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      It doesn’t start out like this.

     With Arthur being miserable, that is.

     Over Merlin.

     After all, Merlin is a servant, Arthur thinks as he catches the long, lithe lines of Merlin’s forearms as he scrubs the floor, his sleeves sopping with soapy water and shoved haphazardly up to his elbows. Merlin is a servant, he reminds himself whenever Merlin shows up to his chambers after a day’s work, complaining loudly and reeking of horse manure. Merlin is a servant, he wills himself to remember as Merlin slides down to his knees to adjust a particularly difficult hole in his sword belt. Merlin is his servant; duty-bound to be in Arthur’s presence at all times, to answer his beck and call. Arthur likes to believe Merlin would spend time with him even if he wasn’t, but he can never be sure.

     Merlin is. . .Merlin. A fixture, a solid entity, a pair of long steady hands and a practical, often exasperated voice in- and outside his subconscious. An unrelenting pulse at his side in battle, unthinking loyalty and reckless bravery and idiotic retorts and flashes of uncanny insight; dumb humour and a deep, hidden well of compassion that runs warm. A persistent snub to authority and court etiquette that should be maddening but is somehow endearing. Merlin is Merlin, who trips over his own unruly limbs and carries hand-picked flowers around the castle and tears up when Arthur takes down deer on hunts. He’s all odd angles, ill-proportioned features; a crooked smile when he’s teasing, a goofy, toothy grin when he finds something genuinely funny.

     Merlin is Merlin, and Arthur wants him like he’s never wanted anything before.

     He doesn’t quite realise any of this for himself until an unfortunate chain of events brings the whole ordeal uncomfortably to the surface.

     That being that Merlin starts a courtship.

     But even before the courtship, there were warning signs that Arthur should have paid closer heed to. The first was a simple patrol in the woods on an early summer day, some time after Beltane, Merlin at his regular position by Arthur’s side through the day’s ride, chattering on as usual about nonsense. When they make camp for the night, Arthur waits until Merlin’s eating, and seizes the moment to resume his normal tormenting.

     “The horses have been watered, Merlin? All of them?”

     “Yes, sire,” Merlin says, between loud, ravenous slurps of soup.

     “Rubbed down too?”

     “Yes, sire,” Merlin says with more pronounced irritation, slurping his soup even louder.

     “I don’t suppose you thought to get more firewood, did you?”

     “There’s plenty of firewood,” Merlin answers, and Arthur bites down on a grin to see Merlin getting agitated, huffing into his soup and glowering into the flames. There’s always been something just. . .easy about taunting Merlin. Vindictive? Perhaps a little, but it keeps Arthur from considering what Merlin might mean to him outside of servitude, which is a path of thought he’d rather not tread.

     The fun ends abruptly, however, when one of his knights, Sir Rhys, pulls him aside after the conversation, out of earshot from Merlin and the other knights.

     “Sire, if I may be granted permission to speak plainly,” Rhys says, and Arthur frowns but nods in acquiescence. “Have you ever considered that you’re maybe. . .a little harsh on Merlin?”

     Arthur comes up short at that, his immediate reaction struck somewhere between defensive and irritated. “If I didn’t know any better, Sir Rhys,” he says coolly, recovering from his surprise, “I would think you’re telling me how to treat my servant.”

     “No, no,” Rhys says quickly, his evident fear of being discourteous clearly trumping whatever valiantly misplaced effort he’d undertaken for Merlin. “It’s just that. . .Merlin is a special breed. All the knights know it. It doesn’t seem fair to treat him such.”

     Some ugly emotion that Arthur can’t name begins to knot up at the base of his throat, clenching like a fist. It feels suspiciously like bile. “I had no idea you all felt that way,” he says, his voice much frostier than before. “But Merlin and I have a given...understanding...” How to even explain his odd, antagonistic relationship with Merlin to an outsider? Arthur’s deep-seated, often dangerous fondness for Merlin counteracts the moments when he gives him a hard time or teases him—surely the knights must know that? Surely Merlin must?

     “We have a given. . .understanding,” Arthur continues, his mouth drying up further as Sir Rhys’ eyes bore into his, questioning. What understanding? As friends? He can’t be friends with his servant. “We have a certain rapport that Merlin is comfortable with,” Arthur finishes with less conviction than he feels.

     “I see,” Rhys says. “Forgive me, I—I did not mean to overstep, my lord.”

     Arthur gives a single shake of his head, still at a loss for how to respond to such an unexpected affront.

     “Although if it’s just between you and me,” Rhys says, and Arthur notices with belated interest a red flush crawling up through his ginger scruff, blending the freckles into his skin, “if Merlin were. . .er, interested. . . in. . .”

     Arthur stares, uncomprehending.

     “If he likes—” Rhys scratches the back of his head awkwardly. “I couldn’t help but notice—if Merlin were to fancy blokes, er, I wouldn’t be opposed to—”

     The words sink in, and the realisation strikes Arthur like a mace to the head. Rhys wants Merlin—not as an employee, but as a bedmate. The image is so unwelcome, and so bizarre, so unexpected that all Arthur can do is gape like a startled fish, his mouth opening and closing of its own accord.

     “Forgive me,” Rhys rushes to say again, eyeing his expression nervously. “I did not mean to speak too forwardly. Merlin is your servant first and foremost, of course. But if he speaks of me. . .perhaps put in a good word? Only if he were to say, I mean, er. Only if he were to. Mention me.”

     Rhys fancies Merlin? Merlin. Rhys?

     Arthur’s internal monologue flatlines.

     Merlin and men?

     “Sire,” Rhys says to Arthur’s flummoxed silence, and bows awkwardly before he shuffles off, still scrubbing hand through his hair. Arthur stares after him, dumbfounded, before he turns to transfer his stare to Merlin. Merlin’s lounged back with his shoulders pressed into a log, his gangly legs outstretched, and by the tilt of his mouth, the warmth in his eyes, he’s teasing Gwaine. Gwaine gives him a playful shove, and Merlin rocks into it, beaming, before Gwaine tousles his hair.

     Merlin had never courted any of the women in the court, sure. Merlin had never courted anyone. Arthur’s hardly given a thought to Merlin in any sort of romantic entanglement, and the thought of it is a hot press of nausea in his throat, pricking at his eyes. The physical sensations are instinctive, uncontrollable, and Arthur can’t fathom their meaning, nor does he want to. Surely, he wants Merlin safe. He wants Merlin close. A courtship with Rhys, or anyone else, would certainly interfere with his servant duties, and Arthur needs Merlin.

     Arthur corners Gwaine before they set off for Camelot the next day.

     “Do you think I mistreat Merlin?” he demands, and Gwaine, mid-bite into an apple, pauses to raise one eyebrow at him.

     “Did you knock your head on your way out of the tent?”

