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"What the hell did you think you were doing?" Arthur stormed up to Merlin, face flushed and sweaty, still in full armour with his sword drawn. "Of all the stupid, imbecilic, numb-headed--"

"I was saving your life!" Merlin yelled in his face, half-rising from his perch on Gaius' workbench. "Again! Not that you give a damn, you total lackwit--"

He bit off a curse as his dislocated-and-reset shoulder protested, and Gaius tsked at him to sit still. Merlin ignored the pain and the mothering in favour of glaring at Arthur, who was pacing the length of the room and back, clanking and stinking of iron and sweat and dripping blood from his sword with every step.

"That is not your job, Merlin!" Arthur pointed the scarlet blade at him, eyes brilliant with anger, flaying Merlin's composure to ribbons. "You are my manservant. You pick up my clothes and fetch my bathwater and polish my armour--you do not go around tackling would-be assassins."

"He was aiming a crossbow at your head," Merlin hissed. "Was I supposed to just stand there and watch?"

"Yes!" Arthur whirled mid-pace and pointed at him again. "Or fetch someone with actual fighting skills. Gods, Merlin, the last thing you should be doing is playing the hero. This citadel is crawling with knights and guards--" He stalked into Merlin's space again, chest heaving, poking at him with a gauntleted finger. "Why you? Why does it always end up being you?"

His voice changed with the last few words, becoming almost plaintive, and his stare was intense enough to make the very air shiver between them. Merlin stared back, momentarily speechless; Gaius discreetly murmured something about ice and left the room in a hurry.

"I had to," Merlin said, softer now. He made an aborted movement with his injured arm, and swallowed a gasp of pain. "I--he was--there wasn't time, Arthur. I had to do something quickly."

He didn't mention the way his magic had flared without his consciously willing it, knocking the man's weapon out of his hands before Merlin actually got close enough to tackle him. The tackle had been mistimed; they'd flown over the cloister wall and plummeted into the bailey, and Merlin was probably only alive at all because he'd landed on the assassin instead of the ground. The assassin, of course, hadn't been so lucky; even if the fall hadn't killed him, he was certainly dead when Arthur was finished with him. Merlin tried not to think about how Arthur had looked, the coldly furious rage and deliberate way he'd wielded the sword, and he ignored entirely the unsettling warmth that curled in his stomach at the memory.

Of course, that was before Arthur realised the threat had been to his life, not Merlin's. Once that sank in, Arthur had started inexplicably yelling at him, as if Merlin was ever going to do anything else but protect Arthur to his dying breath.

Arthur looked at him for a long silent moment, then leaned his sword against the bench and worked his gauntlets off. He ran his leather-gloved hand over Merlin's arm and shoulder, a ghosting touch, and something unbearably tender came into his face.

"Merlin," he started, then paused. "If you--if anything ever--"

His hand rested on the side of Merlin's neck, heavy and warm, thumb settling over his jaw. Merlin swayed into the touch, pain and relief and exhaustion combining to make him forget himself. Arthur's thumb grazed the edge of his mouth; heat flared in his loins, and Merlin jerked away. Arthur's hand hovered in empty air for a moment longer, then dropped slowly back to his side.

"Right." Arthur's voice turned harsh. "Well, I suppose I'll go and clean up the mess you've made outside, and see if we can learn anything from the body." He turned on his heel, missing the way Merlin reached out involuntarily and brushed the edge of his surcoat. "Next time, Merlin, try to remember you're a household servant and not a royal guard. My welfare is not dependent upon the likes of you looking out for me."

He reached the door and stopped; hesitated; glanced back one more time at Merlin, eyes burning, and then he was gone. Merlin slumped against the bench and willed his heart to slow down, feeling the ache in his shoulder begin to throb.

"Yes, sire," he said to the empty room, meaning, Not on your bloody life.

* * *

From their very first encounter, he should have known. Brash, arrogant and supremely confident in his power, Arthur was little more than a dressed-up bully when they met. Merlin watched him swaggering through the lower town and mocked him in the safety of his own mind, but--there'd been something there, right from the start.

The arrogance was inborn, and not much could be (or should be, really) done about it. The brashness and bullying was stupid adolescent posturing; Merlin could see that Arthur wasn't truly malicious, and maturity and responsibility would take care of it in time.

The power, though. That was what made Merlin catch his breath and tamp down hard on his magic. The way people just naturally deferred to Arthur, without anyone bringing attention to it, without anyone even seeming to notice--it was obvious, and fitting, and something deep in Merlin's mind went, Oh, I see, and he felt a part of himself click into place.

Later, he was able to put it into words for himself. Arthur was spoiled rotten and a bit of a bully, yes, but it wasn't an innate part of his character. It was simply that he'd never had anyone expect any better of him.

Well.

* * *

The thing was, he hadn't thought it would be like this.

