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Rheged

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He wasn’t a sour man.

Not even his enemies would call him such.

Not even the ones he’d run through.

He was easy going; it was his natural state of mind.

But at this moment, right now, leaning here uselessly against a pillar at the edge of Camelot’s Throne Room, he was skirting as close to the border of nasty bad temper as he ever came.

It was the heat. Partly. Stinking. Stifling. Thick and filthy. And right then, to wind the spring of his irritation tighter, hair-trigger tight, a tickling drop of sweat, running disgustingly slowly between his shoulder blades, down to enter the swamp at the small of his back.

He looked around him darkly at the others in the room. All of them must be suffering equally, though few of them showed it, all of the knights and nobles and ladies standing here just like he was, wearing clothing so unseasonal only lunatics would consider it for this roasting hot early summer. And that’s what they all were, he thought grimly. Lunatics. Courtiers. When the fuck had he agreed to become one of those?

The man leaning next to him straightened suddenly, alert and respectful;forcing off the drowsy, buzzing heat, just like everyone else in the crowded hall.

Gwaine though, Gwaine deliberately took his time to straighten; a tiny, private, ridiculous rebellion, but one that left him feeling marginally more his old self.

He let out a heavy, weary breath and tried to pay proper attention to the small party which had just arrived in the hall from a doorway across from the twin thrones of Camelot. The sight, if anything, made his mood worsen.

“Nice of them to remember we’re here,” he muttered to the man beside him, and there it was. Sourness. He’d been trying for playful. The heat, he thought again.

And yes, he acknowledged, mildly ashamed, jealousy; it’d been far too long since he’d emptied his balls with any real enjoyment. But he was still sensible - and loyal - enough to keep his voice low. The days of easy, friendly insults, shouted openly, were rarer now.

“They love each other above all else. They deserve their happiness,” Percival replied quietly, the dignity of it, a kind of quiet reproach.

Gwaine pursed his lips; after all it was hardly an insightful statement given the obvious mutual regard which had been playing out in front of them for years, but something… almost dogged in the other man’s tone shook him to a kind of alertness and drew his glance.

They’d found themselves talking about Lancelot the night before, a few of them, half into their cups. It had taken ale, and a lot of it, to loosen their tongues at last, to force them to address their own long ago guilt, but Gwaine had forgotten until then that Percival had become a knight of Camelot as Lancelot’s friend, closer to him then than anyone save Merlin.

The friendship had thinned and loosened over time as Percival and Elyan, Gwen's lost brother, had become closer, and Lancelot had held himself just that bit apart, but even so… Gwaine knew the bond and the debt were still there.

Not that it mattered really, because they’d all let him down in the end, believing things of him so easily when they should have known that something was fishy. Instead they’d all just …sucked up the tale, and condemned Lancelot as a man who’d betrayed his king and his honour for a woman. A man they didn’t think about or speak of for years.

His memory should have been glorious; his brothers of the Round Table should have fought for the truth for him. But instead…

Gwaine frowned uneasily at Percival; at the strange conflict he could see on his friend’s handsome face as he watched the new arrivals. He fancied suddenly that he could see emotions flipping through those soft, blue eyes like slips of paper in the wind.

What was he seeing?

Guilt, he thought, sadness, resentment perhaps, and back to guilt again. Percival always had been painfully honourable.

They hadn’t known the real story of Lancelot’s true role for long… that it had all been a vicious game by Morgana Pendragon, and Gwaine had played enough of those with her himself to know that a man was nothing but a pawn when she turned those cold, cold eyes on you. The image of a girl’s pretty face winked, suddenly, disobediently, into his mind... a girl he hadn’t given a thought to for many a long day.

Eira. Sweet, innocent, lovely Eira. Morgana’s creature. Who would have made of Gwaine, a dupe and a fool. Long dead now, and rotting.

He shoved the memory aside impatiently... focussed instead, on one who deserved his guilt. Their guilt.

Lancelot had loved Gwen beyond all else, and Percival had known that from his time with him before Camelot, just as well as Gwaine had, because of Merlin.

They’d all just taken Arthur’s part, cared about his pain, and Gwen’s, and forgotten Lancelot’s; forgotten his devotion to Guinevere and Arthur, his generosity and stoicism, watching the woman he adored devoting herself to someone else.

And after he’d died for them, his friends had ended up betraying him. Condemning him. None of them had even asked what Merlin had done with his body.

Last night’s belated confessions had shown painfully that Percival felt guiltier than any of them.

Gwaine held his narrowed gaze on the bigger man for a long moment, waiting, then, when all he could see once more was Percival's usual good natured serenity, he followed his line of sight again.

Arthur and Gwen had all but slipped into the throne room, rather than entering in procession as a king and his consort should, but that surprised no one much any more. It reflected the relative informality of Arthur’s court. Or so Gwaine had been told. It still felt more than formal enough to him. Yet courtiers who lived for stupid fucking rules were still pining for the old days, when the king observed all the niceties.

He watched as Gwen, hand gripping Arthur’s tunic-clad arm as they progressed, responded to some whispered remark of his with a smile, first of teasing faux disapproval, then of bright-eyed affection. She murmured in return, and Arthur’s solemnity dissolved into a broad smile of his own.

Gwaine sighed again and wondered grumpily when, if ever, they were going to stop being so pleased with themselves and each other. Though he supposed, he had to acknowledge they had plenty cause.

The king and queen had been married for years now, and though there were no children yet, no one could deny that it had worked brilliantly as a royal union. Guinevere was as majestic and noble and loved a queen as any born to the title, but she had the added mystique of her fairytale rise from nothing to glory, and all because of the twin gifts of courage and true love.

A prince she’d risked her life to help; who’d offered to give up his kingdom and indeed had given away some of his lands, for love of her; a young king who raised a peasant serving girl to become his queen out of that love. And now they ruled a shining kingdom together; a kingdom, rich in enemies as it was, where anything was possible... their future stretching wide and golden and perfect before them. There had been dark times and suffering on the way - the agony of the queen for example when the she'd been taken and tormented by her former mistress, the king’s mad half-sister, Morgana; taken, and her brother killed and her mind twisted. But goodness and justice had won out in the end, and she had been restored to her loving people in all her kindness and justice.

Well, Gwaine acknowledged, even cynics like him could appreciate how pretty the story was … when they weren’t dripping with sweat under a woollen gambeson, with mail on top, being forced to wait for the fairytale couple to finish their mid afternoon shag, or mid afternoon chat, or whatever the hell they got up to. Though, he thought, with a tiny, private smile, he actually got the whole power of love thing himself now.

He let the pleasure of that thought fill him for a few seconds, then his mind slipped back hazily to the subject at hand.

The thing was … the thing was actually, he mused lazily, that he didn’t believe for a second that it had been a mid afternoon shag. And that - being who he was - Gwaine found harder to identify with.

Of course even before they’d married, passion wasn’t really the word he’d have used to describe what was between Arthur and Gwen. Love, definitely; affection, respect, loyalty, reliance, an almost nurturing old friendship that sometimes smacked to him more of devoted mother and son, or sometimes father and daughter, than lovers crazy with desire for each other. And they had known each other forever.

But in truth it had always seemed to Gwaine, comfortable and sweet and easy and peaceful, rather than driven by love’s delicious madness. Which could be why it already felt so much like ... a partnership now. A royal partnership.

Not Gwaine's own cup of tea at all; he was a man, by contrast, who revelled in the madness - the need and want - with a large appetite for sex. But Arthur was so bloody awkward with women anyway that it was probably just as well he’d ended up married to the only one in existence he seemed able to truly relax around.

Gwen occasionally told Arthur off for his inability to sit on his throne and turn away from an adventure, but they never appeared to squabble or really disagree with each other; had never fought, that he’d seen. Arthur had never been the old Arthur Gwaine had known, when he was with Gwen. Though to be fair, he wasn’t really the old Arthur with anyone any more.

And it wasn’t as if they’d always acted the old married couple. At first, driving passion or not… well... after all that repression... once sex entered the equation, anyone would have shaken off the chains of duty for a bit to finally allow themselves physical pleasure in the relationship as well as comfort. Who, Gwaine thought, after all, could resist lots of regular, uncomplicated sex?

For a while actually, Gwen’s quiet glances at Arthur had suggested to anyone who cared to look, that the Princess might be quite a lot better in bed than Gwaine had ever imagined he would be. And Arthur’s own ineffable, almost comical smugness; greater, impossibly, than ever before; his tendency to grin hugely, unnervingly at the oddest of moments; his unstoppable, cheerful violence every morning at training, had all spoken so eloquently of a man who was getting some every night at last.

There was no doubt in Gwaine’s mind that Arthur had deliberately chosen the first knights of the original Round Table to bear the worst of his initial post-sex euphoria.

But unnerving as it had been, at least that stage hadn’t lasted long at all, before the king and queen seemed to settle into stolid, affectionate matrimonial comfort.

Mind, Gwaine was sure that Arthur was zeroing in on him alone to pick on lately. To everyone else now, he behaved like the perfect king; Gwen appeared to have at last scared off, prattish Prince Arthur. But with Gwaine... he knew there was something there, and more than that, he thought he knew what it was.

He sighed yet again and slunk lower against his pillar, waiting for this latest ordeal to begin, just so that it could be over. Truth be told, he’d lost interest five minutes after he arrived.

Arthur and Gwen sat down on their thrones, and Arthur, abruptly and sternly the king again, nodded toward Leon who was stationed alertly by the door, also clad in his mail and thick, red cloak, poor, poor bastard. Leon nodded in his turn toward someone else – Gwaine rolled his eyes – and the doors were finally, grandly opened. The nodding began again, this time to unseen people in the outer hall, and at last, after a minute or so of still, quiet waiting, a small procession began to make its way into the room and toward the throne.

It was a less than grand group; the three bearded men at the head of it were dressed with little ostentation in dark robes and followed by others equally humbly clad, bearing chests and bundles presumably stuffed full of gifts for the royal couple. They looked in truth more like simple travellers than a group of court diplomats, but then Rheged was a very long distance away and the envoys had travelled for many weary weeks to reach Camelot to greet the king and his queen.

No one remembered such an expedition before, in fact no one remembered direct diplomatic contact before, and given the state of war Camelot and the other kingdoms had come to endure at the hands of the Saxons, and Morgana and Mordred’s perpetual enmity, no potential new ally could be ignored. Especially not one such as this.

Gwaine had travelled far in his years, to more than a few lands, but he’d never even got near Rheged, though he’d heard such tales of it, of it’s quiet wealth and security, all tied to devotion to the Old Religion. Many Druids here may have been driven to hatred of Camelot, in the West country they may have been all but wiped out, but in Rheged… in Rheged, magic was supposed to be as everyday as water and bread, and magic users were treasured, so stories went.

The most powerful sorcerors in Albion and beyond – the most powerful in the known world - lived there, it was said. And now, Rheged had come to Camelot.

Despite himself, Gwaine found his exhausted interest sparked awake again, and for the hundredth time since he’d woken that morning, he wished Merlin were here on time.

The small group stopped in front of the thrones at last, clearly in Gwaine’s vision, and bowed low, as those in the rear moved forward to place caskets and golden bundles at Arthur’s feet.

“Please,” Arthur said graciously and warmly, “Stand and be welcome. Camelot is honoured to greet the envoys of a kingdom of such legendary wealth and prowess. ”

The men straightened gracefully, and seemed to take in Arthur at last.

Gwaine supposed, with a kind of unwelcome pride, that the Princess did look the part; all golden hair and perfect features and broad shoulders, clad in Pendragon red. And the crown topping off the picture of course. He did look, Gwaine acknowledged reluctantly, sort of…godlike. If you didn’t know him.

The man in the centre of the group certainly seemed to think so. He bowed his head and raised it again in quiet acknowledgement, a look of awe – perhaps, Gwaine thought sulkily, diplomatic awe - on his face. He looked thrilled to be there.

At last he spoke, a gush of low, liquid syllables, and the man beside him bowed in his turn. He, like all his fellows, Gwaine thought, looked oddly neither young nor old; his face, above his close-cropped beard, smooth and tanned and unlined, yet somehow, not at all youthful.

‘Your Majesty honours us,” the translator said, voice low, mellow. “We are unforgivably tardy in this matter, my lord, but we beg to present our gifts…humble as they are ... in honour of your great kingship, and your union.”

Arthur smiled and inclined his head. “Again my lords, I’m honoured.”

Another bow, more smiles, and more translated whispers, back and forth. Arthur relaxed, and glanced at Gwen. Her lips twitched in acknowledgement, before she smiled warmly at the delegation, every inch the queen. Yet Gwaine noted that the men’s clever eyes did not waver from Arthur’s face. The translator inclined his head respectfully again.

“My King bid my lord Myrthryn of his court, bring these tokens of his respect and regard, Your Majesty, and his wish to consider friendship between you.” Arthur’s small smile widened and the man hurried on unctuously. “Even in our far distant land of Rheged, we have heard the great tales of Camelot’s golden king and his beautiful and powerful warlock, and we seek to honour you.”

Silence, stretching for a moment, two…. not yet awkward, but still, clearly thrumming with wrongness.

Arthur’s smile fixed and held; the whole room somehow frozen in puzzlement, the delegation waiting with a kind of dignified excitement, and Gwaine… Gwaine was suddenly close to losing it completely to a fit of unmanly giggles.

It was just…Arthur’s face…as if the much-anticipated delegation from Rheged had turned without warning and farted at him.

His noble queen apparently ignored, and Gwaine thought, with a kind of mean, half-ashamed glee, the eternally undervalued Merlin, described to Arthur himself in these terms of awed respect.

