Arthur pressed his lips together tightly and forced his attention back to whichever council member was currently speaking. Unfortunately, from his position at the head of the table, he was the only one who could see Merlin clearly. While normally he would be happy to sit and stare, Merlin was apparently finding this meeting a little long and had long since abandoned his water-refilling duties in favour of making faces and miming hanging himself while Arthur pretended to be paying attention. He caught a wave from the corner of his eye and ignored it as long as he could, finally looking over to see Merlin mouthing at him.
Can I go? Arthur frowned and shook his head. He realised the conversation at the table had quieted, suddenly, and he cleared his throat and raised an eyebrow.
“Is there a problem, my lord? Do you disagree?” Fucking Merlin.
“No, no, Gregory, please continue. Just…stretching my neck.” Gregory looked briefly doubtful, but general obsequiousness and the allure of roadbuilding logistics proved too strong and he picked up where he had left off. Arthur refused to look at Merlin, but he knew he was smirking. He rubbed at his temple and tried to look interested.
An interminable report on winter supplies later, Arthur suggested they stop for the day, and several council members immediately and gratefully took the opportunity to disappear, leaving the door open behind them. He finally allowed himself to glance in Merlin’s direction, who was sitting on the ground, back against the wall and staring into space. He really was quite pretty like that, his long neck exposed and his head back against the stone wall. Casting idly about for something to throw at him, Arthur was distracted by a knock at the open door. Gwen appeared, and he nodded her forward. She approached, eyes down and shoulders straight, the image of the perfect servant. She handed him a note from Morgana and grinned, her face hidden from the handful of councillors left in the room.
“She expects to see you later,” she said.
“Of course she does. We do live in the same building, you know.”
“She plans for your maximum personal inconvenience,” she said cheerfully. “Be grateful I vetoed her original suggestions for delivering the message. Better not knowing,” she added. Arthur rolled his eyes and waved her away.
Halfway down the table, Bryn, a slimy and newly-arrived lord of something or other, had pushed his chair back in preparation for leaving. As Gwen passed him by, she suddenly stiffened, her gait stuttering for a second before smoothly resuming. Arthur frowned, his view obscured by Bryn and the mess of the empty chairs beyond him. He watched Gwen closely as she neared the door, where Merlin was back on his feet, standing ramrod straight and glaring daggers at Bryn. He caught Gwen’s arm as she passed him at the door and whispered something furiously to her. She shook her head tiredly, patted him on the arm, and left.
Arthur felt distinctly that he had missed something, and made a mental note to ask later what had happened. He turned back to Merlin, who he noted wearily was clearly fighting some kind of unhelpful impulse, fidgeting and looking unhappily out the door after Gwen. Arthur had thought more than once about simply writing out a large disclaimer and pinning it to Merlin’s shirt, issuing a blanket apology for his behaviour. He figured it would save everyone time and him the inevitable grief from Merlin for stepping in and preventing him from being flogged, the ungrateful bastard. Fortunately, he seemed to be keeping his mouth shut about whatever it was this time.
A few more of the councillors gathered their things to leave. Chatting animatedly to a bored-looking Johnathan, Bryn was still seated, leaning back in his chair ever so slightly, the front two legs an inch or so off the ground. He laughed obnoxiously, and Johnathan’s smile shifted a few degrees closer to grimace territory. Arthur was busy pretending to read his notes and lamenting his own preference for being the last to leave when a loud crack echoed through the room. He immediately looked at Merlin, who was staring directly at Bryn, a satisfied look on his face and the last trace of gold fading from his eyes.
Arthur froze, barely conscious of the clatter of Bryn’s chair as it tipped improbably back and hit the floor. He only vaguely heard Bryn himself thud to the ground and start ranting and raving. He did hear several other council members hide their laughter in unconvincing fake coughs, but he was entirely and understandably distracted by the horrible suspicion currently developing in his mind that his boyfriend might be a sorcerer. Finally, he glanced at Bryn, who was grumbling about having somehow fallen on his left hand, then back to Merlin. He pushed down the panic attack that was gathering force in his chest.
Eventually, Bryn had dusted himself off and stormed out, leaving the chair where it lay. The remaining members watched him go, enjoyed a good laugh, and left themselves, leaving Arthur and Merlin alone in the council room. Arthur was very still, thinking furiously. For all his father’s efforts, he was not, in the end, especially afraid of magic. He didn’t like it, but in the same abstract kind of way that he disliked languages he didn’t understand, or weapons he couldn’t master. He had even looked the other way once or twice, in court cases where Uther had been absent, or once in the lower town, when an unruly child had tripped her sibling from across the street, pouting as her panicked mother swooped in to berate her.
He was no longer so young as to believe his father an unfailingly wise and benevolent king. In fact, he knew Uther well enough to tell when even he didn’t believe in what he was doing, but ploughed ahead anyway - and it happened much more often than he would like. He knew perfectly well that he didn’t really see evil lurking at every turn, but also knew that he had decided that collateral damage was simply the price that had to be paid in the fight against it. Arthur realised with some foreboding that his lifelong policy of slightly uneasy ambivalence was no longer going to cut it.
