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It’d been another weary day out on hunt with Arthur, one of those early Fall days that wasn't quite hot anymore, but wasn't chilly yet, either, so everyone soaked through their shirts in the first candlemark, anyway.

Thank the Gods his tower room was nice and cool. Merlin grimaced as he stripped off his tunic, dropping it in the overlarge basket meant for the laundress. It was full and he’d have to run it down on his way to the kitchen in the morning, but not tonight.

Tonight his feet throbbed, his shoulders burned and his eyelids drooped. He leant back against the blessedly chilly stone wall and he yanked off his boots, inhaling sharply at the stinging pain of blood rushing back to his toes.

He reached into the pockets of his breeches and emptied the day’s treasures onto the upturned crate beside his bed. He hadn’t found much that day. All afternoon, his hands had been full of gear that Arthur never ended up using, of course, and Arthur didn’t allow him an abundance of time to explore.

When they’d stopped to water the horses, Merlin had jerked his boots off and waded in up to his ankles, his toes curling into the streambed as the water soothed them. He’d found a few sparkly rocks there. They’d glinted up at him from the shallow, clear water, the sunlight filtering down through the canopy of trees just in the right spot for the stones to glitter and catch his eye. He’d also found a four-leaf clover as he’d set out their lunch in a clearing and a strange bud he meant to ask Gaius about, which he plucked from a tree whilst still ahorse.

Pockets empty of the day’s loot, Merlin peeled off his still-soggy socks and unlaced his breeches with forefinger and thumb, touching the damp cloth as little as possible. Everything was drenched with sweat, clammy against his skin now. He stripped off his breeches and smalls, stepping out of them with a sigh of relief. He’d never been so glad to be naked in all his life. His skin was actually still a bit wet with sweat, and it felt disgusting. For once he longed for a soak in a tub like Arthur’s.

Leaving his clothing in a heap by the door, he went to the pitcher and bowl that served as a washstand for him and splashed water over his face and under his arms, patting dry on a scrap of cloth. He lay down on his cot, hands pushing against the stone wall behind his head. Stretching every muscle at once, he groaned with the delicious pull and sag that followed it, heels shifting to feel the softness of the pelt Arthur had given him the winter before. He didn’t curl onto his side as usual, but laid there a while, the cool breeze from the window trailing over his bare skin.

**

Merlin rolled onto his side, absently pulling the thin blanket over his body, moaning softly as fur brushed his naked skin. The bear-pelt was too hot for autumn, but it felt wonderful against his thighs and bottom. He was just dreaming of Arthur, actually, and it’d been one of his favourite dreams again tonight, the one with the cleansing ritual.

Merlin rolled onto his belly, pressed his face to the pillow and moaned as he rocked his hips, dragging his cock along the soft fur.

Behind his eyelids, Merlin stripped Arthur very slowly, solemnly, folding each piece of clothing and laying them to the side, one by one. Arthur stood before him, absolutely still, for once saying nothing as Merlin took his time. He caught Merlin’s eye and held his gaze, almost as if searching for companionship for the task ahead, but knowing he was forbidden from asking for it, or even accepting it if Merlin offered.

The ritual was meant to be a purposeful isolation, but Merlin felt Arthur’s need for reassurance, for encouragement. Merlin had done what he could within the ritual’s parameters.

His touch lingered on Arthur’s smooth skin as he bared each tempting inch, stopping altogether when he reached Arthur’s hips. He held on, fingers spread over Arthur’s sides, thumbs brushing daringly over his hipbones in a way he hoped was comforting, reassuring. He looked Arthur in the eye, letting him know every touch was intentional.

Arthur needed that from him.

When this had happened in life and not his dream, Merlin had lost his nerve and stripped Arthur with his eyes respectfully, cowardly averted. The dressing and cleansing was meant to be sacred, he’d reasoned with himself. So instead of giving in to temptation and ruining the entire ritual (not to mention their friendship), Merlin had stepped around Arthur, reached both arms around his body and stripped off his breeches from behind. He’d held up the full white cloak as Arthur performed the ablutions and dried himself afterward, allowing him a modicum of privacy.

Then he’d quickly dressed Arthur in the thin white linen and draped the cloak on his shoulders. The single consolation Merlin had offered either of them was a slow, firm touch along Arthur’s back as he’d stepped away into the hall.

Now, though, safe in his half-wakeful dream, Merlin found his courage and kissed Arthur’s shoulder as he’d wanted to during the real ritual.

Arthur didn’t make a sound – he couldn’t or they’d have to begin again – but he tipped his forehead down for just a moment, resting it on Merlin’s chest and exhaling shakily. Smiling against his bare, sun-warm skin, Merlin slipped his fingers into Arthur’s breeches and drew them down over his thighs. He wore no smalls and his cock fell out, full and heavy in Merlin’s hand.

As nice as the dream was, Merlin knew it was probably nothing in comparison to the real thing. Feeling Arthur’s cock in his palm would be... unbearably seductive.

Merlin opened his eyes, bit his lip and rubbed against the fur beneath him, forehead pressed to the pillow as he lifted his arse and looked down his body. He took himself in hand, stroking slowly, spreading his legs in a blatant invitation. He could almost feel Arthur’s broad, bare chest against his back. Merlin’s arse clenched as he imagined Arthur’s kneeling between his legs, lying slick and hot and thick between the rounds of his arse, sliding up and back there and then finding his hole and pushing, pressing him open. The stretch- the burn- Gods.

“Arthur,” he gasped, the name warm honey on his tongue. “Fuck... fuck me. Please,” he whispered, moaning into his pillow, knees sliding a bit further apart as he rocked his hips encouragingly. He pushed his forehead into the pillow, sucked two fingers wetly and reached back, seeking out that delicious burn just inside his body.

He squeezed his eyes closed again and imagined Arthur’s face, jaw set in determination but desire plain in his heated gaze.

Arthur licked his parted lips as he stared down at Merlin’s open, offered body. Strong hands closed on the round rise of Merlin’s arse, thumbs pressing into the small of his back, fingers curling down over his sides, holding him steady. As Arthur’s cock slipped inside, one hand let go to rub down Merlin’s spine, the light touch trailing around his hungry opening, tracing the place where their bodies joined together.

Inching deeper, as deep as he could reach, Merlin canted his hips and crooked his fingertips and stripped his fist over his cock, calling Arthur’s name into the hot, close space beneath his body. He squeezed his eyes so tight he saw stars and twisted his fingers, groaning into the pillow as he came, pulsing again and again into the bedclothes. He panted, rocking his hips to savour the final thrumming beats of his orgasm, whispering Arthur’s name. He let his lips drag against his pillow, the imagined touch of Arthur’s kiss languid and lazy. He wanted to believe the illusion, held fast to it as long as he could.

“Hello?” a small voice asked tentatively. “Is there someone there?”

Merlin jumped and slid his fingers away with a hiss, clutching the blankets around his waist, face flushing hotly. He raised his head and glanced around quickly, letting out his panicked breath in relief as he saw no one in the room with him. Gods bless!

“Are you still there?” The shy voice was inside his head and, he realized with a shock, speaking the Draconian tongue, not the King’s English.

Merlin knelt up on the bed and took a deep breath, the last wisps of pleasure deserting him entirely, though his head still swam with post-orgasmic dizzyness.

That wasn’t Kilgharrah – the voice was much too young and high, but it was calling out to him for help.

It could be a wyvern, he reasoned, though the ones he’d run into at the Castle of the Fisher King hadn’t spoken back to him. What if it really was another dragon? Kilgharrah was the last dragon in Camelot, he knew, but he’d often wondered if there could be others out there beyond the city, where there weren’t people, perhaps. The idea that he might another dragon had found him was thrilling.

“Who are you?” he thought quickly with a push of magic, trying not to sound over-eager.

“Arthur?” the voice questioned. “I think?” There was a small grunt as if the owner of the voice was struggling and then, “Could you help, my Lord, please? I really am stuck.”

“Arthur?” he asked through the mindlink, brow furrowing in confusion. Hearing a more frantic, distressed cry, Merlin quickly added, “Of course I’ll help you. I’m in the citadel at Camelot. Where are you?”

Merlin got to his feet and stumbled to the wardrobe, pulling out a clean set of clothes as he waited for an answer.

“I’m just over here,” the small voice called, aloud this time and clearly in his room.

Merlin whirled, holding his tunic and breeches over his bare crotch, mortified as he thought of what the dragon must’ve overheard.

“Um... over where? I can’t see you.” Merlin said, peering around the room, wondering how a dragon could have found him here in the castle. He fumbled into his smalls and breeches, jerking the laces too hastily over his still-sensitive cock. He began peering behind boxes and into corners, looking for the owner of the voice.

“Behind you, my Lord!”

Merlin turned and looked over his shoulder. He stared blankly around the room for a moment, and then he saw it.

The largest of the stones he’d found during yesterday’s hunt was broken, a huge crack splitting it directly down the centre. Pieces of rock crumbled to the makeshift table beside his bed and salted the floor as the stone wobbled and rolled precariously close to the edge.

Merlin darted across the room, leaping over his bed to catch the stone before it fell. “Are you-” he began, gasping as he felt the stone wriggle in his cupped hands. “Are you in there? Are you alright?”

“I’m stuck and not a little embarrassed, but otherwise fine, my Lord. Your hands are very warm,” it said, and the rock – the egg - moved again. “Could you please pry that large piece off? I think I could manage the rest, then.”

Merlin nodded dumbly, eyes wide and magic pulled cautiously to the tip of his tongue as he picked at the crystals, tugging when he found a loose bit. There was a soft crack and the piece gave way, revealing a slick wad of dark, reptilian skin and one large, blinking emerald eye.

Before Merlin could so much as flinch, the rest of the egg split to pieces in his hand and the thing rolled and opened up, tiny claws digging into his palm. As soon as it was free of the stone shell, the baby dragon unfurled its wings and shook like a hound. Merlin blocked the resulting shower with his free hand, laughing.

The verdant eyes peered up at him, as wide and full of wonder as he guessed his own must be. They flared a bright amber, then faded back to the emerald green that took his breath away.

The dragon’s mottled skin was the deepest blue Merlin had ever seen - like a clear nighttime sky over Ealdor, only darker still. Swirls of a lighter blue-green shone on its head and shoulders. There were hints of ridges along his spine and thin tail, which it flicked against Merlin’s wrist as it spread and stretched the most delicate-looking wings Merlin had ever seen.

“Hello, my Lord,” the dragon said, bowing its head low.

**

“You know, surely, that you cannot keep it,” Gaius quietly admonished, a smile threatening at the corner of his mouth. He was obviously trying very hard to hide his fascination in the little dragon. “I’ve never seen one so tiny, though even if it’s a miniature of the species as I suspect, it’ll still eat its weight in meat every day. It’ll grow rapidly and we’d be hard-pressed to find food enough for it and us both before long.”

“It’s a boy,” Merlin said, running a finger down the dozing dragon’s back. “I know he can’t stay forever - King Uther would have his hide for a throw rug.”

Gaius shifted a stack of books over with the toe of his slipper and bent to retrieve the tome he’d been looking for, bringing it to Merlin at the table. “You say you found him by happenstance? He didn’t speak to you or summon you?” Gaius asked, flipping through the pages of the book.

“Not a word as far as I remember,” Merlin said, shaking his head. “I can’t even remember exactly where I picked up the egg. It looked like some of the other stones I found – plain grey with crystals on one bit of it. But you know what I am, Gaius. Maybe I was just... drawn to him?”

“What does he call himself?” Gaius peered at the dragon as it pulled first one wing and then the other down to clean it with his forelegs and long tongue. Gaius raised an eyebrow impatiently as Merlin hesitated.

“He thought his name was Arthur,” Merlin admitted, grinning shyly as he tried not to blush. “I apparently... uh... talked a bit in my sleep and he heard me say Arthur’s name, as far as I can figure.”

“Well, that won’t do, obviously,” Gaius scoffed and steepled his fingers together into lecture position. “Best not to name him at all. You’ll have to take it outside of Camelot immediately. Whether you remain in contact or no, he’ll have to learn to survive on his own. I’ll make your excuses for you if you wish. I’ll tell Arthur your mother’s come down with a malady and you’re taking her medicine.”

“Oh, I think we could put it off until this afternoon,” Merlin said, looking down as the dragon finished cleaning itself and yawned widely. When he looked up, Gaius was shaking his head. “Gaius, you know that Arthur wouldn’t be pleased if I disappeared so suddenly. But then again, when is he ever pleased of a morning?”

Merlin laughed softly as the dragon reared back and pounced on his finger. The little fellow rolled as if tackling a great foe, gnawing on Merlin’s fingernail. Merlin wriggled the captured digit around, tickling the dragon’s soft underbelly as it squirmed.

“I might be pleased of a morning if you could trouble yourself to be on time with my breakfast,” Arthur said, walking through the door to the workroom without so much as a by-your-leave. “Why would you be disappearing suddenly, Merlin?”

Merlin scooped the dragon up and tucked it into his pocket before Arthur could see it, whispering assurances in his mind. “It’s only my friend, little one. Be very still, alright? He mustn’t know you’re here.”

The dragon rubbed against Merlin’s hand then stilled, sending a feeling of wary curiosity sweeping over Merlin.

