of browning green and beige, and Merlin thinks the horses have never moved so quickly or so slowly. He doesn't dare dismount when they stop; clinging to the saddle with pure will while the earth seems to shift beneath him sickeningly, reminding him of the stories of earth-tremors in his youth that would swallow villages whole.
"Merlin." A hand covers his knee, and Merlin follows it, habit driving him when he can't remember how to move his limbs. When his feet touch the ground, the world goes sideways and Arthur is looking (up? Down?) at him with amusement.
Merlin starts to say something and thinks better of it; with the earth in his head, he's not sure insulting Arthur is all that wise.
He's gotten to his feet (somehow), walking sideways and upside down through long corridors; literally, when Arthur eyes the stairs and then him with the look of a man who has suffered much and expects a reward for all his great efforts. Later--sometime--there's a rug beneath his back and he opens his eyes when a breeze of cold air brushes his face.
Lifting his head (lowering it, everything is turned backward and inside out and wrong), Merlin sees Arthur has thrown open the curtains. "How can you know--"
"You know," Arthur says, and it's not Merlin's imagination; he's limned in gold like the rising sun, bright and almost frightening, like Arthur's mortality has been nothing but the thinnest skin over this; Merlin wonders how he never felt it before, how *Uther* couldn't feel it.
Arthur's right; he does. The stone beneath his back trembles, rising up beneath his back and his palms, and there's a second like waiting, perfectly still and perfectly clear, before everything crashes (like thunder?) and the room is brilliant like a new day.
Merlin sits up, looking at the window. Outside, the darkness has thickened and the air tastes of a whole new world. It's raining like it will never stop. "It's raining."
Arthur, who is growing steadily wetter and not much seeming to care, turns around to look at him, mouth curving in a smile . "You don't say?"
Struggling to his feet, Merlin stumbles to the window; Arthur fists the back of his tunic in case he so loses his balance he manages to tumble over the ledge (not impossible), rain coating his face that tastes of the lake. "I hope we didn't accidentally bring on the deluge," Merlin says uncertainly. "Since I don't know what we did."
Arthur winces, looking at the rain thoughtfully. "There is that."
Outside, people emerge from their houses in wonder, staring at the sky like a miracle, voices rising hoarsely in shock and celebration, drawing out more and more until the streets begin to fill, men and women and children, the dull grime of the endless summer heat washing away and making everything new. Outside the room, the castlefolk are wakening as well, the halls filling with voices raised in exultation and joy.
"They will wake the King," Merlin says unnecessarily.
Arthur pushes his hair from his face, eyes fixed on the people gathering below; Merlin can feel his relief and joy like a wet hand on his bare shoulder. "He won't mind."
They'll go on all night if left to their own devices and probably will; Merlin finally pulls the shutters partially closed, ignoring the slowly growing puddle of water on the floor. He'll clean it in the morning. Or magic it away. Or something.
Turning, he watches Arthur poke the small fire, as completely and utterly normal as the son of Uther Pendragon could ever be, looking in disfavor at a forgotten sock (Merlin rolls his eyes at the implicit accusation), restlessness leashed but not settled when he drops to the rug with a faint sense of dissatisfaction, like calling on the earth is just too tediously normal for words and he'd like an adventure now, thank you very much.
"You should get out of those wet clothes," Merlin says unthinkingly, taking two steps toward him before stopping himself short; touching him now, touching him ever again won't be the same. He can't--yet--go back to being his servant, who looks without seeing, can touch without feeling.
Merlin wasn't born into service, raised from birth to know how to be the many things a good servant must learn to be. Chambermaids and serving girls and stableboys can share the prince's bed with so much more ease; they don't live next door to his skin. It doesn't *mean* anything but an enjoyable night to be set aside when morning dawns and they can walk away without a backward glance. Merlin can never *leave*.
"Or maybe some wine," he says, swerving toward the table. For all the attention Arthur shows him, he might as well have never spoken at all. Communing with his inner earth, maybe, so it can list his perfections like he needs the very land to tell him how very, very special he is.
He wishes he were more tired; maybe then he could plead sleep and not lie through his teeth. Arthur catches him at it now, more often than not.
