For decidedly not the first time, Arthur wondered how anyone could be so incompetent at such an easy activity as hunting. The logistics were simple: stay quiet, find an animal to kill, kill it. One, two, three, and yet Merlin somehow always managed to botch it up.
So far that trip, Merlin had gotten tangled in his gear, spilled a quiver and lost half of the bolts down a hill, and cried out lost just as Arthur was sighting a beautiful ten-point stag.
It was a wonder they'd bagged two rabbits at all.
Arthur was about to call the trip a wash and propose heading back to the castle to give their meager catch to the cooks, when something rustled above him in the trees. He didn't think, just pitched back and fired his crossbow. There was an awful squawk, and something half fuzz, half feather fell from the leaves and landed at Arthur's feet. Arthur jumped back from the flailing mass and drew his dagger in preparation to deliver the final blow.
"Wait!" Merlin's cry stayed his hand. His manservant was out of breath and flushed, having run over from wherever he had obviously been daydreaming instead of keeping an eye out for game. "Do you even know what you're about to kill?"
Arthur looked down. All he could clearly make out on the creature were a few blood-stained feathers sticking to what looked like a wing. He'd apparently clipped it with his shot. "Some kind of bird." He gave it a second look. "I think."
"You think. Because it's worked out so well in the past when you've killed something without knowing what it was or what it could do," Merlin replied, before quickly casting his eyes down and adding a "sire" after remembering just exactly who he was talking to.
Arthur did lower the dagger though; he hated it when Merlin actually had a point. "Fine. We'll take it to Gaius first, make sure it's not going to curse the entire kingdom if I roast the beast on a spit."
Merlin glared at the notion but didn't say anything, just knelt beside the maybe-bird and made soothing noises as he reached for it. Arthur flinched when talons shot out from underneath the fuzz and narrowly missed the flesh on Merlin's arm.
"That thing seems very determined to claw out your eyes," and as if proving his point, the beast made another swipe at Merlin.
"It's just hurt and scared," Merlin said, then began fussing with the knot on his neck scarf. Slowly, he placed the cloth over the creature's body and carefully wrapped it around, mindful of the talons and head. Once it was bound, Merlin scooped the bundle into his arms and smiled down at it, like it was nothing more than a swaddled infant. "There. That's better."
As if in agreement, the bundle stopped squirming and settled in Merlin's hold.
Arthur rolled his eyes, ready to return to Camelot and put this whole waste of a day behind him.
"I think it's an owl," Merlin said shortly after the castle's gates came into view. He was looking down at the creature instead of watching where he walked, and Arthur thought it was a great achievement that Merlin hadn't tripped over his own two feet the entire trip back. A record for Merlin, surely.
Arthur shifted in his saddle, glanced down at the bundle still in Merlin's arms. "Didn't look like any owl I've ever seen. Too fuzzy, for one thing." Even as he said it though, the thing shifted its face and dull golden eyes blinked up at him lazily, and suddenly Merlin's suggestion didn't seem so impossible.
"Maybe a really young one, then." The slight smile that Merlin had been wearing since finding the thing suddenly dropped, and Arthur wasn't sure, but it looked like he clutched the wrappings a little tighter. "I mean, it could still be something that would be bad to kill. Terrible, even. Plague to the whole kingdom if it were to perish."
Arthur sighed, because really. "Don't get attached, Merlin. As soon as Gaius confirms your owl theory, I'm sending it to the kitchens."
As he said it, it looked like the bird actually narrowed its eyes at Arthur, but he could have been mistaken about that. Merlin's huff, however, was unmistakable.
Merlin would be useless until he got the bird to Gaius, Arthur knew this, so he gave the rabbits to a passing maid and dismissed Merlin for the rest of the afternoon. "I do expect you to tend to me tonight, though," he'd said to Merlin's rapidly retreating back.
Merlin never showed, causing Arthur to be late for dinner with his father and Morgana. He glanced at Guinevere when he entered the room, one eyebrow quirked in question, and she gave the slightest shake of her head and shrug of her shoulder.
