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Deep In My Heart I'm Concealing

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Chapter 1

"You're a pig."

Arthur looked up from the reports he'd been reading to see Merlin holding a pile of laundry and glaring at him. "I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. You're a pig," Merlin accused again. "Would it kill you to pick things up off the floor? To perhaps put one item, just one, back in the cupboard? Well why would you when you have me to run around after you like a headless chicken?"

Arthur felt his lip twitch but he kept his expression passive as he said, "You're my manservant, Merlin. What do you think you're supposed to do?"

"Serve a grown man, not a toddler," Merlin replied snidely, chucking the clothes down on the bed. He began to organise them, tutting to himself as he did so, and Arthur hid his smile as he returned his attention to the reports in front of him.

By rights, the way Merlin spoke to him should have, at the very least, landed the man in the stocks but it had been over two years since Merlin had been afforded his position in the royal household and his behaviour towards Arthur wasn't going to change now.

If he was honest, Arthur didn't want it to change. He would have cut his own tongue out before he admitted that to Merlin, of course, but he enjoyed the way Merlin treated him. To Merlin, Arthur had always been just a man; the fact the he was a prince and the future king of Camelot had never seemed to matter to him and his complete irreverence and determination to treat Arthur like everyone else was one of his more endearing qualities.

Merlin had been in Arthur's service less than a week when Arthur had realised that the man wouldn't be like any other manservant, nor, did it seem, had he any intention of being so. He'd been impudent, combative and incapable of following even the simplest of orders to the point where Arthur had begun to question if there was something wrong with him or if he was doing it on purpose just be to sacked.

Arthur had considered doing so, to rid himself of the man's incompetence and find a manservant who was actually up to the task but then the incident with Valiant had taken place and Arthur considered that having someone like Merlin by his side might not be such a bad thing. The loyalty the man had shown him, not to mention the genuine concern for his wellbeing had brought Arthur up sharply and made him consider that Merlin might have other qualities to offer to make up for his appalling attempts at being a servant.

"You know you're training the knights in half an hour, don't you?" Merlin asked, looking up from his rather aggressive folding of Arthur's tunics.

"Mmhm," Arthur replied, deliberately nonchalant to annoy Merlin. Sometimes he tried to see how many shades of red he could make the man turn in one day. His record so far was six but he was certain he could improve upon that if he really tried.

"Well, don't you think you should start getting ready?" Merlin asked, flinging the tunics into the cupboard and undoubtedly undoing all the folding he'd done. They would almost certainly all be creased and Arthur would take great joy in pointing that out to Merlin when it was time to be dressed in one of them.

"Mm," Arthur said, pretending to be engrossed by the scroll in front of him.

"Arthur," Merlin said, his voice taking on the dangerous edge that Arthur had been hoping to provoke from him. "Arthur," Merlin tried again when Arthur didn't look up, and Arthur had to bite his lip to keep from smiling.

He heard the man stride across the room and the next thing he knew the scroll had been taken from his hands and Merlin was bracing his hands on the table in front of him, almost nose to nose with him and wearing one of his glares that never failed to amuse Arthur.

"I was reading that," Arthur said placidly.

"No you weren't. You think I don't know when you're faking? Get up."

"Why?" Arthur asked, noting that a flush was beginning to creep up Merlin's neck.

"We just discussed this, you have training and you need to get ready."

"Oh," Arthur said, making no attempt to move.

Merlin's nostrils flared and his eyes narrowed and Arthur smiled benignly at him, revelling in playing his favourite game. Merlin huffed then moved around the table and stood behind Arthur, sliding his hands beneath his armpits and hauling him out of the chair.

"You are such a child," he groused, pushing him out into the middle of the room. "It's your bloody schedule, Arthur, not mine. They're your stupid knights, why should I care if you're late to train them?"

"Because you're such a diligent and dedicated servant," Arthur said with a smirk and Merlin prodded him in the chest with a finger.

"Stay there and stand still. Can you manage that?"

"I'll do my best."

Merlin rolled his eyes and went to the chest in the corner, extracting Arthur's armour and laying it out on the table, muttering about how he'd be the one cleaning the bloody stuff later and making Arthur smile again. Merlin's mutinous mumblings always amused him and Arthur was always interested to see how creative Merlin could be with his insults both to Arthur himself and Arthur's belongings.

He stood still while Merlin dressed him in his gambeson, watching the man's nimble fingers and the little interplay of expressions across his face. His hauberk was next followed by his breastplate and couters, then his belt, Merlin looping his arms around Arthur's waist to secure it in place. For all he teased Merlin, the man was actually quite conscientious when it came to his armour and it was the one task Arthur had no qualms about trusting him with.

Merlin brought him his sword and Arthur sheathed it saying, "I trust it's been polished and sharpened?"

"You saw me do it last night," Merlin replied with a half-hearted glare.

"I saw you sitting in the window seat staring out at the sky dreamily. I'm not sure how much sharpening was done."

Merlin pursed his lips and put his hands on his hips, saying, "Tell you what, I'll poke you with it and we'll see how sharp it is."

"You can't threaten bodily harm to the crown prince, Merlin," Arthur said with a smug smile and Merlin's eyes narrowed.

"Since when? Besides, if I don't threaten it I'll just be here wishing it. Now get a move on."

"I don't take orders from you," Arthur said breezily as Merlin handed him his gloves. "Grab the rest of my armour and don't dawdle."

He swept out of the room, grinning as he heard Merlin swearing while he grabbed Arthur's shield and helmet, tripping out of the room after him. He wasn't sure when ruffling Merlin's feathers had become one of his favourite pastimes but the man was so easy to agitate that he couldn't help himself. He loved to see the flush on Merlin's cheeks, the annoyance in his eyes, and he enjoyed every inventive insult Merlin threw his way when he was being particularly cantankerous.

"I'll want a bath after training," Arthur told him as they moved through the corridors.

"Anything you say, sire," Merlin said sweetly, then, after a moment's pause, added, "You haven't forgotten the feast tonight, have you? To welcome Sir Osrick and his party."

"Damn," Arthur said with a sigh. "I had forgotten. That's the last bloody thing I need."

"I like Sir Osrick."

"Oh do you?" Arthur asked, glancing at him as they walked side by side.

Merlin grinned at him and said, "Yes, I do. All the servants do. He's nice without being smarmy and he's so polite. You know, if anything happens to you I don't think anyone would mind if your father decided to name Sir Osrick as his successor, in fact, most of us would prefer it."

Arthur reached out and cuffed him around the head, Merlin sniggering as he dodged a second one. Arthur rolled his eyes and said, "I suppose Sir Osrick is…acceptable company."

"Far more acceptable than you. In fact, I might see if I can get myself transferred to serve him while he's here."

"Why don't I go one better and just give you to him?"

"You'd be lost without me, Arthur. You wouldn't last a day."

"If that were true then I'd be terribly concerned for the fate of Camelot."

They continued to bicker as they walked, Arthur very glad his father was nowhere near to hear how he let himself be spoken to by his servant. Uther's remarks on Arthur's relationship with Merlin had been frequent and varied and he'd made his displeasure known countless times. Arthur was convinced that it was only Merlin's unfailing loyalty that had led Uther to leave him at Arthur's side but sometimes he feared they were on thin ice.

Uther had very set ideas about how servants should behave and Arthur too had held those views for much of his childhood and adolescence. As he'd grown older, however, he had begun to feel conflicted and meeting Merlin had only reinforced that. He didn't like treating people as commodities and for all he teased and badgered Merlin he could never have treated him the way he'd seen Uther treat servants over the years.

"Merlin!" came a voice behind them and they turned to see one of the young pages scurrying towards them. "Merlin, I – Oh! I'm so sorry, sire," the boy said, catching sight of Arthur and giving a low bow.

"Oh don't mind him, Thomas," Merlin said with a smile. "What can I help you with?"

Thomas glanced at Arthur, clearly baffled at being told to ignore the prince, and turned a very interesting shade of pink. "I…um…there was a problem in the kitchens. Hilda's saying half the food hasn't turned up."

Merlin sighed and said, "Sounds like Gregor hasn't received the orders again. This happened last month. I'll have to go and sort it out. Thanks for letting me know, Thomas. Here," he said, dumping Arthur's armour unceremoniously into Arthur's arms, "you'll have to see to yourself."

"Should I remind you that you're my servant?" Arthur asked, trying not to drop his armful and embarrass himself in front of the young boy.

"Do you want the kitchens to have nothing to offer your guests at the feast this evening? No, I thought not. Now stop behaving like a spoilt brat and go and train your brutes. I'll see you later."

Merlin turned on his heel and strode off down the corridor, Thomas gaping after him, while Arthur fought yet another smile. He turned to face the young boy and said, "Thomas?"

Thomas turned to gape at Arthur, eyes wide at being directly addressed by the prince. "My lord?" he squeaked.

"Does that happen often?"

"What do you mean, my lord?"

"Merlin…helping with things around the castle, sorting out issues."

Thomas nodded. "Oh yes. Almost all the servants come to Merlin when there's a problem. He knows the castle better than anyone and he's very friendly with all the townsfolk too. We'd be lost without him, truth be told."

"I see. Thank you, Thomas."

Thomas took this as his cue for dismissal and gave Arthur another low bow before he scurried off and Arthur carried on his way to the training ground. It wasn't necessarily a surprise to learn that Merlin's role in the castle extended beyond looking after him but Arthur hadn't realised just how involved in the running of the castle Merlin actually was.

It made sense, Arthur supposed. As the prince's manservant Merlin was privy to things most other servants weren't and he had access to things most others didn't. Arthur knew he wasn't incompetent, not really, he just had an amusing disdain for titles and thought that half the traditions in Camelot were daft. When it came to the important things, though, Arthur trusted Merlin more than he trusted anyone.

"Leon," Arthur greeted as he arrived on the pitch. "How's it going with the new recruits?"

Leon sighed and dipped his head so only Arthur could hear as he said, "Not the finest bunch we've ever seen, sire. Too green and far too concerned with their titles than their ability to fight. If you ask me, they seem happier to wear the armour and look the part rather than putting any real effort into being the part."

Arthur nodded in understanding. He'd seen plenty of the same over the years and it frustrated him no end. The problem with allowing only those of noble blood to become knights was that it often meant being lumbered with men who had had idle existences and whose sense of entitlement far outweighed any skill they might possess in fighting.

"Seems we'll have to put them through their paces then," Arthur said with a grim smile. "Introduce them to the reality of being a knight and knock the swagger out of them."

Leon grinned in a way that reminded Arthur of the boy he had been, the boy he had looked up to and followed around the castle, Leon showing infinite patience and affection for the young prince. It was sometimes easy to forget the boys they had once been and Arthur enjoyed being reminded of it every now and again.

"Enough chatter!" Arthur barked at the assembled group and they all stood to attention, which was gratifying, at least. "It would seem that some of you have, so far, been a great disappointment as knights of Camelot. Perhaps you think you've come here to enjoy the fine hospitality and to take advantage of your position within the court. Let me dissuade you of this notion."

He spent the afternoon putting the new recruits through their paces and couldn't help but feel smug when several of them ended up throwing up. Leon had been right; most of the recruits had never seen battle and their weaponry skills were dismal. There were only one or two of them who showed promise, while the others were strutting peacocks who needed knocking down a peg or two. Fortunately, Arthur was well-equipped to do so and intended to whip them into shape whether they liked it or not.

He was shattered by the time the session ended and the last thing he wanted was to attend a feast that evening. He trudged back to his chambers, wishing he could lock the door and spend the evening in peace, Merlin pottering around doing chores and chattering at him companionably. He shouldered open the door and couldn't help the happy sigh that escaped him when he saw Merlin there filling a bathtub with steaming water.

"You look like hell," Merlin told him, wiping his hands on a rag and coming over to stand in front of him.

"Good afternoon to you too, you insolent prat," Arthur replied, wrenching off his sword and belt and laying them on the table. "Get this lot off me, I'm bloody exhausted."

"Bad afternoon?" Merlin asked, sounding a little less like he was mocking him. He began to remove Arthur's armour, deft fingers making light work of the job.

"The new recruits are appalling. I think you could do better with a sword."

"Thanks," Merlin said with a snort, lifting Arthur's arms up and tugging the hauberk up and over his head, placing it over the chair with care. "You'll knock them into fighters, you always do," he added, unfastening the laces of the gambeson and pushing it gently from Arthur's shoulders.

"Bloody nobles," Arthur sighed and Merlin looked at him with raised eyebrows and an amused expression. "Knights should be made of the best fighters not pompous fools who have had titles passed down through generations."

"Don't let your father hear you say that," Merlin warned, undoing the laces down the front of Arthur's tunic. "You know how he feels about nobility."

"Maybe he's wrong," Arthur said quietly, and Merlin looked at him, tilting his head in the way he always did when he was scrutinising something.

"You really think that?"

Arthur shrugged, feeling as though he was being appraised by those searching blue eyes. "Maybe," he said, wondering what judgement Merlin had reached and why he even cared.

"You'll make a good king, Arthur," Merlin said eventually, and Arthur tried to keep the surprise from his face.

He said nothing and let Merlin pull the tunic off over his head, feeling the brush of the man's fingers as they went to the waistband of his trousers. He loosened the ties and slid the fabric down over Arthur's hips, standing back to let him shift out of them. Arthur did so and divested himself of his undergarments too, moving over to the bath and sinking down into the blissfully hot water.

He was aching all over and his old wound from his battle with the questing beast was making itself known. He heard Merlin pull up a stool behind him and a cloth was dipped in the water before Merlin lathered it with soap and began to scrub Arthur's skin gently. Arthur let himself be tended to, at ease in Merlin's company and having no qualms about his nudity. He gave himself over to Merlin's gentle hands and smiled as he felt some of the tension leave his body.

"Is your shoulder hurting?" Merlin asked, his fingers ghosting over the old scar.

"Mm," Arthur answered. "It aches."

Merlin got up and moved to the cabinet in the corner, extracting a little pot of salve and coming to sit back on the stool. He coated his fingers and Arthur felt the salve being rubbed into his skin, Merlin's fingers strong as they massaged the tender muscles. Arthur couldn't remember when Merlin had started doing this for him or why he'd decided it was his responsibility but Arthur was thankful for it.

Merlin was the only person who ever touched him, the only person who completely ignored the supposed barrier of Arthur's status and, although he would admit it to no one, Arthur enjoyed those touches more than he could say. Being heir to throne was lonely, despite appearances to the contrary, and Merlin had come into his life and banished that loneliness with an ease that was staggering.

He closed his eyes and focused on Merlin's hands on him, on his capable fingers as they gently soothed away the dull ache in his shoulder. It felt good, familiar and warm whilst also making him feel better. He'd never pointed out that servants didn't really do this, that, unless expressly stipulated, nobles weren't meant to be touched during bathing, and he certainly had no intention of letting Merlin know now.

"You should rest it when it starts to hurt," Merlin said, his voice soft next to Arthur's ear.

"I can't very well throw down my sword and take to my bed every time I feel an ache," Arthur said with a snort, groaning a little as Merlin applied more pressure.

"Heaven forbid you actually take care of yourself," Merlin tutted, one arm coming up to circle Arthur's torso, a hand resting squarely on Arthur's chest to anchor himself as his other hand found purchase as it manipulated the muscle.

"I don't need to take care of myself, I've got you to do that for me," Arthur said, turning his head and finding Merlin's rather close to his own.

"One day I might quit," Merlin said, rolling his eyes, his palm warm against Arthur's skin, Arthur feeling oddly content in the circle of Merlin's arm, strange embrace that it was.

"And leave me to fend for myself?"

"Are you admitting you'd be lost without me?" Merlin asked, his eyes glinting.

"For a day…until I found myself a competent servant," Arthur said with a smirk, gasping seconds later when Merlin scooped up a handful of water and dunked it over his head.

"That's what you get for being rude to me," Merlin said, the massage having apparently ceased.

He went to stand but Arthur grabbed his hand, looking up at him and saying, "Wash my hair?"

"Wash it yourself, you lazy git."

Arthur pouted and tugged Merlin's hand. "If you don't I'll put you in the stocks."

"Has that threat ever worked with me?" Arthur pouted harder and Merlin gave an exasperated sigh, sitting back down on the stool and saying, "Fine, shift down and tilt your head back."

Arthur gave him a smug smile and did as he was instructed, allowing Merlin to gently slosh water over his hair, wetting it through. Merlin grabbed the soap and worked it through Arthur's hair methodically, creating a lather. He put the soap aside then began to rake the lather through with his fingers, massaging Arthur's scalp. Arthur tried hard not to moan but the sensations were so good and Merlin's fingers felt so wonderful that a contented sigh escaped his lips.

Merlin smiled down at him in a manner Arthur would almost call indulgent, then began to scoop water over his head gently, washing away the soap. After such a difficult afternoon, this had been just what had Arthur had needed. He felt cared for, something only Merlin ever managed to do, and while he might be woefully inadequate in many facets of being a manservant, it was undeniable that Arthur's life would have been far colder without him.

"Come on, out," Merlin said with a tap to his shoulder.

Arthur complied, accepting the linens Merlin handed him, dabbing himself dry and wrapping one around his waist while he dried his hair with the other. Merlin went to the wardrobe and began to rifle through the clothes, saying, "What do you want to wear tonight?"

"I'm not bothered," Arthur said, perching on the end of the bed while he waited for Merlin to pick something.

"Come on, you've got competition. Can't be shown up."

"Competition?" Arthur echoed with a sceptical snort.

Merlin looked over his shoulder at him and said with a teasing smile, "Sir Osrick. He's a handsome man, I wouldn't be surprised if all eyes are on him tonight."

"Don't be daft," Arthur scoffed. "He isn't handsome."

"Yes he is," Merlin argued.

"Oh, you think he's handsome, do you?" Arthur asked, getting up and moving to stand next to Merlin. He leant against the wardrobe and folded his arms, eyebrows raised as he waited for Merlin's answer.

Clearly amused, Merlin mirrored Arthur and folded his own arms, saying, "Yes, I do. I think you'll find most people do."

"Well I don't."

"Well, you're a clotpole, aren't you?"

"What is it about him that's so handsome?"

"Tall, dark hair, dark eyes, tanned skin, nice smile, nice manners."

Arthur snorted and said, "You must be easily impressed, Merlin. I never had Osrick down as your type."

Merlin's amusement seemed to grow as he said, "You've given a lot of thought to that, have you?"

"No, don't be stupid," Arthur said, feeling suddenly like he was on the back foot. "I just thought you might have better taste than that, that's all."

"Well, Arthur," Merlin said with a dramatic sigh, " of course no one in the five kingdoms is as handsome as you and I'm sure there are none so brave, so noble, so valiant but, alas, I am but a humble servant and you are a prince. It can never be, I shall have to nurse my poor, broken heart and pine away for you forever, lying to myself that people like Sir Osrick could ever match your incredible beauty."

"Shut up," Arthur said, chucking the linen in his hand at Merlin's head and hoping that his face wasn't as red as it felt. He didn't know why but Merlin's words had affected him somehow and he suddenly felt uncomfortable and wrong-footed. He turned away from the wardrobe and waited for Merlin to find him a suitable outfit, putting a fresh pair of braies on and waiting.

Merlin dressed him efficiently, his fingers constantly brushing Arthur's skin as he did so. Years ago Arthur had meant to tell Merlin that a servant was never meant to touch a noble that way, that an accidental touch every now and again was acceptable but the way Merlin casually touched him every time certainly wasn't. He never had, of course, and he never would, not when those touches made him feel like a person and not a prince.

They went down to the great hall together, Merlin wearing the jacket Arthur had given him a year prior and looking rather handsome in it. Arthur had been trying to improve Merlin's wardrobe bit by bit, insisting that he be properly attired for formal events even if he insisted on his usual outfit at all other times. The deep red and high collar of Arthur's old jacket suited the man and Arthur noticed a few interested eyes turn Merlin's way as they entered the hall.

"Arthur! Good to see you!"

Arthur turned to see Osrick making his way through the throng of people towards him and he smiled, clasping the man's arm and saying, "Good to see you too. You're very welcome here, Osrick."

"Thank you, Arthur. Merlin," Osrick said, his eyeline shifting to the man beside Arthur, "I'm very happy to see you too."

"Sir Osrick," Merlin said with a wide smile and bow, "it's good to see you again, my lord."

"Still running around after this one, eh?" Osrick asked, his manner friendly and open and Merlin clearly responding to it.

"Alas, it's my fate, Sir Osrick," Merlin replied with a melodramatic sigh.

"Perhaps one day I can convince you to come back to Tregothan with me and be my manservant. I'm sure I'd be a damn sight better to work for than this tyrant," Osrick said with a conspiratorial wink and Arthur wondered why he was having to stop himself glaring at the man.

"Merlin," he said, clearing his throat, "fetch us some wine, would you?"

The evening was a pleasant one even though Arthur was constantly distracted by Osrick quite blatantly flirting with Merlin. Merlin didn't seem to mind a bit and smiled and chatted, neglecting Arthur shamelessly as he stood and spoke with Osrick about his home on the coast.

Osrick wasn't wealthy, nor was he from a particularly old family but his land was part of a very important trade route and it was politic to keep him on side. He was different to most of the nobles in the kingdom and clearly put very little emphasis on rank or status. He spoke to the servants in the same way he spoke to everyone else and Arthur wasn't surprised that they all liked him and responded well to him.

Arthur could see Uther watching him with disapproval, clearly hating the way he sat with the servants and spoke to them as equals. Uther wasn't stupid though; he knew better than to say anything or to reprimand Osrick for what he saw as an obvious transgression but it still amused Arthur to watch his father sitting there stewing while Osrick told Merlin all about his family home.

Arthur was a little put out, he had to admit. He was used to having Merlin's full attention at these things, even if Merlin was still expected to serve other people. Usually the man always migrated back to him throughout the evening and they would speak about the guests or comment on the ridiculous attire of some of the nobles but Merlin had been practically attached to Osrick all night and Arthur couldn't help but resent it.

Merlin's eyes were bright and vibrant as he spoke, his rich laughter ringing out through the hall, his face animated. Osrick clearly enjoyed Merlin's company and, while he had spoken to many people that night, his attention was mainly devoted to the man. Arthur watched as they dipped their heads conspiratorially, as Osrick's hand rested on Merlin's arm and as Merlin's cheeks flushed attractively while they spoke.

He wasn't jealous, that would be ridiculous. He simply thought if Merlin was going to flirt he could be a little more subtle about it. He was also a little irritated that his glass had run empty several times that night and Merlin didn't seem to care enough to check that he was well attended to. He distracted himself talking to Leon but he couldn't deny that his eyes wandered back to Merlin more times than he would have liked.

He was listening to a conversation between Leon and another veteran knight when he saw Gwen approach Merlin, her hand on his shoulder as she leant down to say something to him. Merlin frowned and said something to Osrick then stood up, walking with Gwen to the corner of the room, where Arthur saw Morgana standing near the exit to the stairs.

Merlin placed a gentle hand on Morgana's arm and said something to her, the woman shaking her head and looking awfully pale. Gwen hovered near her, a hand in the small of her back as though she was trying to keep her steady. Arthur watched as Merlin spoke, his expression so gentle, so caring, it made something flutter in Arthur's chest. Morgana nodded at something Merlin said then turned and disappeared up the stairs. Gwen spoke with Merlin for a little while longer then made her way up the stairs after Morgana.

"What was that about?" Arthur asked as Merlin made his way through the crowd to join him.

"Morgana isn't well," Merlin said, although there was something a little shifty in his manner. "I don't want to disturb Gaius, would you excuse me while I go and prepare a tincture for her?"

"Of course. It's nothing serious I hope?"

Merlin smiled, the expression not quite meeting his eyes, and said, "I'm sure she'll be fine after a night's rest. Enjoy the rest of the feast, I'll see you later."

He pressed a hand to Arthur's arm then moved past him, disappearing from the hall. Arthur couldn't help but feel concerned about Morgana; she hadn't been looking well for a while now and her shine seemed to have been dimmed. She seemed to have retreated into herself over the last few months and she'd barely thrown a catty comment Arthur's way or insulted him or his looks in weeks.

He remained at the feast for another hour, spending some time with Osrick and enjoying his company. He was a thoroughly decent man and Arthur wished more nobles could be like him. He was honourable, kind, charming and his modest finances were, in Arthur's opinion, a positive rather than a negative.

He retreated to his rooms with the promise of joining Osrick for a hunt the next day, and was glad to find Merlin there waiting for him, laying out his sleep clothes and turning down the bed.

"How's Morgana?" Arthur asked as Merlin smiled at him in greeting.

"She's sleeping. Hopefully she'll have a peaceful night. Did you enjoy the rest of the evening?" Merlin asked, coming to help Arthur out of his clothes.

"It was pleasant enough, I suppose. I'm sure I didn't have as good a time as you," he said archly.

"And what does that mean?" Merlin asked, removing Arthur's belt and chucking it down on the bed.

"Well I'm not the one who spent the whole night flirting with Osrick."

"I was not flirting with Osrick."

"That's what it looked like from where I was standing."

"We were talking," Merlin said, stepping back and folding his arms. "I told you I liked him."

"You also told me you thought he was handsome."

"He is. I didn't realise I wasn't allowed to talk to interesting people without you thinking I was going to run off with them."

Arthur gave a shrug that he tried to make look nonchalant and said, "Perhaps if you'd spent all of five minutes serving me, you know, your employer, I wouldn't have cause to be so annoyed."

"So you are annoyed?" Merlin asked, his eyes narrowing. "Jealous, Arthur?"

"As if," Arthur said with a snort, feeling his cheeks heat. "I just think perhaps you should remember that you're my manservant, not his."

"You're insufferable," Merlin said with a huff.

"Oh am I? You won't want the gooseberry tart I smuggled out for you then, will you?" Arthur said, reaching into his jacket and extracting the pastry that he'd wrapped in a napkin.

Merlin looked at it then back up at Arthur, a grin spreading across his face. "Alright, I take it back. You're not insufferable, just a total dollophead."

Arthur rolled his eyes and he and Merlin took a seat on the end of the bed, the atmosphere suddenly companionable and easy. Osrick was forgotten as Arthur unwrapped the tart and broke it in half, handing a piece to Merlin. He knew it was Merlin's favourite treat, the man possessing a terrible sweet tooth that constantly landed him in trouble for pilfering from the kitchens.

"Mm, that's good," Merlin said around a mouthful. "Easily the best thing to come out of the kitchens."

"I do believe you'd live on sweet things if Gaius didn't take pains to feed you," Arthur said, feeling Merlin's shoulder come to rest gently against his own.

"I would," Merlin agreed. "Sweet things make life worth living." He glanced across at Arthur, a fond smile on his face as he shook his head.

"What?" Arthur asked.

"The crown prince with gooseberry all over his lip," Merlin replied with a tut. "Honestly, I know I wait on you hand and foot but I trusted you could at least feed yourself."

He reached over and brushed his thumb over Arthur's bottom lip, Arthur watching as Merlin withdrew it and sucked the thumb into his own mouth. There was something so painfully intimate in the action that Arthur felt his mouth go dry and his face heat, suddenly aware just how close he was to Merlin.

"Thank you," Arthur said in little more than a whisper.

"My pleasure," Merlin said with a smile. "Shame to waste such a wonderful treat."

"Mm," Arthur said, unable to say much else while he tried to battle the odd grip of arousal he felt at such a simple action.

"Do you need me to feed you, sire?" Merlin asked, his eyes dancing with amusement.

"I – " Arthur began, wondering what on earth he was supposed to say, but Merlin held up a piece of a tart close to his lips, the man's eyes strangely dark as he waited. Swallowing hard, Arthur leant forward and took a bite, his lips just skimming the tip of Merlin's finger as he did so. He felt the sweetness of the gooseberries dance over his tongue and watched as Merlin's eyes moved to his lips, Merlin's tongue darting out to wet his own.

The air hung thickly between them and Arthur wondered if he'd had more wine than he'd realised. The light from the fire played off the sharp angles of Merlin's face and Arthur found himself strangely mesmerised. It wasn't the first time he'd caught himself looking at Merlin with quite such an intensity but it brought him up sharply, nevertheless.

He cleared his throat and the strange spell was broken, Merlin lowering his eyes and turning his head away. "We should…I should…get to bed," Arthur said and Merlin nodded.

"Do you…need me for anything else?" Merlin asked, shifting off the end of the bed and standing in front of Arthur.

"No, you can go. Thank you."

Merlin nodded and headed for the door, stopping to turn and say softly, "Goodnight, Arthur."

"Goodnight, Merlin," Arthur replied, watching the man leave and wondering what on earth had just happened between them.

Chapter Text

Chapter 2

"No."

"What do you mean, 'no'?"

"I mean no I won't come on this stupid hunt with you because I have at least fifty other things to do that are far more important."

"Merlin," Arthur said with an exasperated sigh, fixing a glare on the man standing in front of him, hands on his hips and that bloody combative look on his face, "need I remind you that you're my manservant? That you're supposed to do what I say and, perhaps, just perhaps, actually serve me?"

"Alright, Arthur, I'll tell you what," Merlin said with the kind of staggering informality that would turn most nobles apoplectic, "if you find someone to gather herbs for Gaius, mix up a batch of fever remedies, help Owen in the stables because half the horses have colic and mediate between the kitchens and the flour merchant then I would be delighted to join you on this thoroughly pointless hunt."

Arthur felt his mouth twist into a pout and he folded his arms across his chest as he said with a huff, "Well, why do you have to do all that? You're my servant, not the castle's."

"Oh don't be so childish," Merlin chided. "If it was something really important then of course I'd put you first but we're talking about a hunt, Arthur. It's something you're doing to pass the time, whereas I have actual jobs to do, things that won't get done without me."

"Must be nice to be so bloody important," Arthur said, and Merlin rolled his eyes at him.

"You always complain about having me along on a hunt, anyway. You say I make too much noise and scare the animals away, although, if you ask me I'd say they just spot your over-inflated head coming from a mile off and take the opportunity to scarper."

Arthur picked up the nearest thing to him, which happened to be an apple, and chucked it at the man, who caught it deftly with a smug smile. Merlin bit into it and chewed at him mockingly, Arthur wondering if Merlin played the same game as he did and if they both just spent their time trying to wind the other one up.

"Now," Merlin said, coming over to stand in front of Arthur and finishing doing up the laces of his shirt, "you know your schedule for today?"

"I'm not an idiot," Arthur groused and Merlin snorted.

"Of course not, as if I would ever think such a thing." He helped Arthur into his jerkin, smoothing the front down, his palms pressing pleasantly against Arthur's chest as he did so. "Hunting, council meeting with your father, inspection of the knights," Merlin said, contrary to his assertion that he didn't think Arthur would forget his own schedule. "The life of a prince, eh?"

"Oh shut up and go and make sure my horse is ready. Oh and I want the decent crossbow this time, not that toy you sent me out with last time."

"I live to serve you, my liege," Merlin said with a mocking bow before leaving the room.

"If only that were bloody true," Arthur muttered, trying not to sulk about the whole thing too much.

He finished getting ready and made his way down to the courtyard, irritated to find that, although his horse and everything he needed had been prepared, Merlin was nowhere in sight. The castle evidently needed the man more than he did and Merlin was quite prepared to let Arthur know that, his absence palpable.

He sulked all the way into the forest, no doubt the hunting company more than aware of his behaviour. It was childish and he knew it but Merlin was his, not the bloody castle's and, although it galled him to admit it, it stung a little that Merlin would choose to do chores over spending time with him.

He knew Merlin disliked hunting but they usually spent most of their time talking and riding anyway. The accompanying nobles tended to leave them to their own devices, well-acquainted with their odd little dynamic by now, and the beaters had their own work to attend to to pay them any mind. He was used to having Merlin's company, his funny one-liners and sharp-tongued insults that never failed to make Arthur laugh.

He missed the man, that was the truth of the matter. He was used to having Merlin constantly at his side and he could admit, if only to himself, that it was uncomfortable to be without him. He didn't pay much attention to the hunt and instead wondered what his errant manservant was up to. He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he barely noticed when a stag was brought down up ahead but he did take notice when he saw one of the young lads stumble, hearing a hiss of pain moments later.

He dismounted and made his way over to him, crouching down and asking, "What happened?"

"Oh, nothing, sire," the boy said, flustered. "I…there was a tree root. Please excuse my clumsiness."

Arthur gave him a kind smile and said, "You should see my manservant. No one's clumsiness could match his. Have you hurt yourself?"

"No, no, your highness. I think…my ankle turned sort of funny but…I – "

"Let me see," Arthur said, peeling his gloves off. "This one?" he asked, and the boy nodded, looking as though he expected to be sent to the stocks at any moment. Arthur gently felt the ankle, seeing the swelling there already. "Well, I don't think it's broken but we'd best get you to Gaius just in case."

"Oh no, sire. I couldn't – "

"That's an order from your prince," Arthur said with a smile. "Come on, I'll take you back with me."

"Please, sire. I can't make you miss the hunt. I'll be fine."

"No arguments, up you come."

He placed his arms carefully beneath the boy and lifted him off the ground, taking him back to his horse and helping him onto the seat. He swung up behind him and settled them both into the saddle, trying not to jostle the boy's ankle too much as he did so.

"Arthur! Where are you going? There's still good hunting to be done!" came a shout from one of the hunting party.

"The boy's injured," Arthur shouted back. "I'm taking him back to the castle."

"Leave him! He'll be trying to wag off work, the young wretch!"

Arthur rolled his eyes and turned the horse around, pretending he couldn't hear the man's nonsense and unwilling to subject the young lad to any abuse he might throw his way. He wrapped a careful arm around the boy's waist and steered his horse with one hand, feeling how nervous the poor boy was.

"What's your name?" he asked, hoping to put him at his ease.

"Wilf."

"I'm Arthur."

There was a slight pause followed by a rather amused, "Yes, I know, sire."

They rode back to the citadel and Arthur helped the boy down, leaving his horse to be stabled while he assisted the boy to hobble. His chivalry was insisting that he carry the poor thing rather than make him put any weight on the affected ankle, but he was sensible enough to know that Wilf would likely have died of humiliation to have the prince of Camelot carrying him through the castle.

They made it to Gaius' quarters and Arthur helped to settle Wilf down on the bench while Gaius examined the ankle. Arthur glanced around the physician's chambers and said, "Merlin's not with you?"

"No, sire. I believe he had other duties to attend to."

"It seems Merlin has duties all over the castle," Arthur said, trying not to sound too sulky. "If you don't need me, I'll go and see if I can find him and remind him exactly who it is he serves." He clapped the young boy on the shoulder and said, "Give that ankle a rest, Wilf."

"I will, sire, and thank you very much."

Arthur gave him a bright smile and left Gaius' rooms, wondering where on earth Merlin had managed to sneak off to now. He wandered aimlessly around the castle for a while, asking a few people where Merlin might be and receiving no satisfactory answers. Frustrated, he decided to take himself off for a stroll in the castle gardens in an attempt to clear his mind before he had to attend council with his father.

He walked through the castle orchards and made his way through to the walled garden. He ducked through a well-manicured arch and frowned when he saw a familiar figure sitting on one of the stone benches at the other end of the garden, someone equally familiar sitting beside him.

Merlin and Morgana were sitting close to one another, their heads ducked in conversation, voices low and gentle. He couldn't hear what they were saying but it seemed earnest, private, and Arthur felt as though he was intruding on something he had no business seeing.

Part of him was irked that Merlin had seemingly dodged all his other responsibilities, including hunting with Arthur, to sit and have this conversation with Morgana but Arthur hadn't been insensible to the change in the woman over the past few months. She'd been quiet and withdrawn, her eyes constantly ringed with dark circles and all her vivacity seemingly drained from her.

He watched her now speaking with Merlin and she looked so much more like her old self. She still looked tired and her smiles were more muted than they usually were but she looked…at peace. Whatever the situation, she had clearly made Merlin privy to it and Merlin, in his own inimitable way, was obviously helping. Arthur couldn't find it in him to resent that, to feel irritated that he'd been pushed aside in favour of this quiet conversation.

He watched as Merlin reached out and took Morgana's hand, holding it gently in his own and smiling that damned smile that did the most irritating things to Arthur's stomach. It galled him to admit it but he hated whenever that smile was directed at anyone besides himself and he felt ashamed for feeling so…proprietary.

He left the garden, deciding not to intrude upon the private moment and hoping that, whatever Morgana's troubles, Merlin might be able to help her. There had always been a strange kind of affection between the two and Morgana had made no secret of the fact that she was very fond of Merlin. He knew enough of Merlin's compassion and empathy to know that he was the kind of person people felt comfortable confiding in and if Morgana had found that in him then Arthur couldn't condemn it.

He left the matter alone but he noticed, as the weeks passed, that Merlin and Morgana were very often in one another's company. He spied them walking together, saw them huddled in alcoves and watched as Morgana's smiles, what few there were, were all directed towards Merlin. It went against all rules of propriety and if Uther found out there would be hell to pay but Arthur found he couldn't bring himself to say anything to either of them, not when it seemed to be doing Morgana so much good.

Jealousy reared its head once or twice but Arthur couldn't tell if it was because Morgana had seen fit to confide in someone that wasn't him…or if he was jealous of Merlin devoting so much of his attention to someone else. He tried to squash it down, whatever its roots, and tried to be thankful that there was somebody Morgana could rely on, that there was somebody who could banish the haunted look from her face…even if it did mean sometimes having to sacrifice Merlin's company every now and again.

"Have you seen my blue doublet?" Arthur asked, rifling through his wardrobe one sunny morning. "I have a knighting ceremony tomorrow and I wanted to wear it."

"It's in the laundry waiting to be pressed," Merlin said, bracing his hands on Arthur's shoulders and pulling him out of the wardrobe. "I know what you always wear to the knighting ceremonies, I had it in the wash a day ago."

"Ah, well it's about time you started showing some initiative."

"You could just say thank you, you massive dollophead," Merlin said, rolling his eyes. "And your ceremonial sword is polished, the sheath has been waxed and your circlet is shining like a new coin. Anything else, you tyrant?"

"My boots need cleaning," Arthur said with a smug smile and Merlin picked up a sheaf of parchment and whacked him over the head with it.

"They're done too, so stick that in your pipe and smoke it."

"You can't hit me!" Arthur spluttered.

Merlin looked at the parchment in his hand with consideration, then looked back up at Arthur with a pensive frown before he reached out and hit him again, the parchment making a resounding thwack as it met his head.

"Well, will you look at that? It seems I can," Merlin said, eyes wide with false wonder.

Arthur felt his lip twitch and he saw answering amusement in Merlin's eyes, along with a familiar glint of a challenge. He wasn't sure who moved first but he was lunging at Merlin just as the man darted away from him. He chased him around the room, Merlin putting bits of furniture between them and pulling out chairs to slow Arthur's progress, grinning like a lunatic while he tried to evade him.

"Stay away from me, you big brute!" he laughed, running around the post of the bed. "If you lay a finger on me I'll tear your blue doublet to shreds!"

"You won't be alive to do anything after I lay a finger on you," Arthur threatened, following Merlin around the table and narrowing avoiding knocking over the inkwell.

"You need to learn to move more quickly, old age is clearly creeping up on you!" Merlin called with glee as he made Arthur dodge one way while he doubled back the other way.

Arthur was quicker than Merlin gave him credit for and he corrected his trajectory just in time, coming face to face with Merlin and stopping him in his path. He reached out with speed he was proud of and grabbed Merlin's wrist, swinging him around and pinning his arm behind his back while he pressed a hand to Merlin's chest and pulled him squarely into his hold.

"Looks like I've got you," he breathed next to Merlin's ear, pulling the man's body flush against his own.

"Only because you're a rotten cheat," Merlin said, trying and failing to release himself from Arthur's hold.

"You just can't take me, Merlin. Time you faced up to this fact," Arthur said, and if he wriggled just a little closer…well…it was just so he had a better grip on his prisoner.

"Maybe I just like lulling you into a false sense of security," Merlin replied smoothly, turning his head, his nose awfully close to Arthur's. "Maybe one day I'll win and pin you down…have my revenge."

The air felt suddenly charged and Arthur was aware of just how tightly he was holding Merlin, how his chest was pressed against Merlin's back and just how close their faces were. He could see the different flecks of blue in the man's irises and the faintest dusting of freckles on the bridge of his nose. He couldn't help but indulge in having Merlin so close, feeling the man's heartbeat beneath his palm, feeling the warmth of his body spread through their clothes.

"Maybe one day I'll let you," Arthur said before he could stop himself, taken aback at just how breathless he sounded.

Merlin smiled at him, the expression not quite innocent, and Arthur was almost relieved when an almighty noise from outside distracted them both. They frowned at one another and Arthur released Merlin, both heading for the window to see chaos unfolding in the square below.

"Come on," Arthur said, clapping Merlin on the shoulder and heading out of his chambers, knowing that Merlin would be close behind.

They raced through the corridors and out into the quad, seeing a group of guards wrestling with two young boys. Crowds were gathering and Arthur could barely make anything out through the din but his eyes widened as he saw Morgana appearing from nowhere, her expression fierce and an aura of power around her that Arthur could swear he felt vibrating through the air.

"Let them go at once!" she commanded. "They've done you no harm! Arthur!" she said, her eyes landing on him. "Tell them to let these boys go, they've done nothing wrong."

"What's all this about?" he asked, confused.

"Caught them using magic, sire," one of the guards said. "We were trying to take them to your father but they – "

"Stopped you!" Morgana spat. "They stopped you from leading them to their deaths. Let them go!"

"Morgana, you know the laws around magic," Arthur said, watching as the boys fought with a fury he'd rarely seen.

Morgana spun back around to face him, her eyes wild, anger boiling beneath the surface. "Then you would sentence these children to death, would you? For something they can't help? Something they can't control? Shame on you, Arthur Pendragon, shame on you for letting your father poison you the way he's poisoned these lands for so long."

"You would do well to hold your tongue," came Uther's voice, dripping with disdain, and they both turned to see him descending the stairs, face twisted in anger. "They were caught using magic?" he asked the guards.

"They were, sire."

"Then they shall be hanged," Uther said matter-of-factly, and Arthur felt his blood turn cold.

They could have been no older than 15, no older than Wilf whom he helped up onto his horse weeks ago and carried back to Camelot to have his ankle seen to. They were still children and surely nothing they had done or were even capable of doing could warrant snuffing their lives out so cruelly.

"I won't let you do this," Morgana said, her voice dangerously low, her fists clenched at her sides.

"You have no authority with which to stop me," Uther said coldly. "I have tolerated your insubordination enough in the past but you forget to whom you are speaking."

"I know well to whom I'm speaking," Morgana fired back. "A tyrant, a bully, a man so riddled with guilt and fear he hunts innocent people to assuage his own wretched soul. You, Uther Pendragon, have yet to be judged for the crimes you've committed and believe me when I tell you that a day of reckoning will find you!"

"Enough! Take those boys to the dungeons, and as for you, my girl – " he began, a finger pointed threateningly at her when the ground began to shake.

Morgana lifted her hands and Arthur watched, his breath suspended, as a huge pulse of magic emanated from them, knocking the guards sideways. "Run!" she shouted to the boys, who did so immediately, slipping past any would-be captors and disappearing into the streets.

"Magic," Uther breathed in horror, while Arthur could only look in shock, rooted to the spot and unable to believe what he had just witnessed. "Seize her!" Uther raged and the guards scrambled to get back on their feet, rushing at Morgana and piling onto her, pulling her arms behind her back.

"Let her go!" Arthur roared. "Get your hands off her!"

"Stay out of this," Uther said, teeth clenched with fury, and Arthur dimly registered Merlin's hand on his arm, holding him back.

"You can't do this!" Arthur cried, fighting against Merlin's hold while he watched Morgana struggle against the guards, trying to free her hands.

"Take her to the dungeons," Uther said, his voice chillingly cold. "She will be executed a day hence."

"No! Father, no!" Arthur bellowed as he watched Morgana manhandled away, fear plain on her face even as she held her chin defiantly.

"Arthur, come away," Merlin murmured softly in his ear. "You can't help her."

"You'd do well to listen to your boy," Uther said with a snarl.

"If you do this I'll never forgive you," Arthur said, hearing his voice crack and feeling his pulse thunder in his ears.

Uther stared straight at him, his eyes cold and unyielding. "The witch will burn," he said, turning on his heel and walking back up the steps.

"You bastard!"

"Arthur, Arthur stop," Merlin commanded firmly. "Come away, come. Now." Merlin's grip was firm, surprisingly so, and he manoeuvred Arthur through one of the side entrances, Arthur fighting all the way until they were back in his chambers.

"How can he do this? How can you be so calm? We have to stop this, we have to find a way to help her, to – "

"Arthur," Merlin said, his voice low and strong as he braced a hand either side of Arthur's head and held him there. "Look at me, look at me," he commanded, and Arthur did so, Merlin's hands warm against his skin as his heart threatened to beat itself violently out of his chest. "I have no intention of letting Morgana die and we will not do so, do you understand me?"

Arthur stared at him, feeling sick and dizzy and as though he would like to crawl into bed and pull the covers up over his head as he'd done when he was a child and the world was too much for him. He forced himself to nod and Merlin lowered his hands to Arthur's shoulders, grounding him, keeping him from spinning out of control.

"I need you to trust me, Arthur."

"Of course I trust you," Arthur said without hesitation and, despite the circumstances, he didn't miss the slight curve of Merlin's mouth or the pleased look that flashed across his eyes.

Merlin squeezed his shoulder gently and said, "We're not going to let Uther do this, we're not going to let her die. I have a plan."

"You…you do?" Arthur asked, breathless.

Merlin nodded, something in his expression guilty and evasive as he said, "This was an eventuality I've feared for some time."

"You knew," Arthur surmised. "You knew about the magic."

"I couldn't tell you, Arthur. I couldn't betray her, I've been trying to…to help her. Clearly I've failed."

"Clearly we both have," Arthur said bitterly. He understood why Merlin hadn't wanted to confide a secret that wasn't his, even while it stung, but he'd hoped that he'd been friend enough to Morgana that she could have come to him. Obviously he hadn't been, obviously she hadn't trusted him enough to seek help from him and now…now she was damned if they didn't act. "What's your plan?" he asked, trying to shake himself out of his morose thoughts and focus on something practical.

"Meet me in the antechamber off the armoury in an hour. Make sure you're not followed." Arthur nodded and Merlin lowered his hands from Arthur's shoulders. "We're going to save her, Arthur. I promise."

An hour later and Arthur was walking to the armoury, having to squeeze into several alcoves along the way to avoid being seen. He hoped his father assumed he was stewing away in his quarters and would let him be. In all honesty, it was the safest thing for both of them if they didn't meet too soon; Arthur genuinely didn't know what his reaction would be if he were to see the man now.

He checked that the armoury was empty before he made his way into the antechamber that was used to store weapons that needed to be mended. Merlin was there waiting for him and so, to his surprise, was Gwen.

"Were you followed?" Merlin asked, and Arthur shook his head. "Right…before we start…are you sure you both want to be part of this?"

"Merlin, how can you ask that?" Gwen asked. "She's my friend, I can't let her…" she trailed off, tears in her eyes, before she gave herself a quick shake and said, "I'm with you."

"As am I," Arthur said, and Merlin gave them both a resolute nod.

"Gwen, I need you to make a copy of this," Merlin said, reaching into his pocket and extracting a key mould. Arthur didn't need to ask to know that it would be a replica of the key to unlock Morgana's cell and he didn't want to ask how Merlin had managed to get it. "Can you do it?"

"Yes, not a problem," Gwen said, taking the mould, her shoulders back, body taut with purpose.

"I'll need you to pack some things for Morgana, the plainest clothes you can manage, yours if needs be," Merlin continued.

"I'll make sure you're reimbursed any losses," Arthur said, knowing that Gwen could ill afford to lose the few clothes she had, and she gave him a tight smile.

"Pack some food from the kitchens too. Can you be ready by midnight?"

Gwen nodded and Arthur said, "You're making this all sound very easy Merlin but beyond making a key, how do you intend to get her out of the dungeons?"

It was a testament to how focused Merlin was that he didn't spare a moment to glare at Arthur, merely carried on in his alarmingly efficient manner and said, "I have…a way to knock the guards out. They won't see it coming and it won't attract any attention. They'll be asleep for at least twelve hours and I need you to be waiting for us in the tunnel you smuggled Mordred from."

Arthur nodded, seeing a thousand things that could go wrong but willing to voice none of them. "Then what? Where can she go? She won't survive for long on her own."

"She won't be on her own," Merlin said softly and for one truly terrible moment Arthur believed Merlin meant to go with her. He listened, trying to release the grip of fear that had wrapped itself around his heart as Merlin continued, "I…I've kept in touch with the druids ever since they took Mordred in. I've been speaking with them a lot over the past few months and they'd be prepared to give Morgana sanctuary. We…we had planned for her to go to them under…better circumstances but…as it is…"

Arthur felt his breathing steady just a little with the realisation that he wasn't about to lose Merlin, that the man wasn't about to leave Camelot with Morgana and potentially disappear from his life forever. It was still surprising, to say the least, that the man had kept in contact with the druids and Arthur had to wonder what had prompted it.

"Alright," he said eventually, "that's what we'll do then. You bring Morgana to the tunnels and we'll make our escape. Can we get to the druids on foot?"

Merlin shook his head. "We'll have to take horses but…I believe I know someone who will help us. They can lead the horses to the clearing beyond the citadel and meet us there without attracting any attention."

Arthur's head was spinning far too much to ask who would be willing to risk their neck like that, or how Merlin knew of such a person. At this point, he was simply grateful that there were people within Camelot who would aid them.

"We'd better get out of here," Merlin said. "The last thing we need is to be caught having a secret meeting. We'll go about our day as normal and…put our plan into action later."

Gwen reached out and gave him a hug, saying softly, "Bless you, Merlin. You're a good friend," before she released him and slipped out of the antechamber, tears quite clearly in her eyes.

"You are a good friend," Arthur said quietly and Merlin's cheeks flushed as he dipped his head. "Come on, we'd best keep up appearances then."

They left the armoury separately and Arthur tried to go about the rest of his day as he normally would but he couldn't focus on anything and ended up shutting himself in his room with orders that no one but Merlin be admitted. He hoped his behaviour could be explained easily enough by Morgana's impending execution and certainly no one questioned him.

He felt as though his feet hadn't touched the ground since she'd been led away by the guards and part of him wanted to believe that the whole thing was a bad dream that he'd wake up from at any moment. He paced his chambers and wished he could be anywhere else, away on that bloody farm he'd once dreamt of with Merlin at his side and nothing to think of but what their next meal would be.

He sat in the window seat and fought off tears, wondering how his life had come to this, how he could feel such raw hatred for his father and how Morgana, whom he had known since childhood, was sitting in Camelot's dungeons waiting to be executed for something she couldn't control. Something fundamental within him had shifted and he didn't know how to put it back the way it had been…or even whether he wanted to do so.

It was a relief when he heard the door open and Merlin's light footsteps made their way across the room to him. He turned his head, unashamed to let the man see the tears in his eyes, too tired to fight them, too far past caring to try and save face. Merlin sat beside him, his presence an immediate comfort and everything within Arthur wanted to reach out touch him, to take solace in his touch and find a moment of peace within his arms.

"She'll be safe, Arthur. I promise. We won't let anything happen to her," Merlin said eventually, and Arthur pushed his urge to touch the man firmly back down where it belonged.

"It isn't that," he said quietly. "I mean…I'm worried, of course I am, but…Merlin…I don't know how he could do this."

"You know how your father feels about magic."

"But…" Arthur trailed off, his breath catching in his throat, an acute, wicked headache slicing through the base of his skull. "Merlin…she's…she's his daughter," he said in a whisper, looking across at the man and finding no surprise in his eyes.

"I know," Merlin said, his voice low, almost grim. "So does she."

"No," Arthur breathed, horrified. He felt bile rise in the back of his throat and he got to his feet unsteadily. "How?"

"She overheard a conversation between Uther and Gaius a few months ago," Merlin replied, his eyes tracing Arthur's movements, concern etched into his face as he watched Arthur brace himself against the table feeling too hot and not warm enough at the same time.

"Dear God," he said shakily, feeling that he was going to be sick at any moment. "She knows…she knows her own father has sentenced her to burn. Merlin, it's monstrous…it's shameful, I don't know how to…what to…"

"Shh," Merlin said, getting up from the window seat and moving to stand beside Arthur. He guided him gently to the bed and pushed him to sit down on the edge. Arthur heard movements and then a cold, wet cloth was pressed to the back of his neck, Merlin's presence comfortingly beside him once again.

"It's horrific, Merlin," he said, his voice little more than a sob.

"I know," Merlin said softly, pressing the cloth against his skin.

"He has so many sins, so many transgressions. He's a monster."

Merlin was silent beside him and Arthur knew the man wanted to say something, to offer his own condemnation of a man who had caused so much pain but he refrained for Arthur's sake. Arthur wished he would say something, to add to the list of reasons why Uther was a deplorable man, why he didn't deserve forgiveness in this world or the next.

"You should have let me kill him," he said, feeling Merlin tense beside him.

"Never," the man said eventually, and Arthur turned his head to look at him.

"What Morgause showed me was true though, wasn't it?" he asked, almost daring Merlin to say otherwise.

"I don't know, Arthur. Maybe. Probably. Whether it was true or not…I couldn't have let you kill your father and you know, deep in your soul, you wouldn't have wanted me to. You wouldn't have been able to live with yourself, Arthur and I had it in my power to stop you…to save you. I'd do it again in a heartbeat, even if it meant lying to you."

"God, Merlin. I'm so tired," he said, the fight leaving his body like a sigh. He sagged against Merlin and the man's arm came to settle around his shoulders, holding him in a firm embrace and keeping him from falling off the edge of the world. "I don't know if I can do this anymore."

"You can," Merlin affirmed gently. "You will, I promise."

He didn't know how long they sat there for but Merlin stayed beside him, holding him gently and saying nothing but being more of a comfort to Arthur than perhaps he would ever know. Merlin wiped away his tears away and made no comments, treating him with a tenderness that no one had ever shown him in his life and nearly undoing him completely.

When the time came to put their plan into action, Arthur felt as though he'd been broken into pieces but carefully been put back together again, not quite the same but fixed, even if he had been altered. There would be time enough to dwell on how he felt; his focus now had to be on Morgana and her safe delivery from the fate that awaited her.

He parted from Merlin with a handshake of resolution, both urging the other to be careful, knowing how much was at stake. Arthur didn't care much what happened to him, not at that moment, but he would have put himself on the pyre before he saw any harm come to Merlin.

Arthur made his way to the tunnels furtively. He knew the castle better than anyone and knew the movements of the guards' patrols. He was the only one with the keys to the tunnels and, Merlin being Merlin, had considered that eventuality too. When they returned to Camelot after delivering Morgana safely to the druids, Merlin would knock Arthur out using the same concoction he had on the guards and the keys would mysteriously vanish from Arthur's chambers. He had to hand it to his manservant, the man knew how to mount a decent escape.

He waited in the tunnel, his heart pounding, terrified that they'd be caught, terrified that every noise he heard would be Uther come to rain down his retribution on their heads. He heard a scuffle from the next tunnel down and he watched as Merlin rounded the corner with Morgana, the latter dressed in a pair of Merlin's breeches and one of his old tunics, a pack slung over her shoulder and her hair swept back, looking nothing like the king's ward.

"Morgana," he whispered, embracing her tightly. "I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry."

"You have nothing to be sorry for, I owe you my life."

"Time for sentiment later," Merlin said, ushering them both to the grate.

Arthur gave him a wry smile and unlocked it, closing it carefully behind them and locking it again, the three of them taking off at a run to the clearing where the horses were to be waiting for them. Arthur thanked his lucky stars that there was no moon that night and that they had the cover of darkness to aid in their flight.

No one said a word, Morgana keeping up with their strides and the air thick with tension. Arthur spied the clearing ahead and held up a hand to stop them, moving forward to scout the area in case they'd somehow been found out and an ambush was waiting. He found nothing and so motioned Merlin and Morgana forward, the three of them approaching cautiously until a pair of horses appeared through the trees.

There was a figure there with them and Arthur paused a moment as he approached, trying to discern who it was that was helping them. He moved closer and felt his eyebrows shoot up into his hairline as he breathed with shock, "Leon."

"Sire," his best knight replied, standing to attention and looking as though he'd just been brought before the court.

"But…how…"

"I felt it my duty to assist," Leon said, his head held high. "Although it is treason to say it, I would have never forgiven myself if I did nothing."

Arthur gave a laugh of disbelief and clapped the man's shoulder, saying, "I shall never forget this, Leon."

"Nor I," Morgana said, moving next to them. She took Leon's hands in her own and looked up at him, Arthur feeling as though he was intruding on something private. He stepped back and watched as Morgana said softly, "One day I shall find a way to repay this kindness. I hope very much that we shall meet again."

"As do I, my lady."

"Come, we have to hurry," Merlin said, stepping forward, Morgana and Leon dropping hands as Merlin led Morgana to a horse, helping her up and then swinging up behind her.

"I'll be waiting to retrieve the horses from you," Leon said as Arthur mounted the second horse, finding water and food packed in the saddlebags. "May good grace go with you."

"Thank you, Leon. You're a credit to the station you hold," Arthur said sincerely before Merlin spurred his horse into action and Arthur gave a firm kick to his own horse's flanks and followed after him, their pace punishing, putting the citadel as far behind them as quickly as they could.

They rode at a gallop, Arthur still feeling as though he were in a dream and would wake at any moment. He glanced across at Merlin and Morgana, Merlin's arm tight around her waist, his expression so full of resolve it was almost frightening. The man had risked so much and it made Arthur's heart ache to think what Morgana must have meant to him that he would act so.

It took them nearly three hours to reach their destination and a small contingent of people were waiting for them around a fire. Arthur swung himself off his horse while Merlin did the same, helping Morgana down before they all approached the camp with caution.

