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All's Well That Ends Well

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Really, Gwaine thought as he followed Arthur through the mud and leaves, Percival’s boots splashing beside him and getting his breeches even more dirty, this had probably happened about as well as it could have. Not that he would ever say that to Merlin or Arthur, because he is not, however much everyone—and by that he means Leon—complains, an idiot. But it doesn’t stop him from thinking it.

Most importantly, it was only the four of them on the hunting trip, because Arthur could only convince so many people that the king most certainly deserved to detour from the progress onto a hunting trip—or he could only find so many people who just didn’t care, like Gwaine, who really just wanted to get away from the pomp of it all. And of the four of them, neither Gwaine nor Percival had grown up in Camelot, so they didn’t have the prejudices that say, Leon, would have. Hell, there had been plenty of rumors about Gwaine’s mum in her day, and even he wondered sometimes if luck was the only reason he had stayed alive despite all reason for so long. Sorcery was sorcery, in Gwaine’s book—and he had seen how helpful it could be. And of the two of them, Percival didn’t speak about anything at all, and Gwaine, contrary to popular opinion, could in fact keep his mouth shut when necessary. He hadn’t, after all, told anyone about the suspicions he had begun to harbor—he wasn’t, as he said, an idiot, and when a dwarf calls Merlin ‘magic’, and there are a lot of trees falling at really convenient times and in convenient places, and wyvrens take field trips instead of attacking, well, things start to fall into place.

And, as the clincher, Merlin had quite clearly, irrevocably, and inarguably been saving Arthur’s life. Two measly knights were not enough to defend against three unexpected rogue sorcerers, no matter if Arthur was there too; by the time Gwaine and Percival had been bound by some power and stuck to a tree, and lightning was slicing towards an unarmed Arthur, it was fairly clear that the only thing that had stopped Arthur from becoming toasted King was Merlin. Hard to debate that, when he had collapsed as soon as the fires had died down, the sorcerers no more than ashes blown away by the wind. That really made a dramatic statement, enough that Gwaine had taken the time to be proud of all he had taught Merlin about theater even as he was falling.

It had, at least, made enough of an impression rather than burn him, or leave him to get eaten by wolves, Arthur hadn’t even hesitated to sweep Merlin up—bridal style, which Gwaine fully intended to rag Merlin about when he came to—and stalk off towards camp. Gwaine and Percival followed without a word, which was how Gwaine found himself slogging through ankle-high mud. And Merlin, Gwaine noticed in the setting sun, might be glowing a little bit. It was hard to tell, with Arthur cradling him to his chest, his cloak half-draped over him.

It took them longer than it should to reach the main camp, as they looped around so that they came at Arthur’s tent from the back. Arthur just strode through the aisles of gaily-caparisoned pavilions, and then right into his own tent, still armored and muddy. Gwaine considered being worried—maybe just popping his head inside, make sure no swords were out (of any kind, because he’s not an idiot that way either, no matter how much both of them are)—when Arthur stormed back out. There was no blood on him, so Gwaine figured Merlin must be safe.

Arthur noted Gwaine and Percival waiting at the doors, barked “No one comes in or out until I come back,” with his jaw jutting out into dangerous realms of squareness, and stalked off into the dark.

Gwaine laughed and settled himself in to wait. The other good reason it happened this way, he mused, is that, if he’s honest with himself (which he tries to avoid on principle), he’s more loyal to Merlin than to Arthur, bugger whatever oaths he swore. They were burning Merlin over his dead body.

*******

Merlin woke on an unfamiliar bed.

The fact of it being a bed at all took him a moment to process, as he distinctly remembered passing out after very visibly burning some sorcerers. In front of Arthur. Yes, he remembered it quite distinctly—there was nothing like magic blasting through him, burning as it roared, driving him into unconsciousness with the sheer force of it. But nevertheless, it was not a hard dungeon pallet beneath him, but cushions, and the sheets around him were silk. He smelled rosemary and lavender—and Merlin’s eyes sprang open, because he knew those scents. He washed them. He dreamed of them. Sure enough, the top of the tent was Pendragon red. He twisted his head—Arthur sat in a chair, his eyes fixed on the bed. On Merlin.

