It figures it's physical violence that finally gets Arthur to stop being such a clodpole about Merlin's magic.
Arthur's out on the training grounds with the other knights when Merlin loses his temper. He's leaning against the fence watching them go through drills and trying to pretend he can't hear the way Arthur's carrying on about good old-fashioned swordsmanship and how knights are elite warriors who have to earn their skills through years of training and practice, it's not something they're just given and never had to work for.
Merlin whittles at a piece of wood and feigns deafness. It's obvious to him — obvious to everyone, really — that Arthur's comments are meant as digs at magic, even if he never says so. Arthur's been trying to goad him into some sort of reaction ever since he found out, but Merlin's let them all slide. He knows he lied to Arthur for years, and he knows how that must sting. He also knows Arthur understands the reasons for his deception. He'll come around eventually, once the hurt fades. Merlin's determined to wait it out.
All that determination goes out the window after a solid hour of Arthur strutting about like he's the only person in Camelot who ever worked for anything. They've moved through strengthening exercises and hand-to-hand combat and one-on-one sparring and Arthur still won't shut up about it, so Merlin finally tosses the whittled-to-nothing nub of wood aside, buries the knife's blade in the fence post, and calls out, "Magic has saved your life as many times as that sword has, Arthur." He sing-songs the prince's name in deliberate mockery, and grins when Arthur whips around.
"What did you say?"
Merlin just keeps grinning. "You heard me."
Arthur advances on him slowly, his brows lowering, hands tight at his sides. "That's what you think, is it?"
"Know it," Merlin says with a shrug. "I was there, after all."
Arthur's face is tight with anger, flushing red with it. "Let's see how you fare, then," he says, and his hand whips forward, too fast to see.
They're working with staves now. If Merlin were smarter, he'd have let the taunts loose while they were still practicing their unarmed combat drills, and the worst Arthur could do was knock him upside the head. Now there's a heavy wooden staff in Arthur's hand, its end swinging for Merlin.
Merlin is absolutely, completely certain that Arthur only means to give him a warning knock, something to maybe rattle him a little and set him in his place. He knows Arthur won't hurt him, but he's had his fill of getting his ears boxed all the same. And now… now, with the truth out, there's no reason to allow it.
He reaches one hand up toward the staff as it arcs toward him and lets his magic slip free just enough so that when it smacks down into his palm, his strength holds. He grabs the staff and jerks it out of Arthur's grasp while he's still gaping.
The knights have started toward them as one. Percival's in the lead, looking something between alarmed and indignant, but that disappears beneath shock, too, when Merlin tosses the staff aside.
They're all staring at him, and he's starting to feel a little sheepish. He glances at Arthur, expecting more anger. But Arthur is just staring at him, his brows knit, and the hard anger that's been in his gaze all week, ever since he found out, has vanished. "Merlin," he says, his voice broad with astonishment. "Could you do that again?"
Merlin snorts and scrubs his palm against his trousers as the sting of impact fades. "Of course."
Now they're all staring at him, gazes as sharp as eagles'. Leon looks speculative and Arthur— Arthur's grinning, the smile stretching broad across his face.
Merlin presses his back against the fence and eyes them all with trepidation, wondering just what sort of pickle he's gotten himself into this time.
It's not long before the sight of Camelot's knights sparring with the prince's manservant becomes so commonplace that people stop lining the fences around the training ground to gawk at it. It quickly becomes just another part of Merlin's daily duties. The knights give him the proper weapons for the day's training exercises and enough instruction so he doesn't take someone's eye out, but Arthur's very vocal about the fact that he isn't the one there to be trained. He doesn't need skill, just enough strength to give the boys a proper fight.
Merlin suspects he's just sore about the staff incident. And as duties go, this is a far cry better than tidying Arthur's rooms or emptying his chamber pot, so Merlin isn't about to complain.
The first time Merlin slips in behind Arthur as he's making his way through the palace halls and knocks his elbow into Arthur's side so hard Arthur stumbles and has to catch himself against the tapestries, he gives Merlin a look so dire that Merlin might fear he'd be on chamber pot duty for a month, if he weren't so sure that the knight's liked sparring against him too well to allow Arthur to keep up the punishment.
Arthur glares at him and snaps, "Watch where you're going!", and Merlin just smiles blithely.
