Merlin was no expert, but the minstrel troupe's performance in the courtyard seemed to be going fairly well until the dragon landed on the roof of the Great Hall.
Merlin was standing on the balcony not far from Arthur when the dragon touched down, and the stone under his feet shook alarmingly. It happened so fast -- the people in the courtyard were screaming and running, and Merlin caught one look of Uther's chalk-white face before he felt something close tightly around him. He was lifted up and swayed for one horrible, sickening moment before he came face-to-eye with what he could only assume was one very angry, very hungry dragon.
He shut his eyes, because if he was going to be eaten, he didn't really want to see large, pointy teeth before it happened. "All right," he said. "I really think -- look, I'm sure we could find you a nice cow. It would taste better, I promise, I'm far too skinny and you really don't want me." He opened one eye to find that the dragon had moved his snout closer.
The dragon inhaled deeply, and let out a rolling rumble that sounded like some sort of bizarre purr. "Warlock," it said with deep satisfaction.
Merlin groaned, because this was just perfect -- outed as a sorcerer and eaten by a dragon all on the same day.
He realized then that the pandemonium in the courtyard had ceased. When he looked down (and oh, what a nauseating distance down that was), he could see that everyone had taken what shelter they could, save the soldiers and Arthur on the balcony. Arthur had his sword drawn, but he was just watching.
Merlin was too high up to clearly see the expression on Arthur's face, but after their sojourn in Ealdor, he could guess -- and it made him heartsick.
What did he have left to lose? He thumped the dragon's foreclaw and shouted, "Hey! I will melt your stupid hide if you don't go away from here. You're not the first dragon I've met but I'll be the last warlock you meet if you don't clear out."
The dragon blinked. "Other dragons?" it said, sounding curious. "Where?"
There was one under the castle, not that Merlin was going to volunteer that information when he was trying to get the dragon to leave. "Not here. Very far from here," Merlin emphasized. "By the sea."
The dragon gave what sounded like a thoughtful little rumble, which was nonetheless terrifying because Merlin had heard the Great Dragon make a similar noise, and it was often followed by a small burst of flame. Hopefully this dragon couldn't smell lying like it could smell magic, or Merlin was probably going to be roasted and then eaten.
"You will show me the way," the dragon said finally. It shifted its weight, making the roof beneath it creak under the strain.
"All right," Merlin agreed instantly. "Just -- let's hurry up and go." The less time the dragon was in Camelot, the better -- Merlin feared that the longer it stayed, the chances of it starting to eat people would increase exponentially.
The dragon lifted its head to roar again, possibly just because it could. And just as it spread its wings out, it stopped suddenly and said, "Oh."
"What?" Merlin snapped anxiously.
"You're bonded," the dragon said, and it was looking down at the balcony.
"I'm not! No bonds, not anywhere!" Merlin said frantically, but that didn't prevent the dragon from thrusting the hand it was holding Merlin with down to the balcony.
Arthur was close, but he should have taken shelter -- he didn't have his armor on, and the sword he held in front of him was one that Merlin had chosen that morning for looks and not strength.
"Arthur!" Merlin said. "Arthur, I'm so sorry." He meant that sincerely, because whatever destiny the Great Dragon had seen for them couldn't survive this -- not being exposed for what he was in front of the King and everybody.
Arthur looked remote and determined, and he said fiercely, "I'll find you. It doesn't matter where you go, I'll find you."
"Don't," Merlin said miserably.
The dragon leaned down to look at the two of them, and it made that strange purring rumble before it drew Merlin back up and launched itself into the sky.
They hadn't flown very far, really -- the dragon settled down with a ground-shaking thump a solid distance away from an outlying village, where it had spotted a flock of sheep. The sheep bleated and scattered, but the dragon still easily scooped one up in the claw that wasn't holding Merlin.
"All right, look," Merlin said, "If you're going to eat, put me down first." He really wasn't wild about the dragon holding him in one hand and a sheep in the other -- regardless of the fact that the dragon had yet to actually eat Merlin, he didn't want it to start making associations.
