Years later, Merlin would remember it had all started on that sunny morning he had been studying magic and Arthur had injured himself during drills. He would remember separate things, as distorted flashes; Gaius being away, helping a difficult birth in the lower towns; the upcoming tournament and his fear that a new magical threat was coming their way; Arthur's wan looking face and Leon's worried one as they suddenly stumbled inside, Merlin's only warning the great ruckus in the hall; and the way his heart had slammed through his throat and panic had clawed itself through his body, as he had been sitting there, caught red-handed.
Arthur had still been Arthur, stubborn to a fault, his then greatest fear to disappoint his father. Leon had been loyal and true, and Merlin had been so young still, concealing secrets and hoping for trust and openness, impulsive, eager.
In his stubborness, Arthur hadn't wanted to admit that he was injured. Which had given Merlin just about enough time to hide the evidence. He remembered.
Merlin slammed the book shut, and quickly shoved it underneath a pile of Gaius' papers, his heart still beating wildly in his chest. Thankfully no too close looks were forthcoming, as Arthur was being half-forced into a chair by Leon. Merlin could hear the low undertones of the muttered discussion between them, and watched as Arthur relented, sitting down fully and meeting Merlin's eyes.
"Merlin," the Prince snapped, annoyed. "Get your scrawny arse over here and tell Leon I'm fine already. You can go back to... whatever you were doing later. What were you doing anyways?"
"Er. Nothing at all, sire." Merlin said, perhaps a tad too quickly. Arthur threw him an odd look which quickly subsided into a pale grimace as Leon grabbed his hand and held it up. A hand that, Merlin noticed, was looking quite red and quickly swelling to twice its size.
Gently, he took Arthur's hand from Leon's grip and turned it over in his palms. No bruises. "Push for me," he murmured, holding his palm against Arthur's, who did so with a slight wince, suddenly oddly quiet and subdued. Merlin moved his wrist from left to right, noticing the slight resistance in the muscle and looked up at Leon, questioning.
"It was young knight Bedivere," Leon said. "Prince Arthur was demonstrating the parry and he was a tad too enthusiastic in his response, hitting Arthur’s hand instead."
Arthur flexed his fingers; his hand still loosely held between Merlin's and raised his eyebrows. Merlin, understanding the silent question, shook his head slightly. "Merely sprained, sire," he said, carefully letting go of Arthur's hand, decidedly not noticing the warm, slightly damp friction of it against his own, and going over to the cabinet to fetch some healing balm.
"Well what are you two doing here, still gawking? Shouldn't you be guarding something?" He heard Arthur snap, followed by the scramble of the guards, and allowed himself the moment of amusement while his back was still turned. Arthur always hated to not be in peak condition. A survival instinct, perhaps.
Having located the balm, he went back over while Arthur continued his orders. "And you, sir Leon, I'd like you to go back to the training field and continue the drills until I return. Preferably before Sir Gwaine decides to finish all the wine while waiting— Merlin, that's cold!" He exclaimed, as Merlin had just turned over the flask over Arthur's hand. Arthur turned back to face him, glaring, fingers twitching slightly in his hold.
"Sorry, sire," Merlin said brightly, not sorry at all. Arthur's glare intensified, waving Leon away with his good hand and asked, "and where is Gaius anyway?"
"Away," Merlin said, locating the bandage. "Delivering Miss Sophie's child. I'm afraid you’re stuck with me."
"Wonderful," Arthur grumbled, but it was merely a perfunctory protest and they both knew it. Merlin had long since become the unofficial healer on the long, gruelling campaigns, quests and hunting trips. He was by now also particularly well versed in healing magic; a titbit of which Arthur was of course mercifully unaware. It was how he concluded wrapping up Arthur's hand in the clean, white gauze; with a whispered healing spell to fasten the healing process and take the edge off Arthur's discomfort away.
Arthur was flexing his wrist with an odd expression on his face, and Merlin felt his heart stop for a moment, almost frozen in terror. But the moment slid away from them, Arthur righted his shoulders and slid back in the role of Prince easily. "Well, if that's all Merlin, I should go back to training."
"Oh no, sire." Merlin said, jumping up after him. "Your wrist requires two days of total rest, and at least one week of recovery time, if not two."
