“Merlin, I—“ Arthur rubs the back of his neck, suddenly self-conscious. In the aftermath of the fall out and eventual agreement with Queen Annis, Arthur’s finally understood what Merlin means to him, and he has no intention of delaying asking for what he wants now that he’s aware of what he’s feeling.
They’re back at the castle and Merlin’s in the middle of unpacking. They’re both still dressed in their clothes from the road, although Arthur has at least taken off the breastplate and chainmail. Merlin’s ordered a bath for Arthur, but it still will take some time until the basin is filled and ready for him. Now might not be the best time when both of them are tired, but Arthur doesn’t want to wait anymore.
“I want to thank you,” he begins, stepping into Merlin’s place and reaching out to touch his shoulder while Merlin’s inspecting one of Arthur’s tunics for tears. “You gave me wise counsel and stayed with me when I was faced with the consequences of ignoring you. In fact, you’ve always stayed with me through everything and I’ve never properly thanked you for it.”
“There’s no need,” Merlin interrupts before Arthur can go on. He doesn’t even look away from the tunic, clearly unaware of what Arthur’s trying to say. “I told you long ago that I’ll happily serve you until the day I die.”
“I don’t want that,” Arthur says quickly. “I want you by my side, but not like that.”
He wraps his hand around Merlin’s wrist, gently caressing the skin there, and forcing Merlin to finally acknowledge him. He’d hoped it would be a soothing, intimate gesture, but Merlin flinches and pulls his hand away, tugging the sleeve of his old, brown jacket down until it covers half his hand.
“Merlin?” Arthur had been sure that Merlin would welcome this. Merlin’s always looking at him like he wants to touch Arthur or be touched by Arthur. Both of them spend too much time looking at each other’s mouths, and the lengths to which either of them will go to keep the other safe have been extreme almost from the start.
“I’m sorry, Sire ,” Merlin says, stressing the title. “Gaius is waiting for me, and I— I should go.”
And with that, Merlin all but runs from Arthur’s chambers, leaving their bags half unpacked on the table. Merlin’s not the best servant in the world, but even he doesn’t normally leave a task so blatantly unfinished. Arthur must’ve truly offended Merlin for him to react like that. He considers going after him to apologise, but knowing Merlin, that wouldn’t accomplish anything. Merlin would only feel backed into a corner, and end up withdrawing even more from Arthur – if he even believes the apology. It’s not like Arthur’s in the habit of apologising to anyone, least of all Merlin.
Come to think of it, Arthur’s also not in the habit of sharing his feelings with anyone, unless they’re fuelled by anger. It’s true that Merlin has seen Arthur at vulnerable moments before, and never taken advantage or made fun of him. However, those moments were always accompanied by big, life-altering changes or shocks, like the death of his father.
To hear Arthur all but confess his feelings when before Arthur has never even so much as hinted at them must seem like a joke to Merlin – one that Merlin clearly didn’t find funny.
Arthur paces his rooms until his bath is ready, and then washes and dries himself. Merlin never returns that night, not even to bring him supper. Arthur goes to bed feeling angry with himself for letting his emotions run wild with him, and for endangering one of the most important relationships in his life.
From then on, Merlin always keeps his distance unless his duties require him to be close to Arthur. All the familiarity between them has evaporated and Arthur wishes, more than anything, that he’d never said anything to Merlin. Merlin did return the next morning to attend to Arthur, and Arthur clamped down on the instinct to snap at Merlin for neglecting his duties the night before. He managed to keep his mouth shut, and instead tried to act as if nothing happened – something that Merlin clearly tried to do, too.
It doesn’t work. They still say all the right things to each other, still trade friendly insults when the opportunity presents itself, but it’s obvious to Arthur that neither of their hearts is truly in it. Arthur’s feelings stand between them like a barrier and he wants nothing more than to go back to how things used to be, to take back everything he hinted at, and to be ignorant of the true source for his affection for Merlin again.
It seems impossible to do, unfortunately. However much Arthur tries to restore the easy camaraderie between them by joking with Merlin, there’s always a tenseness to his shoulders, even when he smiles and throws friendly insults back at Arthur.
“You’ve earned a new mark,” Merlin says quietly as he’s helping Arthur dress. It’s the morning after Arthur’s confessed the sin he committed against the druids, and Arthur’s not quite awake yet.