"Aglain," Merlin said with a smile as a man stood to meet them. They clasped hands and Merlin said in a voice full of relief, "It's good to see you."

"And you, my friend," Aglain replied, "although I'm sorry for the circumstances we're meeting under."

Merlin turned and held out his hand to Morgana, Morgana taking it and giving Aglain a polite nod as she came to stand by Merlin's side. "I can't thank you enough for giving me sanctuary," she said, looking strangely small, her bearing oddly devoid of the regal poise it usually held. "I know what risk you're taking and I fear I shall never be able to repay you."

"We look after our own," Aglain said gently, sharing a look with Merlin that spoke of things Arthur couldn't begin to understand. "I'm afraid we can't linger. We must ride swiftly to be out of Camelot's borders by morning, I shall have to ask you to make your farewells brief."

He stepped away to allow the three of them a moment and Morgana turned to face Arthur and Merlin with an expression of such sorrow it nearly undid Arthur. He stepped forward and wrapped her up in his arms, holding on tightly and willing himself not to cry.

"Sister," he whispered softly, feeling her arms tighten around him. "I will never forgive him for this and I will never forgive myself that you couldn't come to me."

Morgana pulled back, tears in her eyes as she pressed a gentle hand to his cheek, "You have nothing to reproach yourself for, Arthur…brother," she added with a wry smile. "You're a better man by far than Uther and, while I will never claim that man as my blood, I'm proud to call you my kin. I will never forget what you've done for me and I will be your sister for as long as I live, even if we are never to be reunited."

"We shall be," Arthur promised, terrified that this truly would be the last time he saw her. "You'll see me again, Morgana. You can't be rid of me so easily." He tilted her head gently and pressed a soft kiss to her forehead, saying with a whisper, "Be safe, be happy. We'll find each other again."

He stepped back, feeling a piece of his heart shatter in a way he wasn't sure could ever be repaired and tried to force a smile to let Morgana know that everything would be ok, even if he couldn't quite believe it himself. He looked up to see Merlin waiting and something uncomfortable twisted in his stomach but he gave the man a nod, knowing that he deserved his own farewell with Morgana possibly even more than Arthur.

"Morgana," Merlin said softly, taking her hands in his.

"Merlin," she said with a sigh, "I don't know how to thank you for all you've done for me. Without you…I would have been lost. I don't know how I'm going to manage without you."

"You'll manage," Merlin assured her. "Better yet, you'll thrive. Promise me you'll remember what I told you."

"I promise," Morgana said sincerely, her chin tilted upwards as though the oath she had taken was one of great importance and Arthur had to wonder at the meaning of it. "I won't fail you, Merlin."

"I know you won't."

They moved and embraced one another, the action so tender Arthur had to look away for fear of the terrible jealousy it sparked in his chest. He heard them make whispered avowals to one another and was certain a kiss had been involved in some form or another. He clenched his teeth and determined he would, under no circumstances, examine what caused him to feel so wretched. Those feelings were better left unexplored.

He felt Merlin at his side and he looked up to see Morgana heading to the camp, turning back one last time to wave at them with a sad smile. His heart ached and the insanity of the last twenty-four hours threatened to break him if he allowed himself to dwell on them for too long.

"We'd better get back and get you knocked out," Merlin said with a muted smile, and Arthur nodded, wondering if this truly would be the last time he saw his sister.

They rode in silence, the air heavy with the gravity of what they had done. Arthur looked across at Merlin, noting the sadness in his face, the taut lines of his body. He found himself needing to soothe it, needing to offer Merlin the kind of comfort that he so often found in the man.

"You know…" he began, not sure quite what to say, "one day…when things are safer, you and she…you could be together again. I'm not saying right away, of course, but maybe in a year or two you could…find her."

"What are you talking about?" Merlin asked with a frown.

"You and Morgana," Arthur said, forcing the words out. "This…this doesn't have to be the end for you both. If she loves you I'm sure she'll wait and I know that you – "

"Arthur," Merlin said with a tired laugh, "it isn't like that."

"No?" Arthur asked tentatively.

Merlin shook his head, looking as though Arthur might possibly be the stupidest person he'd ever encountered and said, "I love Morgana, I do, but not in the way that I love…I mean…I mean in the way I would love someone…romantically."

There was a flush creeping up his neck and he looked away, Arthur watching as the flush made its way all the way up to the man's high cheekbones. He turned Merlin's words over in his head and found an inexplicable smile making its way onto his lips as he said silently into the darkness, "Oh."

Chapter Text

Chapter 3

Uther searched for Morgana for six months. In a show of defiance that he was fiercely proud of, Arthur refused to take any part in it. His insubordination landed him in the dungeons for a week but once Uther learnt his resolve wouldn't be broken he seemed to decide to pretend that Arthur simply didn't exist. Something had fractured in their relationship since, something that Arthur had no desire or will to fix.

The scales had truly fallen from his eyes and he couldn't find it in himself to try and see his father as he had once done. He was polite in public, he showed proper respect when it was necessary but his sole reason was not to damage the delicate fabric of Camelot any more than it had already been. In private, Arthur could barely stand to be in the same room as the man and he had taken to avoiding him at all costs.

He missed Morgana terribly and he knew that Merlin and Gwen did too. Gwen had been reassigned to a more general role within the household staff and she had adjusted well enough but Arthur knew that she mourned the way things had been. Merlin said little on the matter but there was a strange anxiety that crossed his face on the rare occasions she was mentioned and so Arthur decided it best if he said nothing. Truth be told, it was too painful to think of her and he winced every time he heard her name.

He wondered where she was and if she was safe and being cared for. He wondered if she'd managed to find a place for herself, if the druids had kept to their word and were looking after her as they had promised. He wondered if she missed Camelot, if she missed him, and wondered if he would ever see her again. The pain of her loss was acute and it made Arthur's hatred for Uther all the more intense.

He didn't doubt for one minute that the man would have executed his own daughter and Arthur simply couldn't reconcile himself to that. His own feelings towards magic were complicated and often conflicted but he could never let those feelings blind him so much that he would be willing to murder his own flesh and blood in the name of a misguided cause.

It plunged him into a constant state of uncertainty and he questioned all the things his father had taught him, all the things the man had drummed into his skull since childhood. He'd known for some time that his values had begun to drift from those of his father's, that many things he felt were at odds with the lessons Uther had taught with such vicious purpose.

"You know you'll have to dine with your father at some point," Merlin said one evening as he brought a plate of dinner up to Arthur's chambers, setting it down on the table and fixing Arthur with the kind of look he'd been pointedly ignoring.

"Unless a formal event is taking place I'd rather dine here, thank you," Arthur replied, stopping himself from snapping at Merlin that it was none of his business. He wasn't going to let Uther drive a wedge between them under any circumstances.

Merlin sighed and picked up Arthur's armour, spreading it out on the other end of the table and examining it. "You could still fix things," he said gently, running his fingers over a small dent in Arthur's breastplate.

"Merlin," Arthur said, prodding at his food with his fork, "I know you mean well and I truly appreciate it but please stop pushing. I can't share the same breathing space as that man and it's better for all of us if we're kept as separate as possible."

Merlin bit his lip, clearly wanting to say more, but it seemed he had learnt a modicum of tact and restraint somewhere in the last few years and he simply nodded his head and returned his attention to Arthur's armour. Arthur continued to prod at his food, feeling his appetite diminish by the second. Merlin moved around the table in search of something and Arthur reached out and grabbed his wrist, pulling him gently back.

"Sit with me," he said softly, not quite a command. He looked up at Merlin, a silent entreaty to simply do as he was asked, to grant Arthur the one thing that ever made him feel anywhere close to whole.

Merlin's expression softened and Arthur released his wrist as the man pulled out a chair and sat beside him. Arthur pushed the plate of food towards him, saying, "I bet you haven't eaten all day. Go on, help yourself. Can't have you fading away."

Merlin smiled and began to pick at the food, Arthur watching him and finding that the tension in the pit of his stomach was slowly starting to uncoil. These days the only time he felt remotely close to peaceful, to feeling like he was truly himself was when he was with Merlin. He had always preferred Merlin's company to anyone else's, although he would have never admitted as much, but these days it felt like something more.

Merlin was the only person he could stand to be around for hours at a time without feeling his teeth set on edge. Merlin was the only person who managed to soothe his more fractious moods and one word or carefully timed look from the man could see his entire attitude change in the space of a minute. With everything that had been happening with his father over the last few months and the strange space his head was in, he found himself relying more than ever on the man to keep him from feeling that he was drowning.

"Tell me about your day," he said, leaning back in his chair. "I haven't seen you much since this morning."

"I was busy in the lower town," Merlin said, and something in his manner made Arthur frown. "There's been an outbreak of fever amongst some of the poorer families there and Gaius needed help attending to everyone."

"Is it serious?" Arthur asked, and the resultant sigh from Merlin told him he wouldn't like the answer.

"Gaius says their bodies are weakened and so they can't manage well when illness strikes. They're…struggling to afford food and it's having a rather serious impact on them. They…they can't feed themselves and pay the taxes your father keeps imposing. The latest raise has…brought them to their knees."

"The taxes he raised to fund his endless campaign to find Morgana," Arthur said, feeling his anger settle hot and uncomfortably somewhere in his chest.

Merlin nodded and Arthur wondered how long the situation had been going on for, how long his father had been making his own people suffer to satisfy his own ego and to continue his campaign of terror.

"What can be done?" he asked, needing to latch onto something practical, unable to dwell on his father's transgressions for too long or it would drive him mad.

"It's a delicate situation," Merlin said with a sigh. "The people of the lower town don't want charity but they're so often forgotten by those in the castle that it's unlikely they'd get any anyway. To me…the most logical solution would be to make use of all the wasted food from the castle kitchens."

"Is there so much?" Arthur asked, unsurprised that Merlin had already been thinking of ways to fix the problem.

"Enough to make a difference. The trouble is the townsfolk won't want handouts and it would be difficult to find a way to distribute it anyway. Your father would have a fit if he found out that food meant for the castle was going to the town but…they need to eat."

Arthur considered the matter, chewing on the edge of his thumbnail and trying not to let himself be overwhelmed by thoughts of how his father was the cause of so much misery. "What if the food was given in return for labour?" he asked eventually.

"What kind of labour?" Merlin asked, his expression thoughtful.

"The outlying farms are always complaining that they don't have enough people to help with all the work they have to do. Do you think the townsfolk would be willing to send a few of their people out there in exchange for regular parcels of food?"

"It's not a bad idea," Merlin replied with a contemplative nod. "What about distributing the food though? We'd have to have the kitchens be complicit, which means lying to your father, even in a roundabout way and whoever helps will no doubt want payment for it."

Arthur nodded. "I'll pay from my own pocket," he said, thoroughly unprepared for the look he received from Merlin. There was something proud and affectionate in the man's face and a hideous voice in the back of his mind told him he wasn't worthy of it.

Arthur itched to reach for Merlin's hand, to twine their fingers together and feel the warmth of the man's skin against his own. It wasn't often he initiated physical contact outside of playfighting; Merlin was the one who always touched him, however casual, however accidentally, but Arthur found himself desperate to touch, to feel.

He couldn't bring himself to reach out, though. There would have been a vulnerability in the action that he just wasn't equipped for and, perhaps more pertinently, he wasn't ready to examine what his desire to touch Merlin actually meant.

"It makes me wonder sometimes," Merlin said softly, the same proud look on his face.

"What does?" Arthur asked, trying to keep his voice light.

"How that pig-headed prat I met in the market place could turn out to be…not such a prat."

Arthur snorted, thankful the mood had been lightened a little. "Damned by faint praise indeed."

Merlin smiled, the expression so gentle it made warmth spread through Arthur's chest, and said, "I'm serious, Arthur. I sometimes wonder if you know how far you've come."

"Not far enough," Arthur said before he could stop himself.

"Arthur – "

Arthur shook his head, unable to cope with any assertions that he was better than he knew himself to be. He'd spent the last few months since Morgana's escape struggling with terrible introspection, studying the many facets of his character and finding himself wanting.

He had spent so long trying to please his father, trying to gain approval that was no more tangible than mist off the sea and somewhere along the way he'd lost sight of himself. He'd expected the trajectory of his life to follow his father's, to absorb the lessons and values that had been hammered into him since birth and ascend to the throne as a close approximation of the king Uther had been.

Now that thought horrified him. He felt like he had a lifetime of the man's influence to unpick, like he could feel the man's hand around his throat, threatening to crush the life out of him if he didn't find the strength to break away. He'd had many fears throughout his lifetime but now his greatest was that he would become his father and live a life consumed by bitterness and tyranny.

"Will you…will you come with me into the town tomorrow?" he asked, trying to shake himself out of his oppressive thoughts.

"Of course."

"It's time I got to know the Camelot that exists outside the castle walls, time I considered all the kingdom's citizens, not just the damned nobles."

Merlin was looking at him again with that damned expression full of pride and Arthur hated and loved it all at once. He was terrified that he would never deserve it, that he would disappoint everyone, that he would disappoint Merlin most of all and that thought was enough to send a cold chill through his veins.

"Aren't you worried they'll realise what a cabbage-head you are?" Merlin asked, his expression turning teasing, Arthur feeling a little of the tension bleed out of his muscles.

"With you around, Merlin, I shall look like a genius."

They had breakfast together the next morning, Arthur caring less and less about the fact that princes weren't supposed to dine with their servants, that bloody princes weren't supposed to seek out their servant's company quite as much he did.

He was becoming increasingly frustrated with the ridiculous traditions that surrounded the life of a noble, the life of a prince even more so. So much of it seemed arbitrary and thoroughly pointless, and he was beginning to feel that he had no wish to govern over a land with such ridiculous rules. What did it matter if Merlin had been born a peasant? He was still more interesting than anyone Arthur had ever met and he had yet to find anyone whose company he preferred.

He had spent the first couple of years of their acquaintance lying to himself that this was the case. He had made a great show of putting up with Merlin under sufferance and pretending that he tolerated the man's presence in his chambers or somehow always by his side. As time went on, as Merlin seemed to work his way under his skin, Arthur found it more and more difficult to lie to himself that he was simply allowing Merlin to spend time with him.

Although it still made something deep within him feel uncomfortable, Arthur could admit to himself, at least within the privacy of his own mind, that Merlin was far more to him than a mere servant. The man was his friend, indeed perhaps the only friend he had, the only person Arthur genuinely looked forward to seeing, the only person he could sit with in complete silence and feel nothing but peaceful.

"I see you're wearing your inconspicuous cloak," Merlin said with a smile as they walked through the citadel together, their hands occasionally brushing where they were walking so closely.

"What about it?" Arthur asked.

"Arthur, you're the crown prince of Camelot. Everyone knows who you are, you clotpole," Merlin said with a grin.

"I just thought it was better not to draw attention to myself," Arthur said defensively.

"Oh indeed. No attention whatsoever."

Arthur huffed and said, "Is this a bad idea? Is that what you're telling me?"

"No," Merlin said, his expression turning softer. "I think it's about time the castle paid more attention to those outside its walls. It's a testament to your character that you've realised that for yourself."

Arthur wanted to bat the compliment away, to make a joke of it or to somehow turn it back around into an insult towards Merlin but something in Merlin's face stopped him. He still felt uncomfortable with this idea Merlin seemed to have of him, felt that he would never quite measure up to it but he knew that he desperately wanted to.

"Thank you, Merlin," he said softly, and the gentle smile that spread across Merlin's face was enough to strengthen Arthur's resolve to be worthy of it.

Merlin took him to several families in the lower town, all of whom were dumbfounded at seeing the prince turn up on their door. Some were embarrassed, some combative, some regarded him with suspicion and some looked at him with such scrutiny Arthur wondered if he'd ever measure up. Merlin was invaluable. They townspeople clearly trusted him and his manner was so easy and natural that even the gruffest, most sceptical members of the group began to thaw in his presence.

Arthur had decided that honesty was the best way to approach things and so he spoke to them of his fears that they weren't receiving enough food, that they were in subsequent danger of illness and that he himself was deeply concerned about the situation. He touted his idea of sending people to the outlying farms, which was met more favourably than he'd imagined it would be.

Merlin had been right that these were proud people, people who didn't want handouts and didn't want to feel that they needed charity to survive. The notion that they could earn more food and in turn be useful sat well with them and Merlin suggested that they appoint a foreman to oversee the organisation of it. The foreman would also be responsible for collecting the food from the kitchens and distributing it, receiving a stipend for their troubles, which Arthur would be paying from his own pocket as promised.

Arthur and Merlin were invited to stay for lunch, which Arthur knew was a hugely significant gesture even without the look Merlin sent him as they both accepted with a smile. These people had little enough for themselves and Arthur was humbled that they would share it with him. He ate with a sense of gratitude and respect for the people whose home he was in and let Merlin take the lead in the conversation.

"I'll draw something more official up tomorrow, something we can send out to the farms," Arthur said later that evening as he and Merlin sat in his chambers, Arthur having ducked out on yet another dinner with his father.

Merlin nodded, helping himself to a cob of cheese from Arthur's plate and earning himself a heart-hearted glare in the process. "I'll have a chat with a couple of the merchants as well, see if they'll help to transport the townsfolk out to the farms. I can't see there being any problems."

"I'm amazed it all went so smoothly. They were remarkably receptive and far more intelligent than I would have given them credit for. I mean, for peasants they – " he stopped himself, the words dying in his mouth as he realised exactly what he was saying to whom. "Merlin, I apologise. That was incredibly tactless of me, I didn't – "

"Arthur," Merlin said, his expression full of amusement, "it's fine."

"No, it isn't," Arthur insisted. "I had no right to make those kinds of assumptions about people and I should know better than anyone that the circumstances of a person's birth don't mean…or they shouldn't mean that somebody can't be – "

"Arthur," Merlin said again, his amusement now tempered with a kind of fondness that made something warm and pleasant flutter in Arthur's chest. "The kind of assumptions you were about to make are the assumptions all nobles have about those below them. The fact that you can see past the end of your nose and acknowledge that they might be something more says a great deal about the kind of man you are."

Arthur felt his cheeks heat and he tried to will the blush away, to pretend that Merlin's words didn't matter as much as they did, that the man's approval didn't mean more to him than it should have done.

"I'm trying to be better," he said before he could stop himself, looking up to meet Merlin's eyes and finding an intensity in them that was hard to look away from. "Merlin," he began, clearing his throat and searching for the right words, "I haven't always…things between you and me…I shouldn't have…" he trailed off, the words eluding him, frowning in frustration that he couldn't articulate the things he wanted to.

"Things between us are as they should be," Merlin said eventually and Arthur knew the man was being more gracious than he deserved. He couldn't let the matter slide, he couldn't let Merlin assuage the guilt that needed to be acknowledged rather than buried.

"No," he said firmly. "No they aren't."

"Arthur, you're the prince, heir to the throne – "

"I'm also a man, Merlin," Arthur said more sharply than he'd meant to. "I'm a man whose status has created distance with everyone his entire life, a man who's been conditioned to believe certain things, to uphold certain values, values that become harder to adhere to as the years go on." He sighed and looked away from Merlin, his voice quiet as he said, "I hate the fact that those values mean I'm not allowed to call you a friend."

There was silence for a moment, the hollow ring of it permeating the room horribly and Arthur was filled with a terrible dread that he'd said the wrong thing, that he'd somehow crossed another damned line and offended Merlin. He heard the scrape of Merlin's chair and looked up to see the man had moved closer, their knees almost touching.

"So what if you can't call me one," he said gently, the soft light of the evening filtering in through the window and landing on the fine angles of his face. "Do you think of me as one?"

Arthur huffed, hating Merlin for putting him on the spot, for picking away at something Arthur kept trying to bury down deep within himself. "Yes," he ground out eventually. "Of course I bloody do. For heaven's sake, Merlin, you're the only bloody person I spend time with, the only person I want to spend time with. You're the only person I trust and you're the only person who knows me rather than the crown bloody prince. Of course you're my friend and frankly it galls me that I can't acknowledge that openly, that I have to treat you like something beneath me…that I've done so plenty of times in the past and all too damned willingly."

He snapped his mouth shut, realising he'd said far more than he'd ever intended to and feeling hideously raw and exposed at revealing so much of his inner turmoil to Merlin. The man said nothing and Arthur couldn't read his expression, couldn't determine how his words had landed or whether he should have kept his mouth shut and never said them in the first place.

"I think you've changed more than you realise," Merlin said finally, his voice cutting through Arthur's thoughts and making him wince. "You're not the same person I met in the market place years ago…you're not even the same person you were six months ago. Your attitudes, your values, have shifted and I can honestly say that I've watched you with…pride."

Arthur didn't know how to respond. He felt he wasn't worthy of Merlin's pride, his faith, that he would never measure up to the man Merlin believed he could be. Somewhere along the way Merlin's opinion had become more important than anyone's and he found that he didn't really care what anyone else thought of him, including his own father, but the thought of letting Merlin down made something cold trickle through his chest.

"You're still a clotpole," Merlin added, and Arthur looked up at him, a smile making its way onto his lips before he could stop it.

Merlin grinned at him and Arthur grabbed a handful of grapes from his plate and threw them at the man.

"See!" Merlin said, the atmosphere suddenly much lighter. "You're still the same tyrannical ruler who thinks he can treat the lower classes any way he wants."

"What if I dunked that pitcher of wine over your head?"

"It would be a terrible waste, sire."

"It'll have to be the water then."


Arthur shouldered open the door to his chambers, pleased to find Merlin there already, sitting in the window seat and mending the tunic Arthur had ripped the day before. He looked up when Arthur entered the room and smiled, the action warming Arthur through completely.

"How did the council meeting go?" he asked, unfolding his long legs from where they'd been tucked beneath him and stretching. His jacket and neckerchief had been shed in deference to the summer heat and his shirt rode up ever so slightly as he raised his arms above his head.

Arthur averted his eyes from the stretch of pale skin that was exposed and said, "Not well. There's unrest spreading throughout the kingdom and murmurs of something…something else."

"What kind of something else?" Merlin asked with a frown.

Arthur sat down at the table and looked at the maps and reports he'd been studying that morning. "I think Cenred's amassing an army to ride against Camelot."

"What? How can you be sure?"

"I'm not, not really. It's just…a feeling I suppose. Reading these reports, seeing the patterns…I think we'd be foolish to discount the prospect."

Merlin shuffled off the window seat and came to stand next to Arthur, his expression understanding as he said, "I take it that's exactly what your father's done?"

Arthur nodded. "He says there isn't enough evidence to support the theory. He as much as dismissed it outright."

Merlin pursed his lips thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "When should I pack, then?"

"Pardon?"

"I take it we're going off on some half-baked mission to find this evidence, probably risking our lives in the process but no doubt proving your theory correct. So, when are we leaving?"

Merlin looked at him with a raised eyebrow, one that was horribly reminiscent of Gaius, and Arthur couldn't help but grin sheepishly at him. "Tomorrow," he said, loving the fact that Merlin was so in tune with him.

Merlin rolled his eyes, looking more indulgent than he probably realised, and Arthur pulled one of the maps towards him, pointing at the route he intended to take and saying, "This is where most of the reports of trouble have come from, where Essetir's troops have been spotted within Camelot's lands."

"So we're going on a scouting mission? Just the two of us I take it? No nice band of knights to watch our backs and make sure we aren't run through by Cenred's men?" Merlin asked, his hand on the back of Arthur's chair as he leant forward to study the maps.

"Just you and me I'm afraid. My father wouldn't sanction such a mission and as far as he'll know you and I have gone visiting Sir Osrick."

"Oh I'd much rather do that instead," Merlin said with a grin and Arthur looked up at him with narrowed eyes.

He was about to come up with a suitably scathing response when he saw that Merlin had a smudge of soot along his jaw and up behind his ear all the way up into his hair. "Have you been sticking your head up the chimney?"

"What?" Merlin asked, wrinkling his nose. "Oh," he said, realising what Arthur was talking about, "I um…attempted to clean the bloody thing but I got a face full of soot for my troubles. I thought I'd cleaned the bloody stuff off."

Arthur laughed and reached out to brush Merlin's jaw with his fingers. "Now that I would have liked to see," he said, brushing the black smudge away, letting his fingers trace the hard angle of Merlin's jaw before they worked their way up the man's neck, his thumb pressing gently just behind Merlin's ear. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked, hearing the fondness in his voice and not caring about it.

"Drag me along on a dangerous mission apparently," Merlin replied, turning his head slightly to press himself more into Arthur's touch.

"If you don't want to go…I mean…I'd never force you," Arthur said, his fingers moving to curl around Merlin's neck while his thumb moved in a gentle caress across his skin. If pushed, he could say he was still cleaning away the soot, even though the evidence of it had long since vanished.

"Of course I'm coming, you dollophead. Couldn't trust you to look after yourself, could I?"

Arthur smiled and reluctantly lowered his hand, saying, "Well if you have no more chimneys to stick your head up, we'll leave first thing in the morning."

They left at first light, their weapons packed away surreptitiously and enough food from the kitchens to last at least a week. Arthur hadn't bothered bidding his father goodbye and had left Leon in charge of the knights in his absence.

The further they rode from the citadel the more Arthur felt a weight slipping from his shoulders. He knew that they weren't off on a jaunt, that they had an important purpose that had to come first, but Camelot had begun to feel stifling in a way that had nothing to do with the heat of the season.

He felt lighter than he'd done in months as they rode and the easy and natural conversation with Merlin made it even better. He could ignore the Pendragon crest emblazoned on his chest and pretend he was simply a man on a hunting trip with a friend. He hadn't realised how much he had needed to get away until he had put many miles between himself and the castle and he was feeling all the better for it.

They set up camp in the early evening, choosing a quiet spot down by a river. Arthur had studied the maps and reports intently and had deemed this a safe enough place to rest without needing to be too careful. Merlin saw to the horses while Arthur tidied up the area and set out blankets and bedrolls, having no need for a tent as it was so warm.

"I'm going in for a dip, I'm bloody boiling," Merlin said, undoing his belt and pulling his shirt off over his head. "Coming?"

"In a minute," Arthur said, occupying himself with removing his scabbard, averting his eyes as he heard Merlin shift out of his trousers.

He heard a splash moments later, followed by Merlin's shout of surprise at how cold the water was and wondered why he wasn't joining the man. He'd bathed in plenty of rivers with Merlin over the years and neither of them had ever been bothered by the other's nudity but something was stopping him. Something felt different and he couldn't put his finger on the sudden reluctance he felt, especially when things had felt so easy between them all day.

"God, that feels better. I can't cope with this heat," Merlin said, flinging himself down on a blanket next to Arthur, Arthur finally allowing himself to look up.

Merlin was lying beside him, propped up on his elbows, his head tilted back, his eyes closed as he let the sun warm his naked body. He was dripping wet and a single drop of water made its way down over his Adam's apple and settled in the hollow of his throat. Arthur's eyes moved lower, down over the pale and slim chest, to the flat stomach and down to his groin, Arthur's cheeks heating at the sight of the man's cock nestled against a thatch of black hair.

It took him a moment to realise the sight of Merlin's body had made him hard and the notion struck him quite squarely in the chest. He pulled his eyes away and stared ahead in shock, not knowing how to process the startling revelation that he found Merlin attractive. He frowned. Of course he found Merlin attractive; he'd always thought the man had a strangely beautiful face and there was no denying that the sharp angles of his cheekbones coupled with those intense blue eyes made for a very handsome man.

He'd never felt himself respond to that attractiveness, though. He'd never stared at the planes of the man's body until he'd felt arousal pool in his groin and his cock swell until it was bloody uncomfortable within his breeches. Merlin's appeal had always been an objective kind of thing, something Arthur was aware of without it affecting him directly but now…now he wished the man would put some bloody clothes on and stop torturing him.

He shook his head and said, "I'll go and get some firewood. We'll need a fire, even if it is warm."

"Alright," Merlin said, still basking like a cat in the sunshine, and Arthur clenched his jaw tightly and briefly considered drowning himself in the river.

He managed to bring himself under control and they spent a pleasant evening sharing food and talking about nothing in particular, something they'd always been good at. They planned their next couple of days and settled down to sleep, their bedrolls close to one another and the night air pleasantly warm and clear.

Merlin fell asleep quickly, his breathing soft, Arthur lying next to him and turning over a multitude of questions in his head. He turned on his side, unable to stop himself, and studied Merlin's face with new eyes. It was so familiar to him, it was the face he always sought in a crowd and it was the face that always managed to make him smile.

He reached out, his fingers shaking slightly as they traced the high arch of the man's cheekbone, then moved down over the straight nose and to the plump lips below. He let his fingertips caress them softly, holding his breath in case he woke Merlin, wondering what the hell he was doing. Merlin was beautiful and Arthur couldn't stop looking at him, feeling as though he'd been struck with an epiphany earlier that day.

He withdrew his hand and tried to steady his breathing, feeling like an idiot. Merlin was his friend, his only friend, and he had no intention of messing that up by acting on this new and strange feeling of attraction that had suddenly crept up on him. It had taken a long time to get their relationship to a point they both seemed happy with and Arthur would be damned before he jeopardised that because of a few misplaced stirrings of lust.

He shook himself out of it over the next couple of days and tried to focus on the fact that he was away from the castle, from his father, and that he was getting to enjoy some time in nature with Merlin's company as an added bonus. It worked, for the most part, but every now and again he found his gaze slipping back to the man, to the subtle curve of his shoulders or the elegant arch of his back and he would have to look away before his breeches tightened again.

They stuck to the route they'd planned and the closer they came to Essetir's border the greater care they had to take. They had to hide from several troops of Cenred's men, although it rankled Arthur greatly to do so, and the tension in the air was palpable in the towns and villages they passed.

"They're all reluctant to talk," Merlin said, swinging back onto his horse where Arthur had been waiting for him at the edge of a small town, "but they said there have been troops through here for the last month, same with the other towns within a 20 mile radius."

"Did they give you any other information?"

Merlin paused, a frown between his brows as he said, "One of the women thought she heard talk of a sorcerer."

"Oh," Arthur said, feeling the word leave him in a rush of breath. He hadn't had time to properly examine what his thoughts were regarding magic since Morgana's flight from Camelot but he knew they had changed. It didn't make it any easier to hear that a potential enemy was using magic for their own ends and might possibly turn that magic against Camelot.

"Come on," Merlin said, giving his leg a nudge. "We'd better get going if we want to reach our destination by nightfall."

The rode until night, pushing the horses as hard as they dared whilst trying to keep vigilant. It was clear that, although they were within Camelot's borders, all was not well and care needed to be taken. They found a small cave near a stream and put the horses out of sight as much as they could while they settled in for the night.

They decided to forgo a fire, as warm as the evening was and not needing to draw any unwanted attention to themselves. Merlin had bought a few more provisions in the last town they'd stopped at and they ate quietly, Arthur in a contemplative mood.

"Is it the sorcerer?" Merlin asked eventually, his voice cutting through the quiet of the night.

Arthur looked up at him with a frown. "Is what the sorcerer?"

Merlin extracted a knife from his pocket and cut a slice of the apple in his hand. "You've been quiet since I mentioned Cenred might be in league with one. It seems to be playing on your mind."

Arthur sighed and scrubbed a hand over his face, not really sure how to answer the question. "It just made me think," he said quietly, shrugging one shoulder. "Magic…it's more complicated than my father would like to believe and I know his campaign against it is rooted in something selfish and twisted…but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't concerned that Cenred has a sorcerer on his side."

"That seems like a sensible enough approach," Merlin said levelly, continuing to slice his apple.

"Maybe. I don't know…I suppose any mention of magic makes me think of Morgana. I can't help but wonder where she is, if she's alright…I miss her so much sometimes."

Merlin was quiet for a moment and Arthur looked at him questioningly, able to read the man's expression and discern a certain hesitation about him. He watched as Merlin placed his apple to one side and leant his elbows on his knees, meeting Arthur's eyes as he said, "I'm still in touch with the druids. I hear from them now and again…Morgana's thriving. She's well, she's safe but she misses us, she misses Camelot, despite the danger there is for her there."

"You…you've spoken to her?"

"Not directly," Merlin said with a shake of his head. "It isn't safe…but I…have a way of communicating with one of the druids. I'm sorry I didn't mention it before now…in all honesty I thought it was easier if we just didn't talk about it. I didn't want to upset you."

Arthur put his head in his hands and tried to process Merlin's words. Part of him was angry that Merlin had kept this from him but he could also understand that he hadn't really given the man any indication that he'd wanted to hear news of his sister. He'd flinched every time her name had been brought up and the mood of the court had been so hostile to any mention of her that it had hurt Arthur to think of her too much.

"Would you…would you mind letting me know in future when you hear news? I'd like to know how she's getting on."

Merlin smiled gently and said, "Of course."

Arthur was about to ask if Merlin could tell him more when he heard a noise not too far from the mouth of the cave. He looked at Merlin and pressed a finger to his lips, the man nodding as they both got to their feet and moved silently towards the entrance. Arthur could see that there were two people standing by the stream, their heads bent low in conversation.

He felt Merlin's hand settle on his shoulder as they watched and he was grateful for it in the next moment when he realised he was looking at Cenred and Morgause. His heart began to pound, his worst fears confirmed, and a thousand possibilities raced through his head as he considered what they could possibly be planning.

He knew Morgause was powerful, that she had an axe to grind where Uther was concerned, and while everything within Arthur was screaming to attack, he knew he wouldn't have a chance. At least a small part of him could feel vindicated that he'd been right to be fearful, that his father's dismissal of his concerns had been a huge oversight that he could easily come to regret.

"I knew it," he whispered, feeling Merlin's fingers tighten on his shoulder.

They couldn't hear what was being said, but Arthur knew it would be nothing good, and eventually Cenred and Morgause parted ways, Arthur feeling sick as he watched them.

"Camelot's in trouble," he said, slumping against the wall of the cave and feeling the coldness of the stone ground press against his back.

"Not with you at the helm, Arthur," Merlin said firmly. "Your instincts told you something wasn't right, that something needed investigating. You pushed forward, despite your father telling you otherwise and that is what will see Camelot through this."

"Do you really believe that?"

"I've always had faith in you, never more so than I do right now." He reached out and cupped Arthur's chin gently, Arthur taken aback by the tenderness mixed with resolution he found in Merlin's face. "You are Camelot, Arthur. Without you this campaign of Cenred's might surely succeed but with you…he has no bloody chance. You're Camelot's strength."

Arthur swallowed hard and reached out to wrap his fingers around Merlin's wrist, feeling the strong pulse beneath his fingertips, saying with a whisper, "I may be Camelot's, Merlin, but you're mine."

Chapter Text

Chapter 4

The next six months were hell. Attacks increased and Arthur found himself responsible for co-ordinating patrols, protecting towns and villages and trying to organise intelligence to provide them with information about Cenred and his plans.

It became clear that Morgause had aligned herself completely with him and Arthur and his knights had to fight on two fronts against traditional attacks and magical ones. He was exhausted and Uther seemed more intent on fostering his hatred for Cenred and nursing his wounded pride that the man would dare attack his kingdom in the first place than being of any real use in the fight against him.

Arthur found himself shouldering full responsibility for the protection of Camelot and he would have gone mad were it not for Merlin and Leon, both of whom provided more support and comfort than he could have ever hoped for. Leon was a truly wonderful second in command and Arthur had no compunctions about leaving the intelligence-gathering to him, while Merlin was there every evening in his chambers to listen, to consult with, to tell him that he was doing the right thing, to keep him from going insane.

"I think you'll need more men there," Merlin said as they sat in Arthur's chambers poring over maps. He pointed to a section of forest that Arthur had barely noticed and said, "If the trade route from the north is compromised they'll go this way and if they're attacked here then that means we're in trouble for our supplies for the next month. Things are already so tenuous, if food becomes scarce…there'll be riots."

"You're right," Arthur said with a sigh. "I'll see if we have any men to spare and send them out tomorrow."

"Have you heard back from Leon's patrol?"

"No," Arthur said, frowning. "He was supposed to send word yesterday but there's been nothing so far. He was going into dangerous territory…"

"If anyone can handle it it's Leon," Merlin said firmly and Arthur couldn't help but smile, grateful beyond measure that he had Merlin at his side to help him cope with everything he had to deal with.

"We've lost so many men these last few months," Arthur said, shaking his head.

"We'd have lost a damn sight if it hadn't been for you," Merlin said firmly. "I mean it," he added, clearly seeing that Arthur was about to argue. "You've been incredible, Arthur. You've been a leader and people have seen that and responded to it. The people in the town, in the castle, are frightened, it's true, but they have faith in you and I hear how they trust you."

"I just hope it's enough," Arthur replied, tiredness threatening to seep into his bones. He was beyond exhausted and he felt as though he'd aged ten years in the space of a few months. He was terrified that Camelot would fall, that he would be forced to watch while his people were subjected to terror, eventually coming to fall under Cenred's cruel and subjugating reign.

"Come on," Merlin said, pushing the maps aside. "You haven't had a decent night's sleep in weeks, let's get you to bed."

"I'm not a child," Arthur groused, but there was no bite to it.

"No, you just act like one," Merlin said with a smile as he stood, moving around to Arthur's chair and giving his leg a nudge. "Come on, up."

"You do know that I'm the one who gives the orders, yes?"

"If you'd like to pretend to yourself that that's true, that's your affair, but we both know who's in charge in these rooms."

"Oh do we?" Arthur asked, getting to his feet and folding his arms, enjoying the brief moment of levity, no one able to help him shed his cares in the way Merlin could.

"Arthur, these chambers are my domain and in them you do as I say," Merlin said, his eyes dancing with amusement.

"I think you've taken a blow to head…or perhaps I'm about to give you one."

"You're exceptionally adorable when you're tired," Merlin said, moving forward to brace his hands on Arthur's forearms. "Although exhaustion does make you rather like a combative toddler. If I have to drag you to the bed and throw you in it I will."

"I believe you," Arthur said, having been on the receiving end of Merlin's tender mercies more times than he could count.

Merlin's smile turned from teasing to tender and he reached a hand up to brush his knuckles against Arthur's cheek, saying, "You need to banish those dark circles from under your eyes and you're looking far too pale for my liking. You need to take care of yourself as well as the kingdom."

"I have you to take care of me," Arthur said softly, revelling in the feel of Merlin's fingers against his skin. He felt so cherished, so cared for, that even while he was tired and worried beyond the telling of it, he felt a glimmer of something warm and beautiful in his chest.

"Of course you do," Merlin replied, and Arthur felt his eyes close of their own volition as Merlin's fingers moved up to card through his hair. He ached with the tenderness of it and he wanted to step closer, to ask Merlin to hold him, however briefly, to chase away his worries and fears and allow him to lose himself in the man's gentle ministrations.

There was suddenly an almighty clatter from outside the chambers and Arthur opened his eyes and stood back, he and Merlin frowning at the doors before a cursory knock sounded and Leon all but barrelled in. He was filthy, his face smattered with blood and his cape torn in several places.

"Sire, forgive the intrusion, I – "

"Leon! What on earth has happened?" Arthur asked, a terrible feeling of dread settling in the pit of his stomach.

Leon stumbled where he stood and Arthur and Merlin moved in unison, each taking an arm and leading him to a chair, the man collapsing into it, his breathing laboured.

"Are you injured?" Merlin asked, his face etched with worry.

"Nothing fatal," Leon replied. "Sire, I have grave news," he breathed, looking up at Arthur with an expression that made Arthur's blood run cold. "Morgause has stolen the cup of life from the druids. She's raised an immortal army, they're marching towards Camelot as we speak."

"Dear God," Arthur whispered, looking over Leon's head at Merlin, whose eyes were reflecting his own horror right back at him. "We must make the city safe," he said, his head spinning, some small part of him wanting to run and hide, for this to be someone else's problem, someone else's burden. "Leon, do you need to see Gaius, are you – "

"I'm ready at your command, Arthur," Leon replied stoically, and Arthur couldn't have been more grateful for the man's strength.

"I need you to gather all those from the lower town and bring them within the city walls, we need to make the castle as impregnable as possible. How much time before the army is upon us?"

"Two days at most."

"Then we have no time to lose."

Leon nodded and rose shakily to his feet. "I'll assemble the knights and begin preparations."

"Thank you," Arthur said sincerely, holding out his hand, Leon taking it and shaking it firmly before he turned and left, Arthur watching him go and wondering how so much had changed within the space of a few minutes.

"Arthur," Merlin said, his voice low. "I…I need to leave the city."

"What?" Arthur asked, feeling as though someone had pulled the rug out from beneath him. "Merlin, I know this feels bleak but you of all people should know that we have to stand and fight, that we can't give up. You can't leave me," he finished with a rush of breath, feeling terrified at the prospect.

"I'm not leaving you," Merlin said, stepping forward and taking Arthur's hands. "I just need to do something, something important. Do you trust me?"

"Merlin, I trust you with my life but – "

"I wouldn't go if I didn't have to but it's necessary, I promise."

Arthur wanted to command Merlin to stay by his side, to continue being his strength, his focus, but he did trust the man and if he felt he needed to leave then there must have been a reason. "Alright," he said thickly, "but promise me you'll be careful. If anything happened to you…"

Merlin pulled Arthur into his arms and Arthur went willingly, wrapping himself around Merlin's body and letting himself be held. "It'll be ok," Merlin whispered, and Arthur so desperately wanted to believe him.

He held on tightly and breathed Merlin in, never wanting to let the man go. He soaked in the warmth from his body and felt Merlin's hand curl around his neck, the tenderness in the action so acute it made Arthur's heart ache. He was frightened, more frightened than he could ever remember being in his life, and he wanted Merlin to make it all ok.

Merlin pulled back and Arthur felt immediately bereft. "I'll be back as soon as I can, I promise. Just hold fast and keep them at bay, we'll find a way to defeat them. Camelot won't fall."

"Be safe, Merlin. For my sake, please be safe."

Merlin smiled and squeezed his hand and then he was gone and Arthur stood alone his chambers and wished he had answers for the hundred questions that flooded his mind. He didn't have time for any of it and so he dressed in his armour and prepared to go to war.

The next few hours passed in blur of activity and the desperate attempt to stave off panic. The townsfolk were moved to the castle as quickly as possible while Arthur prepared the castle's defences and did all he could to prepare for an attack. Scouts kept arriving to give updates on the progress of the army and with each one's arrival Arthur looked for Merlin, desperate to see the man within the castle's walls, desperate to have him by his side.

The first wave of the attack came swiftly. These fighters weren't immortal but they had been sent to inflict damage before the second, more deadly wave arrived. They didn't manage to breach Camelot's walls but carnage was done to the lower town, although it was thankfully devoid of life, the people having been evacuated.

They were beaten back eventually but Arthur knew the respite would be short-lived. He went to the great hall to see that the hospital was fully prepared and that Gaius and Gwen had all they needed, his nerves threatening to overwhelm him while he waited for the warning bells to sound.

There was no more to be done but wait, a terrible sense of finality in the air and when the second attack came it came with a brutality Arthur could never have expected.

The fighting was intense and the army battered their way inside the castle's walls with a ferocity Arthur's had never encountered in battle before. He watched men fall, cut down in the blink of an eye, their foes unable to be felled, unable to be stopped and he felt a hopeless kind of terror grip him as the walls closed in on him and all seemed lost.

"Arthur!"

He heard the voice ringing through the corridor as he found a moment's respite away from the army. He turned, his eyes meeting Merlin's as the man ran towards him, flanked by a group of people that Arthur didn't recognise until they were upon him.

"I thought we might need reinforcements," Merlin said with a grin, despite the fact his lip was split and blood was making its way down his chin,

Behind him stood Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan and an enormous mountain of a man who looked as though he could rip people apart with his bare hands, and Arthur had never been so glad to see a group of people as he was in that moment.

"We heard you were in a bit of a tight spot," Gwaine said with a grin.

"We've come to offer our help," Lancelot added, and Arthur felt humbled that they'd come to risk their lives to offer him aid.

"I accept it gladly," he said, "although I don't know what odds I can offer you."

"They're the best kind, princess," Gwaine said, Elyan snorting in amusement as they all unsheathed their swords.

"For Camelot," Elyan said, the others echoing his words before they peeled off and disappeared, throwing themselves into the fray, Arthur hoping beyond hope that he would see them alive before this bloody campaign was over.

"Arthur," Merlin said, stepping close. "I want you to have this." He extended a sword towards him, the most exquisitely crafted thing Arthur had ever seen. He took it, the weight perfectly balanced, the blade a thing of beauty.

"Where did you get this?"

"It's not important, but it's a weapon of magic. It's the only thing that can kill a member of the immortal army."

"How do you – "

"Trust me."

Seconds later and they had the opportunity to put Merlin's assertion to the test as a group of the army rounded the corridor and bore down on them. Arthur swung the sword, the metal singing as it cut through the air. He thrust it deep within the chest of his attacker and man all but exploded, leaving nothing but ash behind.

He didn't have time to question it, didn't know what on earth had happened, but he knew he had a thing of wonder in his hand and that, for the first time since Leon had returned to Camelot, he finally felt a glimmer of hope.

He fought with renewed intensity but the battle was the hardest of his life. It was bloody and raw and were it not for the sword in his hand he was sure he would have met his end within the walls of his own castle, his own kingdom. One weapon, as miraculous as it was, wasn't enough to turn the tide against such a terrible foe and death stained every inch of the castle as the army fought with single-minded purpose.

At some point Arthur lost sight of Merlin and a fist clenched tightly around his heart. He'd known they would likely be separated at some point and all he could hope was that the man had found somewhere safe or perhaps had made his way to the hospital and was helping Gaius. To think anything else was simply too terrifying and Arthur couldn't let anything worm its way inside his mind while he was fighting to keep his life, to keep his people safe from the terrible fate that awaited them should he fall.

The army beat them back to the throne room, Leon and a host of other knights with him as he tried to take out as many of the bastards as he could with the sword Merlin had given him. He was exhausted, raw and on the brink of collapse, feeling the last few vestiges of hope seep from him as they were surrounded. He braced himself, devastated to think that this was how it would end and broken to think that he would never see Merlin again, when an almighty flash of light filled the whole space and flung them all to the ground.

Arthur lay on his back, blinking at the ceiling, a low-pitched ringing in his ears. Every single wound he'd sustained during the fight seemed to make itself known in that instant and he winced as he pushed himself up, only to find the only evidence of their enemy seemed to be smouldering piles of ash.

"What in the – " he breathed, looking around to see the others looking similarly baffled.

He stood on shaky legs, listening intently, all noises of the battle seemingly silenced. "Leon," he said, hoping his voice sounded more commanding than it felt, "take some men and see if this has happened everywhere. I want to know if they're defeated."

"What about this one?" came a voice from behind him and he turned to see Gwaine approaching, the enormous man behind him holding Cenred by the scruff of the neck. "Thought you might like to see to him personally."

Arthur looked at the man with disgust, feeling his anger rise through his stomach and into his chest. "Take him to the dungeons," he said through gritted teeth. "He'll be dealt with soon enough."

Gwaine nodded and disappeared with the giant of a man leading Cenred none too gently away and Arthur watched him go with grim satisfaction. He gave himself a shake, feeling exhaustion begin to seep into his bones, knowing he couldn't give way to it, not when there was so much he was needed for and especially when he had yet to find Merlin.

He dragged himself out of the throne room, feeling a new purpose grip him as he searched for his manservant, trying desperately not to let himself give way to the fear that threatened to overwhelm him. There was every chance Merlin could have been wounded or worse…The thoughts churned around in his mind and made him sick and dizzy and he barely took in anything around him while he continued his frantic search.

He was aware that the army had all vanished, that there was no trace of them other than the ash that seemed to permeate the castle. He knew there had been devastation and terrible loss but there would be time to attend to that later when he knew, one way or another, what had happened to Merlin.

He rounded a corridor and stopped in his tracks as he saw Merlin limping towards him, Lancelot at his side, both men looking as ragged as he felt. His feet moved before his brain could command them and he all but flew down the corridor, wrapping Merlin up in his arms and pulling him tightly against his chest.

"Thank God," he breathed into the man's hair, feeling Merlin's arms encircle him, the man holding on just as firmly as he was. "Are you ok?" he whispered, his hand pressing against Merlin's upper back, trying to convince himself that the man was really in his arms, safe and alive.

"I'm fine," Merlin assured him as he pulled back, scanning Arthur's face, his hands still resting on Arthur's waist. "You? You look exhausted."

"I feel it," Arthur said with a tired laugh. He looked over Merlin's shoulder at Lancelot, still unwilling to relinquish his hold entirely on Merlin, and asked them both, "What the hell happened?"

"Morgause was wounded," Merlin said quickly, and Arthur saw the brief frown that flitted across Lancelot's face. "It…broke the spell and the army was destroyed. She managed to flee but…Camelot's safe, at least."

Arthur nodded, his hand sliding to rest on Merlin's hip, standing as close to him as he could without looking ridiculous. "We'll send riders out after her but I doubt we'll catch her. I fear Camelot hasn't seen the last of her."

"Sire," came a voice from behind him and he turned to see Leon approaching him, his expression grave.

"What is it?" Arthur asked, feeling his fingers tighten on Merlin's hip, knowing, somehow, that the next words out of Leon's mouth would change his life.

"Sire, it is my sad duty to inform you that the king is dead. He received a fatal wound from one of the immortal army. Nothing could be done to save him."

Were it not for Merlin's arm around his waist Arthur was sure he would have crumpled to the floor. Blood pulsed loudly in his ears and his world went askew and he felt Merlin lean into him, holding him gently as the man whispered, "It's alright, I've got you."

Arthur followed Leon to the hospital, Merlin still holding him around the waist as they walked, Arthur beyond grateful for the support. He felt as though he were walking through a dream and when he was led to his father's prone body laid out behind a curtain for privacy, and his legs would have given way were it not for Merlin holding him up.

A sheet had been pulled up around the king and, were it not for the unnatural stillness of his form, Arthur might have believed he was sleeping. He felt Merlin's hand pressed against the small of his back and he tried to listen as Gaius approached him with a look of sorrow as he told him all that had been done to try to save the king.

"Leon," he heard Merlin murmur softly, "can you take charge of proceedings? I think Arthur needs some time."

No servant should ever have given an order to a knight, even one phrased as a question, and it was testament to how respected Merlin was, how highly he was regarded that Arthur heard Leon's gentle reply of, "Of course."

"Come away, Arthur," Merlin said in a whisper, and Arthur let himself be pulled out of the hospital and away down the corridor.

He couldn't have said how they made it to his chambers but he found himself standing in the middle of his room, a kind of numb shock permeating his body while his mind tried to process all that had happened in the space of a couple of days.

Merlin removed his armour with painfully gentle hands and Arthur gave himself over entirely to the man's attentions, feeling Merlin's fingers brush against his skin as he was finally stripped to the waist. A warm cloth washed away the blood and grime and Arthur closed his eyes as Merlin cleaned him with a tenderness no one had ever shown him before the man had barrelled into his life.

He would have fallen apart were it not for Merlin's quiet presence, his beautifully kind ministrations, and by the time he was helped into fresh clothing he felt a little more like himself. Merlin led him to the bed and they sat down on it together, Arthur trying to remind himself to breathe.

"I don't know how I feel," he said in a whisper. "I've been so angry with him…we've barely had a relationship in the last year but…he was still my father."

"It'll take time, Arthur," Merlin said softly. "Your feelings won't make sense now, everything's too raw. Your head must still be spinning from battle and…I wish I knew what to say to make this better for you."

"You make things better just by being here," Arthur said before he could stop himself. He felt a tremor rack his body and he wanted someone to take the weight from his shoulders for just a moment, just one moment where he didn't feel crushed by everything in his life pressing down on him. "Merlin…will you…" He took a deep shuddering breath and stared down at his hands, unable to look at the man as he said shakily, "Will you please hold me?"

He felt the bed shift as Merlin moved closer and he was pulled into the man's arms, closing his eyes as Merlin held him to his chest. He tucked his head beneath the man's chin and wrapped his arms around Merlin's slim torso. One of Merlin's hand rested on his waist, holding him gently, while the other shifted to cradle his head.

He felt bruised, torn, but the comfort he found within Merlin's tender hold was unlike anything he'd ever felt before. He felt as though part of him had shattered but it didn't feel as hopeless as it might have done and the steady beat of Merlin's heart beneath his cheek helped to ground him. He wasn't sure when he started to cry but the tears came and wouldn't stop.

Merlin held him through them, rubbing gentle circles on his back and letting him sob. It was as though the last year had finally caught up with him and everything he'd been struggling to deal with had surfaced, overwhelming him with the sheer intensity of it. He tried to bring himself under control but he couldn't stop himself and the tears continued to fall. Merlin held him as he wept, soothing him with words of comfort and stroking his hair gently.

He couldn't say when he fell asleep but he woke pillowed against Merlin's chest, still wrapped in the man's arms and held as though he were something precious. He lay that way for a moment, the sun streaming in through the window and bathing the room in gold. He listened to Merlin's breathing and felt his chest rise and fall beneath him and thanked whatever gods may be listening that someone had seen fit to deliver this man into his life.

He extracted himself reluctantly from Merlin's hold and sat up, taking a few moments to collect himself before he reached out and touched Merlin's cheek with the back on his hand. "Merlin," he said softly, and the man stirred before he slowly blinked his eyes open.

"Arthur," he said as he pushed himself upright. He reached out and placed his hand on Arthur's cheek, saying, "How are you?"

"I have no idea," Arthur answered honestly, "but it's a new day and Camelot waits for no man."

Merlin gave him a sad smile and they both shifted off the bed, Merlin trying to brush the rumples out of his clothing while Arthur threw a jacket over his shirt.

"Merlin," he said, the man looking up at him. Arthur paused. Saying what he felt had never come easily to him and he had never felt more vulnerable and exposed than he did at that moment but there was something he needed to say and he was too tired to hide his feelings. "I wouldn't have coped with all this without you," he said, his voice low but level. "Thank you for…everything."

"I'm sorry for all you've suffered. I wish I could take the pain from you."

"You already have, Merlin, more than you could possibly know."

He gave the man as decent a smile as he could muster and turned to leave his chambers, Merlin's footsteps just behind him as they went to meet the new world they now had to navigate together.

Chapter Text

Chapter 5

The first year of Arthur's reign was difficult and fraught with challenges aplenty. With Uther's death he was thrust into the role of king and had to adjust, whether he felt himself ready or not. Cenred was executed and left Essetir without a legitimate heir and so the other kingdoms all laid claim to his lands. It took months of negotiation and careful diplomacy before the land was divided and each kingdom was finally satisfied with their share.

One of Arthur's first actions as king had been to knight Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan and Percival, an action that had seen uproar amongst some of the nobles and applause from others. His decision sent shockwaves through Camelot but he stood fast by it and was bolstered by both Merlin and Leon's support, Merlin so incredibly proud of him Arthur thought he could cope with anything that was thrown his way.

The citadel had suffered greatly in the attack from the immortal army and the damned dragon's escape less than a month later was a blow none of them had needed. It had been enough for Arthur to wonder if his reign had been cursed and he'd considering abdicating more than once. Merlin had been so strange during that difficult time; he'd been by Arthur's side as always but Arthur had never known him to act so oddly and he'd almost been relieved when the man had requested a week's leave to return to Ealdor weeks after.

Things had rallied after that. It had taken a lot of hard work and effort but Camelot had steadily been rebuilt and Arthur had established himself as a man who would be a different king to the one his father had been and one who had different ideas for the future of his kingdom. He fought with his council members, his stood up to nobles who thought he could be cowed easily as an untested king, and he led his knights with renewed purpose.

"I swear I'm still picking flowers out of my hair," Merlin said, breezing into his chambers without knocking, Arthur looking up from the letter he'd been reading.

"I didn't think I'd be seeing you today," Arthur said with a smirk. "After all that wine you put away yesterday I was sure you'd be nursing a head like a boar this morning."

Merlin grinned and flopped down in the chair opposite, saying, "Some of us can take our drink, Arthur. Besides, my best friend was getting married, I had to celebrate!"

Trying not to bristle too much at anyone besides himself being referred to as Merlin's best friend, Arthur nodded and said, "It was a good day. They looked very happy."

Merlin looked at him for a moment, Arthur trying to not to sigh under the scrutiny and easily anticipating the next question, which was, "Are you sure you're ok with this? Really sure, I mean."

The sigh escaped him, despite his best efforts, but he succeeded in not rolling his eyes as he said, "Merlin, I've told you this a hundred times. I'm happy for them. My feelings for Gwen…I don't know, I'll always feel something for her, she's a wonderful woman, but it isn't love. She and Lancelot are happy, they belong together. I promise you I'm not sitting here nursing a broken heart."

Merlin looked sceptical and it was only Arthur's immense fondness for the man that helped him to retain any patience at all, especially when Merlin narrowed his eyes and asked, "How do you know it isn't love?"

"Oh for heaven's sake, Merlin," Arthur said in exasperation. "It just bloody well isn't, ok? I love Gwen but I'm not in love with her. It's nothing compared to the way I feel…I mean…the way I would feel about someone I was in love with, alright? Now let it go before I'm forced to put your head on a spike and let people know what happens to those who irritate me with endless questions I've already given answers to."

Merlin huffed a laugh and held his hands up in surrender. "Fine, fine. I'm only looking out for you, you great prat."

"I know, and I appreciate it," Arthur said placatingly, "but my smiles at their wedding were quite genuine, I assure you."

"Well if you say so," Merlin said and Arthur glared at him. "So, anything interesting in this pile of letters?" Merlin asked, gesturing to the various parchments strewn across the table.

Thankful for the change in topic, Arthur replied, "Yes, actually." He brandished the letter in his hand, the one whose reading Merlin had interrupted, and said, "Sir Osrick has invited me to spend some time at his estate."

"Oh," Merlin said, his eyebrows rising in interest. "Will you go?"

"I'm considering it. Camelot's relatively peaceful right now, there's nothing that requires my presence here with any urgency. I'd leave Leon in charge of state affairs and Lancelot in charge of the knights. I can't say a couple of weeks away don't sound appealing."