     “I’m serious,” Arthur insists, his gaze following Merlin movement for movement as Merlin readies his horse, speaking quiet, fond words to her, rubbing down her neck. “I had a. . .complaint voiced to me last night, and I—”

     Gwaine snorts and tosses the apple core over his shoulder into the woods. “It was Sir Rhys, wasn’t it?”

     Arthur blinks, disarmed by Gwaine’s apparent and uncharacteristic omnipotence, and nods.

     “Can’t say I’m surprised,” Gwaine says, shaking his head with a small, indulgent smile. “Everyone know Rhys has been drooling after Merlin for months. That is, everyone but Merlin, of course.” Gwaine pauses, then frowns at Arthur. “And. . .you, it would seem. I’m surprised you didn’t notice. He’s not exactly subtle about it.”

     “Oh,” Arthur says woodenly. “I guess I’ve never. . .thinking of someone interested in Merlin is—”

     “Come now,” Gwaine says, clearly riled on behalf of his friend, misconstruing Arthur’s intent. What was Arthur’s intent? “Merlin’s a handsome lad, smart as a whip, a ridiculous romantic. The nicest one of all of us by miles, no question. He’s sure to get snatched up one of these days.”

     “Snatched up,” Arthur echoes, hollowly, still staring after Merlin.

     “Come, my lord,” Gwaine says, giving Arthur what seems to be a benevolent pat on the shoulder. “Best not to worry your pretty head about such things. Merlin is, if nothing else, slavishly dedicated to his work.”

     Yes, Merlin is dedicated. Loyal. Often moronically devoted. For the life of him, Arthur cannot stop thinking about the exchange with Rhys the entire ride back to Camelot, even as Merlin gently tries to engage him in conversation, evidently sensing his sudden reticence.

     “Sire,” Merlin says when they’re back in Arthur’s chambers, and he closes the doors behind them. “Is something troubling you?”

     “What?” Arthur says, taking a moment to process the words. “No, of course not.”

     Merlin gazes at him, his eyes probing and his mouth pressed into a thin line of concern. “Are you certain?” Merlin’s expression softens, his eyebrows crooking upward. “You know that if—if something’s the matter, you can always talk to me.”

     Again, that terrifying surge of fondness, staring at Merlin. He beats it down.

     He swallows, and forces his next words steady. “Nothing is the matter. You don’t need to stay.”

     Merlin starts at this, a flare of surprise, maybe hurt. “But sire, I—”

     “Thank you, Merlin,” Arthur says, soft but firm. “You can go now.”

     Merlin stares at him openly for another few moments, trying to parse something out from him, but Arthur keeps his expression stoic, revealing nothing. There’s nothing to reveal. It had been a simple, perhaps naïve conversation with Sir Rhys. Nothing to do with Merlin. And yet, everything to do with Merlin—of others’ perception of how he treats Merlin. He enjoys antagonising Merlin far more than he should, and Merlin is certainly vocal in his complaints, but the thought that other knights may view him as a cruel, mistreating master, toward Merlin, is more upsetting than he’d like to admit to himself.

     “Arth—” Merlin says, then catches himself. He straightens his shoulders and bows his head, his hands clasped behind his back. “My lord.”

     Arthur watches him go, feeling hollow.

     That’s the last patrol that Arthur takes Sir Rhys on.

     Normalcy resumes between Arthur and Merlin, their quotidian rhythms recovered with ease, but the conversation weighs constantly in the back of Arthur’s mind, one part in particular. After a few days’ hard thought, he dismisses Rhys’ implications that he’s an unfair master; Rhys knows nothing as a young, untrained knight, and Merlin hardly pauses to shut up, so if he were truly unhappy with his work, Arthur would be the first to know about it.

     No, the bit of conversation that haunts him is Rhys saying, “I couldn’t help but notice—if Merlin were to fancy blokes—” Arthur tosses in bed a few nights churning through the phrasing of this, picking apart all its insinuations. Couldn’t help but notice what? Is there something glaringly obvious about Merlin that Arthur himself has missed? It shouldn’t matter, who Merlin fancies. Arthur tells himself this again and again, when the thought arises, when he’s watching Merlin work and his mind wanders. Sometimes the thoughts trail further than they should; if Merlin prefers men, has he any past experience? How does he know? Why would he keep such a thing from Arthur? Does he not trust him?

     The more Arthur turns these thoughts over, the more he resents Sir Rhys. And he can’t resist saying something to Merlin about it, after a couple of weeks.

     Arthur is gazing unseeingly at a new tax reform document on his desk, far more preoccupied in watching Merlin turn down the bed in his peripheral vision. Before he can stop himself, the words are out.

     “What do you think of Sir Rhys?”

     Merlin seems startled by the question, pausing in his sheet-tucking. Then he resumes with a quick shrug of his shoulders, clearly assuming Arthur is seeking his counsel as he usually does.

     “He’s a brave knight, loyal to you, to be sure. A bit young and untested, but everyone has to start somewhere, don’t they?”

     Arthur nods, watching Merlin as he moves to fluff one of Arthur’s pillows.

     “Do you think him handsome?” he asks.

     Merlin freezes, then turns to stare at Arthur with his eyebrows raised incredulously. “Do I think him. . .handsome.”

     “Yes,” Arthur says, keeping his stern, imperious tone, as if this is some critical matter of the court.

     “What does it matter if he’s handsome?” Merlin says with a snort, returning to his fluffing. “What’s that got to do with anything?”

     Arthur clenches his fist around his quill, then unflexes his fingers. “I only ask because. . .”

     “What,” Merlin says suspiciously, the fluffing forgotten.

     “He might have, ah. . .” Arthur makes a show of struggling for words. “Declared his affections for you?”

     “Declared his affections,” Merlin repeats, with faint horror.

     The stricken, queasy look on Merlin’s face is oddly gratifying, and it gives Arthur the confidence to continue. “The funniest thing, isn’t it,” he says with feigned derision. “He approached me and expressed his interest in you. I think he sought my blessing.”

     Merlin’s gone very pale, and he sits on the bed, which usually Arthur snaps at him for, but he allows it now.

     “He went to you about it?” Merlin says, mortified.

     “Yes,” Arthur says, brushing dust away from the document with the back of his knuckles. “I told him I’m not your keeper, and you can court who you like.”

     “God,” Merlin says, bringing one hand up to his temple. “How’d I miss that?”

     “We both know your skills of observation leave something to be desired,” Arthur says seriously, and Merlin, with his hand still cupping his face, scowls at him.

     “Why didn’t you tell me?” Merlin demands, bringing the hand to his lap.

     “I didn’t think it mattered,” Arthur says, pretending to be very focused on his work. “I didn’t reckon you were interested in men.”

