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My Place is With You

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The first time it happened was about a month after Arthur’s coronation. Though he’d essentially been ruling in his own right as Uther’s health declined, having the official title of king seemed to take a toll on Arthur’s self-confidence. Merlin had grown used to Prince Arthur asking for advice from time-to-time. King Arthur, however, required guidance and reassurance on pretty much a daily basis.

And so nothing seemed out of the ordinary on that particular night when Arthur started reflecting on events from earlier in the day.

“Was I wrong to reject Lord Cradoc’s proposal?”

The afternoon council meeting had led to a heated debate between Arthur and one of Uther’s holdovers, the old guard trying to bully the new king in much the same way his father had. Though Arthur held firm, Merlin knew the insinuation that he wasn’t ready to rule had shaken him.

“I’d hardly call it a proposal – more like a demand. And no, you weren’t wrong,” Merlin said as he helped Arthur change into nightclothes. “The people can’t afford higher taxes. Your father had already raised them three times in two years.”

Having finished with the king’s clothing, Merlin shifted his focus to the bed, turning down the covers so that Arthur could get in.

“Exactly. People are already stretched thin with what they can pay. But Cradoc was right. The roads are in disrepair and causing their own set of problems.”

Merlin moved on to collecting dirty laundry and tending the fire.

“True. But you were right to stand up for the people. Some will starve if taxes go up.”

Darkness enveloped the room as Merlin extinguished the candles.

“So what do I do? I want to reduce what the people pay, but I don’t see how we can.”

“Well… you could cut back the number of feast days in the castle – only hold them on special occasions like holidays or when other rulers come to visit.”

Arthur laughed.

“Fine with me. I can’t stand all the pageantry my father introduced to celebrate himself. And Cradoc will hate it. But I doubt that will solve all of the problems with the roads.”

“No, probably not.”

Nighttime duties complete, this was the point where, on any other night, Merlin would excuse himself and retire to his own bed. He was looking forward to it as the day had been especially exhausting. Arthur, however, had other plans.

“Here, climb in.”

Merlin heard the sound of blankets being shifted.

“Climb in?”

“Yes, Merlin. I need you to help me sort this before morning so you’ll have to stay here tonight.”

“Stay here? In the bed? With you?”

In all of their years together, the only times Arthur had invited Merlin to share a bed with him were in Merlin’s dreams.

“Obviously, Merlin. I can’t talk to you if you’ve run off to the antechamber. But change your clothes first. You can borrow some of mine.”

“Arthur, I can’t…”

“You can and you will. Now undress and help me figure out this mess with the taxes.”

Revenue streams were the last thing on Merlin’s mind as he slipped on one of Arthur’s sleeping tunics. He’d touched Arthur’s clothes on many occasions, what with the washing and folding and mending, but to feel the fabric against his bare chest… he couldn’t suppress a shiver.

“Hurry up and get in bed before you freeze.” Arthur had noticed Merlin’s reaction without realizing the cause. Silently Merlin thanked the gods for the king’s tendency to be a bit on the thick side when it came to things he’d rather keep secret.

Merlin hoped that his body didn’t betray him further as he settled in on the right side of the bed. Even hugging the edge of the mattress, he could still feel Arthur’s body heat radiating toward him under the covers they shared. Best to turn his thoughts to something harmless like fiscal policy.

“What if instead of asking the people for more money, you let them pay with their labor?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, the roads need to be repaired, right? And you can’t hire people to do it unless you raise taxes. Except no one can really afford that and you wanted to lighten the tax burden anyway.”

“Right…”

“So why not have each village maintain a section of road? It would only require a couple of weeks of work each year. People could do it after the harvest when they’re not needed on their farms. It might even keep people out of trouble. The worst fights that broke out in Ealdor were when people got bored.”

“That might actually work. We’ll have to include exemptions for households that aren’t physically capable of doing the labor, of course. Although people will likely complain about the extra work.”

“They won’t if you reduce what they already have to pay – easing that burden will be a relief. And you must also announce the revised schedule of feast days. It will do a lot to generate goodwill.”

“I can’t wait to see Cradoc’s face… but now that we’ve sorted taxes…”

“More like I’ve sorted them.”

“We should get some sleep.”

“Should I go?”

“Absolutely not, Merlin. It’s too late to be wandering the castle and we have an early start tomorrow. I need you rested.”

“Fine.”

“And Merlin… thank you.” Arthur rolled over and fell asleep.

It took Merlin longer to drift off. He knew that Arthur had made him stay for practical reasons, yet his mind was flooded with a mixture of exhilaration from sharing such an intimate space with the man and terror as to what his body might do while he slept.

When Merlin awoke the next morning, he found they’d both gravitated to the center of the mattress, Arthur’s back shoved against his own. It was so warm and comforting that he allowed himself a moment of indulgence before he extracted himself from the bedclothes and began to prepare for the long day ahead.

__________________________________

Sleeping arrangements returned to normal for the next week. Arthur’s new tax code proved widely popular with the people and hated by Uther’s holdovers – a clear sign that his policy was solid.

Merlin assumed that the previous incident had simply been a one-off event, driven by Arthur’s need to establish himself in front of his councilors. As always, Merlin was glad he could help, though it did seem that his own bed felt a little colder than normal each morning.

It’s probably just a change in the weather, he thought as he tried not to fixate on the memory of Arthur’s body pressed against his own. Dwelling on it would only cause him heartache, as he knew it would never happen again.

Except that he was wrong.

“Do you think I made the right decision?”

Merlin was halfway out the door of Arthur’s chambers when he heard the question from the darkened room behind him.

“Which one is troubling you?” Merlin stepped back inside and closed the door, trying to remember all the king’s judgments from earlier that day.

“The petitioners with the shared cow. My father prepared me for war and diplomacy, but he said nothing about how to deal with two villagers feuding over who should get the milk.”

“I thought you handled it fairly. Most of that squabble wasn’t even tied to the cow. It just got mixed up in an old fight.”

“Yes, but was that how you would’ve handled it?”

“Arthur, how I would’ve handled it doesn’t matter. I’m not the king.”

“It does matter. There’s so much I don’t know about my own kingdom. I’ve never lived in a village. I don’t understand why they come to me – I’m a spoiled prat who’s spent my whole life in a castle.”

“Hush with that. You’re doing fine. The number of petitioners has increased since you took the throne because you listen and you’re fair. The people trust your judgment.”

“That makes it worse. What if I get something wrong and it causes harm? You’re more qualified to…”

“Arthur, you’re the king. I’m a servant. They’re not going to come to me to decide their disputes. Honestly, I admired your patience with those two – it was clear from the beginning they weren’t going to leave happy no matter what you said and I wouldn’t have done anything differently if they had asked me. Now get some rest. It’s late and…”

“We need a system,” Arthur cut him off.

“A system?” Merlin sighed. It was likely going to be a while before he made it to his own bed.  

“For petition days. We need to figure out a way for you to silently let me know if my judgments are appropriate. Something like hand signals or nods… maybe blinking.”

“Arthur, you really don’t need me to…”

“I do. I am completely out of my depth with some of those grievances. I need you to…”

“Ok. Sure. We’ll talk about it tomorrow. Right now, let’s just sleep and then…”

“There’s no time. I have another group of petitioners in the morning. Some of them have traveled from as far as the southern border. I can’t get this wrong, Merlin. We’ll have to work it out tonight.”

“Tonight? Arthur, I’m exhausted.”

“You can sleep as soon as we’re through. Go ahead and change clothes while we’re talking. You’ve been all over the citadel in what you’re wearing. I’m not having you mess up my clean sheets.”

“Wait… what are we doing?”

Maybe it was just the need for sleep, but Merlin was suddenly having trouble following the conversation.

“We are going to lie in my big, comfortable bed and devise a way for you to assist me with petitions. I’m already settled in and you are dead on your feet, so you’ll have to spend the night with me. Now get changed before you become so tired that you’re completely useless.”

‘Spend the night with me.’ Merlin wondered if Arthur even knew what he’d just said. Obviously, context affected meaning but still… If he’d said those words to a castle maid, Audrey from the kitchens would’ve likely shown up to thrash him with her ladle, king or not.

He’s not thinking about his words, Merlin rationalized. He’s preoccupied worrying about tomorrow. That could be the only explanation.

Figuring that it was easier to humor Arthur than to argue, Merlin felt around in the wardrobe for a tunic to wear. The fact that he’d done this the week prior did nothing to lessen the effect wearing Arthur’s clothing had on him. Rather, the opposite was true. Though he didn’t shiver this time, he found his body responding in a different manner - one that couldn’t be explained away by a chill in the air. Thankfully, the room was dark as he walked to the bed. It would be extremely important to make sure that he kept adequate distance between them tonight, lest Arthur discover just how pleased Merlin was to stay.

An hour later, he lay on his back in the king’s bed, the room silent. Arthur had nodded off after brainstorming an overly-complicated code of gestures he expected Merlin to have memorized by sunrise.

“You cabbage head,” Merlin whispered into the dark. “You really should learn to trust yourself.”

“Hmm?” Merlin’s voice had disturbed Arthur’s slumber.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

He heard fabric rustle, then felt warm fingers bump against his own.

“I’m glad you’ll be there with me tomorrow,” Arthur murmured, giving Merlin’s hand a light squeeze. The unexpected contact startled Merlin, his arm jerking back out of reflex. Arthur quickly withdrew. The whole thing lasted no more than a couple of seconds but Merlin was painfully aware of the loss of contact as Arthur returned to his side of the bed.

