These days Merlin finds he has little to smile about.
Anxiety has him in its claws, powerful and unyielding. He worries constantly. He worries for Camelot, for Gwen and Gaius, for the knights, for the people.
He worries for Arthur. More than anything he worries for Arthur. In his mind’s eye he sees Arthur mortally wounded, lying prone on the ground, Mordred a shadowy presence above him. It sickens him, this vision, and he feels the course of destiny flowing towards it, unstoppable and unforgiving. For all his powers, he feels powerless, like a raft without oars, floating into the heart of a great sea storm.
All around him life continues as normal. Nobles visit and depart, Gaius tends to the sick and injured, Camelot flourishes, and Arthur holds court and makes speeches and trains his knights and all the while Merlin grows lonelier as the weight of prophecy and secrecy bear down upon him as the sky upon Atlas.
Arthur notices, of course. It is late one night; Arthur is awake, reading reports from the borderlands and frowning at the news of Morgana’s latest casualties. Merlin waits on him, refilling his goblet with diluted wine and stoking the fire. Every so often Arthur will ask him something and Merlin will respond, but he does not offer anything more than that: he is far too tired for chatter.
“All right,” Arthur says at last. “What’s wrong? Out with it.” He’s turned his blue gaze to Merlin, who’s been standing with his back to the fire while he waits for Arthur to go to bed.
He startles at Arthur’s question. “Nothing, my lord,” he says.
Arthur quirks an eyebrow. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but you’re being far too quiet. Something’s on your mind or you’d be talking my ear off.”
Merlin shrugs. “If you must know, I’m tired,” he says matter-of-factly.
But Arthur is unconvinced. “Come to think of it,” he continues, ignoring Merlin. “You’ve been acting strangely for weeks now. You seem…” Here Arthur pauses, almost as if he’s embarrassed. “You seem unhappy.”
Had Merlin the energy, he would deny this observation and brush Arthur’s concern away with some half-witted retort. But he doesn’t.
“If there’s something troubling you, you know you can tell me.”
Arthur’s words are heartfelt and kind, but Merlin almost wants to laugh at the absurdity of it. Tell Arthur of his own death? Of the secret Merlin has been keeping from him for years and years? Merlin wants to, he really does. And he wants nothing more than to believe that Arthur will understand, that he will remember that Merlin is his most trusted and loyal friend. But he cannot be certain, so he will not tell him. The risks are far too great.
“Thank you, sire,” Merlin says, inclining his head. “Do you require anything else tonight?”
He waits for Arthur’s dismissal, but it doesn’t come. They stare at one another in silence, and Merlin remembers that Arthur is not as obtuse as he once was, that he has learned some measure of perception. He shivers under Arthur’s gaze. Finally Arthur pushes his chair back and stands. He advances on Merlin quietly and with intent.
“Do you imagine that because you are my servant I do not care for you, Merlin?” Arthur asks as he approaches. He stands in front of Merlin, closer, perhaps, than is necessary. His mouth is a frown, his eyes flicker with the glow of the fire making Merlin think of sorcery. “Why do you keep things from me still?”
He’s so close Merlin can smell the lye and leather on his skin. It is intoxicating. “I am not keeping anything from you,” Merlin says.
“Do you not trust me?” Arthur asks, his expression imperious. “Am I not your king?”
“I do. You are.” Merlin swallows.
“Then why,” Arthur’s fingers suddenly close around Merlin’s chin, “will you not tell me what is wrong?”
Merlin can handle Arthur’s arrogance, his brashness, his idiosyncrasies, but when faced with Arthur’s gentleness he is lost. He bites the inside of his cheek and fights the press of moisture in his eyes. He has no answer to give that will satisfy the king, so he is silent.
Arthur’s breath leaves him in a sigh, and then Merlin is in his arms, wrapped in a tight embrace.
Merlin’s squawk of protest catches in his throat; he cannot remember the last time Arthur embraced him, if there ever was such a time. Arthur’s arms are strong around him and his hair tickles Merlin’s nose. He doesn’t have time to return the embrace before Arthur is releasing him and stepping away, his face turning so Merlin cannot see his expression.
