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It Takes a Castle (to get these two together, apparently)

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Yesterday was a nice day in Camelot. The sort of nice day that comes just before the blistering wrath of hell rains down upon the summer days. Or just before it gets very, very hot. Midday is the worst, with the sun shining down like a wave of arrows, and you just know in your heart of hearts that the heat is trying to kill you, and you're not entirely sure that it won't work.
But now it is today, and the heat has come, and it is midday. Midday is when the knights train, to their dismay. Of course, if it was just the knights and not training with the king who was busy all other hours of the day, they could have just moved training to another, slightly less devastatingly hot time of day. But because the king is training with them, they are all doomed to suffer through training during the most dreaded hour.

So the knights slump out towards the training fields, weighed down by armor and swords, already wishing it were over. Arthur trots ahead of them all, annoyingly chipper for the hellishly hot day. But we can't blame him, dear reader. For King Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future King, was told just before by our dear Merlin, the Great Warlock Emrys, and Manservant to King Arthur Pendragon, that his armor makes him look quite handsome. Merlin had said it quite offhandedly, barely registering what he had said, and when he did realize, he immediately - and very quickly. Maybe too quickly - followed it with a sarcastic remark about how he thought about the armor as his pride and joy, due to him having to polish it almost daily. Arthur didn't notice Merlin’s quick correction, and despite viewing it as more of Merlin’s bantering, took this as an absolute win. But despite noticing the warm fuzzy feeling in his chest whenever he's around Merlin, this dollophead still hasn't figured out his feelings for Merlin.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. Everybody, and I mean everybody, in the castle knows about Arthur and Merlin. Merlin and Arthur’s general annoyance at the other had quickly turned to friendly bantering after they met, as you, dear reader, may know. But by now, their bantering has slowly turned into flirting without either of them realizing it. They act like a couple, clear as crystal to all but them. At this point, it’s a castle-wide argument that has split for the most part into two side: the side that believes that they're both idiots that still haven’t figured out their emotions, and the side that believes that they're just being secret about their relationship, sneaking around and snogging each other in corners when they think nobody’s looking.

Both sides are wrong. To my dismay, and I’m sure to yours as well, reader, they are not yet together. We will have to fix that.

So, no secret relationship. But both of them aren't completely clueless, either. That is to say, Merlin isn’t completely clueless in this regard. Merlin is aware of his feelings for Arthur, and daily does his best to push away those feelings, yet finds himself continuously leaving little hints, trying to get Arthur to figure it out himself. But it’s all in vain, to Merlin’s knowledge. Arthur is just ignorant, but knows that, inexplicably, Merlin makes him happy to the point of almost being giddy.

But, back to the story.

Let's see… It's a crazy hot day, the knights are preparing to train, and Arthur is in unnaturally good spirits due to a compliment from Merlin. Sounds about right? Good. Let's get on with it then.

The Knights of Camelot plus Arthur pair up for sparring exercises. They tend to let one pair go at a time. Actually, it was their scheduled time to do sprints and other physically taxing drills, but conveniently, no one could remember that that’s what was planned. So they decided to do the exercise that would leave them the most time of not-doing-stuff.

First up is Gwaine and Percival, and while they spar, Arthur grins quietly to himself, thinking of Merlin’s compliment, and how his hair had flopped over eyes as he was buckling Arthur’s belt on, and how his eyes are as blue as the forget-me-nots that he loves, and how adept his fingers are and how they move so quickly and with such skill when putting on Arthur’s armor or when making poultices for Gaius. Arthur isn’t quite sure what it is about Merlin that he likes so much that with so few words, he can brighten Arthur’s day to the point of blinding.

And at this point, Arthur is quite blind about two things. One is, of course, his feelings for Merlin, but the second more relevant thing is that he is blind to the going-ons of the sword training. You know, the place where you swing sharp, shiny, metal sticks around and try to practice killing your comrade. Not the greatest place to be daydreaming about your manservant-that-you-wish- was-your-boyfriend-but-you’re-too-much-of-an-oblivious-idiot-that-you-don’t-know-it-yet.

In fact, Leon has to call Arthur’s name several times before he’s brought out of his Merlin filled thoughts.

“Arthur,” Leon tries again, a bit worried now. “Arthur, are you listening?”

“What?” Arthur snaps to attention, looking at Leon and remembering where he is and what he’s supposed to be doing.

“It’s your turn. We’re up to spar,” Leon says, confused that his king wasn’t paying attention, when it was he who insisted on being out here in this wretched weather.

“Ah, yes, of course,” Arthur says, in that way where he’s pretending that he knew exactly what was going on, when clearly he had no clue. Despite that, he walks forward and readies his sword, and the two begin circling each other. Leon makes the first move, and it continues as a series of halfhearted strikes and dodges disguised as strong and focused attempts at a spar.

Or at least that’s what Leon thinks. Leon, despite normally being one to never half-do anything, was trying his best to pretend to not be tired while he was actually very tired from the heat and actually pretending to be very focused and concentrated on putting his whole self into the fight. Arthur was just barely staying standing, not to Leon’s knowledge, because his thoughts were still filled with Merlin, and how his eyes sparkled when he laughed, and how his smile made Arthur feel something warm and tugging in his stomach, and how he always tried to make that smile appear, again and again, and how, just once, he wanted to take Merlin’s mesmerizing face in his hands, gently brush away that silky dark hair, and-

And Arthur freezes, a realization coming over him.

Now you, my reader, might have common sense. In fact, I hope you do. It's a rather useful thing to have. But common sense is known to elude our troubled Arthur every now and then, and so it does now. Because anyone with common sense can agree that it’s not a good idea to completely freeze in the middle of a fight, practice or otherwise. And so the King of Camelot gets punched in the face by one horrified Leon.

Arthur, spluttering on the ground, looks up at Leon, and with all the grace and patience contained by any royalty, says, “What the actual hell, Leon?! Why’d you punch me?!”

Leon, as surprised at this as anyone, says, “I thought you would duck, sire!”

On the sidelines Gwaine is, of course, holding in barely controlled laughter. Percival, Lancelot, and Elyan are standing in shock. At this exchange, though, they snap out of it and go to Arthur’s side, not sure what to do.

Now let me be clear. We all know that Arthur can handle himself, and that his knights are not afraid of roughing up their king a little, but this wasn't just a knock to the face. This was a full blown hit, landing Arthur flat on the ground and seeming to have literally flown backwards. And, understandably, the knights were concerned for their king.

“What happened, Arthur?” Elyan asks, concerned. At this, Arthur seems to remember what exactly did happen and what he had realized before he had been so very kindly disrupted from his thoughts by a fist to the face. Arthur doesn't answer Elyan, just stares again at nothing, lost in thought once more. “Arthur?”

“I'm. in love. with Merlin.” Arthur mumbles haltingly, inaudible to everyone but himself.

“Sorry?” Lancelot asks, prompting Arthur to say it again, hopefully louder for all to hear this time.

“I'm in love with Merlin,” Arthur says, louder this time, and with a look of wonder on his face, like he has just realized the most wonderful and beautiful part of life. And maybe he has.

“We know,” Percival smirks. “Doesn't give you an excuse to slack off during training.” With this, Arthur whips his gaze to Percival with an accusatory glare matched with an aghast expression.

“You knew?!” he roars, shocked at this news.

“We thought you knew, sire,” Leon says.

Update: Gwaine is no longer holding in his laughter, and is now bent over himself in an uncontrollable fit of laughter.

“How long have you known?” Arthur demands.

“Well,” Leon starts, somewhat resignedly.

