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“You’re late,” Arthur snapped, throwing his scabbard and sword belt at Merlin and stepping behind the dressing screen. He pulled his tunic over his head and leant back against the stone wall to feel the cold on his bare skin. He’d been fuming for far too long. He took a deep breath and spoke carefully. “You went there again, didn’t you?”

There was a long pause before Merlin slung Arthur’s nightclothes over the screen and answered.

“What have you got against the tavern, anyhow? I know for a fact that you’ve never seen me more than tipsy, and Gwaine’s been paying his own tab for ages. There’s no reason I shouldn’t go if I want to.”

It was true. Merlin hadn’t once showed up at Arthur’s chambers with so much as a wobble or a slurred word. But that only meant that Merlin was up to something else entirely at the tavern, something most likely far worse than drinking himself into a stupor with Gwaine.

Arthur scowled at the screen, snatching his clothing down and pulling it on, as anxious to be rid of Merlin as he’d been all evening to have him there.

The Rising Sun wasn’t only a tavern; it offered rooms for hire by the night as well as by the candlemark. Every time Merlin went there, Arthur was plagued by visions of what he might be getting up to, and not because of the prospect of Merlin getting sloshed.

He wouldn’t confront Merlin with his suspicions. It would be tantamount to a confession of his feelings. And truly, Arthur didn’t want to know if Merlin was letting those whores touch him and kiss him.

Take him.

Arthur clenched his fists and forced away the image of Merlin bent over a dingy bed, being fucked by a faceless doxy.

“Drink is a vice, Merlin, no matter what Gwaine might say,” he snapped, keeping the truth locked safe behind his teeth, though his anger flared even hotter. He pushed his dirty clothes against Merlin’s chest as he strode past him to the bed, putting a bit more strength behind the shove than he usually would have if he were only teasing. He sat on the edge of the mattress, trying to calm himself. He’d never get to sleep at this rate.

Among the knights and soldiers, Arthur had grown up hearing bawdy stories of the tavern courtesans and the wild services they were willing to trade for a pouch full of silver. Did Merlin have enough coin for that sort of thing? Or did he settle for a quick fuck with a less-than-beautiful whore?

“Wine isn’t included in this prejudice, I’m assuming. Otherwise, you’re every bit as guilty as I am,” Merlin goaded, grinning and tossing Arthur’s clothes into a basket. He followed Arthur to the bed, pulling cushions away one by one and fussing with the duvet. “I’ve seen you over-indulge at banquets. You drank yourself clean off your feet on your birthday, and without so much as a moment of pause. I was the one who stayed stone-sober and had to keep track of your trousers. Why should you mind if I did the same? ”

Merlin caught his gaze and held it, his eyes narrowing as if trying to read the answer on Arthur’s face.

Shifting to lie beneath the covers, Arthur turned onto his side, facing away from Merlin’s scrutiny. “I could forbid you from going there,” he said calmly, though his fist clenched the bedclothes in front of him. “In fact, I believe I already have. Several times.”

The bed dipped behind him as Merlin sat down. Arthur held his breath, wondering what had possessed Merlin to do so. When Merlin didn’t move, Arthur glanced over his shoulder, curiosity winning out over patience.

Merlin grinned and stretched out, boots and all, bold as you please, leaning back against the headboard, elbows slung around his upraised knees. He looked comfortable, as much at home in Arthur’s bed as in his own.

Arthur sat up, intending to shove Merlin to the floor. Instead, he propped himself against the headboard beside Merlin and sighed. “Why do you insist on going when you know it only baits me?”

“Not for the reasons you think.” Merlin bumped their shoulders together, then laid a hand on Arthur’s thigh. “I don’t... I’ve never... I don’t frequent the back rooms – and I know this isn’t about drink. You thought I was hiring men for- well. That’s not why I go.”