As the king dozed, Merlin rolled on his side, facing away, mentally kicking himself for flinching and wondering what it all meant – the bed sharing, the attempt at handholding. They had touched many times over the years, but somehow this felt different. Again, he tried not to let it go to his head or his heart. Arthur simply felt insecure. He’d be back to semi-affectionate punches and throwing things in no time.

And if had any deeper meaning… well, Merlin had probably ruined any chances of that by pulling away.

The next morning found them both splayed out face-down. At some point in the night they’d intertwined fingers, their clasped hands resting between them.  Merlin’s blush matched that of Arthur’s when their eyes met. Still, he fought the urge to immediately withdraw out of embarrassment.

“We really should get up,” Merlin said after a couple of minutes passed.

“I suppose,” Arthur conceded. “Did you memorize all of the signals?”

“Hardly. But let’s do this instead. While you eat…”

“While we eat.”

“… I’ll read over the petitioners’ agenda and fill you in on any relevant background details I can think of that you might need to know.”

“Fine. You’re probably too clumsy for the gestures anyway. You will still be there, though. Right?”

“Of course. My place is with you.”

“On that we’re agreed.”

Though he really didn’t want to, Merlin finally let go of Arthur’s hand and eased himself out of the bed.

“I’m going to grab a change of clothes and then I’ll be back with food and the list of petitions. See if you can dress yourself while I’m gone. We slept too late.”

__________________________________

Exactly three days later Merlin awoke to the sound of knocking on his bedroom door. It couldn’t have been more than an hour since he’d lain down. His body was far from rested and the dark window indicated that dawn remained hours away.

Bleary-eyed, he opened the door to discover Elyan waiting for him.

“The king says he needs you at once. Sorry to wake you and Gaius.”

“It’s not your fault, Elyan – you’re just the messenger. Let me get dressed and then…”

“Arthur said not to bother but that you should bring clothes for tomorrow as he’ll keep you busy for the rest of the night.”

Merlin suddenly found it very necessary not to make eye contact with Elyan.

“Just a second and I’ll be ready.”

He was far too tired to color-coordinate an outfit, but fortunately there wasn’t that much variation in Merlin’s wardrobe. After hastily packing for the next day, he rushed to Arthur’s chambers.

“Everything alright?” Merlin called as he stepped through the door. A lone candle on the bedside table lit the room.

“What took you so long?” a muffled voice replied from beneath the mountain of blankets.

“It’s a big castle and I was half asleep.”

“It’s still unacceptable.”

“What do you expect me to do? It’s not like I can just move Gaius’s chambers closer to your own.”

“No, I suppose not…” Arthur trailed off as if actually considering it.

“So,” Merlin began after several moments of silence passed, “was there a reason you summoned me in the middle of the night?”

“Ah, yes. Remember how the weavers’ guild was complaining about where they’re allowed to set up on market days? I had an idea but I wanted to see what you thought about…”

Arthur paused, staring at his servant.

“Merlin, why are you still standing there? Get in bed with me.”

He has to know, Merlin thought as he climbed under the covers. There’s no way he can’t know how his words sound.

Arthur blew out the candle, then began droning on about guild rivalries.

“I was thinking that we could move the weavers where the leatherworkers normally set up and they could go...”

Merlin had almost nodded off when he felt the now-familiar sensation of Arthur’s hand in his own.

“Thank you, Merlin. It really helped having you here.”

“I haven’t said two words since you started talking.”

“Maybe. But it’s much easier to work things out when you listen. Now rest. It’s almost dawn.”

That night Merlin fell asleep to the sensation of Arthur’s thumb gently tracing patterns along his wrist.

__________________________________

The next morning began normally – or at least as normally as it could, considering that Merlin woke up with Arthur’s arm slung across his chest. The sensation was not unpleasant – far from it, in fact. Merlin could’ve been content to lay there for hours, but he needed to get up. There was work to do.

The day passed rapidly – training, a meeting with representatives from the Camelot guilds, more training. Though it was not unheard of for Arthur to schedule multiple training sessions in a single day, it rarely happened, even in the years long before Uther took ill. Merlin recognized it for what it really was – a way to think through something troubling. He suspected it was connected to a letter that had arrived around midday, as Arthur had gone strangely quiet after reading it. When Merlin asked, the king ignored his questions, instead putting him on shield duty to silence him.

The setting sun forced Arthur inside, though he still appeared on edge. He refused to stay seated while he ate, pacing the room with his plate in hand.

“Arthur, what’s bothering you?”

“Nothing, nothing. Everything’s alright. I just need to write something.”

Unsure of what else to do, Merlin cleared the table as Arthur hastily scrawled something on a parchment.

“Fetch a courier, would you?”

“Do you want me to read over it first? Check it for…”

“It’s fine, Merlin. Now go find a courier.”

It wasn’t until after the messenger had left that Arthur finally settled down and Merlin was able to retire for the night. He collapsed in his bed, relieved that his bruised body would get time to rest and recover. Arthur had really gone at him with the mace. His head barely hit the pillow before he fell into a deep sleep.

That night it wasn’t a knock that woke him up, but a shove.

“Move over,” Arthur hissed.

“What?” Merlin considered that he might be dreaming, though the ache in his shoulder indicated otherwise.

“It’s freezing in here. Why did you let the fire die?”

“This room doesn’t have a hearth. Why are you here?”

“I am the king, Merlin. If you do not budge over and let me under the covers right this instant, I will banish you. To a place colder than this.”

“Good luck finding one,” Merlin muttered as he made space. He lay on his side, facing the wall.

“This bed is tiny,” Arthur complained. The limited space forced him to press his chest against Merlin’s back.

“We can’t all live in royal opulence.”

 “Stop hogging the blanket.”

“I am not hogging it. It’s made for one. What are you doing?”

“There’s nowhere else to put my arm.”

“So you’re just going to…” Merlin caught himself before the words ‘hold me’ could slip out.

“What else would you have me do?”

Merlin’s rebellious mind conjured several different ways in which the pair of them might better fit in the small bed, but he bit his tongue.

“Never mind. What do you want?” Merlin tried to sound annoyed but the sensation of Arthur’s arm wrapped around his waist had melted any frustration he’d felt at the midnight intrusion. He sighed as Arthur’s fingers began to fidget with the material of his nightshirt. If the king’s hand edged just a little lower, he’d be at the hem and…

“I need to talk to you.”

The vulnerability in Arthur’s tone pulled Merlin back from where his mind was wandering.

“It must be something extremely important if you are daring to brave my cold room.”

For a second Arthur laughed, then grew somber.

“It’s about Princess Mithian.”

Still groggy, Merlin tried to place her.

“King Rodor’s daughter?”

“You remember her?”

“Well, you are the most eligible bachelor in the five kingdoms. It’s important to keep track of all the women who might want to woo you.”

Arthur’s arm tensed against Merlin’s body.

“She’s trying.”

“Trying?”

“To woo me. Mithian and her father are offering to settle the territorial dispute over Gedref. They’ll drop their claim entirely and cede all of the land to Camelot if I marry her.”

“Oh.” Merlin knew he should say something more but his chest felt tight. He tried to keep his breathing steady.

Merlin understood, at least in theory, that a day would come when Arthur would choose a queen. It wasn’t as though this was the first time that marriage seemed like a possibility. Uther had regularly invited politically-strategic single noblewomen to visit at Camelot in the hopes that he could pressure Arthur into marrying one. Then there had been the brief, failed courtship with Guinevere. It ended in a mixture of tears and laughter for them both, though Arthur had never explained to Merlin what had gone wrong.

After so many years had passed with Arthur remaining unwed, a part of Merlin naïvely assumed that Arthur would never choose a bride. He hoped that they could continue on as they were indefinitely. From more than a decade in the palace, Merlin recognized that the bond he and Arthur shared deviated far from the norm of servants and masters. He knew of a few instances where genuine friendships had formed between serving staff and the nobility, but none seemed to have the depth of his connection with Arthur.

Kilgharrah would probably dismiss it as a byproduct of destiny and Merlin supposed that did factor in. But damn it, what they shared extended far beyond ancient prophecies recorded in dry and dusty tomes. Their bond was so vital, so alive, so warm – it didn’t belong to the seers and diviners and soothsayers – it was theirs alone. Yes, yes, they were working toward a united Albion and a golden age. But what they had already built between them was far more precious, at least from Merlin’s perspective.

Still, a king needed a queen, if for no other reason than to preserve the royal bloodline. It was a requirement that came with the position. From what Merlin could remember, Mithian seemed nice enough. She didn’t have a reputation for mistreating servants and visitors from Nemeth typically spoke well of her and her father. Though not a love match, it wasn’t the worst choice Arthur could have made.

And yet it felt as though Merlin’s world was ending. Soon Mithian would be living in the palace, sharing Arthur’s bed, reassuring him in the middle of the night when his doubts set in.

“It’s not like you to be this quiet.” Arthur’s voice cut into Merlin’s thoughts.

“I was just thinking. I’m… I’m sure Mithian will be a fine queen for Camelot. I’ve heard nothing but good things about her and…”

“I declined their offer.”

“You what? Why?”

“The match makes sense on paper. It would expand our territory and even pave the way for Camelot and Nemeth to merge. But…”

“But what?”

“Do you remember all those years ago? When my father tried to pair me off with Princess Elena? I almost went through with the wedding until you told me some nonsense about the importance of marrying for love and how my happiness was tied to the kingdom’s strength and prosperity.”

“I might recall the day. I think you said I was wise.”

“Clearly I was wrong – those were nothing more than the words of a panicked man about to make a huge mistake.”

Merlin laughed.

