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Until Morning Light

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Sooner than Merlin welcomed it, winter arrived. It coated the roads with sleet and slicked the stone of the citadel for a fortnight, then softened all the sharp, icy edges with downy flakes of snow the size of silver pieces. The drifts were soon so thick that they began measuring them against last year’s marks and bellyaching over what a harsh winter must lie ahead if things were so bad this early in the season.

They’d not been wrong to dread it. Old Man Winter came early and was ruthless that year, giving them very little reprieve from the sting and slice of freezing rain and the gusts of frigid wind that lifted hems and stole beneath to chill clear to the bone.

By Midwinter night, Merlin had nearly given up on finding warmth at all until Spring. Even inside the castle, he was always a bit chilly. Coming over from the tower that evening had been a trial of will. The wind was sharp and cutting, slicing right through his clothing.

True, his formal servant livery was slightly warmer than his usual tunic and trousers, but the extra layers were cumbersome as he worked and it felt odd to look just like every other servant.

Although he hadn’t blended in with the others, in the end. He’d worn the now-infamous feathered monstrosity of a hat and joined in with Arthur’s fit of laughter, unable to keep a straight face for more than a few seconds. He hadn’t expected Arthur to force him to keep it on, but still, he was more than relieved when Arthur plucked the hat from his head and tossed it to the table.

“You’re not entertaining enough to be court jester,” he said with a grin.

Merlin smiled back at him and went to collect Arthur’s formal clothing for the night’s ceremony as Arthur disrobed.

When Arthur stepped back out from behind the dressing screen in nothing but his smalls, Merlin shivered in sympathy, remembering how frozen his own room was that afternoon as he’d gotten changed. He let Arthur pull on his trousers and tunic, then hurriedly helped him on with his cloak, his chest nearly brushing Arthur’s as he settled the royal mantle on his shoulders.

Despite the fire now blazing in Arthur’s fireplace, Merlin’s toes were still as cold as a bridle buckle, even through two pairs of heavy woollen socks. His aching fingers were clumsy as he fastened Arthur’s cloak about his shoulders.

When Merlin trailed his fingertips along the edge of the collar to make sure it was straight, Arthur sucked in a breath and laughed it out.

“Your hands are like ice.” He took Merlin’s hands in his own, chaffing them, drawing them up to his mouth. He huffed warm breath into the cup of them, then pressed them together again, holding them firmly.

Arthur touched him like this now and again, as if the boundaries of propriety didn’t apply to a King and his manservant. As if the notion of boundaries didn’t even occur to Arthur now that no one could question his behavior.

It was not uncommon now for Arthur to take Merlin’s elbow and draw him close when a simple wave of his hand would have sufficed. He expected Merlin to ride abreast with him, to walk or stand at his side without being reminded to do so. To a stranger in the court, it would seem by all outward appearances that Merlin ranked higher than any official, knight or advisor.

Merlin didn’t question Arthur's wishes or suggest that Arthur might allow someone else the place of honour. He’d thought about broaching the subject, of course, but he couldn’t bring himself to say the words. Despite the impropriety of it all, he had no desire to lose his place at Arthur’s side.

For months now, since the war and then Uther’s death, since Merlin had come so close to death, too, he’d hoped even more fervently that the strength and nature of his feelings for Arthur would someday, somehow be returned. He knew it was impossible, a King falling in love with a servant, but he hoped.

He was very careful not to give his secret away, but he didn’t change the way he behaved around Arthur. He laughed with him, insulted him, joked and horse-played with him. He treated him with respect as a King, but also as a friend.

And now, with Arthur acknowledging that friendship even in public, it truly seemed that they were.

He welcomed Arthur’s touches; he always had, but the way he asked Merlin’s opinion in front of others now, the way his eyes flashed at anyone daring enough to challenge the wisdom of trusting a mere servant with matters of state – it felt like they were closer than any brother or friend could be.

He was less servant and more... trusted advisor, truly. But Merlin couldn’t wish to hold any other position but manservant. If he was on the royal council, he’d never be permitted such a close relationship with Arthur.

Their world had changed so drastically in the past year, with Uther’s death and the revelation of Merlin’s magic. They’d cast off all masks and stepped into new roles. It was their world now. Arthur was King now, and the more he realized that he was truly free to be his own man and not only his father’s son, the more beloved he was of his people.

And of Merlin.

“I can warm them at the fire,” Merlin offered, not making the least effort to pull his hands from Arthur’s. They were so warm around his chilly fingers, and Merlin reveled in the way Arthur just kept holding them.

“They’re better now, aren’t they?” Arthur asked quietly, looking down at their still-joined hands and shifting his weight, leaning closer. Their arms were trapped between their chests, Arthur’s knuckles pressing into Merlin’s over-tunic.

Merlin nodded, staring at Arthur’s mouth because this close, he couldn’t look him in the eye or Arthur might see the one secret he still kept. His heart beat so wildly that he knew Arthur must’ve been able to feel it. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

He wouldn’t pull away first. He never did.

When Arthur finally stepped back, Merlin heard him sigh. It was a night for dreaming, a night for happiness, and so he let himself believe Arthur’s sigh sounded a bit forlorn as their hands slipped apart.

He smiled softly at his own ridiculousness as he fetched Excalibur and began strapping the scabbard into place at Arthur’s waist.

Midwinter night was Merlin’s favourite night of the year, a time when magic of an altogether different sort wove its way through the fragrant garlands that hung from every mantle in the castle and lifted spirits and wine goblets alike.

Legend held that the veil between worlds was thinnest this night, the longest night of the year. The entire city would remain awake until morning, keeping vigil, tradition said, to guard against any evil that may try to slip through. They would begin tonight with a meagre supper of symbolic foods, then fast from dusk to dawn. Then they’d break that fast with the biggest feast of the year and the lighting of every fire in Camelot from the one blessed First Fire, lit by the King.

“I dread this supper every year,” Arthur said, as if reading his thoughts.

Merlin grinned. “You’re not used to going without.” Arthur’s eyes narrowed at the teasing remark, so Merlin quickly added, “I hate the sprouts, especially. They taste like grass. Just imagine morning, though. I’ve heard they’re making twice as many spice cakes this year.”

“You should see your face, Merlin. You’re practically drooling.” Arthur smiled and laid a hand on his shoulder. “Feel free to eat anything I leave on my plate tonight.”

“And people say you’re stingy!” Merlin laughed as Arthur started to protest. “I’ll have enough on my own plate, thanks. It’s the one time of the year when I won’t spend a candlemark standing behind you and smelling your delicious food while my stomach grumbles.”