"A knight should be ready to defend himself and his kingdom at a moment's notice, shouldn't he, sire?" Merlin spreading his palms. "Even — or perhaps especially — where he least expects an attack?"
Indignation makes a slow shift to disbelief. Arthur stares at Merlin like he can't make sense of the words, because surely Merlin couldn't possibly mean what it seems he does.
Merlin reflects on the fact that Arthur really doesn't know him at all. "You did say that assisting in your training was part of my duties."
Arthur's expression passes through a series of emotions, from wry humor to suspicion to something tight and tense than Merlin can't put a name to. Finally, he just snorts and knocks his shoulder against Merlin's, mutters, "Idiot," and continues on his way.
Merlin grins and follows after him.
"—wolves harrying livestock in the southern kingdom," Arthur says, tapping the papers straight against the edge of the round table. "I'd like to send two of you down to take care of—" He breaks off when Merlin knocks his foot against Arthur's beneath the table.
Merlin just sends him his same, guileless smile. "Readiness, sire."
"That's not an attack, Merlin, it's just a nuisance."
"Apologies, sire. My mistake." Merlin lunges, grappling at him, and Arthur ducks and brings an arm up to ward him off.
"Enough," Percival growls. Before Merlin can do more than grab at Arthur, Percival snatches him up under his arms and deposits him in Percival's own seat. He takes Merlin's seat and meets Merlin's irate gaze with his own, level and direct.
When Merlin relents, slumping forward with his arms crossed over the table, Percival turns back to Arthur. "You were saying, sire? The wolves?"
"Yes, quite right." Arthur clears his throat and shuffles the papers again. But though his tone is all business, his gaze meets Merlin's over the sheaf, and the crooked bend of his grin promises retribution.
Merlin keeps one eye over his shoulder and a loose leash on his magic for the rest of the day. Every time he turns a corner, he half expects Arthur to be standing there, waiting to jump out or trip him. Twice, Arthur actually is there, and when Merlin tenses and eyes him warily, he just gives Merlin a perplexed look and shakes his head like Merlin's some strange species Arthur can't make sense of.
When the castle gathers for supper and Merlin takes up his place just behind Arthur's shoulder, ready to pour wine or fill Arthur's plate at a moment's gesture, he's so jumpy he nearly can't keep the pitcher steady. This seems a ripe time for Arthur to get his revenge, here where any slip will mean Merlin's humiliation in front of the whole palace.
Arthur doesn't make a move or word out of place. He's more cordial than Merlin can ever remember him being, saying please and thank you, nodding and smiling his thanks.
As the meal progresses, Merlin grows more and more certain that it's some sort of trick. It must be. But if it is, the trap's never sprung. The meal ends, the court retires from the great hall, and Merlin is left to help the other servants whisk plates and cutlery away in consternation.
Afterward, he crosses the castle's moon-limned courtyard to help Arthur prepare for bed when one of the shadows moves. Merlin stops, magic dancing on his fingertips. When the shape steps forward and the moonlight reveals it to be Arthur, Merlin relaxes, but keeps his magic loose and free.
"Let's have it out then, shall we, Merlin?" Arthur taunts, closing the distance between them with slow, measured steps. "You and me. No weapons, just strength. Your magic against my muscles. We'll see who the victor is once and for all, hmm?"
He looks grim, but Merlin knows better, knows that Arthur has been enjoying this just as much as Merlin has. His eyes practically light up when they spar against each other, and it's no different when they match wit and skill outside the training arena.
"Let's," Merlin says, and allows the magic to rise through him. Arthur's gaze shifts, meeting Merlin's gaze straight on. Merlin can see on Arthur's face when his eyes go gold, the way Arthur's lips part, then he presses them together and flexes his hands at his sides. Readying himself.
Somehow, Arthur's almost toe-to-toe with Merlin when he makes his move. He's sly, Merlin should have been expecting it, the way he closed the distance between them while they were talking and Merlin hadn't even noticed, and now he barely has time to brace himself before Arthur's weight hits him like a battering ram.
He doesn't go down, though it's a near thing. His magic flares and his strength holds and then they're grappling with one another, Arthur's shoulder digging into Merlin's ribs as he gets Merlin around the waist and tries to take him down through sheer momentum, Merlin's arm hooked under Arthur's as he fights to get him upright.