Camelot’s beautiful warlock, famed afar as surely as the mighty King Arthur himself.

And Merlin was beautiful, Gwaine thought fiercely - a strange, coltish, fey beauty. And he was brave. And clever. And as sweet and good at heart as a honeycomb melting in the sun of summer. And Gwaine hurt with him.

Because Arthur had never really seen any of that clearly…Merlin’s worth … not even when they’d been relatively, if dysfunctionally, close. Before Merlin’s magic was finally revealed.

Not even when Gwaine’d first met them, an odd couple in a tavern brawl. And the years after, when they were free to be prince and then new king and less than obsequious manservant... not even then, when Merlin had appeared the closest Arthur’d ever had to a true friend, had Arthur seemed able to see Merlin’s matchless worth, or his devotion.

Gwaine had never been able to understand it, even before he knew of Merlin’s magic himself... such wilful blindness to something that seemed obvious to anyone with a brain. He knew, all the knights knew, that Arthur had truly valued Merlin; in some ways, Gwaine had seen from the first, he’d needed him, but he’d seemed utterly incapable of admitting it to himself or showing it to Merlin in any but the most oblique way.

It wasn’t even a royal thing... a class thing; Arthur had proven he was quite capable of seeing past the low birth of servants and peasants; of elevating them and showing them respect, but that had been reserved for Gwen and his peasant knights.

To Arthur it seemed, for all those long years, Merlin could never be more than he was, however wise and loyal. He could never be more than a peasant who could not fight, and therefore, eternally, a servant. A king’s servant, but a servant, treated with Arthur’s weird kind of affectionate, possessive contempt, leavened at the end only by Gwen’s influence.

That, while Merlin was his manservant, had been the mystery of Arthur: he’d relied on Merlin more than any other person in his life, as friend and follower and gadfly and conscience, yet never seemed able to acknowledge it.

Now of course Arthur had no choice but to see Merlin’s true worth, Merlin’s role in his life; his power. And, yes, Merlin had his reward for it. Eventually. When Arthur’d finally pulled his big head out of his own arse.

Merlin sat again at the king’s right hand, as Arthur had placed him the very first time they took their places around the Round Table - but no longer as just a gesture. Now he wasn’t just standing by, serving the others; he was a formal member of Arthur’s council. And any of Uther’s old advisors, or the men vying for position from the courts of the other kingdoms, now seeking Arthur’s ear; anyone who openly questioned Merlin’s elevation to Court Sorceror and advisor to the king, was quickly and mercilessly set right.

Yet, for all that, for all Arthur had grown and finally allowed Merlin to grow, for all that Arthur may have decided to end his father’s war on magic, may be seeking to mend the fences Uther had destroyed; in his heart, his gut, for all he fought against it, conditioned as his father’s son and Morgana’s much betrayed half-brother, Gwaine believed Arthur still feared and mistrusted all magic and magicians. And Mordred hadn’t helped.

So Arthur’s old affectionate bullying of his manservant, his teasing disdain, had been replaced by a kind of uneasy, unnatural, over-formal tolerance… as if Merlin were no longer Merlin, but some unknown and potentially dangerous animal living among them.

Gwaine would never say it to Merlin himself, but he wondered if that was the most he was ever likely to get from his king. Never Arthur’s unstinting, unqualified admiration, never Arthur’s true respect..

Predictably, as the silence stretched too long in the room, Arthur gave the delegation a kind of ‘lets move on’ smile and inclined his head in necessary acknowledgement of the first statement at least.

“A friendship with His Majesty the King of Rheged would be welcome indeed.” His tone was firm and bland, drawing a line, before any more confusing nonsense was spouted. He turned his head pointedly toward Gwen and put his hand on hers, “But I’m remiss. Allow me to introduce to you, my queen, Guinevere of Camelot.”

The expression on the translator’s face didn’t change from benign warmth, and yet somehow his bewilderment was clear. His small smile stretched to politeness though, and he turned to murmur to the man beside him.

Myrthryn, Gwaine thought avidly.

Myrthryn listened and a small frown appeared on his brow. His eyes darted to Gwen as if seeing her properly for the first time, the splendid velvet gown embroidered with golden thread; the gorgeous, bejewelled band on her head, her twin throne, Arthur’s hand on hers. Hard to miss really.

Myrthryn barely moved in reaction, yet he seemed somehow to still; a diplomat on unexpected ground. He spoke quietly to the translator, the syllables liquid and beautiful.

“My lord Myrthryn begs pardon, Your Majesty,” the translator said carefully, “Our land is far distant from yours and our customs it seems are different. Perhaps, the tale became confused in the telling.”

Arthur’s expression moved to polite if puzzled acceptance, but there was no doubt that there had been a hiccough in the diplomatic exchange; the question thrumming silently but shriekingly around the room...’What tale?’

Myrthryn turned his body pointedly toward Gwen and bowed respectfully, the men with him swiftly following his example. His lips moved and the translator nodded. “My lord begs me to tell you that your queen is lovely indeed,” he said.

But it was clear to Gwaine that the strange sense of awe in the men was gone; now they seemed formal and polite. And it was only then, that the point struck home in Gwaine’s mind.

The delegation had come to pour praise and give blessings to Arthur’s reign and marriage; but not, it seemed, his marriage to Gwen.

And inevitably that point was striking home elsewhere too. Gwen was smiling widely as she inclined her head in thanks, and Gwaine could see the amusement there, barely held back

“Different customs can be very confusing,” she said tactfully, not the slightest sign of the peasant girl of old. Arthur threw her a quick, grateful smile.

Gwaine himself was aware he was actually smirking only when Gwen’s gaze darted across suddenly and shockingly, to meet his own. Her brows rose minutely in complicity before she looked back at the diplomats from Rheged.

“Forgive me my lords, but would it be fair to say that you expected to find King Arthur wed to … his sorceror?”

Gwaine felt his eyes bug, before his smirk widened to a huge, white grin. Now there was the peasant girl, everything out in the open, and the reason Arthur had chosen the right queen. She, at least, was still Merlin’s friend.

Arthur’s face, Gwaine noted with delight, was flushed pink and he was all but scowling, the exchange between Gwen and Gwaine himself, he realised, duly noted.

Myrthryn though, once he understood, seemed to look at Gwen with a new focus. As he spoke, his eyes didn’t leave her.

“My lord Myrthryn again begs your forgiveness, your Majesty,” the translator said blandly.

Gwen shook her head slightly and her mischievous smile gentled. “Truly there’s nothing to forgive. But I’m interested in the customs of Rheged, my lords. Are men there permitted to marry each other?”

Something stilled in Gwaine’s heart. Arthur, he noted vaguely, had gone from pink to red.

Myrthyrn listened to the translation but suddenly he spoke directly to Gwen. His voice was soft, heavily accented and he was, perhaps, less than fluent, but he was mesmerising.

“You are gracious my lady. And …yes… in the Old Religion by which Rheged lives, all people may wed, each to the other, as their hearts call them. It has always been so. But…” he bowed his head slightly. “That is clearly not the way of Camelot .”

Gwen smiled, unperturbed and gracious. “No,” she said and she managed to sound neutral. “It’s not our way, though it may once have been.” She hesitated, ignoring the audible intake of breath in the hall, and went on, following the path of logical conclusion, “Is your king then, married to a man?”

Myrthryn’s eyes locked on hers.

“His Majesty’s consort is Lord High Sorceror to his court.”

Gwaine let out a breath he didn’t know he’d been holding. His emotions were beyond him, but thrumming through them was that one thread of new knowledge: In the Old Religion, men can marry. In all his travels, he hadn’t seen that. He knew he was smirking like a fool.

“So… the king of Rheged always marries the Court Sorceror?” Gwen tried for clarity.

Myrthryn smiled, eyes warm. “Oh no, my lady. Destiny joined them. But… the union of the power of king and sorceror has proven fortunate indeed for our kingdom.”

Destiny joined them.

It sounded like a figure of speech but it was lovely all the same.

Gwaine was almost shocked when Arthur broke the respectful silence, because he hadn’t expected it of him; he’d thought the king had distanced himself completely from the exchange. But Arthur couldn’t seem to help himself asking the obvious question; the one obsessing any monarch. The one that must be especially obsessing him.

“Your king then…” he hesitated, “Your king has no heirs?”

“My king has two sons, your Majesty,” Myrthyrn replied smoothly, “and two daughters. But he is much blessed beyond that, to also have achieved the …” He stopped and seemed to grope for the words, “… the union of his soul.”

There was another short silence, more questions hovering now than had been answered, and it seemed Arthur was realising just how alien the kingdom of Rheged actually was. But Gwen again broke it.

“That sounds… quite beautiful.“ She looked across at Arthur warmly, and he met her eyes, both, Gwaine thought, probably considering their own bond as just that. “I’ve never heard marriage described quite in that way before, but it’s lovely.”

Her gaze finally returned to Myrthyrn and she smiled warmly, so full of charm that Gwaine couldn’t help grinning with her. Beside him, he heard Percival draw a long, deep breath.

Myrthryn smiled too. “My lady,” he acknowledged, then seemed to hesitate again, as if he wondered whether to continue. “The bond shared by my king and his consort though, goes beyond simple marriage. It’s a union so powerful, once realised…once consummated in magic… it lives forever. Past death.”

Well, Gwaine thought, wincing, that’s pissed all over Arthur’s world-beating romance.

But Gwen simply allowed her wide smile to fade to a kind of fascinated frown.

“That’s possible?” she asked softly. “You can use magic to…?” she trailed off.

“Such unions are very, very rare my lady, and only between creatures of magic. My king and my lord found their destiny while they were still boys, many years ago. Their souls were …” He frowned and seemed again to struggle for the word, “meant …” He shook his head, apparently impatient with the limitations of his fluency. “They were… halves … of a much greater whole. They are …two sides of a coin. They could choose others of course; they can choose other, lesser bonds, as indeed my king has done with the mother of his children… but they know that only with their union, locked eternally by magic, can they be whole and complete in this life, as… in others. They were destined to be so… to be thus… and they would not fight it. They are all to each other.”

Gwen’s lips parted as if she wanted to speak, but no words emerged. She looked captivated.

“An interesting tradition,” Arthur said. His voice sounded harsh and overloud in the hushed hall. “Perhaps we can speak of it and other matters, at greater length when we dine.”

He smiled politely but the hint was very clear, and Myrthryn took it, with a deep bow. The whole delegation seemed to take a step back.

“We are honoured, Your Majesty,” he said. Then, “But…may I ask…? My lord… Merlin...?” Arthur stared at him, frowning, but the urgency in the man’s voice was compelling. “Tales of his power have reached us. That Emrys has come among us, and we should have lived to see it…”

Emrys. Gwaine knew how uneasy that name still made Merlin, though he tried not to show it openly– as if he were some kind of god of magic, of their religion. He’d accepted it and used it, in his fights against Morgana and Mordred, in any fight where Arthur needed him, but sometimes he tried to explain to Gwaine why he was absolutely sure there had to be a mistake.

To Gwaine, the Rhegedian honestly appeared to be more anxious and besotted by the idea of Merlin than he’d been by Arthur’s gorgeous golden reality. He could imagine how pissed off Arthur must feel about that.

“Merlin is on an embassy for me,” Arthur said smoothly, eyes narrowed. “He’s expected to return within a matter of days.” Gwaine could hear the slight dismissiveness; almost see the thought ‘Lets see how beautiful you think he is when you see those ears’. But Mythryrn beamed as if Arthur had promised him treasuries of gold.

That evening, at the first great feast for the delegates from Rheged, Mythryrn sat on Arthur’s right with his interpreter; Gwen, as ever, on his left, and Gwaine sat with his fellow knights, next to Percival again, close enough to watch but not hear. But his spirits were light, and he and Leon between them managed to cheer up the sombre Percival.

After the first pleasantries, Gwaine noted that Arthur seemed focused intensely on his conversation with Mythryrn and Mythryrn in turn looked nowhere but at the young king of Camelot. Gwaine, as he sank deeper into his cups though, thought that it didn’t look to be a particularly enjoyable exchange, judging by Arthur’s expression. He looked…Gwaine fancied he looked almost shaken at times, eyes fixed, brooding on some invisible point, one hand twirling the stem of his goblet; the fingers of the other hand pressed tight across his mouth as he listened, frowning, to his guest. At times Gwaine thought, he looked as if what he heard disturbed him.

Then, out of the blue, as Gwaine slumped in his seat, mellow and happy, Arthur’s eyes snapped over for no reason and met his own. The hardness there was almost enough to sober him. Almost. But he was becoming used to it now.

He was pretty sure Arthur hadn’t liked his romantic relationship with Merlin from the very start, though he’d never tried to interfere; didn’t believe perhaps that his knight should be consorting with…fucking… a sorceror, even one Arthur himself had raised to the council.

Maybe it was the openness of it - because neither of them hid, since two men together, in love even, wasn’t exactly unprecedented. It was far from the social ideal of course – even Arthur and Gwen didn’t meet that – but there were enough of the old ways left even in Camelot to allow it without active persecution.

In truth Arthur’s chilliness to he and Merlin made no sense really, but then, maybe in some well-hidden part of him Arthur actually missed the closeness of friendship he’d lost. Or maybe he believed Merlin would yet betray them all and turn Gwaine into a frog in the process. Gwaine could never work out if that bit of extra force in Arthur’s arm against him at training now, came from protectiveness of him, or jealousy of him.

He met Arthur’s eyes without a flinch, and raised his glass, smiling, and he fancied Arthur knew very well what he was thinking.

His faith in Merlin was unshakeable.