Arthur swallowed audibly, then cleared his throat, hoping to cover it. Merlin’s hand was so warm on his thigh, stronger than he remembered from the times Merlin had clasped his hand or arm. His long fingers rubbed gently against the buttery-soft linen of Arthur’s sleep trousers, dragging the fabric over his skin.

Arthur looked away, staring up at the ceiling, but it did nothing to assuage the onslaught of arousal Merlin’s touch brought. He steadfastly resolved not to imagine what Merlin could have meant by either his words or the far-too-intimate caress. Closing his eyes, Arthur started to shift away, but Merlin’s hand tightened over his thigh, stilling him.

“I wanted to know what it was like. I haven’t ever even seen-” Merlin’s voice was steady but soft, only a near-whisper. “And tonight Gwaine said I could watch if I was too timid to... hire someone myself.”

Arthur clenched his jaw to keep from shouting. “Typical,” he scoffed, rolling his eyes though Merlin couldn’t see. Was Merlin so ignorant as to not recognize Gwaine’s offer for the obvious but clumsy seduction it must have been?

The hard points of Merlin’s knuckles brushed down over Arthur’s shoulder, along the back of his arm and up. Long fingers slipped into the hair at Arthur’s nape, Merlin’s thumb slowly stroking his neck.

Arthur held perfectly still, heart a frantic drumbeat behind his ribs, his entire awareness focused on Merlin’s fingertips carding through his hair, over and over again.

“I’m not too timid,” Merlin whispered, close enough to Arthur’s ear that he could feel the warm breath of the words. “I just don’t want anyone else.”

Arthur knew if he turned to him now, he would lose Merlin’s touch. He felt the moment might shatter at the slightest movement, fragile as it was.

He could think of nothing to say, no response but to have Merlin pinned and ravished beneath him, clothes disheveled and hair mussed, breath hard and fast, lips bruised deep red with kissing.

“Say something,” Merlin breathed, pressing his forehead against Arthur’s shoulder, the slightest plea beneath the request. “Tell me to sod off or sack me or something.”

Arthur shook his head and took a deep breath. He couldn’t let his or Merlin’s feelings run away with either of them, even if they did obviously feel the same way about one another. Their friendship might be at stake, let alone the future of Albion. He knew the bond between them was far more than just friendship. They shared a destiny.

Merlin was even less experienced than he at these things, and they could so easily destroy their entire future with one wrong move.

But what if their destiny was this? What if finally giving himself over to Merlin and accepting Merlin in every way had been the answer all along?

He hadn’t considered that - he’d only ever chalked all of Merlin’s attention and loyalty up to friendship or duty instead of genuine desire.

Merlin’s hand slipped down his arm and gripped his wrist, silently begging for some sort of answer.

“Did you watch them?” Arthur asked, biting the inside of his cheek and silently berating himself for such an asinine question. Where had that come from, anyhow? He wasn’t the least bit interested in hearing about Merlin watching Gwaine fucking some tavern whore.

“For a bit.” It was little more than a raspy breath, but the hand on Arthur’s arm squeezed gently, then moved back up to his shoulder. Arthur felt the bed dip again, then Merlin’s hand curved over his bicep and urged him to roll onto his stomach, lying face-down.

“Gwaine was sore from training,” Merlin began, his lips ghosting along Arthur’s shoulders, the words breathed into his skin. His hands curved over Artur’s sides, rubbing lightly up and down in tandem, sending chills along Arthur’s body.

Merlin had to have felt it, because he pressed harder, trailing his palms up to Arthur’s shoulders and rubbing down over his back in one huge, firm, fluid stroke. “The- the man knelt over him like this as he rubbed him down.”

Arthur tensed in anticipation as Merlin moved to straddle him. Merlin’s thighs pressed close against him, his weight settling very low on his back, just over his tailbone.

Arthur hid his flushed face in the pillow and fisted the sheet beneath it with both hands, trying to decide if he should move. They could still claim this to be nothing more than Merlin massaging him, making sure he wasn’t sore from training before he retired for the night.

