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Bird of the Gauntlet

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"Merlin, Gaius said you should-- ah!" Arthur said, his words half-muffled by Merlin's mouth, "--take things slowly."

"Don't care," Merlin gasped, pressing Arthur bodily against the thick trunk of a tree.

"You have to ease yourself-- gnh! -- into your routine."

Merlin gripped Arthur's trousers with both hands -- both hands! -- and yanked at them so hard that he heard a seam rip. He let go and the trousers dropped, pooling around Arthur's feet. Merlin seized Arthur's thin summer tunic and pulled it up, sending Arthur's hair into sweaty disarray. Arthur's cheeks were flushed from heat and exertion, his lips were bruised from Merlin's hungry, forceful kisses, and he looked... he looked delectable. Merlin kissed him again, running his hands up and down Arthur's body, revelling in the touch of him, of being able to hold him, finally, finally to hold him.

He was never going to break his arm ever again.

"This is my new routine," Merlin breathed, nipping at Arthur's swollen lower lip. He thrust once and hard, aching inside his trousers, thrilled at having Arthur so entirely at his mercy at last. He buried his face in the crook of Arthur's neck and sucked and nipped at the soft skin there, wallowed in the rich scent and taste of it.

"Is it?" Arthur asked, with a squeak that he would surely deny, when Merlin later taunted him for it.

"Yes," Merlin told him. "If I can't take you in every room in the castle, I'm going to fuck you against every-- single-- tree." He punctuated each word with a thrust, revelling in the groans they dragged from Arthur's chest.

Arthur's hands moved at his back, and one slide up to grip Merlin's hair. With a yank Merlin's head was pulled back, and Arthur feasted on Merlin's neck in turn, until Merlin whimpered and his knees dipped. A tightening of Arthur's arms was all the warning he had before the world spun and he was the one shoved roughly against bark, and he gave a breathy laugh.

"My forest," Arthur purred, right into Merlin's ear. "My trees. If anyone should be marking them, it's me."

Merlin shuddered. Distracted, he didn't react in time to stop Arthur from yanking up his shirt, pulling it up and over his head and then down, trapping Merlin's arms.

Merlin snarled and struggled to free himself. "Don't you dare," he said, teeth bared.

Arthur smirked at him, the smug bastard. "I like the way you struggle," he said, keeping his hold. "It shows how desperate you are for me."

Merlin had no way to argue against that. Arthur knew him far too well by now. "I have better ways to show you how I feel," he promised, and licked his lips.

It had the desired effect. Arthur freed his arms with a swift pull and tossed Merlin's shirt aside. It was a relief to be so rough with Arthur again, now his long recovery was ended. To no longer have to be careful, to no longer have to go through the tedious wrapping and unwrapping of his arm, to no longer be restrained by the sling. Merlin was sick of careful. He wanted to take everything that was his, wanted Arthur to be equally as greedy. He wanted to hold Arthur down and pull him close and feel every inch of him. He wanted to hold nothing back, not even his own noisy moans, which is why he'd dragged Arthur out of Gaius' tower, out of the castle, out across the woods to the private little glade he'd found all those weeks ago.

He wanted to spread himself on his hands and knees on the thin grass, and brace himself as Arthur bent over him and fucked him hard. Wanted to feel the force of Arthur's strength and weight against his hands, and push back against it, meeting it and welcoming it. Wanted to wipe away the fantasies he'd played with here and be full of the real Arthur, full and split with him, with sweat against his back and dirt under his nails and Arthur grunting in his ear, his breath hot and fast.

But before Merlin could catch his breath to suggest just that, Arthur was pulling down his trousers, and his mouth, his mouth--. Merlin pressed his head back against the tree and let out a sob of lust. Arthur sucked cock like he did everything else, which meant he did it to win. Merlin curled his fists in Arthur's hair, kneaded and tugged aimlessly as Arthur's tongue moved hot and slick against sensitive, aching flesh. Merlin couldn't bear it, couldn't get enough of it, and gripped hard at Arthur's hair and thrust, over and over until he was fucking Arthur's mouth, until Arthur was just taking what he gave, taking the snap of his hips and the length of his cock into the sweet, hot depths of his mouth and his throat. Arthur took and took and kneaded at Merlin's arse to urge him on, until finally Merlin pressed himself as deep as he could and came. Merlin fell back against the tree with a thump, leaving a trail of come across Arthur's chin. The bark scraped at his back as he slid to the ground.