He looks down to where Merlin’s paused after pulling up his breeches. Merlin’s fingers are almost touching the skin just above his hip where his oldest mark sits.
When Arthur was a child, he was taught that the marks on a person’s body chronicle their great achievements. They’re visible reminders of great deeds, that’s what father and his tutors had said, and Arthur had been longing to earn his own.
The raid on the druid camp was his first notable deed, and thus the first mark he earned was a blood spatter on his hip which he didn’t even notice until a few days later after he’d returned to the castle. If it truly had been such a great deed, surely the mark would’ve been something less gruesome, but Arthur had never been able to forgive himself for that raid until last night and so the blood spatter had seemed an appropriate brand.
(The night of his return, as he got ready for a feast in honour of his first successful mission, he’d undressed for a bath and first noticed the mark on his hip. That same night, as he got ready for bed, he realised that in the last few hours, another mark had appeared, this time on his right forearm. The shape of a sword piercing the triskelion symbol of the druids served as a memento of his father’s pride, Arthur had realised. Since then, Arthur’s always hated that mark, almost more than the blood spatter on his hip. Killing dozens of innocent people is not how he had wanted to earn his father’s respect but that is what it had taken.)
“What is it?” Arthur asks hoarsely.
“Flowers,” Merlin says, then squints, leaning in even closer. Arthur can feel Merlin’s breath ghosting over the skin on his hip and, suddenly, his throat is dry.
“Hyacinths,” Merlin adds a moment later, pulling away again. “I can ask Gaius what they mean.”
Arthur clears his throat. “Yes,” he says, still sounding breathless, and he’s glad when Merlin stands and moves to the cupboard a moment later. “Thank you.”
“You have nearly twenty marks now,” Merlin says when he comes back with Arthur’s tunic. “That’s quite a list. You must be proud.”
“It’s not about pride, Merlin,” Arthur says, bending forward so Merlin can help him into the tunic. “The marks are reminders above all else.”
“Reminders?” Merlin asks as he does up the laces on Arthur’s shirt, seemingly concentrating hard on the task.
“Of what kind of a person we’re supposed to be,” Arthur explains.
Merlin looks up at him, hands still holding the laces but not moving. “So what do they say about you?”
“You tell me,” Arthur says quietly.
Merlin looks at the mark on Arthur’s neck – the crown that appeared the day he was made king, looks up into his eyes, and then lets his gaze drop to Arthur’s mouth. Arthur licks his lips in anticipation as he watches Merlin bite his lower lip.
“They say that you’re brave and that you’ve got a good heart,” Merlin says after a moment. He lets his hands drop to his sides. “They say that you make mistakes and are not afraid of atoning for them.”
He takes a step back and inclines his head. “They say that you’re a great king and that Camelot is lucky to have you.”
“Merlin,” Arthur says softly. He fears that Merlin will run away again, but Merlin stays where he is, just an arm’s length away from Arthur. Yet Arthur still doesn’t touch. “Camelot is just as lucky to have you. Rarely has anyone been so loyal to her as you have been. I certainly don’t know where I’d be without you.”
“Not Camelot,” Merlin says, shaking his head. He isn’t looking at Arthur anymore, instead choosing to stare at the floor in front of him. “I’m loyal to you, Arthur. Only you.”
Arthur swallows thickly. Coming from Merlin, it sounds like a lot more than a mere oath of fealty.
“Then why do you reject me?” Arthur asks, because if he doesn’t ask now, he might never do so. The moment is fragile, but Arthur thinks that Merlin might actually answer him for once.
Merlin looks up again, eyes incredibly sad. “Because you’re the king, and I’m just a servant.”
“You know I don’t care about that,” Arthur says, not entirely able to keep the hurt out of his voice.
“Because we’re both men, and you need an heir,” Merlin tries, but now it’s Arthur who’s shaking his head.
“I can appoint one,” he says.
Tears are forming in Merlin’s eyes as he takes two more steps back.
“I’m sorry, Arthur. I can’t. I just… can’t.”
Once again, Merlin flees from Arthur’s rooms before Arthur can stop him.
He never had to worry about marks before he moved to Camelot. First of all, he didn’t have any marks, indicator or otherwise, and secondly, he never thought to consider that they might appear somewhere easily visible, if at all.
