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A Collapsing Star With Tunnel Vision

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“Perhaps we are doing her a favor then,” he says, pausing to chew the inside of his cheek before adding in a measured, careful voice. “I wouldn’t want to live without my love, either.”

Arthur whips around in the saddle to stare at him, eyes hard and dark, like the storm clouds building on the distant horizon. “What love? You haven’t got a love,” he snaps, like he’s the sole keeper of all Merlin’s secrets.

—-

Arthur always goes a little mad beyond the constraints of Camelot.

Merlin doesn't know what to do about it, really. Arthur’s constant touching is hard enough to stomach when it’s rude prodding and unprompted punches and getting his hair mussed up or the back of his ear flicked so violently it leaves a bruise. He hardly knows what to do with this altered variation.

It’s not that Arthur touches him more when they ride out just the two of them, but he certainly touches him differently. He gets boyish and silly, his smiles loose and catchlights in his eyes, his teasing still endless but more far more lighthearted, hands gentle and constant as if his palms burn when they’re not clapped over Merlin’s shoulders or messing with the hem of his over-shirt.

When the other knights are there, they all sleep around the fire with Merlin across from Arthur so that their eyes meet occasionally through the flicker of flame. But when they’re alone, Arthur always shares his sleeping roll, leans against Merlin and pokes at the burning embers with a charred stick, boorishly attempting to stoke the fire even though he always sort of messes it up and inevitably topples Merlin’s carefully constructed pyre of kindling. They sleep side by side, nose-to tail sometimes or else front-to-back. Arthur’s fists press gently to the bones in Merlin’s shoulders, balled until he drifts off and they soften there like melting snow, and only then does Merlin remember to breathe.

He tries his hardest not to wonder about what this could all mean, as he’s well aware of the foolishness in hoping. After all, it’s never wise to crave more than destiny allows. He should be happy, he thinks, to spend the occasional weekend outside the kingdom beneath the same sheepskin as Arthur Pendragon, close enough to smell the wood-smoke in his hair when he wakes and they’ve tangled up together over the course of the night, like their limbs belong twisted into puzzles like roots.

—-

Merlin realizes too late that Arthur will not let him rest. Just when he’s settling back into the routine of being his servant, ever-weathering his stupid pranks and endless, performative ridicule, Arthur will schedule a hunting trip just the two of them, and Merlin is left confused all over again.

They’re not even real hunting trips, they’re secret hunting trips to the borderlands of Cenred’s kingdom, where monsters roam and hunt freely since there is no formal militia patrolling the area. Merlin suspects after saving Ealdor that Arthur is overly concerned for these small forgotten villages, as he knows this father will not lift a finger to protect them and neither will their king. He shoulders the task himself, dragging Merlin out with him to kill Banshees and Hippogriffs and whatever else preys upon the weak and unprotected. He knows Merlin can keep a secret, but he also fancies him some sort of good-luck charm, chalking their high success rate up to Merlin’s “magic” but not his magic.

It’s annoying, but Merlin would never let Arthur traipse off into the woods to kill beasts born of sorcery alone, so. He rides out with him, grits his teeth and tolerates the version of Arthur he travels with on these particular ventures: bright-eyed, grin-brandishing, young, confusing.

They’re currently hunting a creature the villagers have been describing as part bird, part serpent. It picks farmers from the fields to feast upon and those men it does not kill it turns to stone, so they've been cautioned to avoid looking at it dead on. To protect them, Arthur has blindfolded them both. It’s ridiculous—he keeps swinging the sword about blindly and throwing himself off balance as he fights—but lucky for him Merlin is a sorcerer and immune to the power of the beast’s stares, it seems, so he surreptitiously ditches his blindfold and spears the thing on Arthur’s blade using magic.

Blood pours out in a hot black torrent, all over Arthur’s hands and gauntlets, drenching his hair in tar-stickiness. The thing falls down dead in a steaming heap, and Merlin cackles in laughter as Arthur reels about, dripping and sightless and totally pitiful. “Here, come here,” he snickers, grabbing him by the tunic and dragging him in to untie the blood-doused blindfold. “You can stop, you killed it.”

“I did? I did! Well. Look at that. I told you, Merlin, a true warrior relies upon all his senses and can kill even when robbed of his sight.”

Merlin rolls his eyes, smiling. “Sure. A true warrior,” he concedes, wiping snake-blood on his trousers and wrinkling his nose in disgust.

“Merlin. You’re entirely too clean, let me remedy that,” Arthur says easily before whooping in triumph at their kill and tackling Merlin to the ground, pinning him to the dirt with his hands above his head. Arthur grins down at him as he gasps, eyes sparkling blue and smile so wild it feels like something Merlin could get lost in, the whole of the sky or the most vast and endless ocean. Arthur wrestles him, overpowers him, sits on his hips and breathes right over his mouth, voice low and dangerous as he murmurs, “That’s better.”

“You smell disgusting,” Merlin tells him, trying in vain to kick him off. “Pity I can’t run you a bath out here. You’re going to have to let that blood dry in your clothes and ride back into Camelot stinking of rot.”

