Merlin was in trouble.
Not the Camelot-is-in-mortal-peril-once-again kind, he was more than capable of handling that by now.
No, this was something more personal.
Something that sent a spike of fear through him at how deeply it could embarrass him if he were to be discovered.
He watched in silent horror as a splotch of purple appeared on Arthur’s royal red robes, darkening into a vibrant blue and spreading through the fabric.
It was Merlin’s first year as Court Sorcerer, and he was already beginning to despise the council meetings his new position required him to attend. Granted that he’d had to attend them as Arthur’s servant too but unlike then, he couldn’t blend into the background and take a quick nap on his feet now. He had to actually pretend to pay attention.
Having said that, he didn’t think it was unreasonable for him to get a little distracted from whatever new taxation law one of the ancient advisors was futilely suggesting and to let his mind wander a bit. And his eyes. That always invariably got stuck on the stupid king on his left.
He found himself thinking how good Arthur looked in Merlin’s blue cloak that he’d borrowed ages ago but never returned. They never acknowledged it, of course and Merlin was more than happy to let it stay in Arthur’s possession. Something about seeing Arthur in his clothes sent an inexplicable thrill through Merlin.
However, it seemed his magic hadn’t gotten the memo that he wasn’t Arthur's servant any longer and had lost the perk to dress him to his liking now, because it had taken his idle fantasies to heart and started transforming Arthur’s robe into the desired blue travelling cloak with frightening haste.
Merlin gasped softly, trying to desperately reign in the magic but it was being particularly rebellious.
Now, Merlin loved his magic. He was nothing without it. He had never felt lonely in his life because his magic had always been there for him –a constant companion. It was somewhat sentient and while Merlin couldn't converse with it, he could feel its presence just the same.
It was a deep bond between them where both understood each other at a core level. They hardly ever had any disagreements. The magic easily yielded to Merlin's command and Merlin nurtured it to the best of his abilities. He had certainly never expected this sort of betrayal from it.
He dug his nails into his palm nervously and sent a surreptitious look around to gauge if anyone was taking notice of their king’s clothes changing colour out of nowhere. Yes, sorcery was permitted in Camelot once again but Merlin didn’t think this was what Arthur had in mind.
He saw Gwaine cocking his head to the side and observing Arthur curiously, because of course it would Gwaine.
Merlin didn’t think Gwaine had a single idea about what went on in these meetings and he’d once caught him playing tic-tac-toe with Percival under the table.
His head snapped in Merlin’s direction with a shit-eating grin and a suggestively raised eyebrow once he figured out what was going on. Merlin’s face burned and he desperately willed for his magic to quiet down or Gwaine would never let him live it down.
Gods, who even thought it would be wise to promote him to Court Sorcerer?
The answer to that was Arthur. Of course. Everything was always Arthur's fault somehow. If he hadn't made Merlin Court Sorcerer and his magic hadn't practically preened at being openly accepted and recognised for its worth by Arthur, then none of this would be happening. It had become even more responsive to the prat than before.
Earlier, it had been responsive in the way that it instinctively protected Arthur from harm but now, it took a more proactive approach, involving feelings. It had gotten unfairly attached to Arthur over the years and was now prioritising more than just his safety.
Although it was becoming an increasingly difficult task, Merlin usually could keep it somewhat under control. However, with Yuletide almost upon them, spirits were generally running high in the city and his magic restlessly thrummed with the ancient energy surrounding the festival.
With a poisonous glare at Gwaine, Merlin squeezed his eyes shut and tried to focus on the root of his power to draw it back in. He thought about how regally beautiful Arthur looked in red as well, how it brought out the gold in his hair –how it was the bold colour of the Pendragon family, something Arthur had unmistakable claim on.
His magic seemed appeased with the sentiment after a brief struggle and settled in his veins with a satisfied hum, thankfully going dormant for the moment.
Merlin let out a relieved exhale and opened his eyes to tune back into the ongoing conversation, just in time to catch the end of Arthur’s sentence.
“ –therefore, I’m going to be announcing a feast for the fifth day of Yule that is open to every citizen of Camelot, be it the blacksmith or the cobbler. I will leave the organisation of the feast in your capable hands, and I’m sure I won’t be disappointed. It is a joyous occasion and I feel it is unfair to limit the festivities to the rich and privileged. I hope you are all in support of my decision.”