Coming back with a flagon, Merlin offers it for a while, then gives up and sets it on the floor. "With your leave--"
"I'd prefer you stay."
Merlin frowns at the top of his head for a moment, imagining the many and varied ways to say no; one of them might even work.
"It's nearly morning anyway," Arthur remarks, voice uninflected. It might be; Merlin's not sure how long they spent swimming tonight.
"Is there something you require?" Merlin can't keep the edge of irritation out of his voice any more than he can change the color of his eyes (barring magic, that is); Arthur did nothing wrong, and neither did he. It was all magic, Merlin thinks with faint sense of despair. Total, stupid, bring-the-rain-along-now magic.
"For you to sit down and stop pacing the room like I snatched your virtue from your clinging arms."
Ah. Merlin sits. "It's been a long night," Merlin starts, keeping his eyes on the small fire. "With the--rain. And the--" Merlin waves vaguely in a direction he hopes is the lake. "And right, you *doing disturbing things* in water. Which by the way, thanks for the warning on that little bit of--"
"I didn't know if it would work." Arthur draws up his legs, chin resting resentfully on his knees. "Or if it would do anything at all." Then a pause. "Unless you're not speaking of that part."
What other part--oh. Merlin swallows. "Oh."
"Because if that's a surprise, I'm sorry to say, you really are an imbecile."
"Sire--" At the way Arthur's eyes widen incredulously, Merlin gives up. "Arthur. It was--" Merlin tries to make magical coercion motions, which don't translate well at all. A pity. They certainly have a need for it. "It's a bad idea."
Maybe it would have been easier if they'd done this before. Arthur's too used to getting what he wants; there'd be no mystery in Merlin for him if he'd had him long before this.
"Mm. So is trusting I knew what I was talking about out there. You trusted me anyway."
Merlin's head turns so fast he can feel the tendons snapping; he can see the order that Arthur would never give but sometimes wants to, the endless patience of the earth that makes him continue to always ask, always hope, always waiting for yes. He'd wait forever if he had to, and Merlin's never been that strong.
He always knew Arthur would break his heart, one way or another. "All right."
He expects--not Arthur taking the goblet and standing up. Twisting around, Merlin watches him go to the door and turn the lock. That's wise, Merlin thinks faintly, remembering every time he's come in this room and dearly wished he hadn't. Leaving the goblet on the table, Arthur paces what feels like the miles that stretch between the door and the fire, and Merlin has all the time in the world to think how much won't change and how much he'll hate that it can't.
Then Arthur pulls him to his feet as easily as a gust of wind, and when Merlin kisses him, he tastes the water from the lake and the snow that coats the mountains' peaks, and the driving hunger of the earth for every pounding drop of rain.
If he'd been born before the purges, before Uther turned grief and rage into a weapon against what gave him his crown, Merlin would have been bound in service to the earth, his power leashed and banked to its will. It wasn't; fate has a sense of humor after all. He's bound to nothing and no one but the son of the man who would destroy it, willingly leashed in service to a man the land adores, its future king and chosen master.
When Uther dies and Arthur begins his reign, the Druids will teach him what he needs to know to help Arthur bring all of Albion willingly to heel. They'll have no choice.
"I trust you," Merlin says breathlessly, closing his eyes at the slow tongue that slides up his throat, the nip of teeth at his jaw, the warm breath against his cheek. Arthur warm and solid in his arms, beneath his hands, muscle layered smoothly over bone from the years and years Arthur ruthlessly shaped his body for war in service of his kingdom. For him, Merlin has shaped himself, will shape himself further, learn to be a weapon in Arthur's hands, as sharp and as deadly as a sword forged in dragon's fire, to be everything, everything that Arthur needs. "Though--"
The bed's soft under his back after the first three bounces; a hand on his belly makes him catch his breath, sliding down to cup him, hard and hopeful beneath his breeches. "Oh. Yes. Please."
"Sometimes," Arthur says, kneeling between his legs and staring at him like the first time they met, incredulous and angry both, amusement cut with the startled recognition it would be years before either of them understood, "words just get in the way."