The knights - Gwaine excluded because he’s too occupied laughing his ass off to pay any real attention - share a look. See, they've known for quite some time, along with the entire castle. But unbeknownst to anyone other than the other knights, they hold monthly meetings. For professional reasons, these meetings are about the castle’s defenses, planning training drills, and other things that the knights should be concerning themselves with. In reality, they’re the meetings of where they talk about different going ons that surround Arthur, they complain about their job (don't be mistaken, they do love their job, but complaining is a necessary part of life), they talk about Merlin, they complain about how Arthur and Merlin need to wake up and realize that they have feelings for each other, and they talk about plans for stealing food from the kitchens. You know, normal things.

About nine months ago, they had held a meeting where they first confronted the issue of the oblivious pining between the young king and his manservant, and what they should do about it. After going around in circles and becoming the first official Merthur shippers, they agreed that they would let it play out. For at least a year. If it lasted that long, then there was no question. The knights would have to have a serious sit down with the two men and explain very carefully the situation of the two of them being in love, and how it would be so nice if they just asked one another out, had a romantic dinner or something, and then quickly report back to tell the knights all the details so they could then go and tell everyone else residing within the castle.

Another month after that meeting, the knights discovered among themselves that Merlin did indeed know about his feelings for Arthur (for Merlin had been acting strange and suspicious and had earlier been confronted by a very understanding Gwaine), and that they were one step closer to their ship setting sail. Immediately they celebrated with a trip to the tavern that they had been planning on taking anyways, but decided to make the trip fit the occasion.

And so, with the most recent news of Arthur realizing his feelings, the only thing left was for them to tell each other. That might just be the hardest part, for each was convinced that the other could never see them that way.

But the knights, these oh so dedicated knights that only want what is best for Camelot, are determined that by the end of the month, Arthur and Merlin will have confronted each other about their feelings.
And so, in a silent agreement between the knights, excluding Gwaine because he’s too busy laughing his ass off to pay any real attention, they agree that they will slowly push the two together from the sidelines, and will play the longer game and do their best to let the two do it mostly themselves and with minimal prodding.

“It doesn't matter how long we’ve known,” Leon rushes, trying to pull the attention away from them and more to the matter at hand. “What matters is now you know. Now you can tell him!”

“I can't do that!” Arthur exclaims, and a groan echoes simultaneously within the mind of all four knights, now including Gwaine because he had finally stopped laughing his ass off and had come over to join the conversation.

“Why not?” Gwaine asks, a sarcastic remark prepared on the tip of his tongue, but Arthur jumps in too soon.

“Why not?! I can't just go around declaring my love or something. What if- not what if, I know he doesn't feel the same.” Arthur has gotten to his feet and is now very pompously declaring things, which translated from RoyalPainInTheAss to English means that he is complaining and is basically squealing into a cushion, embarrassed that his friends knew about a crush so secret that even he didn't know about it until just now.

The knights, including Gwaine, share another look. A look of absolute exasperation that is veiled so only those who knew, would know. All Arthur saw was a shared look of what might be skepticism.
“Look, are you or are you not Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot, the most courageous hero and king our land has seen in centuries? Or are you a coward who’s going to sulk in your room avoiding everyone because you realized you have ~feelings~?” Gwaine says, raising an eyebrow in a challenge. Arthur rises to his defense.

“I am not sulking,” he insists, standing up taller and glaring at Gwaine. Gwaine just shrugs and puts his hands up, signaling his cease of attack. Arthur continues to glare.

“I’m just saying that this is not something where you should pull your punches. Just think about it,” Gawine shrugs. “I know you don't like to admit it, but I am right sometimes.”

So with a smug smile from Gwaine and a glare from Arthur, the knights slowly move back to training, and attempt to spar in the devastating heat.

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the castle there is a certain warlock working as a manservant to the king having an emotional battle as he sweeps in Arthur’s chambers. Our dear Merlin is, most forlornly, convincing himself to once and for all give up on his feelings for the one and only King Arthur. It goes something along the lines of Arthur doesn’t care about Merlin the way Merlin cares for him. And Merlin knows that Arthur doesn't have the same sort of… attraction as he does. Merlin’s seen the way that he’s looked at Gwen, wishing after her and the stunning beauty of her looks and character. Merlin isn’t blind to Gwen’s beauty, and he cherishes her as one of his dearest friends, but sometimes, when he lets his mind wander, Merlin imagines a world where Gwen wasn’t around, and where Arthur would stare at him with those clear, blue eyes of his.

No, Merlin shakes his head, trying to gather his thoughts. That's not what he's supposed to be thinking about. If he has to think about Arthur at all, it would be complaining from now on, and how much of a prat he is, and how he likes to make Merlin’s life miserable with a list of chores as long as a well is deep. And that is the only way Arthur will ever enter his head, Merlin convinces himself.

And so Merlin manages to put those friendship questioning thoughts of Arthur out of his head for a total of 1 ½ hours, just as he has finished sweeping and mopping Arthur’s floors. Coincidentally, it’s also exactly the moment that the official plan to get Arthur and Merlin together, conducted by our beloved Knights of Camelot, was put into motion.

Arthur walks into his chambers and immediately spoils Merlin’s hard work by walking all over it in his grimy, sweaty boots. And just as Merlin is about to say something about this with great annoyance, Arthur starts stripping off his armor. Left in just his undergarments, sweaty and disheveled, Merlin finds a blush creeping along his face and has to turn and busy himself quickly while shoving certain thoughts away, despite his earlier resolvement. And Merlin knows that he does dress and undress the king on almost a daily basis, but at least then he has some time to prepare himself. And dammit, Arthur’s just so hot after training. It’s a fact that would make Merlin’s life much easier if he had never noticed it. But he had. And his heart is a traitorous bastard.

“Me and the knights are going into the forest for a hunting trip,” Arthur calls from behind his folding screen. Merlin’s jaw drops to the ground.

“In this weather?” Merlin exclaims.

“Yes, Merlin,” Arthur says, dragging out his name. “The prey will be so sluggish in the heat. It’s perfect hunting conditions. And Gwaine said that he knows a perfect place to start.”

Merlin is still standing there gaping when Arthur comes out, dressed in clean clothes. He frowns at Merlin.

“What are you standing around for? Get my satchel ready,” Arthur commands, more cold than he normally is, but this goes unnoticed by Merlin, who's still in shock.

“But-” Merlins starts, but is cut off by Arthur’s raised eyebrow. “Fine,” he gives in. “But if any of you drop to the ground because of heatstroke, don't come whining to me,” he warns in a playful voice, but his smile drops when Arthur just gives a noncommittal grunt and goes out the door.

“I’ll meet you in the courtyard,” Arthur calls over his shoulder. Merlin frowns a little at that. It's not like Arthur to act like this. Merlin waves his suspicion away, though. The heat has always been known to affect people less desirably.

Chapter Text

Out in the forest it is a little cooler, thanks to the dappled shadow left by the leaves. The knight's laughter rings through the forest as they joke with one another as the procession of horses follows Gwaine’s lead. Not too soon after their departure from the castle, the group arrives at a wide, clear lake, half surrounded by small cliffs and with water trickling over the edge in a mini waterfall, most likely from an underground spring. The birds sing cheerfully from the surrounding trees, and a variety of flowers reach upwards from the grass that grows around the lake.

The knights jump down from their horses, tying them to the surrounding trees, and begin to walk towards the lake, looking like they are doing anything but hunting.

“This isn’t a hunting site,” Arthur states confusedly. Merlin is right there with him, but unmounts with the rest of the knights.

“It’s too hot to hunt-”

“It’s too hot to do anything,” Gwaine grouses.

“-and so we took it upon ourselves to give you, and us, a break from the heat,” Lancelot finishes.

“We’re going swimming,” Percival sums up, stripping until he’s only left in his undergarments, and with a grin he’s racing towards the lake. The other knights follow his lead, hooting and hollering the whole way, pushing and laughing until there are five splashes and they’ve all been thoroughly dunked.