However, after Arthur vaults off of him they find a spring to rinse off in. It’s nothing but snowmelt, such a biting cold it steals Merlin’s breath, draws his nipples tight against his skin as he splashes himself with tremulous hands, wobbly when his legs go numb. He tries to avoid looking at Arthur, but it’s impossible because he’s everywhere, chattering away about the craft of swordsmanship and how it’s more an art, really, than a fighting style, scrubbing at his arms and flicking water from his hair in glittering droplets. He’s pale and glorious in the high-noon glare, the handsomest man Merlin has ever had the dual privilege and curse to behold. Merlin sees Arthur naked most days, it’s part of his job, but he’s gotten quite adept at avoiding the sensitive areas and keeping his mind blissfully and self-protectively blank. It’s a far more difficult task when they’re out here, though, nude in a freezing stream together instead of in Arthur’s quarters, the weight or propriety and assigned roles an inescapable, crushing burden keeping Merlin in check. Plus, Arthur is inches from him, always pushing closer, skin rosy and pebbled in gooseflesh from the cold as he scrubs blood from the beds of his nails.

“You’re quiet,” Arthur observes, righting himself as rivulets of water drip from his face down his lovely throat, catching in the thatch of hair between his pectorals and making Merlin’s gut clench, his mouth flood. It’s really awful that the arrogant, insufferable prince he’s destined to shape into a great king looks like this. He finds it quite easy to get carried away with loving him. “What on earth have you got to brood about? We killed the thing. We can take down some stags on the way back so my father doesn't question us, if you’re worried about getting caught.”

Getting caught. As if they are naughty school boys with a secret. Merlin scoffs, shaking his head at Arthur, sending a rooster tail of freezing water at him in a deliberate splash and delighting in the way he gasps and ducks. “It’s not that,” he admits. “S’just. It was so easy. Too easy, maybe.” It’s a deflection but it’s also the truth: Merlin has been hesitant to sink into the relief of a job well done with this particular defeat, for some reason. And usually, that means his magic is picking up on something he and Arthur are not.

“Oh quit,” Arthur snaps, dousing his clothes in the stream and furiously rinsing them, the blood diluting into wispy black streaks carried along the current as he wrings his tunic out. “You need to learn to stop worrying about things after they’ve happened, Merlin.”

Then he flicks a sticky wad of of clotted monster gore from his tunic at him so it lands on his arm, and Merlin retaliates by dunking him under, and they squabble in the bracing cold for a few moment, limbs so numb Merlin can hardly tell which parts of Arthur he is touching, and where he’s being touched.

—-

They end up spreading out naked on a big flat rock in the sun to dry off, and Merlin shuts his eyes against the searing white burn of the day, squinting and covering his face with his arm. Arthur lies beside him and sighs in contentment, then shifts close enough their arms touch, ice against ice. Merlin’s heart stops, then speeds, and he wishes it would plateau between those two extremes.

He can feel Arthur looking at him. “What, do I have a leech on me or something,” he asks, palming over his cock, which is shrunken into the heat of his body right now, much smaller than it usually is and perhaps that’s why Arthur is staring. He’s about to make some rude comment about the manner in which Merlin is endowed.

Instead, he pinches his thigh, just above the shiny, whorled scar Merlin has had since he was a child who did not understand how to control this magic. “How did you get this?” Arthur asks curiously, and his voice is so soft it makes Merlin’s stomach gather and drop, sudden like a stone cast into deep water.

“Erm,” Merlin says, trying to think quickly. “Farming accident,” he lies. “Fell on a trowel.”

“Really? That’s a boring battle scar,” Arthur tells him.

“What can I say, I’m a boring farmer’s boring son,” he fires back. “It bled everywhere,” he adds then, because that part is at least true. It had actually happened the first time he attempted to save a dish from breaking—he’d subconsciously frozen it mid air, and then when he realized he’d done it, promptly dropped it again so that it crashed to the ground and shattered into a million pieces. One imbedded itself in his leg and his mother had to pluck it out with her bare fingers while he sobbed. “It didn’t even hurt, but I still cried, just because of all the blood.”

“Of course you did,” Arthur says fondly, rolling onto his side, breath a warm, too-close huff on Merlin’s chest, like his head is bowed over it, like he is searching the rest of his skin for more scars, more stories to prod for. Merlin’s pulse speeds beneath the scrutiny and he swallows, but does not open his eyes. Perhaps if he stays this way, Arthur will look his fill and lie back down, quit studying him like he is worth studying. But that is not what happens. “Here,” he says eventually, tossing Merlin’s shirt back to him and letting it land heavy and damp on his chest. “You should cover up. You’re so fucking pale, you'll burn and then whine the whole journey back.”

Merlin does not care for the insinuation, but he is grateful to shrug into his tunic and out from under the weight of Arthur’s gaze.

—-

That night, as the fire burns low and quiet, Arthur throws an arm around Merlin’s waist and draws him close. It’s shocking. He buries his face at the base of his neck, into the knot of his neckerchief, and Merlin’s heart thunders in his chest, loud enough he's certain Arthur can feel it beneath the splay of his broad palm. “What are you doing?! Are you cold?” he asks as he tries to quell his panic.

“A bit,” Arthur says, and Merlin feels him frown against his skin. It’s not a good enough answer for his heart to slow so it continues its frantic thud, rabbit-nervous and hummingbird quick.