As soon as the last plate was collected from the royal table, Arthur excused himself and headed straight for Gaius' chambers. He didn't even bother knocking, just threw open the door, and was satisfied to see both Gaius and Merlin jump at the intrusion.
"Your Highness," Gaius greeted him, collecting himself quickly. Arthur nodded in acknowledgment before turning on Merlin.
Merlin was the model of slow-dawning realization. "Oh. Oh no." He glanced rapidly between the night-darkened window and Arthur again, and hopped to his feet. "Ar— sire, I'm sorry. We were just… I lost track of time and—"
"Nevermind, Merlin. I should have known better than to expect you when you had something new and shiny as a distraction. So, did you manage to determine exactly what our mystery beast is?"
As if on cue, the creature in question cooed from somewhere near the fireplace. Arthur spared it a look and barely resisted running a hand over his face in frustration. "Merlin, we generally don't heal animals we plan on eating."
The bird was resting in a basket in front of the hearth, and crisp white bandages circled the injured wing. Now that the creature had calmed, Arthur could see it was indeed an owl, still boasting some adolescent plumage, but its breed was completely unfamiliar to Arthur. He'd never seen anything like it in the forests surrounding Camelot.
"I know that," Merlin said quickly. "But you can't eat, um, it." He cut himself off just as fast, going tight-lipped and wide-eyed.
Of course, Arthur caught the slip. "You've named it, haven't you?" When Merlin didn't answer, just cast his eyes to the ground, Arthur sighed and did run his hand down his face. "Alright, out with it. What ridiculous name did you come up with?"
Arthur could see the blush creeping up Merlin's neck when he answered, "Archimedes. I thought an owl deserved a smart name."
"Of course you did." Arthur turned to Gaius, who seemed to be taking in the whole scenario with great humor, if the barely concealed smile was anything to go by. "And why can't I eat it? Is it a rare, poisonous owl or something?"
Gaius kept his small smile. "Poisonous, no, but rare, yes." He nodded to the tome that he and Merlin had been bent over when Arthur had arrived. "All signs point to him being a breed found far to the southeast. Frankly, I'm incredibly surprised to see it here, especially since I doubt the owl would survive our harsh winters."
"See," Merlin chimed in, far too enthusiastic for his own good. "We actually saved a special creature bringing it here." Then his lips curved in that grin which made Arthur forgive him almost anything. Arthur hated that grin.
Two days later, Archimedes was all Merlin would talk about. Arthur would catch him describing the bird and their "rescue" of it to anyone who would listen, from Gwen to the cook to the second stable hand. Soon, the entire castle knew about Merlin's new pet.
By the end of the week, Arthur caught Merlin yawning through his morning chores. "Long evening?" he asked with a smirk.
Merlin tried to stifle another yawn. "Owl. They're nocturnal so I'm up with Archimedes practically all night."
"Right." Arthur could feel the smirk sliding off his face. "Another good reason to pluck the thing and throw it in a boiling pot." When Merlin's expression fell, Arthur rolled his eyes. "Just don't let the ruddy bird interfere with your duties."
"What?" Arthur stared back as Morgana blinked at him. He could see a small smile tugging at her lips, and for some reason it made him even more frustrated. He continued his pacing, definitely ignoring Guinevere, who was trying to look as inconspicuous as possible in the corner of the room.
"Arthur," Morgana said slowly. "Think again about what you just told me."
"Don't give me that. It's true. I have lost my manservant to a pigeon. All he talks about now is how much Archimedes is growing, or how much his feathers have filled in. You know, I caught him nicking food off my plate for the damned thing."
That sobered Morgana a bit, and he saw Gwen straighten in her chair as well. "He took your dinner?"
"Well, what was left of it. I'd already finished eating." He chose to ignore Morgana's chuckle at that. "The point is, I'd asked him about it, and he said that he didn't have enough meat to share with the bird anymore since it was healing and growing too fast. He's starving himself for this pet of his. It's not like he isn't already skin and bones as it is."
When Arthur paused and looked at his audience, Guinevere had that look on her face, the one she got whenever she saw or heard about Merlin doing something extremely ridiculous. It reminded Arthur of the look most women got when they saw a litter of puppies.