Despite originally being stung by being tricked, Arthur let's himself relax and laugh, dismounting and following in the footsteps of the knights. He walks up the back of the cliff and stands above them all, regal and kingly.

“Oh Great King of Camelot,” Elyan shouts, “do grace us with your Regal presence down here with all us commoners!”

“Me, associate with the likes of you?!” Arthur yells back with fake astonishment. “Never!” And then, with a great leap, jumps off the ledge, splashing his friends with a great wave of water. The six of them splash and pull each other under for who knows how long, before Arthur realizes that there are only six of them in the water.

“Where is Merlin?” he asks, heart clenching as he looks around, hoping that he hadn't drowned somewhere well none of them were looking. Thankfully, his gaze lands on Merlin, who is sitting on the shore, playing with some flowers.

“Ah, there he is!” Leon says, having also spotted him on the shore.

“Merlin!” Gwaine calls, waving to him from the water. “Come join us!”

“No thanks!” Merlin calls back, smiling fondly at the six fully grown men that are playing in the lake like they are children. “I'm perfectly fine up here!”

“Suit yourself!” Percival shouts, and proceeds to tackle Gwaine and dunk them both again. The laughing and splashing continues, but Arthur keeps stealing glances back at the shore, if just to make sure that his favorite servant is okay.

And this last time that he does it, Gwaine catches him. With a smirking grin, he throws an arm around Arthur.

“You looking at something, Arthur? Something catch your eye, hm?” Gwaine teases. Arthur shoves him off, but still feels a little heat creeping up his face.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” he says indignantly, turning toward the shore. Merlin is absorbed in whatever’s in his hands, face pinched in concentration. The others erupt in more teasing and splashing and tackling, until finally, Arthur says, “I’m going to shore if you're all going to gang up on me!”

“Just as well,” Leon says. “We all should probably head in.”

At this point, you might find this contradictory. If the knights want the two of them to get together so badly, why not just give them some time to themselves? Excellent question, dear reader. Well, the knights had collectively agreed beforehand that neither of them were quite ready to take that final step on their own yet, so there was to be some more meddling and prodding them in the right direction. So they all go up to the shore where Merlin is sitting and sit down to dry off in the sun, considerably cooled off and temporarily unaffected by the heat.

As soon as Gwaine plops down next to Merlin, Merlin quickly drops something onto his head. Gwaine puts a hand to his head, surprised, and is even more surprised when flower petals rain down in front of his eyes. The others laugh at the dainty flower crown now adorning Gwaine’s head.

“It suits you,” Percival snickers, at least trying to hide his laughter behind his hand.

“Does it?” Gwaine asks, turning his head, going along with it and striking a pose. “Does it make my eyes pop?”

“Very girlish,” Arthur says with a laugh and a roll of his eyes. “Matches your personality perfectly.”

“Oh, you're just jealous that Merlin made one for me and not you,” Gwaine comments, sneakily wagging his eyebrows at Arthur. The other's laughter is renewed, and this time Merlin chuckles along. Little does Merlin know just how on the dot Gwaine is.

“Well, actually,” Merlin says slyly, “I made one for each of you.” He sets a pile of flower crowns out in the center of their group. Gwaine grabs them before anybody else can and goes around the group and carefully places one on each of their heads, leaving no room for any argument.

Arthur’s heart warms as he watches Merlin laugh with all of the knights, and warms even more as the light weight of the flower crown is placed on his head.
When Gwaine reaches Merlin, his hands are empty.

“You didn't make one for yourself?” Gwaine exclaims. “Well that just won't do! Show me how,” he demands, sitting back down. So with patience and a slow precision, Merlin shows Gwaine how to make a flower crown. Despite their original grudingness towards it, all the other knights watch as well, taking careful mental notes. You never know, they might be able to use it to impress somebody in the future.

When Gwaine finishes his own flower crown, he holds it up with an exclamation for all to see. Then, with even more over the top ceremony than he did with the others, he places the crown on Merlin. All the others start clapping and laughing.

Darling reader, isn’t it so good to see all these precious children having a good time with each other?

“Alright,” Merlin calls over the other’s loudness, and holds up the flower crown he had made while showing Gwaine how to make one, “who wants a second crown?”

“As king-” Arthur starts, already reaching for the crown, but Lancelot intercepts his reach.

“No king worthy of his crown should be seen pulling rank, don't you think?”

“You have some competition!” Percival says to Arthur.

“And from the crowd, a contestor appears, ready to fight for the right to a second crown!” Elyan commentates, drawing laughter and more comments from the others, egging the two on. Arthur and Lancelot grab their swords from their stuff, and hold them out and begin to circle each other.

“Come on, guys,” Merlin protests, “don't fight about it. I can make more!”

“Beat his ass!” Gwaine calls. It's not clear who he’s rooting for.

Arthur and Lancelot begin to fight, swords clashing just as they had earlier during sparring training.

Reader, I ask you to imagine Arthur and Lancelot, two fully grown men, both having what would be considered governmental duties, soaking wet and stripped down to their underwear, fighting each other with real swords over a flower crown made by the most loyal and precious angel they have ever known. Now answer me this, can you not see this happening in canon? I thought not.

Arthur is the winner, having thrown Lancelot’s sword out of his hand and his sword inches from Lancelot’s chest. The men cheer, shoving each other around and clearing a path so Arthur can receive his prize. Gwaine pushes Merlin to his feet.

“Give our king his prize, Merlin!” The sentiment goes around, and soon Arthur is kneeling in front of Merlin as Merlin gently places the second flower crown on top of the first one.

“Rise, your majesty, owner of two crowns!” Merlin calls, giving a mocking bow (you know, those half bows with the twirly hands? Don't joke, you know what I'm talking about) with a smile on his face. And if there was a bit of a blush on his face, so what? It’s probably the sun.

As Arthur and the others start messing around and rough housing, Elyan leans over to Merlin.

“Your cheeks are quite red, Merlin. You aren’t by any chance blushing, are you?” Elyan teases.

“No!” Merlin insists, not knowing that the knights already know everything. Not that it was hard to find out. “It- I just burn really easily, that’s all.”

“Alright,” Elyan says quite innocently, and then goes to join the others.

This leaves Merlin by himself again. But now instead of having to distract himself from staring at Arthur almost naked and playing in the water, he has to distract himself from thoughts of how Arthur literally fought for his flower crown. With a sword. And how… cute that was.

“Damn it, Arthur,” Merlin mutters under his breath, trying to be angry and suppress the smile and butterflies swarming his stomach. “You cabbage head,” he whispers fondly.

Soon enough, the coolness that the knights got from swimming leaves, and the sun stares daggers of hellish heat once again. Mournfully, they all mount their horses and head back to the castle. The way back is silent, all of them sucked into their own thoughts.

Merlin is worrying that Arthur might have caught him blushing and realized his feelings.

Arthur is chiding himself for taking such aggressive actions for Merlin’s handiwork, and worrying that Merlin might have guessed Arthur’s feelings for him.

The knights are all pondering their next move, seeing as this last plan didn't exactly push the two as close together as they had hoped. It hadn't helped that Merlin didn't get in the water.

And so they all arrive back at Camelot Castle, tired again by the heat, but refreshed by their little excursion, and ready to get back to their duties.

Chapter Text

It has been a week since their trip to the lake in the woods, and still the knights have had very little progress in what they had officially and quite affectionately dubbed the Get These Two Idiots Together Plan. The two of them were already around each other all the time, so it wasn't like the knights could just shove the two of them together and hope for a confession. They basically lived together, at this point. They were already domestic with each other, Leon had pointed out, and at this point they both knew how they felt about the other, they just had to tell the other one. But despite this obvious roadblock, the knights were undeterred, and in the past week they had come up and executed a handful of creative excuses and situations.