Unfortunately, he now has more than he ever thought he’d have, and most of them aren’t that easy to conceal as a servant of Camelot. None of them can be concealed with magic either, no matter what he tries.
Merlin’s first mark was a dagger on his calf for saving Arthur from Mary Collins’ revenge. It’s the only one he has never worried about Arthur seeing because it’s the only one Arthur knows Merlin has. He made Merlin show him the day after it had appeared and told him in no uncertain terms that Merlin might have saved his life, and earned a mark, but that didn’t mean he should expect any kind of special treatment from Arthur – not that he had.
Merlin’s earned a lot more marks since then, none of which Arthur has seen.
They have a few marks in common, like the image of the mortaeus flower on Merlin’s right shoulder blade – Arthur’s left – for when they saved each other’s lives. There are more like this, from instances where both of them did their part to destroy evil magic, but Arthur doesn’t know about Merlin’s involvement in most of these stories and so Merlin hides his marks. It’s safer this way.
More and more marks showed up as the months and years went by. The more marks he earns, the harder it gets to hide them. He’s just glad he’d always been wearing neckerchiefs and long sleeves, otherwise even Arthur might’ve become suspicious if Merlin had suddenly started covering up more and more of his skin. His arms bear several marks each, and a small dragon appeared high on his collarbone just after Aithusa hatched, making it impossible to wear anything that’s open at the collar.
Merlin has more marks on his body than Arthur, but thankfully none of them are on his hands, neck, or face. However, the day they returned from the confrontation with Queen Annis, Merlin noticed that, once again, he and Arthur earned marks that mirror each other. The same wolf’s head – Caerleon’s crest – that appeared on the inside of Arthur’s right wrist showed up on the inside of Merlin’s left.
When Arthur caressed that very same spot and hinted at deepening their relationship, Merlin panicked. He knows that Arthur seeing this mark wouldn’t mean that he’d find out about the magic. After all, Merlin did give Arthur sound advice – Arthur even admitted that himself – and none of it had anything to do with magic. But agreeing to a relationship with Arthur would also mean that, sooner or later, Merlin would have to (or, rather, want to) take off his clothes. There’s no doubt in his mind that Arthur would have a lot of questions that Merlin wouldn’t want to answer with anything but the truth – even if he could explain the marks any other way.
As much as he wants to give in to Arthur’s suggestion, he cannot risk being banished. Not now, when they’re already so close to their destiny. Arthur’s king of Camelot, and it’s only a matter of time until their golden age will arrive. Merlin just needs a little more time to show Arthur that magic can be a force for good.
So he fled and spent the next couple of weeks putting distance between them – for his own sake as well as to discourage further advances from Arthur.
The worst part is that it’s been working. Arthur has made no further attempts to persuade Merlin, and Merlin has gone back to quietly loving Arthur from afar.
But then Arthur had earned the hyacinths that frame the blood spatter. Merlin later found out that they can stand for forgiveness, and he thinks that’s probably what they represent in Arthur’s mark.
When he first discovered them, though, all he could think about is how beautiful they looked on Arthur’s skin and how badly he wanted to touch them.
The moment was laden with potential, and this time, when Arthur asked Merlin to deepen their relationship, Merlin had almost given in.
When Arthur discounted all his objections for why they can’t be together, Merlin had nearly blurted out the real reasons. That he has magic and that Arthur won’t want him anymore once he knows that. That he can’t let Arthur get close because then Arthur will see that Merlin has more marks than the king himself. That it’s Merlin and his magic who have saved Arthur and Camelot countless times.
Rejecting Arthur for a second time didn’t making things easier. Now that Merlin’s admitted to having feelings for Arthur, Arthur seems all the more determined to convince Merlin that they each can have what they want.
He invites Merlin to eat with him, to the point where he’ll order a different servant to bring up two plates of food to Arthur’s chamber instead of letting Merlin fetch just the one for Arthur.
Arthur will ask about Merlin’s day, his chores, the servants he talks to. He asks Merlin’s advice on state matters and actually takes it into consideration. And during quiet nights, when Merlin sits by the fire to mend Arthur’s tunics, Arthur will ask him about his life in Ealdor.
