One of the men had galloped ahead to announce their arrival, so by the time they rode through the gates the streets were filled with cheering and waving townsfolk. Arthur waved back, glad that he took a jerkin, cloak and boots off one of the riders and wasn't entering Camelot in his torn nightwear. He still must have looked like he'd spent a week chained up in a cave, but there was only joy on the faces of his people as far as he could see. Nobody gave him any pained, tear-filled looks like Merlin did when he first arrived with his ransom.
The engineers came running from the workshop, still in their working gear. They hadn't stopped; they kept the work going even in his absence, and he felt a surge of pride and possessive love for his men, all of them Camelot's finest. They surrounded his horse, grabbing at his stirrups and yelling some loud, cheerful nonsense, just happy words that didn't string into sentences. Arthur dismounted to walk with them; they hovered close, their yearning plain on their faces as reverence and a sense of propriety held them back. He gave each a smile and a pat on the arm, calling their names: Owain, Pelinor, Leon, Gawain, Kay. Morgause was there, and he took her hand and kissed it quickly. It was the only gratitude for her part in Merlin's plot they both knew would be given, expected or accepted.
Morgana ran down the castle steps, pushed everyone aside and flung herself at him. She wrapped both arms around his neck and stayed there, pressed against him with all her body in a rather scandalous fashion, her face hidden against his shoulder and her back shaking under his palms.
Arthur looked for Merlin and saw him nearby, talking to Gwen. Or rather, both of them simply stared at each other, grinning widely but not saying much of anything.
"I could kiss you right now," Gwen said, and then did just that: cradled his face in her palms and kissed him right on the mouth, right where Arthur's lips had been not that long ago and where his taste could still be lingering. A wave of odd, twisted arousal shot through Arthur at the thought. Then Merlin turned and smiled at him, licking at his lower lip. Arthur nearly forgot that he had the eyes of all of the Camelot on him and nearly reached for him right there and then.
Suddenly the crowd stilled and parted, and everyone in the courtyard lowered their heads in a bow. The king was walking toward them with unsteady, swaying steps. His right sleeve hung empty and his face was streaked with tears, but he was smiling. Arthur hadn't seen his father smile like that since he was seven or eight, when small enough that the king would play with him. Arthur remembered times when Uther would toss him high in the air and catch him with both strong hands, and they'd both laugh at the stupid, endless joy of that.
They wouldn't, of course, do anything undignified in front of their subjects. But later, in Father's private chambers, Arthur let himself step closer and drop his head on Father's warm shoulder. He felt a light kiss pressed to his hair.
"You're not wearing your arm," he said, fingers uselessly tangled in the soft wool of Father's doublet. "Is it broken? Let me..."
"It's fine. I didn't see the point of wearing it today."
"But you always," insisted Arthur, swallowing hard against constricting tightness in his throat. "You've always said the king mustn't appear feeble. We have to look strong."
"How could I claim to be strong when my own son..." Father cut himself off and shook his head with a smile. "Don't worry, Arthur. The strength you've shown them today - nobody will doubt us again. You did well. To sabotage their machine - well, I expected nothing less from you, but to overpower all of them..."
"Thank you, Sire," Arthur mumbled. "I... seized a lucky opportunity."
"I received the report from the messenger you sent. I've already dispatched men to collect the bodies of those traitors and destroy what's left of their machinery. You can give me the details tomorrow. Now you should rest."
"It was Edwin who stole the Archmage's stone from the treasury. I heard him boast to the rest about it," said Arthur and flushed with shame. Lying to his father was awful and lying to his king was an act of treason, but Merlin had left him with no choice.
Father fixed him with a long, heavy stare, his lips pressed together in a familiar suspicious grimace.
"If you say so," he said. "Although, that manservant of yours disappeared right when the stone did. It's odd that he found you there by chance. We should question him more thoroughly."
"He's been struck dumb by the joy of - Father, he's nothing to do with this. He's loyal to me."
Uther sighed and ran his hand through Arthur's hair like he used to do all those years ago when they used to race a toy steamboat across a bathtub.
"Learning whom you can trust is the hardest lesson for every king," he said. "Often the most painful, both for you and your kingdom."