Merlin's almost got his am up high enough that he can get at Arthur's side when his foot slips on a patch of wet grass and they both go down, tumbling together in a heap of tangled limbs. Arthur's weight lands on his elbow, which lands on Merlin's gut and knocks the wind right out of him.
Arthur struggles up while Merlin's still gasping for breath. He gets his knees beneath him, looks down at Merlin as he fights the panic, and Arthur doubles over with laughter. "Merlin," he gasps. "You look like a fish."
Merlin shoves at him. With magic fueling him, he knocks Arthur over and onto his side in the grass. Arthur's still laughing as Merlin rises. He slumps back, wiping hair from his brow with the back of his hand.
"The problem with all this," Merlin says as he pushes upright, kneeling beside him, "is this isn't a real fight. Not a fair one."
Arthur gets an arm behind the backs of Merlin's knees and lays him out flat on his back in one quick movement. "What's unfair? We're evenly matched this way, aren't we?"
"That's the problem." Merlin sits up and swipes sticky blades of grass off the back of his neck. "Fair doesn't mean even. Fair would be the height of your skills against the height of mine."
"Merlin," Arthur says slowly, eyes narrowing to shadows in the moonlight. "Do you mean to tell me that you've been pulling your punches all this time?"
Merlin rolls his eyes skyward. "You thought I wasn't?" The insult of it makes his magic flare.
Arthur smirks as he starts to sit up, arms braced behind him. "Come on, Merlin, you don't honestly expect me to think that in a real fight, you could—"
With a gesture of his fingers, Merlin wraps tendrils of magic around Arthur's wrist and pulls it out to the side, dropping Arthur onto his back again. Arthur sputters and grabs at his wrist with his other hand as though he thinks he can pry Meriin's grip off.
"I don't know, Arthur," Merlin says, rising over him. "You tell me."
Now Arthur's the one who looks like a fish, mouth opening and closing with incoherent indignation as he tries to pull his hand off the ground. Merlin gestures again and pins the other one, stretched out wide enough that Arthur's stuck on his back in the grass.
Arthur's face darkens. If there were more light to see by than just the moon and the stars, Merlin's pretty sure it would be red, flushed hot at the mortification of being pinned so easily.
"Don't worry, sire," Merlin says, laughing as he comes to kneel at Arthur's side. "I won't tell the other knights how easily you were defeated by a manservant. Wouldn't want to damage your reputation."
Arthur's chest heaves. "Merlin," he says, his voice strangled.
Merlin knees over him, knees planted on either side of Arthur's waist, the same way he's seen the knights do to mark their win when practicing their grappling drills. When Arthur tries to twist and thrash beneath him, Merlin pulls his legs out and pins his ankles the same as his wrists. The low growl Arthur makes in response sends a shiver of down Merlin's spine. It's the same wary excitement when on the hunt or facing down a monster, the knowledge that this is dangerous, but worth it.
"Now what do you think about how evenly matched we are?" Merlin asks, smirking down at him, his chest burning hot with victory.
"Merlin," Arthur groans, fighting the restraints so hard his body thrashes.
The heat from his chest spreads up to burn across Merlin's face as he realizes that Arthur looks frantic, desperate, that this was meant to be teasing fun but Arthur looks like he's about to have an apoplexy over being held down.
"I— I'm sorry," Merlin whispers. The fun is gone now, and with it, the sense of victory. Seeing Arthur beneath him like this makes him feel a number of things, but mostly it makes him feel cruel. "I didn't mean—" Words feel useless right now. In their absence, Merlin releases the magic around Arthur's wrists and starts to climb off, head ducked, face aflame.
Arthur moves like a viper. Merlin flinches back, expecting violence, figuring this time at least he's probably earned the cuff upside the head.
What Merlin does not expect, what he could have never imagined even in his wildest fantasies, was the impact of Arthur's mouth against his, the desperate grip of Arthur's hands in his hair, the way he groans into Merlin's mouth like he's a dying man and Merlin the only cure.
"Merlin," he growls again, just as before, but the rumbling tenor of his voice means something different now with his body moving against Merlin's, hands sliding down to grasp Merlin's hips between them and flip onto his back, underneath. "Merlin, fuck."
Merlin's voice is gone, fled somewhere far out of reach. He grabs onto the broad stretch of Arthur's shoulders, fingers biting into his shirt, pulling at it, at him. He needs Arthur closer, which is a ridiculous thing to long for when Arthur is right there over him, pressing him down to the cold dirt and the grass.