“You were right,” Arthur continued. “It’s unthinkable to marry someone simply for gain. I do want to negotiate with Nemeth about the disputed territory but not like that. I’ll need you to help me prepare a counterproposal. We have a few days before my letter makes it to King Rodor.”

“So that’s what you were writing tonight. What did you say?”

“I told them that the offer was flattering and appreciated, but that I would regretfully have to decline because…” They were so close in the small bed - Merlin could feel Arthur’s breath against his neck. “Because my heart already belongs to another.”

“Your heart already… who?” Merlin tried to roll over to face Arthur, but the man maintained a tight hold on him, making it impossible.

“Merlin, there’s something that I’ve kept from you…”

A soft tapping on the door interrupted whatever Arthur had been about to say.

“Is everything alright?” Gaius called. “I thought I heard voices.”

“Sorry, Gaius. I was just…”

“He was helping me sort an urgent matter of diplomacy. I apologize for disturbing you.”

“No need, sire. Now that I know Merlin hasn’t started talking to himself, I’ll be heading back to bed.”

They lay in silence for a moment, Merlin dwelling on what Arthur had been about to say before Gaius intruded.

“Arthur, if you don’t want to tell me…”

“I do but… it’s complicated. We can talk about it later. Let’s rest.”

“You’re going to stay here? In my bed?”

“If I leave, I’ll wake Gaius again.”

“Do you want me to move to the floor? Give you more space?”

“Absolutely not. It’s far too cold in this room. How will I possibly avoid freezing if I don’t have you here to keep me warm?”

Merlin felt his own temperature rise. It was probably for the best that he hadn’t been able to turn toward Arthur considering the rather tangible reaction his body had to the king’s words. He tried to will his body to behave. Would using magic to deal with an inconvenient symptom of arousal violate rules of the Old Religion?

They lay close together, Arthur’s arm still draped over Merlin’s body, his steady breathing warm against Merlin’s neck.

I know his heart belongs to another, Merlin thought, but I will never forget this night.

“You did the right thing turning her down.” It came out as a whisper. “It wouldn’t be fair to her or you or the one you care about.”

“Thank you. To hear you say so is a relief. It’s difficult to know what to do and the stakes are so high now that I’m king. One misstep could cause immeasurable harm. I know what my father would’ve done but he’s not really the best guide. There are times when I think you’re the wisest of us all.”

“That’s not what you said earlier.” The moment was too tender for Merlin to bear so he tried to deflect.

“Never mind that. When it comes to being a loyal advisor, I couldn’t have found anyone better.”

“It’s not just about policy decisions, though. You deserve to be happy, Arthur.”

The sound was soft – almost unnoticeable – but Merlin swore he heard a sharp hitch in Arthur’s breathing.

“Well, tonight I am, thanks largely to you. Now rest. We’ll need to start crafting our counteroffer to Rodor tomorrow.”

The next morning Merlin hurriedly shuffled Arthur out of the room, claiming that he needed to change clothes in privacy.

“But you see me undressed all the time. I don’t understand why…”

“Clearly standards of modesty are far more developed outside of the nobility. Gaius will have porridge waiting. I’ll be there in a minute.”

Merlin waited until he heard Gaius and Arthur talking, then whispered a quick incantation. It was nobody’s business but his own if he wanted to preserve the scent of Arthur’s hair on his pillow.

__________________________________

For the next two days, Merlin found himself essentially banished to the library, scouring through old treaties trying to find a way to settle the border dispute in a manner that would keep both sides happy. Though the work was less physically taxing than what he was used to, it was still a relief to be pulled away on the second afternoon for a ride with Arthur.

“This way you can fill me in on what you found without eavesdroppers listening,” the king explained when he proposed the outing.

Descending the stairs into the castle courtyard, Merlin noticed that a single horse awaited them. He didn’t recognize the large draft animal. Though it was wearing the royal harness, it was most definitely not Arthur’s regular mount.

“Has your horse taken ill?”

“I don’t believe so.”

“Then what were they thinking in the stables? Do you want me to take this one back? I’m going to have to saddle one for me anyway and…”

“There’s no time. This horse looks strong enough to carry us both.”

Merlin stared as Arthur strode forward and climbed into the saddle.

“Come on, Merlin. I’d like to get back sometime this year.”

“Ok. Now we’re sharing a horse,” Merlin muttered to himself.

It proved slightly challenging to climb up, as the horse was very tall and Arthur’s feet were already in the stirrups, but with a little help Merlin settled in behind. Unsure of what to do with his hands, he placed them on his thighs.

Arthur kept the horse at a slow walk until they were outside of the castle walls.

“I’m going to speed up. Hold on.”

“To what?”

“Me.”

The subject was apparently not up for debate as Arthur urged the horse forward with a kick of his heels. Desperate not to fall off, Merlin threw his arms around Arthur’s waist. They didn’t speak until Arthur eased the horse back to a slow walk.

“I think I’ve found a solution for Rodor. For years he’d asked your father to reduce levies on imports from Nemeth and I think we can offer that concession as a way to resolve the claims over Gedref. The access to trade is more valuable to Nemeth than the disputed territory and the increased flow of goods should raise profits for Camelot merchants.”

“Write up your proposal and I’ll dispatch a rider at first light.”

“Don’t you want to read over it first? It might not…”

“Of course, I’ll read over it – I need to know what’s in it.”

“You might want to makes changes…”

“I’m sure it’s fine. You’ve never failed me.”

“Still, I’d hate to be remembered as the one who ruined relations between Camelot and Nemeth.”

“There is no one I trust more with this than you. If you think it’s a good plan, then you have my full support.”

Merlin felt the warm pressure of Arthur’s hand covering his own where he still held to the king’s waist.

“I’ll have it ready before you go to bed tonight, just in case you think it needs revising.”

They rode on for a while in an easy silence, Merlin’s arms encircling Arthur, Arthur’s hand resting on Merlin’s.

"Were you actually worried about someone in the castle listening in on my plan?"

"Not really. If the truth is told, I wanted an excuse to leave the palace. We used to do this all the time - go riding off, only the two of us. It seems like we never get a minute any more to ourselves."

"We never went out quite like this. We always had two horses."

Arthur seemed flustered.

"Yes, well... If we'd waited for another horse, then something would've come up or someone would've needed something and we'd never have made it out."

“Should we head back?”

The king had made no effort to steer the horse toward the castle.

“In a bit. We still have time before sunset. Unless you’re eager to return to the book dungeon.”

“Not particularly. It smells funny down there and Geoffrey is a little too eager to have a visitor. He suggested that I become his apprentice.”

“I think that’s an excellent idea. He is getting older and I’ll eventually have to replace him. It would get you out of my hair, let me find a servant who’s far less insolent.”

“I suppose that wouldn’t be entirely awful. I’d be trapped with dusty old books but at least I wouldn’t get bossed around all day. It could be relaxing, not having to haul bathwater or wash your dirty socks. There’d be no one tracking mud on my clean floors.”

Arthur brought the horse to a stop.

“You’d excel at it, you know, maintaining the palace records. They’re a complete mess but you have this talent for finding exactly what I need. You’re already better at it than Geoffrey. If you wanted to take over, I’d understand.”

The king’s words sounded like a genuine compliment but Merlin couldn’t help feeling as though he was somehow being rejected. Could Arthur really send him away so easily? He wouldn’t go without a fight, damn it.

“Not on your life. Send George instead. He’s so meticulous he’d have the entire library organized, cataloged, and deep-cleaned in less than a week.”

“I’m serious, Merlin. It would give you a higher rank, more status. You shouldn’t have to spend your life cleaning up after me.”

“Status is for bootlickers. Don’t try to lump me in that with that lot. There are days when I wish you tried a little harder not to make messes, but Arthur, there is nowhere I’d rather be than by your side.”

The king considered this for a moment.

“Good,” he finally said, nudging the horse forward. “You’d be wasted in the library. And I’d never get to look at your ridiculous face. How would I amuse myself?”

Merlin felt his cheeks grow warm. Though Arthur couldn’t see him, he still felt the urge to hide. He leaned forward over the cantle of the saddle to ease his forehead against Arthur’s shoulder, thankful that the king had chosen not to wear armor on this particular outing. They rode on for another hour, Merlin not pulling back until they were again in sight of the castle walls.

__________________________________

The rider dispatched with Arthur’s terms of negotiation returned quickly. Apparently King Rodor was very receptive and would be sending Mithian to finalize the agreement in person. This gave Camelot a week to get ready for her arrival. Merlin’s days became a frantic rush of preparations with no time to go on lazy afternoon rides.

Still, it wasn’t as if he didn’t get to see Arthur. As expected, they spent the days together, but not a night passed that week where the two slept alone. Early in the week, Arthur sent a guard each night to summon Merlin back to his chambers under the pretense of finalizing points of diplomacy. The final three evenings before Mithian’s arrival, Arthur found his way to Merlin’s bed.

“Is something wrong?” Merlin asked the first time the king came to his room.

“Everything’s fine. Scoot over and go back to sleep.”

As Merlin rolled over, shifting so that Arthur could fit, he felt a familiar arm drape across his side. Not awake enough to worry about the consequences, he eased back against the body curled behind him, taking hold of Arthur’s arm to pull it tighter around him. The last thing Merlin noticed before he lost consciousness was the sensation of warm breath on his shoulder.

Sharing a bed with Arthur made Merlin’s mornings easier, eliminating the need to rush across the castle to rouse the king. Still, Merlin typically was the first to wake up, early rising a habit he’d developed over the years of serving Arthur. When he tried to slip out of bed the following day, he found it more difficult than usual. Not only was Arthur still holding fast to him, but he’d slung a leg over Merlin’s thigh while they’d slept.