Arthur waved his good hand dismissively at Merlin, already striding to the door.
"Arthur," Merlin nearly roared, and Arthur shuddered to a stop.
Merlin took two strides forward as Arthur slowly turned around, a very peculiar expression on his face. He looked— awed, but that wasn't possible, was it? More likely he was particularly annoyed with Merlin at the moment, and though Merlin himself was a bit surprised at his own outburst, he decided that was all good and well with him, because right now he wasn't speaking as a servant but as a physician's apprentice. "No heavy lifting," he recited, "no putting unnecessary force on your wrist. Definitely no sword training for, let's say a week for now— ah ah ah," he said, lifting a finger as Arthur opened his mouth, "or I'll make it a fortnight."
"Alright, Merlin," Arthur said, now definitely annoyed. "I'll just oversee the training and," he added with particular emphasis, as Merlin had opened his mouth again, "I'll let Leon do the demonstrations. Now, may I go?"
Merlin nearly stopped in his tracks. Because the last part hadn't been uttered in the same particularly fed up tone as the rest of the sentence. It had been a nearly plaintive enquiry, as if Arthur was actually asking Merlin permission.
He somehow managed to nod, throat suddenly parched, and Arthur had slipped through the door before he even had the chance to say anything else.
A bird suddenly landed on the windowsill, chirping brightly, almost in amused questioning, and Merlin awoke out of his trance, and muttered back at it; "Yeah I don't know what that was about either."
A second more he stared at the door, then with a shake of his head he went to return to his book, only to notice the sun had risen steadily in the sky and it was nearly midmorning. Which meant he needed to go clean Arthur's rooms urgently. He sped away with a mumbled curse, distracted by the lull of the normal, easy routine, and thought nothing more of the interaction, certain that that it was an odd fluke and nothing more. The pain must've simply put Arthur in a weird, complacent mood, and that was all there was to it.
Only, it wasn't.
Almost a week later, Arthur had requested to be woken up early to welcome the convoy of Mercia, as King Bayard had decided to come early to discuss a new treaty with the intention to then stay for the coming tournament, which meant that Merlin was there at an ungodly hour in the morning to wake his Royal pratness as requested.
"Rise and shine!" He said brightly, flipping the covers off Arthur in a movement that might have gotten him in the stocks at the beginning of his career, but now only got him some growled grumbling.
"Ah ah," Merlin said, setting the table, "No grumbling at me, your Highness, this is all at your behest. Now come, breakfast is ready."
He expected to have to drag Arthur out of bed, as normally happened on mornings like these, so he was wholly unprepared for the sudden gust of warm breath on the back of his neck.
"A-Arthur," he stammered, turning around and finding that the Prince was there, much closer than expected, almost backing him into the table. An odd sort of stalemate followed, in which Arthur searched his face, his eyes, and Merlin tried to look innocent, which he absolutely was, at least in this occasion. He hadn't performed magic yet today, mostly out of fear of the consequences of his tired state on whatever magic he performed. The last time, he had glued himself accidentally to his sheets as Gaius tried to pry him out of his bed... and that had taken some undoing.
Arthur seemed to come to some sort of conclusion, with a "hmpf" and then, "Well, get out of my way then, you idiot."
"Hey!" Merlin exclaimed. "That after I made you your favourite breakfast? The least you could do is manage some gratefulness."
"Thanks," Arthur mumbled, promptly followed by a shocked expression and an attempt to drown himself in his orange juice. Merlin figured that he was simply still too tired to properly adjust his mouth-to-brain filter, though, actually, on second thought, that normally made Arthur less pleasant in the morning, not more. He crossed his arms and studied Arthur with an odd expression, but the other man didn't look up, almost studiously avoiding his gaze.
Right then. He shrugged and went to make the bed, but his stomach stopped him in his tracks, choosing that particular moment to growl rather loudly. Arthur looked up, and Merlin managed a sort of bashful shrug.
"You haven't eaten yet?" Arthur demanded.
"I wasn't hungry," Merlin said. "I figured I'd swipe something later."
"Later?" Arthur said incredulously. "Later, when? Between the treaty meeting and the horseback ride? Or as you're helping to prepare the tents for the jousting tomorrow?"