There was the one where Gwaine had slapped Merlin on the back, really just an affectionate gesture, but had put just enough force into it to throw him forward and into Arhtur’s chest. Arthur was too shocked to respond right away, and Merlin had been out and a respectable distance away from Arthur before anyone could blink. Honestly, the knights were just shocked that all those gangly limbs could move that fast.

Then there was the time when they “accidentally” locked Merlin and Arthur in a closet. The two didn't know it was the knights, of course. They just thought that the door shut and the lock fell into place, all by pure coincidence and bad luck. It didn't last very long, though. After much pounding at the door and wriggling of the handle and a few attempts at ramming the door, all presumably done by Arthur, the lock clicked back out of place, and the two had exited, Merlin looking remarkably smug and Arthur following looking astonished and a little miffed.

“You're telling me,” Arthur had said, fuming just a little bit, “that you let me stand there like an idiot for five whole minutes, when you could have just used your lock picking skills, which you've apparently had for some time?!”

Merlin doesn't actually know how to pick locks. He just found a random piece of metal and pretended to mess with the lock so he could use magic to unlock the door.

“Trust me, you don't need my help looking like an idiot,” Merlin had smirked.

“Merlin!” Arthur had yelled, and had grabbed him by the collar and started to drag him down the corridor. Merlin had started to laugh a little, and Arthur had smiled at him from behind his back. But the knights had gotten no closer to their endgame.
There was also the time Lancelot had handed Merlin a bouquet of flowers and told them to deliver them to the king, but not to tell them who they were from. None of them were exactly sure what happened with that one, but the answer seemed to be: nothing.

Finally, the knights had included Morgana and Gwen. (Sidenote for the reader: Morgana is good. She was never evil, though she does have magic. She and Merlin have weekly meetings in the forest for magic lessons and whatever else this iconic duo get up to. Oftentimes, their lessons end with them getting drunk and complaining about Arthur.) The two girls were delighted to be included, and had of course already known about Merlin and Arthur’s “secret” feelings, and had quite a few ideas of their own. But first, they had to figure out if the knights knew what they knew. The conversation went a little like this-

“Do you know Merlin’s other secret?” Morgana had asked, trying to be discreet while also trying to figure out who, if anyone, did know. The knights eyed each other and Morgana and Gwen, thinking that they knew what she meant, but not knowing if she meant what they thought she meant. Gwaine spoke up, matching Morgana’s skepticism.

“The secret secret, or the secret that all of us know?” he had asked.

“Not the secret that we all know, but the important secret, the one that has to actually be a secret,” Morgana tried again, gauging their reactions.

“Is it the secret about the you-know-what that we don’t talk about unless it’s absolutely necessary?” Elyan asked, stepping up next to Gwaine.

They all eyed each other suspiciously, and then, all at once, every single one of them whisper, rather loudly actually-

“Merlin’s magic.”

Well, that settled that.

So once they were all on the same page, they put their heads together and planned an ultimate scheme.

So that’s where we are now, and how all of them ended up at the tavern. Normally it was just the knights, and a rather regular thing at that, but this time they had convinced Arthur to come. And of course, if Arthur was coming, that meant Merlin was coming, no question.

This is the part of the plan where, after a few drinks, Gwaine would make some sort of remark about how the king couldn't hold his liquor. But only one drink in, and Merlin had already beat him to it.

“You're not any better than him,” Merlin snorts at Arthur’s comment about the goat farmer, who was already sprawled out on the table, apparently unconscious, after having only come in not too long ago.

“You're one to talk,” Arthur sneers back. Truth be told, he was feeling a little tipsy already, but like hell he would admit Merlin was right about this.

“Me?” Merlin scoffs good heartedly. “I could drink circles around you, easily.”

“Is that so?” Arthur asks.

“Sounds like a good natured drinking competition, eh fellas?!” Percival calls out, arms raised, encouraging the two of them to get absolutely wasted.

“It's on,” Arthur agrees. Elyan orders another round of drinks for all of them, and sets them all in front of two oblivious lovebirds.

“Actually, I do have a job to keep and go to in the morning,” Merlin says. “I would gladly reschedule, but I'm just never given any days off.” Merlin sighs, pretending to look absolutely dumbfounded by his boss’s lack of compassion, but then breaks into a snarky grin directed towards Arthur.

“Well, if you aren’t going to challenge the princess’s lack of drinking skills, then I most certainly will,” Gwaine says, stepping in quickly to take Merlin’s place. They just need one of them to get drunk for the plan to work. Both would be ideal, but one would do. “Are you ready to face a master in his skill, your majesty?” Gwaine asks, raising a glass as a salute.

“I'd hardly call you a master,” Arthur responds, raising his own glass in response. They both raise the glass to their lips at the same time and start chugging. Glass after glass after glass, they both get absolutely wasted while the others watch, cheering them on.

In the end, Gwaine is declared the winner. He does have some credibility to being a master, having been to every bar in the kingdom and beyond. Arthur is almost unconscious, and so as they all stumble back to the castle - some stumbling more than others - he has to lean on Merlin the whole way back.

They part ways in the corridor, and Merlin has to drag Arthur up to his room. Arthur is mumbling unintelligibly to himself the entire way to his room. When they get to Arthur’s chamber, Merlin starts to pull off Arthur’s boots, but gets surprised when Arthur leans in and gets right in Merlin’s face.

“Meeeeerrrlliiiiiiin,” Arthur draws out, slurring the name in his drunken stupor.

“What is it, Arthur?” Merlin asks, annoyed.

“Meeeeerrrlliiiiiiin,” Arthur says again, “are yoo upse wid ‘ee?” Arthur asks, talking very strangely. It almost makes Merlin laugh, but he holds it back. He seems to be doing that more and more often, especially when he’s alone with Arthur. Especially when he's alone with an incredibly drunk Arthur, who won't remember anything in the morning.

“No,” Merlins answers simply, pushing the boots aside and trying to get Arthur into bed.

“Yea yourr,” Arthur says rather miserably. “I cn be nicer.”

“I'm not upset with you, Arthur,” Merlins says, very frustrated now. Arthur won't get into his bed, and Merlin is finding it increasingly more difficult not to think about Arthur’s lips, and how his hair would feel, and how-

No.

“Complments,” Arthur says, rather proud of himself.

“Pardon?”

“Complments,” Arthur repeats. “Complments are nice.”

“No, Arthur, just-”

“I liike yur neckrrchiffs, Merlin,” Arthur says, tugging on the on the neckerchief that Merlin is wearing today, and with much more tenderness than should be in his voice.

“What?” Merlin says, just shocked.

“Ya kno wut I liike moor tho?” Arthur asks, and starts to fall over.

“Oh for heaven's sake, Arthur, lay down and go to bed.” Merlin finally manages to get him to lay down and under the covers.

“Innlaaurgh COLLARBONES.” Arthur gets out, rather aggressively.

“You like collarbones?” Merlin asks amusedly, finally with a grin on his face. “What- nevermind. Just go to sleep.” Merlin puts out the candles, and leaves Arthur to his sleep.

Chapter Text

Contrary to Merlin’s very reasonable thought that Arthur would remember none of if, he miraculously manages to remember the very last bit, and covers his burning face with his hands as he recounts what happened to the knights the next morning.

“-and then I basically screamed that I like collarbones!”

“Kinky,” Gwaine says, leaning back with a smirk.

“No!” Arthur demands.

“What were you trying to say?” Lancelot asks.

“Um…” Arthur starts blushing, but manages to mumble out, “I was trying to say that I like his collarbones.”

“That's still kinky,” Gwaine points out helpfully. Leon gives him a look.

“You were drunk, sire. I'm sure Merlin won't give it another thought,” Leon assures.