He presses back into the solidity of Arthur’s body with masochistic defiance. “You know, you’re a quite different traveling companion, when it’s just me,” he says, gazing resolutely up at the stars as Arthur pushes one of his knees between his thighs from behind.

“Well of course,” Arthur says, voice muffled but incredulous, like he thinks it’s a stupid and obvious observation to make. “The knights can’t see me acting soft on my servant,” he scoffs. “They wouldn’t respect me. I have to set an example.”

Merlin sucks in a shaky breath, silent for a long time as he stares into the fire and sucks his own teeth, chewing over Arthur’s words in his mind while he burns up under the heat of his arm. “You don’t act—you’re not soft with me,” he reminds him. “You wrestled me to the ground and rubbed blood all over me just this afternoon.”

Arthur is very quiet for a lingering moment, as if he’s actually thinking about something, for once. Probably coming up with a clever insult, most likely, or at least an insult he thinks is clever. Merlin waits for it, but when Arthur does speak, his voice is a somber, gentle thing, and it stuns him. “When m’around the knights—it’s my job. It may seem as if they’re my friends but they’re not, they’re my army. I can’t fully be myself around them.”

Merlin’s spit is metallic with nerves as he swallows. “But you can with me?”

Arthur lets go of him then, rolling over and staring resolutely up at the black of the sky, scrubbing a hand over his face. “What do you want me to say, Merlin? That I care what the knights think of me so much I turn into a different person away from them? That I’m insincere? That I enjoy occasionally escaping from my responsibilities and killing a beast in someone else’s kingdom and forgetting, just for a moment, that I’m a prince? That you’re the only person I trust to see me like this?”

Oh, Merlin thinks, everything still as the grave. He wavers, then props himself up on his arm to look down at Arthur. He must catch him in the rare act of telling the truth, trap the sound of it rich and lymph-sticky between his palms so that he can treasure it forever. When he looks at him his eyes are wide and stricken, wet where they reflect the fire, violent spots of color on his cheeks. “Yes,” Merlin says after a pause, grinning and laying a hand on Arthur’s arm and squeezing gently. “That will do, I suppose.”

Arthur tears his gaze away, looking out into the thick of the wood and trying to school a smile. “You’re terrible.”

Merlin digs a thumb into his armpit, breath catching in his throat when he pushes past the rough scour of fabric to accidentally touch sweat-damp hair, soft skin. “You are, actually.”

“Get some sleep,” Arthur mumbles, wrenching away. “We have a long journey back to Camelot tomorrow.”

Merlin lowers himself back down, settling into Arthur’s back as close as he can justify, pressing his brow to the top-most knob of his spine and inhaling the spring water smell of him, the faint ghost of blood still clinging to the fibers of his tunic. Eventually he extends his arm until it rests gingerly upon Arthur’s hip, and he wonders if he has the nerve to curl it around his body the way Arthur curled his own arm around him. Somehow, Merlin feels like he must never initiate this brand of touch—that there’s a special, unspoken time for such things and he’s too lovesick and devoted to understand the complicated nuance which allows Arthur to be privy to this sort of information. His fingers flex instead, his lips forming the shape of a kiss he gives the air around Arthur’s skin, but not the skin itself.

They lie there together, the only sounds the crackle of the smoldering fire, the distant roar of the stream they bathed in, and cicada song. Merlin thinks Arthur is asleep, but then he speaks his name, syllables almost lost to the din of the night. “Merlin,” he says, reaching back and brushing his fingers over the bone of Merlin’s wrist.

“Hm?” he replies, half-lost to the threat of dreams, the folly hope of being the one person to which Arthur reveals his truest self.

“You know you’re not just my servant, right?” he says then, and so suddenly Merlin is awake in a flash. His stomach drops, cheeks suddenly hot.

“What am I, then?” he asks, daring to extend his arm, to drape it over Arthur’s torso, heavy and clumsy so he still seems asleep, so he can pass every motion off as delirium.

“My—” Arthur cuts himself off with a choked , breathless laugh. “I don’t know,” he says eventually, swallowing with a noisy click, voice soft. “I don’t know. You’re you. You’re my friend. My only and dearest friend.”

Merlin squeezes his eyes shut so tightly the blackness erupts into a dense smattering of stars. He waits for a joke, for a punchline, or perhaps even an actual punch, a sudden impact to take the edge of Arthur’s deadly sincerity, but he say nothing more, and so Merlin is doomed to lie with these words imbedded beneath his skin, and still try not to wish for more than destiny has granted him. He spreads his hand in Arthur’s tunic before making a fist, dragging him impossibly close. “Yes, I know,” he confesses, shirt in his mouth. “And you’re mine.”

Arthur huffs out a breath, and it sounds wet and fragile as it creates a visible shape in the dark. “Yes I am,” he says. “Perhaps more than you know.”

Merlin has no idea what to say to that, so he just holds Arthur harder, draws him nearer, wishing he could take this exactly as it is without hoping for more. Arthur is a prince, a king to be, and possessing his friendship should be enough. It is an enormous privilege. Merlin should cherish this, without letting it infect him with longing, with foolishness.