It’s only because the bed is too small, Merlin thought.

He allowed himself a few more minutes to savor the sensation of being wrapped up in Arthur. Despite the chill in the room, their shared body heat made it a little too warm under the covers and Arthur’s leg was heavy. There was no denying that it was a bit uncomfortable.

A rational person would move, Merlin supposed, as he considered enchanting the door so that they could spend the day curled up together without interruption.

He stayed until Arthur gave the first signs of stirring. As much as he hated to leave, he knew it was for the best to extract himself so Arthur didn’t have to face the awkward realization of how his leg had migrated in the night. Gently, Merlin made to lift the arm clutching him. Though he’d done so several times before without waking the king, this time Arthur resisted, tightening his hold against Merlin’s efforts. Not the result he’d been going for, but pleasant nonetheless.

Merlin decided to change his strategy and focus on the leg pinning him down. He wouldn’t be able to lift it, but if he jostled his thigh just so he might be able to move it… oh! As he adjusted his body, he felt it. An unmistakable firm bulge pressed against his lower back. Apparently Arthur was suffering from the same affliction that had plagued Merlin on so many of their shared nights.

It’s just because he’s asleep, Merlin told himself. It doesn’t mean anything.

As Merlin contemplated his options, Arthur shifted, making it impossible for Merlin to establish any space between them. As the contact intensified, Arthur let out a low groan before slowly grinding against him.

Merlin couldn’t help but be struck by the ridiculousness of it all. Here he was, Arthur in his bed, tightly embracing him, hard with arousal, and moaning in response to his body. It was so close to what Merlin had fantasized about for years. Yet the king was still asleep – his physical reactions involuntary. And even if they weren’t, his heart belonged to another. All the while, Merlin was awkwardly trying to escape from his own bed before Arthur realized what was happening. Merlin wouldn’t trade the nights they’d shared for anything, but there were times where he felt overwhelmed with how cruelly fate was taunting him.

To make matters even worse, his own body was betraying him, responding enthusiastically to the movement behind him. It would take only the slightest shift in the wrong direction and his own erection would make contact with Arthur’s leg. Something had to be done.

He considered using magic, but it was risky. Any loud crash would alert Gaius and Merlin really didn’t want the old man to walk in on them in their current predicament. He could try to use it to free himself, but if Arthur were to wake up to discover his limbs levitating in the air…

Embarrassment, he supposed, was preferable to execution. Maybe.

“Arthur,” he hissed. “Wake up.”

He got no response.

“Come on. Rise and shine.”

“Merlin,” Arthur moaned into his neck, tightening his hold further while continuing to thrust his hips.

Oh gods. Did that mean Arthur was dreaming about…? No. He couldn’t be. It was just a reaction to Merlin’s attempts to wake him.

“Let’s have you, lazy daisy.” Merlin let his voice grow louder.

“Not yet… want you to… oh shit! Merlin… I… um… I should… It’s not… I am so sorry…”

The rising panic in Arthur’s voice left Merlin wondering if he’d done the right thing in waking the king. And yet in spite of it, Arthur hadn’t left the bed. What to do, what to do? Merlin settled on feigning ignorance – the easy and preferred choice of cowards everywhere.

“Everything alright? It’s getting late and I didn’t want you to miss training.” Merlin hoped his voice sounded steady.

“I… I was just dreaming. I apologize for the outburst.”

Though the following two nights proceeded without a repeat of that particular incident, Merlin still awoke to find Arthur clinging tightly to him. If Gaius thought it was odd for the king to emerge from Merlin’s room each morning, he said nothing. Instead he set an extra place at breakfast and greeted Arthur just as he did Merlin.

__________________________________

On the morning Mithian was scheduled to arrive, the king appeared agitated, which in turn concerned Merlin. It was true that Arthur was prone to bouts of self-doubt, but this was a day to exude confidence.

“You’re going to do fine,” Merlin tried to reassure him as Arthur paced. They’d migrated from Merlin’s room to the king’s chambers so that Arthur could bathe and dress.

“Hmm?”

“You seem worried but there’s no need. Camelot and Nemeth were already on good terms and Rodor’s pleased with your offer.”

“More like your offer.”

“Is it Mithian that’s got you anxious? You turned down the marriage proposal and now you have to negotiate with her about…”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Merlin. I have no problem meeting with Mithian. But…” Arthur paused, as if to prepare for what he was about to say.

“What we’ve been doing, these past few weeks… at night. It’s… a king has to project a certain image and… if I… or if you…” He turned away so as to avoid Merlin’s eyes. “With a visiting delegation, it wouldn’t be appropriate for guards to fetch you at strange hours or for me to be wandering the halls at night to visit my servant. It could lead to rumors and…”

Merlin felt his heart sink. He had known that what they were doing couldn’t last forever, but the theoretical understanding was much different than actually hearing Arthur say the words to end it.

He’d grown used to having Arthur next to him each night. It was true that Merlin had initially been hesitant and there’d been more than a few awkward moments along the way, but regardless, sharing a bed had come to feel familiar and right – the natural evolution of their friendship. He slept better when Arthur was beside him, even when scrunched up in his too-small bed. He’d grown careless and had begun to take their nights together for granted and now they were ending. Though the day had just started, he was already dreading the loneliness he knew would await him that evening.

“I think it would be better if you temporarily relocate to my chambers. That way there will be no need for either of us to move around at night. I’m not trying to pull you away from Gaius – it’s only while Mithian is staying here.  If you’re amenable, of course.”

Merlin’s brain suggested several possible responses. That would be wonderful, Arthur. That would be perfect, Arthur. Ask me to stay forever, Arthur.

He settled on, “I don’t mind,” hoping that his tone didn’t betray how ecstatic he felt.

Arthur let out a breath, then reached out to squeeze Merlin’s shoulder.

“I appreciate it. It’s more than I have rights to ask but I’m going to need you while these negotiations are going on. Honestly, I thought you’d put up a fight. I know you value your privacy.”

“I do?” It had been several weeks since Merlin had experienced anything resembling true privacy but thus far he had no complaints.

“You can’t keep secrets from me, Merlin. All these years, you’ve supposedly been running off the tavern, I know what you’ve been up to.”

“You do?”

He can’t know about the magic, Merlin thought. There’s no way he’d be inviting me to move into his chambers for the week if he knew.

“Of course. You’ve been sneaking off to the woods to have a moment to yourself. I followed you one night.”

Merlin’s heart stopped.

“I had gone looking for you at the tavern and you weren’t there,” Arthur continued, “I thought maybe you’d gotten into trouble, but when I realized you were simply headed out for a walk, I left you alone. I understand – if I could get away with it, I’d do the same.”

Merlin carefully let out the breath he’d been holding.

“Maybe…” Arthur’s voice grew shy. “Maybe one night we could go together. If it wouldn’t be a bother, I mean. I’m not trying to intrude on…”

“I’d love to.” It came in a rush, stunning them both.

Arthur smiled.

“Good. Go pack what you need and bring it here, then meet me in the throne room. Mithian’s party should be arriving in the next few hours.”

__________________________________

The negotiations that had caused Arthur so much concern went smoother than expected. Mithian made no effort to amend the diplomatic proposal Arthur had sent in advance.

“Your terms are fair and well thought out. My father says your skill at diplomacy far exceeds that of Camelot’s previous king. Let’s sign the treaty so we can drop the formalities.”

Arthur spent the rest of the day entertaining his visitor, who seemed more interested in sightseeing than the border agreement.

“You were awfully quiet today,” Arthur said as Merlin helped him undress that night.

“I think Mithian more than compensated for my silence.”

“She and King Rodor both thought highly of your trade plan. I told you that your idea would be fine. Perhaps you should be named head councilor on foreign affairs.”

“If you don’t stop trying to give me a promotion, I’m going to run off into the woods and become a hermit.”

“Your lack of ambition is worrisome, Merlin,” Arthur teased.

“Ambition leaves one stuck showing a visiting dignitary all of the stalls in the marketplace.”

“You were there with me for the duration.”

“Yes, but I didn’t have to pretend to be interested in the conversation.”

“She was nice enough.”

“I suppose. You… you don’t regret it, do you? Turning down her offer of marriage?”

“Not at all. She’s a trusted ally, Merlin, but she’s not the one I want in my bed each night.”

Merlin noticed the flush on Arthur’s face but was too preoccupied with another matter to dwell on it.

“Speaking of…” He couldn’t bring himself to say ‘your bed.’ It danced dangerously close to the topic of marriage they’d just been discussing. “Since the negotiations concluded so rapidly, do you still want me to stay? I can leave if you’d rather have nights to yourself.”

“I… I think it would be best if you stay with me until Mithian departs. It would look strange for you to move your things right now. And you never know – she might change her mind about the treaty and reopen discussions.”

Merlin wasn’t quite sure of what to make of Arthur’s reasoning. The treaty was signed and Mithian had given no indication that she was displeased with it. Still, he decided not to question the fortuitous turn of fate that allowed him to stay in Arthur’s bed for the remainder of the week.

__________________________________

The next few days passed in a blur of feasts, horseback rides, hunts, and sightseeing. Arthur did his best to entertain the princess and Merlin stayed by his side, lest the royals need serving.

On the day Mithian was to leave, Merlin rose earlier than usual to ensure Arthur wasn’t late to see off her departing entourage. He had just stepped out of the king’s chambers to fetch breakfast when he heard a voice behind him.

“Good morning, Merlin.”

Apart from the guards, he hadn’t expected to find anyone else in the corridor, especially not Mithian.

“My lady,” Merlin acknowledged her. “Is there anything you need?”