"Fuck," Merlin moaned, panting. He leaned his head back, arching his neck, eyes slitted against the dappled sunlight that glimmered through the canopy. "Ow."

Arthur snorted.

"Don't even think it," Merlin said, with all the menace he could summon when his brain had already poured down Arthur's throat.

Arthur appeared over him, and he was clearly struggling not to laugh. Apparently deciding that valor was the better part of victory, he kissed Merlin instead. Merlin showed his appreciation by licking the come from his chin and his lips and then feasting on Arthur's mouth directly.

"I can't take you anywhere," Arthur murmured, because nothing could stop him from being a cabbage head, not even sex.

Merlin mustered a glare, and then squinted very hard at Arthur when Arthur snickered at him.

"Come on, let me see," Arthur said, pawing at Merlin to see his back.

"Stop it." Merlin half-heartedly slapped him away. "I'm fine. I am fine."

Arthur gave him a look, but relented. "All right," he said, and made up for his treating Merlin like some piece of delicate glassware by leaning in and sucking at a nipple. Merlin gave an even more half-hearted attempt at resistance before giving in and pressing Arthur down onto the grass.

Merlin pinned Arthur flat, and smiled at the way Arthur surrendered to him, allowing Merlin to touch and taste as he pleased. It was an Arthur sort of surrender, full of satisfaction at Merlin's eagerness to serve him so, but even that somehow made it better. There was something deep inside of Merlin that twisted with pleasure under the smallest glimpse of Arthur's sovereignty. It was often tangled up in youthful arrogance and an almost unbearable amount of swagger, but it did things to Merlin nonetheless.

He wanted Arthur to rule him, inside and out, body and soul. Arthur was his king and he craved his king beyond all reason. He wanted to hold Arthur down and claim him, so that Arthur could rise up and claim him back. It made him blind with greed and he didn't care.

He gave only the most cursory of sucks to Arthur's cock, and then rolled him over onto his front. Merlin pressed himself against Arthur's back, rubbed himself against him and nosed at his messy hair. Arthur smelled of earth and grass and sweat, of soap from their evening bath. Of leather and steel and polish from the morning's training, and Merlin could taste the streaks of polish and oil Arthur had left behind when he'd rubbed at his neck under the warm summer sun.

Merlin pawed his way down Arthur's body, finally stopping at the crack of his perfect, firm arse. He nosed at the sweaty skin, pulled at the taut muscle with his thumbs. Arthur wouldn't let Merlin fuck him yet, still unable to relax enough because of the bad memories that the act held for him. But Merlin was patient, and would ease him there. For now, he could take this much. He licked a broad stripe over Arthur's tight hole, and enjoyed the way it made Arthur gasp and twist beneath him. Merlin pressed him down heavily and did it again and again until Arthur relaxed for him, muscles loosening and tension easing. He pressed one fingertip against the clenched rose and pushed just enough to sink past the nail, and gently played and licked for a while.

When Arthur's squirms became increasingly impatient, Merlin moved lower still, pressing his mouth between Arthur's spread thighs, nuzzling his balls. He reached between and drew down Arthur's cock, heavy and full in Merlin's hand, and when Merlin began to stroke it, Arthur suddenly rose up and turned on him.

Arthur's eyes were dark with want, and he was tense with need. When Merlin had teased him too long, Arthur would get this way: body taut as if before a fight, mouth drawn thin, only one thing on his mind. Merlin breathed in sharply, revelling in the dominance in every line of Arthur's body, in the set of his jaw and the strain of his muscles.

Merlin sucked two fingers until they were wet, and brought them behind himself. "You want this?" he breathed, pressing inside and letting his pleasure show. "Want to bend me over, right here in the dirt? Want to mount me like the beast you are?"

It would be funny except for the way the words made Arthur's eyes flare with want, deep and endless. The way they made Arthur reach for him and take him, to paw at Merlin's body and pull at his hair, bending him back in straining, willing supplication. Merlin bent for him and Arthur took what was offered.

When Arthur was like this, he didn't worry over Merlin's injuries or treat him like he was delicate. Arthur didn't hold back his strength, but gave it to Merlin in full, capturing him and holding him and wrapping around him with bruising force. Merlin loved it and urged him on, with every squirm and every open, desperate moan. This was the Arthur that Merlin couldn't get enough of, that he yearned for down to his bones and deeper still.