There were murmurs of assent all around the table and Merlin smiled to himself, a surge of pride rising up in him.
Arthur shortly dismissed the Council –the knights, nobles and lords filing out in an orderly fashion.
Merlin too got up from his chair and was about to follow them, when Arthur stopped him with a light touch to his wrist. “Merlin.”
Merlin turned around to face him, raising an expectant eyebrow.
Arthur narrowed his eyes as he studied Merlin. “Have you been doing magic?”
Merlin’s gaze briefly flicked to Arthur’s cape to make sure it was still a deep red. “In general, yes. During the meeting? I’m afraid not.”
Arthur scowled as if he wanted to question him more but then let it go for the moment.
“Right,” he said. “Well, I just wanted to ask if you were free tonight.”
Merlin’s heart rate picked up speed. “For what?”
“I know it’s Yule but we still have problems at hand that need to be taken care of,” Arthur explained rubbing a tired hand over his eyes. “The latest patrol reports say that the border conflicts on the north are only growing in size and I just –I was wondering if we could discuss and come up with a solution. Together. Tonight. If you’re free.”
Merlin tried not to appear too smitten.
Arthur looked oddly nervous about the request, which perplexed Merlin because this wasn’t uncommon. He had helped him with the kingdom’s problems for years now, and he knew Arthur relied on his counsel more than he’d ever admit.
“Sure,” Merlin agreed with a small smile. “I’ll bring dinner?”
Arthur nodded, with a teasing smile of his own. “It seems old habits die hard.”
Merlin met his gaze and the ever-present magic rippled pleasantly under his skin. “Yes, it seems so.”
Merlin shivered a little as he let himself into Arthur’s empty chambers. He deposited the platters of food he’d brought with him on the table and made a crackling fire blaze in the hearth with a flash of his eyes. He then proceeded to light all the candles and close the windows with casual flicks of his wrist.
It had felt strange in the beginning to openly practise magic, especially here in Arthur’s chambers where all his memories of the place involved desperately trying to hide it.
However, it’d gotten easier with time after newer memories started replacing the old. Merlin barely gave it a second thought anymore.
His frozen hands had just begun to thaw when there were unmistakable footsteps outside and Merlin turned to look towards the door in anticipation.
No sooner had he turned his back that he felt his magic flare up, Arthur entering the room at the exact moment.
A crease appeared between Arthur’s eyebrows as his gaze shifted from Merlin’s face to somewhere behind him, and the confusion rapidly transformed into barely concealed amusement.
"Did you bring me flowers, Merlin?"
Merlin frowned. "Uh, no?”
Arthur gestured to a spot on the table behind Merlin. “What’s that then?”
Merlin slowly twisted around to see what he was pointing at, dread curling in his gut. Primly placed on the tabletop was a bouquet. Of roses. Red roses.
Merlin knew then, what the sudden flare of magic earlier had manifested into. He fought hard to keep a blush off his face.
“Er, someone else must have left them here. I have no idea where they came from,” Merlin lied awkwardly.
As if on cue, a rose fell out of his jacket pocket and Merlin's stomach dropped a thousand feet beneath the ground.
Arthur stared at the fallen bud for a moment and then slowly lifted his eyes to Merlin’s, a smile on the edge of his lips.
Merlin's cheeks heated up. This was positively mortifying.
Arthur cleared his throat and moved to walk past him. "Thank you, Merlin,” he said. “This is surprisingly sweet of you."
"I'm not sweet and they're not from me!" Merlin exclaimed indignantly, crossing his arms.
Arthur chuckled, sitting down on his favourite chair. “Right, of course they aren’t,” he mollified mockingly. “Now, are you up for discussing strategy or did you tire yourself out picking flowers all afternoon?”
Merlin bristled but then sighed, guessing that trying to come up with a weak explanation would serve no purpose and plopped down on the chair opposite Arthur’s.
Arthur sent him one last amused –and pleased –smile, before unrolling a large map of Camelot and its lands on the table.
They deliberated over the border conflicts for a while, then they ate, and soon Merlin had no reason to stay in Arthur’s chambers anymore.
That didn’t mean he was going to leave.
The candles were burning low when Merlin finally looked up from his book at Arthur’s form slouched over a roll of parchment.