"You're a tease," Arthur says between biting kisses, one hand curving tight around the back of Merlin's neck to keep him close, even now. The words make Merlin's flush deepen, embarrassment twisting through him, but the way Arthur says them, he makes it sound like it's the best thing in the world.
"Arthur," Merlin gasps, twisting beneath him. He drags his fingers through Arthur's hair and pulls him in harder, though their kisses are already fierce enough to bruise. "Please."
Arthur tangles his fingers in Merlin's hair and tips his head back. His mouth drags along Merlin's throat, muttering obscenities as he drives his hips against Merlin's. Impossible heat skitters across Merlin's skin, digs in needle claws and sinks deep, then rises up to choke him.
Cold spots of wet prick his back, dew and damp soaking through his shirt to chill his skin while Arthur's an inferno above him. One hand flashes across him like lightning, pushing aside Merlin's kerchief and the collar of Merlin's shirt, fingers sliding beneath to glide across skin like it's its own reward. And all the while, Arthur's hips, those hips, stuttering against Merlin's to some rhythm only he knows.
"You complete idiot," Arthur growls, breaking away from the kiss to move his mouth elsewhere, lower, teeth nipping at Merlin's ear and the edge of his jaw, streaking hot down Merlin's throat. Merlin throws his head back and gasps up at the darkened sky. He knows there are stars up there, the moon shining down upon them and clouds scudding by on the night breeze, but his vision's a blur, wrecked. The only thing he can see clearly is Arthur, rising up over him, grinning down with that fierce, predatory smile that Merlin's seen on his face a hundred times before. Usually it's when he's fighting someone, toward the end of a match when his opponent is weakening and Arthur knows he has the upper hand, knows he's going to win. That's the way Arthur's looking at Merlin now and it makes something go hot and loose in the pit of Merlin's stomach.
When Arthur draws back, the pressure of his hips vanishing as the cold night air rushes in to take his place, Merlin whines in the back of his throat — like an animal, he thinks, and later he's sure he'll be mortified, but right now there's no room in him for anything but need.
Arthur slips his hand between them, jerks hard at Merlin's trousers until the ties come loose, and then again at his own. And then he's back, his body stretched out atop Merlin's, grinding against him, skin to skin. That, finally, is too much. The heat of Arthur's cock grazing against his and leaving wet smears across his stomach sends Merlin over the edge.
He drives his fingers deep into Arthur's hair and drags him up, muffling his cries in the kiss as he shudders and bows beneath Arthur's weight. When the tremors release him and he eases back, he half expects to see Arthur grinning down at him again, triumphant and victorious. But Arthur isn't smiling at all. His mouth is slack, his eyes dark and frantic with arousal. He grazes his thumb over Merlin's lips and moans a helpless, broken sound as he jerks atop Merlin and spills hot between them.
The night seems impossibly quiet afterward, with only the thunder of Merlin's pulse in his ears and the hot gust of Arthur's breath against his throat. Merlin's content to lie there forever and damn the chill seeping into his back, but too soon, Arthur shifts above him, stirs with an incoherent mumble and sits up. He straddles Merlin's hips and leans over, closes his hand around Merlin's arms and bears him down.
He looks like he's going in for a kiss, and Merlin tips his face up for it. But Arthur stops a breath away, and now his grin is back full force. "You see, Merlin? I told you." He smirks.
Merlin blinks up at him and shakes his head, trying to clear away the fog that's settled over him, that makes it hard to understand what on earth Arthur means. "Told me what?" He's pretty sure they never discussed anything like this.
Arthur's grin spreads. His face shines brighter than the moon. He leans a little more of his weight forward, pressing Merlin's hands down into the earth. "I told you I'd win, if it came to a battle between us."
Merlin laughs weakly and pushes Arthur back so he can sit up. "Highness," he says, "I think you cheat."
Arthur snorts. He climbs to his feet, then reaches down to grasp Merlin's arm and help him up, too. "Merlin, you're a disaster," he says, taking in Merlin's grass-stained clothes and tousled hair with a sweeping glance. "And if that's what you think, then we'll just have to have a rematch and see, won't we?"
A rematch? Merlin laughs beneath his breath as he falls into step behind Arthur. "Oh yes, we will," he murmurs with his own sharp grin. And next time, if Arthur wants out of Merlin's restraints, he's going to have to work for it.