Merlin lifts his head, watching Arthur make short work of the ties of his trousers. "I didn't know you knew how to do that," he observes thoughtfully, sucking a breath between his teeth at the easy twist of Arthur's wrist, pulling him out of the gaping opening, thumb pressing against the head curiously. With a gasp, Merlin twists into the slow stroke, and Arthur swallows his moan, licking slowly into his mouth like he's conquering an undiscovered country.
Merlin scrabbles blindly at Arthur's shirt, then remembers he does this kind of thing professionally, unlacing it with clumsy fingers like the first time he ever undressed Arthur and found there were many compensations to being the servant of a prince. He knows every scar and knows the stories behind each one, because some of those stories are ones they wrote together. "Arthur," he breathes, hissing when Arthur sucks a kiss too high on his throat to be hidden from any eyes who cared to look, another beneath his jaw where the skin was too sensitive and too soft, cock leaking steadily as Arthur claims his body as if he hasn't owned him since before they were ever born.
"Some people," Arthur murmurs against his chest, licking the skin exposed by the unlaced opening of his shirt before sitting up, pulling Merlin into his lap with one hand, the other impossibly working his cock in a steady rhythm that will drive Merlin crazy, "want trinkets or the ear of my father. A place in court, a powerful husband or a wealthy wife. All easy things. I should have known you'd accept nothing less than all my kingdom. It's a wonder I didn't think of it before."
Merlin's arm tightens around Arthur's neck, fingers freezing against his back. Blinking, he pulls back, looking into eyes as blue as the ocean and just as unfathomable. Oh. "Oh."
Arthur rolls his eyes, mouthing up his chin until he reaches Merlin's lips. "As I said," he breathes, hand twisting in Merlin's hair, tipping his head down for his own convenience, "sometimes words get in the way."
Merlin doesn't bother trying to regain anything like dexterity, reaching down to snap the laces on Arthur's trousers, wrapping his hand around him, hot and heavy, wet head scraping against his palm. Arthur groans into his mouth as Merlin lines them up, taking them both together in his hand, picking up the rhythm Arthur set.
It's impossibly good, and Merlin doesn't want it to stop, dropping kisses on Arthur's shoulders, his face, losing concentration when he gets to his mouth, gasping when Arthur's hand slides down his back, pressing up and against him with a finger, and he can't breathe when Arthur pulls back, lips red and swollen, feeding him two fingers and watching him suck with pupils blown wide and black, ringed in brilliant blue, shuddering with every lick. Pulling them away, Arthur kisses him and thrusts his tongue into his mouth as he thrusts two fingers inside Merlin's body, and the world goes white behind Merlin's eyelids.
Arthur pulls away, panting, licking into his ear before he whispers, "Now, Merlin."
Merlin comes like falling forever into a warm lake at the command of his king.
The sticky heat barely cools before Arthur thrusts up once, grunting against his shoulder, body shuddering impossibly before he comes, too, wet and slick, and if it were possible, Merlin could come again just from the feel of it.
Instead, he whimpers, and even Arthur's impossible energy seems to have an end, dumping them both onto cool blankets. Merlin wraps shaky arms around him, locking a foot behind his knee, not ready to give up the weight of his body quite yet.
Luckily, Arthur seems to agree, shifting only enough for bones not to grate before settling as comfortably on Merlin's body as he does on his bed.
After awhile, Merlin can think again. A while after that, he can even talk. He waits a little longer so the words will make sense. Arthur beats him to it, of course.
"I expect a very nice morning gift," Arthur murmurs against his shoulder, mouth soft as it moves over his skin, like he's learning him, pausing at every bone, tracing the hollows with the tip of his tongue. Merlin feels himself starting to get hard again.
"Ah. Would--would Albion do?" Arthur's hard against his thigh; with a shift of his hips, he's pressed between his legs and Arthur hisses, thrusting once, biting down sharply before he raises his head, grinning down at him, flushed and pleased and nowhere near sated.
"I think very well. Shut up now," he says, pushing up easily from Merlin's clinging arms and sliding down the bed, regarding Merlin's hips thoughtfully, and Merlin opens his mouth and forgets what he was going to say when Arthur licks him, slow and wet and not patient at all.
Merlin curls his fingers in still damp hair and closes his eyes. "Yes, sire."