“You’re awake.” Merlin almost winced, but the sudden, overwhelming rush of terror had frozen him in place. That was Arthur’s politician’s tone, the cool but even voice he used when talking to ambassadors of countries he didn’t like very much. And his sword rested unsheathed on his lap. Merlin had lived among warrior for long enough to recognize just how quickly it could be used. He refrained from clutching protectively at his neck, but only just.

“Yes,” Merlin replied simply. It was the only word he could get out.

Arthur didn’t move. He could have been a statue, carved from gold, impossibly beautiful and impossibly cold. “You’re a—” he stopped, like he couldn’t say the word.

“Yes,” Merlin repeated, because there wasn’t any point to denying it now. He almost wanted to reach to Arthur, to break the ice with hands and touch, because they had always been casually physical, but he was too happy just to be alive to take those sort of liberties. He didn’t push.

“And you—” Arthur paused again. Merlin waited, but when it didn’t seem like Arthur was going to say anything else, just sit there with his eyes ice-cold and his muscles tense, Merlin prompted him. He needed to hear the sentence.

“I—”

For an instant, Arthur’s eyebrows snapped together into a glare, his old Merlin-stop-being-an-idiot glare, and Merlin’s heart started to beat again, in hope and fondness. But then the instant flew away, and Arthur was the graven image of a king once more. “You saved my life.”

“Always.” That, at least, had always been true. Maybe that would save him.

Arthur stood abruptly, with a creak of leather and a hand on his sword, and Merlin instinctively flinched back, against the headboard. Arthur froze, and for another one of those moments, Merlin imagined hurt in those too-blue eyes. But then it, like the glare, was gone. “Stay here until you feel recovered,” he snapped, as harsh as the first few days, before they fell into their easy, bantering rhythm, when they really were just prince and manservant who desperately wished his destiny was contingent on a different man. “Then take a horse and return to Camelot. I suppose you don’t need a guard.” Merlin cocked his head. Was he supposed to ride to his death, to the pyre that was being constructed in Camelot’s yard? He opened his mouth to protest, but Arthur wasn’t done, and the expression on his face and the tension in his body, like before a fight, was very, very dangerous. “We will discuss this further on my return.”

Merlin would argue—what if something happened at the border?—but he couldn’t, didn’t want to give Arthur a reason to slice his neck on the spot. The mere fact that Arthur hadn’t done anything yet was giving Merlin hope despite himself, hope that Arthur was what he hoped he was, who he wanted him to be, but he couldn’t risk it. And anyway, Arthur was gone before Merlin could decide whether or not to argue, with a swish of the tent flap.

Merlin barely had a moment to recover, to come to terms with the fact that he was still alive and Arthur—and something had stayed Arthur’s hand—before Gwaine slipped in, his grin wide and welcoming despite the mud that caked his whole body, even his hair. It helped, a little, to know with that grin that this friendship at least wasn’t ruined. “Well,” he said cheerfully, throwing himself into the chair Arthur had just vacated, “That could have gone worse.”

Merlin groaned, winced as that hurt, and fell back into Arthur’s bed.

*******

They didn’t talk about it. Merlin spent the week and a half that Arthur was gone splitting his time between crafting careful explanations that never ended up explaining the important things, the things that would make Arthur listen, and making half-baked plans to escape to Ealdor. He found a number of fire-proofing spells that would have no effect if they decided to cut his head off, and figured out how to adapt an invulnerability spell he had been trying to find a way to cast on Arthur without him noticing so that it would protect him from being decapitated, but it would have no effect on anything but metal. Despite all his frantic searching, he did not find a teleportation spell, because that would have been too simple and if there was one thing Merlin had learned in his years at Camelot, it was that nothing was ever simple.

