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Of Dragonbabies and Noblemen

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Uther Pendragon prided himself in being a just and fair king, but he had to admit he was getting a bit frustrated when his son and heir was proving difficult in finding a wife. Uther had arranged numerous dinners and lunches and horse races and other events with perfectly nice noble ladies, but Arthur had never shown interest in any of them, except for the few he’d made friends with instead. He’d hoped it would develop into more, but Morgana, his beloved daughter and trusted spy into all things Arthur, had said that there was a good reason the prince hadn’t taken a wife yet. Uther, of course, had pressed her for further information, but Morgana had been adamant and said that her brother would tell him in due time. Naturally, Uther had feared everything from an illegitimate child with a commoner to an affair with a married woman, but had respectfully never approached Arthur for an answer.

One day, Uther’s patience was rewarded when Arthur, with Morgana in tow, came into his office and requested a private audience. Knowing that this was the moment Morgana had talked about from the look on her face, he put away all his current work and turned his full attention towards his son, who was looking like he’d rather be anywhere else at the moment. His eyes, however, were steeled with determination and his jaw was set with the same.

“Father, there is something I have to tell you,” Arthur began after refusing to take the seat Uther had gestured him towards. Morgana remained in the background as a supporting presence.

“Yes?” Uther said, trying to make his voice as soft and fatherly as possible, which was admittedly not as soft as most fathers were able to.

“I...” Arthur started, then paused before beginning anew. “You have probably wondered why I have yet to commit to a serious relationship.”

“That has indeed crossed my mind. And I have even presented you with several suitable brides, so I can see no reason for your reluctance.”

“Yes, well… the truth is that—Well, I am not interested in women.”

Uther blinked, stunned. “So you prefer the company of men, is what you are saying.”

“I—Yes,” Arthur answered hesitantly. “That’s exactly what I’m saying.”

Intense relief threatened to overflow Uther. “Thank the gods,” he proclaimed. “And here I was thinking you had impregnated some commoner and decided to elope with her.”

“Wait, what?!” Arthur’s eyes widened to the size of saucers. Morgana behind him was looking oddly smug. “You’re not mad?!”

The king barely refrained from sighing heavily. “I admit this does complicate certain matters, but I am not unfair. You are my son even if you are homosexual, and while no previous monarchs have married a member of their own sex, I believe it has mostly been because of the problems with succession. Now, however, we live in a day and age where science has made it possible for two men to conceive a child with the help of cells and a surrogate mother.”

“And you have no other objections?” Arthur said, looking like he really couldn’t believe him. “Not even with what the church will say?”

“They can accept your sexuality or watch you get married in the new religion. I’m sure a high priestess — your sister perhaps — would be more than delighted to officiate your eventual wedding.”

“It would be an honour,” Morgana said from behind Arthur.

Arthur turned around to smile at his older sister, who would have been crown princess had she not had such excellent magical powers that the high priestesses had demanded she became one of them. It had caused a bit of an uproar from Arthur back then, and now Uther understood why, if his son thought he’d have to give up marrying for love.

“Well, now that I am informed of your preferences, I guess I must update the list of potential consorts,” Uther said, mostly to himself but also to Arthur.

His son whipped his head around so fast Uther was almost worried he’d snapped his neck. “What?!”

“Just because you are homosexual, does not mean you are exempt from finding a consort,” Uther informed him. “Preferably a noble, but if that is impossible, then at least someone from the upper class. I will not see you wedded below your worth.” He paused when a sudden thought struck him. “You do not already have someone intended, do you?”

“I don’t.”

The king nodded. “Very well. I suggest we wait with announcing your sexuality until you do have one. While I have no doubt that you are certain of yourself, I would expect the press to think it a mere publicity stunt if you came out without a man at your side to validate your claim.”

“Understood,” Arthur said. “It’s not like I’m looking forward to the press storm, so waiting is fine with me.”

“Indeed. It has happened more than once that the press has ruined a potential relationship for people, so peace to find your future consort is essential for a good match. For now, I will make a new list of individuals for you to meet, and among them we can hopefully find someone suitable.”

--------------

The endeavor proved harder than Uther had originally thought. There might have been plenty of homosexual and bisexual men in the world, but few of them were nobles, and even fewer of them were known to him. Therefore, he enlisted the help of Morgana and servants who’d heard from someone else that this or that nobleman was queer. Afterwards, he would set up an inconspicuous meeting between Arthur and the noble and wait for music to play.

Only, it didn’t.

Arthur’s first meeting with a man, heavily disguised at some important sports event, ended rather poorly, at least from Uther’s perspective. The man called Gwaine was apparently of the conviction that he was God’s gift to both men and women, and flirted with everyone above the age of consent. Not very appropriate for a future prince consort, and it was just as well that Arthur seemed to be much more interested in getting sloshed with him and arguing about which of the athletes had the nicest posterior. Thankfully, Uther was not present for that particular conversation. Morgana had been the one to relay it to him, having heavily participated in the discussion herself, according to her husband Leon.

The next meeting was less noteworthy and so was the next and the one after that until Uther set up a meeting with a newly knighted man named Lancelot. He had thought it a perfect match as they both seemed to enjoy the same kinds of sports and pastime activities and had the same noble heart. Lancelot, however, was bisexual and ended up eloping with Morgana’s lady-in-waiting Guinevere instead, much to the joy of their parents and Arthur, whom Uther secretly suspected of orchestrating the whole thing.

After Lancelot came Percival, who was a large but kind man and newly knighted along with Lancelot, but not actually homosexual, as that had merely been a rumour that had started among the servants due to his close friendship with Lancelot. He did, however, become a good friend of Arthur’s afterwards, which was at least something.

After Percival, there were even more fruitless meetings that were as unremarkable as the ones Arthur had had with women. Uther even arranged meetings with nobles from other countries, but still no one was to Arthur’s taste.

In the meantime, Uther’s list was getting shorter and shorter, as he crossed out the names of potential prince consorts. At this rate, he would have to notify Morgana that the responsibility of continuing the monarchy and providing the country with heirs would fall to her and Leon. In fact, he was in the middle of informing her of this, complaining about how short the list was getting, and that he’d hate for Arthur to marry a commoner, but really, he was seeing no other way, when Morgana said,

“What about Emrys?”

Uther stopped mid-rant, eyes looking up at his beloved daughter and probable savior. “Emrys?” he repeated, bewildered.

“Yes, well,” Morgana continued, “he is actually named Merlin, but the Druids call him Emrys. Apparently, he’s the strongest sorcerer in an age.”

“But is he noble?” Uther wanted to know, which was frankly more important.

“He’s the son of Balinor, the dragonlord.”

The king nodded, suddenly seeing the future in a much brighter light. This new potential consort was not of the old nobility from when Christianity had been in complete power, instead belonging to the new religion, which was in fact much older than Christianity—ancient even. From what Uther knew, the powers of a dragonlord were passed down from parent to child, which meant a line could be traced from the present and all the way back to when the new religion was called the old. In other words, he was undeniably noble enough for Arthur’s hand.

Still, Uther needed to know one thing. “Are you absolutely certain he is homosexual? Or queer in any way? It has happened more than once that the person in question was not.”

Morgana, to her father’s surprise, actually smirked. “Well, he might not be public open about his sexuality, but considering Gwaine had a one night stand with him at some point, and that Lance went out with him before he became a knight, I’d say I have more than gossip to back up my claim.”

“Very well, then. I shall set up a meeting,” Uther said satisfied and dismissed her.

--------------

The meeting was absolutely horrendous.

Arthur had mistaken Merlin for a servant at first, and had made fun of him and his ears, which were apparently huge, but really quite adorable according to the giggling maid who had relayed the tale to the king. Merlin had insulted the crown prince right back and called him an outright prat along with several degrading words Uther had never heard before. The abuses had continued through dinner, and by the time dessert came around, the attending staff had been sure Merlin was going to bring the walls down around them.

So it was a bit of a surprise when Arthur barged into the king’s office the day after, placed both of his hands on the table, stared Uther dead in the eye, and proclaimed,

“It’s him.”

“I beg your pardon--” was all Uther managed to say before his son continued, straightening up and crossing his arms, resolute.

“I want him.”

“Who?”

“Merlin, of course. Or Emrys if you prefer to call him that. I want him as my consort. So you don’t need to set up any future meetings with other men.”

Glancing at the by now extremely short list on his table, Uther thanked the gods that his trials would be over soon. Still he said, “I was told the meeting was disastrous.”

“Yeah.” Arthur shrugged. “He might not like me at the moment, but I’ll just have to win him over. Wait and see.”

And so Uther did. Even if he was already planning the wedding in his head. There were going to be complications. Merlin was of the new religion and Arthur was Christian, and then there was the whole thing about legalizing same-sex marriages in the church. But Arthur had found someone and that was definitely a start. Everything else, Uther would take care of. And he started with a phone call to his prime minister.

--------------

Merlin had hardly been talking to Kilgharrah since he’d had the unfortunate pleasure of making the crown prince’s acquaintance. The old dragon had been nattering on and on about coins and two halves of a whole and laughed every time Merlin complained about it, saying things like,
“You cannot escape your destiny, young warlock.”