“You’re meant to eat before me, you know. Test the food for poison and whatnot.” Arthur smirked and Merlin scoffed.

“And if you had learned to dress yourself by now, I could,” Merlin joked, smoothing Arthur’s tunic and cloak one last time to prove his point.

Arthur drew Excalibur from its scabbard, inspecting it as he always did. It was polished to perfection, of course, but he didn’t sheath it. He held the blade out toward Merlin, smirking. “Careful. I could still force you to wear the hat, you know.”

“The carriage you ordered for Gaius was magnificent,” Merlin said, changing the subject quickly. “You should’ve seen the look of relief on his face when he’d realized he wouldn’t be making the journey to Ealdor on horseback. It was very kind of you. He and mum neither one will stay awake through the vigil, I’m sure, but at least they’ll have one another this year.”

“All part of my cunning plan,” Arthur answered, sheathing Excalibur and tugging on his leather gloves. “Where are you spending the night? Surely not down at the tavern?”

The knights had invited both him and Arthur to hold vigil with them, though they knew Arthur wouldn’t be able to go. The King always stayed in his chambers for Midwinter.

As much fun as Merlin guessed the knights would have down in the city, he wasn’t sure he wanted to spend the celebration with a raucous party. Although food was forbidden, wine was not, and the knights would empty a barrel-full of it that night, Merlin was sure.

It’d always been a solemn, peaceful time for him and Hunith when he was growing up.

Merlin shook his head. “I haven’t decided. We never held vigil the way I suspect the knights will, but I can’t imagine being alone all night. I’d fall asleep for sure.”

“The knights can spare you tonight,” Arthur said, reaching for the door but not opening it. He paused for a moment, then looked over his shoulder at Merlin. “Why don’t you stay here with me? I don’t particularly wish to spend Midwinter alone, either.”

Merlin drew in a breath, stunned by the offer, though perhaps he shouldn’t have been.

Midwinter vigil was for families and lovers, and Arthur had neither. Merlin had supposed Arthur would spend Midwinter with Gwen, but in truth, they’d grown further and further apart since Uther’s passing and Lancelot’s return.

And this - Arthur asking Merlin to keep vigil with him - it was proof that he and Gwen were no longer intended, if they ever had been.

“Of course, Arthur,” Merlin said, clearing his throat. “I’d be honoured.”

“You’ll be cold and hungry, but at least you’ll have company,” Arthur corrected with a telling, genuine smile. “Let’s hope the cook uses plenty of spice on the sprouts, at least,” he said, throwing open the door and stepping through.

Merlin closed and locked the door behind himself and trailed after Arthur, his body moving automatically as his mind reeled.

He’d just been told in no uncertain terms that he was Arthur’s family, that he was the closest person in the world to Arthur.

And, by the way Arthur had made it an offer and not an order, he’d just been asked if he considered Arthur family, as well.

His chest ached with the effort to hold back a flood of emotion as he followed along behind Arthur, staring at his broad shoulders and the nape of his neck until Arthur stopped abruptly, waiting for him to catch up.

They walked shoulder-to-shoulder then, the billowing hem of Arthur’s cloak brushing Merlin’s legs all the way down to the Great Hall.

 

**

 

The sky outside the tall, high windows was still light and it was far earlier than anyone normally ate supper. Everyone bowed as the King took his place at the head table, then took their seats. The chairs on either side of Arthur’s were reserved not for his advisors as one might expect. Arthur chose to give the seats of honour to his men, his knights. Leon sat at his left, Lancelot at his right, then Gwaine, Percival and Elyan on either side of them.

They were all resplendent in their long red capes, standing tall, behaving as if their mums were standing just behind their chairs. As if unable to completely give way to propriety, Gwaine winked at Merlin.

Merlin winked back, biting his lips to keep from grinning.

The hall fell silent as Arthur rose. Every noble there stood silently as they awaited his words.

“Tonight, we pay homage to the earliest settlers of Albion, those who struggled with famine and disease, who braved their first harsh winter and survived.

Legend tells that in their darkest hour, the starving people prayed to the moon for mercy. They were weak with hunger, ill with lack of nourishment, and yet they had praised the moon for his light and strength. The sun, hearing their prayers and seeing their dire circumstances, felt pity for them. She championed their plea, appealing to the moon to show them mercy. The moon, deep in love with the sun, gave way at last, on this night.”

Arthur looked around the room as he spoke, meeting the eyes of every courtier and noble as they stared, rapt with attention, and listened. When he’d first taken the throne, Arthur’s trepidation when addressing the court had been obvious. He and Merlin practiced in his chamber at night and now when he spoke, it was with absolute confidence. Merlin looked on proudly as he continued.

“With the moon’s blessing, the sun grew nourishing plants for the settlers. She showed them what berries were plentiful and where game, lethargic with cold, could be easily felled. The people gathered the food and held a feast, praising the sun and bidding a grateful farewell to the moon.

“From that season to this, the people of Albion have known to expect the bitter cold and scarcity of food each winter. We prepare enough stores to see ourselves through, though we will never forget the moon’s benevolent reprieve, nor the sun’s generosity of spirit.

“And so tonight, we dine together on simple fare, honouring the moon for his mercy. Tomorrow, we will celebrate the bounty of the sun.”

This was a solemn moment, a powerful one, and all around the Great Hall, heads were bowed. Arthur wouldn’t pray to the Moon, but he paused, allowing all who wished to express their gratitude the silent moment.

When every eye was once again trained on him, Arthur lifted his goblet. “Remember the sacrifice of our people,” he said, his voice strong and clear. “Remember the moon’s mercy, for without it, Albion would not stand united today!”

Arthur drank deeply and all of the feast goers followed his example, taking their seats only after he’d settled into his own.

Merlin stood at attention in his fancy uniform, watching anxiously as pages in crisp Camelot-red tunics brought bowls of thin broth and plates of greens and set them along the tables.

As soon as Arthur began eating, Merlin fell into line with the other personal servants, filing to the back of the room where a table had been set just for them. The young page who took Merlin’s place behind Arthur looked sleepy already, but Merlin knew that soon enough he’d be wide awake and likely leading his family in song. He was alert enough, though, and Arthur likely wouldn’t need anything during the meal anyway, so Merlin turned his attention to the food laid before him.

The supper was bland and simple, but Merlin ate every bite, hoping Arthur was doing the same. He didn’t usually eat after supper anyway, but somehow knowing it was forbidden always made him hungry every Midwinter night.