And then came the day of Arthur’s return. Merlin watched them from Gaius’s tower, saw as Arthur dismounted, all ease and elegance, with Gwaine and Percival a beat behind him. Arthur handed off his reins to some stablehand, said something to his knights, and the strode inside. He would report first, Merlin knew, and then go to his chambers.

Merlin was many thing, but he wasn’t a coward when it counted. So he went to Arthur’s chambers, even as his feet dragged across the cold stone. He got out a new set of clothes and prepared a bath, all those stupid chores he had done a million times before and might never do again. He hadn’t thought he liked it, being Arthur’s servant, but now that it might be over he found it in him to regret that. He liked being close to Arthur, he supposed, to have this access not granted to anyone else. Not that Arthur would trust him with that anymore, even if he let him—Merlin refused to finish that thought. He refused to hope.

Arthur came in an excruciatingly long time later—which was probably no more than an hour, longer than usual but not oddly so. Merlin didn’t notice him at first, was too busy fussing with Arthur’s sheets, but then he turned around and Arthur was there, standing in the doorway, eyes fixed on him. If Merlin didn’t know better, he’d call the look on Arthur’s face relief.

Merlin froze, and stepped carefully away from the bed. This was it. Arthur had had time to brood and think. If this was where Arthur decided he could no longer trust Merlin, if his hatred of sorcery ran deeper than any affection he might have had for Merlin—Merlin started to ready the invulnerability spell in his head.

Then Arthur just walked in, tossed his cloak on his trunk. “Well,” he snapped, “get me out of these things.”

The spell stopped in Merlin’s head, magic settling back down, but this was very clearly not talking about anything either—and Arthur’s tone was distant and commanding, not his usual taunting, ha-ha-you-have-to-obey-me tone he usually used around Merlin. Maybe a decision hadn’t been made. He couldn’t risk it.

So Merlin moved forward, silently, and removed Arthur’s armor, then his clothes. His hands ghosted over Arthur’s skin, over the tense, strong muscles of his back, inches from important arteries. Maybe Arthur did trust him—but he could not think that way, could not take the liberty of lingering as he sometimes did, so he finished quickly and took a correct step back. “Will there be anything else, my lord?” He bowed exactly low enough—Gwen did teach him the correct courtesies well enough, even if he usually ignored them.

“That will be all,” Arthur replied. He didn’t look at Merlin.

And that was how they interacted for the next week. Arthur was strictly formal, and Merlin, always on tenterhooks for the guardsmen to appear, remained obedient and quiet. It was so unlike their usual bickering that Merlin almost took things into his own hands—but as much as he desperately, horribly, wished for their old…thing back, for his friend back, for his king back, he also valued his life pretty highly, and each day Arthur was cold was another day Merlin lived.

“Still,” he whined to Gwaine, who had taken the whole magic thing pretty much in stride and was now planning to use it mainly to prank Leon and make awesome battle strategies. “He could at least tell me if he’s going to have me killed. It’s common courtesy. He’s probably just enjoying my pain.” Gwaine pushed the bottle of whiskey across Merlin’s room with his foot, so it reached Merlin on the floor by his window. Merlin picked it up and took a grateful swig.

“He was a right prat the rest of the trip,” Gwaine replied, which Merlin took as an irritating non-sequiter. Gwaine reached over from the bed and took the bottle back. “Kept on glaring at me like I was the one who had magic,” he said around a long sip.

“Poor you, you got glared at,” Merlin shot back, because joking was better than showing just how terrified he was at what he was saying, and the bottle flew back across the room to land in his hand.

“Oi!” Gwaine yelped, flailing his way towards it, “Not fair!” But he was laughing too, and Merlin remembered, for the first time since Will, really, because Lancelot had never been mischievous, that having friends who know was better than anything. If only Arthur wasn’t about to have him killed.

*******

He was hauling the last bucket of water for Arthur’s bath—scrupulously heated at a fire, because he’d been extra-careful these last weeks—when Arthur finally spoke. “How long did that take you?”