Still, as he drifts off he dreams of the way Arthur pinned him with his blood black hair slicked to his brow, the way he grinned down at Merlin like he was the only man in the world, held his arms over his head and into the grass with a grip so biting and strong it was like he was holding something back.

—-

The night’s honesty sticks to Merlin in his sleep, a still-tangible thing in the morning when he wakes alone and shivering beneath the sheepskin. “You’re up,” Arthur says from where he’s sitting a few feet away, hunched over the fire and hopelessly fiddling with twigs. “Good, maybe you can get this thing started and cook us some breakfast.”

Merlin blinks at him, wondering if he, too, is thinking about the evening prior. Did he hold Arthur all night? Did he snore against the back of his neck? Twitch as he dreamt? It’s all too mortifying to think about so he doesn’t, shaking his head and grabbing the flint from Arthur. “How long have you been trying to do this?”

“Entirely too long, if m’honest,” Arthur says, slapping Merlin on the back. “I got up at dawn to pee, ran into one of the villagers on my way back. It turns out we were perhaps too hasty—some cattle and a goat were found turned to stone this morning in the serpent’s usual hunting grounds. Seems the ugly thing had a mate.”

Merlin shakes his head, stacking kindling over the only remaining ember from the night before and trapping its heat until something ignites. “I knew it,” he murmurs. “I could sense it.”

“For once, we should have listened to your soppy, girlish, intuitive powers,” Arthur admits like it pains him. “I told him we’d take care of it, so I suppose we’re not riding for Camelot today after all.” He grins, then, demonstrating how little he cares for the idea of riding back to Camelot at all. Merlin smiles back, thinking about all that Arthur had confessed last night—about the crush of responsibility on his shoulders, and how badly he wished to be rid of it, if only in moments.

“Well, lets go stab another monster, then,” Merlin says, shrugging. “After breakfast.”

And Arthur leans so insanely close after the fact that for a wild, terrifying, moment Merlin thinks he’s going to kiss him right on his cheek bone, press his lovely wide mouth to the place where he blushes. But instead he wavers like a flame before pulling away, eyes flashing.

“That’s the spirit, Merlin,” he says instead, slapping his shoulder. Then he stands, and disappears until the porridge is ready.

As they ride briskly through the underbrush back to the village outskirts, Merlin’s heart grows heavy with one hundred unspoken aches. The ache of loving a man he can apparently hold, but never have. The ache of using magic this man cannot know about. The ache of lying, of fearing the consequences if he fails to lie. He must grow quiet, because Arthur trots up alongside him, shooting him a critical look. “What are you moping about?”

Merlin shrugs, settling upon the simplest facet of his messy sadness. “I wish we didn’t have to kill them,” Merlin says. “They’re just hunting for food, doing what beasts do.”

“They’re terrorizing villagers,” Arthur counters. “Innocent people are dying. A few miles west and it could be your mother, getting turned to stone.”

“No, I know,” Merlin mumbles, urging his horse ahead of Arthur’s with his heels. “I understand why, I only wish it wasn’t so.”

“Well, this one has gotten slow and clumsy, at least. A few cattle is far less dire than a fistful of field workers every night. It should be a quick kill, Merlin, no need to grieve,” Arthur says, He’s quiet for a moment before adding, “Perhaps this one will even let us take its life.”

Merlin furrows his brow and slows his horse back down to a walk so he can regard Arthur, search his face for clues. He finds him unreadably blank, however. “What makes you say that?”

“She’s heartbroken,” Arthur offers, gaze fixed on the trail ahead, the hard-packed earth beneath their horses’ hooves. Merlin widens his eyes, noticing Arthur’s effortless shift from it to she when describing the serpent. “We killed her mate. I think it’s why she’s hunting poorly—picking off livestock instead of men. She might go willingly, who knows.”

Merlin is surprised by the insight. It’s not something Arthur would ever say in front of his men. He does not humanize monsters, he does not offer them compassion or the capacity to grieve. Or maybe he does, but he just doesn’t share those thoughts with anyone but Merlin. The thought makes his stomach twist, his hands sweat where they grip the reins in the firm fist. “Perhaps we are doing her a favor then,” he says, pausing to chew the inside of his cheek before adding in a measured, careful voice. “I wouldn’t want to live without my love, either.”

Arthur whips around in the saddle to stare at him, eyes hard and dark, like the storm clouds building on the distant horizon. “What love? You haven’t got a love,” he snaps, like he’s the sole keeper of all Merlin’s secrets.

Merlin snorts and shakes his head at the irony. “There are things you don’t know about me,” he says, cocking his head and setting his jaw tight.

As it turns out, Arthur does not like that. He's quiet and sullen when they finally reach the beast, who, as predicted, cowers and does not fight, even though her opponents are blindfolded and it is beginning to rain. Merlin intervenes very little and Arthur beheads the serpent without the help of magic, her body still twitching and writhing as he unties the fabric around his eyes and wrenches his sword out. “That wasn’t half as fun as the first,” he grumbles, cleaning his blade with his shirt. Then the sky opens up and they are stuck in a downpour, mounting up and galloping to shelter as quickly as possible, their horses’ foot-falls squelching in the sudden mud.