Men could marry in the Old Religion.

Merlin could be his, as surely as Gwen was Arthur’s.

When Arthur dropped his gaze and turned his attention back with new intensity to Myrthyrn, it felt to Gwaine like victory.

~~~~~~~~~

“Gwaine… I just… I don’t know that it’s such a great idea. I mean it’s lovely and everything but…Arthur. He’s sort of turning a blind eye to us at the moment but…”

”Merlin…” Merlin turned his head on the pillow and gazed limpidly at Gwaine. It usually worked. “And don’t try those cow eyes either. It’s not up to him who I marry, or you marry, or anyone marries…”

“Well…actually…”

“We’re not important enough,” Gwaine dismissed and rolled onto his side to face him, all the better to direct the force of his will at his road-weary, shagged-out lover.

Merlin hadn’t even managed to wash the grime of the road from his body before Gwaine was there in the room with him, throwing out his manservant, backing him up against the wall of his chambers for a desperate, yearning kiss. Which led to a slow, erotic removal of his clothes and then a desperate fuck bent over the side of his mattress. His wonderful, soft feather mattress which was now moulding ecstatically to the bruises and aches on his body. The fuck had both helped and made things worse, he thought ruefully; relaxed his muscles no end, but his poor arse…already aching from days on horseback…

‘Aw…Is your little bottom sore?’

Merlin blanked that old surge of nostalgia with automatic and brutal efficiency. Those days were long past.

“Merlin? Are you even listening? I’m trying to be romantic.” Merlin mmmed an encouraging sound, eyes delightfully closed at last. “Merlin!” He jerked back from the slow, drifting slide of sleep. “Look, he’s doin' his best to mend fences properly with the Druids, isn’t he? And he wants a relationship with Rheged? He has to show he’s happy to accept the Old Religion too. So he can’t reject a custom like that, can he?”

Merlin sighed inwardly.

It made sense, he knew. But Arthur was Arthur. He wasn’t sure Gwaine still quite understood what that meant. The idea though… the idea of being married… wanted that way so much, that someone like Gwaine would want him for good...

Once, years before, he’d longed for it with Freya, but a marriage of fugitives, with the responsibility of their fate in his hands would have been very different from this - what Gwaine was offering. A union of equals in their different ways, both with a role to play in the new Camelot and the new Albion.

And yet…it seemed like tempting fate…provocation... rocking the boat when things were going fine. Or as fine as they could be.

He turned his head, looking sadly at the bathtub standing empty near his bed. Bran hadn’t managed to even begin to fill it before being hustled out the door by a ferociously horny Gwaine. He’d protested loudly of course, for effect, while all but cooing over them as he was propelled from the room.

Merlin often thought that if his mother had been a man, and extremely sarcastic, she’d have been not unlike Bran.

‘Go on Merlin! Don’t be such a big …girl!’

He closed his eyes again, his lips turning up slightly in a kind of sad smirk. He missed it bitterly, that strange, close relationship with Arthur, when Arthur had trusted him and treated him like dirt in equal measure.

He sat up slowly, wincing. There was a lot to do before he could actually sleep, and he was running away. He knew it, and so did Gwaine. He closed his eyes, sighed, and opened them again, turning his head to look down at the naked man lying beside him.

Gwaine looked unhappy and brooding, and it made Merlin feel appallingly guilty; that he’d basically taken Gwaine’s excited, romantic suggestion that they tie their lives together formally, and picked it apart. He sighed again.

He’d been at court too long, he thought; around the Pendragons for too long.

He reached a hand down and stroked Gwaine’s smooth upper arm.

Gwaine looked lovely, stretched out in Merlin’s bed, long hair tangled, sweat still glistening on his slender, well-muscled torso. He was a man who could charm and bed just about anyone he wanted and before Merlin, he generally had… yet, here he was, offering everything - his heart - to Merlin.

He’d been desperate when he’d barrelled into Merlin’s rooms, muttering about months with just his right hand, and having to watch Arthur and Gwen floating around in a haze of smug unity.

Just the idea that Gwaine, who could have anyone, had waited for him…

“I need to think about it. Is that alright? Can you give me a bit of time?”

Gwaine’s expression softened at once, too quickly, Merlin thought with amusement, but then Gwaine had long since worked out a Strategy To Manage Merlin, or so Leon had once drunkenly confided.

At last he got up and wandered to the bowls of water set on a table near his clothing cupboard, spelled them to the perfect temperature,and wearily began to wipe the grime and sweat and semen from his body before carefully beginning to shave off the light beard scruff he'd grown on the road.

But he couldn't stop worrying at it.

He thought nervously that their best hope if they really did it – tried to wed- would be Gwen. He’d always hoped that somehow she could change things, work her own magic on Arthur to loosen his suspicion of Merlin’s power. Of course even Gwen had changed quite a bit over the years; become more … more queenly as time and the war went on, and then... what Morgana had done to her.... But it had been happening even before she and Arthur married really; she hadn’t been the giggling, tongue-tied girl he’d conspired with for longer then he could clearly remember. But Merlin could understand that. How difficult must it have been, to be a peasant preparing to transform into a queen? And, she’d still been his friend, even after she settled perfectly into her role, and he was still just a servant; she’d still treated him like a confidante at times, shamed Arthur into treating him a bit better. His magic had been...a major blip on the road for them, but she’d forgiven him his years of lies and never turned her back on him. And she’d never shown any disapproval of his relationship with Gwaine.

He chewed on his lip as he wiped himself down quickly and efficiently, trying to prepare himself mentally for the evening ahead. To focus.

Bran had told him what was still expected of him: that he must report to the king before the evening's banquet, where he would meet with the delegation from Rheged.

And actually, much as he was dreading another stiff, awkward audience with Arthur, the thought of the feast afterwards really excited him, though he’d have sworn when he all but fell off his horse at the main door, that nothing could have done that tonight. In truth he hadn’t exactly been sleeping well during his embassy to the Druids.

This was Rheged though… a kingdom which had never veered from the Old Religion; where magic had always been honoured and nurtured. How would that be?

The thought of it propelled him into the fine clothing laid out for him on his chair, watched all the time by Gwaine’s warm, lustful eyes.

How much they may know, these men of Rheged? And they might even share some of it with Merlin, if they didn’t view Arthur Pendragon’s pet sorceror, as a traitor to his people.

Merlin sighed and pulled down his tunic, guts beginning their uneasy, nervous grind at the prospect of explaining to Arthur the outcome of his less than triumphant embassy to the Druids.

He’d made progress, yes, far more progress than he’d personally expected to make in such a short time, and he’d learned so much, talked long into the night. But he knew that wouldn’t be enough.

The Druids, like everyone else, had factions; those who held to peace, learning and gentleness in all things, and those who’d become so embittered by Uther’s genocidal campaign that they’d lost that innocence, and now completely mistrusted and loathed the Pendragon line. And much as it pained Merlin to admit it, that suspicion was justified; Arthur had his own terrible guilt to bear regarding the Druids and all creatures of magic. But the king was so determined… so determined still to make amends, even after Mordred’s ultimate betrayal.

They’d called him Emrys, all the time – ignored his repeated insistence that his name was actually Merlin, which had irritated him to no end - but they never explained the significance of it beyond the idea that everyone was depending on him. Merlin knew they were still holding back vital information; things that they said he would find out in time. It was incredibly frustrating, incredibly frightening to realise they thought he was special when he knew he wasn’t really. But he’d learned a lot, even so.

To Arthur though, who expected everything now, who wanted these loose ends quickly tied, another flank secured, Merlin knew his successes would appear trivial. And he could hardly recount his campaign to Arthur, as Arthur could recount his own battles… How could he describe the insanely ambitious magic he’d performed, to impress the Druids?

He hadn’t even known himself when he tried, if he could manage it, but he found the thing that seemed to awe them most was doing magic without words, just thinking the thing, willing it. It was something he’d always been able to do under extreme pressure but it had been almost…unconscious. With his growing strength, he was finding that it was easier and easier to control, but the trouble was, he could still never quite tell when it wasn’t going to work as predicted.

Which, to be totally honest with himself, it still didn’t. Occasionally.

But most of the time … well once, trying that magic with the Druids, he’d thought the power would destroy him in wielding it . But he’d amazed himself in the end. And it had been good, healing.... using his magic again for peace, rather than destruction.

He couldn’t exactly share that euphoria with Arthur though, not when the king viewed magic as he now clearly viewed Merlin… as a weapon he mistrusted, but may need to utilise.

Merlin bit his lip and clenched his fists, preparing himself.

It was ironic; when he’d started as Arthur’s manservant he couldn’t have cared less if Arthur got annoyed with him, if he thought he was crap at his job, because he didn’t really want to be a manservant for anyone. But now…now he desperately wanted to show himself worthy of the role he’d been given; the trust Arthur had shown in him.

It was all so different.

And he’d wanted this, hadn’t he, for all those years? That Arthur should finally see him for who he was; appreciate that he was more than a loyal clown, the worst manservant in the world, who even so sat up all night to write his speeches so Arthur would see he had a brain?

And now he had respect. He wasn’t still in exile, he wasn’t in the castle dungeons; he was on Arthur’s council at last after being discounted and mocked and overlooked for so long. Gaius had ceremonially given him his seat at Arthur’s right hand at the new Round Table; Gwen sat on his left. And Arthur was meeting his destiny, acknowledged by the major kingdoms of Albion as the inspired leader they needed to survive the savage war machine of the Saxons.

But right now… right now Merlin wished that he still had that stupid feathered hat, just so he could stick it on his head and maybe get Arthur to mock him - smirk that superior, triumphantly wicked smirk. Find the prattish prince; the disdainful, arrogant, almost-friend he’d first known, rather than the distant, serious, careful king he was about to meet.

“He’s just flesh and blood, you know.”

Gwaine’s voice cut sharply into his self-flagellation. Merlin could hear the edge to it. But he was aware that Gwaine veered close sometimes to resenting Merlin’s continued focus on Arthur, even after Arthur had reacted so badly and still so warily to his magic. But it was in his blood now; in his bones, that driving need to see Arthur safe and happy. It had almost finished him, when Mordred had been at Arthur's side in Camelot; the obsession with trying to stave off a future only he had seen, Arthur's death on Mordred's sword. It had sucked all the laughter, all the joy out of him; driven him on and on to panic and stupidity, staggering alone through a tunnel of desperation and fear. His moroseness then, he knew, had probably driven he and Arthur further apart, because how could Arthur know that Merlin's grief was for him?

But, Merlin supposed wearily, it wasn't as if he and the king had been all that close even before that, what with Arthur’s ever deepening reliance on his wife and his knights. He’d lost the last of his innocence after Arthur regained Camelot for the second time and married Gwen. After that, Merlin had been forced to see painfully - and Mordred’s time at Arthur’s side had confirmed it - that for all they’d been through together, for all he’d done for Arthur, and for all the moments Arthur had still let him in, still let him see he cared, still kept him by his side at all times, he would always essentially be a servant in his eyes. And however often he’d been proven right, Arthur still trusted others rather than listening to him.

Morgana, Agravaine, Mordred; it had seemed to become more and more belittling, more undermining, more threatening as the stakes raised each time. Only his magic had given him worth or status, in the end. He’d grown up a lot since then. Let go of stupid ideas of equal friendship between princes and peasants.

Unless they fell in love with you of course, he thought wryly.

Well… it had worked for Gwen.

He shook his head impatiently.

This was beyond ridiculous. He needed to get a grip.

Arthur had restored magic to the kingdom hadn’t he? Fulfilled Merlin’s greatest, most hopeful dream? Trusted him enough, even as a servant, to accept Excalibur, honed by the breath of a dragon, pulled at Merlin’s urging, and with his secret magic, from stone? He’d listened to Merlin's advice sometimes. He’d kept him by his side always, until his magic was revealed. He’d cared a lot in his own way.

Merlin drew a deep breath and managed a cheeky grin for Gwaine.

“I know. ‘S just… he’s probably expecting I’ve brought a paper with every Druid’s allegiance written in blood.”

He’d go to Arthur, endure his distant disappointment, then hurry to the banquet. And after…well maybe, if he had the energy, there could be time with Gwaine as well, to remind himself that he was still young, still a man, still flesh and blood and bone.

He kissed Gwaine goodbye in his bed, left his room quietly, and set out for the king’s unofficial quarters in the West Wing of the castle, where he worked and occasionally slept when he wasn’t with Gwen.

As well as the ones they shared, the king and queen, like all royal couples, had their own chambers, because their separate schedules could require them - particularly Arthur - to receive visitors and come and go at all hours. Gwen had Arthur’s mother’s old rooms for her own use, which showed, Merlin thought again, how very much Arthur loved and trusted her. But, Arthur and Gwen slept in the same chambers more often than not, in Arthur’s old rooms; the ones Merlin had known so well. Sharing a bed that often was unusual for royalty apparently - or so Gwaine said - but Merlin supposed it proved their closeness and comfort with each other.

The guard outside the king’s door looked at Merlin sideways as he knocked, but Merlin was used to that now, even if it still stung …that half superstitious fear in their eyes after years of being told magic was the epitome of evil. And all that fear was now directed at him.