At one such morning, where Kilgharrah had been particularly annoying, Merlin had retreated from the Dragon Sanctuary and into the gardens of his family’s manor with a content Aithusa curled in his lap. Morgana was coming over to see the little dragon that day, so he’d taken her out to enjoy the sun as they waited for the priestess. While Merlin had known Morgana due to their respective positions in the new religion, they had never been close, merely acquaintances that acknowledged each other when they met. However, at the dinner where Merlin had also been introduced to her prat of a brother, the conversation had drifted to the newest dragon hatchling, and Morgana had expressed an interest in seeing Aithusa. Happy to boast about his first hatchling, Merlin had invited the high priestess over to see the rare white dragon that was said to be a good omen for the new religion. At least according to Kilgharrah who liked to declare those sort of things.

The sound of crunching gravel in the distance alerted Merlin that a car was coming up the driveway. Gently, he nudged a slumbering Aithusa awake. She yawned and he had to lay serious bonds on himself to stop from cooing. He was a fierce warlock, he told himself, as he lifted her up in his arms and began walking to the front of the manor. Aithusa, now more awake, migrated to his shoulders where she curled around his neck, nuzzling into his hair. Not cooing became a little bit harder, but Merlin was still a powerful being, damn it!

Morgana was stepping out of the car as he rounded a corner, the driver holding the door for her. She caught sight of him and even from this distance, Merlin could see her eyes zeroing in on the baby dragon around his neck. Merlin’s face lit up in a smile and he raised a hand in greeting, picking up his pace. He was almost at the car when another person stepped out.

He came to an abrupt halt.

“What’s he doing here?” he asked Morgana, the accusation clear in his voice, eyebrow raised.

“What’s he doing here,” Arthur mocked, crossing his arms like a petulant child. “I’m the crown prince, Merlin. You can’t talk to me like that.”

“Whatever,” Merlin said before turning back to level Morgana with a pointed look.

She shrugged. “He wanted to come. Said something about seeing the dragons and some other nonsense. I stopped listening after that.” She grinned. “But no more about my idiot brother—”

“Oi!” Arthur objected.

“—what I really came here for was this little cutie.” Morgana reached a careful hand out to Aithusa, letting it hover just inches from her scaly skin. She shot Merlin a questioning look. “May I touch her?”

Merlin nodded and felt a smile tug at the corner of his lips when Morgana slowly brought her hand down to Aithusa, her face lifting in a smile. Aithusa sniffed at the hand and pushed up into it afterward like a cat begging to be petted.

Arthur stood to the side, still with his arms crossed. “Are we supposed to stand here the entire day, or what?”

Merlin barely refrained from rolling his eyes and led them into the gardens. The driver was sent into the house to rest until he was needed again, and a maid was tasked with getting refreshments. After placing a tray on a small stone table, she curtseyed politely and hurried away. Arthur was quick to grab a glass of lemonade and sucked on the straw while Morgana and Merlin gushed about the small dragon.

“She is just so small,” Morgana said, petting Aithusa who purred in content. “It’s amazing to think that one day she’ll be as big as the others.”

“Yeah. My father says that once the baby stage is passed, she’s going to go into a growth spurt. It’s about enjoying her in this size while we can,” Merlin said. “So, if you want to hold her….”

Morgana’s eyes shot up to his in awe and disbelief. “I can hold her?”

Grinning, and delighted that someone appeared to be as crazy about Aithusa as he was, Merlin nodded and with extreme care and gentleness took Aithusa from his shoulders and placed her in Morgana’s arms. The little dragon made a tiny noise and sniffled into Morgana’s embrace, drawing a high-pitched sound from the high priestess. Secretly, Merlin was glad to have a woman express his own feelings.

“Oh, she is just the prettiest little dragon,” Morgana cooed. “Oh yes, you are.” She glanced up at Merlin. “I am so jealous of you right now.”

“I know. But she’s also a lot of hard work,” he admitted. “Her parents aren’t here, so she’s my responsibility. And that includes getting up in the middle of the night to feed her.” He made a discontented face. “Goodbye, lazy mornings.”

Arthur snorted, placing his glass back on the tray. He’d downed the drink already, the straw bitten flat. “Quite the mother, aren’t you?”

Merlin scowled, eyes narrowed. “I prefer the term parent, thank you,” he said. “And may I remind you I’m a dragonlord? This is practically what I was born to do.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Arthur said. “We’re all born with responsibilities.”

Merlin wasn’t sure, but there was something in the prince’s voice, something faint, barely traceable that sounded like resentment. And while Merlin was perfectly content with being dragon kin, he thought he could understand the bitterness at being born with the kind of responsibility Arthur was.

“Do you want to hold Aithusa when Morgana is done?” he asked, and watched Arthur’s eyes widen with uncertainty.

“Err, it’s really not necessary.”

“Nonsense,” Morgana proclaimed. “You came to see the dragons, didn’t you?”

“Uhm, well, yes?”

“Good,” the high priestess said, “you can hold her now,” and with a careful movement that belied her tone, lifted Aithusa over to Arthur, who looked increasingly uncomfortable at being handed a small, fragile creature that made small noises when he took hold of her.

Merlin barely suppressed a laugh. “Don’t worry, she won’t bite.”

It didn’t seem to reassure the prince whose shoulders remained tense all through holding the dragon until Merlin took pity on him and took her back.

Later, when it was time for Aithusa to rest, they went to see the other dragons in the Sanctuary, a large system of caves and tunnels where the dragons could build nests, and where Merlin’s family provided for them. Many dragons used it as a temporary place to stay, some to find a mate or to lay eggs, as they couldn’t be hatched without a dragonlord. Others, though, had taken to living near the dragonlord and his family and rarely left the area for more than a few days, content with the company and care provided. One of these dragons was Kilgharrah, and Merlin dreaded his inevitable meeting with the crown prince. He had a feeling the old dragon already knew Arthur had decided to accompany his sister that day. It would certainly explain the particularly smug look he’d had when Merlin had taken Aithusa out that morning.

His suspicions were confirmed when they eventually ended the tour at Kilgharrah’s nest and the great dragon, upon casting a look on the crown prince, said, “Ahh, young Pendragon, I have been awaiting you.”

Merlin felt like hiding his face in his palms, but as Aithusa was resting in his arms, it proved a bit difficult.

Arthur blinked, looking up at Kilgharrah in bewilderment. “Have you?”

“Indeed.” The dragon grinned down at him, razor sharp teeth glinting in the sparse light from the enchanted torches. “I sensed that after your meeting with the other side to your coin, you would—”

“Seriously, Kilgharrah, shut up!” Merlin interrupted before the old dragon could humiliate him completely. He turned to Arthur and said, “Don’t listen to a thing he says. It’s all riddles and stupid phrases so he can entertain himself with confusing you.”

“There is only truth in my words, young warlock,” Kilgharrah said, sounding mildly offended. “A dragon cannot lie.”

“But you can surely tell half-truths,” Merlin said. “And don’t try to deny it. You’ll only prove my point.”

Kilgharrah huffed, a breath of hot air shooting out of his nostrils. “Very well then, if you want me to remain silent, young warlock, I shall speak no more. I was merely answering the young prince’s question. Of course he would be curious as to his great destiny, which—”

“Thank you, Kilgharrah,” Merlin said. “That’ll be all.”

Afterwards, when Merlin was walking them back to their car where their driver stood prepared, there was a rather infuriating, smug smile on Arthur’s face. Merlin had a strong urge to throttle a certain dragon.

--------------

After Kilgharrah had met Arthur, there was absolutely no stopping his long speeches that bordered on the ridiculous and contained several metaphors Merlin had yet to decipher. They all seemed to be centered around Arthur and the future of Albion and the new religion and peace, and honestly, Merlin was tired of it.

It didn’t help that somehow, now that he’d met the prince, he couldn’t get rid of him.

For instance, whenever Morgana came to visit Aithusa, Arthur was accompanying her.

“Are you here again?” Merlin would say, affronted.

“Why yes, Merlin,” Arthur would answer haughtily. “I am the crown prince, remember? I have a certain interest in my subjects. And that includes dragons.”

Morgana would merely watch them both with an amused expression as she fed Aithusa with small pieces of meat.

And when Gwen and Lancelot got home from their honeymoon, Arthur was a part of the welcoming committee in the airport.

“Don’t look at me like that, Merlin,” he mocked. “I have every right to be here. Gwen is one of my oldest friends.”

Merlin knew that, but it didn’t stop him from scowling at the smug prince. The smug prince who had paid for Lancelot’s and Gwen’s private wedding at a small, southern island with only the closest family present. Which did indeed give him every right to be there.

The slide down the slippery slope continued with Lancelot and Gwen home, as they were the kind of pair that frequently invited friends to dinner parties. Which meant, of course, that Merlin would see Arthur at all these parties, and even sometimes be forced to sit beside him. It was maddening but strangely enough, not as frustrating as it ought to be.

Arthur even started visiting Aithusa without Morgana. The first time it had happened Merlin had stared dumbfounded at the car after Arthur had stepped out, expecting Morgana to appear, but when the driver shut the door and as usual was dismissed to go inside to rest, it occurred to Merlin that Gwen had mentioned something about an appointment with the high priestess.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Arthur said, frowning at the look on Merlin’s face, “and it’s just me today.”

“Oh,” Merlin said, suddenly aware that this was actually the first time he was completely alone with the prince. “Right.”