Merlin has given it a lot of thought. In fact, it kept him up for a good while before he finally fell asleep. Because Arthur had said that he was complimenting Merlin, and then complimented his neckerchiefs, and then yelled collarbones. Did he mean… Merlin’s face had heated up just thinking about it, and had immediately shoved the thought out of his mind. Arthur was drunk. He had no idea what he was talking about. And yelling out collarbones doesn't mean that he was talking about Merlin, even if he had been just seconds before. Not that it matters in any way. Merlin is over Arthur. Definitely over him. Absolutely.

But today is a new day, and Merlin is convinced to never think about last night’s occurrences ever again. So Merlin continues to drag himself through the day and the long list of chores Arthur has assigned to him.

On Merlin’s way to the kitchens to prepare Arthur’s lunch, Gwen spots him and catches up to him.

“Hello Merlin,” she smiles. “How was last night at the tavern? I hear Arthur is still suffering from a nasty hangover.” Merlin snorts at this.

“And he completely deserves it. He drank himself to the bottom of every glass set in front of him.”

“Oh, he couldn’t have been that bad,” Gwen says.

“He was, Gwen! Honestly, it’s not like he has anything to prove,” Merlin groans in complaint. Gwen smiles at her friend. She knows how he really feels about Arthur, but she also knows that Merlin is right about one thing: Arthur can be a little prick sometimes. And quite a proud one, at that.

They walk down to the kitchen together and talk idly on the way. Merlin and Gwen were fast friends when Merlin first came to Camelot. They often swapped stories of what idiotic thing the Royal Siblings™ had done recently. At this point, it was a competition to see who had the most dumbass sibling. Currently Merlin is winning. To be fair, Morgana is actually quite smart, but she certainly has a devious streak that gets her into trouble for stupid things. Such as when she turned all the bread in the castle blue. Very few know how she actually did it, but no one said anything. Most don't even know that it was her.

When they arrive at the kitchen to prepare lunch for the royals, Gwen and Merlin are most surprised to see Leon talking with the Gaius. Not that it's not normal in any way, just the fact that they are doing it in the kitchens is most peculiar. Leon and Gaius hush immediately upon seeing Gwen and Merlin. Leon nods at Gaius and quickly makes his departure, leaving Gaius to the interrogative looks from both Gwen and Merlin.

“Gaius,” Merlin says, walking up to his mentor, “what are you doing in the kitchens? With Leon, no less.”

“Oh, Leon had to… talk to the cook. About security,” Gaius says, grasping at any excuse while nodding quite assuredly about something said with such hesitance.
“What does the cook have to do with security?” Gwen asks incredulously.

“I'm afraid I don't know. I have no business with castle security,” Gaius says.

“So then why are you here?” Merlin asks.

“I… needed some… herbs. And I thought that the kitchen might have them.”

They are plausible enough excuses. Knowing how many security problems Camelot has had, checking in with even the cook is understandable. And it's very likely that the kitchen would have one of the simpler ingredients that Gaius would need, but something about it still seems suspicious to Merlin. Giving another questioning look to Gwen, Merlin decides to let it pass.

“If you say so,” he says. “Let me know if you need any help… finding ingredients.”

Gaius nods and continues on his way, hurrying in his slow, patient way. Once he makes it around the turn in the hallway, he finds Leon waiting for him there.

“Did he buy it?” Leon asks, a little nervously.

“He was suspicious, but he didn't press the issue,” Gaius says.

“Good,” Leon nods. “Thank you for the information, Gaius.”

“Of course. And good luck. This has become quite a dire situation,” Gaius says solemnly.

“It has indeed,” Leon agrees.

That night, the knights, Morgana, and Gwen hold a meeting in the armory to talk about their latest failure.

“I was sure that that would work,” Morgana says, swearing under her breath. “If Merlin had only gotten drunk as well.”

“Yes, well, we need to think of something, and quick,” Leon says, worry lacing his voice.

“Why, what’s happened?” Elyan asks.

“I talked with Gaius earlier, and he said that Merlin is planning on talking with the Druids about extending his magical education.”

“So that's what you two were doing,” Gwen comments. “But what does that mean? Why do we have to hurry?”

“If Merlin is going to learn magic from the Druids, then he’s going to leave Camelot,” Percival says with worry, understanding Leon’s meaning.

Immediately, chaos breaks out at the prospect of Merlin leaving, everybody yelling over each other in protest.

“Enough!” Leon yells, getting everybody’s attention. “None of us want to lose Merlin. But I think, and Gaius agrees, that he wouldn't actually go through with this if he didn't harbor unrequited feelings for Arthur.”

“But they're not unrequited,” Morgana says exasperated.

“Merlin doesn't know that, though,” Leon says.

“How long until he plans to leave?” Percival asks.

“According to Gaius, he hopes to leave within a fortnight, as most,” Leon says.

“So what are we going to do?” Elyan asks.

“I’ve been wondering,” Gwen starts thoughtfully, “how Arthur would react if propelled by jealousy.”

This makes everyone stop and contemplate, trying to imagine Arthur’s reaction if he thought that Merlin was interested in someone else.

“He'd have a fit,” Gwaine laughs.

“Or he would silently sulk until Merlin leaves,” Morgana points out. “He respects Merlin, despite what he tries to say. If Merlin was interested in someone other than him, I believe that he would respect that decision, and do his best to put up walls between him and Merlin in order to cut his losses.”

“That’s true…” Leon mutters, mulling it over. With a sigh, he looks up at his friends. “Any other ideas for convincing Merlin to stay?”

They all stay there for hours, throwing ideas around and around on how to get Merlin to stay. Some of them aren’t even to get Merlin and Arthur together, just to convince their friend to stay. But they can’t think of anything convincing or substantial enough. Morgana says that they should probably all get some rest to prepare for the Midsummer's Masquerade Ball. So they part ways, weighed down with the information that the person who tied them all together would be leaving them soon.

Chapter Text

Preparation for the Midsummer's Masquerade Ball is hectic, and everybody is rushing around getting ready for the big party and all the events that would happen after, both in the castle and in the village. Gwen is rushing through the hallways, hauling everything from goblets and decorations to be set up for tonight’s events. She’s grabbing another stack of decorations when she hears the conversation of some other servant girls and pauses to listen.

“Did you hear what King Arthur did to Sir Kazimir?” one of the girls giggles.

“Wasn't he fired?” another one asks.

“Yes, but not after the King punched him! I heard the other knights had to hold him back.”

“Let me guess,” one says with dry humor, “he talked shit about Merlin, the King’s precious manservant?”

“Language!” one of them says abhorrently. “But yes, that is what I heard.”

“Richard, the squire that came in a fortnight ago, was there and saw the whole thing!” one of them says. “He said that Kazimir said that Merlin was the most worthless servant he had ever encountered!”

“I'm sure Arthur hated that,” one laughs.

“It's not the first time this has happened,” another says. “The same thing happens every time. Honestly, if Arthur doesn't make a move soon, somebody’s going to swoop in and take him.”

“But they’re so perfect together,” one sighs.

“They are,” another agrees.

“Merlin is just so cute!” another one squeals. “I’ll gladly take him if Arthur doesn't want him.”

There's a chorus of agreements, and an idea comes to Gwen. It’s far fetched, and might not work, but at this point, there isn’t much to lose.

“Hey girls,” Gwen says, walking over and grinning conspiratorially, “how would you like to help me get Arthur and Merlin together?”

00=0=00

It was their tradition, something that Arthur and Morgana had done before the Midsummer's Masquerade Ball every year since they were children. So here Morgana was in Arthur’s chambers, sitting at his table, and sharing a bowl of cinnamon and honey almonds with him. The almonds are a special treat, only imported for the Midsummer’s Masquerade Ball. The tradition had started when they had first stolen some of them from the kitchens when they were about five, and had continued to do it every year. Now the cook didn't even really try to stop them, but also didn't make it too hard or just give them a bowl, knowing that that would take away from part of the fun of the tradition. And every year, the two of them “snuck” down to the kitchens to snatch some of the mouth watering almonds, and came back to Arthur’s chambers to eat them, and they would talk and laugh.