     The words are nonchalant, but Arthur watches Merlin’s response from under his lashes like a hawk; watches the way Merlin’s hands tighten then fold into his lap, his knees drawing together, his shoulders bowing inward like some gravitational pull inward to his center, and oh my God, Arthur thinks in disbelief, Merlin fancies men. Does he fancy Rhys?

     “Right,” is all Merlin can say. He sounds suddenly, profoundly sad, and Arthur feels his heart squeeze unpleasantly in his chest, knowing he was in part the cause of it. “Well, I’m certainly not interested in Rhys,” Merlin continues, picking up some of the conversational momentum. “So I’m afraid he’ll be disappointed.”

     “Merlin,” Arthur says as he leans back, in what he surmises is a convincing tone of approval. “I didn’t take you for a heartbreaker.”

     “Yeah, well, you know me,” Merlin says with a cheeky, easy grin, but Arthur can see now the strain behind it, the tired tic at the corner of Merlin’s eye. “Breaking all the boys’ hearts.”

     “Indeed,” Arthur says, quieter now. He stares at Merlin.

     “Anyway,” Merlin says, jumping up. His voice has taken on a considerably more strident note. “Day’s wasting. What do you need washed?”

     And just like that, they’re back to normal, but Arthur can’t stop thinking about the exchange. The infuriating part is that he can’t figure out why. It shouldn’t make a difference to him either way whether Merlin wants to court knights or maids; it’s not as if it radically changes his perspective of him. And yet he finds himself prodding the thought over and over like a sore tooth.

     Things predictably descend into madness when some weeks later, Merlin starts an actual courtship.

     Arthur doesn’t hear it from Merlin, of course. Why would he, he later reflects, bitterly. No, the news comes from the knights one afternoon before a training session, as Arthur struggles to armour himself due to Merlin’s absence.

     “Where’s my useless— ” Arthur twists futilely to attempt to fasten his chestplate on his own. “—bloody— worthless servant.”

     The question is, of course, intended rhetorically, but Arthur’s met instead by a quiet round of snickers.

     “Haven’t you heard?” Percival says.

     “Heard what,” Arthur responds, each word clipped through his teeth. Haven’t you heard, he’s learned from past experience, is an incredibly ominous preface to any situation regarding Merlin.

     “Merlin’s probably, ah. . .a little preoccupied,” Elyan says, with obvious glee.

     Arthur at once resents the feeling of being excluded. “Alright, what is it. Spit it out.”

     The sniggering starts up again. Percival takes up Arthur’s armour, fastening the chestplate so tight until it hurts. Merlin knows the exact pressure he likes, after years of doing it, Arthur thinks with a wince as he rotates his shoulder.

     “Merlin’s, erm—” Elyan begins.

     “Merlin’s probably not here because he’s gallivanting about in the woods with his new lover,” Gwaine says, with all his usual subtlety of a wild boar in a glass house.

     The knights are clearly expecting some sort of reaction from him, their eyes trained expectantly on his face, but perhaps aren’t expecting Arthur’s deflated, eloquent reply of: “What?”

     “Yeah,” Percival says, clapping Arthur’s shoulder. “I hear he’s besotted. Some maid from the lower town, is what I reckon.”

     “No,” Gwaine disagrees. “I heard it was a bloke, one of the younger knights.”

     “Pretty sure it’s the maid,” Elyan weighs in. “Gwen’s a reliable source of intel.”

     “Since when does Gwen tell you anything?” Gwaine says.

     “She tells me things,” Elyan retorts. “Court gossip. Important things.”

     Arthur’s not listening. The knights’ banter fades out into a shallow din as he focuses on his arm cuff, fastening it again and again.

     Merlin’s courting someone. Merlin’s running around in the woods with some woman—or some man—who he’s fallen head over heels for, in typical Merlin fashion, and he hadn’t told Arthur anything about it. And he’s not here. The swell of nausea, now familiar, returns, twisting in his stomach.

     “Don’t we have better things to do than gossip like kitchen maids over Merlin’s love life?” Leon says from behind Arthur as he sharpens his sword, ever the voice of reason. “It’s useless to prattle on about it if he’s not even here to defend himself.”

     This shuts the knights up quickly, although they’re clearly still trying to figure out Arthur’s reaction, which hadn’t been the exasperated rage they’d apparently been expecting.

     “You look like you’ve seen a ghost, Arthur,” Gwaine says, sounding concerned for the first time.

     “I’m fine,” Arthur says, fastening his arm cuff for a sixth time. “Just not feeling well.”

     “I can lead training today if you need to rest, sire,” Leon says, standing up at once.

     “No, no,” Arthur says quickly, coming back to himself a bit. “Let’s go. Inform the younger knights to convene on the second field.”

     “And figure out which one’s ravishing Merlin away from his duties,” Gwaine says under his breath, which leads to a round of guffaws from Percival and Elyan.

     “Enough,” Arthur snaps, the volume and intensity of the command startling all of them, including himself. “I will speak to Merlin about his expected duties, is that understood?”

     “Yes, sire,” the knights say as one, respectful but clearly taken aback by his mood.

     Arthur trains, but his head isn’t in it. His poor performance only elevates his bad mood, so by the time he’s back in his chambers, he’s stewing in a low, dark cloud of anger and bitterness, a kettle sure to explode.

     Which, of course, is set to boil when Merlin walks in the door carrying his fresh laundry.

     “Evening, sire,” Merlin says, cheerful and out of breath, as if there’s nothing at all amiss.

     Arthur says nothing, just stares blackly at him as Merlin starts to hang up Arthur’s newly pressed shirts.

     “Where were you,” he says, in a quiet, dangerous voice.

     “Where was I. . .when?” Merlin says, clearly stalling, not meeting Arthur’s eyes.

     “Oh, I don’t know—for training, which takes place at the same place, same time every bloody day!”

     Merlin turns to face him, his eyebrows creased in surprise at Arthur’s tone. “Is something the matter, my lord?”

     “Yes, something is the matter,” Arthur snaps. “My servant can’t even show up for his basic, expected duties.”

     Merlin swallows, dropping his gaze. “I’m sorry, sire. It won’t happen again.”

     “Ensure that it doesn’t,” Arthur says through gritted teeth, and he’s dying to ask. Dying to ask who he’s seeing, where he’s been.

     Space fills up between them, caverning out like a small sea. Merlin quietly resumes his work, hanging up more shirts.

     “You didn’t answer my question,” Arthur says, after a few moments of silence.

     “What question?”

     “What was it that was so important that you felt the need to shirk your responsibilities?”

     “Oh, erm,” Merlin says, palming his neck so the neckerchief slips, and that’s when Arthur sees it—a distinct, bruise-like mark on the tendon of his neck.

     For a moment, he sees red.

     In the same moment, he feels a wave of confused panic sweep through him.

     He doesn’t understand. What any of this is.

     What he does say is, “Get out.”