There was a pause in which Merlin stared at Arthur and Arthur merely stared back, arms crossed and eyebrow raised as if daring him to say anything.

“So, uhm,” Merlin tried awkwardly, “do you want to—Err….Aithusa is about to learn to fly, so.”

Arthur sighed deeply as if Merlin was being particularly idiotic that day. Merlin took that as his cue to lead Arthur over to the flying field where baby dragons could practice flying without fear of falling to their deaths, as the ground was covered with a thick layer of the finest sand. For extra safety, a protection spell had been placed on the field, ensuring that anything hurtling towards the ground at an alarming rate would be slowed down enough to land safely.

Merlin’s father was standing at the edge of the field with Aithusa at his feet. The little dragon, which had grown considerably since the first time Arthur and Morgana came by and was now the size of a dog, was wearing a small leather harness. A line was fastened on the front of the harness and the other end was held by Balinor.

“It’s to make sure she doesn’t fly too far away,” Merlin explained before Arthur could voice a question. “You know, kids sometimes run away from their mother, and so do baby dragons when they get too eager.”

Arthur nodded, then politely greeted Balinor, who bowed in turn, just enough to acknowledge that Arthur was crown prince.

“Merlin told me to expect your sister, too,” Balinor said, when he’d straightened up again.

“She is preoccupied. It’s just me today,” Arthur answered.

“I see. Hopefully she can enjoy Aithusa’s flight another day, then.”

As it was Aithusa’s first day with flying lessons, she was not going to be flying so high. At first Merlin lifted her up and made her spread her wings, letting her flap them a few times before letting her go. She stayed in the air for a few seconds, wings flapping and flapping before she fell and Merlin caught her.

“Dragons fly different than birds,” Merlin explained while Aithusa tried to fly again. “Birds only have four limbs, not including the tail, whereas dragons have six, so their weight and balance is much different.” She fell and he caught her, lifting her up in the air to give her some momentum to better set off. “Of, course, they do have a natural talent for flying, but since Aithusa’s parents are not here, we’re teaching her. When she’s older and has mastered flying enough to not fall, some of the other dragons will teach her in the air.”

Arthur nodded along, listening attentively, and Merlin thought that even if the prince was an outright prat, it was great that he took interest in the dragons, the most intriguing and beautiful creatures on Earth, if anyone asked Merlin.

Afterwards, when Aithusa was so exhausted she fell asleep in Merlin’s arms, Balinor invited Arthur inside for a cup of tea and biscuits. Arthur accepted and ended up staying until after dinner, charming Merlin’s mother and the kitchen staff into giving him an extra helping of dessert.

Out by the car, when it was time to say goodbye, Arthur’s smile was warm and happy, and there was a certain glint in his blue eyes that made Merlin smile right along with him.

After that, Arthur came alone regularly. Morgana would come too, of course, as she was still quite taken with Aithusa, but the times where Arthur came alone became more frequent.

He would watch Merlin as he trained Aithusa to fly, and he was there when the baby dragon said her first word, smiling softly when she managed to say his name in her tiny voice. Afterwards, he would be invited in for a cup of tea or other refreshments and he would usually stay until after dessert.

Kilgharrah was absolutely delighted, spouting even more nonsense about coins and destiny and two halves of a whole Merlin didn’t bother listening to. Arthur, however, seemed incredibly interested, and the old dragon was more than happy to fill the prince’s ears with his nonsensical metaphors and riddles. Arthur would grin stupidly at Merlin afterwards, especially when Merlin hadn’t been in the Sanctuary to hear what Kilgharrah had said to him.

In between Arthur’s visits, there were more dinner parties hosted by Lance and Gwen and then by Morgana and Leon who decided they should all take turn hosting and so a plan was set up. The dinner parties led to birthdays, which led to weekend trips, which again led to a fantastic summer holiday by the beach, and somewhere along the way, two groups of friends had become one. The press had named them the bright future of Britain, and Merlin frequently saw pictures of himself in magazines and internet pages whenever they’d been present at a sports event or a movie premiere.

Naturally, Merlin and Arthur still argued and called each other names, but strangely enough, Merlin found himself looking forward to Arthur’s company, especially when it was just the two of them and Aithusa. Although he’d be dead before he told anyone.

--------------

On one of the days where Arthur had come alone to visit Aithusa and they were walking over to the car where the driver was already waiting, he said,

“It’s my birthday soon, you know.”

Merlin eyed him out of the corner of his eyes. “I know. We got invitations to the ball.”

“Yes, they were sent out not long ago.”

“I assume you’ll be expecting a present, then?”

“Yes, but—”

“What on Earth do they expect us to give you? I mean, don’t you already have everything you want?”

Arthur sighed in exasperation. “No, I do not have everything I want. But that’s not what—”

“Why not? You’re the crown prince. You could buy anything you wanted.”

“So could you. You’re noble, too, and I know you have enough money. But that doesn’t mean we get everything we want, does it?”

“No, of course not,” Merlin agreed. “But you are a pretty entitled prat so I wouldn’t be surprised. People are usually falling all over themselves to please you.” He shot Arthur a cheeky grin.

The prince rolled his eyes. “I may be spoiled, but I’m not that spoiled. Unfortunately,” he added. “Now—”

“Oh, you definitely are that spoiled.” Merlin snickered. “In fact—”

“Merlin!” Arthur grabbed his arm firmly, jolting Merlin to a halt. Dazed, Merlin stared down at where the prince was holding on to his bicep. The grip was tight, but not overly so, and when Merlin looked back up, Arthur’s expression was all seriousness and thinly veiled aggravation. “I don’t care about presents, okay?” he said through clenched teeth. “Just be there. If you want to give me a present, then fine. But I don’t really care if you give me some weird Barbie princess as Gwaine did last year or some hideous sweater with a dragon on.” His voice softened, and there was something strange in his eyes, in the set of his jaw, in the way he held on to Merlin. He couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, only that it made him feel weird. “I just expect you to be there, okay?”

“Okay.” Merlin croaked, cleared his throat and said, “okay” again, this time with a firmer voice that made Arthur beam and let go of his arm.

The prince patted the spot he’d been gripping in that way he did with all of his male friends, and said, “See you, then,” and turned around to enter the car.

Merlin was left staring at the vehicle as it drove off. That weird feeling was still there, and he wasn’t entirely sure he wanted it to disappear.

--------------

King Uther was renowned for his grand feasts and celebrations, which included, among other things, several tables filled with the richest food cooked from the finest ingredients, lavishly decorated halls and corridors, the most renowned artists and entertainers, and a plethora of guests ranging from celebrities and politicians to royal families from other countries. Arthur’s birthday was no exception.

A few hundred guests had been invited, including Merlin and his family, along with the families of all Arthur’s closest friends plus many other important people that had been deemed worthy enough of an invitation.

Merlin and his family had opted to stay the night at a local hotel instead of going back directly from the party. Hunith had declared that she’d rather spend the night in a hotel than having to sleep awkwardly in the car on the way home. He knew they weren’t the only ones, as he’d stumbled upon Percival’s family in the hotel corridors, and Gwaine’s down at the reception when they were about to leave for the palace.

At the palace, they were met at the entrance by a butler who took their coats and showed them into a large reception hall where at least hundred people were already making small talk and enjoying their drinks. King Uther was in the midst of it, and greeted them politely before pointing them towards his son, reminding them that today was Arthur’s day.

The birthday boy himself was standing by a large table filled to the brim with wrapped gifts, flowers, and fine wines people had not bothered to wrap in paper. He greeted his guests with a wide smile, accepting gifts and putting them on the table to be unwrapped after having kissed a lady’s hand and shaken the hand of a lord. Then he would open the gift and smile, overjoyed at the seemingly perfect present, and give his humble thanks, before another pair of guests would present him with their gift and the process could repeat itself. There were some alterations, though. Gwaine, who’d arrived at the same time as Merlin, received a manly hug instead of a handshake, and the gift was nothing like an expensive wine or some other useless thing. Merlin couldn’t exactly see what it was from where he was standing, but he thought he could make an educated guess, because Arthur laughed out loud after opening the gift, tilting his head back in that way he did when it was truly genuine.

Merlin and his parents were received with a bright, warm smile and Arthur, the magnanimous man that he was, allowed Hunith to pull him into a tight hug. The kind of crushing, yet loving hug that was usually reserved for Merlin only. Merlin found that he couldn’t be envious, instead laughing with mirth when Arthur tried to pull away and Hunith refused to let him go.

“Stop it, mum,” he said when he’d enjoyed Arthur’s struggle long enough. “You’re choking him.”

“Oh, don’t be silly,” Hunith said as she finally released the prince. “No one has died from a motherly hug.”

“I think I got pretty close,” Arthur joked, lips still stretched out into a bright smile. “But thank you. It was nice.”

“We also got you a present,” Merlin said. “If you’re actually interested in receiving more junk.”

Arthur laughed. “I think I can handle one more useless flower, if that’s what you’re giving me.”

“Not quite,” Merlin said and procured a small velvet box from thin air. “But I hope you like it anyway.”

Arthur took the box from Merlin’s hands, raising an eyebrow. “Why Merlin, I would at least expect you to go down on one knee.”