But this year Morgana doesn’t feel much like laughing. No, that's not true. Arthur can always make her laugh. But there is a bitter tinge to it, knowing that Merlin will soon be gone and that they are at a loss as to how to keep him here.

Arthur is going on about some story about him and the knights, laughing and smiling at fond memories, all the while not knowing that the person he loves will soon be gone.

“Morgana?” Arthur asks, looking at her with worry on his face. “Are you okay? Are you listening to me?”

“Oh, I'm sorry. I was lost in thought,” Morgana says, shaking her head.

“Something on your mind?” Arthur asks, leaning back in his chair, content that nothing is actually wrong with her.

All at once, Morgana is struck with an idea. One to possibly persuade Arthur to do… something. Convince Merlin to stay, and hopefully, in the process, confess his feelings. It isn’t fool proof, but at this point any plan was better than none.

“Actually, yes, there is something I need to tell you,” Morgana says. She reaches across the table and grips his hand. “I'm not sure how to tell you this, and please don't freak out, but…” she hesitates.

“Come on, Morgana, spit it out,” Arthur snaps, worry back on his face. “What is it?”

“Merlin is planning on leaving,” she whispers. Arthur snatches his hand away from her as if he were shocked, and his face has gone pale.

“What? Why? Who told you?”

“Gaius said that he was planning on leaving to pursue an education within a week.”

Arthur sits stricken, mulling this over. Emotions flit over his face: worry, panic, anger, confusion, and, if she dares, love. Finally, Arthur decides on the stance that he has always gone to when it comes to an open opinion on Merlin.

“Why are you telling me? Why should I care?” Arthur asks, although his voice is dry and breathy. Not the harsh whip he wants it to be. He continues, finding his voice. “Good for him, if he wants to get an education. He’s a moron, so heaven knows he could use some teaching. Good for him…” He trails off, leaving a silence filled with Arthur’s thoughts. And although she could read all of them as if they were written in the air, she knows that this isn’t something that she is supposed to see. She's not supposed to be in the same space as these desperate, grieving thoughts.

“I’ll leave you,” Morgana says, standing up. “I just thought you might want to know.” Arthur looks up at her as she leaves, and she gives a knowing look. Understanding flickers across his face as he realizes what she knows, but he makes no move to get up, and his face disappears behind the closed door of his chambers. Morgana takes a deep breath before lifting up her head and striding down the hall towards the preparations.

She's done all she can. Now it’s up to Arthur.

00=0=00

Elyan, Percival, Leon, and Gwaine are gathered in the armory, attaching their swords to their ceremonial garb for the ball. It’s honorary to wear it for gatherings such as this, despite not actually having to fight. They're all making last minute adjustments when Lancelot walks in.

“Gwaine did it again,” Lancelot says, looking at Gwaine in an accusatory way.

“What's he done this time?” Leon asks, laughing.

“Disturbing the peace?” Percival suggests, prodding at Gwaine.

“What? No-” Lancelot protests.

“Committing arson?” Elyan suggests, joining in on the fun.

“Naw,” Gwaine says. “Haven’t done that in awhile.”

“What-” Lancelot splutters.

“Attempted murder?” Percival tries again.

“If he did, then we have some stories to buy,” Leon says, laughing.

“No!” Lancelot laughs. “He stole my belt again.”

“No, this is the belt that I lent to you,” Gwaine protests, walking over to Lancelot with the belt in hand. “But if you care that much about it, then here. It’s yours.”

“You're so kind,” Lancelot says sweetly, taking the belt and strapping it on.

Silence continues after that, and while it starts as a friendly silence, it soon turns to the silence of a held breath, but they all ignore the elephant in the room. Until Leon breaks the silence.

“We do have a problem,” he sighs.

“If it’s harder than 2+2, then Gwaine won’t be of much help,” Elyan snips, and Gwaine lightly punches him in retaliation.

“Seriously,” Leon says, “are we even going to try and do anything about Merlin tonight? We only have so much time.”

They all look around at each other, searching for any glimmer of hope or the formings of a plan on the others’ faces, but there is nothing.

“I'm not sure how much we can do anymore,” Elyan says quietly. “If Merlin doesn't decide to stay here on his own, then he is going to leave. It’s Merlin. He can’t be easily deterred from his chosen path.”

“In all fairness, he does tend to know where he’s going,” Gwaine says, trying to bring some heart back into the conversation.

“Except for the time when he tried and failed to find the tavern,” Elyan smirks.

“It’s strange that Arthur thinks that he spends so much time there,” Percival laughs.

“It’s because of Gaius,” Leon supplies. “Whenever Merlin is off illegally saving the king’s life, Gaius just tells him that Merlin’s at the tavern.”

“And Arthur doesn't even know,” Lancelot says grimly. This quiets all of them. They're not sure if Arthur will ever know what Merlin has done for the king, and they hope that if he ever does, he will be appreciative and understanding and ignore the teachings that his late father raised him on.

“Come on,” Leon says, clearing his throat, “let's help prepare.”

00=0=00

“This is ridiculous!” Merlin exclaims, holding up a finely made black, beaded jacket up to him. Matching pants, tunic, and a small, plain mask sat on the table next to him. They had been delivered to Gaius’s chambers earlier that day by a servant, and had been sitting there waiting for Merlin’s arrival. “Are you sure I can't just wear what I normally wear?”

“Merlin, the king was kind enough to have that made for you. The least you can do is wear it to the ball,” Gaius scolds.

“But look at this!” Merlin protests, gesturing to the fine clothes as if that was argument enough.

“Merlin,” Gaius warns. “What would it look like if you refused such a kind gift? The king had it sent specially to you. It would be offensive to refuse such a fine gift.”

Merlin set the jacket down with huff of grudging agreement. It didn't make him feel any better. Something about Arthur having this made especially for him made his stomach flip. It was a feeling he couldn't afford to have.

“Merlin,” Gaius starts hesitantly, “are you sure that you-”

“Yes, Gaius,” Merlin interrupts. “I'm sure. I've learned so much here, but I… I want to leave. I want to learn more magic,” Merlin says with forced conviction, but they both know that he’s faking. It’s not that Merlin doesn't want to learn more about magic. He does, he really does. But he just doesn't actually want to leave Camelot. Because he quite enjoys the life he has built here, and if he left he would be leaving all his friends, all the amazing adventures, Gaius, and he’d be leaving Arthur.

He didn’t want to leave Arthur. But he had to. It was agonizing to be so close to Arthur every single day, and not being able to do anything about his feelings. And he knows that leaving Arthur means leaving him with one less layer of defense, but Merlin can't stand it anymore. Sometimes you have to live your life for yourself. So Merlin was leaving. And maybe someday he would come back, stronger and more able to protect Arthur than ever. Not that he would ever know, but some secrets must be brought to the grave.

“I should go get Arthur dressed. It's almost time for the ball,” Merlin says stiffly, and goes to leave.

“Merlin,” Gaius says, stilling Merlin’s feet and making him turn around. Gaius is smiling lovingly at him, and Merlin can't help but return it. “It will all work out,” Gaius assures.

“You can't know that, Gaius,” Merlin says, shaking his head.

“Call it an old man’s intuition,” Gaius says, smirking a little. Merlin gives a little laugh, and goes out the door.

The walk to Arthur’s chambers is an obstacle course, filled with constantly moving, hectic people, hurrying around with armfuls of this and baskets of that, all of them rushing around to set up the last minute decorations for the Midsummer’s Masquerade Ball. Merlin passes the servant bringing up Arthur’s costume for the night, and Merlin takes it and carries it the last few steps to Arthur’s door. He knocks quickly, then opens the door without waiting for an answer and strides in.

Arthur is sitting at his table, and as soon as Merlin walks in, he snaps out of his daze.