“You may go, Merlin,” Arthur says as he returns to the table. “I have no further need of you tonight.”
That night Merlin lies awake. He can’t stop thinking about Arthur’s arms around him, about the way his fingers splayed over Merlin’s shoulder blade. In that one half-second, Merlin had felt something he had not felt in a long, long time:
He thinks about it and thinks about it until his mind starts to wander. He imagines Arthur embracing him for longer, his hands beginning to touch rather than simply hold. He imagines Arthur’s lovely hands roaming Merlin’s body; he imagines Arthur’s lips on his neck, his collar. In his imagination Arthur undresses him with gentle patience, kissing and caressing Merlin’s exposed skin. He leads him to his own bed and presses Merlin into the soft sheets, then he removes his clothing and lies down atop Merlin, a welcome heavy weight that chases away Merlin’s worries.
In this vivid dream, Arthur tells Merlin what to do but he is utterly gentle. He guides Merlin open and presses inside him and assures Merlin that he has nothing to worry about. In his dream Merlin believes him. Arthur thrusts into him and rocks away Merlin’s composure until he’s a pleading, sweaty mess, until all he can think is Arthur Arthur Arthur and his pleasure rips through him like a river in flood. When Arthur commands it he comes like a dam breaking and it feels like a weight has been lifted from him even as the weight of Arthur’s body collapses on top of him again.
In his dream Arthur curls around him and chases away his fears and Merlin breathes easy for the first time in a long while.
Back in his real bed, in the world of the waking, Merlin is sticky and sated, but even as he sleeps his worries return, creasing his brow and turning his dreams to nightmares.
Days pass and Arthur speaks nothing of that night. He doesn’t press Merlin about what ails him and Merlin does his best to act as though everything is normal.
In truth he cannot stop thinking about Arthur. His body has had a taste of something and now it is as though he needs it like water. It should embarrass him but he finds it does not; now that it has been brought to his attention, it seems as obvious as the sun that Merlin should love Arthur in every way possible.
Night is when Merlin feels most afraid. He lies in bed and thinks about Arthur and wonders if the next day will be Arthur’s last.
He finds excuses to stay in Arthur’s chambers. He puts out the fire with sorcery when Arthur isn’t looking, then relights it by hand. Sometimes he will insist on drawing Arthur a bath, or he will fuss with Arthur’s clothes while the king chews his quill instead of writing speeches. If Arthur notices, he doesn’t comment, even when Merlin does nothing more than sit by the fire and pretend to polish his armour for hours at a time.
One such night Arthur rises from his chair at the table and stretches. It is very late, almost midnight, and Merlin has not retired yet. There’s a pile of garments beside him which he has painstakingly mended by hand, a task he would usually perform with sorcery in the safety of his own room.
Arthur pops a grape into his mouth and advances towards Merlin. He’s already dressed in his nightshirt, loose fitting and soft. “What on earth are you still doing here?” he says to Merlin as he comes to stand beside the fire.
Merlin finishes the sock he was darning and lays his needles down. “I had some work to catch up on,” he says. “And this is the warmest room in the castle.” It’s a lie he’s practised in his head many times.
Arthur looks sceptical. “As wonderful as it is to see you working hard for once, I do think you’d serve me best if you weren’t half-dead from exhaustion tomorrow.”
He has a point. A good one, in fact. Merlin shoots him a grin. “No need to worry, sire, I’ll catch up on sleep in the council meeting.”
Arthur rolls his eyes, but his expression quickly turns serious. “Honestly, Merlin, you’ve been spending an awful lot of time in my chambers recently. Don’t think I haven’t noticed.”
A blush wends its way over Merlin’s cheeks and he ducks his head. “Like I said, it’s the warmest room in the castle.”
“No.” The way he says it sends a shiver up Merlin’s spine.
Arthur narrows his eyes at Merlin. “It’s something else.”
“It’s really not.”