The dragon obediently held its claws to the ground so Merlin could make contact with the sweet, sweet earth again. He did his best not to look at the dragon eating -- he caught one glimpse before he decided that listening to the noises was bad enough, and he'd better spend his time finding something to eat himself.
"If I'd known I was going to be kidnapped, I would have packed some food," he muttered irritably, before spying a bush with purple berries he recognized as not being poisonous. He employed his kerchief to hold what he picked, and when he heard nothing from the dragon aside from an earthshaking belch, he decided it was safe to look again.
The dragon had stretched out in the clearing, and it had its eyes fixed on Merlin. It yawned once, a reverberating inhale and exhale. "He follows," it said.
"Who does?" Merlin asked, approaching again warily.
Dragons smiled with entirely too much teeth. "The Pendragon princeling. Did you think he would not? Your fates are bound, your destinies entwined."
"Don't you start," Merlin said, and flung himself on the ground and leaned up against the dragon's forearm.
The dragon was actually a really terrible kidnapper. If Merlin had been a dragon who had decided to make off with a young warlock for purposes of being directed to a secret dragon enclave, he wouldn't just fall asleep in the middle. Well, probably not. It seemed pretty inefficient. It occurred to Merlin that if all he had been worried about was his own life, he could have snuck off while the dragon was snoring. As it was, it had been a long time since he'd only considered his own skin -- probably since he'd met Arthur.
He would take the dragon to the sea, away from Camelot, where it would hopefully arrive at some alternate life plans because Merlin still hadn't figured out the part where there was no secret enclave, and he was leading on a dangerous beast that might eat him out of sheer spite when his deception was discovered.
At least if the dragon ate him, he wouldn't have to worry about what to do with himself, now that returning to Camelot was out of the question.
The late afternoon was shading into evening, and Merlin was debating the virtues of walking to the nearest village to trade one of the small coins on his person for something to eat versus staying where he was and not making the dragon angry if it woke and found Merlin gone.
He didn't get around to deciding because an acorn hit him in the head. "Ow," he said, and then looked around.
There was Arthur, his head peeking out from behind one of the huge oak trees ringing the clearing. "Merlin!" Arthur hissed.
Merlin stared at him. "What?" he whispered back loudly after a moment.
Arthur made a face that suggested, simultaneously, that Merlin was an extreme idiot and that Arthur's trials in life were very great, indeed. "What do you mean, 'what?' I'm here to rescue you!"
Merlin frowned. "I don't need rescuing, thanks very much. Go back to Camelot, Arthur."
Even in the dimming light, he could see Arthur's face go red with outrage. But he didn't say anything, and instead had his eyes fixed on a spot above Merlin's head.
Merlin wrinkled his nose in confusion, and looked up -- and the dragon had one eye half-open, which meant the whispering had become extremely pointless.
The dragon snorted a little. "We stay here for the night. Go mate and let me sleep."
"Excuse me?" Merlin said carefully, really hoping he'd heard that wrong.
The dragon yawned. "I told you, you're bound by destiny."
Merlin made a strangled noise, echoed by Arthur on the edge of the clearing. "Since when does destiny involve--"
"Go on," the dragon said, some bizarre mixture of threat and lasciviousness in its tone.
Merlin shuddered and picked his way across the clearing to the trees to stand in front of Arthur, who was wearing his hunting gear and not his full armor. "I told you not to follow me," Merlin said finally. "You did see the dragon, right? The beast right over there with the big pointy teeth who likes to eat things, some of those things being people?"
Arthur took one step forward, grabbed Merlin by the front of his shirt, and shoved him up against a tree trunk. "The one that's still watching us?"
"Right, that one," Merlin said, a little breathless.
Arthur leaned in close, and said in a low voice, "Did you think there was any way I was just going to let you go?"
Merlin closed his eyes briefly. "It does seem the most merciful of available options. You know, as opposed to what the king will do to me."
"What are you even talking about? Just because a dragon calls you a warlock doesn't mean anyone believes it -- Merlin, my father isn't that unreasonable!" Arthur whispered, sounding thoroughly exasperated.
"And you?" Merlin asked, his throat dry.
"Of course I'm not going to believe a dragon," Arthur scoffed.