He straightened as the door opened almost at once, and the king’s manservant, William, nodded coolly, as he slipped outside and away. It was to be a private audience then.

Merlin took a deep breath, and entered, the weird familiarity hitting him at once, because the layout of the rooms was very similar to Arthur’s old chambers.They could indeed be prince and manservant again. Except then, he hadn’t knocked.

Arthur was standing by the window, leaning against it, gazing out, arms folded across his broad chest. He was dressed casually in his loose white tunic and simple brown trousers, barefoot, not ready for the banquet at all.

For all his years of struggle and leadership, he looked young and golden and as he turned to face Merlin, oddly brooding; Merlin’s prince and king clashing.

"Merlin." Arthur inclined his head briefly, in greeting. He was frowning.

Merlin carefully returned his restrained nod. “Your Majesty,” he said soberly. And oh, he thought for the millionth time, things had certainly changed.

‘Arthur,’ the conversation went in his head, ‘There’s kind of good news and bad news…’

But what emerged was, nervously, “Sire. I’ve made some progress…”

Arthur waved him to silence.

Merlin opened his mouth again, then closed it, waiting for a signal. He loathed this.

Arthur pursed his full mouth consideringly, frowning even more deeply now, still studying Merlin with that cool gaze. Judging him; finding him, Merlin supposed, wanting, as ever, but now far too measured to say such a thing to his Court Sorceror.

Instead, with a small, sour moue, he walked to the table and sat in his chair, set at the end, picking up the goblet in front of it. He flopped back and gestured Merlin shortly to sit in the other chair at the table’s side.

Merlin swallowed and scuttled forward, sat gingerly, and looked at the full goblet of wine sitting there prepared for him.

“Drink,’” Arthur said. His voice was hard and it sounded like an order, not an invitation, so Merlin did, a small careful sip. Once he would have launched again spontaneously into an account of his doings; now he waited for a cue. It felt odd though, this strange sense of hostility; it had been so long since Arthur had shown him any strong emotion.

The silence stretched.

“Have you been back long?”

Merlin cleared his throat. “Er no… no. Um… Sire. I mean, I just had time to change and…”

“So. You haven’t seen Gwaine?”

Gwaine?

Merlin frowned, totally at a loss now, and worried.

Had Arthur somehow got wind of Gwaine’s plan? Was he unhappy that one of his knights should think to wed under the Old Religion and to a warlock? Put like that…he could see it might be an issue.

“Gwaine? Um… yeah? I just …” He braced his shoulders. Why lie? “Yes, I just left him”

Arthur’s jaw clenched and he glared down at the table, long fingers twirling his goblet stem, turning it round and round on the table. His thoughts seemed to be angering him; in fact to Merlin’s nervous eyes, he looked close to homicidal, and it was a long time since he’d seen Arthur like that. But for long seconds the awful silence ticked on.

“Tell me...” Arthur’s mouth seemed to twist and Merlin’s apprehension rocketed aloft and took wings. The king’s voice sounded harsh, older suddenly, and Merlin opened his mouth to do just that, as if compelled…

Tell him…Arthur … all about Gwaine’s insane lovely determination; about this… dream that they should wed? Admit that he, Merlin, was actually kind of considering it; the concept of being loved that much, of not having to be alone? Considering throwing both of them on Arthur’s mercy, as idiots in love. Well, it was worth a try? But he didn’t get the chance.

“You told me… after you.. returned…” Merlin’s eyes snapped to Arthur’s, startled, and he closed his mouth. “You told me what the Great Dragon said to you. At the start.” Arthur scowled down at the goblet, moving it relentlessly between his long fingers. “About… destiny. Mine. And…yours.” He seemed to force his eyes up to meet Merlin’s by an act of will. Merlin stared speechlessly back. “Repeat it again. What he said. The Great Dragon. His exact words.”

It was an order again, hard, relentless, no question of it, but Arthur, to Merlin’s eyes, was bracing himself for the reply.

Merlin stared at him, guts really churning now with worry. It was more than a sore point between them; Arthur had almost run him through when he’d admitted he’d set the dragon free. Twice. And then... the White Dragon...

Merlin could still see Arthur’s look of disgust, of betrayal, barely lessened by Merlin’s babbling excuses.

“The… um… the dragon…?” he croaked, but the withering stare he received was familiar enough of old to gather his wits. He tried to think. What had the dragon said, word for word? ‘You cannot hate that which makes you whole?’ Yeah, he thought he’d skip that one. But the gist of it…

“He said… well … at the start, that it was my destiny to …to stand with you, protect you …and help you become a great king and …unite … Albion.” He trailed off.

Arthurs jaw clenched. He was glaring into the goblet again, still twisting the stem back and forth between his strong fingers, as if the wine within was showing him grim, unwanted things. Merlin stopped.

“What. Else?” Arthur bit out.

What else? Merlin’s mind began to blank.

So many things, but they’d all been at the beginning, in his first months in Camelot. It was so long ago.

“Well, he helped me … advised me what to do... at times… When there were magical attacks…on Camelot, I mean…on you. Or your father. He did help a lot…really…with the Questing Beast for one…and The Black Knight…the Dorocha… Agravaine, Mordred…” He stopped. Arthur’s eyes stayed fixed on his own hands and Merlin could see yet again that all the things he, Merlin, had done in all that time, the horrible, terrifying choices he’d had to make alone, hidden in the shadows, all for Arthur, were viewed now by Arthur himself with disgust. Unworthy acts of betrayal. But he plodded on, grimly. It seemed a lack of gratitude was to be his eternal lot with Arthur, prince or king. “Near the start he said …he said I was.. one side of a coin... and... you... were the other,” he said finally, defiantly into the frigid silence. “That we were bound and set together by destiny. Two halves of a…” his voice slowly petered out, “…whole.”

It sounded ludicrous now. Pitiful.

Merlin looked down at his own goblet and raised it shakily to his lips, gulped too large a mouthful of the king's good wine, but the burning of the liquid in his throat helped him bite back his emotion.

He looked up again bravely and met Arthur’s burning stare.

But when he looked into those hard, searching eyes, he was stunned by the depth of feeling he saw there, and he couldn’t hope to untangle it.

Merlin took a deep involuntary breath, felt his own eyes widen, startled and wary, and he realised abruptly that, whatever had happened in his absence, whatever he’d thought this might be about, he was lost. Totally out of his depth. He felt like a rabbit caught in the sights of a cross bow.

“Arthur?” he asked nervously and then caught himself, “Sire?”

Arthur’s mouth worked and he swallowed hard.

“A delegation arrived from Rheged two days ago.”

Merlin blinked, totally lost now. “Yes,” he said, cautiously, voice hushed. “Bran told me I was to meet them tonight.” Arthur frowned impatiently, as if trying to place the name, so Merlin was forced to mutter embarrassedly, “My… manservant.”

He registered the quick ironic quirk of Arthur’s lips with a kind of desperate nostalgia.

“Right,” Arthur said gravely, turning away from the open target as Merlin’s Arthur never would have done. He loosed the stem of his goblet and drummed his fingers on the table, then abruptly he stopped the movement. “You know how invaluable an alliance with Rheged could be. They came to pledge friendship. And to bring gifts to celebrate my marriage. Very belatedly, of course.” His eyes stayed fixed on his own hand. “The thing is…” His mouth thinned, “they arrived believing I’d married you.”

Merlin stilled. It took him whole seconds to begin to understand, and then shock blanked his mind. He realised his mouth had dropped open and he couldn’t stop it.

Arthur lifted his goblet and took a savage swig of wine, blue eyes blazing angrily over the rim.

“I…” Merlin began helplessly, but he didn’t truly know what to say, and he could feel the flush of nervousness on his face heating and deepening into the crimson stain of desperate embarrassment. The immediate, instinctive thought that Arthur was joking, setting him up, died stillborn in seconds; those days were long past. And Arthur wasn’t a good enough actor to feign this seething upset.

Merlin found he was trying as hard as he could not to picture the scene, and all he could feel at first was a huge, unmanning gratitude that he hadn’t been present when that little gem was revealed.

Had it been in front of everyone? All the knights? The nobility? Why hadn’t Gwaine warned him?

Then, guilt, ridiculous, automatic guilt set in, as the things he’d heard murmured among the Druids, heard and instantly filed away… easily, relentlessly ignored as irrelevant to him, all suddenly flashed back, horribly threatening. And there was a horrible, automatic sense of responsibility too, that ambassadors of magic had so embarrassed Arthur in front of his own court.

He wondered then, still half stunned, why Arthur was telling him at all. Was he meant to laugh? Apologise?

“I’ve talked to their leader, over the last two days,” Arthur went on steadily, still staring hard at Merlin like an insect on a pin, as if somehow, as ever, he was being held to blame. “Myrthyrn. That’s his name.” Arthur drew a deep, deep breath; released it slowly. He looked, Merlin thought, as reined in and emotionally knotted as he’d ever seen him. “Their king and his court sorceror are… bound. Wed.” He bit the word off distastefully. Merlin looked back at him numbly; wide-eyed, waiting, horrified. “They had heard…” Arthur grimaced and swallowed, “Believed…”

Merlin couldn’t bear it any more.

“Well, that would explain it then!” he blurted, all desperate overdone cheer, “They just got… confused… Their customs aren’t ours. Thankfully!”

Was Arthur trying to prepare him for the mockery of the court? Warning him, from some left over friendship? What? Merlin’s heart was racing, skittering like a mouse on a wheel.

He found he was grinning desperately, a pitifully false attempt at camaraderie.

Arthur didn’t return it.

“Yes,” Arthur bit out with cold precision, “That’s what he said at first... before the court.” He threw his head back suddenly, his strong, smoothly tanned neck stretched before Merlin’s eyes, Adam’s apple bobbing, as he sneered at the ceiling. “Forgive us… Our customs are different…” He dropped his head again and stared at Merlin for long, angry seconds. “But I spoke to him. Later. And the day after. Did you know that we were foretold? Merlin. You and I? Did your dragon tell you that?”

Merlin drew a sharp breath, the discounted words of Taliesin, of the Druid priests echoing emptily in his head.

“I …told you…” It occurred to him suddenly, stupidly, that he and Arthur were talking like people again, as they used to, but it didn’t sober him enough to stop. He was beyond that. “He said... the dragon said…”

“Two sides of a coin. Yep. Funnily enough that’s exactly how…exactly how Myrthryn described it too… his king’s bond with his sorceror. It’s what caught me first. Those … exact… Words.” Arthur took a deep draught of wine, and his voice sounded even more displeased when he’d swallowed, his eyes trained again on the goblet as he set it on the table. “He very graciously gave me all the gory details when I asked.”

He drew a deep breath through his nose, then let it out in a long, angry sigh.

He looked up and held Merlin’s gaze effortlessly. “A binding of two souls.” Voice somehow accusing, full of suppressed anger. “Destined to be linked; meant… always… to be united… in this life and all that follows. A union of two halves, essential to make a whole, or neither will ever be complete. Set in place by magic. Between creatures of magic. Beyond death. Eternal.”

There was a long, shocked silence when he finished, as Merlin stared back at him, wordless and appalled.

Where was this going?

Arthur looked to him, Merlin realised with a kind of mounting, animal panic, aggressively focussed, the way he'd always seen him before a vital tournament or a battle to the death. The way he'd looked after Merlin had told him about his ancient destiny as the king who would forge Albion forever.

“Arthur…?” Merlin’s throat felt parched. “I don’t…”

“Did you know…? Merlin? Just… neglect to tell me? Again.”

“No! No I didn’t! Arthur! ” And he hadn’t. The dragon hadn’t said that. Not like that.

But what he had said…Merlin thought now, mind skittering with fear… He should have known. Looking at it now, Kilgarrah had always more than implied it, hadn’t he …he’d told him over and over that they needed each other to be whole?

‘You cannot truly hate that which completes you.‘

How, looking at it now, how could he have ignored the implications of that? But Merlin had ignored it, with perfect ease, hadn’t even thought to look at it that way, blanked it because it was just… ludicrous. And anyway... all the dragon had talked about for years was Merlin’s role as Arthur’s protector whose task to shepherd Arthur safely to his place in history. Nothing more. Merlin had almost forgotten all he was told at the start, until he’d been forced to tell his whole story to Arthur.

“Its just … their king though,” he put in desperately, ‘It doesn’t mean… you.”

But his gut suddenly knew differently. And so, he was beginning to see, did Arthur.

Those beautiful eyes glared at him, flinty, accusing.

“Myrthryn told me. He explained it all… the legends of the Old Religion.” He pursed his mouth. “You should know them, shouldn’t you?” He looked coldly furious. Raging with accusation and resentment, as if this was somehow his fault. Merlin’s fault. “After all, it’s you and me. Apparently. He said these bonds in magic are incredibly rare anyway. But we’ve been foretold for centuries. That’s what he said. Emrys.” Merlin started, and he knew Arthur had seen it; saw it in the curl of his lips “That’s who he says you are, Merlin. But we knew that. The Awaited One. The greatest warlock ever born,” His steely glare bored into Merlin. “And the Once And Future King who’ll conquer evil with his aid … unite all before him. And defeat the power of death to protect mankind in its greatest need.“

Merlin took a gasping breath. “Arthur…” He felt quite terrified and yet he didn’t know why. “I don’t know what …“ Then at last, from nowhere, a desperate focus, even if it betrayed all he knew. “Look… It makes no difference. Its just a legend!"

“It’s your religion, Merlin! Its magic.“ Then, “You knew!

“No! Not… The Druids … well they may have mentioned something about my destiny and maybe... something about it being... tied to the The Once And Future King, but not specifically…”

Arthur stood and threw back his chair in one smooth, violent movement, the scrape of wood on stone shockingly loud in the stillness of the room. He turned and paced to the window, then turned again. He looked ragingly angry now, emotions boiling at the surface, on the edge of violence as he rarely was off the field.