—-

They find a nearby cave and Merlin starts a fire to dry by, collecting rainwater in a cooking pot so that he can heat it to bathe in. He unknots and wets his neckerchief so that he might wipe blood speckles form Arthur’s face, but when he tries, Arthur pushes his hand away, shaking his head. “We’re not in Camelot,” he says, voice clipped. “I’m perfectly capable.”

“Alright,” Merlin mumbles reproachfully, turning the rag on himself instead and rinsing grit from the back of his neck. “Fine then.”

There are no knights but Arthur lies down on the opposite side of the fire this evening, like there are. The rain drums the earth outside while Merlin studies him, wondering if he knows how transparent his moods are, how easy it is to tell when he’s obsessing over something. He wears it like black monster blood on his shirt, dark and obvious. Merlin lies on his back across from him, and very patiently waits for him to stop brooding.

When Arthur finally does speak, he stares at the crackle of the flames and does not look up. “So, who is she?” he asks.

Merlin wrinkles his nose up, caught off guard. “What? Who?”

“Ok, he then,” Arthur snaps, sitting up and rounding on Merlin, gazing at him with narrowed eyes like he’s trying to gauge a reaction.

“What are you talking about?” Merlin asks very calmly, though his heart is beginning a nervous thud in his chest. He knows, even if he’s playing dumb. Arthur became strange and bristly the moment Merlin alluded to a theoretical lover. He’s so fucking obvious it should be exasperating, but instead it just makes Merlin’s chest ache with confusion.

“Your love,” Arthur says, enunciating like each word hurts him to spit out, teeth bared, lips stretched tight over the white of them.

“Arthur,” Merlin sighs, shaking his head and carding a tired hand through his hair, which is still wet from the rain. “I was just speaking hypothetically. You’re the one who decided it was serious. Let it go.”

Arthur stares at him, chewing his lip. It’s a lovely pink thing, wet beneath his incisor, and Merlin wonders how on earth Arthur could be so stupid to think there was anyone else, anyone at all. It’s baffling. “You’re telling me there’s no one?” he says flatly.

“There’s no one,” Merlin grits out, but he’s actually a very bad liar, so it sounds sharp and wobbly and weak. Arthur narrows his eyes, clearly even more suspicious upon hearing Merlin so blatantly and unconvincingly deny it.

“You don’t trust me the way I trust you,” he says, like he’s figured this all out.

And of course—of course it wasn’t jealousy about Merlin loving someone else, it was insecurity. Arthur hating the idea of Merlin holding any power over him. Not confiding in him the way he is confided in Merlin. Shame comes to life in Merlin’s chest, sick between his lungs as he squeezes it in a deep, shuddering breath. He is such a fool out on these trips—tricked into hoping for something he knows is unobtainable. “Of course I don’t! I can’t,” he explains, voice harsh and thick. “You’re a prince. I’m your servant. The trust isn’t—it can’t be entirely mutual as long as that’s true.”

Arthur’s face twists into a defensive mask, then flickers into something so wildly hurt it actually stings Merlin’s eyes to behold. “Have you ever considered once, Merlin, that this is why I like to get away from Camelot? It is lonely to be defined by your status, your role, to never be seen as human. I am alone, always. And maybe—maybe I just want to be friends with you sometimes. Not Prince Arthur and his useless manservant, but just you and I as two people, two men. Equals.”

And Merlin understands, on some level, but at the same time it’s so fucking unfair for Arthur to pin this on him. As if their differing statuses are somehow his fault. So he bristles, heart cracking along the fissures loving Arthur has put into the muscle of it. Arthur is devastatingly lovely and unexpectedly kind, but sometimes he can be careless and cruel, in spite of his goodness. Merlin’s voice is tear-shaky when he snaps, “Well maybe you can ride off into the forest and play hunter, Arthur, and pretend we’re bosom buddies or whatever but I— I am always your servant. I still cook your food and light your fires and tend to your horses, I don’t get to leave it behind, I don’t—"

Then Arthur stands up, strides over, and sits on Merlin. He pins him to the floor of the cave and covers his mouth with his hand, like he cannot stand another word to touch the air. “Stop,” he begs, eyes wide and glistening, mouth a trembling thing. The loneliness shines in the black of his gaze, and Merlin stares up at it, stricken, silenced, astounded. “Just shut up. I do not need to be reminded that it’s different for you than it is for me,” he says fiercely, eyes welling so much a single tear drips down onto Merlin’s face, somewhere beneath his eye and above the clamping pressure of Arthur’s hand. Arthur wipes his face furiously into his own shoulder. “ I know you're not mine the way I’m yours. I know I am only your duty. But don’t rub it in, Merlin, let me just—let me have these fucking hunting trips where I can pretend I have all of you.”

Merlin stares up at him, heart pounding, stomach in fierce knots of disbelief. Then he wrenches Arthur’s hand from his mouth with sheer adrenaline strength, gasping as he chokes out, “It’s you.”

Arthur reels a bit, eyes flashing. “What?” he asks, sniffling as his nose drips.

Merlin reaches up and wipes it for him, before brushing his knuckles gently over his cheek, watching him flinch away. “If we were beasts and you were killed,” he explains. “I wouldn’t want to live without you. Because you are my love.”