He hadn't expected--Arthur. Arthur, who was bright and annoying and cruel and graceful and stupidly, gloriously courageous. He could be poking and prodding at Merlin like a five year old child one moment, smug and superior and lazy the next, and then he would ruin it all by being loyal, or honourable, or sweet enough to take Merlin's breath away. Arthur was a contradiction in a dozen different ways, always changing, so that no matter how he tried Merlin could never quite manage to guard himself against all the paths Arthur found into his heart.

* * *

"You must take care," his mother said, and Gaius repeated it, and Merlin--look, he wasn't stupid. He knew he had to be careful. The more time he spent in Uther's court, the more he realised just how precarious his situation was and how little it would take to land him on the headsman's block.

He was careful and he was clever, and he blessed his innate clumsiness and innocent face for they rescued him from discovery more times than he could count. No-one except Gaius had any inkling of the secrets Merlin kept, and even Gaius didn't know it all. Magical destiny aside, as far as anyone knew, Merlin was an ordinary young man with the same wants and needs and dreams as any other.

The same wants and needs and dreams as, say, the crown prince of Camelot.

Which was where everything went a little bit … skewiff.

* * *

"Git," Merlin muttered as he escaped from Arthur's latest round of 'let's pelt Merlin with metal objects until he shrieks', which was not true, thank you very much (it was manly yelling at the very least), and did Arthur really have to throw that last tankard so hard? The bruise was going to last for days.

"I heard that!" Arthur's voice floated out into the hall. "I could have you hanged, you know."

"Oh, but it'd be so terribly draining to have to give the order yourself, wouldn't it?" Merlin shouted back through the open door. "Are you sure you don't need someone to cut up your meat and hand-feed you, or perhaps be your human footstool?"

"Merlin," Arthur said, appearing suddenly in the doorway. "If you don't get your pert backside moving right this minute and fetch my breakfast, I'll have one of the guards follow you about with a swordpoint between your shoulders all day. Do I make myself clear?"

"Perfectly clear, you bloody tyrant--" Merlin stopped, mouth open mid-word. "Did you just say my backside was pert?"

"Go!" Arthur roared, and slammed the door in his face.

Merlin all but skipped down the six flights of stairs, smiling so wide his cheeks ached.

"What's gotten into you this morning?" Gwen asked, passing him on his way into the kitchen. "You look like a cat who just found a bucket of fresh cream."

"Nothing," Merlin said, coughing to mask his expression. "Just--it's a beautiful day."

Gwen glanced outside at the freezing sleet pelting down from the grim-dark sky, then gave him a long, considering look. "Right," she said. "Well, as long as you're happy."

She patted him on the shoulder and was gone in a flash of skirts before Merlin could say anything more. He watched her go for a moment, his heart warm with affection. Then a faint, echoing shout of, "Today, Merlin, damn you!" drifted down from Arthur's chamber and he jumped half a foot, scurrying into the kitchen with that same dreamy-fond smile on his lips.

* * *

After Freya, there was a conversation with the Great Dragon that hammered home just how much Merlin would have to sacrifice for the future of Albion.

"Why?" he demanded, scrubbing a hand over his tearstained face. "She didn't deserve that, any of it! She didn't deserve to die!"

"It could never have come to pass, Merlin," the dragon told him.

"I was going to leave with her." Merlin's hands were clenched into fists. "We could have been happy."

Great golden eyes fixed him with a stern yet sorrowful look. "You will never know that kind of happiness, young warlock. Yours is a different path. If you had gone with her, you might have been happy--but your life would have been short, and the future of Albion plunged into darkness."

When the dragon explained what it meant--that to secure Arthur's future and their shared destiny, Merlin could never marry, or father children, or have any semblance of a normal love, a normal life--Merlin's vague hopes burned into bitter ashes in his heart. He avoided Arthur for days afterward, fighting to accept this further burden with some sort of grace.

It was Arthur who drew him out eventually, with his constant prodding and stubborn refusal to let Merlin stew in his own misery for long. That in itself was a problem; when Merlin shook himself out of his fugue and looked around, there was Arthur with his bright hair and crooked smile, beaming delightedly back at him.

That was the start of it, he would remember later. That was the moment it crystallised inside him: the bone-deep truth of the dragon's words.

Of course, Merlin thought, dazed. A normal life would be wonderful, but this--this. To spend his life at Arthur's side, watching and protecting, shaping him into the king that even now Merlin could foresee--this, Arthur, was everything. Of course. It was worth giving up what he'd never even known for the future he could feel trembling just out of reach. And if he sometimes lay awake at night and mourned for what could not be, well: nobody would ever know it but him.

* * *

Unfortunately (or perhaps not), Arthur didn't know any of this.

* * *

Nothing might ever have come of it, if not for the confrontation in the bailey. He was running errands for Gaius--late again, naturally--when he collided with a group of men in passing, causing one of them to stumble.