Arthur’s snarl is borne more of frustration than anger, but Merlin flinches all the same. “You’re upset about something but you won’t tell me what, yet you linger in my chambers far longer than necessary each night. Tell me, Merlin,” Arthur actually gets down on his knees in front of Merlin and tangles a hand through the hair at the nape of Merlin’s neck, forcing his head back. “What’s wrong? What do you need?”
It’s a startlingly intimate position and Merlin can’t help it. His breath hitches as his heart rate kicks up a notch. He knows Arthur registers Merlin’s reaction for his eyes widen in confusion, then understanding. He loosens his fingers slightly, allowing Merlin to breathe once more.
He stands and takes a step backwards. “Get up,” he says, causing Merlin to flush with shame; he knows rejection when he hears it. He stands and waits for Arthur’s judgement.
For a long time Arthur is silent.
Then, to Merlin’s astonishment, he issues a command:
“Take off your clothes.”
Merlin goes completely still, unsure if his mind is playing tricks on him. He waits to see if Arthur will repeat the command.
“Take your clothes off, Merlin. Don’t make me ask you again.” His tone is just gentle enough to be refused, just kingly enough to be persuasive. Merlin hastens to comply.
Items of clothing hit the floor one by one, beginning with his neckerchief and finishing with his breeches. As soon as he wears nothing except his smalls he feels too vulnerable to continue; he meets Arthur’s eye and waits for his next order.
Arthur takes pity on him. He steps forward and pulls Merlin into his arms; it’s like entering a den where everything is familiar and safe. Merlin sinks into it this time, and Arthur rubs his back and squeezes his neck and says. “It’s all right,” just as the dream Arthur had.
Merlin shudders as he hands control over to Arthur. He lets Arthur guide him to the bed, lets him push him down upon it. When Arthur climbs over him and kisses him for the first time, Merlin moans. “Tell me what to do,” he begs between kisses. “Please, Arthur. I need you to tell me what to do.”
For all his faults, Arthur is a good king, and good kings know how to tell others what to do. For this Merlin is grateful.
Arthur rises to his knees and plants his palms firmly on Merlin’s chest. His first command is an easy one:
“Trust me,” he says. Then he slips his fingers beneath Merlin’s pants and tugs them down, freeing Merlin’s cock from its confines. Merlin gasps as Arthur’s fingers touch him lightly, tracing the line of liquid that seeps from the head. “Spread your legs,” Arthur says, now using his hands to push Merlin apart, to open him up to scrutiny.
Merlin does as he’s told, pulsing with need and desire. Arthur is still wearing his nightshirt and the sleeves tickle Merlin’s balls as Arthur touches him, pulling from his throat cries of pleasure.
At some point Arthur pauses his ministrations and reaches for one of the pillows near Merlin’s head. He pats Merlin’s arse, indicating that he should lift himself up, and then he shoves the pillow underneath Merlin’s lower back.
Then Arthur lays himself over Merlin’s body, pressing himself against Merlin’s skin until Merlin can feel the soft lines of his chest and belly, and the hard length of him against his thigh. Merlin sighs as feelings of comfort wash over him and Arthur kisses him until his lips feel bruised.
Abruptly Arthur lifts himself to his knees again. He lurches towards the nightstand and tugs open the drawer from which he extracts a vial of oil. Merlin does his best to control his breathing as Arthur uncorks it and pours a generous amount over his fingers.
“Relax,” he says, his fingers finding Merlin’s hole. He massages it, teasing open the entrance until he can slip a finger inside. It burns a little but Merlin is expecting it. He surrenders himself to Arthur’s touch and the next time Arthur pushes his finger inside it feels satisfying, even more so when Arthur crooks his finger and seeks out Merlin’s sensitive spot. Merlin arches into Arthur’s touch as he moans with pleasure.
Before long Arthur is pumping him with two fingers, stretching him out until he’s slick and sloppy. Merlin scrabbles at Arthur’s shirt, desperate for purchase. Finally Arthur pulls his fingers free; he slides into position, lifts the hem of his shirt and strokes Merlin’s hair even as he pushes inside. Merlin barely registers Arthur’s grunt of pleasure, for he is too intoxicated by the feeling of their bodies joined together. He sobs when Arthur pulls out, and cries out loudly when Arthur pushes back in.