Morgana had a similar look, and at that moment, it was directed straight at Arthur.
"What?" he said again.
"Nothing," she replied. "Absolutely nothing."
"Merlin, if you are so insistent on wearing feathers, I can make the ceremonial hat a required permanent feature of your wardrobe."
Merlin looked confused until Arthur stepped forward and plucked a light brown primary feather from where it was lodged in Merlin's hair. Pinching it between his fingers, he held the feather in front of Merlin's face, and his manservant's eyes, wide and blue, tracked from the plumage back to Arthur's face.
Arthur took a step back. "You are the prince's manservant, you know. Do try to at least look the part."
Nearly a month later, Arthur came back to his room to find a much larger than he remembered Archimedes perched on the canopy of his bed. It was hardly recognizable as the same bird. Large, tufted horn-like features now arched from its brow, resting over gold eyes that were sharp and aware like a raptor's should be. As Arthur watched, every one of its dark, matured feathers ruffled out, clearly on the defensive, and talons sunk into the wood of his bed as if it were trying for a good push-off to launch itself at his face.
"Merlin?" he called, not daring to take a watchful eye off the bird and give it the opportunity to attack. For reputation's sake, he hoped his voice didn't actually sound as worried as he thought it did.
There was a bang, and Merlin's dark head popped up from behind his bed, wincing and rubbing a sore spot where he'd apparently hit it. "Sorry, was cleaning under here. What's —" He tracked Arthur's gaze up and winced. "Oh, sorry. Again. Didn't know he was up there."
"What is it doing in my room to begin with?" He could have sworn he heard the wood actually creak under the owl's grip. "Shouldn't you have let that thing loose already?"
Dusting himself off, Merlin walked around the bed and had the audacity to sit on the mattress underneath the bird. "We did. Removed the bandages last week, took him back into the forest and set him free. He circled twice and then flew right back to Gaius'. Beat us home, actually." He paused, glancing up at his pet. "He's looking pretty good, isn't he? Hunting on his own, too. I heard the granary has a lot less rats than normal." And gods, Merlin was beaming; that same open grin Arthur sometimes caught directed at him after a trying tournament. Merlin was proud of the thing.
"At least your owl is capable of its expected, mundane tasks," and try as he might, he couldn't help the bite of sarcasm. Merlin's gaze was back on him, and his manservant looked taken aback. "Just get it out of here, would you?"
Merlin blinked a couple times before snapping his jaw shut, that familiar closed, resigned look of his washing over his face. "Come on, Archimedes." He extended his arm, and the owl glided from the canopy to land on Merlin's forearm. Arthur cringed; he'd heard tales of falconers calling their birds without their protective gear, only to have the bird's claws rip into their flesh. But here was Archimedes, without gloves or jesses, coming to rest without causing so much as a flinch from Merlin. The bird looked unsteady on its new perch, as though it was purposely keeping from sinking in its talons.
Merlin turned to the door, mumbling something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like "his royal pratness" as he made to exit the room. And Arthur would have responded, at least made some comment about the appropriateness of station, but the owl was watching him, its head turned nearly clean backwards with both eyes trained on Arthur, whose fingers were drifting toward the pommel of his sword.
So Merlin was nearly gone before Arthur could get his mouth working. The door shut on his, "I didn't say you should leave."
From catching snippets of passing conversations, Arthur gathered that Merlin and Archimedes were regular visitors to the market. People told tales about the prince's manservant and his great pet, the large but gentle owl that patiently allowed even small children to stroke its feathers. Arthur was of the mindset that Archimedes was some sort of avian mastermind; the bird clearly had them all fooled.
Later, Arthur caught sight of Merlin in the market between duties, with his bird perched on his shoulder. The beast practically towered over Merlin's head; it seemed, at least to Arthur, to be growing larger every day. One of the vendors smiled as they came near, passing over what looked like a strip of not-entirely-dried meat, which Merlin accepted and offered up to Archimedes. As the bird gobbled it down, Merlin took to stroking its downy dorsal feathers with a finger, smiling as he answered the vendor's questions. Its treat finished, the owl leaned down and nipped at Merlin's finger, a seemingly affectionate gesture.