As the light began to fail, the servants hurried to finish their supper. Merlin collected as many dishes as he could carry and took them to the kitchen with the other servants.

He hurried back to the hall and took up his usual position behind Arthur’s chair through the rest of the ceremony. Soon, Arthur rose and declared the Midwinter vigil’s commencement. They left the hall last, as was the custom, and it was Merlin who held the door tightly shut as Arthur turned the key, symbolically locking the feasting chamber.

The corridor was empty but for Gwen and the knights, but Merlin was still taken aback when Arthur pressed the key into his palm and nodded solemnly.

Merlin looped the velvet ribbon holding the key around his neck, feeling its cool weight through his tunics. He laid his hand over it and returned Arthur’s nod.

“Well then,” Gwaine said, clapping Merlin on the shoulder, “we’re off to the inn. Sure you won’t join us?”

“I’d better make sure the King stays awake or we’ll all be late to feast in the morning.” Merlin pulled Gwaine in for a quick hug. “Keep these boys out of trouble, alright?”

Lancelot scoffed good-naturedly and reached for Arthur’s hand, clasping it fondly. “Until morning light, my friend.”

“Until morning light,” Arthur said, and each of them echoed the traditional parting words for Midwinter’s vigil.

**

Merlin lifted the special gilded pitcher from its stand and handed it to Arthur without a word, then went to the windows. Many eyes would be trained on them at that moment, watching for them to go dark.

He pulled the curtains wide and tied them back, for they would spend the night in darkness but for what light the moon provided. There would be little warmth, as well – and that was Merlin’s least favourite part of holding vigil. The coldest hours were always just before dawn, and they were the most difficult now, but they had been the best when Merlin was a child.

When he was little, his mother would bundle him into bed with her as soon as he’d started shivering, cuddling with him under every blanket they owned until the first rays of sun peeked in through the crack of their door. Merlin would run to the light every year, for the first to spot the sun was said to be blessed with luck the season through.

And his mum always let him see it first.

But as a young man – a single young man – the wee hours of Midwinter vigil were lonely and cold. Even with Hunith or Gaius keeping him company and distracting him with stories and songs, he’d felt the cold through to his bones every year. He couldn’t very well huddle up to Gaius, and he’d only gotten home for Midwinter once since he’d come to Camelot.

By his age, most young men had found a girl to keep them warm in the coldest hours.

In truth, men with his preferences usually ended up forming a hodgepodge family of friends to pass the hours with. He didn’t know of even one pair of men who lived together, let alone kept vigil with only one another, though he’d heard the knights speaking openly of others they knew.

But the family Merlin had made for himself here in Camelot was scattered tonight. Gaius gone to Hunith, the knights joining the raucous celebration at the inn’s tavern and Elyan and Gwen would hold vigil at her home, he supposed.

And here he was, spending Midwinter with a King. With Arthur.

Now and again, Merlin’s life took his breath away.

Still, he had no idea what sort of vigil Arthur was used to. Would he be merry or solemn? Would he share moral stories as some families did, or would they spend the night telling all manner of tall tales?

At the moment, as the last of the sun’s rays were dying a way, Arthur knelt at the hearth, staring at the flickering firelight.

“The light’s leaving us. Is something the matter?” Merlin asked, crossing to crouch down beside Arthur, who shook his head.

“Father always did this. He always knew what to say. I- I should remember the words.”

Merlin laid a hand on his shoulder. “Mother always said, ‘Until first light, we live by the moon.’ It’s simple, but it always sounded fitting to me.”

“Indeed,” Arthur whispered, giving Merlin a soft smile. “Until first light, we live by the moon,” he said quietly, pouring the water back and forth until every ember was soaked and the logs dripped.

Every light in Camelot would be extinguished now, as it was custom that the King’s fire be the last to go out.

The room fell into silence so complete that Merlin scarcely dared breathe.

“Good Midwinter, Merlin,” Arthur said, reaching to lay his hand on Merlin’s.

Merlin nodded, turning his hand beneath Arthur’s so they were palm-to-palm. He slipped his fingers between Arthur’s and squeezed, the thrill of the touch quickening his heart. “Good Midwinter, Arthur.”

They knelt there for a long moment before Arthur let go, rising with a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, then reaching for Merlin’s elbow to hoist him up, too. He clapped once, the sharp sound shattering the solemn quiet of the room.

“So how do you propose we start? Song? Tales? Or...” Arthur pulled Merlin across the room by his sleeve, stopping at the wardrobe. “A change of clothes,” he declared. “This frippery is all well and good for the masses, but I’m for something comfortable since we’re shut in for the night, if you don’t have any objections.”

“Objections?” Merlin asked, shaking his head. “No, of course not. I’ll find you something warm,” he said, opening the wardrobe door and feeling for thick wool breeches and a long-sleeved tunic.

When he turned to hand them to Arthur, he had to bite his lip to stifle his laugh. By the soft moonlight, he saw Arthur struggling to disrobe, one glove between his teeth, the other still on, doing nothing to help the situation as Arthur tried to undo the clasp at his throat.

“Let me.” Merlin stepped forward, laid the nightclothes on a nearby stool and reached for the clasp. “It’s really not as difficult as you make it, you know,” he teased, whipping the cloak away and over his arm in one smooth gesture.

“It’s dark,” Arthur reasoned, pulling off his other glove and tossing them to the stool as well. He fumbled with the tie of his tunic for only a moment before Merlin batted his hands away and unlaced it for him, laughing outright now.

When Arthur stripped it over his head, Merlin bit his lip for a very different reason. The moonlight shone on the curve of every muscle, highlighting Arthur’s broad shoulders, the smooth lines of his chest and the angle of his jaw. His face glowed as the pale blue light touched it, his lips...

“You actually look your part tonight, for once,” Arthur said softly, looking him up and down. Merlin could hear the tease in his voice.

“Yes, and I even dressed myself,” he retorted, grinning.

Arthur pressed his balled-up tunic to Merlin’s chest and shoved the tiniest bit. “Find something for yourself. I don’t want to look at you in that stiff apron all night. Not unless you wear the hat, too.”

“Not a chance,” Merlin threw over his shoulder, going back to the wardrobe and pulling a pair of sleep-pants and a wool tunic from the back of the bottom shelf. They were the ones Arthur wore when on patrol in winter – stained and mended in a few places, though still warmer and softer than anything Merlin owned. He ran his fingers along the fabric as he listened to Arthur undressing behind the screen.

As tempting as the fabric was, he couldn’t imagine wearing the nightclothes. They were Arthur’s, and somehow wearing his clothes seemed far too intimate a thing. “They’ll be too big. I’ll just go without the apron.”