Merlin had gathered the remaining goblets onto a tray while Arthur thought, and set it at the other end of the table with a crash. He clicked his fingers in front of Arthur’s face.
“Did you actually fall asleep with your eyes open? It was bound to happen one of these days.” Arthur blinked.
“No,” he said finally, his brain stubbornly refusing to be moved along from thoughts of golden eyes and unexplained whirlwinds and burning stakes.
“Are you alright?” Merlin peered at him, concerned, then grinned. “Do you need me to help you relax?” he said sympathetically, leaning in for a kiss. Arthur shook his head and he stopped, shrugged and went to pick up the tray.
“…Right,” Merlin said doubtfully. “Well, don’t overdo it or you’ll go blind. I have to get these back to the kitchen, but I’ll see you this evening, yes?” He didn’t wait for an answer. Arthur nodded faintly to the empty room, his mind made up.
Right after I pack our getaway bag for when you inevitably get caught, arrested and sentenced to death, he thought grimly. It just had to be Merlin, of all people. Arthur stared morosely into the distance, sighed, and reached for a goblet that was no longer there.
The warning bell clanged through the castle and Arthur took off at a sprint, making it to the end of the corridor before it abruptly stopped. He slowed to a jog, confused, but decided he should really check anyway, mind filling with images of Merlin arrested, Merlin tied to a stake, Merlin -. He made it to the main entrance hall, where he accosted a guard and demanded to know the situation. The guard looked at him like he was mad.
“They’re just testing it, Your Highness.”
“Testing it? They’ve never tested it before.”
“Yeah.” He shrugged. ”Bit of an oversight, if you ask me. They announced it yesterday. Weren’t you told, my lord?” Now that the guard mentioned it, Arthur did remember his father saying something about practice at dinner recently, but he had been so thoroughly distracted by Merlin bending over to pick something up that he’d simply nodded and agreed, completely failing to notice the weary look on Uther’s face as he tracked Arthur’s gaze.
“Right. Well. Carry on.” Arthur turned awkwardly and went back the way he had come, trying to hide his embarrassment. This, he decided, was also Merlin’s fault. If Merlin wasn’t so determined to give him a heart attack before he was thirty by practising magic in Uther’s literal house, he wouldn’t have been so on edge.
Come to think of it, where was Merlin anyway? He should really find him and – well, not give him a bollocking about the magic, not yet, because he hadn’t quite decided how to approach that particular issue, but he figured he would think of something else on the way to checking on him. And, failing that, Merlin was always agreeable to exchanging a few insults and making out behind something old and important.
Having taken several long ways around through the castle, Arthur was a little disgruntled to return to his chambers to see Merlin pottering around them, talking to himself, the door fucking ajar. He stopped for a moment, hoping to hear him say something stupid, or sing to himself, or do something else absurdly endearing Arthur could keep in the little section of his heart marked with Merlin’s name.
He moved to the side and Arthur frowned, trying to figure out what he was doing. He inched closer to the door and peered around for clues. Fortunately, one presented itself immediately, in the form of his sword floating in the air and sharpening itself. Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. Merlin wandered back into his view, now with a very old and illegal-looking book in hand.
“There’s got to be a quicker way to do this,” he muttered to himself. Arthur supposed he should be glad that Merlin wasn’t reciting his evil plans or cursing his bedsheets, but a little subtlety would go a long way, starting with closing the damn door. Merlin waved a hand and the sword obligingly stopped sharpening itself and hung there for him to grab it and set it on the table. He set the book beside it and looked thoughtfully between the two. “It must be one of those.”
He whispered a strange-sounding word a few times, getting gradually louder until, with a pop, the blade of Arthur’s sword was suddenly replaced by a spreading pool of liquid silver. Arthur stared, horrified. “Fuck, fuck, fuck,” Merlin chanted. “Go back, go back.” He said something else and the blade sprang back into shape.
Both breathed a sigh of relief.
“So if it’s not that one, it must be…” He said some more gibberish and the sword rattled slightly on the table. Arthur jumped, then held his breath. Merlin, entirely absorbed in examining the blade again, didn’t look around. “Nope, not that either.” By this point, Arthur was certain that this was not a quicker way. Merlin made a satisfied noise and stood up from where he was bent over the book.
He considered the sword for a moment, then, as if trying to take it by surprise, splayed a hand and whispered something at it. There was a metallic kind of sound. “Ha!” He picked it up, squinted at the blade, and swung it experimentally until it overbalanced and he was forced to catch it before it got lodged in the table. With his magical expertise and catlike reflexes, the sword instead got lodged in Merlin’s other hand. He cursed and dropped the sword with a clang.
Arthur decided enough was enough. He stepped back, made a few fake steps and opened the door loudly. Merlin whirled around, dripping blood.
“What have you done to yourself this time?”
“It’s your sword I was sharpening – don’t even think about saying it – and you’re welcome.” Arthur raised his hands in defence.