“No. I was just taking some air. At home I try to walk the castle in the early morning, before the day begins in earnest and I get lost in the rush. Now that my father is getting older, I find myself with more responsibilities and less free time. It’s been a bit of a relief this week to be away from Nemeth.”

This was the most Mithian had said directly to Merlin the entire time she’d been in Camelot. Away from her advisors and other nobles, she appeared more relaxed.

“I’m sure Arthur would be pleased to have you return for another visit any time you wish.”

He was about to walk away when she spoke again.

“Merlin, I know this can’t have been easy for you – having me here after my father sent the marriage proposal.”

“I…”

“You’ve been incredibly gracious and I want you to understand that we had no idea that Arthur was spoken for. There had been no formal announcements so we assumed he was eligible.”

Merlin wondered why she was telling him this.

“My father clings to tradition,” she continued. “He sees marriage largely as a way to cement alliances and while I like Arthur, I was relieved when he wrote back declining the offer. I barely know him and Nemeth is my home. Camelot is a fine kingdom, but I don’t want to move here. Honestly, it felt as though I was being auctioned off so that a child I might not even be able to conceive could one day rule over our combined kingdoms.”

Merlin tried to respond diplomatically.

“Uther held the same view about marriage and alliances. He and Arthur butted heads over it often.”

“I can imagine. Arthur is a true romantic. He’ll only marry for love and I admire that. When we first read his reply, my father feared he was lying – claiming his heart was taken to save face so he could pursue a more strategic match. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the week I’ve been here, it’s that he’s deeply in love. A marriage between the two of us would never have worked out. And I want you to know that I’m very happy for the two of you. What you have may not be conventional, but it is beautiful.”

“My lady, I don’t know what you’re talking about but…”

“It’s quite alright,” she smiled conspiratorially. “I understand that you’re not ready to make a public declaration. But when you are, you have the full support of Nemeth. Though when there is a wedding, I expect an invitation.”

Before Merlin could reply, one of Mithian’s courtiers approached.

“A princess’s work is never done,” she said apologetically as she turned her attention to the courtier.

Though there was much for Merlin to tend to that day – joining Arthur to see off Mithian’s party, helping other servants get the castle back to normal, carrying out his regular duties – he barely noticed any of it. Mithian’s words kept playing in his mind. If she believed that he shared an amorous connection with Arthur, then others would, too.

Anyone close to the king – Gaius, the knights, Gwen – would know better than to heed any rumors that might surface regarding them. Merlin even suspected that their friends would offer nothing but support if their relationship had taken a romantic turn.

But not everyone would choose to ignore idle speculation. Would Uther’s holdovers on the council use the rumors to try to undermine Arthur’s decisions? Would they argue that Merlin was manipulating him any time Arthur deviated from his father’s old policies?

Apart from his support of Arthur’s policy changes, there were plenty of other reasons why the old guard would oppose Merlin as a love match for the king. For starters, he was a man. He had no hereditary connections to the nobility. His own father was (at least to them) unknown. Throw in Merlin’s magic and they might attempt a coup.

Merlin loved Arthur too much to be responsible for his downfall, even if that meant putting an end to their nights together.

__________________________________

“I think that went well – better than expected,” Arthur said that evening as Merlin cleared plates from the meal they’d shared. “The treaty is secured, we have a strong alliance, and I didn’t have to marry anyone to make it work.”

Merlin knew he should say something congratulatory in response but he couldn’t force the words out. If Mithian had never shown up, he wouldn’t have learned about the rumors and they would be carrying on like normal.

“You’ve been awfully quiet today.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind.”

Arthur seemed to be waiting, expecting him to say more. Merlin looked away and took a deep breath.

“This has to stop.”

“What?”

“This thing… with us… and the bed… we can’t keep staying together at night.”

“Have I done something to give offense?”

“No. Not at all. It’s just… people are starting to talk. I know you wanted to avoid rumors and gossip but…”

“But what?”

“Mithian spoke to me today. Arthur, she thought… she thought I was the one.”

“You were the one what?”

“The one your heart belonged to.”

“I see,” said the king.

“It’s because we’ve been spending nights together, I know it. She probably saw me leaving each morning to get your food and thought that… I’m so sorry, Arthur. I should’ve been more careful. And if Mithian thought it, then others probably have, too. And whoever it is that you care for might have heard. I can’t fix what happened but I can make it right from here on out.”

“Merlin, I don’t care what people think. I’ve been a coward and I need you to know that the one I care for is…”

“Stop. Just… we can’t. Not ever again. People are talking. Please don’t call for me in the middle of the night. And please don’t show up in my room. I knew you were worried about policies and petitioners and I let it go too far. But no more, Arthur.”

As Merlin glanced back at him, he couldn’t tell if the color had drained from Arthur’s face or if it was just a trick of the candlelight. He hadn’t wanted to hurt him, but it had to be done.

“If that’s what you want…”

“It is,” Merlin lied.

“Then I will not ask it of you again. I apologize for overstepping boundaries.”

“Arthur, I…”

“It’s late, Merlin. You’d best be off to your bed.”

__________________________________

For the first time in weeks, Merlin spent an entire night alone. His mind told him that he’d done the right thing – he couldn’t protect Arthur or help him if his very presence in Arthur’s life undermined the king’s authority. His heart, though, well, it had other things to say on the matter.

He was never going to be mine, Merlin reminded himself as he tossed and turned, waiting for sleep to claim him.

When he awoke to sunlight filtering through his window, Merlin knew he’d overslept. He threw himself out of bed and into his clothes, then almost trampled Gaius as he rushed out his room.

“Sorry. I’m late. Arthur’s going to kill me.”

“Actually, he’s given you the day off. Leon showed up last night to tell me that you’re excused for the next week.”

“But he never gives me time off.”

“Perhaps he wanted to reward you for all of your help lately. Or maybe something happened between you? Anything you want to talk about?”

Merlin’s face burned under Gaius’s scrutinizing stare but he shook his head.

“Hmm…” Gaius replied. “In that case, you can deliver these remedies, fetch me this list of herbs, clean the leech tank, and do something about your room. It’s a disaster in there.”

Merlin sighed. Gaius hadn’t been this demanding in years. Still, it would give him something to do besides brooding.

The next five days Gaius kept Merlin buried under a list of chores so long that it likely would have earned Arthur’s approval – if Arthur had been around to find out about it, which he wasn’t.

Maybe the old man knew just how much Merlin’s heart ached – as much as he complained about the tasks, they were a welcome distraction from Arthur’s absence. He hadn’t crossed paths with the king since the night of Mithian’s departure. It was the longest they’d been apart in years and it was eating Merlin up inside.

His friends picked up on the fact that something was amiss. Gwaine and Percival had stopped by a few times to invite him to the tavern, though Merlin felt too hollow to accept. After their final invitation, Gwaine let Percival leave, then gave Merlin a smile and a conspiratorial wink.

“Don’t worry. You’ll be back to warming the princess’s bed before you know it.”

Clearly rumors had spread more than Merlin had realized.

He’d been caught more than once by Gwen, who pulled him into tight hugs and tried to reassure him that whatever had gone wrong with Arthur, it would all work itself out soon.

“You mean the world to him, Merlin. He’s just awful at feelings.”

“It’s not like that, Gwen. I really messed things up this time. It was for his own good but I don’t think he’ll ever…”

“Just give it time,” she said. “He’ll come around. You’ll see.”

Merlin wanted to believe her but knew better. As they parted ways at the entrance to the castle, a messenger rushed past, bumping into Merlin and causing him to fall over. The stranger paused to help Merlin up, his outstretched arm revealing a Druid tattoo. Merlin didn’t know the man but he seemed to recognize Merlin, giving him a reverential nod before calling for a guard to escort him to the throne room.

More than he had all week, Merlin wished Arthur hadn’t pushed him away. The king didn’t need his help with petitioners, taxes, or trade. The Druids, however, were another matter entirely. At an earlier point in his life, Merlin might have simply pushed his way back into Arthur’s good graces, but that was no longer an option. He’d hurt Arthur too deeply to try.

Unsure of what else to do, Merlin went home to eat with Gaius, deciding to use tomorrow’s herb gathering expedition as an excuse to sneak off to the local Druid encampment to see what he could learn on his own.

Gaius’s never-ending list of chores was helpful not only for distracting Merlin’s mind but also exhausting his body, making it all but impossible to lie awake and dwell on the messenger he’d encountered that day or how cold and empty his bed felt without Arthur in it. The extinguished candle was still smoking when he fell into a deep sleep.

__________________________________

“This room isn’t fit for human habitation. I think the dungeons are warmer.”

“Arthur? What are you doing here? You can’t…”

“Move over before I catch frostbite.”

Merlin knew he should resist but he was too tired to fight, and, if he was entirely honest, relieved that Arthur was speaking to him again.

“Fine.”

As he had so many nights before, Arthur slipped under the covers to curl up behind Merlin, though this time he kept his arms and legs to himself. Merlin knew this shouldn’t bother him, but it did. He waited for Arthur to explain his arrival, but the king remained silent.

“Why are you here, Arthur?”

“I know I promised you that I wouldn’t do this again, but… I need your help.”

“You really don’t.”

“It’s about Morgana.”

Oh. That would explain the arrival of the Druid.

“Morgana?”

“There was a letter that came today. She’s living with the Druids at an encampment not too far from here but she wants to come back to Camelot now that I’m king.”

Merlin had known she’d gone to stay with a band of Druids, as he was the one who arranged for them to take her in and keep her safe from both Uther and her manipulative half-sister. How much of that she’d told Arthur, though, was impossible to know. Merlin tried to keep his voice steady as he probed for more information.