Arthur thought of those words later in his room as he sat in a steaming tub. Merlin went completely overboard, pouring scented oil in the water and scattering flower petals over it, but it was probably necessary to get rid of the smell. Now he was kneeling by the tub, running a soapy cloth over Arthur's skin. Every press of his hands came with a new surge of bone-deep, melting pleasure. Serenity spread through Arthur's body and calmed his mind.
Trusting Merlin wasn't a choice he could make, no more than breathing was a choice. If he was wrong, if all of this was a painful lesson in the making, he'd just have to endure it when the time came.
Merlin shaved the stubble off his face and washed his hair, slowly, carefully brushing the lather from Arthur's face. Every time his fingers slid over the shorn patch on Arthur's head they twitched and skittered away, but thankfully he wouldn't say anything. Not till later, when he'd unravelled the soaked bandage on Arthur's forearm.
"Oh fuck, did they..." he stuttered, fingers
hovering over the burn mark. Arthur knew the scar would be there forever, like a brand. But it hadn't bothered him until now.
"Don't," he said. "What do you want to do, kill them again?"
"Would have to raise them first," Merlin noted. "I don't think that's impossible."
His voice was light, but his face, always so pretty and guileless, suddenly turned cruel, lean and feral. Golden fire sparkled in his eyes - his magic, trying to get out. Arthur remembered how it felt, how it sang in the air around him, holding him in a tight cocoon of warmth for that one second before it turned on Edwin and his men and made them scream in agony.
He scooped up a handful of flower-scented water and threw it in Merlin's face. Merlin spluttered and hissed, shaking his head like a wet kitten.
"You've better things to do with your time," Arthur said.
"Right," Merlin wiped his face with Arthur's towel and poked at his shoulder. "Enough bathing. Up you go, Sire, before you grow flippers."
Arthur dressed himself in clean nightclothes, inhaling deeply the fresh scent of laundered, ironed linens. Merlin still pottered about, emptying the tub, mopping up splashes and gathering discarded clothes.
More than anything Arthur wanted to restore the old routines as quickly as possible and forget the last week had ever happened. They should be spending the rest of the night their usual way, working and studying together in agreeable silence. But he was deathly tired, drained all the more by the pleasurable long soak. Merlin, too, looked slightly wobbly on his feet as he moved around the room, straightening, smoothing and cleaning everything his hands touched which a kind of dedication Arthur had never expected from his lazy, insolent manservant.
"I'm going to bed," Arthur said. "Get the lights."
He slid into the clean, warm heaven between crisp sheets and fluffy blankets and rested his fatigue-heavy head on a pillow so soft it felt almost insubstantial. Merlin snuffed out the lamp; the darkness was a surprising, sharp pleasure, like a cool gentle palm stroking over his eyelids. He'd not been in the dark for days, and hadn't realised how much he'd craved this respite.
He heard the key slide into the lock and felt a cold shock of completely unwarranted panic. He knew he was safe here, in his own room in the middle of his castle in the heart of his kingdom – but he'd thought that before, and he'd been wrong. He sat up, just to look at the door as Merlin locked it, to reassure himself that it was solid and secure, that only he and Merlin had the key to it.
Merlin was still in the room. He had just finished locking the door from the inside.
"What are you doing?" Arthur asked, dropping is voice to a whisper for no reason at all.
"I'm sleeping here," said Merlin and stepped to the edge of the bed. Arthur watched him move his fingers, unfastening his clothes and carelessly shedding them piece by piece. Bared, Merlin's body glowed white in the moonlight, and his dark hair was a soft, endless black of the night sky.
"I decide where you sleep," Arthur said, staring greedily as Merlin's baggy trousers slipped past the sharp angles of his hipbones, down the pale length of his slim thighs. Merlin's cock was darker than the rest of him, half-hard and long. It swayed between his legs as Merlin put his knee on the mattress and lifted the corner of the blanket.
"Not tonight, you don't," said Merlin as he climbed in.
They lay on their sides, face to face and a foot apart with blankets pulled up to their chins, peering through the near-darkness. Arthur could only see the parts of Merlin's face that caught the moonlight from the window: the slope of his cheek, the tip of his nose, the glistening whites of his eyes. Merlin's head was on Arthur's spare pillow, his cheek pressed into the fine cotton from the southern kingdoms. Arthur thought that the pillow would hold Merlin's scent after this, that he might be able to feel him here even tomorrow.