“Just… go see Gaius, will you? You’re getting blood everywhere.” Merlin pulled an unattractive face, saluted Arthur mockingly with his still-bleeding hand, and briefly closed his eyes to take a deep, calming breath when this splattered blood all over his face. He turned and walked slowly from the room, bumping into the doorframe on his way.
Arthur stood facing the door for a few seconds. Eyeing the trail of blood on the floor, he realised with a slightly sinking feeling that he had been going about this all wrong. The main obstacle to keeping Merlin alive was not, as he had thought, his father, the law, or any number of faceless assailants with pitchforks and torches. The main danger to Merlin’s life, he thought resignedly, was clearly Merlin himself.
Of the three or so hours since the arrival of Lady Merope, Merlin had spent at least two giving her dirty looks. Even when she wasn’t in the room. He would just frown and start muttering conspicuously as he floated about Arthur’s chambers, straightening and tidying things until the room was in complete disarray.
Trying his best to ignore him, Arthur found himself wondering how Merlin had ever kept a secret in his life if he couldn’t even keep a thought off his face. He looked up suspiciously at the sudden silence, and found Merlin glowering down at the courtyard from the window. Arthur leaned back to look and rolled his eyes as his own window revealed Merope talking to an increasingly bored-looking Morgana on her horse.
“So. What do you think?” Merlin jumped, but recovered quickly.
“Your hair looks stupid today,” he said, barely casting a look in Arthur’s direction. Arthur reached for a discarded piece of parchment, balled it up, and threw it at Merlin, mentally cheering when it bounced off his head. Merlin shot him the finger. “Fine, what do I think of what?”
“I don’t like her,” Merlin said without hesitation.
“There’s a shock. You’ve only spent five minutes helping the woman unpack. You don’t like anybody.”
“Gwen, Morgana, Lancelot, Gaius, my mother,” Merlin started ticking off on his fingers. “You, for a brief moment long after we met and before I seduced you and started spending even more time with you. It’s like the magic is gone,” he added dramatically, moving to drape himself over Arthur’s shoulders. Arthur irritably knocked his head against Merlin’s.
“The novelty of you is wearing off, too, trust me.” Merlin detached himself with a grin and planted a kiss on Arthur’s cheek as he screwed up his face and willed himself not to go pink. “Go on, then. Why don’t you like her?” Merlin thought about it.
“Bad vibes,” he said finally, because he couldn’t say it was because she had some kind of unpleasant enchanted object in her luggage he could feel through the wood of her trunk. Arthur mouthed bad vibes to himself and wondered, a little hysterically, if Merlin had always been this bad a liar and he just hadn’t noticed.
“Vibes,” he said flatly.
“Yes. Something just,” – Merlin shuddered – “You should get rid of her,” he finished firmly.
“But of course, let me just go and throw out a fantastically wealthy distant relative of my dead mother’s house because my servant doesn’t like her.”
“She’s boring, too,” Merlin said helpfully. She was, but Arthur saw no reason to encourage him by agreeing.
“We can’t all have lives as exciting and filled with adventure as yours.” Merlin looked vaguely stressed for a second, then relaxed, rose from the seat he’d taken facing Arthur and shrugged apologetically.
“I would hate to have to say I told you so, is all.”
“You’re a horrible liar, saying I told you so is your favourite pastime.” Merlin opened his mouth and Arthur groaned. “Don’t say it. I’m well aware what your favourite pastime actually is.” Merlin just grinned.
Later, when Merlin had gone off to pick night flowers or something equally implausible before spending the night in his old room, Arthur reluctantly decided that maybe he could ask around about Merope. Apart from the occasional raised eyebrow at how quickly she had risen to a diplomatic post, he was met with mainly boredom and indifference. Deciding to give it up for the night, he headed back to his chambers, incidentally passing her guest room. Light crept out from under the door and Arthur paused, hearing the murmur of voices. He looked up and down the corridor and, seeing no one, figured he could listen for just a quick second without being discovered and labelled some kind of peeping tom.
He hovered by the gap at the hinge, and immediately grimaced as Merope gave a high-pitched, unpleasant laugh. He pressed his ear to the door. Voices, definitely voices. As his ears adjusted to the low volume, he did a very small, discreet double take when he realised that one of them was Merlin’s. What the hell was Merlin doing in a guest’s room? An answer immediately floated to the top of his mind, but he pushed it away guiltily. Merlin wouldn’t – well, they hadn’t talked about it but Arthur’s sure they’re – anyway. He listened harder.
“- thought you would break in and see what you could steal, boy?” he heard Merope say. He closed his eyes briefly. What was he doing?
“As if I’d want anything of yours,” he heard Merlin say with audible distaste. “No, I was looking for this.” Silence.
“You don’t know what you’re –”
“Don’t I?” Merlin’s voice was hard. “I thought it might be a charm intended to sow discord between the king and his son. See how it separates into two here? And I thought this one might’ve been poison, in case you failed. But maybe I’m wrong.”