And for just a brief moment, Arthur considered revising his opinion of the beast.
That is, until it caught sight of Arthur watching and started riling up to nearly twice its size again. It must have flexed its talons, because now Merlin did flinch and turned to see what had spooked his pet. "What did you do?" he asked when he also saw Arthur.
And Arthur absolutely did not stand there slack-jawed, like he was some sort of common simpleton rather than the crown prince. At least, not for more than a few seconds. Instead, he turned away from Merlin's accusing glare and headed to the training field.
If he was extra hard on his knights that day, none of them actually said anything about it.
Arthur reached blindly for yet another pillow to pile over his ears and moaned in frustration when he found none within grabbing distance. He needed something, anything, to block out the deep, resonating sound of the hooting owl right outside his window.
It had begun just as he'd started nodding off. At the first hoot, Arthur shamed himself by nearly leaping out of bed, groping for a weapon; he'd been startled that badly. Now, several candlemarks later, the unearthly loud birdcall was still going, refusing to let him sleep.
And the worst part of it was the fact that any time Arthur threw the pillows off his head and glared in the direction of the window, two large golden eyes glared right back at him and the hooting seemed to gain in strength.
Finally, he couldn't put up with it anymore. After tossing aside his bed sheets, he stomped to his door and ordered the closest guard to go fetch Merlin from the physician's quarters.
Of course, the hooting stopped while he waited for Merlin to arrive.
No short time later, his very sleep-rumpled manservant finally appeared, eyes barely cracked open as he stumbled through the door. He was a mess — his shirt was half-tucked into loosely laced trousers, the hair on the left side of his head stuck straight up while the rest was matted down against his skull, and he had only one shoe. Merlin stifled a yawn before humming a sleepy, "Yes, sire?"
His soft response drained a little bit of Arthur's irritation. Just a little.
"Do something about your bird. It has kept me up all night." He pointed to the window where Archimedes was still perched, annoyingly quiet.
Merlin cracked an eye open wider before scrunching his face in something that looked like confusion. "And you couldn't just open the window and shoo him away?"
"I assure you, Merlin, that if I did open the window, it would be to take aim and finally have roasted owl for breakfast, which I don't think you'd appreciate."
Merlin blinked slowly a couple times. "So kind of you to take my feelings into consideration."
"I thought so," Arthur said. "Well, get on with it."
In three stumbling steps, Merlin was at the window. He knocked on the glass, grabbing the owl's attention, before pointing off to somewhere in the distance. "Go home, Archimedes." Arthur caught sight of a flurry of feathers as the bird shoved off from the sill, just as simple as that.
Merlin was holding back another yawn when he turned to face Arthur again. "Anything else you need?"
"No, Merlin, that will be all," Arthur answered as he settled himself back into bed. "I will see you again at breakfast."
Merlin groaned aloud on his way out the door.
Something caught Arthur's attention as he passed by the window, and he had only meant to stop for a moment to see exactly what it was. But some time had passed, and Arthur was still watching as Merlin threw a ragged-looking ball of cloth across the castle lawn for Archimedes to catch, like some avian version of the fetch games Arthur used to play with the hunting dogs in training.
Merlin looked so at ease, laughing every time his pet soared overhead and dropped the toy back into his hand, and Arthur found himself smiling in response.
"I see you found something your manservant excels at," said a voice at his side, and Arthur turned to face his father. "You were wise to trust the owl's training to him."
"Pardon?" Arthur was shaken, having been so enraptured in watching the pair's antics, in watching Merlin, that the king, in all of his finery, had managed to sneak up on him.
Uther turned back to the window just as Archimedes swooped low and snatched Merlin's throw out of mid-air. "You're not the first noble to leave your bird in the care of someone else. Many lords' falcons were trained by servants dedicated to the task."
Unsure of how to answer, Arthur merely watched another couple of lazy passes between man and bird, and then his father spoke again. "It has been a while since we had a proper falconry demonstration for the court. Perhaps we should arrange one. I'm certain your owl will be the prime example there."