Merlin found himself watching him, transfixed in the stillness of the night. There was something about Arthur’s presence that demanded attention, attracted it. Everyone’s eyes were always, always on him. It was part of why he was such a good leader.
Not that this was in any way helpful for Merlin. In fact, his problem significantly worsened each time he caught himself staring at Arthur and by now, it was safe to say that he was past the point of no return.
Arthur’s face was washed in the glow of the candlelight, softening his sharp features as he pored over the inked words in front of him, his elbows on the table and hands supporting his drooping head. His ring-adorned fingers were pushing into his golden hair, making them stick up at odd ends. There was a weariness on his face as his forehead lined with forced concentration and his eyes were only halfway open.
Merlin observed the way the light fell on his face and the way his hands cast some parts of it in shadow. His regal nose was hidden while the colour of his slightly pouting lips stood out in a sliver of candlelight.
With a loud exhale, Arthur suddenly lifted his head and Merlin whipped his neck around so fast that he felt a spike of pain through the muscles. Wincing, he brought up a hand to massage the affected area and tried to regulate his breathing, staring intently into the fire. His magic pricked at him with incessant little pokes.
“Keep quiet,” Merlin mumbled unthinkingly.
“What was that?” Arthur asked and sat up straighter, clearly desperate for a distraction.
Merlin glanced at him with a perfectly innocent expression. “Hmm? No, nothing.”
His magic seemed offended at being dismissed in this manner and nudged him so hard that he tripped on his own feet and went sprawling on the floor.
Arthur bent down from the side of his chair to grin at him. “Merlin, did you just manage to trip over nothing?”
Merlin gritted his teeth and got up with as much dignity as he could muster, internally cursing his magic in a way that would’ve made his mother wash out his mouth with soap.
“’M just tired,” Merlin grumbled, rubbing at his throbbing elbow. “What are you doing anyway? I didn’t know you’d turned into an academician.”
Arthur shot him a half-hearted glare and answered, “Writing tomorrow’s speech. Trying to, anyway.”
Merlin’s eyebrows climbed high in surprise, as he crossed his arms over his chest. ”You’re writing a speech?”
“Just because I used to delegate some of my lesser tasks to you due to my mounting responsibilities, doesn’t mean I’m not actually capable of doing them,” Arthur informed him.
Merlin saw right through him. “Do you want me to write the rest of it?” he asked with a knowing look.
“If you insist,” Arthur said, sounding so relieved that Merlin couldn’t help but feel unbearably fond.
He bit back a smile and went around the back of Arthur’s chair to see his progress so far.
He leaned down and immediately sighed at the parchment. Arthur turned to look at him, his face inches apart from Merlin’s.
Too close, too close, too close, his brain screamed at him.
He ignored it, even as he suppressed a shiver when Arthur’s voice said just beside his ear. “What?”
“Four lines? You’ve written only four lines in the past hour?”
“It’s one of those boring speeches, Merlin,” answered Arthur defensively.
“All of them are boring, Arthur,” Merlin informed him, shoving at his arm in a bid to get him to move from the chair. “Now, get up.”
Arthur complied, giving up his seat so Merlin could slide in and pick up the abandoned quill beside the parchment, scribbling quickly as sentences began to form in his mind.
Arthur happily ruffled his hair, and briefly squeezed his shoulder in a gesture of thanks. “I won’t forget this, Merlin,” he said gratefully.
Merlin rolled his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, just like you haven’t forgotten the last hundred times I’ve saved your arse.”
Arthur ignored his quip and stretched out his limbs to loosen the stiff muscles. Merlin kept his eyes firmly on the parchment before him, because he knew that if he looked, he’d see Arthur’s tunic riding up to expose skin and Merlin didn’t think he could handle that.
It was a tantalising temptation. One Merlin couldn’t afford to dwell on, much less act on.
Merlin heard rather than saw Arthur collapse on the bed, sinking into the soft mattress with an exhausted groan.
The silence stretched into the night for a few moments, the rough scratching of the quill being the only sound to be heard, before Arthur’s voice piped up again.
"Merlin,” he mumbled sleepily. “Have you been sleeping here without my knowledge?"
Merlin’s head shot up at the accusation and he stared at him in bewilderment. "What –”
"These smell like you," Arthur explained, pointing to the pillows.
