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Out of the dead land

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By the time Merlin arrives, Camelot is empty, save for the ashes, and the charred, skeletal remains of houses and shops. Even the castle in the distance is a ruin, a dry, burnt out husk, a monument to its dead king.

"We'll be safer here; the fires are out, and it looks deserted." Merlin unlaces his pack and smiles to hear a tiny chirp from inside, then to see a little white head peek out around the edge. "Maybe it'll even rain soon, Aithusa."

To make up for the long journey hidden inside the pack, Merlin lets the baby dragon play. Aithusa hops from Merlin's lap to the ground, attempting to fly, and hops back up, undefeated, until he's tired enough to curl against Merlin.

"If there's danger, try to fly away, or hide," Merlin reminds Aithusa before he falls asleep.

*

"Was this your home?"

Merlin wakes with a cough and finds himself at the wrong end of a very sharp sword.

"Was it? Wake up and tell me." The boy holding the sword doesn't look much older than Merlin, maybe some dead knight's squire, just at the brink of knighthood himself; his expression softens when Merlin coughs again. "I'm guessing no, or you'd be used to sleeping in the ashes."

"It's not; I'm sorry, we--I needed to rest." He looks around in a panic and sighs with relief to feel the gentle rise and fall of Aithusa's breathing inside his pack.

"We?" The boy slides his sword back into its sheath and steps back from Merlin. A fine layer of ash blurs his appearance, but the gold of his hair, the blue of his eyes, and the fine line of his profile are unmistakable.

Merlin's found the prince, but he's found him too late.

*

"The spells broke as soon as my father died. He always believed he kept the dragons in check, not magic. I suppose he was right." Arthur stops on the dusty path up to the castle and tugs at the leather thong around his neck. "Nobody recognizes me. I grew up in Tintagel."

"I watched the priestesses scrying, I've seen you." Merlin stares for a moment and fingers the outline of the great dragon on Arthur's signet ring. "If only I could've been here sooner, if my father could've come, too."

"The dragonlords." Arthur steals away Merlin's chance to reveal his secret; when Merlin lets Aithusa peer out of his pack, he offers his hand to hold the dragon. "Can this little one really help save us? He's tiny."

"He's called Aithusa. And, yes."

*

"Why are you here?" Arthur's shoulder nudges against Merlin's. They're sleeping in the queen's apartments, moonlight slanting through the windows onto their pile of blankets on the floor.

Merlin rubs his bare foot against Arthur's, shifts so their legs touch from hip to ankle, relishes the feeling of Arthur's strong, lean body next to his. "The countryside is wasted. The villages, the fields… Aithusa hatched after the dragonfire destroyed Ealdor, but nobody would understand that he's too young to cause such destruction."

"You could've gone anywhere. You've been to the Isle of the Blessed. We might not even survive here."

Merlin turns to his side and skims his fingers up Arthur's chest. He doesn't want anything more than to touch Arthur, to feel his skin and steady heartbeat, but then Arthur frowns. His brow knits together and his mouth turns down, and all Merlin can think of doing in that moment is to press his mouth to Arthur's.

The kiss is dry and awkward until Arthur yields with a sigh and parts his lips. Warmth blooms inside Merlin, unfolding inside his stomach and reaching through him to urge him closer and closer to Arthur.

Arthur flushes as he fumbles at Merlin's breeches, his fingers clumsy with the first rush of want.

"We don't--" Merlin says, tries to stop Arthur, tries to stop himself.

But Arthur only says "we do, we do," his breath and his hands hot on Merlin's skin.

*

Merlin wakes up to a pale, chilly dawn and the sound of rain pattering against the castle walls and onto the dust and ash outside.

Arthur stands at a window, Aithusa perched on his shoulder, and turns when he hears Merlin stir.

"You are my king," Merlin says and takes his place next to Arthur to watch the rain fall over Camelot.