He took a deep breath and smiled at Arthur. “I’m not late, am I?” Merlin asked, looking toward the window where the morning fog hung heavily over the city. It was impossible to be certain, but he’d discovered the dragon around dawn and was sure it hadn’t been long before he’d been waking Gaius.

“Since I’m standing here already dressed and fed, it seems the question needs no answer. What were you two talking about?” Arthur asked, picking up an odd instrument Gaius used to gauge the approximate birthing date of expectant mothers. Merlin stifled a chuckle as Arthur held it up to his arm, measuring the girth of his bicep.

“We were discussing Merlin’s mother, Sire,” Gaius answered before Merlin could speak. “We’ve gotten word that she’s fallen ill and requires a special medicine immediately.”

“Send it by our fastest courier, then,” Arthur said, dropping the tool on the table and looking genuinely concerned. “He’ll be faster than Merlin by half. Have you already prepared it?”

Gaius mumbled something about needing to collect it, then ducked into his storeroom, turning to glare a firm warning in Merlin’s direction as he went.

Merlin nodded quickly and took a deep breath, smiling brightly at Arthur. “Thank you so much. My mother doesn’t have the money for medicine and well…” he trailed off, biting his tongue to keep from saying too much. He was babbling and Arthur was staring at him with a look of tolerant amusement as usual.

“Don’t you want to know why I’ve come?” Arthur asked, the tacked-on “idiot” so obvious it was a wonder he didn’t just go ahead and say it. As Merlin hesitated, Arthur cocked his head to the side and looked Merlin over. “Why aren’t you dressed?”

“Um, I...” Merlin flushed and pushed up from the bench, pointing at the door to his room, suddenly acutely aware of his bare torso and the warm little lump of magical creature hidden in his pocket. “Gaius was tending an old wound of mine. I’ll just fetch my tunic and boots and then you can tell me why you’re here.”

“What old wound?” Arthur called after him, but Merlin didn’t answer.

He turned and ran into his room, shutting the door with more force than he’d intended. The dragon in his pocket started, claws digging right through Merlin’s breeches and into his leg. He yelped in pain before he could clap a hand over his mouth, then reached into his pocket and gently pried the dragon from his leg.

“It was just the door. You’re safe, I promise,” Merlin whispered soothingly, stroking his fingertip over the dragon’s spine and smiling as it rubbed its head into his palm.

“That was Arthur?” it asked, looking up at Merlin and stretching its wings to full span – about the length of Merlin’s forearm.

“It was. Arthur is the Prince of this land and my friend. I’m sorry, but he wants me to attend him, so I have to go. You’ll have to stay here,” he told it, making his voice firm and strong. “He mustn’t see you. No one but Gaius and myself should see you. You’ll be in danger if they do. Do you understand?”

“Of course,” the dragon said, lifting his chin in childish pride, then slowly lowering its eyes. “Will you be gone long?”

“Chin up, little one,” Merlin said, smiling encouragingly. “I’ll be back before you know it. And you have work to do. We still haven’t found a name for you! I can’t go on calling you “little one,” now can I? And we’re certainly not calling you Arthur. One Arthur in Camelot is plenty!” Merlin laughed lightly to show he was joking.

The little dragon hunched its shoulders as he laughed softly, the sound like chimes in the wind. “I want you to choose my name,” he said, taking Merlin’s thumb in his front claws and rubbing his cheek against it. “I wish you didn’t have to go away now.”

“Merlin! How long does it take to put on a tunic?” Arthur called from the outer chamber, and Merlin sighed, lifting the dragon to look straight into its beautiful eyes.

“Tending Arthur is my job. He is very important and he needs my help. I’ll come back as soon as I can, and I’ll bring more food, I promise.” Merlin gently urged the youngling from his hand onto the bed, pushing the blankets up in a circle around him. The dragon turned around and around like a pup, then settled into the nest of bedding, his eyelids already falling closed.

Merlin drew the lightest blanket up over it and opened the door, stopping short as he saw Arthur, fist in the air as if about to knock on Merlin’s forehead.

“I thought you were getting dressed!” Arthur said, looking at Merlin’s bare chest with raised eyebrows. “What’s wrong with you this morning?” Arthur asked, sighing loudly as Merlin shut the door in his face.

“Um, sorry!” he shouted, wincing as the dragon stirred beneath the covers. He tiptoed over and got a tunic from the wardrobe, pulling it on over his head then yanking on his socks and boots. He grabbed his scarf on the way to the door. When he opened it again, Arthur was waiting impatiently on the other side.

“Ready!” Merlin said cheerfully, shutting his door firmly behind himself, jumping down the steps past Arthur and glancing back. “Are you coming or not?” he teased, nervousness melting away as Arthur grinned and tried to cuff him upside the head.

**

Arthur stood at his chamber window, watching the sun descend slowly below Camelot’s rooftops, spreading gold and then cool blue over the courtyard below. Despite being excited over the prospect of visiting nobles, the day had been tedious and he was more than ready for it to be over. The nobles had brought none of the knights he knew with them and he’d been trapped in the driest, dullest council imaginable for most of the morning.

Merlin was polishing armour at the table, humming softly. Arthur leaned against the wall and turned his gaze on his servant. As quickly as Merlin was rushing through the job, he’d likely never notice that Arthur was staring. No, not staring. Observing.

Because Merlin was his manservant, not someone to stare at.

There was nothing particularly striking about Merlin’s looks anyway - well, apart from his over-large ears. Still, he had... well, not an obvious appeal, certainly. But there was something about him that drew Arthur to him - something that Arthur couldn’t pinpoint. His dark hair and pale skin might have been striking if he’d played either to their best effect, but Arthur guessed Merlin wasn’t even aware of the qualities, let alone interested in showing them off.

There were days when every chore seemed like an impossible task for Merlin, and days like today when he breezed quickly through every order as though the majority of his mind and attention were elsewhere and his job - his chores - required very little of his attention to complete.

Merlin had been with Arthur all day long, but Arthur had the distinct impression Merlin hadn’t once actually looked at him.

It was unsettling to think that Merlin was so distracted that he didn’t even see Arthur.

If he had, he surely would have noticed how sullen Arthur was, how out of sorts. Arthur prided himself on being very capable and self-sufficient, but on days like this one, he depended on Merlin to carry him with inane babbling interspersed with sound advice.

Arthur forced himself to listen through the rubbish and picked out the useful advice or opinions. He took them to heart now. Years ago, he would have scoffed – did scoff, actually, many times – at Merlin’s contempt for Camelot’s sometimes-arcane laws. Now Arthur could see there was another more tolerant, peaceful path open to them, a path that Merlin would welcome on a personal level.

Shock though it had been, discovering Merlin’s magic had served to explain and excuse all sorts of behaviour Arthur had never been able to reconcile with his lanky manservant. Merlin believed himself to be indestructible at times and before Arthur knew about his abilities, it had seemed pure folly. Refusing armour and weapons, always pushing to be just at Arthur’s side when they rode into any dangerous situation - it all made little sense to him before.

More than once Arthur had gotten the distinct impression that Merlin’s willingness to sacrifice his life for Arthur was based more on emotional attachment than any duty Merlin might feel towards Camelot. He wasn’t even a citizen, technically, and there he was, time and again, ready to drink poison, ready to take a punishment, stepping in front of swordpoints and daggers and arrows - all to save Arthur.

And truly, even with the strength of magic at his fingertips, Merlin couldn’t have known he would survive any of those threats. He nearly hadn’t, several times.

Merlin reached for a gauntlet and knocked the scabbard to the flagstones with a clatter, wincing up at Arthur, who pushed off the wall and reached for the it before Merlin could rise from the table.

Arthur handed him the scabbard and gestured at the remaining armour spread out on the table. “You may leave this until morning if you’d like. You seem as though you’re not quite here anyway.”

Merlin shook his head and began polishing again. “No, no. I’m here. Did you want to talk?”

Taking a seat across from Merlin, Arthur sighed. “Are you thinking about your mother?”

Merlin gave him a surprised little smile and shook his head. “I’m sure she’ll be fine once she has Gaius’ medicine. No, I was thinking of someone else, actually. A... friend who’s leaving Camelot soon.”

The regret in Merlin’s voice struck a chord in Arthur. Was he speaking of a lover? Surely not. He’d guessed that Merlin’s inclinations were skewed toward men, but he hadn’t noticed Merlin being overly friendly with any one man in particular. He would know if Merlin were seeing someone. Wouldn’t he? And where would Merlin have found someone, anyway?

“An old friend from Ealdor?” Arthur ventured, casually examining the already-gleaming armour in front of him.

“No, he’s from here. He’s barely a friend, actually. We’ve not known one another long, but I was hoping... well, he seems very nice, and I think he could use my help.” Merlin shook his head, his smile not reaching his eyes. “Never mind, I’m sure it will all work out for the best.”

Arthur’s gut twisted at the hope in Merlin’s voice. He wanted to ask more about this mystery man, but Merlin stood abruptly, setting down the armour and polishing rag.

“I think I’ll take you up on that offer and finish this in the morning. See if I can’t convince my friend to stay, or else at least see him out of the city.”

Arthur nodded once and kept his eyes on the table as Merlin left. It took everything in him not to go back to his window and watch anxiously for Merlin and his friend to ride out of the gates together.

 

**

 

“How is he?” Merlin asked as he walked into the workroom, glancing around. He didn’t see the dragon anywhere. “Where is he?”

“Sleeping,” Gaius answered, nodding at the closed door to Merlin’s room. “He’s been eating and sleeping by turns all day. When he wasn’t asking for you, that is.”

“He said my name?” Merlin grinned and started for his door, but Gaius caught him by the elbow.

“I’m afraid he’s already forming a bond with you, Merlin. For all we know, it may already be too late to sever it. You must take him outside the city as soon as it’s full-dark.” There was no hint of compassion in Gaius’ tone.

“He’s just a baby, Gaius. He’d be breakfast for a boar, as little as he is.” Merlin sighed and took hold of Gaius’ arms, looking into his mentor’s eyes. “You know what I am. I have a duty to him. He asked for my help and you know I cannot refuse, just as he cannot refuse if I ask it of him one day.”

Gaius shook his head and then took a deep breath. “He cannot be kept inside the citadel for long. It’s too dangerous. Your duty may very well be to let him go, Merlin, not to keep him.”

“I know.” Merlin nodded, then went to his room to check on his little charge.

“Well, look at you!” he exclaimed, bouncing onto the bed and falling back on his pillow as the dragon crawled up his arm and tucked his head under Merlin’s chin. “Aww, good to see you, too, little one!”

“You were gone so long; I thought you’d never come back!” the dragon said, winding into a warm ball against his shoulder. “Will you stay now?”

“Until tomorrow morning, yes, but...” Merlin sighed. How was he supposed to tell this sweet little creature that he couldn’t stay? “Let’s find you a name, alright?”

Merlin set him down on the bed and hurried to the workroom, looking through the haphazard spill of books on the table.

“Gaius, where did you put the dragon manuscript?” Merlin asked, looking up and seeing Gaius’ disapproving expression. “What? I’m just going to help him find a name. He needs a name even if he’s not staying, doesn’t he?”

Gaius raised his eyebrows in warning and looked pointedly above Merlin’s head. “I believe he understands you.”

Merlin turned and saw the floating - flying - baby dragon hovering just behind him, his brow ridge furrowing in obvious distress.

“Can’t I stay with you, Merlin?” he asked, his large eyes swimming with tears. “I’ll behave, I promise.”

Gaius sighed heavily and waved Merlin – and by extension, the dragon – over. When Merlin was seated, the dragon lit on his shoulder.

“You can understand us, and fly? Already?” Merlin reached up to stroke lightly at the dragon’s thin wings, marveling that such filmy structures could support even the tiny dragon.

Gaius tapped the table to get his attention and Merlin sent a thread of reassurance via mindlink to the dragon. “Dragons are born knowing how to fly, Merlin. They pick up things like speech in a matter of hours, usually whilst still in the egg. Your ignorance of those facts is proof enough that you aren’t prepared to take on the task of raising a fingerling, Dragonlord or no.”

“If not me, then who? I’m the only one left - there is no one else! He clearly has no parent that we know of, and I’m not handing him over to Kilgharrah, so don’t even suggest it. What isn’t instinctive, I’ll just have to learn as we go.”

“Don’t you like dragons?” the little one asked Gaius, reverting to the Draconian language, but Gaius didn’t understand and Merlin couldn’t bring himself to translate.

“Listen, I will read everything I can find, talk to anyone I have to. I can do this, Gaius.”

“Who is Kilgharrah? And why is Sir Gaius so upset? Have I done something wrong?” the dragon whispered shakily in Merlin’s mind.

“Shh, my friend,” Merlin soothed, reaching up to give the dragon a reassuring pat. “He doesn’t speak your tongue so he doesn’t understand you. He isn’t angry; he’s just concerned about your safety. Speak our language as best you can and he will listen.”

Gaius sighed again, this time with the air of resignation that told Merlin Gaius was going to let him make his own mistakes once again.

“I’ll be discreet,” Merlin promised. “There’s a cave out beyond the old practice field that will serve until he outgrows it. By then he’ll be ready to be on his own.”

“Why can’t I stay in the castle with you?” The dragon’s voice was thin and shaky, every emotion just at the surface.

“There are men here who believe dragons are dangerous,” Merlin explained, scratching under the dragon’s chin. He sighed and decided an image would serve better than words. He showed the dragon his memory of Kilgharrah raining fire down on Camelot.