It never seems like Arthur’s just asking to be polite or to pretend an interest he doesn’t have. He genuinely listens, and it makes Merlin want to confide in Arthur, tell him all his secrets and bare himself to Arthur’s scrutiny in every sense. There are moments when he nearly does it, too, but then a cautious voice inside his head that sounds suspiciously like Gaius stops him.
The day Arthur pulls the sword out of the stone, an image of Excalibur appears on the inside of Merlin’s right forearm and on Arthur’s left. Merlin isn’t convinced he deserves any credit for it, but there’s no arguing with the marks.
It’s a few days later, back in Camelot after they’ve had their victory over Morgana and reclaimed the citadel, that Merlin’s in the middle of washing himself when Arthur bursts into his room unannounced.
Merlin’s had his back to the door, but he whirls around when the door opens without warning, only to find Arthur staring at him open-mouthed.
For a few long moments, neither of them says anything, then Merlin snatches up a shirt and hastily pulls it over his head. The damage, however, is already done. Arthur has seen most of the marks on Merlin’s upper body.
“You never told me you had so many,” Arthur says quietly once Merlin’s covered.
“There was no reason to tell you,” Merlin replies, already turning away again, but Arthur grabs his elbow and stops him from fleeing.
“All the times I called you a coward, and yet these marks would tell anyone that you’re nothing of the sort.” Arthur pushes the sleeve of Merlin’s tunic up, revealing the image of Excalibur on his forearm. “We share this,” he says, then lets go of Merlin’s arm and takes the other hand into his, pushing this sleeve up as well to reveal his wrist where the wolf’s head sits. “And this,” he says. “We share this as well.”
He makes to push up the sleeve higher, but Merlin puts his hand above Arthur’s and stops him.
“I’ve already seen them, Merlin. I want to know the story behind them.” Arthur’s look is insistent, but Merlin shakes his head.
“Not now,” he says, satisfied that his voice sounds more firm than pleading. “I have chores to complete for Gaius, and for your household. We can talk tonight.”
Arthur looks at him for a long moment, searching Merlin’s face. For what, Merlin doesn’t know, but Arthur must find what he’s looking for, because he nods and lets go of Merlin.
“You’ll eat with me, and then you can tell me about the things I don’t know,” Arthur decides. For a moment, it looks as if he’s going to say something else, but then he turns and leaves Merlin to the rest of his morning routine.
It’s only after Merlin’s heard the door to Gaius’ workroom close that he takes a deep breath to calm his racing heartbeat. He’s got the rest of the day to decide what to do: Tell Arthur the truth and bear the consequences, or lie to Arthur and hope he won’t be found out later.
A third option – flight – crosses Merlin’s mind briefly, but thinking about leaving Arthur makes his chest hurt in a way that he can’t imagine bearing for however long it would take to mend his broken heart.
Gaius calls for him in that moment, and Merlin banishes all worries about Arthur for the time being, and sets to work.
Arthur only saw Merlin’s back, chest and arms for a few moments, but he can tell that there are more than a dozen marks on his upper body alone. He wonders if there are any more on his legs as well, and how many of them.
He wants to see them all, wants to know every story behind them. There must be an explanation why Merlin has so many and why he keeps them hidden. Anyone else would brag about the amount of marks they’ve received, but not Merlin, who, by the looks of it, has more than Arthur. Arthur!
It’s possible they’re things he’s not proud of, just like Arthur doesn’t cherish all his own marks. However, it’s such a foreign concept to Arthur that Merlin could do anything so wrong to earn him a permanent mark for it, that he doesn’t even want to consider the possibility.
The day passes agonisingly slowly, and Arthur ends up thinking about the sight of Merlin’s pale skin in stark contrast with the black marks during a council meeting.
He’s only caught glimpses of the shapes, and he wonders what they will reveal. At least one almost looked like a dragon, and Arthur’s intrigued by it. Does it have to do with that Dragonlord they met many years ago? What occurred between him and Merlin that it would leave a mark on Merlin?
And, more importantly, how many marks more do they share that Arthur doesn’t know of? The sword on his forearm seems logical to Arthur the more he thinks about it, as does the wolf’s head. Both mark occasions when Arthur overcame his own doubts or pride, following Merlin’s advice or encouragement.
He knows the shape and look of these marks, and yet, seeing them on Merlin’s skin makes Arthur curious. He wants to run his fingers over the lines, feel the slight raise of the skin of the mark in contrast to the softness of the surrounding area. He wants to know what the others look like, explore their lines and learn every single one of them by touch and taste.