"Fuck me," Merlin hissed, writhing in Arthur's iron grip. "Put me on my knees and fuck me."

"Don't think I won't," Arthur snarled, and tumbled Merlin over, pressed him against the earth. There was a brief absence and a rustling of cloth, and then Arthur was back and his fingers were already slick with oil. He picked up where Merlin left off, working two fingers inside him and then three, stretching and slicking Merlin at a steady but urgent pace. Merlin opened easily for him, his body welcoming the familiar hand, despite the lingering soreness from the night before and the morning after. Merlin had created a monster when he'd convinced Arthur to fuck him, releasing years of pent-up need, and Arthur couldn't get enough of him. Arthur took him with his mouth and his hands and his cock and even, on few memorable nights, a thick candle; Arthur loved the way Merlin stretched for him, loved the clench and heat of him, but most of all he loved how much Merlin needed him, needed to be filled by him.

"So greedy for me," Arthur murmured, as Merlin moaned and writhed and clawed at the grass.

"Please, Arthur, please," Merlin begged, pushing back against his hand. Arthur pushed him down with his free hand and kept going, heedless of Merlin's pleading. His refusal made Merlin clench hard around Arthur's fingers, and Arthur hissed.

"Have to make you open wide for me," Arthur said, voice rough with want. "So I can slide right into you, all the way in."

Merlin swore and writhed, rutting at the earth, his cock hard again and trapped under his body. He felt Arthur's fingers leave and then push in again, and the fourth finger made him stretch with an exquisite burn. Sometimes it felt like Arthur wanted to just spread him apart, to open him up and reveal all the secrets inside him. Merlin's secrets ached to be freed, but he couldn't let them out.

When the fingers left his body, Merlin felt open and empty in their absence. Arthur's arm hooked under him and pulled him up, and Merlin gave himself over, letting his thoughts of secrets fade away. He let all thoughts fade away as Arthur bent over him and pushed inside, with one long, promised thrust. Merlin felt suspended in the moment as Arthur's cock settled deep inside him, Arthur heavy and hot over his back, Arthur's arm like a band around him. When they were like this, everything else was gone, and they were pure and perfect and everything felt right.

And then Arthur started to fuck him, and Merlin couldn't even think of perfection. He could only ride the force of Arthur's thrusts, hard and fast and relentless, like Arthur was when he fought, his sword clashing in the sun. Merlin took it all, welcomed it like the greedy slut that he was: Arthur's slut, hungry for his cock and his hands and his mouth and all of him, starved for him, never able to get enough. And Arthur needed him back, needed him so much that he was beyond words. Beyond the filthy murmurs he loved to bestow, when he would define and map the shape of Merlin's lust.

Merlin wanted to be defined, wanted Arthur to know him. Wanted to give Arthur all of himself and still be held with such ferocity, still be kept so close in Arthur's heart. But if he couldn't have that, he could still have this.

Arthur's fist moved fast and slick on Merlin's cock, so tight it rode the line between pain and pleasure. Pleasure won, and Merlin came with a loud cry, clenching tight against Arthur's relentless thrusts, his whole body taut as he pulsed onto the earth. Arthur released his cock so he could hold Merlin up, hold him close as Arthur's thrusts shortened and shortened, until he was barely pulling out at all and still pushing deep. Arthur snarled as he came, teeth pressing against Merlin's back as if biting would be too much, as if he wouldn't be able to hold back from sinking his teeth as deep as his cock.

And then they were both on the ground, panting and limp, limbs tangled together and Arthur's cock softening but still held deep by Arthur's weight. Merlin clenched again and again around him, making Arthur groan and grasp at him, his hips giving aimless thrusts against his afterglow. Merlin could feel Arthur coming back to himself, out of the haze of lust that Merlin had driven him into. Arthur's grip softened, and he pulled out of Merlin with a grunt. Merlin turned in his arms and curled against him, around him, burying his face against Arthur's chest and just breathing, in and out.

Arthur sometimes turned shy after sex. It didn't do anything to slow them down the next time they fell together, their need rising high, but it was as if Arthur couldn't quite believe how far Merlin could drive him. It was as if Arthur was embarrassed by himself, that he would whisper filthy things to Merlin, that he wanted to stretch Merlin wide and fuck him sore. There was never any regret in his eyes, much to Merlin's relief, but all the same, Arthur would be shy.

