The corridor is empty, save for the flicker of low-burning torchlight and the echo of Arthur's footsteps, so he pauses at each closed door he passes, confident no one will catch him eavesdropping. He hears exactly what he expects to hear through the heavy wooden doors: laughter, drunken song, carnal pleasure—all the sounds of a celebration whose revellers have retired to more private quarters. He hears a number of dearly familiar voices, but none are the one he's listening for, so he keeps walking.
Outside the small window ahead of him, lightning flashes, and a moment later the answering thunder rolls down from the sky, rumbling along the castle's stone hallways and into Arthur's wine-warmed blood like another peal of the coronation bells. His heart gives an overly-large beat in his chest, and the echo of it pulses across his forehead where he can still feel the heavy press of metal, even though his father's crown now sits on the table in his own bedchamber.
He breathes against the unwelcome twist in his stomach and keeps walking, because his chambers were empty again tonight. He's been to Gauis's, to Lancelot's, to Gwaine's and to all the other places in the castle he can think of, and now he's just wandering, wishing he hadn't drunk quite so much.
The sound of clinking dishes catches his attention as he passes the banquet hall, unexpected because he told the kitchen servants the mess could wait until morning. He ducks inside the half-open door as another stroke of lightning flashes through hall's many windows, and it's there, inexplicably, that he finally finds him.
Merlin has his back to the door as he tidies the high table, so he doesn't see Arthur enter. Arthur just watches him for a moment before moving deeper into the room, his steps covered by thunder.
"That," he says, when Merlin is within arm's reach, "is not your job," and Merlin whirls around, nearly losing the collection of goblets he's inexpertly clutching to his chest. Out of reflex, Arthur wants to smirk at him, but he doesn't quite manage it. Merlin looks so tired. The circles under his eyes are dark and deep, and not from the brand of happy fatigue that Arthur has seen on the faces of so many of his subjects this week; Merlin just looks careworn.
"No, that's fine," Merlin says, after a moment, "I love it when you sneak up on me like that. Scare the life out of me. Don't worry, it's fine."
"Just trying to keep you on your toes," Arthur says, too flatly. Merlin glances at him and away. "What are you doing in here?" Arthur asks. "I've been looking for you for ages."
Merlin adjusts the balance of the clutter in his arms, and very noticeably doesn't meet Arthur's eye. "Sorry. I thought you were still busy celebrating. Didn't know you were looking for me."
Arthur studies him, uneasy and uncertain, for what stretches into a long minute. Merlin hovers, and when Arthur doesn't speak, he takes a step away from the table. "Right, well, I've already got these, so I'll just take them to the kitchen, and then I'll come up to your rooms, and—"
"Everyone else seems pleased, you know," Arthur says, before he can stop himself.
Merlin looks at him quickly. "Sorry?"
"About this—me. Ascending the throne."
Merlin stares at him as the rain outside gains strength. "I'm pleased," he says. "Arthur, of course I'm pleased."
"Are you?" Arthur asks, and wishes he hadn't, but Merlin's barely looked at him for three days, since the moment Geoffrey placed his father's crown on his head, and Arthur doesn't understand, because Merlin's always said that he thought Arthur would be a good king—a great king, he's said, more than once—and if he's changing his mind now, Arthur needs to understand why.
"Yes," Merlin says, stepping towards him. "I am. I'm so pleased, Arthur. It's just—" Colour rises sharply on his cheeks.
He doesn't say anything more, for a minute, and his expression shifts, so that Arthur can tell he's about to change tactics, side-step Arthur's worry with some playful jibe about his already sizeable opinion of himself. "Please, Merlin," Arthur says. "Tell me the truth."
Merlin meets Arthur's eye, but has trouble holding it. "I want to," he says. "I will. I've just been—waiting until after the celebrations. I don't want to ruin the fun."
"If you're having doubts about my ability to rule, Merlin," Arthur says, "I want to know what they are. Now."
"Arthur, no," Merlin says, grimacing. "That's not—no. You're going to be a wonderful king, I've no doubt about that."
Arthur draws a careful breath. "You've not lost faith in me, then?" he asks.
"No," Merlin says, huffing an almost-laugh.
Wind whistles at the windows as Arthur looks at Merlin and the hard knot in his stomach refuses to loosen. Merlin tries to smile, then averts his eyes as the line of his mouth goes thin again.
"Arthur," he says, thick and with careful intent, exactly the way he once did after an impossible whirlwind in his mother's village, and a flash of lightning pierces all the hall's windows at once, like a shower of arrows. Arthur grits his teeth to the point of pain, and he should have let Merlin change tactics, because he isn't ready for this.