"Well," Merlin said, picking up a quill and twirling it between his fingers, Arthur subduing a smile at how the action was supposed to look nonchalant, "I guess you'd better go then. I'm sure you'll enjoy yourself."

"Mm," Arthur said, not quite finished teasing the man just yet. "It's lovely down there, you know. His estate is right on the coast and I'm sure I've never seen such a beautiful stretch of land."

"Sounds nice," Merlin said, brushing imaginary dust from the table, his expression turning undeniably sulky.

"Oh it is. He's a wonderful host too, he really cares about his guests," Arthur said, leaning back in his chair and enjoying himself.

"Well I'm sure you'll have a wonderful time. You won't be missed here."

"No? You'll be able to keep yourself occupied without me, will you?"

"Of course," Merlin said with sniff. "My life doesn't revolve around you, you know. I have plenty of important things to be getting on with, thank you very much. This castle doesn't run itself, I'll be so busy I won't even notice you've gone."

"Ah," Arthur said with a sombre nod, "well that is a shame."

"What's a shame?" Merlin asked, looking up him with a frown.

"That you'll be so busy," Arthur said innocently. "I'll have to tell Osrick that you've had to politely decline his invitation to come with me…as Camelot couldn't possibly spare you."

Merlin's lip twitched as his eyes narrowed. "You might have said that, you clotpole."

"I might," Arthur agreed amiably, "but then I wouldn't have got to see that bottom lip stick out in that adorable little pout."

"Oh bugger off," Merlin said, unable to hide his smile. "Who says I want to come with you anyway?"

"Don't you?" Arthur asked, not meaning it to sound quite as coy as it did.

"I'd rather lick a pig," Merlin said sweetly before getting up and heading for the door, throwing Arthur a grin over his shoulder before he left.

They set off for Tregothan the following week. Arthur was confident leaving the kingdom in Leon's capable hands and Lancelot was more than up to the task of seeing to the knights. Merlin was the one who seemed to have a serious case of anxiety at leaving the castle behind and he ran himself ragged in the last couple of days they were in Camelot trying to make sure things were in place for every eventuality.

Arthur had tried to point out that they would only be gone for a couple of weeks but Merlin wasn't having any of it. He'd teased the man about it and revelled in doing so but privately he'd wondered at just how much Merlin was responsible for. He was the private servant to the king so of course he had important responsibilities beyond driving Arthur mad but his role within the castle had grown and evolved over the last year, making him even more invaluable than he'd previously been.

Arthur felt that he and Merlin had grown together. They'd moved from prince and servant to king and advisor, although Merlin was still very much seen as servant by many within the castle, mostly nobles whose outdated and sometimes offensive attitudes made Arthur rankle. He was trying to affect change but he didn't want to overwhelm them with too much too soon, especially as some were still smarting over his decision to bestow knighthoods on commoners.

It took a couple of days to get to Tregothan and he enjoyed camping with Merlin as they journeyed there. Spring was trying to take hold over the land but there was a faint chill of winter still clinging to the atmosphere and it was pleasant to warm themselves by a cheerful fire as they spoke long into the night.

They arrived at Osrick's estate on a sunny afternoon, Osrick descending the stairs of his home with a wide grin, sweeping Arthur up in a hug and saying, "The king of Camelot gracing me with his presence in my family home. What an honour!"

"It certainly is, I'm glad you appreciate it," Arthur replied, returning the man's smile and clapping him on the shoulder.

"And Merlin! I'm so glad you came," Osrick said, extending a hug to him too in a manner so informal Arthur was sure most of the nobles at court would have had a fit.

"Someone has to keep an eye on this one," Merlin said, nodding his head towards Arthur. "Thank you for the invitation, Sir Osrick, I appreciate it."

"Now, now, none of this formal nonsense. You're here as my guest, Merlin, I insist we dispense with titles."

"You'll make him more irreverent than he already is," Arthur warned and Merlin stuck his tongue out at him.

A young man appeared at Osrick's elbow, a man no older than 20 with red hair and a face full of freckles, the same mischievous twinkle in his eyes that Merlin so often had. "This is Garrick," Osrick said, resting a hand on the man's shoulder. "I'd like to call him my manservant but I fear instead I simply provide him with food and lodging in return for the occasional help with a hunt."

"Sounds like someone I know," Arthur said with a wry smile in Merlin's direction. "Can't be any worse than this one."

"You don't know how lucky you are to have me, my lord and master," Merlin said with a poke to his shoulder. "I'd wager Garrick and I are the finest servants in the land."

"God help the land."

They were shown inside, Garrick helping with their luggage and Merlin practically beside himself that he'd been given his own room. Arthur found it to be a very generous gesture on Osrick's part and he felt a rush of affection for the man. He knew titles didn't matter to Osrick, not in any real sense, but Merlin was still a servant and no other noble would have dreamt of granting the man his own room, of treating him like a proper guest, and it was a testament to Osrick's character that he had done so.

They unpacked and Osrick showed them around his modest but thoroughly charming family home, introducing them to the small contingent of servants he kept who seemed more like family members than workers. The whole estate had the kind of happy, peaceful ambiance that immediately put a person at ease and Arthur was pleased he'd accepted the invitation, needing a break from the chaos the last year had been.

They had dinner in the large-windowed dining room, which afford a wonderful view of the gardens and estate beyond, Arthur feeling so comfortable both with Osrick's company and the general feel of the place he hardly had need of the excellent wine on offer to relax him. Garrick joined them, apparently more of a ward than a servant. He was more than ten years Osrick's junior and Osrick had taken him on as a favour to the man's parents who had struggled for many years and wanted something better for their son.

Osrick clearly had a brotherly affection towards his servant and their interactions were far more familial than those between a servant and his master. As someone with his own unconventional relationship with his servant, Arthur could appreciate it and it allowed him to be more easy with Merlin than he might have been were they anywhere else.

They retreated to one of the smaller rooms after dinner and were persuaded to join in a ridiculous game involving spoons and dice that Arthur couldn't grasp the rules of to save his life. He lost every hand, which Merlin seemed to find hilarious, and watched in bafflement as the man won every game, convinced he had to be cheating somehow.

"You can't be good at everything," Merlin told him with a snigger as he did the honours of topping everyone's wine up, looking very much as though he'd had enough for the night. "Oh look at him sulking because he lost," he said to Garrick with a stage whisper. "The great king of Camelot isn't used to losing."

"Not to his fool of a manservant he isn't," Arthur said, trying not to smile.

"It's alright, your highness," Merlin said coming to his chair and standing over him, "if you like I could sit down with you and carefully explain the rules to you, see if they get through that thick skull of yours."

Merlin grinned down at him and Arthur faked a glare before he grabbed the man's wrist and pulled him down, Merlin ending up sprawled in his lap, giggling like a child.

"That kind of rudeness could be punished with execution, you know," Arthur said as Merlin wriggled rather pleasantly against him.

"What a terrible threat, sire," Osrick said, watching them both with a smile. "You know you'd be lost without Merlin."

"You would, wouldn't you?" Merlin said, apparently rather comfortable sitting in Arthur's lap. The wine had clearly lowered his inhibitions and he shifted himself until he was sitting a little more firmly in Arthur's hold, Arthur's hand coming to rest on his hip.

"Well, I don't know who would insult me if you weren't around. I don't know who'd charm all my knights so their loyalty was to a lowly servant rather than their king. I don't know who'd have the entire castle eating out of the palm of their hand rendering the king somewhat useless half the time. I should just let him run the kingdom," Arthur finished with a shrug, Osrick emitting a hearty laugh.

"I already do," Merlin said with a snort. "Kings are really just figureheads. The kingdom needs to have something pretty to look to, someone who looks handsome in armour and knows how to wield a sword. I'm the brains behind the throne."

"I happen to think you'd look rather handsome in armour, Merlin," Osrick said with a grin, and Arthur was reminded of how the man had flirted with Merlin all the other times they'd seen each other. Something uncomfortable clawed at Arthur's chest and he found himself tightening his hold on Merlin's hip, pulling him closer.

"I would," Merlin said, his hand coming to rest on top of Arthur's, Arthur's skin prickling at the contact. "Wouldn't I?" he asked, turning his head to look down at Arthur.

Arthur twined their fingers together, unable to stop himself, knowing he would never have been able to do so in any other company. "Of course," he said softly, and Merlin smiled down at him, the expression causing something entirely pleasant to flutter in Arthur's stomach.

They continued with their enjoyable evening and Merlin didn't budge from Arthur's lap the entire time. Arthur was far from complaining and he loved feeling the man's weight against him, loved the fact that their hands remained clasped together and that Merlin's thumb caressed his skin softly as they sat and chatted.

"You are never drinking that much wine again," Arthur said as he helped Merlin to his room after the evening had finally come to an end.

"I'll have you know that I can handle my drink better than you."

"Not this stuff apparently, it's far more potent than the wine you're used to."

"Nonsense," Merlin said, waving him off before he tried to pull his shirt over his head and only succeeded in getting completely stuck.

"Come here, you imbecile," Arthur said with a laugh, grabbing the front of the shirt and pulling Merlin over to him. He wrestled Merlin out of the garment, the man being absolutely no help whatsoever, pulling it over his head, his hair sticking up in all directions.

"This is a nice change of pace isn't it?" Merlin asked with a sloppy grin. "Normally I'm the one helping you out of your clothes."

"You're hopeless," Arthur said affectionately, running a hand through Merlin's hair and trying to flatten it down.

"Shame you're stuck with me then, isn't it?" Merlin asked, leaning into the touch, his eyes soft.

"A great shame indeed."

Arthur let his hand move to the back of Merlin's neck and soaked in the pleasure that came from being so close to the man. He didn't want the night to end, he didn't want to leave Merlin and go back to his own room alone, an ache in his chest from the sheer want he felt whenever Merlin was near.

"Goodnight then," he said reluctantly, giving Merlin's neck a gentle squeeze before he stepped back.

"Goodnight, Arthur," Merlin said with a sleepy smile, and the urge to kiss him hit Arthur so squarely in the chest he was nearly knocked backwards with it.

He made his escape and retreated to his room, wishing he'd had more wine so he'd be able to slip into a stupor and push these damn feelings back down where they belonged. He'd been nursing his attraction to Merlin for well over a year now and it didn't seem to be diminishing. For the most part he felt he had it under control; he could be around Merlin without feeling the need to throw him up against the nearest wall but there were moments, moments like that night where he felt the heavens were conspiring against him to see how far his tolerance would stretch.

He and Merlin had come so far together that Arthur couldn't jeopardise their relationship simply because he felt an attraction to the man that threatened to overwhelm him on occasion. There were times when he thought he saw something reciprocal in Merlin, something that made him think the whole thing wasn't entirely one-sided but he couldn't be sure. Merlin had always been affectionate with him, had always touched him without thinking and Arthur had cherished those touches. He didn't want to lose them now simply because he couldn't keep himself in check.

The next few days passed pleasantly and Arthur felt some of the cares that had been pressing down on him lift from his shoulders. It was a relief to be allowed to be himself rather than a king and he could almost forget the constant pressures of his station when he was off hunting with Osrick or enjoying a walk along the coast with Merlin.

"He's charmed all the workers, you know," Osrick said as he and Arthur sat together in the walled garden while Merlin and Garrick played a game with wooden skittles that Merlin was hopeless at.

"That's Merlin," Arthur said with a grin. "I wasn't joking when I said he had the castle eating out of the palm of his hand."

"I believe you," Osrick said, topping up their ale. "He seems to have taken on a greater role since you've become king."

"He has," Arthur said with a sigh. "I don't know how I'd cope without him some days. It's just…"

"Just what?"

"He's still my servant. Despite practically running the castle the nobles still see him a commoner, as something beneath them. I know Merlin doesn't care, he's always made it quite clear what he thinks about those who are deemed to be his betters but…sometimes I wish we were more…equal."

"These things need time to change, people's attitudes don't shift overnight. If you wish Camelot to be a more equal place it's in your power to make it so. As for Merlin…I think he feels things between you are fairly even…if his behaviour around you is anything to go by."

Arthur snorted and said, "Merlin's never cared for titles. He was calling me names long before we were friends. I don't know…I suppose it just sits uncomfortably with me that my status means there will always be some kind of distance."

"From my perspective it doesn't look like there's distance of any kind between you," Osrick said gently. "Perhaps a gesture might help, something to let Merlin how you see him."

"A gesture?" Arthur echoed.

"I'm sure you'll think of something," Osrick said, clapping him on the shoulder and getting up to join the game.

Arthur considered the matter for the next couple of days, distracting himself with the various activities Osrick put on for them and enjoying their evenings around the fire, Garrick exceptionally good at inventing drinking games that he always seemed to win.

On the last night of their stay, Arthur was packing reluctantly when Merlin appeared in his room, flinging himself down on the bed and saying with a sigh, "I don't want to leave."

"Is that because you'll actually have to do some work when we get back to Camelot?" Arthur asked with a smile and Merlin shot him a glare.

"Being with you all the time is work enough," Merlin replied snidely.

Arthur snorted and folded the last of his shirts into his bag, refraining from commenting that that was, in fact, Merlin's job. He paused before doing up the buckle, Osrick's earlier advice ringing in his ears as he considered what he was about to do. With a feeling of resolve, he reached inside the bag and extracted a pouch, the weight of it heavy in his hand. He stood for a moment, turning the decision over in his mind before he moved over to the bed and sat beside Merlin.

"Um," he began, dazzled by his own eloquence. He fumbled with the pouch and extracted the object from it, holding it in his palm before he extended it to Merlin and said, "I'd um…I'd like you to have this."

Merlin took it from him, their fingers skimming pleasantly as he did so, and held it in his hand, looking at it thoughtfully, asking, "What is it?"

"It's um…it was my mother's. It bears her sigil."

"Arthur," Merlin said softly, "I can't take this."

"I want you to have it," Arthur said, his mouth suddenly feeling dry, "as a…as a token."

"A token?" Merlin asked, looking across at him, his eyes searching.

"Mm," Arthur nodded, feeling his face heat. "A token of…how I…what I…what I think of you." He cleared his throat and focused his attention on the sigil in Merlin's hand, asking tentatively, "Do you know…do you know what it means to gift someone something like this?"

Merlin shifted to tuck one leg beneath himself and angled his body a little more towards Arthur. "Back home we don't have anything like sigils or crests but things are passed down through families. My mother has a pair of knives that were passed down from her grandmother; they take pride of place in the kitchen. It's customary to offer those kinds of gifts between families when people are married."

Their eyes met and a flush appeared on Merlin's cheeks and across the bridge of his nose, highlighting the delicate dusting of freckles that the summer sun always brought out. "Not that we're…I mean obviously not…but…"

Arthur smiled as Merlin trailed off, his hand aching to reach out trace the path the blush was taking over the man's cheek and down his throat. "No, I don't suppose we are," he said, feeling a little light-headed at the notion. "The principle is the same though," he said softly, feeling nervous and dry-mouthed. "By giving you this, I'm acknowledging the place you hold in my life…how…important you are. To give someone a family crest means that you're…affording them a place within that family."

Merlin looked at him with wide eyes and whispered softly, "I don't know what to say." His thumb brushed over the sigil in his hand almost reverently and Arthur wanted so badly to take Merlin's hand in his own.

"Well, that's a first," Arthur said with forced levity. "I would have given you this ages ago if I'd thought it would render me a little peace and quiet."

Merlin laughed and said, "I should have guessed there was an ulterior motive to such a gift."

Arthur took a deep breath and gave Merlin a clap on the shoulder and said, "Um…I…I should…I'll say goodnight then."

He gave Merlin a bright smile that felt entirely too forced and hopped off the bed. He made it halfway down the corridor before he realised it was his own room he'd walked out of.


They returned to Camelot and life carried on much the same as normal. Arthur's time was taken up with matters of state, attending to his knights and continuing to establish himself in the eyes of his kingdom. Life was busy and he was able to push aside whatever complicated feelings he had for Merlin in the wake of all he had to do.

As spring stretched out through the kingdom a sickness swept through the lands. Over half of the castle and almost all the lower town was affected and the citadel became like a ghost town as the citizens were confined to their beds. Arthur was struck down with it, but his case was thankfully mild and he was back on his feet within a week, trying to do what he could for those most affected.

It was all hands to the pump as everyone tried to do the work of a castle at full strength and those who hadn't succumbed to illness were in danger of succumbing to exhaustion instead. Gaius did all he could to relieve the symptoms of those who were suffering and Merlin likewise flitted from family to family doing what he could to help people through the illness.

Arthur hadn't seen him much and he was missing the man's company in his chambers, so much so that he had to suppress a wide smile when the man brought his dinner up one evening. "Do my eyes deceive me or is it really you?" he asked as Merlin lay the tray down on the table and shuffled off to organise the clothes Arthur had left on the bed.

"Sorry, it's been chaotic this week. I'll…try and catch up on all the chores I haven't done."

"I wasn't criticising," Arthur said quickly. "I know how hard you've been working trying to help Gaius."

"No, of course. Sorry, head's a bit muddled," Merlin said, keeping his back to Arthur.

With a frown Arthur stood up and made his way over to the man. He'd known him far too long not to be able to notice when something wasn't quite right and there was something about the way Merlin was holding himself that was off.

"Merlin – "

"I'll get these down to the laundry. Might take longer than normal though, half the girls are laid up with this thing so – "

"Merlin," he said more firmly. "Put those clothes down and look at me."

"Arthur I have things to do, I can't stand here and play silly games with you."

Sighing in annoyance, Arthur gripped Merlin's wrist and turned him gently around, barely surprised when he saw the man was as white as a sheet, dark circles beneath his eyes and an unnatural sheen of sweat on his brow.

"You're ill," he surmised, and Merlin shook his head, looking as though he regretted the action immediately.

"No, I'm fine," Merlin insisted. "Just a little tired."

"You have a fever," Arthur said, pressing his hand to Merlin's forehead and finding it absolutely burning. "Look at the state of you."

"I just need a little sleep and then – "

"Merlin, don't be ridiculous. You can barely stand up."

"I'm not arguing with you," Merlin said, shaking his wrist out of Arthur's hold. He took a couple of steps away and swayed unsteadily, reaching for the bedpost and missing completely. Arthur moved quickly and caught him before he fell, scooping the man's legs from out under him and pulling him up into his arms.

"Let go of me," Merlin said, trying to fight, despite the fact the was being carried, bridal-style, towards the bed. "What on earth are you doing?"

"What does it look like I'm doing?" Arthur replied, laying him down gently and keep a hand on his shoulder to keep him there.

"Being dramatic," Merlin groused, trying to push Arthur off him but apparently having no strength at all with which to do so.

"Merlin, you look seconds away from death and you've just nearly passed out. Lie down and stop fighting me."

"I'll go back to Gaius' rooms," Merlin said, tapping at Arthur's hand ineffectively.

"You'd never make it down the stairs," Arthur argued sensibly. "Besides, Gaius is run ragged, he can't look after you."

"I don't need looking after," Merlin said, his expression coming dangerously close to a pout as he flopped back against the pillows, looking thoroughly exhausted. He narrowed his eyes at Arthur, his gaze hazy as he said, "Don't tell me you're going to do it."

"Of course I am."

"You're the king, don't be stupid. You can't look after a bloody servant."

"I'm looking after my friend," Arthur said, trying not to let Merlin's words hurt too much. In these rooms, at least, he had hoped that the distance between their statuses didn't matter, or that potentially it wouldn't affect them the way it did when they were with others.

"Arthur," Merlin said, his expression softer, his fighting stopped.

"Just let me do this. Let me take care of you."

Merlin placed his hand on top of Arthur's and gave him a resigned smile, giving Arthur's fingers a squeeze and saying teasingly, "Knew you cared."

Arthur tutted and went to the cupboard, rifling around in it before he extracted one of his old sleep tunics. It took a further pointless argument and several threats to Merlin's life before Arthur managed to wrestle the man out of his clothes and into the tunic. He settled him back against the pillows and told him to stay still if he valued his head while he left the room.

He went searching the corridors for a servant but the place was horribly empty, the silence echoing off the walls. "Gwen!" he said, relieved when he rounded a corner and found himself almost colliding with the woman.

"Arthur, what's the matter?"

"I…nothing…Well, that is to say…Merlin's ill."

Gwen nodded. "I rather thought he might be. He looked dreadful when I saw him this morning."

"Are you alright?" he asked, noticing she didn't look as put-together as she usually did.

"I'm fine," she assured him tiredly. "I had the illness last week, not as badly as some, thankfully. I'm over the worst of it now but I've felt better."

"I wonder," he began, feeling guilty. "Would you mind going to Gaius for me when have a moment? Ask him to send up anything he thinks might help me take care of Merlin."

Gwen's brow furrowed slightly as she said, "You're taking care of him? In your…chambers?"

"I…yes," Arthur said, straightening his shoulders and trying to withstand her scrutiny. "There's no one else to look after him and…you know how he is, he'll kill himself if no one steps in to stop him."

A gentle smile made its way onto Gwen's face and she reached out to squeeze his arm, saying, "Merlin's lucky to have you, Arthur. I'll make sure Gaius sends you everything you need."

As it turned out, Merlin was badly affected by the illness. His fever was almost uncontrollable and he drifted in and out of consciousness. Arthur tried to keep him as comfortable as possible and used all the potions and remedies Gaius had sent up to him but almost nothing worked.

Arthur sat with cold cloths pressed to Merlin's head and wrapped blankets around the man's freezing feet to try and draw the fever down through his body. He sat holding Merlin's hand while he shifted uncomfortably in bed, his body racked with tremors, pitiful sobs escaping from his lips when the ache in his muscles became too much to bear.

Arthur made a bed for himself in front of the fire but he managed little sleep. As he sat in the dead of night wiping sweat from Merlin's brow or helping to change him into a fresh tunic after he'd sweated through yet another, he found that he didn't mind. He had no experience with caring for another person beyond tending to an injured knight on the battlefield and he felt out of his depth and a little fearful but never once did he feel resentful.

"Can you manage a little more?" he asked, holding a spoonful of broth to Merlin's lips.

"Hurts," Merlin rasped.

"I know your throat's sore but you need to eat," Arthur urged gently.

Merlin shook his head and Arthur placed the broth to the side with a sigh. He took a fresh cloth and dipped it in the basin of cool water beside him and dapped gently at Merlin's forehead, wishing he could do more to alleviate the man's suffering.

A violent shake rattled Merlin's body and his teeth chattered as he tried to bring himself under control. Arthur shifted to next to him on the bed and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling him tightly against his body and making sure he was tucked properly under the blankets.

"It's ok," Arthur soothed, feeling how hot Merlin's head was against his shoulder while the rest of his body was so cold. "What can I do?"

"I don't know," Merlin whispered. "I'm so cold and everything hurts so much. I feel so pathetic."

"Merlin, this sickness has laid up most of the damn castle. Everyone's taken to their bed with it, we're operating with a skeleton workforce, of course you aren't pathetic."

Merlin sniffed and nestled into Arthur's hold, Arthur able to hear the unpleasant rattle to his breathing, the man still shivering uncontrollably. "I think we should get you in a hot bath," he said, smoothing his fingers through Merlin's hair gently. "Help ease your muscles, draw that fever down from your head."

"You said there's barely any staff around."

"I'll manage," Arthur said with a smile. "Just lie back and I'll be as quick as I can."

"Arthur," Merlin said, grabbing his wrist weakly as Arthur extracted himself and stood up from the bed. "You don't have to do this. I don't expect…I mean…you're the king for heaven's sake. You shouldn't be…bathing your servant."

"If you keep saying things like that I'll smother you with a pillow and tell everyone you succumbed to the illness. Now stop fussing and let me take care of you."

He left the room before Merlin could object and made his way down to the knights' mess. The servants were so run ragged that he couldn't bring himself to ask them to arrange a bath and he knew it would set tongues wagging if the staff knew Merlin was currently in his bed and being looked after by the king himself.

The mess was far emptier than it usually was with half his knights confined to their beds and suffering with the illness. He found Lancelot and Gwaine, along with a couple of the younger, newer knights, all of whom were only too happy to help when they heard it was Merlin who needed it.

"Is he really so bad?" Lancelot asked as they hauled hot water up the stairs, the younger knights carrying the bathtub behind them.

"I've never seen anyone so poorly," Arthur said, trying not to slosh water everywhere.

"He must be bad if you're looking after him," Gwaine said with a snort. "Never thought I'd see the day."

Arthur rolled his eyes but said nothing, in no mood for Gwaine's baiting. He knew how much the man cared for Merlin and so put up with his attitude and the constant jibes he sent his way. He was a good knight and Arthur valued him but he knew that Gwaine's loyalty lay with Merlin first and he found he couldn't fault him for it.

Merlin was asleep when they entered Arthur's chambers and they set about organising the bath as quickly and quietly as possible. Arthur knew that Lancelot and Gwaine might not be entirely surprised at seeing Merlin asleep in the king's bed while the king tended to him but he had no idea what his younger knights would make of it.

He gave them all a quiet thanks when the bath was arranged, Gwaine extracting a promise from him that he would summon him if any further help was needed. He walked over to the bed and slid a hand beneath Merlin, pressing firmly against his upper back as he coaxed him into a sitting position.

Merlin blinked blearily awake and Arthur helped him to sit on the edge of the bed while he carefully removed the man's sleep tunic. "Come on, can you stand?" he asked, slipping an arm around Merlin's waist and gently helping him to his feet.

"Mm," Merlin said, leaning heavily against him as Arthur walked him to the bathtub. He steadied him while Merlin stepped one foot then the other inside and slowly sank down beneath the water.

"Alright?"

"Feels good, so warm," Merlin said, resting his head on the edge of the tub.

Arthur found a fresh cloth and some soap, then, after a moment's consideration, grabbed the salve Merlin always used on his muscles and brought a stool over to sit beside Merlin. He wet the soap and rubbed it gently over Merlin's skin, trying to keep his touches light as he knew how much pain the man was in. He washed away the sweat and grime the fever had produced, sparing a brief, slightly hysterical, thought as to what his father would say if he could see Arthur tending to his servant in such a manner.

He found he didn't care. His concern and focus was on Merlin and it didn't bother him to think that his father would have been appalled at his actions because it felt so bloody right. It came down to the simple fact that Arthur liked taking care of Merlin and something warm and comforting settled in his chest at the thought that these actions brought them so much closer to being equals.

He washed Merlin's body tenderly, pleased to see that the shivering had stopped and that Merlin looked a little more at ease. He held the man's head and washed his hair, lathering the soap through the thick, black strands and massaging Merlin's scalp with gentle fingers. Merlin closed his eyes and entrusted himself to Arthur's hands, Arthur touched at the fact that Merlin would allow him to do this for him.

"Shall I use the salve?" he asked, his voice soft.

Merlin's eyes fluttered open and he looked up at Arthur with a look of hesitation. "I shouldn't – "

"Merlin," Arthur said, cupping his chin, "would you like me to use the salve to help with the pain?"

Merlin gave him a tired smile and nodded. "Please, anything to help with this ache."

Arthur coated his fingers in the salve and worked it across Merlin's back and down his arms. He used his thumbs to massage it in, trying to relieve Merlin of the tension he could feel knotted into each muscle. He worked methodically, keeping the pressure even, moving his hands over Merlin's body and feeling closer to the man than he'd ever done.

He'd never provided comfort to another person, apart from the occasional awkward pat on the back when Morgana had been upset when they were younger. He'd never tended to someone suffering from sickness and he'd never wanted, so earnestly, to take care of someone and make things better for them. There was something so painfully intimate about bathing Merlin, about massaging the pain away for him that Arthur felt almost overwhelmed by it.

He massaged Merlin's shoulders and worked the salve down his back and over his arms. He'd never had this much contact with Merlin skin on skin before and, while there was nothing remotely sexual about it, he was almost undone by how close he felt to the man.

When he was satisfied that Merlin was warmed through and that the massage had done him some good, he helped the man carefully out of the tub and wrapped him in a couple of linens, brushing off Merlin's assertions that he could dry himself. He quietly took pleasure in the action and was pleased to see that Merlin looked a little more like his old self.

He helped him into a fresh nightshirt and settled him back in bed, sitting beside him and giving his hair another dry with the linen, Merlin eventually batting him away with a half-hearted glare. Arthur placed his hand to Merlin's forehead, pleased to find it marginally cooler than before, and let his hand move to linger on the man's cheek.

"Better?" he asked, struck with the notion that he really rather liked the look of Merlin in his bed.

"Better," Merlin confirmed, placing his hand over Arthur's.

"Can I do anything else?"

"Just…sit with me?"

Arthur smiled and shifted to sit next to him, curling an arm around his shoulders and pulling him in close. Merlin's head rested against his chest and soon his breathing began to even out as he drifted off to sleep.

Arthur held him, feeling an odd sort of contentment in the peaceful stillness of the room. It occurred to him as he sat with Merlin curled against him, the smell of the salve still sticking to his skin, that perhaps, just perhaps, there might be something more than mere attraction at play.


Chapter Text

Chapter 6

"That's bloody cheating!"

"It's a perfectly legal move."

"No it's not, you can't play that card like that. Merlin, tell him he can't do that."

"Leave me out of it," Merlin said with a snort, dishing up the last of the stew and sitting beside Arthur on the blanket they'd spread across the ground.

"I might have known you'd take Lance's side," Gwaine said with a rude hand gesture.

"I've just said I'm staying out of it. I'm not taking anyone's side," Merlin protested with a laugh, his knee coming to rest against Arthur's while their shoulders lined up close to one another's.

They had been travelling for a few days, having acted as a convoy for a group of merchants, escorting them to the kingdom's border. Unrest had been growing through the land, much to Arthur's great concern, and several trade routes had been beleaguered by attacks.

As the king, no one expected him to partake in these protective outings but Arthur had never planned on being an idle ruler, far preferring to be on an expedition with his knights than stuck in the council chambers listening to a group of men argue about the wording of a law they'd all agreed on anyway.

He sometimes wondered if he'd become king too young. He felt that his temperament, his skills, were far better suited to being a knight and a damn good one at that. The world of a king felt too small and yet too overwhelming all at once and there were times when he truly felt he didn't know what he was doing and that those around him knew it too.

With a sword in his hand, with an enemy to defeat, he knew where he stood. He was confident, he was capable and he was in control. Facing a contingent of nobles with differing opinions or having to make decisions that would directly impact the lives of his citizens all weighed heavily on him and he found himself constantly questioning his choices.

"Well I'm done with that stupid game," Gwaine said, throwing down his cards in defeat. "I never win, I'm convinced you lot all make the rules up as you go along."

"No, Gwaine," Elyan said with a smile as he stretched out in front of the fire, "we all simply possess a little more intelligence than you."

"Not hard," Percival said with a grin and Gwaine threw his glove at him.

"Alright, how about a proper game? I say we play Truth or Consequence."

"No chance," Lancelot said firmly while the others all shook their heads.

"Ah come on," Gwaine wheedled. "What else are we going to do out here? We haven't even brought any bloody ale with us! Look, I'll go first. I'll take truth – ask me a question and I'll answer honestly."

"Is your brain affliction permanent or will you one day recover?" Elyan asked, Gwaine parting with his second glove as he threw it at the man's head. "Alright," Elyan said with a laugh, chucking the glove back, "what's the worst injury you've sustained in battle?"

The game continued with everyone in lively spirits, the questions and dares becoming more outlandish and ridiculous each time. Poor Leon had to recite the rudest limerick Gwaine knew, which the stoic knight stuttered through with his cheeks ablaze while everyone, even Arthur, fell about laughing, particularly when he reached the poem's conclusion.

Percival was tasked with carrying both Gwaine and Lancelot on his shoulders, a sight that was quite marvellous to behold, even when both men came tumbling down, no one quite understanding how they hadn't seriously injured themselves.

Embarrassing questions were asked and answered with blushes and groans, while dares were issued that had them all howling with laughter. The mood of the camp was jovial and easy, despite the mortification of everyone involved.

"Alright, Arthur, your turn," Gwaine said with a glint in his eye.

"Oh no," Arthur said, holding his hands up. "You're not dragging me into this. I think a king should retain some distance and draw the line somewhere. I nominate Merlin to answer in my stead."

"Oh thank you very much," Merlin responded with withering glare. "Coward."

"Fair enough. Merls, how about you answer on his behalf then. When do you think our fine and venerable king will take a queen?"

Merlin's expression remained passive but Arthur could just about discern the minute clench of the man's jaw and the way his eyes darted downward for just a second before he straightened his shoulders and said, "It isn't my place to speculate on the inner workings of my king's mind. I know no one who would sacrifice more for their kingdom and their people…but…I can only hope that whatever decision Arthur does make…he allows himself to be governed by his heart and that his marriage brings him happiness."

"Well said, Merlin," Lancelot said quietly.

"Aye," Gwaine added with a smile, "I'll drink to that, or I would if I had any ale!"

The night continued pleasantly and conversation turned away from the game and towards the potential reasons for the unrest sweeping through the kingdom. It wasn't only Camelot that had noticed the disturbance to its fragile peace; Nemeth and Mercia had also reported an increase in attacks and a general feeling of uneasiness that nobody could put their finger on.

"Are you worried about it?" Merlin asked later as they lay side by side, the others asleep and the only sound Gwaine's soft snoring.

"Yes," Arthur said with a tired sigh. "Something's stirring, it feels like the moments before a thunderstorm."

"Perhaps…perhaps at a time like this you are considering…political alliances," Merlin said carefully.

"Is this about me choosing a queen?" Arthur asked, looking up at Merlin, the man propped up on his elbow and looking down at Arthur with a guarded expression.

"Well…it makes sense, I suppose. Mithian…Nemeth…it would be a good alliance, especially given the current climate. She's lovely, intelligent, beautiful – "

"Maybe you'd like to marry her," Arthur said with a wry smile. "You seem to be quite a fan."

Merlin laughed softly and said, "She's a fine woman and I'll admit to being fond of her. She'd make you a fine queen."

"And what about me marrying for love?"

"I hope very much that you will," Merlin replied, dipping his head and fiddling with the edge of the blanket he was lying on. "I just know you, I know what your sense of duty might prompt you to do. If you must marry for political expediency then…I think Mithian would make you a good wife."

Arthur took a deep breath and placed an arm behind his head, looking up at the clear night sky and saying, "The situation isn't dire enough to warrant the need for such political matches, not yet anyway. I still hope to marry for love, although what that says about me I don't know," he added with a self-derisive snort.

"It says you've given every part of yourself for your kingdom but there's one piece they don't get to have…nor should they," Merlin said quietly.

Arthur looked up at him, his face illuminated by the moonlight and the last flickering embers from the fire. It was ironic that Merlin should be the one to urge him to keep something back from the kingdom when Merlin was the one person to whom he had given all of himself. There was nothing he didn't share with the man, no part of himself he had kept hidden from him and there were times he felt that he belonged to Merlin perhaps more than Merlin did to him.

Merlin fell asleep long before he did. He lay awake looking up at the stars and wondering if he could divine his future from them. He knew the whole court was expecting him to marry, and marry well, but he couldn't bring himself to consider filling the position by his side with someone chosen for tactical reasons.

If he'd been lonely it might have been a different matter but he wasn't. He had Merlin for companionship, Merlin whose company he preferred over anyone else's, Merlin who was as invaluable a confidant and advisor as he was a friend. He could hardly make Merlin queen though, as amusing as the notion was, and he knew his council members wouldn't let the matter lie indefinitely.

He slept eventually and woke with Merlin's arm flung out over him, the man's hand pressing gently against his stomach. With everyone else still asleep, Arthur allowed himself a small smile as he reached out and placed his hand on top of Merlin's, running his fingers over the roughened skin. He couldn't deny that an added bonus to joining these expeditions was being able to sleep alongside Merlin, to push the bounds of propriety just a little under the guise of sharing sleeping quarters.

The others all began to rouse and Merlin sorted them all out with breakfast. Gwaine teased him that he'd made someone a lovely wife and subsequently ended up with his porridge tipped over his head, much to the amusement of all. Their camp was packed efficiently and they were back on the road swiftly, all eager to return to Camelot.

The skies ahead darkened and Arthur had no doubt that they'd be riding back in a rainstorm. They stopped around midday to find water for the horses, the group splintering off to search for a stream. An ominous rumble sounded overhead and Arthur looked across at Merlin, who was walking beside him in the same damned jacket he always wore no matter the season.

"I told you to pack a decent cloak," he told the man. "You're going to get soaked through."

"I'll be fine," Merlin said, waving a dismissive hand at him.

"I gave you a cloak, why don't you use it?"

"Because I'm worried someone will mistake me for a knight and send an arrow straight for my head," Merlin replied with a grin.

"Safest place for an arrow to go, if you ask me. The one place it'll do no damage."

"Whereas your backside is the ideal place for an arrow on you. All that padding."

"Has it ever occurred to you that that really isn't a suitable way to address your king?"

"No," Merlin said cheerily. "Because my king is a cabbage-head."

Arthur was about to grab the man by the collar and show him exactly the kind of deference his rank demanded when a crack sounded loudly above and the heavens opened. "Oh for heaven's sake," Arthur said, the pair of them heading for a broad beech tree and taking shelter beneath it, the leaves still, thankfully mostly still there to provide shelter.

"I knew we'd end up riding back in a downpour," Arthur said, backing up against the tree and looking at Merlin, who was pulling his jacket tightly around himself. "Oh honestly, come here," he said with a huff, yanking Merlin towards him and wrapping his cloak tightly around them both. He felt Merlin's hands settle on his waist, the man's hair plastered to his forehead as rain dripped down his face, his eyes bright and mischievous.

"How gallant," Merlin teased, his thumbs sliding up to brush against the muscles of Arthur's stomach pleasantly.

"Would you like me to throw you out into the rain?"

"You'd never be that cruel."

"If you'd brought your damn cloak with you this wouldn't be necessary."

"Yes, Arthur, but think how much fun you're having…getting to lecture me." The last was added with a smirk and Arthur couldn't help but pull the man closer, barely any space between their bodies as the rain continued to beat down on them.

"Has anyone ever told you you're incorrigible?" he asked, unable to keep the smile from his face.

"You, on several occasions," Merlin replied, "but I'm not altogether certain you know what the word means."

"No?" Arthur asked, his hands travelling down the length of Merlin's back, feeling the gentle play of muscle beneath his palms. "Let's see – unreformed, irredeemable, intractable, inveterate. Ringing any bells?"

"Couldn't be me," Merlin said with a shake of his head, raindrops flying off in all directions. "I'm a model servant."

"I can't say I've noticed."

They stood smiling at one another, the rain unrelenting. Arthur had never wanted to kiss him more and the feeling was almost overwhelming. His attraction to Merlin hadn't abated over time, indeed it had only grown as the years continued. He had never had the courage to do anything about it, nor did he think he ever would, but standing this close to him, the rain beating down overhead and Merlin's beautiful face so close to his own…he would have been lying if he'd said he wasn't sorely tempted.

"Sire!" came Elyan voice through the trees. "We've found something, you might want to take a look."

"On our way," Arthur called back. He reluctantly released his hold on Merlin and felt the man's hands slip from his waist as he unfurled his cloak from around them. "It seems we were destined to get soaked," he said wryly as they stepped out from under the shelter of the beech tree, Merlin pulling his jacket tightly around him once again.

"The perils of life in your service, sire," Merlin replied good-naturedly.

They found the others, all of whom were standing by two massive rocks, which appeared to be the entrance to a dip in the land and a small area that was hemmed in by large rocks on the other side. A wreath made of ribbons dangled from the entrance and Arthur could see stones and sticks placed in odd formations all over the forest floor.

"We need to leave," Merlin said quietly, a strange set to his jaw.

"Why?" Percival asked, looking at the place curiously.

"It's sacred," Merlin replied. "We shouldn't disturb it."

"Merlin's right," Gwaine said softly, the others looking at him in surprise. "I've come across places like this aplenty in my travels. It's a shrine, it's dedicated to those slain in bad blood and we have no business being here. I say we turn around and forget we ever saw it."

"That's good enough for me," Lancelot said, exchanging a look with Leon, who nodded and said,

"Let's sort the horses and be on our way."

The rain continued all the way back to Camelot but Arthur barely paid it any attention. Something was plaguing him, something that was tugging at the edges of his mind that was just too far out of his reach. There had been something familiar about that place, something that Arthur recognised in those imposing rocks, in the strange lay of the land. It was making him feel hot, despite the rain that had soaked him through, and by the time they rode into the citadel he was feeling decidedly off colour.

He was up the castle steps before he realised it and it was only Merlin's confused, "Arthur?" that made him stop and turn around. He looked at Merlin standing a couple of steps beneath him and gave himself a shake as he said, "Go and get out of those wet things. I um…I won't need you for a few hours. Help Gaius."

He could feel Merlin's frown boring into the back of his skull as he made his escape up the steps but he did his best to ignore it. He retreated to his chambers and peeled off his armour, encumbered by not having Merlin to assist him. He towelled himself dry and threw on some clean clothes then sat at his desk, feeling a headache begin to settle behind his eyes.

Something was happening in his mind, there was a memory, long-since buried, that was trying to make its way to the surface and he felt that attempting to battle it back down wouldn't end well. He sat with his head in his hands and tried to steady his breathing as fragments started to slowly come back to him.

An assignment from his father. Knights with faces far older than his own. A plan formulated. Orders given. Orders ignored. Screaming. Chaos. Bloodshed. A massacre.

He felt sickness roll through his stomach, his mouth filling with saliva as the dam opened and everything came rushing back to him. It had been so many years since that dreadful night and his mind had clearly tried to bury it deep within himself but now he could remember everything and it threatened to undo him.

He was horrified, disgusted, repulsed by what he remembered and the images of that night flooded his mind, Arthur powerless to stop them. His palms prickled and sweat dripped down his back, his body desperately trying to get him to flee but he knew there was nowhere he could run to to absolve himself of the guilt that he felt crushing him.

He had no idea how long he sat there for but he was aware of the light beginning to fade and he dimly registered the door opening and Merlin letting himself in. The man was talking to him but he couldn't bring himself to listen, aware that a fire was being lit and that candles were springing to life all over the room.

"Arthur? Arthur are you listening?"

"Um, sorry. Yes…no…I…what did you say?"

"I asked if you wanted some dinner bringing up."

Arthur swallowed, the idea of food making bile rise in his throat. "No thank you. I'm not very hungry."

"Are you sure? You've not eaten since breakfast?"

"I'm fine," Arthur said, trying to keep the bite from his voice.

"Suit yourself. I'll see to your armour and your sword then. Anything else you need doing this evening?" Merlin asked, grabbing the pieces of armour Arthur had left on the floor and spreading them out on the larger table.

"Do you have to do that here?"

"I always do it here," Merlin replied with a frown.

"Well…could you do it somewhere else tonight? I…need some peace."

Merlin placed the breastplate he'd been holding down on the table and narrowed his eyes at Arthur. He approached, his expression searching, and stood in front of Arthur, saying, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing's wrong," Arthur replied, trying to keep his voice level. "I just would like to have my chambers to myself, is that so hard to understand? I have a list of things that need my attention and I don't need you here to distract me."

"I've never distracted you before," Merlin said, his hands going to his hips in a gesture that Arthur immediately recognised as combative.

"Well you're bloody well distracting me now."

"Arthur, if something's the matter you can tell me, you know you can," Merlin said, and the gentleness of his tone grated harshly against the ugliness Arthur was feeling inside.

"Nothing is the matter," he said, his jaw clenched tightly. "I simply have matters of state that need my attention and they would be better served if I didn't have you here all evening prattling in my ear."

"Arthur – "

"I don't have to make you privy to everything in my mind. You're afforded certain privileges, privileges far above your station, but that doesn't mean you can press me to speak about things that you have no right to know. Anyone else would know their place, would know to mind their business and have some respect for the boundaries of propriety. For God's sake, you're a servant."

He wanted to take the words back as soon as they were said and something cold ran through him as he watched the hurt flash across Merlin's face before his expression shuttered closed.

"Very well, sire," Merlin said, his voice so neutral it cut Arthur to the quick. "I apologise for any offence caused. I shall leave you to your work."

"Merlin – "

The man was out of the room before Arthur could stop him and Arthur slumped down in his chair with a heavy sigh, hardly believing he could feel more wretched than he already did. Part of him had wanted so badly to reach out to Merlin, to ask for comfort, for solace, but he was so disgusted with himself that it had been easier to revert to hostility.

For all Merlin teased him, for all he insulted and called him names, there was still part of the man that treated him like a king, like someone who was worthy of the throne. The things that Merlin said sometimes, the look in his eyes when he spoke about the future of Camelot, had created a persona in Arthur's mind that he felt he had to live up to and he couldn't bear to destroy the image that Merlin had of him by telling him the ugly truth of who he really was.

He didn't see the man for the next few days, which was both a curse and a blessing. He knew Merlin was making a point, that he was reacting to being treated so badly and Arthur couldn't blame him. He didn't know how to make the situation better and he was struggling with the memories their discovery of the shrine had brought to the surface. He needed Merlin more than ever but he couldn't bring himself to reach out and ask for his help.

It affected everything, as arguments with Merlin always did. Most of the castle gave him a wide berth, the nobles barely said a word during council meetings and his knights bore the brunt of his bad mood in their training sessions.

"Heaven help us, I don't know how much more of this I can take."

"You and me both. I think my bruises have bruises."

Arthur heard Gwaine and Lancelot's voices drifting down from the armoury after the end of training one afternoon over a week after the incident at the shrine. He had half a mind to go in there and tell them to grow up and stop complaining but he knew he'd been a bastard that day and he couldn't really blame them.

"Something's going on with him," Gwaine said with a groan.

"Well…he and Merlin aren't speaking," Lancelot said softly.

"Ah…well that'll do it. Is that why I saw Merlin with a face like thunder yesterday?"

"Mm. I tried to speak to him about it but…you know what he's like when he and Arthur have fallen out. There's no talking to him."

Gwaine sighed and Arthur heard the noise of the man's hauberk falling to the floor before he said, "They're no bloody good when they're apart, those two. Maybe there's something we can do?"

"Stay well out of it, that's what we can do," Lancelot said seriously. "As much as love them both, I won't pretend to understand half of what goes on between them and we'd only make the situation worse by meddling. They need to sort it out for themselves."

"Aye, I suppose you're right. I just hope they sort it out sooner rather than later before Arthur kills off all his best knights with these torturous drills."

Arthur retreated to his chambers and resisted the very strong urge to climb into bed and hide beneath the covers. He felt torn in two and he didn't know how to make it better. He knew he'd upset Merlin and he was feeling the consequences of that in the man's absence. He was also so conflicted and so devastated by the memories the shrine had dredged up that he felt he couldn't cope with the feelings struggling within his chest.

He sank down onto the floor, his back pressed against the bed. He just wanted to make it all stop for a moment, to quiet the thoughts and the memories, to stop feeling like the most wretched soul to have ever walked the earth. When the tears started he couldn't stop them. He felt as though he was drowning in them and he struggled for breath as panic and guilt wrapped themselves around him and refused to let go.

He didn't hear the door open, didn't hear the footsteps or his name said with a voice full of worry, but he felt the arms that encircled him and the chest he was pulled against. He felt fingers rake through his hair and heard the soft rumble of Merlin's voice as he soothed him, holding him closely and chasing all the wicked shadows away.

"Shh, it's ok. Just breathe. I've got you."

Arthur clung on tightly and tried to bring his breathing under control. He let the comforting familiarity of Merlin's embrace ground him; he breathed in the smell of him and pressed his cheek to the man's chest, feeling Merlin's gentle hand stroke up and down his back while he held him.

The crying stopped eventually and he sat in Merlin's arms as his breathing evened out and his pulse stopped crashing in his ears. He'd needed this so many days ago but his pride had stopped him from asking for it.

"Do you want to tell me what's wrong?" Merlin asked softly, and Arthur's fist clenched tightly in the material of Merlin's shirt.

"I don't know where to begin," he whispered, his voice raw.

"Does this have something to do with the shrine? You haven't been yourself since we stumbled across it."

Arthur took a deep breath and straightened up, extracting himself from Merlin's hold and taking the man's hand instead. He held it between his own, feeling Merlin's warmth seep through his skin, finding comfort in the worn callouses and the broadness of his palm.

"I'd forgotten about it," he said quietly, looking down, focusing on Merlin's long fingers wrapped around his hand. "Or perhaps I hadn't…perhaps I'd pushed it away because I was too ashamed to remember what I did."

"What happened there, Arthur?"

"There was a raid," he replied, his voice sounding hollow and strange. "My father ordered me to lead it. I couldn't have been more than 16…I was untested, inexperienced. I was so desperate to prove myself…to the men…to my father."

He swallowed hard and felt Merlin's hand grip his own while his other rubbed tender circles in the small of his back. "I told the men to spare the women and children but I know that most ignored the order. There was…so much happening. I wanted to stop it but I…I froze. I didn't know what to do. I can still hear the screams, Merlin."

"You didn't mean for anyone to get hurt."

"It still happened though. I'm still responsible for those people's deaths and…we had no business being there in the first place. They'd done nothing wrong, my father just wanted them persecuted, hunted like animals. I should have stood against him."

"At 16? Arthur, you can't blame yourself for actions that were taken when you were barely more than a child."

"I have blood on my hands, Merlin. Nothing can change that."

"No," Merlin said softly, "nothing can change the past but you're a good king, Arthur and you've already made this a fairer and more just kingdom. You can affect change that will alter the future for so many. You can't erase the past but you can undo some of the damage."

Arthur considered Merlin's words, leaning into his embrace and resting his head on the man's shoulder. His fingers twined with Merlin's and he felt the sharp of edges of his unhappiness soften a little. He had no idea how Merlin always managed to do that, how a few words or a gentle touch could soothe him in ways no one had ever been able to do.

"Merlin," he said quietly, as the man's hand continued to stroke his back comfortingly. "Are you still in touch with the druids, the ones who took Morgana in?"

"Yes," Merlin replied, the hand stilling its movements.

"Would you…would you please get in touch with them?"

"Why?" Merlin asked, pulling back so he could look at Arthur.

Arthur paused, steeling himself before he said, "I would like to hold peace talks with them. It's time the wrongs of the past were put right. It's time they were treated with the respect they deserve."

Merlin smiled at him, the expression so full of pride and affection it uncurled a few of the tendrils of disgust that had clenched around his chest over the last few days. Merlin reached out and ran his fingers through Arthur's hair, brushing it away from his forehead tenderly. "I'm sorry the past has dredged up such painful memories for you but I hope you know that…whatever transgressions you might regret…you're a good king."

"Merlin…" Arthur said, feeling his cheeks heat.

Merlin smiled and said, "Can you spare me for a couple of days? I'll make contact and bring the druid leader back to Camelot."

"I'm sure I can manage without you, I've had to cope this last week, after all."

"Arthur, about that – "

"No," Arthur said, shaking his head. "I behaved poorly and I'm sorry for it."

"I'm sorry too. I should have put my pride aside and come to speak to you sooner."

They smiled sheepishly at one another and Merlin gave Arthur's shoulder a knock, saying, "Come on, you prat. Can't have the king of Camelot lolloping about all over the floor. Let's get you into bed."

Merlin left the next day and Arthur felt lighter than he'd done in weeks, knowing he'd made the right decision and eager to see things with the druids settled properly. Everyone noticed the change in him and his knights were finally smiling at him again while his council members were no longer treading on eggshells around him.

He was nervous though and unable to concentrate on much beyond waiting for Merlin's return. He had no idea how exactly he was going to approach these talks with the druids and he hadn't informed the council of his decision to reach out to them. He'd been conflicted for years about the treatment the druids had received from Camelot and it was now within his power to change that.

He hoped, with Merlin's history with the druids, that the man would be able to act as a kind of intermediary and help to smooth the process. He didn't begin to understand whatever relationship the man had with them, or why he'd stayed in touch with them after they'd taken in Mordred but he was thankful for it, nevertheless.

It was late afternoon three days later and he was sitting in his chambers reading through one interminable report after another when the door opened and Merlin barrelled in, a grin on his face.

"Arthur," he said breathlessly. "Get up, come on. There's someone you have to meet."

"You've brought the druid leader back with you?" Arthur said, getting to his feet and straightening his clothing. He ran a nervous hand through his hair and said, "Shall I…should we meet them in the throne room? Somewhere formal?"

"No," Merlin said with a smile, practically vibrating with excitement. "I think here will be just perfect. Arthur, it gives me great pleasure to introduce you to the leader of the druids."

He nodded towards the door and Arthur looked, his eyes widening in shock and time seeming to slow to a complete stop as Morgana stepped into his chambers. "Morgana," he said in a whisper before he crossed the room and gathered her up in his arms.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7

He held on tightly, feeling Morgana's arms encircle him, not entirely sure he wasn't dreaming the whole thing. He had never dared to hope that he would see her again and here she was, back in Camelot, back with him, as though nothing had ever happened.

He stepped back, bracing his hands on her shoulders and taking a proper look at her, as though to prove to himself that she was really standing in front of him. She was wearing a plain dress of faded red, her hair slung over her shoulder in a neat braid and no adornments of any kind apart from an intricate bracelet on her left wrist. She had never looked more beautiful.

"This is unbelievable," he said, feeling giddy with the emotion of the moment.

"It's good to see you too, Arthur," she replied with a warm smile. "I never dreamt I'd be back within these walls."

"You're…you're the druid leader?" he asked in wonder.

"I hold that honour, yes. I'd be only too happy to hold talks with you in the hope of uniting our people."

A disbelieving but happy laugh escaped him and he finally glimpsed Merlin standing behind them, his arm inexplicably slung around a young man who couldn't have been out of his teens, both of them grinning broadly.

"Don't you recognise him?" Morgana asked with a wicked smile that sent a strange pang through Arthur's chest with the acute notion of how much he had missed her.

"Arthur," Merlin said, looking proud and happy, "you might like to know what happened to that young druid boy you smuggled out of Camelot all those years ago."

"Mordred?" Arthur surmised, wondering how many more surprises he could take in one afternoon.

"Sire," Mordred said, inclining his head respectfully while his eyes danced with merriment. "It's good to see you again."

"I…yes…it's wonderful to see you looking so well," Arthur said, trying to retain at least some of his composure. "Have you been with Morgana all this time?"

"I've taken on guardianship of him," Morgana answered, looking across at Merlin with a conspiratorial smile and adding, "we both have."

"Guardianship?" Arthur echoed, thoroughly bemused by the revelation.

"Lucky lad, wouldn't you say?" Merlin asked with a grin, his arm still firmly around Mordred's shoulders and the boy looking very comfortable with the situation.

"Very lucky," Mordred said wryly. "I can't move for these two," he told Arthur with a long-suffering sigh, "they're both so overbearing."

Arthur opened his mouth but found he had no words for the bizarre situation he was in. Morgana was back in Camelot, not as a fugitive or a hostage, but as the leader of a powerful and ancient group of people. To add to the strangeness of it all, Mordred was with her and, judging by the look on both Merlin and Morgana's faces, was adored by both of them. It was enough to make his head spin.

"Poor Arthur, he looks like a fish that's been knocked over the head," Morgana said, reaching out and ruffling his hair. "It seems this is all a little too much for him to take in. Why don't we retreat to our rooms, Mordred, and Arthur can organise a nice welcome dinner in our honour?"

"It didn't take you long to slip back into your old role, did it?" Arthur asked, recovering a little of his senses.

Morgana grinned wickedly and said, "I may have been away for some years, dear brother, but you'll find little about me has changed."

"I'm delighted to hear it," Arthur said sincerely.

"You're in your old room," Merlin said, unwinding his arms from Mordred's shoulders. "I thought it would be fitting. The servants know they're expecting a guest but…they'll get a surprise when they learn who it is. Mordred can have the antechamber."

"It'll be like old times," Mordred said with a smirk. "Let's hope neither of us has to be smuggled out of Camelot this time."

"Stay out of trouble or you'll have me to answer to," Merlin warned as Morgana and Mordred headed for the door.

"You have no faith in me," Mordred said with feigned affront.

"I mean it," Merlin threatened as the boy disappeared out of the door, Morgana behind him. Merlin shook his head and turned to face Arthur, saying, "I give it a day before he causes chaos."

"Would you care to explain any of this?" Arthur asked, feeling as though he needed a very long lie down and a very strong drink, not necessarily in that order. "Morgana is the leader, the bloody leader, Merlin, of the druids and you are the joint guardian of a teenager. Might you have mentioned this in the last couple of years?"

"Well," Merlin began, scratching the end of his nose. "I might have mentioned it, of course, but…I didn't."

"Merlin – "

"Oh let's not get into it now," Merlin said, waving a dismissive hand and infuriating Arthur with the gesture. "I'd best inform the kitchens about dinner. What do you think? Lancelot, Gwen and the others? Especially Leon, he'll definitely want to be there."

"Leon?" Arthur echoed, his brow furrowing in confusion.

"Oh Arthur, really. You've not forgotten how he helped us all those years ago?"

"No of course not, but – "

"Why do you think he took such a risk? You think Leon of all people would have gone against his king if he didn't have a very good reason? I sometimes wonder about you, Arthur, I really do."

Merlin left the room with a tut, leaving Arthur standing there feeling as though he'd been hit on the head with something heavy. His world felt skewed, not necessarily in a bad way, but there were so many things he didn't understand and he was still feeling giddy at having Morgana back in Camelot.

He went through the next couple of hours in a haze and was almost certain he didn't take in a single thing he read. He dressed himself for dinner, noting that Merlin hadn't returned to attend to any of his duties and was no doubt with Morgana and Mordred, skipping out on work as usual.

Arthur found he couldn't really be cross about it. Merlin had been so thrilled to have them both back and he had been travelling for the last couple of days, after all. Arthur smiled wryly to think what his father would have said about giving a servant such leeway, imagining just how Uther would have coped if he'd had to deal with Merlin for a day, let alone five years.