Merlin would never tell Arthur how adorable it was.

Instead, Merlin wrapped himself around Arthur and held him, and let Arthur settle, let him reconcile within himself. Arthur was often tender after sex as well, stroking Merlin's hair and petting him as their breathing evened. He kissed Merlin's head and eased into doting smiles. Merlin loved it, pretended to be reluctant just so Arthur would insist on doting more. The rougher Arthur was during sex, the more he wanted to take care of Merlin afterwards, which would result in cuddles and hot baths and Arthur feeding him by hand.

It was an almost perfect arrangement. Even if later on, Arthur would relentlessly taunt him about his little bottom being sore.

"I think we can safely say that you are fully recovered," Arthur said at last.

Merlin laughed and breathed in deeply, breathed out. "Mmm, yes. Arm's healed, the rest of me is broken."

Arthur chuckled. "That so?"

"Definitely," Merlin said, and yawned. He rubbed his cheek tiredly against Arthur's chest.

"Lazy," Arthur chided, but yawned in reaction. "C'mon, up."

"No," Merlin pouted. "Wanna sleep." He wished he'd brought his bag, so he could wrap them up in the thin blanket he kept in it and doze the afternoon away.

Arthur pried himself from Merlin's clinging limbs and staggered to his feet. He plucked up his abandoned clothes and shook them out, trying to make them slightly more presentable, frowning at the torn seam. Merlin curled up and pressed his face against the crook of his arm, trying to snatch a doze. When Arthur tapped him on the arm, Merlin looked up to find him already dressed, his mussed hair smoothed back down. Then he saw nothing as Arthur dropped Merlin's clothes over his head.

Sometimes Arthur was neither shy nor tender after sex, and would instead immediately resume his second favorite activity, which was poking at Merlin with a stick.

"Prat," Merlin muttered, dragging off his clothes. He pulled on his shirt and then his trousers, relieved that this time he hadn't come in them. He didn't want to have to slink back into the castle with a massive wet spot. The grass stains were bad enough. There was also a distinct lack of cuddles. Perhaps he hadn't thought through all the details when he'd decided to drag Arthur out here to have his way with him somewhere other than Arthur's chambers. They couldn't exactly curl up for the night here as they did in their bed. But variety was the spice of life.

Then Arthur kissed him soundly, and Merlin's mood went quite out of his head. Arthur slid a hand down the back of Merlin's trousers and a finger between his cheeks, and he prodded at Merlin's swollen, slick hole. Merlin whined and squirmed, but Arthur tormented him a while longer, proud of what he'd done. He pulled his finger free and made a show of sucking it clean, just to make Merlin glare at him for being so filthy and hot.

"I'm never going to be able to ride a horse again," Merlin pouted.

"It's your own fault," Arthur declared.

The fact that it was entirely Merlin's fault for begging to be fucked changed nothing about the fact that it was entirely Arthur's fault for being so irresistible in the first place. As far as Merlin was concerned, everything was Arthur's fault.

Merlin bit back a yelp when Arthur gave him a hard smack on the arse. "Come on," Arthur said, and flicked one of Merlin's abandoned boots with the tip of his own, impatient for him to finish dressing.

"All right, all right," Merlin said, stepping out of reach before Arthur got into too much of a roughhousing mood. He leaned against a tree as he tugged on his boots. Arthur came over and pulled bits of leaf and grass from Merlin's hair, smoothed it down, ruffled it, and then smoothed it down again. Merlin batted him away, but that only encouraged him. He found himself pinned against a tree again, with Arthur's hands under his shirt, alternating between caresses and tickles that made Merlin giggle and try to squirm free, though not really.

"Stop it," Merlin whined, smiling.

"I'll remind you again who gives the orders," Arthur smirked.

"You are such a child," Merlin said, and lunged to tickle him back. Arthur gave a cry of outrage and jumped back, and Merlin went after him. They chased each other like heedless boys, whooping and giggling, until Merlin ended up with a faceful of leaf litter.

Arthur snickered at him as he cleaned Merlin up. Merlin scrunched up his face as Arthur rubbed at him with the corner of Merlin's shirt and Arthur's spit.

"Why do I always end up sore and filthy, and you don't?" Merlin complained.

"I'm not filthy because I can run through the woods without tripping over my own feet," Arthur said, with no sympathy at all. Then he gave a private smile. "But who said I wasn't sore?"