“Yes, I saw that,” the dragon said softly, a tendril of thought telling Merlin that he had been listening to the thoughts of the people in the citadel all day while Merlin was gone.

“You are very rare in Camelot, little one. Very precious. I fear that many mistakes were made in the past, but I have hope that you will someday fly free in Camelot as you wish. In the meantime, we cannot risk anyone hurting you because they fear you.”

The little dragon furrowed his tiny brow ridge. “Why would they fear me? I don’t want to hurt anyone!”

Merlin had to suppress a smile as the dragon lifted his forearms in an innocent shrug.

“I know you wouldn’t, but...” Merlin imagined himself being set-upon by a group of angry men with clubs. The dragon gasped, sharp claws digging into Merlin’s wrist as he tensed, ready to battle the imagined threat with his life. “See? There could come a time when hurting someone would make sense to you.”

“I see,” the fingerling said, nodding its solemn understanding and shifting its wings as if shrugging off the rage and fear it had just experienced.

“I am a Dragonlord - that means that you and I are bound by powerful, ancient magic. We can speak to one another with our minds, we share the Dragon language. We will always be connected, no matter how far apart we are. No one can take that from us, but we must be careful not to let anyone see you, alright?”

“Alright. You’ll be nearby, though? And visit me every day?”

The little dragon was putting up a brave front, but Merlin could feel his despair at the idea of being alone again. The length of time he’d spent alone in his egg must’ve seemed to stretch out for eons. Even if the dragon was viewing his loneliness with the eyes of a youngling, it must’ve been a very long time.

“You can stay here with me in the castle for a little while longer. We’ll find you a safe place where I can visit you after that,” Merlin said brightly, lifting his arm and dropping it quickly so the little dragon had to flutter to keep its balance. He did it again and again, seeing how much the dragon liked it. His laughter was high and light, and Merlin let the joy pass along the mind-link between them.

“Will you name me, Merlin? I want you to name me.”

“How about Pen?” Merlin asked, laughing at his own cleverness. “You’re a dragon and the rulers of Camelot are called Pendragon.”

“Like Arthur, you mean?” the little dragon asked, his eyes going wide and the corners of his mouth lifting in a hesitant smile. When Merlin nodded, Pen nodded, too. “I like that very much!”

 

**

Merlin woke at dawn again the next day to Pen’s cold nose nudging beneath his jaw.

“Can we fly and fall before you have to go see Arthur?”

“Fly and fall?” Merlin asked, confused for a moment before Pen showed him a thought of their little game the night before. “Oh, sure! We can play while I get dressed and have breakfast.”

Merlin raised his arm and Pen scrambled, half-flying, half-climbing to get to his hand. As Merlin tried to unseat him with quick, zigzagging motions, he watched Pen in awe. The dragon was already growing in both strength and speed.

“Here, try to catch this while I change,” Merlin told him, picking up the roundest of stones from his collection and rolling it across the room. It bounced off the far wall and rolled under the bed. Merlin expected Pen to land and chase after it, but instead he flattened his wings against his sides and shot like an arrow into the tight space beneath the bed.

Before Merlin could blink, Pen zoomed up and dropped the stone into his palm.

“Wow! You’re really fast, you know that? Try again, but this time, try to catch it before it hits the ground, alright?” Merlin threw the stone as high into the tower rafters as he could, laughing as the dragon snatched it out of the air before it could even begin to fall again.

“This is fun! Can we play more when you’re done playing with Arthur?” Pen asked, darting across the room as Merlin threw the stone again.

“I don’t play with Arthur,” Merlin said with a laugh. “I work for him.”

Merlin opened the mildlink between himself and Pen and thought of all of the chores that were lined up for the day; the washing, carrying and fetching and all of the boring audiences they’d have to stand through. He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, remembering suddenly that he was meant to have brought the bathing tub to Arthur’s chamber the night before. He’d have to hurry if he was going to get it set up and filled before Arthur woke.

He’d much rather spend the day playing fetch with his dragon than fetching books and food and clean clothing for Arthur. Still, there were times when serving Arthur was his greatest joy. He thought of Arthur in his finest moments – glorious on the battlefield and resplendent on the throne. Before he could stop himself, he imagined Arthur peacefully sleeping, smiling over his shoulder at Merlin, his strong arm wrapping around Merlin’s shoulder.

Pen landed on his shoulder, nosing in beneath his ear, a light trill like a purr soothing Merlin’s nerves. “Go on, Merlin; I understand. You want to make him happy. I’ll play with Gaius until you return.”

Merlin laughed softly, stroking the dragon’s chin. “Gaius has work to do, as well, Pen! Don’t interrupt him, alright? And keep in mind that he can’t understand your language. I’ll be back midday to check on you.”

By the time he was dressed and ready to go, Gaius and Pen were sharing half a ham and a thick loaf of bread at the table. It looked like the dragon was getting the lion’s share, so to speak.

**

“Forget the tub. I’ll bathe tonight,” Arthur said by way of greeting, his tone sharper than he truly meant it. It was true he didn’t particularly feel like bathing now. Besides, the idea of soaking away the day’s aches in an evening bath - when the castle was settled and no one would interrupt them - greatly appealed to him. He couldn’t bring himself to be annoyed when Merlin’s mistake would likely lead to the best part of his day.

Merlin dropped the edge of the tub with a thunk and sighed heavily. “You could have said before I dragged it from the storeroom.”

“What fun would that have been?” Arthur smirked until Merlin’s lips quirked in an answering smile. “I’ve only just changed my mind, Merlin. Leave it. Hand me my clothes.”

Arthur stepped behind the dressing screen and stripped off his nightclothes. Seeing that Merlin was in the perfect mood for teasing, Arthur had half a mind to strip right out in the open and gauge Merlin’s reaction, but even after all these years, he still wasn’t sure that Merlin wouldn’t run from the room. The council of nobles was to convene in a candlemark, and Arthur needed Merlin there to keep him awake with cool cups of water and the occasional touch to his shoulder, not make him suffer through it alone.

Strictly speaking, Merlin wasn’t meant to touch him at all in public, but Merlin had adopted the tactic for keeping Arthur alert one day after a particularly sleepless night and it had stuck. Several other servants used it now, too, discreetly tapping their masters on the arm or back under the pretence of asking if they needed food or drink. It worked a charm and Merlin’s frequent touches lingered on his skin and distracted him enough to keep him alert, at least.

Arthur rubbed his bicep in anticipation and smiled, stepping halfway out from behind the screen, relishing the way Merlin’s eyes raked over his bare body before lowering to the floor.

Merlin held his clothing out to him without looking at him a second time and Arthur took it, clasping Merlin’s wrist for a brief moment. There. He’d got Merlin’s eyes on him again.

“You’ll have to keep me from snoring through this meeting, Merlin. We’re in negotiations with two outlying lands. If we sway both of them into annexing into Camelot, we’ll have a clear trade route to the western coast of Albion. It’s down to tariffs and taxes and I couldn’t be less interested.”

Merlin whistled low and shook his head. “I don’t know, it sounds riveting if you ask me, Sire,” Merlin said, his gaze unnaturally locked on Arthur’s face.

Merlin only ever called him “Sire” anymore when they weren’t alone or when he thought he was in trouble. It was definitely proof that Merlin was nervous.

“Well I didn’t ask, did I?” Arthur teased, releasing Merlin’s wrist and tossing the clothing over the top of the screen, shaking out his smallclothes and stepping into them, grinning as he caught Merlin’s eyes on him. “Are you going to watch?”

Merlin turned away, busying himself with straightening the bedclothes, fluffing the pillows and pretending he hadn’t heard and wasn’t beet-red.

“Doesn’t matter to me. You’ve seen it all before,” Arthur taunted, unrelenting. How could Merlin still be so shy with him? During the course of his duties, Merlin had seen – and touched - just about every inch of him.

Merlin made a noncommittal noise in the back of his throat.

Arthur had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning. Suddenly, he frowned, wondering just how much of this new friend Merlin had seen, and if the man was gone from Camelot now. “Did you see your friend off last night?”

Merlin looked up sharply, confusion quickly hidden beneath a false smile. “Oh, well, he decided to stay in Camelot for a while.”

“Really?” Arthur asked, feigning disinterest. He swallowed hard and gathered his control, not sure why he was feeling so possessive about his manservant. The last thing he wanted was for Merlin to catch on to his jealousy. “Is he staying with you in the tower, then? I’m sure we could scrounge up a servant’s bunk for him since you aren’t using one.”

“That’s very kind, but he...” Merlin dropped the pillow he was arranging and he bent to pick it up, banging his head on the headboard. “Um, he’s staying with Gaius and I for the time being.”

Arthur froze, stepping quickly behind the screen to hide the shock and anger he knew would otherwise be obvious. This man was living with Merlin, and they’d only just met?

Had Arthur completely misjudged the signals Merlin had given him now and again, the long looks and unnecessary touches? The absolute and unshakable devotion and willingness to forfeit everything to save Arthur’s life? Merlin had shown that from the very beginning. Were they just the traits of an uncommonly-loyal manservant and nothing more?

He hadn’t thought so, but...

“First Lancelot, then Gwaine. Now this... man. You’re like a mother hen, adopting all of the stray chicks when their mums get taken to the kitchens,” he said, stepping from the screen and leaving his laces for Merlin to do up. “Come here.”

Merlin obeyed, his long fingers straightening Arthur’s tunic across his shoulders before tying the laces, the backs of his knuckles brushing Arthur’s chest as he took his time making them even and tying them carefully. As he reached for Arthur’s breeches, Arthur held his breath and closed his eyes.

Despite his earlier embarrassment, Merlin didn’t shy away in this – he never did. He hitched the breeches around Arthur’s waist, fingertips curling just inside to smooth along the waistband from back to front. For a brief moment, Merlin’s arms were around him, the soft, worn fabric of his tunic brushing along Arthur’s sides.

It felt wonderful, almost tingly, everywhere Merlin touched him. Arthur wondered if it was Merlin’s magic seeping out through his fingertips or if it was just the thrill of being touched by Merlin. He very stoically willed down the arousal that thickened his cock, though he couldn’t stave it off completely. He didn’t have the will or desire to deny himself at least this small indulgence.

He hadn’t been touched by anyone but Merlin in a very long time now. The knights were known for carousing in the lower town at times, but Arthur rarely accompanied them, in no small part because of Merlin’s icy glare and distance the inevitable morning after. It was hardly worth that price when Arthur never really found much satisfaction in the taverns anyway.

His inclinations weren’t unheard-of in Camelot. There were plenty of people in the court who had dalliances with the same sex, even a few who unabashedly made their preferences known, but the kinds of establishments the knights frequented didn’t cater to Arthur’s preferences.

He was twenty-one now, far past the age when he should be married and have started a family. He’d honestly tried when his father had brought Elena and the other young women to Camelot. He’d even thought perhaps there was something between he and Gwen, but the first time he saw her and Sir Lancelot look at one another, he’d known that he’d never feel the way Lancelot did about her. He’d released her and given them his blessing, surprised at the relief that washed over him when it was done.

The simple truth was that he preferred the strength and companionship of men. He wasn’t ashamed, but he also didn’t feel the need to make a spectacle of himself at court or amongst the knights. If he made a consort of a man someday, he could appoint an heir. But for now, there weren’t any nobles who drew his eye.

He wasn’t lonely – far from it. He had Merlin at his side through every day. So far, he’d only ever had to share Merlin’s attention with Gwaine and Lancelot, and though he was still a bit perturbed by the ease of Merlin’s friendships with them – not to mention Gwaine’s freely-roaming hands, he knew neither of the knights wished to take Merlin away from him.

The thought brought Arthur up short. Merlin wasn’t his. He was... well, in point of fact, he was very likely someone else’s already. And Arthur wouldn’t begrudge Merlin a bit of happiness if he thought he could find it elsewhere. If Merlin was too shy or frightened to act on his obvious feelings for Arthur, then there was nothing for it but to let Merlin do as he wished.

“You should bring him ‘round sometime,” Arthur found himself saying as Merlin strapped on his scabbard. He wanted to bite his tongue and his stomach churned as he imagined watching Merlin look at someone else the way he usually looked at Arthur, but still he went on. “Does he hunt?”

Merlin snorted out a little laugh, giving Arthur a wary look when he realized Arthur was serious. “A bit, but he’s... young. He doesn’t have much experience. You um... wouldn’t want him along on a hunt.”

“I take you, don’t I?” Arthur grinned teasingly and went to pull on his boots. “Well, he’s welcome to come to the practice field with you and watch, as long as you don’t shirk your duties while he’s there.”

“Thank you. He’s a bit shy, but I’ll let him know you said he’s welcome.”

Arthur bit the inside of his cheek, mentally flogging himself. Why on earth would he want to see this man? Merlin was supposed to be beneath his notice and therefore as unavailable to him as a Prince could be to a servant.

But somehow Arthur just didn’t think of Merlin as impossibly out of his reach.

Later, after an unbearably long council session, Arthur found himself changing again, this time to head down to the knights’ afternoon exercises and a bit of mindless physical activity. As Merlin passed his kit around the screen, Arthur reminded him of his invitation, encouraging Merlin to go get his friend and meet him at the field. Arthur would do his blindfolded trick and impress the hell out of the man stealing all of Merlin’s attention away.

Merlin shook his head and politely refused.

