Merlin had to admit that most of the time, Arthur actually made a pretty good King. A great King, even. Quite possibly the best that Camelot had ever had. Trade was booming, the people were happy, and above all of that, Arthur had ended the persecution of witches, warlocks and other practitioners of magic. There was even talk of uniting the Kingdoms of Albion, which had never been done before. In his quieter moments, Merlin even thought that he was quite proud of the man.
Which wasn't to say that Arthur couldn't still be a prat sometimes.
And, of course, Merlin was still willing to tell him when he was being a prat, even if that meant interrupting one of their pleasant and languid post-orgasmic embraces.
"It's just--I do think it's a bit harsh," said Merlin on this particular day.
"The law must be upheld," Arthur responded, that steely arrogant look--the one he'd inherited from Uther--falling across his face. He sat up straight, and even amongst the embroidered pillows and rumpled sheets--even with his hair a complete mess and Merlin's bite marks bright and red on his chest--he looked as though he was sitting upon his throne. "We can't allow petty criminals to run amok in the streets."
"Arthur, you're talking about throwing people in the dungeons for simple public drunkenness."
"Not all of my father's laws were bad, Merlin."
Merlin spluttered. "Do you even know what it's like to spend a week in chains down there?"
Arthur looked at him sharply. "I have been locked down there myself, for the crime of saving your life, you might recall."
"Only for one night," Merlin reminded him. "And you weren't chained to the wall like the men you sent down there today. You may have been in the dungeons, but you were still a Prince."
Arthur's eyes narrowed, but Merlin could see that he'd managed to get through to him. "Fine," he said at last, a stubborn expression settling onto his features. "You will use your magic to disguise me as a peasant, and I will spend two nights in the dungeons. Never let it be said that I am unwilling to endure hardship for the sake of my citizens."
Merlin smiled. "Very well, sire," he said.
Arthur was as good as his word. The very next day he announced his intention to visit some of the outlying villages, and that evening, he returned to the city in a disguise that only Merlin could see through, and he had two of his trusted knights arrest him for being a public nuisance. He was thrown in the dungeons and chained to a cell wall alongside a pickpocket and a drunk. After two days he was taken from his cell, and Merlin removed the disguise.
Within an hour of his return, Arthur had declared that petty criminals would, in future, be punished by way of fines or, should they prove unable to pay, mucking out the castle stables. He also ordered that conditions in the dungeons be improved immediately.
Merlin was, he decided, very happy with the outcome. Almost completely happy, in fact.
The problem was that after his temporary incarceration, Arthur started acting... strangely. Not so strangely so as anyone would notice, not unless they knew Arthur very well indeed, but Merlin could see the signs. There was the way that Arthur would absently rub his wrists, as though he could still feel the shackles there, and the way he would grimace afterwards, although his eyes were strangely soft. And then there was the way he would sigh heavily before returning to normal.
"Arthur," said Merlin one night in their rooms, when he noticed that Arthur's hands were at his wrists again, "when you were in the dungeons--did--did--"
Arthur looked over at Merlin sharply. "Did what?"
"Well--did anything bad happen?" Merlin swallowed nervously, wondering if he could ever forgive himself if things really had gone wrong. "I mean--did anyone--well, mistreat you?"
Arthur blinked in obvious surprise--and something that almost looked like relief. He laughed. "No, Merlin," he said, "nothing bad happened, except for the cold, the smell and the stale bread. None of the guards assaulted the prisoners, that I saw. And if I had seen that--" Arthur's mouth settled into a grim line that left Merlin in no doubt as to what the King's response would have been. Even as his eyes hardened, however, Arthur's fingers ran lightly around his wrists.
Merlin found himself stuck between relief that Arthur hadn't been badly mistreated (no more than any other prisoner, anyway), and frustration that there was still something going on there, something that Arthur wasn't telling him. He didn't have long to dwell on it though, because he suddenly found Arthur standing in front of him and then kissing him in that way that always made it impossible to think about anything.
The next morning, however, Merlin promised himself that he would find out what was on Arthur's mind.
His chance came a few days later when Arthur announced his intention to pay an actual visit to the outlying villages. After all, he really did need to observe the state of their crops if he was to determine a fair rate of taxation for the coming year. It wasn't difficult for Merlin to convince Arthur that he should come along; in fact, Merlin rather thought that Arthur was looking forward to sleeping out of doors together, as they'd done so many times before Arthur took the throne.