"Not sore enough," Merlin replied, and gave Arthur a half-hearted punch on the arm.

Arthur just raised his eyebrows at him, unimpressed. "You want to fight me?"

Merlin gave his most determined face. "I can take you," he said, jutting his chin.

Arthur gave him an appraising look, and then his eyes narrowed with speculation. "I'd like to see you try," he said, stepping back and relaxing into a loose stance.

Merlin looked askance at him, suspecting some sort of trap. There weren't any maces involved this time, but he was definitely reminded of his first inauspicious meetings with Arthur. Of course, Arthur was far less likely to have him thrown into the dungeons this time.

Arthur didn't want to roughhouse. He wanted a fight, and was waiting to see if Merlin was man enough for one.

Merlin had learned a bit about fighting since he'd first arrived in Camelot. Some of it was through simple self-preservation, and some of it he'd absorbed by watching Arthur teach his knights the same moves over and over. Most of the time, Merlin only used what he knew as a stopgap until he could use his magic to distract or trip or knock out his opponents. But he could hardly use his magic against Arthur like this, face to face and bare-handed.

"All right," Merlin said, straightening himself up. He rolled his shoulders and hopped on the balls of his feet, then settled into a loose stance that mimicked Arthur's own. "If you want a fight, I'll give you-- wha!"

Merlin had barely swung his first punch when Arthur grabbed his arm and bent it back in a painfully familiar move. Merlin scowled, refusing to let Arthur best him as he had before, and stomped hard on Arthur's foot. Arthur gave a surprised yelp and his grip loosened enough for Merlin to squirm free and catch Arthur with a sharp elbow to the gut.

"Fighting dirty," Arthur said, with a dangerous grin.

"Fighting to win," Merlin shot back, warmed by his success but aware that the fight was only just beginning. Arthur's ego might be outsized when it came to fighting, but he had the skill and strength to back up every boast. Merlin decided that it was better to attack first then wait for Arthur to flatten him. It was inevitable that he would be flattened, of course, but that didn't mean he was going to make Arthur's victory an easy one.

"That will make a change," Arthur said, readying himself as they moved back into position. Arthur brought up his fists and Merlin did the same, and they circled around each other, Arthur smirking and Merlin glaring.

Merlin didn't try for another punch. That would be too obvious, and it would only get him pinned again. Instead he curled forward and went at Arthur in a sudden run. He barrelled into him, sending them both to the ground. Merlin tried to roll away before Arthur could recover, but found himself hauled back, and in an instant they were scrabbling on the ground. Merlin slapped wildly at Arthur, grabbing at his hair and punching and kicking without much of a focus. Arthur caught him with an eye-watering punch to the gut, but Merlin rode it back, rolling with the momentum as he would a magical blow, onto his hands and knees and then onto his feet.

"Not entirely awful," Arthur said, standing up himself and brushing himself off with deliberate casualness.

Merlin's stomach hurt, but he ignored the throbbing pain. It was going to leave a spectacular bruise. "Give up?" he sneered.

Arthur snorted. "You do realize I'm going easy on you."

"Excuses, excuses," Merlin taunted. He circled around Arthur and tried to catch him with kick to his leg, but Arthur anticipated the move and turned it on him. Merlin fell flat on his back, the air knocked out of him. Arthur just stood over him, waiting, and Merlin was angered enough by the arrogance of it to slam his fist down hard on the same foot he'd stomped before. Arthur danced back, and Merlin scrabbled after him, throwing himself at Arthur's legs and dragging him down through sheer bloody-mindedness. He pulled himself over Arthur's back and yanked at his arm to pin him the way Arthur so often pinned Merlin, and Arthur laughed.

"Mercy," Arthur said, intolerably amused.

Merlin scowled and yanked hard on Arthur's arm, and that must have been going too far because Arthur decided the joke was over. The next thing Merlin knew, both his arms were wrenched painfully behind his back and Arthur's arm was pressing across his neck.

"Give up?" Arthur asked.

Merlin tried to speak, but couldn't.

"What was that?" Arthur asked, leaning in, even though he was still cutting off Merlin's air.

"Hate you," Merlin croaked, and collapsed to the ground as Arthur released him.

Arthur just smiled at him, and waited as Merlin tried to remember how to breathe and move his limbs again.

Merlin coughed. "Fine. You win. Happy?"

"You started it," Arthur pointed out. "Though if you really want to fight..."