Then down at the paddock, Merlin was unusually clumsy, which was to say, stunningly clumsy. There were more dings in his armour from Merlin’s dropping it than from sword blows at the end of practice, and Arthur had a fresh slice on his palm from when Merlin fumbled his sword as he’d passed it to him.

“What’s wrong with you?” Arthur asked as they made their way back up to the castle, bumping his shoulder into Merlin’s.

Merlin shrugged, looking at the ground and biting his lip.

Arthur took a deep breath, clapping his uninjured hand on Merlin’s shoulder and halting his steps. “Is it your mother? Have you had news?”

Merlin glanced up and shook his head, then turned to begin walking again, but Arthur stopped him.

“Have you lost your voice? Because your silence is nearly as annoying as your usual prattling,” he teased, hoping to provoke something, some reaction.

“I’m just a bit preoccupied lately. Pen - my friend, the one that I told you about-” Merlin shook his head, avoiding Arthur’s eye. “Never mind.”

Arthur began walking again. He was curious, of course, but he wasn’t sure he could stand to hear about Merlin’s love life. Arthur smiled and knocked his shoulder into Merlin’s. “Thanks for sparing me. I have no desire to hear the sordid details.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence, and when they reached the courtyard, Arthur sent Merlin away for the remainder of the day.

The look of relief on Merlin’s face was proof enough that Merlin was thinking only about one thing: Pen.

**

Stifling a yawn behind his fist, Merlin trudged down the tower stairs to the palace kitchen to fetch Arthur’s breakfast. Pen had had him up at the crack of dawn again.

He balanced the breakfast tray on one arm, nibbling a sausage roll as he walked through the empty corridors of the castle, enjoying the quiet. He opened the door to Arthur’s rooms and went about setting Arthur’s table quietly, hoping he’d be able to sneak a precious few minutes to watch Arthur sleep.

Sure enough, the Prince lay sprawled across his bed, one knee bent and his arms around his pillow. There was just enough room for Merlin to slip in beside him, he thought, smiling at the idea. He crept closer, careful to keep his footsteps light.

Arthur’s breathing was measured and deep, a lulling constant rhythm that soon had Merlin’s eyelids feeling very heavy. He leant very carefully against the bedpost, wrapping his arm around it and resting his cheek against the cool, smooth wood.

He closed his eyes and listened to Arthur as he slept, sending his magic out to light the fireplace and fetch Arthur’s clothes.

A small, soft moan interrupted the stillness and Merlin’s eyes snapped open.

Arthur slept on, his arms tightening around his pillow and his hips shifting up and back against the soft, smooth sheets. He moaned again on the next breath.

Merlin’s heart felt like it would pound through his chest, but he stayed where he was. He didn’t cast again, just in case, but when another moment passed and Arthur didn’t wake, Merlin drew in a deep breath and relaxed again.

Matching his breaths to Arthur’s, Merlin let himself imagine what Arthur might be seeing behind his closed eyelids. Was Arthur dreaming that someone was in bed with him, caressing him, kissing him? Heat pooled in Merlin’s chest and sank, spreading through his groin, his thighs, up into his throat.

In his dream, was Arthur making love with a Lady, or one of his Knights? Percival got his fair share of Arthur’s admiration, but Merlin couldn’t imagine that much brawn in one bed. They’d come away bruised and that… Oh, Gods. Merlin lowered his free hand, rubbing the heel of his palm over his thickening cock, knowing full well it would do no good.

What if it was Gwaine?

Merlin felt his face flush, the heat blazing across his skin as he imagined Gwaine lying there beside Arthur in a well-fucked sprawl, his hair fanned out over the pillow, Arthur tucked up against Gwaine’s warm skin as they slept.

Swallowing hard, clutching the bedpost with both hands to keep from touching, Merlin shook his head, willing his mind to let go of the image. It did, but unhelpfully replaced Gwaine with himself. Suddenly he was lying there, Arthur’s heavy arm pinning him down, possessive even in sleep.

And Merlin didn’t only imagine it, he could also feel it as clearly as if it were really happening.

Arthur’s breath was warm against Merlin’s neck, his hair tickling Merlin’s ear, his body pressed all along Merlin’s so they touched from head to toe. It would feel wonderful, wouldn’t it? All of that strength wrapped around him, holding him, protecting him.

Arthur’s hips rocked against the bed again, but Merlin imagined them pushing against him instead, rocking over him, pressing up behind him. Merlin shifted, pressing the smooth wood of the post against his arousal. He stared at Arthur’s closed eyes, his lips, so red and parted just a little bit as if about to kiss.

Arthur drew in a breath and stretched, wiping his eyes as he looked up and saw Merlin.

“Oh, Merlin...” he murmured, the plaintive tone of Merlin’s name sounding as though Merlin was lying beside him in the luxurious bed, not standing at the foot of it. He yawned and smirked as if, without saying a word, Merlin was already being ridiculous. “What are you staring at?”

“I wasn’t-” Merlin stammered, realizing he still had hold of the bedpost and was gripping it so tightly his fingers were going a bit numb, his groin pushed tightly against the wood. He straightened, letting go and stepping back. “I was just about to wake you.”

“You’re too late,” Arthur said with a little smile, rolling onto his back and stretching again, this time kicking the bedclothes down and reaching up above his head to hold onto the headboard.

Merlin stared as he stretched, unable to look away.

The long lines along the muscles of Arthur’s arms and legs seemed even more beautiful in the soft morning light that filtered in through the curtains. Arthur wore only the bottom half of his nightclothes, and Merlin couldn’t help but notice the prominent bulge at the front of them.

Merlin drew the curtains of the nearest window, pushing open the pane, letting in the cool morning air. “It’s a bit stuffy in here, don’t you think?” he asked, going to the fireplace and knocking one of the logs from the grate.

“Feels fine to me.” Arthur got out of bed and went to the table, leaning down to sniff at his breakfast. “I’m starving. Oh, is your mum better? Have you heard?”

Merlin looked over his shoulder at Arthur with a smile, his chest full of emotion. That Arthur would not only remember but would be kind enough to ask after his mother meant that Arthur cared. He cared. All of the looks that passed between them, all of the things they’d been through - their connection, hidden away though it might be, was real.

“Yes, she’s much improved, thank you,” he said, standing and watching as Arthur devoured his breakfast. “It looks to be a fine day out. Is there any chance of escaping the council room this afternoon?”

Arthur looked up, a conspiratorial grin spreading on his lips. “I’m sure if there was some sort of... urgent need for me down at the training field, my father would excuse me.”

Merlin put his hands on his hips and nodded seriously. “If the knights truly needed your expertise, the King would surely understand.”

“Or if one of them was injured... not seriously, of course.”

Merlin nodded. “They might need both of us, then - you for the knight and me to assist Gaius,” Merlin crouched back down to sweep up the ashes he’d scattered when he moved the log, grinning conspiratorially.

Just as he knelt down, something caught his eye.

Beneath the table, just by Arthur’s bare feet, Merlin saw a flash of emerald and deep blue. He gasped, eyes going wide as he realized what - who - it was. He shook his head minutely, then opened his mind and called to Pen, telling him to be perfectly still and silent.

”You shouldn’t be here, Pen! What if Arthur sees you! He mustn’t see you, remember?” Merlin shouted through their mindlink, mentally hissing a command for Pen to stay out of sight.

“I won’t let him see me, my Lord!” Pen’s voice trilled in his mind, as careless as you please.

But Pen was only inches away from Arthur’s toes. As Merlin watched in horror, Pen scurried from under the table, ran to the wardrobe and snatched a pair of balled-up socks from the shelf, rolling them about with his nose.

Merlin dropped the fire poker in its holder with a clatter, drawing Arthur’s attention away from the direction Pen was heading. Clearly Pen wasn’t in the mood to obey orders. Merlin would just have to distract Arthur long enough to save Pen.

“How is your breakfast? Everything alright?” Merlin asked, dusting his breeches as he stood and leaning casually against the mantle.

“Good. You should have brought some for yourself,” Arthur said around a mouthful.

Had Arthur just asked him to breakfast with him? Merlin clenched his jaw and schooled his features into a small smile and shook his head, shouting for Pen to get back under the table.

But you said I shouldn’t be there!” Pen said, confused. ”Do you have any of these? They’re really fun! Watch me!” he said, batting the ball of socks across the floor. He raced after them, chasing them clear across the room and under the bed.

Merlin dove for the four-poster, stripping off the sheets and gathering up the blankets as fast as he could, a sudden idea forming in his mind. He could still feel Arthur’s warmth on the sheets as he pulled them into his arms and balled them up.

“You’re awfully quiet this morning,” Arthur said, looking over his shoulder at Merlin. “Just how long were you watching me sleep?”

Merlin choked, tried to laugh to cover it up, then choked again as he saw Pen’s tail flipping excitedly out from under the bed skirt.

“I uh... I wasn’t watching you! I was just waiting to wake you,” Merlin said a little breathlessly, pushing Pen’s tail under the bed with his foot. He really, really needed to stop talking and figure out a way to save Pen.

If he could lure Arthur away, he could hide Pen and hopefully sneak him back to the tower.

“Sounds like the same thing to me. Well, next time, wake me. We’ll get in some extra sword drills.”

Nodding and smiling, trying to keep up a steady stream of commands to Pen and praying he’d stay put under the bed, Merlin sent three quick bursts of magic to knock at the far chamber door. “Could you get that?” Merlin asked casually, as if he had any right to ask the Prince of Camelot to answer his own chamber door. “I’m sure it’s for you,” he added, smiling and shrugging.

“I’m sure it is. Why don’t you put all of that down and see who’s there?” Arthur asked with false patience, pointing his knife at Merlin.

“Um...” Merlin looked around as if searching for a place to lay the pile of bedding, then dropped it on the floor by the bed and went to the door. He opened it, made a show of sticking his head out and closed it again. “Nobody there.”

Arthur was eyeing the pile of sheets as though they weren’t something he’d just spent a night happily snuggled up in. Merlin could feel Arthur’s gaze following him as he went to the cupboard and got out fresh linens, making up the bed as quickly as he could, all the while ordering Pen to stay hidden.

He finished arranging and smoothing the blanket and sheets, then turned them down for Arthur and sent a warning along the mindlink to Pen.

“Right, well, I’m off to the laundry with these,” he said casually. “Your clothes are all laid out,” Merlin said, bending to scoop the pile of bedding - and Pen along with it - up into his arms. He made sure there wasn’t a nose or tail sticking out of the bundle as he stuffed it more gently than he usually did into a large basket with handles. "I'll just take this down and go speak with Gwaine about our plan of escape for this afternoon, alright?"

“Go on,” Arthur said, sounding annoyed that Merlin was leaving so soon. “But I expect you to be on time for council, Merlin. If I have to suffer through it, then so do you!” Arthur called after him as he dashed out the door and headed for the tower, laundry bin held tightly to his chest.

**

 

Merlin threw open the workroom door, slamming it behind himself and dropping the bar across it for good measure. Startled, Gaius came flying out of his storeroom just in time to see Merlin dumping Pen and Arthur’s sheets on the floor.

Pen laughed as he tumbled out of the basket, tripping with his feet tangled in the bedding. "Aha! Caught them!” he said triumphantly, holding up the ball of Arthur’s socks and flying into the air so he could drop them from the rafters and swoop to catch them.

“He followed me to Arthur’s rooms,” Merlin explained to Gaius, panting for breath. “We have to do something.”

“Haven’t I said as much a dozen times already? Did you think people won’t notice something the size of a housecat flying around my workroom? I had to claim bats in the fireplace when Gwen came by yesterday! You must move him out of the castle, and soon, Merlin, rather than later.”

“No, please! No one saw me, I promise!” Pen cried, dropping the socks and gliding down to land on Merlin’s shoulder, burying his nose in under Merlin's ear.

The dragon was growing at an astounding rate. He was a solid weight on Merlin’s shoulder, but perfectly balanced and comfortable there. In fact, Merlin couldn’t help but welcome the unguarded affection despite his irritation.

“I don’t think he’s ready to be on his own, Gaius. He's so young. If someone had seen him in the hallways..." Merlin trailed off as an image of Pen soaring down to Arthur's windowsill came clearly through his mindlink with Pen. "No!” Merlin exclaimed, then held Pen at arm’s length and narrowed his eyes. “You opened the shutters? You flew down to Arthur’s rooms?”

Pen flapped clumsily to the floor and looked up at Gaius and Merlin in turn, his eyes wide and pitiful like a whipped puppy. "I'm sorry. No one saw me!"

Gaius folded his arms and nodded gravely at Pen. “Obviously. If someone had seen you, you'd be dead by now, and we’d be clapped in irons, waiting our turn.”

“Dead?” Pen asked in a small, frightened voice, his wings sagging so low the tips touched the floor. “I would be dead?”

“What you did was very naughty, Pen,” Merlin chided. He kept his tone gentle, though, seeing that fear would teach the harsh lesson with little help from him. “I’ve told you time and again that you cannot be seen.”

“I know, but I was very careful, my Lord. No one saw me, I’m sure!” Pen said with a hitch in his voice.

“Come here to me. There’s something you need to see.” Merlin opened his mind to Pen, holding out his arm for the dragon to sit on as they looked into one another’s eyes.