He made his way down to one of the smaller halls, which was reserved for hosting smaller, more intimate dinners, and found Merlin already there, Morgana and Mordred with him. Morgana was in the same plain dress she'd worn on arrival and it amused Arthur to think how she would have once spent hours choosing which expensive gown to wear only to now look more radiant in the simple cloth than she had ever done in all her finery.

"Strange to be back?" he asked her with a smile.

"Very," she said with a nod. "But I'm glad of the circumstances that bring me here."

"Morgana!" came a shout from the doorway, and Arthur barely had time to blink before Gwen rushed past him and nearly lifted Morgana from the floor with an enthusiastic hug.

"Gwen. It's so good to see you," Morgana replied, returning the hug with equal fervour while Lancelot and the others looked on from the doorway. "I hear congratulations are in order," she added as they parted, her eyes going to Lancelot with a warm smile.

"I wish you could have been there," Gwen said, her eyes teary.

"As do I."

Arthur watched as the others all came forward to say their hellos, Gwaine introducing Percival with a grin and the gentle giant stammering a rather bashful greeting. Merlin came to stand next to Arthur and leant in close to whisper, "Use your eyes, you daft clotpole."

Arthur resisted the urge to kick him but watched as Leon approached Morgana, the man's face stoic, as though he were trying to contain himself. He gave Morgana a low bow and her attitude seemed to shift from light-hearted and jovial to something far more intense.

"My lady," Leon said, his voice catching slightly.

Morgana stepped forward and took his hands, a flush rising on Leon's cheeks. "Sir Leon," she said softly. "I haven't forgotten how you helped me all those years ago and I've thought of you often since we parted. It gladdens my heart to see you again."

"I hope very much that you've been happy, my lady."

"I have," Morgana said with a smile, "but it makes me happier still to be reunited with old friends."

Arthur felt Merlin lean closer and he felt the man's breath dance across his ear as he whispered, "Please tell me even you can see it."

They all took their seats at the table eventually and dinner was served. Gwen and Morgana fell to conversation immediately, as though they had never been away from one another, and it warmed Arthur's heart to see that the affection the two women held for one another hadn't dimmed over the years.

He watched as Leon kept sneaking glances down the table at Morgana, the man far too distracted to join in any of the conversations around him. What was more, Morgana kept returning the glances and it was clear to Arthur that whatever was between them was entirely reciprocal. He was intrigued by it and wondered exactly what had transpired between them before Morgana had left Camelot.

The other relationship that caught his attention was the strange and unusual one that existed between Merlin and Mordred. They were sitting next to one another and hadn't stopped speaking for the entire evening. There was something so familial about the way they interacted with one another and Merlin was so tactile and affectionate with Mordred, yet it sparked no jealousy in Arthur at all.

Of course, Mordred was little more than a boy, he could have been no older than 16 and it was clear that whatever Merlin felt for him it was warm and even loving. Arthur had to wonder how that relationship had developed, what had prompted Merlin to keep in touch with him after he'd been smuggled out of Camelot to the druids. If their behaviour was anything to go by, they were clearly very close and Arthur was quite touched by their relationship.

The evening was a pleasant one and when it wound down, everyone went their separate ways with promises to meet up the following day and spend more time together. Arthur felt that there was still much he had to say to Morgana and he caught Merlin's eye, a wordless conversation passing between them.

Merlin smiled and draped an arm around Mordred's shoulders, saying, "Come on, you. Let me show you the best way to sneak into the kitchens."

"I thought you wanted me to stay out of trouble?" Mordred asked with a grin, letting himself be led out of the hall.

"Shall we take a walk?" Arthur asked Morgana, extending his arm to her.

"Nice to see you've lost none of your gallantry," she replied, taking it and walking with him.

They strolled out into the corridor together and walked arm-in-arm out of the castle and up to one of the parapets. It felt so right to have Morgana by his side again and he'd missed her so much over the last couple of years that it had created an ache within him.

"Arthur," Morgana said softly as they stood and looked out at the citadel. "I owe you a great deal. What you did for me…I'll never forget it. Being back here is strange…even a little difficult, but I can't tell you how wonderful it is to see you again. I've missed you so much."

"And I you," Arthur said with a smile. "I wish…I wish I could have done more to help you at the time. I wish you could have confided in me."

"I'm sorry I didn't," Morgana said with a sigh. "It wasn't that I didn't trust you…it was just…with Uther – "

"I know," Arthur said, the man's name still causing him an uncomfortable pang. "He was responsible for so much hurt, so much pain. I never forgave him for what he almost did to you. Our relationship was never the same after it and it's made me question so many things. I don't want to be the same kind of king he was, I don't want to rule over the kingdom he created."

"Is that why I'm here?" Morgana asked gently.

Arthur looked out at the buildings beyond, at the lights twinkling in so many windows, the gentle puffs of smoke that rose up from the chimneys. "I want to make this a better and fairer kingdom," he said eventually. "The druids have suffered terribly at the hands of the Pendragons and I myself bear the guilt of that. I wish to make amends, to put right all the hurt, all the injustice. I hope very much that you will help me to do that."

Morgana reached up and rested a gentle hand on his cheek, Arthur desperately trying to bite back tears at the tenderness of the gesture. "I always told you you were a better man than Uther and I knew you would be a far better king. I would be proud to stand with you and see our people united."

Arthur smiled and reached up to take her hand in his. "You seem…so different yet you're still so very you. You seem…at peace."

"I am," she said as their fingers entwined. "I've found my place and I have a better understanding of who I am now, of what I can contribute to the world. Fundamentally I'm still the same person, but much has changed."

They spoke long into the night and it felt as though no time had passed since they had last been together. Arthur had tried not to dwell too much on his sister's possible return to Camelot over the years but he would have been lying if he said he'd never imagined how wonderful it would be to have her back.

He was unsurprised to find Merlin waiting for him in his chambers, curled up in a chair by the fireplace, his feet tucked beneath him and a book open in his lap.

"Would you like to just move in?" Arthur asked with a wry smile, coming to sit in the chair opposite.

"I was making sure the fire didn't go out. Couldn't have you returning to freezing cold chambers, sire," Merlin said with a grin.

"Such diligent service," Arthur said, holding up his leg for Merlin to pull his boot off, which the man did with a put-upon sigh and much eye-rolling. He removed the other boot and Arthur grinned as he put his feet in Merlin's lap, Merlin tutting at him but wrapping his fingers around his feet, nevertheless.

"Good evening?" Merlin asked, tilting his head in a manner Arthur always found adorable but pretended he didn't.

"Good evening," Arthur confirmed with a smile, "if a little surreal. I'd always hoped one day to welcome Morgana back but I never envisioned that I'd do so in this capacity."

"Strange, isn't it? How she's different but still the same," Merlin said, echoing Arthur's earlier thoughts about his sister.

He nodded and relaxed into the chair, wriggling his feet in Merlin's lap, Merlin giving him an aggrieved look but one that was belied by the smile behind it. Merlin's thumbs began to rub his feet gently and a warm feeling of contentment settled over Arthur. He was happier than he could ever remember being; he'd been reunited with his sister, whom he had once believed he would never see again and now here he was in the cosy sanctuary of his chambers with the one person he only ever wanted to share that sanctuary with.

"You think this is the right course of action, don't you?" he asked feeling the heat from the fireplace seep into his bones and chasing the late autumn chill away.

"Of course I do," Merlin said, his thumb pressing pleasantly against the arch of Arthur's foot. "Don't worry about the council, they'll come around. If they can't see how sensible this is then that's their problem."

"How do you always do that?" Arthur asked, watching as the firelight played off the planes of Merlin's face, illuminating him beautifully.

"Do what?"

"Know what I'm thinking before even I do."

Merlin smiled and said, "Because you're a simpleton. Your thoughts aren't difficult to divine."

Arthur tried to kick him but Merlin held onto his feet tightly, grinning at him. Arthur rolled his eyes and fought a smile, wondering at the strange little tableau they must have presented. He sometimes wondered what the rest of the castle made of them, although perhaps he wouldn't have wanted to know.

He could think of no other king who spent evenings in his chambers with his manservant in such a fashion, nor one who would take such pleasure in doing so. He found he guarded these evenings jealousy and resented anything that took him away from them. When he was entertaining visiting nobles or engaged in matters of state that saw him sequestered in the council chambers until the small hours he sat resentfully, thinking of the wasted hours he could have been spending with Merlin.

"So, you and Mordred…" he said, not sure it was any of his business to ask but intrigued, nevertheless.

"Yes?" Merlin asked with a wry smile.

"You um…you seem very close."

"We are," Merlin said simply.

"You…stayed in touch after we smuggled him out of Camelot. Why?"

Merlin continued to rub Arthur's feet gently and it was clear that he was considering exactly what to tell him. "I…felt a connection with him," he said eventually, his voice quiet. "He was so young, so vulnerable and…I don't know…it felt that if he were to fall into the wrong hands it could end badly. I wanted to take care of him and I suppose a bond has formed over time."

"That's very evident," Arthur said gently. "The boy clearly adores you."

Merlin gave a soft laugh and said, "It's mutual. But don't tell him that, he already thinks too much of himself as it is."

Morgana and Mordred stayed for a fortnight and Arthur enjoyed every second of it. Mordred fell in love with Camelot and was Merlin's shadow for the entire time. Arthur watched with amusement but couldn't deny that he was greatly touched by the sight of the two of them together. Morgana too was a fierce and proud guardian to the boy and Arthur was reminded how she had fought for him all those years ago.

They spoke at length about creating a union with the druids and when Arthur presented it to the council he found he was met with far less opposition than he'd prepared for. With the exception of a couple of nobles who had had their places on the council since his father's day, most were astute enough to recognise the sense in fostering a good relationship with the druids.

It was decided that the druids would be invited to trade with Camelot and that they would be welcomed at the weekly markets. With the ban on magic still in place, it was politic to state that they too would be banned from practising within the citadel but Arthur had managed to make no mention of their magic outside the city walls.

Morgana and Mordred were granted an open invitation to return to Camelot whenever they wished and Arthur promised, thrilled to do so, that her old room would forever be hers. He knew that his actions had been prompted by guilt, that he'd needed to assuage his conscience over his past actions towards the druids, but he felt, in his heart, that this was the right thing to do and that Camelot would be all the better for it.

Winter ushered itself in and was one of the coldest Arthur had seen. With it came further reports of unrest and tension and Arthur found his time was taken up entirely with reports of attacks and disruption to trade routes. Sentries were posted throughout the kingdom and Arthur was horribly reminded of the last time things had felt this way and how Cenred had been planning his attack.

"You think it's happening again?" Merlin asked as they sat side by side next to the fire one evening. It was bitterly cold and they had lain furs out in front of it and were trying to seep out all the warmth they could.

"It certainly feels like it," Arthur said, taking a sip of the wine Merlin had brough up from the kitchens. "You know there was an influx of people to the citadel yesterday? We've had to offer sanctuary to a great number throughout the kingdom, all chased from their homes."

Merlin nodded sombrely. "I saw them. Did they tell you anything that might help?"

"Only that their attackers were bandits. It feels unlikely to me though; the raids feel organised and purposeful rather than the kind of strikes that random groups make. I just wish we could gather more intelligence. It feels like we're trying to fight an enemy that we don't understand and it…bothers me."

Arthur was grateful that Merlin didn't offer any platitudes or assurances that things would be fine. He knew the gravity of the situation and had been privy to all the reports Arthur had received the actions that had been subsequently taken. He'd offered counsel, as he always had, and had done his best to soothe Arthur's more despondent moods but he hadn't dismissed Arthur's worries or concerns, which Arthur had been thankful for.

"Arthur, could you spare me for a couple of weeks perhaps three?"

"Three weeks?" Arthur echoed, feeling his stomach lurch at the thought of being parted from the man for so long. He found himself out of sorts if he went an entire morning without the seeing Merlin; he was sure his mood would suffer greatly if he was forced be away from him for so long.

"I was hoping to return to Ealdor, to check on my mother. There have been a few…unsettling reports from the towns nearby and I want to see that she's safe."

"Of course," Arthur said, kicking himself for being so selfish. "Yes…yes you should go and see her. I should have considered this much sooner and given you leave. I'm sorry for the oversight."

"Don't be daft," Merlin said with an affectionate smile. "You've had enough to concern yourself with. I'm probably overreacting anyway but I just want to see for myself that she's alright. She'd never tell me if she wasn't, not unless it was dire."

"I know," Arthur said. "She's a fine woman and I remember my time with her fondly."

"She thinks the world of you, you know," Merlin said, meeting Arthur's eyes sincerely. "Can't say I blame her."

It was unlike Merlin to speak in such a manner. He would usually have tempered the compliment with an insult and Arthur found his throat suddenly dry at the tenderness in the man's expression. He reached out and twined their fingers together, knowing how bold the action was but feeling that he needed to touch the man, to be closer to him.

Merlin smiled and dipped his head, the gesture so endearing that Arthur was on the verge of reaching out and pulling him closer and claiming that beautiful mouth as his. He stopped himself, although it took every bit of resolve he possessed. He wanted Merlin so much sometimes that it became a physical ache. There were so many things holding him back, so many reasons why he couldn't pursue the relationship he truly wanted with the man and they went around and around in his head so often they made him dizzy.

It was agreed that Merlin would leave in a couple of days and Arthur insisted that Gwaine should go with him to protect against any trouble they might meet on the roads. He was dreading having to cope without Merlin for potentially three weeks but was doing his best to hide it from the man, not wanting to put a dampener on his return to his home.

"I'm all packed, Gwaine and I are setting off in a few minutes," Merlin said, poking his head around the door on the morning he was due to depart.

"Come," Arthur said, beckoning him in and to the table where he'd lain a couple of packages out. "For your mother," he said, gesturing to them.

"Arthur, you didn't need to," Merlin said, but Arthur was able to discern how pleased he was.

"There's a heavy woollen blanket, some salted pork and beef, a small parcel of grain and a little wine. I hope it will be sufficient. Please tell your mother that I sent these gifts as thanks for the hospitality she showed me…as well as the continued use of her son," he added with a grin.

"This is so generous. She'll be very touched."

"Well…" Arthur said, wishing he could go with him but knowing how scandalised the castle would have been if the king were to accompany his manservant on a trip home when the kingdom was in such turmoil. "Be careful, won't you? And please convey my best wishes to your mother."

"I will. I'll be back as soon as I can. I hope you can manage without me."

"I'm sure I'll cope," Arthur said, keeping his arms firmly by his side to stop himself from pulling Merlin into his arms and clinging on tightly, feeling a mad urge to commit every inch of the man to memory before he was parted from him.

They smiled at one another, something a little awkward between them, and Arthur couldn't help but wonder if Merlin felt as much a need to touch him as he himself felt. Merlin gave him a nod and a smile then picked up the packages and said, "Thank you again, Arthur. I'll see you soon. Do try and behave while I'm gone."

Arthur rolled his eyes and waved him off, missing the man almost as soon as the door closed behind him. As it turned out, there were plenty of others besides himself who felt Merlin's absence keenly and within a couple of days the castle felt as though it had descended into chaos.

Orders weren't placed, schedules weren't organised, bills weren't paid and everyone seemed to be at sixes and sevens. Godric, the castle steward, stalked through the corridors looking very much as though he would like to kill someone and Arthur had heard several whispers that the man had threatened to vacate his position if Merlin was ever granted leave from the castle for any significant length of time again.

The kitchens were in uproar on a daily basis and all the arguments that Merlin managed to mediate spilt over and bred bad feeling amongst the servants. Nothing ran as it was supposed to and Arthur found himself double-booked for meetings, late for almost everything on his schedule and with barely a clean tunic or pair of boots that didn't look like he'd walked through a bog in them.

It seemed impossible that the peace and easiness of an entire castle could rest upon the shoulders of one man but they all had proof enough that that was so. Even Leon, who was as unruffled in the face of adversity as anyone Arthur had ever met, was surly and out of sorts with Merlin gone. The knights all missed him and their afternoon practices were terribly muted without Merlin sitting on the side-lines, tending to the weapons and shouting encouragement or insults depending on his mood.

For Arthur, Merlin's absence was more acute and all the more palpable. His chambers were cold and empty every evening and Arthur found himself avoiding them so he wasn't faced with the loneliness he felt at sitting there without Merlin by his side. He missed the way they could spend whole evenings in silence, absorbed in their own tasks, or how they could sit and talk about the latest events of the kingdom, Merlin's advice and perception as much of a comfort as his presence was.

More than anything, he missed being close to the man. His body ached for the loss of touch, the casual brush of hands, the proximity in which they always sat to one another. He missed the smell of Merlin's hair and the way the man would lean into him whenever they were near one another. Everything felt wrong without Merlin by his side and he understood how the whole castle could suffer without him there.

"Godric, I understand your vexation, I truly do but I'm afraid I can't help in this instance," Arthur said as the man stood beside him in the council chamber, his lips pursed.

"Well very well, sire, but I'm telling you that the accounts at the end of the month will reflect the…tumult the castle has experienced these last few weeks."

"Are there so many unpaid bills?" Arthur asked in amazement.

"Yes, sire. I'm afraid that in some cases…Merlin's persuasion is the only thing that prompts some to pay."

"Very well. He'll be back soon enough and things can be put to rights."

"I certainly hope so."

"Godric, I never knew you could miss me so," came a familiar voice, and Arthur turned to doorway to see Merlin standing there with a damned grin on his face.

Arthur moved before he could stop himself, throwing all notions of propriety out of the window and sweeping the man up in his arms. He felt Merlin's arms go around his neck and he clung on tightly as he pressed Merlin's body against his own, burying his nose in the man's hair and indulging himself by breathing him in.

"Did you miss me, sire?" Merlin murmured, his lips close to Arthur's skin.

Arthur pulled him even closer and closed his eyes as he revelled in having the man back. "No," he said with a smile, "I would just like my castle to run efficiently, which it seems incapable of doing without you."

They pulled back, Arthur's hands settling on Merlin's waist as he kept the man close while Merlin's hands came to rest on Arthur's chest. It was highly inappropriate, indeed he was aware that Godric had left the room and that the guards were pointedly looking straight ahead. "Is all well with your mother?"

Merlin nodded, his hands moving ever so slightly up and down Arthur's chest, Arthur feeling himself almost melt under the accidental caress. "She's fine. They haven't suffered any attacks and they're mostly concerned with getting through the winter. She was very touched by your gifts."

"I'm glad I could send her something. I'm only sorry I wasn't able to go with you; I should have liked to see her again."

Merlin smiled and moved his hands up to Arthur's shoulders, neither of them apparently intending to break the embrace they were standing in. "So just how bad have things been without me?" he asked, his smile turning smug.

"Well," Arthur said, his hands sliding over Merlin's waist to settle in the small of his back, letting his eyes rove over the man's face and drinking in the sight of him. "I think there's a petition going around to ensure you're never allowed to leave the castle again."

"I expected nothing less," Merlin said blithely. "Surely you didn't miss me though?" he asked coyly. "I'm certain you barely noticed I was gone."

"Oh indeed," Arthur replied, his pulse quickening as he felt Merlin's thumb stroking back and forth across his neck. "I was glad of the peace, truth be told."

"Ah well, I can always leave for another few weeks if you like?"

"Over my dead body," Arthur said with a growl, Merlin grinning as he was pulled back into Arthur's arms, Arthur wondering just how long he could keep him there.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8

The problems throughout the kingdom continued and Arthur was concerned with the continued reports from other rulers that they were suffering likewise. It troubled him that they had yet to truly divine the cause of the growing tension and so sent out contingents of knights to monitor the situations in the worst-affected places.

He himself took part in these expeditions and much of the winter was spent away from the citadel as they tried to gather what intelligence they could. They travelled from towns to villages, offering aid when it was needed and trying to discern what was behind these attacks and if they could, at the very least, figure out a pattern that could help to inform what their enemy's plan might be.

It was frustrating and deeply worrying. The knights were tired and fed up, the bitter winter not helping anyone's spirits and they were unused to being sent from the castle during the winter period as so few campaigns were ever fought during those months. There was a pervading sense that nothing was really being achieved and, after another visit to a badly-hit town had brought them little joy, Arthur decided that returning to the castle and considering their next moves would be better.

The only thing he could be glad of was that Merlin had been with him throughout. He always questioned the sense of bringing an unarmed and untrained man long with him on such expeditions, but Merlin would have had his head if he'd even suggested that he stay behind and Arthur was far too selfish to let himself be without the man for too long anyway.

He knew Merlin was as glad as anyone to be returning to the citadel, and there was a sense of relief about him, as there was with the others as they made camp, all knowing they were roughly a day away from home. It was colder than Arthur could remember it being and so tents were put up for them to sleep in later while Merlin and Elyan set about sorting dinner.

They were all tired and the freezing air wasn't helping matters. It seemed to work its way under their skin and into their bones, making everything seem more miserable. Their conversation around the fireplace was a little more muted than it usually was and Arthur knew they were all concerned that a situation was brewing that they might not be able to deal with.

"Cold?" Arthur asked Merlin, the man sitting beside him, his arms wrapped so tightly around himself his knuckles were turning white.

Merlin nodded, his breath escaping from between his lips in a crystal-white puff of air. His cheeks and the bridge of his nose were flushed pink, his eyes bright in the glare from the fire. Arthur had given him a few of his old winter clothes a year prior but even they didn't seen enough to ward off the bitter chill that had them all wishing for summer.

"Come closer," he said softly, "you're not close enough to the fire there."

Merlin shifted until he was sitting nearer and Arthur closed the distance between them, pressing their sides together, thighs and hips touching. He reached an arm out behind them and curled it around Merlin's thin frame, settling his hand on the man's hip and pulling him closer still.

"Better?" he asked quietly.

"Better," Merlin confirmed, the smallest of smiles curving the corner of his mouth.

They stayed that way for the rest of the evening and Arthur was pleased to see the man had finally stopped shivering. Arthur held him close, Merlin nestling into him as the hand on his hip kept him in a firm embrace.

There was nothing that could quite compare to the feeling of Merlin curled against him and Arthur barely paid any attention to the conversation around the fireplace with his attention so caught up by the man. If they'd been alone Merlin would likely have rested his head on Arthur's shoulder and Arthur would probably have been carding his fingers through the man's hair by now but there was only so far they could push it, whether they were among friends or not.

"We should turn in," Leon said eventually, ever the one to be the voice of reason and corral them into behaving sensibly. Arthur smiled; he might be king but there was part of him that would always see Leon as the adult, the older brother to be looked up to and obeyed. It was oddly comforting to think that some parts of his childhood still existed somewhere within him.

They doused the fire and tidied the camp before heading for their tents, Merlin following behind Arthur in the tent they'd claimed for themselves. The night was bitter and Arthur kept most of his clothing on as he headed for his makeshift bed and sank down under the furs. He glanced up to see Merlin faffing with a bedroll on the other side of the small tent, and he chewed his lip for a moment while he wrestled with part of his brain that was trying to make a decision without his full consent.

"You can't sleep like that," he said eventually, and Merlin looked up from where he was laying a blanket on the ground, shivers racking his slight frame.

"Why not?" he asked, his voice shaking with the cold.

"You'll freeze to death," Arthur replied, trying to sound exasperated. "Come on, get in," he said, holding the fur aside and gesturing for Merlin to lie beside him.

Merlin hesitated, glancing down at the bed he'd been organising for himself before another shiver rolled through him. He toed off his boots quickly and crossed the tent, pausing for a moment before he knelt down and shifted to lie next to Arthur, their noses almost pressing together.

"Face the other way, you idiot," Arthur said, unable to suppress a grin. "I'm not sleeping with your face in mine all night."

"Oh, right," Merlin said, returning the grin.

He shifted so he was lying with his back to Arthur and Arthur covered them both with the fur, making sure Merlin was fully tucked beneath it. Arthur shuffled closer, his hand resting tentatively on Merlin's hip. After a momentary pause, he gently slid it over the curve of Merlin's body, snaking it across his stomach before it pressed against the man's chest. He took a deep breath then used that hand to pull Merlin tightly against his chest, pressing their bodies together and resisting the very powerful urge to bury his nose in the mop of black hair in front of him.

"Warm enough?" he asked, his voice sounding distinctly odd.

"Yes, Arthur," Merlin replied, and Arthur could have sworn he heard a smile in the man's voice. "Thank you."

"Well…um…get some sleep. Goodnight."

"Goodnight, Arthur."

Arthur closed his eyes and felt Merlin's chest rise and fall beneath his palm, the man's heartbeat a faint rhythm against his hand. He couldn't have let Merlin freeze with nothing but a thin blanket to protect against the biting cold; it was far better to have him sleep this way, it was only common sense, a decent, kind thing to do. If he ended up falling asleep with a smile on his face, no one but him would know.

He slept well, tired from the day's events, and the warmth of their little cocoon kept the winter chill at bay all night. He woke in much the same position he had fallen asleep in, his chest pressed firmly against Merlin's back, the man held tightly in his arms. Their legs were entwined and Merlin was grasping the hand that was splayed against his chest, as if ensuring that Arthur wouldn't move away from him in the night.

Moving was the furthest thing from Arthur's mind. He couldn't remember the last time he'd felt so content and he wanted to stay in that moment of suspension for a little while longer, before reality came crashing down on them and spoilt things. Slowly, Merlin began to shift and he stretched as he did so, pushing back against Arthur's groin and wriggling in a way that made Arthur shift before he embarrassed himself.

"Morning," Merlin muttered sleepily, still keeping hold of Arthur's hand and making no attempt to put any space between them.

"Morning," Arthur replied, hoping he didn't sound quite as pleased as he felt. "Sleep well?"

"Mm," Merlin said, stretching again and pushing himself even closer against Arthur, Arthur trying to decide whether he was mortified or thrilled. "I don't think I want to get up."

"You have to, you lazy good-for-nothing," Arthur said with a smile. "You have to attend to your king."

"If my king had any sense he'd stay in bed with me all day and say to hell with chasing up and down the countryside in bollock-freezing weather."

Arthur laughed and pulled Merlin closer, finally giving in and nuzzling his nose in the thatch of hair at the base of the man's neck. Merlin obligingly tilted his head in Arthur's direction and sighed happily, Arthur silently damning the fact that they wouldn't be able to stay that way all day.

"You're a lovely bed-warmer," Merlin told him, twining their fingers together as he continued to hold Arthur's hand against his chest.

"The king of Camelot, reduced to keeping his manservant warm," Arthur said, his voice a low rumble against the skin of Merlin's neck, Merlin shivering in response and pressing himself ever closer.

"Are you complaining, sire?" Merlin asked, and Arthur could have throttled him for being so damn provocative.

"Are you two getting up?" came Gwaine's voice from outside the tent. "The day's half-wasted, you lazy gits. We want to get back to Camelot before spring!"

Arthur huffed and said, "He's your friend. Do you think you could have a word with him about addressing his king in such a manner?"

Merlin shifted and glanced over his shoulder at Arthur, a teasing little smile playing about his lips as he said, "I call you much worse and you don't seem to mind. A little favouritism at play, sire?"

"Get out," Arthur said, fighting a smile and giving the man a kick for good measure while Merlin squirmed to get away from him.

He threw the covers aside deliberately as he went and Arthur swore as he was assaulted by a rush of cold air. They dressed quickly, bickering as they did so, then joined the others, Gwaine still insulting them for being the last ones awake. They had a quick breakfast then packed away the camp, all thoughts turning to heading home.

They'd managed to get all the information they'd come for and there was nothing else that could be done until further intelligence was gathered. Camelot beckoned and Arthur wasn't sorry to bid farewell to the biting cold and seek the luxury of his chambers. Still, he couldn't deny that there was one aspect to the trip he'd be regretful to leave behind and he wondered if there was any way he could wangle sharing a bed with Merlin once they were back home.

"Here," he said as Merlin was about to mount his horse, "have these." He held out his thick leather gloves to the man and Merlin shook his head with a smile.

"I can't take those. They're your only pair."

"Yes, but you're far more delicate than I am. I know how sore your dainty little hands get riding all day in the cold."

Merlin narrowed his eyes at him as his lip quirked while he fought a smile. He glanced around to check that the others were all preoccupied before he said in a quiet voice, "I'm not the one who needed to sleep cuddled up to his manservant to keep the big bad winter chill at bay…my lord."

He gave Arthur a smirk as he took the gloves from him and it was all Arthur could do to stop himself from tackling the infuriating man and…well…God only knew what. He shook himself and hoped fervently that the blush he could feel spreading across his cheeks would be attributed to the cold.

He swung himself up on his horse and signalled for them all to move out, the easy chatter soon starting up again as they rode. Arthur let it wash over him, content to listen rather than join in. He was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to really contribute anyway and it didn't help that every so often Merlin would glance over at him and smile at him, something conspiratorial and sweetly shy in the gesture.

He wanted the man so badly it hurt. He was barely trying to hide it anymore and he knew he was playing with fire. There was so much between them, so much that meant more to Arthur than anything else in his life and he guarded the relationship he had with Merlin jealously. He didn't want to jeopardise that, he didn't want to do anything that would see Merlin from his side but he had no idea how he could continue fighting the feelings that had been growing stronger with each passing month.

If attraction had been the only thing to concern himself then he could have coped with it. He could have indulged in watching Merlin, indulged in the thousands of little touches they exchanged throughout the day and let that be an end to it but there was far more to it than that and he knew it.

He had no idea what that meant, though. Merlin was a servant, a male servant come to that, and, while it didn't matter one whit to Arthur, it would surely matter to others at court. He wanted the man so terribly but he knew he would never be able to content himself with something casual or clandestine. There was no way anything with Merlin could ever be casual anyway; his feelings for the man were too deep and he could never sully Merlin by treating him as nothing more than a bedfellow.

The thoughts were making his head spin and it was almost a relief when he heard Leon's shout from up ahead before a group of bandits appeared from nowhere. They were off their horses in the blink of an eye and Arthur had no time for thoughts other than the immediate danger they were in. He fell to fighting as he always did, it was as natural to him as breathing, but they were outnumbered and his knights were being separated as they each tackled the groups that honed in on them.

Arthur tried to keep an eye on each of his men but the group attacking him was too fierce and too focused for him to be able to divert his attention for more than half a second. Flashes of Merlin's brown jacket kept crossing his periphery and he tried to ensure that the man was safe, that he was managing to stay out of harm's way with the lucky knack he always seemed to have in these situations, but he was guarding himself against four attackers and he didn't dare turn his head for too long.

He had lost sight of his men, scattered as they were through the trees, and his lungs were beginning to burn with the exertion. He felt a blow land across his shoulders, knocking him to the ground and it was only the matter of half a second that had him twisting his body to guard against the second blow that aimed to be more deadly. He knocked the man backwards but a second assailant knocked him in the temple with the hilt of his sword and he went flying backwards, his back hitting the forest floor with a thud that knocked the air from him, his sword flying far from his reach.

He tried to scrabble upwards, his chest heaving and his head pounding, as he saw all four men advance on him. A surge of adrenaline shot through him as he realised this was how it was going to end, he was going to be taken out by four rogue bandits in an ignoble piece of forest, with no thought of valour or honour to guide him to his forbears. He braced himself and lifted his chin, determined to meet his end with as much bravery as he could muster, when a figure stepped between him and his assailants.

"Not a step further," Merlin said, his voice low, and Arthur stared up at the man's back, wondering if he'd been hit in the head harder than he'd thought.

"Merlin," he said in a desperate breath. "Get away from them. Get out of here."

Merlin didn't turn to look at him, his back ramrod straight as he continued to place himself between Arthur and the bandits.

"Out of the way, lad, or we'll run you through too."

"I don't think so," Merlin replied, and Arthur shivered to hear the steel in the man's voice, something he'd never heard before. This was not the man he knew.

The bandits all advanced as one and Arthur tried to get to his feet before they could harm Merlin but just as he was shifting up onto his elbows, Merlin stretched his hands out and all four men went flying backwards, each hitting the trunk of a tree, the unmistakable sound of spines snapping moments later. They crumpled to the ground, eyes unseeing as they lay dead and Arthur's world turned sideways.

He looked at Merlin just as the man turned to face him and the word sorcerer danced across his mind as he looked up at the man he thought he knew better than anyone. His head pounded and his mouth was suddenly so dry he didn't think he'd be able to speak even if he knew what to say.

"Arthur – " Merlin began, his face pale and his eyes wide. "Arthur , I – "

"Is everyone ok?" came Leon's voice as he appeared through the trees to their right. "Arthur? Merlin?"

"Fine," Arthur managed to bite out, accepting the hand that Leon offered him and letting the man haul him to his feet. He allowed himself to lean on the man for moment, not sure if his legs could support him, and watched as the others came back one by one.

"Well, that was uncalled for," Lancelot said as he wiped the blood from a cut on his lip, while Percival examined a slice across his forearm.

"Gwaine, that head wound looks nasty," Leon said, looking at the man with a frown. "Merlin, will you take a look at it?"

"Of course," Merlin said with a curt nod of his head, leading Gwaine over to his horse and to the saddlebags that contained medical supplies. Arthur watched him and felt his pulse crashing in his ears as he tried to reconcile what he'd just seen with everything he thought he knew.

"Sire?" Leon said, and Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin to look at the man who was regarding him with a frown. "Are you alright?"

"I…yes…I took a blow to the head. I'm just a little dizzy. It'll pass soon enough." He cleared his throat and tried to straighten his shoulders, heading for his horse and saying, "The sooner we get back to Camelot the better. Let's move out."

He mounted his horse and waited for the others to do the same, not trusting himself to look at Merlin. He kicked at his horse's flanks and set a fast pace to the main road, wanting to put as much distance between himself and the forest as possible. In a matter of minutes his entire world had changed and his mind couldn't process it. He felt sick and hot, despite the fact that that the air was still cruelly cold, and he had no idea how he managed to keep his seat all the way back to the citadel.

It seemed incomprehensible that that very morning he had woken with Merlin in his arms and that he'd spent a good deal of time wondering how he could repeat the situation. The man was a sorcerer. Merlin. His manservant. The person he had spent the last five years of his life with. He questioned everything he had ever known and wondered how he could be such a fool.

The spires of Camelot rose through the trees as the afternoon sun hung low in the air and they rode into the quad, grooms running up to meet them to take the reins of their horses. Arthur dismounted and headed for the stairs, wanting to escape to his chambers, to find something familiar that could ground him.

"Sire?" Leon called from behind him, and he paused with his foot on the first stair before he turned to face his men.

"I shall call council tomorrow," he said, trying to control the quiver in his voice. "Take the rest of the day to recuperate, you've earnt it." Against his better judgement, he let his gaze slide to Merlin and found the man staring back at him. "Merlin," he said before he could stop himself, "with me."

Merlin's eyes went wide and Arthur turned on his heel and headed up the stairs, hearing Merlin scrabble to follow. He strode through the castle, hearing Merlin's footsteps behind him. The sound had always been so comforting, so familiar; Merlin had been his faithful shadow for so long he'd always known he had a friend at his back. Now he felt like he was being followed by a stranger.

He made his way through the halls, his chambers feeling like they were miles away, grateful beyond measure when he rounded the corridor and shouldered open his door. He heard Merlin enter behind him and when he heard the latch click into place he finally allowed himself to turn around.

"Arthur – "

"How long?" Arthur asked, breathless.

"What?"

"How long have you been practising magic?"

A muscle in Merlin's jaw twitched and he tilted his chin defiantly as he said, "I haven't practised anything. This is how I was born."

"That's not possible," Arthur said with a certainty he didn't feel.

"I assure you it is. This is who I am, Arthur. This was what I was born to do. I was born to serve you…using magic."

"Don't be ridiculous," Arthur said, his teeth clenched.

"Believe me or don't, it doesn't make it any less true. Everything I use my magic for is in service to you, aiding you, protecting you."

"I don't need protecting!" Arthur shouted, his temper beginning to rise now the shock was starting to subside. "I am the king of Camelot, a fighter since birth! I don't need anyone to protect me!"

"Oh really?" Merlin said, a flush creeping up his neck. "Have you never asked yourself how you always managed to come out of everything so unscathed? Have you never wondered at the extraordinary good fortune you seem to have?"

"I have no wish to be protected by magic," Arthur said harshly and Merlin flinched.

"Well tough, because that's what's kept you alive so bloody long. Me, Arthur, me at your side all these years using my magic for you, only for you."

Arthur stared at him, barely recognising the man in front of him and feeling so lost he could only grasp for ways to respond. "How could you keep this from me all this time?" he asked, hearing his voice waver, his body racked with anger and something worse, something he had no name for.

"Oh I don't know, Arthur," Merlin said, his voice taking on an edge, one that Arthur usually found amusing. Not so in this case. "Maybe because if I'd revealed my true self I would have been carted off to a nice warm pyre not long after. Maybe because your father reigned over this land with such a powerful hatred of magic that people like me have had to live in the shadows for fear of their lives. Maybe because I've been made to feel like an abomination my whole life and because I couldn't stand to see you look at me the way you are now. Maybe because I'm a coward."

Arthur felt his heart pounding in his chest and his palms felt prickly and clammy. He didn't know where to put himself, didn't know what to say or even how to keep himself standing. He felt thrown off balance, unsteady and uncertain and Merlin, the man who had always been his tonic for such things, was the cause.

"I deserved more from you," he said eventually and regretted the words the minute they left his mouth.

Merlin's cheeks flushed and Arthur could practically feel the man's anger radiating across the room at him. "I know you think everyone is yours to command but being the king doesn't make you privy to everything. I know I'm just a thing to you, a servant you can pick up and drop on a whim, but I am so much more than that and perhaps I'm the one who deserved more from you."

"It's very prettily said, Merlin," Arthur spat, "but don't think you can turn the situation on its head when I'm the one who's been deceived for the entirety of our relationship."

The word 'relationship' hung in the air between them like thick, acrid smoke and Merlin's anger became even more palpable. "You know something, Arthur?" he said, his voice hard. "In times like these you show how much like Uther you really are."

"Get out," Arthur breathed, his voice catching. Merlin glared at him, fists clenched at his side, before he turned and headed for the door. "You're not to leave the citadel," Arthur said as the man's hand landed on the door latch. "I will let you know what I've decided about your future in the morning."

"Your arrogance is truly breath-taking sometimes," Merlin said in a whisper before he slid through the doorway and disappeared from sight.

All the fight seemed to leave Arthur and he crumpled down onto the floor as his breath escaped him in something that sounded horribly like a sob. He sat there for what seemed like hours, indeed, when he pulled himself to his feet the sun had vanished entirely and the window was black and hollow, his own distorted reflection staring back him from the night.

He wrenched off his armour, a harder task with no one to assist him, and chucked it in the corner of the room before he removed his underclothes. He gave himself a cursory wash with a basin of water and changed into a fresh tunic and breeches, looking at his bed as though it was an anomaly. He couldn't sleep, despite the bone-aching tiredness that threatened to overwhelm him, and he turned instead to the chair in front of the fireplace.

It was a somewhat pathetic fire that burnt in the hearth and he threw a couple of extra logs on before stoking it viciously. It always burnt so much brighter when Merlin attended to it but now Arthur knew the reason for it and it made his gut twist painfully. He considered all the other things that should have enlightened him over the years and it made the pain that much more acute. There had been clues aplenty throughout his association with the man; had he been wilfully blind to the evidence of his own eyes?

He sat awake all night, his thoughts a jumbled tumult within his head. He felt sick and feverish, the hurt all the more intense for the knowledge that there was no alleviation to be found. He had spent so many nights like this, conflicted, sorrowful, adrift, but Merlin had always been with him. A gentle word, a soothing touch, and the burdens always seemed so much easier to bear. He wanted the man with him more than he could articulate, wanted a moment of grace where Merlin would smile and reach out a hand to him, telling him that things would work themselves out eventually.

He felt as though he'd suffered a loss and the grief he felt was acute as he realised he had never really known the man at all. What he had felt, what he still felt, how could that be trusted when it had all been directed towards a man who had lied to him since the moment they met? He placed his head in his hands and willed himself not to cry, wishing, more than anything, to feel Merlin's arms around him and wondering if he would ever feel them again.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9

He watched dawn creep over the horizon, a frown between his brows as he felt a strange sense of resolve settle over him. He stood and pushed his chair aside, heading out to the corridor and waiting until he saw a passing servant.

"Thomas," he called, the young lad stopping in his tracks, eyes wide at being addressed by his first name by the king.

"Sire?"

"Go to the physician's chambers and tell Merlin I expect him to meet me in the quad in an hour then go and ask for my horse to be saddled. Tell Owen I shall be down within the hour."

"Yes, my lord," Thomas said with a courteous bow, disappearing off around the corridor.

Arthur prepared himself, forgoing breakfast in deference to the queasy feeling still in the pit of his stomach, and made his way outside where Owen was waiting with his horse waiting. He took the reins with a nod of thanks and glanced around to see if Merlin was on his way.

"Arthur."

He looked around to see Gwaine making his way down the stairs towards him, the nasty head wound he had sustained the previous day standing out sharply beneath the fall of his hair.

"I'm busy, Gwaine," he said tersely. "Whatever it is can wait."

Gwaine stepped off the bottom stair, his expression more serious than Arthur had ever known him capable of, and came to stand directly in front of him. Arthur frowned, feeling suddenly on edge, and Gwaine stepped closer, saying with a lowered voice, "If you hurt him I'll kill you."

"I beg your pardon?" Arthur said, the treasonous outburst shocking him so much he could do little but blink at the man.

"You heard me," Gwaine said, his voice still low. "I know what happened yesterday, I saw what he did, how he saved you. If you lay a finger on him I promise you you'll regret it."

Arthur opened his mouth but was spared having to respond as Merlin appeared as if from nowhere. "What's going on?" he asked, and Arthur noted the dark circles beneath his eyes and the unusual paleness of his skin.

"Nothing," Gwaine said with a smile. "Just having a quick word. I'll see you later, Merlin," he said pointedly before casting one hard look at Arthur and making his retreat.

Shaking himself, Arthur swung up on his horse and did his best not to look at Merlin as he said, "We ride for the glade fifteen miles south of here."

Silence was his only answer, as he had expected it to be, and he rode out from the quad far too quickly, the action an almost childish taunt for Merlin to keep up. They left the citadel, the pace still faster than they would normally keep to for a journey with no urgency. Silence reigned and Arthur tried to embrace it, instead finding it horribly oppressive.

He still had no idea what to say and he was riding out with Merlin with no notion of how he was going to handle the situation. It now seemed foolish to have commanded this jaunt away from the castle when the second they arrived at their destination Arthur would be able to do little besides gape at Merlin like a fish that had been knocked on the head. Proof seemed to be mounting that he was indeed a fool.

They reached the glade quickly and Arthur regretted the pace at which he had ridden as he sat astride his horse and wondered what on earth he was supposed to do now. He dismounted, Merlin following suit, and he kept his back to the man for a moment, trying to compose himself, reaching desperately for words that continued to elude him. He turned and his hand went automatically to the hilt of his sword, a gesture he had carried since boyhood to steady and ground himself in difficult situations.

Merlin's eyes went to the movement immediately before he looked at Arthur, their eyes meeting for one dreadful moment before Merlin sank to his knees before him. He looked up, his eyes swimming with tears, as he whispered, "Make it quick."

"What?" Arthur asked, his world threatening to tilt all the way off its damned axis.

"If you ever cared for me at all…make it quick," Merlin repeated, and the sorrow in his face was enough to undo everything Arthur had ever been.

A fist clenched around his heart and he damned himself for ever being the reason that Merlin would feel so despairing. He unsheathed his sword and approached Merlin cautiously before bending and laying the weapon on the ground in front of the man. He straightened himself again and Merlin looked up at him, confusion in his eyes as a tear rolled down his cheek.

"I would die before I hurt you," Arthur said, his voice strangled. "I would kill anyone who ever tried to do you harm and it pains me to think that you could ever fear me."

"I don't understand," Merlin said breathlessly. "You're the king, you – "

"I'm not standing here as a king, Merlin!" Arthur shouted, his voice breaking as he did so. "I'm standing here as a man, a man who believed he knew you completely, a man who thought you were the one constant in his life, a man who thought…who thought you were his," he finished, horrified to feel tears pricking his eyes.

"Arthur," Merlin whispered, his voice small and distant. "I am yours." He got to his feet slowly, uncertainty and wariness written in every angle of his body. "All that I am belongs to you; my mind, my body and soul are yours to command."

"I have no wish to command you," Arthur asserted with a shake of his head. "I don't…I don't want you in my service, I just…I just want you," he admitted, although he had no idea what that admittance meant in the context of the moment they were in.

"All that I am?" Merlin asked, and it was clear he was bracing himself for rejection.

Arthur swallowed and stepped forward, his entire body aching to touch the man in front of him. "All that you are, Merlin," he affirmed and Merlin sagged with relief, Arthur able to bear it no longer, stepping forward and pulling the man into his embrace.

Merlin's arms went around his neck and they clung on tightly to one another, Arthur snaking a hand up into Merlin's hair and twisting his fingers in the black tendrils. He buried his nose in the hollow of the man's neck and allowed himself the indulgence of breathing him in for a few moments while his body sang at the contact.

"I'm not my father," he whispered next to Merlin's skin. "I have never held his views where magic is concerned and I would not condemn those for something they have no control over. It wasn't the magic I was angry about, Merlin, it was the deceit."

"I know," Merlin said, his voice little more than a sob into Arthur's shoulder. "I wanted to tell you so many times but I was so frightened."

"Please," Arthur said, his voice strained as he pressed his hand into the small of Merlin's back and held him close, "please don't ever be frightened of me. I couldn't bear it."

"I was frightened of losing you," Merlin amended, burrowing closer into Arthur's embrace, his lips grazing the skin of Arthur's neck in a way that almost made Arthur forget the gravity of the moment. "I couldn't have borne it, Arthur. I couldn't have borne being sent from your side."

"Do you think I ever would?" Arthur murmured, tilting his head to bury his nose in Merlin's black hair and breathing in the familiar scents that clung to him from Gaius' rooms and the kitchens of the castle. He smelt like home, like everything Arthur had come to rely on, like something he would kill to protect. "I can't stand being parted from you," he confessed in a whisper, "I would never be so willingly."

"Arthur," Merlin breathed, his voice trembling against Arthur's skin. He pulled back slowly, meeting Arthur's eyes even as they kept the closeness between them, both unwilling to be separated any more than was absolutely necessary. Arthur untangled his hand from Merlin's hair and brushed softly at the tears on the man's face with the pad of his thumb, wanting so desperately to protect him, to banish the sorrow from his face.

"Arthur," Merlin tried again, a flush rising against the paleness of his skin. "I'm so sorry for lying to you. It killed me every time, it hurt that I had to keep such a…fundamental part of myself hidden from you. I wanted you know me completely, to be accepted for all that I am."

"I do," Arthur said softly, "I do accept you, wholly and without question…but…I need time."

Merlin nodded. "I know. There's much that needs to be said."

"I promise to listen."

Merlin's lip quirked as he said, "Well that makes a change then," and a weight Arthur hadn't realised he'd been carrying dropped from his shoulders. He laughed, in spite of himself, and some of the unbearable tension between them vanished and they were Merlin and Arthur once more.

"Show me something," Arthur said gently and the hope in Merlin's eyes was enough to make Arthur want to drop to his knees and promise the man the very stars from the sky if only he would look at Arthur that way for the rest of their lives.

"Really?" Merlin asked, and Arthur cupped his cheek, stroking the beautifully high cheekbone with his thumb.

"Really."

Merlin stepped back and Arthur let his hands fall to his side, instantly regretting the loss of the man in his arms but loving the look of joy that crossed Merlin's face as he took a couple of breaths and cupped his hands in front of him.

"Watch," he instructed with a smile and Arthur did so as a small sphere grew within Merlin's palms.

As he looked, the very glade they were standing in appeared within the globe, a perfect and delicate likeness that was breath-taking in its beauty. He watched in fascination as the seasons of the world passed through the forest, the first bloom of spring giving way to the all-encompassing gold of the summer sun, the burnished orange of autumn following, making a carpet of fallen leaves on the ground until eventually winter chased all away and covered the little world in its ghostly chill.

"Beautiful," Arthur breathed as the sphere glowed and faded, and he looked up to see Merlin looking at him as though he had been promised all the five kingdoms.

He met the man's eyes and something deep in his chest ached acutely. He wanted to reach out and gather the man back into his arms and press his lips to Merlin's beautiful mouth. He wanted to hold him close, to slide his hands beneath the man's clothes and press skin against skin, to taste him and feel him and whisper words of comfort, of devotion, but he couldn't bring himself to.

Whatever had been happening between them previously, whatever it was that was growing between them now, it all needed to be handled cautiously. They were no longer the same people they had been merely a day prior and Arthur had no intention of destroying the fragile peace that they had found in the secluded forest glade simply to satisfy an ever-growing need within himself.

"We should get back to Camelot," he said reluctantly.

"I suppose we should," Merlin replied, and Arthur could see the same reluctance in him.

He retrieved his sword, Merlin giving him a wry smile as he did so, then held out his hand to the man as they approached the horses. Merlin's smile turned sweeter as he accepted it and let himself be helped up onto the horse, both of them knowing it was utterly unnecessary but allowing themselves to indulge, nevertheless.

They rode back to Camelot in silence but it was a far different kind to the one they had ridden out in. This time Merlin smiled at him as he had done the day before, after they'd spent the night sleeping wrapped around one another, and Arthur's body was crying out to be that close to the man again.

He knew he couldn't, though, not in the way he wanted, not yet anyway. They had to take time to evaluate the people they now were and to strengthen their relationship as it now stood. He would do anything to ensure that Merlin would never have cause to leave his side and if that meant showing restraint then he fully intended to do so.

He'd had questions enough about the nature of their relationship before, before he'd learnt Merlin's secret, and the biggest concern he'd had had been the vast difference in their statuses. Those questions still stood but now others had arisen alongside them and, until he had something that resembled answers for those questions, he couldn't act upon the feelings that felt as though they could barely be contained within his chest.

"Will you come to my chambers later?" Arthur asked quietly as they dismounted and left the horses to Owen's excellent care. "Join me for dinner."

"Of course," Merlin replied, looking pleased with the invitation. "Don't you need me before then, though?"

Arthur smiled and said, "Take the rest of the day off. You look like you slept no more than I did, take the time to get some rest. Oh, and if you could find the time to have a conversation with Gwaine I'd appreciate it."

"With Gwaine?" Merlin asked with a frown.

"He knows about the magic," Arthur said, and Merlin's eyebrows rose up into his hairline. "He saw what happened yesterday and told me, in no uncertain terms, that if I harmed you he would kill me."

"You're joking," Merlin said, his eyes wide.

"I'm not. It must be nice to be so adored," he added, and Merlin blushed.

"It isn't like that," he said, his gaze dropping to his shoes. "He's a friend, nothing more."

He hadn't needed to hear the avowal, not really, but he was inordinately pleased that Merlin felt he needed to clarify the situation. "Well, whatever he is, I'd be grateful if you'd ensure him of your safety so he doesn't come for my head."

"He'd never harm you, not really."

"Don't be so sure," Arthur said with a raised eyebrow. "He's…very devoted to you, devotion makes men do things they'd never normally be capable of."

"I know," Merlin said softly, meeting Arthur's eyes with a look that made warmth spread from Arthur's toes to the top of his head. Merlin cleared his throat and said, "I'll come and see you later then."

Arthur nodded and Merlin disappeared up the steps, casting one last look over his shoulder at him as he went. Arthur let out a long, slow breath and thanked God that the world seemed so much brighter than it had done when the sun had risen that morning.

He kept himself busy for the rest of the day, knowing he would drive himself mad if he allowed himself to ruminate on the situation for too long. He convened the council and appraised them of the intelligence they had managed to gather. It was decided that sentries would be posted within the villages under the guise of villagers themselves and reports would be sent back weekly to apprise the court of the ongoing situation.

He spent the afternoon training his knights and received a curt nod from Gwaine as he took a team of the younger recruits and had them sparring. Part of him still smarted at the fact the man had seen fit to threaten him, apparently unconcerned with uttering the kind of treason that would see most threatened with execution, but he'd always known that Gwaine's loyalties lay with Merlin. The man was in Camelot because Merlin had asked him to be and, although he served Arthur well and was one of his best knights, if Merlin were ever to leave, Gwaine would soon follow.

Merlin seemed to inspire that kind of loyalty in people. Morgana had adored him, and still did if the evidence of his own eyes was enough to go by, and Gwen and Gaius had taken the man into their hearts and treated him like family. His best knights, apart from Leon, owed their place in Camelot to Merlin and they had proved time and time again that they were as devoted to him as they were to Arthur.

They respected him, they loved him, and Arthur could hardly blame them. It made him smile to think of this simple farm boy from a non-descript village commanding the hearts of so many people, inspiring such depth of feeling in the breasts of men who were hardened battle-warriors and moved by very little. He knew first-hand just how Merlin could work his way under the skin and stay there, how he could make a person feel things they'd never imagined they would.

So much for distracting himself, he thought with a wry smile as he dismissed his knights for the day. It was a futile effort to try and keep Merlin from his mind; the man dominated his thoughts most days, let alone when there was so much to think about, to deconstruct piece by piece. There had been so many times when he'd been sitting in a council meeting or reading through paperwork by the fireside and he'd found his thoughts wandering to the man.

"God, you're pathetic," he growled at himself as he left the training field, hoping no one had heard the king of Camelot berating himself while no doubt blushing furiously.

He made his way back to his chambers and washed and changed, missing Merlin's presence, despite the fact that he would see him soon enough. The man was such a constant in his day-to-day life that he couldn't remember a time when he hadn't been by his side. He depended on him for so many things and to imagine a world in which they might not be together was genuinely painful.

He pushed such thoughts away and sent down to the kitchens for dinner for two. It was brought up by a couple of the kitchen girls who looked most bemused at performing such a task, no doubt wondering what had happened to Merlin and why he wasn't the one to be carrying out such a duty. He thanked them with a smile that had them both giggling then sat and waited for Merlin's arrival.

He jumped when there was a soft rap of knuckles on the door and stood as he said, "Come in."

Merlin let himself in and closed the door behind him, standing there with his hands behind his back. It was awkward, horribly, painfully awkward, but Arthur knew they had to do this; they had to navigate these new waters if they had any hope of redefining who they now were to each other.

"Sit," Arthur said, gesturing to the chair next to his own and taking a seat as Merlin did so too.

"This is…odd," Merlin said, looking strangely small in the high-backed chair.

"I know," Arthur said with a smile. "Wine?" he offered.

"Do I need it?" Merlin asked with a quirk of his eyebrow and Arthur felt a little of the tension dissipate.

They ate in silence for a bit, the situation so bizarre that Arthur wasn't entirely sure he wasn't dreaming the whole thing. It was faintly ridiculous; Merlin had sat at this very table and shared a meal on countless occasions but never had he been officially invited, never had so much hung in the air between them.

"What do you want me to tell you?" Merlin asked after a while, having given up on his food, resorting to pushing it around the plate with his fork.

Arthur sighed and abandoned his own food, leaning back in his chair and looking at Merlin. "I'm not sure I know," he confessed. "I had…so many questions but I'm not sure I know how to ask any of them."

"Are you worried it'll change how you see me?" Merlin asked, his shoulders back defiantly but an obvious uncertainty in his eyes.

"No," Arthur said softly. "I know you, Merlin. For one awful moment I thought perhaps I didn't, I thought that everything I'd known had been a lie, but you will always be you and I wouldn't have you any other way."

Merlin's cheeks flushed and he hid his smile behind his goblet, the action so painfully endearing Arthur had to hold himself back from reaching across the table and pulling the man into his arms.

"You've saved my life many times before yesterday," Arthur said, and Merlin nodded, despite it not being framed as a question. "You said that was what your magic was for, that you were born to protect me."

"Yes," Merlin said, the word a whisper. "There are…prophecies written about the part I'm supposed to play in your life."

"Prophecies?" Arthur echoed, the idea leaving an uncomfortable weight in his chest.

Merlin exhaled a low, slow breath then took a sip of his wine. A bead of liquid stayed on his lip and he swiped at it with his tongue before saying, "Years ago I was told that we were meant to…work together to build the future of Camelot, that I was to play an integral part in uniting the lands. It was made very clear to me that my purpose in life was to serve you, that my magic was made…for you."

Overwhelmed and feeling his mouth go dry, Arthur toyed with the ring on his finger and said, "Is that…is that why you've stayed all these years? Is that why you risked your life time and time again in a place that held such danger for you…because of a prophecy?"

Merlin looked up at him, something unbearably soft in his eyes. "No," he said gently. "At first it was my reason for being here, I felt a sense of…obligation, of duty, but…as time went on…it became more than that. I stay because I can't imagine a world where I'm not by your side, I stay because I believe in the king you are and the one you'll become. I stay because…of you, Arthur."

"All this time," Arthur said, hearing how choked his voice sounded. "You stayed in a place that condemned you, served a king who hunted your kind – "

"I never served him, Arthur," Merlin said, his voice gentle and hard at the same time. "I mean no disrespect to your father but he was never my king. Everything I've done, I've done for you and you alone."

Arthur laced his fingers together and rested his chin on top on them, humbled by Merlin's words and finding them difficult to process. He'd always known Merlin's worth far exceeded that of a simple servant, that there was more to the man than his charming clumsiness and surly retorts, but that he had underestimated him so profoundly was difficult to come to terms with.

"I can't understand how you've lived like this for so long. To…fight and claim none of the victory, to make sacrifices and never be rewarded – "

"That isn't why I do this, Arthur," Merlin said, getting up and walking over to the fireplace. He rested his forearm against the mantlepiece and looked down into the fire, keeping his back to Arthur as he said, "Don't make me out to be a hero. I've done terrible things, things I'm not proud of, things you'd hate me for if you knew."

"Tell me something," Arthur said, pushing his chair back softly and moving to stand just behind Merlin. "These things that you've done, were they all for me?"

Merlin continued to stare into the flames, his jaw clenched firmly and his face pale despite the warmth of the fire. Eventually he gave a small nod and Arthur reached out to place his hand on the man's shoulder, pleased when it wasn't shaken off.