“You’re a child,” Merope said softly. “Just like that prince of yours. Anyone can see Uther’s time is coming to an end. He’s going to run this place into the ground.”
“And what, you could do better? But no, that’s not even it, is it? It’s not even you. You’re just the spy, the messenger. You’re nothing.”
“I will be rewarded,” she hissed. “And I’ll get that brat out of the way if I have to do it the old-fashioned way.” A beat. There was a thud, and an odd choking noise, followed by the sound of shoes kicking fruitlessly against stone. Arthur fought the urge to burst in and see for himself what was happening.
“You –” she said finally, with some difficulty. She gasped, coughing, and he heard a muffled noise that he assumed was her falling to the floor. Then Merlin’s voice, slow and calm and sending shivers down Arthur’s spine of a very different kind than he was used to.
“Yes,” he agreed.
“I’m careful,” Merlin said. Even in his panic, Arthur had to suppress a snort. “And I’m powerful. And no one will touch him as long as there is breath in my body. Camelot is protected. He. Is. Protected. Do you understand?” Arthur had just enough coherent thoughts left to be very grateful he had not, thus far, been on the receiving end of that voice.
“Yes.” Merope said tightly, fury evident in her voice.
“You leave tomorrow. You tell them something has happened at home and you’ve been called back. I don’t care what. You excuse yourself, you apologise, and you never darken Camelot’s door again. And,” – Merlin raised his voice a little, speaking over the beginnings of her protests – “I keep this.”
“I…did not know it was protected.”
“Obviously. You’re only leaving here at all because nothing happened. Not all who enter with your intentions are as lucky.”
“I understand,” she said bitterly.
“Start packing. Don’t even think of waking anyone to help you.” Silence again. Arthur was reeling, his heart pounding and his mind racing. Almost too late, he remembered where he was and that any second, Merlin was going to come through that door. He forced his legs to carry him back to his chambers. He remembered none of the journey. He didn’t sleep.
Merlin stood at the window again, watching Lady Merope leave.
“Very early for her to be leaving, don’t you think?” Arthur fought to keep his voice neutral. His eyes felt like they were filled with sand.
“I heard something happened with her father.” Arthur hummed noncommittally. Merlin looked out the window for another moment, then made a satisfied noise and turned to face Arthur. He narrowed his eyes.
“You look tired.”
“Trying to enjoy the novelty of having space in my own bed.” Merlin pouted at him, then clapped his hands together.
“Whatever. I’m off. Laundry day.”
“And is now today. Would you rather do it yourself?” He flicked Arthur on the shoulder, kissed him briefly, and headed off.
Arthur’s mind was still slow with lack of sleep, but one thought pushed itself insistently to the front. If he was going to keep Merlin alive (which he apparently didn’t need any help with), listen to his shitty lying (getting worse by the day) and reassure himself that he was not actually killing his fucking enemies in his castle (something he had never had to think about before, thank you Merlin), then what he was going to need? Was help.
INTERLUDE (FT. GAIUS)
Arthur spent the rest of the morning reading the same paragraph over and over and thinking about who he was going to ambush about this. Gwen? Lancelot? Did they even know? God help him, did Gwaine know? It came to him suddenly. With the way Merlin apparently hid his magic in plain sight, there was no way Gaius didn’t know. Yes, at least some of his appalling lack of self-preservation must be Gaius’s fault. Granted, the complete inability to be subtle was all Merlin.
He decided to go while he had the nerve. He was just going to come out with it, tell Gaius he knew and demand some answers. Arthur winced a little at the thought of demanding anything from the man who had never once let him fake sick to get out of lessons. He brightened, however, at the memory that Gaius had also never told Uther how Arthur really broke his arm when he was eight. Maybe he would be willing to help after all. He reached the door and knocked. Gaius shouted for him to enter.
“Arthur! What can I do for you?” Arthur suddenly felt very much like a guilty little boy, and like he hadn’t entirely thought this through.
“Actually, I was hoping I could talk to you. About Merlin?” Gaius stilled for a second, then continued gathering empty vials.
“I don’t know how much help I’ll be. That boy is a mystery wrapped in,” - he frowned at the mess of the other half of the table – “A hurricane, it seems. What about him?” Arthur leant against the table and crossed his arms. He opened his mouth, and Merlin promptly burst through the door, already speaking.
“Gaius! She’s gone, I told you I –” He froze. Arthur strongly suspected Gaius was making frantic ‘stop’ gestures behind him, from the way Merlin’s eyes were pinging back and forth between them. Merlin closed his mouth, composed himself, and seemed, as always, unable to resist running an appreciative eye over Arthur. He cleared his throat. “Aren’t you supposed to be working? And didn’t I just see you?”
“Not everything is about you, Merlin.”
“Actually,” Gaius started. Arthur shot him a look, and threw his hands up.
“Headache,” he said loudly. “I have one. Is that alright with you?” Merlin gave him a strange look. Gaius fumbled in the background and passed Arthur a completely random vial. Arthur decided the time had come for a tactical retreat. He did not run from Gaius’s chambers, but the kiss he dropped on Merlin’s cheek on the way was done at considerable walking pace. Merlin looked perplexed. Gaius shook his head.