“And freeze?” Arthur snorted. “Like hell you will. Put them on. Here, I’m through.” He stepped from behind the screen and gestured for Merlin to take his turn.

He had only a moment to mourn the loss of the alluring sight of moonlight on Arthur’s bare skin before he was given a shove and stumbled back behind the screen to dress.

“Isn’t it some sort of treason for a servant to wear the King’s clothes?” he asked, poking his head out only to see Arthur rolling his eyes.

“You’re my guest tonight, not my servant. Now hurry up.”

“Do you always order your guests about, then?” Merlin asked, grinning and ducking back behind the screen as Arthur grabbed a pillow and lobbed it at his head.

**

To Merlin’s surprise, Arthur sat down in front of the empty fireplace, leaning against the stone, his legs stretched out before him, ankles crossed.

Merlin took a seat opposite him, his back against the settee, his legs measured alongside Arthur’s. He liked the closeness. It felt as though the entire world had fallen away around them and left the two of them alone, completely.

Arthur seemed comfortable enough, and Merlin could bear the hard stone of the floor forever if it meant he could keep this intimacy. They’d likely have to move soon, though; it was getting colder by the moment.

Arthur took a sip of his wine, but only a sip. He was being careful, Merlin realized, not to drink it too quickly. He was glad to see that Arthur wasn’t interested in turning the vigil into an excuse to drink to excess.

“What did you and your mother do for Midwinter when you were growing up?”

“It was a celebration for our whole village, actually. We’d start off in our separate families, but at dawn we’d have the biggest feast of the year. There were songs and dancing and enough mead to float a boat. I’m guessing it was not unlike how a certain band of knights are celebrating tonight.”

“I’m sure,” Arthur scoffed, turning his own wine goblet where it stood at arm’s reach. “Royals are traditionally secluded for Midwinter, but I’ve heard the knights’ stories. I was insanely jealous of them when I was younger,” Arthur said with a sly grin.

“The stories were always better than the actual night,” Merlin said, shrugging when Arthur raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Country boys can find mischief, too.”

“I guess they can at that. Alright. You brought it up - now tell.”

“There’s not much to tell, honestly. Oh!” he said, remembering the last Midwinter before he came to Camelot. “Will and I once stole a cask of ale from the feast. It was far more than we could have drunk, but we thought it was a brilliant idea at the time. When mum found us in the barn, we were both sound asleep and had missed the entire breakfast feast. She figured that was punishment enough.”

“I can just imagine you two, passed out on a few swallows,” Arthur said, chuckling. “Was Will...” His laughter died away and he cleared his throat. “Were you and he lovers?”

Merlin swallowed hard and shook his head, his eyes filling with tears as he remembered the day Will had confessed to him. The careful words Merlin had said were meant to let him down as gently as he could, but they’d never seemed gentle enough.

He dreaded hearing those words again, dreaded someone saying them to him someday.

He shook his head again, looking down at his lap, fingers plucking at a loose thread on the blanket. “I didn’t return his feelings; not that way. He was a brother to me.”

“I could see how much you meant to him. He was a brave and loyal friend.”

“He was,” Merlin agreed, raising his cup as Arthur lifted his own in a toast. They drank in tribute to Will, the sincerity of Arthur’s compliment warming him better than the wine ever could. Such kindness from Arthur was more and more common, and Merlin wrapped himself up in it, smiling softly. “Your turn. What was your best Midwinter?”

“They were all the same, to be honest. Sometimes Father would have musicians in to play for us, but most years it was just the two of us until dawn.”

“It was the same for mum and I. She’d let me sleep with her when I was small,” Merlin said after a quiet moment. “It’s a lot colder in our home than it is here,” he added, half expecting Arthur to tease him about sleeping in his mum’s bed.

“Father and I would sit together under furs most of the night. He’d teach me the names of each animal and tell me stories of his most successful hunts.” For all that he sounded as if he’d wished for more than hunting tales, Arthur’s voice held a loneliness that couldn’t be mistaken.

“He always wanted you to be proud of him.” Merlin reached over and laid a hand on Arthur’s shin, knowing the touch wouldn’t be rebuffed. Since Uther’s passing, Arthur hadn’t once flinched or shied away from Merlin’s reassuring touch.

Beneath his hand, Arthur shifted closer, tapping his foot against Merlin’s hip and giving him a grateful smile.

“Did your mother know any good tales?” he asked, reaching for the blanket Merlin had left beside them. He threw it open and spread it over their legs, absently tucking it in under Merlin’s feet.

Stunned into silence for a moment, Merlin couldn’t think of anything but the fact that he was beneath a blanket with Arthur, his legs pressed up alongside Arthur’s, Arthur’s foot leaning against his hip. It was so, so warm, he suddenly couldn’t even remember what cold felt like.

“Merlin? Are you nodding off already?” Arthur teased, lifting his foot and giving him a little push with it.

“No, no. Um,” he stammered, shaking his head to clear it. “She told me of my father, though I couldn’t have known it was him.”

“You said she never spoke of him,” Arthur accused, eyes narrowing, though Merlin could tell there was no venom behind it.

“She didn’t. I mean, she did, but only on Midwinter, and they were tales of a Dragonlord, of his adventures with Kilgharrah and the others.”

“Tell me one.”

Merlin grinned and began to shake his head, but stopped as he saw the genuine curiosity on Arthur’s face. He was only partly in shadow now, the moonlight from the window bright enough now that Merlin could make him out quite clearly.

“He sought shelter in Ealdor from a storm the first time,” Merlin began, folding his hands in his lap and looking up at the ceiling so he could concentrate on remembering. “How did she begin? The clouds were black as pitch and rolling low over the hills. The entire village was shut up tight in their houses, the animals secured in the barn. The Dragonlord rode in late at night, soaked to the bone, his horse near foundering. He dismounted outside of my mum’s house, or things would have gone very differently for the two of them. Mum had just lost her parents the year before and was alone, you see, and the village elders would never have permitted her to care for Balinor on her own.”

Merlin paused, glancing at Arthur, who nodded for him to continue.

“She heard him struggling, heard his mare’s rough breathing and went to see what was happening outside her door. He asked her for help and she willingly gave it, though she knew the storm was picking up.

She led him to the stable and tended the mare, then took the stranger back to her home, gave him a change of clothing and a seat at her hearth. Once he was warmed and fed, they returned to the barn and kept watch over the mare all night long, talking. As the storm raged outside, they discovered a shared fascination with magic.