Merlin hadn’t shown him, had purposefully shielded his thoughts of the once-prevalent executions in the courtyard far below because he hadn’t wanted to alarm Pen. But Gaius was right – Pen was risking their lives and after a solid week of reminding Pen not to be seen, he had still left the tower.

“If anyone catches you, if anyone sees you in or around our chambers, this is what will happen, Pen.”

Merlin let the image of a man tied to a stake flow from his mind to Pen’s, then gave the man his own face. He felt Pen’s claws tighten on his wrist and the startled little jump the dragon gave as the flames roared to life at Merlin’s feet, engulfing him. He imagined himself screaming and then added the imagined pain too, just for a fraction of a second.

Pen launched from his arm, leaving welts from his claws, and flew to the darkest corner of the workroom, beneath a cabinet laden with bottles that clinked together as Pen wedged himself tighter into the space between the cabinet and the wall.

It took a quarter candlemark to coax him out of his hidey-hole and another to calm him before Merlin could leave him again.

**

Merlin spent the day wishing there was some way he could leave Camelot and raise Pen, while at the same time knowing he never would, even if Arthur would let him go.

When he finally made it up to the tower, Gaius barely let him take a breath before he broached the subject of moving Pen from the castle. Merlin slumped onto a bench in the workroom and sighed heavily, settling in for a rough discussion. He didn't think there was any way either he or Pen would come out of this situation anything but hurting.

“He’s still too vulnerable to be left alone in the cave, Gaius. You know he can’t defend himself yet. What if he and Kilgharrah are the only two left in the world? What if Kilgharrah is already dead?” Merlin asked quietly, his words full of sorrow. He hadn’t seen Kilgharrah in over a year now, and they hadn’t parted well. Still, he thought he would have felt it if Kilgharrah had died.

“I truly do understand your reluctance to leave him on his own, Merlin. If we knew more about how Dragonlords of the past raised and trained them...” Gaius brought the now well-worn and familiar book of Draconian Legend over to the table and sat opposite Merlin, opening the book to a marked page Merlin had memorized days ago.

“There’s so little information left.”

“Uther burned it all, every book and scroll on the subject. I dared not save more than a handful of books, though I’m sure we could learn something from the druids if we sought them out. Of course, that brings dangers of its own.” Gaius laid a hand on his arm. “Think, Merlin. Tell me everything you remember of what Balinor said.”

Merlin took a deep breath and closed his eyes, trying not to see his dying father’s face as he brought the words to mind for what seemed like the millionth time. “He told me the Dragonlord gift is passed from father to son. He told me to be strong. He said Kilgharrah and I shared a voice, that our souls were brothers. He said when I speak to him as kin, he must obey my will. That- that was all.”

“You still speak to Pen in the Draconian tongue and with your mind most of the time. Why does he not obey?”

“Perhaps he is too young. Perhaps he’s... I don’t know, Gaius.” Merlin dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “I’ll speak to him about it again, make him promise not to leave the tower.”

“How are the negotiations going?” Gaius asked, pushing a plate of turnips and ham under Merlin’s nose. “Eat,” he ordered, gesturing at the plate.

Merlin nodded and lazily picked up his fork with a sigh. “They’re all too proud to budge and too thick to realize that if none of them do, they’ll never reach an agreement. Truth be told, I think Arthur could’ve had the whole thing resolved already. They’re to meet afternoons every day from now on, as well. Arthur will be impossible if he’s shut up all day.”

“Uther has the stubbornness of an bull when it comes to the negotiation table,” Gaius said with a scoff. “Could you not ask Arthur if a page could stand in for you at the afternoon sessions? You have far more important things to deal with in there,” Gaius said, gesturing toward Merlin’s chamber door.

“I’ll ask, but I think I’ll be wasting my breath. Arthur needs me to keep him awake, though he may have to keep me awake if they drag it out much longer. I’d better go check on Pen.” Merlin stood and took his plate to his room.

As he nibbled his supper, he tossed bits of pork into the air for Pen to catch. He put a push of magic behind a few of them, suddenly realizing that it was more than just a game - Pen was actually hunting for his food, in a way.

Each day Merlin tried to add a new trick to their playtime, but he had a hard time challenging Pen within the relatively small area of their quarters. Pen seemed to know his mind before even Merlin had made it up and sliced through the air in exactly the direction Merlin sent each morsel of food. None of the meat ever touched Merlin’s dusty floor.

“You’ll mind the rules tomorrow, won’t you, Pen?” he asked as the dragon swallowed the last of Merlin’s supper.

Pen nodded and hung his head, clearly ashamed of his behavior that day. After a moment, he looked up curiously. “Merlin, is Prince Arthur kind to you?”

“Of course he is.” Merlin stripped off his tunic and climbed into bed, shifting over so Pen could curl up in a neat little lump against his chest. “Why would you ask such a thing?”

“I heard him shouting today and well... I was just wondering,” Pen said sleepily, yawning comically wide.

“He’s a good man. He’ll make an excellent King someday.” Merlin closed his eyes, imagining the day he would dress Arthur in formal attire and stand at his side, watching him accept his destiny. He showed Pen the image of Arthur on his knees, head bowed as he was crowned.

“But he is your friend, too?” Pen’s eyes were drifting closed as he spoke.

Merlin hummed and then he showed Pen a memory of Arthur reassuring Merlin again and again years ago, on their way to Ealdor. He let his mind slip through the memories of all the fiercely loyal and unexpectedly kind things Arthur had done and said while they were there. “He’s a better friend to me than it seems. A better friend than I have ever been to him.”

“You are a good man, too, my Lord.”

“Pen, I’ve told you – there’s no reason to call me that,” Merlin corrected, but Pen was already settling into sleep. Merlin sighed and blew out the candle, though he found himself unable to sleep.

He thought of Arthur – and all of his kindnesses – for a long while before he closed his eyes.

 

**

The cold nose nudging him awake was beginning to be familiar after nearly two weeks of it, as were the pinpricks of Pen’s claws along his chest as he climbed atop Merlin and stared down at him with his huge green eyes.

“Up, Merlin! We’re going to the cave, remember!” Pen called, scurrying off of Merlin and nosing in under his arm, lifting it over the back of his neck. "Come on, come on!"

Merlin ran his hand down the dragon’s back, petting him affectionately and smiling even before he opened his eyes. The dragon's enthusiasm for the move was the only thing keeping Merlin from being miserable. After seeing the cave, the forest full of animals and birds and the open skies beyond, Pen had lost almost all of his fears of leaving the castle.

Merlin would miss their time together, but he'd still see Pen everyday if he could. Pen’s scales were smooth and warm beneath his touch, each one as big as Merlin’s thumbnail now.

His wings were growing stronger every day, too, thin as Arthur’s royal parchment but powerful enough to carry Pen through the air effortlessly. Merlin loved to touch them, to feel the deceptive fragility and marvel at their ever-increasing span.

“Show me how big you are today,” Merlin said in Draconian, letting the rich syllables roll off his tongue as he wiped the sleep from his eyes. It felt so good to speak it with no urgency or command behind it – to simply converse in such a beautiful language.

Pen stood on Merlin’s chest and stretched his wings as he did each morning now, drawing in a breath that puffed out his chest. He lifted his chin proudly, holding the pose until Merlin whistled and touched the wingtips.

Only two weeks old and already Pen had literally outgrown his welcome.

“You become grander every day, Pen! I’m glad you’re anxious to be out of doors - I doubt we could keep you inside much longer,” Merlin said, stroking down Pen’s spine from his head to the tip of his tail, then waving him away. “Now, let me up so I can dress. If we hurry, we can play a bit before we get you settled in the cave. Then I’ll have to go on. I’d like to have a bath ready for Arthur before he wakes - it’ll put him in a good mood. I’m going to ask him if I can have the afternoon off so I can spend extra time with you today at the cave.”

With a little joyous whoop, Pen launched from Merlin’s chest and flapped to the top of the bureau, turning his back as Merlin dressed.

Once he was done, he opened a large sack with shoulder-straps he’d fashioned from an old blanket and string, and Pen hopped inside. Merlin tucked his tail in after him, realizing it wouldn’t be long before carrying Pen like this without arousing suspicion would be impossible.

He pulled the sack closed and snatched his leather satchel from the table, stuffing in a small bundle full of ham, boiled eggs, chicken and rolls. The bread and eggs were for him, the meat for Pen.

It was still dark outside, the chilly pre-dawn air creeping in around Merlin’s cuffs and drawing cold fingers along his skin. He shivered and rubbed his hands together, wishing he’d thought to put on his jacket. He walked as if he’d been sent on an errand, swiftly and purposefully, just in case someone was watching. The gate guards, lethargic with the early hour, paid him little mind, only mumbling a greeting in response to his.

Merlin knew Pen was nervous about staying in the cave alone all day, but he’d assured Pen he would enjoy being close to nature again. He could talk to animals, could practice his flying in the thick woods and even hunt as long as he stayed under the canopy and out of sight of humans.

The most pressing danger to Pen was the road that skirted the woods not very far from the mouth of the cave. The cave faced away from the road, so it was unlikely that anyone would stumble across it or Pen, but if Pen was flying, well, he was big enough now that he’d be hard to miss.

As Merlin crossed the road, he looked all around to see if anyone was in sight, but he was all alone on the empty stretch of worn, packed dirt. He set the bag on the ground and opened the drawstring, smiling as Pen peered cautiously out at him.

“Come on, little one, you’ll be alright,” Merlin assured, lifting Pen beneath his arms and hefting him out of the pack. “Let’s go have breakfast in your cave, eh?”

“I’ve been smelling it all the way here. Did you leave anything for Gaius?”

“He’ll forgive me for wanting a feast for your first morning outside,” Merlin said, grinning as Pen tagged along behind him.

As graceful as Pen was in the air now, he was as clumsy as a toddler on his hind legs. He tripped over a root and only just caught himself before his chin hit the bracken of the forest.

“Whoopsie-daisy!” Merlin scooped him up and set him on his shoulder, smiling as Pen’s tail wrapped around the back of his neck and tucked into his neckerchief. “You’ll have to get used to something other than smooth stone under your feet, won’t you?”

Pen nodded, looking all around now that he was free to do so without falling on his face. His eyes grew wide as a bird flew past, twittering its morning song. It must’ve sounded delicious to Pen, because his eyes narrowed and tracked it and his tail twitched against Merlin’s skin.

“Now don’t go eating every bird in the woods, Pen. I’ll bring you food in the morning and at night. We’ll play and hone your hunting skills that way for awhile longer before you try something live.”

“Alright,” Pen agreed, his shoulders drooping and his mouth curving down in an unmistakable frown.

“Do you feel compelled to obey me?” Merlin asked, trying to keep his tone light. “The other dragon I once knew, if I told him to do something, he felt compelled to follow my command.”

Pen tilted his head to the side as if considering. “I’ve always followed your commands, my Lord.”

“But Pen, you followed me to Arthur’s chamber. You left the tower when I told you to stay there-”

“No, you never said not to leave!” Pen exclaimed, hopping and fluttering his wings excitedly. “You told me I was to stay out of sight. You said I mustn’t allow anyone to see me! I didn’t, my Lord!”

Merlin gaped in disbelief, thinking back over every command he’d given Pen, and realized Pen was right. “You're right. That's exactly what I said, Pen,” he said, smiling as he scratched Pen’s head. “How about some playtime while we eat, since you’re so keen to hunt this morning?”

“Yes, please, my Lord!” Pen exclaimed, digging his nails in and launching too quickly from Merlin’s shoulder in his excitement, scraping the skin beneath Merlin’s tunic.

Merlin winced and covered the stinging area with his palm. Blood seeped through the thin fabric of his tunic and he lifted his hand away to check the damage. Unlacing his shirt, Merlin unknotted his neckerchief and pressed it to the wounds, smiling through the pain and waving Pen closer to him.

“It’s alright, Pen. I’m fine, I promise. It’s just a few scratches.”

Pen lit upon a large boulder just outside the cave, his eyes swimming as he looked at Merlin’s shoulder and stammered his apologies. “I didn’t mean to. I would never hurt you, my Lord.”

“I know, shh, it’s alright.” Merlin dabbed at the scrapes on his shoulder and saw that they’d already stopped bleeding. “Look, it’s fine. I’ll be good as new before you know it.”

“I won’t sit on your shoulder anymore.” Pen’s head was hanging low, his eyes downcast. “I won’t touch you, if you wish.”

“Stop being silly!” Merlin said, laughing and chucking Pen under the chin to lift his head. “No harm done. Let’s eat, shall we?”

Pen nodded and slowly sidled up to lean against Merlin’s arm, looking up at him with the most pitiful expression of guilt Merlin had ever seen.

“I know what will cheer you,” Merlin said, opening his satchel and pulling out the little parcel with their breakfast inside. “Ready?”

Eyes lighting up at the sight of a thick bit of ham, Pen slipped from beneath Merlin’s arm. His entire body tensed, muscles bunched in preparation for flight, his focus narrowed on his prey.

Merlin threw the ham higher into the air, whipping it this way and that with his magic but letting Pen catch it relatively quickly. He tossed another piece and another, nibbling on his own breakfast as he sent two more pieces flying in opposite directions.

Pen didn’t let a single one touch the forest floor.

“You’re going to be just fine out here, little one,” Merlin said softly, willing the Gods to hear the words and make them true.

When every morsel of food was gone and after much comical cajoling, Merlin’s fingers were licked clean by Pen’s long tongue.