"Then how on earth do you expect me to condemn you?" he asked gently. "You think I would stand here and pass judgement on you when I'd have long been in the ground without your actions?"

"Stop trying to make me noble," Merlin said, but there was a smile to his voice. "I've done things for selfish reasons too."

"Show me one person who hasn't. My peace talks with the druids stemmed from a need to assuage past guilt. Having reasons for your actions doesn't make you any less noble, whatever you may think."

Merlin finally turned, the action putting him into the half-circle of Arthur's arm, his body occupying the space and bringing him closer to Arthur. "I expected you to hate me," Merlin said, meeting Arthur's eyes openly and without guile, his own containing so much that Arthur felt he could drown in them.

"Impossible," Arthur whispered before he stepped closer and pulled Merlin into his arms, feeling the man's body press against his own, moulding against him like he'd been made to fit into Arthur's embrace.

One hand travelled in a slow caress over Merlin's hip before it came to rest in the small of his back, while the other wrapped itself around the base of Merlin's neck. He felt Merlin's hands hot and firm against his back and he turned to press his nose to the man's temple, breathing him in and indulging gloriously in the intimacy of the moment.

Merlin's breath was hot against his neck and the press of his body was almost too much to bear. They were touching from shoulder to hip, the contact too much and not enough, and Arthur knew he was in danger of letting himself be overwhelmed by how bloody perfect it felt. Merlin seemed in no rush to disengage himself, indeed he was holding on so tightly Arthur was sure he'd be bruised.

The fire crackled cheerfully beside them and Arthur couldn't stop the little hum of contentment that escaped from his lips. He knew things weren't settled, that there was more he needed to know, that things would have to change, but in that moment Merlin was soft and warm in his arms and, while they were different people to the ones they had been only days ago, what they meant to one another hadn't been altered. If anything, the strength of those feelings seemed to have deepened, and Arthur wanted to protect that with everything he had.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10

They talked long into the night. They sat on furs in front of the fire, their bodies close and their hands touching, while Merlin spoke and Arthur listened. He watched as the flames danced patterns across Merlin's skin and illuminated his eyes, and listened to the stories he told about growing up and struggling with being so different to everyone around him.

Arthur had never met anyone who had possessed magic from birth, indeed he had never spent a great deal of time with anyone magical, barring Morgana, and he realised he had much to learn about the world of magic. His heart hurt to think of Merlin living his whole life in isolation and it pained him all the more to think of his bright-eyed, younger self arriving in Camelot only to be greeted with the execution of one of his kin.

He couldn't imagine the fear Merlin had lived with, the risks he had taken over the years, and he found himself staring in wonder at this brave, fierce man who had chosen to bestow his loyalty on him. Arthur wondered if he deserved it, if he deserved the faith Merlin had in him, the devotion he had shown him, when he had done nothing to earn it.

They parted reluctantly, both exhausted and needing sleep but Arthur knew neither of them wanted to leave the other. He slept more peacefully than he'd expected to but he still rose earlier than usual and was awake and dressed when Merlin padded softly into the room as the first rays of light filtered in through the window.

"Oh, you're up," Merlin said, placing the breakfast tray on the table.

"I was restless," Arthur replied. "Will you join me?" he asked, gesturing to the food and Merlin gave him an amused smile. "What?"

"You," Merlin said, his eyes dancing. "Being all formal, inviting me to breakfast with you as if I haven't sat and stolen your food for the last five years."

"I'm…being polite," Arthur said, feeling his cheeks flush.

"Well stop it, it's unnerving."

"I can't be polite?"

"Not if the annals of history are anything to go by."

Arthur felt his lip twitch and Merlin grinned at him. Some of the tension between them evaporated and Arthur felt relief flood him that they could still be like this, that the question of magic and the evolving nature of their relationship hadn't robbed them of who they fundamentally were with one another.

"Fine," he said, sitting down at the table. "Starve, see if I care."

"Now, now," Merlin said, taking a seat beside him. "We can't let you have all this food to yourself. We have your waistline to think about, after all."

Arthur threw an apple at him and Merlin's laughter rang out beautifully through his chambers. They ate and bickered, Arthur basking in the familiarity of it. Things were changing, and he knew it, but he valued his closeness to Merlin above all else and guarded it jealously. He would have done anything to protect it.

"If I ask you to come for a walk with me are you going to spend half an hour mocking me?" Arthur asked, wiping his mouth and chucking the napkin down on the table.

"I don't know," Merlin replied, his expression full of mirth. "Try it and see."

Arthur gave a put-upon sigh and said with exaggerated formality, "Merlin, would you do me the honour of favouring me with your company this morning on a pleasant perambulation?"

Merlin laughed, the sound rich and deep, and said, "It would be my pleasure. Let me finish up a few errands and I'll meet you outside in an hour."

"Tell me, Merlin," Arthur said as the man stood up and brushed the crumbs from his clothes, "with all this powerful magic at your disposal, how is it you're still one of the worst manservants in all the five kingdoms?"

Merlin's mouth opened in surprise before a small huff of laughter escaped his lips. His eyes glinted with amusement, the mischief in his expression a balm for the last few days. "Well, sire," he said, the honorific sounding like the insult Merlin always meant it to be, "when one's employer is as much of a dollophead as you, there isn't magic powerful enough to assist in making life easier."

"My heart bleeds for you."

"As it should. Imagine it, my lord, a sorcerer with such skill reduced to washing a king's laundry. It makes the mind boggle, doesn't it?"

He gave Arthur a low, mocking bow and left, a smile making its way onto Arthur's face as he watched the man leave. It was a relief to have their usual levity back, to bicker and insult one another, to be reminded that Merlin was the only person with whom he'd ever shared that kind of closeness.

He'd had a lonely existence, it was true. Until Merlin had come into his life he'd never known what it had been to have a friend. He'd always been close to his knights in the way that brothers-in-arms were, but his status had always meant there was a distance. Merlin had never cared for his title, never cared about his royal lineage, and had only ever shown deference when they were in front of people and it mattered.

With Merlin, he felt as though he was truly himself and that he was accepted for who he was. Merlin had never seen him as a prince or a king, he'd never aligned himself with him for power or as a political manoeuvre, and, with Merlin, Arthur felt seen. It terrified him to think how close he'd come to losing that, and it occurred to him that maybe Merlin didn't know how highly he was valued.

"Are my eyes deceiving me or are you actually on time?" Arthur asked with a smirk as he descended the castle stairs to find Merlin waiting for him in the courtyard.

"It's amazing how much I'm able to accomplish when you leave me to it," Merlin replied with a smile. "Well then, my lord, shall we go for this walk? I'm humbled beyond measure that you've invited a simple servant such as myself to indulge in this lovely past-time."

"Merlin, if you carry on like this I'm going to put you in the stocks," Arthur threatened, trying to hide his smile.

"I'd like to see you try, sire," Merlin said, and the strangely suave confidence in the man's voice sent a shiver through Arthur that was far from unpleasant.

They walked away from the citadel and through the town, the silence between them easy and companionable. Merlin stopped to say hello to almost everyone they passed, the townsfolk as affectionate towards him as the knights were. It made Arthur wonder how all these people would feel if Merlin's true nature were to be revealed, if they would still feel the same way about him if they knew the truth.

He liked to think that Merlin was loved enough for it not to matter, but Uther had fostered a powerful hatred and suspicion of magic within his kingdom that his people had been forced into feeling the same way. Could such attitudes be changed? Could people be convinced that magic could be a force for a good and would people like Merlin one day be able to step out from the shadows?

"I'm certain I gave you a decent winter cloak last year," he said as they left the lower town behind and made their way towards the surrounding forest. "Why aren't you wearing it? You must be freezing."

Merlin gave him a wry smile and said, "Arthur, I'm a sorcerer, I have ways of keeping myself warm."

Arthur felt his cheeks heat as he said, "Ah. So…our…sleeping arrangements when we were camping were…completely unnecessary then."

Merlin looked across at him, an enigmatic little smile playing about his lips as he said, "I wouldn't say that, Arthur."

They walked side by side, their hands brushing occasionally and sending sparks up Arthur's arm. They made their way down to the river, a place they'd spent many a day escaping from the confines of the castle. They sat together on a fallen tree and Arthur couldn't help but shiver as a chill swept up from the water and wrapped around him.

"Let me help you, sire," Merlin said with a smile. He reached over and placed his hand on Arthur's chest and Arthur watched, holding his breath, as a flash of gold illuminated Merlin's eyes. He felt instantly warm, as though he'd been wrapped in a blanket, and he closed his eyes as he felt Merlin's magic settle inside him.

It should have been disconcerting. He should have worried about magic coming anywhere near him, as his father had drilled into him since childhood, but instead he felt utterly safe. This wasn't just magic, it was Merlin's magic, and it felt like it belonged to him. "It's beautiful, Merlin," he said, opening his eyes to find Merlin staring at him intently. "I feel like a fool for thinking it so evil."

"Magic can be used for evil," Merlin said softly, "just as it can be used for good. What matters is the intent of the caster. A sword can be used to protect the vulnerable or it can be used as a weapon to bend them to your will. I can't sit here and tell you that every sorcerer has a pure heart but neither can I condemn them all as wicked."

Arthur nodded. He'd known as much, of course, but his perspective had been so skewed throughout the years and he'd been raised with such hatred and scepticism of magic that those lessons felt difficult to unlearn.

"What's your magic capable of?" he asked quietly, and Merlin averted his eyes. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean that to sound like I was interrogating you. I just…want to know, to understand."

To understand you was left a silent implication in the air and Merlin smiled as he looked ahead at the river. "There are some who say I'm the most powerful sorcerer to walk the earth."

Arthur believed him. It seemed at odds with the man he'd known, the one who tripped over his own feet and dropped priceless silverware, yet it also made a kind of sense that Arthur couldn't explain.

"Are these the same people who made the prophecies about us?"

"Prophecies," Merlin said with a sigh. "Prophecies are tricky things. If you let them, they can dominate your life. At some point, you have to take them as…things that have potential, rather than absolutes."

"What do you mean?" Arthur asked, and Merlin turned his head to face him again.

"Arthur, do you trust me?"

"With my life," Arthur answered honestly, enchanted by the pleased look on Merlin's face and the blush on his cheeks.

"Then…do you trust that…in the past I've taken certain decisions to ensure some prophecies don't come to pass?"

"What are you talking about?"

Merlin took a breath, a look of resignation on his face, as though he'd known that he would always have to have this conversation one day. "There was a prophecy once about Morgana and Mordred, a prophecy that told of their part in your destruction."

"What?" Arthur said, feeling suddenly cold again despite Merlin's warming spell.

"It seemed so final, so certain but I couldn't accept it. I couldn't accept that fate was so determined and that there was nothing I could do to alter the course of things. I went through so many…terrible thoughts, so many notions of how I could…make sure they'd never harm you but…in the end…you gave me the answer I needed."

"Me?" Arthur asked, more confused than ever.

Merlin smiled and looked back out towards the river, tilting his head in the way that Arthur always found ridiculously endearing. "About a month after I'd started working for you, the equerries brought a horse into the royal stables."

"Bracken, I remember," Arthur said, bemused as to what possible bearing this could have on anything.

"Bracken," Merlin agreed with a nod. "He was the most cantankerous bastard I've ever come across. No one could get a saddle on him, a couple of people got a nasty kick when they got too close and he caused a fair amount of damage to the stables. You took one look at him and declared you'd made him a brilliant rider.

"Well of course this was back when I thought you were the biggest prat to ever exist and I was absolutely convinced you'd try to break this horse, that you'd beat it and wear it down until it had no choice but to bend to your will. You did none of those things. Instead, you spent every day for two months with him, sitting quietly in the stable with him, approaching him carefully, letting him know he was safe. You spoke to him and stroked his mane, you never forced him to do anything and I watched in wonder as you showed a gentleness I'd never imagined you capable of.

"He responded to you and now he's one of the finest mounts that Camelot boasts and that was all because of you, Arthur. When I was faced with this terrible prophecy, when I had to try and make sense of it all and decide what to do I…I remembered that horse. I remembered how kindness and a willingness to be gentle and vulnerable had changed the horse's very nature and I knew that I couldn't condemn Morgana and Mordred when kindness might save them."

"Judging by their dedication to you I'd say your plan was successful," Arthur said, feeling overwhelmed at this revelation.

"I love them both," Merlin said feelingly. "I would do anything I could to protect them and I know, in my heart, that this was the right path, that prophecies can't always be trusted or taken at face value. Sometimes a little interpretation is necessary."

"I know I've joked in the past about you showing a wisdom you have no right to possess but my God, Merlin…I'm…humbled."

"I'm still an idiot most of the time," Merlin said with a small laugh, but it was clear he was affected by Arthur's words.

"Well maybe, but you're my idiot," Arthur said before he could stop himself but Merlin looked far from displeased at the declaration.

"I always will be, you know," Merlin declared softly and the urge to pull him close and kiss him was almost too much to bear.

He cleared his throat and said, "Will you…will you contact Morgana for me? There's a matter I need to discuss with her, and I'd like Leon and the others present too. Can she be here this evening?"

"Sounds urgent," Merlin said, looking as though he'd had to shake himself out of the strange little spell they'd been under.

"It is, it's something…something that needs to be done."

"I'll contact her immediately then. I've been fighting to keep her away the last couple of days anyway," he added with a wry smile.

"Why?"

"She's…aware that you know of my magic."

"How?"

"Mordred and I…share a connection. We can communicate through here," Merlin said, tapping his temple, "and he could sense my…conflicted feelings when you first discovered my secret. Morgana was intent on storming the castle and taking me away from Camelot to…protect me."

"She thought I'd harm you?" Arthur asked, hurt at the notion.

"I don't know, but she's very keen to make sure things are alright, to see for herself that I'm in no danger."

"You inspire such devotion in people, Merlin," Arthur said, understanding how Morgana must have felt. He himself would have gone to any lengths to ensure Merlin's safety, to ensure that nothing could ever cause him harm.

"So do you, Arthur."

They spent the rest of the morning together before they made their way back up to the castle in order to dedicate the afternoon to their respective tasks. Arthur spent the afternoon training his knights, admittedly distracted every time he caught sight of Merlin, who was attending to the usual things he dealt with while Arthur sparred.

He watched as his knights joked with the man, Merlin's beautiful smile lighting up the entire training ground as he laughed at something Elyan had said. He assisted them all with armour and weapons and cheered them on from the side lines, the younger knights in fits of laughter as Merlin kept throwing insults at Gwaine and Leon.

The man was such a part of the fabric of Camelot, he was so much more than a mere servant and, as Arthur watched him, he realised just how integral Merlin had been in shaping the kingdom. He had spent so many nights discussing matters of state with him, he had trusted and relied upon the man's opinions, and he genuinely didn't know if he'd be the king he was without Merlin's guidance over the years.

As if aware of the scrutiny, Merlin looked up and caught his eye. Rather than looking away in embarrassment and pretend he hadn't been contemplating the man, Arthur smiled at him. It was an open and honest smile, one that was without guile or pretence, and Merlin paused a moment before he returned it, his own bright and just as warm as Arthur's.

A few hours later, Arthur paced his chambers waiting for everyone he had invited to arrive. He'd made a decision and he knew it was the right one but he didn't know how it was going to be received. Things needed to change and, as the king, it was his responsibility to see that they did.

There was a soft rap at the door, followed by Merlin letting himself in. "I'm the first one here, then?" he asked.

"Early twice in one day. I can scarcely believe it," Arthur replied and Merlin rolled his eyes at him.

He poured himself a glass of wine and came to stand next to Arthur. "What's all this in aid of then? We rarely having meetings like this in your chambers. It feels rather clandestine."

"That's a big word for you," Arthur said, obviously deflecting the question, but Merlin tutted at him, nevertheless. "It's about time some things were addressed, it's about time I started governing the kind of kingdom I can be proud to call my own."

Merlin looked surprised but he was spared answering by another knock at the door. They turned as Morgana entered, the woman making a beeline straight for Merlin. She wrapped him up in an embrace and Arthur watched as the two friends reunited, the spectacle a tender one. Morgana pulled back and fixed Merlin with searching eyes before smiling and saying, "I'm pleased to see you're looking so well. Someone else wants to make sure you're alright."

She nodded towards the door and Arthur saw Mordred standing there, pausing only a moment before he crossed the room and flung himself into Merlin's arms. Merlin grinned as he returned the enthusiastic hug, holding the young man close and saying, "I'm fine, you daft sod. I told you I was."

"Oh, because you never say you're fine when you're not," Mordred said with a derisive snort as he pulled back. He glanced across at Arthur, and Arthur felt himself suddenly under inspection.

"I promise you things are alright," he said sincerely, and Mordred gave him a serious nod before Merlin reached out and ruffled the black curls affectionately, keeping his arm around the young man's shoulders and keeping him close.

"It's high time Merlin was recognised for who he truly is," Morgana said, and Arthur inclined his head in agreement.

"You're right," he said, and she gave him an approving nod before taking a seat at the table.

Gwen and Lancelot arrived moments later, Gwen and Morgana's reunion an affectionate one. Gwen gave Mordred a kiss on the cheek and Arthur and Merlin exchanged an amused glance as the young man blushed all the way up to the roots of his hair. Gaius arrived next, followed by the rest of the knights, and Arthur watched with interest as Leon's eyes lit up upon seeing Morgana. His head knight was the most stoic and reserved man Arthur had ever met, and the pleasure on his face at seeing Morgana again was telling, to say the least.

"Thank you all for coming," Arthur said once everyone was settled.

He looked at the assembled group; Lancelot and Gwen were sitting with their hands entwined while Merlin had his arm draped around Mordred's shoulders, the gesture paternal and affectionate. Gwaine, Percival and Elyan were all sprawling in their chairs, relaxed and content amongst the company of their closest friends while Leon sat a little more formally, his chair angled ever so slightly towards Morgana. Morgana was looking at him with keen, piercing eyes while Gaius' presence felt reassuring, as it always did.

These people meant more to him than anyone in the world and he trusted each and every one of them with his life. They were all vital to the success of Camelot's future and he knew he couldn't hope to build the kingdom he dreamt of without them.

"I've been king for some time now and, while I'm proud of the things we've achieved in that time, we still have a long way to go before Camelot can truly be considered a just and fair kingdom. My father…committed many atrocities and I bear the burden of them now he's gone."

He took a deep breath, feeling Merlin's eyes on him but not able to meet them until he'd said what he needed to say. "For too long those with magic have been persecuted and hunted like animals. It's time we ended it. I intend to lift the ban on magic."

There was silence and Arthur finally allowed himself to look at Merlin. The man was staring at him with wide eyes, stunned and speechless. Arthur raised his eyebrows, wondering if Merlin would read the question in his expression. The man, of course, knew him better than he knew himself and he gave Arthur a gentle smile as he gave him a nod of permission.

"My sister is a powerful sorcerer and was nearly executed by her own father because of something she can't control, something that is fundamentally part of her. Moreover, there is someone in this room who has saved us all more times than I can count, a person whose magic has protected us all and who deserves to be acknowledged for all the good he's done. I know how highly you all regard Merlin," he said, trying not to smile as all eyes went to the man, Leon looking as though he might fall off his chair, "but you should know just how much you owe him."

Morgana and Mordred were looking at Merlin with pride, Lancelot, Gwaine and Gaius with unrestrained fondness, while Leon, Percival, Gwen and Elyan looked surprised but far from horrified. Merlin himself had a very fetching blush on his cheeks and he grinned at everyone boyishly, looking nothing like the powerful sorcerer Arthur knew him to be.

"I cannot preside over a kingdom where those like Merlin, like Morgana and her people, are hunted and reviled. I cannot hold to the ideals my father had and I can't continue a campaign that I know in my heart to be wrong."

"About bloody time," Gwaine said with his usual bluntness.

Lancelot smiled and said, "While I agree with the sentiment, have you considered the practical implications to such a suggestion?"

"I have," Arthur replied. "I'll take time to properly research the current laws as well as the ones that were in place before the Great Purge. Morgana, I hope, will act as a consultant and Merlin, of course, will be invaluable in the implementation of new laws. I won't take the proposal to the council until we're sure of our position and I know we'll have a long road ahead of us but…I have every intention of bringing magic back to Camelot."

He heard a noise that sounded like a half-strangled sob and Merlin stood from the table and went to the window, his back to the group as he sucked in a few shaky breaths. Morgana inclined her head at Arthur, a silent instruction to go to the man, and Arthur did so, approaching him and resting a tentative hand on his shoulder.

"I'm ok," Merlin said, a hitch in his breath. "It's just…I never truly believed this day would ever come. I never dared to hope."

Arthur looked at the man's beautiful profile and watched as a tear made its way down his cheek. He reached out and wiped it away with his thumb, Merlin turning to face him with a watery smile.

"I promise you that I'll right the wrongs that were done in my father's reign. I promise I'll make this a better world for you."

"Oh Arthur," Merlin whispered, and Arthur pulled him into his arms. He held him tightly, his need to comfort and protect him feeling overwhelming. He meant it; he wanted to make the world a safer, more just place for Merlin, he wanted to make it a place where the man could thrive and prosper, his talents recognised and appreciated. He'd lived in the shadows for too long and he deserved to flourish in the light, something Arthur would give him if it killed him.

Someone cleared their throat and Arthur remembered that he and Merlin weren't alone. They disentangled themselves from one another, Merlin's smile sheepish while Arthur prayed he wasn't blushing. Gwaine's eyebrows were almost up in his hair while Mordred's grin was so wide it threatened to split his face. Morgana had an unbearably smug smile on her face while Gaius and Gwen looked as though they might both burst into tears.

He and Merlin took their seats at the table again and the conversation resumed. They spoke at length about Arthur's plans for the reinstation of magic, everyone contributing sensible and useful questions and suggestions. He knew he could trust everyone in the room but the fact that they'd all responded so well to his plan was a relief.

Inevitably, talk turned to Merlin and his magic, and everyone had questions about what Merlin had done over the years, the successes and victories he'd been responsible for. The man answered people's questions with an embarrassed smile, trying to downplay the things he'd done and his part in the rise of Camelot.

"So the immortal army, that was you?" Leon asked, looking at Merlin with new eyes. Leon had always had a brotherly kind of affection for Merlin; he'd laughed and joked with him and had often slung an affectionate arm around his shoulders in a protective manner, but now Leon was looking at the man as if he were a soldier.

"Well, I mean…" Merlin said, picking the edge of his sleeve.

"Yes," Lancelot said firmly, "it was him."

It had been surprising to learn that Lancelot had known about Merlin's magic all along but, like Gwaine, Lancelot's allegiance had always been to Merlin and their friendship stretched back further than anyone's. Arthur found he didn't mind that Lancelot knew before he did and he was comforted by the thought that, along with Gaius, Merlin had had somebody to confide in, he'd had somebody to make things a little less lonely.

"I didn't act alone," Merlin said pointedly, looking at Morgana.

"You were there?" Arthur asked, looking at his sister. "You helped us defeat Cenred and Morgause?" Morgana nodded and Arthur could barely comprehend what he was being told. "Father was still alive, you could have been caught, you could have been killed…yet you came back to help us."

"There were still people here I loved, Arthur, despite what Uther did to me. I had to help, I had to protect those dear to me. Besides," she added, with a smile that diffused some of the seriousness of the moment, "I only assisted, Merlin was the true hero."

"That isn't true," Merlin argued. "You were incredible."

They smiled at one another and Mordred looked between them with an expression full of pride. He nestled himself closer into Merlin's hold and Merlin smiled as the boy rested his head on Merlin's shoulder. Of all the things that Merlin had achieved, surely the closeness he shared with Mordred and Morgana was the most remarkable. He had altered the course of the future, he had ensured the happiness and security of two people who might otherwise have been lost and Arthur's chest constricted to think of the amazing capacity for goodness Merlin had.

"I always thought you were brave, Merlin," Elyan said, his voice gentle, "but I never realised just how brave you were."

"This has to stop," Merlin said with a groan, looking delightfully flustered. "It's lovely that you're all being so nice about this and that none of you want to stick my head on a spike but I'm just me, just Merlin."

"You've never been 'just' anything," Arthur said before he could stop himself, and Merlin looked up at him with an expression that had Arthur wishing no one else was in the room with them.

"A toast," Lancelot said, getting to his feet and holding his goblet up. "To Merlin, who has saved us all so many times and in so many ways. It's time to step out of the shadows, old friend."

Everyone got to their feet, apart from Merlin, who sat looking up them all with tears in his eyes, fighting them back and trying his best to keep his expression stoic.

"To Merlin," they all intoned, raising their goblets towards him and drinking.

Arthur watched as Merlin swallowed hard and said in a whisper, "Thank you."

Mordred gave him a thump on the arm and the mood lightened, Merlin ruffling the boy's hair and wiping the tears from his eyes. They spent the rest of the night talking about easier topics, everyone clearly relieved at the much-need levity. They spoke long into the night and it was Leon who suggested they all retire or they'd regret it in training the next day.

They left with many hearty hugs and claps to Merlin's back, Gwaine swearing that he would remove the testicles of anyone who tried to lay a finger on Merlin once his magic was revealed to the kingdom.

"I'll assist him," Morgana said, her voice so dangerous it send a shiver up Arthur's spine.

"As if anyone would dare mess with me when I have you for protection," Merlin said, his cheeks flushed with the wine he'd been drinking. "You're staying, aren't you? For a few days at least?"

Morgana nodded with a smile. "You need all the allies you can get at the moment," she said with a smirk in Arthur's direction. "Besides, it's been far too long since I've caused chaos in Camelot and Mordred could do with his horizons broadening a little beyond the druid camp."

"You won't get rid of me," Mordred said with a grin and Merlin shook his head fondly.

"Goodnight you two, I'll see you both tomorrow."

Morgana pressed a kiss to Merlin's cheek and Mordred stole another firm hug from him before they both left, Arthur watching them go with a smile. "You look happy," he told Merlin, and the man beamed at him.

"It doesn't feel real, Arthur. I've dreamt about this for so long and here we are. You don't hate me, you haven't banished me from the kingdom and you're going to repeal the ban on magic. My head's swimming."

"That might be the wine," Arthur said with a laugh and Merlin's eyes seemed to sparkle at him.

"True. Perhaps I should head off to bed too."

Arthur nodded and felt he almost had to bite his tongue to stop himself from asking Merlin to stay. "Goodnight then."

"Goodnight, Arthur," Merlin said softly. He paused, running his tongue over his bottom lip before he stepped forward, his body close to Arthur's, then leant in and pressed a kiss to Arthur's cheek.

Arthur stood, stunned, suspended in a moment of thrilled disbelief. Merlin moved back before he could stop him and turned, disappearing out of the door and shutting it behind him. For one brief moment, Arthur considered running down the corridor, grabbing the man and dragging him back to the bedroom and enacting every single fantasy that had taken up permanent residence in his brain. Instead, he rubbed at his cheek, feeling almost branded by Merlin's gentle kiss, and wondered if he'd ever manage to fall asleep.


Chapter Text

Chapter 11

Arthur tapped his foot and tried to return his attention to the piles of books and scrolls that were spread out in front of him but had little success. He tried to give himself a shake; what they were doing was important, after all, but he was getting distracted every five seconds by the man sitting across the table from him.

Merlin was sitting with a handful of scrolls, his brow furrowed as he perused them. Every so often he would draw his bottom lip into his mouth then hold it there with his teeth before finally releasing it again, the lip ever so slightly swollen where it had been bitten. His eyes were focused and he kept wrinkling his nose while he read, an action that made Arthur want to reach across the table and pull the man into his lap.

"Would you stop tapping your foot?" Merlin said, looking up just as Arthur averted his gaze. It was the umpteenth time he'd nearly been caught staring that morning and he knew it was only a matter of time before Merlin looked up to see the king of Camelot gazing at him like a dumb fool.

"Sorry," Arthur said, halting his foot's movements. "How are you getting on?"

Merlin looked pensive as his focus moved back to the books and papers strewn out across the table. "There doesn't seem to be much written about the laws surrounding magic before the Purge. It seems to have just been accepted as part of the fabric of society, there's nothing specific."

"I haven't found anything either. We'll have to start from scratch. When I petition the council with my proposal to lift the ban on magic I want to be able to present them with hard and fast laws rather some kind of vague notion about how we'll do it. I want no stone unturned, I don't want them to be able to come back at us with anything."

He looked at Merlin and the man's expression nearly undid him. "What?" he asked, aware that his voice sounded breathless.

"I'm still not certain I'm not dreaming," Merlin said softly. "Arthur, I…I wish I could tell you how much this means to me, I wish I could show you just how much – "

"Merlin," Arthur said, reaching across and taking Merlin's hand in his own, "this is the very least you deserve. You and those with magic deserve to live a life free from fear."

Merlin ran his thumb over the back of Arthur's hand and Arthur couldn't help but smile at the intimate gesture. "I never imagined this. To be honest, I'm still overwhelmed that you and I are still…friends," Merlin said, his voice wavering slightly on the word 'friends'.

"Did you really think we wouldn't be?"

Merlin sighed, still caressing Arthur's hand gently, and said, "I don't know. When you helped Morgana it…gave me hope but…I couldn't be sure. I lay awake so many nights thinking about telling you and I came close so many times but I just couldn't risk it. Arthur, losing you…"

"You haven't lost me," Arthur assured him, then, throwing all caution to the wind, brought Merlin's hand up to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to his knuckles. He heard Merlin's sharp intake of breath and he raised his eyes to see Merlin looking at him with flushed cheeks and wide eyes.

The air felt charged between them. Merlin was looking at him as though his whole world began and ended in Arthur's eyes and Arthur wanted nothing more than to reach out and pull the man into his arms, to kiss him and promise that God himself couldn't part them. Fate, it seemed, had decided to mock him; the moment he had resolved to finally gather his courage and pull Merlin closer a knock sounded at the door.

Gritting his teeth and wishing he had Merlin's magic to get rid of whoever had seen fit to interrupt such a pivotal moment, he instead gave a terse, "Come in."

"Sire," Leon said, entering the room with a polite bow. "I came to remind you that the delegation is due from the outlying villages in half an hour."

"Damn," Arthur said with a sigh, "I'd forgotten. Of course, the person responsible for my schedule should have reminded me," he added with a pointed look at Merlin, who grinned back at him.

"It slipped my mind," Merlin said, and Arthur rolled his eyes fondly.

"Very well. Thank you, Leon, it's nice to see someone can keep things organised around here. I'll be down presently."

"My lord," Leon said with an amused smile, turning and leaving. It was only then that Arthur realised he was still holding Merlin's hand and he let it go as embarrassment tinged his cheeks.

"I um…I should go and prepare for their arrival."

Merlin nodded. "I have a list of jobs that isn't getting any smaller. I should really get some work done today rather than sitting in your chambers looking through centuries-old law."

"Will I…see you for dinner later, with Morgana and Mordred?" he asked as he shuffled into his jacket and got to his feet, feeling all-too reluctant to leave Merlin, if only for a few hours.

"Yes, I'm looking forward to it. I'll see you later then."

Arthur spent his afternoon taken up with the delegation, reminded that his kingdom did actually extend beyond Merlin. That was not to say, of course, that his thoughts didn't stray to the man every five minutes or so, and, in between the more important matters of state, he allowed himself to indulge.

Surprisingly, he was actually thinking along more practical lines than he had done for a while where Merlin was concerned. The man's casual mention of his chores earlier that morning had brought into focus that Merlin was, in fact, still a servant. Over the years his position both in Arthur's eyes and the royal household in general had changed; he had been trusted with things no mere servant ever would have been and both the knights and the court officials had accepted that, when it came to certain matters pertaining to Camelot, Merlin had control.

For over a year he had co-ordinated with Leon when it came to organising security and the knights' patrols, worked alongside the Godric, the castle steward, in all things affecting the day-to-day running of Camelot and liaised with the household staff to ensure things ran smoothly. He still attended to Arthur, although he'd never been the most diligent when it came to doing so, but now Arthur wondered if something more formal needed to be put into place.

Camelot needed Merlin just as much as Arthur did. It relied on his wisdom, his compassion, his uncanny ability to charm everybody so that household disputes and grievances were laid aside as quickly as they'd arisen. It needed him to act as a voice for the townspeople who lived within the citadel and all those who existed within Camelot's borders, it needed him in order to become the kingdom Arthur dreamed of.

It made him smile to think that the boy who had walked up to him on their first meeting and insulted him was now the most important person in his life and vital to the running of his kingdom. He should have known back then that a simple peasant who had the audacity to challenge the crown prince would have been destined to cause havoc and it was time that Merlin's efforts were recognised properly.

The circumstances of Merlin's birth didn't matter. Arthur had appointed commoners to be his knights and had opened up the position to all those who wished to join. Every year trials were held to welcome all from the kingdom who wished to compete and those most successful were given the opportunity to complete basic training. It had worked far better than he'd ever imagined and now his knights were made up of men who were excellent fighters and fiercely loyal, rather than men who had the right type of blood in their veins.

Why should Merlin not receive similar treatment? Why should he not be able to rise above his status and be seen for the man he was rather than who society had deemed him to be? Why shouldn't any person, come to that? That was the Camelot he wanted, the Camelot he was trying to build and it seemed ludicrous that he not start with the one person who meant more to him than any of it.

He retired to his chambers, tired from the day's events and more than a little grumpy that he hadn't managed to see Merlin once since they'd parted that morning. He had arranged for George to attend him that evening, as Merlin was supposed to be coming to dinner as his guest, and the man served him with his usual efficiency and skill.

He helped him to dress and flitted back and forth from the kitchens, a maidservant assisting him, as he brought up dinner. The table was immaculate as Arthur took a seat, swearing he could see his reflection in the silverware.

"George! Looking good," Merlin said with a grin as he arrived with Mordred and Morgana, clapping the man on the back and earning himself an exasperated smile in return. George didn't smile at anyone unless he believed it was expected of him and Arthur had to suppress a laugh to see him dropping the formality for just a second.

Dinner was served and Arthur dismissed George with a nod of thanks, wishing to keep the meal an intimate affair as magic was to be discussed. Morgana had spent the day outside the citadel speaking with her people, who were camped in the forest, while Mordred had been acquainting himself with the castle as well as the knights.

Gwaine had taken a shine to him and had invited him to watch that afternoon's training. Mordred was clearly thoroughly enthralled by them and declared his intention to compete in the following year's tournament for new recruits.

"Over my dead body," Merlin said, spluttering into his wine.

"Merlin, I'll be 16, you can't stop me," Mordred said with a defiance that rivalled Merlin's own.

"You can live to be 100 and you won't be joining the knights," Merlin said with a glare, and Morgana looked at Arthur with an amused smile.

"Don't be ridiculous," Mordred said with a huff. "Tell me, what could be more noble than fighting for Camelot, serving my king?"

Arthur was pleasantly surprised at Mordred's words but he knew better than to interject at that moment. Merlin would have his head, magic or no magic, and he knew better than to interrupt Merlin when he was filled with parental intent.

"You can serve him perfectly well by not putting yourself on the pointed end of a sword every five minutes," Merlin argued. "Morgana's been teaching you her skill with healing, why can't you pursue that?"

"Because I want to be a knight," Mordred said slowly, as though Merlin had trouble grasping the concept.

Merlin pursed his lips and Morgana looked as though she was trying very hard not to laugh. Arthur, likewise, was struggling to keep a straight face while watching Merlin have a minor breakdown. The fact that Merlin had cast himself in the role of Mordred's father, despite being little more than 10 years his senior, was amusing and touching at the same time.

Whatever Merlin's motivation in befriending Mordred initially, whether he'd acted on Arthur's behalf or not, his feelings for the young man now were genuine. It was clear how much Merlin loved him, how much Mordred loved Merlin in return, and their argument was heart-warming even while it was entertaining.

"Well, a year is a long time," Merlin said, clearly knowing that Mordred's stubbornness could match his own. "We'll see if you still feel the same way then."

"I will," Mordred said firmly.

"Morgana," Arthur said, deciding now was the time to interject, "how did your talks go today?"

Conversation turned to the druids and the role they would play in the reinstation of magic throughout the kingdom. Morgana, as their leader, would wield considerable influence and Arthur was keen to appoint her a position within the court that would reflect her important status. Her considerable skill with healing magic was a card that he was determined to play when it came to convincing the council and Arthur wanted so desperately to undo all the damage Uther had done to her.

The druids had ancient laws when it came to the practice of magic and Morgana acquainted him with them while they ate. They were the kind of laws that made sense, that were fair and proportional, and Morgana agreed to sit with him and Merlin the next day while they tried to create the new laws they would bring before the council. It was fitting that Morgana would play such an important role in such a monumental step in Camelot's history and Arthur found himself thinking how much he'd missed his sister during her exile.

The evening was a pleasant one and Morgana promised to stay in Camelot for as long as she was needed. Mordred, it seemed, had absolutely no intention of going anywhere for the time being, and Merlin threatened to put him to work in the castle laundry if he insisted on spending on all his time with the knights and learning bad habits.

"You can't stop him if he wants to try out," Arthur said as he and Merlin sat in front of the fire after Morgana and Mordred had left.

"I can turn him into a toad and put him a jar," Merlin said petulantly.

Arthur laughed and said, "He might not even make it through the trials."

"Oh wonderful. He'll compete and get a spear up his nose, ending his dreams of becoming a knight and giving him a fetching new look in the process."

"It's very touching how much you care for him," Arthur said sincerely and Merlin's expression softened.

"I know it's daft, I know I'm not that much older than him but I can't help feeling protective. I feel a connection with him and it does feel…fatherly. I know it's stupid," Merlin said with a shake of his head.

"It isn't," Arthur assured him. "I find it rather moving, especially considering you never knew your own father."

Merlin's expression changed and a frown settled on his face as he looked into the fire. Arthur wasn't sure what he'd said wrong and he was about to apologise when Merlin said softly, "Yes I did."

"I beg your pardon?" Arthur asked, not certain he'd heard the man correctly.

Merlin sighed and shifted his body so he was facing Arthur. "I did know him, but only briefly before he died."

"Merlin – "

"Balinor was my father. I've been trying to think how to tell you, I don't want any more secrets between us. I've told you everything but…I didn't know how to tell you that."

"Balinor," Arthur said, completely taken aback. "Then you – "

"Yes," Merlin said, looking suddenly pale, "I'm a Dragon Lord, the last in fact. When he died his powers passed to me."

"Merlin," Arthur breathed, pieces of the puzzle beginning to fall into place, "was it you who defeated the dragon?"

Merlin got to his feet, his agitation obvious, and Arthur watched as he moved to the window, his face in profile as he stared out, looking upset and conflicted. "The dragon's still alive, I commanded him to leave Camelot," he said eventually.

"Oh," Arthur said, replaying the events of that night in his mind and considering that it had seemed a little odd that he'd recovered consciousness only to find he'd supposedly dealt the creature a mortal blow and it had disappeared off somewhere to die. "Well I can't say I'm not a little disappointed to be unable to claim that victory as my own but at least Camelot was saved, that's the main thing."

"No, you don't understand," Merlin said, shaking his head.

"What don't I understand?" Arthur asked, standing up and moving to stand behind Merlin. "Come on, you know you can tell me anything. We've come through all this, haven't we? It can't be that bad."

Merlin turned to face him and searched his face for a moment before he said in a low voice, "I released the dragon, Arthur. The whole thing was my fault and I've had to live with that regret ever since. I'm truly sorry and I won't blame you if you hate me."

"You? You released him? Why on earth would you do that?" Arthur asked, surprise and anger beginning to rise in his chest as he thought of all the lives that had been lost and the destruction Camelot had suffered.

"Arthur…the dragon…the dragon was the one who first told me of the prophecy concerning you and me. He…advised me, helped me, told me things that I would have had no way of knowing. He'd been kept prisoner for so long though and…when I asked for his help with Morgause and the immortal army…he wouldn't give it unless I made a promise to free him. The promise was binding and…I wouldn't have been able to defeat the army without his help. It was an impossible position but you have to believe me that I had no idea he would seek such a terrible revenge. What happened that day still haunts me."

"I'm not sure how many more revelations I can take," Arthur said, rubbing at his face in frustration. "You must have known that nothing good could come of freeing him."

"I made a vow, Arthur. If I hadn't then Morgause would have won and nothing would have mattered anyway. I've never forgiven myself and I don't expect you to either."

Arthur didn't know what to say. Merlin had been faced with an impossible decision and he'd done what he believed to be right but it didn't mean that it negated the devastation the dragon had wrought. He could see how deeply Merlin regretted it and he knew that the man's gentle and compassionate nature would have meant that he felt the grief he'd caused keenly.

Merlin seemed to read his silence as confirmation that he couldn't forgive him and he sighed before he moved past him with a look of resignation, heading for the door. Arthur caught the man's wrist and pulled him gently back to him, unwilling to let this drive a wedge between them, not when there was so much to lose.

"No more secrets," he said firmly. "Whatever you need to tell me, tell me and we'll deal with it. I'm not thrilled about this, not at all, but I can understand that you were faced with a choice few would like to make. It's difficult to come to terms with, I'll admit, but this doesn't change anything, do you understand me?"

Merlin nodded, looking as though he might burst into tears at any moment. Arthur felt his expression soften and he reached up with his free hand to cup Merlin's cheek, the man leaning into the touch. He looked utterly beautiful in the glow from the firelight and, even while he still felt conflicted about what he'd just heard, he couldn't deny that his feelings for Merlin were stronger than they'd ever been.

He allowed his thumb to move in a soft caress over the man's cheekbone and Merlin's expression turned from sorrowful to something else entirely. "Merlin," Arthur said, his voice sounding thick, trying to gather all the courage he possessed.

"Arthur?" Merlin said, his voice sounding equally affected.

"If I don't kiss you in the next 30 seconds I might lose my mind," Arthur whispered, and Merlin's eyes widened before he leant forward and pressed his lips to Arthur's.

The initial surprise quickly gave way to sheer delight and Arthur dropped Merlin's wrist so he could use his hand to press against the small of Merlin's back and hold him close. His other hand travelled to twine in the man's thick hair and he felt Merlin's hands press hotly against his chest as the kiss deepened.

It was hot and sweet, Merlin's tongue meeting his own while the man's hand gripped insistently at the front of his shirt. Arthur tasted and explored, heat pooling in the pit of his stomach as he felt Merlin's groin press against his own, an answering hardness to his. Merlin's lips were unbearably soft and his kisses were so sensuous that Arthur feared he would lose himself in them.

He pulled the man closer, feeling Merlin's muted gasp as his thigh made its way between the man's legs. He moved his lips from Merlin's plump mouth to his jaw, mouthing the soft skin. He pulled gently on Merlin's hair, tugging his head to the side and kissing a path down the man's throat, feeling Merlin's breath hitch when he apparently found a sensitive spot.

"Arthur," Merlin said shakily, and Arthur's blood pounded to think of all the ways he could make Merlin say his name.

Arthur let his hand move beneath the fabric of Merlin's shirt, his palm touching soft skin, desperate to feel more. "What do you want, Merlin?" he asked, his lips a soft press against the column of Merlin's neck.

"Arthur, I – "

Arthur pulled back, the flush of arousal on Merlin's face a sight to behold. A faint tremble racked the man's body and Arthur ran his fingers through Merlin's hair, saying, "What is it? If you don't want – "

"You have no idea how much I want this," Merlin said, moving against Arthur's thigh as if to prove it. "You can't know how long I've been imagining it, it's just…"

"Just what?" Arthur asked gently.

"I've never…I've never done this before," Merlin confessed quietly. "I don't want to disappoint you."

It was in that moment Arthur knew he was lost. He couldn't imagine loving anyone as much he loved Merlin and the fact that Merlin would give him such a precious gift was humbling beyond measure.

"You could never disappoint me," he whispered, hearing the tenderness in his voice. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to."

"God, Arthur, I want to, I want everything," Merlin said feelingly, his hands tight in Arthur's shirt. "I'm just…nervous."

Love swelled in Arthur's chest and he had no idea how he could contain it. "Let me take care of you," he said, curling a hand around Merlin's neck, feeling himself almost come undone at the look of pure devotion the man gave him.

Merlin nodded and Arthur smiled, leaning forward to kiss him again, feeling the man melt into his arms. God but it was perfection. He undid Merlin's belt and allowed both hands to travel beneath his shirt, feeling inch after inch of glorious skin. He wanted to explore the man completely, to acquaint himself with every part of him and to learn all the things that would make him come undone beneath his hands.

He broke the kiss to pull the shirt up and over Merlin's head then pushed him gently towards the bed. Merlin sat then shifted up towards the head, his eyes on Arthur as he removed his own shirt then joined him. They kissed again and Arthur pressed Merlin back against the pillows, letting his body cover Merlin's, a thrill going through him at the contact.

He kissed a trail down the man's throat then across his chest, letting his hands map out the route, his fingers a gentle caress before his lips followed, Merlin writhing beneath him. He explored with fervour, feeling as though he was claiming Merlin with each touch, finally making him his.

He reached the waistband of Merlin's breeches and he raised his head to look up at the man, saying "Can I take these off?"

"Yes," Merlin said breathlessly, and Arthur smiled as he made short work of the laces.

He drew the breeches and Merlin's smalls down the man's legs and allowed himself a moment to drink in the sight of him. Merlin was a sensuous sprawl against the bed, his pale skin a beautiful contrast against the deep red of the bedding and his cock sitting hard against his flat stomach. He looked nervous, self-conscious, and Arthur reached out to brush the hair from his forehead as he said softly, "You're breath-taking."

Merlin blushed beautifully and Arthur resumed his exploration of the man's body. He snaked down across his stomach and teased the skin with kisses while he reached out and trailed a hand over Merlin's legs before he let it dip against the man's inner thigh, earning himself low groan as Merlin's hips moved in an effort to push his groin closer to Arthur's hand.

He kissed a path over one sharp hip then finally allowed his hand to brush lightly over Merlin's straining erection, smiling at the little gasp he heard above his head. He let his fingers tease for a moment before he took pity and gripped a little more firmly, creating a sheath and moving his hand, letting Merlin push himself into it.

He lowered his head and licked the glistening head, hearing a strained, "Oh God," from Merlin as he did so. He took more into his mouth, keeping his hand firm on the base, and allowed himself a moment to torment Merlin a little with a few lascivious movements from his tongue, tasting the man and enjoying himself as he did so. He'd fantasised about having Merlin this way, however much he'd tried to deny it, and he was going to make the moment last.

He moved his mouth up and down several times, creating suction and wetness, his hand continuing to caress with the other moved to roll Merlin's balls gently in his palm. Merlin's breath was coming in stutters now and Arthur was intensely aroused by the sound. He went lower and took Merlin all the way to the back of this throat, letting his muscles relax to accommodate him.

"Oh my God," Merlin moaned as his hips undulated. "That's…God…I can't…"

Arthur hummed and took Merlin deep again and again, letting his hand slide from his balls further back to let one finger tease gently against his entrance. He stroked, having no intention of breaching him just yet, and Merlin let out something that sounded like a whimper.

He removed his mouth and glanced up at the man, almost undone himself by how bloody perfect Merlin looked splayed against his pillows, his lips parted and his eyes wide with arousal. "Do you want me inside you?" he asked, his voice thick.

"Yes, Arthur. God yes," Merlin said without a moment's hesitation.

"We'll need oil."

Merlin lifted his hand and a vial sprang from the cupboard opposite and landed with a smack against his palm. He handed it to Arthur and he recognised the rosehip oil they used to treat his scars. "Show-off," he said with a smirk.

Merlin raised an eyebrow at him, defiant and combative even when he was drunk on sex, and his eyes turned gold before Arthur found himself divested of the rest of his clothing. "That's cheating," he accused and Merlin gave him a self-satisfied smile. Arthur intended to wipe it off his face.

He uncorked the vial and coated his fingers with oil, placing the vial on the bedside table and meeting Merlin's eyes as he said, "I'm going to open you up, Merlin. I'm going to prepare your body for me and then I'm going to sink inside you and make your forget your own name."

That did it. Merlin let out a shaky, "Fuck," and let his head fall back against the pillows as Arthur lowered his head to Merlin's cock again while he coated Merlin's entrance in oil. He rubbed gently while his tongue did wicked things, stroking the tight ring of muscle and letting Merlin get used to the sensation.

Merlin writhed against him and Arthur slowly pressed one finger inside him, determined to be as careful with the man as he possibly could. Merlin would never know anything but pleasure at his hands, that he swore, and he wanted the man's first time to be something he would never forget. He moved his finger in and out before he added a second, making sure he gauged Merlin's reaction to make sure he wasn't hurting him.

Judging by the way the man pushed down against the intrusion, Arthur was certain he was in no immediate danger. He continued to tease Merlin with his tongue while he let his fingers penetrate him, loving Merlin's obvious enthusiasm and absolutely aching to be inside him. He added a third finger and crooked them just so, Merlin's resultant moan a heady sound that made Arthur impossibly hard.

He stretched and opened the man, wanting him thoroughly prepared, wanting him on the very cusp of too much and desperate to receive Arthur inside him. He stopped what he was doing with his mouth and looked up, allowing himself a somewhat pleased smirk at the state the man was in. He removed his fingers and grabbed the oil again, slicking his erection while Merlin watched with eyes blown wide by lust.

It was almost painful to touch himself but he made sure he was well-oiled, trying to steady himself before he positioned himself between Merlin's thighs. "Just press down against me," he said softly, "and tell me anytime you want to stop."

Merlin nodded, looking vulnerable but extremely willing and Arthur took a deep breath before he guided himself to Merlin's entrance. He pressed forward and breached the tight ring of muscle, watching Merlin's expression carefully to check for signs of pain. The man looked overwhelmed but not in any distress and Arthur allowed himself to push all the way in slowly.

"Alright?" he asked gently.

"Yes," Merlin said with a whisper, and Arthur leant forward to meet the man's lips in a soft kiss, their chests pressing together as Arthur moved his hips carefully, drawing himself slowly out to the tip then pushing back in again.

Merlin's hand came up to grasp his hair, his kisses insistent and urgent, while he tilted his pelvis up in an effort to get Arthur to move. "Patience, you insufferable git," Arthur said with a smile against Merlin's lips.

"I want to feel you move," Merlin said, his voice low, doing unspeakable thing to Arthur's body.

"You will, just let yourself get used to it." Merlin tilted his hips and deliberately clenched around Arthur, Arthur squeezing his eyes shut and saying with a growl, "You're impossible."

He reached down with one hand and grabbed Merlin's thigh, pulling it up while he pressed into the man's hot, tight heat. Merlin groaned, his head pressing back into the pillows, his full, plump lip caught between his teeth and his cheeks flushed exquisitely.

It was glorious and Arthur let himself move properly, convinced he wouldn't hurt Merlin, captivated by the look of sheer pleasure on his face. He moved deeply, still determined not to go too quickly, both for Merlin's sake and for his own enjoyment. He wanted to savour every moment, to appreciate how wonderful it was to finally be buried to the hilt inside a body he'd wanted for so long.

He drove himself inside Merlin over and over again, gripping his thigh tightly and revelling in the sweet, all-encompassing heat that sheathed him. He mouthed at Merlin's neck as he thrust, tasting him and loving the little intakes of breath he manged to draw as he teased the sensitive skin. He felt surrounded by the man, overwhelmed by him, and he was more than happy to lose himself in Merlin forever.

He finally allowed himself to quicken the pace, pushing deeply inside each time while Merlin's breathy sighs turned into moans of pleasure, the sound sending shivers down his spine as they danced across his ear. His hips moved almost of their own accord and he couldn't stop himself from biting Merlin's neck as his pleasure grew. He snaked a hand down to Merlin's erection and gripped it firmly, letting his movements guide it through the ring of his hand as he continued to thrust.

"Fuck," Merlin groaned. "Fuck, oh fuck yes."

His body moved with Arthur's, the motion nearly tipping Arthur over the edge. He pushed harder, faster, and watched as Merlin's eyes met his own, a ring of gold appearing in the irises before he emitted a cry of pleasure and spilt himself all over Arthur's hand. Arthur watched him, the man's expression absolutely beautiful as he rode out his high, and Arthur couldn't help but feel a little smug that he was the cause.

He gave him a moment before he braced himself on his arms and thrust into him, closing his eyes as he felt the tension coiling in his groin before it finally swelled and broke, crashing through him and setting every nerve on fire. He came with a groan, spilling himself deep inside Merlin and feeling like his world had tilted sideways. He levered himself down on shaky arms and felt Merlin's hand settle at the nape of his neck as they breathed heavily, trying to collect themselves.

"I can't believe that just happened," Merlin whispered.

"You'd better," Arthur said with a laugh, tilting his head to look at the man. "Are you ok? I didn't hurt you?"

"Far from it," Merlin said with a grin. "That was the most amazing thing I've ever experienced." Something seemed to catch his eye and he looked around the room before he flung an arm over his eyes and said, "Oh hell, I'm so embarrassed."

Frowning and wondering what the man was talking about, Arthur lifted his head and looked up only to find that the room was covered in rose petals. He smiled and pulled Merlin's arm from his face, saying, "I always knew you were a hopeless romantic."

"Oh shut up, you royal prat," Merlin groused, but there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Arthur shook his head fondly and withdrew carefully from Merlin's body, feeling a tingle of magic sweep over them as Merlin cleaned them both. Arthur repositioned himself to lie next to Merlin, propping himself up on one elbow as he looked at the man. Merlin smiled up at him and Arthur felt giddy with the force of his feelings for him.

"I um…I suppose I'd better get back to Gaius' chambers before I fall asleep here," Merlin said eventually with an air of reluctance.

Arthur wanted to argue, to wrap an arm around Merlin and keep him close, to sleep beside him throughout the night and maintain the sense of closeness he felt to him but he knew that Merlin was being sensible. They had to go cautiously with this new thing between them and nothing could jeopardise the work they were doing surrounding the ban on magic; court gossip would be the quickest way to do that and neither of them could risk it.

"I suppose so," he finally agreed with a sigh, and Merlin reached over to place a hand on his cheek before he gave him a slow, sweet kiss.

He shuffled off the bed and grabbed his clothes, dressing quickly while Arthur watched, Arthur wanting nothing more than to throw the bloody clothes out of the window and have the man naked in his bed again. One day he would be able to sleep alongside the man he loved, everyone else be damned.

"Goodnight then," Merlin said with a shy smile as he headed for the door.

"Goodnight, Merlin."

Arthur watched him go then grabbed the pillow beside him, the linen smelling obligingly like Merlin as he pulled it close. One day, he thought as he closed his eyes, couldn't come bloody soon enough.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12

Grain reports were bloody awful to listen to at the best of times but when the man he loved was standing merely feet away, close enough to touch, Arthur found it damn near impossible. He was trying desperately to school his expression into one of interest while Godric droned endlessly on but, despite his best intentions, his eyes kept flitting up to Merlin.

It had been a few days since they'd slept together for the first time and the memory of it was playing in Arthur's head constantly. They'd been so busy with their various duties that they'd barely had an opportunity to be alone together but even when they were Arthur was trying to tread cautiously.

He didn't want Merlin to feel overwhelmed, to feel pressured into anything if he wasn't ready. He was new to the world of sex and intimacy and he likely didn't have a clear idea of what his own wants and needs were, what his boundaries might be, and Arthur didn't want to tread all over that careful discovery of himself. He didn't want to make Merlin feel uncomfortable and he was determined the man would feel safe and respected in this tentative new thing they were building.

If Arthur was completely honest with himself, he was still figuring out these things too. He had very little experience when it came to affairs of the heart, indeed, he had never been in love before and he was terrified he'd mess it up. He found things with Merlin came naturally and they had a strong foundation of friendship to build on but Arthur hadn't had much in the way of positive and healthy relationships in his life.

Before Merlin, he hadn't known what it was to be touched, not outside of a friendly thump or the clinical brush of a servant's fingers as they'd dressed him. He'd been lonely, touch-starved, desperate for affection and then Merlin had barrelled into his life and touched him with gentle hands when he was injured, playful hands when they fought, loving hands when he'd needed comfort. It had opened his world up but Arthur still struggled when it came to being tactile with others.

He wanted to, and he found it came more easily with Merlin than most but he still felt he was holding himself back, unsure how his overtures might be received. If he acted purely on how he felt he would have had Merlin's in his arms every hour of the day and would have touched him at every given opportunity. As it was, things were still new and Arthur wanted, more than anything, to protect this thing between them and give it the chance to become something wonderful.

"Sire?"

He shook himself and found that Godric was looking at him with an expectant expression. His mind had clearly wandered more than he'd thought he'd allowed it to and he'd had no idea the man had stopped speaking.

"Ah…yes, thank you, Godric. Very informative. I shall take all you've said under consideration."

Godric gave him a confused frown but nodded, nevertheless, and took his seat. Arthur noticed there were a few amused smiles around the table and he cleared his throat, saying, "That will be all for today, gentlemen. Thank you."

Everyone took that as their cue for dismissal and filed out of the hall, leaving Arthur sitting with an embarrassed flush on his cheeks.

"Smooth," Merlin said with a grin, and Arthur glared at him.

"It isn't my fault if the grain report is the most boring thing known to man. I think I should be commended for keeping my bloody eyes open."

"Yes sire," Merlin said with false sincerity. "I suppose you'll be off to train your brutes now then?"

"I suppose I shall," Arthur said with a sigh, wondering if he could abdicate the throne for a week so he could have a holiday. "And you? What are you up to?"

"I promised Morgana I'd visit the druid camp and then I want to see how Mordred's got on with Gaius today."

Arthur smiled and said, "Still trying to convince him to apprentice as a physician rather than join the knights?"

"For all the good it will do. That bloody-minded sod has his heart set on becoming one of you lot. I'm still considering turning him into a toad."

Arthur smiled and felt a strange kind of tension settle between them. It was clear that neither of them knew quite where they stood with one another now and that the shift in their relationship had changed things. It would take time to figure out how this shift affected things and how they needed to behave accordingly.

"Well, I'll see you later then?" he asked and Merlin nodded with a smile.