"I'd forgotten about the meeting," Merlin mumbled. Or rather, he'd forgotten that his presence was required.
"Right then," Arthur said, heaving a peculiar sort of sigh. "Well come on then," he ordered, kicking out the chair in front of him. "You're useless to me if you collapse later. I don't want to have to drag you about."
"Thank you," Merlin smiled brightly at Arthur, seeing right through him, and Arthur flushed an odd, dull, almost unattractive colour, in as much as Arthur could ever be unattractive, seeming almost... pleased with Merlin's approval.
The rest of the day Arthur acted odd around Merlin. Withdrawn, seemingly avoiding him. Not a glance in the meeting, in which Merlin obediently stood silently behind Arthur's chair and wished Gwen was there to swap amused glances with, or Morgana to offer barely whispered commentary. Again when they went out riding, Arthur sped up to ride in the front without a single glance at Merlin, giving no sign that he should join him. Merlin, a bit confused but not particularly phased by Arthur’s weird behaviour, allowed his mare to fall back to the rear-guard of the party and contended himself with observing the striking figure Arthur cut on his white stallion, hair golden in de sunlight, Pendragon bloodred cloak wrapped around his shoulders. He seemed to be a king already, kinglier than all kings that had been and all kings that had yet to come. Merlin felt a sudden pride well up within him, knowing that as long as Arthur allowed it, he would be right there by his side.
That evening the feast was lively, boisterous and loud, in celebration of the conclusion of a satisfactory treaty. The table was decked with only the finest dishes, the ladies dressed in their most splendid gowns and jewels, the music performed by musicians gathered from all over the realm. King Uther and King Bayard seemed to be on the best of terms, and Morgana, beautiful, sharp and observant, was using the opportunity to wheedle information out of King Bayard's accompanying lords and relate it back to Arthur in subtle murmurs. Meanwhile, Gwen and Merlin swapped amused glances with each other as they tended their masters, until Arthur, relaxed, leaned back and gestured for his fourth glass of the unwatered wine.
But the candles were burning low in their sockets, and Arthur was looking flushed already, eyes bright, and Merlin, who knew that he had to be up early the following morning, if not to joust himself— although his wrist was coming along very well, thanks to the murmured spell— to give some much needed last minute guidance and encouragement to Camelot's newest knights, asked in a whisper if Arthur was quite sure he hadn't had enough.
Only it was just at that moment that there was a lull in the conversation, a sort of pleased hush falling over the table, and thus, when Merlin asked, it was silent enough for Uther to hear and fix him with a deadly glare.
Merlin shrank back as Uther opened his mouth— no doubt a sharp reprimand about minding his place and how dare he speak to his son out of turn but just then King Bayard glanced over at them and fixing Merlin with a look said, "I remember you, boy."
Merlin froze in terror, and Arthur tensed, his knuckles whitening around his winecup as the silence in the hall became more pronounced.
"Uther," Bayard continued, in a relaxed manner, "I must commend your son for keeping him around. Loyalty should be rewarded, after all. It is a wise man who knows in whom to trust."
Uther looked stricken, Arthur relaxed minutely, Merlin tried to figure out how he'd made an unlikely ally of King Bayard-- and it was Morgana's lovely tinkling laugh that restored the mood. "We thank you for your kind words, King Bayard." She said, smiling brightly, proving to Merlin once more where the true power of the court lay.
"Yes," said Uther at last, "you are all too right, my friend. Although there is something to be said about discretion as well." A clear warning, and Merlin shrunk back subdued, trying, if not to melt and become one with the wall to at least become invisible.
After a moment, the conversation picked up again and Merlin moved forward to fill Arthur's cup. Arthur knocked the wine jug aside, and then, seemingly catching up with his own actions, set his face in a sort of mulish determined frown, and gestured at Merlin to fill his cup. Merlin did so, to the brim, and Arthur, holding Merlin's gaze almost defiantly, threw it back and emptied it in a single gulp, if with an oddly shaking hand. He then bid his farewell to Bayard, Uther and Morgana, and with a single sharp jerk of his head as he strode out of the room, made clear that Merlin was to follow him.
"Arthur," Merlin started as soon as Arthur had slammed the door shut behind them, " Arthur I'm so sorry."