     “Sire?” Merlin says, as though he’s misheard.

     “I said get out.”

     “I haven’t finished—”

     “I can do that,” Arthur says, clenching his jaw against whatever revolt is happening in his body. “You’re dismissed.”

     Merlin stares at him with open confusion and hurt, one of Arthur’s shirts still dangling from his hand.

     “Your Majesty,” Merlin says, which he only ever uses when they’re in court or when there’s something deeply serious afoot. “I don’t...I don’t understand.”

     “I’m tired and don’t feel well,” Arthur says, the lies flowing easily. He’s suddenly, viscerally desperate to be away from Merlin, to banish him from his immediate sight.

     “I can have Gaius send something up—”

     “That will be all, Merlin.”

     The words land between them like something sharp and unwelcome, like marbles dropping on a tile floor.

     Merlin’s jaw works, clearly biting back whatever he wants to say, then he bows stiffly. He drops the shirt on the bed, turns, and leaves, his shoulders rigid.

     The moment the door closes, Arthur sags, dropping his face into his hands. He doesn’t understand a thing of what’s happening to him, why it affects him one way or the other that Merlin’s involved with someone. He’s starting to suspect it goes beyond Merlin ignoring his duties, which he does anyway on a given day, but the potential of this sends Arthur spiraling into even murkier, more terrifying deep waters. He sits for a long time, trying to understand, and hating each new conclusion he comes up with.

     He needs Merlin around. Merlin’s his servant. Merlin’s his friend. He needs Merlin, period. That was never supposed to happen, but Merlin’s taken up some rooted residence in his life that he can’t weed out even if he tried. Or wanted to.

     He must sit there miserably for some time, because the sunlight in the room has bruised to dusk when he hears a quiet rap on the door.

     For a moment, he debates ignoring it, but the knock comes again, more insistent, and he says, “Come in.”

     A sharp, painful zing circuits through him when Merlin walks in the door, his hands behind his back.

     “I thought I told you to leave,” Arthur says, but there’s no more heat to the words. He hears the tired ache in his own voice.

     “Have you eaten, sire?” Merlin says, and the worry in his tone makes Arthur feel slightly spongy inside.

     “I’m not hungry.”

     “Please, Arthur,” Merlin says, dropping formal titles. It makes Arthur’s pulse quicken. “I’m here as your friend, not your servant. I know something’s upsetting you; maybe I can help if you talk to me.”

     “Nothing’s upsetting me,” Arthur says, and Merlin casts a sceptical glance around the room, where the shirts strewn on the bed remain untouched, where the hearth is unlit, where Arthur remains unmoved in his chair.

     “If it’s because I didn’t show up for training, I’m sorry,” Merlin says, and his voice shakes a little. “I wouldn’t have done it if I knew that—if it meant that—”

     “The knights told me you’re courting someone,” Arthur says, and there it is. Festering out in the open. The words escaping him before he can attempt to wrangle them back.

     Merlin’s mouth drops open, his expression clearing in his surprise. “What?”

     Arthur desperately casts around for something to fiddle with, settling on a gold coin that he rolls between his fingers.

     “The knights told me you missed training because you’re courting someone,” Arthur repeats, with what he thinks is impressive calm.

     “Oh, God,” Merlin says, running a hand through his hair, leaving it disheveled. “I—”

     “You could’ve told me,” Arthur says quietly, focused on the gold coin. In his peripheral vision, he sees Merlin’s hands drop by his sides.

     “I know,” Merlin says, and Arthur feels some sick swell of emotion in him to hear the rumours confirmed. “But Arthur, I—it’s not like it’s...serious. Sir Baudwin expressed interest in me, and I didn’t think. . .I mean, there was no hope for. . .”

     The words trail off into silence, clearly offering some kind of suggestion that Arthur can’t understand.

     “This is a mess,” Merlin mutters, more to himself than Arthur. “I should’ve told you, I mean—Arthur, you know that you’re—you mean more to me than—”

     Arthur’s gaze snaps up, the shock of the words ringing through him like an electric current, but Merlin interrupts himself at once, swallowing hard.

     “I am your servant,” Merlin says, more slowly, choosing his words with care. “You are my king. I should’ve told you, and I shouldn’t have ignored my responsibilities. I’m willing to accept whatever punishment you see fit.”

     Arthur shakes his head, still tangled up in whatever Merlin had been about to say. Something has been violently shaken loose inside him, like a rockfall after an earthquake. “I’m not going to punish you, Merlin. It’s already forgotten.”

     Merlin gazes at him uncertainly.

     “My courtship, with Baudwin,” he eventually says. “It’s just some fun, and I never—I mean, people don’t really express interest in me, do they? So I figured I might as well give it a go, and I—I didn’t think you’d mind.”

     “I don’t,” Arthur says quickly. “I don’t mind.”

     “Oh,” Merlin says. “Good. Okay. That’s what I—I just wanted to make sure.”

     A brief silence ensues. Arthur takes a breath.

     “So,” Arthur says. “What you said, about—about not being interested in men. That was a lie.”

     “I didn’t lie,” Merlin points out. “I just, er—skirted the truth. But yeah, I. . .I suppose I do. Fancy men, that is.”

     When Arthur looks at him, Merlin’s looking down, his expression shuttered, the tips of his ears dark even in the dim light. Perhaps expecting Arthur’s rebuttal.

     “It’s okay, Merlin,” Arthur says. “I don’t care about that sort of thing.”

     “I didn’t think you would,” Merlin says quickly. “I just—I don’t know.”

     It’s a nothing-moment; Arthur’s just looking at Merlin when it happens, the realisation like a sword through his ribs. The weeks of staring after Merlin, thinking about him, his gaze lingering longer than it should on Merlin’s features, his reactions to Merlin’s interest in other people. The epiphany had evaded him before, because Arthur’s far more a coward than he thought, but he doesn’t feel any fear looking at Merlin in front of him. Only a curious fondness, the same as usual, amplified into a clearer understanding of what it means. What it all means.

     Arthur slowly exhales, his head thrumming. In the absent space of the fear, the anger, the envy, new emotions are curling up within him, given room to grow.

     Oh, he thinks, the blood in his face throbbing.

     “I should go,” Merlin says, “I’ve kept you long enough.”

     Wait, Arthur wants to say. Stay. But he doesn’t, just bids Merlin a quiet good night and watches him go.

     Arthur knows Merlin; knows that despite his open, easy smiles and his teasing that he’s a private man, always cast in some odd shadow of secrecy that to this day Arthur hasn’t decrypted. The aftermath of the confession of his personal desires would be eating him alive. He doesn’t know when he came to know Merlin this way, like an extra limb that he didn’t know he had, but it frightens him as much as it exhilarates.