“And were you going to tell me?” He seemed to be fighting to keep his voice level but it was still loud, intimidating. “Or keep it from me, ‘for my own good’ like so many things you’ve hidden? So many things you manipulated me into and away from?” The volume lowered but it sounded no less threatening, just colder. “Can I ever really trust you, Merlin?”

And there it was, what Arthur so clearly felt every time he looked at him, but never voiced aloud any more. What hurt Merlin all the time now, as he hadn’t believed he could hurt: the exchange of what he’d gained - Arthur's knowledge and tolerance - for all he’d lost - Arthur’s blind belief in his loyalty.

Suddenly it was an intolerable rage building and boiling in Merlin’s ears and his head and his blood. All the injustice of it - of all he’d done, all for Arthur, his focus; of all the tears he’d shed for him, all the dark, bitter guilt he bore, all the long overlooked years of fear and mockery and slow rejection, only to climax in this. He pushed back his chair too and jumped to his feet, unable to bear the vulnerability of sitting down a second longer.

“And what was I supposed to say, Arthur? Exactly?” Yelling. “If I’d even thought it through myself? Oh I know! I could’ve said... the Druids have this deranged idea that I may be the most powerful sorceror ever, and without me you can’t be the greatest king in history! How’s that your Majesty? And the Great Dragon says we’re two sides of a coin, so maybe that really means we should be bound together! You and me! Merlin! That incompetent servant you never wanted or respected and don’t trust! Then there’s the little detail that you don’t trust the Old Religion either and you loathe magic. But… that’s destiny for you! How deep a dungeon would you have shoved me into? Sire.”

Arthur stared at him through his rant, silenced. It felt almost like old times. His full mouth tensed, and then his shoulders seemed to slump minutely, anger draining from him almost visibly. He looked away.

He said, slowly, carefully, “You think I haven’t been scratching through it every hour since they came? Trying to find a way not to believe it. But if they’re right, it’s part of it ... all of it. You and me. Two halves of a whole.”

“And you know what’s involved?” Merlin asked harshly. “You know what you have to do to form a union like that? Its not like a friendly agreement. Did your chatty visitor tell you that?”

Arthur looked away, his mouth a twist of distaste.

“Myrthryn said… “ He straightened, flushing. “It’s formed through the force of life. Seed. And magic. To do it… I'd have to take you, and your magic finishes it.”

Merlin stared at him, and his pulse was thundering in his ears like the tide.

Gwen was his friend. And Gwaine was the true knight who’d just laid his heart at his feet. This had to stop.

“This is madness, Arthur!” He said, voice low and sure, even to his own ears, no nonsense. “You have your queen. One day she’ll give you children... Pendragon heirs. And she’s beautiful and kind and brave! She’s the perfect wife; your true love. Even the dragon said so!" Arthur looked at him sharply and Merlin nodded frantically in confirmation, desperate to get through to him somehow. "Yes. That’s how the spell binding you to Lady Vivien was broken! Gwen! You’ve known for years that she was for you! You defied your father; turned your back on political marriages, offered up your throne.. hell you handed over Gedref, remember? Just to be with her. You waited years to have her! Just her!” He laughed suddenly, “This is insane! I’ve never ever seen you as …as content as you've been since you married! You could have lost her when Morgana took her, but you were lucky! You have your true love. She’s totally yours! And here you are, letting yourself get screwed up listening to insane prophesies from mad old warlocks!”

He ground to a halt eventually, uneasily aware of how over the top that had been. But it was all true. And he was desperate to make Arthur see, to stop this madness before it damaged him…damaged them any more. He was sure Arthur had just needed to be reassured, that was all, and Merlin had years of practice in doing that.

Arthur was looking at him, expression impossible to read. Then he looked away.

“Well. You’re certainly a loyal friend to Guinevere,” he said uncomfortably. His gaze snapped back to Merlin, eyes hard, unreadable. “Or are you just that desperate to run away from this?”

Merlin stared back, shocked into silence. And at last then, the knowledge became real in his head, that Arthur wasn’t just discussing this. This wasn’t some exchange of views.

“I don’t understand,” he said at last and he knew he sounded plaintive, pitiful, lost, very far from a great and legendary sorceror. “I don’t… what do you want me to say?”

“What do you want Merlin?” Arthur countered nastily. “To forget it? See Albion’s ultimate destiny laid out before us, inexorable and …there… and just ignore it? Like cowards?“

Merlin swallowed hard. He stood tall, urgent, defensive.

“We don’t have to ignore anything, Arthur! Can’t you see that?”and he was pleading now, “I swore it to you. I’ll stay by your side, protecting you and helping you... or die beside you. It doesn’t have to be more than that. If you try to make it more… we could ruin everything! Think of Gwen … and I …love Gwaine.”

Are you this…Emrys? Are you sure?” Arthur interrupted harshly. His stare was steel; a challenge.

“Arthur…I don’t… Look, I don’t know. Honestly.” He held out his hands, palms up, in supplication. “The Druids… they keep calling me that… The Cailleach ... did…” He hadn’t told Arthur about that before, he realised suddenly; the visions that came to him when Morgana tore the veil between the worlds. Taliesin. The Fisher King. And Mordred... oh don’t forget Mordred.... He hesitated, but all his past dishonesty, all his lies to Arthur, forced his tongue. “I know I’m ...different …more powerful than most, because I can do things… do magic without spells and…slow time, ” he saw Arthur’s eyes widen slightly – he’d held that bit back when he showed Arthur how strong he was - but he hurried on, “But I don’t know… I don’t feel like some legendary sorceror. Alot of the time I’m sure they’ve got it wrong.”

“You battled Nimueh and killed her.” Arthur’s voice was relentless, low and powerful. “You told me. And all the things you did to help me… over the years…”

All those things you resent me for…

Just then, as if the gods were laughing, a shaft of evening sunlight broke through the window and lit Arthur’s hair to new gold and Merlin thought in that second that he looked like some young warrior god, too beautiful and terrifying for the world. Certainly too great and fine for Merlin. The despair he felt was almost solid in him; a lump in his chest.

“It doesn’t matter! Does it? If I’m Emrys or not! I’m your servant. Any power I find I have… it’s yours! Arthur?! I told you… until the day I die! It doesn’t need to be...”

Arthur moved suddenly, three long paces until he was directly in front of Merlin, still standing defensively in front of the table.

“Or maybe it does, Merlin. Maybe, I want it to be.”

Merlin stared at him, and Arthur glared back, all impatient power. Merlin raised his hands helplessly. He felt like he was losing, losing an important fight.

“What does that...? You’re not a creature of magic!”

“I was born of it. Myrthyrn said that’s enough.”

“I don’t…” Merlin closed his eyes, shook his head, panic making his thoughts thick and slow, like congealing honey.

“I know, Merlin. I know you don’t. And that’s why it’s down to me. I have to choose. I have chosen.”

Merlin stilled. His eyes snapped open to meet Arthur’s, hot and feverish blue, and he felt his breath leave him as violently and effectively as a punch in the guts.

“It’s madness,” he bit out. “Arthur…”

Arthur barked a hard, bitter laugh. “It’s destined, Merlin. They’ve waited for us for centuries. Apparently. Its not very polite to drag it out any longer, is it?” Merlin shook his head fiercely, denying, still denying. But it was finally coming to a head. No more jousting. Arthur’s eyes were holding his now effortlessly, like a stoat with a mouse. “Myrthyrn made it crystal clear … all that it means. All that you mean. Now. The future. So. Just as I claimed Camelot, as I claimed Excalibur, I’m claiming you.”

The air in the room seemed to thicken abruptly, heavy with meaning. With power.

Merlin drew a deep, shuddering breath. Because yes, the shocking, visceral knowledge was there in his bones and in his blood, just as Arthur had declared it to be. Merlin belonged to him, was made for him, just as surely as his sword and his father’s kingdom.

“No.” he shook his head dazedly again, “No...” Why did that sound so weak? Arthur’s full lips pushed out to a considering pout but he said nothing as they stood staring at each other and the terrifying silence stretched again. “Don’t I get a say?” Merlin blurted childishly, desperately, at last, nerves shredded.

Arthur’s face softened very slightly, wide mouth quirking into a small, wry, lopsided smile.

“Not really, no.” He said reached out a hand to cup Merlin’s jaw, a first, definitive touch.

Merlin shuddered, and Arthur saw it, taking in his reaction like a hunter judging prey. He seemed to not even consider the possibility that Merlin could easily use magic against him. But then Arthur had demanded that vow from him when he'd made him sorceror to the court. Merlin hadn’t actually admitted to the times he’d used his power to control Arthur, or get back at him, or all the things Dragoon had done, but when they reconciled he’d sworn on his life and his honour never again to use magic against his lord or upon him without his express permission. How could he now break that solemn bond to Arthur? How?

Yet he had to stop this. Somehow, he knew he had to, but he'd had no time, no time to work out tactics, no time to plan. He closed his eyes tight, firmed his jaw.

“We cant… You think I’ll lie down for this?" And his raging frustration burst out of him. "You don’t even want me! God Arthur. Have you ever even lain with a man?“

Arthur’s expression changed with almost comic speed from focussed intensity to the old patented look of utter disbelief, mouth lifted on one side in a sneer of amazed incredulity, the look he used to employ endlessly when he was about to explain the blindingly obvious to his idiot manservant. As if he couldn’t believe anyone could possibly be that dense.

“I’ve been on campaign, you dolt! I’ve patrolled for months at a time. You really think I‘ve never tupped men? Boys?”

Merlin had the feeling that the look he was giving in return was equally familiar to Arthur; he knew he was gaping. But Arthur was absolutely right. That was exactly what he’d thought; he’d just never considered the realities of a soldier’s life, and in his own experience as Arthur’s servant he'd never seen him give another man so much as a second glance. Not even before he fell in love with Gwen.

“But you…I know you!” he persisted with automatic, accusing defensiveness, “You don’t want men!”

“Of course I don’t,” Arthur snapped impatiently, again clearly stating the obvious to the moron. “I mean I don’t …look at them and find them… beautiful or anything.” And Merlin suddenly saw the embarrassment writhing there underneath the familiar sneering front, as clear as paint, because Arthur hadn’t changed that much, for all his apparent comfort with emotion around Gwen. He hated talking about this kind of thing, and that, as ever, manifested itself in impatience, “I don’t want to…hell to … romance them... or ….lie in bed imagining fucking them. I’m a man for women, I know that. But… of course I’ve bedded men, when it was all that was on offer.”

There was a short, uncomfortable silence.

“Right,” Merlin said flatly at last, and he thought he probably felt as awkward and exposed as Arthur must feel.

It could hardly have been less romantic. Or more honest. At least he’d been honest.

It was totally the Arthur of old, he thought half-hysterically --Merlin’s Arthur, saying bluntly what was in his head without any idea of the effect on another’s emotions.

But the force of Merlin’s disappointment was bewildering and frightening, considering the fact he’d known all of it before... except for the convenient campaign sex of course. And, he was meant to be resisting, wasn't he?

What had he hoped though, deep down?

That Arthur had harboured some secret desire?

He felt the acid burn of angry shame, souring and stabbing in his gut. It was intolerable.

“So that’s the union you want is it?” he spat then, maddened, arms spread wide in furious, provocative mockery. “That’s it? The one fated for centuries? Meant to last for eternity? You’d have to force yourself to lie with me to even complete the union. And… what…? You’d pretend I’m Gwen? Why?? Why even think to do it? Why betray her for that? And Gwaine…”

Arthur’s hand snapped out, snake quick, and grabbed one of Merlin’s gesticulating arms. He looked beyond furious himself.

“It has nothing to do with want. There’s no betrayal. And I’m not having to force myself to do anything, Merlin. There’s men. And then there’s you.”

Merlin stared at him, mouth half open to protest, completely thrown... he wasn’t a man? No betrayal? But Arthur had apparently had enough of talk and resistance. He reached out impatiently, grabbed the back of Merlin’s head and hauled him close, the other hand sliding under his tunic and up his naked back and then he was right there, mouth on Merlin’s startled lips.

Vaguely Merlin had time to think just this: that Arthur had decided before Merlin rode back through the gates of Camelot. That this had been an ambush; that Arthur knew him so well, well enough to push this before Merlin had a chance to work out a way to thwart him. And then just like that, rational thought was gone, wiped out by the fizzing chemistry of that mouth moving on his, overwhelming.

Because... Arthur kissed just as Merlin had imagined he would, and yes somewhere in his deep subconscious he must have imagined it, because there was no surprise.

He was arrogant and in charge, and disturbingly, horribly good at it, moving Merlin as he kissed him, tongue probing against his shocked lips; backing him across the room. Merlin was vaguely aware that he was making tiny noises when Arthur lifted his mouth; dazed, whimpering noises.

The connection between them was terrifying and it seemed as physical as the Druids and the redoubtable Myrthyrn had suggested it had to be. The terrible, awful rightness of it.

At least to Merlin.

Arthur still had the presence of mind to set about Merlin’s tunic, hauling it roughly over his head with no warning and no ceremony, catching his ears painfully as it went . He was all no nonsense urgency, down to business. Or perhaps he just wanted to get Merlin under him before he started arguing again.

In seconds, Merlin could feel the edge of cold air on the skin of his back and Arthur was less than a foot away, hauling off his own white shirt to show his broad, lightly haired chest. Beautiful, Merlin thought despairingly through his shock and panic. He was so achingly, perfectly beautiful; hair ruffled by his tunic and face set with absolute, cold-eyed determination, a warrior about to enter battle.