“Do not fly in the open, Pen. When you’re a bit older, I’ll find a place where you can fly free. Do not fly into Camelot. If you need me, call me with your mind, alright?”

Pen nodded solemnly, following Merlin to the opening of the cave.

Merlin showed him the inside of the cave and reminded him once more of the rules, then said a quick goodbye and only looked back two times as he walked away.

**

The negotiations ended before lunch that day, much to everyone’s relief. Uther was so pleased with the final result that he ordered a feast be prepared for that night and a tournament to follow three days’ hence in the visiting nobles’ honour.

Arthur didn’t miss the heavy sigh from Merlin as Uther made the announcement.

That evening, when entered the great hall, Arthur realized that everyone in the room was smiling but Merlin, including the other servants. A light tune vied for attention with a happy din of voices, all chatting with an air of excitement. The scent of the food alone was enough to lift a person’s mood – certainly a person not accustomed to delicacies such as Merlin would be treated to that night. Personal servants always got a plate full of whatever the nobility couldn’t finish off and at least one tankard of wine as well.

And still Merlin looked like this feast was the last place on earth he wanted to be.

Apart from knowing just how much Merlin detested his royal livery, Arthur could think of only one reason Merlin wouldn’t be looking forward to the feast.

Pen.

Merlin would be serving that night, of course, attending Arthur throughout the feast, and the celebration wasn’t likely to end before midnight. Merlin would have to go without Pen and he looked less than thrilled at the prospect.

“Not looking forward to the fare? You can’t tell me those platters aren’t tempting,” he teased, remembering the way Merlin had gone on and on over roasted fowl and dilled veal at the last royal feast.

“I’m just a bit tired,” Merlin said absently, yawning as he said the words. He gave Arthur a weak smile and rolled his eyes. “And I had plans.”

“You did, did you?” Arthur asked, knocking his shoulder against Merlin’s. He chuckled softly as Merlin was thrown off balance, then reached out and steadied Merlin, his hand lingering on Merlin’s bicep perhaps a bit longer than necessary.

“Servants can have plans,” Merlin said, rubbing his arm as Arthur let go of him. “And knocking me about isn’t going to cheer me up.”

“When dinner is over, you have permission to take your leave.”

Merlin stopped in his tracks and looked at Arthur like he couldn’t believe the words he’d just said.

“I can’t very well force you to enjoy this, can I?” Arthur asked, a bit too acidly to be pure kindness.

“You won’t need me the rest of the night?”

Arthur frowned, wondering if Merlin still saw him as an unfeeling prat after all of these years. Granted, he didn’t actually want to let Merlin go, but watching his sullen face all night would be worse than knowing he was somewhere else, smiling with Pen.

“I’m sure I can manage to get myself to bed just this once.” Arthur laughed and walked shoulder-to-shoulder with Merlin to the dais, where Merlin fell back a step, drawing his chair out for him.

Gwen took her place beside Merlin, and Arthur heard them exchange a quiet ‘hello’ before Uther got to his feet and called for silence.

He toasted the nobles, the negotiations, all of Camelot and then sent praise to the Gods before drinking deeply from his goblet, signalling the beginning of the feast.

Merlin was still pouting as he came to refill Arthur’s glass sometime later.

Arthur knocked his arm against Merlin’s, but Merlin somehow managed not to spill a drop, the triumphant smirk the closest thing to a genuine smile Arthur had seen from him all day.

As Merlin stepped back behind him, Arthur heard Gwen’s loud whisper.

“So... I saw you creeping back into the castle this morning,” she taunted, knowingly. “Spend the night warming someone’s bed?”

“You saw me?” Merlin stammered, and Arthur could picture the look of surprise on his face. “I had an early morning errand, that’s all.”

“Are you sure? You had a pack on, and your satchel. Seems like a lot to carry on a little errand,” Gwen teased. “Is she - or um... he - lovely?”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Who would I be going to see?” Merlin asked, still not denying it, Arthur noticed.

Gwen hummed as if considering the question. “Is it another servant, or someone you met at a tavern? One of the knights? A damsel in distress, perhaps?”

Merlin sighed and Arthur could hear the annoyance in it.

“He’s just a friend,” Merlin said, obviously reluctant to admit it. “He needed my help and so I went. There was no bed involved, though, sorry to say. I’m exhausted, and he’s expecting me again tonight.”

Arthur choked on his wine, holding up a hand as Uther moved to thump him on the back. He took another swallow from his goblet and cleared his throat, wishing he’d not interrupted the conversation behind him.

Merlin was at his shoulder, reaching for his goblet, then his arm, then nothing. Arthur shook his head and Merlin stepped away again.

As luck would have it, his coughing fit drew the attention of the foreign noble at his right and the man launched into a one-sided conversation about the new trade route. By the time Arthur could extract himself from the man’s attentions, the meal was over and Merlin was gone.

Back in his rooms, stripping off the heavy mantle of his station, Arthur sighed. His head was light and his mood should match it, but he was a riot of emotion beneath the buzzing warmth of too much wine.

Merlin had left the feast, even after all of that taunting, and gone to be with Pen, obviously. He hadn’t denied spending the night before with Pen, either. He’d confessed that he’d gone to help him, though that could mean any number of things, really.

He hadn’t thought Merlin would go so far as to sneak in and out of the castle to see Pen, though, of course, he didn’t really have any private space for an… interlude? Arthur shook his head, clenched his fists and forced himself not to think about Merlin in some strange man’s arms.

Not that he had any right to lay claim to Merlin. He could command Merlin to his bed – he had that rather arcane privilege as Prince – but he didn’t want Merlin to be a trained dog at his heel.

If he’d wanted a slave, he wouldn’t have put up with Merlin’s clumsy service all of these years - that was sure.

No, he knew the truth. He knew how much strength Merlin hid, knew that he was never going to leave Arthur in a bind, knew they were connected, deeply, no matter if Merlin had a lover or not.

They always would be; Arthur could feel it.

Still, he didn’t want Merlin to be apart from him, for Merlin’s affections to be divided between him and a lover. Ever since he’d realized the unending sacrifice Merlin made for him, he’d wanted – needed - Merlin to respect and admire him.

To trust him. To return the desire Arthur couldn’t – wouldn’t – deny feeling.

It had been barely possible to keep up the farce at times, knowing the power that Merlin held in his hand, knowing there was a simpler, easier way at their disposal. He’d had to look Merlin in the eye and listen to him lie more than once – many times - and it had felt like a swordpoint to his chest each and every time.

He’d forgiven Merlin for lying after his initial anger faded into understanding. He’d striven to gain Merlin’s trust, to speak of magic in terms of possibilities and not condemn it outright as his father did.

He’d thought if Merlin could eventually return his trust, the rest would fall into place. Perhaps Merlin was waiting until Arthur was King to trust him fully. Perhaps he needed to know, without a doubt, that Arthur wouldn’t betray him before he could speak the truth. Perhaps if he knew, he’d be warming Arthur’s bed at the moment.

Instead, he was with Pen tonight.

Arthur crossed to the window and stared down at the empty courtyard.

Did Pen have Merlin’s trust? Did he know Merlin’s secret?

Did Pen know Merlin at all, or were they merely a comfort to one another, a bit of fun, an escape from duty and destiny and all of the lies?

Arthur’s head began to pound, the headache pulsing behind his eyes. He pinched the bridge of his nose and got into bed, blowing out the last candle and wishing for sleep. As he lay in the lonely silence, a plan formed in his mind.

He wouldn’t give up on Merlin. He couldn’t.

Not unless Merlin knew just how well Arthur truly understood him and rejected him anyway.

He rang for a servant and began preparations. Merlin wouldn’t know what hit him and Pen – well, Pen would be conveniently out of the picture.

 

**

"Do you watch me every morning?" Arthur asked quietly, revelling in the quick burst of blush high on Merlin's cheekbones. Arthur wiped the sleep from his eyes and raised his eyebrows as Merlin stood at the corner of his bed again, just looking down at him. "Am I that interesting when I sleep?"

"I uh..." Merlin shook his head and turned away, but glanced back a moment later. "Does it bother you if I... if I sometimes watch?"

Arthur laughed, nodding. "Oh yes, it's positively mortifying to be admired," he said sarcastically, throwing back the blankets and standing up with a groan. He stretched his arms up in the air, groaning again, and watched as Merlin's eyes trailed quickly down over his chest and stomach.

"I'll stop then, shall I?" Merlin teased, licking his lips and turning away again, knocking into a chair and then fumbling with the breakfast dishes until Arthur feared for their safety.

For all of the flirtatious words, Merlin's bravery only went so far, Arthur knew. It gave him hope, although he knew they'd still have to get beyond Merlin's relationship with Pen, whatever it meant to Merlin.

Arthur dressed at the foot of the bed, not even trying to hide his morning erection or the fact that he could see the outline of Merlin’s, either.

Merlin didn’t look at him until Arthur called him to the table, gesturing for Merlin to join him.

“We’ll be leaving as soon as we’ve eaten,” he said, scooting the tray of sausages, ham, rolls and fruit toward Merlin. “Lunch will be in the saddle, so don’t be shy. Eat up.”

“We’re leaving? Oh, I’ll just need to run and tell Gaius we’re going to be gone, then,” Merlin said, unable to hide the shock on his face. He pushed up from the table. “I’d better start packing and-”

Arthur grabbed him by the arm and pulled him back down into his seat, nodding at the food. “Everything is packed, and Gaius knows already," he told Merlin, sitting back down and gesturing with his fork at the pile of bags, sacks and gear he’d assembled for their trip. Merlin’s eyes widened as he took in the sheer amount of supplies.

Merlin absently rubbed at his shoulder and Arthur’s gaze followed the movement, noticing several thin scratches just below Merlin’s collar. He let his eyes linger on the spot, then lifted them to read the truth in Merlin's eyes. “How did you get those marks?”

Merlin shook his head, then looked across the room, obviously trying to avoid Arthur’s eyes as he answered. “Oh, they’re nothing. Just some little scrapes.”

Arthur hummed and nodded, but reached across the table and drew the neck of Merlin’s tunic to the side. “Take in another stray, or is it the same one?” Arthur taunted, keeping his voice light though he was seething beneath the teasing words.

"Pen?” Merlin choked, eyes going wide and face turning purple as he coughed. When he'd settled, he shook his head again, staring at his plate. "It wasn’t Pen - it was a cat."

The lie was so obvious Arthur wanted to scream.

They ate in silence, Arthur wolfing down the rest of his breakfast, Merlin only picking at the rolls, clearly unhappy with the news of their abrupt departure and probably irritated by Arthur's teasing, too.

Maybe he should have apologized, but he was too angry, too hurt. He hefted a single bag onto each shoulder, then patted Merlin on the back. It was all the kindness he could muster at the moment. "If you're through, let's be off."

Merlin looked even more surprised, but smiled a little, at least. “The horses, then – I’ll run and have them saddled.”

There was no way Arthur was giving Merlin a chance to have any sort of farewell with his precious Pen. This was war, and Arthur wasn’t about to lose the upper hand. He just hoped he wasn’t too late.

“I sent a page with word to the stables a candlemark ago. I’ve made this too easy on you, haven’t I?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “Well, I'll leave the packs to you, then, shall I?”

Arthur didn’t look back to see if Merlin followed; he could hear his panting and groaning behind him in the distance as he blazed a quick path out of the castle. When Merlin dropped the impossible load beside the horses, Arthur reached out and laid a hand on Merlin’s shoulder in a brief but unmistakably intentional touch.

"Didn't think you could manage all of that in one go," he joked, grinning when Merlin pulled a face.

If he was going to make this happen, he couldn't spend what little time he had alone with Merlin being angry or resenting Merlin. This was meant to wipe the slate clean, not be a time for rehashing every argument and picking apart every lie.

“I’m glad it’s only the two of us,” he admitted, smiling softly. “We deserve a break after the week we’ve had, eh?”

Merlin nodded, taking a deep breath and smiling. It felt like it always had, as if Merlin was truly his again; only his.

Within moments, they were riding out of the citadel. To his surprise, Merlin didn’t ask where they were going or how long they’d be gone. He did, however, look back at the citadel several times before they cleared the edge of the forest and the trees closed in around them.

The odd thing was, even though Arthur had him well and truly caught off guard - not to mention all to himself for at least the next few days – all Arthur wanted to do was ride in the comfortable silence between the two of them.

For a while, Merlin seemed perfectly happy to do the same.

“You couldn’t have mentioned this to me last night at the feast?” Merlin asked, annoyance creeping into his tone. “Or sent word this morning? What if Gaius had needed me today? I could have at least packed a change of clothes.”

“I sent word to Gaius last night, along with the offer of an assistant whilst we’re gone. He said he could spare you very well and thought the time away would benefit you. And I think I can manage to pack for the two of us, Merlin. I do have to smell you, you know. Don’t worry, I dug out some of my old clothes for you - they should fit well enough. We have food, water, blankets, weapons, neckerchiefs. What else could we possibly need?”

Merlin rolled his eyes, but couldn’t seem to stop his grin. “Oh, well, if you remembered the neckerchiefs, I suppose we’ll survive.”

Arthur took the fork in the forest trail that led toward a village half a day’s ride from the city, knowing Merlin would never guess their destination. They’d never traveled to the little town before, but Arthur had heard rumours about the inn there, and it was far enough away from Camelot that they would have a degree of anonymity.