In bed that night, Arthur’s post-sex brain made an astounding break with tradition and offered him a solution.
“What are you doing tomorrow?” Merlin propped himself up on one elbow and winked unpleasantly. Arthur threw his head back on the pillow, already regretting the question.
“Why, sire, do you have plans for me again already? Shall I just leave my job and my terrible boss and live in your bed?”
“Shut up, excuse me for trying to take an interest.”
“Nothing.” Arthur turned his head to squint at him. “I mean, my job, obviously.”
“Obviously,” Arthur said drily.
“But you don’t have anything on until the afternoon, and Gaius has something to do in the lower town first thing, so. Sleeping in is what I’m doing.” Arthur began to hatch a plan.
He scowled at the sun. It was all part of the plan to be awake before Merlin, but it was just wrong to be up this early. He risked a look at Merlin to check he was still asleep and found his eyes drifting to his spectacular bedhead, bringing such a wave of fondness that he looked away again. He had to focus. He closed the door quietly behind him and headed for Gaius’s. Again. Finding, as promised, no one there, he looked around for something to steal that Merlin would have to replace.
Books, books, mortars and pestles, beakers with unsettling residues – ah. A basket of yarrow balanced precariously on the mantelpiece. He hesitated, remembering slightly guiltily that Merlin had only collected it two days ago. Then he remembered that Merlin was a terrifying sorcerer who threatened spies and could do with a little time in the woods to reflect on his actions, and picked up the bundle. Anyway, Merlin had never met a job he couldn’t turn into a day long picnic with Gwen.
Arthur made his way back to his chambers with his stolen goods, chucked them under the bed and slid back in beside Merlin. He settled in to feign sleep until Merlin left, and drifted for an hour or so until he was kissed awake.
“Going to go see what Gaius wants,” Merlin whispered. He looked at Arthur hopefully. “Unless…?” He let a hand drift southward on his chest, which was promptly swatted away.
“G’way. Tonight. Go pretend to be useful.” Merlin sighed, but swung out of bed and left, humming. Chirpy bastard. Arthur was almost ready to go back to sleep when he remembered the mission. He gave it fifteen minutes or so, until Merlin had doubtless had enough time to bitch and moan about the job, then fetch Gwen and go ‘do’ it. And possibly look for the missing yarrow that Arthur was currently gathering up from beneath the bed.
He dragged himself up and back to Gaius’s door. He knocked, and entered. Gaius looked a little less than thrilled to see him again so soon.
“You came back.”
“I came back,” Arthur agreed. “Where is he?”
“Out getting me more yarrow. There’s no point being old if you can’t send youth to do these things. Although I really can’t imagine where my last supply disappeared to.” Arthur sheepishly produced said supply from behind his back. Gaius raised an eyebrow.
“I see,” he said. “Alright, sit down, then.” He gestured at the bench. Arthur sat.
“Merlin,” he started. Gaius visibly tensed.
“What about him?” he said, too casually. Arthur was finding full sentences a little difficult and decided just to jump in.
“The, um, magic?” Gaius jerked, and knocked a beaker off the table. It smashed. Arthur jumped. “No, no, it’s alright, it’s –” He was alarmed to see Gaius bypassing panic rather quickly and moving right onto anger.
“I will not allow that boy to be harmed, Arthur.” Arthur gaped. Somehow, he had not considered the possibility of the conversation taking this direction. He panicked, and started babbling.
“No, God, no, I would never – I would rather – we – I love him!” he said frantically, then slapped a hand over his own mouth. Had he just -? Judging by the look on Gaius’s face, he had indeed just. Gaius relaxed a little.
“Well then. Why don’t you tell me how you found out? I assume he didn’t tell you, or you wouldn’t be here.” Arthur slowly removed his hand from his face.
“I – saw him?”
“Saw him…?” prompted Gaius.
“Tip Bryn’s chair over at a council meeting from across the room?” Gaius closed his eyes.
“The man groped Gwen, if that helps,” he offered tiredly. Several pieces clicked into place in Arthur’s mind. “I have warned that boy time and time again, but will he listen? A council meeting, of all places, I-”
“He also –”
“Oh. You weren’t done,” Gaius said resignedly. “Of course you weren’t done. What else did he do?”
“That day he cut himself on my sword? I caught him trying to sharpen it with magic. Poorly,” Arthur added.
“He asked me about that his first week on the job, it was a stupid idea then and it’s stupid now. What did he do, do it in front of you?”
“The door was open.”
“Of course it was. I spend half my life telling him to close this door, do you know I once caught him in here organising my books by magic with the door open? Little idiot.” Arthur wasn’t sure if he was even being addressed anymore.
“I haven’t even got to the best one yet,” he said grimly. “I overheard him threatening Lady Merope into leaving.” Gaius put his head in his hands.