Merlin snorted to the amused looks of his parents. “Just open the box, clotpole.”

“Really? Insulting me on my own birthday? Guess I shouldn’t have expected different from you,” Arthur said loosening the thin band of silk that was tied around the box, before opening it. He stared.

“It’s Aithusa’s first tooth,” Merlin supplied when Arthur continued to stare at the open box in silence. “Or, well, it’s her second tooth as we figured Morgana would prefer the first.” He amended. “A dragon’s first tooth is said to be full of magic, you see.”

“I— It’s wonderful” Arthur finally said, looking up to smile warmly just before Merlin could start wondering if it really was that horrible a gift.

“You’re welcome,” Merlin said, hoping his voice came out fine and not weird or affected by that strangely unpleasant yet bizarrely brilliant feeling that was curling in his stomach again. “I’m glad you like it.”

Afterwards, when he and his parents were about to go on and get a drink, Merlin’s arm was grabbed by Gwaine, and he bid his parents a hasty goodbye before he was dragged over to his friends, who stood near a corner of the reception hall, talking. They looked up at Gwaine’s loud greeting, grinned when they saw them, and Merlin found himself pulled into manly hugs by the men while the women kissed his cheeks affectionately.

After what seemed like hours, but couldn’t have been much more than one, dinner was announced, and they made their way to the banquet hall, which was just as heavily decorated as the reception hall. Long tables were set with at least five different kinds of cutlery and intricately folded napkins. Merlin admired the skill of the staff, he really did. They’d probably been at it for weeks.

As it was Arthur’s birthday, he’d chosen to put all his friends near him, while someone else had planned the rest. He told Merlin as much when he found himself seated directly across from Arthur with Gwen and Elyan on either side of him, with no regards to the unwritten rule that ladies and gentlemen were to sit intermixed.

There were seven courses, each carried in on silver platters by an army of waiters, and although they were small, Merlin found himself struggling through the first dessert.

“If that’s how you eat every day, it’s no wonder you’re getting fat,” he told Arthur who kicked his shin in retaliation.

“I’m the prince, Merlin, and it’s my birthday, you can’t talk to me like that.”

“It appears I am doing fine, dollophead,” Merlin responded with a cheeky grin.

Arthur moved as if to kick his shin again, but instead nudged Merlin’s foot until Merlin reacted and pushed back. They proceeded to have a silent battle under the table during the course, unseen by their friends and everyone who was not crawling around under the table. By the time the second dessert was served, Arthur’s foot had come to rest against Merlin’s. Merlin didn’t remark upon it. Neither did Arthur.

After dinner, there was dancing in the ballroom, as cliché as that was. Arthur had said it was expected, as while this wasn’t the Victorian age, it was still a great possibility for people to meet each other and make connections. There was a classical orchestra playing different kinds of ballroom music, and Merlin found himself pulled onto the dance floor by Gwen before he could protest. He handed her off to Lance at the next dance and barely found time to get a drink before Morgana was there, demanding a dance with him.

Next was Morgause, Morgana’s older sister but not Uther’s daughter, who spent most of the dance talking about magic and Aithusa, whom she had heard so much about. Then Nimueh, one of the high priestesses, demanded a round, and Merlin had to repeat the previous conversation.

When Nimueh excused herself to go talk to Morgana, Merlin practically bolted to the drinks table. His throat was dry, he was sweating from all the dancing, and he was really, really thirsty, and wanted to drink at least ten glasses of punch before someone else could force him back out on the dance floor.

“Finally got a moment to yourself?” Arthur remarked as he sidled up beside Merlin to exchange his own empty glass for a new one.

Finally!” Merlin moaned. “And I see you’ve been just as busy.”

While Merlin had been busy dancing with people he actually knew, Arthur had been passed from one unmarried, eligible bachelorette to another, their mothers’ looking like they were already planning marriage.

Arthur made a face into his punch. “Yeah. One would think we really were back in the Victorian age. At least Gwen and Morgana have promised to save me a dance each. And I’m planning to steal your mother, too, at some point.”

“Oi,” Merlin said mock offended which made Arthur laugh heartily. And there was that strange feeling in his stomach again that made him smile back while sipping his punch.

They didn’t have long before a lady with daughter in tow made their way over to them. Merlin snickered at Arthur’s barely suppressed groan of agony, although he shouldn’t have laughed too soon because the mother in question, instead of introducing her daughter to Arthur, addressed Merlin.

He could still hear Arthur’s annoying laugh as the admittedly sweet girl, who apologized profusely for her embarrassing mother, dragged him out on the dance floor. Bewildered Merlin inquired as to why he, and not the prince, had been approached, and the girl, named Freya, confessed to having magic.

It turned out that there were others like Freya -- although not all with magic -- whose mothers’ thought Merlin a great choice in husband, or at least an important enough person to be introduced to. He supposed that with him being Emrys, future dragonlord, and being part of the crown prince’s inner circle of friends, he could see their viewpoint.

At one point, when he was dancing with a noble lady named Sophia who kept nattering on about something Merlin wasn’t paying attention to, Arthur swirled past with Hunith. He made a face to Merlin over Sophia’s shoulder and Merlin rolled his eyes back, nodding down at Sophia. Arthur nodded in understanding, and then the steps of the dance had taken them apart again.

Afterwards, Merlin pried his mother out of Arthur’s arms, demanding to be saved from any more eligible daughters, and thought that perhaps he should make a public announcement that he was gay or something because this was getting more ridiculous as the evening went on.

Merlin might have been a little drunk at that point.

--------------

“We’re going back to the hotel now, Merlin,” Hunith said when the crowd had thinned considerably as people had either migrated to the gardens or left for the night. “I trust you can find your way back?”

“I’ll be fine, mum. There’s this thing called a taxi,” he said, a fond smile on his lips as he hugged her. “I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”

She kissed his cheek before pulling back completely. “Take care.”

She turned to Balinor who was already standing with their coats. He nodded at Merlin, and then they were gone.

Merlin went back into the ballroom where the orchestra had started playing renditions of the latest pop songs on their instruments now that most parents were gone. Several people of the younger generation were still on the dance floor, though, laughing more than dancing and looking decidedly less graceful as time went on and more alcohol was consumed.

Merlin danced with Freya one last time before she declared it was time to go home, kissing Merlin on the cheek. He drank some more punch and danced with some more people and snickered and danced and stumbled, but laughed it off along with his dance partner, who at that point had been Gwen again.

When yet another hour had passed, he decided that it might be time to go back to the hotel. Gwaine complained, saying he was leaving too early, calling him a clotpole to which Merlin accused him of stealing his words. Gwaine shot back that he hadn’t copyrighted them and then Morgana declared that both of them should be leaving because this was getting ridiculous. Gwaine fled out to the dance floor, grabbing a random lady in his flight, who didn’t appear to be all that bothered at this turn of events. Merlin thanked Morgana for her intervention, and debated whether he should make a round to say goodbye to his friends or if they were too drunk to be bothered by his departure. Deciding that he couldn’t bear for Gwen to look at him with those hurt-offended eyes she was so good at, he made the round, receiving hugs and drunk kisses, and yet another protest from Gwaine, before asking Morgana where the birthday boy had run off to. Should he even bother with goodbyes, or had Arthur passed out in a dark corner? Elyan mentioned something about having last seen him in the reception hall.

Now, void of guests, the reception hall seemed strangely loud in its silence and large in its consuming emptiness. The Pendragon-red banners were still hanging from the ceiling, as magnificent as when he first arrived, but the flower decorations were dangling lifeless from their vases, nearing the end of their short lifespan. In his half-drunken state, it looked tranquil, serene, with a touch of melancholy he felt in his chest now that the party was almost over.

Arthur was standing by the table with gifts, reading a card with a soft smile on his face. He didn’t startle when Merlin sidled up right behind him, leaving only a few inches between their bodies, which meant he must have heard Merlin was there. In a room that echoed with silence and the muffled sounds from the orchestra playing in the ballroom, he wasn’t surprised.

“Good birthday?” Merlin asked, trying to read the card over Arthur’s shoulder.

Arthur hummed, closing the card before Merlin could read much more than ‘happy birthday.’ He placed it back on the table with the front of the card turning outwards, displaying a bizarre picture of a penguin with a bowtie.

Merlin snorted, and he supposed the air must have gotten into Arthur’s ear, for his shoulders tensed up before he reached for another card. It was from some noble Merlin had only barely been introduced to and incredibly impersonal. The front wasn’t even entertaining, merely the words ‘happy birthday’ written in cursive, green letters.

“Received many like that?” Merlin asked when Arthur closed the card and put it back on the table beside a box of expensive wine.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got enough wine tonight to fill half of our wine cellar. And attached birthday cards my personal assistant will throw out after he’s written formal acknowledgements with my signature to the sender. He’s managed to copy it perfectly, you know.”

Merlin laughed directly into Arthur’s ear because it was right there and he was probably going to do it anyway, so he might as well do it by choice. “Careful, he might abuse it to do illegal activities in your name.”

“George?” Arthur asked, voice low but filled with mirth. “He practically worships the ground I walk on. If there was a competition for most devoted servant, he’d take gold.”

“Does he dress you?”

“He’d love to. But I prefer my privacy,” Arthur said in all seriousness before he snickered. “I suspect he was a manservant in his former life as much as he insists on doing everything for me.”