They rode along in near-silence, exchanging smiles and pointing wildlife out to one another as they went. When they came upon a rather large ten-point buck, Merlin hesitantly tried to hand him his crossbow, but Arthur shook his head.

He was content to just ride alongside Merlin and Merlin seemed content to be with him, too - not at all anxious now that he knew Gaius wouldn’t be worrying or short-handed. For all his protests, Arthur couldn’t see how Gaius relied on Merlin, anyway, but it was very much like Merlin to have worried.

When Arthur led them into the village and dismounted at the inn, Merlin looked surprised, but obviously relieved. Arthur called the stableboy to take their horses and carried his own packs to the door of the inn, earning him another relieved smile from Merlin.

“We’ll stay the night, have a good meal and continue on tomorrow. We’d likely only have one night of peace and quiet before the crowds roll in for the celebrations, anyway.”

Merlin looked up quickly at that - perhaps he was still anxious to get back to Camelot after all. “Stay the night... will we be back in time for the tournament, then?”

Arthur couldn’t imagine that Merlin truly cared about the games. He was likely wondering how long he’d have to be separated from Pen. “That depends,” he said curtly.

Merlin sighed and put his hands on his hips, impatience finally showing. “On what? How many animals you kill tomorrow? I assume we’re hunting.”

Arthur didn’t respond. He took the key from the innkeeper and followed a scrawny young maid up a rickety flight of stairs to the inn’s second storey. Their room was the furthest on the end, quiet but cramped. There were two beds, but no other furniture, and the maid didn’t bother to light the hearth before she left.

“How was your night last night, Merlin?” Arthur ventured as he knelt to stack the logs in the grate, not especially wanting to discuss Pen, but anxious to learn if he and Merlin were truly an item or not. “Did your plans with Pen go well?”

Merlin shook his head, not meeting Arthur’s eyes as he spoke, but not denying that he was with Pen. “I was completely exhausted. Went straight to bed.”

“And he shares your bed,” Arthur said quietly, standing and handing Merlin the flint from the hearth. “Here - light the fire.”

Merlin gave him a curious, amused look, as though just realizing that Arthur knew Merlin and Pen were lovers. He looked as though he was stifling a laugh as he took the stones from Arthur.

“Pen is a friend. He only ever shared my bed to keep from sleeping on the floor.” Merlin shook his head, a small laugh escaping as he crouched in front of the grate and began clicking the flint against the stone.

No matter what Arthur had thought he wanted to hear, the denial felt like a betrayal. There were too many lies between them. Magic, the connection Arthur knew they both felt, and now Pen.

Everything between them seemed fractured – scored through with secrets. How long had he known about Merlin’s magic? How many times had he bit his tongue while Merlin stood there lying to him, pretending he was weak and naive?

It was time for truth, for good or ill. Merlin could run - would probably run - but Arthur couldn't bring himself to overlook even one more lie.

He unbuckled his swordbelt and sat down hard on the edge of the bed, tossing his scabbard to the far side of it so it hit up against the wall. “Light the fire, Merlin.”

Merlin held up the flint and sighed. “I thought that’s what I was doing.”

Arthur lunged for Merlin’s hands, pried the flint from his fists and threw the stones across the room. “Light the damned fire, Merlin. And don’t you dare think about saying you can’t. I’ve seen you. I’ve heard you. You're a... warlock,” Arthur glared as Merlin stared up at him. “Did you think I was so thick I wouldn't find out?”

Merlin shook his head minutely, then got slowly to his feet, stumbling against Arthur, who caught him with a hard hand around his bicep, holding Merlin firmly in place, not that he tried to pull away.

Merlin stood so close their chests nearly brushed as they both breathed hard. A ghost of a whisper formed on Merlin’s lips and his irises lit from within as he held Arthur’s gaze, the golden flare of magic making Merlin’s eyes wholly unfamiliar.

The room filled with warmth as the fire roared to life.

Arthur spared a glance at it over Merlin's shoulder, then closed his eyes and nodded. Merlin’s hand fell heavily on his shoulder and when Arthur looked up again, Merlin's eyes were the blue of the night sky again and rimmed with tears.

“You knew,” Merlin whispered, smiling softly. “You knew and you didn’t tell me. You didn't tell anyone.”

“It wasn't my secret to tell."

“But you still trusted me?” Merlin moved his hand to the back of Arthur’s neck, every fingertip a pinpoint of heat at his nape. “You still - you were still my friend.”

“You’re still you," Arthur breathed out, looking down between them.

Arthur pressed his forehead to Merlin’s, closing his eyes. His hands dropped to Merlin’s waist, fists bunching up his tunic. It was the most they’d touched, the closest they’d been, and it felt as good and right as anything ever had. Still, it wasn't enough, wasn't everything.

Arthur wanted more. Needed more. Their mouths were so close.

He'd never been kissed. He’d taken kisses, stolen them, led them. But he wouldn’t, not with Merlin, not the first time. He wouldn’t be the first to cross that line. He couldn’t.

If Pen already had Merlin's affections, if Arthur was too late... the humiliation would be unbearable.

He waited, heart pounding behind his ribs, trying desperately to control his breathing, to hold back the flood of need and desire that threatened to push through every pore of his body. He knew Merlin could probably feel the waves of it coming off of him, close as they were, the shame of his jealousy rolling beneath everything else.

“Arthur. Look at me.”

Hands opening to clutch at Merlin’s sides, Arthur lifted his chin and looked at him.

And Merlin kissed him.

It was just a touch at first, just the gentlest, softest press of Merlin’s lips to his. Arthur watched Merlin’s eyes flutter shut, felt Merlin’s soft moan against his lips and through Merlin's chest, against his fingers.

Merlin pulled him closer, hand on the back of Arthur’s neck, tongue sweeping along Arthur's lips, coaxing them apart.

Arthur opened to him, closed his eyes and followed his every lead. When Merlin touched his face, thumb smoothing over his cheekbone, he pulled Merlin against his chest.

They fit together so easily, so naturally. He could feel Merlin’s heartbeat and the strength of his flexing muscles as they moved against one another. Arthur let himself be moved, let Merlin push him until his shoulders hit the wall.

He made a startled noise of protest as Merlin pulled away, hands holding Arthur at arm’s length.

Merlin stared at him with absolute focus and something like fear and Arthur’s stomach knotted in anticipation of the inevitable words.

“Arthur-” Merlin whispered, warily, “I’m sorry. I-”

“No,” Arthur choked out, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth briefly as he knocked Merlin’s hands off of him and stepped away, crouching down at his pack to hide... everything. If Merlin didn’t want him, he wasn’t going to push, but he also didn’t want to hear the rejection. “It’s alright. We’re both...” he trailed off, not knowing how he could possibly describe any of this.

“Right.” Merlin leaned against the wall, watching Arthur as he sat on the bed and began to pull off his boots.

“Do you want supper?” Arthur asked, reaching into his pack for a small coin purse. He wanted to tell Merlin the food here was rumoured to rival that of Camelot’s high table, that Arthur had picked this place because of that, that he’d thought of Merlin when he did it.

Instead he stood and held the purse out to Merlin, nodding encouragingly when Merlin only stared at it.

“I’m not hungry,” Merlin said quietly, sighing and closing his eyes. “Why didn’t you tell me that you knew?”

Arthur tossed the purse onto his pack and sat back down. He’d known that was coming, and still hadn’t thought of an answer that didn’t sound contrived. “You didn’t want me to know.”

“I didn't want to make you choose.” Merlin ran a hand back through his hair and pushed off of the wall. “I would never... Uther would have killed me. Would have made you kill me.”

“He would have tried.”

Merlin swallowed hard and nodded very slightly. “In the beginning, you would have listened to him. After the war, since the war – since before that, maybe - I know. I know you wouldn’t. I should have told you.”

“You must’ve thought I was such a fool,” Arthur scoffed, dropping his head into his hands, feeling the humiliation close in on him all over again. “All those times I called you weak and made sport of you and there you were, stronger than me the whole time.”

“Not stronger,” Merlin said, taking Arthur’s hands away from his face and stepping in between his knees. His fingers combed through Arthur’s hair and slid down to his shoulders. “Not strong enough to trust you like I should have. Like you trusted me.”

Arthur rested his arms on his knees, his hands curling around the backs of Merlin’s thighs, his forehead pressed to Merlin’s stomach. He was so close and the air in the room so thick, so warm. Merlin’s scent surrounded him, comforting and familiar, the feeling of his hands on Arthur’s shoulders calming and arousing at once.

He could tell Merlin the truth. He knew he had to, or he’d never know for certain if there was a chance. His heart pounded in his ears, his fingers flexing on the backs of Merlin’s legs.

“I want you,” he murmured into the soft, worn fabric of Merlin’s tunic. “I need you at my side.”

Merlin lifted Arthur’s face to look at him, then smiled softly and pushed, moving to kneel over Arthur’s lap.

Arthur gathered Merlin to him, shifting back and lying down on the narrow bed. Merlin followed him down, hands on the mattress on either side of Arthur’s head, body a warm, perfect weight settled across Arthur’s thighs.

Merlin ran his thumb across Arthur’s lips, his jaw, drew a line down over Arthur’s throat and Arthur turned into the touches, pressing his mouth to Merlin’s palm, his wrist, the inside of his elbow.

“I- I don’t know what I’m doing,” Merlin whispered, breath already ragged. “I just want to feel you.”

Arthur nodded and leant up for a kiss, working the knot of Merlin’s belt open and slipping it from around his waist. He moaned as he slid his hands beneath Merlin’s tunic, the smooth warmth of Merlin’s skin like velvet against his palms and fingertips.

“Oh, Gods,” Merlin breathed, arching against Arthur’s hands, shivering. He sat up and untied his neckerchief, then stripped off his tunic. Arthur pushed the fabric up Merlin’s body, straining up to kiss and touch his chest and shoulders, before Merlin even had it all the way off.

Merlin canted his hips, rubbing his groin against Arthur’s, his feet tucking in beneath Arthur’s thighs, begging with his entire body. He clutched at Arthur’s arms, long fingers digging in, squeezing and kneading his biceps. “Can I-? I want - take yours off, too, please.”

Arthur dropped his hands to Merlin’s hips, stilling him, groaning as Merlin pressed down over Arthur’s arousal, the thin layers of their breeches doing nothing to hide his eagerness for this. He felt Merlin’s usually-capable hands fumbling on his belt buckle and reached down to push them away, blindly unfastening it and lifting the hem of his tunic.

Merlin worked it from beneath him, pushed his arms up and stripped it from him with a tight, nervous laugh. He clenched it in his fist, pressing it against Arthur’s arm as he leaned down to kiss him again and again, fingers threading through his hair, trailing down his throat and chest, his side, then slipping between them.

“These, too,” Merlin whispered against his lips, fingers dipping just inside his waistband and tugging. “Alright?”

Arthur nodded and closed his eyes, head tilting back against the thin pillow as Merlin began to pull his laces open. He held his breath, body thrumming in anticipation as Merlin moved off of him. He jumped when Merlin kissed his stomach, letting out a shaky breath and touching, touching everywhere, rubbing through Merlin’s hair, over his back and arms and thighs.

Smiling softly down at him, Merlin held his gaze as he pushed at the fabric of Arthur’s breeches and smalls, peeling them down his thighs and off his legs.

Arthur reached for Merlin’s waist, pulling at the drawstring of his breeches. As Merlin pushed them down his hips, Arthur rubbed between Merlin's legs, unable to stop the needy moan in his throat as Merlin’s cock slipped along his palm, slick with arousal.

Merlin groaned and kicked his breeches off, stretching out all along the length of Arthur’s body, touching from their chests to their feet. They moved, sliding and rubbing, holding on tight and pressing together like they would never get enough of it.

“You feel incredible,” Arthur whispered, trembling as Merlin bit his ear and throat, working his way down and down, licking his collarbones, his neck, sucking and tonguing Arthur’s nipples. “That’s-” so fucking good, he wanted to say, but it wasn’t enough; there just weren’t words for this.

For Merlin kissing him, touching him, skin against his skin, Merlin out from under his clothes, stripped down so he couldn’t hide any of his strength, couldn’t pretend.

He’d been waiting for this – for the chance to see all of Merlin at once, to see nothing but him.

Merlin slid, the sensitive skin of their thighs rubbing together as he knelt over Arthur’s hips again, pushing up with his hands spread wide on Arthur’s shoulders. The way Merlin’s cock flexed against his own pulled a sharp gasp from Arthur.

He rocked against Merlin, pushing the leaking head of his cock all along Merlin’s hard length, the roll and slide of his body against Merlin’s ratcheting his arousal up another impossible degree. They glided against each other, both of them slick with their desire, their cocks straining and hips pressing hard together.

Merlin ground down against him, closing his eyes, arching his back and moaning like it hurt, it was so good.

It was, it was so good, and Arthur lifted his hips, pushing up with bruising force and groaning. He reached for Merlin’s neck, drew him down for a kiss, gasping as Merlin’s chest pressed tightly to his, their cocks trapped between them. They rocked frantically together, Arthur licking the moans from Merlin’s tongue, Merlin kissing like he wanted to climb inside Arthur and never leave.

The thought of Merlin inside him was a shock, the anticipation of it and the certainty that he needed it caught inside Arthur’s chest. The idea grew with scorching speed, the urgency for it consuming him as Merlin touched him.