     He paces for some time. He thinks about the mark on Merlin’s neck, thinks of Sir Baudwin sucking it into his skin—Sir Baudwin, a handsome, nice enough knight, but surely not good enough for Merlin. Now that Arthur thinks of it, he suspects no one is good enough for Merlin, but he’s an unforgiving juror. Had Merlin kissed Baudwin back? Surely he had—they’re courting, after all.

     Would Merlin kiss him back?

     And there it is, the small raindrop that precedes the floodwater that breaks open all the dams Arthur’s spent weeks, maybe years, poorly constructing. A deep ache seeps into his chest, and he clenches his hand tight against the sensation. He’d thought about Merlin kissing men these past few weeks, but only as conjecture—he’d never imagined himself as the other party, and now that he has. . .

     He takes a deep breath through his nose. This isn’t right. He rehearses the same reasons why it’s not right: Merlin is a servant. Merlin is his friend. Merlin is Merlin.

     Merlin is what he wants, but never dared allow himself to. And Merlin is the one person, the one thing in perhaps all of Camelot that Arthur simply cannot have.

     For a multitude of reasons—their class statuses, for one. Their working relationship. Their both being men. Arthur is the king, Merlin a manservant, and while it wouldn’t be the first time a king had taken a manservant to bed, and while he would hardly earn the scorn of the court for it, he can’t picture this dynamic with Merlin. Not the bedding part—that, unfortunately, is all too clear an image. But treating Merlin as a consort? Nothing more?

     Arthur’s getting far too ahead of himself. Who’s to say Merlin wants to partake in any of this? Merlin is courting someone else; someone he’s professed his interest in. Merlin can’t want Arthur; surely Arthur would have noticed by now if he did.

     This is all mad, but mostly, it’s inconvenient, and Arthur dislikes inconveniences. He’s spent most of his life being convenienced, and the fact that it’s Merlin doing the inconveniencing, consciously or not, is doubly annoying.

     Which is why Arthur spends the next day avoiding Merlin. He’s out of bed and out of his chambers by the time Merlin delivers breakfast, and he ducks Merlin when he sees him a few minutes later in the alcove, clearly searching for Arthur.

     This is childish and stupid, Arthur thinks as Merlin unwittingly passes him by, yet another few minutes later.

     Arthur crosses paths with Sir Baudwin shortly after, on his way to what Arthur assumes is Gaius’ chambers.

     “G’day, my lord,” Baudwin says cheerfully as he passes.

     “Is it,” Arthur says coldly, stalking past him.

     Baudwin stares in his wake, an audible question mark.

     When Merlin finally does find him, Arthur’s skulking about in the council room. And of course, being Merlin, he approaches him about it with his usual subtle tact.

     “You’ve been avoiding me,” Merlin accuses as the large wooden doors slam shut behind him with a boom.

     “I’m not avoiding you,” Arthur snaps, backtracking in the few steps he’d taken to flee the room. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

     Merlin waves his hands around, his eyebrows raised. “You mean to tell me you miraculously got out of bed—which you never do on your own—dressed yourself, then left the room all by the time I got there?”

     “I do have some skills of my own, you know, Merlin,” Arthur says coolly.

     “Yes,” Merlin shouts. “Acting like an avoidant. . .prat, being one of them.”

     “Don’t make me put you in the stocks,” Arthur says, just to be a prat, and Merlin scowls.

     “Oh, as if you would.”

     “You don’t think I will?”

     Merlin throws his hands up again. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you, but I didn’t do anything wrong.”

     Arthur narrows his eyes, feigning as though he’s mentally scanning an old archive. “That’s debatable.”

     “And what’s more, you’re being rude to Baudwin.”

     Arthur scoffs. “I’ve done no such thing.”

     “I just ran into him, and he told me you were cold to him when he said hello this morning. He also hasn’t done anything wrong, so could you please explain why you’re doing this?”

     “I had no idea Baudwin was so sensitive,” Arthur snipes. “I’ll be more considerate in the future.”

     “Arthur,” Merlin says, a vein in his forehead starting to pulse. Arthur thinks, rather unfairly, that Merlin is even more appealing when he’s angry, and all of his thoughts from the previous night that he’d been succeeding in repressing flood back to him in a dizzying rush.

     “I don’t like that your time with Baudwin is distracting from your duties,” Arthur says with a nonchalant shrug, and thinks that it’s not quite a lie but also not quite fair to Merlin. “That’s all.”

     Merlin slowly exhales, smoothing his hands out in a placating manner. “I told you yesterday was a one-time occurrence, and I’m sorry. It won’t happen again. Please don’t take it out on Baudwin.”

     Arthur notes, miserably, that Merlin’s pretty protective of Baudwin, who Arthur still thinks is a drip.

     “You know,” Merlin says in a low voice, “that I take my duty to you more seriously than anything else. You do know that.”

     Arthur does. It’s part of what makes this whole thing so bloody difficult.

     Duty, he thinks. That’s what this is, and all it will ever be, and he would do well to remind himself of that.

     “Yes,” Arthur says. “You’re a loyal servant, Merlin.”

     Merlin blinks, then narrows his eyes, as if searching for sarcasm or malice. Then he sighs, his shoulders sinking.

     “Can you just. . .stop,” Merlin says. “Avoiding me. Please. I hate it.”

     Arthur stares at him in surprise.

     “I’ll be in your chambers if you need anything else,” Merlin says, and turns to go. Arthur stares after the shape of him, hating himself a little more.

     Arthur can’t resist sharing his findings with the knights later before training, mostly so they’ll validate his resentment toward Baudwin.

     “I think Sir Baudwin is a fine chap,” Percival is the first to say. “If Merlin likes him, and they’re having a good time, then what’s the issue?”

     “Has Sir Baudwin done something to elicit your dislike, sire?” Leon asks.

     “I do like him,” Arthur says, teeth gritted, feeling betrayed by his so-called brothers-in-arms. “I mean, he’s fine. But if any of the knights is going to court Merlin, it should be. . .”

     The knights stare at him as he trails off, clearly expecting a conclusion to that proposal.

     “Should be. . .?” Elyan prompts.

     “I don’t know,” Arthur says with a huff, yanking his sword from the scabbard. “Someone older and wiser. Not Baudwin.”

     “I’d do it,” Gwaine volunteers, which earns laughter from the knights and a dark scowl from Arthur.

     “Who said anything about you being wise?” Percival says, cuffing him on the back of the head.

     “Wiser than you, to be certain,” Gwaine retorts.

     Merlin bursts into the room then, all of Arthur’s armour clattering on various parts of his body. “Sorry I’m late.”

     “Are you ever not,” Arthur says dryly, secretly relieved that Percival won’t be putting him in armour today. And maybe a little happy to see Merlin.

     Merlin sets all of the armour down with a louder clang, clearly oblivious to being the subject of recent conversation.