“I could show you,” Merlin offered, voice wavering almost imperceptibly.

It was clearly as much confession as it was question, and Arthur’s will was worn thin by years of suppressing his increasing desire for Merlin. His veil was shredded to gossamer threads with every smile he’d got out of Merlin, every confidence they’d shared, every joke and laugh and battle they’d fought side by side.

Every secret they’d so naively kept and then. Then Merlin had shown his true strength and every sacrifice, every ounce of humility he’d shown, every single inexplicable victory had come into sharp focus and Arthur had seen Merlin’s power.

Merlin was someone he could admire now, someone he would willingly follow. The only person he would ever follow, he was sure.

Somehow, along the way, Merlin had not only become his friend and advisor. He’d become the most important person in Arthur’s life.

He would always be Arthur’s truest friend, Arthur knew without a doubt, even without their prophesied destiny or magic or a royal title.

And now, with a surety and bravery Arthur hadn’t even been able to muster, Merlin was offering him the only thing he hadn’t given Arthur before.

Arthur raised his head, pushed up on his elbows and twisted to look Merlin in the eye. “Are you certain?” he asked, his tone full of the caution he hoped to impart.

“This might be the only thing I’m truly certain of anymore,” Merlin whispered, smiling softly but with such obvious relief and gratitude that Arthur couldn’t help but reach for him.

He turned onto his back beneath Merlin, hands clutching at Merlin’s hips when he knelt up to give Arthur room. But Arthur held him in place, pulled him down, his thighs spread wide across Arthur’s lap. With a long, soft sigh, Merlin pressed against him, lay down over him.

Arthur urged him closer with a hand to the back of his neck, guiding him into a slow, soft kiss. Merlin’s hum of approval was all the encouragement Arthur needed to deepen it, to slip his tongue between Merlin’s parting lips.

Merlin opened to him as naturally as an unfurling flower, tasting Arthur’s tongue, his kiss strong and confident. He pulled back only far enough to pant against Arthur’s lips, then smiled softly and mouthed along Arthur’s jaw.

Arthur shivered and tightened his grasp as Merlin hummed against his ear, the wicked, tingling sensation spreading all the way to his cock.

Merlin groaned against his throat and rocked his hips before taking Arthur’s mouth again.

They kissed one another breathless, Merlin finally pulling back only to press his mouth to Arthur’s shoulder as he rolled his hips and gasped, their cocks pushing together through the thin fabric of their breeches.

Arthur nudged at Merlin’s shoulders, finally breaking the kiss, then looked pointedly down between their bodies.

He arched up against the steady cadence of Merlin’s thrusts, fingers following the dip along Merlin’s spine and slipping beneath the waistband of his trousers, then inching lower to knead the flesh of his arse and pull him harder into every upstroke.

“Take them off,” Arthur ordered, hoping his unrelenting grip on Merlin would indicate just how he wanted Merlin to do it.

Merlin nodded, his blue eyes flaring suddenly with golden light, their clothes vanishing, and Arthur groaned at the feeling of Merlin’s hot, bare skin against his own.

He rubbed hard over Merlin’s arse and thighs, fingers dipping between Merlin’s legs, pulling him back into the rhythm they’d lost at the shock of finally being flesh-to-flesh. They moved in perfect harmony, Merlin’s gaze locked with his own, his face flushed and breaths already gone ragged.

Their bodies surged in a smooth elliptical roll, every motion fluid, following one another all the way through every stroke. Arthur stared into Merlin’s eyes, willing every emotion and truth out through his gaze. He’d never been so close to anyone, not even when he’d been buried deep inside former lovers. Merlin knew him entirely, and being known, being wanted despite being known so completely?. It was true, unconditional freedom where he’d only ever known the tight shackles of the royal mantle.