Arthur is still looking at him stupidly, face flickering between one hundred unnamed emotions, want and disbelief and fear and anger as he swallows over and over again, throat bobbing in the firelight and god, bloody hell he is so beautiful and so insanely stupid. Merlin hauls him down and kisses him.

As their mouths collide he is not entirely sure he’s done the right thing, and there’s a terrifying moment when he wonders if he’s misread it all and ruined his relationship with Arthur forever. But then, so suddenly, Arthur dissolves. He kisses him back fierce and wet and blinding, with tongue and teeth and gales of frantic breath and fuck— Merlin’s still not sure he's done the right thing, but he can’t stop. He can’t even think about it, not with the way Arthur is touching him, hands desperate and hungry over his shoulders, through his hair, down to his hips like cannot figure out what he wants most, or how to take it. Eventually he pauses to cup Merlin’s face between his harsh burning palms, breaking their kiss and cursing. “How dare you,” he breathes, thumbing over the gasping corner of Merlin’s mouth, pressing their brows flush. “How dare you—making me think—breaking my heart—” he sputters, eyes fluttering closed, tear tracks on his flushed cheeks for Merlin to lick the salt of.

“M’sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he huffs out, rubbing at the back of Arthur’s taut neck with insistent fingers. “You’re just so. You’re fucking terrible. I love you so much.”

Arthur coughs out a disbelieving laugh, finally smiling so explosively that the pretty filigree of lines at the tails of his eyes appears, and Merlin thumbs over the creases. “You’re terrible, and I love you,” he growls, biting his way down Merlin’s throat, undoing the laces of his tunic with clumsy fingers. “You’re impossible.”

Merlin’s hands rove over him, down his back, up under his tunic to touch skin. “You don’t have to pretend you have all of me,” he confesses, pressing his nose to the hinge of Arthur’s jaw, inhaling the smell of him, his spit and his tears and his sweetness. “You do have all of me. Not just here but always, in Camelot.” You even have more of me than you realize, he thinks, imagining his magic, the way it has saved Arthur countless times in invisible silence. Everything I have, everything I am is for you, Arthur Pendragon.

Arthur closes his eyes for a moment, mouth wobbling in overwhelm, lashes clotted in tears. “You swear to me?” he asks, voice low as he clumsily works Merlin’s trousers down his hips, gripping bare skin as he exposes it. “You’d pledge yourself to me?”

“One thousand times over, my lord,” he prays.

It makes Arthur bite him, right on the collar bone before he pushes Merlin’s tunic up around his neck to expose his stomach. “Don’t call me that,” he murmurs against the skin of his sternum, over the place where his heart is pounding. Merlin struggles to breathe through the shock of something he’s wanted so badly for so long actually happening to him. “Just say my name, as if I am any man,” Arthur begs, licking a stripe down Merlin’s abdomen before sucking a hungry mark into the ditch of his hip bone.

“Arthur,” Merlin murmurs, fingers in his hair, then to the corners of his mouth, the fever of his cheeks. “Arthur, please.”

He hums in encouragement, hauling Merlin’s trousers down another few inches to reveal his scar. The moment Arthur’s hooded eyes land on it he groans, ducking down and fixing his mouth there to the sensitive skin and sucking in desperate, stinging pulses. Merlin grits his teeth and hisses, cock twitching and hard, dripping onto his stomach as Arthur braces his hands upon his thighs and holds him down. Once he’s satisfied with himself he pulls away, a filament of saliva connecting his red mouth to the pallor of Merlin’s skin, and they both stare down at it in awe, panting. Arthur swipes his thumb through the shine of spit before pressing a kiss into the humid thatch of Merlin’s dark pubic hair, inhaling from him. “I want to suck you,” he murmurs, sounding drunk with longing, so much so it makes Merlin dizzy to even hear it. “Do I have your permission?”

“Yes. I told you. I pledged myself to you. That means all of me, anything you want—ah—“ he bites out, stomach clenching at the sudden slick heat as Arthur takes him in hand and licks the crown of his cock experimentally. Merlin can tell he’s never done this before—his touch is unpracticed and clumsy—but it doesn’t matter because it is terribly needy, and that’s what matters. “Fuck,” he gasps, going boneless and trembling upon his bedroll as Arthur groans, breathing harshly though his nose and taking him deeper.

His mouth is so beautiful it hurts to look at, but Merlin tries his hardest to keep his eyes open as he gazes down, astounded by the ring of terrible pink pulled tight and glistening wet in the firelight as Arthur bobs up and down, cheeks hollowed, eyes closed, a line through his brow. It’s so filthy, so sloppy, and feels so fucking good. There’s spit bubbling up from the imperfect seal of his and dripping down the shaft of Merlin’s cock like Arthur cannot stop his mouth from flooding in his hunger. He pulls off and licks sweet and messy at his balls, then into his pubic hair, over his pale thighs, aimless and yearning like he just needs the smell of him, the taste, and cannot pause long enough in any one place to do more than drool. “Merlin,” he breathes, stroking him, rubbing his stubble rough cheek against his cock and making him wince in sensitivity. “Tell me you’re real.”