“I’m just glad I have my magic,” Merlin said, watching Arthur read another card. This one was a bit more personal, but not much. “No use for servants other than the kitchen staff and a few maids. No personal babysitter for me, thank you.”

“We can’t all be gifted with magic, can we? Normal people need servants.”

“Normal people clean up after themselves.”

Arthur huffed and Merlin chuckled. Again, into Arthur’s ear.

“Did you actually get any gifts you like?” Merlin asked, after Arthur had read yet another impersonal birthday card.

“A few. But, as you said, it is hard buying me gifts when I usually just buy what I want. I don’t fault them for going with wine or flowers or ridiculous things like the Ken doll in prince costume from Gwaine,” Arthur said. “I suppose next year he’s going to give me Barbie’s horse or little sister. In royal regalia, of course.”

Laughing and thinking of his own collection of dragon toys amassed through years of knowing Gwaine, Merlin agreed that Arthur might soon find himself with several of Barbie’s friends. “But at least you can always save them for your future children. With the pace you’re going, he’s given you a hideous, pink Barbie house before you settle down with a nice, noble lady.”

Arthur’s voice croaked awkwardly when he spoke next. “As if you’re any better.”

“Nah, not the same pressure on me.”

“Really? One would think there’d be more pressure on you. At least I can always name a successor. Yours need to bear your blood, don’t they?”

Merlin grimaced. “Yeah, but science has come really far, you know? Surrogates and all that.” He paused, thinking. “Though it’s not like I need to hurry.” He poked Arthur’s side where he knew it would be annoying. “Still three years younger than you, and you haven’t even had a girlfriend in the goddesses know how long.” He poked him again to emphasize his point. “The press is getting restless you know.” Three more pokes.

Arthur turned around in the small space between Merlin’s body and the table, arching a blond eyebrow Merlin could barely see due to their proximity. Merlin poked him again, or, he made to, but Arthur’s hand grabbed his fingers before he could, holding them still. “Will you stop that?” he said with a faint hint of irritation. “You may be younger than me, but it shouldn’t excuse your childish behavior, although one can hardly be surprised, now that I think about it.”

“You deserve it,” Merlin grinned in that way he knew Arthur found annoying. “The press has been after us, too, you know. Wondering whether your mystical beloved can be found in our midst. A regular night out has suddenly become a huge spectacle, and I’m not even really a celebrity.”

This time it was Arthur’s turn to grimace and it suddenly occurred to Merlin that they were, actually, quite close. “Yeah, I know. Sorry for that by the way.”

“Well, it’s probably nothing compared to what your eventual bride is going to go through.” Unbidden, his eyes drifted to Arthur’s mouth. “Though I suppose she’d manage since you’d be part of the package, too.” When he looked up, Arthur’s eyes seemed to have drifted downwards.

“Would it bother you terribly,” Arthur asked hesitantly, eyes cautious as they met Merlin’s again, “if you were to be put in such a position?”

Merlin thought about it for all of a second. “No,” he said. “If it was something to be endured so I could be with someone I care about, I’d manage.”

He prided himself when his voice came out firm, though his words seemed to fill the room with an echoing silence that bounced back and forth in the small space between their bodies, between their faces, which were mere inches apart. A silence that seemed significant, awaiting, but for what, Merlin had no idea. He would say something to break it, but at the same time, he was painfully aware that Arthur had not let go of his hand, that the grip had tightened when Merlin had spoken.

Then, “How drunk are you?” Arthur asked. His voice was low and short of breath. Almost insecure, but not quite.

“Uhh, a bit tipsy,” Merlin responded, after having thought about it a bit. “But not drunk enough to allow Gwaine a dance. Or a snog. Not exactly slurring my words either…I think,” he added as an afterthought. “Am I slurring my words?”

“No,” Arthur said, satisfied, then tilted his head and leaned in to place a soft, tentative kiss on Merlin’s lips that would have been chaste had it not lingered long enough for Merlin to return it gingerly.

Arthur drew back, but only a few inches, a soft smile stretching his lips just so, his eyes half-lidded and darker than Merlin had ever seen them before. His hand came up to caress Merlin’s cheek, fingers curling around his jaw to pull him into another, longer kiss that made heat simmer low in Merlin’s stomach. Sighing into it, he allowed Arthur to take advantage and let his tongue slide into Merlin’s open mouth.

The simmering in Merlin’s stomach increased in temperature with every caress of Arthur’s tongue, until it became so hot it was a boiling pool of desire that evaporated every little sane thought that told him not to let this progress any further. He’d been a bit tipsy before, but now he found himself decidedly drunk on Arthur’s lips and on Arthur’s kisses that tasted of the sweet punch they’d been drinking all evening.

Their noses bumped when Merlin changed angle, his fingers grabbing the fabric of Arthur’s suit jacket to pull him closer, to deepen the kiss in every possible way. Arthur groaned in response, a low sound coming from deep in his throat as his other hand let go of Merlin’s fingers and grabbed Merlin’s waist to meet his urgency with equal fervor. The table scratched against the floor as Merlin pushed Arthur up against it. He wasn’t even aware they’d moved before the sound startled them apart. Out of breath, they rested their foreheads against each other while their lungs desperately heaved for more air.

Arthur smiled as he looked at Merlin. It was a warm, happy, and quite ridiculous smile that made Merlin grin goofily in return before he went back in to drink from Arthur’s lips again. And again, pressing as close to the prince as possible. Had the table not been loaded with gifts, Merlin was sure he wouldn’t have resisted the temptation to lift Arthur up on it, to step between Arthur’s legs in the hunt to be even closer.

“Come with me,” Arthur breathed into Merlin’s ear when they pulled apart again, and Merlin forgot that he had actually planned to leave at some point.

Arthur led him through empty hallways and mostly deserted corridors, only the lone servant passing by, as they as nonchalantly as possible made their way to what Merlin assumed would be Arthur’s rooms. The only contact between them was Arthur’s warm fingers wrapped around Merlin’s wrist in a vice grip, both serving to keep Merlin close and at a distance. Whether that was to keep him from backing Merlin up against the nearest wall, Merlin could only guess. He, at least, was tempted to do just that with Arthur.

It must have been so, for the moment they reached Arthur’s rooms, Arthur pushed Merlin up against the still closing door, his hand going to the back of Merlin’s head to pull him in for a kiss, which was the only thing that saved Merlin from hitting his head on the hard wooden door. The notion that he could have been hurt went unheeded into the back of his mind as Arthur opened his mouth to deepen an already heated kiss. He pushed himself forward to meet Arthur’s warm body, his back arching against the door to let his hips grind against Arthur’s in a desperate need for friction.

They were covered in too many layers, Merlin decided, and they had to go, even if it felt physically painful to allow even the slightest space between them. He unbuttoned Arthur’s suit jacket, then started on his waistcoat when Arthur shrugged off the jacket before reaching behind Merlin to lock the door with a grin. Merlin felt an answering leer tug on his lips and tangled his hand in Arthur’s blond hair to draw him back in for another kiss, licking into his mouth as if he might find some answers there, to questions he had yet to ask.

Arthur groaned deep in his throat, grasped Merlin’s suit jacket, and pulled him away from the door and further into the room. His hands went to the buttons, deft fingers working quickly before pulling it off Merlin. Merlin responded by tugging on Arthur’s open waistcoat, wrestling it down his arms and dropping it to the floor without care to the expensive material. The blue tie around Arthur’s neck was more easily removed, as it had loosened considerably since the beginning of the evening. Arthur, in turn, pulled at Merlin’s bowtie and dropped it beside his tie, before going for the buttons on Merlin’s crisp, white shirt.

“You’re wearing far too much,” the prince complained, eyes strained on where his fingers were fumbling. His brows were furrowed, as if opening Merlin’s shirt was a great puzzle, which it might have been, depending on how much alcohol the prince had consumed that evening.

“Says the one who wore a three-piece,” Merlin responded, rolling his eyes before untucking Arthur’s own shirt from his dress pants, greedy hands searching out naked skin underneath. “Much better.”

“Cheater,” Arthur muttered into Merlin’s mouth while ridding him of the now unbuttoned shirt.

“How exactly am I cheating?” Merlin wanted to know, gasping when Arthur hands roamed freely and over his bare torso, cupping warmth and desire into lean muscle.

“My shirt’s not even unbuttoned.”

Barely refraining from rolling his eyes, Merlin halted in their path through Arthur’s rooms. They’d moved quite a bit from the door in their quest for Arthur’s bed. Merlin would rather they got on with it, but if Arthur insisted, who was he to disobey? Withdrawing from Arthur’s mouth, making sure he had Arthur’s disappointed eyes on him, Merlin set about opening Arthur’s shirt. As slowly as he possibly could.

“Come on, Merlin,” Arthur groaned impatiently once he figured out what he was doing. “Really?” He tugged on Merlin’s belt loops with his thumbs.

“No, no,” Merlin said, resisting the pull. “Now we’re removing the shirt properly. See? One button at a time. Nice and slow. We don’t want them popping.”

“You’re infuriating. I don’t know why I even bother,” Arthur complained.

Clearly, it couldn’t have been that bad, because instead of letting go, Arthur dipped his head to Merlin’s shoulder, mouthing along the collarbone and planting kisses while Merlin tried not to melt.