"I'll come by when I'm done."

The tension hung a little more thickly and Arthur wanted so badly to kiss the man, to reach out and pull him close and let him know that, even though things were changing, Merlin would always be the most important thing in his life. Instead, he nodded and left the room, deciding that perhaps a conversation might be needed later, despite the discomfort it might cause.

He was busy for the rest of the day and he was shattered by the time he returned to his chambers. Training had been particularly intense and had given him sore shoulders and a tight back, as well as a headache that threatened to settle in for the evening. He'd also had a meeting with Leon, which had ended with Arthur deciding to place a garrison at the northern border of Camelot.

With all that had been happening between himself and Merlin, he'd almost forgotten the unrest that had been brewing and the reason why they'd ridden out to visit other villages in the first place. Someone was causing trouble somewhere and it made Arthur uneasy; they'd lived in peace ever since Cenred's attempt to steal the throne and Arthur was loath to see that peace give way to dissention and potentially something worse.

He spent his evening poring over maps and drawing up lists of their allies in the north, both ones of note and those with more humble origins, the ones people like Gwaine and Lancelot had spent months garnering. People like that were invaluable and could gather information that nobles and those of that ilk simply weren't privy to. Arthur needed to know what was happening and he was determined to be prepared, not caught off guard in the way he had been with Cenred.

Merlin found him still at his desk, and Arthur was glad of the reprieve the man's presence brought him. Merlin had brought dinner up with him and Arthur joined him at the table as he served up, accepting a glass of wine with thanks.

"Did you enjoy your day with Morgana?"

"Mm," Merlin said with a smile as he ate. "It's wonderful to see her among the druids. She's so respected, so loved."

"It makes me sick to think what fate might have befallen her," Arthur said sadly. "If it hadn't been for you – "

"And you," Merlin said firmly. "It was a joint effort. I was so proud of you."

"Proud?" Arthur echoed, surprised.

"To defy your father like that, to risk everything for Morgana, to trust the druids. It was a glimpse of the king I knew you'd become, the man you'd be. I was proud to serve you, to be your friend and I knew in my heart that all those damned prophecies had been right, that you would be the one to unite the lands in peace."

Arthur swallowed and leant back in his chair, saying, "I'm not sure how a man is supposed to live up to that kind of expectation."

"You do every day, Arthur. Whether you know it or not," Merlin said with a gentle smile that went straight to Arthur's heart. Perhaps sensing that the topic was potentially too heavy, Merlin took a sip of his wine and asked, "How did your meeting with Leon go?"

Arthur apprised him of everything Leon told him and Merlin agreed that it was cause for concern. He suggested an alteration to a couple of trade routes and studied the maps for a few quiet moments before he advised the garrison to be moved ten miles west while a more covert operation was put in place a little further east. As usual, his advice was both astute and invaluable and Arthur wondered how he had ever coped without him.

The spent the evening speaking as they had always done; Camelot was a never-ending source of things to discuss and the life of a king was seldom quiet. There was an undercurrent between them though, something anticipatory and disquieted, something that made the conversation a little more stunted than it usually was and made for a few awkward silences, something they'd never suffered from before.

Eventually, when the conversation hit another lull, Merlin frowned and fiddled with the edge of the table, Arthur recognising the little interplay of emotions that crossed the man's face. He was about to ask what was wrong when Merlin took a deep breath and looked up, saying, "Arthur…when we…the other night…did you not…was it not good?"

"What?" Arthur asked, feeling his eyebrows rise in surprise. "What could possibly make you think that?"

"Well," Merlin said, a blush suffusing his cheeks, "we haven't…been together like that since and you haven't brought it up so…I thought maybe…you didn't enjoy it, that perhaps you regretted that it happened."

Arthur allowed himself a moment to mentally kick himself for being such a moron then pushed himself up from the table. He stood in front of Merlin and took the man's hand, pulling him to his feet and sliding an arm around his waist, pulling him in for a slow, sweet kiss. Merlin responded eagerly, his arms sliding up to go around Arthur's neck while he pulled himself closer.

"That night was the best of my life," Arthur whispered as he pulled back, pressing their foreheads together, "and it's been all I can do to keep my hands off you. I don't regret it for a second, please don't think I ever would, I'm just…trying to tread cautiously."

"Why?" Merlin asked, his fingers threading through Arthur's hair gently.

"I didn't want to overwhelm you, I didn't want to push you into something you weren't ready for. I was also…trying to get used to things myself. This is all…very new."

"Oh," Merlin said softly, his smile nearly enough to prompt Arthur to chuck him onto the bed there and then and have his way with him. "I don't want you to keep your hands off me," Merlin told him, his voice low with a seductive edge to it that Arthur had never heard before. He felt his belt being loosened and discarded before Merlin's hands slid beneath his shirt, his fingertips a soft dance over his skin. "In fact, I've never wanted to feel anything more than your hands all over me."

"So much for you being overwhelmed," Arthur said dryly as Merlin began to push him towards the bed. He went willingly, more than happy to let Merlin take the initiative and thrilled at the prospect of him taking a more active role in proceedings.

He felt magic wash over him, realising that it felt familiar, it felt like Merlin, and he felt the air hit his skin as his clothing disappeared. He was pushed down onto the bed and Merlin straddled him, also gloriously naked, his eyes dark. Arthur watched as Merlin lowered his head and began to kiss a path down his chest, the featherlight touches sending sparks of pleasure across his skin.

Merlin's hands explored him gently and Arthur's eyes fluttered closed as he felt himself taken apart by each searching caress, each wonderful kiss from those beautiful lips. He felt Merlin move down his body and a delicious tension coiled in his stomach as he felt Merlin's fingers brush his erection. The man teased him with unbearably light strokes that bordered on tickling and Arthur enjoyed every second of it.

He loved the idea that Merlin was getting to know his body, that he was dedicating himself so thoroughly to giving him pleasure. He'd imagined it so many times and found that being the focus of Merlin's attentions was an experience for which he had little comparison. Merlin's hand gripped him a little more firmly and then Arthur felt the flat of Merlin's tongue sweep across the head of his erection.

He sucked in a sharp breath and looked down at Merlin, the wretched man looking back up at him with sinfully hooded eyes and an expression that nearly undid Arthur there and then. He watched as Merlin swept his tongue back and forth, the action sending pulses of pleasure throughout Arthur's groin, then the man lowered his head and took more of Arthur into his mouth.

He'd expected Merlin to be a little reticent, perhaps a little shy and unsure, but of course the man had to be as bloody-minded about this as he was about everything else. He sucked and licked his way around Arthur's cock with fervour, his enthusiasm making up for any lack of finesse in the activity. Arthur reached down and twined his fingers through the man's thick, black hair and tried not to grip too tightly as he felt the head of his cock hit the back of Merlin's throat.

He tried to steady himself, overwhelmed by sensation, and closed his eyes, unable to cope with the sight of Merlin between his legs, pleasuring him so intensely. One of Merlin's hands was creating a perfect sheath around him while his other was trailing over his thighs, Arthur never having realised he was so sensitive in that particular area. It was intoxicating and Merlin's obvious enjoyment for what he was doing made it even better.

He felt himself released with a soft pop and he opened his eyes as Merlin snaked his way back up his body and pressed a kiss to his neck then made his way up to his ear, licking the shell before he whispered, "I want you inside me." Arthur groaned and felt Merlin's prick press against his hip just as the man said, "Sit up against the headboard."

If he'd been in his right mind he might have made a comment about a king not taking orders but, as this was one he was happy to comply with, he did so, watching as Merlin straddled his hips and reached for the vial of oil that hadn't moved from the bedside table. He took hold of Arthur's hand and brought it up to his mouth, placing teasing kisses to the fingertips while he met Arthur's eyes. He sucked a finger between his lips and Arthur felt so intensely aroused it bordered on painful.

With a wicked smile, Merlin drizzled the oil over Arthur's fingers then guided them behind him to his entrance. Needing no further instruction, Arthur began to circle the ring of muscle before he dipped one finger slowly inside him. Merlin emitted a little hum of pleasure and poured a little oil into his hand, stroking Arthur's cock and slicking it well, looking far too pleased with himself.

Arthur added another finger, then another and Merlin pushed down against him, fucking himself on Arthur's fingers and making quite the pretty sight while he did so. He eventually lifted himself off then positioned himself in Arthur's lap, sinking slowly down onto Arthur's prick. Arthur gripped the man's hips and felt himself drawn into Merlin's exquisitely tight heat as Merlin's hands settled on his shoulders.

Merlin sank down slowly and Arthur watched the pleasure flit across his face as he got used to the intrusion. He wriggled and clenched around Arthur, Arthur almost certain the man was doing it on purpose just to torment him. "If you don't move – " Arthur growled.

"You'll do what?" Merlin taunted with an unbearably smug expression. He rose up slowly then impaled himself on Arthur, taking him all the way to the hilt, then repeating the action a couple more times just as slowly, his eyes sultry as he watched Arthur's reaction. It was all Arthur could do not to grip Merlin and thrust up into him with abandon, although he was sorely tempted.

Eventually, Merlin began to move, his hands shifting up to mould themselves to the back of Arthur's neck as he found a rhythm. It was glorious, utterly, wonderfully glorious and Arthur began to move his hips in time with Merlin's movements, trying to bury himself as deeply as he could.

The room was filled with their breathy sighs and sharp intakes of breath, their appreciative moans and soft words of encouragement. Arthur watched as a flush crept up from Merlin's chest to his throat, watched the arousal flood his eyes, making them a deeper and darker shade of blue than they usually were. He watched, amazed that this beautiful man was his, that he had the privilege of touching him, of being with him so intimately.

Merlin's cock was flush against his stomach, the head leaking against his skin. Arthur reached out and smeared his thumb over it, Merlin moaning softly as he did so. He teased the tip before he let his hand stroke up and down, matching Merlin's rhythm. Pleasure began to curl tightly inside him and he focused on the expressions flitting across Merlin's face, the man's own release clearly not far away.

Merlin moved quicker, taker Arthur deeper each time. Arthur kept his hand firm on Merlin's prick and together they chased towards completion. Merlin came first, spattering all over his stomach and chest, Arthur absolutely enchanted by the look on his face. He held on tightly to Merlin's hips and thrust up into him, coming soon after and closing his eyes as the intensity of it washed over him.

"God, Arthur," Merlin said with a whisper and Arthur forced himself to open his eyes, looking up at the man with a lazy smile.

"I suppose you're quite pleased with yourself, are you?"

"I think I did rather well."

"You did," Arthur assured him, sliding a hand up into his hair. "I'll assume that my attempts to take things slowly are going straight out of the window?"

Merlin grinned and cupped Arthur's jaw with his hand, saying, "I think it's very sweet of you to try and take my feelings into account and I understand that you don't want to mess things up between us…but I've wanted to be with you like this for so long and now it's real I want to enjoy every second of it."

Arthur tugged Merlin's hair gently and pulled his head down to meet him with a kiss, wondering at how natural it felt after so short a time. It felt as though they'd been doing this for years, that kissing Merlin made more sense than anything in his entire kingdom.

"Stay tonight," Arthur said softly as he pulled back, letting his knuckles brush Merlin's cheek gently.

"Do you think that's a good idea?"

"I don't care. I want you with me."

"And you call me a hopeless romantic."

Merlin removed himself from Arthur's lap and cleaned them with magic before they settled themselves beneath the covers. There was a momentary pause before Arthur held out his arm and Merlin curled himself into Arthur's side with a smile, tucking his head beneath Arthur's chin.

Merlin fell asleep first, pillowed against Arthur's chest and breathing softly. Arthur stared up at the canopy and ran his fingers through Merlin's thatch of black hair, smiling into the darkness of the room. He had no clue what he was doing and if he thought about it for too long it frightened the life out of him but all he knew was that he loved Merlin and he was happier than he'd ever been in his life.

Lying in the quiet of his chambers with the man asleep against him was the most peaceful Arthur had felt in a long time. His changing feelings for Merlin had dominated his mind for a long time and his fears that nothing would ever happen between them had played on his thoughts far more than he would ever like to admit. He had resigned himself to pining away forever, nursing his feelings in the knowledge that he and Merlin would never be more than friends and all he could hope for was to maintain the closeness they had built over the years.

He didn't know yet if Merlin felt as deeply as he did, if his love was reciprocated, but Arthur suspected it was. He felt it in the way Merlin touched him, the way he looked at him, and he knew that Merlin felt something for him, enough to give him hope for the future of their relationship.

He slept soundly and woke on his side with Merlin pulled tightly against his chest, just as he'd been when they'd shared a tent. Arthur smiled sleepily to himself at the realisation that this time he didn't have to pretend that he was snuggled in to the man for warmth and that he was perfectly at liberty to press a trail of kisses to the man's bare neck and shoulder.

He did so, letting his lips move gently over Merlin's soft skin, indulging himself shamelessly. Merlin shifted and let out a little moan of appreciation, pushing himself closer, their bare skin pressing together gloriously.

"Good morning," Arthur whispered, smiling at the little shiver his breath resulted in.

"Good morning, your highness," Merlin responded, tilting his head to let Arthur have his way. "Are you still happy to have me in your bed?"

"What do you think?" Arthur asked with a smile as he continued to torment Merlin's neck. He could feel his prick beginning to swell, pressing against the curve of Merlin's backside. He draped a hand over Merlin's hip and let it move downward, feeling an answering hardness. He stroked lazily and Merlin hummed his approval, moving his hips to thrust himself into the ring of Arthur's hand.

"You're insatiable," Arthur told him as he began to worry the man's earlobe.

"Excuse me, sire, but you're the one with his hand on me, pressing yourself against my arse. I think this insatiability goes both ways."

"Fair point," Arthur murmured, enjoying every second of Merlin's skin pressed against his own, enjoying tasting him and feeling the soft velvet of Merlin's erection slip against his palm as he stroked. He could hardly express how much he loved having Merlin in his arms, how amazing it felt to be so close to him without pretext or pretence. He felt so lucky, so blessed, that he had been granted this privilege and he intended to indulge for as long as Merlin was content to be his.

It was warm and hazy in the cocoon of the bed and Arthur enjoyed his slow, indulgent touches over Merlin's body. It was as if Merlin had been made for him, as if Arthur's hands had been created for the sole purpose of touching Merlin, of mapping out the planes of his body and caressing his skin in that way that made him sigh breathlessly, a sound Arthur was fast becoming addicted to.

The oil made its way to his hand and he opened Merlin up slowly, the man still a little loose and pliable from the previous night. He kissed any patch of skin his lips could reach while his fingers pressed deep inside the man, Merlin pulling his leg up to give Arthur better access. He slid inside him slowly, Merlin bearing down to meet him, their moans mingling in the stillness of the morning.

Merlin's hips undulated against him, an exquisite roll that pulled Arthur in deeper each time. He thrust in time with the rhythm, his hand anchoring itself on Merlin's hip while he revelled in the glorious heat of Merlin's tightness. Nothing in his life had ever felt so perfect and he closed his eyes and let himself drink in every second of it.

Merlin reached up and hooked an arm around Arthur's neck, his fingers finding purchase in Arthur's hair as he continued to move against him, impaling himself over and over again. Arthur's senses blurred delightfully, his world narrowing to contain nothing but Merlin, nothing but the incomparable feeling of being buried deep inside him and the pleasure it built within him.

His hand travelled down Merlin's torso, over the flat stomach to grip his cock once more, a little more firmly this time. The smooth roll of Merlin's body made his prick slide through Arthur's hand like liquid and Arthur applied just the right amount of pressure to make Merlin moan in that sinfully pretty way that made Arthur's groin ache with need.

They moved in unison, slow and deliberate until Arthur felt Merlin's rhythm falter and felt the man's release coat his hand not long after. Arthur followed moments later, spilling himself deep inside Merlin's body and relishing the tremors that racked his own as pleasure overwhelmed him. He breathed heavily against Merlin's neck and Merlin laughed shakily.

"What?" Arthur asked with a smile.

"I just…I love feeling your breath against my skin."

"You do?"

"Mm. I know it's strange…it just…reminds me of all the times I've been close to you and wanted so much more."

"How long?"

"How long?" Merlin echoed, confused, and Arthur smiled against his skin.

"How long have you been wanting more?"

Merlin sighed and Arthur felt himself slowly slide from the man's body, magic cleaning them as Merlin turned around and placed himself beneath Arthur. "Years, Arthur," he confessed quietly.

"Me too," Arthur said in a whisper before lowering his head and meeting Merlin in a kiss that was so sweet it made his head spin. It was insanity to think they'd both wanted this for so long but, even though he lamented the time lost, Arthur knew that it had happened at the right time when there were no secrets between them and when they had grown together as people, as men, as equals.

The day, unfortunately, encroached upon their little haven and both men separated to go about their various duties. Arthur tried very hard not to be too bitter about the fact that he couldn't spend the entire day in bed with Merlin and did his best to keep his manner professional and courteous.

He knew Merlin was busy with the druids and the hundred other tasks he had in the castle, and Arthur's own obligations were no less important. It didn't stop him feeling resentful though and his mind wandered several times throughout the day to how beautiful Merlin looked when he came, how his skin tasted, how perfect it felt beneath his hands.

He found himself calling an early end to training, citing the cold and the dwindling daylight. He found his chambers empty when he returned and he removed his armour with a sigh, giving himself a quick wash and changing into fresh clothes before he went in search of his errant manservant.

They met in the corridor, Merlin's face flushed from the cold, his manner harried. "I was just coming to find you," he said, his eyes lighting up when the settled on Arthur, Arthur's stomach fluttering to see how his expression changed. "I've been caught up with things all day."

"As have I. I daresay you were seeing to Camelot's needs, as usual."

Merlin gave him a charmingly bashful smile and said, "I was doing my job."

Arthur scoffed and said, "Merlin, you haven't performed the role of a manservant for years now. You practically run this place, we all know it."

"Does that mean I get a pay rise then?"

Arthur rolled his eyes and said, "The joy of working for your king should be enough for you."

"Oh indeed," Merlin said with sombre nod.

"Will you come for a walk with me? I have a very strong urge to be somewhere quiet for an hour or so."

"Of course," Merlin said, his smile turning sweeter.

They made their way out of the castle and out into the evening, the air cold and the sky clear, a faint smattering of stars beginning to appear as the last vestiges of light were replaced by the velvet blackness of the night sky. They walked next to one another, their hands brushing, fingers occasionally looping around one another's in a manner that felt oddly daring.

They walked through the citadel, down into the town and beyond to the forest that surrounded it. Arthur felt a sense of peace wash over him as Camelot fell away behind them and he was left with only the quiet of the night and Merlin's familiar, welcome presence. Now finally alone, Arthur allowed himself to take Merlin's hand and pull the man gently to him, feeling relief flood him as their lips met. He felt as though some clawing need was finally satisfied now he had Merlin back in his arms and he wanted to savour it.

"I've been waiting to do that all day," Arthur said with a sigh as they broke apart.

"Me too," Merlin replied, brushing the hair from Arthur's forehead and settling easily within Arthur's hold.

"I…" Arthur began, trying not let himself get too distracted by how other-worldly Merlin looked in the odd light of the twilight, how perfect his high cheekbones looked and how inviting his full lips were. He cleared his throat and tried again, saying "I wanted to ask you a few more questions about your magic…before we appeal to the council."

"Ok," Merlin said gently, looking pleased by the question, pleased that he was able to share this facet of himself with Arthur and it still hurt to think of how long Merlin had lied to him, how long Arthur hadn't known this fundamental part of the man.

"How…how does it work?" Arthur asked, feeling that the question was a stupid one. "I mean…how do you do things? Does it take practice? What does it feel like? Sorry…I sound like a fool."

"No you don't," Merlin said, cupping Arthur's chin. "I'll answer as best I can but…magic for me…it's as natural as breathing. I'm not sure how much I can tell you about the practicalities of it."

"Try, I want to understand."

Merlin nodded and extracted himself slowly from Arthur's hold. He looked around at the little glade they were in and said, "What can you feel here?"

"Feel?" Arthur echoed, a little bewildered by the question. "Um…the wind? The cold? I can…hear the rustle of the leaves and the stream a little way away. That's not what you mean though, is it?"

"Not quite," Merlin said with a smile. "I can feel the earth. I can feel its magic wrapping around me, I can feel it in my blood. There's a connection between everyone and everything that possesses magic, some can feel it, some can't; I can feel it all. It's like I was made for it, that my body is just…a conduit for all that power. I feel part of something…bigger and when I perform magic I feel more myself than I ever do."

"Does your magic come from the earth?"

"In some ways. It's mine, and I know it's mine but it's been gifted to me from something deep and ancient. I can draw power from the earth and mingle my magic with it."

"How?"

Merlin gave him an enigmatic smile and said, "Watch." He stepped back and closed his eyes holding his hands out, palms down towards the ground. Arthur watched as tendrils of gold began to snake up from the ground, bathing the small patch of woodland in a beautiful, warm glow of light. The tendrils wrapped around Merlin's hands and wrists, travelling up his arms in delicate threads and Arthur could have sworn that the ground around them began to vibrate, that he could feel the magic stirring beneath them.

Merlin's eyes opened, a ring of pure gold within them, looking every inch the powerful warlock Arthur knew him to be. Arthur watched, stunned at the beauty of the moment, and eventually the gold tendrils began to recede and disappeared back inside the earth as Merlin's eyes returned to normal.

"What did you just do?" Arthur asked, mesmerised.

"I drew the magic from the earth into my own. I took power from it and gave my own back in return. There's always a balance with magic and it's important to respect that."

"Are these laws…written? Do people know about them?"

Merlin considered the question before replying, "Some might, but, speaking for myself, it's mostly just instinctive. I can feel how magic works and I know how to use it but I've never been taught and I'd imagine many other haven't either."

"So…there's a lack of education where magic's concerned?"

"I'd say so. With it being…feared and subjugated for so long people have had to practise in secret and many of the old traditions and lessons have died out. It's no surprise that it's so easy for magic to be abused when there's no one governing it properly."

Arthur nodded, seeing the sense of Merlin's words and regretting, not for the first time, the long-reaching ramifications of his father's actions. "Merlin," he said, reaching out for the man's hand and holding it gently between his own. "With all the changes happening, with the plans we have for the future of magic, it…doesn't make sense for you to remain my manservant."

Merlin frowned. "I have to be by your side, Arthur. I can't…I can't be anything else."

"Merlin," Arthur said gently, pulling him a little closer. "There's no question that you'll be by my side. I can't do any of this without you but you're not just a servant, you haven't been for years. It's time you held a proper position within the castle, it's time people treated with the respect you deserve. You're my equal, Merlin, in every way and you should have a station that reflects that."

"What kind of station?" Merlin asked, still looking extremely reluctant about the whole conversation.

Arthur paused to take a breath and slid a hand down to press in the small of Merlin's back, feeling that familiar and welcome flutter in his stomach at having the man so close to him. "I want you to be Court Sorcerer, I want you to have a place at the round table and to be recognised as my advisor, as someone integral to Camelot's future."

"Arthur…" Merlin breathed, his eyes wide in the growing moonlight that filtered through the trees.

"I won't force you, this has to be your choice, but this is what I wish for you, for us."

"I…can barely believe this is happening, Arthur," Merlin said, his voice choked. "Are you sure you're not under some kind of enchantment?"

Arthur smiled and placed a hand on Merlin's cheek, feeling so overwhelmed by his feelings for the man he was sure his body alone couldn't contain them. "I'm only under one, Merlin," he whispered before leaning forward and allowing himself to get lost in Merlin's exquisite kisses.


Chapter Text

Chapter 13

Arthur's breath caught in his throat and he felt a low groan escape him as Merlin rolled his hips, taking him deeper, exquisite tightness sheathing him. He watched as blue eyes darkened and the man's plump bottom lip was drawn between his teeth, the action almost too much for Arthur to bear.

His hands trailed up Merlin's body, his fingers caressing the beautiful skin, dancing over the man's ribs and making Merlin's breath hitch. He lowered them slowly down Merlin's back, feeling the muscles move beneath his palms, and gripped the pert cheeks of Merlin's arse as he did his best not to thrust up into him.

He was letting Merlin take control and the damn man was doing his best to drive Arthur insane. He'd been teasing him for ages, keeping him just on the cusp and not allowing him to tip over the edge, his expression daring Arthur to do something about it. Arthur was inching ever closer to doing just that.

Merlin's hands slid up into Arthur's hair, gripping just the right side of tightly as he leant forward slightly, changing the angle and making Arthur feel as though he was about to lose his mind. He felt Merlin clench around him even as he kept the pace torturously slow and he gripped Merlin's backside even tighter.

"Are you holding yourself back, my lord?" Merlin whispered, his expression devilish as he rose up and down, taking Arthur in so deeply it made him go light-headed.

"No," Arthur said through clenched teeth.

"No?" Merlin echoed, tugging on Arthur's hair to pull his head back. He kissed a path along his jaw and then up to his ear, biting the earlobe gently as he whispered, "Are you sure? Because I think you're doing everything you can not to throw me down and fuck me senseless."

Arthur's restraint lasted for all of half a second before he hooked his arms around Merlin's legs and flipped him on his back, staying sheathed within him. He pinned Merlin's wrists to the bed and was taken aback by the strength of arousal that flooded Merlin's eyes at the action. "Like that, do we?" he asked with a smug smile.

"Shut up," Merlin said breathlessly, and Arthur pressed the man a little harder into the mattress, making sure he held Merlin's wrists firmly above his head. He thrust hard and deep inside the man and Merlin's back arched as he pushed up against Arthur's hold on him.

"Is this what you want, hm?" he whispered next to Merlin's ear as he pushed himself inside him again and again, feeling Merlin's legs encircle his waist and encouraging him in as deep as he could go. "You want me to hold you down and fuck you?"

"Arthur," Merlin groaned shakily, his body moving to meet Arthur's, thrust for thrust.

"Say it," Arthur murmured, feeling his body shake with the need to let go and pound into his lover. "Tell me what you want."

"I want you," Merlin whispered, his eyes meeting Arthur's, the irises dark with lust.

Arthur couldn't have held himself back in that moment if his life had depended on it. He braced himself against Merlin and thrust hard and fast inside him, Merlin keening against him and urging him ever forward.

He was addicted to the noises Merlin made, the noises that he himself was responsible for. He loved the breathy sighs, the deep moans, the exquisite intakes of breath that bordered on a cry. He'd imagined wresting those noises from the man so many times, indeed they'd been the subject of many late-night fantasies, but the reality of them was so much better and every sound almost undid him.

He could feel Merlin drawing closer to the edge, feel him clenching around him and drawing him in as deep as he could go. The man's eyes shuttered closed and Arthur thrust hard as he whispered, "Open your eyes, darling. I want to see you."

Merlin's eyes fluttered open and Arthur watched, utterly captivated, as Merlin's head tilted back and his eyes flashed pure gold as he came with a gasp. Arthur felt Merlin's magic sweep through him, overwhelmed by it and feeling as though it was claiming him, the intensity of it pushing him over the edge. He came hard, spilling himself deep inside Merlin and feeling his breath escape him in a rush.

He took a few moments to steady himself before finally releasing Merlin's wrists, Merlin's smile beautiful as he reached up and slid a hand around Arthur's neck and pulled him down into a wonderfully deep kiss. He nuzzled the edge of Merlin's jaw and felt Merlin's hand caress his neck as he withdrew gently from the man's body. He shifted to the side and lay next to him feeling sated and boneless.

"You like my magic."

He tilted his head as Merlin propped himself up on one elbow and looked down at him. He smiled and reached out to trace the high curve of Merlin's cheekbone with his thumb, loving the shy, slightly hesitant expression on the man's face and feeling his chest swell at how endearing it was.

"It's part of you, of course I like it," he said softly, and Merlin's expression seemed to war between hopeful and sceptical.

"After everything you were ever taught about magic, though – "

"None of that matters, Merlin. It's such a fundamental part of you and I feel privileged to be party to it."

"I always hoped that you'd accept it, but I never dreamt that you'd…like it," Merlin said, reaching out to take Arthur's hand in his own.

"I like every part of you," Arthur said, feeling his pulse quicken at the confession. He wanted to say more; it was on the tip of his tongue so often, especially after he'd been intimate with Merlin, but he hadn't yet found the courage to tell the man that 'like' was far too weak a word for what he truly felt.

Merlin brought Arthur's hand to his lips and pressed a gentle kiss to each knuckle, his expression so tender it made Arthur's chest tighten. "This was all to distract me, don't think I don't know that," he said, resting his head on his fist and twining the fingers of his free hand with Arthur's.

"Well you weren't going to get any sleep pacing around the room like that. A little distraction seemed in order."

Merlin sighed and glanced over to the table where sheafs of parchments lay spread out, the culmination of their work on lifting the ban on magic, which they were due to present to the council in only a few hours.

"I just wish I knew how they'll take it," the man said, his thumb brushing over Arthur's hand gently.

"Knowing won't change anything," Arthur said sensibly. "We know we have a potential fight on our hands and we're prepared for it. We'll face it together."

"It's just so – "

Arthur shifted and rolled Merlin onto his back, covering his body with his own and saying with a smile, "Do I have to distract you all over again?"

"You have more faith in your powers of recovery than I do," Merlin said with a snort and Arthur gave him an indignant pinch to his side.

Merlin squirmed with a laugh and brought his arms up to encircle Arthur's neck as their bodies pressed pleasantly together. "You have no idea how many times I imagined this," Merlin said, one hand sliding up to twine in Arthur's hair. "I wanted you so badly it hurt. All those times we were together in these rooms, all the times we were so close I could almost taste you."

Arthur lowered his head and pressed his lips to Merlin's throat, kissing a gentle path along the delicate skin and murmuring, "I think I have some idea of how you felt. I tried so hard to keep my hands off you but in the end I just couldn't help myself. I found every way to touch you I possibly could. I never felt complete unless I could feel your skin next to mine."

Merlin's breath stuttered as Arthur teased the sensitive spot just below his ear and he felt the hand in his hair tighten as their naked bodies moved gently against one another. They were both spent and neither had recovered sufficiently to initiate more but it was glorious to simply enjoy their closeness, to indulge all the desires they'd had and never been able to act upon before.

They dozed intermittently but both were too on edge to get any proper sleep. They lay side by side in Arthur's bed and spoke quietly, hands and lips gently exploring each other's beautiful nakedness. Arthur couldn't deny that his attraction to Merlin was sometimes overwhelming and there was nothing that could compare to making love to him, but he was rather in love with these quiet moments of intimacy that their relationship afforded them.

"So," Arthur said, later as they dragged themselves from the bed, trying to prepare for the day ahead. "The wrists thing," he said, trying to fight the grin that was tugging at his lips.

"Yes?" Merlin asked with a raised eyebrow, daring Arthur to comment.

Arthur felt his eyebrow quirk as he stepped closer and slid a hand over Merlin's waist. "You liked it," he said, his voice low.

"And?" Merlin asked, tilting his chin, his eyes meeting Arthur's defiantly.

"And…so did I," Arthur said in a whisper, enjoying the appreciative flash of arousal in Merlin's eyes.

Merlin's hands pressed against Arthur's chest before sliding up to his shoulders as he pulled himself closer. "I can't deny that I enjoyed…letting you take control of me…but don't think for one second I'll let you do so anywhere but in our bed."

Arthur laughed and settled his hands in the small of Merlin's back, inordinately pleased at hearing Merlin refer to his bed as theirs. "Duly noted. As if I'd be so foolish to even attempt such a thing."

Merlin smiled and moved one hand up into Arthur's hair as he leant forward and brushed his lips softly against Arthur's jaw, whispering, "I like being made to feel that I'm yours."

Arthur's eyes closed as he took a moment to steady himself, his hand clutching the fabric of Merlin's shirt as Merlin's lips pressed against his skin. "You are mine," he replied, his voice catching as he was overcome with his sheer need for the man in his arms. "And I'm yours," he added, pulling back to meet Merlin's eyes.

It was as close to a declaration he'd ever come and the look on Merlin's face was so beautiful Arthur wanted to capture it forever. He knew what he wanted to say to the man, he'd turned it over in his head a hundred times but he could never quite get the words to come out. He was about to gather his courage and attempt to tell Merlin exactly how he felt when a knock at the door pulled him from his thoughts.

Trying not to let his frustration show too much, he reluctantly stepped back from Merlin and tried to compose himself as he gave a curt, "Come in."

Morgana stepped into the room and gave them both a look that had Arthur fighting a blush before she took a good look at Merlin and said, "You can't wear that."

"Why not?" Merlin asked, looking down at the usual outfit he wore.

Morgana sighed, looking as though she was resisting rolling her eyes, and said, "Merlin, we're addressing the council, we're petitioning for quite possibly the biggest change in Camelot's history and you're about to be afforded a position that will irrevocably change your status. You can't look like a servant."

"What would you have me wear?" Merlin asked with a huff. "That stupid hat he put me in when I bloody drank poison?" he said with a glare in Arthur's direction, which Arthur thought most unfair, as he hadn't been the one to suggest Merlin change his clothes.

"I'm sure we can find something suitable," Morgana said, opening up Arthur's wardrobe and rifling through it.

Arthur knew there was little point in arguing with her and he would rather deal with Merlin's wrath than hers and so stood mute while Morgana took control. Merlin shot him a pleading look and Arthur could do nothing but shrug, knowing that Morgana would have her way in any and all circumstances.

"Here we are," she said, stepping back from the wardrobe with a shirt in her hands and Arthur bit back a laugh as Merlin's eyes widened comically.

"I can't waltz into the council chamber wearing purple!" he protested. "Do you have any idea what that means? What they'll read into it?"

"I lived at court since I was a child, Merlin. I think I have some idea about these things, yes," Morgana said with a scathing look.

"It'll cause a scandal," Merlin protested, a flush creeping over his cheeks that Arthur was longing to run his tongue over.

"Good. It should. Now put it on," Morgana said, shoving the shirt into Merlin's hands and pushing him off behind the changing screen. Arthur expected her to wait beside it but instead she disappeared behind it too and the next thing it sounded as if she was attempting to wrestle Merlin out of the shirt he was wearing, which was probably exactly what she was doing.

"Let go of me, you demented harpy!" Merlin protested as it sounded like one or both of them had crashed into the wall. "I mean it, I'll curse you so all your bloody hair falls out."

"Don't be such a baby. Just take the damn shirt off!"

"If you do that with your nails one more time I'll rip them all off."

"Just stop fighting me!"

Arthur tried to stifle his laughter and listened gleefully as they continued to fight, the screen wobbling ominously before Merlin's original shirt eventually came sailing over the top of it, followed by a triumphant laugh from Morgana.

"I wish I'd let you burn, you mad witch," Merlin growled as further crashing followed and eventually he was pushed out from behind the screen, the purple shirt firmly in place.

Morgana stepped out too and went straight for Merlin's neckerchief, Merlin not quick enough to stop her before she pulled it off and chucked it onto the bed behind her. "Arthur, fetch me a belt," she instructed, and Arthur did as he was told without question, selecting one his finest and handing it to her.

She looped it around Merlin's waist and Merlin shot him a look that said, 'See if I ever let you touch me again, you traitor,' Arthur unable to suppress a grin at the expression.

"Almost done. I think it needs something more…" Morgana stepped back to the wardrobe and examined the items with narrowed eyes before she pulled out a plain black jerkin and held it out to Merlin. Obviously having learnt his lesson, Merlin sighed and let her slip it on him, Morgana fussing with it for a moment or two before she stepped back to admire her handiwork.

"Have you made me look like an idiot?" Merlin asked, looking as though he would like to set both Morgana and Arthur on fire.

"You look very striking," Arthur said, taking in the sight that Merlin presented. The purple sat against his skin beautifully and the black jerkin gave him an air of authority, highlighting his height and the hard angles of his body. "It's missing something though," he said, a wicked idea occurring to him. "Do you have the sigil with you?"

"Of course, I keep it with me always," Merlin said, retrieving his jacket from where he'd slung it over the chair and extracting the sigil from the inside pocket.

"You've kept it on you all this time?" Arthur asked, touched at the notion.

"It's precious," Merlin said with a smile and if Morgana hadn't been in the room with them Arthur would have kissed the last of his restraint goodbye and thrown the man down on the bed and had his way with him.

He cleared his throat and promised himself he would do precisely that when they were alone together later and said, "We need to find a way to pin that to your clothes."

"Arthur – " Merlin began to protest but Morgana waved her hand and in the blink of an eye the sigil was pinned to the front of Merlin's jerkin.

"Perfect," Arthur said with an approving nod.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Merlin asked, looking highly sceptical about the whole thing.

"Don't you trust us?" Morgana asked with a wicked smile.

"I'm not dignifying that with a response," Merlin huffed and Arthur fought another smile lest he find himself on the wrong end of the man's magic.

Merlin was eventually convinced to leave Arthur's chambers and they all made their way together down to the council chamber. They'd deliberately arrived early and Arthur took a seat while he sorted all his papers out and took another brief glance through the notes he'd made. He was nervous, though he was doing his best not to show it, and he was trying not to think about just how much rested upon the success of this meeting.

Morgana sat beside him, composed and poised, but he could discern that she too was anxious. Merlin was pacing behind them, his fists clenching and unclenching by his side and a telling flush creeping up the side of his neck.

"Sit down," Arthur said, grabbing his hand as a strode past him for the umpteenth time.

"Arthur – "

"I'm not arguing," Arthur said, giving Merlin's hand a tug and pulling him down into the chair beside him. "This is your place, Merlin. You belong here."

"I doubt very much whether the council will see it that way," Merlin said, his fingers gripping Arthur's hand tightly.

"Then we'll make them see it that way," Arthur said firmly. "Just try to calm down, we've faced far worse."

"Yes…well…right now I'd rather face the immortal army again, thank you very much."

"Have a little faith in yourself, in both of us. We'll face them together and we'll prevail."

He raised Merlin's hand to his lips and pressed a kiss to the knuckles, keeping his eyes on Merlin's and feeling a little spark of triumph as he saw the irises darken slightly. He watched as Merlin's Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed hard and he took a steadying breath to stop himself from pressing him back against the table and kissing the life out of him.

He heard the doors creak open and he and Merlin turned in their seats, Arthur squaring his shoulders as he gave Merlin's hand a comforting squeeze before he released it and faced the council members. He could see the surprise in their faces to see both Merlin and Morgana sitting beside him and he could see the brief expressions of outrage in some, although it was masked quickly.

It was a relief to see Leon, who took the seat next to Morgana with a smile, and he was grateful for both his and Gaius' presence in the room, needing all the allies he could get. He waited until all the members had seated themselves, proud that Merlin kept his head held high and faced each and every one of them with a defiance that Arthur knew him more than capable of.

"Gentlemen," Arthur said with a disarming smile and the chamber fell silent. "I've called this meeting because there is a matter of great importance I would like to discuss with you. As you all know, Camelot has imposed a ban on magic for over 20 years. This ban has been ruthlessly and viciously enforced, costing countless lives and creating a kingdom dominated by fear and injustice."

He paused and looked at the council members, seeing the varied expressions on their faces and recognising the already combative stances in a few. He took a deep breath and continued in as clear a voice as possible, "It is my intention to lift this ban." Whispers and murmurs began in an almost frenzied manner but he persisted, saying, "Magic will be legalised throughout Camelot and those who practise it will no longer be persecuted."

The whispers became harsher and Arthur lifted his chin and braced himself, saying calmly, "I understand you must have questions and I invite you to ask them."

"What has prompted this, my lord?" asked Lord Brannon, a shrewd man in his 40s whose mind worked quicker than anyone else's on the council and whose motives Arthur had never quite managed to fathom.

"It is my belief that the ban on magic has been a serious error and I would like to rectify that."

"Have you forgotten all those who have threatened your life with magic?" asked Lord Cavan, his face hard. The man was Arthur's least favourite council member and he felt himself bristling at his question.

"Indeed I haven't. Nor have I forgotten the many who have threatened my life with a sword. Magic isn't inherently evil."

"No indeed, sire," said Lord Kyle, his expression far more measured than most around the table. He was only a few years older than Arthur and was a gentle and quiet man who seldom spoke without considering his words carefully. "But you can't deny that magic poses a threat in some capacities."

"Nor would I deny such a thing," Arthur replied. "Lifting the ban won't mean that all magic is legal and we certainly wouldn't be naïve enough to believe all sorcerers have pure intentions. To this end, my sister, as leader of the druids will be taking a place within this council as an ambassador and – "

"You would give a position in this council to a woman and a fugitive?" Lord Cavan asked, his face twisting in disgust.

"That is an offensive remark, sir, and I ask that you retract it," Leon said, getting to his feet and glaring down at the man.

"It isn't offensive to state the truth," Lord Cavan said, standing also and returning the glare. "You would see a witch appointed to this council and given free rein to let her people do as they like within this kingdom."

"Rather the Lady Morgana than you and your grasping attempts to line your own pockets, regardless of the cost to the kingdom and its people," Leon fired back, and Arthur was taken aback to see his head knight so animated.

The chamber descended into chaos. Everyone was on their feet and shouting in an instant, several different arguments happening all at once it was hard to discern what was actually being said. Arthur could hear that at least half the council seemed to be in favour of his proposal and were arguing vociferously on his behalf but the other half were fighting viciously against it.

Arthur stood there feeling powerless, knowing he couldn't let this behaviour continue but struggling to know how to bring his council back under his control. He watched as grown men tried to shout each other down, faces twisting in anger, and wished he could jump forward to a point in time when all of this had been settled and it was no longer his problem.

He was about to command the lot of them to shut up and potentially threaten them with banishment from the kingdom forever when the entire room fell silent. The lords looked at one another with wide eyes, all opening their mouths and looking horrified to find that no sound came out.

"I've wanted to do that for years," Merlin said, and Arthur looked across at the man to see him standing looking at them all with disdain, power emanating from him. He didn't do anything by halves, Arthur had to give him that. His first display of magic, of admitting that he himself was a sorcerer, and he'd used it to silence a room full of men who were arguing about his very right to exist.

"Your voices will be returned to you, gentlemen, have no fear, but you'll listen to me first," Merlin continued, his presence so commanding that Arthur felt a thrill go through him. "As you may have surmised, I have magic. I was born with it. I spent much of my life wondering why I'd been given this gift, what its purpose was, why I was destined to be so very different to those around me. Then I came here."

He looked across to Arthur and something warm and tender settled in Arthur's chest as Merlin said, "I found my purpose. I found the reason for my magic. I've been at the king's side for over five years and served him with pride and devotion. I've used the power I was given to protect him, to assist him, and I will do so until the day I die. I have pledged my magic in service of the king and the only people who need fear that magic are those who wish him harm.

"I intend to occupy a position in this council and I shall serve this kingdom as its Court Sorcerer. Magic deserves a place in Camelot; it's ancient and powerful, it shouldn't be treated as something tainted and transgressive, and those who possess it shouldn't have to live their lives in fear. I swear to you all that I will live out my days in service to the king and that my magic will be used for the good of all within this kingdom who wish to live in a fair and just world."

He took a deep breath and Arthur felt fierce pride surge through him at the strength and courage Merlin had displayed. He watched as the man's eyes flashed gold and the council members all seemed to take a collective breath as their voices were returned to them. Silence hung in the air, all eyes on Merlin, before Lord Cavan's expression turned ugly.

"Now we see the real reason for this change to the law," he said with a disdainful sneer. "You wish to protect your boy. Tell me, sire, do you really think it politic to change the laws of a kingdom simply to satisfy your catamite?"

Leon drew his sword faster than Arthur could blink but Morgana was quicker still. Lord Cavan found himself pushed against a pillar by her magic, his eyes wide with fear as she held him there, his feet lifting several inches from the floor.

"If you ever speak of Merlin in such a way again I will rip out your eyes and feed them to the crows," Morgana said, her voice terrifyingly calm. Leon stood beside her, his sword still drawn while he glowered menacingly.

She released him and he dropped to the floor, his eyes ablaze with fury. "I will not stay a minute longer in a place where such disgraceful behaviour is tolerated. I invite all those who oppose the use of magic and condemn its practitioners to follow my example."

He swept from the hall and, after an awkward moment or two, a couple of other council members followed him although, Arthur noted, far fewer than perhaps he'd been expecting. He took a moment to collect himself, watching as Leon sheathed his sword and stepped closer to Morgana, his presence still imposing and powerful.

"Gentlemen," Arthur said, keeping his head high and his shoulders back, "let me make this perfectly clear – the ban on magic will be lifted, with or without the approval of this council. I have no wish to be a despotic leader but in this instance my word will be law. I would much rather act with your support and I would like to work together to build the future of this kingdom but I want to leave you all in no doubt as to my intentions."

He paused, glancing at Merlin, before he said, "I wish you all to observe Merlin's position within this court and I expect you to grant him the respect that position is afforded. You shouldn't be insensible to the role he's played within the castle over the years and I hope you're all capable of accepting him for his many merits." He looked around the room, feeling suddenly exhausted, and said curtly, "Council dismissed. We will meet again in a week's time to discuss this matter further."

The council members filed out of the chamber, several different conversations striking up at once and the body of men moving out amidst almost frenzied chatter. Leon, Morgana, Gaius and Merlin remained, all looking as though they felt things had gone just as they'd expected them to.

"Merlin," Arthur began, but the man shook his head with a tired sigh.

"I need some time to myself for a bit," he said quietly. "I'll…come and find you later."

He reached out and gave Arthur's hand a squeeze before he turned and left the room. Arthur watched him go and wished there was something he could have said to make things better but they'd known this wouldn't be an easy road and he knew Merlin would find the strength and resolve to fight for the change they were determined to affect.

"I should…attend to my duties," Leon said, looking more on edge than Arthur had seen him in a long time.

"Thank you for speaking on my behalf," Morgana said with a smile. "I truly appreciated it."

He gave her a gallant bow, a blush on his cheeks, before he departed with a smile, one that Morgana also wore as she watched him leave. Gaius likewise took his leave, his concern for Merlin evident, and Arthur found himself wishing he had just a fraction of Merlin's power to curse Lord Cavan and the others who had been so bloody-minded and backward-thinking.

"Let's get some air," Morgana said, taking his arm and leading him gently out of the room.

Arthur's head span as they made their way outside and walked through the quad to the walled gardens that sat along the east side of the castle. The air was warmer than it had been in weeks and if felt as though spring might finally be succeeding in beating winter into a retreat.

"We knew it wouldn't be easy," Morgana said as they took a seat on one of the stone benches. "These things take time, we'll have to be patient."

"I'm just worried it'll weigh heavily on Merlin."

"It probably will but luckily he has you to make it all worthwhile." She smiled at him and said, "I always wondered if the two of you would ever work things out. Looks like you finally have."

Arthur returned the smile even as he felt his cheeks heat and said, "It's still early days."

"He loves you, and you love him. That much is plainly evident."

"Well…what about you and Leon, mm? I'd like to know what's going on there."

To his irritation, Morgana didn't blush or even have the grace to look mildly embarrassed. "I've loved him since I was 15," she said softly. "He was always kind and gentle but I never thought he felt the same the way. As we grew older…it was clear that there was something between us but I never dared hope. I always assumed that Uther would marry me off for political gain and that he'd never sanction anything with one of his own knights. Now…I'd like to think we might be able to build something."

"The man's besotted with you, Morgana. He drew his sword on a fellow noble for insulting you! If the two of you aren't wed before the year's out I'll abdicate the throne."

He and Morgana spent the morning together, Arthur almost having forgotten what simple pleasure there could be in enjoying his siter's company. They had lunch together and after Arthur went to train his knights, amused to see that Leon had recovered himself sufficiently.

He didn't see Merlin for the whole day and didn't know what the man was occupying himself with. The morning's council meeting had been troubling and he had no doubt Merlin was struggling with the fallout from it. He made his way back to his chambers, hopeful that he'd find Merlin there, but was apprehended before he could make his way down the corridor.

Lord Kyle approached him with a polite bow, a scroll in his hand, and Arthur steeled himself for whatever reason the man was accosting him for.

"Sire, please forgive me for intruding upon your afternoon," he said, and Arthur reminded himself that he liked Lord Kyle and that the man had given him no reason to feel otherwise.

"Not at all. What can I do for you?"

"In light of…this morning's events…I wish you to know that not everyone shares Lord Cavan's views." He held up the scroll and said, "This bears the names of all those who support your plan to lift the ban on magic, you'll find it's more than two thirds of the council. They have signed their names to pledge their support to you…and to Merlin."

Arthur took the scroll and said, "I'm very grateful to you, Lord Kyle. What prompted this?"

Lord Kyle paused, his customary caution stopping him from speaking without proper consideration. "My mother had magic," he said eventually, his voice low. "She was no great sorcerer, she had some skill with healing magic, but she had to hide it all her life and my father lived in terror that she would one day be found out, that he would lose the woman he loved. If I could stop one family from feeling that way, if I could help one person feel less alone and terrified by something they can't control then I consider it my duty to do so."

"I don't know what to say," Arthur said quietly, taken aback by this quiet and solemn confession. "I'm deeply sorry your family had to bear such a burden and I can only promise that further generations will not have to suffer the same fear."

"It's a fine thing you're doing, sire, and there will be plenty besides myself who think so." He smiled gently and added, "I am also…very glad to hear of Merlin's new status. I'm not alone in…my admiration for him and I'm happy to see him recognised."

Touched and not a little surprised, Arthur extended his hand to Lord Kyle and said, "I shan't forget this."

"Nor shall I, sire," Lord Kyle replied, shaking the proffered hand before bowing and turning to make his way back down the corridor.

Feeling a little dumbstruck, Arthur clutched the scroll in his hand and felt more hopeful than he'd done since this business began. He continued to his chambers and sighed happily to find Merlin sitting in the window seat when he entered.

"I had a notion I'd have to search the castle for you," he said, shifting out of his jacket and chucking it over the chair, pleased to see that Merlin was still in the purple shirt he'd been wearing that morning.

"I haven't been hiding," Merlin said, standing to meet him. "I just needed a little time to…think things through. What's that?" he asked, gesturing to the scroll Arthur had placed on the table.

"A list of our supporters. Lord Kyle has just presented me with it. Apparently we have more of the council with us than against us."

"That's…heartening. It still doesn't mean that we've got a smooth road ahead."

"No," Arthur conceded, "but things aren't hopeless and that's the main thing."

Merlin nodded, although he didn't look particularly convinced, and Arthur found his focus had suddenly become banishing the frown from between his brows. He reached out and took Merlin's wrist gently, bringing him into his hold and sliding a hand up to his jaw before he pulled him in for a kiss.

Merlin went with no resistance and Arthur smiled against the man's lips as their hands began their practiced dance. Everything else always seemed to fall away when Merlin was in his arms and Arthur's entire world narrowed to the press of their bodies, the magic that swirled between them.

Clothes were shed as they moved towards the bed and Arthur let his hands rove over Merlin's body as they kissed, feeling Merlin keen beneath him and loving the soft moan from his lips. He opened him up slowly before sliding inside him, Merlin's legs circling his waist and his hips raising to meet him thrust for thrust.

Arthur was surrounded by the man, his tight heat, his smooth skin, his soft lips. He pushed deep and felt Merlin's magic seep beneath his skin, igniting his veins. It felt as though it belonged to him, as though it had been missing from his body all these years and he welcomed it as it twined through him and took hold.

They came within moments of one another, their bodies pressed tightly together, sweat and seed mingling in the cooling air. Their breathing was heavy and Arthur felt complete and sated. They shifted eventually, Merlin's magic cleaning them, before they moved to sit up.

Arthur rested against the headboard and Merlin settled between his legs, his back resting against Arthur's chest as they lay naked together. Arthur trailed his hands over Merlin's bare skin and breathed him in, wishing he could keep him this close always.

"I can feel it, you know," he said softly as he lay gentle kisses to the spot behind Merlin's ear.

"Feel what?" Merlin asked, stretching languidly against him.

"Your magic," Arthur replied, letting his fingers caress Merlin's arm. "It's like the tendrils you summoned from the earth; they wind around me and settle underneath my skin."

"And that doesn't…doesn't bother you?" Merlin asked tentatively.

"Of course it doesn't. Quite the opposite. I think your magic recognises me, it knows that I'm yours. It knows…it knows that I'm in love with you."

Merlin turned his head slowly to look up at Arthur, his expression open and vulnerable. Arthur brushed the back of his hand against the man's jaw as Merlin whispered, "Truly?"

"Truly," Arthur said with a smile. "I think I probably have been for years. You hold my heart, Merlin, and it will always be yours."

"Arthur," Merlin said with a whisper, turning so he could better look at him. "I've loved you for so long, so profoundly. I held it so deeply within myself, never daring to hope that you'd ever feel the same way."

"I do, Merlin. I always will."

Merlin's arms went around his neck and Arthur bore him backwards to the bed as they met in a kiss. Arthur felt Merlin's magic flood him and he welcomed it with fervour, feeling as though every inch of himself, of his soul, had been claimed by the man who now had ownership of his heart.

Chapter Text

Chapter 14

"Is there a reason Merlin told me to tell you that you're 'the king of the clotpoles and lord of all dollopheads'?"

Arthur shifted his attention from watching his younger knights' footwork and looked at his sister, who had joined him on the training field. He sighed and said, "Possibly because I suggested it might be appropriate for him for have new clothes, ones that reflect his new status."

"This suggestion didn't go down well then?"

Arthur shook his head and signalled for Lancelot to take over from him as he and Morgana moved to the side and took a seat on one of the benches. "He thinks I'm trying to change him, to make him more palatable to the 'stuck-up, priggish, up-their-own-arses nobles'."

Morgana sniggered and said, "He does have a way with words, doesn't he?" Arthur tutted and she asked, "Are you trying to change him?"

"No, of course I'm not. I just want the castle to be aware that he isn't a servant anymore, that he holds a position of power now."

Morgana frowned and twisted the bracelet on her wrist, an action Arthur recognised from childhood, one that always meant she was considering her words carefully. "Merlin hasn't been a servant since you became king, not really. He practically runs the castle and you'd be lost without him."

"I know that and I know that a new title doesn't change anything but I want others to know his worth, to respect him for all that he does for this kingdom. Is it so wrong to want better for the man I love?"

Morgana's eyebrows rose and her eyes widened as she said, "Good heavens, Arthur. What a declaration."

"Well it's the truth," he said with a huff. "And if Merlin weren't such a thick-skulled prat he'd see that I only want the best for him. A set of new clothes is hardly me asking him to change everything about himself for heaven's sake."

"Give him a little time. His world's changed, everything's turned on its head and it'll take some time to adjust. He's still facing a lot of hostility from several courtiers and he's trying to find his place in the midst of all of this."

"Maybe you should talk to him," Arthur said, scratching his chin in irritation. "He listens to you."

"He likes me," Morgana said smugly.

"He bloody loves me," Arthur said indignantly, wishing he could wipe the expression off his sister's face. "Oh he's such a stubborn bastard. Sometimes I think he fights me just for the fun of it."

"Whereas you're entirely innocent in that regard of course."

Arthur rolled his eyes and was about to say something snide about Morgana's budding relationship with Leon but a figure at the other end of the field caught his eye. Merlin had appeared with Mordred by his side, the pair walking close and smiling, Mordred waving at Gwaine and laughing at something the man shouted to him.

"You know, it's pointless to argue between us who Merlin likes best. I rather suspect Mordred would win hands down," Morgana said as she watched them.

"They adore one another, don't they?" Arthur said with a smile.

"Utterly. I know Merlin's actions were prompted by a desire to thwart the prophecy about your untimely doom but he loves that boy and Mordred thinks the world of him. As odd a notion as it is, I think Merlin sees Mordred as his own."

Arthur nodded, watching as Merlin's arm came to rest around Mordred's shoulders as they neared a group of the younger knights. "He's said as much in the past. It's very touching to watch them together."

He frowned as the atmosphere seemed to suddenly change where Merlin and Mordred stood and there was something uncomfortable in the way the younger knights were standing. Something was happening and Arthur didn't like it one bit. He signalled to Morgana and they both stood from the bench and made their way over.

Arthur was unable to hear what was happening but he saw the change in Merlin's face and knew all hell was about to break loose. He was trying to think how on earth he could possibly counter anything magical Merlin might be about to do and the potential fallout from it when Merlin stepped faster than lightning and landed an almighty punch on the jaw of one of the young knights, sending him flying backwards.

Gwaine and Lancelot were there in an instant, Lancelot trying to restrain Merlin while Gwaine had his sword trained on the younger knights, looking terrifyingly menacing. The lad Merlin had punched lay sprawled on the floor with blood dripping down his chin, glaring up at them.

"What the hell is going on here?" Arthur asked as he and Morgana approached, Lancelot still doing his best to keep Merlin from breaking free while Mordred stood behind them looking shocked.

"He assaulted me!" the boy shouted, pointing at Merlin with a furious expression.

"You'd best lower that finger right now if you don't want it snapped off," Gwaine said, aiming his sword directly at him.

"Merlin," Arthur said gently, seeing how the man's entire body was trembling, "what happened?"

Merlin took a deep breath, his arms still held firmly by Lancelot, and said, "He insulted Mordred."

"I see," Arthur said, knowing there would be far more to it than a simple insult. He felt Morgana bristle at his side and knew she would likely rip the little bastard limb from limb if he attempted another slight Mordred and so tried to keep his voice calm as he said, "Merlin, perhaps you and the lady Morgana would care to take Mordred back to his chambers. I will be with you directly."

He met Merlin's eyes and saw the anger there but he tried to convey that he was on his side, that he wasn't about to let the little oik get away with what he'd done. He saw Merlin give the smallest of nods and Lancelot loosened his hold on his arms, Merlin reaching out to grasp the man's shoulder briefly in a show of friendship before he moved over to Mordred.

He wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders and Morgana joined them, the three leaving the training field without a backwards glance. Lancelot came to stand directly behind Arthur while the young knights all looked at the ground apart from the lad who still lay sprawled there, who glared up defiantly at them all.

"Your name, boy," Arthur said, allowing his disdain to show plainly on his face.