Arthur came to stand in front of him, and asked, with just a hint of desperation in his tone, "what are you doing to me, Merlin?"
Arthur ran a hand through his hair, frustrated, and then suddenly took Merlin's hand and placed it on his chest, directly on his beating heart. "Feel that?" He whispered. "Feel how hard it beats whenever you're close to me? And yet, if you ordered it to stop right now, I'm certain I should fall death at your feet."
Merlin tried to take a step back. Arthur didn't let go. "Arthur?" He asked, weakly, wary of the expression on the other man's face. It was desperation and confusion, longing and something he didn't understand, couldn't understand.
"Order me." Arthur murmured. "Order something of me, Merlin."
"I order you... to not be such a prat all the time," Merlin quipped weakly.
Arthur shivered and gripped his hand tighter, the beat of his heart erratic against Merlin's palm. "No," he said, "No. You have to mean it. Order me..." He breathed in heavily and Merlin watched his eyes flit eratically over the room until they suddenly returned to Merlin's, now calm and full of intent. "Order me to kneel for you."
"Arthur," Merlin breathed out, shaking his head no.
"Order it!" Arthur ordered, and Merlin just refrained from pointing out the irony. Instead he said, "Arthur Pendragon, I order you to kneel for me." He'd meant to say it in a calm, steady voice, to end this nonsense that he didn't understand and was frightening him slightly. But instead it came out as a roar and he watched Arthur, shuddering, crumble to the floor, still holding Merlin's hand in his own.
With a sudden rush of clarity, Merlin realised two things. Firstly, that he had seen that shuddering motion on Arthur once before, almost a week ago, when he'd ordered Arthur to take it easy on his wrist. And secondly, that the words he had just spoken were not the English he’d meant to speak, but Dragon Tongue.
Arthur, still kneeling at his feet, looked up at Merlin and again asked him, in a broken sort of way, "What are you doing to me, Merlin?"
Merlin threaded careful fingers through Arthur's hair, who not only allowed but actually leaned up into the touch, and his mind suddenly flashed back to another evening as this one, with the same waxing moon in the cloudless sky, when Merlin, newly arrived in Camelot and brimming with mischief and curiosity, had asked Gaius where the name Pendragon came from.
Gaius had regarded him for a long moment, enough for Merlin to become quiet and subdued, and then he'd said, "It is an old tale, and one Uther doesn't like to be told," the warning clear in his voice. "They say that when the Pendragons first came to these lands, they came riding on dragons, and they almost seemed to be one with them. This is because they came from the Dragon's lands, and they were actually the dragon's kin. They spoke the same language as them and lived together in harmony. But when they came here, they slowly started to go their own ways, until that connection was all but forgotten, only remembered by the name they carried. Pendragon.
'You see why Uther doesn't like it. He hates the idea of originating from magic. You must never tell anyone you know this, Merlin," he'd said, and Merlin had resigned himself to one secret more to keep.
But now, with Arthur looking up at him, pleading in his gaze, he realised that perhaps there was more truth to the tale than he'd thought.
Suddenly desperate, he tugged at Arthur's hair. "Stand up, Arthur, please. This isn't right."
With a confused look on his face, probably due to Merlin’s insistence, Arthur scrambled up.
Merlin turned away, took a shuddering breath and said, "there's something I never told you. It's about my father."
"Merlin!" Arthur exclaimed, sounding a little bit more like the prat he normally was, to Merlin's relief. "You told me you never knew him."
"I didn't." Merlin said, and Arthur must've cottoned on to some of the seriousness in Merlin's voice, because he lost a fraction of his amused air. "That is, until recently. Arthur-" he said, steadying himself. "My father, he-" Merlin took a heavy breath and continued in a sudden rush— at the same time that Arthur said: "Spit it out, Merlin."— "It was Balinor"
"Hang on," Arthur says after a long moment, "did you just say—"
“Balinor, yes. I never told you because..." He trailed off.
"Because he was a Dragonlord," Arthur finished. "And now, so are you. Hang on— the dragon, that was you! You killed it!"
Merlin winced. "Well I didn't exactly kill it."
"Of course you didn't," Arthur said, after a beat. "Bleeding heart you are. Can't even finish off a boar about to kill you. Never mind a dragon."