He slouched in his favorite chair, staring into the fire, but Merlin knew Arthur’s body, maybe better even than his own, had dressed and undressed and treated and dragged that body across countless fields, and he could see the battle-readiness there.

Merlin took a deep breath, settled the magic that rose in self-protective instinct. “About an hour,” Merlin guessed. He hadn’t prepared this speech. Arthur tended to meet things, dangers, head on.

“And how long could it take you?” There it was. Of course. Arthur would relate it to his own comfort. Or maybe he was just drawing it out.

Merlin would have shrugged, but he couldn’t seem casual, not now. He stood at strict attention. “Thirty seconds, maybe?” He paused to calculate. “It depends, you see—” he cut himself off when he caught sight of Arthur again and saw the pull of shirt, tight against the muscles of his arm as his fist clenched. This wasn’t the time.

“I see.” Arthur rose, walked to the windowsill. He gazed out of it, like he liked to do when he was thinking. Merlin waited. He was good at that. He listened to each breath that he took, each beat of his heart that marked him still alive.

Then Arthur spun. “And what can you do?” he demanded, sharp as a whip, his battle-field command voice.

“Um…upper limit?”

Arthur let out a breath that was half a snort and half a groan. “Yes, fine.”

“I don’t know,” Merlin replied, because that was the most terrifying thing he had realized lately, that he—and Gaius, and even Kilgarrah—just didn’t know all that he could do. Sometimes, he breathed and he would swear could feel all of Albion in him, through him, as sure as his pulse. But he tried to be as succinct as possible, to annoy Arthur as little as possible. “I killed Nimueh with lightning.”

“You—of course.” Arthur ran a hand through his hair. “You killed the High Priestess of the Old Religion, who my father hunted and tried to kill for years, with lightning.”

Merlin honestly didn’t know what to say to that, and he couldn’t quite tell if Arthur was angry or sad or frightened by it, so he kept quiet.

“And when was this?” Arthur demanded.

“After the Questing Beast.” Again, Merlin tried his best to sum it up as well as possible; he had a feeling this time his rambling would not amuse Arthur. “After you recovered.”

Arthur was not, contrary to Merlin’s teasing, stupid; he caught the implied ‘therefore’. His eyes hardened, he made an aborted move towards Merlin. “So all that, about being a good king—that was you saying good-bye.”

It was in that almost-hurt tone that Merlin wasn’t sure that he’d heard before today. “Yes.”

“You thought you were going to die.”

“Yes.”

“And you didn’t think to mention that?” Arthur’s voice was tight, dangerously contained. Arthur was at his least dangerous when he was yelling. “No, by the way Arthur, I’m going off to die, so you might want—might want to be looking for a new servant?”

Merlin took a careful step back, spread his hands in a carefully supplicating motion. “How could I? I said what I had to.”

“You—” Arthur started to prowl across the room, a golden lion stalking his prey. Merlin watched him warily, as if he might pounce. “I have been thinking.” He paused, as if to allow Merlin his obligatory expression of surprise, but Merlin could recognize the moment a sentence was about to be pronounced and kept quiet. Something twisted in Arthur’s face, but he continued. “About everything that has happened since you came. I seem to have not died an awful lot, haven’t I?”

Merlin didn’t have an answer, though he had a thousand prepared, could only stand straight and stiff, trying to resist the urge to flee. Arthur didn’t seem to expect him to respond.

“Which leads me to believe that you have been going above and beyond your duty as a servant,” Arthur went on, still moving, taut as a bowstring. “Which is generally considered a good thing—admirable, even.” Merlin was nearly vibrating with the fight-and-flight instincts rocketing in him, with the compulsion to stay and fight for his place, for Arthur, and the knowledge to do so would be to die. “Thus leading me to my final question.” Arthur whirled, quick as he ever was in a tourney, and his expression was caught between agony and anger. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

And that, somehow, was the last straw, the one that broke through the crippling fear, because Arthur damn well knew the answer.