"That's ridiculo –you know what I smell like?" Merlin’s eyes widened considerably in surprise.
Arthur froze and Merlin didn’t know if he was seeing things or if there really was a dusting of pink on Arthur’s cheeks.
“Uh,” he said inarticulately, shaking his head. “Um, no, of course not. Not –not particularly. It’s just that the pillows smell of lavender and I noticed that you sometimes smell…like that.”
Arthur seemed a little lost and Merlin in turn was tongue-tied, having no idea what to say to that.
He swallowed and finally managed, “Well, I haven’t been er –sleeping in your bed. You can rest assured.”
Arthur nodded silently and lay back down, burying his face into the pillows that allegedly smelled like Merlin. His magic cheered victoriously and Merlin viciously shut down the internal celebration. It didn’t mean anything.
Arthur must’ve been knackered because he dozed off into a deep sleep after a few minutes and Merlin’s eyes started drooping in the comfortable warmth and quiet that ensued. He placed his chin over his hands on the table as he sluggishly read over the speech.
The last word he registered was honest before he too fell asleep.
Merlin woke up in the early hours of dawn, feeling very warm and comfortable. He shuffled a bit, enjoying the glorious state between sleep and wakefulness. He was fully intending to go back to sleep when he heard a soft sniffle just over his ears, and his body was aware enough to freeze.
Merlin, with pulse starting to race, cautiously opened his eyes and peered around.
His heart nearly leapt out of his chest when he found himself pressed against Arthur, with his face snugly fitting into the crook of his neck and their legs having tangled together somehow in the night. Arthur’s arm was lightly wrapped over Merlin’s shoulder.
Not that Merlin was generally displeased with this development but he was almost completely certain that he’d fallen asleep on the chair and not the king’s bed.
He didn’t know how his magic had managed to transfer him from the chair to the bed without alerting him but he was getting awfully tired now. He wondered if the purpose of all this was to get him closer to Arthur or just to humiliate Merlin as much as possible.
Holding his breath and trying to not make any noise, Merlin began to untangle his limbs from Arthur’s –who was fortunately still fast asleep –and attempted to slowly move away.
However, there seemed to be an invisible physical barrier stopping him from going farther than a foot from Arthur and Merlin looked above to see mistletoe growing rapidly on the canopy of the bed, right over their heads.
Merlin inhaled deeply and tried to pretend he didn’t know what this meant. He let out a litany of different spells to make the infernal plant go away but unsurprisingly, it refused to budge.
A strange feeling started filling up Merlin’s heart and his magic prodded at him, letting him know what was to be done –as if it weren’t stupidly obvious.
With a gentle hand on Arthur’s jaw, Merlin leaned down to brush his lips against his forehead, lingering slightly even as the spell broke with a silent snap.
He drew back and looked at Arthur’s peaceful face, the relaxed angles of his body. All those years protecting a man who felt so fragile beneath him in that moment, as fragile and breakable as the thinnest sliver of glass. It made Merlin shudder that he was allowed to see him like this, when he was at his most vulnerable.
Merlin shook his head to clear it of these dangerous thoughts, and extricated himself from the covers before fleeing the chambers with a loudly thumping heart.
Dried leaves crunched beneath Merlin’s boots as they ventured deeper into the forest. The air was crisply cold and he relished the feel of it, the natural energy of subtle life emanating from the trees and the earth calming him. He took a deep breath. He really needed to get out of the castle more often.
Arthur’s expression was getting increasingly sulky. "Why are we doing this again?"
Merlin glanced back at him, smiling as Arthur’s –or Merlin’s –blue cloak caught his eye again. "The kitchen elder told me of how people used to celebrate Yuletide in the Druidic way before The Purge, by dancing around a big fir tree and well –I thought I might bring the tradition back, with this being the first year of magic reigning free in Camelot in over two decades."
Arthur nodded in understanding. “And while that is a perfectly touching sentiment, why do you have to be the one getting the tree?"
"Because I'm a nice person, not a royal twat who likes sitting around in his big castle looking pretty."
Arthur shoved him lightly. “Hey!"
Merlin laughed. “Besides,” he continued. “You didn't have to come along, you know."
Arthur looked down at the ground. “I know.”
“Then stop complaining,” Merlin replied. “You brought this upon yourself.”