"Hey!" Merlin said, "let's remember that killing mythical creatures isn't always such a great idea. Anyways, that's not the point. The point is—"
But Arthur interrupted him, suddenly clasping him into a rough sort of hug, mumbling into his hair, "I remember you in the clearing. Is that why you were crying? Oh Merlin, I wish you'd told me."
Merlin with much difficulty suppressed a sob, and with even greater difficulty disentangled himself from Arthur. "That's, I mean, thank you, but that's not why I told you. It's just, Arthur, I'm a dragonlord. And you're a— you're a Pendragon."
Merlin watched the realisation down on Arthur's face, almost in flashes. First the confusion. Then, his eyebrows smoothing out as he studied Merlin's face, and then, the almost surprise, his mouth opening slightly in shock, the slight backward stumble.
"Oh," he said.
"Yeah," said Merlin, blindly stumbling into a chair, the emotions of the evening catching up with him.
"Merlin," Arthur whispered, coming to kneel before him, "it's alright."
"No, it isn't!" Merlin said, a frustrated tear escaping him, "none of this is alright. You have been forced to do things because of me. It's wrong, Arthur. It's wrong."
Arthur gently wiped away the stray tear. "You didn't order me to feel this way, Merlin," he said, voice low, eyes darkening in a way that send a frisson of heat shooting over Merlin's spine. "How can it be wrong when it feels like this?" He asked, catching Merlin's hand and pressing it into his chest again, to the beat of his heart. "How can it be wrong when it feels so good?" And saying that he drew Merlin's hand lower and lower still, until he could press it against his groin, where he was—, where Arthur was hard, and warm and pulsing under Merlin's tentative grasp. Merlin drew in a breath and automatically tightened his fingers, drawing an almost pained groan out of Arthur.
"No, no," he said, jumping up and away. "This is wrong, Arthur. You don't really want it, I—"
He stumbled back towards the door, but Arthur advanced upon him as a hunter upon prey, trapping him against it. "Oh, I want it," he whispered heavily into Merlin's ear, giving it a lick for good measure, and Merlin felt his knees go weak, felt his blood leave his brain and his pulse slam through his veins. "I wanted it ever since you ordered me not to train a week ago. The sheer power in your voice, Merlin, God. And that was not the first time I had thought about it. Not the first time I wanted you on your knees." And his voice was absolute filth, Merlin quivered underneath it.
"When we first met," he realised.
"You said you could take me apart with less than a blow." Arthur said in a shaky voice, his hands settling on Merlin's hips, drawing circles into his skin, not helping Merlin's racing heart settle one bit, "And apparently you were right."
And then Arthur was kissing him, soft, slightly chapped lips lovely against Merlin's, and for a minute all they did was that, exchange sweet lingering kisses, drink each other's mouth in, settling more fully into each other.
Then Arthur bucked up his hips, his erection rubbing against Merlin's, and they both groaned, the kiss turning more urgent and filthy. Merlin wrenched his mouth away, at a sudden loss for breath, and slid one hand into Arthur's hair, tightening his fingers until he found purchase on Arthur's scalp to yank his head backwards and fasten his teeth around the tendon standing out in his neck. "I thought—" he mumbled through the bite; "This was about me—" He continued, kissing down to his collarbone, feeling Arthur's chest heave with short shallow breaths, "giving you orders." And brought his other hand to the fastenings of Arthur's pants.
Arthur moaned, actually moaned, and Merlin muttered "bed." Using his hold, his slight height advantage, and alright, his magic, to manoeuvre Arthur across the room and into it.
Arthur fell down on it and immediately reached to pull Merlin down on top of him, using the same movement to pull of Merlin's shirt and map out the expanse of his chest with his hands. Merlin felt smothered in the very best way, but he remembered the look in Arthur's eyes as he had kneeled before him, the acceptance of his powers, and he suddenly wanted, wanted more badly than he had ever wanted before, so he murmured, "There's something else I should tell you," and with a single golden glance pinned Arthur's hands to the mattress and stripped him of all his clothes.
Arthur made the filthiest noise Merlin had ever heard, his hips bucking up of, his cock skidding hard and wet against Merlin's belly and his eyes wide and shocked on Merlin's and Merlin had the realisation that Arthur liked being held down.
"Merlin," he breathed, "since when?"