"Merlin," he said. "When I - when I kissed you, I didn't mean it like that."
"Right," Merlin said. His teeth flashed in the dark, and his fingers slowly fanned over Arthur's forearm, each soft pad a point of heat on his skin. "How did you mean it, then, Sire?"
He rarely addressed Arthur properly, and every time he did Arthur suspected he was being mocked. But right now it was a welcome reminder of why he couldn't fall for this tease again. Before, on the hilltop, he'd been caught off-guard by Merlin's eagerness and unexpectedly insistent, confident touches. But that was hardly an excuse.
"I'm not a man to misuse a servant," Arthur said firmly.
"I know that," nodded Merlin and stroked his fingers down Arthur's arm, over the thin skin on the inside of his elbow.
"The kiss was meant to be a token," Arthur said, trying not to shiver under the caress. "A promise for the future. I will be a king one day. And then... then I want the magic to be my ally."
"Really? Even after what they did?"
"Yes. Don't get me wrong. I'm not afraid to have it as my enemy. It's just a terrible waste. The things we could do together – we could change the world. We will. When I'm king, and you're my court sorcerer..."
"Me?" gasped Merlin quietly.
"Of course. Do you see anyone else lined up for a job?"
"Ah. Thanks," snorted Merlin sarcastically.
"Don't worry. When we make peace with the magicians and they return, we'll have them teach you. Maybe you'll be a bit less useless then."
Merlin heaved a noisy breath. Arthur couldn't see enough of his face and couldn't tell if he was annoyed at the taunts or overwhelmed with gratitude. Not that it really mattered between them.
"It will be better this time," Arthur continued. "We won't need to use magic for mundane things any more. Our science has advanced immensely. This time, we won't make the same mistakes."
Merlin stilled and suddenly barked out a stunned laugh. That deserved a sound slap, but Merlin's fingers still stroked his skin and the rim of his ear glowed a delicate silver under the moonlight, so Arthur couldn't bring himself to hit him.
"Do you think it's all stupid fancies?" Arthur asked sullenly.
"No. I just thought – it's all exactly as Edwin said. You'll be a legend, just like the great King Arthur. You'll bring the magic back to the land, and you'll restore Albion to old glory. You know, the legends all say that one day King Arthur will return to Albion. And - it's like you're him."
He shifted closer. Now Arthur could feel the warmth of his skin, where his naked, bony knees brushed against the cloth of Arthur's breeches.
"The age of legends is over," Arthur said. He didn't know how he was going to endure years of this, of Merlin being so maddeningly close yet so out of reach. "Now is the age of reason. If we do a good job, we'll be remembered well. That's all there is to it."
"I don't know. We still have magic and dragons. Well, one dragon, anyway. There could still be legends."
The darkness around them felt like safety, like a wall shutting them from the rest of the world, and Arthur knew he could trust Merlin with anything, even the most ridiculous secrets.
"When I was very small," he said. "The merlin-bird used to follow me everywhere. Just me, it wouldn't let anyone else come near it. And I used to think... if it did belong to the great King Arthur, then maybe... maybe I could really be him, reborn to rule again. Maybe the bird recognised me."
"Maybe it did."
"No, that's childish fantasies. Besides, now the bird's all over you, which just makes no sense at all."
The mechanical bird still clung to Merlin affectionately. If it was him who took its life away in the first place, he'd apparently been forgiven. He'd restored the bird with a single wave of his fingers, manipulating ancient magic without hesitation or any apparent difficulty. Arthur even suspected that the two of them might have been in cahoots and the bird had only played dead to let Merlin show off.
"Maybe it recognised me too. Maybe I used to be King Arthur's court sorcerer. I could also have been reborn to make sure your head doesn't swell too much."
"Well, if that's the case, I'm sure you were awful. You must have been reborn a peasant as a fitting punishment."
"Doesn't feel like a punishment," said Merlin as he leaned in, lightly brushing his lips against Arthur's mouth.