“Would you believe,” he began, a little muffled. “That I have actually ensured he knows how to soundproof doors? I looked for that spell myself after living with the boy a week, but will he do it?” Gaius looked like he would rather not know, but forced himself to add, “Is that it?” Arthur nodded.
“That’s the big ones.”
“Right. Well, the sheer stupidity of the thing aside, what do you need me for?”
“I want to know more.”
“No! I don’t want to screw this up by reacting badly. I need to know all the facts before I say anything,” Arthur insisted. Gaius raised an eyebrow, no doubt recalling Arthur’s entire childhood and adolescence. “I just want to understand, Gaius.”
“Oh, fine,” Gaius said disapprovingly. “God knows I could do with someone knowing who isn’t too nice not to go along with his harebrained schemes.” A suspicion began to take shape at that, but Gaius continued and it was pushed to the back of Arthur’s mind, half-formed. “I’ll fill you in on the basics, but there are things only Merlin can tell you. And you really must talk to him, and soon,” he added. Arthur nodded seriously.
Several hours later, empty tea cups littered the bench. Gaius was looking longingly at his books. Arthur was now the one with his head in his hands. He pressed the heel of his palms into his eyes.
“How has he lived this long?”
“I ask myself that every day, sire.” Gaius patted his hand. “Now get out. It’s almost dinnertime and if he can be relied upon for nothing else, Merlin can be relied upon to show up for food.” Arthur nodded faintly. He paused at the door.
“Thank you, Gaius.” Gaius nodded distractedly, already gathering books to put away. “I think,” he muttered.
In the weeks following his first conversation with Gaius, Arthur watched Merlin like a hawk and tried desperately to come up with better excuses to put off confronting him. The inevitable hours-long argument was really going to eat into time better spent kissing and trying to break Arthur’s bed, after all.
Bored and keen to harass Merlin for not doing his job, Arthur was roaming the castle looking for him (again, much to the amusement of everyone he asked) when he realised, with some disappointment, that the jobs had in fact been done. Suspiciously fast. Magically fast, even.
Arthur immediately resolved to ask Gaius if Merlin did any of his work by hand, but paused before he could turn in that direction. Gaius was, on the whole, seeming much less pleased to have a co-conspirator than Arthur had supposed, and had started visibly raising his eyes heavenward when he shuffled in with another question. Not unrelatedly, now that Arthur kept having him sent on long and specific chores, Merlin was under the impression that Gaius was trying to get rid of him so he could entertain a girlfriend.
He decided against pushing his luck. Anyway, even if Merlin was finished all his chores, what was he doing with his sudden abundance of free time and why wasn’t it Arthur? He wandered around for another few minutes before he spotted Merlin’s mop of dark hair hovering around Gwen. He moved close enough to listen, which he acknowledged was becoming a bad habit.
“Let me return those to the kitchens,” Merlin was saying. “Or these! I’ll make Morgana’s bed for you, I’ve already done Arthur’s. Come on, Gwen, I know you’re helping your father in the forge this week, you’re exhausted.”
“Merlin, you can’t have done all your own work, it’s barely midday. Go find something else to do, these are my jobs and I’ll do them.” Merlin looked crestfallen, but suddenly lit up with an idea.
“You can pay me back!” he said triumphantly. Gwen looked entirely like she was humouring him.
“Gossip, obviously. There’s no way there’s not more to the story about that duke and his mistress and,” – he waved a hand – “whatever the male equivalent of a mistress is.”
“Merlin, not here!” Gwen hissed, thumping him on the upper arm and looking around. Merlin looked satisfied.
“So you do know. Come on, look. I’ll do this,” he said, manoeuvring the large basket of laundry out from under the breakfast tray. “And you tell me what you know. You get all the best details, Morgana actually cares about gossip. Arthur is useless.” Gwen resisted for another moment, then gave in and laughed quietly, letting him take it. “Look, I’ll meet you after they have lunch and we can talk, okay?” He beamed at her and sped off. Arthur halfheartedly hoped Merlin planned on being witnessed doing something by hand this week.
Still, he fought a smile as Gwen headed off to the kitchens. Arthur was indeed useless with gossip, but he was also intimately aware of the scandal with the duke, because Merlin had spent the whole of the previous night regaling him with increasingly filthy details he’d heard from someone who’d heard from someone else. But after a few weeks spent losing sleep over the concept of Merlin as some kind of vigilante, Arthur figured lying about gossip and using magic for chores were low on his list of concerns, particularly if it was to help Gwen.
With Merlin now unfortunately and legitimately occupied, he decided that maybe it was a good time to pester Gaius after all. He turned and headed back the way he came, unable to completely suppress a slightly soppy grin. Big-hearted idiot. Even Gaius’s predictably displeased expression didn’t manage to dampen his good mood.
Until he actually spoke to Gaius, that was, who was currently eyeing Arthur the way he might a cauldron of something with great explosive potential.
“So, you see, he went to offer his life for yours,” he said conversationally, still watching Arthur carefully. Arthur felt he had entered an alternate dimension in which these things were said in a tone more befitting the dropping of a breakfast tray, or indeed any tone less than screaming hysterics.