"Comes with the territory of being a Dragonlord," Merlin said. "But since birth." And he slid down Arthur's body to take Arthur's cock in his hand. Slid his fingers first against the head, gathering the precome there to smooth his way down, pumping once, twice, before bending and taking it into his mouth. The scent and sensation send Merlin into a heady rush, making him impossibly harder, and a pit in his stomach opened in touch-starved desperation, seemingly bottomless and never to be filled.
Merlin just breathed heavily for a moment, smelling Arthur and the scent of soap on the sheets. He hummed as he bobbed his head up and down the silky hardness of Arthur's cock, and Arthur groaned, long and hard. Merlin glanced up to see him straining against his invisible bonds, head red and thrown back, eyes glazed over and scrunched up into near slits as they glanced down at Merlin, and Merlin decided he liked seeing Arthur like this, liked seeing him lose control. He slid his mouth of Arthur's cock with a filthy popping sound, and used the saliva still clinging to it to ease his hand around and down. Went for the finish, twisting his hand just so and licking the vein going from base to top and with that Arthur was bucking up his hips and coming, and Merlin sat up and desperately reached into his own breeches to touch, to feel— and then Arthur's hands were suddenly there, knocking his own away, laying Merlin down on the soft sheets of his bed and plotting out the canvas of his body with skin and tongue and touch, touching him everywhere except for where he needed it most.
"Magic, huh?" Arthur mumbled, in a sort of dangerous tone, and bit at Merlin's nipples punishingly, using the weight of his body to keep him pinned down. "Any more secrets you've been keeping from me, Merlin?" He asked, and the grip of his hand around the base of Merlin's cock was almost cruel, while the slide of his lips over Merlin's chest was almost impossibly, incongruously gentle. "Just one, sire," Merlin said, panting, "but you've figured that one out yourself." Arthur met his eyes, and Merlin saw when the realisation dawned, saw his eyes almost imperceptibly soften before he narrowed them at Merlin and said, "don't think we won't be having a very long talk after this."
Then, thankfully, he returned to his task. Or perhaps not so thankfully, as to Arthur that task seemed to be to drive Merlin insane. Merlin, on a wave of magic, surged up, and grabbed Arthur's firm bottom, pulling him forward so that their cocks, his own straining, angry red and Arthur's, which was getting half-hard again, slid against each other.
"Will my Prince take me?" Merlin murmured, "Or, will he allow his faithful servant to take him?' He asked, sliding his fingers carefully but meaningfully against the crease between Arthur's arse cheeks.
Arthur stilled, looking terribly conflicted, and Merlin softened his voice. "It's a choice, Arthur, not an order."
A quick glare. "I’m not a girl, Merlin,” he said, “and as if I'd ever let you order me around—" he started, even though they both knew better, but then he trailed off, a considering, intent look in his eyes. "Perhaps next time," he said, and raised his eyebrows when Merlin jerked underneath his hands. "Someone likes that idea," Arthur taunted, though what Merlin liked most of all was the knowledge that Arthur wanted to do this again. But he wasn't about to inflate Arthur's arrogance with the knowledge that Merlin actually liked him. Most of the time. When he wasn't being an arrogant prat.
"Are you actually going to do something about it?" He asked Arthur, "or do I need to order you to?" and watched Arthur shudder at his words, satisfied.
Arthur kissed his cheek then, his neck, and his hand started a steady, slick rhythm that soon had Merlin losing control. He babbled mindlessly, forgetting what he said as soon as he said it and trying in any way possible to find purchase to pull Arthur closer still, and Arthur tightened his grip slightly and sucked the skin between his shoulder and neck into his mouth at the same time and with that Merlin was coming, messily riding it out against Arthur's thigh.
He took what seemed forever to come down, just panting into Arthur’s neck until he found the force to lift his head, and meanwhile Arthur was still loosely holding his cock in his hand, throwing Merlin a sort of wondering look with his eyes dark and his pupils blown absolutely wide open.
He raised his hand to Merlin's cheek then, stroking the pad of his thumb in a caress along his face as he asked him again, "What are you doing to me, Merlin?"
But this time the question was a soft, easy murmur, the wonder still present in his eyes, so Merlin elected to answer him with a kiss instead.