"What?" Merlin asked, warily. Arthur was always dangerous when he got an idea in his head, and he was looking far too thoughtful.

"Just an idea," Arthur said, keeping whatever it was to himself. He hauled Merlin up and brushed him off, and then pressed at the bruised spot on Merlin's stomach. When Merlin winced, Arthur rubbed at the spot in a way that was probably meant to be soothing.

"You did try to break my toes," Arthur reminded him, when Merlin pouted.

"Your toes are made of steel, like the rest of you," Merlin grumbled. But when Arthur threw his arm around Merlin for the walk back, Merlin leaned into his embrace.


That evening Arthur dined with his father, and Merlin attended him. As he watched them talk and argue, Merlin reflected that he had started to think of Arthur as two different people. There was Merlin's Arthur, who was full of heart and hope, and who could be foolish and childish as easily as he could be noble. And then there was Uther's Arthur, who was stoic and dour and wound tight as a spring. Every time Arthur had to spend time with the King, it would take hours for Merlin to coax his Arthur back to him, and Merlin might have to pull out every trick in the book to crack that first hesitant smile.

Sometimes Arthur needed to be alone, but only the sort of alone where Merlin was quietly within reach, puttering about the room, folding and tidying the same things over and over again. Sometimes Arthur needed to be held, and to hold Merlin close as if to keep him from ever being taken away. Sometimes it was better if Merlin told him stories about Ealdor, or funny tales heard over the fire, or adventures from the lower town. Arthur would shake his head in disbelief and end up laughing and smiling, and kissing Merlin to finally shut him up.

Sometimes Arthur needed to hurt something, and for that there was sword practice and the punching bag and sometimes even a hunt, and Merlin did his best to stay out of Arthur's way until his rage subsided.

But most of the time Arthur just needed to talk. He needed to let out all the words that he'd had to bottle up. To speak of all the things he couldn't say to his father, and all the things he said anyway only to have his words rejected. He needed Merlin to listen. When they finally made their leave and were back in Arthur's chambers, it was shaping up to be one of those sorts of nights.

"I can't believe him," Arthur said, because for some reason he could never believe that his father would reject an idea if Arthur considered it sensible enough. He paced back and forth as he talked, gesturing wildly. But that was better than when he would be silent with fury, too angry to express himself for fear of what he might say.

Uther had told Arthur over dinner that once the knights had finished their training, he was going to split them up, sending them to the various far corners of Camelot's border. Arthur had not taken the news well.

"It makes sense to keep them together," Arthur said, repeating what he had told Uther, but now with far more insistence. "They trained together. They work together. They trust each other. They trust me."

Uther had said that it was dangerous for the men to have too much loyalty to each other, lest they band together and foment rebellion. Merlin didn't think any of the knights would do something like that. They respected Arthur too much. But when Merlin pointed that out, Arthur shook his head.

"My father thinks that fear is more important than respect."

Merlin leaned back on his perch on Arthur's desk and thought that Uther was an idiot. He decided that it would be best not to say that aloud. "What do you think?" he asked instead, because putting Arthur's mind to his future reign was better than letting him simmer.

"Men should serve their king because he is worth serving," Arthur decided, his pacing slowing to become thoughtful instead of frantic. "Loyalty should unite them, not divide them. It should give them reason to fight, far better than love of power or gold."

Merlin smiled. "They should fight for Camelot?" he suggested, recalling Arthur's love of the phrase.

"Exactly!" Arthur said, glad that someone understood. "We fight for something greater than ourselves. Something better."

At times like this, Merlin's heart would swell with pride. Arthur would be an amazing king someday. Everyone would love him the way Merlin loved him. Merlin could see the day when Arthur would sit upon his throne, his crown gleaming atop his golden hair, the bright sunlight streaming in through the tall windows of the hall. Everyone would bow to him, and Merlin would too, and it would be everything fitting together like it was meant to be. As far as Merlin knew, it was meant to be, but that didn't mean they didn't have to work to get there. But they would, one day, and they would do it together. It was their destiny.

He suddenly realized that Arthur had stopped pacing and ranting, and was looking at him, watching him. Smiling softly.

"What?" Merlin asked, confused.