It wasn't right for a prince to bed a servant. That would be crass, demeaning for both of them. When he was king and Merlin stood by his throne, nearly his equal as ally and councillor – then it could be different. Then they could have a true bond, like kings of old used to have with their trusted knights. In the old romances that Morgana used to read as a teenage girl, such friendships were the most sacred and enduring, always sealed with a kiss. That was what he'd intended; that was the promise unspoken, and only an idiot like Merlin would go and ruin the subtle beauty of it.
"You can't just kiss a person and ask them to wait until you're king," Merlin mumbled into his mouth between messy, sweet kisses.
"Merlin, I'm a prince of Camelot. You can't tell me what I can't do," Arthur said, nipping at Merlin's jaw.
"Well, I'm a magician. I can put boils on your cock. With my magic."
"Try me," said Merlin. He rolled on top of Arthur, shamelessly grinding down with his hips, letting Arthur feel the thick length of his cock.
Arthur grabbed his shoulders and flipped them over, pinning Merlin to the bed. This was going to be on his terms, not because his insolent manservant decided so. Merlin let out a soft, surprised grunt when his back hit the sheets but reached for Arthur again right away. The pale skin of his chest and belly was smooth, flawless and seemed almost too tender to touch with work-hardened hands. Arthur touched him anyway. A wave of goosebumps rose on Merlin's ribs under the first stroke and melted under second. He moaned, tipping his head back, to let Arthur nuzzle at the long arch of his neck and lick along the sharp angles of his collarbones. His skin tasted of salt and grass and the soap he used to wash Arthur's hair.
Their mouths met and locked again, and Arthur let himself fall into the kiss and forget everything but the pleasure rolling through his whole body. Merlin's hands were groping at his arse, pulling at his nightclothes, clumsily, without purpose.
"Get them off me," Arthur ordered, lifting his hips. Merlin obeyed without dawdling for once. He quickly undid the ties and peeled the friction-heated linen down.
Night air whispered on his skin, cooling him for a moment. Then their naked groins pressed together, and the heat of that was scorching, warming him through to the core.
Arthur braced over Merlin on his elbows and shifted his hips so his cock slid along Merlin's hard length. Merlin gasped and clung to him tighter, pushing back on every thrust. This close, Arthur could better see his face. He looked almost like a stranger, striking in monochrome moonlight with an unfamiliar needy, desperate twist to his mouth.
Merlin wriggled under him, spreading his thighs wider, and Arthur pressed between them. Merlin's legs trembled and tightened against his sides, long toes curling to rub the backs of Arthur's shins.
"Wait, wait," whispered Merlin into his neck. "Don't - let me get the oil."
He shifted to the edge of the bed and reached for Arthur's working desk and the precision oiler sitting on it. Arthur caught him and held him in place, unable to separate from him in any of the places where their bodies touched.
"Why, what is it," Arthur asked, coaxing Merlin to lie down again by pressing soothing kisses under his jaw.
"I'm not a girl, you know," Merlin said and thrust upwards with his long, steel-hard cock as proof. "We'll need some slick."
"Oh," said Arthur, slowly figuring it out. When he thought of that, a new rush of lust rolled down his spine, making his legs shudder. But the mechanics of it, the thought of learning a new skill right now, when his mind was nearly blank with excitement and any failure would put a stop to the wonder of what they were doing... "No. Stay."
"No?" Merlin asked, suddenly crestfallen. His huge eyes looked bigger in the dark, all the blue swallowed by the black of dilated pupil speckled in gold.
"Next time," Arthur promised him, grinding against him and finding the rhythm again. He wanted to duck down, touch and taste the warm, dark places on Merlin's body, run his tongue over that little tendon on the inside of Merlin's thigh. But he couldn't spare a second for that. The bright, sharp pleasure was building up with every thrust and shift. A sheen of sweat was gathering between them, slicking their skin as they moved together. The sparse hair on their thighs rubbed against their skin, and Merlin's ragged fingernails were raking stinging lines over his shoulders. The heat under his skin, the tingling in his balls, the warm pressure in his chest, all of it was winding tighter and tighter, like a spring about to snap.
Merlin twisted and arched, nearly bucking Arthur off him, and let out a strangled cry. Arthur felt a rush of slick wetness as Merlin's seed spurted over his cock, onto his belly. He came mid-thrust, shaking, choking his moans against the soft dip at the base of Merlin's neck.