"Sorry, sorry, sorry!" Merlin said, reaching out to steady the man. "Totally my fault. I wasn't looking--"

"Leave off," the fellow grunted, shoving his hands away. "Clumsy idiot." He peered at Merlin a bit, eyes narrowed. "Aren't you the prince's boy?"

"I'm his servant," Merlin said, guarded. "My name's Merlin."

"Aye, that's him," one of the others said. "Prince's manservant." He spat on the ground near Merlin's feet, an ugly leer on his gnarled face. "Thought Arthur could do better for himself than a skinny runt like you."

"Maybe he doesn't have the stomach for better," the third man threw in with a sly grin. "Maybe Daddy's little boy's too weak to take what a real man would want in his bed."

"Prince Arthur," Merlin said through gritted teeth, "is more of a man than all of you put together, and that has nothing to do with what he might want in his bed."

The men exchanged glances amongst themselves, eyes hardening and hands moving to hover near knife-hilts. Merlin swallowed and squared his shoulders, and spared the grateful thought that at least he was the tallest among them.

"Is there a problem here?"

The three men spun around, revealing Arthur standing behind them with a pleasant smile. His gaze was anything but pleasant; cool and flinty, it was narrowed upon the group like a blade, ignoring Merlin entirely.

"I thought I heard my name mentioned," Arthur continued. "Is there some question I can help you with?"

"Sire--"

"Shut up, Merlin," Arthur said, his gaze never wavering. "I'm sure these fellows are man enough to speak for themselves."

He stood there, unarmed and unarmoured, waiting calmly for a challenge that never came. One by one the men muttered apologies and turned away, none daring even a backward glance as they went. Merlin looked at the prince, at his broad chest and strong arms, standing tall and solid as an oak, and thought he'd never see anything half so magnificent in his life even if he lived a thousand years.

"Are you daft?" he asked conversationally. "Three drunken idiots looking to pick a fight and you stand there staring them down without so much as a meat-knife?"

"I could say the same of you," Arthur said. "Tell me, Merlin, do you go looking for these situations or is it just a talent of yours to end up in them?"

"It's a gift." Merlin fell into step with him as they entered the citadel, walking to Arthur's right and slightly behind, as usual. "What can I say? I'm naturally disposed to find myself among people who think badly of you."

"And to risk your own skin by confronting them," Arthur said, drawing to a halt in the empty cloister.

Merlin half-stumbled into him, not expecting the sudden stop or the words that prompted it. Arthur shouldered him against the wall and trapped him there, hands flat against the stone on either side of his head. Arthur's body was a long line of muscle and heat keeping him in place; Merlin gulped and swallowed and stayed very still indeed.

"I heard what you said to them." Arthur's voice was low, a little velvety, a lot warm. "You didn't have to do that, Merlin."

"I, um." Merlin cast around for a response. "I couldn't just let it go," he said finally. "They were being--disrespectful."

"You could have laughed it off," Arthur pointed out. "Many people would." His eyes were very blue, and very intent.

"Never," Merlin said automatically, then coughed. "I mean--it would've been fine. Nothing was going to happen. I'm not exactly a challenge, am I?" He'd had a few surreptitious spells at the ready just in case, but Arthur didn't, couldn't, know that.

Arthur leaned infinitesimally closer, head tilting as he studied Merlin.

"I think," he said slowly, "you might be the single greatest challenge of a man's life."

He ran one knuckle down the side of Merlin's face, then straightened and strode off down the hall without another word.

It was a very long time before Merlin's knees would hold him up for long enough to follow.

* * *

Merlin didn't realise what was actually going on until it was almost too late to stop it. He'd seen Arthur besotted before, but it had always been a ruse or an enchantment (the disastrous affair with the Lady Vivian sprang to mind) or the quiet awkward manner of his pining for Gwen (back when life was easier and he could look at Arthur without always wanting). This warm, teasing, tempting version of him was wholly new in Merlin's experience, and he had no idea how to deal with it. Self-denial he was used to; denying Arthur was something else altogether, and Merlin wasn't sure he could fight that particular war on two fronts.

Arthur, naturally, was no help at all. Overnight, he became a walking menace to Merlin's peace of mind. He manufactured opportunities to get close; he manoeuvred Merlin up against a wall or into a corner almost daily, leaning in but not touching, just looking at him with such openness Merlin's hands would itch to touch. He tracked Merlin constantly, somehow knowing where he was in the most crowded spaces without seeming to ever look at him. His voice was deeper when they spoke, quieter, causing Merlin to move in to catch what he was saying. He smiled a new, private smile when their eyes met, and Merlin was terrified of how much he wanted to smile back.

"Take care," his mother had said, and Gaius, and he had. Merlin was as careful as anyone in his situation could be. It was just a pity that he'd been careful about entirely the wrong thing.