In the face of her generosity, he couldn’t keep the truth from her. He confessed that he was a Dragonlord and told her of a dragon he’d known – Kilgharrah.”

“She must’ve been taken with him at once – a handsome stranger in need of warmth and succour, offering tales of adventure and magic? She hadn’t a chance!”

“Not a chance,” Merlin agreed, shaking his head. “When he cast in front of her the first time, the girl in her stories fell off her hay bale in surprise. I bet mum really did, too. Can you imagine? She was barely eighteen and had never seen magic before. No one in Ealdor had magic.”

“You must’ve come as quite a shock to her, then. I nearly fell off my seat myself the first time you cast in front of me.”

“No, the first time I cast in front of you, you were sound asleep and covered in cobwebs,” Merlin said, grinning. “The chandelier didn’t fall on that witch all by itself, you know.”

“But the knife? You didn’t stop that with magic, did you?” Arthur’s hand fell heavily on Merlin’s shin, rubbing there as he spoke. “That was just you, knocking me out of harm’s way.”

“Seems I haven’t stopped saving you since,” Merlin answered lightly, though his entire body was tense under Arthur’s casual touch.

“Did the Dragonlord sweep her off her feet that first night, then? In the story?”

“No! The girl was old-fashioned and innocent!” Merlin exclaimed defensively, smacking Arthur’s arm. “As it happens, he woke up ill the next morning.”

“Convenient.”

“Yes, very,” Merlin laughed, looking away from Arthur’s face and out the window, trying to gather his thoughts. He knew this story as well as he knew his own – it was his own, after all - but his entire world seemed narrowed to the warm weight of Arthur’s hand on his shin and the length of their legs pressing together.

“She nursed him back to health,” Arthur prompted, lifting his hand for a moment to wave Merlin on, then laying it right back down where it had been.

Merlin took a deep breath and looked back to him, holding his gaze. “She did. Once she learned what he was, she was determined to protect him. She brought him back to health, let him stay in her home and share her table. Having not known such kindness from anyone in his life, let alone a beautiful young woman, he opened up to her as he never had to anyone before. He shared his secrets and adventures with her, and, as in all good tales, they fell in love.”

“And since tradition dictates that we not tell anything but uplifting stories, let’s leave it at that,” Arthur said, lifting his goblet and taking a sip.

“Yes, happily ever after, as it turns out,” Merlin said, taking a sip of his own. He set his cup down and pulled the edge of the blanket over his chest, tucking his arms beneath it.

“You never guessed that she was the maid in the story and the Dragonlord your father?”

Merlin shook his head. “I would never have believed her anyway, if she’d told me the stories were truth.”

“No one would – a Dragonlord showing up in the night as if materializing out of thin air? It’s straight out of a fairy story,” Arthur agreed, mimicking Merlin’s actions and pulling the blanket over himself a bit more. “Did she ever meet Kilgharrah?”

“I don’t know. We’ve still never spoken about Balinor, really.”

“Even now? She knows you met him, though, doesn’t she?”

“She knows. I think she wonders why he never came back to her. To us.” Merlin shifted beneath the blanket, feeling the cold seep in beneath the edges. He pulled a bit more of it around himself to ward off the chill.

“He missed out on knowing a fine woman,” Arthur said, giving the blanket a tug. “And a fine son, though if you don’t stop hoarding the blanket, I might change my opinion of you.”

Merlin laughed and, with a heavy stone of regret in his chest, began to get up to fetch another throw.

Arthur’s hand closed on his wrist, holding him there as Arthur rose to his feet, too. “It’s getting cold down there.” He looked around the chamber, gaze pausing at the table, then the settee behind Merlin, then the bed.

Merlin held his breath, knowing already which Arthur would judge the warmest.

He shouldn’t have been surprised, then, when Arthur tugged him across the room and propelled him toward one side of the bed, then climbed in on the other.

“Come on,” he urged, lifting the edge of the duvet and gesturing impatiently for Merlin to join him beneath it. “There’s no one here but us. Get in.”

As if Merlin was worried what people might think.

He wasn’t, apart from the repercussions it would have on Arthur. That wasn’t what was stopping him, though. He wanted this so badly he ached for it, but what he wanted was far more than Arthur would ever imagine.

If Arthur knew, if he guessed... Merlin would never be able to look him in the eye again. Things would change irrecocably, and Merlin didn’t think he could handle that. With all of the monumental changes of the past year, Merlin wasn’t sure they would survive another.

“I’ll be fine over there,” he whispered, gesturing at the settle.

“Don’t make me order my guest about, Merlin,” Arthur threatened, sighing. “We’ll be warmer together.”

He knew better than to try to argue with Arthur when he truly needed no convincing as it was. He steeled his nerves and, determined not to give his desire away, slid beneath the heavy blanket. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply as he sank down on the soft bed and warmth surrounded him. It was heavenly, the comfort of the fine fabrics and thick mattress, the feeling of Arthur beside him, sharing it.

Merlin stretched languidly, his feet shifting against the smooth bedclothes. The pillow smelled just like Arthur’s hair, the rich, clean scent wafting up as Merlin pushed his head deeper into the softness. He wished he could stay there forever, Arthur’s not-servant, a guest in his decadent bed.

“I knew you’d like it,” Arthur said quietly, and Merlin felt his face flush.

Arthur had thought of Merlin in his bed, whether he would like it. Merlin shivered and drew the covers up to his neck, intensely aware of the mere hand’s breadth of space between his body and Arthur’s.

“Do you know any stories?” he asked, determined to distract himself from the feeling of Arthur so close, so warm.

“Only one worth telling,” Arthur whispered, propping up on his elbow and looking down at Merlin. “A story of a loyal friendship between a King and his servant that grows into much more. They weather many storms together, their bond holding fast through it all. But I’m not sure how it ends. Would you care to help me find out?”

Merlin stared up at him, shocked, the realization of what Arthur’d just asked dawning bright as Midwinter sun. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. Arthur lifted his hand, brushing his knuckles along Merlin’s cheek. He was waiting, patiently, for Merlin’s answer.

It was too intimate a touch to be a joke, too softly-spoken and carefully-worded to be anything but plain truth. Still, after all this time, after years of wishing for this very thing, Merlin could scarcely let himself believe that Arthur returned his feelings.

But his faith in Arthur had never wavered, not even during their bleakest moments. He wouldn’t let it waver now.

Merlin turned his face into Arthur’s gentle touch, then reached for his hand, drawing Arthur’s arm around his waist. “It ends well, I think,” he whispered, unable to keep the smile from his lips.

