Arthur runs through the corridor, careful not to spill a single drop from the cup. He didn’t even hesitate when Gaius sent him for the water. After the long and dangerous journey to acquire the flower for the cure, he can’t let the whole quest fail just because he wasn’t quick enough to bring Gaius a bit of fresh water for the potion.
He bursts through the door to Gaius’s chambers, quickly handing him the cup and watching Gaius pour the water into the thick concoction containing the ground leaves of Mortaeus flower. He follows Gaius to Merlin’s bedside. Merlin remains unconscious, his skin deathly pale, covered in a sheen of sweat, his breathing labourious. It takes a bit of Gaius’ gentle coaxing to make Merlin swallow the potion.
Merlin’s breathing quiets down. His body relaxes. Except…
“He’s not breathing. Why isn’t he breathing?” Arthur says, rooted to the spot while Gaius leans down to press his ear to Merlin’s chest.
“His heart has stopped,” Gaius says, the same disbelief Arthur feels clear in his voice.
“It can’t be…” Arthur says.
He should have been faster, should have pushed his horse harder, shouldn’t have stopped for anything. Now Merlin is dead because of him. From poison meant for him.
Grief drags him down, sits him on the bed next to Merlin’s lifeless form. He takes Merlin’s hand, still warm and pliant, into his own hands. He wants to apologize, to tell Merlin he’s an idiot for giving his life for him and thank him for all his selflessness in the same breath, but his throat closes and he can do nothing but stare at their joined hands. He feels empty and lost.
“I shouldn’t have let him drink from that goblet,” he manages to force through his tight throat. “I should have been faster.”
“You’re not to blame,” Gaius says, laying a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I should have looked after him better.”
“What did I miss?” Merlin’s voice comes together with his hand moving in Arthur’s hold, pulling attention of the other two men to his very much conscious and breathing self.
“You’re alive!” Arthur cries out, feeling dizzy with shock and relief.
“I’m a ghost come back to haunt you,” Merlin says with a grin.
Any other time, if he were stable and emotionally uncompromised, Arthur would have shot back a witty comeback and proceeded with some traditionally manly display of friendship, but it’s not any other time. Without really thinking, he finds himself moving, pressing his lips to Merlin’s. Their noses bump together. For a second he pulls away, angles his head better, his hand settles on Merlin’s sweat-damp face, and then he moves back for more. Merlin’s surprised intake of breath is followed by a content sigh as he sinks back into the pillow while his hand moves to Arthur’s side. Arthur follows him down, pressing himself as close as their position allows.
“Ahem,” Gaius’ discrete cough wakes up the rational part of Arthur’s brain.
He breaks the kiss, pulling away from Merlin who looks rather dazed and dishevelled, colour returning to his previously deathly pale cheeks.
“I thought you were dead,” Arthur blurts in a hasty attempt to explain his actions.
“I should die more often,” Merlin says, surprising a laugh out of Arthur.
Gaius looks about ready to walk out of the castle and never return, just so he doesn’t have to deal with a situation like this ever again.
“You really don’t have to do all this,” Merlin says, breathing heavier with each climbed stair.
Once it was clear Arthur was absolutely serious about watching over him in the next few days, Merlin managed to convince Gaius he was strong enough to walk to Arthur’s chambers to avoid being carried through the castle like a damsel in distress. Except Arthur is fairly sure that Merlin won’t make it there on his own two feet, not even with the support of Arthur’s arm around him, taking part of his weight.
“You deserve some form of reward for saving the life of a crown prince.”
“Is that the only reason why you want me in your chambers?” Merlin asks and trips over the next stair.
Arthur catches him before he can faceplant on the stairs and pulls him back up, guiding him to lean against the wall.
“What other reason could there be?” Arthur asks in return, faux-innocent.
Merlin laughs, breathless, shaky.
“I might need a minute,” he says, closing his eyes and slumping against the wall even more.
“More like a full night’s sleep,” Arthur says, checking Merlin’s sweat-covered brows for fever, pleased to find that Merlin is merely exhausted, not feverish. “Over my shoulder or bridal carry?”
“What?” Merlin mumbles, blinking at Arthur blearily.
“How do you want me to carry you?” Arthur says.
“There’s no need…” Merlin starts.
“Bridal carry it is,” Arthur interrupts him and hoists him into his arms.
“Put me down,” Merlin insists but he’s as weak as a kitten right now and his struggling is limited to a few half-hearted slaps to Arthur’s shoulder before he wraps his arms around Arthur’s neck and succumbs to his fate of being carried.
With Merlin tucked in the bed, drifting off to sleep almost immediately after his head hits the pillow, Arthur starts feeling his own exhaustion. He hasn’t slept in more than two days and the bed seems incredibly tempting, but he knows he needs to inform his father of his return before he can allow himself the luxury of a full night’s sleep.
He washes his face with the water Merlin brought to his chambers before the feast days ago and, slightly more refreshed, he heads out in search of his father.
Considering the late evening hour, it’s not surprising he finds his father in his private chambers.