     “Say, is it just me, or are you walking funny, Merlin?” Gwaine asks, which draws raucous laughter from the knights, even pulling an impish smile from Leon. Arthur clenches his fist around the hilt of his sword until his knuckles turn white.

     Merlin flushes to his roots and glowers at Gwaine, who just waggles his eyebrows back. Inexplicably, Merlin darts a look to Arthur before unscrambling the pieces of armour in stubborn silence.

     “Ah, leave the poor lad alone,” Leon says, smiling sympathetically at Merlin. “He doesn’t deserve such cruelty. Isn’t that right, Merlin?”

     “That’s right,” Gwaine says, with a shark-like grin. “We’ll be far crueler to Baudwin.”

     “Oh, don’t,” Merlin protests.

     “How’s this for cruel,” Arthur suggests, and every head in the room swivels to him. He switches to his kindest tone, locking eyes with Merlin. “How about, ‘Sir Baudwin, if you hurt Merlin, the Knights of the Round Table will ensure you never walk again’?”

     Merlin’s mouth falls open. A brief silence ensues.

     “I’m in,” Gwaine says with a shrug.

     “Me too.” Percival cracks his knuckles.

     Elyan and Leon nod, stepping forward as though offering themselves for battle.

     “Oh,” Merlin says weakly, “you all don’t need to do that.”

     “’Course we do,” Percival says. “You’re our mate.”

     “Do you force all your mates to do all the cooking and cleaning?” Merlin says, which earns a round of laughter, and the normal banter resumes. However, Merlin corners Arthur as soon as the other four knights leave the armoury.

     “Did you mean what you said?” Merlin says, his eyes wide. “About threatening Baudwin?”

     “That and more,” Arthur says evenly, and he does mean it. “He’d better not hurt you.”

     “He won’t!” Merlin says. “I mean, I don’t know, maybe he will. But, er. . .thanks, I guess?” A wondering look crosses his face, and he smiles at Arthur, the tiniest bit. Arthur’s heart flips like a fish out of water. “Never knew you cared.”

     This stings, and Arthur pretends like it doesn’t.

     “We all do,” he opts for, and watches the tiny fall in Merlin’s expression. “Help me with my chainmail, would you?”

     Merlin bursts into his chambers two hours later.

     “Knock?” Arthur suggests, halfway out of his shirt, although it’s nothing Merlin hasn’t seen before.

     Merlin groans and presses his back against the door, tipping his head back. Arthur visually traces the long line of his throat, usually hidden by hideous neckerchieves, then tears his gaze away.

     “Can I help you?” Arthur says, sarcastic, then finishes pulling off his shirt.

     “It’s Baudwin and Sir Rhys,” Merlin says. “They may have, er—they may have gone to the tavern after training and had a few to drink and then—things may have got violent.”

     “Over you,” Arthur assumes, balling his shirt up and tossing it toward Merlin.

     Merlin catches it with an impatient look. “Yes, over me—stop smiling, this isn’t funny!”

     “Oh, it’s very funny, Merlin,” Arthur says, still grinning as he sits on his bed. “They. . .they do realise it’s you they’re fighting over, right?”

     “Hurtful,” Merlin says, “but yes, I share your disbelief.”

     “I would rather have liked to see this fight,” Arthur says, smiling wider at the thought of Rhys and Baudwin drunkenly brawling it out in a tavern. Over Merlin. Hopefully they’d got a few hits in on each other.

     “Arthur,” Merlin moans, pressing his hands to his eyes, one still holding Arthur’s shirt. “Please. You’ve got to talk to one of them. This is ridiculous.”

     “It does seem rather absurd,” Arthur agrees. Absurd to want Merlin, whose tousled hair is putting Arthur’s chest through the works. “You haven’t enchanted them, have you?”

     Merlin peeks out from behind his hands, shifty. “I don’t know anything about magic.”

     “I’m sure,” Arthur mutters.

     “And why would I want that, anyway? This is horrible! I don’t even understand, anyway. I hardly talk to Sir Rhys. I don’t know why he would fancy me.”

     “Nor do I,” Arthur says.

     Merlin glares at him. “Oh, you should be so lucky.”

     I should, Arthur thinks, but what comes out is an inarticulate, “Psh.”

     Merlin mutters something into the crumpled shirt which sounds suspiciously like, “I never had to put up with this in Ealdor.”

     “What do you want me to do about it?” Arthur says.

     “You’re the king, right? You can make them see sense. Or order them to stop. Tell them how awful I am, I don’t know—or that I’m lazy and stupid and reckless.”

     Part of Arthur starts at this—surely Merlin doesn’t truly think he’s those things?—but what his less evolved brain prioritises is to echo one particular part of Merlin’s request: “Them?”

     “Him,” Merlin corrects himself. “Sir Rhys, I mean. I’m still courting Baudwin.”

     “I see,” Arthur says, disappointed.

     “I tried to talk to Gwaine about it, but he just laughed,” Merlin says gloomily. “It’s not as if I want this, you know.”

     Arthur takes pity on him, and crosses the few paces to clap a hand on Merlin’s shoulder. Merlin leans into the touch, and flicks a covert glance at Arthur’s bare torso before he meets Arthur’s eyes. It’s been days since they’ve been this physically close, which had always been an unspoken part of their relationship, and Arthur’s missed the proximity.

     “I’ll see what I can do,” Arthur says, withdrawing his hand.

     Merlin exhales in relief, then licks his lips. Arthur tracks the movement. “Thank you. Just. . .tell Rhys to lay off and that I’m not interested.”

     Gladly, Arthur thinks, looking forward to this particular exchange.

     When Arthur returns to his chambers a few hours later, Merlin’s wearing a nervous hole in the floor with his pacing, and he pounces the moment Arthur walks in.

     “Well?”

     “It went fine,” Arthur says, stripping off one of his gloves with his teeth. “I informed Rhys that he and Baudwin had behaved in a very unknightly manner, and that they’d embarrassed both themselves and the Knights of Camelot by causing such a public scene. I’ve placed them on two weeks’ suspension from their privileges and their duties.”

     “Fine,” Merlin says impatiently. “But what did you say about me?”

     “Oh, you know, that you’re terrible and no one in their right mind would want to pursue you,” Arthur says, which he thinks is laying it on a little thick, but at least he’s covering his tracks.

     “Good,” Merlin says, loudly releasing the breath he’d been holding. “Thank you for doing that.”

     “He should leave you alone now. I made my point rather clear.” Arthur frowns, tugging off his other glove. “It was odd, though. Baudwin seemed to resent my interference. I would have thought he’d be grateful that I set Rhys straight from you.”

     “Oh, he’s just threatened by you,” Merlin says, then makes a small, choked noise, as though he hadn’t meant to say it.

     Arthur slowly meets his eyes. “He what?”