As his pulse stopped racing, his mind felt blissfully empty and calm like never before. He would doze off like that, sprawled over Merlin, their chests moving together on every breath. But his manservant was still abominably skinny, full of sharp angles and bones that pressed mercilessly into Arthur's flesh. They were going to have to move any second now.
A rustling noise came from the top of the wardrobe, followed by soft chirping.
"Your merlin-bird's watching us," Merlin giggled, slowly combing his fingers through Arthur's hair.
"Let it," Arthur said.
It didn't take long for their lives to return to normal, even though Arthur knew that nothing would ever be quite the same. All his life the magic had been an unseen enemy, a symbol of treason and madness. Now he'd encountered it first hand and learned that he could fight it. But more than that, he'd learned that he didn't have to.
He had a creature of magic in his household, and it was a good, loyal and reasonably sane man. He had a creature of magic in his bed. He awoke most mornings with Merlin's legs tangled in his own, Merlin's breath whispering over his neck and Merlin's messy hair tickling his nose. Sometimes, he hesitated before shoving Merlin awake and sending him to the kitchens to fetch breakfast. He kept quiet, with his hand splayed over Merlin's ribs, and listened to his heartbeats, and each breath he took felt sweet as a gulp of the best wine.
Some mornings he woke up with Merlin's lips sliding hotly over his cock, and he couldn't complain about that either.
For the first few days he'd been extremely busy, as he'd expected he'd be. There was over a week's worth of reports to catch up on, a backlog of disputes and complaints to resolve. But on the whole his long absence hadn't caused too much of a disruption. His engineers had been working harder than ever, trying to keep their minds off worrying for him, as they'd said, and they'd made great progress on the plough. Power and mobility were still an issue; all they could do was create elaborate workarounds. The only true solution would be to make the engines a fourth of their current size yet five times as powerful. And, well. If wishes were fishes.
"The engines rely on a vacuum to drive the power stroke, and that's the root of our problem," Merlin said after one long, frustrating day in the workshop as he shed his clothes and climbed into bed. "A vacuum is a nothing, and nothing can only do so much."
"Gravity harshly limits what we can do with suction," Arthur agreed.
Merlin laughed at that, because he was a silly creature embarrassingly fond of bad puns. He settled between Arthur's legs, slid long, deft fingers in the cleft of Arthur's arse and demonstrated some rather remarkable things he could do with suction.
Arthur had always thought that human emotions were essentially governed by the same natural laws as everything around them. Absence made the hearts grow fonder, just like a vacuum made engines move. Unrequited yearning was the driving force behind any passion, like the distant pull of the moon forced the tides. Stretched to the limit, like strong springs, minds and hearts gained the most potential. With all needs fulfilled and all fears quelled the human spirit became inert, a dead weight, a body at rest.
But it wasn't like that. Now he had Merlin yet wanted him even more, all the time. Once sated, the want only burned brighter, and the harder they went at it at night the more they needed each other during the day, just to be around, just to look at.
One memorable time Merlin pilfered a bottle of almond oil from the alchemists. Arthur loved the way sweet-smelling stuff made his skin feel even softer, the way rapeseed oil from the workshops didn't, and he loved the different quality it gave to the friction. He drenched Merlin in that so that his cock made squelching noises pressing into Merlin's body. He rubbed the oil onto Merlin's thighs and arms and smeared it over Merlin's cock until every slippery stroke made him keen in delight. Arthur fucked him for hours that night, until he went languidly pliant, glowing with content, and even stopped making horrid jokes about well-oiled machines and smooth piston action. Arthur was sure then that the urges would be satisfied for quite some time, but mid-morning he caught a whiff of almond scent off Merlin's hair as they bent together over a drawing. He had to abandon his work and his men right then and drag Merlin behind the main engine room, where no noise would carry over the clanging of metal and roaring of fire. He stripped Merlin half-naked and put his mouth on every bit of skin he could reach and then sucked him off slowly, letting Merlin push in too deep and claw at his hair and loving every moment of it.