“Father,” Arthur says, bowing his head slightly in respect.
He has to tread carefully. He wasn’t allowed to leave the castle after all.
“You disobeyed me,” Uther says in lieu of a greeting. “I should have you thrown into the dungeon.”
“Merlin’s life was at stake. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t do everything in my power to save him,” Arthur says.
“Why do you care so much? The boy is just a servant?”
“He knew what would happen if he drank from that goblet, but he did it anyway. He saved my life,” Arthur says, refusing to back down. “There's more. There was a woman at the mountain. She knew I was there for the flower. I don't think it was Bayard who tried to poison me.”
“Yes, Gaius already informed me of the sorceress’ involvement,” Uther says, his voice cold as ice. “Bayard and his people are being released as we speak.”
Arthur nods, not knowing what to say to not anger his father any more.
“The boy brings chaos anywhere he steps. He’s a terrible influence, not worthy of his position,” Uther says, but before Arthur can do more than draw a breath to defend Merlin, he continues. “But he does seem to be extremely, self-destructively loyal to you.”
He pauses and Arthur holds his breath, aware that now is not a time to speak.
“You can keep him in your employ. But if you do something as reckless again, you will be sent to dungeon and the boy will be punished as well.”
“Yes, father. Thank you,” Arthur says, even when he’d rather say that he would never allow him to lay a finger on Merlin. Merlin is safe for now and that’s all that matters.
The walk from his father’s chambers to his own ones has never seemed so long. His body is heavy with exhaustion. It’s a struggle to keep his eyes open. His sluggish mind views even the hard floor of the cold, draughty corridor as a perfect sleeping place. It’s only the thought of the warmth and comfort of his bed that makes him reach his destination. The bed with Merlin curled under the covers, relaxed and safe and oh so lovely…
‘When did I even start thinking about Merlin this way?’ Arthur wonders, and his exhausted mind, honest and open, can’t pretend and lie. He has been slowly (or maybe not so slowly) falling for Merlin since the day they met.
He takes off his shirt and boots, glad that he chose to accept Gwen’s help in removing his chainmail while Gaius was checking Merlin over. He wouldn’t want to struggle with it now when he’s using all his remaining strength to remain upright.
Careful not to disturb Merlin’s sleep he slips under the covers. For a moment he contemplates shifting closer, pressing himself to Merlin’s back, but even that seems like too much effort for his tired limbs, so he succumbs to sleep.
He’s woken by a loud crash coming from somewhere to his right. He lifts his head from the pillow to look for the source of the ruckus, only to find Merlin leaning on the small cupboard standing next to the bed.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asks.
“Nothing,” Merlin says with a sheepish grin and bends down to pick up the goblet that he must have caused to fall from the cupboard, swaying as he rights himself and leaning on the cupboard again.
“Why are you up?” Arthur grumbles.
“I needed to pee,” Merlin says.
“Need a help with that?” Arthur asks, only half joking.
“No, I’m all done,” Merlin laughs. “Got a bit dizzy on the way back to bed, that’s all.”
“Get in then,” Arthur orders.
“As you wish, Sire,” Merlin says with yet another insolent grin and worms his way back under the covers. “What happens now?” he asks once fully settled.
There’s not a sign of insolence in his tone, only genuine curiosity.
“I’ll go back to sleep,” Arthur says.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” Merlin says.
It’s time for Arthur to choose. He could deny his feelings and his previous actions to keep Merlin safe, or he could embrace them, see where it will all lead. He can be noble or he can be selfish.
He looks at Merlin, at his hair sticking up in all direction, at his cheeks rosy in colour after a healthy dose of sleep. His eyes sparkle with warm familiarity, earnest and hopeful as Merlin waits for Arthur’s response.
Would it really be selfish to embrace his feelings when Merlin wants the same? Would it be noble to reject him when it would only bring them pain?
Merlin averts his eyes, joy slowly seeping out of his expression, replaced by wistfulness, resignation. The ache that settles in Arthur’s stomach at seeing Merlin hurting is what finally decides.
“What would you want to happen?” he asks.
It’s not the right thing to say as the sadness in Merlin’s expression intensifies, makes him pull his blanket tighter to himself, as if he’s trying to shield himself from inevitable rejection.
No words can solve this.
He rolls Merlin, wrapped in his blanket cocoon, onto his back and leans over him. He’s close enough to advertise his intentions but he doesn’t put his weight on Merlin, giving him chance to protest or get away. Neither happens so he leans down for a kiss, starting careful and slow, just lips brushing together, and adding pressure, passion, heat when he meets Merlin’s enthusiastic response.
Arthur pretends to read reports while servants file in with breakfast and buckets of water for the bath. Merlin is standing to the side. Officially he’s overseeing the work, not cleared for the full extend of his duties just yet. In truth, he’s barely keeping himself upright. Arthur almost jumps out of his chair when he sees Merlin’s knees buckle under him, but Merlin steadies himself quickly, using the back of the chair for support.