* * *

There was this:

(Hauberk slithering off Arthur's body, landing on the pile of discarded armour with a metallic thud. Arthur groaning as he straightened, hands already working at the lacings of his gambeson. His hair dark with sweat from the helmet and coif; more sweat showing in patches on his sherte, the linen clinging to his skin. Merlin determinedly fixing his gaze to the floor, gathering up each piece of clothing as it fell, listening to the splash of water against wood and Arthur's grateful sigh.

"Will there be anything else, sire?"

A weighted silence, full of consideration. Another splash, somehow teasing, though he wouldn't tempt himself by looking.

"Not unless you want to scrub my back as well as my clothes." Amused tone, clear invitation beneath.

Oh. Bastard. Wet, naked, grinning--

"Oh, look at the time! I'm late for mucking out your stables. Sorry, sire, you'll have to take your bath all by yourself. Try not to drown in it."

Arthur's laughter chasing him out of the room with flushed cheeks and shaking hands, collapsing against cool stone to try and slow his pounding heart.

A hard afternoon's work with the horses to clear his head, only to have it all undone the minute he saw Arthur crossing the bailey with Leon, hair shining, teeth flashing, eyes cutting in Merlin's direction as if sensing his gaze. Bastard. Bastard. Damn him. Damn both of them, and the magic too.)

* * *

And this:

("I've been thinking about what you said," Arthur told him, lounging in his chair. Merlin finished pouring the wine and stepped back, prudently out of reach.

"About what?"

"Having someone to hand-feed me." A flash of crooked teeth, closing around a ripe strawberry. Arthur chewed, swallowed, tongue swiping his bottom lip to chase the taste. "I think it sounds … interesting."

But that was weeks ago, Merlin wanted to say, and how did Arthur even remember a random thing like that anyway--an insult, even, one of a dozen or more he'd thrown out that day. Before he could form the words, he caught Arthur's eye and froze. Arthur was looking at him, one eyebrow cocked at a what-are-you-waiting-for angle, glancing significantly down at his plate and back to Merlin again.

"Oh, no," Merlin said, shaking his head. "Not a chance. Not unless you can prove to me that you've gravely injured both your arms or you're too weak to hold a spoon."

He took another step back just to be sure, not because he feared Arthur might force him, but because he so very badly wanted to do it. The image was clear in his head: sliding into Arthur's lap, bites of meat and cheese and fruit disappearing between those pretty lips, Arthur's teeth and tongue catching on the tips of Merlin's fingers. He could almost feel the heat and strength of Arthur's thighs, could imagine the way his eyes would be fixed on Merlin from start to finish, until the plate was empty and Merlin's hands licked clean.

Merlin swallowed and thought very hard about Gaius' patient this morning, the one with the painful-looking boil.

"That's rather uncharitable of you, Merlin." Arthur swung one leg over the arm of his chair and sipped his wine. "It was your idea, after all." He gestured at his plate. "Go on. It's what any decent manservant would do."

"Yes! Exactly!" Merlin pointed at him. "And we both know I'm a terrible manservant. So--I'll just be going now. I have--things. To do. Badly. Away from here."

He fled without waiting for a response, but oh, it was a close thing, then and at every meal after.)

* * *

And devastatingly, God damn him, this:

(Late-afternoon sunlight filtering through thin white linen, outlining Arthur's shoulders and torso as he stood at the window, anticipating the banquet to come. The soft, well-worn feel of the sherte under Merlin's hands, warm skin and hard muscle beneath: so accessible, so impossible. Arthur's knowing glance as he suffered himself to be laced into both tunic and doublet; the constant, tantalising knowledge that if Merlin's hands slipped, touched bare skin, slid up and around that strong neck and into the soft blond hair to make a fist and pull … Arthur would simply smile, maybe laugh a little, and allow himself to be led.

It was maddening. So Merlin kept strictly to the business of dressing Arthur quietly and efficiently, and refused to meet his gaze even when he was safely buried in layers of gorgeous cloth. At least there was the knowledge that nobody else got to see him all undone at the end of evenings like this, sprawled half-naked across the sheets, wanton even in sleep. If Arthur had bed partners they were very discreet--nobody ever spent the night, and Merlin spent more time in Arthur's chambers than the maids did.

"I think that will do, Merlin," Arthur said, and really, that particular note of smirking amusement got under his skin like nothing else could. It made him want to push Arthur down on the bed and thoroughly rumple him from head to foot, take all the careful smoothing and brushing-down he'd just done and ruin it entirely. He wanted to turn Arthur's body into a battlefield, and he didn't care who won.

"Merlin," Arthur repeated in a different voice, and Merlin's head snapped up despite himself.

The look on Arthur's face was familiar; it was how he looked on the hunt, when his prey was in sight and his finger rested on the crossbow trigger. Then he grinned, lifted that stupid eyebrow, and held up his arms in a 'well, come on' gesture--and it was all Merlin could do to keep his mouth closed and his eyes blue and not strip the annoying git naked where he stood.