Arthur smiled, too, then pressed his forehead to Merlin’s. When he pulled back, Merlin saw the unguarded desire in his eyes and slid his hand up to Arthur’s neck. Their smiles fell away, the intensity between them growing as Arthur leaned down.

Merlin let his eyes fall closed, let himself fall away into pleasure as Arthur’s mouth trailed down his jaw, his throat, up behind his ear. He tilted his head and groaned, skin tingling as Arthur’s teeth scraped along the juncture of shoulder and neck. His body arched beneath Arthur’s touch, heat suffusing his skin, spreading from the smouldering, tight ball of desire at his core.

“Kiss me,” Arthur breathed against his throat, then trailed his hand up to Merlin’s jaw, holding him gently.

Merlin looked up at him, every emotion he’d held so desperately close finally unbound. He felt as though he might fly apart into shards of himself, the only thing holding him together Arthur’s arms around him, the weight of him pressing Merlin to the mattress.

Their mouths met in a slow kiss, Arthur’s lips as soft and skilled as Merlin had always imagined. He kissed with all of the strength and passion Merlin saw in him everyday, his lips firm and guiding, patient but insistent in a way that melted every last reservation from Merlin’s mind.

When Merlin returned the kiss without inhibition, Arthur deepened it, sweeping his tongue along Merlin’s lips, moaning as Merlin opened to him.

He echoed the moan, gave himself over to it, gave himself up to the passion, to the pleasure.

They kissed until they were breathless, Merlin’s hands roaming over Arthur’s back and shoulders, his fingertips mapping every strong line of muscle as Arthur tightened his embrace.

Merlin gasped into their kiss as Arthur’s hand drifted down his side, squeezing his hip, rubbing hard over his thigh and slipping between their bodies.

“Shh. It’s all right,” Arthur murmured, carressing the inside of his thighs and up into the hot ache between his legs, over his tightening bollocks and swollen cock. Arthur’s fist closing over his arousal and stroked him through the fabric of his trousers.

Merlin could barely draw breath - he had never been touched like that before and though Arthur’s touch was gentle and slow, it made Merlin tremble with the intensity. Arthur was staring down at him, lips parted, eyes bright with desire, his voice a low, quiet, intimate caress all its own.

“I’ve wanted this for so long – you have no idea,” he whispered, blinking slowly, a soft, needful hum escaping his lips as he rocked against Merlin’s thigh.

The worn-thin fabric of his borrowed nightclothes rubbed soft as silk over his cock as Arthur’s hand moved over him, so hot Merlin could feel the heat right through the fabric, as if he wasn’t wearing anything at all. He wanted that - nothing between them, wanted to feel Arthur’s bare skin against his own. Oh, Gods, he wanted it.

As if reading his thoughts, Arthur slowly knelt up, pulling Merlin to sit up, too. He stripped off his own tunic and then reached for the hem of Merlin’s, pausing as if waiting for permission. Merlin helped him off with it, embarrassed to already be panting as he reached for Arthur’s bare skin. He opened his hand wide on Arthur’s chest and stared into his eyes. He wanted to say something, to tell Arthur how much he’d wanted this, how he’d never guessed Arthur would give it to him, how every single day was an exercise in restraint and self discipline.

“You’re perfect,” he breathed, trailing his fingers across Arthur’s shoulders and down his bicep, following the line of the muscle. He shook with the effort to hold himself still and not clutch Arthur to him, his face heating as Arthur looked down between them. He couldn’t help but think that in comparison, he fell leagues short.

“Lie back for me,” Arthur whispered, fingertips tracing the waist of Merlin’s trousers. “Let me take these off.”

He wouldn’t refuse Arthur, not if he still wanted him, not when they both wanted the same things. Merlin nodded, moving to obey. He fisted the sheets beneath him as Arthur scooted closer beside him, deftly unknotting the drawstring at Merlin’s waist.

He closed his eyes, heart in his throat, and lifted his arse as Arthur pulled his breeches down over his hips and off. He heard the soft thwump of the cloth hitting the chamber floor and opened his eyes, staring in disbelief as Arthur stripped down. That Merlin was allowed to look, that he was meant to be watching, was enough to take his breath away, let alone the sight itself.

The moonlight streamed in through the windows as if reaching for Arthur’s skin. It caressed him, highlighted every perfect detail. As familiar as Merlin was with Arthur’s body, he’d never seen him look so achingly beautiful before.

Merlin savoured the sight for only a moment, then, needing the reassurance of touch, reached for Arthur again, pulling him close for a kiss. He parted his lips at the first gentle touch, his arm wrapping desperately around Arthur’s shoulder to guide him down.

Arthur broke the kiss, pulling back, whispering against Merlin’s lips. “I want to touch you. I need- you’re so…”

Merlin stared into his eyes, wondering at Arthur’s sincerity. How could this be real? He smiled softly and nodded. If it was all a dream, let him never wake. "Please...”

Merlin held his breath, trembling as Arthur explored his body, caressing him until he writhed against the onslaught of brilliant sensations and ached to be filled.

The heat of Arthur’s strong hand curled around Merlin’s cock and he arched up, groaning, hips pulled into motion as Arthur began touching him in earnest. He stroked Merlin in a steady, deliberate rhythm until Merlin shook with pleasure, then varied his touch, ghosting his fingertips along Merlin’s skin, swiping of the leaking head of Merlin’s cock and smearing the slickness of Merlin’s arousal down and back between his legs. Merlin drew in a sharp breath as Arthur rubbed there, spreading the slick fluid gently over his entrance, circling and pressing against him.

He’d never wanted anything as he wanted to feel Arthur within him, stretching him open, pushing inside. He canted his hips against the warmth of Arthur’s hand, hoping it was encouragement enough. He moaned in pure relief, head thrown back and body arching as Arthur’s fingertip finally pressed inside, coaxing his body open with exquisitely gentle strokes.

He held on to Arthur’s shoulders, held on tight and pushed his feet into the mattress for purchase, rocking into the gorgeous stretch as Arthur’s finger slipped deep inside, circling and pressing, holding there, just the pressure of Arthur’s touch to keep him from shattering into a million pieces.

“Oh, Gods, that feels amazing,” he moaned, breath hitching as Arthur’s finger began sliding fluidly in and out of him. “You feel- Arthur-” he gasped as Arthur touched something deep inside that sent shocks of pure heat along his body. He pushed down on Arthur’s finger, desperate to feel it again, his body taut with need despite the well of gratitude inside him.