“M’real,” Merlin promises, dragging Arthur back by his hair and fucking into the infernal heat of his mouth again, loving the way he goes willingly, mouth slack and wet and needy. “Promise.”

Arthur is quiet then, inexpertly sucking and licking, fisting himself beneath the waistband of his own trousers like having Merlin in his mouth feels good enough to come to. Merlin is drawing close—his body taut and electric like salt-crusted sea rope, sweat-slick and trembling beneath Arthur’s hands. Even if Arthur has no idea how to do what he’s doing, the desperation in his touch alone is maddening, life-ruining, heart-shattering. Merlin is lost to the messy fever of it, and just when he’s nearing a precipice Arthur pulls off with a gasp, mouth a parted crimson gash in the night. “Forgive me,” he murmurs, dragging himself up and kissing Merlin feverishly with swollen lips, cupping his face. “I’ll finish you off that way later tonight, or tomorrow, and every day after if you’ll let me, but this time I need to kiss you while you come,” be begs, nipping at his mouth before thumbing over it possessively, grinding Merlin into the earth with the weight of his body like a storm-cloud, wild and thunder-heavy. “Need you this way,” he says as he arranges Merlin easily, bearing down and kissing him deep.

Merlin lets himself be manhandled, content to come however Arthur wants, as long as he gets to come, and Arthur is the one doing it. “Bossy,” he murmurs, carding a hand through the perspiration-wet wreck of Arthur’s hair, parting his thighs so they can rut together. “God. You feel so fucking good. Amazing.”

Arthur curses and shakes his head, like he cannot fathom feeling good himself when Merlin is under him. He struggles out of his own trousers, cock heavy and red and slick at the tip, so lovely Merlin’s breath catches as he stares. Arthur fucks down between his thighs, rubbing their cocks together, burning flesh against burning flesh and the friction is so fucking overwhelming Merlin throws his head back, moaning loud enough it reverberates off the walls of the cave in an obscene rumble. Arthur licks over his throat, panting as he thrusts, hips bucking in wild, graceless thrusts.

There is the slap of skin, the slick of sweat, but mostly there is Arthur, Arthur everywhere, big and trembling in Merlins arms, heavy on top of him, the whole universe whittled down to this single man and this single moment, and Merlin closes his eyes so that he can drown in it like a vast black sea.

He comes fist, thighs spasming and breath strangled before it’s crushed to nothing as Arthur kisses him, choking him on his tongue, feeding him spit. “That’s it, that’s it, god, Merlin, you’re fucking beautiful,” he hisses into the mess of their mouths, grip firm and bruising on his hips. He follows soon after, locking up and spilling onto Merlin’s still-twitching cock, their seed smeared together in a sticky white mess as he rides the aftershocks of his orgasm before collapsing with a groan. “Don’t go anywhere,” he mumbles then, hooking an arm around Merlin’s waist to hold him fast. “Not ever.”

“Don’t worry,” Merlin wheezes, trying to catch his breath. “M’sure it’ll be hours before I can move again.”

Satisfied with this, Arthur rolls over and mops up their come with his discarded tunic, then settles onto his side behind Merlin and pulls him close. “Good,” he says, voice muffled against the back of his neck. They lie there for a long time, the fire crackling, Merlin’s eyes heavy and his cheeks aching with the wild smile he’s given up on trying to battle. Arthur won’t quit mouthing languidly up his neck, nuzzling into his hair, licking the sweat from where it is sticky on his temple. Every moment Merlin thinks he might wake from this impossibly lovely dream, and yet, he does not. “Nights in Camelot are the worst,” Arthur eventually says, pressing his nose into the space behind Merlin’s ear and snuffling. “Because you always leave. I have to sleep without you, just waiting until you come wake me up the next morning and I get to see your stupid awful face again. The only way I ever coax myself to actually sleep is holding my pillow just like this, pretending it’s you,” he admits, squeezing him so firmly Merlin almost worries for his ribs.

“How do I measure up in comparison?” he asks, voice strained until Arthur slackens his grip a bit.

“Hm…you’re warmer. Bonier.” He cranes up, sniffs his hair long and indulgent. “Smell dirtier. But also better.”

Merlin lays his hand over Arthur’s and rubs gently over his knuckles, moved by way Arthur’s breath keeps coming out uneven and awe-stricken and shaky, like he is trying to hold back tears, or else helpless laughter. “Ah, I see. Tell me, sire, do you wish you could hold me this way every night?” he asks though he knows the answer. He just needs to hear it.

Arthur shakes his head, grinding his brow into the back of Merlin’s skull. “Every moment. I don’t think you understand, Merlin, I want—I wish I could wear your tokens in tournaments for everyone to see. I wish I could sit at the head of the table with you and kiss you in front of the kingdom. I wish you were prince consort—no, actually, s’worse, I wish you were queen.”

The word hangs there in the night, grave and massive and shocking, knotting up Merlin’s stomach beneath the claiming splay of Arthur’s palm. “Oh.”

“I know. S’terrible. I’ve gone mad,” he grumbles. He does not sound dismayed, though, only resigned. As if he, too, knows he is condemned to this love for the rest of his life. And he even arrived here without the assistance of a dragon. Merlin sucks in a shaky breath, eyes prickling, mouth a wavering shape.