“It’ll take longer if you disturb me like that,” Merlin said with all the sternness he could muster, which, given the situation, wasn’t much.

Arthur let his teeth graze the delicate skin. “You’re too damn slow.”

“I may be persuaded to speed up a little.”

Arthur moved up to nip his earlobe before gently licking the outer shell. His hot breath went directly into Merlin’s ear as he said, “Hurry up.”

“Persuaded,” Merlin declared, after an embarrassing and rather undignified sound, and impatiently tugged on Arthur’s shirt, practically ripping the last button off in his haste.

“Much better,” Arthur laughed, letting Merlin peel the piece of clothing off him without resistance.

No sooner had it touched the floor before he pulled Merlin back into a deep, open-mouthed kiss as if to make up for all the time they hadn’t been kissing in the last few seconds. He pressed closer, bare chest to bare chest, Merlin’s hands gripping his hips tightly to grind into them.

They moved again. This time there was no stopping to take off clothes. Before long, the back of Arthur’s knees touched the edge of his bed and when Merlin kept pushing, he was forced to follow gravity and sit down, bouncing slightly on the mattress. Merlin drew back, falling to his knees in front of Arthur. The prince watched him with a silly smile and half-lidded eyes as Merlin bent down to loosen the laces on Arthur’s shiny shoe.

“Can’t you just magic them off?” Arthur asked.

“I could. But where’s the fun in that?” Merlin said, pulling the shoe off before untying the other shoe and pulling that off too. “I’m not touching your socks, though. They stink.”

Arthur laughed. “I would be surprised if they smelled like flowers.” He grabbed Merlin’s upper arms to pull him up. “Now come here. We can’t have you rolling around on the floor all night. While I definitely enjoy seeing you on your knees, this is not the time for that.”

Merlin kicked off his own leather loafers and with a golden flash of his eyes divested them both of their socks before he straddled Arthur. The prince grinned up at him, pressing a kiss to his chest that could hardly be called that because he was too busy smiling. Merlin laughed, bowing his head down at the same time he pulled Arthur’s head up for a kiss that started quite ridiculous, but quickly enough gained in earnestness. Involuntarily, Merlin rolled his hips in time with their kissing, the need for friction too great to stay still, too urgent not to move. They were both hard, had probably been for a while, and Merlin just needed to take off some of the pressure. Just a bit.

Arthur drew back to catch his breath again, looking up at Merlin with half-lidded eyes. “There’s something wrong here,” he stated.

“What?” Merlin asked, equally out of breath.

“We’re not naked.”

Merlin looked down at their very much still clothed lower bodies. “Ahh,” he said.

“And I don’t fancy coming in my pants like some prepubescent schoolboy,” Arthur said. “So if you don’t mind…” He raised a pointed eyebrow, his fingers tugging at the waistband of Merlin’s trousers.

“Alright, alright,” Merlin grumbled half-heartedly, getting off Arthur’s lap to shed the rest of his clothes, while the prince moved to the middle of the bed where he somewhat awkwardly and with absolutely none of the finesse expected of a prince wriggled out of both his trousers and his underwear.

Merlin snickered. “My, you are certainly graceful.”

In retaliation, he got a face full of Arthur’s trousers and a resentful glare from said prince, but Merlin merely threw the clothes aside and joined Arthur on the bed, crawling over to hover above him on arms and knees, a huge grin splitting his face in two.

Arthur snorted and folded his calves around Merlin’s waist to pull his body down in a move that made both of them gasp. Arthur splayed his legs out now Merlin was where he wanted him, heels digging into the sheets to better push himself upwards. They found each other’s lips again as Merlin grinded down, meeting Arthur’s upwards roll halfway, creating delicious friction that was a hundred times better without clothes.

They started slow, set a languid pace to draw out the pleasure as long as possible by silent agreement. Arthur’s eyes fell closed and his throat rumbled with a moan that was quickly followed by one more, and then a stilted intake of breath that made Arthur’s eyes fly open again. Merlin was helpless to do anything but behold him in all his glory and marvel at the fact that he had the crown prince writhing naked beneath him. On the next roll of their hips, Arthur arched his neck, another groan falling from his open mouth. Really, there was nothing to do but bow his head forward to place gasping kisses at Arthur’s neck and throat to feel the vibrations through his lips.

Arthur’s hands gripped Merlin’s shoulders, tense with the strain of holding Merlin’s body up, before wandering down, mapping the valleys and hills of lean muscle on the way. They came to rest at Merlin’s hips, which were just a bit too narrow to hold on to properly, Merlin knew, so it was no surprise when Arthur’s hands glided to his arse. With a strong grip kneading into Merlin’s buttocks, Arthur urged him to go faster. Merlin complied.

Their rhythm staggered as their speed increased. The urgency and the desperate need to come took away any finesse there might have been earlier. Merlin caught Arthur’s lips in another open-mouthed kiss, but it wasn’t long before that, too, lost finesse and they were mostly just breathing into each other’s mouths, all attention focused elsewhere.

Arthur came first, breaking off the kiss as his back arched one final time and wet spilled between them. It wasn’t long before Merlin followed, gasping into Arthur’s neck and sending hot puffs of air out over his shoulder. Then his strained arms finally gave way and he collapsed on top of Arthur without a care to the mess staining their stomachs.

When they had somewhat regained their breaths, Arthur’s hands went up to Merlin’s hair, brushing it away from his forehead, before cupping the back of his neck to pull him into a kiss that started out filthy and deep, but gradually stilled in urgency and filled instead with something Merlin couldn’t quite name, something so far from the previous moments of passion, it might have happened in another time. Merlin pulled back, lifted himself up on his elbows to look down at Arthur to see if he might be able to decipher what that ‘something’ was.

The hand at the back of his neck slid up to trace the contours of Merlin’s face, gliding over his jaw and up to his cheekbone, thumb gently rubbing the skin flushed from exertion. Merlin let him. The prince was watching him with the same kind of ‘something’ the kiss had been filled with, but Merlin was no closer to finding out what that was than before. He knew he’d seen the look somewhere, but couldn’t quite place it, as Arthur’s usual expressions were of smugness, arrogance and a self-righteousness only rivaled by Morgana. Humour and exasperation were common, too, but this….this tenderness was foreign and unfamiliar, yet not unpleasant.
Arthur’s lips spread in a gentle smile and Merlin felt his own face light up in response.

It wasn’t unpleasant at all.

Naturally, Arthur had to go and ruin it all when the smile turned into a smirk and his next words were, “Are you going to clean us up, or what?”

Merlin couldn’t help the laugh that escaped him. As much as he liked the newfound side of Arthur, he was much too used to the prat part to be surprised by its return. “I should have figured you would be demanding in bed.”

“I can also call George, if you’d rather not use your handy magic. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind being woken up at this hour to clean come off our sweaty, naked bodies.” He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

Merlin buried his face in Arthur’s shoulder, laughing with just a hint of deliriousness. Then he let his eyes flash golden and the wet spot on their stomachs disappeared. “Happy now?”

“Much better.”

Sighing heavily, Merlin rolled off Arthur to lay on his back and enjoy the soft mattress, which was only somewhat a better alternative to Arthur. There was nothing like the heat of a warm, flushed body.

“Don’t fall asleep just yet,” Arthur said, when Merlin’s eyes drifted closed. “The night’s still young.”

“Good.” Merlin popped open an eye to look at Arthur who was propped up on an elbow, watching him with an expectant look. “I would be surprised if there was only one go in you.”

“Oh, there’s plenty,” Arthur said, shifting on the bed and presenting Merlin with his back so he could reach the nightstand and pull out a drawer. He turned back to face Merlin, a tube of lube and a few packets of condoms in his hands. “Do you want to go first, or should I?”

---------------

When Merlin awoke the next morning, there were a few blissful yet slightly confusing moments where he didn’t remember where he was; the softness of the expensive sheets and warm body beside and around him was all he knew. Then, unfortunately, everything came crashing back in an avalanche of sensations and heated memories when he opened his eyes and was faced with the crown prince in quite close proximity.

Arthur was sleeping silently, head tugged towards where Merlin was resting his head on his chest. Their feet were tangled together under the sheets, and Merlin was half-draped on top of Arthur with Arthur’s arm around him in an intimate embrace only worsened by their nakedness. For a short moment, he thought about closing his eyes again. Not necessarily to sleep, just to stay in the moment where he could pretend that Arthur wasn’t crown prince and Merlin wasn’t dragonlord-to-be, that they were just two people who could wake up in each other’s arms and not regret a thing because it just couldn’t be. It was tempting to slow down time for a while — it was within his powers, after all — but it would merely be to postpone the inevitable. The sooner Merlin moved, the better.

Carefully, he extricated himself from their embrace, untangled their feet and inched out from under Arthur’s arm with as much stealth as he could muster, while praying the prince slept heavily in his drunken slumber so he wouldn’t wake up before Merlin could make his escape. Then he allowed himself a small moment of despair as he sat at the edge of the bed and buried his head in his hands.