Arthur snaps out of his thoughts when Geoffrey declares the meeting over, and Arthur has to wait at the table a while longer for fear of embarrassing himself by way of the clearly visible bulge in his breeches.
When dinner finally arrives, Arthur’s too excited – too nervous – to eat, and he pushes his food around. Merlin doesn’t seem to have much more of an appetite either.
Eventually, Arthur pushes his plate away, grabs his goblet and the pitcher off the table, and sits down in front of the fire, beckoning for Merlin to follow him.
Merlin downs the contents of his goblet in one long pull, then follows Arthur down onto the rug.
“Show me, please,” Arthur says and, to his amazement, Merlin obeys.
After taking off his tunic, Merlin begins to recount stories that Arthur remembers, but not quite the way Merlin tells them.
There’s an image of the mortaeus flower on his shoulder blade from when he drank poison to save Arthur’s life. Arthur has the same mark on the opposite shoulder blade for saving Merlin’s life in return. Just like on Arthur’s shoulder, there’s a mark shaped like drops of water just above the flower, for the time they vanquished the Afanc and saved Camelot from poisoned water.
When Merlin talks about magic and his use of it – his gift for it – Arthur swallows thickly and wets his throat with more wine while Merlin goes on nervously.
It occurs to Arthur that his reaction to Merlin’s revelation is not what Merlin expected. Merlin’s entire body is stiff with tension, ready to defend itself against Arthur’s attack.
The fear in Merlin’s eyes doesn’t lessen the entire time he speaks. With every story he reveals – the gust of wind from Ealdor that he conjured, not Will; the heart crystal for when he saved Camelot from the spirit of Cornelius Sigan; the hemlock poison he made Morgana drink to save everyone else from the sleeping sickness; and so many more – his voice becomes quieter. Finally, after the last story is told – the orb that guided Arthur out of the cave – he falls silent.
“How many more?” Arthur asks at length.
Merlin looks unhappy as he bites his lip in an obviously nervous gesture. Arthur can tell he doesn’t want to say, but Arthur needs to know. Needs to know how much more his dearest friend has done for him. Needs to know how much bigger the burden Merlin has been carrying for all these years truly is.
“Merlin,” Arthur says seriously. “How many more?”
“Seven,” Merlin finally admits.
Seven more , Arthur thinks. With the ones he’s already seen, that makes twenty-five marks in total. Arthur himself only has eighteen, and that is after a lifetime of being a prince and a knight.
“May I see them and hear their stories?” Arthur asks quietly.
Merlin blushes to the tips of his ears, but stands to remove his breeches all the same.
Arthur watches as Merlin slowly pushes them down over his hips. He’s wearing short braies underneath, so his dignity isn’t entirely at risk, but Arthur recognises how much trust Merlin is putting in Arthur in this moment. He’s still visibly tense, but it seems that he wants to tell Arthur the rest now.
He listens intently as Merlin tells more stories about magical snakes – another mark they share; the gryffin that Lancelot slew with the help of Merlin’s magic; and the rest of them. Arthur pays close attention to every tale, and counts the marks.
“That’s only six,” he points out, and the blush that had receded while Merlin talked, returns, this time spreading right down to Merlin’s chest.
“The last one is on my… erm... arse,” Merlin admits so quietly that Arthur has to strain his ears to hear it.
“I understand if you’d rather not show me,” Arthur says, concentrating on the words he wants to say, rather than the part of Merlin’s body he wants to see. “But if it’s yet another story that somehow involves me and how you saved me or Camelot from evil, I’d like to hear the story at least,” he says, proud of how steady his voice sounds.
Merlin turns around, and then, ever so slowly, he unties his smallclothes and lets them drop to the floor. Finally, Arthur can see the image of the Pendragon crest high up on Merlin’s arse cheek.
His prick twitches in his breeches, possessiveness suddenly awakening his arousal, and it takes all he has not to lean forward and lick the marked skin.
“What’s it for?” he asks, his voice hoarse with longing.
Merlin shivers despite the heat of the fire, but he doesn’t pull his clothes up again, nor does he turn back towards Arthur.
“Stopping you from doing something you’d have regretted,” Merlin says quietly.