Merlin glances at him uncertainly, and Arthur has no idea what to say. He wants to say that it's all right. That he already knows, of course, and that he's sorry. That he's so desperately sorry for all of it, for everything he never did to stop his father, and that he hopes Merlin will forgive him and stay, despite it all, because Arthur wants to make it right, wants to fix all of this madness and he has no idea how he'll do it without Merlin—he has no idea what he'll do without Merlin—but he doesn't know how to say any of that.
Even if he weren't already swaying on his feet, tired and drunk and overwhelmed, he doesn't think he could make sense of it. Begging forgiveness isn't something he has a lot of experience with.
Merlin still hasn't said anything, but he looks up when Arthur's hand touches his shoulder. "We'll talk about it tomorrow, yeah?" Arthur says. "Everything that's bothering you?"
Merlin eyes him for another uncertain moment, plainly wrong-footed, then averts his eyes. "Yeah," he says, somewhere between resigned and relieved. "Tomorrow. Tonight is still for celebration."
Arthur nods, and presses his fingers into the fabric of Merlin's tunic, settling himself in the silence that hangs between them. He touches his thumb to the bare skin at Merlin's neck, and a little of the tension drains from Merlin's face.
"Can you think of anything celebratory for us to do?" Arthur asks quietly, and Merlin breathes a small laugh. He glances down to the collection of wine-cups still somehow clutched to his chest, and back at Arthur, shrugging.
"D'you want some more wine?"
Arthur shakes his head. "I want you to put those down," he says, pleased when he manages a small smirk, "and let me have my wicked way with you."
Merlin laughs again, a bit more like he means it. "And I suppose the way of a king is that much more wicked than the way of a prince?"
"Naturally." Arthur runs his thumb over the sharp edge of Merlin's jaw, rough with hair at the end of the day, just to see him shiver.
"All right," Merlin says, swallowing. "Just give me a moment. I'll be up straight away." He gestures to the load in his arms, like all he needs is a quick trip to the kitchen, but it's plain that he's still hoping for a few moments alone to finish collecting himself, shore up the defences he nearly just demolished.
Arthur considers him, sliding his thumb back against the grain on his skin, and tries not to square his shoulders as he makes a decision. "No," he says, glancing around the hall and eyeing its unlocked doors. "No, I think I want you here."
Merlin's brows go up. "Here? In the hall?"
Arthur nods. "On top of my feasting table."
Merlin snorts a laugh. "Now I know you're drunk."
"I'm not," Arthur says. "Well, all right, I am, but only as much as is perfectly appropriate, I assure you." He leans in to mouth lightly and deliberately along Merlin's jaw.
"Arthur, we're not doing this in the hall," Merlin complains, but he leans into the kiss.
"Oh yes," Arthur says, smiling. "Yes, we are." He ducks his head to press his mouth to Merlin's neck and collarbone, and growls out, "Will you put these sodding cups down?"
Merlin huffs a laugh and turns away. Arthur can't resist tasting the skin at the back of his neck as he awkwardly sets them down on the table.
"Arthur," Merlin chides. "Is this really how you want to begin your reign?" He twists around, so their faces are close again.
"I can't think of a better way," Arthur says.
"Than with a scandal, when you're found buggering your manservant in the great hall?"
"No one will see us."
"Anyone will see us! Half of Camelot is still drunk and running about the castle."
"No one will see us," Arthur says again, nosing into Merlin's hair. "No one ever does."
Merlin snorts. "Being king isn't going to make you any less of an idiot, is it?"
Arthur pulls back and looks Merlin dead in the eye. Merlin meets his gaze, expression exasperated but openly fond. The sky outside cracks, and there's a new sound, a shower of hail against the windows and high ceiling.
"You have really nice private quarters, you know," Merlin says against Arthur's silence. "Fit for a king, as it happens."
"Yes," Arthur says. "But, as it happens—I also have you." Merlin blinks and opens his mouth, and Arthur doesn't let himself think about it before he drops to his knees.
Merlin squawks and flails, thwapping at Arthur's head when he leans in to nuzzle open-mouthed at his groin. "Arthur," he hisses, and Arthur just hums, because Merlin's already mostly hard, and it's not like he's never done this before, taken Merlin in his mouth, even if he's never done it like this, knelt on the floor at Merlin's feet, or anywhere at all that isn't Arthur's bed with his bedroom door firmly locked and barred. Merlin continues to object, pawing at him ineffectually, and Arthur just reaches up to unlace his trousers.
"Arthur, what are you—oh god, wait—Arthur—" Merlin twists his fingers into Arthur's hair and pulls hard, forcing his head back to look up at him. "Have you lost your mind?" he demands, clutching his other hand at his loose breeches and staring down at Arthur.
"No," Arthur says, through heavy breath, although he hears the mad hammering of the hail and thinks that the truth is probably a lot closer to maybe.