When the last of the servants leaves, Merlin collapses into the chair, sighing in relief.
“You could have been sitting the whole time,” Arthur says.
“And give the whole castle even more to gossip about? I don’t think so. They already think I warm your bed,” Merlin says, his cheeks reddening when his mind catches up with his mouth.
Arthur doesn’t comment, simply pushes a bowl of broth and a piece of bread in Merlin’s direction.
“You should get in the bath while it’s hot,” Arthur says once Merlin drinks the last dregs of his broth.
“I thought the bath was for you,” Merlin says.
“I’ll go after you,” Arthur says. “Can’t have a dirty bed-warmer now, can I?”
Merlin grumbles something insolent, but stands up and walks towards the bathtub. He hesitates for a moment, but then he shrugs and starts stripping right there in the middle of Arthur’s chambers. Arthur sucks in a breath in surprise, his gaze sliding up the bare expanse of Merlin’s back and jumping down to Merlin’s firm buttocks as his trousers join his shirt on the ground.
He climbs into the tub and sits down with a pleased sigh. He leans against the side of the tub, lets his head fall back, his eyes closed. A picture of complete relaxation. Seductive temptation personified.
Before he can talk himself out of it, Arthur is on the move, retrieving a washcloth and a soap from the small table beside the tub and kneeling behind Merlin who startles when the top of his head comes into contact with Arthur’s chest. He tries to reach for the cloth, but Arthur pulls it out of his reach.
“You shouldn’t overexert yourself,” he says, sounding breathy even to his own ears.
“Is that so?” Merlin says with a smirk. “Go ahead then.”
Arthur takes his precious time moving down Merlin’s body, starting from the neck, washing each of his arms. He moves to Merlin’s torso, shifting deeper underwater with circular strokes. Relaxation makes way to anticipative tension as Arthur’s hand nears the sensitive area of Merlin’s lower belly. Arthur doesn’t let himself look into the water, watches the tiny shifts in Merlin’s expression instead. His own arousal builds, but he doesn’t grant himself any relief, focusing entirely on Merlin. He presses fully against the bathtub and puts his other hand to work too.
“Can I touch you everywhere?” he whispers into Merlin’s ear.
Merlin’s breath hitches and he leans into Arthur’s touch.
“Can I?” Arthur asks again, gently tugging at the beginning of Merlin’s treasure trail.
“Yes, yes, gods!” Merlin gasps, his hips hitching up on instinct.
Arthur slides his hand lower, finds Merlin’s fully hard cock and gives it a few firm strokes. Merlin swears, meeting the movements of Arthur’s hand, eager for release. He grips Arthur’s other forearm, hangs onto it while he tries to control his body’s erratic chase of orgasm
“Will you come for me?” Arthur asks, his strokes tighter, faster.
Merlin’s nails dig painfully into his forearm and water splashes over the edges of the tub, soaking Arthur’s whole front, but he doesn’t care, not when it’s his doing that Merlin is coming undone, not when Merlin moans and trembles through the waves of his orgasm. His grip on Arthur’s forearm eases, but he doesn’t let go entirely, slumping into postorgasmic relaxation. Arthur lets go of Merlin’s softening cock and shoves his hand into his own trousers. He presses his face against Merlin’s neck pumping his cock without finesse, spilling almost embarrassingly fast.
“Ugh, gross,” he grunts when he descends from the orgasmic high and realizes he just soiled the insides of his trousers with come.
“You should join me in the bath then,” Merlin laughs.
Even though he only stood around for a bit, ate his breakfast, bathed and enjoyed an amazing orgasm, Merlin’s energy reserves are already dwindling low. Still, he looks content resting in Arthur’s embrace. For now. Guilt resumes its gnawing of Arthur’s guts.
“I will never be able to be just yours. I will have to let you go,” he whispers eventually, unable to contain the pressure any more. His arm tighten around Merlin’s waist in direct contrast to his words. “I have a duty to…”
“I know,” Merlin interrupts him, silences him with a kiss.
10 years later
Two children run around the training grounds. One girl. One boy. Dark-haired, fair-skinned. With sticks for swords they fight and yell their battle cries.
Arthur watches them with a smile on his face. The future of Camelot flourishing right in front of his eyes.
With the next blow, the boy’s sword flies out of his hand. The girl advances but before she can make him yield, his stick flies back to his hand.
“That’s cheating!” the girl shouts. “Ronald is cheating again!”
Arms wind around Arthur’s waist as he watches Leon and Morgana walk towards the children.
“What a relief that we’re not their parents, am I right?” Merlin says, resting his chin on Arthur’s shoulder.
“Better them than us,” Arthur says, linking their fingers together.
“Getting an heir without moving a finger,” Merlin says. “That’s very like you. Lazy.”
“How about I move you to our bed and have my way with you. Would that make me less lazy?”
“It would be a start,” Merlin says.
He doesn’t wait for Arthur to move and drags him through a portal instead.
And so the high king and his magical consort lead the Albion towards its golden age.