"So when you said you would find me, you didn't mean so that you could cut my head off?" Merlin asked warily.
"What?" Arthur asked, eyes wide. "Look, you -- I drank poison for you, did you really think I was in a hurry to kill you?"
Merlin just stared at him, the truth sticking in his throat as it always did, and then he heard the dragon give an odd hacking hiss that sounded like a warning, so he did the only thing he could think of and looped one arm around Arthur's neck, and pulled him in for a kiss.
He'd expected Arthur to freeze in surprise or push away, but Arthur did none of those things, and just pressed Merlin more firmly against the tree, and it was Merlin who ended up gasping when Arthur nipped at Merlin's lower lip and then slid his tongue inside, and it was nothing at all like the chaste kisses detailed on tapestries. Arthur's hunting gear was uncomfortable where it lay against Merlin's body, but he couldn't bring himself to move or protest.
They both jerked apart, though, when the dragon said in a booming voice that was only marginally quieter than usual, "You'll never hatch an egg going about it that way."
Both Merlin and Arthur turned to stare at it in horror.
The shock cleared Merlin's head, enough that he could muster his courage and say, "The dragon's telling the truth, Arthur."
"Obviously," Arthur said, looking a little dazed.
"Not about that!" Merlin said, his face burning. "I meant about me."
It was Arthur's turn to go a little red. "That you're...bound to me?"
Merlin gave serious thought to kicking him in the shin. "Not about that either! I mean, that may be, that's what the other dragon says too, but I don't know if -- that's not the point."
"Other dragon? As in, you've talked to more than one?"
"Arthur, you idiot, I'm a sorcerer!" Merlin finally shouted.
"I did tell you -- weren't you listening?" the dragon said.
"You stay out of this," Merlin snapped, not even bothering to look back at the dragon, and instead keeping his gaze locked with Arthur's. "This is all your fault, anyway -- if you wouldn't go around sniffing people and announcing their secrets, this wouldn't be happening."
"If you didn't keep secrets from me, this wouldn't be happening," Arthur said, his hands clenched into fists as he leaned in closer to Merlin.
"If your father didn't routinely kill people like me, I wouldn't have to keep secrets!"
"You said you trusted me with your life," Arthur said tightly, suddenly not shouting at all, and the hurt accusation in his eyes gutted all of Merlin's self-righteous fury and frustration.
"I do," Merlin said heavily, shoulders slumping in defeat. "I just -- what do you want me to say? Go home, Arthur."
"I'll keep following you," Arthur said. "All the way to the sea."
"Because that will solve everything," Merlin muttered, and stalked back to the dragon's side.
Arthur caught up with them again the next day when the dragon was really apparently unable to help itself from eating a pair of deer, antlers and all, and settling on a hillside for a postprandial nap.
Arthur waited at the bottom of the hill, the wind whipping through his hair and the long grass at his feet, and finally Merlin heaved a sigh and made his way down the hill.
"I thought I told you to go home," Merlin said.
"I thought I didn't take orders from servants," Arthur shot back, and then looked chastened. "I didn't -- look, I just wanted to talk. And bring you this." He held out a small bundle wrapped in leaves.
"What is it?" Merlin asked.
"I caught a rabbit," Arthur said, looking away. "You -- you haven't got anything to eat."
"Oh," Merlin said faintly, and took the package. He could recognize a peace offering when he saw one, and besides -- he really was very hungry even if he just knew that Arthur had overcooked the meat again. He sat down in the grass and Arthur did likewise after a moment, watching Merlin take off the leaf wrapping before tucking in.
"How long?" Arthur said after a while, and his eyes looked cloudy and troubled.
"Since I can remember," Merlin said through a mouthful. He thought he should feel relieved that Arthur finally knew, but he just felt unsettled.
"You've never used it to hurt anyone," Arthur said, and he said it with calm assurance and authority.
"Never," Merlin said, more than a little touched that on this point, Arthur had no doubts whatsoever.
Arthur sighed and leaned back in the grass. "What am I going to do with you?" he asked, but it sounded like a rhetorical question, so Merlin kept eating, and when he was done, he watched the hawks circle in the sky overhead.