"Arthur, you're drunk. Let's get you to your room, and—"
"No," Arthur says. "It's all right, Merlin. I trust you."
Merlin's brows draw together.
"I know you'll take care of me."
Merlin gives a half-laugh of confusion. "Well—good, because that's what I'm trying to do. Now will you please stand up before someone sees you?"
"No," Arthur says. "I want you to do it."
Merlin frowns. "Do what?" he asks, voice suddenly edged with more than just frustration.
"Whatever it is you always do."
Merlin opens his mouth, but says nothing.
"No one ever sees us, Merlin. I'm not quite that stupid."
Merlin closes his mouth. The hail abruptly stops, and the relative quiet of the rain rings in Arthur's ears.
"Do you need me to turn away?" he asks. "Pretend not to listen?"
"You knew?" Merlin says, voice strung bow-tight, and Arthur tries not to flinch.
Merlin stares for a long, silent minute. Arthur waits.
"Arthur, stand up," Merlin eventually says, and when Arthur doesn't, "Why are you—you said you didn't want to talk about this tonight."
"I'm capricious and arbitrary," Arthur says, shrugging. And then, honestly, "I don't. I'm just tired of pretending."
Merlin frowns. "For god's sake, Arthur, stand up."
"No," Arthur says, feeling ridiculous but unwilling to back down. "I want to finish what I started. No one will see me, Merlin. Not if you don't want them to." He draws a determined finger along the visible line of Merlin's cock inside his trousers.
"Arthur—" As if on cue, there are footsteps in the corridor outside. Merlin raises expectant, I-told-you-so eyebrows. Arthur raises his right back, and they have a silent standoff for the space of several footsteps.
The door to the hall has actually started to squeak open before Arthur wonders if he's misjudged this somehow, if maybe Merlin can't—or won't—do this for him, and if he's about to be observed on his knees in front of a servant whose breeches are open, but then Merlin's eyes flare yellow, and there's a small gasp from the other side of the door. No one comes in, and the footsteps resume in reverse, much more quickly.
Arthur turns to Merlin, who won't quite look at him. "What did you do?" he asks quietly.
"Nothing, really," Merlin says, ears going red. "She's just remembered something terribly important that she needs to attend to. On the other side of the castle."
Arthur wants to laugh. "And what's that?"
"Dunno. None of my business, really."
"That's—good, Merlin. Good work."
Merlin's eyes hover uncertainly on Arthur's for a long moment, and he opens his mouth twice before he says, "It isn't evil, Arthur. It really isn't. Some people use it that way, but—" he cuts off.
Arthur nods up at him. "A sword does neither right nor wrong," he says, "only the work of the hand that wields it."
Merlin shudders and nods, his eyes falling shut. Arthur watches the torchlight and another flash of lightning play over his tired face. "You don't have to hide anymore, Merlin," he says, and Merlin lets go of something like a laugh or a sigh or a sob, and then he's on his knees, kissing Arthur like the weight of the world requires it. Arthur falls headlong into him, off-balance with relief.
"For the record," Merlin pants, starry-eyed and laughing several minutes later, "I am exceedingly pleased that you are king."
Arthur grins and leans in close, admiring the fluttering pulse in Merlin's throat. He whispers conspiratorially, "Are we safe in here now?"
Merlin snorts a laugh, and glances at Arthur like he's considering several impertinent replies, but his eyes go soft and all he says is, "Come on, then. You can have me on your sodding feasting table like a leg of mutton, if you must." He grins and stands, extends his hand.
Arthur takes it, but instead of standing up, he pulls Merlin in close and smiles at the small grunt of surprise Merlin gives when his still-untied breeches are pulled down, and Arthur rubs his cheek over his exposed cock.
"Arthur," Merlin says, still incredulous, but Arthur really does want to finish what he started, even if his knees are becoming rather absurdly sore. He runs his lips and the very tip of his tongue along Merlin's length, smiling as it grows harder and Merlin's fingers stroke into his hair.
Merlin makes a choked-off noise when Arthur takes him into his mouth and it's a quick thing after that, because it's been too long, and Merlin's nerves are already shot. He shakes almost violently apart, spilling himself half in Arthur's mouth and half on the floor, fingers fisted hard in his hair and whimpering broken nonsense.
He sags and nearly collapses, and Arthur has an easy time stepping him back to the table, pulling off his tunic and easing him onto his back. Arthur pulls off his own clothes and spares the flash of lightning over Merlin's skin another moment's appreciation before climbing up onto the table, hungry and eager.
His hand knocks into something metal as he crawls over Merlin, and then there's a great clatter of a dozen wine-cups falling over and into one another, rolling about and onto the floor.
"Well done," Merlin says with a snort, voice reedy and hoarse.