     Some colour is starting to creep into Merlin’s cheeks, and he coughs. “Well, you’re the king. We spend a lot of time together. We’re good friends. And, you know. . .”

     “And?” Arthur prompts, his own heart rate picking up in his ears. He’s intrigued by Merlin’s discomfort, as the flush has reached the tips of Merlin’s ears and he’s starting to shift from foot to foot like he’s standing on hot coals.

     Merlin shrugs, with more nonchalance than Arthur suspects he feels. “And he knows that I used to fancy you.”

     The floor drops out from under Arthur’s feet. “You—what?”

     “It was a long time ago,” Merlin hurries to assure him. “Back when I first came to Camelot.”

     Arthur just stares at him with his jaw unhinged, trying to process this information. Trying to recolour all his moments with Merlin from those early days, to see if he could have possibly known.

     “Don’t worry,” Merlin says, frowning at Arthur’s reaction. “I wised up quickly and saw you were an insufferable and arrogant prat, which took care of things rather nicely.”

     “Oh,” Arthur says hollowly.

     “I didn’t think you’d care much if I told you now,” Merlin says, continuing to stare at him anxiously. “I mean, surely you must’ve suspected?”

     “No,” Arthur says.

     “Oh,” Merlin says.

     A brief, awkward silence falls between them.

     “You fancied me,” Arthur says, just to clarify to himself so he can feel more awful. “But not anymore?”

     “Oh, no.” Merlin firmly shakes his head. “Don’t worry, sire. It’s far in the past.”

     “I’m not worried,” Arthur says, mustering up some lost bravado with a thin-lipped smile. Merlin visibly relaxes a little. “Like you said, it’s in the past.”

     Merlin smiles, crinkling the corners of his eyes. Arthur feels some dismal stab of pain somewhere around his gut. “Indeed, my lord.”

     Arthur just keeps standing there. And staring at Merlin, who clears his throat.

     “Well, I should be going. Gaius needs me to prepare a poultice. Thanks for taking care of Rhys.” He brushes past Arthur, their shoulders bumping. “I’ll see you tomorrow, bright and early?”

     “Yes,” Arthur says, and it’s an effort to get his mouth to shape the word properly.

     At the door, Merlin’s face softens looking at him, as does his voice.

     “Good night, Arthur,” he says, in that gentle tone, then he closes the door behind him.

     Arthur paces. He drinks the honeyed wine in his chest of drawers, which is a long-expired birthday gift, and paces. He thinks for a long time, he frets, and he paces.

     How had he been supposed to—had it been obvious? How obvious?

     He carries on like this for what feels like hours, but before he knows it, his feet are carrying him out of his chambers, down the stairs, through the hall, past the alcove, treading the familiar path to Gaius’ chambers. His heartbeat is a frantic thunderstorm in his ears, making his eyes smart. His head buzzes softly with the wine, not drunk but toeing the line of tipsy, and it comes to his attention, only a stone’s throw away from Gaius’ door, that he has no idea what the hell he’s doing.

     He knocks anyway.

     Gaius answers in his nightclothes, and Arthur must make for some sort of sight, his cheeks flushed and his lips stained with wine and his hair skewed from running his hands through it, because Gaius does a poor job of hiding his gawking.

     “My lord,” Gaius says, blinking. “It’s late. Is something the matter?”

     “No, no,” Arthur says, and his mouth feels cottony and dry. “Can I speak to Merlin?”

     “Of course, sire,” Gaius says, bowing his head in assent before he shuts the door most of the way. Arthur’s blood hums, like the high he feels before a battle or an important hunt. He isn’t sure what he intends to do with the feeling.

     Merlin materialises in the doorway a moment later, looking as taken aback as Gaius had.

     “Arthur,” Merlin says, and Arthur notices he’s also in his nightclothes, the ugly, paper-white strings untied at the neck. “I didn’t—I wasn’t expecting you.”

     “Can we talk?” Arthur says, shifting his gaze over Merlin’s head meaningfully, where he can see a curious Gaius skulking unsurreptitiously over a series of potions.

     Merlin nods and shuts the door behind him, leaving the two of them alone in the hall, softly illuminated by the nearby torches. The flickering amber of the light catches on the sharp hollows of Merlin’s cheeks, his eyes storm-dark.

     “Arthur, what’s this about—”

     “You shouldn’t be courting Baudwin,” Arthur says, which was far from his intended strategy, and was perhaps the worst possible gambit of any imagined strategy, and for a supposed strategist, Arthur is clearly abysmal.

     This, of course, immediately puts Merlin on the defensive; he crosses his arms over his chest, his features tightening incrementally and his body language cooling.

     “You want me to break off my courtship—what, just because you asked?” he says, with what Arthur supposes is the correct amount of incredulity. “Why?”

     “I don’t like him,” Arthur says, and the alcohol makes him brave—brave and sloppy. “He’s not—he’s not a good fit for you.”

     Merlin’s jaw clenches, his eyes flinty. Merlin, Arthur has noticed, runs in stark hots and colds, oscillating between liquid warmth and a terrifying iciness that fascinates Arthur as much as it unnerves him. An open flame and the stilled dead of a winter’s night. Arthur’s breathing goes unsteady, then shakes.

     “Who are you to say what’s right for me?” Merlin begins heatedly. “You think just because you’re the king, you can show up at people’s doors in the middle of the night and tell them what to do with their lives? Is it because I’m a servant? Well, believe it or not, Arthur, you are not the axis of my entire world, no matter what everyone else seems to say, and I’m tired of—”

     “Merlin,” Arthur says, aligning his hands with either side of Merlin’s jaw.

     “What,” Merlin snaps.

     “Shut up,” Arthur says, and kisses him.

     For just a moment, Arthur feels the warm press of Merlin’s mouth against his, heat unfurling then pooling in his chest; Merlin gasps, his head snapping back, disconnecting them, and the heat freezes over at once into cold panic, and Arthur thinks, I’ve ruined everything, oh, God—

     Merlin stares at him in shock for a short moment, his eyes huge and his mouth still parted, and Arthur opens his own to apologise, to take it all back, to blame everything on a wine-induced haze, when he feels Merlin’s wide palm on the nape of his neck, long fingers curled in his hair, and then he’s reeled back in with force, the kiss deeper, harder, more desperate than before.

     Whatever forest fire has been kindling in Arthur these past agonizing weeks tears loose, then consumes him whole.

     It takes another few seconds for Arthur’s brain to catch up with his body’s eager motions, to realise his hands are under the thin (awful) fabric of Merlin’s sleepshirt, mapping his skin, to realise that Merlin’s fingers are nimbly untucking his shirt from the back of his trousers, and even longer to realise that they are very much publicly going at it in a state of half-dress just feet away from an innocent old man.

     “We should stop,” Arthur gasps, biting the well of Merlin’s lower lip as he says it, very much not interested in stopping.