Having a trustworthy magician on his side should have also dulled the urgency he always felt when it came to his work. The engines were no longer the only way to restore Albion's prosperity and power. If all else failed, they could use magic again. That took the edge off his frustration when he couldn't quickly find the right answers, but didn't dull his mind. If anything, he thought clearer for it, and he got things done faster than ever. This was very handy because he and Merlin wasted hours upon hours every day rolling in bed together, and he didn't expect it to become less time-consuming in the near future.
"Quelling urges doesn't take that long, that bloody physician said," he sighed, finally settling down when the sky was already turning grey and the first birds started chirping outside. "Only minutes, he said. Minutes, my arse!"
"Your arse?" mumbled Merlin, stirring from his doze. "I thought you'd still be sore, but yes, let's!"
"Shut up and go back to sleep, you fiend."
He managed now on a lot less sleep than before, as if a good fuck before bedtime helped his body rest more efficiently. Sometimes he still shuddered awake in the middle of the night, certain that there was a shackle biting into his skin, cold rocks under his ribs. But Merlin was always here, a solid warmth at his side, a long expanse of soft, bare skin. He never grumbled if Arthur kissed him awake and pressed between his thighs or deep into his body, where he'd be still loose and slick from earlier, and rocked them together until the last of the nightmare faded.
He was mostly asleep when a brilliant thought flashed though his mind, sudden and bright as summer lightning. He opened his eyes, letting the magnitude of the idea settle in, and then he grabbed Merlin's shoulder and ruthlessly shook him awake.
"Merlin," he said. "Merlin, listen. High-pressure steam."
Merlin blinked at him sleepily, slowly focusing his eyes. Arthur waited for him to wake up and grasp the concept even as he realised that he didn't really explain anything all that well, and it was probably a completely insane idea – he had to make a drawing, run some basic calculations...
"Oh," Merlin said suddenly, and his whole face lit up in a huge awed smile. "That's – oh, that's brilliant."
"I know!" Arthur yelled, immensely relieved. If Merlin thought that would work, then it would. They could make it happen. "We don't need emptiness to be the driving force. We don't need to ever let the cylinders cool down. Just imagine, all that steam, as strong as we can manage, always pushing in, hard, hot, all the time, two pistons moving in reciprocating strokes - oh, bloody hell, stop laughing."
"It's just so romantic, the way you say it," said Merlin, rubbing sleep and tears of laughter from his eyes.
Arthur settled back on the pillows to think it all through properly. His mind was reeling, trying to take in all the possibilities.
"This will give us as much power as we'll dare to take," he said. "This is how we'll beat gravity. It will change the world. We might even – one day we'll be able to fly!"
Merlin was smiling warmly, looking at him with that dreamy expression that always made Arthur want to perform some impossible, heroic feats just to earn more of those looks.
"All right, it will be insanely dangerous," Arthur admitted. Last time they put an engine under that kind of pressure it was by accident, a miscalculation. He'd been lucky to survive the resulting explosion with nothing worse than a few burns. "It might require better craftsmanship and mathematics than we have right now."
"No, I'll make it safe," Merlin said. "The craftsmen and scholars weren't really up to the task when the first machines were being made, but the magic helped it along and then the rest caught up. Maybe all that we have now would still be invented without the magicians, but it wouldn't be in our lifetime. Probably not for centuries yet. So that's what I'll do: I'll help you, and I'll keep you safe. That's what my magic is for."
He spoke lightly, still smiling, but there was a new fire shimmering in his eyes. Suddenly it was easy to look past his lanky limbs, impish face and funny ears and see the man he was going to become. Or maybe it was the man he used to be in a different lifetime: a being of immense power who could turn all Arthur's crazy, naïve dreams into reality. Someone who'd always be by Arthur's side through every triumph and hardship, even beyond death.
It lasted for a moment, and then Merlin grinned mischievously and was just Merlin again, crawling across the bed to straddle Arthur's hips.
"Shag now, change the world later?" he proposed.
"A sound plan."
The castle was already waking up around them. The courtyard outside was slowly filling with sounds: shops readying their wares, furnaces being stocked, engines filling up with steam and rocking to life. The great cart's horn sounded in the distance, signalling the start of the first trip. It was nearly dawn, but they didn't have to face the day just yet. They still had plenty of time.