Arthur wants to know the details, but it will have to wait, because more than anything else, he wants to touch Merlin.
“Is your magic the reason you rejected me?” he asks instead of reaching out and running his fingertips over the mark.
“Yes,” Merlin breathes. “I didn’t want you to see the marks and to find out what I am.”
His voice sounds small and scared, and Arthur doesn’t like that one bit.
“But you’ve told me now,” he points out. He cannot stop staring at the mark on Merlin’s arse. He wants so badly to touch it, trace it with his fingers and his tongue.
“You’ve already seen them,” Merlin says. “I don’t think I could’ve fabricated convincing lies for all of them, and running away wasn’t an option.”
“Why not?” Arthur asks, honestly curious. Merlin could’ve left any time, even today, and been safe from whatever he feared Arthur might do to him. Without receiving any explanation for his disappearance, Arthur would have searched for him, but if he’d received word that Merlin had no intention of returning to Camelot – to Arthur – Arthur would’ve respected that, at least for a while.
Merlin’s turned around again and now Arthur suddenly finds himself staring at Merlin’s crotch rather than the mark on his arse. He quickly looks up to Merlin’s face, feeling his face flush.
“I could never leave you, Arthur,” Merlin says, and he sounds so earnest, so honest, that Arthur has to reach for his hand and tug him down onto the carpet.
Merlin kneels in front of him, close enough for their knees to touch. Arthur can see the fire reflected in Merlin’s eyes, the flush on his cheeks, and the goosebumps all over his shoulders. It’s warm in front of the fire and yet, Merlin shivers.
Without thinking, Arthur pulls Merlin into his lap and wraps his arms around him in an effort to warm him up. The fact that he’s now got an entirely naked Merlin in his arms is not at all lost on him, and Arthur feels himself grow harder.
“Why couldn’t you leave me?” Arthur asks once he’s sure his voice won’t crack.
“It’s my destiny to protect you, and—” Merlin breaks off.
“And?” Arthur prompts after a few silent heartbeats, slowly stroking a hand up and down Merlin’s back. The skin is smooth despite the marks on it, like he knew it would be. It still surprises him. The marks are so vivid on Merlin’s skin, Arthur thought he’d be able to trace their relief with the tips of his fingers.
“And I care too much about you,” Merlin finishes quietly a few moments later.
“If I ask you a third time, will you accept my courtship?” Arthur has to know.
“Will you put me on trial for using magic?” Merlin asks in return.
The idea is so absurd to Arthur, it takes him a few seconds to work out why Merlin’s even asking.
“No,” he says at length.
“Are you going to lift the ban?” Merlin asks next, his voice a little more breathless than before. Arthur wonders if it’s hope or fear that makes Merlin nervous.
“I believe I want to,” Arthur says slowly, pausing his hand in the middle of Merlin’s back, right above where the fire-breathing dragon sits. (“Balinor the Dragonlord was my father. I received the mark and the title after he died,” Merlin had explained.)
“I need more time to think about the ramifications,” Arthur goes on. “Magic has been banned for a long time. Lifting the ban will not change everyone’s mind over night.”
“It won’t,” Merlin agrees. “But it’ll show your people that you don’t condemn an entire group because of the evil deeds of a few individuals.”
Arthur sighs and resumes stroking Merlin’s back. “Is your acceptance of my suit dependent on the lift of the ban?”
“You cannot want me in your bed and at the same time hunt and prosecute my people,” Merlin says. He begins to pull away from Arthur, but Arthur tightens his arms around him, unwilling to let Merlin escape.
“I cannot lift the ban just for you,” Arthur says softly, needing Merlin to understand.
Merlin, however, shakes his head. “Nor should you,” he says. “You should do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
This time when Merlin pulls away, Arthur lets him.
Arthur finds himself watching Merlin even more during the weeks that follow. Now that he knows what Merlin looks like without his clothes, Arthur can see all the ways that Merlin covers his skin to hide his marks.
Long sleeves, trousers, and socks even in warm weather; the ever present neckerchief tied securely around his neck, even though his tunics are laced up all the way; and he often wears a jacket as well.
Arthur had hoped Merlin would allow himself to relax more in Arthur’s presence, maybe shed a layer or two when they’re alone in his chambers, but he never does. Arthur’s not sure whether it’s because Merlin’s scared that Arthur might still change his mind and have him killed, or because he’s awaiting Arthur’s decision regarding the ban.