He didn't help Arthur undress for sleep that night. Neither of them mentioned it in the morning.)

* * *

Weeks passed; Arthur continued to be unbearably approachable, and Merlin continued to fail to ignore it. The problem was, he was still Arthur--still brash and demanding and even more jealous of Merlin's time--but his edges were softer. It was as if he were inviting Merlin to come closer, to look longer, to touch, and it was this thought that finally sent Merlin scrambling for some paltry attempt at self-preservation.

"Why are you doing this?" he asked, the next time he found himself caged in between Arthur's body and the wardrobe. "Why now? Why me?"

Arthur actually took a step back. His arms fell away from the wall, and a look of distress crossed his face before he covered it with a smirk.

"Fishing for compliments, Merlin? How unlike you."

"I'm not." Merlin pushed his hands through his hair and exhaled hard. "I'm just--I don't understand."

"Perhaps it's just that I've realised the extent of your finer qualities," Arthur said. "What does it matter?" He stepped back in, just barely grazing Merlin's knee with his leg. "What matters is what we do about it."

And there was the look Merlin had been alternately hoping for and dreading: the heavy-lidded eyes, the slow smile, the tilt of head baring just a hint of neck. Arthur was standing there offering himself, unreservedly; it made Merlin's breath shudder out of his chest, and he had to clench his hands into fists to keep them still.

"I'd … best go see if Gaius needs anything," he said unsteadily. "I'll be back in time to serve you at dinner."

He slid sideways along the wall, edging out of Arthur's reach, and forced himself to walk at a normal pace until he was safely out of the room. He didn't look back; the stunned, hurt silence that followed his words was more than enough to break him.

For Camelot, Merlin repeated to himself. For the future of Albion.

It didn't make the bitterness any easier to bear.

* * *

As the days passed and Merlin stayed out of arm's reach, Arthur's demeanour turned slowly from bewildered to angry to ice-cold, and Merlin's heart shrivelled. He spent ten near-sleepless nights bedeviled with more heated imaginings than anyone should ever have to bear. Almost every night he made the decision to go to Arthur, and deal with whatever consequences would result. Every morning found him hollow-eyed and a bit more broken, his still-intact purity no comfort at all.

One look, one touch, and it could all be undone. His entire body yearned for it; his magic thrummed low and restless at the thought. An entire nation's fate depended on the strength of his will. The conflict could not endure.

That was how things stood ten days later, when Merlin tackled a nameless man pointing a crossbow at Arthur's head. Arthur's gloved hand touched Merlin's lips, and the deep, twisting ache of want that was Merlin's constant companion flared hot and bright in his gut.

He avoided Arthur for the rest of the day. At nightfall, he went to see the dragon.

* * *

The dragon's laughter was smoke-filled and uncomfortably hot and went on for longer than Merlin thought was really called for. He waited impatiently, words of power on the tip of his tongue, until the beast regained its decorum.

"You said--" Merlin began.

"I said, young warlock, that you could never marry or have children, and that your dalliance with the bastet-girl could never have come to pass." Great golden eyes peered down at him. "What reason did I give, when I told you these things?"

"My destiny," Merlin spat. "I'm so sick of hearing about it! It's always 'Camelot' or 'Albion' or 'you and Arthur are bound together' …"

He stopped then, as the phrase took on a whole new meaning. He could only stand and stare at the dragon, mouth opening and closing like a landed fish.

"Don't you think," it said lazily, "you should perhaps do something about that?"

Merlin wasn't listening; he was already running.

* * *

This being Merlin's life, and Arthur being Arthur, the stupid idiot had gone hunting alone, leaving orders that nobody was to follow him unless Uther expressly commanded it (in other words, he was in a right royal sulk). Merlin dallied just long enough to throw a wineskin and some food in a bag, and then he went back into the woods.

Finding Arthur was easy; he just started walking, and let himself be drawn onward by the insistent pulling sensation in his chest. Within the hour he could feel he was getting close, and then he caught a whiff of woodsmoke and heard the soft whicker of a horse nearby.

Arthur was asleep when Merlin reached his camp. He lay wrapped in his cloak in the lee of a large boulder, well hidden but for his shock of moonlight-silvered hair. There was the glint of metal to one side: Arthur's mail and armour lying in an untidy heap on the damp ground. Merlin could almost sense the rust forming on the plate, and his momentary irritation made him a bit less cautious in his approach than he otherwise might have been.

What he was forgetting, of course, was that Arthur (like most well-trained professional warriors) didn't react all that well to being approached in the middle of the night, in the middle of the woods, by someone who was cross with him. Which was how Merlin went from reaching down to shake Arthur's shoulder to winding up flattened against the rock with a blade at his throat and a half-asleep, very annoyed prince on the other end of the knife.