"Shut up," Arthur retorts, and promptly puts his hand down into a puddle of cold grease and gristle, spilled from someone's plate hours earlier. "Ew," he says, and now Merlin is shaking with laughter underneath him.
"How's this carnal feast working out for you, then, sire?"
Arthur manages to refrain from smearing his hand all over Merlin's face, but only just. It helps that his cheeks are stained a perfect pink, and that his eyes are still bright with his pleasure. "All right," Arthur says, pursing his lips, "I'll grant you that the reality of this is a bit less—grand than the idea. But I stand by the idea."
Merlin laughs, and the colour on his cheeks flames deeper. "Do you want me to—take care of it?" he asks.
He's a little skittish under Arthur's gaze in the moment before Arthur nods, but he settles rather beautifully as he turns his attention first to Arthur's hand, and then to the table. His eyes flare gold, and Arthur doesn't understand the words that he speaks, but he can feel their strength and how deeply they connect Merlin to something ancient and powerful. A wave of awe, regret-stained though it is, washes over Arthur anew, and he can't look away.
Merlin smiles satisfactorily at whatever magic he's just wrought, and looks surprised when he turns back to Arthur and finds him staring so intently. "All right?" he asks, uncertain.
Unable to speak and not knowing what he would say if he could, Arthur leans down and kisses him, deep and a little bit desperate, until he feels Merlin's mouth curve into a smile against his.
Merlin's still smiling when Arthur pulls back, and he looks delighted, like showing off his magic just might be the best thing he's ever done. He pulls Arthur down, encouraging him to settle his weight overtop of him, and Arthur raises his eyebrows when their bodies slot together with surprising comfort on such a hard surface. Merlin just smiles crookedly and squeezes Arthur's cock between his thighs.
"You're very proud of yourself," Arthur murmurs, rocking his hips and pressing hot, lazy kisses to Merlin's shoulder and throat and jaw.
Merlin trails warm fingertips over his back. "Oh, that's nothing," he says. "I can be much more impressive."
"Oh, can you?" Arthur deadpans, and hates that he actually has no idea how impressive Merlin can be. He has a vague and disconcerting notion of how many times over he'd be dead without Merlin and his magic, but that's all. Merlin smiles up at him, unguarded, and Arthur has to look away.
His hips go still and he blinks as his gaze drifts about the hall, and then he barks a laugh. It's not just their table—the entire place is freshly immaculate, and when Arthur looks back at him, Merlin looks so wonderfully, ridiculously pleased that Arthur has no choice but to kiss him. "It's almost a pity that you won't have any more chores to do," he teases, "now that I know how secretly good you are at them."
"No more chores?" Merlin says, eyebrows high. He pauses. "Are you sacking me again?"
Arthur grins. "Obviously. I am the king now, Merlin. I'll need a manservant who actually does his job." Merlin rolls his eyes. "But don't worry," Arthur says, "you won't be out on the street just yet. I'll find you some other duties."
"As though I'd want them!" Merlin scoffs. "Once magic is legal, I can find a much better job than working for the likes of you."
Arthur tries very hard to ignore the way his heart stutters at that. "Would you?" he asks, flippant. "Is there somewhere you would go? Someone you would prefer to serve?" His cheeks are suddenly burning, so he drops his face into the hollow of Merlin's shoulder, covering his purpose with a rub of his lips over the sweat-salty skin there.
"Oh, plenty of people," Merlin replies, easily, drawing invisible circles over Arthur's back.
Guilt crawls insidiously up Arthur's spine. "And will you tell your next master as well," he asks, carefully, "that he is fated to a great destiny?"
Merlin laughs a little against him. "I reserve the right to revise that opinion," he says. "Am revising it right now, as a matter of fact," and something wretched clamps down tight on Arthur's heart.
"Please don't," he chokes out against Merlin's throat. "I—please, Merlin. I can't do it without you."
Merlin goes completely still, and in the confused moment that passes, Arthur can feel his heartbeat, solid and steady against his own where their chests are pressed together. Then, "Hey," Merlin whispers, ducking his head down to nose at Arthur's cheek, "Arthur, hey," until Arthur trusts himself enough to lift his head.
"I'm not going anywhere, you prat," Merlin says, and Arthur's face burns.
"Good," he answers, nodding tightly and staring at the table. He manages a pathetic, "Sorry," and can only hope that Merlin understands the depth of it.
Merlin just looks at him for an unbearable moment, then wraps a sweaty hand around the back of his neck and pulls him down. Their foreheads touch briefly before Merlin kisses him fiercely, sharp and fit to bruise, and Arthur pushes into it.
Their chins rasp together, rubbing the skin raw as they try to get closer, and Arthur nearly breaks with something much larger than relief when Merlin finally takes him inside, unexpectedly slick and hot and honest as the sky outside cracks with light.