Arthur slipped one arm around Merlin’s waist, fingers curling down around Merlin’s side. He kissed Merlin soundly, slowly, the patient appreciation obvious in the kiss stark counterpoint to the hard, fast cadence of their bodies.

Merlin broke first, pushing up from their kiss, one hand pressing Arthur’s shoulder to the mattress as he braced up. He reached around and pulled Arthur’s hand from his arse, their fingers tangling together.

He held still and taut for the space of a heartbeat, staring down at Arthur, then drew their joined hands between them and wrapped them over their cocks with a shuddering moan. He thrust up through their fists, cock rubbing silkily along Arthur’s, groaning and spilling hot and slick over Arthur’s cock and knuckles and stomach.

Arthur rubbed Merlin’s lower back, stilling and waiting for Merlin to come back round to him. He watched, entranced by the sight of Merlin undone, unbound and completely open. He’d never truly seen him without at least one secret between them. But now Merlin was laid-bare, too, hiding nothing from Arthur. And once again, he surprised Arthur with the quiet grace that suffused his every word, his every breath.

With a sated smile, Merlin smoothed his fingers along Arthur’s stomach, brushing Arthur’s hand away. He wrapped his long fingers around Arthur’s length, his hand forming a tight, slick sheath, and Arthur pushed into it, sliding in the slickness Merlin smoothed over him.

The candlelight caressed Merlin’s skin, the scent of him, the sight of him filling Arthur’s senses. He was slicked with Merlin’s release, the reality of the slick, hot feeling of it on his skin burning through Arthur’s thoughts and making him desperate for more. He pushed his feet into the mattress for purchase, letting his eyes fall closed as Merlin leant down to kiss him.

Moaning as Merlin’s stroke quickened, Arthur thrust harder, overwhelmed and unable to draw out the pleasure a moment longer. He arched beneath Merlin’s grounding weight, slipped up and back through Merlin’s tight, hot fist, hips jerking as he spilled. He drew Merlin close and held him through his release and beyond, breaking their kiss only when he felt his head lighten with breathlessness. Even then, they lingered, lips against one another’s cheeks as they breathed.

“That was-“ Arthur whispered, sighing in a almost-laugh, his body still thrumming with the pulse of orgasm.

Merlin nodded and ducked his head, smiling against Arthur’s collarbone, kissing it softly, his gentle laughter drawing a smile from Arthur.

He lifted Merlin’s chin and smoothed his thumb across Merlin’s smiling mouth. “Are you laughing at me?”

“So I was right. It wasn’t the drinking after all,” Merlin answered, his grin widening.

Arthur tried not to smile. “No.”

Merlin kissed him again, sweetly, then whispered a spell into their kiss.

Arthur felt Merlin’s magic pour over him, wiping along his skin with a warmth akin to the summer sun’s. It passed over him from neck to knees, removing every trace of their encounter.

Arthur smoothed his hand down over his stomach as Merlin shifted over, regretting the loss, but grateful for it all the same.

Merlin’s hand covered his own in something like reassurance, and Arthur nodded, not for a moment doubting that he and Merlin wouldn’t end things here. They were neither of them the least bit interested in straying from each other, or even the bed, it seemed.

Merlin tucked up against his side, resting his head on Arthur’s chest, his breath tickling over Arthur’s sweat-damp skin..

“I didn’t watch them. I left before- well,” Merlin whispered, his arm tightening around Arthur’s waist just as Arthur tensed. “You do realize I only ever went to make sure Gwaine got home all right?”

What little of Arthur’s ire he had left couldn’t stand up to Merlin’s words. Every last vestige of anger dissolved under the feeling of Merlin’s body pressed against him and the lassitude of their shared release. How could he be angry when Merlin’s trips to the tavern had, somehow brought them to this point?

Circuitously, as they did everything.

“Next time, send someone else to mind Gwaine,” he said, pulling Merlin impossibly closer and pressing a kiss to the top of his head. “I have a feeling you’ll be too busy here on out.”