Arthur muttered something unintelligible under his breath and Merlin called, just for good measure, “I heard that!”
“No, you didn’t,” Arthur retorted.
Merlin bit back a smile and pointed out to a tree in the distance. “That one. Cut down that one.”
Arthur stared at him blankly, and then said slowly, “I don’t have an axe and even if I did, I wouldn’t cut it.”
“You have magic.”
“For someone who hated it for most of his life, you’re relying on my magic a bit too much lately,” Merlin commented with a raise of his eyebrow.
Arthur flushed. “Stop bringing that up.”
Merlin grinned crookedly. “Not on your life.”
Arthur rolled his eyes and attempted to cuff him over the head, which just turned into more of an affectionate ruffle of Merlin’s hair and Merlin had to quell the sudden swelling of his heart.
Their banter gave way to comfortable silence and by the time they were ready to leave, Arthur was looking thoughtful and forlorn.
Merlin nudged him. “What are you thinking?”
Arthur shook his head, briefly glancing up at the sky. “Nothing, just wondering if it’s going to snow.”
Merlin followed his gaze, and frowned at the dull blueness of the sky. It didn’t seem at all likely. Ealdor saw snow every year and Merlin knew what the weather tentatively looked like before it happened. This wasn’t it.
Truthfully, he’d only seen it snow once in Camelot in all his years and it wasn’t something he’d come to expect from her winters.
“I don’t think so,” Merlin told him. “Why, did you want it to?”
Arthur shrugged carelessly, as though it didn’t matter but Merlin could see it did. Just a bit.
“I don’t know…I was just hoping it would this year. Gaius said it might. I –I like snow. Always did as a kid,” Arthur admitted.
Merlin cocked his head to the side as he studied him. “Even if it means training gets cancelled?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, even then,” he replied and sighed. “It’s silly. Forget about it.”
There was a sinking feeling in Merlin’s chest at seeing Arthur’s disappointment. Yes, he was right, it was silly but Merlin still wished Gaius’s predictions could have come true.
Merlin brushed his fingers against Arthur’s with just enough pressure that he’d feel it but not comment on it.
It was like they’d perfected a language of their own which was only made of touches –touches that were subtle and firm and gentle and strong and everything in between. Sometimes, Merlin felt he didn’t need words to communicate with Arthur at all.
Arthur’s mouth turned up at one corner and Merlin felt his lips lifting into a smile too.
With one last longing look at the sky, they made their way towards their kingdom.
Merlin felt a chill go up his spine and he shivered, drawing the blankets closer to his body. It had gotten considerably colder during the night and Merlin snuggled deeper to conserve body heat. The onslaught of the morning light against his eyes felt particularly harsh and he hid his face into the pillow, groaning softly.
Suddenly, his eyes flew open and he sat up abruptly, squinting around his chambers. He'd overslept...a lot. Shit, it was well past the acceptable hour to wake in the morning and oh god, Arthur had scheduled that meeting to discuss details of the diplomatic envoy that would be joining them from Northumbria in a few weeks' time and it would have started about half an hour ago.
Why had nobody come to wake him? How had Arthur not come looking for him? Merlin was so buggered.
He wrenched the covers away with protesting hands and rushed to make his appearance a modicum of what was acceptable for the bloody Court Sorcerer of Camelot. Hell, he should've just refused Arthur when he had offered him the position –not that it would have worked on the prat; he would've just proceeded to force him into the role anyway.
Muttering curses under his breath, Merlin ran from his rooms which, thankfully, were far closer to the Great Hall than his previous accommodations with Gaius had been.
He halted to a stop outside the doors, straightened up before opening them and peeked inside. Wondrously, it was empty.
Merlin pushed a hand through his hair in confusion and looked around for a clue as to what was going on. Was it already over? Was he that late? Or was he early somehow?
He walked up to a nearby window overlooking the training grounds and gasped, his hands digging into the stone sill. Every inch of the ground was covered in white –fluffy snowflakes falling sluggishly even now.
His magic gave a low rumble of satisfaction and suddenly, Merlin knew.
With a slightly trembling voice, he called to Ingrid, one of the kitchen maids who was passing by. "Um, do you know where the king is?"
She smiled fondly. "I saw him going outside into the courtyard just now. He's cancelled everything scheduled for this morning."