"Nothing," Arthur said, and came over to him. He touched his hand to Merlin's cheek, and Merlin couldn't help but lean against it, to rub at it like a cat. Arthur had this funny way of asking Merlin what he wanted, sometimes. As if Merlin ever wanted anything but Arthur, and to be by his side every step of the way. Merlin dreamed of Camelot as it would be, without fear of magic or sorcerers, with a people who loved their King and a King who loved his people. And if what the dragon said was true, that love might even extend beyond Camelot's borders, might cover all of Albion itself.

Not that he was sure he could believe anything the dragon had ever told him, now. He didn't know what he had been told simply in order to manipulate him, and worse, to manipulate Arthur through him. To use Merlin to betray Arthur. That was the worst of it, and what really kept him away after Nimueh, would have kept him away for good if not for Sigan. It was bad enough that the dragon had nearly let his mum and Gaius die, but to hurt Arthur was unacceptable. Merlin was still furious at him for it, even if he wasn't sure what exactly the dragon might have done.

"What's that about?" Arthur said, drawing him from his thoughts.

"What's what?"

Arthur snorted. "Sometimes I wonder what goes on in that head of yours."

"Wouldn't you like to know," Merlin replied.

"Maybe I would." Arthur sat down on the edge of the desk, next to Merlin's cross-legged perch. "Tell me."

"Tell you what?"

Arthur gave him an exasperated look. "Tell me what you're thinking about, assuming there are any thoughts at all rattling around in your empty head."

Merlin wanted to tell him everything. Wanted to tell him about his hopes and dreams, wanted to ask him what to do about the dragon, wanted to be able to share things with Arthur the way Arthur did with him. But he couldn't.

Merlin knocked on his head. "Nope, hollow as a gourd."

Disappointment flashed across Arthur's face, but it was gone as quickly as it came. "Just as I suspected. That must be why Gaius keeps you around. You're a wonder of the age."

"He uses a different word to describe me," Merlin said, with false resignation.

"Featherbrain? Nincompoop?" Arthur said it lightly, but there was an edge to the insults, as if right now he might mean them, just a little. Usually Arthur's insults didn't bother Merlin, because he knew that Arthur was just being a donkeyhead. But Merlin wasn't stupid. He could tell that Arthur knew that he was being shut out, and Merlin knew that Arthur hated being shut out. But Merlin couldn't help it. If he told Arthur the truth, Albion might as well forget ever being united. Merlin couldn't be the one to destroy everything that Arthur was meant for.

"He prefers 'idiot,'" Merlin said, insulting himself by way of apology. "You should join forces. You can give me disgusting chores and mock me for your entertainment."

But mentioning Gaius seemed to be the wrong thing as well. Arthur's mouth went from a downward quirk to a definite frown. Merlin realized that he had to say something before Arthur slipped right back into an Uther mood again.

"Maybe there was one thought. One tiny, unimportant thought," he admitted.

Arthur perked up. "Oh?"

"I was thinking that your father is a dullard." Merlin gave his best idiot smile.

Arthur gaped at him. Then he scowled, but also looked secretly pleased. "Traitor," he said, trying very hard not to smile. "I should have you put in the stocks for that. And flogged."

Merlin held his hands out, wrists together. "Take me to the dungeons!" he said, dramatically. "I can hide the truth no longer!"

Arthur slapped his wrists, knocking down Merlin's arms. "Idiot."

"But I mean it, Arthur," Merlin said, unable to stop himself. "He should listen to you."

"Perhaps," Arthur shrugged. "He's been King for a long time. I can't exactly argue with his success."

Yes you can, Merlin thought. You can because he's a tyrant. A cruel, evil tyrant and it shouldn't matter that he's your father. Everything will be better once he's gone.

But Merlin definitely couldn't say any of that. That would be going too far. Because despite everything, Arthur loved his father. That was why it hurt him so much that they disagreed on so many things. That was why Merlin had saved Uther's life, even when every instinct in him screamed to let Uther die, to just let him die once and for all. Because when Uther died, he would take a piece of Arthur's heart with him to his grave. And if Merlin was in any way responsible for that, if he could have done anything to prevent it and didn't act, Arthur would hate him forever.

"You'll just have to show him that you're right," Merlin said, because he could say that much. Because if there was enough proof, enough undeniable evidence, even Uther could see sense.

"Maybe," Arthur said, but it turned him thoughtful. Merlin could almost see the possibilities turning in his head, grinding away at the challenge like a millstone grinding flour. It would take time, but eventually every grain would be worn down to a powder that was softer than sand.