“Arthur,” he chokes. “Arthur Arthur Arthur.”
The king keeps up a steady rhythm that has Merlin practically keening. He tips back his head and gasps for air as Arthur takes away his cares and fills him with himself.
For his part Arthur is much quieter than Merlin, but his pleasure is evident in the O of his mouth and for a time Merlin watches him with reverence, lifting his hand to trace the curve of Arthur’s jaw.
When the intensity becomes too much, Merlin feels his magic start to simmer. It screams at him to be let free and he fears the tell-tale flash of gold so he clamps his eyes shut as the wave builds to its highest point.
“Look at me,” Arthur commands. “Merlin, look at me.”
But Merlin doesn’t. He keeps his eyes screwed shut and turns his head away and grimaces as he tries to keep his magic from revealing itself. He sobs as pleasure turns to pain, as his climax slips out of his fingers and fades inside himself, as he forces his magic back under control. Even so some of it escapes from his hold and disperses into the room. He sobs with the loss of it, even as Arthur spills inside him, filling him with his seed that slides out of him and down his thighs onto the sheets.
Arthur, misinterpreting Merlin’s grimace, thinks that he has hurt Merlin. He pulls himself free, wincing as he does so, and puts a little distance between them. “I’m sorry,” he says, horror in his voice. “Merlin. Did I⎯?”
Merlin shakes his head and reaches for Arthur. “Not you,” he says into Arthur’s skin. “You were wonderful.”
Bewildered but relieved, Arthur sinks back onto the bed and pulls Merlin into his arms. Merlin shakes and doesn’t pretend that he’s not crying into Arthur’s chest. “Shh,” Arthur says, stroking Merlin’s hair. “I have you.”
Merlin clutches at Arthur, relishing in the comfort he provides and smarting from the realisation that even in the circle of Arthur’s embrace he cannot truly be free.
The following morning Merlin wakes before Arthur. He untwists himself from the sticky sheets and makes his way to the door, pausing only to magic away the vines that had sprouted in the night: evidence of Merlin’s hidden self. He returns to Gaius’ chambers and pretends he had risen early to help Arthur with a speech, though he thinks Gaius knows he never returned home at all.
In the days that follow Arthur treats Merlin no differently than before, but at night he takes care of Merlin’s needs with kindness and patience. Merlin doesn’t understand it himself, but he relishes the sanctity of Arthur’s arms, even if he cannot achieve the release that he craves.
It is always Merlin who wakes early, who steals silently out of Arthur’s chambers, magicking away any evidence of his wayward powers as he goes. Arthur sleeps on soundly, unaware of the crimes being committed in his very own bedroom.
Two weeks pass and little changes, until one night when there’s a hint of spring in the air. The castle smells like jasmine and Merlin feels lighter than he has in weeks. On this evening the sky is painted with colours so bright they hardly look real, and Merlin makes his way to Arthur’s chambers with a thrill in his spine.
Before anything else he tends to Arthur’s needs; he stokes the fire and lays out dinner, turns down the bedsheets and fluffs the pillows. Then he undresses and dresses Arthur for bed and retires to the fireside to wait while Arthur pores over grain records and rainfall predictions.
At last Arthur is finished. He looks up from his manuscripts and meets Merlin’s eye. “You seem in a better mood today,” he observes.
“Winter is almost over,” Merlin says by way of answer, though in truth it is much more than that.
Arthur grins and gestures for Merlin to go to him. He does, easily falling into the circle of Arthur’s arms. On this night Arthur undresses Merlin himself, an act that has Merlin stammering with indignation until Arthur shushes him with a searing kiss. When Merlin is naked they retire to the bed and Arthur covers Merlin’s body with his own, peppering kisses over his bony shoulders. They rock together for a time, sharing gasps, until Merlin loses patience and shoves Arthur’s fingers between them as he spreads his legs.
Arthur chuckles but obliges, though he rebukes Merlin for his impatience. “I’m the one in charge here, am I not?” Arthur says into the shell of Merlin’s ear.