"Sire, I don't think — "
Uther cut him short with a wave of his hand. "Nonsense. No need to be modest. I've seen your bird in action. I'll have the arrangements made immediately." And without allowing another word from Arthur, the king strode away.
Arthur sighed. "Merlin is not going to like this."
He was right about that.
"But he's not your owl!" All propriety usually left Merlin when he was upset, and this was no different. Arthur didn't bother to remind him that he wasn't allowed to speak in that tone to his prince.
"I'm aware of that, Merlin."
"He doesn't even like you," Merlin said, as he pointed at the bird in question, where it was perched atop Gaius' bookshelf, puffed in the threat display Arthur was becoming all too familiar with.
"I'm well aware of that. I'd say the feeling is mutual."
"And I hate that, by the way. You don't know any of his commands, and he almost certainly wouldn’t listen to you if you did. He'd probably sooner peck your eyes out." The owl started squawking indignantly, and Arthur was inclined to believe Merlin.
"I'll speak to my father. Ask if you could stand in for me on the field for the demonstration." Arthur glared at the bird, and it snapped its beak at him in response. He couldn't help flinching, just a little.
After some discussion, the king relented to allowing Merlin to perform the demonstration, if only so Arthur could "observe the other birds to see if there were any training issues he should address." So Arthur was seated next to his father as the assembled falconers and austringers stepped into the tournament ring.
Merlin couldn't have looked more out of place if he had tried. Even if Arthur didn't take Merlin's station into consideration, the differences were considerable. The other birds, a collection of kestrels, redtail hawks and smaller birds of prey, were perched hooded and tethered on their masters' heavily gloved arms. In comparison, Archimedes dwarfed them all, still but alert from where he rested on Merlin's forearm. Arthur couldn't do anything about the lack of hood and jesses, but he had insisted Merlin wear one of his old leather gloves, for appearance’s sake.
One by one, each lord put his bird through its paces, removing the hood before allowing the raptor to take brief free flights, or spinning a lure around his head that was whipped away just as the bird swooped for it.
Each animal was impressive, but Arthur couldn't help occasionally cutting his gaze back to Merlin, waiting for his servant to take his turn.
Finally, once a young, inexperienced goshawk landed back on its master's glove, Merlin stepped forward and used his free hand to pull the ball of cloth from his pocket. From his seat, Arthur heard Merlin give a low whistle, and Archimedes' eyes tracked immediately to the toy. There were murmurs of appreciation from the gathered crowd, but Arthur paid them no attention, just watched as Merlin drew far back and threw the ball as hard as he could.
Archimedes seemed to have no issues with performing before a crowd. It didn't hesitate to push itself off its perch and grasp the toy out of the air with its talons. A round of applause rose up as the owl glided over Merlin's head and dropped the ball near its master. The bird circled a couple times as Merlin picked up the ball, and when Merlin threw it again, Archimedes tracked it just as easily.
Merlin was smiling as his pet performed, and he took a moment to turn that smile to Arthur as Archimedes made lazy loops above his head. At that moment, all eyes were on the bird, so Arthur had no qualms about giving his own grin in return. For an instant, Merlin's smile turned blinding. And then something shifted, as the happiness slid into shock on Merlin's face.
That's when the gasp came from the crowd. Arthur looked up, and time seemingly slowed to a crawl.
Not a lance's distance away from him, Archimedes was coming in for the attack. Its wings were spread, nearly as wide as Arthur's own arm span, as it balanced itself for the impact; Arthur could see every primary feather in stark relief, and he swore he could feel the wind from each wing flap as the owl grew closer. As he watched, Archimedes' long, black, and sharp talons uncurled, their points aimed directly at his face.
Arthur did the only thing he could think of — he ducked.
That's when he heard the scream in terror coming from behind him, where there were no seats and where absolutely no one should be standing.
Time sped back up again, and the crowd around him was in near panic. Arthur looked behind his chair as a man yelled and flailed frantically against the attacking bird of prey. Archimedes' talons had already ripped through the man's mask, and what flashes of the man's face Arthur could see through the flurry of bird's feathers were covered in blood.