They stood glaring at each other for a long moment, like adversaries in the arena, both breathing heavily, naked from the waist up. Merlin was tall and he’d become much broader and well-muscled with manhood, no longer the skinny boy who had come to Camelot, but he still felt almost puny before Arthur. He clenched his teeth, dry-mouthed. And in that long, brutal moment, he realised, with appalled self disgust, that he’d actually become aroused as he'd talked sex and magic and betrayal with Arthur. His cock was as hard as an iron bar in his fine breeches, for all he’d lain with Gwaine not an hour before.

His throat worked with impatient, horrified guilt and he looked away, totally ashamed, to the side. And it was only then, as he registered his surroundings at last, that he realised Arthur's manoeuvring had taken them to the side of his bed.

Merlin looked down at it, completely startled, then up again, mouth open to once again begin a vicious protest, just as a strong, broad hand planted itself in the middle of his chest and shoved hard. Merlin toppled like a felled sapling and before he could bounce on Arthur’s feather mattress, Arthur followed him down, crawling over him, then dropping the whole length of his body down on him. They both froze for a fraught second just like that, heaving for breath, and there Merlin was - lying topless on the king’s bed with Arthur, half naked, on top of him.

Their skin caught and rubbed, and Merlin all but whined. Arthur’s triumphant, narrow-eyed smile though, was enough to stiffen his spine.

He managed a furious, “Arthur!” and began to struggle in earnest, pushing at Arthurs wide, muscular shoulders with the flat of his hands, wriggling like an eel beneath him. But each movement seemed only to make things worse; the lump of his clothed erection rubbing with appalling ecstasy against Arthur’s hard body.

He had to stop after a few useless seconds, heaving for air, sparks going off behind his eyes, and he was barely aware at first of Arthur’s fingers fumbling at the ties of his breeches. And then he was.

It was surreal how fast it was happening; terrifying how fast Arthur was propelling them toward a point of no return.

Panic returned in earnest.

Arthur had let his weight lift to get at Merlin’s laces, and that allowed Merlin freedom to begin to wriggle again, even as Arthur tightened his powerful thighs around his lower body to keep him still. Merlin moaned, and struggled harder, trying to use his forearms and his elbows, but without his magic he knew it was a hopeless match – just like the first time they'd ever met and he blindly took Arthur on; an ordinary boy up against the best warrior in Camelot, with all his elegant power.

But still, even then, Merlin had been enough to cause trouble .

Merlin will you …stop…!” Arthur spat and Merlin thought with a kind of hysterical satisfaction that this wouldn’t be his normal experience in bed at all. Gwen would be gentle, adoring, playful maybe, submissive. The thought made him fight harder.

Inevitably though, Arthur outflanked him. He lifted his weight further and allowed Merlin loose long enough to wriggle away up the bed, away from him, but in seconds he pounced again, pinning Merlin’s still-narrow wrists above his head with one big hand while the other groped underneath the pillows to which Merlin had so conveniently taken them. He produced, triumphantly, a short bladed knife.

Merlin froze to panting stillness and Arthur smirked, barely out of breath.

He looked totally in control, Merlin thought wildly. Not angry, just flushed by the struggle and the challenge.

Merlin couldn’t comprehend it – why Arthur wasn’t shaken by what he was doing. Why he seemed so utterly determined to go through with it.

He didn’t let go of Merlin’s hands, but he rolled to one side and deftly slid the blade into the ties of Merlin’s breeches, severing them with one sharp pull as Merlin gasped in shock. Then, still holding Merlin in place, he slid the knife to his own groin and cut his own laces too.

Merlin did the only thing he found he could at that moment. He squeezed his eyes as tightly shut as possible, more horribly turned on than he had ever been in his life.

He barely registered the moment his wrists were released. He held them dazedly where they were as Arthur knelt up, shuffled down the bed and pulled Merlin’s breeches and underclothes down to his boots with one violent tug. And then his boots were off too, cloth following inelegantly in Arthur’s relentless hands. He’d make a lousy manservant, Merlin thought weakly.

He cracked open his eyes to look, and make himself face the fact that, for all his struggles and denial, he was lying stripped bare on Arthur’s bed, with a massive erection, resting swollen and red on his belly.

He watched, heart hammering with panic, as Arthur slid upright to shimmy down his own last pieces of clothing. Then, there he was too, standing magnificently nude and fully aroused. Of course, Merlin thought despairingly, a fight would excite him.

Merlin had glimpsed Arthur without clothes before, of course, many times, though as prince and as king, he’d actually been quite prone to modesty. But Merlin had never allowed himself to look properly. Not really. And he’d certainly never seen his prick standing, though he’d seen enough sometimes to know it would be impressive, just like everything else about Arthur. But he hadn’t been prepared for how lovely it was, perfectly in proportion with his beautiful body, long and thick and a kind of dusky-flushed golden-rose, rising from a nest of dark blond hair.

He looked at Arthur, openly awestruck, as Arthur stared steadily back at him, taking in his own pale, excited nakedness. It didn’t seem to be putting him off.

Arthur was so different to Gwaine; bigger, broader, more muscled, face young and smooth, and all of him it seemed, from the hair on his head to the skin of his feet, golden.

Merlin thought dimly that it made total sense that Gwen had looked at Arthur after their wedding night as if she couldn’t believe he was possible. And that brought him horribly back to reality again.

He had to focus on them.

Gwen and Gwaine. And Arthur. It’d hurt him too, destroy him, if Gwen couldn’t forgive this insanity.

He twisted desperately onto his front and up to his hands and knees, trying to propel himself across the bed to the other side. It was his one hope of escape, since Arthur was past reason, and he couldn’t depend on his own body not to just capitulate the moment Arthur touched him again.

But he had no chance, as he’d known deep down. Arthur was behind him and on him at once, easily pushing him down flat onto his front and blanketing his body with his own.

Arthur’s thigh, thickly muscled, warm and heavy, pushed between his legs. And now Merlin could feel that magnificent cock, hard and eager against the swell of his arse, and he was panting like a dog, head turned to the side for air while Arthur was barely breathing hard. Then Arthur leaned his head closer to Merlin’s, and sucked his earlobe into his mouth.

Merlin yelped, then moaned, his head abruptly and frighteningly spinning with lust, and with as much movement as his restricted position would allow him, he reflexively humped his excited cock hard into the mattress. Arthur let the lobe slide from the hot wet of his mouth and huffed a tiny, victorious laugh against Merlin’s ear.

“Stopped fighting it?”

Which naturally set Merlin off again, writhing and twisting under Arthur’s considerable weight while Arthur gasped a laugh and rode it out, until Merlin had to slump at last to exhausted stillness. Then and only then, the weight lifted off, and Arthur’s mouth pressed against the back of Merlin’s neck, then lower by an inch or two, and lower, travelling down his spine.

Merlin lay worn out and shivering under the onslaught, but how could he deny that his skin was singing with the power of the connection between them, every touch a rightness, even as he knew how wrong it was.

“I’ve never done this with a man before,” Arthur murmured, low and intimate, almost surprised. Another kiss, this time in the small of Merlin’s back, “It was always just … release. After battle. Like madness. It has to get out somehow…” Then, musingly, “You have skin like a girl.”

Merlin planted his face in the cover. He wanted to buck and fight again for that, but he didn’t have the strength, and Arthur had started to lick where he’d kissed, all up his spine, and his bones were melting. He’d knew he'd never felt like this before, not even during the best sex of his life, with Gwaine. It was as if Arthur had taken command of his senses, every touch perfect; as if Merlin had been waiting forever for each exact kiss, each touch. Forever.

He registered Arthur’s weight returning as the other man stretched out an arm, and pulled something from beneath the pillows, dropping it in Merlin’s eyeline on the bed as he rolled off to the side, then reached for it. And it was easily recognised; a small covered jar of the oily salve Gaius had created to smooth weathered skin. Merlin had mixed it often enough to know its scent instantly.

He closed his eyes tight again. More evidence Arthur had prepared the battleground before Merlin even knew the war was on; the knife and this.

He’d thought of every eventuality, like any great general. Merlin, willing or unwilling; Arthur had strategised for it.

Arthur ran the flat of his big hand down Merlin’s back then, from nape to the swell of his bottom, as if he were gentling his warhorse or his hunting dog. Treasuring them.

‘Merlin, I'm prepared to face all manner of horrors in this world, but if you think I'm sharing this bed with you...’

Merlin gritted his teeth.

What could he do? What could he say, that hadn’t already been said?

“You’ll force me then?” It came out coldly, far more coldly than he felt. Arthur stilled.

“Now you’re pretending you don’t want me to have you? Your prick doesn’t seem to agree.”

“It reacts to… to stimuli.”

“Stimuli” Arthur said dryly and stroked his back and bottom again with a hard, demanding hand, “Like looking at me.”

Merlin grimaced, unseen.

Somehow, with his face hidden like this, he managed a level tone. “So I find you beautiful. Everyone does. You’ve always known that, haven’t you, really… and all that rubbing and stuff... But... I don’t want to do this, Arthur. What ever you say, it’s betrayal.”

“You know differently, Merlin. You’re running away.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Then stop me. Come on, Merlin. You can do it with a flick of your fingers.”

“You know I promised not to…”

“Yes. And you know you’d break that in a second if you convinced yourself somewhere in that wooden skull, that you had the right of it.”

Merlin opened his mouth to deny it, closed it again. Because how could he argue against such a brutal truth?

Arthur let him keep his silence.

“If you don’t want it ... truly, if it's false, " Arthur continued relentlessly, "...it won’t form. Myrthryn told me. Both… parties have to recognise each other in the final moments; both have to want to be complete. If you don’t want instinctively it in your…your soul… if it’s not the destiny they claim it is, it won’t happen. If it’s not meant… nothing will happen. Except... we’ll have lain together once. That no one will ever know about,” he finished, voice suddenly significant with threat.

Merlin’s eyes bugged with outrage and he tried to twist underneath Arthur's weight to deliver the response to his face. “Hey!! I’m not the one holding you down am I?”

“Fine,” Arthur snapped. “So…can we get on with it? Finally?”

“I don’t seem to have a lot of choice do I? Seeing as how you’re squashing me flat to the bed, and your prick’s probing my bum?”

“I knew you’d see reason, Merlin. At last.” Arthur's voice dripped sarcastic disdain.

Merlin huffed a breath, the weird familiarity of the exchange a hurt to his heart. He’d missed that, at least, like a limb; the insulting banter they used to thrive on; the way they once understood each other so well, while other people believed they were constantly at war. Even in this insane situation, it somehow warmed him just a little.

So, when Arthur rolled off him again, he didn’t move, didn’t struggle or try to roll away. He just lay there and accepted.

Because if there truly was a choice in the end, he simply wouldn’t do it. That was it. He would accept this, this single time with Arthur, and then, when his part came, he would turn away from any magical completion of their connection. Arthur would have to accept then that it wasn't meant; that this Myrthryn had it wrong, though Merlin knew now in every cell of his body, that he had it right.

But he knew he had to resist, when the stakes were so very high. And if Arthur realised what he'd done and wouldn’t forgive; if he took it as the rejection of their absolute joint destiny it was at root, well Merlin would just have to take the consequences. It wasn’t as if he had much of a relationship left with Arthur to lose now anyway.

‘But you could have’. His treacherous mind whispered, ‘You could have everything. Everything you’ve wanted so badly, deep down.’

Arthur.

Always, always Arthur.

From the first, Merlin had known he'd belonged to him.

He’d just succeeded until now, in hiding the extent of it from himself, to spare the pain.

He was excellent at hiding.

But he could hardly deny now what had been cowering inside him all along, dragged by this, all unwilling, into the light… all those seething, selfish, disgusting feelings....

Merlin knew why he'd entombed them immediately and efficiently from the start. Because he’d known always, deep in his bones, that it was never going to happen.

Arthur would never, ever put him first; would never see him that way. Never want him like he wanted women, like he came to want Gwen.

So why acknowledge even the ghost of a wish? He’d never allowed himself. He’d never been one to cry for the moon.

And when he'd found that Gwaine loved him as more than a friend, it had all been so easy.

But if Arthur had... if he’d even glanced toward him…? Face it now.

If he had... Arthur, his golden prince, the arrogant, noble pillock he’d offered his life for over and over; lived his life for from the first…? So beautiful and glorious he sometimes stopped Merlin’s breath in his throat...

Merlin hadn’t even looked at men like that before Camelot, he realised with a kind of revelatory hysteria; before he sank his life so deeply in Arthur’s. Just like Arthur, his eyes had turned to women. Morgana for a while - a boy's idle admiration. And he’d loved Freya so quickly, so desperately, before it all became too late. But then there had been no one, just the odd fleeting fancy that barely held his interest. No one at all, for so many long, lonely, furtive years. Watching over Arthur. And now... now he found all he wanted each night was the touch of a man’s hand, a man’s skin, a man’s prick.

Gwaine, he reminded himself desperately. He was happy with him.

The sound of the wax lid popping from the neck of the jar made him jolt in nervous shock, and almost at once, Arthur’s long fingers pulled his arse cheeks apart.

Merlin’s face flushed a blazing, agonised red, but it was still buried in the bedclothes, so Arthur at least didn’t see that, though he seemed to be taking his time studying the rose of Merlin’s hole.

Merlin’s eyes squeezed painfully tight again as he waited, obediently still, feeling more physically exposed than he ever had in his life. Then at last, he heard a quiet huffed breath and Arthur’s finger stroked lightly down his cleft.

Merlin whimpered and quivered like a deerhound held back from the hunt.

Another soft huffed laugh. “Ssssh! I’ll get to it.”