Merlin simply shudders and rocks himself onto Arthur’s fingers, now slick with oil. “Sometimes even kings need a little guidance,” he retorts somewhat breathlessly.
After that it’s just Arthur’s quiet grunts and Merlin’s loud moans and the slippery sound of bodies sliding against one another.
All too soon Merlin’s magic has bubbled to the surface; he clamps it down, biting back a grunt of pain. Arthur notices; he holds Merlin’s face in his hand, preventing him from turning away. “Look at me,” he says even as Merlin shuts his eyes. Arthur asks every night, and every night Merlin refuses. But this time Arthur won’t give in. “Merlin,” he says in that voice he reserves only for the most intimate of moments. “I command you to look at me.” Then his tone softens and he strokes Merlin’s cheek with his thumb. “It’s all right. You don’t need to be afraid. Just look at me.”
Perhaps Arthur’s powers of persuasion are indeed unparalleled, or perhaps Merlin is just tired of hiding. He opens his eyes and in that moment he realises that he loves this man; he loves him with a force as unstoppable as his own destiny.
And there’s love in Arthur’s eyes too, even as Merlin’s eyes flash with bright, bright gold and the world around them erupts into life as Merlin finally gets his release. He shouts with the intensity of it, his hips jerking upwards, his head tipping back as pleasure rips through him and magic flows out of him like rivers from a mountain spring. Above him he feels Arthur shudder, not with fear but with his own climax. He cries Merlin’s name as he comes, pumping Merlin full of himself and collapsing on top of him, utterly spent.
They lie like that for several minutes, Merlin panting, tears flowing from his eyes. Arthur heaves for breath as he softens inside Merlin, their bodies still joined as if they are one.
“I’m sorry.” Merlin chokes on his apology. He’s buzzing with joy but not enough to be unafraid.
But Arthur does not push him away or draw his sword. He lifts his head and regards Merlin with a flushed face. “You really are a sorcerer,” Arthur says.
Merlin nods. He does not understand why Arthur has not yet moved. “I am,” he confirms.
Arthur looks at him for a long moment and Merlin feels more exposed than ever before in his life. “I’m sorry,” he says again.
To his amazement Arthur settles back down onto the bed; he tugs Merlin into his arms as usual. “You should not have kept this from me,” Arthur chides. He strokes Merlin’s hair and tangles their legs together.
“I was afraid,” Merlin tells him, voice hardly more than a whisper. “You have always believed sorcery to be evil.”
“Evil,” Arthur says contemplatively. “There was once a time when I believed that. But there is nothing evil about this, Merlin. How could there be?”
Confused, Merlin pulls back a little. “What?”
Arthur’s smile is both teasing and kind. He gestures to the room around them and Merlin sees their surroundings for the first time. For a moment he thinks he has teleported them to a forest, for there are trees and flowers everywhere, and the ground is a lush carpet of grass. Above their heads butterflies soar while vines wind their way up spindly tree trunks. Only they are not tree trunks but the posts of Arthur’s bed, and the fire is still crackling merrily away behind a wall of ivy. And there’s the table, and the wardrobe, overgrown as if they had been left for many years in the woods.
Merlin has transformed Arthur’s room into a forest glade.
“Oh,” he says, dumbstruck.
“Did you know you could do this?” Arthur asks.
“No,” Merlin says. “This has never… this has never happened before.”
“Not even other times when you’ve… you know.”
Merlin almost laughs at Arthur’s sudden bashfulness. “No. Not like this, anyway.”
They sit up and Merlin settles back into Arthur’s arms at his insistence. Together they watch the forest bloom with life in front of their very eyes. “We are going to have to talk about this,” Arthur says as the last fuchsia unfurls its petals.
“I know,” Merlin says. He turns to Arthur, catches Arthur’s wrist in his hand. “I really am sorry.”
“We are both to blame,” Arthur says and there’s sadness in his eyes.
But Merlin is suddenly filled with a wave of joy. Arthur knows. Arthur knows! He grins; the relief he feels is like shrugging the weight of the world from his shoulders. He can do magic in front of Arthur. He can share everything with his king; he can show himself for who he really is.
“You look manic,” Arthur tells him fondly.