"Averill. Lord Cavan's second son," the boy said, a haughty tilt to his chin that set Arthur's teeth on edge.

"I'm afraid Averill's training has been somewhat less than satisfactory," Lancelot said at Arthur's shoulder, his voice low with his restrained anger. "We've had several problems with him in the last couple of months."

"Indeed? I can hardly say I'm surprised. Would you care to tell me how you managed to offend the Court Sorcerer?"

"Court Sorcerer," Averill spat, an ugly snarl on his face that was far too reminiscent of his father. "Jumped up little peasant with a bag full of tricks more like! We all know the only reason you haven't put his head on spike for possessing magic is because he bends over for you."

Gwaine moved faster than Arthur could blink and had the boy's throat pinned with his sword. There was something chillingly controlled about his manner and Arthur spared a moment to be exceptionally grateful that the man was on his side.

"Sir Lancelot, Sir Gwaine," he said, trying to keep his voice as level as he could. "Please escort this excuse for a knight off the castle grounds and ensure he never sets foot in Camelot again."

Gwaine hauled the boy to his feet and pinned one arm none-too-gently behind his back while Lancelot did the same with the other, shoving him forcefully from the training field while the little bastard cursed them both and uttered threats involving his pig of a father. Arthur turned his attention to the remaining knights, who had the grace to look far more abashed than Averill had done.

"Get out of my sight," he said through clenched teeth, "and if I catch you in any kind of trouble again you'll share the same fate as Averill."

They both bowed low and scampered off the training field, Arthur watching them go and wishing he could wring their bloody necks. He glanced at the others scattered about and gave them all a warning look before he walked off and headed back to the castle.

He went straight for Morgana's quarters and found Morgana sitting in the window seat while Merlin and Mordred were sitting together in the armchair beside it, Mordred tucked tightly to Merlin's side while Merlin held him close.

"Is anyone going to give me an explanation?" Arthur asked, pulling up a chair and looking between the three of them.

"I told you," Merlin said, his hand twining through Mordred's curls, "he insulted Mordred."

"But how?" Morgana asked, obviously not having managed to glean any further information either.

"Merlin, it isn't important," Mordred said, although Arthur noted he made no attempt to extract himself from Merlin's hold.

"Yes it bloody well is," Merlin growled. "The things he said…they were disgusting."

"I've banished him from the kingdom," Arthur said, looking at Mordred. "He'll give you no more trouble."

"You didn't have to, Arthur. He was just being a prat," Mordred said, but Arthur could see the tension in the boy's body and that he'd been affected by whatever had been said to him.

"I won't tolerate behaviour like that from my knights or from my citizens. He's Lord Cavan's son," he said, meeting Merlin's eyes, "he would have caused problems for us further down the road anyway so I prefer to be rid of him sooner rather than later."

Merlin gave a heavy sigh and nestled Mordred deeper into his hold, pressing a kiss to the mop of dark hair and saying, "If anyone else comes near him I'll kill them."

"Well that was a rather impressive punch," Morgana said with a sly smile. "I had no idea you were capable of it, Merlin."

Arthur smiled too as Merlin huffed and said, "Gwaine taught me. He insisted a couple of years ago that I should be taught how to defend myself. He collared me one day, took me to the training field when it was empty and said, 'Sure, Merlin, you can't be coming with us on every bloody expedition with naught but your neckerchief to protect you."

It was a terrifying approximation of Gwaine's voice and Arthur grinned at the thought of Gwaine dragging Merlin off and teaching him how to fight, believing Merlin incapable of defending himself and wishing to remedy the situation.

"Remind me to thank him," Arthur said, snorting when Merlin glared at him. "Well it was a sight. I've never seen such a masterful thump. Averill nearly went clear across the field."

The mood lightened a little as Arthur and Morgana continued to tease Merlin and Arthur threatened to enter him in the hand-to-hand trials at the next tourney. Merlin didn't move from Mordred's side once and Arthur rather suspected that he would have stayed there with him all day were it not for the fact that he had duties to attend to.

He left him reluctantly and only did so because Morgana gave her assurance that she wouldn't leave him, despite Mordred's protests that he was fine and had suffered no harm. Arthur found himself just as worried; his affection for the young man had grown since he'd come to Camelot and he hated the thought of him finding hostility in a kingdom that was supposed to welcome him.

"Are you going to tell me what was said?" Arthur asked much later that night as Merlin sat with him in Arthur's chambers reading through a pile of reports.

Merlin chucked the parchment he was reading down on the table and said with a sigh, "He said that Mordred was an abomination and that the only reason he'd been allowed anywhere near Camelot was because he was particularly adept at performing sexual favours, especially for you and me. He then said he fully intended to test how good Mordred was the next time he caught him alone."

"Dear God," Arthur said, fully understanding why Merlin had been so incensed. "I'm surprised you stopped at a punch."

"I wouldn't have if Lance hadn't held me back; I had no intention of hurting him in order to wound that little weasel further. If I see him again I'll kill him without hesitation."

Arthur nodded, knowing that Merlin meant it and that it would be futile to try and dissuade him. "I believe it's only Averill who harbours such thoughts. The other knights, even the newer ones, have always adored you and I can't see the fact that you have magic changing that. Most have welcomed Mordred warmly too and would never wish to see him harmed."

"Lifting the ban on magic may change that," Merlin said quietly. "It's causing ructions."

"Things will settle in time. We can't expect the kingdom to accept such a fundamental shift to the law overnight."

"It isn't just that. Everything's changed. I don't know who I am anymore and neither does the castle. I'm not a servant but I'm not a noble either. Everyone's looking at me as though I'll curse them any second and no one knows how to behave around me anymore. I don't know how to behave," he added, running a hand through his hair frustratedly.

"Merlin, you haven't been a servant for years. You've been a friend and advisor to me, you've worked with Godric to run the castle and Leon to attend to the knights' duties, none of that changes now. Giving you a title only makes those things official, makes the nobles see your worth and force them to treat you with the respect you deserve by giving you an actual position at court."

"The nobles don't bother me, they never have, but I'd hate to estrange myself from the townsfolk or the ordinary people of the castle. They trust me, I've spent a long building up relationships with them and I don't want to see those relationships damaged because I'm no longer one of them."

"I've seen how the townspeople and the servants love you, Merlin. It may take them some time to adjust to the new way of things but you're still the same person and they'll respect that. You need to have a little more confidence with things; if you're uncertain then they'll be uncertain."

"That's easier said than done," Merlin said with a sigh. "I've lived so long in the shadows, I've spent so many years hiding who I am that I don't know how to live a life without secrets. I don't know how to be 'Merlin the Sorcerer' to anyone besides Gaius and Lance…and now you, of course. It's…frightening to feel so exposed."

"I know, my love, and I can't begin to imagine how difficult this is for you but this is how it should be. You shouldn't have to hide away in fear and shame, you should be recognised for who and what you are and for the importance you have in my life."

Merlin's expression had gone from frustrated and tired to wide-eyed and stunned. Arthur didn't know what had affected the change or why Merlin was looking at him as though he'd just been offered the moon. "What? What is it?" he asked, confused.

A smile teased about the corners of Merlin's lips as his eyes softened, and he said quietly, "What you just called me."

Arthur frowned and tried to recall what he'd said to the man, only to remember that he'd called him 'my love'. He felt his cheeks heat and he cleared his throat as he said, "Ah. I…spoke without thinking. I – "

"If you're about to take it back I'll turn you into a stag and have your own men hunt you down," Merlin threatened darkly and Arthur laughed.

He held out his hand and Merlin took it, shifting out of his chair and onto Arthur's lap. "Of course I'm not taking it back," Arthur said, holding Merlin close as Merlin wriggled to get comfortable. "I made my declaration and I meant it whole-heartedly, the endearment simply…took me by surprise."

"Say it again," Merlin said with a smile, one hand on Arthur's shoulder while the other came up to caress Arthur's jaw.

Arthur let his hand travel up Merlin's back, smiling up at the man indulgently as he said, "My love."

Merlin leant forward and pressed a kiss to his jaw, then his cheek, moving his lips up to Arthur's ear and whispering, "Again."

Arthur's other hand made a slow and gentle path up Merlin's thigh, dipping inward as he neared the top and saying, "My love."

He felt a possessive nip to his earlobe before he found himself suddenly transported from the chair to the bed, his clothes nowhere in sight and an equally naked Merlin snaking his way down his body. He took a minute to feel surprised at the fact that Merlin's magic was capable of moving them in such a manner before Merlin's mouth closed over his erection and all other thoughts were chased from his mind.

His head fell back against the pillows and his fingers threaded through Merlin's hair as he was pulled into the man's wicked mouth, his talented hand working in tandem as both moved up and down, surrounding him with wet heat. Merlin's tongue did things it shouldn't have been capable of and Arthur gripped the man's hair tightly as he felt himself taken all the way to the back of Merlin's throat.

Merlin sucked cock like he'd been born to it and it made Arthur feel undeniably smug that he was the only person who had ever benefitted from his exquisite talents. He felt the man's free hand come up to palm his balls while Merlin's tongue tormented him ruthlessly. He couldn't stop himself from lifting his hips and thrusting up into that sinful mouth, Merlin humming around him in approval and relaxing his throat as he let Arthur fuck it.

Merlin's mouth and hand matched the rhythm of Arthur's hips and Arthur felt the heat pool in his groin as Merlin drew him closer to the edge. "God, Merlin," he said with a low voice. "I wish I'd known how talented that fucking mouth was years ago. I'd have had you sucking me every night, I'd have had you on your knees every time I'd had a bad council session or a battle had gone badly. I'd have had that mouth around my cock at every fucking opportunity."

Merlin moaned around his prick and Arthur glanced down to see he'd wrapped a hand around his own and was pumping in time with his movements, the pace quickening. Arthur thrust up into his mouth and nudged the back of Merlin's throat, his breath catching as he came hard and went light-headed with it. He felt Merlin swallow and his prick was released slowly as Merlin gentled him through the final tremors.

He was still fuzzy with pleasure when he noticed Merlin rise to his knees, his hand still stroking his prick, his head thrown back with pleasure. Arthur reached out and wrapped his fingers around Merlin's, applying the firm pressure he knew Merlin liked and watching, captivated, as Merlin came with a groan and painted Arthur's stomach and chest with his seed.

They shifted to lie together, Merlin cleaning them with his magic and settling beside Arthur while their breathing evened out. Arthur raked his fingers through Merlin's hair and felt contentment roll through him as the man's weight pressed against his chest.

"It's beautiful to watch you with him, you know," he said quietly after a while.

"Mm? Who?" Merlin asked sleepily, his fingers tracing patterns over Arthur's skin.

"Mordred. I love seeing the two of you together."

He felt Merlin smile against his skin and the man's hand caressed his chest gently as he said, "I can't explain it, I couldn't even say how it began but I love him so fiercely. I've never felt anything quite like it."

He lifted his head to look up at Arthur and propped himself up on one elbow, saying, "It's different to the love I feel for you. It's just as powerful, just as intense but…there's a connection there that makes him feel like…mine. I see so much of myself in him and it worried me in the past; I always had somebody to protect me, to make me feel loved – first my mother, then Gaius…then you, but Mordred was so alone and it would have been so easy for him to be a target for those who wanted to use him for their own ends."

Arthur reached up and brushed Merlin's jaw with the back of his hand. "You could make it official," he said gently.

"What do you mean?"

"You're already Mordred's guardian, why not make it more formal and adopt him?"

Merlin gave a thoughtful frown before he shook his head and said, "He's nearly 16, he wouldn't want me to."

"I wouldn't be so sure. You said yourself that it made a difference to feel protected and loved, maybe this could give him that added sense of security. You're already a father to him in every way that counts."

Merlin smiled self-deprecatingly and said, "As ridiculous as it seems that's how I feel. I know there isn't any great difference in our ages but sometimes I look at him and see that young boy we smuggled out to the druids. I love having him here with me and I'd like to keep him close."

"Well, think on it. If you want my opinion, I think Mordred would be only too happy to be named officially as yours."

Merlin smiled and leant forward to press a gentle kiss to Arthur's lips before cuddling back into his side with a contented sigh, a casual flick of his hand bringing a blanket up to cover them both. Arthur felt the delicious ripple of Merlin's magic beneath his skin and closed his eyes as he let the sensation wash over him, welcoming it like an old friend.


The ban on magic was officially lifted and a proclamation was sent throughout the kingdom. Geoffrey inscribed all the work Arthur, Merlin and Morgana had done into law and the council was wrangled into submission. Once it became evident to them that a great deal of time and consideration had gone into the repealing of the ban and that there would be careful and measured restrictions in place most began to come around.

Lord Cavan, along with a couple of others, had made loud and sustained protests, which eventually culminated in their banishment from the kingdom. Arthur didn't regret it, although he worried he might eventually come to, and the council was a far better place without their poison seeping into it. There were still those on the council who were sceptical and cautious, but their concerns were logical and they put them forward with courtesy and respect.

Merlin held his position on the council with the kind of stubborn defiance that had always charmed and exasperated Arthur in equal measure. He was surprised to find that the man was capable of a certain degree of diplomacy and he displayed a knowledge of the political machinations and games that governed life at court that proved his own fierce intellect. He held his own and faced down his detractors with an implacable will of steel and a streak of pride that made Arthur proud.

They found a valuable ally in Lord Kyle, who spoke loudly and eloquently for their proposals and prompted many others to do likewise. Arthur felt a certain affection for the man, especially considering the respect and cordiality he displayed towards to Merlin. His demeanour prompted others to behave likewise and overall attitudes towards Merlin slowly shifted.

Nothing had really changed. He was still the same man who had been by Arthur's side all these years, who ran the castle and organised every day-to-day detail of the kingdom down the minutiae that few even noticed, but the conferral of an official title had pushed him sharply into focus and forced them to consider him and his true worth.

There was much for everyone to adjust to and Arthur couldn't blame people for feeling a little tense. The constant threat of unrest played heavily on people's minds, adding to the strain that rippled through the kingdom. Reports of attacks grew almost daily and people continued to arrive in Camelot looking for sanctuary after their homes had been pillaged.

"We'll take this route and double back down through the pass here," Arthur said as he and Merlin perused the maps spread out the council chamber's table, Lord Kyle and Leon with them as they finalised their plans.

Reports of attacks alarmingly close to the citadel itself were increasing and Arthur and Merlin were going to see what they could find out about them. They were going alone to try to limit any panic that might be caused if any larger group were to be sent out and Arthur had very much enjoyed watching the council's protestations to such an undertaking only for Merlin to stare them down coldly and declare that he was more than capable of protecting the king from any attackers.

Arthur had all but marched Merlin out of the council chamber after that and they hadn't managed to make it make to their chambers before Arthur had dragged Merlin behind a tapestry and fucked him senseless. It was a memory that made Arthur smile every time he thought about it.

"We shouldn't be gone more than a few days but I trust you both to keep things flowing steadily here," he said, Lord Kyle and Leon both nodding their assent and Arthur content in the knowledge that he could trust them at their word.

Lord Kyle and Leon took their leave, Leon extracting a promise from Arthur and Merlin to stop by the training field before they left. Arthur rolled up the maps and report and placed them to the side, feeling agitated that he was about to ride out on yet another expedition to try and discern what was causing trouble in his kingdom.

He felt arms encircle his waist and Merlin's chin came to rest on his shoulder as he said softly, "We'll figure it out. Whoever's causing this trouble will have to show their hand eventually and we'll deal with them."

"You promised me you couldn't read minds," Arthur said, leaning into him and running his hand over the arms that held him.

"I've never needed to with you." Merlin pressed himself closer and Arthur felt his lips tease the patch of skin behind his ear in a gentle caress. "I know you're worried, I am too, but we'll face this threat together and I'll be with you all the way."

Arthur smiled and indulged in the feeling of being in Merlin's arms, feeling safer and more protected in the circle of his embrace than he did anywhere else. "It's always been that way, my love. Long before I knew you had magic, long before we were lovers, it's always been you and me, facing off against the world."

He felt Merlin's gentle laugh against his skin as he said, "That's because I'm the only one who'd put up with you."

"I was being romantic, you prat," Arthur protested.

"Sorry," Merlin said insincerely, giving Arthur's waist a squeeze before he released him. "Come on, let's get down to the training field then we can be on our way. Any idea what we're wanted down there for?"

"Not a clue," Arthur said with a shrug before he reached out and pulled Merlin in for a kiss, trying to keep it chaste but fully intending to take advantage of their time alone together later.

They made their way down to the training field and found the knights waiting for them, all assembled in a very formal pattern and standing to attention. Arthur caught Leon's eye but received no enlightenment from him, merely an amused smile.

"What's all this about?" Arthur asked, spotting Lancelot, Gwaine, Elyan and Percival standing off to the side, their hands behind their backs and standing with equal formality, although all were grinning broadly.

"Sire," said Sir Kay, stepping forward. He was one of the newer knights, having been successful in the try-outs a year prior. He wasn't of noble birth, being the son of a physician, and he was popular among the other knights, being both competent and amiable.

"Sir Kay," Arthur said with a polite incline of his head.

"In light of recent events and with the current climate being what it is, we've decided that we wish to renew the pledge we made when we were all bestowed with our knighthoods."

"Renew it?" Arthur asked, surprised.

"Yes, sire. We would like our oath of fealty to now extend to Merlin, to swear that our loyalty and our swords will now belong to him as well as to you. Every man amongst us owes his life to him and we're all aware of how long and how hard he's worked to keep the kingdom safe. With your permission, sire, we would like to show our respect and our admiration by pledging our service to our much-loved Court Sorcerer."

Arthur looked across at Merlin, who was standing there stunned, a single tear making its way down his cheek. "I can think of nothing more fitting, Sir Kay," Arthur said softly, pride swelling in his chest.

The knights all shifted to their knees, their swords plunged into the earth in front of them. They bowed their heads low and Arthur shifted closer to Merlin, resting his hand in the small of the man's back and feeling him tremble beneath his palm.

Sir Kay raised his head and said in a clear, firm voice, "We, the knights of Camelot, do hereby swear our fealty to Merlin, Sorcerer to the court and friend to us all. We pledge to honour his magic and to use our swords in his service. To this oath we shall hold until the day death finds us."

Gwaine and the others broke out into riotous applause, Lancelot looking very much as though he was fighting off tears and Leon looking prouder than Arthur could ever remember seeing him. Merlin drew in a shaky breath and Arthur moved his hand in gentle circles against the man's back.

"I don't know what to say," Merlin said eventually, his voice sounding choked. "I'm…more touched than you can know and…I promise I'll endeavour to be worthy of this honour."

"To Merlin!" Gwaine called, his grin so broad it nearly threatened to split his face. Everyone repeated the cheer, the knights all raising their swords and Arthur certain that Merlin was on the verge of bolting.

"I…thank you…really….thank you," Merlin said in a strained voice before he reached for Arthur's hand and gave it a firm squeeze before he dipped his head and left the training field, Arthur seeing the restraint it took to keep his pace measured and not break into a run.

Arthur turned to his knights and tried to bring his emotions under control and school his features into something a little more stoic. "I've never been prouder of you," he said before he favoured them all with a respectful bow, something a king only ever did to his knights under the most unique circumstances.

He left the field before he was overtaken by his emotion and went to find Merlin, whom he was sure would be hiding in the stable and weeping into his horse's mane.

Chapter Text

Chapter 15

The first few days of their expedition were uneventful. They took advantage of being away from the castle alone and made love beneath the stars, Merlin's magic protecting their little camp and ensuring no one would catch them by surprise. After the chaos the last couple of months had brought it was a relief to have a momentary respite from it, even though Arthur wasn't insensible to the ever-looming threat they were out there to investigate.

It had been a long time since he and Merlin had been alone, just the two of them, for any significant length of time and Arthur was taking the opportunity to enjoy having Merlin all to himself. He could admit that he had a possessive streak where the man was concerned and he often had to rein in his desire to keep him all to himself and banish anyone who thought they also had a claim to him.

They managed to find time for each other back in the castle it was true, sometimes to the detriment of all other things, but they both had so many demands and duties to attend to that they often felt like they encroached onto their relationship. It was a relief to have this time for themselves, to catch their dinner and bathe in streams, spending long evenings talking and having no one to consider but themselves.

"Are you ready to talk about that little display from the knights before we left?" Arthur asked as they rode through the forest a few days later.

Merlin huffed and ducked to avoid a low branch, saying, "There's nothing to talk about."

"Really? Because I think there's actually quite a lot to talk about. My knights, my knights, Merlin, swore an oath of fealty to you. Rather remarkable, wouldn't you say?"

Merlin continued to stare ahead, his lips pursed, and Arthur grinned at the side of his head. He'd found the man in the stables after he'd all but ran from the training field with his face buried into the side of his horse, sobbing. He'd let Arthur hold him for all of a minute before giving himself a shake, swinging himself up onto his horse and telling Arthur to get a move on. He hadn't mentioned it since and Arthur felt the need to prod him, just a little.

"It's unprecedented, you know," Arthur said conversationally, a muscle in Merlin's jaw twitching. "The knights of Camelot have never made a pledge to anyone other than their king or queen. To do so of their own volition is extraordinary."

"Arthur," Merlin said with a low growl.

"I'll just keep talking at you if you don't answer me."

"I'll take your voice away like I did with the bloody nobles," Merlin threatened.

"No you won't," Arthur said with certainty. "So come on, how are you feeling about it?"

"What a question," Merlin said with a tut. "Surely even you're not stupid enough to need to ask me that."

"Merlin – "

"Oh for heaven's sake, Arthur! I cried my eyes out over it, I cried so hard I gave myself a bloody headache. It's more than I ever dared to hope for and I'm so overwhelmed I don't think I'm actually able to process it. I've been so terrified about what would happen when my magic was revealed and the best I hoped for was that I'd be tolerated. For this to happen…my heart can barely cope with the joy of it."

Arthur paused for a second before saying, "Well tell your face that then."

Merlin turned to look at him, eyes wide with disbelief before a laugh bubbled out of him, shaking his head and saying, "I don't know why I put up with you."

"Because you love me."

"Unfortunately for me, that is true," Merlin said with a sigh. "You don't mind, do you? About the knights? I mean…they are your knights after all."

"Don't be daft," Arthur said with a smile. "They've always had a special affection for you, I think it's a wonderful testament to that affection that they decided to show you just how important you are to them."

Merlin smiled and Arthur was about to press the matter further when he noticed something up ahead on the forest floor. He signalled to Merlin and they approached with caution, dismounting their horses and finding two bodies sprawled on the ground, the coldness of their skin indicating that they'd lain dead for several hours.

"Arthur, look at this," Merlin said, crouching beside one of the bodies and pushing the man's head back to show Arthur the tattoo on his neck.

"Treasach mercenaries," Arthur said with a sigh.

"Treasach?" Merlin queried.

"Across the sea to the west. They're a fierce band of fighters and they're anyone's for the right price. I'd hoped to never see them within Camelot's borders."

"There's something…off," Merlin said, his hand hovering over the dead man's chest. "I can feel…magic here but…this man is no sorcerer."

"How could that be possible?"

Whatever Merlin's conjecture might have been, it was interrupted by a shout from the trees, followed by a surge of people descending on them in a tumult of movement. They were on their feet in seconds, Merlin quicker to repel them than Arthur was unsheathing his sword.

They were vastly outnumbered but Merlin's magic seemed more than a match for them. Arthur fought and despatched several of them, although they were vicious fighters and far more skilled than the usual bandits they often found themselves in skirmishes with. He was functioning purely on adrenaline and instinct, everything far too frenzied for anything as indulgent as thinking or strategizing.

Merlin was breath-taking, a truly awesome sight to behold as he fought by Arthur's side and a thrill went through Arthur to see just how powerful the man really was. Beyond the initial reveal of his magic, Arthur had never seen Merlin in action, had never had the privilege of fighting with him and feeling his power crackle through the air.

He was sure and certain, his movements graceful and precise. His eyes were molten gold and he radiated strength and control. Arthur felt the man's magic beneath his skin, felt it like lightning through his veins, sparking his blood to life and giving him strength and power. It was overwhelming and staggering, and Arthur welcomed it inside him, knowing it belonged to him.

They were left facing off against five men, one of whom produced a ball of fire between his hands and fired it at them in a volley. Merlin deflected it with little more than a flick of his wrist, his body taut with anger as he said in a voice that sent a shiver through Arthur, "That power doesn't belong to you."

"That's no concern of yours," the man snarled while the others flanked him.

"No," Merlin said, with a glint in his eye, and Arthur felt the man's magic tingle through his body, "but it's about to be yours."

He raised his hands towards them, his posture strong and certain, then closed his hands into fists and pulled them towards himself. A streak of light emanated from all of the men and they fell to their knees, gasping for air. Merlin held their borrowed power in the palm of his hand, looking at it disdainfully before he banished it with a flick of his head. His eyes glowed gold and the men collapsed, dead in little more than a second.

Arthur's head was swimming and his skin was prickling where Merlin's magic still seeped into it. He didn't know who moved first, whose hands reached with a need that was almost primal, but they were on one another in seconds. Fingers moved to undo clothing and lips met in an almost frenzy. Arthur had Merlin pushed up against a tree, his palms flat against the trunk as he braced himself as Arthur slid inside him, a murmured spell easing his way.

He held tightly onto Merlin's hips as he thrust hard and fast, Merlin's fingers digging into the bark of the tree as he matched Arthur's rhythm and let himself be taken. Magic swirled between them and ignited Arthur's blood, claiming him as Merlin's. He buried himself within the man's body, feeling it welcome him greedily and feeling that nothing ever felt as perfect as when they were joined in this way.

Their breath mingled, hot and ragged, and one of Arthur's hands travelled up to grip the back of Merlin's neck firmly. Moans spilled from the man's lips, breathy and heady, the kind that Arthur fantasised about whenever he was parted from the man. He thrust deeply, overcome with his desire for Merlin, with the depth and strength of his feeling for him.

"My love," he breathed against Merlin's skin as he pushed into him, Merlin gasping as he came, untouched and with his fingers grasping the tree tightly. Arthur thrust hard a few more times until he found his own release, his hand so tight on Merlin's hip he worried he might leave a bruise. He pressed his head against Merlin's shoulder and tried to bring his breathing under control, Merlin magic still alive within his body.

He smiled against the man's skin and said breathily, "It'll always amuse me that you love to be fucked while having words of adoration whispered in your ear."

Merlin laughed tiredly and said, "Says the man whose blood is heated by displays of magic."

Arthur grinned as he slid from Merlin's body, the man's magic cleaning them as he turned around and rested his back against the tree, his eyes bright and his cheeks flushed. "It isn't just the display of your magic, my love," Arthur said as they fumbled to rearrange their clothing, "it's the fact that I can feel it within me."

"It really doesn't bother you?" Merlin asked, reaching out to cup Arthur's cheek with his hand.

"How on earth could it? It makes me feel alive, it makes me feel claimed. Yow own every part of me and when I feel your magic…it makes me feel that I have every part of you too."

"You do," Merlin said with a strange kind of solemnity. "You always did, Arthur. Long before you knew about my magic it was always yours. I was always yours."

Arthur leant forward and pressed his lips gently against Merlin's, feeling more than magic shared between them. "I love you," he whispered softly as he closed his eyes and pressed his forehead against Merlin's.

He felt Merlin's hands settle gently on his hips, an odd kind of peace winding its way through him, the kind of peace he only ever found under Merlin's touch. "I love you too," Merlin replied. "I always have."

There was silence for a moment before Arthur pulled back and glanced at the scene of chaos around them. "You know, other people don't have romantic moments surrounded by the corpses of their enemies."

Merlin grinned and said with a laugh, "It keeps things interesting, darling."

Their tone was jovial but both were worried and it was decided that they would return to the citadel with all speed. It took them three days and they encountered no more trouble but the signs of it were evident in the towns and villages that had been ravaged and the chaos left in the wake of such destruction.

The council was summoned as soon as Arthur and Merlin returned and they relayed their findings to them, most troubling of all being that Treasach mercenaries had found their way into Camelot's borders.

"I haven't heard of such a thing for many years," Leon said soberly. "They haven't been seen this far south since the days before Uther's reign."

"More worrisome still is that they seem to have magic," Arthur said, knowing how sensitive the issue of magic was with everything still so fresh within Camelot but knowing it couldn't be avoided.

"You mean they were sorcerers?" Lord Kyle asked cautiously.

"No," Merlin said with a shake of his head. "They'd been…imbued with magic somehow. It wasn't theirs, it was…forced into them somehow. I've never seen anything like it. Morgana?" he asked, addressing her as she sat beside him.

"I've heard of dark magic being used in such way. It's…dangerous and volatile, only someone with great power could perform magic like this."

"So we must conclude that whoever our enemy is they have a powerful sorcerer on their side," Arthur said grimly.

"Fortunately for us, so do we," Lord Kyle said with a nod in Merlin's direction, a rather attractive blush appearing on Merlin's cheeks as he dipped his head shyly. Arthur wished he wouldn't do so in front of people, as he had to use every last bit of his restraint to stop himself from kissing the life out of him there and then.

He gave himself a shake and said, "I think it would be politic to invite our allies to Camelot to discuss the situation going forward and strengthen the bonds we have with them. We will send word to Nemeth, Mercia and Caerleon and invite them to the kingdom."

Leon nodded, saying, "Are we any closer to knowing who our enemy is, or what their motivation might be?"

"Destruction of the kingdom seems to be a likely motivation," Arthur said heavily. "As to who it may be who's orchestrating this…I'm as much in the dark as you. They'll show their hand eventually though and when they do we'll be prepared for them."

"My people have sworn their fealty to Camelot, their magic is yours to command should we face battle," Morgana said, and Arthur felt the weight of such an important gesture settle in his chest.

"I'm deeply appreciative of such an oath," he said sincerely.

"They wouldn't have made if they didn't feel you were worthy of its receipt," Morgana said, her eyes piercing him. "A king who rules as you do is deserving of loyalty, Arthur."

"Hear, hear," Merlin said firmly, and Arthur swallowed around the lump that had formed in his throat.

"I…thank you," he said, trying to keep his voice even. "Um…please extend our invitations to our allied kingdoms and we'll…see where we go from there."

He dismissed the council and excused himself from the room, feeling Merlin's amusement follow him as he left. The invitations were sent out and their allies arrived in Camelot a couple of weeks later, the mood more sombre than their previous visits to the kingdom. Each leader came with their own stories about the troubles that plagued their lands and it seemed that unrest and lawlessness were growing by the day.

Treasach mercenaries had been spotted across all kingdoms and Arthur knew they were there for a purpose. Mercenaries, especially these ones, never sought a fight for their own amusement, nor did they have any particular grievances of their own to battle over. If they had crossed the sea, it was for a purpose and someone was behind them, governing their actions.

Talks were held and strategies were agreed upon, Merlin present for all. Bayard was highly amused to find that the young man who accused him of plotting Camelot's downfall while subsequently drinking poison was now the court-appointed sorcerer and advisor to the king, although he treated Merlin amicably and welcomed him to their talks as if he'd always been there.

Annis eyed him a little more suspiciously but she was no less courteous because of it. She was a wily and sharp woman who took time to assess a situation before committing her feelings to it and Arthur didn't begrudge her the time she was taking to decide whether or not Merlin was worthy of her trust.

Mithian had an affection for Merlin that she didn't hide. She was attentive and friendly and Arthur had seen them in one another's company several times outside the formal talks that were held. She also seemed quite taken with Morgana, and Mordred was so enamoured of her he turned red and left the room whenever he saw her. Merlin teased him about it mercilessly, of course, and Gwaine laughed himself stupid every time the young man was rendered speechless by Mithian's mere presence alone.

"I still say this is unnecessary," Merlin groused as he dressed in one of the new outfits Arthur had insisted be made for him.

"Merlin," Arthur said with a sigh, "you are Camelot's Court Sorcerer and official advisor to the king, it's time you bloody well looked the part. I don't think it's too much to ask that you dress appropriately for a formal dinner."

"You know, one day I'm going to turn my magic against you and then you'll really be sorry."

"I'm sure you will, my love, but today is not that day," Arthur said, standing in front of him and doing the laces up on Merlin's new shirt, one that actually fit him properly and didn't just hang off his frame. He was wearing dark blue breeches and the new boots Arthur had had made for him and he looked absolutely stunning, although any attempt to tell him so was met with a glare.

"I don't see why I have to come to this thing anyway. I have enough to do without wasting my time making small talk with dignitaries."

"You're impossible. You moaned for years about being in the shadows, being side-lined, not being recognised for your importance in my life and now you're actually getting the recognition you deserve you're complaining about it."

"I just don't like being made to feel like a performing animal. I know they're all watching me, waiting for me to mess up, judging whether or not I actually deserve to be elevated above the level of a servant."

"So what if they are?" Arthur asked, finishing with the laces and letting his hands settle on Merlin's waist. "You've never cared what anyone thought of you before, why should you now?"

Merlin paused and chewed his lip for a moment before he said quietly, "Because this time it reflects on you. If they find me wanting…your judgement will be questioned and I don't want that."

Arthur felt himself soften under Merlin's confession and he raised a hand to cup Merlin's cheek, letting his thumb move in a gentle caress over the high cheekbone. "My judgement is perfectly sound, I have no regrets about any action I've taken so far regarding you."

"You might come to," Merlin countered, and Arthur hated seeing the doubt in his eyes.

"I'm not wasting breath arguing with you when you're in one of these moods. Come on, let's get down to the hall and you can charm Mithian and amuse Bayard."

"Just how I wanted to spend my evening," Merlin grumbled, but nevertheless let himself be steered out of Arthur's chambers.

They entered the great hall and accepted goblets of wine, Merlin sticking close to Arthur's side and Arthur sorely tempted to give the man a smack upside the back of his head. He wasn't quite glowering but it was a damn close thing and it was only Morgana and Mordred's arrival that tempted a smile out of him.

They took their seats, Merlin quite clearly put out when Mithian was seated to Arthur's left while Annis was seated to his right and Merlin was placed a little further down the table with Lancelot and Gwen. At least he was among friends and could be trusted to behave himself with them. Arthur wasn't entirely sure what was affecting the man so much or why he was being so bloody difficult but he hadn't been the same the arrival of the other kingdoms several days prior.

It made little sense to Arthur. Apart from Annis' slight scepticism, they'd all been nothing but polite to Merlin and had treated him with respect and courtesy, talking with him as an equal and accepting his new role within the kingdom. Mithian had been charm itself and Arthur knew that Merlin was fond of her. They were meant to be fostering cordial relations and ensuring that their ties of allyship remained strong and intact; Merlin's sour mood would hardly help to do that effectively.

He seemed to pull himself a little more together as the evening wore on and Arthur spotted him speaking to Mithian and Bayard several times. He stayed close to Morgana and Mordred and Arthur's hosting duties meant that they weren't able to steal much time together. It was frustrating but there would be time to spare for one another when the feast ended and they could find sanctuary in Arthur's rooms.

"Do you know why Merlin's been in such a mood for the last few days?" Arthur asked Morgana when he managed to snatch a moment with her.

"I would never attempt to fathom the inner workings of Merlin's mind," Morgana replied with a smile. "It's a radical notion, I know, but you could try asking him."

"You know how evasive he is. If he doesn't want to talk about it he'll find plenty of ways not to."

"Forgive me for interrupting, sire," Leon said as he approached them with a smile and slightly flushed cheeks. He turned to Morgana and said, "I wondered if I might beg a dance from you, my lady."

"I'd be delighted," Morgana said, accepting his hand and letting herself be led to the centre of the room where other couples were engaged in a slow, intricate dance.

Arthur watched them with a smile, their affection for one another very obvious as Morgana was pulled into Leon's arms. It did his heart good to think that they'd been reunited after such a long time apart and that they could now pursue what was between them without fear of reprisals. He glanced across the room to seek out Merlin and found him also watching the couple, but where Arthur was smiling Merlin was frowning.

It didn't make sense to Arthur. He knew that Merlin approved of the relationship and that he was happy for both Leon and Morgana; his rather unhappy expression said otherwise, though and Arthur didn't understand it. Sometimes it was impossible to fathom Merlin and it felt that all attempts were futile. His mind worked in ways that were a mystery to Arthur and he sometimes wondered if all that magic hadn't actually addled him.

He managed to have a pleasant evening despite Merlin's oddness and he enjoyed speaking with Mithian in particular, who was as fine company as Arthur could remember her being. She had a fierce love for her kingdom and her people and Nemeth was truly richer for her leadership. He knew how troubled she was by the growing unrest and how she worried for her people. Nemeth's soldiers weren't so fine as Camelot's and Arthur wondered if he could spare some of his better fighters to help with Nemeth's protection while things were so uncertain.

He decided to leave the feast when Gwaine, along with a few of Bayard's men, began singing questionable songs and calling for stronger wine. He met Merlin's eye across the room and they both said their goodnights, Merlin warning Mordred that he was to stay another half an hour and then go to bed. Mordred swore it then waited until Merlin's back was turned to wink at Arthur with a grin, one that Arthur returned before schooling his features as he and Merlin left the hall.

"Did you have a good evening?" he asked when they were back in his chambers.

"Fine," Merlin replied, sitting down and pulling his boots off.

Arthur resisted the urge to sigh and knew not to press the issue. He pulled the curtains closed and noticed that his chambers were in pristine order. George had been appointed his manservant, although there were still things that Merlin did and always would do, George seeming to know that instinctively and respect it. Arthur liked the man and appreciated him, although he was still one of the dullest people he had ever met, but his apparent affection for Merlin endeared him to Arthur.

"They talk about us, you know," Merlin said, his voice cutting through the quiet of the room and jolting Arthur.

"Who talks about us?" he asked, sitting down on his bed and looking across at Merlin, who was gazing into the fire with a frown.

"Everyone. The whole castle. Servants, nobles, knights. They all talk about us. I suppose me sleeping in your chambers every night doesn't help. The rumours have always been rife. Lord Cavan even called me your catamite."

"I wouldn't pay him any attention, or these rumours."

"But they're not rumours, are they? We are…whatever we are."

"What do you mean 'whatever we are'?" Arthur asked, not liking Merlin's manner one bit.

"Well we're not courting, are we? We're not…anything official. The court doesn't know about us, whatever it is that we have is…secret…hidden. You're not about to offer to dance with me at a feast and I'm not going to be seated beside you as your…as your anything. All we have are rumours."

"Merlin – "

"And that's the way it has to be, doesn't it?"

Merlin looked up at him and Arthur was taken aback by the fierceness in his eyes, by how hurt and upset he looked. Arthur couldn't understand it and he didn't know how to respond. It was true that they had never made any declaration of their relationship but Arthur had thought it best to keep that quiet while the ban on magic was lifted and Merlin's new status was settled.

"I don't understand where this is coming from," he said eventually, unsure of how best to proceed with Merlin in this strange and combative mood.

"There are other rumours," Merlin said, his body so taut with tension it set Arthur's teeth on edge. "Rumours about your marriage. Rumours about how you intend to make Mithian your queen and secure the alliance with Nemeth. It makes sense. You will have to marry, after all."

"Merlin – "

"I always knew that whatever we had would be finite but I'd hoped I might get to hold onto it for a little longer than this."

"What are you talking about?" Arthur asked, feeling lost. "How can you call what we have finite?"

"Because it damn well is," Merlin spat, getting to his feet and turning his back to Arthur. "You're the king, Arthur, and whatever title you've conferred on me I'm nothing more than a peasant, a male peasant. You'll be expected to marry someone of your class, someone who will benefit Camelot, someone who can…who can provide you with an heir. What we have will be forgotten and you'll marry someone worthy of you."

"I can't believe you'd say that," Arthur whispered, Merlin's words piercing him, the wound acute and painful.

"One of us has to. One of us has to face up to the truth. We've been living in a dream world."

Arthur took a deep breath and clenched his fists at his side, the urge to throttle Merlin almost overwhelming. He took a moment to try and collect himself then closed the distance between and braced his hands on Merlin's shoulders, turning him around, despite the resistance Merlin offered.

"You listen to me," he said firmly. "What we have is complicated, I won't deny it. We're not from the same class, you can't provide me with heirs and when people find out the truth about it it'll likely cause a brief but noisy scandal. None of that matters. Do you really think I would give you up?"

"You'll have to," Merlin said, trying to free himself from Arthur's hold. "The kingdom loves you, Arthur, but it won't tolerate you not marrying."

"I'm going to marry," Arthur said, gripping Merlin fiercely. "You always said you hoped I'd marry for love, well that's exactly what I intend to do."

"Arthur," Merlin said, his face softening a little, "you can't marry me."

"Well tough, because that's what I bloody well intend to do."

"Arthur – "

"Tell me, Merlin, what could make a better political statement, a better show of strength than to marry the most powerful sorcerer in the five kingdoms? Camelot would certainly approve and my allies and enemies alike would see it as a clear sign of the power the kingdom holds."

"But – "

"As for heirs, the issue isn't a difficult one. There have been plenty of royal couples unable to conceive throughout history, they've simply appointed a successor. There's no reason why I can't do that."

"But Arthur – "

"Lastly," Arthur said, cupping Merlin's chin and meeting his eyes openly, "no matter my status or whatever expectations might be placed on my shoulders, I deserve to marry the man who's held my heart since the day I met him."

"You tried to take my head off with a mace," Merlin said, very obviously trying to fight a smile.

"Yes…well…courting rituals are complicated things."

Merlin laughed and placed his hands over Arthur's lowering them from his shoulders and saying, "I don't want to be the reason you don't become the king you're meant to be."

"Merlin, you infuriating simpleton, you are the sole reason I'm the king I am and you will continue to be the driving force behind the king, the man, I will become. So shut up and accept the fact that I'm going to marry you."

A twinkle of mischief crossed Merlin's eyes and he tilted his chin, saying, "That's not a terribly romantic proposal, Arthur. I'm not sure I'm all that moved to accept your hand."

"You're impossible," Arthur said exasperatedly, re-evaluating everything he'd said since they'd come into their chambers. "Fine, you want a romantic proposal? You'll bloody well get one. Merlin, you are the sodding love of my life and there is no place, no time, no world in which I can imagine my life without you. I want to marry you and spend the rest of my life as your husband because I'm certain nothing would make me happier. Will you have me? Will you marry me?"

"I suppose at this point it would be poor manners to say no."

Arthur gritted his teeth and swept Merlin off his feet and up into his arms, Merlin laughing and saying, "Put me down, you great oaf! Just because I've agreed to marry you doesn't mean you're allowed to manhandle me!"

"That's exactly what it means," Arthur replied as he deposited Merlin on the bed and climbed on top of him seconds later. "I'll expect you to submit to my conjugal demands."

"You're going to be a tyrannical brute, aren't you?" Merlin asked, wriggling very pleasantly against Arthur as Arthur pinned his wrists to the bed.

"Oh indeed," Arthur said, feeling Merlin's hardness press against his own. "You'll do exactly as I say and I'll expect complete and utter deference from you."

Merlin snorted and said, "Best marry someone else then."

"No, my love. I'm afraid I've got my heart set on you."

He lowered his head and met Merlin's lips, feeling the man's magic tingle over his skin as their clothes were banished. He indulged in the feeling of all that gloriously naked skin beneath his own and moved his lips to Merlin's throat, nipping and sucking and making sure to leave his mark. Merlin's sighs fell breathily across his skin and Arthur pressed his groin closer, delighting in the friction as Merlin tilted his hips to meet him.

Arthur snaked down Merlin's body and let his hands and lips explore the beautiful expanse of pale skin that was laid bare to him. Merlin arched beneath him and the low groan he emitted when Arthur's mouth closed over his straining prick made Arthur's blood burn hot. Arthur licked and sucked, Merlin pushing himself deeper inside, his fingers twining through Arthur's hair and gripping pleasantly.

The vial of oil was fumbled towards him and Arthur smiled at his lover's impatience. He coated his fingers and kept his mouth busy torturing Merlin while he gently teased the man's entrance. Merlin writhed against him, always unable to hold back while he was being pleasured, and pushed down against the finger that eventually breached him. Arthur took the man's prick all the way to the back of his throat and added a second finger, Merlin keening and gripping the bedsheets.

Arthur loved him like this, coming undone bit by bit and completely at his mercy. He loved the sounds that were reserved solely for his ears and it stirred his blood to know that he could have Merlin, powerful warlock that he was, on the cusp of begging. He pushed a third finger inside him and stretched and prepared him while Merlin's breath came in stutters, finally lifting his mouth from the man's prick and looking up at the beautiful picture he made sprawled against the pillows and waiting to welcome Arthur inside him.

Arthur slicked his prick well and guided it to Merlin's entrance, Merlin tilting his hips up and gripping Arthur's shoulders as Arthur pushed gently forward. Arthur entered in one smooth thrust and Merlin's eyes fluttered closed as his back arched, Arthur watching him, utterly captivated by the beauty of his face. He leant down and peppered kisses over the stunning nose and cheekbones as he moved within him, letting his mouth move down to torment the man's throat.

He reached for Merlin's hands and braced them against the bed, Merlin moaning beautifully at the action and moving his hips in time with Arthur's thrusts. He could lose himself in this man, this wonderful, beautiful man who had grabbed his attention since their first meeting and hadn't let go since. It was no exaggeration to say that Merlin dominated his thoughts, that his world often narrowed to a point that only included Merlin and he was powerless to fight it.

"Will you be my husband?" he whispered next to the man's ear as he pushed deep inside him.

"God yes," Merlin breathed as Arthur continued to hold his hands firmly in place, loving the sense of control and the way Merlin surrendered to him.

"Will you marry me?"

"Yes, Arthur. Yes."

Arthur felt the friction of his stomach muscles against Merlin's straining prick and he shifted to give him more, Merlin's legs wrapping around his waist as he chased towards completion. Arthur picked up the pace and Merlin's back bowed as he came with a gasp, coating Arthur's stomach with his seed.

Arthur gripped Merlin's hands tighter and fucked him hard, his breathing catching as he was overtaken by his orgasm, spilling himself inside Merlin and groaning with the pleasure of it. He rode his high and levered himself down, his arms shaking as he lay on top of Merlin, their breathing mingling and chests heaving.

There was no world in which he could have ever given this up, no world in which he could have existed without Merlin by his side, in his bed, and he pressed a kiss to the mark he had left on Merlin's throat as if to confirm that the man was his. He would marry him and he would be a better king and a better man for it, he'd never been more certain of anything in his life.

Chapter Text

Chapter 16

"No, the alternative trade route should go through here, skirting around the town of Canibri."

"Won't that take longer though?"

"Mm, about half a day, but it's safer and far more difficult to attack than if we diverted it through Bredon."

Lancelot nodded as he followed the path Merlin's finger made over the map and Arthur watched as Merlin perused the reports laid out in front of them. The man had such a wonderfully tactical brain and Arthur sometimes wondered how he would ever cope without Merlin's advice.

"How many men should we attach to the retinue?" Lancelot asked, and Merlin's nose crinkled as he contemplated the question in a manner that Arthur always found particularly endearing.

"Ten of your best," Merlin said eventually. "I know it seems like a small number but we want to draw as little attention as possible to those using the route. They'll need to be in ordinary clothes too, nothing to identify them as knights of Camelot."

Lancelot nodded and said, "We'll need to keep the route as secret as possible. No one but Leon can know of it."

Arthur was about to comment on the fact that Leon was late to their meeting, which was unheard of for his best knight, when the door to his chambers banged open and Leon appeared, bearing an unconscious Morgana in his arms.

"I found her on the stairs," he said as he carried her to Arthur's bed. "I don't know what happened or how long she'd been there for. Merlin, please do something to help her," he said, looking up at Merlin as they all moved to stand beside the bed.

"Come now, love," Merlin said gently as he sat on the edge of the bed and placed a hand over Morgana's forehead. He closed his eyes and murmured something low and faintly melodic, Arthur feeling a gentle wave of magic pulse over him.

Morgana's eyes snapped open and she drew in a gasping breath, bolting up from the bed, Merlin catching her and holding her gently in his arms. "It's alright," he soothed as one hand came up to cradle her head. "It's alright, you're safe."

"Merlin," she whispered, looking pale and harried.

"I've got you," Merlin assured her, and Arthur felt his heart swell at the tenderness between them.

"I…I'm alright," Morgana said after taking a deep breath.

"What happened?" Merlin asked, pulling back and taking her hands in his.

"I…"

"Here," Leon said, handing her a glass of wine. "Take a few sips and try to calm your breathing."

Merlin smiled up at him and said, "Leon, perhaps you'd like to sit with Morgana while she recovers herself."

Merlin slid off the bed and stood next to Arthur while Leon turned a very interesting shade of pink but took a seat beside Morgana on the bed, nevertheless. He wrapped a tentative arm around her shoulders and took her hand, the action so achingly sweet it prompted Arthur to place a hand in the small of Merlin's back and pull him a little closer.

"I had a vision," Morgana said, looking more composed but clearly perturbed. "It was a powerful one. I tried to come straight here to tell you but…it must have weakened me more than I realised." She took a deep breath then looked up at Arthur, Arthur immediately on edge at the expression on her face. "Arthur, I saw who was behind all these attacks, I saw the person responsible for all the unrest throughout the kingdoms."

"Tell me," Arthur said quietly, knowing he would hate the answer.

"It's your uncle, Agravaine."

Arthur felt the world shift beneath him and he gripped Merlin's shirt to try and steady himself. He closed his eyes and took a long, slow breath, feeling Merlin's arm wrap around his waist and holding him gently.

"You're certain?" he asked, opening his eyes and looking at Morgana.

She nodded. "I wish to God I was wrong but I saw him…and his plans. He's working with Morgause. They intend to take Camelot for their own."

"It makes sense," Merlin said softly. "They seize Camelot and then point to the unrest they've caused in Nemeth, Mercia and Caerleon, and threaten to cause further trouble if those kingdoms don't ally with them. Camelot's perfectly placed to control them should they wish to do so."

"I haven't heard from Agravaine since my father died. I…had no idea he hated me this much," Arthur said, feeling lost and confused in the face of this new and painful information.

Merlin pulled him closer and pressed a kiss to his temple, saying gently, "Best not to dwell on it, love. You can't hope to fathom his motives and he's not worth the effort it would take to do so."

Arthur nodded and let Merlin support him, grateful beyond measure for the steadying arm wrapped around him and the strong yet gentle presence he knew he could never do without.

"I think they mean to attack Camelot soon," Morgana said, looking concerned. "We need to prepare ourselves."

"I think perhaps we need to recruit more magic to our side," Merlin said, his hand rubbing a soothing circle in the small of Arthur's back. "We know that Morgause has imbued their fighters with magic so we'll need to be able to combat that. We have the druids' pledge to us but I think…perhaps it's time to ask others in Camelot to come forward."

"Ask them to reveal themselves?" Lancelot asked.

"The ban on magic has been lifted; it seems fair that we offer people the chance to fight. As wonderful as the knights of Camelot are, they can't stand alone against magic. We could send out a notice through the kingdom, inviting people to try out and Morgana and I can test their skills."

"It's not a bad idea," Morgana said, relaxing into Leon's hold.

"I agree," Arthur said, trying to shake himself out of the shock Morgana's news had plunged him into.

"I'll send the notice out immediately," Merlin said, giving Arthur's waist a squeeze. "Leon, Lance, we'll need to take a look at the castle fortifications too and how best to mount our defence." He gave Arthur's cheek a kiss and said, "Why don't you stay here and take care of Morgana? We'll go over our plans later."

Arthur nodded, grateful to Merlin for giving him an escape and taking the burden of responsibility out of his hands for a short time. Merlin nodded to the others and Leon pressed a kiss to Morgana's hand before he rose from the bed and the three men left together.

"Sit," Morgana said gently, and Arthur obeyed, taking a seat at the foot of the bed and resting his back against the bedpost. "I always hated him, you know."

Arthur laughed, although it sounded hollow to his ears, and said, "He was never my favourite…but I didn't imagine him capable of this." He ran a hand through his hair with a sigh and said, "He's my mother's brother, he's my kin, my blood, and yet he would do this to me."

"It isn't personal, Arthur, although I know it feels that way. It's about power, control…and some people will do anything to get that, including cutting down any family members who might stand in their way."

It was true but it made the pain of betrayal no less acute. He'd always known that Agravaine was a power-hungry snake, but he'd hoped that the man's love for Ygraine might have halted any action he would take against Arthur. Clearly that hope had been a false one and it hurt Arthur to think of the lengths people might go to in order to seize the mantle of a ruler.

"Arthur…" Morgana began, a frown between her brows as she placed the glass of wine on the bedside table. "I know that Morgause is my sister…in blood at least…but I hope you know…I need you to know that my loyalty will always be to you."

"I need no such declaration," Arthur said softly. "I trust you with my life." He shifted further up the bed and took her hand in his, saying, "It would have been so easy for you to let your heart be hardened after all you suffered and, although it would have hurt, I couldn't have blamed you if you'd turned against Camelot. I will be forever thankful that I still have my sister."

Morgana gave him a sad smile and brushed her thumb over his hand tenderly. "I wish we'd known when we were younger. I wish Uther hadn't lied to us both…I wish many things where he's concerned."

Arthur nodded, knowing exactly how she felt, his mind still greatly at odds with all the things he'd never managed to reconcile where his father was concerned. "He created a great deal of pain and there are some things I'll never forgive him for but at least we can be brother and sister now and forge our own relationship without him. I'm so proud of you for all you've achieved."

"I wouldn't have been able to do it without you. You saved my life, Arthur. Without you and Merlin…I'd have been just another casualty in Uther's war against magic. It was love for you both that kept me loyal to Camelot."

"Morgana," Arthur began, knowing in his heart that what he was about to do was the right course of action. "I…intend to marry Merlin," he said, and Morgana's face broke into a bright smile. "In doing so, I will of course render myself unable to produce an heir. If you agree, I'd like to name your firstborn as heir to the throne of Camelot."

"Oh Arthur," Morgana said in a whisper, gripping his hand tightly. "I couldn't be happier for you and I know that you and Merlin belong together. Are you sure about this decision, do you truly wish to name my child as your successor?"

"Nothing could make more sense," he replied with a smile. "You have as much of a right to the throne as I do and it feels right to pass that along to your child. This way a Pendragon will still preside over Camelot and we might even see a king or queen who possesses magic."

Morgana shifted to sit beside him, wrapping her arms around him and pulling him in for a tight hug. "I'm honoured to be your sister, Arthur, and my child will be blessed to have you as an uncle."

He pulled back and pressed a kiss to her cheek, saying with a grin, "Wait until Leon learns his future child will be ruler of Camelot. He'll fall off his chair."

The next few days passed in something of a blur for Arthur. The weight of Agravaine's betrayal pressed heavily on him and although he tried to push it to the back of his mind he was still troubled by it. He focused all his attention on the strategies for defence of the citadel, knowing an attack was imminent, and making sure that all those outside the citadel were offered refuge within the castle walls.

Morgana worked with her people to weave defensive magic into those small villages, to try and protect the homes and livelihoods of their people so that there would be something for them to return to when the battle had been fought and, hopefully, won. She and Merlin were also preoccupied with the influx of sorcerers who had responded to the notice posted throughout the kingdom that those with magic had been invited to fight.

Arthur was astonished at the sheer number of people within Camelot who possessed magic and as he watched Merlin and Morgana with them on the training field his heart ached to think of the fear they must have lived in throughout his father's reign. These people were all innocent of the crimes Uther had believed them all guilty of. They were farmers, merchants, tradespeople, physicians, farriers; they were people who had done nothing wrong but who had nevertheless been persecuted for something they had no control over.

"How's it going?" he asked Merlin as he joined him on the training field one afternoon a few days later. He met the man with a chaste kiss, not sure exactly when they had decided to be so public with their affections but noting that there had been no backlash from it so far.

"Fairly well," Merlin replied with a smile, casting his eyes over the field where Morgana, Mordred and several of the other druids were watching various demonstrations of power and ability. "I think we can make some decent fighters out of a few of them and the others can turn their skills to defensive or healing magic."

"It's…rather a shock to see so many."

"Magic's more prevalent than you imagine."

"Not just that," Arthur said, his eyes roving over the various people who were all putting their magic to the test. "It's…humbling to think that they would come to fight for a kingdom that would have executed them only a matter of months ago."

Merlin twined their fingers together and pressed his shoulder against Arthur's, Arthur smiling at how immediately comforted he felt. "Morgana was right," Merlin said softly. "A king who rules as you do is worthy of loyalty and these people recognise that. You've righted the wrongs that were done against them and given them the opportunity to live their lives free of persecution. It's a testament to how respected you are that they wish to fight for you."

"You'll never know how important your words are to me, Merlin," Arthur said, his voice strained with emotion. "Sometimes I wonder how I ever managed without you."

"You didn't," Merlin said with a smirk. "You were a complete cabbage-head of a prince before I came along."

"My life was certainly quieter," Arthur said, rolling his eyes. "I'll never forget that first day. I couldn't believe a scruffy, skinny peasant could dare to speak to the prince of Camelot in such a manner. I couldn't stop thinking about you."

"Oh?" Merlin asked, raising his eyebrows in amusement. "This is news to me."

"In a sea of people bowing and scraping you rather stuck out. No one had ever spoken to me like that before…no one has spoken to me like that since. You'll always be a rather unique anomaly."

"You say the most romantic things. Do make sure you work that delightful endearment into our wedding vows."

"Wedding vows, eh? I certainly hope I'll warrant an invitation."

Arthur and Merlin both turned to see Osrick and Garrick had joined them on the training field, Merlin giving a laugh of happy surprise before he wrapped Osrick up in a warm hug before turning and doing the same to Garrick.

"What are you both doing here?" Arthur asked as he shook their hands, happy to see two people who had become so dear to him.

"We've come to offer Camelot our assistance. I with my sword, Garrick with his…other talents."

"I knew it," Merlin said with a shrewd grin.

"You have magic?" Arthur asked in disbelief, wondering if everyone around him was actually a sorcerer. At this rate it would end up that Geoffrey had been harbouring magic all these years, which actually would have been a reasonable explanation for the man's eyebrows.