“And what was I supposed to say?” he snapped back, suddenly loose, though he didn’t dare move yet. Arthur recoiled, slightly, but Merlin finally found himself able to talk, able to say everything that had been buried in him for years, and he would take this opportunity if it burned him. “Oh, hello, my lord, I’d like to apply for a job and by the way I’m also magic. I’ll take my pyre in a medium, please?”

He could feel the magic leaking out of him in his anger, felt it sliding into the stone and metal and air itself, making it crackle like lightning was coming, and clamped down, hard. That much, he had learned. “You burned Gwen’s father, Arthur! And you ask why I didn’t tell you.”

Arthur actually took a step back, his eyes flicking to the bath—the water bubbled and steamed. Merlin raised a hand, thought at the tub, and it cooled, and takes some of Merlin’s anger with it. At least the lying was finished. “If you’re going to burn me, just get it over with.”

As if to make up for his retreat, Arthur took two steps forward. Color was high on his cheeks as he stared. “You think I’m going to burn you?” he asked, deceptively soft. His eyes were bright, almost all pupils.

Merlin shrugged. He did just to magic in the king’s presence. Twice.

Arthur either understood and ignored, or just ignored, the shrug. “Gwaine,” he said, and he had switched to his lecturing tone. Great. Now if Merlin died, he would have to hear a lecture first. Well, two, because he knew very well Gaius would give him one. “Says that he’ll mount a rebellion if I hurt you. And he’ll take all the whiskey.” Merlin spared a thought to grin at that. Reckless, idiotic, brave Gwaine. He would, too. “Percival hasn’t said anything, but he’s been doing that very loudly. Even you could take lessons in being loudly quiet from Percival.”

Merlin was briefly warmed—he didn’t know Percival as well as the other knights, but he had always liked him. At least, at the last, he knew that was returned. But still, he had to ask, “And you?” He couldn’t keep the challenge from his voice. He was getting too bloody frustrated.

Arthur answered with another non sequiter, which did nothing to cool Merlin’s rising annoyance. “How much of you is a lie?”

“Nothing!” Merlin burst out, but then he stopped, swallowed down the exasperation, and thought. He’d like to say that he was an open book, other than the one great secret, but that was a lie. The one big secret had spawned so many other, little things. He knew Arthur right down to the core, every folly and thought and dream—it was his blessing and his curse, to know Arthur so well and know how hopeless he could be—but Arthur didn’t know that side of him, for all he knew his heart. “Only what had to be.” In the spirit of that regret, he added, though it hurt, a bit, “My lord.”

Arthur’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t call me that.”

“What?” That was not the reaction Merlin had been expecting.

“My Lord,” Arthur mimicked, harsh and cold. “You’ve never been deferential in your life—I guess I know why, now. It’s not like you’re less powerful than me. It’s not like you couldn’t kill me where I stand.”

And if Arthur was worried about that, then he’d never known Merlin at all. It lit a fire in Merlin, that unearned distrust, when if Arthur should know anything he should know Merlin would never even think about that. “Oh, bugger this!” He threw up his hands; Arthur flinched back. Merlin ignored it. “I told the dragon, right from the start, he’s a prat, he’ll never understand, and now you think I’m going to kill you! Do you even know how many times I have saved your bloody life? Why by all the gods would I undo all that good work?”

“Dragon?”

Merlin made a noise that was mostly irritation. “That’s what you got out of that? Yes. Dragon. The Great Dragon.” He was spilling secrets now, letting them pour out of him like the frogs out of Aredian’s throat, but he was past caring. He might as well burn for the whole thing, and he had needed to say this for so, so long. “The one I let free and then caged again after watching my father die for me!” Angry tears came into his eyes, but he can’t bring himself to care about that, either. “And that was just a bloody picnic, let me tell you.”

“Balinor was—” Arthur stepped forward, and there was something terribly like sympathy in his face. Merlin could not deal with that from this man, his best friend who would kill him. He needed Arthur angry, because Merlin was, furious with all the rage he had hidden under sulky servitude.