Oh, this was bad. This was so very bad that Merlin really wished his magic abilities extended to turning back time and not just slowing it down for a bit. Perhaps he should devote his future to building a time machine so he could go back and hit his drunk self in the head before falling into the crown prince’s bed. He had been sloshed yesterday, yes, but usually that wasn’t enough for him to lose himself completely. Vaguely, he remembered having turned Gwaine down for yet another ill-advised snog in a dark corner — that had happened far too many times in the past — so why was it that as soon as Arthur had kissed him, everything had been forgotten? Everything but the present moment and how it felt to be touched by Arthur? How it felt to be caressed and kissed with such care and a tenderness that had turned into a hunger Merlin had never realized he’d had before it was there — all-consuming in its passion, like a fire that had burned away every single inhibition Merlin should’ve had, more than any drink had ever done. Even now, as he threw a longing glance at Arthur’s sleeping form — face softened and slightly colored with the red tinge that mostly came with sleep but also with sex — it simmered in the pit of his stomach, sated for the time being but only waiting to be set afire again.

Merlin barely suppressed a groan before remembering his goal not to wake Arthur up.
Kilgharrah was, of course, going to laugh at him for the rest of eternity. And what would his parents say? Surely, they’d be beside themselves with worry when they found out Merlin hadn’t returned to his hotel room for the night.

A glance at the clock radio on the nightstand told him it was a quarter past ten, which wasn’t too bad. Merlin had feared it was much later. His parents had probably just finished breakfast at the hotel and possibly assumed he was sleeping off the alcohol he’d consumed in large quantities yesterday. Nevertheless, it wouldn’t be too long before they were expected to check out, luggage packed, and if Merlin wasn’t at his hotel room by then, there were going to be questions. And they would be awkward.

Although….maybe, he could just say he’d spent the night with Gwaine as he’d done before. Of course he’d have to confess to his friend to let him in on the secret, but Merlin trusted Gwaine enough not to tell anyone. Sure, he’d be absolutely intolerable and roll around with laughter, pointing childish fingers at Merlin’s face, but he wouldn’t tell, which was the essential part. Merlin could live with the humiliation.

Because, really, sleeping with the crown prince was—yeah, he didn’t have a word for how stupid that was. He’d have to make one up later.

But first he had to get dressed, find his way out of the palace without bumping into anyone, call Gwaine, go back to the hotel to hide in Gwaine’s room for a while, and hope that Arthur wouldn’t remember a thing. Or at least be kind enough to not bring it up again. Ever.

He got out of the bed and set about finding his clothes, which were scattered all over the floor, shed with no thought to the expensive and dry clean-only material, to achieve the first part of his plan. His underwear and trousers were easy to find as they’d been shed last and were thus in close proximity to the bed, but where his socks had disappeared off to, he didn’t know. He glanced about the room while pulling on his trousers, the zip awfully loud in the otherwise quiet room, but his magic must have sent them flying into a dark corner or somewhere else; only George would find them. He supposed Arthur could keep them, as he had a million other socks, and time was of the essence. He was not going to be caught searching for a pair of smelly socks.

After slipping on his leather loafers and getting used to the weird feeling of not wearing any socks in them, he tiptoed across the room to find his dress shirt. However, since there was a certain lack of diversity to them in general, he first had to look at the tailor’s label to find out which was his and which was Arthur’s.

He’d just located his own, which of course had been the last one he’d looked at, and slipped it on, his fingers starting on the buttons, when a voice startled him.

“What are you doing?”

Merlin turned around. Arthur was still lying on the bed but his head was craning up to look at him with a drowsy, muddled expression, having apparently just woken up.

“I’m—Err….” Merlin looked down at his hands that had stilled in shock, before looking back up at Arthur and his unruly bed hair that was sticking up in different directions. “I’m dressing?”

Arthur shifted, fighting to sit up in the bed, suddenly much more awake. The covers gathered in a pool around his waist as he leaned against the headboard “Why?” he said, a deep frown furrowing his brows. “Are you leaving already?”

“Uhm...” Of all the possible reactions, Merlin had not expected that one. That Arthur would fake sleep to give Merlin enough time to escape the room so they could both pretend nothing happened, yes. That Arthur would be mortified and regret the previous night as much as Merlin and allow him to leave with a promise of never bringing it up ever, yes. Both of those were possible scenarios, but that Arthur—well, he’d not predicted that the crown prince would see this as anything other than a grave mistake.

“You are, aren’t you?” Arthur continued. There was hurt in the words, a deep sadness that pulled at Merlin’s heart and threatened to tear it out of his chest.

Merlin continued buttoning up his crumpled shirt with frantic, fumbling fingers, saying, “I have to get back, Arthur. My parents are expecting me. When they find out I’ve not been sleeping in my own room there are going to be questions, and I would hate to put you in that position.”

“When will I see you again?”

Merlin grimaced. “I don’t know.”

“So last night,” Arthur said in a voice that was as far from his usual arrogant one as Merlin had ever heard it. “That was just a mistake then? You fell into my bed because I was the nearest warm body? Not because you actually wanted to because it was me?”

The simmering pool in his stomach froze into a dead landscape of hard ice. It hurt to see Arthur like this. To hear his thin, broken voice and see his crumbled wounded face, to let him think that Merlin didn’t like him at all when in fact the exact opposite was true.

He knew nothing could come of it, he knew that, but the least he could do was turn him down properly, and so he said, “It’s not that—well, it’s not that I’m not attracted to you, I wouldn’t have a functioning libido if I weren’t, and it’s not that I don’t like you. In that way. But Arthur, you’re the crown prince, and I’m—well, I am noble, but I’m a man, if you hadn’t noticed—”

“Believe me, I did.”

“—And you have to marry some nice noble lady to carry on the monarchy, and I have too much self-respect be your dirty little secret. I will not be someone whom you occasionally shag or snog in dark corners while you kiss your wife in front of the cameras and the king.” He paused. “Even if you….And if I….” He waved a hand to try to get Arthur to understand what he couldn’t say with words that were stuck somewhere deep in his throat. Then he picked up his bowtie and went to retrieve his suit jacket.

Arthur inhaled deeply. When he exhaled, it was with an air of…of exasperation, not of hurt like before, his shoulders relaxing in time with his breath. “You really are an idiot,” he grumbled, somewhat putting a bit of affection into his words.

Then he threw off the covers and got out of the bed, distractingly naked and looking like someone truly debauched, which wasn’t really far off, if Merlin’s memory served him well. Arthur stalked towards him, and Merlin tried not to stare, but failed miserably, thus did not offer much resistance when Arthur divested him of the suit jacket and manhandled him back to the bed.

“Arthur...” Merlin tried, but it didn’t come out as the strong objection he’d intended. Not when Arthur pushed him into the bed and proceeded to curl around Merlin’s back, one strong arm preventing him from going anywhere, their legs tangling when Arthur pressed a knee between Merlin’s. His mouth was by Merlin’s ear, hot breath sending shivers down his spine and throughout the rest of his body.

Then Arthur kissed the delicate skin right behind his ear and said, “This is not actually some forbidden-romance novel, Merlin.” He pressed closer, making it painfully clear that it was morning and unlike Merlin, Arthur was still very much naked. “I’ll have you know that my father is fully aware of my sexual orientation. Why else do you think he strong-armed the church into accepting gay marriage?”

“Uh,” Merlin said, eloquent as ever. He did remember the big fuss it had brought about, but had assumed it was because it was already a common practice in the new religion, and Uther had wanted to be the better person. Or to gain favour with the public.

Apparently satisfied that Merlin wasn’t attempting escape, Arthur let the hand previously holding him captive wander south. “Furthermore,” he continued while his hand found Merlin’s waistband, fingers teasing the soft skin above before undoing the button and opening the zipper. “He is also aware of my intentions towards you.”

“What?” Merlin practically squeaked, not sure whether it was from Arthur’s words or what his hand was doing.

“Indeed,” Arthur said in a tone that was rather infuriatingly self-satisfied, and while Merlin couldn’t see it, he could definitely imagine the smug grin on his face. “He was the one who arranged the meeting between us. Apparently, he doesn’t much care about my sexual orientation as long as I marry someone of noble blood.” His fingers glided further downwards underneath Merlin’s boxers, and Merlin inhaled sharply when they started a gentle caress, coaxing him to attention. “It’s a requirement, actually. And so he set me up with all these fine noblemen in the hopes that I should find one to my liking. That’s how I met Gwaine, Perce, and Lance, by the way. And loads of other idiots not worth mentioning.”

Merlin was a bit too occupied by other things to properly answer, but he did manage to say, “Must’ve been fun.”

Arthur snorted. “It was tedious most of the time, though I did acquire some new friends, for which I’m thankful.” His free hand came up to bury itself in Merlin’s hair, fingers idly playing with the black strands. “But he stopped arranging these meetings a while ago,” he said. “After I met you, I felt there was no reason to continue the farce.”

Merlin opened his mouth to say something, but the hand in his hair moved to turn his head towards Arthur and Arthur’s waiting lips. His mouth was stale with sleep, but Merlin knew his own was no better and at Arthur’s insistence he gave himself over to the kiss. It wasn’t long before all thoughts of bad morning breath vanished, especially when Arthur’s hand curled around his cock properly and Merlin had to gasp at the following stroke.

Arthur drew back, thumb tracing Merlin’s cheekbone, and looked at him the same way he’d looked at him the night before, and, come to think of it now Merlin was aware of it, probably many more times before that. He could drown in it, in that gaze, that open expression that told him exactly what Arthur thought of him. Would drown in it if it wasn’t for the crick starting to form in his neck.