The jar was thrown, lidded again, onto the bed near Merlin’s cheek, and Arthur’s slippery finger pushed at his opening. It slipped easily into relaxed, come-slick depths.

Arthur froze. Merlin gasped a short, shocked breath and squeezed his eyes closed even tighter until lights flashed behind his lids. He didn’t believe he’d ever felt shame or humiliation like it.

He’d forgotten- how could he have forgotten? – that Gwaine, his lover, had had him before his audience with the king? Had spent himself very generously indeed inside Merlin’s arse.

He felt weak with guilt over his own lack of fidelity, when Gwaine had shown so much.

And yet ...he knew that what he felt most of all in that moment, was dread that Arthur would be repelled.

A man like him would never tolerate another man’s seconds.

He heard a heavy swallow. Then, tensely, “I see you didn’t waste any time.” You slut, echoed in Merlin’s head, horrifying and gutting. He didn’t move a muscle, waiting for Arthur to pull away.

It’s for the best, he told himself. This is what you wanted.

But it wasn’t. Not remotely.

The contrast that must be ringing in Arthur’s head between he and Gwen…

But its not fair! he wanted to yell.

“He’s my lover,” he said out loud and he didn’t know if it was meant to be an explanation, an excuse or a defiant provocation.

Afterwards Merlin never understood if it was that, or sheer outrage at finding his supposed partner in legend fucked full of another man’s seed, but far from pulling away in disgust, Arthur instead, within a few devastating seconds, rolled between Merlin’s thighs, spread them with his own, shoved the large, rounded head of his prick hard against Merlin’s hole and pushed home.

Merlin let out a long, gasping moan and his mind blanked with shock, even as Arthur’s weight and momentum slid his sex in and up, all the way to the root.

Merlin’s channel, still relaxed and open and slick with oil and semen, opened to it like a scabbard to a sword.

“I think he’s going to find,” Arthur gritted, “he’s been replaced.”

There wasn’t any real pain at the brutal completeness of entry, even though Arthur's girth was significant, and his prick, he’d have been thrilled to know, was bigger than Gwaine’s. But the starbursts of stunning pleasure going off all over Merlin’s body, those were new.

He'd discovered he loved this – being taken – anyway, once Gwaine had persuaded him to try it. But this was beyond the normal physical stimulation he experienced on his lover’s cock.

Was it the shape and size of the prick now owning him?

Or the wrongness of the situation heightening every emotion?

The fact that it was Arthur - beautiful, magnificent Arthur - at long last?

Or was it that pull, the connection that had made everything between them, so right and intense from their first meeting? The whole relationship between them, everything, even the fights and the abuse; more exciting and better and more thrilling than with anyone else.

He didn’t want to think about that.

He couldn’t. He had to hold his focus. He had to.

But Arthur circled his hips, and lights went off in Merlin’s head, his pleasure spot, already sensitive from the energetic fuck with Gwaine earlier, now pressed and massaged perfectly.

"Arthur", he moaned desperately again.

Arthur at last though, seemed to be having a few problems of his own.

“Don’t… move”. He held Merlin down by sheer weight, resting on his body, every inch of his prick buried up to the balls. “God…You feel…” Panted, tense. “How...?”

“Arthur....” It sounded worshipful.

They lay perfectly still, joined physically, for long, long seconds, Arthur’s cock twitching intimately inside, then Merlin felt Arthur’s upper body lever off his back, even as his groin pressed harder still against his arse. Arthur’s weight, Merlin realised, was being held on his shins and straight arms, as he pulled his dick out very slightly and then pushed slowly back in.

They both moaned this time.

“Merlin,” Arthur’s voice was strained, forced, it sounded through gritted teeth, “Tell me. What I have to say... There’s a pledge that has to be made. Tell me the words.”

It was meant to be an order, there was no doubt about that, but Merlin thought suddenly that Arthur sounded ...young, almost nervous, as apprehensive as he'd ever heard him. It caught at Merlin’s heart as effectively as anything ever could. Because any chink in Arthur’s carapace of invulnerability had always melted him. And maybe Arthur was frightened too by what they were doing. Frightened of magic, of eternity.

Arthur had gone this far, hunting down this ultimate destiny he believed he had to pursue, and Merlin had it in his power now to stop it, this part of it at least; crush the possibilities.

“Tell me,” Arthur said again but he was asking now as much as demanding.

And Merlin had never had the will to turn from that simple thing; Arthur asking him for help.

He found the words ready on his tongue and he didn’t really know how. Absorbed somehow from the books the Druids had allowed him to see? Or perhaps they were carved in his brain, ready for just this.

He reached out a shaking hand and curled it around Arthur’s braced and straining wrist for comfort. Arthur drew a quick, audible breath.

“You …say… Arthur …this is… We can’t…”

“Tell me!”

“I… you… say…you say...‘I… Arthur Pendragon… son of Uther, king’…’” Merlin managed haltingly, voice thick with tears, and Arthur, after a tiny pause, began.

“I, Arthur Pendragon,” and his voice was firm and quiet, no sign of doubt; even the strain on his body barely audible. “Son of Uther, king,”

Merlin swallowed, staring blindly at the bedcovers under him. He used to wash Arthur’s covers, launder them. “Claim… claim ….Merlin, son of Balinor… as my completion.”

“Claim Merlin, son of Balinor...” A tiny hesitation, “...as my completion.”

“I forge… and seal this union... with my seed.”

Arthur drew another deep, deep breath then continued as confidently as he’d recited the coronation oath; as certainly as he’d pledged himself to Gwen and then crowned her queen himself. “I forge and seal this union with my seed.”

Merlin closed his eyes tight. He was so afraid.

It wont work anyway, he thought cravenly. If it’s not meant or its just...superstition. Or if either one of us rejects it …if we aren’t ready for it at our core. If I reject it…

But if they weren’t ready now, when would they ever be, in this life?

Merlin knew Arthur would never try again, and Merlin himself would take every step anyway, to make sure it never again got this far. It was now, or not at all, and he would have to let Arthur go of his own volition.

It was too soon, and it was too late.

For safety, for peace, to preserve the faith and solidarity that had pervaded the heart of Camelot since the new king retook the throne and married a servant queen for love.

To save Arthur from himself. Yet again.

“Is that it?” Arthur asked calmly.

Slowly, Merlin nodded his head, eyes bleak with moisture, still gazing blindly down at the rich red cover, feeling the beauty of Arthur’s prick wedged, heavy and solid, inside him as if it belonged.

“Now you…” Arthur murmured softly, then, quietly, “Merlin.”

Merlin took a shaky, tear-filled breath.

He could do this part at least, he thought; not reject him here, openly. Not yet. And maybe, he wanted to say it.

“I…Merlin… son of …Balinor, dragonlord…” Arthur heaved a tiny, sharp breath on top of him and Merlin thought with a flash of fierce pride, Maybe he forgets… I’m not so unworthy of him after all. “Accept your claim… Arthur Pendragon. I… recognise you. I will take your seed …and seal our union.”

They were both still, both silent, then Arthur leant down still braced impressively on strong arms, and brushed his lips against the back of Merlin’s neck. Merlin’s breath caught on a sob.

“Its not too late, Arthur...” he babbled. “It’s really not. If we stop now, if you don’t spend in me… We can… You can…”

Arthur pulled his erection back an inch or two, shoved forward savagely and Merlin sobbed again, silenced. He was terrified.

There was a long pause, broken only by the sound of their shaky breathing but suddenly, instead of speeding up his movement, beginning to pump his cock, Arthur pulled back, all the way back, his prick sliding slickly and smoothly out of Merlin’s arse as his weight lifted off Merlin’s body until the head of the shaft popped free.

It was a stunning shock.

To be given, so abruptly, what he’d been struggling for against Arthur’s formidable will...

It took Merlin long seconds to accept that it had actually happened; to understand why he felt so gapingly empty, physically and emotionally.

And in that second of realisation, that Arthur had listened to him, or thought better of it at this last moment... stopped it, before it could happen …. what he felt wasn’t relief as he decently should, but blind panic that it was lost to him now.

Grief.

He lay frozen there, head still turned to the side on the covers, eyes wide and staring, seeing nothing, because he knew something right had been ripped from him; something he had never admitted he’d wanted so very badly, but couldn’t, shouldn’t have. He drew a glass-sharp breath.

“Arthur…” He began, half sobbed.

Hard hands grabbed his shoulder and his hip and before he could really grasp what was happening, a smooth, ruthless movement flipped him onto his back. He looked up, dazed, into Arthur’s sweat-damp, determined face.

He was kneeling astride Merlin’s shins; wide, muscular chest glowing with sweat, erection huge and swollen and dark with blood, the foreskin forced back and the head glistening with moisture Merlin didn’t want to guess at.

He stared at the picture Arthur made, and gaped.

Arthur didn’t look like a man who had given up.

“I want to see you,” Arthur said levelly, accusingly. And Merlin realised he meant, ‘I don’t trust you. I don’t trust you not to hide and stop this without meeting my eyes.’

Merlin swallowed hard against the lump of fear and loss, still huge in his throat, and allowed himself to feel what he shouldn’t feel.

Relief. Huge, huge, soaring and terrible.

“You don’t need to say the words,” Arthur continued harshly. “The magic. It’s in your blood, in your heart. You told me that once. If its right, your magic will make it happen.”

Their eyes locked, Arthur’s hard and focussed; Merlin’s wide and shocked with exhilaration and despair. Because Arthur knew him; better, it seemed, than he knew himself. And he was right.

His own reaction now told him; that damning, damning relief told him. The thought humiliated him but he had to look at it: maybe Arthur had always guessed how much Merlin wanted him, deep down in the core of his being.

‘No man is worth your tears....’

He shook his head helplessly and looked up at Arthur, taking him in... how ridiculously glorious he was. His hair was damp and tousled, a golden mess on his head; eyes big, blue; lips full and wide, the most beautiful, sensual mouth Merlin had ever seen on a man. And yet there was nothing feminine about him; his body was broad and manly and graceful. Nothing else, no one else compared.

Merlin had hidden it from everyone, most especially from himself, but he knew that Arthur had been, for far too many years, the sum of his desires, and for this one moment, he was allowed to have him.

And Merlin had always, always belonged to him.

He didn’t even try to protest when Arthur reached to grasp his knees and push them back, exposing him brutally. He watched with a kind of stupified passivity as Arthur shuffled forward on his knees, looked down to take his cock in his hand and positioned the head of it against Merlin’s hole again. He was still looking down there when he pushed the first inches in, again an easy, delicious slide, then he looked up again, eyes seething with heat, and held Merlin’s gaze as he slid his whole length home again to the base in a long push, until his big, firm balls rested against the skin of Merlin’s arse.

They both made desperate sounds.

Merlin was well beyond speech; whining shamelessly as the emotional and physical pleasure of having Arthur's sex inside him again at this new angle, became overwhelming.

He thought he’d lost whatever purpose he had in the perfect intensity of it, but he tried; still tried to regain his feeling that this was wrong. Yet it felt beyond right.

Arthur pushed himself over him, arms braced again by Merlin’s head and Merlin couldn’t help but reach up and grasp his shoulders, the skin smooth as a young boy’s over iron muscle, and his legs wrapped round Arthur’s strong hips, and he clung, writhing on his cock, offering himself completely because he couldn’t help it.

And then Arthur began to move, to fuck, and Merlin was truly lost. The feeling of it again, the intensity of it was like nothing he had ever experienced; that amazing cock touching him in all the places that delighted him inside, looking into that face, the one face in the whole world that he lived to see.

It felt like destiny. Like the crown of Camelot on Arthur’s head; Excalibur in Arthur’s hand. Arthur had chosen to embrace this, and Merlin felt the inevitability of it with every stroke of Arthur’s sex inside him, with every second of melting ecstasy that took them closer and weakened his will. He could see the dazed pleasure on Arthur’s face, as Merlin moved with him, surrendering absolutely; the amazement, Merlin thought perhaps, with desperate, unworthy hope, that coupling with a man could feel so good.

The pace was quickening, Arthur’s thrusts shorter, faster, harder. His head dropped down, hanging between his shoulders and he was really screwing in earnest now, hips pumping out of control. Merlin had never been fucked like it before; he could hear himself whimpering and moaning like a bitch in heat, begging for more, shameless, for Arthur to hold nothing back, fuck him until he broke apart.

But, in the final moments he still somehow found something in him; something that whispered, gasping, desperate, urging, offering, warning, “Arthur. You can… still…”

Even in the throes of near orgasm, Arthur understood. He pulled his head up and stared into Merlin’s eyes, accusing, almost angry, but also somehow, accepting. Then he gritted his teeth, and shoved his cock in deep, once, twice, three times in answer, burying it as deep as he could. He whispered, “Merlin!” and he came hard, head thrown back in ecstasy, seed spurting in deep, long gushes, soaking into Merlin’s body, rooting there. Possessing.

It happened just as Merlin had desperately denied, yet known in the depths of his soul, that it would, once the choice was given to his heart and his magic and his instinct, and not his head. Once Arthur began it, there had never truly been a chance that Merlin could stop it, because Merlin was so instinctively Arthur’s. He hadn’t fought him genuinely, he acknowledged with writhing shame; he’d helped him.

He could see the golden tendrils of light twining around their bodies, feel the strange jolt inside him as if his being was locking into place, locking them into place, and words spewed from him, out of his control, words he shouldn’t know really, even though he understood somehow that Arthur had been right and they weren’t needed.