"... do you mind?" Merlin said once he'd managed to calm down enough to breathe. He braced one hand against Arthur's chest and tightened his grip on the wrist pressing into his neck. "I wasn't going to attack you."

Arthur jerked back and his eyes opened wide; apparently he hadn't been expecting Merlin, then.

"What the hell are you doing here?" Arthur asked. He looked away to sheath his knife, and didn't meet Merlin's gaze again.

"Searching for you, obviously." Merlin's heart was beating like a rabbit's, hard and fast. "You shouldn't be out here alone."

"It may have escaped your notice, Merlin, but I am a grown man. I wasn't aware I should consult you on how I spend my evenings," Arthur snapped. "Besides, you've made it perfectly clear that you don't desire my company, so it's no concern of yours where I go--"

"No, you shouldn't--that's not what--" Merlin interrupted. He took a deep breath and forced out what he really wanted to say. "I do."

Arthur's head came up and he stared at Merlin in silence for the longest time; long enough for nervous sweat to spring up on Merlin's brow, his palms, the small of his back.

"You do what?" Arthur's voice was low and suddenly deeper, almost angry.

"I." Merlin swallowed. "Um. Desire your company. Rather a lot, as it happens."

* * *

"I'm going to have you thrashed," Arthur said into his neck. "I'll have the castle guards flay the skin from your back with a filleting knife. A blunt one." He bit down on Merlin's collarbone and then kissed the small hurt, making Merlin squirm. "What the bloody hell's been going on? I thought I'd been pushing myself at you and you were too afraid to say no." He pulled back, his face serious. "It wasn't a pleasant thought to have."

"You weren't. I mean, I didn't want to say no. That was the whole problem. Well, most of it. There's something else, too." Merlin was sort of breathless what with all the recent kissing and being deliciously caught between Arthur's body and a boulder, so talking was hard (and frankly, not the most pressing thing on his agenda just at the minute) but he owed Arthur an explanation. "I'm sorry, I'm not saying this very well."

"Just spit it out," Arthur ordered. He braced his elbows next to Merlin's ears and leaned in to steal another kiss. "It can't sound any worse than your usual blithering."

"Shut up. And stop kissing me, I can't think." Merlin pushed Arthur far enough away to see the satisfied quirk to his mouth, and scowled in response. "Do you want to hear this or not?"

"My apologies. Do go on," Arthur said with a flourish.

Merlin chose to ignore that and paused for a moment, trying to decide the best way to say what he needed to, so that Arthur would understand.

"Okay. There isn't any easy way to say this, so I'll just--look, I'm a sorcerer, all right?"

He braced himself for anything, every reaction he could think of, from outright fear to getting personally acquainted with Arthur's knife again.

Arthur raised a single eloquent eyebrow.

"... and?"

"What do you mean, 'and'?" Merlin demanded. "I'm a warlock! A wizard! A conjurer! A filthy sneaking magic-user living under your very nose! How is this not news to you?"

"Merlin." Arthur traced the line of his jaw and bestowed on him the smug grin that never failed to make Merlin want to throttle him. "I've known about your magic since we went to Ealdor. You might be the greatest sorcerer to ever be born, but you are absolutely terrible at hiding it."

"I am not," Merlin said, affronted. "I'm brilliant at it. Nobody knows except Gaius, and that's only because I stopped time to save his life the day we met."

"You … stopped time. Just like that? Right. That's--amazing, good God." Arthur reached for him, then stepped back and shook his head as if to clear it. "No, wait. We'll come back to that later. What does your magic have to do with us not sharing my extremely comfortable bed in Camelot right now?"

"Well, I can't." Merlin shrugged to cover his flush. "Or, I thought I couldn't. The Great Dragon told me I had to be pure for my magic to work, and I need the magic for when you're king--I'll tell you the details later but trust me, it's pretty amazing." He couldn't help grinning at the utter confusion on Arthur's face. "Basically, I can't share anyone's bed, only apparently I can share yours, which I just found out tonight--and, well, here we are. So we can get on with doing that any time you like." He tilted his head. "How comfortable is it, exactly?"

"I might order the guards to drown you once they've finished with the whipping," Arthur said in a wondering tone. "I swear, Merlin, every time I think you've reached your limit you go and do something even more infuriating than before."

"Hey--!" Merlin began, intending to point out none of this was his fault, and he wasn't the one who stomped off in a snit, thank you very much--but that was as far as he got because in the next instant Arthur slammed into him and he slammed back against the boulder, shocking the breath out of him. Then Arthur was kissing him again and pressing against Merlin like he was trying to melt right into him, and Merlin rather got the feeling the time for explanations was over.

"Wait, the Great Dragon?" Arthur said, pulling away (so maybe not, damn it). "This doesn't make sense. You have to be pure, except with me? Why me? I mean, obviously, of course me, but … why me, specifically, for you?"