"Some," Garrick said with a shy smile, his skin flushing beneath his freckles.

"A little more than some," Osrick said, clapping the boy on the shoulder.

"Come on then, I'll test you myself," Merlin said, Garrick's eyes going wide.

Arthur watched as Merlin led the boy off to a quiet corner of the field and had a brief conversation with him, Garrick's expression eager and sincere. Osrick came to stand beside Arthur, his arms folded as he watched too, a certain nervousness to his manner.

"He'll be fine," Arthur assured him. "Merlin won't hurt him."

"Oh I know. I just…I know he's going to impress Merlin and I wish that weren't the case. I wish he wasn't so determined to fight. He's capable, more than bloody capable, but I can't help worrying about him."

"I'd imagine you've always worried about him," Arthur said quietly, watching as Garrick performed a few defensive spells and Merlin studied his form.

"We were far enough from the city for it not to be too much of an issue. He's always had to be careful, of course, but Camelot's guards were far and few between at Tregothan."

"It's unthinkable that a boy like Garrick, a boy who's never done any harm to anyone could have been executed by his king for something he had no control over. I hate what my father did to this kingdom and the things I've done in his name. I damn myself for the devastation I've brought upon innocent people."

"It's a wise king who sees the error of his ways, Arthur. It's a better king still who seeks to rectify those errors and offers restitution to those harmed by past actions. If you're looking for condemnation, you won't find it from me."

"Your generosity is more than I deserve but I appreciate it more than you can know."

"Come," Osrick said, bracing his hand on Arthur's shoulder with a sense of brotherly affection that warmed Arthur's chest pleasantly. "I want to see just how well Garrick stands against such a fine sorcerer."

They moved closer and Arthur smiled as he watched Merlin speaking with Garrick, his manner assured and confident. This was the man that Arthur had always felt existed beneath Merlin's bumbling façade. It was true, of course, that Merlin was capable of tripping over thin air and that he performed tasks abominably when he found them dull or uninteresting but Arthur had always felt that there was so much more to him.

Finding out about his hidden identity had made all the puzzle pieces click into place and watching him blossom as the weight of maintaining a lie was removed from his shoulders was a privilege Arthur didn't take for granted. He'd watched many of these sessions where Merlin had tested the magic of others and to see the man perform so masterfully was something that Arthur found staggering.

He watched as Merlin tested Garrick, as he deflected the spells thrown his way and instructed the boy in how to improve his performance. Arthur could appreciate a warrior when he saw one; Merlin needed no armour or weaponry to be just as formidable and impressive as Arthur's finest knights and Arthur watched him with admiration.

He was proud that such a powerful sorcerer had aligned himself with him, their personal relationship notwithstanding, and he felt, more than ever, that his decision to lift the ban on magic had been the best thing he'd done in his reign. People with magic should never have been forced to live in the shadows, people like Merlin shouldn't have been forced into a life of fear and persecution when their gifts should have been celebrated. As long as there was breath left in his body his kingdom would never behave so abhorrently again.

As it turned out, Garrick was formidable. Merlin's expression when they left the training field was a sight in itself and he whispered to Arthur, "Half a second more and he would have knocked me on my arse." Arthur knew little enough of magic but to see Merlin so impressed was testament enough to how powerful Garrick must have been.

Both he and Osrick were invited to dine with them that evening. Morgana and Mordred, along with Arthur's closest knights were also present and, while the conversation was mostly serious and revolving around the preparations for defence, Arthur enjoyed himself. He sat with his fingers entwined with Merlin's and listened to the conversations of people who had become so very dear to him, a clear and beautiful representation of what it was he was fighting for.

His kingdom meant everything to him and the wellbeing of his people was forefront in his mind at all times. In this room, though, with these people whom he loved more than anything, his duty and his privilege became all the more acute. He would have laid down his life for any one of the people seated around his table and he would have fought with his last breath to see them safe and protected.

His wished for Morgana to continue growing into the powerful druid leader she had already proven to be and wanted, so desperately, for her to find happiness with Leon after all she had been through. He wanted to see Gwen and Lancelot's marriage grow from strength to strength and to welcome their children with pride and affection. He wished for happiness for the knights who had served him well and become more than friends, who had been brothers to him through times when he'd sorely needed support and kinship.

More than anything, he wanted Merlin to be happy. He wanted the man to have everything he so badly deserved and to fulfil all the great and wonderful things Arthur knew him to be capable of. With all his heart he wanted to make the man his husband and spend the rest of his life building a marriage made of love, trust and constructed upon the most important friendship of his life. Camelot was important but Merlin was more important still.

"You were quiet tonight," Merlin told him when they lay together after, the late spring breeze blowing gently through the open window.

"I was thinking," Arthur replied, surprised when Merlin didn't tease him for the assertion.

"I noticed," Merlin said gently, his fingers trailing over Arthur's skin. "You were happy though, I could tell."

"I was," Arthur said, pulling the man closer and nuzzling his hair with his nose. "I was thinking of the future. I was thinking of all that lies ahead for us. I just hope we get to see it."

"We will. You know I won't lie and say the threat we're facing isn't a powerful one but we're more powerful still."

"You mean you are," Arthur said with a smile.

"No, us," Merlin said, propping himself up on his elbow and looking down at Arthur. "I'm nothing without you, Arthur. My magic means nothing without you and if I hadn't found you I would never have found my purpose. I'd likely be in an alehouse somewhere tricking people out of their coins."

Arthur smiled and brushed the hair from Merlin's forehead, letting his fingers trace over the delicate arch of his brow as he said, "And I wouldn't be the king or the man I hope to become without you by my side. You were the driving force in my life long before I knew about your magic."

"This simple peasant, my lord?" Merlin asked with a teasing smile.

"This simple peasant," Arthur confirmed. "I fear without you I would have remained that spoilt, arrogant fool you met all those years ago. You changed me, Merlin. You opened my eyes to a world beyond this castle, you made me see the wider responsibilities a king owed to his people."

"Arthur, you were always that king, that man. You stood against your father time and time again when you believed him to be wrong and you forged your own path, despite the iron fist he ruled with."

"Only after I met you," Arthur said, brushing his knuckles over Merlin's cheekbone. "Everything changed after that. Part of me wonders if I was in love in you right from the start."

"From the second you pinned my arm behind my back and had me imprisoned?" Merlin asked with an amused glint in his eye.

"From that very second," Arthur said with a grin. "I thought about you all that night, you know."

"Really?" Merlin asked, looking stunned.

Arthur nodded as he continued to caress Merlin's beautiful face gently. "Your face wouldn't leave my thoughts, no matter what I did to try and chase it away. I couldn't stop thinking about how you'd spoken to me, how you didn't care who I was and what my station was supposed to mean. You were the first person in years, perhaps ever, who'd seen me as a person and not a prince. I wanted…more."

"Is that why you pursued me in the market the next day then? Couldn't let it go, hm?"

Arthur smiled and said, "When I saw you I just couldn't help myself. I had to do something, provoke you, taunt you, anything just to get a reaction. You didn't disappoint."

"And that prompted you to challenge me to a fight?" Merlin asked, prodding Arthur in the side.

"I never thought for one minute that you'd rise to the occasion!" He paused then added with a speculative smile, "You really could have taken me apart with less than one blow, couldn't you?"

The glint in Merlin's eye turned darker and a black eyebrow rose as Merlin said with a certainty that sent a thrill through Arthur, "I really could."

Arthur moved his hand up into the man's thick, black hair and gripped tightly, about to pull the man down and enact several fantasies that he'd been turning over in his mind, when a peel of bells rang out and shattered the cocoon their bedroom had become. "The warning bell," Arthur breathed, his eyes wide as he looked at Merlin in quiet fear.

Chapter Text

Chapter 17

They were up and out of bed in seconds, throwing on the clothes they'd strewn about the room, Arthur feeling his pulse thundering uncomfortably within his veins. "We aren't ready, Merlin," he said as the man helped him on with his armour.

"Yes we are," Merlin said firmly. He placed his hands either side of Arthur's face and met Arthur's eyes with a look of unshakeable resolve. "We're together, we can face anything."

Arthur took a deep breath and nodded, knowing he didn't have the luxury of doubt, that there wasn't time to find his usual comfort in Merlin and allow himself to get lost in the man's touches and reassurances. Merlin finished with Arthur's armour and they shared one last look before they left their chambers and headed straight for the council chamber, Leon and the others already waiting.

"We've just had word that Agravaine's forces are marching on the city. They'll be with us within the hour," Leon said, his expression grave.

Arthur nodded, feeling tendrils of Merlin's magic seep beneath his skin, soothing him and reminding him that he wasn't alone. "Our defensive plan still stands. You all know your duties?"

Everyone nodded and Merlin said, "Morgana, Mordred, I need you to focus on extracting the magic Morgause has imbued their fighters with. Morgana, I leave command of the druids to you. I'll direct the remaining sorcerers and take charge from the northern tower."

"We fight for the future of Camelot," Arthur said, keeping his voice clear and firm. "We fight for the love of our kingdom and…love for one another. I hold each and every one of you dear and you have all played a vital role in shaping this kingdom. I have no doubt that we shall prevail and that you will all prove, as you have done countless times, why you were chosen to protect these lands."

He paused and looked at the faces of those he loved and knew that he couldn't have asked for a better group of people to fight alongside. He felt a better and more capable king for their support and he felt a certainty that he wondered if his father had ever felt.

"Fight well, fight hard and hold true to the ideals we've built together. I hope to see you all safely at the end of all this."

Everyone stood to attention and took their cue to leave for their posts. They filed out of the chamber, Merlin grabbing Mordred as he went past and hugging him tightly, whispering, "Stay safe, do you hear? I'll never forgive you if you get yourself killed."

Mordred laughed and said, "Likewise. You're the only father I've ever known, Merlin. I won't lose you."

Merlin swallowed hard and said, "When this is all through we'll make it official. I'll adopt you and you'll never be rid of me."

"I'd like that," Mordred said, tears in his eyes, clearly trying to keep himself in check. "I'd like that a lot."

He braced his hand on Merlin's shoulder then left quickly, Merlin giving himself a shake before he looked at Arthur and said, "We can do this. Agravaine doesn't stand a chance."

Arthur nodded and took Merlin's hand, pulling him into his hold and meeting him in a brief but firm kiss. "When this is done I'm marrying you so you'd damn well better live through it."

Merlin grinned and said, "I intend to."

They exchanged another hard kiss then parted ways, Merlin to organise his sorcerers and Arthur to ready his knights. Leon was to command the archers from the eastern parapet, Lancelot to command the defence of the main gate, Gwaine to take charge of defence should the citadel be breached while Percival and Elyan were to lead the charge of knights who would ride out to meet Agravaine's foot soldiers.

Arthur found himself up on the battlements, all things in place and his head a jumble of thoughts and emotions. He had commanded enough battles in his time but nothing felt quite as important as this one. The stakes were higher than they'd ever been and the future of his kingdom, of his people's security, rested upon the outcome of this night.

Agravaine's forces appeared on the horizon, Morgause sitting astride a horse beside the man himself, Arthur's throat constricting with hatred for them both. He looked up at the northern most tower to see Merlin standing there, an aura of power emanating from him that bolstered Arthur's resolve.

The battle began sooner than could have been anticipated and the citadel was under siege from powerful magic that Arthur could feel eking through Camelot's very stones. Morgause's forces battered through their defences while Merlin fought her from high above. Morgana and Mordred stood together, the druid forces below them, while they channelled the false magic out of the fighters Morgause had enchanted.

All around swords clanged and arrows flew, Arthur commanding his knights and watching with horror as some fell before his eyes. Agravaine's forces were fierce and vicious and the fighting was bloody and wretched. A flash of fire caught his eye just as he'd dispatched a bloody great oaf wielding a double axe and he looked up to see wyverns circling the castle, the flags that adorned the turrets already ablaze.

Arthur's heart tightened in his chest and he was about to command his archers to try and bring the creatures down when an almighty roar came from the northern tower and Arthur looked as Merlin began shouting in voice and a language that sent a shiver down Arthur's spine. The wyverns halted their attack immediately and flew back towards Agravaine's forces, taking a huge swathe of them out in a ball of fire while the groups of men tried to throw spears at them in a futile attempt to bring them down.

They were still vastly outnumbered in the citadel and Arthur could see his own knights being beaten back ever closer to the castle. He felt an arrow pierce his shoulder and he fell to his knees but he was back to his feet in seconds. He turned his body in time to miss a glancing blow from a broad sword and managed to disarm his attacker, despite the fierce pain in his shoulder.

He didn't see the fist flying towards him but he felt it connect with the side of his face, sending sparks of pain shooting from his temple as he hit the ground, his ears ringing. A sword was held to his throat, the sharpness of it pressed against his pulse and Arthur scrabbled for a weapon of any kind but all was beyond his reach. He braced himself, wondering if he might be able to move out of the way before the final blow struck when a blast of light sent his attacker flying backwards.

Arthur blinked against the brightness, dazed and rattled, to see Garrick standing where his attacker had been, his lip split and his face bloodied. With a twist of his hand he expelled a horde of men who were all moving towards them and they crumpled to the ground, immediately dead. Garrick turned and extended a hand to him, helping him to his feet and saying with a shaky grin, "No time to be lazing on the ground, sire."

"Thank you, Garrick," Arthur said breathlessly. "I owe you my life."

"Ah, give me a knighthood and we'll call it even."

Arthur was about to respond that he intended to do just that when a blast hit the wall beside them and sent rock and debris shattering everywhere. He uncovered his face in time to see Agravaine and Morgause riding into the citadel, yet more men flanking them, as though they had infinite bodies at their disposal.

Arthur felt hopelessness strike him just as keenly as if it had been a sword. Their forces weren't enough to possibly counter such power, such vastness, and, although it cut him to his very core, Arthur wondered if it might not be better to surrender there and then and spare any further devastation to his kingdom and his people.

"You can't win, Arthur," Agravaine said from atop his horse, a nasty snarl to his face. "We have you beaten."

"If you surrender now we'll let you die with dignity," Morgause said with a smile that made Arthur's skin itch.

"Camelot is ours. Accept your fate like a king, like a man."

"And have you rule over these lands?" Arthur replied, finding his voice even though he felt like he could collapse at any moment. "Have you subjugate my people? Have you use those with magic for your own twisted ends? I don't think so, Agravaine. As long as there is breath left in my body I will fight to defend my people."

"You were always a fool and you shall die as one."

"Arthur won't be the one dying here today," came Merlin's voice and Arthur's head spun around to see Merlin walking across the quad towards them, though how he had come down from the tower Arthur had no idea.

"Ah it's Arthur's pet wizard," said Morgause, still looking irritatingly amused by the whole thing. "Have you come to dazzle us with your tricks?"

"I've come to give you a chance to leave now and end this before I end you."

Morgause laughed and Agravaine smirked while Arthur felt Merlin's magic seep beneath his skin and twine around him. He'd never felt it so powerfully before and his breath caught in his throat as he felt Merlin drawing it to him.

Merlin looked at them coldly, power radiating from him, his stance so assured that Arthur suddenly felt that there was no force in the world that could topple him. Merlin's eyes flashed gold and he held his hands out, palms toward the ground while he began to chant in a low, deep voice in words that Arthur didn't understand.

Gold tendrils began to swirl from the ground up, wrapping themselves around Merlin's arms and snaking all the way up his body. Arthur watched, transfixed, as Merlin channelled the ancient magic of the earth, as his entire body glowed with the force of it. The ground began to shake and Arthur grabbed Garrick's wrist, moving him back as the intensity of the magic grew all around them.

Merlin lifted his head, his eyes pure gold as though they were molten, and he raised his hands as a pulse of magic came from them like a shockwave. Arthur watched in fascinated awe as every last one of Agravaine's forces crumpled to the ground, not a single person left alive. Agravaine fell from his horse while Morgause was trying to resist the magic, her hands shaking as she fought against it. Her eyes went wide with shock as another wave of magic hit her before she let out a pitiful scream as she was reduced to nothing more than ash.

The gold suddenly vanished from Merlin's eyes and the tendrils of magic vanished as though they'd never been there. He locked eyes with Arthur for a second before he went pale and fell to the ground in a dead faint.

"Merlin!" Arthur shouted as he ran to the man's side. He pulled him into his arms, the man boneless and unresponsive. "Merlin, wake up! Please wake up!"

All around him lay destruction and he could hear the faint calls in the distance that all of Agravaine's forces were dead, slain in one fell swoop by Merlin's incredible magic. Arthur held the man close and pressed his fingers to his neck, managing to discern a weak, faint pulse beneath his touch.

He hoisted him into his hold and stood, saying to Garrick, "Find Morgana, tell her to come to my chambers then find Leon and tell him he's in charge until he hears from me."

Garrick nodded and ran off to do as instructed while Arthur strode through the quad and back to the castle. He didn't stop for anyone, didn't take notice of the devastation that lay around him and barely registered the bodies he stepped over as he went. He hardly felt the weight of Merlin in his arms and there was room for nothing in his mind but the man's recovery.

He pushed the door to his chambers open, unsure exactly how he'd got there, and placed Merlin gently on the bed. His chest barely moved with the slow, shallow breaths he was taking and his skin was so pale it was almost translucent.

"Merlin," he whispered, as he took the man's hand in his own and held it tightly. "I'm right here. We won, love. You won the battle for us, you saved us all. Please, please wake up. Please come back to me. I don't want this victory if it costs me you. How could you risk yourself like that? You self-sacrificing, noble, ridiculous man. I can't lose you, I can't."

"Arthur," came Morgana's voice, and he looked up to see his own worry reflected in her eyes.

"What happened?" Mordred asked, pushing past her to kneel on the bed beside Merlin, looking as frantic as Arthur felt.

"Magic," Arthur said, his voice choked. "He used his magic to destroy them all and it…it's done this to him."

"Step aside, both of you," Morgana commanded and Arthur complied, willing to push his own needs to one side if it meant helping Merlin.

Mordred stood beside him and Arthur wrapped his arm around the boy's shoulders, knowing how much he cared for Merlin and how Merlin would have hated to see him so wracked with worry. They watched as Morgana sat on the bed and placed her hand on Merlin's forehead, closing her eyes and whispering something soft and melodic.

"He's drained himself," she said eventually, opening her eyes and looking down at Merlin with concern. "He's pushed his magic to the brink and it's nearly broken. His body can't cope with the strain."

"Will he live?" Arthur asked, his voice little more than a whisper.

"He will if I have anything to say about it," Morgana said fiercely, her jaw set firm.

"I can't feel him," Arthur said through clenched teeth. "I can't feel his magic anymore. It's…far away."

Morgana looked over her shoulder at him, a look of confusion on her face before she seemed to shake herself and said, "This will take all my skill and then some. I need all the druids summoned; we'll begin the rituals immediately."

"What can I do?" Arthur asked.

"Have your wounds tended to, clean yourself up and then…wait," Morgana said not unkindly, but Arthur knew that she was telling him to let her handle it, that she had no intention of letting him try to take over.

Arthur did as she told him and spared some time to convene with his knights, grateful beyond measure to see that, bar a few nasty wounds that would heal, all those dearest to him were safe and would live to see another day. Leon had already begun the organisation of repairs that were needed immediately while Lancelot had ridden out with a small group to see what damage had been done beyond the citadel.

There were few survivors from amongst Agravaine's forces, as Merlin's magic had killed them all, but those who were living were being held in the cells while the disposal of the vast number of bodies was being organised with all haste. Arthur attended to the things that were expected of him but the whole castle knew what had happened to Merlin and seemed prepared to make concessions.

Twenty-four hours passed and there was no news. A vigil was held beneath Arthur's window and he heard the whispers that grew of how they all owed Merlin their lives and how he had single-handedly saved the kingdom. Arthur sat in his chambers and watched as Morgana and the druids performed intricate rituals to restore Merlin's magic while Gaius tended to his body and did what he could to heal him.

"Arthur," Morgana said softly as she joined him in the corner he'd taken for himself. She looked pale and drawn, the dark circles under her eyes a testament to how tirelessly she had worked to help Merlin. "We've done all we can. All we can do now is wait."

"Is he – "

"He's…stable. Gaius is confident that his body will recover but…his magic, his spirit may take a little time."

"I just want him back," Arthur said, looking over to the bed where Merlin's prone form lay. The druids were all filing slowly from the room but Mordred was sitting beside the bed, brushing his fingers through Merlin's hair.

"Arthur…what you said the other day…that you could feel Merlin's magic…what did you mean?"

"Mean?" Arthur repeated with a frown. "I mean that I can feel it," he said with a shrug, not sure how else to explain it. "I can feel it underneath my skin, I can feel the power of it, the warmth. It's like…like wearing Merlin's jacket. I know that it's Merlin's but it feels like mine too, like it's been missing from me all my life."

"Oh," Morgana said softly, clearly surprised.

"What? What is it?"

"Arthur…feeling another person's magic, even someone as powerful as Merlin, it's…unheard of. There are stories told, tales that have been passed down throughout the centuries but they're largely dismissed as myths, as fairy stories. To feel someone's magic in the way you describe…Arthur…it means that you and Merlin share a bond…a soulmate bond."

Arthur sat in silence, trying to process Morgana's words. It had never occurred to him that it wasn't normal to feel another person's magic and it felt so natural to feel Merlin's that he'd never questioned it. "I don't think I'm surprised," he said eventually, a small smile making its way onto his face. "From day one I've known that what we had was different, special. He's under my skin, in my blood and I can't imagine a world where I'm not with him."

"He'll come through this, Arthur. He's strong and he's stubborn. He wouldn't die without getting the last word in."

Arthur laughed and took her hand, giving it a squeeze and saying, "You're right. He's too bloody-minded to surrender so easily." He pressed a kiss to her knuckles and said, "Go and get some rest. I can't thank you enough for everything you've done."

"I'll be back in a couple of hours. You should try and get some sleep yourself."

She kissed his cheek and left the room, Arthur getting up from his chair and taking it with him to place beside Merlin's bed. Mordred looked up at him and said, "I can leave if you want me to."

Arthur shook his head and said, "Stay. I'm sure you're doing him some good by being here. He might wake up sooner if he knows you're here so he can reassure himself that you're safe."

Mordred smiled and held Merlin's hand, the boy's normally lively face looking ashen and grey. "He said he was going to adopt me," he said quietly.

"I know."

"He…means so much to me. I don't know what I would have done without him. I don't even know why he bothered with me, why he cared as much as he did but…it was the first time in my life someone truly cared for me. I know…I know he's not that much older than me and that it probably seems ridiculous to other people but I have come to see him as a father and…to love him as one."

"He thinks of you as his," Arthur said softly. "He loves you like his own and he'd do anything to protect you."

"We're lucky people, Arthur, to be the recipients of a love like Merlin's."

"Indeed we are."

They sat quietly together and Arthur watched Mordred's quiet affection for Merlin, touched by it as he always was. It seemed fitting that the two people Merlin loved most in the world would stay by his side and await his recovery and Arthur was glad of the boy's presence in his chambers. He had found that his own feelings for Mordred had grown over time and he felt a real fondness for him. He was gentle and sweet-natured but he wasn't without fire and passion. He was like Merlin in that respect and Arthur could see the similarities that bound the two together.

He wasn't sure when he fell asleep but he woke to a pain in his neck and blearily realised he was leaning over the bed, his head resting on his arms. It took him another moment to register that gentle fingers were raking through his hair and he scrambled to push himself up to find Merlin smiling at him, colour in his cheeks and his eyes bright.

"Merlin!" he whispered, hauling himself out of his chair and sitting on the bed, cupping the man's chin and searching his face. "Are you alright? Are you in pain? Do you need me to get you something, anything? Shall I – "

"Arthur," Merlin said with a laugh, taking Arthur's hand and holding it gently. "I'm fine. I feel like I've been trampled by a dragon and dropped from a bloody great height but I promise I'm ok. Mordred's gone to fetch Morgana so she can reassure you."

"You bloody-minded, noble, self-sacrificing, death-defying, infuriating – "

"If this is how you're going to speak to me I'll slip back into unconsciousness, thank you very much," Merlin said with a grin.

"How could you risk yourself like that?" Arthur asked, gripping Merlin's hand tightly. "I nearly lost you, you almost – " The word caught in his throat and he couldn't bring himself to say it. He felt the sharp sting of tears in his eyes and he lowered his head, trying to compose himself.

A finger slipped beneath his chin and gently tilted his head back up, Merlin's eyes seeking his own out, a tenderness in them that undid Arthur completely.

"There's no force in this world that could see me parted from you. I'll admit I didn't know that the magic would have such an effect on me but…I'm fine. I'm here, we're together."

"Never do that again, I mean it," Arthur said fiercely. "I thought I'd lost you and it nearly killed me. I can't do that again."

"Neither can any of us," came Morgana's voice as she entered the room, Mordred behind her. "I swear to all I hold dear, Merlin, that if you do anything like that again I will personally use all the magic I possess to spend the rest of my life torturing you."

"Is everyone just lining up to tell me off?" Merlin asked with an exasperated huff.

"I haven't had my say yet," Mordred said with a low growl and Arthur watched with wide eyes as Merlin sank bank against the pillows and had the good grace to look abashed.

Morgana came to sit beside Merlin on the bed and placed a hand over his chest, closing her eyes while Arthur and Mordred watched in silence. "Well, your magic seems to be restored but I'm banning you from using it for at least a week," she said, opening her eyes and fixing Merlin with a hard look. He opened his mouth but she held up a finger and said, "If you attempt to argue with me I shall curse your tongue to tie itself in knots every time you take a breath."

"Can she really do that?" Arthur murmured to Mordred and the boy nodded at him with an amusing grimness.

"You're not to get out of this bed for the next few days and I'm instructing Arthur to tie you to it if you try and move." Merlin smirked and Morgana said darkly, "Make a joke and I'll rip your tongue out, never mind trying it in knots."

"I'd like to be unconscious again, please," Merlin said with a groan. "No one shouted at me when I was unconscious."

"That's what you think," Morgana said with a raised eyebrow. She gave him another hard look then leant forward and wrapped her arms around him, pulling him into a hug that looked fierce.

Arthur watched with a smile as Merlin returned the embrace, pressing a kiss to the woman's temple and saying, "I truly am grateful for everything you did for me. Thank you for saving my life."

"Thanks for saving mine. I guess we're even." She pulled back and said, "I'll leave you to rest. I'm sure I can trust your care to Arthur."

"Don't you have a kingdom to run?" Merlin asked him with a smile.

"Camelot can wait for a day or two."

Camelot waited but Merlin didn't. Unsurprisingly, he was a terrible patient and gave Arthur and Mordred endless headaches while they tried everything they could to get him to stay in bed for a full week. By the third day Arthur was ready to kill him and Mordred whispered darkly that he would assist and no one would ever suspect them.

Merlin had no capacity for sitting still and would try to sneak out of bed every time he was left alone for five second so that eventually Mordred was forced to enchant the bedclothes so that they held him in place every time he tried to get out. Merlin threatened him with a fiery and painful death but Mordred refused to relent and the two remained locked in a battle of wills for the entire week.

Merlin demanded he be allowed to work from bed and Leon, who was in the unenviable position of being between Morgana's will and Merlin's, sat with him in Arthur's chambers and went through all the paperwork that needed to be attended to. Arthur worked alongside him, keeping to their chambers as much as he was able and organising the rebuilding of the citadel.

He sent word to their allies that Agravaine's forces had been quashed and that forces would have to be dispatched from all kingdoms to ensure that any stragglers were dealt with. Within these missives he also included news of his and Merlin's engagement and announced that wedding invitations would soon follow.

"I don't want a big, flouncy wedding," Merlin said on his last day of enforced bedrest, sitting up against the headboard with his arms folded.

"Neither do I particularly but it's bad politics not to invite one's allies to a royal wedding. Personally, I'd prefer something much more intimate with those closest to us," Arthur said, setting his paperwork aside and joining Merlin on the bed.

"Well why don't we do that?" Merlin said, reaching out and running his fingers through Arthur's hair, Arthur pleased to see how well the man was looking, his collapse nearly a week ago a thankfully distant memory. "We can have our big, political wedding to satisfy what's required of us but why don't we have something more simple with our friends in the meantime?"

"You already have something in mind," Arthur said, surmising the man's thoughts easily.

"Well," said Merlin, lowering his hand to twine his fingers with Arthur's, "I was thinking that we could have a small hand-fasting ceremony out in the woods, perhaps that charming little glade where you took me after you'd discovered I had magic. Morgana could perform it and we'd get to do things our way, have a wedding that really means something."

"Sounds perfect," Arthur said with a smile, able to envision exactly what Merlin had in mind.

"Are you really going to marry me?" Merlin asked, his expression so soft that something fluttered in Arthur's chest and threatened to take his breath away.

"I've told everyone I am so I suppose I'd better or else risk looking like a fool. Why, my love? Having second thoughts?"

"Not bloody likely," Merlin said with a scoff. "I'm still not entirely convinced this isn't all a dream. I loved you for so long, Arthur and it killed me to think that nothing would ever come of it, to think that you'd never return my feelings."

"I felt the same way," Arthur said, bringing Merlin's hand to his lips and kissing the knuckles gently. "You were always the most important thing in my life and your friendship meant so much to me that I was frightened of jeopardising what we had. You banished a lifetime of loneliness and I hate to think what I would have become without you."

"What will you become now?" Merlin asked with a smile teasing about his lips.

"Your husband," Arthur replied, the word dancing across his tongue, his pulse quickening at the thought.

"I don't want to wait any longer," Merlin said with a whisper. "We've waited long enough, it's time we had our happily ever after."

And so it was that a week later Arthur found himself standing beneath a beautiful arbour in the glade he and Merlin had had their emotional reunion after the reveal of his magic. It was twilight and the whole forest felt other-worldly and as though it existed solely for them. Morgana stood with them beneath the arbour while their friends, along with Hunith, who looked proud enough to burst, stood before them as witnesses.

Merlin looked breath-taking in navy blue and Arthur could barely believe that this wonderful man was about to become his husband. He hadn't stopped smiling all day and he was certain his face would split if he couldn't figure out a way to school his features into something a little more passive.

Their formal wedding was to be held a month hence and all the invitations had been sent throughout their allied kingdoms and to people of note within Camelot. Neither he nor Merlin were particularly looking forward to hosting a big event with their wedding as the backdrop and this small ceremony with those dearest to them was the perfect way to reconcile that.

"Arthur, Merlin," Morgana said softly, "take one another's hands."

They did so, joining their left hands as Morgana stepped forward and twined them together with a bright red ribbon, holding her hand over it and closing her eyes as she murmured something soft.

"Arthur, do you accept Merlin as your husband? Do you accept him in times of joy and sorrow, in times of plenty and of need? Do you accept him for all that he is and promise to love him without reservation?"

"I do," Arthur whispered, unable to look away from Merlin's eyes and seeing his own joy reflected back at him.

"Merlin, do you accept Arthur as your husband? Do you accept him in times of joy and sorrow, in times of plenty and of need? Do you accept him for all that he is and promise to love him without reservation?"

"I do," Merlin said, his smile so bright Arthur was sure it alone could illuminate the glade without any need for the lights Mordred had enchanted to twinkle throughout the trees.

"In taking these vows you both agree to be faithful, constant and true. You agree to love without conditions and to bind your lives and your hearts to one another for the remainder of your days. These vows signify your dedication to one another and your intention to strengthen and cherish the love between you as the years pass. Do you both agree to honour these vows?"

"We do," they said in unison, and Arthur could feel his heart pounding against his chest, so overwhelmed with the beauty of the moment that he wished he could capture it and hold it within him forever.

"Then let this union be sealed with the magic that is woven into this ribbon and by the ancient magic of the earth."

Morgana's eyes flashed gold and the ribbon around their hands began to twist and shift until it separated into two pieces and travelled up their hands. Arthur watched, enchanted, as it wrapped itself around his finger and transformed into a simple band of gold that fitted him perfectly. He looked up to see its twin sitting on Merlin's finger and he felt utterly overcome with his love for the man and the incredible notion that he was now married to him.

He pulled Merlin into his arms and kissed him soundly, hearing the rapturous applause of their friends as he did so. He savoured every second of his first time kissing his husband and only pulled back for the sake of propriety and the fear he might not be able to stop himself.

"We did it," Merlin whispered, and Arthur felt the man's magic sweep through him, igniting his blood and settling within him, Arthur welcoming it gladly.

Arthur was swept up in a whirlwind of hugs followed by wine, dancing and laughter, the joy of the evening ringing out through the beautiful glade. Arthur was giddy and felt as though he had drunk gallons of the fine wine on offer, unable to wipe the smile from his face. His wedding ring was an unfamiliar but entirely welcome weight against his finger and he kept twisting it back and forth, enchanted by what it represented.

Gaius and Hunith watched over proceedings like proud parents and Arthur found that he felt no pain for the fact that his own father wasn't there. Uther likely would have tried to have them both imprisoned anyway and the old bastard was likely looking down on them and seething with rage. Arthur knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that even if the man had been alive he would have defied him and everything he stood for in order to find happiness with Merlin.

He couldn't stop himself from looking at his husband, the word dancing across his senses and lighting him up from the inside. The man looked more beautiful than Arthur had ever seen him and he received an elbow in the ribs several times from Gwaine because he couldn't keep his eyes off him. Arthur couldn't remember the last time he'd been this happy, and as he watched Merlin dance completely off-beat with Osrick or be paraded around the glade on Lancelot and Leon's shoulders, he knew that there would be little in his life that would surpass this moment.

Mordred was the surprise of the evening and Arthur wasn't sure the boy would ever recover from the teasing that ensued every time he burst into tears over Merlin being married and his plans to adopt him. Apparently he didn't handle wine all that well and was completely overwhelmed by his emotions, sobbing about how beautiful the wedding was and how lucky he was to have Merlin in his life. Merlin shed a tear or two of his own and Arthur left them to their own devices when the hugging started.

Eventually the evening wound down and people began heading for the tents that had been put up with the help of Morgana and Merlin's magic and were larger and far more luxurious than the campaign tents Arthur was used to. He took Merlin's hand and led him to theirs, smiling to see how beautiful it was and feeling the world fall away as the tent flap closed behind them.

"There's no getting rid of me now," Merlin said as he removed his cloak and let it fall to the ground. "You're magically bound to me."

"As if I wasn't anyway," Arthur said, reaching for Merlin's hand. "You know…Morgana told me something while you were taking your time coming back to us."

"Oh?" Merlin asked, looping his arms around Arthur's neck.

"She told me that if a person feels a sorcerer's magic the way I can feel yours…it means that those two people are bound together as soulmates."

Merlin's eyes searched his and his hold tightened as he whispered, "I've never doubted it."

Their lips met in a soft and sensuous kiss as clothes were slowly peeled away, the night air meeting their skin in a cool caress. They moved to the bed and Arthur's world narrowed to the man beneath him, to the gentle press of his husband's skin against his own, to the kisses that threatened to drown him.

They moved against one another and Arthur let his hands explore Merlin's body as his senses were overcome by him. He pushed inside him slowly and felt Merlin arch against him as their breathing mingled and the air became charged with their passion for one another. Pleasure overwhelmed him and he felt Merlin's magic seep underneath his skin.

It travelled through him like liquid, hot and alive, setting his nerves on fire and making him feel utterly claimed. He had no doubt in his mind that he belonged to Merlin and that the man belonged to him, that their marriage was simply another step in forging and strengthening the indelible bond that had been with them since perhaps before they even met.

He moved deeply inside Merlin, savouring how complete he felt and how nothing in his life had felt so wonderful. Their skin was hot against one another's, despite the coolness of the evening, and Arthur gripped Merlin tightly as felt himself overwhelmed by the strength of his pleasure. Merlin's hands were firm and insistent against his shoulders and his legs gripped Arthur's waist, driving him ever deeper inside himself.

Pleasure built inside him until his body couldn't contain it and he came with a gasp, feeling Merlin do the same, his body shuddering beneath him. They stayed joined together, their breathing heavy and Arthur feeling light-headed from it all. Merlin's hand twined through his hair and Arthur pressed a kiss to his throat, moving his lips up to the man's ear and whispering, "I love you."

Merlin sighed happily and turned his head to press a kiss to Arthur's temple, a pulse of his magic shooting through Arthur's body as he replied softly, "I love you too. I always will."

Chapter Text

Chapter 18

~5 years later~

The air was fresh and fragrant as Arthur strolled through the markets of the citadel, the smell of fresh bread from Annie's stall and the smell of lavender from Tilly's candles permeating the morning. Several of the traders waved at him as he went and he smiled back, happy to see so many of the druids now amongst them.

Arthur made a point of appearing in the town several times a week and always tried to attend market days when he could. Camelot had seen several prosperous and peaceful years, despite the turmoil they had faced in the aftermath of Agravaine's attack and the continued work to repeal the ban on magic, and Arthur felt it was important for the people to see their king amongst them. He took pride in his kingdom and in his people and Merlin had taught him the value of letting those outside the castle feel that they were equally important as those within it.

"Hello, sire!" came a cheerful voice from one of the stalls and Arthur looked to see one of the young druids tidying up their jewellery store.

"Hello, Cariad. Has your sister had her baby yet?"

"Last week, sire. She's doing grand and the baby's a bonny thing."

"Glad to hear it, give her my best."

He carried on through the citadel, stopping to speak with various people along the way, and made his way down to the outskirts of the town where a large stone building had been erected three years prior. This was the school Merlin and Morgana had founded for all those who wished to understand the magic they were born with and to learn its craft in a safe and protected environment.

It was one of the things Arthur was most proud of helping to achieve during his reign and in the short time it had been operating countless numbers had flocked to the school to seek help with their gifts. As busy as he was with his numerous other tasks, Merlin only taught the most advanced among them while Morgana, Mordred and several of the other druids oversaw the bulk of the teaching.

Arthur made his way through the building and stopped in the doorway to one of the rooms, watching as Mordred spoke to a class of young teenagers who were all listening with rapt attention. He was an excellent teacher and was hugely popular among the students thanks to his easy manner and natural skill with magic.

Arthur listened as Mordred spoke of channelling magic and harnessing it, as he told them how to connect with the power they had inside them and how to use it to its full effect. There were many among them who had come to Camelot frightened of the magic they held and not knowing how to control it, especially when they'd had to suppress and hide it for so long.

Those were the ones that Arthur was most proud of helping and he was thankful that a new generation of sorcerers would grow up supported and appreciated rather than terrified and castigated.

"That's all for today then. Focus on those breathing exercises I've given you and tomorrow we'll have a chat about how to control magic when we're feeling negative emotions."

The students said their goodbyes and filed out of the room, all greeting Arthur cheerfully as they clocked him as they went. It did his heart good to see so many happy faces, to think that Camelot, after all its years as the persecutor of these people, was now their refuge.

"Lessons going well?" Arthur asked as Mordred began to clear things away.

"Brilliantly," the man said with a bright smile. "There are one of two challenges among them but I think we'll be able to help them."

"I'm sure you will. We've had no failures yet. Are you heading back up to the castle?"

"Mm, I'm assisting with training. I'll walk with you."

"Have you seen your father today?" Arthur asked as they walked side by side back towards the citadel.

"You're hilarious, you know that?" Mordred said with a deadpan expression and Arthur grinned at him.

"Well what would you like me to call him?"

"It's been years since he adopted me and yet you still seem intent on teasing us both."

"You say that but every time you have too much brandy wine you get teary-eyed and tell everyone how Merlin adopted you and how he's the best father you could have ever hoped for. In fact, didn't that happen only two days ago after the spring festival?"

"I swear to God I will curse you, Arthur," Mordred said with a low growl, which only made Arthur's grin wider.

"You can't speak to me like that. I'm your king! More importantly, I'm your step-father."

"You bloody well aren't," Mordred said, clearly trying to fight his own smile.

"I'm married to your father, that makes me your step-father."

"I'm 20 years old!" Mordred protested with a flush on his cheeks and his lip twitching.

"Yes, but you'll always be our baby," Arthur said, reaching out and pinching his cheek before slinging an arm around his shoulders.

Mordred allowed it, finally relenting and smiling at Arthur, slinging an arm around his waist as they walked. For all Arthur enjoyed teasing him, and did so frequently, he had grown to love Mordred as the years had gone on and he'd begun to think of Mordred as his own in the same way that Merlin did.

They'd grown close and Arthur had a paternal affection for Mordred that was much like Merlin's. It didn't matter that he was an adult in his own right and a brave and competent one at that; something in Arthur would always see that young boy he'd smuggled out of Camelot and would always feel protective of him.

He appreciated Mordred for his own sake too, for his sharp sense of humour, for his fierce loyalty, for his quiet and gentle affection. He enjoyed spending time with him and was proud of the man he was growing into. Despite all Merlin's protestations, Mordred had joined the knights and was now in charge of training those with magical powers along with Garrick, who had moved to the citadel permanently.

They walked together to the training field, both giving Garrick a wave as he spied them. After they'd asked for sorcerers to come forward to aid in the battle against Agravaine it seemed only logical to invite them to become permanent fighters. Trials were held each year, the same as they were for the regular knights, and all across the kingdom were invited to test their skill and prove themselves worthy of a place in Camelot's army.

"Garrick looks as though he's whipping them into shape," Arthur commented as he watched the man put the new recruits through their paces.

Mordred grinned and said, "He's a tough taskmaster, no mistake. If the recruits can make it through six months of preliminary training with him they'll make it through anything."

"And you're both happy being joint captains?"

"Of course. We work well together."

"Mm," Arthur said, remembering a conversation he'd had with Merlin the previous evening. "Very well."

"Arthur, don't start," Mordred warned, pointing a finger at him.

"Don't point at your stepfather, it's rude," Arthur admonished, Mordred's expression darkening comically. "I was only going to mention what a good team the pair of you make."

"I should think it a good thing that your captains have a good working relationship," Mordred said, his expression daring Arthur to push the matter.

"A very good thing indeed," Arthur agreed.

"I've had all this from Merlin. If you're about to join him then I warn you – I'm not against committing regicide."

Arthur held up his hands with a laugh and said, "Alright, alright! I yield." He paused and then added with a wicked smile, "But you should know that your father and I both think you'd make a wonderful couple."

"Get lost before I deprive Merlin of his husband."

"They grow up so fast," Arthur said, reaching out to ruffle Mordred's hair and ducking before he received a thump for his troubles.

Arthur left the field laughing and with Mordred glaring daggers at him, knowing the man would make him pay later. He and Merlin had watched the growing closeness between Garrick and Mordred with interest and Merlin was whole-heartedly in favour of the match, should the pair ever stop dancing around one another and actually do something.

Mordred had been rather enamoured of Garrick when he'd first come to Camelot and had spent many weeks after the battle against Agravaine in the man's company. A steady friendship had grown between them and one was rarely seen without the other. In many ways, it reminded Arthur of his early days with Merlin and he could see that their friendship could easily blossom into something deeper.

He walked from the training field back up to the castle, the hustle and bustle of daily life making him smile. He stopped in at the stables to see how his horse was doing after she'd thrown a shoe a couple of days prior then headed for the kitchens to make sure everything was in place for the evening he had planned.

He made his way from the kitchens up to the steward's office and found Leon rifling through a desk full of parchment while he simultaneously balanced his daughter on his knee. The little girl clocked Arthur and shuffled off with a grin, heading straight for him and giggling as he swept her up into his arms.

"Are you helping your father, my love?"

She nodded and said, "Mama's sleeping so I'm helping Pa with his work."

"Morgana's not well?" Arthur asked Leon with a frown as he shifted his niece to sit more comfortably on his hip.

"She's fine, just tired," Leon replied with a smile. "She's getting nearer her due date and still doesn't see fit to slow down so she ends up shattered instead."

Morgana was expecting their second child, Isabella having come along very swiftly after their wedding nearly five years ago. Leon had a hell of a job trying to get her to take things easy, especially as she got into the later months of her pregnancy, and she would only consent to rest when she felt it would do the baby good.

She was still leader to the druids and spent as much time amongst her people as she could, which frustrated her all the more when she ended up confined to her chambers and unable to do little besides put her feet up. She was thrilled about the baby though and she and Leon were anticipating its arrival with excitement.

Isabella was their pride and joy and she spent her time learning about magic and the druids from her mother and learning about the knights and the castle from her father. Leon had taken over stewardship of Camelot after Godric had retired and he and Merlin worked together to ensure the kingdom ran smoothly.

"Merlin threatened to enchant the bedclothes to keep her in place just like Mordred did with him after the battle with Agravaine," Leon said with a wry smile. "She responded by cursing him to smack himself every time someone said his name."

"Is that why his cheek was so red the other day?" Arthur asked with a bark of laughter. Sometimes he wondered if Merlin wasn't Morgana's brother rather than himself; their relationship was so like that of warring siblings that it provided no end of entertainment and amusement.

"I've long since learnt not to get in the way of their spats."

Arthur nodded, well-versed in their rows and knowing that the safest thing for anyone to do was retire to a safe distance and wait for things to blow over. "She's alright though? No cause for concern?"

"She's had the all-clear from Gaius. She just needs to rest and slow down a little. Won't be long now."

"Is everyone still taking bets on what it'll be?"

"Oh yes. Last I heard it seemed most were convinced it would be a boy."

"What do you think, Bella?" Arthur asked his niece. "Brother or sister?"

Bella shrugged as she fiddled with the laces of Arthur's shirt and said, "Mama says it doesn't matter. She says I'll be a good big sister."

"I'm sure you will, my love," Arthur said, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "You haven't seen my husband today then?" he asked Leon as Bella snuggled into him.

"He popped in briefly first thing this morning but I think he was heading to the outlying villages to see about renewing their defences."

Arthur rolled his eyes and said, "I told him to stay in the citadel today. He's going to ruin my plans for this evening."

"More than likely, he took Gwaine with him," Leon added with a grin.

"Great, they'll be singing rude songs by now then." Leon snorted and Arthur sighed, saying, "I'd best get on, I have a mountain of things to do today. Oh, you will remember – "

"Yes, Arthur, I know," Leon said with an indulgent smile. "I haven't forgotten, we'll all be there, I promise."

"I just hope the man himself turns up!" He handed Bella back over to Leon, the little girl settling herself in her father's lap and Arthur saying, "Keep everyone in line for me, Bella. I'm counting on you to take charge."

"Yes, Uncle Arthur," the girl said with a giggle, tucking herself into Leon's hold and wrapping a chunk of her dark black hair around her finger as she nestled against him.

Arthur left them and went about the rest of his day, hoping that Merlin's absence from the citadel wouldn't ruin his plans for the evening too much. He'd specifically told his husband that morning that he wanted him to stay close so, of course, Merlin being Merlin hadn't listened to a damn word he'd said and had gone off on his own merry way. He just hoped that Gwaine would, for once, be a good influence and ensure his return to the castle in time for the evening.

He attended his afternoon meetings and joined Lancelot afterward on the training field to assess the knights who had reached the highest point of training. Lancelot was now his head knight, with Leon's time mostly taken up with the demands of the castle stewardship. Lancelot was well-liked and hugely respected, and it made Arthur smile to see how all the knights stood to attention whenever the man was near.

Wherever Lancelot was, so too was his son, Stefan. At nearly 5 the boy was almost Lancelot's double and he followed his father everywhere. He was fascinated by the knights and had every intention of joining them as soon as he was able, something Gwen had tried to discourage at every turn. He was such a regular on the training field that the knights had taken to calling him their good-luck charm and had even fashioned a child-size outfit for him to wear when he was with them.

Their daughter, Ariane, who was only 3, had decried the knights entirely and spent all her time with Gaius. Her young age didn't deter her from being fascinated by medicine and everything pertaining to it and she followed Gaius everywhere he went. The old man didn't seem to mind, indeed he was rather thrilled at being a grandfather, and he indulged the little girl in everything. She had decided to appoint herself his apprentice and Arthur wouldn't be surprised if she did, in fact, become the court physician when Gaius succumbed to retirement.

Between Bella, Stefan, Ariane and the child that Morgana was currently carrying, Arthur had constant reminders about the kind of Camelot he wanted to continue building. He wanted his kingdom to be a fair and just place for them to grow up in, to create a future that was stable and safe for them. If Morgana's children proved to be magical like their mother, he wanted Camelot to be a haven for them, for them to be protected and cherished within their own kingdom.

He finished his tasks for the day and decided to head back to his chambers to ready himself for the evening ahead. As he drew nearer, he felt faint tendrils of magic dance down the corridor towards him and he smiled as Merlin's magic twined its way gently through his body like a lover's embrace. He shouldered open the door to his rooms and found Merlin heating through a bath of water, his jacket and shirt already shed and tossed on the bed.

"I've been wondering where you were," Arthur said with a smile, crossing the room and sliding a hand over Merlin's hip as he greeted him with a kiss.

"I've had matters to attend to," Merlin replied, returning both the kiss and smile. "I'm not a king, you know. I actually have work to do."

"Impudent," Arthur said, giving Merlin's backside a gentle swat.

"You wouldn't have me any other way."

"I suppose not. I am tied to you for life, after all."

"And don't you forget it," Merlin said, placing a kiss to the end of Arthur's nose. "Getting in with me?" he asked, nodding to the steaming bath.

"That's an offer no sane man would say no to."

"True, but what are you saying to it?"

"I'll dunk your head in that water if you're not careful. I should have done that years ago. The stocks were too bloody good for you."

They stripped slowly, kissing and teasing each other as they went, before lowering themselves into the bath. Arthur sat with his back braced against the tub while Merlin settled himself against Arthur's chest. Arthur's arms embraced him as their skin pressed against one another's, the water sloshing pleasantly around them.

Arthur let his fingers dance over Merlin's arms, over his chest and up the length of his neck, feeling the hum of the man's magic beneath his fingertips. He sometimes imagined he could see tendrils of gold beneath Merlin's skin, as though the man's magic was always that close, just beneath the surface, ready to be unleashed.

As the years had progressed Merlin's magic had grown and developed, now that he was no longer constrained by the burden of hiding it. He was undisputedly the most powerful sorcerer in the five kingdoms and he had pledged his powers for the betterment of all within those kingdoms but all were perfectly aware that he could wipe them from the face of the earth if he was so inclined.

"Your magic's content today," Arthur murmured, pressing soft kisses to the column of Merlin's neck, feeling his magic pulse against him.

"You can feel it?"

"Always."

"It still amazes me after all these years that you love it so much. I spent so long terrified about what you'd do if you found it, only for – "

"Only for me to marry you," Arthur finished with a smile.

"I'll admit I never saw that coming, not in my wildest dreams. I squashed all my hopes down for so long and told myself all the things I wanted so desperately could never happen. To be your husband…even five years down the line I still can't quite believe it."

Arthur let his fingers move in a tender caress over Merlin's skin, the water lapping at them both as contentment permeated the air that surrounded them. "I wouldn't have lived my life without you," he said softly, Merlin's magic wrapping around him in a mimic of his own caress. "Even if it meant giving up the kingdom, I would have found a way to be with you."

"You're such a hopeless romantic."

"One of us has to be."

"I'm romantic!" Merlin protested.

"No, my love, I'm the romantic one in this relationship."

"Well, if you like I could always show you just how romantic I can be," Merlin said, tilting his head and giving Arthur a sly smile.

Arthur leant down to meet him in a kiss, nuzzling his nose against the man's temple as he said, "Any other evening I would take you up on the offer but tonight we have plans."

"We do?" Merlin asked, bemused.

"Mm. After all these years I'm still capable of keeping secrets from you," Arthur said, giving Merlin's ear a teasing nip.

"You say that but you've been bouncing around like a puppy for a week. I know you've been up to something."

"Well you'll find out soon, won't you? Come on," Arthur said, pressing a final kiss to the man's cheek, "out. We don't want to be late."

They extracted themselves from the bath and dried each other off, laughing as they did so and sneaking kisses like teenagers. It had been years but Arthur's attraction to Merlin hadn't waned, indeed he rather suspected it had grown as the years had gone on.

They dressed, despite Merlin's best efforts to undo any progress Arthur made and distract him by leading him to the bed. Arthur wasn't to be deterred and eventually managed to get the man out of their chambers and down to one of the small entertaining halls they used whenever they had small parties to host.

Merlin gave him a look as they stood outside the doors and Arthur grinned as he held up one of Merlin's old neckerchiefs and insisted the man let himself be blindfolded before they entered. Merlin rolled his eyes and said with a sigh, "I don't know why I indulge you," before acquiescing.

Arthur tied the neckerchief in place and pushed the doors open, leading Merlin inside. He paused for a moment, his hands on Merlin's shoulders, before he gave the signal and unfurled the blindfold as the entire assembled group shouted, "Happy birthday!"

"What in the – " Merlin spluttered as he took in their friends standing in front of a mighty feast, the ale and wine clearly already flowing. "This is what you've been up to?" he asked, turning to look at Arthur with an incredulous expression.

Arthur nodded with a smile and said, "Happy birthday, my love."

"Get this down your neck, birthday boy," Gwaine said, showing a tankard of ale at him as everyone crowded around and began pulling him into hugs, Arthur grinning with delight when his husband exclaimed, "Mum!" before hugging the woman so tightly there was a danger he'd cut off her air supply.

Chaos reigned, especially when the little ones began pushing and shoving to get to their beloved uncle and eventually Merlin had to take a seat and concede to them climbing all over him to settle the argument. The atmosphere was lively and the room rang out with laughter, Arthur unable to stop himself from smiling at how happy Merlin looked.

He hardly ever celebrated his birthday, indeed it had taken Arthur several years to find out exactly when it was and he'd been determined that they would mark the occasion at least once in true style. Merlin hated any kind of celebration that was held in his honour and had been subjected to a few since his elevation to court sorcerer and subsequently consort to the king but this small gathering with the people he loved most was something he could more than bear.

Arthur watched as the man's cheeks became flushed with the wine Gwaine kept pouring him, as he smiled and laughed while he talked with his friends and performed simple spells that enchanted the children. He watched as Merlin tenderly lay a hand on Morgana's stomach and spoke quietly with her, both of them so sweet with one another it made Arthur's chest tighten to see it. He watched as the man sat quietly with his mother and held her hand as they spoke, Hunith stroking his cheek affectionately while she smiled at him with pride and tenderness.

"Alright, everyone! Settle down, it's time for a toast," Mordred said, shouting over the noise and whistling at them all in an attempt to get them all to quiet down.

"Ahh here we go," Gwaine said with a grin. "How much wine has he had? Do we think he'll get to the end of his little speech without bursting into tears?"

Mordred raised an unimpressed eyebrow before his eyes flashed gold and Gwaine's arm jerked and poured his entire mug of ale over his head. "That'll teach you," Mordred said smugly while everyone roared with laughter and Gwaine grinned good-naturedly as he dabbed himself with the hem of his shirt.

Arthur sidled up next to Merlin and slipped an arm around his waist, pressing a kiss to his temple and giving Mordred a wink while Merlin's expression turned endearingly soppy.

"We're all here this evening to celebrate Merlin's birthday and I know that there isn't a person amongst us who doesn't think the world of him. He's the kindest, gentlest, most selfless person I've ever had the privilege of meeting and I know I'm not the only one here who is greatly indebted to him. As much as we joke and tease," Mordred said with a smile in Arthur's direction, "Merlin really is the only father I've ever known and I count myself fortunate for that."

He paused and Arthur could see the man was becoming emotional and trying to keep himself in check. Merlin too had begun to get a little sniffy and Arthur tightened his arm around him while he smiled indulgently at them both.

Mordred took a deep breath and continued, "Merlin saw a scared, lonely child who knew he was different and was terrified because of it…and he could have walked away, he could have left me as someone else's problem but instead he took care of me and treated me like his own. I've loved him from the moment I met him and I know that I couldn't be luckier to have him as a father.

"Camelot wouldn't be the same without him and I think we'd all be poorer for not knowing him. I know that, along with Arthur, he will continue to shape the future of this kingdom and that we'll all benefit from his unfailing compassion and unique wisdom for many years to come. Let's all raise our glasses and say a toast to the man who we all adore - to Merlin!"

"To Merlin!" everyone repeated loudly and Merlin grinned at them all while trying to fight back tears.

"Happy birthday, love," Arthur murmured softly, giving the man's waist a squeeze before releasing him so he could sweep Mordred up in a hug.

"You make me so proud," Merlin whispered as he held onto Mordred tightly.

"Love you, Pa," Mordred said, his nose buried in Merlin's shoulder.

"Love you too," Merlin said, pressing a kiss to Mordred's curls before he pulled back, smiling wryly at the fact that Mordred was now in tears and had clearly given up the fight.

"Pay up, Leon! I told you he'd cry," Gwaine said gleefully, ducking seconds later when Mordred threw half a chicken leg at him.

The party continued long into the night, Merlin and Arthur finally bidding everyone farewell when Gwaine and Percival decided it was time to seek out the weapon master's home brew. They walked Hunith back to her quarters, promising to spend the following day with her, then walked up to the parapets as was often their custom late at night.

"Thank you for a wonderful party," Merlin said as he laced his fingers through Arthur's and tucked himself into his side.

"I'm glad you enjoyed yourself," Arthur replied pressing a kiss to the mop of black hair. "Do you feel any wiser for being another year older?"

"I don't think I could get any wiser."

"How true," Arthur said with a snort.

"Not sure I could get much luckier either," Merlin said softly.

Arthur looked out across the rooves and chimneys of the citadel, at the kingdom he had worked and fought so hard for. It wouldn't be the place he had striven so hard for without Merlin, without the man's gentle influence and invaluable advice. They had created it together and they would continue to build on it side by side as the years went on.

Arthur would never take it for granted, he couldn't if he tried. He would continue to thank the heavens for the good fortune that had brought Merlin into his life and kept him there, not only as his friend but as his husband too. He wasn't sure what he had ever done to deserve it but he was wise enough to be eternally grateful for it.

"No, my love," Arthur said with a content sigh as he held Merlin close and felt his magic seep beneath his skin, "neither could I."