"Thank you," he said, biting on his lower lip. While he was relieved that he wouldn't be skewered alive for being late once again, he was also puzzled as to what Arthur was actually doing after cancelling everything.
It became abundantly clear when Merlin reached down to the courtyard and lost his breath at the sight in front of him.
Arthur was standing a few paces away near the steps, looking up at the falling snow with something like awe. There was white in his hair and snowflakes damply clung to his eyelashes, making them darker. He turned his eyes towards Merlin as he noticed him and they were such a brilliant blue and filled with so much childlike wonder that Merlin couldn't find it in himself to chastise his magic for completely changing the entire weather pattern for one man. Arthur looked so happy and that's all Merlin had ever wanted.
This one man, he realised with staggering intensity, was worth changing the world for.
The illusion was promptly shattered when his face was covered in snow a moment later and Arthur was smirking at him, already rolling another ball of snow in his gloved hands.
Merlin narrowed his eyes, stepping closer as Arthur started walking backwards. His irises glowed gold and perfectly constructed snowballs started lifting into the air, waiting for Merlin's command.
Merlin grinned at Arthur, raising his eyebrows in silent challenge.
Arthur's mouth fell open and he objected, "That's cheating, Merlin."
"And I suppose you make the rules?"
"I do, I'm the king."
"Doesn't count right now."
"How does it not count? I'm always the king."
"Doesn't count when you shirk your responsibilities like this just because it snowed a little," Merlin informed him.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "Says the idiot who was going to be an hour late for the meeting. I did you a favour."
"Is it wise to call me an idiot when I have snow weapons directed at you?" Merlin asked.
Arthur scoffed. "I'm not afraid of you."
"Then you really aren't wise," Merlin said and a snowball flew at Arthur from the corner of his eye.
However, it completely veered off course midway and fell about five feet away from Arthur with a disappointing splat.
Arthur's lips lifted into a smug smile. "You were saying something?"
Merlin really, really hated his magic sometimes. "Shut up."
"Am not. It's because of the cold.”
Arthur's smile was bordering on infuriating now and Merlin bent down to scoop some snow into his palms.
Just because his pathetically besotted magic refused to hurl snowballs at Arthur didn't mean his hands wouldn't.
Merlin was careful to keep a bit of distance from Arthur whenever they were in the same room together –which was quite a lot –because he didn’t know when godforsaken mistletoe would start growing over their heads and he couldn’t risk it. Because while kissing Arthur was a generally pleasurable thought, he didn’t think Arthur would appreciate being ambushed into a kiss with his Court Sorcerer by magical mistletoe.
Yes, he was accepting of sorcery now but there were limits.
Not that it stopped his magic from acting out in other ways. For instance, adopting another common tradition of gift-giving and doing it to a ridiculous extent.
"You know, I've been getting gifts on my bedside every morning since Yule started," Arthur mentioned once after patrol.
Jealousy burned through Merlin’s stomach for a moment at the thought of someone trying to impress Arthur.
“Yeah? What sort of gifts?” he asked through gritted teeth.
However, when Arthur told him what the gifts were –like a basket of an off-season fruit he was craving or new vambraces that were perfectly fitted for him somehow or a stupid book on popular literature he couldn’t find, the jealousy melted into the urge to sob hysterically because they were all things that Arthur had talked about wanting in Merlin’s presence and Merlin was well aware of who –or what –was responsible for these gifts.
He swallowed hard and said as nonchalantly as possible, keeping his eyes on the reins of his horse. "Oh, that's nice.”
“Yes, it is. Shockingly nice even, I would say,” Arthur replied. He gave Merlin a terrifyingly knowing look but didn’t say anything more on the matter.
Merlin was starting to get a very bad feeling about this.
The feast for Yuletide was held in a much unconventional way, with rows and rows of food stalls scattered across the city –from the Citadel to the Lower Town to the neighbouring villages and multiple Druid clans had also seen to join in on the festivities.
It was sure to go down in history as one of the most joyous days Camelot had ever seen.
Gwen told Merlin that Arthur had personally gone to every alley and every street and talked to everyone he met –from the youngest child to the most ancient elder.
Merlin was slightly disappointed that he could only join them at the castle later that evening –having been indisposed by leaving hastily to fix a tear in the magical protective barrier he'd set around Camelot.