“Twam healf geanlaecan.” Arthur’s head lowered at once and he looked at Merlin, panting, mouth half open, eyes agonised and avid, and Merlin’s body arched and his semen gushed from him too as if it were happening to someone else. “Feorh geanlaecan begeondan deab. On lif-e ge on legere ” He was gasping the words, and he knew his eyes were glowing gold, unearthly, but he held Arthur’s awed and pleasure-shocked gaze, and came and came and came, milking the last of Arthur's seed, inside him, face twisted, panting the final words of the spell to complete them. “Fore …ecnes. Wit beon an. Wit …beon hal.”

And it was done. And, it seemed, could not be undone.

They froze in position for whole seconds, gazes locked, stunned with ecstasy, lungs heaving for breath, and then slowly Arthur sank down onto Merlin’s limp body, head tucked into his shoulder and he lay there, muscles slack, feeling increasingly and oppressively heavy, though Merlin had no wish for him ever to move.

He felt numb, hollowed out, and he didn’t want to think, not about anything, just to lie there with Arthur on him and in him.

Finally though, the slow, embarrassing slither of Arthur’s spent sex leaving Merlin’s hole seemed to wake him from his daze, the trickle of Pendragon seed following it, underlining the immensity of what they’d done. Merlin felt…owned in a way he never had before, and he wished …he wished so much that he could revel in it, this moment. But Arthur rolled off him, and they lay side by side, looking up in shock at the canopy of Arthur’s bed.

He didn’t know what to say. And neither, it seemed, did the man who’d just fucked him.

Finally though it was Arthur, still winded, horribly strained, but desperately searching for humour. “So… that’s what a legendary orgasm feels like.” Or normality. Or something.

Merlin knew he should take his cue; say something offensive or idiotic or cutting back. But in the cold shock of reality he couldn’t. He was torn between shrivelling embarrassment at all Arthur had seen of him and knew about him, and stunned disbelief at what they’d done; the union they’d sealed and how they’d sealed it. What those words, that instinctive spell had meant.

They had to salvage what they could. Oh God... make this as harmless as they could.

“No one has to know.” He turned his head desperately, urgently toward Arthur and only then, realised what that had sounded like. A denial.

Arthur stared at the canopy a moment longer, then turned his own head on the pillow to meet his gaze. His expression was indecipherable.

“Yes. You’re good at secrets, aren’t you, Merlin? How could I forget?”

Merlin held his eyes, agonised. He knew that Arthur couldn’t forgive his lies, his many, many lies and manipulations over the years and that he’d come to hate secrets, to view them as the opposite of nobility, which in his eyes, was truth. And he had cause; all the carnage and havoc that had followed his own birth, the secrets kept from him by his own father. And then, the man Arthur had trusted with his vulnerabilities, his faith for years, had been unveiled as a liar and a sorceror at the heart of his own inner circle. A puppetmaster, he’d very clearly feared for a time.

“You know now though, Arthur,” Merlin said urgently, his purpose forgotten. “You know you can trust me.”

And it struck him just then, with a blinding clarity, why Arthur had pushed for this.

Emrys. The supposed greatest warlock of all time, bound to the king, and no room for doubts now.

Merlin’s gaze blanked and held, and the pain of that realisation skewered his heart.

‘Merlin? What is it?” Arthur asked sharply.

Merlin refocused to meet Arthur’s narrow-eyed stare; he could read Merlin so frighteningly well sometimes. But Merlin was accustomed to hiding with him, hiding his power first, then hiding his adoration, even from himself.

“Nothing. Nothing.” It seemed though, that his smokescreen no longer worked.

“What’s going through that pea brain of yours now? I can see you think you’ve figured something out.” Merlin blinked. “You’ll have got it wrong, whatever it is,” Arthur sighed wearily.

A knock sounded at the door, sharp and shocking .

Merlin jolted and stared at Arthur, wide-eyed with panic. Even Arthur seemed shaken for a second, then he shouted calmly, “Yes?’

Merlin’s eyes widened even more with disbelieving horror.

“I wondered if you required my services to dress, my lord,” a voice shouted through the heavy door. William, the King’s manservant. “And I am bade tell you that the queen is ready to go down to the banquet, Sire.”

“Right,” Arthur called, “Give me ten minutes, then return.”

Merlin let out a shaky sigh of relief, unable to believe their luck that the man hadn’t just walked in. “That was…”

“That was how a proper manservant behaves, Merlin. Stunning, isn’t it?”

Merlin glared at him for a few satisfying seconds before reality came crashing back, but he’d enjoyed them while they lasted.

He had ten minutes to dress and flee.

He rolled swiftly to the far side of the bed and padded, embarrassedly naked, round the foot to the other side, where Arthur lay and Merlin’s clothes were strewn on the floor. He snatched up his trousers and underclothes first, disentangling them from the knot Arthur had shoved to the floor with his boots, and when he managed to wrestle them free at last he dragged them on quickly, desperate for any cover from Arthur’s considering gaze. And he was considering, Merlin could tell, studying Merlin as seriously and assessingly as he might judge new horseflesh.

But agonisingly self conscious as he felt, when Merlin hauled up his trousers and discovered his ruined laces, he met Arthur’s stare, his own outraged.

“You had to use a knife!” he sniped.

Arthur smirked as if he was rather proud of it and pointed toward his cupboard of clothing. “Get another one in there,” he ordered imperiously and rolled off the bed himself.

Merlin, confronted by his standing nakedness, whirled and did so, extracting a spare length of leather and lacing himself up with his back turned away.

When he was decent he turned again to find Arthur still studying him, frowning, mouth out in a considering pout, arms folded and leaning, half seated against the table. He was dressed again in his trousers, still unlaced, barefoot and bare-chested and he looked so effortlessly beautiful Merlin wanted urgently to flee.

Yet Arthur seemed so bizarrely, eerily normal; as if he hadn’t just had sex with his sorceror on his bed. As if they hadn't just completed a ceremony of magic, of destiny, so powerful it still held Merlin’s heart clenched in terror.

As if nothing out of the ordinary, in fact, had happened. Except that Merlin suddenly seemed an object of fascination.

Merlin clenched his jaw and reached down for his tunic, slipping it on swiftly, before bending to tug on his boots. Arthur didn’t move or look away.

Merlin drew a deep bracing breath as he straightened.

“Like I said.” he said doggedly, “No one has to know.” Arthur didn’t speak, just continued to look at him, face blank of readable emotion but that small, thoughtful frown still in place. “It’d be insane to tell anyone. It’d just …hurt people…Gwen and …Gwaine.” He saw a muscle clench in the other man’s jaw, but still Arthur’s gaze remained level, a judge waiting for arguments. Merlin ploughed on. “Really. What we …did…I mean… it was to complete the tie between us. For destiny. For ...for Albion. And the future. Nothing else. We know that.. we know that it’s there... now …” He swallowed heavily. “But… they may not understand and… it could ruin everything, Arthur! Cause all kinds of arguments and … fights… It’s not going to happen again and …and we’re the only ones who know that we’re…sort of…”

“Married? ”

“We’re not! Married!” Scandalised. “This was…different. Kind of…spiritual!” Arthur snorted. “You’re married to Gwen!"

“And you want to marry Gwaine?” Arthur sounded mocking now; less than benign.

Merlin jerked with the shock of reminder, and that Arthur seemed to know.

He said defensively, unsurely, “Well. He said… he kind of... wants to exchange vows, yeah… after hearing… How did you know?”

Arthur grimaced, gave a tiny one-shouldered shrug. “I didn’t, for sure, until you confirmed it. But he didn’t exactly hide it. After the Rheged delegation mentioned it, he looked as if he’d been belted by a fish. Even Guinevere knew.”

“You talked about it with Gwen?” Merlin squeaked and he didn’t know why that felt such a betrayal. But he ploughed on regardless, “Look… it doesn’t matter. You’re married to her and you worship each other, and it’s lovely. I’m happy with Gwaine and…and we can leave it at that. You know you can trust me now. Enough to use my powers and all... So perhaps we…”

“That’s the second time you’ve said that…as if this ..thing is some kind of unbreakable pledge. You can still lie to me, and you probably will.”

“But… you know now. However much you …you lost …trust... you know now, how committed I am to your cause. I’m bound to you now. I’d never have done that… been able to do that if I could bear to betray you!” Merlin was animated now, eager, desperate to convince.

Arthur watched him assessingly for a second or two after he finished, then finally looked down and to the side, at the floor.

“I never thought you would. Actually.” He muttered. “You stood by me through everything, didn’t you? You offered your life for mine repeatedly. But your lies…the secrets… the things you did behind my back…” His eyes darted up again suddenly, puzzled and demanding, as if he’d just properly registered Merlin’s phrase. “Use your powers?” he quoted.

Merlin frowned, startled, still trying to take in what Arthur had said.

“Well… You said, you wanted Emrys. Bound to you. Just like you have Excalibur. Two magical …weapons,” he trailed off.

Arthur stared at him, narrowly. “And you think that’s what it’s about?”

“Look, it doesn’t matter. It’s done. And the thing is… the important thing is... we mustn’t tell. Arthur. These insane ideas you have about secrets… Sometimes …sometimes secrets just need to be kept! You know it’d cause…”

“Arthur?” The door opened and Gwen stepped into the room, smiling and lovely. She stopped at once when she saw Merlin, but her smile widened if anything. “Merlin! You’re back!!”

Shock and fear congealed into a shivering lump in his chest, but if Gwen registered the tension of argument between them she showed no sign of it, no sign of suspicion either, at finding Arthur stripped to the waist, no sign she could smell sex in the room. Instead she grinned and moved straight over to Arthur like an iron ring to a magnet. She slid her arm, with easy familiarity and unconscious possessiveness, round his bare waist.

“Yes,” Merlin managed, then added guiltily, “Your Highness.” He bowed.

“Merlin!” Gwen scolded, “Don’t start.”

Merlin looked up and met her twinkling gaze. It had taken her a little while to recover fully from her abduction, the loss of her brother and the withering guilt of what she had done afterwards, out of her mind, in Morgana's name. And of course there had been the effects of Merlin’s unveiling as a warlock. But she was resilient, and far stronger than her sweet nature suggested, and she’d returned to normality with determination. Today she was wearing a purple silk gown threaded with silver and she looked beautifully content, dignity and nobility surrounding her. Merlin could barely remember Gwen the servant girl, who’d tripped through the corridors with him on endless adventures.

“I see Arthur’s got you back to your duties…” She said, mischievously, “He’s always saying that you’re the best manservant he ever had and how much he misses you…”

Merlin tried to grin as Arthur looped his arm round her shoulders and looked down at her with deliberately veiled amusement.

“Don’t encourage his delusions, Guinevere,' he said dryly. "He’s deranged enough as it is.” She smirked up at him and stroked the skin at his waist comfortably.

Merlin swallowed and tried to herd his emotions into some kind of manageability, but there were so many: shock, followed by fear, followed by relief followed by…followed by anger and resentment and jealousy and shame. He knew he had to run away.

He began to back off from the pair of them, still grinning his forced, sunny, idiot’s grin.

“Yep, that’s me,” he got out. “Mind bogglingly deluded!”

He backed into a chair but he righted it and kept going, not taking his eyes off them as they stared at his retreat in amused unity.

“We’ll see you at the banquet, Merlin,” Arthur called, an order, as he reached the door and wrenched it open.

But, as he nodded an automatic acquiescence and escaped into the corridor, he turned at the last moment to pull the door behind him and saw them standing there in the golden glow of the setting sun, grinning at each other, amused clearly, by the fool’s performance. He saw Gwen reach up to meet Arthur’s lips in a tender, affectionate kiss and then Merlin closed the door, as silently as he could.

He walked away.

He hadn’t been given a kiss really, he thought hazily, not one like that. And now he’d been reminded of how Arthur looked when he was in love, and he knew for certain that he hadn’t been given that either.

He stumbled back to his rooms in a daze, found them blessedly empty, so he locked the door, dropped his breeches and scrubbed urgently between his legs and the cheeks of his buttocks with the same dampened cloth he’d used earlier, wiping away the excess seed Arthur had left there.

And he made himself remember doing this exact thing just before he left Gwaine; made himself feel all of the shame.

Because he’d left this room full of his lover, the man who adored him and would never betray him; and he was back in it not an hour later, arse drenched with the king’s seed; Arthur’s seed. A man who wanted to use him. A man who would never love him like that; never want him; a man who belonged heart and soul to someone else. His own friend.

And yet …that man was still the one he loved insanely, with every instinct he had.

He dropped the soiled cloth in the water ewer and slowly pulled up his breeches, perilously close to tears.

The trousers were surprisingly decent he supposed, given the way they’d been treated.

Now, all he had to do, he told himself, all he had to do was survive the banquet and see Gwaine; look him in the eyes and pretend. Forget what had happened. That was all.

He tried to rally; stiffen his spine.

How many times had he faced despair alone, chained by secrets, and forced himself to go on?

He’d managed to convince himself for so long that all he felt for Arthur was friendship; couldn’t he do it again?

But… two sides of a coin? Two halves of a whole? You cannot truly hate that which completes you?

How had he ever pretended to believe that what he’d been told could mean mere affection, or loyalty, when the way the dragon had framed it had made it so clear? They were intended for each other; created to match and complement each other.

From the moment he’d been told; from the day he’d met him, Arthur had been his instinctive focus, his obsession, good and bad, but he’d always, always refused to look at it head on.

Because, meant or not, Arthur didn’t want him, or love him. He loved Gwen.

And now Arthur had forced it; all to appease Destiny.

They were bound together. Complete.

He thought of the words of the spell that had come from him at the end, come from some deep place inside him, the words he thought he understood as they poured from him.

‘Through life and death… for eternity... we are one…we are whole…’

He slumped down on the edge of his bed, despair and worry and fear seeping into every cell.

No, it wasn’t a marriage. It was painfully less. But, whatever they tried to pretend, it was also much, much more.

What had they done?