Truth be told, Arthur’s still not certain what to do. He wants to lift it, but he himself isn’t sure whether it’s because he believes sorcerers to be capable of good, or because he wishes to impress Merlin.
Maybe Merlin was right to reject him yet again.
Merlin waits every day for Arthur to make his decision, one way or the other. In the meantime, he makes sure that Arthur doesn’t see any reminders of what Merlin is. Merlin needs him to make this decision for himself and his people – not for Merlin.
Unfortunately, the choice is forced on Arthur once the Disir pass their judgement on him.
Arthur doesn’t ask Merlin for advice. Merlin assumes it’s because Arthur knows what Merlin would say. Ironically, he truly doesn’t.
Merlin knows the prophecy and what Mordred is destined to do. If it means keeping Arthur safe, Merlin would rather magic remain banned.
There’s no way to explain this to Arthur though – or at least none that Merlin can see working out. Arthur is too fond of Mordred, and not for the first time Merlin wonders if Arthur simply forgot the druid boy he saved, or if he never considered that they might be one and the same person.
It doesn’t matter. Merlin doesn’t tell Arthur what he thinks, and the next day, Arthur returns to the cave and promises the Disir to lift the ban on magic and to welcome the Old Religion back into Camelot, where it would be allowed to exist next to the New Religion.
He also swears that anyone using magic for evil will face harsh judgement.
The Disir agree to this, and when Merlin and Arthur return to Camelot, Mordred greets them at the entrance to the castle, healed and in better health than ever before.
When Arthur takes off his riding gloves in the privacy of his chambers, he makes a startled noise and then shows Merlin the Disir’s runemark imprinted on the back of his right hand, marking him for the promise he’s made.
Two days later, Arthur lifts the ban, and Mordred shows his faith in Arthur by revealing who and what he is. He swears a second oath of fealty, and pledges to use his magic in aid of Arthur’s and Camelot’s goals, sealing it with blood and the promise to die before he harms Arthur or helps anyone to do the same.
For the first time in months, Merlin relaxes. A blood promise like that has to be obeyed. Even if Mordred changes his mind later, he will never be able to kill Arthur, directly or indirectly.
After this, Merlin finally finds himself able to begin to trust Mordred, and together they explore the boundaries of their magic whenever time allows for it.
Merlin’s still covering all his marks, Arthur notes, even weeks after the ban on magic has been lifted.
It’s a warm summer night when Arthur makes a point of raising the topic with Merlin.
“Why are you still hiding? You’re free to show all that you’ve done for me and the kingdom.”
Merlin shakes his head. “What will people think of their king when they realise I’m behind half of your victories?”
His tone is almost teasing, but Arthur can read the tension in the line of Merlin’s shoulders.
“They’ll think that if you could do all this for a kingdom that would’ve sooner killed you than thank you, you must be either incredibly foolish or incredibly brave. Little would they know that you’re both.”
Merlin huffs, but the smile is genuine – the first one directed at Arthur in months. It loosens something in Arthur’s chest that he hadn’t even noticed had been tied up in knots.
“If I asked you one more time,” Arthur begins, carefully watching Merlin’s reaction, “now that the ban is lifted and I know all of your secrets—”
“Not all,” Merlin interrupts. “Just a lot.”
Arthur smirks. “A lot of your secrets,” he amends. “Will you allow me to court you?”
“Arthur,” Merlin sighs. “You should court a woman. Someone who can be your queen and give you heirs. How else is Camelot going to live on if your line doesn’t continue?”
Arthur leans back in his chair, shrugging unperturbed.
“Any child I name my heir will be my heir. They needn’t be my biological child.”
“They should be,” Merlin insists. “Their claim to the throne would be sacrosanct.”
“Oh dear,” Arthur teases. “That’s a rather big word, Merlin. Are you sure you know what it means?”
“Gods, you’re such an arse. I don’t even know why I love you half the time.”
Merlin’s eyes go wide as soon as he realises what he just said. Arthur’s just as shocked, but better at hiding it. He masks his surprise by grinning wider.
“Is that so?” he teases. He stands and walks the few paces it takes until he’s standing in front of Merlin where he’s sorting through Arthur’s washing.