Merlin took his seat at the High Table as noiselessly as possible, out of breath and dishevelled.
Gwen sent him an amused smile from her place at the table reserved for the Head Advisor to the King and Merlin shrugged sheepishly.
Arthur, however, was giving him an arrogant look that Merlin felt should be patented by him. "For god's sake Merlin, breathe. You look like you just ran here from Ealdor."
"I was taking care of your kingdom," Merlin retorted, helping himself to the jug of wine kept in front of him.
Arthur shook his head, a small smile playing at his lips and reached out a hand to flatten Merlin's hair.
Merlin barely restrained the urge to lean into his touch, reminding himself that he was in public. It was especially hard when Arthur was looking like that –resplendent in full ceremonial attire, gold crown gleaming on his equally golden head and eyes shining in a way that made Merlin feel like he was looking directly at the sun.
Not that Merlin himself cleaned up too badly. He was wearing nice clothes as well, his midnight blue jacket probably costing more than his mother’s old house. But he did catch Arthur’s eyes subtly darting to him several times and Merlin thought with a pleased smile that maybe the price was worth it after all.
The night passed quickly, laden with food, laughter and warmth. Merlin almost didn’t want it to end.
At the end of the night, he didn’t question it when Arthur followed him to his chambers. After all the unnecessary time he spent in Arthur’s chambers, he would only be returning the favour.
Arthur took in the appearance of his chambers and nodded. “Good to see you haven’t completely destroyed the place.”
“Always flattered by your faith in me, Sire,” Merlin mocked, feeling too flushed and warm in the heat of the roaring fire.
He fumbled with the laces of his thick jacket, suppressing a groan when they just got more tangled. He really wasn't getting any more used to the complicated noble garb he was subjected to now. It was easy when he'd had to dress Arthur but it was different doing it on his own –the angle was all wrong.
He struggled futilely for a few moments until Arthur sighed, stepping closer from where he was leaning against the table and brushing Merlin's hands away. He took hold of the laces in his own and deftly undid them, proceeding to slide the jacket off Merlin's shoulders with slow fingers.
Merlin watched him with bated breath, the playful atmosphere changing into something heavy.
Arthur lifted his eyes to meet his and Merlin’s heart tripled its pace.
“There’s a reason I came here,” Arthur said quietly. “I have something for you.”
Merlin felt frozen in place. “What?”
There was a small smile on Arthur’s lips as he stepped back a little, giving Merlin space to breathe. “A gift, Merlin. For Yule. Two, actually.”
Merlin’s stared at him. “You got me a gift? Two gifts?”
Arthur revealed a small pouch from behind him and presented it to him. Merlin took it with somewhat shaky fingers, glancing at Arthur in confusion once before untying it and upending it in his palm.
What fell out was a wooden dragon figurine, uncannily similar to the one his father had given him when they’d met. No –Merlin took a closer look –it was the same one Balinor had made him all those years ago.
His head snapped up to look at Arthur in shock. “What –how did you -I thought I’d lost it.”
It had happened on the day they had retaken Camelot from Morgana nearly a year ago. Merlin had always kept it with him, as a token of belief in himself and endless comfort. When he couldn’t find it after the battle, his spirit had nearly shattered. It had been too much of an emotional blow, on top of Arthur finding out about his magic and the burden of all the things that were left uncertain between them.
He’d almost broken down there in the rubble…until he’d caught sight of Arthur, alive and safe –with dirt and dried blood caking his face, watching Merlin with a mix of awe and hurt but not hatred. Not hatred.
In that moment, Merlin had realised with a shuddering, relieved exhale that the dragon figurine wasn't the only thing that gave him comfort. All wasn’t lost.
“I found the broken pieces on the ground that night,” Arthur told him gently. “I remembered Balinor making it after you’d gone to sleep all those years ago and I didn’t know he was your father or about your Dragonlord heritage but I knew it was important to you. So, I kept it. Fixed it up as best as I could, with Gwen’s help, of course. And now…well, now I’m giving it back to you.”
A wave of overwhelming emotion washed over Merlin and he clenched his hands into fists to keep himself from doing something embarrassing like fling himself at Arthur and start crying.
“I –I don’t know what to say,” he managed to say through the lump in his throat. “Arthur…thank you. You don’t know how much this means.”