The first night, they made their camp in an old quarry that could be broached from one side only, which allowed Merlin and Arthur to pitch their tent a short distance away from the knights who had come as Arthur's guard of honour. They lay on their backs looking up at the stars as they talked of the adventures they'd shared before Arthur became King. It wasn't difficult to hear the wistful note in Arthur's voice. Arthur's birthright had always lain heavy on his shoulders, and that weight had only increased since he had taken the crown.
As Arthur spoke, recalling the time they'd gone to Ealdor, Merlin noticed that Arthur's hands again encircled his wrists, as though he could still feel shackles there. Holding his breath, Merlin reached out, and placed one of his own hands around Arthur's wrist.
"Why do you do that?" Merlin asked.
Arthur's breath caught, and he frowned. "Do what?" he said.
"You know what I mean," said Merlin, because it was clear that Arthur did know.
"I'm worried about you," Merlin blurted out.
Arthur snorted. "It's not your job to worry about me."
Merlin shrugged. "I worry anyway."
For a long moment, Arthur was silent. "It's silly," he said finally.
Merlin wondered how much of his pride Arthur had had to swallow in order to admit to that. "I don't think you're silly."
At that, Arthur smiled. "You know, it's treason to lie to the King, Merlin."
He had to laugh at that. "Well, okay, I think you're silly sometimes," Merlin admitted. "And you're an arrogant sod, too. But... I don't think you're being silly about this, Arthur." Merlin extended his other hand and enclosed it around Arthur's free wrist.
Arthur closed his eyes. "It's just..." he said. He opened his eyes. "Look," he continued, "those nights I spend in the dungeons were terrible, all right? The place smelt like a sewer, I was cold, I was hungry, and I was tired because I couldn't lie down properly to sleep."
"Right," said Merlin. "But you're changing all that."
Arthur shook his head. "That's not the problem."
"Then what is it?"
"It's--" Arthur sighed. "It's hard to explain, but... I liked it."
"You liked being in the dungeons?"
"I liked--I liked not being the King," he said in a rush. "With those shackles on my wrists, with those chains fastening me to the walls... I didn't have to worry, for a while. I could just be."
"Ah," said Merlin, as everything fell into place.
"You do think I'm silly."
Merlin shook his head. "No," he said. "No, it makes sense." And then, because Merlin had the feeling that his words weren't quite enough, he leaned forward and kissed Arthur, gently at first and then more fiercely. Throughout it all, he held tight onto Arthur's wrists, and slowly--ever so slowly--Merlin felt Arthur relax against him, the tension in his body draining away.
"I don't want to give up the throne," said Arthur softly, when they pulled apart. "I want to do my duty to my people."
"I know," said Merlin. "I know."
"It's just--" Arthur's mouth twisted.
"Sometimes you wish you could get away for a while?"
Merlin swallowed hard and looked Arthur directly in the eye. "I--I can help you with that, if you like."
"What do you mean?"
Merlin spoke a few words in the language of magic and reached inside himself. Suddenly, beneath Merlin's palms, a pair of faintly luminescent grey shackles locked themselves around Arthur's wrists, and then chains appeared, link by link, rising from the ground until Arthur was held in place. Merlin pulled his hands back, and waited for Arthur's response.
"How--" Arthur pulled on the chains, making them rattle.
"They're--they're tied to what you want," Merlin explained. "The moment you don't want them there any more--for any reason--they'll disappear."
For a moment, Merlin thought that Arthur might be angry, but then his face broke into a smile. "Really, Merlin, the things you come up with," he said, laughing.
"It's all right, then?" Merlin asked.
Arthur rattled his chains. "These things are still here, aren't they? From what you said, if it wasn't all right, the magic would stop working."
Merlin nodded. "Good."
"Still," said Arthur, giving Merlin a suddenly stern look, "there probably is something more you could do."
"Kiss me again," Arthur said. "And then--I want you to do whatever else you think is necessary to relieve my Kingly stress. I'll--" Arthur looked down, almost as though he was embarrassed. "I'll do whatever you say."
Merlin felt his eyes grow large as an unexpected surge of heat made its way to his groin. "Really?"
Arthur looked up. "Really."
Merlin cleared his throat. "Well," he said. "All right, then."
Merlin raised his hands to Arthur's head, and kissed him again, his fingers tightening in Arthur's hair. He felt Arthur relax beneath him, and inwardly, Merlin smiled as he congratulated himself on a job well done.