Oh, great. He'd been hoping to avoid that question. Merlin sighed and straightened up against the boulder.

"There's a prophecy," he said. "It says we're going to unite all of Albion someday. I'm supposed to help you with that--probably by keeping you alive long enough to do it because you're bloody hopeless without me--and, well." He cleared his throat. "We share the same destiny, apparently."

"A prophecy," Arthur repeated. "There's a prophecy about us?"

"Well, you, technically. I'm just there to stop you from doing anything stupid."

"Because of the two of us, I'm the one more likely to need help in that area. Right." Arthur shook his head. "Whoever wrote that prophecy obviously didn't see you coming."

"You're not upset." Merlin frowned. "Why aren't you upset? I thought you'd be furious."

"At having my entire life planned out for me?" Arthur's smile was only a little bitter. "I'm my father's only heir, Merlin. My life's been planned since I was born. Although," and he leaned in again, nosing along Merlin's cheekbone, "I think I prefer the dragon's version, if we're being honest."

"Why?" Merlin whispered, hands fisted, heart in his throat.

He felt Arthur press a soft kiss against his throat.

"Because it has you in it."

"Oh, for--come here," Merlin groaned, and pulled Arthur's face up to kiss him.

Arthur pushed in closer, pressing Merlin back against the rock, one hand on his jaw and the other heavy on his flank, flexing and releasing with the thrust of tongues. They kissed until Merlin was gasping for air; when he wrenched his mouth away to breathe Arthur simply moved down to his neck, pulling off his neckerchief to get to his collarbones, leaving a trail of small bites soothed with kisses. Merlin tipped his head back and gloried in it, the feel of Arthur's hands and mouth on his skin (finally, finally), and let a smile curve his lips.

"Do you know how lovely you are?" Arthur asked, coming back to his mouth. He bit Merlin's lower lip, then licked the spot again and again until it was tingling. "It's all I can do not to eat you."

Merlin smiled wider and closed his eyes, letting the boulder take his full weight and folding his arms behind his head.

"Don't let me stop you," he murmured, "my lord."

"Am I your lord, Merlin?" Arthur slid one hand into his hair and made a fist, just this side of painful. "Look at me."

Merlin opened his eyes and met Arthur's gaze squarely. "You, and no other," he said. "For all of my life."

He felt Arthur go still, and the whole world seemed to shudder. Somewhere deep inside his mind he could hear the dragon laughing.

Arthur made a desperate noise and scrabbled at Merlin's tunic and jacket, shoving them up one-handed, kissing him harder than before. Merlin shivered even as he raised his arms to help; the stone was chilled, the sun's heat long gone. Arthur dropped the garments haphazardly behind Merlin's body and ran his hands over his bare chest, which more or less solved the problem of being cold. Merlin drew a sharp breath and pushed into Arthur's touch, wanting more.

"Say it again," Arthur ordered, hands on his shoulders, his thumbs resting in the notch between Merlin's collarbones. "Tell me."

"My lord." Merlin took Arthur's left hand and kissed the ring on his forefinger. "Never doubt it, you ass. Now will you please--"

Arthur's kiss interrupted him. Merlin sighed into it and went pliant, letting Arthur move him as he would. Arthur laid him back against the boulder and retraced his path down Merlin's neck, continuing on to the newly bared skin below. It seemed Arthur liked to bite, for soon there were a dozen places on Merlin's chest that were marked by Arthur's mouth. Merlin didn't really mind this (which was to say his pulse was racing and his cock was practically twitching, and frankly it was a miracle he hadn't spent himself already); he had the vague thought that it might be Arthur's innate possessiveness coming out, and then he had to stop thinking about it or else things would be over very quickly.

By this point, Arthur was on his knees, paying lavish attention to Merlin's right hip. He kept returning to the jut of bone there, sucking and scraping his teeth over it. Merlin tried to keep from reacting, but Arthur was right there and there was nothing between his cock and Arthur's mouth except a bit of cloth and air. He sucked in a breath and reached down to loosen his trouser laces.

"Merlin." Arthur's breath was cool against his damp skin. He grinned, teeth pressing against Merlin's belly. "What exactly do you think you're doing?"

"Well, I just thought," Merlin said with a grin that was pure bravado, "you know, while you're down there …"

"I knew I kept you around for a reason," Arthur breathed, and yanked Merlin's trousers down to his ankles.

Merlin had a lot of trouble keeping track of things after that. He somehow managed to get one leg free, and realised he was now entirely naked except for his boots. The utter incongruousness of that faded into insignificance the moment Arthur's mouth closed around his cock, and he spent the next several minutes alternating between gasping for breath and making tiny pleading noises through his teeth, mostly so he wouldn't let loose with the deep-throated yells that were trapped in his throat. He didn't know how much experience Arthur had in such matters, but if the way he was all but devouring Merlin's cock was any indication, he was as talented in this as he was in all other physical pursuits. It wasn't only the sucking; it was the licking, and the swirling, and the occasional swallowing (which was so amazingly good it quite literally stopped Merlin's heart the first time Arthur did it). Then Arthur moved further down and began to suck on his balls, and Merlin couldn't suppress his cry of pleasure.