“Here is your costume for tonight,” Merlin says, laying it carefully down on the table and smoothing out the creases. “The ball starts in under two hours. Would you like me to help you get into it now, or would you rather wait?” Merlin asks, hoping that the king will let himself be dressed now and not hold Merlin here any longer.

The silence drags on just a little too long, and Merlin turns to find Arthur staring blankly at the wall, eyebrows scrunched in thought.

“Arthur?” Merlin asks, now a little worried.

“What?” Arthur says, snapping to attention. “Oh. Yes. I would like to be dressed now.”

Arthur stands up, and Merlin gets to work, the entire time trying to completely avoid anything about Arthur - a rather hard task to do while dressing him. But Merlin manages to do it in record time, and steps back when he’s done.

“Is there anything else you need done?” Merlin says, probably being the most formal he’s ever been with Arthur.

“Actually…” Arthur starts, but trails off. He stares at Merlin, going back and forth on whether or not he should say something. Try and convince him to stay in some way. When Morgana had told Arthur, a bit of his heart had broken, and he had started grasping at any way to convince Merlin to stay, any way to keep Merlin at his side. But now, looking at this fully competent young man, Arthur can’t find it in him to keep Merlin from what he wants. He- he loves him too much. And so, heart reaching out with a deep, aching desperation, Arthur says with a steady voice, “That is all. You can go.”

And so Merlin walks out the door to head back to Gaius’s chambers. Walking down the echoing corridor, he can't help but feel that something was just lost.

Chapter Text

The courtyard is strung up with lanterns, little flaming candles dancing within. Flowers and other decorations are placed about, and music flits through the air, floating along the gentle breeze that rustles through petals and hair, giving a chill to the night. The gates to the village are wide open, and a large fire burns in the center, reaching high and illuminating the courtyard. The stars twinkle down upon all the dancing and laughing figures, and everybody is smiling from behind decorated masks and twirling about.

It’s well into the night, and Arthur is talking to Morgana and Leon at the edges, leaving room for the dancers. Despite his best efforts though, Arthur’s eyes keep going back to Merlin. When Merlin had first caught Arthur’s eye that night, dressed in the outfit that Arthur had had sent to him, Arthur swears he stopped breathing for a minute. The light caught on the simple beading along the cuffs and collar of the form-fitting jacket. Merlin had looked a little nervous, pulling at the sleeves like it didn't fit him. But despite his fidgeting, he looked regal and elegant, and Arthur couldn’t stop looking at him all night.

Currently, Merlin is dancing with one of the servant girls. She's giggling at something he said, clearly flirting with him, and he seems to be having a good time. And he should be. This is one of the biggest celebrations in Camelot, more so because both commoners and those of noble blood mixed and mingled for a night of fun and enjoyment. And if Merlin is having fun with someone else, then that is fine. It’s not like Arthur has any claim to him. No matter how I want it, he thinks.

No, the fact that Merlin was having fun with someone else wasn't what bothered him. It’s that this was the seventh person Merlin had danced with in the past half hour. SEVENTH. Not to mention the dozens of people who had been flirting with him. Arthur had lost count at around twenty, and that had been a while ago. The fact that so many people are currently interested in Merlin is what really has his blood boiling. And no matter how many times Arthur tells himself that he shouldn’t care, that it isn't his job to care, he can’t stop staring at Merlin and glaring at anyone who talked a little over enthusiastically with him.

And so came drink after drink, with Arthur trying to use the drinks to forget about Merlin, maybe concentrate on someone else. Anything else. Even just to ignore Merlin and concentrate on what Morgana is telling him.

It doesn’t help. In fact, it makes it worse. Arthur loses control of his thoughts, and soon enough they’re stumbling over each other, each one Merlin this and Merlin that, until he’s drowning in thoughts of silky, raven hair and sky blue eyes and moon pale skin and-

The world has fallen around Arthur. There's a steady hand on his shoulder, holding him up. Morgana’s face comes into his view, and slowly comes into focus.

And then the blurry world snaps back into focus, and Arthur’s face is soaking wet.

“Arthur! Are you alright?” Leon asks, holding a suspiciously empty cup.

“Oh, he’s fine,” Morgana sighs. “Just too much to drink. I think Merlin should take him back up to his chambers for an early retirement.”

A knowing smile passes between the two, unnoticed by a still somewhat unsteady Arthur.

“Of course. I’ll go get Merlin,” Leon responds, and heads off to interrupt Merlin and his newest partner.

“I'm sorry to cut short your dance, but I'm afraid that Merlin’s assistance is needed,” Leon says.

“Okay,” Merlin says, giving an apologetic smile to the pouting partner that he leaves behind. He definitely isn't glad to leave behind what must now be his 100th dancing partner (that's an over exaggeration, but still) because he’s too polite to say no to any of them.

“There you are, Merlin!” Morgana calls, still supporting Arthur. “So sorry to interrupt your night, but could you please bring Arthur up to his chambers? He’s had too much to drink and has to retire early.”

“Of course,” Merlin says, taking Morgana’s spot supporting Arthur and starts to lead him away from the bustling courtyard. Morgana and Leon smile at their retreating forms like two proud parents.

“Do you think it’ll work this time?” Leon asks.

“It has to,” Morgana answers quietly. “Or else we lose Merlin.”

On the way up to Arthur’s chambers, Arthur doesn’t say much, and Merlin thinks that he’s just about completely out of it. They walk together through the empty corridors, stumbling footsteps echoing through the dark. Merlin is half dragging Arthur up the steps.

“Careful,” Arthur grunts after Merlin almost drops him. He pushes away and gets somewhat unsteadily to his feet and starts tripping up the steps. To be completely honest, he had only mostly pretended he needed help walking so he could hold onto Merlin, but that had proved to be a bad idea when Merlin’s presence pressed against his side turned out to be too much.

“Sorry,” Merlin says. “My feet are kind of dead from dancing.”

“Right,” Arthur snorts. “All your dance partners. How many did it end up being?”

“Um, I'm not sure,” Merlin says, staring at Arthur. Because Arthur had basically just confessed that he had been watching Merlin.

“Tell me something,” Arthur asks, a little venomously, “did you enjoy all the attention? All the flirting they were doing with you?”

“They were flirting with me?” Merlin asks surprisedly.

“Yes, you idiot. How oblivious can you be?”

“Well, they always talk that way with me,” Merlin says, his face scrunched. Arthur finds it adorable, especially the cute kind of panic that comes immediately after. “Wait, does that mean that they've all been flirting with me this entire time?!”

“Yes! How dense are you?!” Arthur exclaims. He’s gotten a better sense of his head, and the dizziness that he felt earlier has retreated to a more manageable level.

“No denser than you are,” Merlin says, smiling a blinding smile in Arthur’s direction. They've made it to Arthur’s chambers, and Merlin goes around getting things ready. Arthur watches him discreetly, admiring how his small, lithe frame fits into the adorning black jacket, and how the small black mask contrasts with his skin, making his bright blue eyes stand out, and how he gracefully falls into simple routine.

Merlin notices how Arthur is not so subtly watching him, and soon enough can't take the silence.

“Why do you even care?” Merlin asks.

“Huh? What do you mean?” Arthur asks, still watching as Merlin turns around to face him.

“Why do you care how many people I dance with?”

And that sudden, jealous anger is coursing through Arthur again, now magnified by alcohol. He rips his mask off and throws it on the table.

“Why do I care?” Arthur snarls, stalking up to Merlin. Arthur thinks about all those other people that were trying to get Merlin’s attention, and how Merlin would be leaving soon, and how lovely Merlin looks in that black jacket, and how he wants to scream that he loves Merlin to the world, and how he wants to whisper his love to Merlin, and how he wants Merlin, and doesn't want somebody else to want Merlin.