“My father, yes!” The magic was rising in him again, a flood this time, a gale, an earthquake, bright as the gold of the Pendragon crest, deep as the lion’s roar. “Might as well mention I’m a dragonlord too, you can burn me for that as well! And for saving you from Sigan and the Afanc and the bloody Questing Beast and the griffon—well, me and Lancelot on that one, so you might as well burn him too!”

“Lancelot knows?” It was a bark, a whiplash of a question, but the magic was still in, around, through Merlin, and it dulled the bite.

“Yes! He wasn’t going to burn me.” Merlin could feel his eyes go gold, and that was never a good sign. He took a deep breath, in and out. He shouldn’t bring down the castle. He liked people in it.

“You told Lancelot, but you wouldn’t tell me?” Arthur rocked forward, but didn’t actually come closer, which was probably a good thing. Merlin might fry him if he did. Still, he sounded hurt, and there is a part of Merlin—an uncomfortably large part—that had to make that better.

“He found out, because he doesn’t get knocked out every fight. And his father isn’t bloody Uther Pendragon.”

“I am not my father!”

“But you still burn them!” He couldn’t hold it in any longer; a hissed word and w the water in the tub disappeared into a geyser of steam with a crash that was almost thunder. He heaved a breath, now that air could take the place of magic. “You still burn sorcerers, Arthur,” he said again, quiet. Like the water, he’d burnt himself out, and all that remained was despair and a deep, painful acceptance. “I couldn’t tell you. Not and keep you safe.”

Arthur‘s mouth dropped open, and there was a look in his eyes Merlin couldn’t read—and he had thought he knew every one of Arthur’s looks. “Keep me safe?” he repeated, and it was almost a stutter.

Merlin knew it was a weakness, and put him at a disadvantage, but he sank onto the bed. “It’s the point, Arthur,” he said through his hands, his elbows digging into his knees. “It’s always been the point. You’re the Once and Future King. It’s my destiny to protect you.”

There was movement. Merlin didn’t look up. “Is that the only reason you’re here, then?” Arthur asked, soft, pained. “Destiny?”

Merlin did look up at that, dragging his face from his hands. “Of course not.” Arthur had moved close, within arms reach. Within sword’s reach. There were so many things Merlin could say here, so many truths and half-truths and comforting lies, all things he’d said before or thought of saying. But Arthur was looking at him, Arthur, his king, his friend, his other half, and so he dredged the deepest truth out of him. “I’m here for you.” Forever, or as long as he’ll have him. It had been a long time since Merlin questioned just how much of him was Arthur’s.

“For me?” Arthur echoed, hoarse.

“No, for Leon,” Merlin managed to give a half-hearted snap, which earns him a snort. “Of course for you. Who else?”

“Merlin—” Arthur’s hand came up, like was going to reach for him, and Merlin swayed forward, hoping despite himself—but then the hand stopped, and Arthur turned away again. “You’ve been doing magic this whole time?”

“Since I was born.” Arthur’s shoulders were hunched, like they were when Uther was sick, that last time, when the weight of a kingdom was slowly dropping onto his shoulders; Merlin clenched his fists and did not go to him.

“How many lies have you told me?”

“Hundreds.” He didn’t have any more in him. Didn’t have the excuses, the justifications, that all boiled down to fear.

Arthur pivoted again, quick enough that Merlin almost jumped. “Show me.”

“What?”

“Show me something,” Arthur demanded, spoiled as the bully he once was.

Merlin let out a deep breath and rose. This—this could work. Arthur had seen the horror, the battle magics that Merlin hated to admit he was best at. So, instead, he chose the beauty, the pleasure. He spoke a single, rolling word, and spread his hands out before him.

Grass spread on the stone between Merlin and Arthur. Stone foundations, walls, towers. Green fields, grey town, red banners. Camelot. People going about their business in the town, miniature knights flashing in unseen sun. Hints of clouds around high towers. Sounds of life, of clanging and talking and horses.