"Oh, really?" Arthur pulled back and wiped his chin, panting hard. He smiled at Merlin with a wicked glint in his eyes. "You like that? All right then--"

He took Merlin's foot and rested it on his shoulder, and planted one hand on Merlin's chest. Then Arthur bent his head again and began to lick and kiss and suck the soft skin behind Merlin's balls, and Merlin went a little bit mad.

He remembered later--much later--letting loose with the yells he'd been holding back before (along with an awful lot of yes please oh right there if you stop I'll kill you). He also remembered clutching a fistful of golden hair and pulling Arthur closer, pushing into it, pulling his leg up to his chest and holding it there while he threw his head back against the rock and moaned. In the moment, however, all he could do was hold on and gasp for breath and feel his whole body ringing like a bell.

His knees gave out at the very end, with Arthur's mouth tight around his cock and his fingers pressing hard against the heart of him. Merlin slid to the ground while he was still blind with the rushing heat of it, and he toppled forward, knocking Arthur flat. They wound up with Merlin draped over Arthur like a blanket (a naked, limp, very satisfied blanket), straddling Arthur's hips with his face tucked neatly into the space between shoulder and neck. Merlin shivered with aftershocks, pressing mindless kisses to whatever part of Arthur he could reach, and made a pleased sound when Arthur groaned and thrust up against him.

"Merlin," Arthur panted. "Merlin, you have to move, I need to get these clothes off--" But he had both hands on Merlin's arse and he wasn't letting go.

Merlin pushed down on Arthur's next thrust and revelled in the growl he got in return; he did it again, and again, and soon Arthur's hands were like a vise on his hips, directing his every move. The burn of cloth against his skin was worth it, to feel Arthur's control shatter, to see him come apart with Merlin's name on his lips, and to have Arthur's arms close tight around him after.

Eventually, Arthur stirred and heaved a sigh. "These trousers are disgusting."

"Don't blame me," Merlin said. "You were the one who wouldn't stop to take them off." He poked Arthur's shoulder. "I'm the one who should complain; I'm going to have to clean them. And your sodding armour, which I note you've left out to gather rust again--"

"Twelve and a half minutes," Arthur interrupted.

"What?"

"That's how long it took for you to go back to babbling your usual nonsense. We'll have to work on that."

Merlin pushed up on his elbows to see Arthur grinning at him. Arthur was thoroughly dishevelled: face flushed, mouth red, lazy-eyed, his hair resembling a haystack thanks to Merlin's desperate clutching. This was, Merlin admitted to himself, possibly the best moment of his life to date.

"Right," he said dazedly. "Okay. What?"

Arthur grinned wider. "Never mind." He pulled Merlin back down onto his chest and propped his chin on Merlin's head, seemingly content to stay put despite his alleged discomfort.

"Did I say thank you, by the way?" Arthur said a while later.

"What for?"

"Stopping the assassin." Arthur sounded grudgingly admiring. "You did save my life, after all."

"Again," Merlin pointed out.

"Yes, again." He could tell Arthur was rolling his eyes. "Although if it happens again, I would take it as a personal favour if you'd avoid falling headfirst over a balcony. I prefer you undamaged, if you please."

Merlin could almost believe Arthur was being flippant, except for the way he was wrapped in a hold so tight it was almost hard to breathe. Then Arthur rolled them over, putting Merlin's back against the uncomfortable ground, but also looming protectively in a manner that made Merlin's spine feel like it was melting.

"I'm not going to stop looking out for you," he said as firmly as he could. "It's my job."

"Yes, thank you, I believe the terms 'prophecy' and 'destiny' have covered that pretty well." Arthur's expression went from crown prince of Camelot to worried about my--whatever they were now, Merlin wasn't sure. "Just stop taking stupid risks, all right? I don't want you getting hurt for my sake. I couldn't stand that."

"When you stop taking stupid risks, I'll stop taking them with you," Merlin said. "I'm never going to stand by and watch, Arthur. You should know that by now."

Arthur stared down at him, his thumbs tracing lightly over Merlin's cheekbones. "Fair enough," he said after a moment. "I suppose you'll just have to stay close so I can keep an eye on you."

"Suppose I will."

Merlin smiled, happy and not caring if it showed, and Arthur leaned down and kissed him until he went lightheaded.

"We should go back," Merlin said at last. "It'll be dawn soon." And there was life to be getting on with, and a destiny to await (and oh yes, Arthur's bloody armour to clean).

"Not just yet." Arthur pulled him closer. "Give me a few minutes more."

"I'll give you anything you want, my lord," Merlin said, and kissed him again.

END