Arthur’s mouth closed hard on his shoulder, the sharp scrape of his teeth soothed by the slick heat of his tongue. “You’re so warm, so tight, Merlin.”

His name on Arthur’s lips, kissed against his skin, breathed with such longing behind it – it was nearly as satisfying as the warmth of Arthur’s body against his own.

Every dizzying new, brilliant sensation threatened to stop Merlin’s heart, to reduce him to whimpers and pleas for more. He bit his lip and groaned, pushed himself closer against Arthur’s skin, needing so much and not knowing how or even what, but he needed. He needed Arthur.

He opened his eyes, desperate with panic as Arthur shifted back, looking down at him, breathing just as hard as Merlin was. His cock leaked where it had been rubbing against Merlin’s thigh and his eyes shone with a need as strong as Merlin’s.

“Don’t stop,” he begged, face burning at the unabashed plea. “ Please-.

By way of reassurance, Arthur spread Merlin’s thighs wider, his hand cupping Merlin’s cock, stroking in long, slow pulls, coaxing him to the edge of orgasm. Arthur smoothly withdrew his finger and on the next stroke in, he added a second finger alongside the first, working them both gently but insistently inside him, the sweet burn of the stretch sending Merlin flying.

He couldn’t stop the whirlwind of pleasure, the feral look in Arthur’s eyes only pushing him closer to the abyss. He held his breath and bit his lower lip, desperate for control, but gasped as Arthur pressed against that fiery place inside of him again.

Arthur leaned down, taking his mouth again just as Merlin groaned loud and low. His body tensed, then, unable to resist a moment longer, he gave himself up to Arthur’s will, to his hand and his passion and his warmth. He shuddered and moaned unabashedly, his release pulsing over Arthur’s fist and onto Merlin’s flexing stomach.

Arthur slowly smoothed his fingers out of him but didn’t withdraw them entirely, rubbing gently over and over his clenching, aching hole.

The hand on his cock slowed but didn’t still until he covered it with his own and opened his eyes, taking a huge breath. “Oh my Gods, Arthur,” he whispered, reaching up to pull Arthur to him, kissing him slowly, languidly, as he shuddered with the lingering ecstasy.

He wanted it back, all of it, Arthur inside him, stroking him, the heat between them. He wanted more, his hunger for Arthur so completely undeniable that it shocked even him. He would spread his legs and let Arthur have him, would beg for it if Arthur wanted him to, would kneel at his feet and welcome Arthur into his throat, his arse, anything, anything Arthur wanted.

His hands slid down Arthur’s back and over his arse, as if somehow, Merlin suddenly knew exactly how to offer himself this way. He urged Arthur to lie over him, to rub against him. He kissed Arthur’s shoulder, his throat, his ear, whispering his desires softly, as if they would ever be secret again. With his hands and hips, he guided Arthur into a slow, steady rhythm, Arthur sliding through the slickness of Merlin’s release, their cocks gliding side-by-side.

Merlin shivered at the contact, the stimulation too much too soon even as his cock tried to swell again in response. He shifted and Arthur groaned, thrusting against Merlin’s belly, slipping on Merlin’s come.

Merlin pushed against each thrust, answering with every part of himself. It was as if his body knew Arthur this way already, as if it knew what they both wanted and couldn’t stop, wouldn’t stop, until Arthur was taking him entirely.

Arthur’s fingers trailed to Merlin’s hip, closing tightly there, holding him still as he pushed up and back, hips canting harder and faster against Merlin’s groin.

Merlin turned his head, meeting Arthur’s lips for a kiss, tilting up to meet Arthur’s every thrust, his thighs burning deliciously with the effort. Their moans blended together and Merlin longed to open his eyes, to see the moment when Arthur would give everything of himself and take only pleasure in return.

Merlin wouldn’t give up the kiss to see it, though he could feel Arthur’s body thrumming with need – feel him getting closer and closer. He reveled in Arthur’s ragged breathing and the strength of his flexing muscles as he moved. Arthur was everywhere, his scent in the bedclothes beneath Merlin, the strength of his arms and legs surrounding Merlin, his comfortable weight pressing Merlin to the mattress, his rhythm tight and sure. The combined scent of their arousal was intoxicating; Merlin’s head swam with it, dizzy and overcome with Arthur, Arthur, Arthur.

It felt as if he was being consumed by their passion, his body possessed as surely as if Arthur was sliding into him, coaxing him open him with unrelenting, irresistible pleasure and sweet kisses that bound their very breath together as one.

He wanted to lose himself completely, to give himself in every way possible to Arthur, to never again be only himself, to never be singular or alone.

His every thought was Arthur, his purpose only to stay by Arthur’s side, to protect and cherish and guide him. He knew it now as certainly as he ever had, though now he could imagine Arthur welcoming him there forever, for always.

But if Arthur didn’t realize the depth of Merlin’s devotion or return it as thouroughly as Merlin gave it… if Merlin was to have only one night, this one Midwinter wish come true, then he wanted Arthur entirely, wanted to always have tonight to remember, to treasure.

He pulled back for a moment, pushed gently against Arthur’s shoulder until he slowed to a long rocking pace. He panted against Merlin’s lips and kissed him again as though he was just as reluctant as Merlin to break the kiss. When Merlin pushed a bit more insistently, Arthur looked curiously down at him.

He kissed Arthur deliberately, slowly, touched his face, brushed his thumb over Arthur’s full, flushed mouth, watching the concern fall away. “I want this,” he whispered, “Everything, Arthur. I want you.”

His own words seemed to heat the space between them, seemed to swirl with their shared desire and amplify it tenfold.

Arthur pushed up onto one hand, cupping Merlin’s face, thumb rubbing over his cheekbone. “You have me,” he whispered. “This is enough… for now.” He smiled into their kiss, his hips beginning to thrust again when Merlin returned the grin.

Merlin’s heart leaped at the promise in his words, knowing Arthur was a man of his word. He groaned and wrapped his arms around Arthur, holding him tightly, Arthur’s broad shoulders warm and strong and perfect in his embrace. He caressed Arthur’s lips with his tongue, daring to sweep inside, shivering in delight as Arthur moaned.

Every kiss, every breath seemed familiar, seemed right and comfortable. Merlin braced his feet against the bed and rocked his hips up into Arthur’s quickening thrusts, his toes curling into the soft sheets, the smouldering heat in his belly stoked once again to a raging fire as Arthur pulled away from their kiss and looked down at him, eyes flaring with intensity and desire as he saw Merlin’s cock full and flushed again alongside his own.