That was all Merlin meant to do, but the magic still spun through him, swirling in his veins and in his eyes, and the image grew, shifted, so the castle shrunk and the fields grew, until the outer towns were visible, the forest, the mountains, then the whole land of Camelot, and still it grew. Escetia and Mercia, more mountains and lakes and trees, Ealdor and its fields, Freya’s cool, clear lake, until all of Albion lay at Arthur’s feet.

“Merlin,” Arthur breathed, wonder in it, not fear, and Merlin looked away from the glory of the destiny before him.

Arthur wasn’t looking at Merlin’s gift. He was looking at Merlin, and there was wonder in his face too. “You—Merlin.”

The magic was still in him, from the ground and the air and the sky, and he could feel the land he showed, the slow, steady beat of it. He sank to one knee, in a show of fealty he had never done before, the oath he had never had to voice. “My lord.” Deeper than the knight’s oath, something older, from before stone castles and dams and iron.

Something more than candles lit Arthur’s face as he drew Merlin back to his feet, hands clenched around his forearms. An hour before, Merlin would have been tensed to flee, but the fear is gone, emptied out of him.

Arthur’s voice was quiet, awe and terror and wonder. “Why me?” He asked. His voice shook. “You don’t—you think I’m a prat.”

Of course. Merlin almost laughed. It would have to come to this, tonight. To the last secret, the greatest one of all. But he had let go of everything that had held him back these long years, the fear and the anger and the pain, until only magic and this hold him together, and so of course this had to go as well.

“Oh, Arthur,” he said, fond and a bit exasperated, that he had to voice this at all, as he detached his arms. Arthur still gazed at him like he was everything wonderful in the world, and Camelot—Albion—still lay at his feet—Arthur’s dream, Merlin’s dream. “Arthur,” he said again, and kissed him. It was the last thing he had to give, and he gave it gladly.

It was not a long kiss, not deep or passionate. A declaration, nothing more; a press of lips on lips. Then Merlin stepped back, empty. He couldn’t even find it in him to fear the expression on Arthur’s face.

Arthur’s hand was pressed to his lips, his eyes as wide and dark as they were when they saw the magic. “Merlin,” he said again.

“I would give you everything,” Merlin replied. His eyes were no longer golden. “Everything.”

Arthur continued to stare. Merlin couldn’t help but smile—the blank stare, such a familiar expression. “You could say something,” he challenged. It made Arthur snort, as it was supposed to.

“Merlin,” he said, for what has to be the dozenth time. “You talk too much.”

“I—” Merlin started, but then he was cut off by Arthur’s lips.

This kiss didn’t stay chaste. Merlin slammed back against the wall, so close to Arthur he could feel his stomach muscles tense through his shirt, and Arthur apparently couldn’t decide if he wanted to capture Merlin or devour him. He licked, nipped, his way into Merlin’s mouth, ground his hips into Merlin’s, then pulled away to mouth his way down Merlin’s neck. “You—should—have—told—me—” he told Merlin’s neck, between sucking a bruise right where the jaw met neck.

Merlin would have formulated a clever response, but it turned into a moan somewhere along the way to his mouth. When he got his voice back, despite the pressure growing in his cock, he breathed out, “Which one?”

“Both.” Arthur’s lips curved wickedly, his hand sneaking down to Merlin’s hips and yanking them towards him. “Everything.”

Arthur’s fingers brushed against Merlin’s pants; his cock rose in response, and Merlin bit back another groan. “Everything?” he stuttered, trying to grin insolently, “Where should I start?”

“By being quiet,” Arthur’s hips ground into Merlin’s, and damn it, he was going to come in his pants. He could feel Arthur’s erection pressing into his thigh.

“Now why would I do that?” Merlin said into Arthur’s mouth, and held back his grin at Arthur’s groan. He pushed, half with his hand, half with his mind, and they toppled back, the bed moving to meet them. Arthur’s breath hitched as the magic washed over him, but then his fingers were at the lacings of Merlin’s trousers, sure even through their shaking.