     “Make up your damn mind,” Merlin says in a voice so deep and wrecked that every cell in Arthur’s body starts tingling.

     “You could be executed for this,” Arthur half-says, the words a barely-coherent, mangled mess, as Merlin’s currently doing something completely spectacular with his tongue.

     “Worth it,” Merlin says, and given Arthur has always enjoyed Merlin’s insubordination, he really has no choice after this statement other than to lift Merlin by the thighs, pinning his back to the stone wall. Merlin hisses out a curse between his teeth, tipping his head back against the uneven stone, exposing the scattered, fading marks left by Baudwin on his neck and collarbones, and Arthur acts before he can stop himself against the motion—he lightly sinks his teeth into the first mark then sucks. Merlin chokes out his name on a wild sound, his back arching at the realisation of what’s happening, and Arthur, as he reclaims another love bite on the bridge of Merlin’s shoulder, has to wonder what took them so damn long.

     “I’m going to kill you,” Merlin breathes out, the force of the threat distorted by the groan that quickly follows. Arthur grins against Merlin’s neck, skimming his lips against Merlin’s pulse point, which he can feel sprinting faster than a racehorse. It’s oddly grounding, to know that Merlin is as spun-out about this as he is.

     Merlin impatiently hooks a hand on the hinge of Arthur’s jaw, driving their mouths together again. Arthur almost laughs into it, still riding the giddy high of disbelief, of the desire that’s threatening to shake him right out of his bones.

     “God, is this why you’ve been so insufferable about Baudwin?” Merlin says when they break apart, and Arthur’s too thrown by the sight of him to respond—eyes glazed and unfocused, hair sticking in hundred directions, the colour high in his cheeks visible even in the low firelight.

     “Erm,” Arthur says, and it’s all he can summon at the moment.

     “You could’ve just done this weeks ago and saved us both the trouble,” Merlin says, and slips his hands down the loose, open collar of Arthur’s shirt so he can palm his bare shoulder-blades.

     “We should stop,” Arthur whispers, closing his eyes even as his cheek brushes against Merlin’s. “It’s unfair to Baudwin; adultery against a man of noble blood could put you in the dungeons—”

     “Er,” Merlin says, sounding sheepish for the first time. Arthur raises his eyebrows and unpins Merlin from the wall, allowing him on his feet again. Merlin still clings onto him, his hands on his shoulders. “About that.”

     “What?” Arthur says, suspicious.

     “I may or may not have. . .broken things off with Baudwin earlier,” Merlin says, with a shrug and a small, remorseful curve of his mouth.

     Arthur’s delight at this news is overshadowed almost entirely by his surprise. “You—why?”

     Merlin shrugs again, his hands drifting to Arthur’s hips. “I went to see him after our conversation earlier to end the courtship. He wasn’t happy about it, but I don’t think he was all that surprised.”

     Arthur stares at him, trying to catch up, still very, very much distracted by Merlin’s mouth and only half-digesting his words.

     “I’m not entirely sure I understand,” Arthur says.

     “You can’t be that thick,” Merlin says with a laugh, then assesses Arthur’s expression with growing concern. “Oh God, you are that thick.”

     “I know I made my disapproval of Baudwin fairly clear,” Arthur says, feeling properly guilty, “and I shouldn’t have done, but I genuinely didn’t intend to. . .to come between you, or make you unhappy, or—I’m sorry if I—”

     Arthur is startled to feel Merlin’s hands suddenly on his face, cupping his cheeks, and when Arthur meets his eyes, Merlin is gazing at him with unbearable softness. It hurts to witness, like staring too long into the sun.

     “You idiot,” he says fondly, sadly. “How could you not know? It’s always been you.”

     Arthur’s mouth falls open rather of its own accord, stuck in the shape of the word “always.”

     “Baudwin was just. . .” Merlin shakes his head ruefully. “A distraction because I knew nothing could happen between us. I liked him well enough, but I didn’t—it wasn’t like—” He sighs. “He wasn’t you, which—believe me, I know I’ll pay dearly for all this later on.”

     Sure enough, Arthur starts to grin.

     “Oh, stop, you ass.”

     “So all that you said about—what was it you said? Me being the axis of your world—”

     Merlin shoves at his chest, to which Arthur doesn’t budge. “I truly hate you.”

     “You truly adore me?” Arthur says, beaming so hard it makes his face ache, and Merlin huffs and scowls, his ears reddening, which Arthur’s really come to adore himself.

     “I’m not the one who’s behaved like a complete prattish buffoon these past few weeks,” Merlin says. “I mean, really, Arthur.”

     “You’re the one who’s put out some kind of siren call, so it’s really your fault that I’ve been so mad about you.”

     A wide grin splits Merlin’s face in two, his eyes lighting up. “Mad. Really?”

     “Don’t let it go to your head,” Arthur grumbles, feeling a flustered heat creep up his neck. “You’re still completely insufferable most of the time.”

     “It’s a good thing I am,” Merlin says. “Who else would keep you in line?”

     Arthur drags him into another kiss, and Merlin hums into it before pulling back with a mournful sound.

     “I should go back in,” he says, looking forlornly at Arthur’s mouth. “Gaius is expecting me, and we weren’t exactly quiet.”

     “We’re lucky no guards found us,” Arthur mutters, scanning up and down the hall apprehensively. “We have to be careful.”

     “You do realise you are the king,” Merlin says. “I don’t know why it bears repeating because you never let me forget, but you can really do whatever you want.”

     “True,” Arthur says with a frown. “My chambers, then?”

     Merlin tilts his head and smiles, a warm, coy thing. “You get everything you want when you want it, Arthur. I think you can stand to wait a bit longer.”

     Arthur stares at him open-mouthed, not at all expecting this betrayal.

     “You would defy your king?” he tries. “Your regent—”

     “I have, I am, and I always will,” Merlin says with a cheeky smile. “Good night, Arthur.”

     “Wait,” Arthur groans, circling a hand around Merlin’s wrist. “Merlin, really?”

     “Yes, really,” Merlin says. “I'm tired from the spite-chores you've been inflicting on me all day, and also, you could stand to learn from some temperance and humility.”

     “I’ll show you temperance—” Arthur begins, eyes narrowed, before he’s promptly interrupted by Gaius opening the door and calling into the hallway, anxiously, “Merlin?”

     Arthur drops Merlin’s wrist.

     “Be right there, Gaius,” Merlin says, then gives Arthur a meaningful look.

     “Tomorrow night,” Arthur says in a low voice, feeling a spinning sensation like wings fluttering in his chest.

     “Yes, my lord,” Merlin says, taking care to enunciate the words as he bows his head in deference, and God, Arthur’s really going to kill him.

     He stands in the hallway a long time after the door has shut, his eyes closed and a smile warming his face.