“That’s good news, right? Your father searched for her for over a year and now you’ve found her.”

“It’s not as simple as that. She… she has magic.”

In all their years together, the subject of magic had often come up. Merlin had always attempted to stay neutral when Arthur discussed it. He had seen the man grow and evolve over time, and he genuinely believed Arthur could be the one to eventually restore magic in Camelot. But as to when that would happen… he’d always assumed it would take years after Uther’s death for Arthur to fully break free from his father’s prejudices.

“That’s… interesting.” He aimed for noncommittal.

Apparently that wasn’t quite the reaction Arthur was hoping for as the king let out an exasperated sigh.

“Merlin, I understand that you’re upset with me, but I need you to help me with this one final thing and then I’ll leave you alone. I swear. I’ll even pay for you to move back to Ealdor if you want – set you and Hunith up in a proper house and…”

Suddenly Merlin wasn’t thinking about magic or Morgana. The pompous, royal ass of a prat had some nerve. He’d shunned Merlin for the better part of the week, then showed up in the middle of the night to ask for his help, only to threaten him with banishment to Ealdor. Merlin’s broken heart was raging.

“Upset? You clotpole, I’m not the one who’s upset. That’s all you. I was trying to protect you and then you wouldn’t even talk to me…”

“I was giving you space.”

“Why the hell would I need space?”

“You clearly asked for it. You said things between us had gone too far…”

“Because Mithian thought we were lovers!”

“And it made you ashamed.”

“Of course it didn’t! If things were different, if you weren’t king and didn’t need an heir, if Uther’s old councilors weren’t constantly trying to undermine you, if you were actually in love with me, I’d be proud to be your lover. I’d ask the Druids to tattoo it on my body. I’d go on a tour of the five kingdoms just to make a public declaration in all the capital cities. I’d…”

A knock on Merlin’s door silenced his outburst. Oh gods. Had he really just shouted out all of that?

“Ahem. Not to intrude, but I’m old and need my rest.”

“It’s entirely my fault, Gaius. I apologize and I swear to you we will never disturb you again.”

“I appreciate the sentiment, sire, though somehow I doubt that will be the case.”

They lay in silence, listening to Gaius mutter to himself about the folly of youth as he returned to his bed. Merlin wished he’d focused more on learning vanishing spells. Right about now would be the perfect time to disappear.

“I sacked most of my father’s old council members this afternoon,” Arthur whispered. “Not Gaius or Geoffrey, but Cradoc and the others like him… they’re gone for good.”

“What happened?”

“First, they praised my decision to dismiss you.”

“I’m sure they did.” Merlin knew Uther’s favorites had hated how close he was to Arthur even without any additional insinuations.

“Then they berated me about Mithian. Apparently, I made a grave mistake by refusing to marry her, putting the future of the kingdom at risk.”

“You really didn’t.”

“The worst part was about Morgana. They suggested I welcome her back, promise her amnesty, then execute her when she returned. She doesn’t just have magic - she’s also my half-sister. Geoffrey found old documents that confirm it.”

Ok. That was something Merlin hadn’t known. Over the years he’d listened to Arthur lament the loss of his mother. Family meant so much to him. To think that some of the councilors had seriously suggested he kill his one remaining blood relative… Merlin was seething.

“Cradoc said she would never be anything more than a rival for the throne and that if my father was still alive, he’d kill her on sight. But Merlin, I’m not him and I refuse to…”

Merlin shifted under the blanket they shared, rolling over to face Arthur.

“Hey. You did the right thing. Cradoc is vile and has done nothing but cause trouble for you since your father fell ill. And if Morgana actually wanted the throne, I’m pretty sure she would have tried something already.”

“So what do I do? She’d been gone for so long that I started to believe she was dead. Now I know she’s still alive and I’d give almost anything to see her again but there are the laws…”

Merlin tried to stay calm.

“Laws can change.” He wasn’t going to tell Arthur what to do – he simply wanted to hear the king’s reaction.

“But should they?”

And there it was – the question Merlin had been dreading since Arthur took the throne. Keeping the ban in place was a horrific idea. Too many had suffered and died as a result. But why did Merlin have to be the one to make the decision? His proximity to the king complicated matters.

If he told Arthur to lift the ban, would others assume the king had been manipulated into doing so? Is that what Arthur would believe if he learned of Merlin’s true nature? Would Arthur resent him for it and again outlaw magic? A part of him had always secretly hoped that Arthur would catch him in the act, placing the burden of decision fully on the king.

“Arthur, I…” He froze.

“I know,” replied the king. “It’s difficult to say. My father always claimed that magic had the power to corrupt and that Camelot had been in grave danger before he outlawed sorcery. But Merlin, I grew up watching too many innocent people die. Should someone really be executed for saving their crops or healing a child? I wish there was a middle path, a way to permit helpful magic while banning its use for harm.”

There it was – everything Merlin had ever wanted… well, apart from Arthur.

“I know I could change the laws, but I’m completely lost here. I’d need to find an expert – someone well-versed in magic who could determine what should be allowed, what should be banned, and how to enforce restrictions. Maybe Gaius would know of someone… or Morgana… although it will be a challenge to find a powerful sorcerer willing to help me…”

Merlin gulped, pulling Arthur back from his thoughts.

“So what do I do, Merlin?”

He tried to maintain his composure. Arthur had the answer – he just needed to trust himself. And not ever be in a position to believe he had been pressured into making his choice.

“Arthur, you don’t need me for this.”

“Merlin, this is the biggest decision I’ve had to make since taking the throne… it may be the biggest decision of my entire reign…”

“And you’re going to do fine. You’ve got to learn to trust yourself.”

“I do. It’s just… I trust you more.”

Merlin laughed. “I’ll be sure to remind you of that the next time you call me an idiot.”

“So out with it. What should I do?”

“No… not this time.”

“Look, I am sorry for making you uncomfortable. I know it took a lot of courage to tell me and I didn’t respond as well as I should have. I understand if you’re still angry with me. But, Merlin… please… I need you this one last time.”

The moonlight streaming through the window illuminated Arthur’s face, his blue eyes pooling with moisture. That, combined with the desperation in the king’s tone, almost made Merlin lose his resolve.

“Arthur… I can’t advise you on magic.”

He forced the words out, then rolled over to face the wall and avoid Arthur’s gaze. He took a few deep breaths, fighting back his own his own tears.

No matter what happens, I will not cry tonight, Merlin silently vowed to himself.

“Why not?” Arthur asked softly.

That wasn’t the reaction Merlin had anticipated. In all honesty, he wasn’t sure what he had expected – probably for Arthur to get enraged and leave. The question wasn’t accusatory or angry – it was genuinely curious. Merlin tried to think of a plausible answer, but the words wouldn’t come.

“Tell me about your friend Will.”

“Will?”

Why on earth was Arthur bringing up Will?

“My father only ever talked about the threats posed by magic. I want to know more about those who don’t use it for evil. It’s not like I can simply go ask a sorcerer – I doubt one would even talk to me, much less trust me with the truth.”

Merlin felt his face burn with shame – Arthur trusted him, not knowing Merlin had kept so much hidden.

“I think…” Arthur continued, “I think it might be time to lift the ban. But I need a better understanding before I make that decision. So tell me about Will.”

Merlin thought for a moment. He was so very, very tired. Yes, there was the physical toll from Gaius’s chore list. But even more draining was the burden of having to live a double life – of never being able to let his guard down, of always having to think strategically before opening his mouth, of having to protect Arthur without giving away his secrets. It was exhausting and it was getting to be a bit too much to bear.

He could concoct a lie, a beautiful one, praising Will as the most virtuous sorcerer to ever live. Or he could tell Arthur the truth. Even as he opened his mouth to speak, he wasn’t sure of which he would do.

“Will…”

He paused, still completely at a loss as to what to say.

“It’s ok. I know you miss him.” Arthur must have mistaken Merlin’s hesitancy for grief. “Take all the time you need.”

For the first time in days, Merlin felt an arm wrap around him, pulling him close to Arthur’s solid body. Gods, he’d missed that. It distracted him from agonizing over his decision and the words just slipped out.

“Will wasn’t a sorcerer.”

The lack of an immediate response from Arthur gave Merlin’s mind time to play out every possible way things might go wrong. He tried to keep his breathing normal and not panic.

“So,” Arthur said, his tone frighteningly neutral, “if Will wasn’t a sorcerer, then who conjured the whirlwind that helped us defeat Kanen’s men?”

Merlin had a strong suspicion that Arthur already knew. The man could be dense at times, though often that resulted more from his own insecurities than a genuine lack of perception. So this was it. The actual moment of truth. Even after a decade of trying to anticipate it and plan for it, Merlin still wasn’t ready.

“Do you remember ages ago when Lord Bayard came to visit? I’d only been your servant for a couple of months. There was a feast – you made me wear that horrible outfit. I almost died in it because I drank poison for you.”

“But I didn’t let you die. I faced off against an evil witch, giant spiders, and my own father to get you the antidote.”

“When it was over, you told Morgana that someone helped you in the cave. That someone knew you were in danger and sent a light to guide your way out.”

“How do you know what I said to Morgana?”

“She told me. It wasn’t long before she went to stay with the Druids. She was struggling with some of the same questions you are. About magic. And if it can be a force for good. She was so afraid that it would corrupt her. She had just become aware of her gift and she needed a place where she could learn to control it away from Uther.”

“And she thought the light proved that not all magic was evil?”

“Arthur, you saw the light. You said it guided you to safety. Did it honestly seem sinister?”