A curved knife dropped from the man's floundering grip, and his screams of pain couldn't drown out the sound of Uther's outrage. As the guards rushed forward, a shrill whistle from the field caused Archimedes to halt its onslaught, and the bird flew back over the wall to rest on Merlin's arm again.
The guards dragged the gravely injured man away from the field, Uther storming after them, and the afternoon's demonstration was considered over.
In his evening report, one of the guards told them that the now-blinded prisoner had confessed everything. His son had been executed upon suspicion of using magic, something which the would-be assassin knew his boy would never do. Grief-stricken, he'd promised himself that the king would also know the pain of losing his only child. With everyone's eyes on the sky that afternoon, the man thought it would be his perfect chance to exact his revenge. He had planned to sneak behind the royal seats, stab Arthur while all attention was on the birds, and hopefully escape before anyone had noticed.
"And we see how well that worked out for him," Arthur said as he recounted the report to Merlin in his chambers. His manservant was seated across the table from him, Archimedes perched on the chair's arm. The bird had been preening blood from its feathers earlier and was now content with Merlin slowly stroking down its back in front of the evening's fire.
"You have no idea how that felt, seeing him sneak up behind you and being unable to do anything," Merlin said. "You know, from so far away."
"Well, thank you for at least thinking quickly enough to give the attack order to your bird."
Merlin smiled. "That wasn't me. He did it all on his own."
Arthur stopped and really looked at Archimedes, suddenly realizing that this was the first time in his presence that the bird wasn't riled up and on full alert. In fact, its golden eyes were blinking lazily, its head tilted to the side, almost as if it were expecting something.
Merlin seemed to pick up on it, because his grin grew wider as he said, "You can thank him, you know. He's smart, I think he'll understand you."
Arthur was tempted to scoff and roll his eyes at the suggestion, but at the hopeful look on Merlin's face, he instead found himself rising from his chair and making his way over to the bird. It blinked again, and Arthur heard the words as they tumbled from his mouth. "Thank you, Archimedes." And somehow, he didn't feel like a fool as he said it. Slowly, he raised his hand to pet the bird's plumage but stopped just above the owl's head. "And I'm sorry I ever suggested cooking you for dinner."
Archimedes hooted softly, stretched its… his neck up, and gently nipped at Arthur's finger. Arthur took the gesture as forgiveness and a truce. The owl's feathers were incredibly soft when Arthur stroked them.
Merlin beamed up at him once Arthur finally took his hand away. "See? I knew you two would get along once you stopped acting like a prat."
"I was not acting like a prat," Arthur countered. "And you're still not allowed to speak to me like that."
"Okay, not a prat. More like a jealous housewife, really."
Something showed on Arthur's face, because Merlin's mirth slowly slid away. "Not like you'd actually be jeal...of...were you jealous?"
And Arthur couldn't lie to himself. Hearing Merlin say it had been like a kick to the stomach, sharp and sudden, because it was true. Every moment Merlin spent fawning over his pet instead of being with him, every smile Archimedes received that had once been aimed at Arthur, the words of praise that Arthur never even knew he wanted for himself.
Arthur's silence must have given him away, because Merlin's jaw dropped and his brow furrowed. Arthur began backing away, ready to give the order for Merlin to leave, but Merlin's hand wrapped lightning quick around his wrist, halting him in place. He could feel Merlin's eyes searching his face for a moment before Merlin quietly asked, "Why?"
The question conjured up images and memories in Arthur's mind — of Merlin who, after no more than a month in his service, knowingly drank poison for him, who stood by his side during some of his most challenging moments against man, beast and curse alike, who encouraged and inspired him to be the greatest king Albion has ever seen. Of Merlin smiling so bright and free on the lawn that day.
It took nothing to adjust his grip so he could pull Merlin up and out of the chair. Merlin let out a huff of surprise when they collided, chest to chest with their joined arms braced between them, and then went perfectly stiff against him.
"Don't make me spell this out for you, Merlin." Arthur's voice was quieter than he expected, and there was a hint of hopefulness to it that he'd miss keeping out of it.
"Wouldn't dream of it, sire," and Merlin was the one to lean.