“I’d be a terrible queen,” he tries to joke, though he’s wiping his eyes with the back of his hand, fingers tremulous with overwhelm. “I’d look awful in a dress.”

Arthur snorts fondly against the back of his neck in a hot, sudden gust of breath. “All the more reason for me to strip you down and keep you naked in my quarters, then,” he suggests, his smile a sharp and lovely thing where he presses it to Merlin’s pulse point. It fades as his mouth softens into a kiss, then another and another, until Merlin is shuddering beneath a litany of them. “You know what I want more than anything else, though?” Arthur whispers eventually, lips ghosting against Merlin’s jawline.

“What?”

“Just this,” he admits. His thumb rubs up and down the curved jut of Merlin’s cheek, not like he is trying to memorize his bones, but like he already has and is only just getting used to the fact he is allowed to touch them. “Just to hunt with you forever, away from Camelot. We could live in a small village, maybe, in a stone cottage like your mother’s. You could grow vegetables and herbs and I could hunt deer. No one would would know my name.”

Merlin’s heart clenches in a profound and sudden contraction, because even though he knows that is not his destiny, that it is not either of their destinies, he wants it with reckless, foolish longing all the same. “Who’d take the throne?” he asks, like he’s truly considering something so irresponsible and mad.

“Morgana, of course,” Arthur says as if it would be that simple, as if he’s thought this all out in advance. “She’d be better at ruling anyway, we both know it. She’s got the mind for politics, I’m just a warrior. Plus, she has Gwen at her side. Them, together. That’s what Camelot needs. Not Uther Pendragon’s son who once rode through these lands, doing—doing terrible things.” His voice grows quiet and dark at the end, his body tensing like the mere memory freezes him in spite of the fire. Merlin rubs up and down his arm, trying to smooth him back out to a placid surface, a lake on the stillest night of summer.

“You’d get very bored as a farmer,” he says softly. “I think you’d miss showing off for your knights and waving a sword around and having people clap their hands and adore you.”

Arthur frowns. “I’d trade a kingdom’s adoration for yours alone,” he says.

And it hurts to hear, rips through him with a pain so visceral and concrete he lays his hand over his heart to try in vain to still the lurching thud. Love like this is too vast to sustain, he thinks. He never prepared to have it returned, not anytime soon anyway, so the force of his want and Arthur’s combined is not something he’s prepared to endure. To have the way he loves Arthur mirrored right back with equal force feels like something that could tear the whole castle down, rip the veil asunder and fuse all parallel worlds. “No need to trade. You have that already,” he vows.

“Then maybe I should run away with it,” Arthur offers, fumbling up Merlin’s chest to lace their fingers again. It does nothing, of course, to slow the frantic racing of Merlin’s heart. This is mad, it’s all mad, and he’s getting ahead of himself as he pictures impossible things. A plot of black earth with sprouts nudging their way to the surface. Hens milling about and pecking the cut worms from the garden bed. And at the center of it all, Arthur, always Arthur. Arthur in his bed, on his knees, head bowed as he paints Merlin’s hip bones in kisses, palms rough from wielding a scythe instead of a sword.

“You wouldn’t have a fancy horse to ride around in a fancy saddle. Or anything nice anymore. No roast mutton every night, or four poster bed with a velvet fucking canopy. You’d do nothing but complain about the cold, and you couldn’t even start a fire to remedy it.”

“Maybe,” Arthur says, shrugging like freezing all winter is inconsequential in the face of other blessings. “I could learn, though. You underestimate what I’d give up to have you at my side.”

You do have me at your side, he thinks. It is hard to say, though, to such pretty dreams. Merlin swallows the rising tide of tears and thinks about what he’s been told: dragon tales of a unified kingdom, of peace, of magic practiced freely and without fear. Himself as the most powerful sorcerer, and Arthur as the greatest King, by his side, a tremendous destiny and an impossible weight. And perhaps he is not a prince, but sometimes he does wish to escape the roles he’s been cast in all the same. The world outside of Camelot holds its appeal to Merlin, too, no matter how much he’d like to believe his motivations are noble, and not selfish.

Maybe it has been the by his side part of his destiny Merlin has longed for this whole time. Maybe he could give up the rest, if only for this. The possibility snags painfully in his throat and he turns around to bury his face in Arthur’s neck, scouring his lips with the prickle of his stubble. Arthur holds him tightly, inhales from his hair, tangles their legs.

“What village?” Merlin asks eventually, voice reduced to a tear-thick muffle.

Arthur tilts him up by his chin and grins into his mouth before licking his lips apart, their teeth clicking together. “Somewhere north,” he suggests between messy kisses. “With snow in the winter, so I have plenty of chances to perfect my admittedly deplorable fire-building skills.”

And as their own fire dies, abandoning them to grapple desperately in the slow-building darkness, Merlin pretends for one solitary night that they can be other people. Nameless and ordinary and entirely unmagical, boring sons of boring farmers, with trowel scars and no world to save other than the small, humble one they will build for themselves and themselves alone. He tries to forget the fact that all the while Camelot looms behind them, waiting like a great sleeping beast.