“I’ll admit that I was frightened at first. I thought Nimueh had sent it to kill me. But then it did me no harm – it only tried to help. I didn’t fully understand it, but…” Arthur’s grip tightened around Merlin. “I can say with absolute certainty that there was nothing evil about it.”

He knows, thought Merlin. He has to know. He knows and he’s still here.

And yet… they were still dancing around in subtext that could be written off as a misunderstanding. Merlin needed to be certain.

“The light… if you saw it again, would you recognize it?”

“It’s not really something I could ever forget.”

“Does…” Merlin sincerely hoped he hadn’t misread the signs. “Does this look familiar?”

The glowing orb Merlin conjured illuminated the room, bathing them in its blue-white light. Merlin could hear Arthur’s gasp from behind him. And yet the king made no move to release him or to flee.

“It’s beautiful,” Arthur finally whispered, warm breath ghosting over Merlin’s ear. “Just like you.”

Merlin thought his chest might burst. Of all the ways he’d imagined Arthur discovering his secret over the years, none, not even the most optimistically indulgent, played out like this.

“I… I wanted to tell you for so long. I swear I did. I’m sorry I didn’t. I…”

So much for his vow not to cry, as alternating waves of relief and shame pulsed through him. As he lost control, the orb faded, plunging them back into darkness.

“Shh… It’s ok. I’ve got you.”

Arthur’s strong arms jostled Merlin around so that he faced the king, then pulled him close in a tight embrace.

“I think I knew that day in Ealdor. It was easier to accept the lie and so I did. You’re always so insistent on riding out with me, even when I’m facing grave danger. And things just have this way of working themselves out when you’re around. I tried writing it off to good fortune but no one is that lucky. You’ve been taking care of me this whole time, haven’t you?”

Merlin nodded against Arthur’s chest and tried to regain his composure.

“You’re always looking out for me, Merlin, trying to protect me. Although… there are times when I wish you wouldn’t.”

“What do you mean?” Merlin pulled back, resting his head on the pillow. There was still enough moonlight to see Arthur’s face.

“You said we couldn’t spend our nights together any more. Because of supposed rumors that were spreading. And how they might sound to the person I care for.”

“They weren’t supposed, Arthur. I was there. Mithian specifically said that…”

“What if you were?” Arthur cut him off.

“If I were what?”

“The one I care for.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Would it… would it be so bad? If you were?”

Bad? It would be fantastic, amazing, wonderful. True magic. The best thing that had ever happened to Merlin. But it couldn’t be. Arthur had never shown an interest in men that Merlin could remember and needed to produce an heir. Was this Arthur’s way of trying to reassure him about his own confession?

“Arthur, I appreciate what you’re trying to do but we both know it’s not me. I…”

He trailed off, the night having already taken so much out of him.

“You didn’t answer my question, Merlin.”

Arthur ran the back of fingers lightly across Merlin’s cheek.

“Would it be such a bad thing if you held my heart?”

Unable to speak, Merlin shook his head no and squeezed his eyes tightly shut.

“Merlin, there’s something I’ve been keeping from you for a while now. Something I need to tell you. I’ve tried to find the right words and… there’s a reason you write all of my speeches.”

Merlin couldn’t help but laugh. Arthur spoke the truth.

“Merlin, what I’m trying to say is… I only asked for one horse.”

“What?” Of all of the things he’d expected Arthur to say, that came in dead last.

“The other week. When we went riding alone. I specifically told the stable hand to saddle a single horse strong enough to carry two riders.”

“Why did you…?”

“Because I wanted an excuse to keep you close to me in the daytime. I’d held you for so many nights – I wanted to know what it would feel like for you to throw your arms around me. I wanted… I wanted people to see and rumors to fly. Because I’m tired of hiding.”

“You wanted people to see?”

“All while my father was alive, I had to hide so many parts of myself. I could sometimes ignore his orders or criticize his policies, but I couldn’t change them. I could reject every eligible princess he threw at me, but I couldn’t follow my heart. But now he’s gone and I’m the king…”

“You’re already a far better king than Uther ever was.”

“It’s time for things to change, Merlin. I was going to sack Cradoc and the rest of that lot before I got Morgana’s letter. There are changes I’ve been wanting to make since before I took the throne that I know they won’t approve of – lifting the ban is part of it. I also want us… to be more… if that’s something you want as well.”

Merlin knew he needed to respond, knew it took considerable courage on Arthur’s part to be so honest and open with his emotions. This was what he’d been waiting for, dreaming about for years. And yet… Merlin couldn’t seem to make the words come – his brain locking up in a panic, desperate to think of how to perfectly articulate just how much he wanted what Arthur was offering.

The ensuing silence appeared to have eroded the king’s confidence, as Arthur started to pull back the fingers still resting on Merlin’s cheek.

“If I misunderstood…”

And then Merlin’s impulsive nature kicked in, saving him from himself. He took hold of Arthur’s retreating hand, intertwining their fingers, then followed with what could only be described as part kiss and part collision. Merlin closed the small space that remained between them by crashing his lips against Arthur’s. It was full of desperation and wanting and relief and love, with a few awkward moments involving the positioning of noses and teeth and tongues. It was far too undignified to be something as important their first kiss… and yet Arthur didn’t seem to mind, responding to Merlin with the same intensity.

“I’ve missed you,” Merlin whispered, when he finally pulled back to breathe.

“This week has been agonizing,” Arthur murmured. “It’s been impossible to sleep without you next to me. I need you in my bed.”

Merlin sighed against Arthur, then began sucking heated kisses into his neck. He could feel the pressure of Arthur’s hand as it slid down his back. Then warm fingers slipped under the waist of his breeches, caressing the skin underneath the fabric.

On instinct, Merlin’s hips thrust forward, his arousal grinding into the body pressed against him. He could feel Arthur freeze for just an instant, hear his breath hitching, then Arthur met Merlin’s thrust with his own.

“Shh… you’ll wake Gaius,” Arthur chastised as Merlin let out a low moan.

“Now is not the time to mention Gaius,” Merlin hissed back.

“I made him a promise, Merlin,” Arthur teased, his hand retreating to undo Merlin’s laces, “We mustn’t disturb him.”

Merlin felt fingers graze across his inner thigh, tracing patterns into the sensitive skin. Arthur’s hand was so close now. If he shifted just like so, he could…

Despite Arthur’s insistence that he remain quiet, Merlin couldn’t suppress the high-pitched noise that escaped him as his cock brushed Arthur’s hand. He felt Arthur’s body tremor against his.

“We’ve got to do something about your mouth,” Arthur admonished in a shaking voice.

Suddenly Merlin was struck with an idea – one that he had tried to shove away since Arthur started climbing into bed with him at night, the shared space taking away all opportunities for nighttime self-indulgence.

“Is that so?” Merlin whispered. “I think I know of way to keep me quiet. Lay on your back.”

Grumbling about the smallness of the bed, Arthur maneuvered himself as Merlin shimmied out of his clothes, then descended under the covers. The scratchy blankets blocked the moonlight filtering in through the window, but Merlin found it easy to unlace Arthur’s breeches in the dark – he’d had years of practice. Still, his hands trembled as he pulled away the fabric to free Arthur’s straining cock.

His whole body shuddered when his fingers finally made contact with Arthur. Merlin had seen him naked many times before, had helped him into and out of his clothes regularly, and had even assisted him with bathing on a few rare occasions. Those experiences had given Merlin’s imagination much to work to fuel his nighttime fantasies. The reality was far, far better.

A slight raise of Arthur’s hips encouraged Merlin to continue his exploration. He trailed his fingers over the head then down the shaft, before hesitantly gripping Arthur. Encountering no resistance, he gave a few light strokes, resulting in an appreciative groan.

“Shh! We have to be quiet, remember.”

There was, Merlin had to admit, some truth in Arthur’s arguments regarding the smallness of the bed. It took some effort to maneuver himself into a position that would work for what he had in mind. He curled around Arthur’s body, gasping as his own arousal pressed against Arthur’s thigh.

There would be time for that later, he reminded himself.

Keeping his focus on Arthur, Merlin began to trail kisses across Arthur’s chest and along his stomach, the king’s body trembling at the contact.  As he made his way lower, he resumed his hold on Arthur’s cock, gripping it at the base. Then he took Arthur in his mouth.

Almost immediately, Merlin had to pull back, as Arthur thrust upward.

“Sorry,” Arthur panted.

“S’okay. Just… be still.”

Merlin returned to his previous position, gently kissing the tip, before running his tongue along the shaft. He could feel Arthur’s chest heave as he teased around the head.

“Please,” Arthur whispered.

That was all the encouragement Merlin needed. Adjusting his grip on the base, he swallowed Arthur whole, sucking, licking, then letting his mouth slide up and down Arthur’s length. His efforts were rewarded with a series of whimpers from outside the blankets, while a trembling hand reached for him in the dark.

The feel of Arthur’s fingers on his face almost undid Merlin. The sensation was so intimate – love and desire tied together as Arthur delicately traced along his cheek, then his jaw, and finally across his lips. He couldn’t help but thrust against Arthur’s thigh. He knew he wouldn’t last long. From the sounds Arthur was making, neither would he.

He turned his full attention to Arthur, increasing his speed. Arthur’s self-restraint began to waiver, his hips again thrusting upward into Merlin’s mouth.

“I’m about to…” Arthur gasped, before falling back against the mattress.

He felt hot release spilling into his mouth, but he refused to pull away until he Arthur’s body stilled on the bed.

“Gods, Merlin,” Arthur panted. “That was…”

Then strong arms gripped him, pulling back up to the pillow where Arthur met him with a passionate kiss. Merlin groaned into Arthur’s mouth, his own arousal still painfully hard.