“No,” Merlin tries to deflect. “It was a figure of speech. Everyone loves their king, right?”
Arthur shakes his head. “They don’t,” he says. “But even if they did, I doubt all of them love me the way you do.”
“I don’t love you,” Merlin says, but Arthur can tell it costs him much effort to say those words. Funny that Merlin could lie about a big secret such as having magic and saving Arthur’s life, but once he’s directly confronted with it, he cannot hide his true feelings for Arthur at all.
Arthur takes the tunic that Merlin’s folding from his hands and lets it drop to the floor. Merlin’s protest dies on his lips the moment Arthur touches their mouths together.
Merlin immediately relaxes into Arthur’s arms, all resistance bleeding out of him as if all it would have taken this entire time was a kiss from Arthur to make him submit.
But Arthur’s glad he hadn’t known it before. He might’ve used it to his advantage and that wouldn’t have been fair to Merlin.
Now, though, they’re equals. From what Arthur can tell, from what he’s seen when he’s spied on Merlin and Mordred practising, and from everything that Merlin’s said – and hasn’t said – about the things he’s done to earn his marks, Merlin is an incredibly powerful sorcerer. Arthur has no doubt that it would be easy for Merlin to defeat him if it ever came to a fight.
The knowledge that Merlin could be that strong excites Arthur only further, and he tugs Merlin towards his bed, tumbling him down onto it the moment they reach the edge.
“Arthur,” Merlin gasps, but Arthur shushes him gently.
“Unless you wish to refuse me, all I want to hear from you is how I can please you,” Arthur says, and Merlin moans, arching his body to bring it closer to Arthur’s.
“Arthur,” Merlin gasps again. “I want—”
Arthur slips his hands under Merlin’s tunic and slides it up Merlin’s chest, kissing a trail from his belly button up to his sternum. “What?” he asks. “Tell me.”
Merlin buries his hand in Arthur’s hair and pushes him down.
It’s a matter of moments before Merlin’s breeches are unlaced and pulled down along with his smallclothes, and then Arthur finally gets to kiss the soft inside of Merlin’s thigh.
“Please,” Merlin moans, lightly tugging on Arthur’s hair to urge him on; but Arthur takes his time, trailing kisses over the crease of Merlin’s thigh, then down the line of his hipbone until he’s finally nuzzling the base of Merlin’s erection.
By now, Merlin’s given up begging and his hand has moved to Arthur’s shoulder where it’s gripping tightly. It’s only then that Arthur takes Merlin into his mouth and uses all the knowledge he’s gained during long campaigns with the knights when he was younger. It may have been years since Arthur’s done this for someone else – or has had it done to him – but he’s pleased to find that Merlin at least doesn’t seem to have any complaints.
Merlin doesn’t last long, and it sends a thrill through Arthur to know that he did this. He undid Merlin completely, caused him to lose control and spill inside his mouth. The gasps that accompany Merlin’s climax only increase Arthur’s own arousal, and as soon as Merlin’s hold on his shoulder slackens, Arthur sits up and undoes the laces of his own trousers.
There’s molten gold in Merlin’s eyes, and an invisible force pulls Arthur closer until he’s straddling Merlin’s chest. The show of power nearly undoes Arthur on the spot, but he holds on for several more minutes even though Merlin’s mouth is hot and perfect around him, and Merlin’s grip on his arse is sure to leave bruises.
When he comes, it’s with Merlin’s name on his lips and his hands buried in Merlin’s hair as he spills down his throat.
Later, they lie side by side, both naked, sweaty and exhausted after spending what must have been hours learning each other anew.
“Show me more,” Arthur asks, and Merlin, smiling sleepily, whispers words in a language Arthur doesn’t know, and a small, fiery dragon appears between them, batting its wings. It only disappears when Merlin falls asleep in Arthur’s arms, and Arthur follows soon after.
The next morning, Arthur finds the shape of a primrose blossom on Merlin’s chest directly above his heart, and when he checks, he finds he has the same mark in the exact same place.
“That clears up that mystery,” Merlin quips with a lazy smile. "The indicator's been there since I got here, you know."
Arthur smiles back, and kisses the mark on Merlin’s skin. He’ll have to ask Gaius what the flower means, but for the moment, he’s content to lie here with Merlin and dream about the future, knowing that they were meant to end up here since the day they met.