Arthur smiled and brought up a hand to squeeze Merlin’s shoulder, looking uncharacteristically nervous. “Don’t you want to know what your second gift is?”
Merlin nodded frantically, not trusting himself to speak.
Arthur gestured to a spot on the table behind Merlin. “It’s under there.”
Merlin turned around to find a rich velvet cloth covering something round kept on the table. The room was spinning around him, the sounds all muted and his senses were screaming Arthur, Arthur, Arthur.
He slowly lifted the cloth and he couldn’t help the gasp that escaped him.
It was an intricate silver circlet, with two dragonheads delicately carved into the metal on opposite ends.
Merlin took it in his hands and twisted around to face Arthur with wide eyes, mouth agape.
Arthur’s cheeks were dusted with pink. “I – I looked into the history of Dragonlords in the old courts and found that they used to have unique ornaments signifying their position,” he explained in a rush. “Some had bracelets, some had earrings, some had special robes. I thought it was only fitting we got you something too.”
“A crown?” Merlin whispered, running the pad of his thumb over the dragonheads.
Arthur’s eyes darted all over Merlin’s face. “Well, I was hoping if all goes well, the crown could serve another purpose... eventually.”
Merlin’s eyebrows drew together in confusion for a moment, before the realisation of what Arthur meant struck him with full force and he thought his heart might actually leap out of his chest.
They stared at each other; time suspended in the moment.
"That's mighty presumptuous of you," Merlin finally managed to croak, through the emotion threatening to choke him.
Arthur frowned. "I would say not actually, considering the way you've been trying to court me for days now.”
Merlin gaped at him. "Court you?"
"Weren't you?” Arthur raised an enquiring eyebrow. “The gifts? The snow?"
"How did you know it was me?" Merlin exclaimed, suddenly feeling exposed.
Arthur gave him a strange look. "I’m not stupid, the gifts were blindingly obvious. As for the rest, I don't know if you’re aware but your eyes glow gold when you do magic.”
Merlin bristled. "I know that, you prat. But I haven't been doing magic!"
Arthur seemed perplexed. "You haven't –?”
Merlin pushed a hand through his hair, exhaling. "I mean, I have but not on purpose. It was my magic doing it.”
Arthur drew back as though he’d been slapped and Merlin immediately regretted his wording.
Arthur shook his head, stammering, "So, it wasn't you –”
"But Arthur," Merlin said softly, stepping closer. “My magic is me. It doesn't do anything more or anything less than what I want –things that I'm sometimes just too much of a coward for."
As though on cue, mistletoe started forming over them and Arthur glanced up.
“That’s mistletoe,” he stated with surprise.
Merlin blushed. “Yes. Like I said, my magic knows what I want.”
Arthur looked down at him and Merlin was struck speechless by the look in his eyes.
"Well, I'm no coward," he whispered, touching Merlin’s jaw. "and neither are you."
Arthur leaned in and captured Merlin’s lips in a soft kiss. "Thank you for the snow,” he breathed, kissing Merlin again, “and the vambraces –and the book and the –”
He kept pressing kiss after kiss to Merlin’s mouth for each gift until Merlin was breathless and dazed.
Merlin leaned his forehead against Arthur’s when they parted. “Um,” he said in a hoarse voice, his head still reeling. “You’re welcome?”
Arthur laughed, a full sound that made Merlin’s belly erupt in flutters. He drew back, taking Merlin’s hands in his and extricating the circlet from his fingers that he was still clutching tightly.
He gently placed the circlet on Merlin’s head and his eyes seemed to glaze over.
“Suits you,” he said, swallowing hard.
Merlin grinned. “So, I’m your queen now?”
Arthur scowled, crossing his arms. “No. I said eventually, if all goes well. And you wouldn’t be my queen.”
“What do you mean, if all goes well?” Merlin asked, pouting. “You’ve always shown lack of faith in me.”
“Can you blame me?” Arthur asked.
“See if I agree to be your queen now,” Merlin sniffed.
“Not my queen!” Arthur exclaimed, massaging his temples. “I already regret this.”
Merlin smiled giddily, his magic singing a silent song of everything he felt for Arthur.
Merlin was in trouble.
Not the Camelot-is-in-mortal-peril-once-again kind, he was more than capable of handling that by now.
No, this was something more personal.