Merlin tries to back away, more than surprised by Arthur’s sudden mood change, but Arthur keeps going until Merlin’s back is pressed against a wall and Arthur’s arms are pinning him in. Their faces are inches apart, and Merlin’s eyes are flickering back and forth between Arthur’s eyes and lips, not entirely sure what's happening.

“This is why,” Arthur says, and dips his head forward so that their lips meet in a wonderful, burning sensation. A breath escapes Merlin before he pulls Arthur closer and kisses him back, moving with hasty purpose and years of waiting. He weaves his fingers through Arthur’s hair and moves Arthur’s head closer. Arthur tugs at the strings of Merlin’s mask, and let's it fall to the ground with one decisive tug.

Arthur’s mind catches up to what he just did, and he tries to pull back.

“Wait, sorry, I-” he pants, before being pulled back in and Merlin’s lips pushed roughly against his.

“No,” Merlin says, pulling back barely half an inch and staring into Arthur’s eyes with such conviction that Arthur’s heart stutters. “I love you, Arthur Pendragon. I have for a while.”

And with that Arthur’s heart practically melts, and he leans in and grazes his lips across Merlin’s, relishing in the quick breath that Merlin sucks in, before leaning back and looking into his marvelous eyes.
“I love you too,” Arthur says, voice rough and full of warmth. Merlin grins at him.

“It’s about time,” Merlin says, then pulls Arthur back to him and kisses him with all his heart.

Suffice to say, the two of them didn't go back to the ball.

Chapter Text

Not too far away in the courtyard, after half an hour has passed and Merlin still hasn’t come back, Morgana may or may not use magic to see what was going on in Arthur’s chambers. With a joyful squeal, she screams-

“Merlin and my idiot brother are finally together!!!”

Now let's take a second, dear reader, to take count of the people who heard her. First off we have Gwaine, Percival, and Elyan, who were talking not too far away from her. Secondly, there is Lancelot and Gwen, who had just been dancing together, and Leon and one of the servant girls that Gwen had roped into hitting on Merlin (roped might be a rather strong word for this situation. Gently prompted might be more fitting, since all Gwen had to do was mention it and all the girls took off with no further instructions). Then there is the cook, who also happens to be nearby, and who immediately takes off to find Gaius and tell him the news. Then there are five dancing knights, four kitchen girls, three flirting squires, two tavern workers, and a partridge in a pear tree. You get the idea. Lots of people heard, and rumors spread fast. Especially with news like this, and especially with the King’s sister as the informant.

But Morgana doesn't care, at least not at the moment, and neither does anyone else. All the knights and Morgana and Gwen congratulate themselves on successfully pulling through on the Get These Two Idiots Together Plan.

00=0=00

Morning light streams in through the window, waking Arthur up. Groaning and flapping an arm up to cover his eyes, he wonders why the sun was waking him up and not Merlin. He gets his answer when he opens his eyes and looks around, and finds a mop of black hair sitting on his chest. He remembers last nights’ events, and he can't help but smile. Arthur honestly can't remember a time he was this happy. He lets his head fall back and gently strokes Merlin’s hair, rubbing the silky strands between his fingers. He lets himself feel at peace, and ignores the what-ifs that are starting to form in the back of his mind. He lets himself love and feel loved.

Merlin starts to stir where he’s laying on top of Arthur, his cheek resting on Arthur’s chest. He slits his eyes open sleepily, his blue eyes just barely peeking out, but they fly open when he realizes where he is. Pushing himself up from his arms, Merlin stares in distress at Arthur before trying to throw off the tangle of blankets trapping him while stammering apologies profusely.

“Merlin,” Arthur whispers, sternly gentle, and Merlin freezes, staring at him with wide eyes. Arthur props himself up on his elbow and skims his fingers along Merlin’s cheek, grinning at the blush that it brings from Merlin. Merlin leans into his touch subconsciously, and Arthur pulls Merlin down a little more so he can lean up and brush his lips against Merlin’s, and then pulls Merlin to lay down next to him. For a while, they just stare at each other and lay in bed as the sun wakes up the world and declares the morning.

Finally, Arthur breaks the silence. He leans his forehead against Merlin’s and whispers-

“I love you, Merlin.”

Merlin’s breath catches, and a few tears fall down his cheeks. Arthur tenderly wipes them away.

“Please don't leave me,” Arthur breathes. Despite his best attempts, the what-if thoughts had crept their way into his mind, the most prominent of them being that Merlin would leave anyways, and leave Arthur all alone.

“What are you talking about?” Merlin asks.

“Morgana told me that you were leaving Camelot to get an education somewhere, and that you would be leaving soon.”

“Oh,” Merlin murmurs, eyes now staring intently at a pillow. “That.”

“Merlin,” Arthur begs, leaning closer so Merlin will have to look at him, “I'm begging you, don't leave. Whatever you want to learn, I can hire the best scholars in any subject you want. I will do anything, anything, to keep you here in Camelot.”

“Arthur I-” Merlin chokes, tears now coming more freely. “This isn’t something that… that can happen in Camelot.”

“Merlin, what's wrong?” Arthur asks, worried now at the tears streaming down Merlin’s face. “You can tell me.”

And as Merlin looks into Arthur’s eyes, all he can see is honesty and love, and Merlin realizes that Arthur won’t condemn him for his magic. He has, after all, not followed in his father’s footsteps in the persecution of magic.

“Arthur, I- I'm a sorcerer.” Merlin holds his breath.

“Is that all?”

The two men blink at each other. Merlin’s head is spinning.

“What do you mean, ‘is that all’?” Merlin demands, sitting up.

“Merlin, I know you have magic. I've known for quite a while now, actually,” Arthur says, smirking at the gaping Merlin.

“What?!?!”

Merlin's head hurts from emotional whiplash.

“Merlin,” Arthur says with a taunting tone, “did you seriously believe that I wouldn't notice all the mumbling in another language? Or all the unnatural miracles that just so happened to get us out of certain death situations time after time? And how they suddenly stopped happening every time you weren't there? Come on, Merlin, I'm not a complete idiot.”

Merlin is still gaping at Arthur in complete shock.

“But what does your magic have to do with you going away?” Arthur asks, attempting to get Merlin to function again.

“Umm, I, ah… the druids. I was planning to go learn magic from them,” Merlin stutters.

“They could come here, couldn't they?” Arthur asks.

“Magic is banned,” Merlin reminds him. “It would be incredibly dangerous. I would never let them do that.”

“It won't be for long.”

Insert Merlin personifying “?!” as an expression. You know, shocked, surprised, a bit alarmed.

“Arthur, you continue to give me answers with no context whatsoever. Please explain,” Merlin says, exasperated.

“I've just convinced the council to agree to lifting the ban on magic,” Arthur says with a very pleased smile on his face. Merlin is once again thrown into shock. Slowly and with new tears running down his face, Merlin buries his face in the crook of Arthur’s neck and holds him tight.

“ThankyouThankyouThankyou,” Merlin sobs. Arthur cradles him, rubbing soothing circles on his back. Merlin’s gasping sobs subside after a few minutes, but he doesn't move, content to stay curled up in Arthur’s lap.

“Don't go, please,” Arthur whispers into Merlin’s ear, begging him. “Become Camelot’s Head Sorcerer, and stay with me. I beg you.”

Merlin, a little reluctantly, unfolds himself out of Arthur’s embrace and turns so he can face Arthur. Merlin pulls him into a fervent kiss, holding his head. Arthur returns it, pushing back and deepening the kiss, pulling Merlin as close to him as possible. Merlin straddles Arthur, and Arthur falls back, Merlin falling on his chest. Panting, Merlin leans his forehead against Arthur’s.

“I’ll stay,” Merlin whispers. “I love you.”

“I love you too,” Arthur whispers back.

And so, my dear reader, this story comes to an end. But for every story that comes to a close, a million others open.