“My turn,” Arthur whispered, shifting Merlin on his back as he made his way under the covers.

Sweet Triple Goddess, Merlin thought as he felt Arthur’s lips brush against his cock. He tried his best to hold still, to bite back the whine that so desperately wanted to escape, as warm, wet heat enveloped him. He ran his hand through Arthur’s hair, trying not to grip too tightly though his control was slipping.

The glide of Arthur’s tongue, the fact that Arthur was in his bed, doing this to him right now with no hesitation, all threatened to overwhelm him. But it was the sensation of fingers interlocking with his own - such a small, tender gesture - that pushed Merlin over the edge, his own climax spilling into Arthur.

“Only for you, Arthur,” he gasped as his body pulsed, “only for you.”

As Merlin waited for his breathing to return to normal, Arthur had made his way back to their shared pillow. Merlin smiled like a fool as Arthur turned to face him.

“Was that…? Do you…?” Arthur asked quietly.

Even after what had just happened, there it was again – the vulnerability Merlin had heard on so many of the nights they’d spent together as of late. From his years with Arthur, Merlin knew far more was being asked within those four words. He carefully considered how to respond.

“It was and I do,” he whispered.

“Good,” Arthur whispered back. “Because I do, too.”

“And I will, if you want.”

“Will what?”

“Get it tattooed on my body, make declarations in all the capital cities…”

Apparently, that was enough to push away whatever insecurity had been trying to take hold of Arthur. He pulled Merlin against him.

“Morgana’s pregnant.”

That was a massive shift in topic.

“Why?”

“You’ve been assisting Gaius for years, Merlin, so I shouldn’t have to explain this to you. When a man and a woman…”

“Shut up. Why are you telling me this right now?”

“It was the reason she wrote to me. The father disappeared when she told him. She wants to come home to raise the child with her family. I’m going to be an uncle.”

It was endearing just how taken with the idea Arthur sounded.

“And,” Arthur continued, “from a practical standpoint, that settles the issue of the line of succession. When you had your outburst earlier, you said I needed an heir. But now, there’ll be no expectation for me to… not that I would’ve let that get in the way of... us.”

Merlin inhaled sharply at Arthur’s use of ‘us.’ For so long he’d tried to accept that one day Arthur would find his queen and now…

“What if the baby has magic?” He didn’t doubt that Arthur would lift the ban, but with Morgana’s child as the heir to the throne...

“Then you will be responsible for their training. Obviously. Now get some sleep. I’ll expect you back by my side tomorrow.”

__________________________________

When they awoke the next morning, Gaius was nowhere to be found. Instead, they were greeted by a note explaining that he’d gone for a long walk to take in the peace and tranquility of the forest, but that breakfast was waiting for them.

“It’s possible we have broken my promise to not disturb him further,” Arthur said in response to the note.

Oh gods, thought Merlin. There is no way he could ever look Gaius in the eye again. Or be in the same room with him.

“I think I’m going to die now,” Merlin said. “It’s really my only option.”

“Wait until you’ve served me my breakfast.”

They sat at the table, Merlin laughing at Arthur’s complaints about the porridge left for them.

I really could die right now, he thought to himself, of contentment.

Arthur had grown silent, having finished off his breakfast despite the feigned outrage about peasant rations.

Lost in his own thoughts, Merlin started when Arthur finally spoke.

“I suppose Gwaine was right. You weren’t going to stay mad at me forever.”

“You talked to Gwaine? About me?”

“Guinevere wouldn’t listen – she said I’d been a fool for too long and that she wasn’t speaking to me until I sorted things – she’s kept her word, by the way. Please talk to her. And I couldn’t go to you, because you were ignoring me…”

“More like you banished me.”

“So I went to Gwaine. I told him that we’d been sleeping together and how you were worried about…”

Now Gwaine’s bedwarmer comment from the other day made far more sense.

“Arthur, did you tell him we’d been sharing a bed or that we’d been sleeping together?”

“Does it matter? They mean the same thing.”

“They really don’t.”

“Oh.”

“Yes.”

A moment of silence passed as Merlin smiled at Arthur’s deep blush.

“Anyway, according to Gwaine, we’re practically married already and all that’s left to do is formalize it. Though he demands a wedding invitation and to be seated next to Mithian.”

“That’s out of the question – Percival’s heart would break.”

The laugh Merlin expected never came.

“When you say it’s out of the question… does that mean you’d never consider…?”

Was Arthur asking what Merlin thought he was asking?

“Just so we are one hundred percent clear, Arthur, I would never consider seating Mithian beside Gwaine. That would be a diplomatic disaster of epic proportions. As for the other bit… the marriage bit…” Merlin paused briefly to steady himself. He didn’t want his voice to shake. “That is definitely within the realm of possibility.”

“Good. Not yet. That’s not something I want to rush. My whole life has been people trying to push me into things, and when, or, if…”

“When…” Merlin corrected him.

“… we do, I want to do it right. Because I want it to last.”

Merlin reached across the table to squeeze Arthur’s hand. He was finding it very difficult to speak with the flood of emotions.

“But… until then… I’ve been thinking.”

“That’s not good.”

“Hush. I remembered what you said a few weeks back. About not being able to move Gaius’s rooms closer to my own. I think he likes this space.”

“He does – it’s been his home for decades.”

“It would be unfair to ask him to relocate, especially at his age.”

“True.”

“But your room really isn’t fit for habitation. It’s always freezing in there, and the bed is criminally small. I think… I think it might be for the best if you were to move.”

“Did you have a place in mind?”

“As a matter of fact, I do. I know of a very large bed that you might find more to your liking. It comes with one present occupant but there’s more than enough space for two… if that’s something you’re interested in.”

There was nothing Merlin wanted more. Now if only he could remember how to breathe so that he could tell Arthur.

“I don’t want you to feel pressured. You need your space and your privacy and…”

Was Arthur genuinely worried that he might say no? He forced air into lungs.

“I’ll pack as soon we’re done with breakfast.”

“Good. I just need to dispatch a letter to Morgana and then I’ll help you.”

“You’re going to help me pack?”

“I’ll provide supervisory assistance. Now hurry up and eat your porridge. It’s vile enough when it’s hot. I dread to imagine it cold.”

__________________________________

Merlin couldn’t help but feel a little nervous as he slipped under the covers that night. It was true that his possessions had been relocated to the royal chambers. And yes, they had shared a bed many times before. But things had changed from those earlier nights when his primary goal had been to still Arthur’s doubts and now Merlin was developing his set of insecurities. What if Arthur decided that he’d made a mistake or…?

“What do you know about goats?” Arthur asked as he climbed into bed. “Leon dropped off the list of tomorrow’s petitions and one involves a dispute about a goat that got into the neighbor’s garden and…”

Or maybe things weren’t so different after all. Still, it might be time to work on building up Arthur’s ability to trust his own decisions.

Merlin rolled over to face the king, cutting him off with a deep kiss.

“You know,” Merlin began when he finally broke away, “we could spend the night discussing a fight over a goat and some vegetables. Or we could…”

Just to make sure Arthur caught his meaning, Merlin placed a hand strategically under the blankets.

Arthur’s eyes went wide.

“The goat’s owner can pay for the destroyed plants and build a fence. That should settle it, I think.”

“An excellent ruling, sire. Are there any other petitions that need sorting?”

“Not a one.”

“Good. Then let me show you what I had in mind...”

__________________________________

The next morning, they were running late, partially because they’d overslept and partially because they’d had to run the gauntlet of well wishes from Gwen, lewd jokes from Gwaine, and an awkward handshake from Leon. How everyone knew what had happened between them, Merlin wasn’t entirely sure, though he had a suspicion it might be a good time to see what the grimoire had to offer in terms of silencing spells.

Magic incarnate or not, he couldn’t suppress the blush that crept across his face when they finally made it to the council meeting. A raised eyebrow from Gaius caused him to freeze on the spot, even though the old man’s expression looked more amused than critical. A gentle tug on his sleeve pulled Merlin back. As he met Arthur’s eyes, they both grinned like the pair of besotted fools they were. It was only after Gaius cleared his throat that Arthur remembered there was a meeting to conduct.

Merlin considered himself among those most shocked when Arthur gestured for him to take a seat at the king’s right hand. In all the years he’d served Arthur, there had been no public recognition of Merlin’s role as royal advisor.

Please don’t let him give me a promotion, Merlin prayed to any deities that might be listening.

“For today’s first item of business,” Arthur began, “we’ll resume with where we left off last time. As I know you remember, I received a letter from my sister Morgana. After careful consideration, I’ve decided to…”

The next two hours passed in a blur – Arthur outlining for the council the plans he had for Morgana and the line of succession, then shifting to the topic of repealing the ban on magic. Merlin listened with pride as Arthur gracefully, yet firmly, shut down the few councilors who voiced objections. Though he couldn’t remember how he did it or what he said, Merlin somehow managed to answer questions asked by council members regarding ways to regulate more harmful branches of sorcery. By the end of the meeting, even the holdouts had been won over and plans were being made to draft revised laws.

They were rushing from the council chamber to the throne room to hear petitions when Arthur pulled Merlin into an alcove.

“Thank you,” Arthur said, “If you hadn’t been there…”

“You’d have done it without me.”

“Maybe… though not nearly as well.”

Feeling brave, Merlin glanced around for prying eyes, then quickly pressed his lips to Arthur’s.

“Come on,” he said, “let’s get you to the petitioners.”

“But…”

“Tonight,” Merlin promised.

“Tonight,” Arthur agreed.

Then Merlin let Arthur lead him back into the hallway and on to greet the petitioners, the king holding his hand proudly for all to see.