Merlin stared up at him, catching his gaze and holding it, willing Arthur to feel that passion reflected tenfold. He tightened his grip on Arthur’s shoulders, looked away only when Arthur did. He followed Arthur’s gaze down between their bodies and watched their cocks as they shifted together, rubbing slickly together, their panting breaths matching in perfect cadence to their forceful thrusts.

Merlin broke again, coming in waves of intense, rolling pleasure this time, his release spilling over Arthur’s cock and his own stomach. Arthur groaned and pushed through the slippery come, his back arching as he began to lose the rhythm.

One more searing look and Arthur buried his face against Merlin’s throat, crying out against his skin so Merlin could feel the sound deep inside his chest. Arthur rocked against him, hips jerking in ecstasy and Merlin clung to him, muscles tense, his strength a solid wall upon which Arthur could break apart.

When Arthur sagged against him, shivering with the intensity of his release, Merlin drew in a deep breath and held on, held Arthur in his arms as protectively and possessively as Arthur had held him.

He slowly shifted his legs so one of Arthur’s slipped between them, his hand spread wide on the small of Arthur’s back to hold him there, hold him close. He closed his eyes and etched every sensation – every scent and touch and taste – into his memory. If he was never here in this moment again, he would keep this one with him forever.

Beneath Merlin’s sensitized skin, the luxurious sheets of the royal bed were smooth and soft, the only scratchy thing touching him Arthur’s unshaven cheek against his throat.

Arthur lay heavily over his chest face pressed against Merlin’s neck, breath panting hotly on his shoulder. When he finally pushed up away from Merlin, Merlin kept his eyes closed, not willing to let go of the moment just yet.

Fingertips traced his hairline and he turned his face into the touch, savouring these last quiet moments, convinced that Arthur couldn’t possibly truly feel the way he did.

“Merlin.” Arthur’s voice sounded as if he was smiling.

Taking a deep breath and summoning a peaceful expression to hold onto no matter what came next, Merlin opened his eyes. Arthur was propped over him, their hips still pressed together, watching him.

He opened his mouth to speak, not exactly sure what he would say, but Arthur shook his head. “We have all night,” he whispered, leaning down for a kiss. “And all the nights beyond.”

Merlin forced down the lump of emotion in his throat, smiling softly and humming against Arthur’s lips as Arthur took another kiss.

Arthur pulled away after a long moment, reaching down the bed for one of their tunics. He cleaned Merlin’s stomach and chest, never moving further away than he had to, then dropped the shirt over the side of the bed and rolled, taking Merlin with him.

He shifted them around, pulling Merlin half over him as if determined not to let him go. He drew the blankets up over them, his arms draping over Merlin’s back and around his waist, the weight of them the safest thing Merlin had ever felt.

The room around them was chilly, the cool air finding its way in around the edges of the blanket, and the silence fell around them like a thick woolen curtain, emphasizing just how isolated they were here, in the middle of a city full of people.

Arthur’s fingers curled into the hair at the nape of his neck, stroking softly, and Merlin shifted impossibly closer. He wanted to cast so badly, to warm the room around them, to somehow create a record of this moment, to somehow leave proof that it’d happened at all.

But magic was forbidden during the vigil and truly, would he ever forget a single moment of that night? He was sure it would be with him until his dying day.

The cold pressed in all around their shared warmth, but he could feel Arthur’s breath against his cheek, the sure, strong press of Arthur’s warm palm between his shoulder-blades. It was enough.

Arthur was his and he Arthur’s. There was no Camelot, no King or Sorcerer or Manservant in that bed, in between them.

“Don’t fall asleep,” Arthur murmured after a long, quiet moment.

Merlin raised his head and rested his chin on Arthur’s chest, smiling. “Keep me awake, then,” he challenged, laughing as Arthur wrapped him in a bear hug and rolled them again.

**

At first light, they ventured down to the crowds of celebrants, eager for the feast. Arthur turned the key in its lock and pushed the doors to the Great Hall open with a grand gesture. He and Merlin stepped into the hall together, side by side, so close their hands touched, and were transported to a fairy land.

Even if Merlin hadn’t been floating on the lingering pleasures of his Midwinter vigil with Arthur, he wouldn’t have been able to help feeling elated at the sight of endless, gleaming rows of glittering glass and polished silver. The rich, spicy scents of the season filled the air, and he found himself eyeing the platters piled high with steaming, savoury meats, soft breads, eggs prepared every way imaginable and spongy spice cakes.

Merlin followed Arthur to the head table and took his position behind Arthur’s chair. The knights filed in, all but Elyan looking worse for wear, and took their places alongside Arthur, but something was off about their arrangement. Lancelot had shifted to the corner of the table and Gwen stood next to him.

“Merlin,” Arthur said with the slightest turn of his head.

Merlin stepped to his side, wondering what Arthur could need so badly as to delay a feast such as that one. “Yes, Sire?”

“Take your place at my side,” he said, loud enough that it was meant as a declaration, not just an order. The hall fell absolutely silent and Merlin stepped forward into the place Lancelot had held just the night before. “Merlin Emrys, as Camelot’s High Sorcerer, will light the First Fire.”

Merlin blinked at Arthur, then at the faces staring expectantly at him from the crowded tables, then back to Arthur.

The King always had the honour of First Fire. The light from it would be shared throughout the city by way of torches passed hand to hand, house to house. Every home would be warmed by it, every candle lit by it. To give Merlin such an honour – it was beyond generous, beyond description.

With overwhelming gratitude, Merlin lifted his hand and cast in a strong voice, letting the magic surge through and out of him.

The fire roared to life in the overlarge fireplace of the hall, the servants with torches at the ready dipping them in and lifting them high overhead as a cheer rose and swept through the crowd.

“Let the feast begin,” Arthur called, reaching for Merlin’s hand and giving it a squeeze before drinking deeply from his goblet, signaling the people to begin.

The hall filled with the scrape of chairs on stone and the cling of cutlery on dishes as Merlin was swept up in a flurry of congratulatory hugs and handshakes.

When Gwaine finally released him from a tight hug, Merlin took his seat beside Arthur, who grinned like a cat with cream.

“You had this all planned, didn’t you?” Merlin accused, unable to wipe the smile from his lips. “You knew I’d stay with you last night.”

“I wasn’t the only one. I had a bit of encouragement,” Arthur said, lifting his goblet and gesturing at the knights, who all lifted theirs as well, laughing. “It was long overdue, Merlin. All of it.”

Merlin grinned and looked down the table at his family, sending his gratitude to the Moon and the Sun for such scheming, mischievous brothers, and for Arthur.

 

~ finis