Their first kiss was soft, just a gentle and hesitant press of lips, as if neither were sure how to move forward. Arthur drew back, and Merlin let out a sigh of loss before opening his eyes. Arthur met them head on, rubbing his thumb across Merlin's wrist at his pulse point as he said, "Don't do this just because I—"
"Arthur, I was the one who was desperate for you to like my pet, of all things. I'm way past doing this just for you." Then Merlin's stupid, blinding grin was back, aimed at him, and Arthur was done being hesitant.
When they crashed back together, the kiss was changed and better for it. Merlin's lips opened immediately against his, warm and inviting, and Arthur licked in, playing his tongue against Merlin's. Merlin pulled his wrist free of Arthur's grasp, and soon both of his hands were tangled in Arthur's hair, fingers wound tight and holding him close.
Arthur let his own hands drift, slowly winding their way across Merlin's shoulders, down his back, before settling on his hips. Once there, a sharp gesture tugged Merlin's hips harder against his, and the kiss broke when Merlin threw his head back and gasped.
Arthur chuckled, moved his lips to graze along Merlin's jaw. "Sensitive, are you?" he asked, voice low, and he pressed and rolled his hips in a move that coaxed a loud groan out of Merlin.
The fingers in his hair pulled Arthur's face back to Merlin's, whose eyes were wide, wild and so very happy. "You have no idea," Merlin said, before capturing Arthur's lips again.
Done with pretenses, Arthur took a step forward, gently steering Merlin backwards toward the bed. For once, Merlin followed his direction, never taking his hands or eyes off Arthur on their way across the room.
The back of Merlin's knees hit the mattress, and he tumbled backwards, shifting his grip from Arthur's hair at the last possible moment. Arthur took a step back and let himself drink in the sight of his manservant sprawled across his bed, face slightly flushed and lips so very red from kissing. Merlin's shirt had rucked up slightly when he landed, and Arthur's fingers were already itching to touch the bare slip of skin revealed underneath.
"Arthur?" Merlin questioned, sounding unsure at Arthur's pause, and he was already shifting as if to move from the bed. Arthur shook his head and crawled onto the mattress himself, moving over Merlin on his hands and knees until he was hovering face-to-face with the other man.
"Smile," he told Merlin, not an order but a request. "One smile, only for me."
Merlin did just that, immediate, genuine and beautiful, and Arthur lowered himself into the vee of Merlin's legs.
Merlin's arms wrapped tightly around him, hugging Arthur closer, and Arthur could feel Merlin's arousal hot and hard against his own. It took nothing to roll his hips again, pulling another amazing moan from Merlin's throat.
Arthur worked a hand between them, letting his fingers find that strip of skin from before, and as he trailed his fingertips across it, he felt Merlin's muscles twitch under his touch.
He'd reached the laces of Merlin's trousers when a rustling came from near the fire. They both stopped their explorations and turned toward the noise.
Archimedes blinked back at them.
"Merlin," Arthur said, not taking his eyes off the owl. "I'm not entirely sure I'm comfortable with him watching us do this. Would you —"
Merlin rolled Arthur off him and, faster than Arthur could ever remember him carrying out a task, ran to throw open the window. After a quick whistle and a pointing gesture, Archimedes took off from his perch and flew outside. Merlin latched the window again and turned around, eager.
Arthur rolled onto his back, arms braced behind his head, and smirked. "Great. Now, where were we?"
Merlin smiled again, that blinding, wonderful grin that Arthur never actually hated if he really thought about it, and made his way back to the bed.
Just beyond Camelot's walls was an old well where water was no longer drawn, and only the kingdom's oldest residents remember why it was decreed it be used instead to dispose of lame and dying livestock.
In the dark of night, no one noticed as Archimedes glided low and then dove into the well's opening.
When the well opened to a dim cave, the owl swooped to land, finally perching on an overly large chain link. He gave a hoot of greeting, and nearby a huge, golden eye opened.
"Ah, back again, I see," the Great Dragon said, and Archimedes launched into a series of chirps and chitters that made the dragon's lips curl back into a large, toothy smile.
"You've done well, little feathered cousin," it said as it used one giant claw to gently scratch along the top of Archimedes' head. "Very well done indeed."