“He did what?” he said dangerously. Gaius seemed to realise something had been amiss in his presentation of the facts, and he hurried to overcorrect, aiming for reassuring and missing by several counties.
“No, no, don’t worry. He – well, long story short, he killed the High Priestess instead.” Arthur himself wasn’t sure what his face was doing, but Gaius looked positively alarmed. “Arthur - Arthur don’t make that face – Arthur where are you going? That was good news!” he finished weakly.
Arthur marched through the corridors, unable to decide if he was more furious that Merlin had never told him, that he had saved his life more than once, or that he almost died doing it. Nope, never mind, it was definitely that one.
Seized with an urge to set eyes on Merlin and either throttle him, yell at him for an hour or kiss him senseless, Arthur made an abrupt, automatic turn, mentally resolving that whichever one it turned out to be, he was never letting him out of his sight again. God only knew what he was up to even now. He was supposed to be in the laundry room, but based on what Gaius had told him, he might well be beating up some kind of magical sea monster, or selling his soul to the elves.
He reached the laundry room and stopped, thinking. This would be a terrible time for Merlin to find out he knew, he reasoned. He had to get it together and act like his entire body was not running on rage, like he was perfectly fine and just coming to see Merlin for – Well. That would do, wouldn’t it?
He strode into the steamy room, searching for the short, dark hair bobbing above the sea of formidable women. Merlin was perched on a counter, chatting to an intimidated-looking young girl, gesturing so forcefully she kept having to move out of the way. Arthur grit his teeth and tapped him on the shoulder.
“Arthur!” Merlin smiled at him, face falling as he took in Arthur’s serious face. “What is it?”
“Let’s go,” Arthur said. Merlin waited for elaboration and, receiving none, shrugged and hopped down. He raised his voice over the chatter.
“Bye, everyone!” Several of the women rolled their eyes and waved him off, sending bubbles flying. Merlin looked bemused as Arthur stomped out of the room, pulling him by the hand. Arthur hadn’t quite thought of a plan yet, thinking furiously as he moved. He took a random, abrupt left turn and started down the stairs. An idea occurred to him and he stopped suddenly, Merlin running into him.
“What on earth is the matter with you?” Merlin said in amazement. “What are we doing?” Arthur could pinpoint the moment Merlin’s eyes landed on the alcove behind them. He suddenly looked delighted. “Why, Arthur, you romantic. Bringing me back to the very spot you were ambushed by your big, embarrassing crush on me.”
“Do you ever shut up?” Arthur snapped. He pushed him against the wall and brought his face very close to Merlin’s, silently asking the question. Merlin’s eyes sparkled, and he put his hand on the back of Arthur’s head and pulled him in for a searing kiss. As the minutes passed, Merlin grew more and more enthusiastic, panting and slipping a hand under Arthur’s shirt, but Arthur just made an irritated sound and pinned his wrists to the wall, biting Merlin’s lower lip and pressing himself as close as possible.
Merlin broke free from his grip, wrapping his arms around Arthur’s waist and making indecent sounds. Arthur deepened the kiss desperately for a moment, then pulled away. He had calmed down considerably, but he knew he wasn’t in any kind of state to have a serious conversation. Especially when Merlin looked as debauched as he did, breathing hard and pupils dilated, all for Arthur. Still desperate to feel him warm and alive and responsive under his touch, Arthur touched his forehead to Merlin’s briefly, then straightened up before dropping to his knees.
“Arthur –” Whatever Merlin had been about to say was lost as Arthur looked up at him, just as debauched and eyes pleading. He nodded, instead, and Arthur bent his head.
Merlin reluctantly untangled his fingers from Arthur’s hair. Arthur sat back, panting, lips swollen and shiny. Merlin breathed out and tilted his head back against the wall, which looked very much like it was the only thing keeping him upright.
“Christ, Arthur. What brought that on?” Arthur just let out a soft huff of laughter and shook his head. He stood up, gazing intently at Merlin, then leaned in for another deep kiss. At the sound of distant footsteps they broke apart. Arthur still felt like the odds were fairly even between crying on Merlin and yelling at him, so he just raised Merlin’s left hand to his mouth and kissed it gently.
“Go back to work,” he said quietly, looking up to meet Merlin’s eyes, which had just opened, the last flecks of gold slowly fading. It was so beautiful that for a moment Arthur was tempted just to tell him, just so he could see them like that again, no matter what Merlin thought or if he was angry or – anything.
“I’ll see you later, you big sap,” Merlin said, eyeing him meaningfully in a way that promised more than seeing. He pecked Arthur on the lips and disappeared around the corner, looking back with a soft smile. Arthur couldn’t help but smile too, leaning his head back against the wall.
His eyes wandered to the corner of the alcove, where wall met wall, and his head snapped up. His smile grew wider. Merlin obviously hadn’t noticed the suspiciously exotic and slightly glowing flowers that were now growing from somewhere there really was no crack. Arthur reached out, amused, and pocketed a few. He really was going to talk to Merlin soon, and have words about the magic and the sacrificing and the secrets, but it would be a lot easier if he wasn’t so fucking cute, sometimes.