Merlin just smirked and hissed a word, and then the clothes were gone, and all of Arthur was there for Merlin to see. He traced with his hands, arms and over the smooth muscle of his shoulders, down his solid chest, his abs, then down to his ass.

“Cheating,” Arthur said, but he was doing his own exploration, his mouth running down Merlin’s chest, licking over the ridges of his ribs, even as his fingers reached down to Merlin’s almost painfully hard cock.

Merlin was about to reply, but then Arthur’s hand stroked down, tickling the slit, and he swore into Arthur’s shoulder. Arthur’s hips jerked, pushing into Merlin’s thigh.

“Not cheating,” Merlin gasped at last, and picked up his head to grin at Arthur, “Helping.”

“Helping?” Arthur’s smirk was quick and smug, every inch the prat-princeling. “I don’t need any help.” He took them both in hand, moved in slow, languorous strokes. Merlin’s hips bucked despite himself, and it was Arthur’s turn to swear as he sped up the pace.

Merlin came embarrassingly quickly, too caught up in the fulfillment of years of dreams—or it would be, if Arthur hadn’t come the instant after, moaning Merlin’s name like a benediction.

After, Merlin rolled over, so they were face to face. It wasn’t dark—the candles were still burning, and Merlin wasn’t convinced he didn’t accidently light more. He could see Arthur plainly, hair sex-mussed, lips swollen, eyes sleepy. “So,” he said quietly. Fear had returned—not a lot, but enough that he had to ask. “Not going to burn me, then?”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “Idiot,” he snorted, and rearranged Merlin so their legs tangled beneath the blankets. “But you should have told me. I know why you didn’t—” He talked over Merlin’s retort, “Or no, I don’t. You should have known I would never burn you.” His voice rumbled, a fierce, terrible flash of protectiveness. “Never.” Merlin trailed a hand over Arthur’s shoulder, feeling the muscles relax beneath his hand. “But no more secrets, hear me? As your king, I command it.”

“King, hm?” Merlin’s grin was quick. The protectiveness blanketed over the fear—he knew what Arthur would do to protect. “Should I start calling you My Lord?”

“Be quiet,” Arthur snapped back, without heat, and rested his chin on Merlin’s shoulder.

They breathed together, in and out, for a minute. Then, “You are, though,” Merlin said, “My king. My magic is yours to command.”

“It better be.” Arthur was quiet for another moment. “You need to show me what you can do, all of it. With this—if you have any power at all, which I doubt as you’re such an idiot—”

“Oi!” Merlin elbowed Arthur in the side. “I’m the most powerful sorcerer there is—” He cut himself off, because that—that’s something that could frighten, if the mere fact of magic didn’t.

“If you’re powerful,” Arthur continued, and there was that fear gone. His voice softened into seriousness. “Merlin—we can change things. We can change Camelot.”

Merlin closed his eyes, remembered Arthur standing with all of the isle at his feet, brave and golden and true, the Once and Future king. “Arthur,” he said, “We can change everything.”

*******

Gwaine was still loitering outside of Arthur’s door when the yelling stopped. He wasn’t about to let anyone else guard the door and hear these things—he realized how thin the walls were, even if Arthur didn’t. And he needed to be there in case Arthur decided to be a idiot and imprison Merlin after all, in case Merlin needed a sword arm in his daring escape. Gwaine was also willing to volunteer panache. He was good at that.

His fingers clenched around the hilt of his sword when the yelling sliced off, had to will himself not to burst in and make sure no one was dead, because Arthur had rage issues, and Merlin probably wouldn’t fight back. Too noble. Too in love. But then something hit the door with a thud, and the sounds changed—Gwaine grinned, and stepped far enough away from the door that no one else would hear the moans.

He wasn’t an idiot and he valued his own head (and that was only Arthur, who knew what Merlin could do now), so he wouldn’t tell anyone—but this had all turned out pretty well. Gwaine started up a merry whistle as he settled down to wait.