When Merlin pushed up on his palms to look at him, Arthur held his gaze, blindly guiding him to kneel between Arthur’s spread legs.

“You want me to-?” Merlin asked softly, nervousness obvious in his voice.

Arthur nodded and bent his knees, his thighs resting against Merlin’s sides. He drew in a deep breath as he reached for Merlin’s hand, laced their fingers together and guided Merlin’s fingers down between his legs. “We’ll need something slick,” he whispered hesitantly. He wouldn’t ask Merlin to cast, but he was fast becoming addicted to the sight of Merlin’s power flaring in his eyes.

A shy smile spread on Merlin’s lips and he leant down again, whispering a spell against Arthur’s ear, the words so fluid Arthur could almost feel them pour over his skin. He shifted and felt a warm slickness melt against his entrance, pulling a moan from his lips.

Merlin’s fingers brushed along the inside of Arthur’s thigh, and Arthur tensed, forcing himself not to arch into the touch and rush this.

Biting down on a demand, holding a tight rein on his need to just take, Arthur moaned soft encouragement as Merlin touched him. Apparently it helped; Merlin gently pushed, spreading Arthur’s thighs a bit wider, and took his mouth in a kiss.

Arthur arched and groaned on Merlin’s tongue as Merlin’s long fingers caressed the sensitive place behind Arthur’s sac, rubbing harder and harder.

“More,” Arthur breathed into their kiss, biting Merlin’s lower lip gently. He smoothed his hand down Merlin’s chest and belly and rubbed hard at his leaking cock, then reached for Merlin’s hand, urging Merlin to touch him where he needed it most.

“I don’t- Arthur, wait-” Merlin gasped, as if Arthur wasn’t listening to his every breath, his every whisper. “I haven’t ever-”

Relief washed over him like a wave and he was on the edge of orgasm that fast, so ready that he could have come from just Merlin’s voice, from the innocence there that he hadn’t thought he’d ever get to hear. It was a treasure he'd thought was lost to him.

“I’ll show you... trust me.” Arthur took Merlin’s hand and pushed those gorgeous, strong fingers against his entrance, drawing in a shaky breath as Merlin eased two of them inside.

“Is... is that alright?” Merlin slipped his fingers deeper, drew them back, slid them in again.

“Yes, God, just... don't stop.” Arthur lifted his hips, staring into Merlin’s eyes, not daring to look away with Merlin trembling and watching his every reaction with absolute concentration. He squeezed his thighs against Merlin’s hips and nodded again when Merlin dared to push deeper.

“You want this. You want me inside you.”

It wasn’t a question, but Arthur answered. “Yes, Gods, Merlin, you’ve no idea.”

Merlin’s eyes shone over-bright in the flickering light of the fire, then closed for a long moment. When they opened again, flaring as amber as the flames, Arthur groaned. A quick, bright flash of Merlin filled his mind, overwhelming emotion filling him so completely he thought he’d pass out with the strength of it, thought he couldn’t possibly have more of Merlin inside him than in that moment.

He felt Merlin so completely, every fear and doubt, every hope and desire, the burning brilliance of Merlin's magic surrounding it all. And there was no doubt that Merlin had felt Arthur’s every emotion as well.

“Could you feel that?” Merlin whispered, leaning down, pressing his forehead to Arthur’s shoulder as he pulled his fingers free. “I felt you. Gods, Arthur, I didn’t know. I thought you... please. I need to, I want-”

“I know, shh,” Arthur soothed, reaching for focus through the onslaught of emotion and the haze of his arousal. He gently pushed Merlin off of him, rolled onto his stomach, and slid his legs apart, on either side of Merlin's knees.

Kneeling up, drawing Merlin’s arms tight around his chest, he leant his head back onto Merlin’s shoulder, rocked his hips against Merlin's lap and turned his lips to Merlin’s ear. “I want you to take me,” he whispered, squeezing Merlin’s hand and drawing it up to his shoulder. “I want you to hold me down. Push into me...”

Merlin groaned against his throat, pressed a sucking, biting kiss to his shoulder, hand closing tight and strong on the back of his neck. Merlin pushed him to the bed and rubbed his neck hard, the fingers of his other hand moving hot and slick again on his arse, up and down his cleft, spreading him open, working into him, twisting and scissoring until Arthur fisted the bedclothes and reached back, grabbing Merlin’s thigh and pulling him forward.

“Now, Gods, Merlin,” he growled, neck twisting beneath Merlin’s clenching hand so he could see, so he could watch as Merlin lined up against him and pushed inside.

Merlin arched with one quick, almost-frantic thrust in, his arm stretched to keep hold of Arthur’s neck, his head thrown back, mouth open, breath halting and gasping in turns as he stilled abruptly, letting go of Arthur’s neck and squeezing his shoulder. “Sorry, sorry- I... Arthur.” He groaned Arthur’s name like it was Arthur inside him, like it was Arthur’s cock stretching him open.

“Fuck, Merlin, no, it’s. I want- more,” he panted, getting his elbows beneath him and holding his breath, biting his lip as he pushed back against the burn, taking Merlin’s cock deeper inside.

The fingers on his hip dug in and Arthur had a split second to hope there would be marks in the morning before Merlin’s thighs tensed between his own and Merlin pushed forward, pulling Arthur back with the hand that still clutched tightly to his shoulder.

Arthur cried out, forehead pressed to the bed, his eyes squeezed closed as Merlin hit up against the white-hot bundle of nerves inside, cock so deep it was like nothing, nothing he’d ever felt. His body tingled, shuddered as Merlin released his shoulder and smoothed his open palm down over Arthur’s back, holding his hip for one slow, deep thrust. Fingernails raked down his thighs and back up, drawing shivers along his skin.

“You’re so tight,” Merlin whispered, voice full of awe, like he hadn’t ever imagined the clinging sheath of a body around his cock. “Come... come here to me.”

Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur, pulling him up to his knees, pulling him flush against Merlin’s chest.

Arthur leant heavily against him, pleasure thrumming between them everywhere their skin pressed together. He reached behind Merlin and squeezing his thigh, urging him closer, begging him to let go, to just give him everything.

Turning his face to Merlin’s, Arthur took his mouth, gasping into the kiss as Merlin lengthened his next thrust, pulling out in a long stroke and pushing back in faster, deeper, the angle perfect. Merlin’s cock thrust up against the intensely sensitive place deep inside again, again, and Arthur felt weightless and heavy all at once, like flying and falling and being caught over and over.

“There, Gods, yes,” he cried out, feeling Merlin’s smile against his lips before he kissed Arthur again, hard and fierce, hips keeping up the steady, heavenly cadence as Arthur moaned and clung to Merlin’s thigh.

Merlin didn’t stop, didn’t need to be told, and Arthur savoured the desperate, aching need as it built, piling on top of what was already there. The heat flared beneath his skin and through his body until he couldn’t speak, couldn’t think, his lips dragging against the salt-sweat skin of Merlin’s throat, the air punching out of his lungs in short little bursts with every pounding thrust.

“Are you- Gods, I need to... Arthur, I can’t-” Merlin rasped out, hands rubbing hard over Arthur’s chest and down between his legs. Merlin's hot, tight fist stripped his cock, thrusts sharpening, stealing Arthur’s breath and the last bit of his control.

With a strangled cry, Arthur came, jerking in Merlin’s embrace, one hand reaching up to clutch at the arm that tightened around his chest. Arthur pressed back to feel the strength of Merlin’s body holding him up. He turned his head, offering his neck to Merlin’s gentle, warm mouth. He let Merlin have him, turn his face back and kiss him breathless, fuck him through every last pulse and into almost-pain that felt like need all over again.

Merlin’s hips shifted out of rhythm, cock slipping back as if to pull out and Arthur shook his head. “Don’t stop,” he breathed, groaning to find his voice and saying it again. “Don’t stop. Come for me.”

He dug his fingers into Merlin’s thigh, urging him back into the hard rhythm.

Thrusts sharper, impossibly deeper, Merlin dropped his head to Arthur’s shoulder.

Arthur could feel Merlin’s eyes squeeze closed against his skin, Merlin’s hot, panting breath against his shoulder-blade, Merlin’s arms locked around his chest like he couldn’t, wouldn’t ever let go.

Arthur held on, tightening his hold as Merlin broke apart, convulsing in a blinding, powerful rush that shook them both.

Merlin shuddered around him, inside him, arms letting go and hands skidding down his sides, gripping his hips hard as Merlin’s thrust sharpened, then stilled.

Arthur eased them forward, bracing up on one hand, lost in the feeling of Merlin draped over him, pushing into him with small movements even now, like he never wanted to leave. He closed his eyes and drank in the slickness of their skin sliding together, the delicious stretch and soreness in his muscles, the scent of Merlin and sex and them, everywhere. They stayed like that, Merlin laying over him, the weight of him such an unexpected comfort that it took Arthur’s breath away all over again.

Merlin pressed a kiss to the back of Arthur’s shoulder, the nape of his neck, then reached for his hand, their fingers lacing together, but neither said a word.

Moving seemed impossible, a dreaded, impossible thing, and he didn’t want to, didn’t want Merlin to, but too soon, Merlin shifted off of him, eased out of him, hissing in his ear and holding onto Arthur’s hips like he was afraid Arthur’d disappear or run away. A hand slipped down his spine and covered his throbbing, slick entrance. Merlin’s fingertips rubbed in soothing circles, slipping inside and holding there, warm and comforting, for a moment before sliding free of him.

Arthur turned and sat slowly up, fingers running through Merlin’s sweaty hair and down over his throat, his palm catching the quick, hard thump of Merlin’s heartbeat. He kissed Merlin slowly then, languidly, his need just as strong as when they’d started but his body spent and sated.

He let go of Merlin only long enough to draw down the blankets and shuffle Merlin beneath them, their positions switched now, Merlin curled in the curve of his lap.

He didn’t care a whit for whatever had been left unsaid between them, whatever he still didn’t know. Merlin would give him anything, tell him everything. Later.

He buried his face against Merlin’s damp curls and matched his breaths to Merlin’s, letting the peace between them fill his heart and mind as thoroughly as Merlin filled his arms.

**

Warmth wriggled against Merlin’s feet and he tucked them further beneath it, shifting back against Arthur’s bare body and relishing the feeling of those strong arms finally, finally surrounding him.

They hadn’t hugged much, ever, really, and he’d always, always wanted this, even before he’d known he wanted more. The sheer expanse of Arthur’s skin against his sent a thrill along his body. He shifted his feet again, hearing a soft sigh of contentment that came from the foot of the bed, not the lips that breathed in an sleep-slow rhythm just behind his ear.

Merlin tensed, gently nudging the lump at his feet again, eyes opening wide as he heard Pen’s unmistakable snuffle. He started to speak through his mindlink to Pen, to order Pen to leave, but Arthur’s arms tightened as he stirred behind Merlin.

“Mmm, morning,” Arthur moaned against his ear, nuzzling closer and kissing his neck.

Merlin hummed as contentedly as he could, bracing himself for the inevitable shout as he felt Arthur prop up on an elbow behind him.

He scrubbed a hand over his face and back through his hair, then looked curiously down the bed.

The chill morning air hit Merlin full-force as their blankets flew into the air, Arthur leaping for his scabbard and drawing his sword just as Merlin threw himself on top of Pen, screaming a word he knew they’d both understand. “STOP!”

Pen, who was baring his teeth and poking holes through the mattress with his claws, shrank back instantly and, to his credit, so did Arthur.

The tip of his blade dipped as he narrowed his eyes and pointed at Merlin. “Tell me that’s not yours.”

“It’s not mine?” Merlin asked, cringing as Pen thwapped him on the side of the head with his tail and ducked beneath Merlin’s outstretched arm.

“I am Pen,” the dragon said in English, bowing so low that his chin brushed the bed. “I am very pleased to meet you at last, Sire.”

Merlin bit his lip and gave Arthur a weak smile. “I’m also a Dragonlord?” he offered, laying a hand on Pen’s back in a show of solidarity. “Pen is under my command.”

“Pen is under your command?” Arthur asked, closing his eyes for a long moment, obviously trying to gather his control. “Pen is a dragon? As in... Pendragon?

Merlin stood quickly, taking the sheet with him, wrapping it around himself and Arthur. He put himself between Pen and Arthur, just in case, and gingerly pried the hilt of Excalibur from Arthur’s fingers, reaching to lay it on the bed.

“He’ll be your greatest ally apart from me,” Merlin promised, turning so Arthur would look at him and not at the baby dragon who was trying – rather unsuccessfully – to pull his claws from the mattress. “He’ll serve Camelot even beyond our lifetimes.”

“Serve Camelot? Merlin! Look at him!” Arthur scoffed, gesturing at Pen. “Is he even housebroken?”

“Of course he-” Merlin began, but stopped as Arthur smirked.

Pen stuck his snout in the air and jumped from the bed, his body still weighing a bit heavily on his underdeveloped wings so he swung precariously before righting himself mid-air. He flew to the fireplace and blew a flame across the logs before flying back to the bed and twirling a nest for himself in the disheveled bedclothes.

“Impressive,” Arthur said, voice dripping with sarcasm but with a hint of amusement, too. He nodded at Pen’s already-dozing form on the bed. “So he does share your bed.”

Merlin grinned and shrugged. “At least he’ll keep our feet warm.”

 

~ finis