He tried to turn over to better face Arthur, but it proved a bit difficult considering their entangled legs and where Arthur had his hand. Especially when the prince didn’t seem willing to cooperate at all and instead tightened his grip on Merlin’s length.

“Do lay still so I can have my wicked way with you,” Arthur said with a lascivious grin. “I’ve really looked forward to lazy morning sex, and I’ll not have you run from it because you think we live in one of those terrible romance novels Gwen likes to read.”

“My neck is hurting,” Merlin said and, as much as it pained him, wrapped his hand around Arthur’s wrist to get him to stop. “And I hate to point it out, but the fact that you’re required to marry a noble is a horribly overused trope in romance.”

Arthur snorted as he allowed Merlin turn fully. “True. But obviously not too much of an obstacle in our case.”

“Apparently not,” Merlin conceded, letting Arthur catch his lips in a hungry kiss and press him into the mattress to have a go at the ‘lazy morning sex.’

It wasn’t until later, after Arthur had succeeded in stripping Merlin naked once again, and they were lying in a sweaty tangle of sheets and limbs, that Merlin remembered his parents.

He bolted upright in the bed, throwing Arthur’s arm off him with the sudden movement. “Bollocks!”

“What is it now?” Arthur asked, almost exasperated, supporting his head on his hand to look up at Merlin.

“My parents. They are probably worried sick by now.” He tossed the covers off, shifting to plant his bare feet on the floor.

“They were informed of my intentions towards you when my father set up the meeting,” Arthur drawled. “They will probably have guessed where you spent the night by now.”

Merlin turned his head around to level an incredulous look at him over his shoulder. “Am I seriously the last one to know we’ve been courting all this time?”

Arthur stretched out on the bed, all relaxed smugness and that infuriating, self-satisfied look on his face as he beamed up at Merlin. “Yes, well you are a bit daft, so it was to be expected.”

Merlin wanted to punch that grin right off his face, but he also wanted to kiss him, which was a bit of a problem because he wasn’t sure Arthur deserved a kiss. “I should at least check my phone,” he mumbled and began searching through the pile of clothes at his feet to distract himself.

He’d just fished his phone out from his pocket when there was a loud knock on the door. Startled, he dropped it, hearing a ‘thunk’ as it hit the floor, and whirled back into the bed and under the covers while Arthur laughed heartily and sat up against the headboard, the sheets around his hips, and called out,

“Come in.”

The door opened and George entered the room with an air of importance, completely unfazed by the sight before him. “His Majesty has requested your presence in the private dining room,” he announced with a bow. “He, Her Holiness, and Sir Leon will be having a late brunch shortly.”

“We’ll be right there,” Arthur said, throwing a quick glance at Merlin before turning back to George. “In the meantime, can you get Merlin some clean clothes? The ones he wore yesterday are….not suitable.”

Merlin wondered if he thought he fooled anyone with that tone.

“I have already informed his parents of his whereabouts and arranged to have his luggage picked up from the hotel. It should be here any moment,” George informed, his back as straight as if he’d just performed a great deed, chest pushed forward with pride. Merlin supposed anyone serving Arthur would have to be made of a certain kind of sturdy material along with a great deal of willful blindness.

“Thank you, George. You may go,” Arthur said, and George bowed and left the room.

“If I didn’t know better I’d think he was a mind reader,” Merlin said, peeking up from under the sheets.

Arthur chuckled. “I have suspected so myself, but luckily he’s merely perceptive. Now come on,” he said, throwing off the covers with a sudden enthusiasm, “the shower’s big enough for two.”

“Is shower sex another thing you’ve been looking forward to?” Merlin asked, eyebrow arched knowingly as he, too, got out of the bed, stretching his sore limbs once he was on his feet.

“Oh, believe me,” Arthur said with eyes that promised either bliss or torture. “I have.”

Finding that he wasn’t all that bothered by that idea, Merlin let himself be dragged to the bathroom.

When they emerged some time later, Merlin’s suitcase was standing innocuously in the middle of the room, and the clothes previously littering the floor had been removed. Merlin felt the flames of a flush spread out over his face and down his shoulders at the implications that George had been in the room while Arthur had fucked Merlin against the wall in the shower. Neither of them had exactly been quiet, and he wasn’t sure he’d be able to look George in the eyes the next few days. Arthur, however, didn’t appear bothered at all and went to pick out some fresh clothes from his closet.

“It’s just family brunch,” he said, fiddling through his drawers. “You don’t have to dress up or anything.”

“It’s not like I packed my entire wardrobe, you know,” Merlin responded and fished out a clean pair of jeans and a dark blue jumper, which just so happened to be the only clean clothes he’d packed. Aside from underwear, of course.

Afterwards, when they were both dressed, Merlin followed Arthur out of the room and through hallways that in the light of day were crowded with servants and other personnel going about their business. They greeted Arthur with a “Your Highness,” and Merlin with a “My Lord,” and a slight bow, and although none of them looked at him funny, the whole thing seemed incredibly awkward and somewhat surreal at the same time.

Talk about a walk of shame.

Arthur, of course, was nothing but a ball of sunshine beside him, displaying to everyone and everybody that, yes, he’d just gotten laid.

The private dining room was relatively small, about the same size as the one in Merlin’s manor, and clearly only meant for family dining. Around the table sat Morgana, Leon, and the king himself, already started on the brunch. Morgana sent him a sly look when they entered, Leon voiced a misplaced ‘good morning’ considering it was just about noon, and Uther deigned to look up from the newspaper he’d been reading.

Merlin swallowed, waiting for the world to implode, and followed Arthur over to where two plates filled with sausages, bacon, pancakes, and everything expected in a traditional brunch had been set out beside each other, along with glasses and teacups not yet filled with beverages.

“Ah, Merlin, George informed us you spent the night with Arthur,” Uther said pleasantly, folding the newspaper before putting it away to give them his full attention.

“Uhm, yes….Sire” Merlin said, only barely remembering to tack on the honorific when it occurred to him that the king was probably aware of what he and Arthur had been doing all night. And in the shower.

He knew he should have practiced that transportation spell.

Strangely enough, there was a hint of a kind smile on Uther’s lips as he took a sip of his tea. “There is no need for formalities in private, Merlin. Leon speaks to me ordinarily. I can hardly expect my children’s significant others to be calling me ‘His Majesty’ and ‘Sire’ every time they speak to me.”

“No, Sir—err, of course not,” Merlin said, glancing at Leon sitting in front of him beside Morgana, who smiled knowingly and handed him the orange juice. Right, the last one to know, Merlin reminded himself and tried not to feel too embarrassed by that thought as he poured himself a glass of juice before putting it to his lips so that he might refrain from speaking.

“Excellent,” Uther said, satisfied, and turned to Arthur, who had dug into his brunch plate in the meantime. “I’m glad you’ve finally decided to make things serious, Arthur. Now we just need to announce your engagement to the public to let the people know their crown prince is finally marrying.”

Merlin barely refrained from sputtering his juice out all over his plate, instead struggling to get the liquid down without incident, coughing when a few drops went down his windpipe. Uther turned to him with a mildly worried frown and Arthur patted his back soothingly.

“Is something the matter?” The king asked, a bewildered note in his tone, while Leon hid his smile with a napkin and Morgana didn’t even bother.

Merlin was so flabbergasted he hardly knew where to start once he’d tamed his coughing fit. “Isn’t it a bit too soon to—I mean, we’ve only just—Arthur hasn’t—”

Uther, it seemed, was not well-versed in understanding half-finished sentences, and said, “Yes, I realise Arthur hasn’t been public about his preferences, and we do expect some backlash from certain bigoted religious groups, along with the more narrow-minded part of the population, but that is nothing for you to worry about. You’ll find out that as a public person you can never please all, and I hardly think fear of the conformists should dictate who my son marries.”

“No, that wasn’t what I—” Arthur hadn’t actually proposed to him, was what he’d wanted to say. Or vice versa, for that matter. They’d only just somewhat established that they liked each other romantically, and Uther expected them to….to be engaged already? Then again, the king might be from a time where sleeping together meant the marriage contract was already signed, and had apparently not kept up with things despite his acceptance of homosexuality. It didn’t exactly placate Merlin’s mortification, though.

“Now, of course,” Uther plodded on, not waiting for Merlin to explain himself, “the fact that Arthur’s Christian and you’re of the new religion is going to complicate things, but I’ve already had people work out a suitable ceremony to combine traditions from both. I suppose a summer wedding will be preferable considering the part of the ceremony taking place outside in accordance with the new religion.” He paused thoughtfully. “Unless, of course, you have other preferences? Spring maybe? Fall? I must admit that I am not an expert on the appropriate time for hand-fasting ceremonies.”

“Uhh….” Merlin said and looked to Arthur for help to get him to explain to his father that things weren’t actually that far along in their relationship.

Arthur merely beamed back, bright and warm and boyish, and found Merlin’s hand under the table, squeezing it and somehow managing to pour that ‘something’ from earlier into it.

Oh, what the hell, Merlin thought. He might as well give Kilgharrah an actual reason to be a smug bastard.

“Summer is good,” he told Uther and squeezed back.