AND THE ONE HE COULDN’T IGNORE
Arthur went about the rest of his day in a slight daze, memories of the taste of Merlin’s lips mixing with the residual terror at the thought of losing him. As he finished reading the day’s reports without a single clue as to what they contained, the door creaked open and Merlin entered, looking purposeful.
“Hi,” he said quietly.
“Are you -?” Merlin pointed at the papers spread out on the desk. Arthur swept them into an untidy pile without a word and pushed his chair back.
“Good,” Merlin said, and made a beeline for Arthur, taking his face in his hands and kissing him thoroughly. Arthur tilted his head to meet him, hands rising to Merlin’s waist.
“Bed,” he managed, but Merlin just shook his head and straddled Arthur, attempting to climb onto his lap. The resulting mess of limbs and chair parts was uncomfortable for all involved.
“Fucking chair,” Merlin muttered, diving back in from his awkward position, returning his full attention to sucking on Arthur’s lip and licking into his mouth. Arthur shifted to pull him closer and Merlin cursed. The chair creaked ominously. Their kisses got deeper and more desperate. Merlin shifted again, made a noise of extreme frustration. There was a pop, and the chair just…changed.
Arthur flailed for a moment as he sank a few inches into soft upholstery that had definitely not been there a moment ago, breaking off the kiss and reaching for arm rests that were suddenly much further apart. He risked a look downward and stilled. Merlin frowned at him for a moment, then his eyes drifted behind Arthur’s head to the bright red velvet of the back of the new chair and froze.
“…Fuck. Fuck,” he said vehemently, face paling.
“Fuck,” Arthur agreed, eerily calm.
“Arthur, I know what this –”
“I should’ve told you –”
“But if you think about it, you –”
“Merlin.” Merlin closed his eyes, looking very much like he longed for death. Arthur’s voice was calm, his face trying to accommodate several expressions at once. The corners of his mouth twitched beneath tired eyes as he tried to catch Merlin’s.
Merlin took a deep breath and launched into more babbling. Arthur made an executive decision and placed his hand over his mouth. Merlin licked his palm, reflexively, and his eyes went yet wider with panic.
“Fuck,” he said, muffled. Arthur waited. Merlin fell silent. He decided to take the initiative.
“Do you want to fight about this right now?” he said tiredly. Merlin made a strangled little questioning noise. “We can,” Arthur added. “But I’ve had a long day, and I was enjoying the kissing, and my day is clear tomorrow. So we can have the fight now, or we can go back to defiling this very comfortable chair and pencil it in for tomorrow.” It was possible he was enjoying this a little. Merlin’s eyebrows had been creeping upward, but he nodded slowly. “But,” he continued. “I have one thing I have to say now or I might never sleep again.” Merlin frowned. “If you ever, and I mean ever, try to die for me again, I’ll kill you myself. Clear?” Merlin nodded, his eyes a little watery.
Arthur removed his hand from Merlin’s mouth and maintained eye contact as he wiped it on Merlin’s shirt, who gave a strangled laugh. He looked at Arthur in a way that suggested he thought Arthur had gone completely insane, but was nonetheless a little impressed by it.
“I –” Arthur gave him a warning look. “Right. Shutting up now.” He paused. “I fucking love you, you know.”
“I know. Look what a lovely chair you made me.”
“You’re not cute. Say it back, dickhead.” Arthur grinned and tried not to think about the hours of shouting awaiting him tomorrow.
“I fucking love you, too.”
BONUS SCENES FROM THE INEVITABLE SHOUTING MATCH
“How did you find out then?”
“Merlin, it would be quicker to ask how I didn’t find out. Five times, I’ve caught you. Five times this month.”
“You’ve known for a month?!”
“…About that –”
“Oh my god, you arsehole, is that what you were doing in there? I thought you were asking Gaius for his – his blessing or something!” Arthur snorted, then looked briefly thoughtful. “Wait, does he not have a girlfriend? Arthur, are you his girlfriend?”
“He told you about that? I’m going to curse that old man, I swear he lives to see me suffer.”
“Are you sure you’re powerful? You turned my sword into soup. My sword.” Merlin muttered something about grown men obsessed with their swords. “What was that?” Arthur said sharply.
“I fixed it, didn’t I?”
“You threatened to kill her.”
“Come on, implied at best! God, is there anything Gaius didn’t tell you?”
“Oh no, that one’s your fault, I heard you, you careless idiot! Although he did mention that he found a spell to soundproof a room the week you got here, I wonder why he needed that, hm?”
“You kept this from me for years!”
“Death penalty, Arthur! Ring any bells? Also, you didn’t tell me you liked me for months! And I was much fucking nicer to you while I kept my secret, thanks very much.”
“I didn’t bloody know I liked you! I wish I still didn’t, my life was much simpler.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
“I would never hurt you.”
“I’d like to see you try!” Arthur softened. “I know that, Merlin.”
“Unless you decided that was something you were into.”