"So, when you said you didn't need to be rescued, you were actually serious," Arthur said.
Merlin winced and nodded. "Well. I mean, not that I don't appreciate the effort."
Arthur plucked up a handful of grass and threw it before settling back against the dragon's forearm. "You're a lousy damsel-in-distress," he grumped.
"I could still eat him," the dragon offered.
"You shut up," Arthur said without much heat.
Merlin woke up to the dragon yammering on at Arthur about destiny. The only part more amazing than Merlin actually managing to sleep through that twaddle was that Arthur was sitting there listening attentively.
"So you're telling me you can just see people's destinies," Arthur was saying with a fair amount of skepticism.
The dragon sniffed. "The ones whose destinies are writ large. Yours approaches faster than you think."
Arthur frowned at that. "How so?"
"You'd better get a leg over the warlock before you get to that," the dragon advised.
"Excuse you," Merlin interrupted, mortified.
"Oh, you're awake -- finally," Arthur said, and the prat didn't even have the decency to look embarrassed.
"Aren't we getting comfortable with the large magical beast," Merlin muttered as he stomped past Arthur on his way to the trees.
"I hear we're like two sides of one coin!" Arthur called after him.
"Oh my god," Merlin moaned in despair.
Over Merlin's strident objections, Arthur rode to a neighboring village to send a peasant to Camelot with his horse, and returned on foot with more provisions.
"Don't be stupid, Merlin, it doesn't make any sense for me to follow you on horseback when the dragon can just take us both," Arthur said. "We'll cover more ground more quickly, what with the flying--" and here Arthur could not hide his enthusiastic anticipation -- "and the sooner we get to the sea, the sooner we get back to Camelot."
"This is a horrible idea," Merlin said sourly. "Did you even ask it?" he said after a moment, because sometimes Arthur forgot those little niceties when he was making plans.
"The dragon was the one who suggested it," Arthur said cheerfully.
"Is that so?" Merlin said, and if he didn't know better, he'd think the dragon was attempting to look innocent and failing miserably.
They gathered their things and climbed into the dragon's outstretched foreclaw, and they had only a minute to brace themselves before the dragon stretched its wings and lifted itself into the air. The jolt from their take-off flung Merlin on top of Arthur, who let out a small "Oof!" followed by a, "Move your knee, Merlin, I'm going to need to produce an heir someday."
Merlin obediently moved his knee but it was no use trying to regain his former position -- the dragon had curled in its palm tighter, so that only the sky above them was visible through the spaces between its claws. He'd been cold on the preceding flights, with the wind whistling by him, but Arthur's body was warm against his, and the dragon's tightened grip shielded them from the worst of the cold air.
Arthur didn't seem to mind that Merlin was essentially lying between his thighs, Merlin's nose buried in Arthur's shoulder. When the dragon turned sharply at one point, Arthur's arm came up around Merlin's waist to steady him, and remained there until the dragon happily hummed something about cows and began to descend.
The dragon insisted on spitting a small flame at the branches Merlin had gathered that evening for a fire, and he and Arthur ate bread and cheese while the dragon lolled about and made occasional comments about maybe having eaten too much.
"I told you not to eat that third cow," Arthur said heartlessly.
Merlin looked at him sideways. "You know, you're taking this much better than I thought you would, considering that it might decide to have you for dessert."
"Just because it can eat humans doesn't mean it wants to," Arthur said. "If you were hungry enough, you could eat rats -- oh wait, you have."
"Thanks for reminding me," Merlin said, shuddering.
"My point is, just because you can do something doesn't mean you will or even want to. Isn't it the same with your magic?"
Merlin's jaw dropped open.
"Close your mouth, that's disgusting," Arthur said.
"So are humans," the dragon chimed in. "Too bony."
"You see?" Arthur said, nodding his head in vindication. "Too bony. Like pike."
Merlin stared at him for a long moment before he said, "Right. Arthur, come with me."
"Where are we going?" Arthur asked, confused.
"Over there," Merlin said as sweetly as he could between clenched teeth, jerking his head toward the edge of the forest.
"Oh," Arthur said, and then some sort of comprehension lit his features. "Oh," he said again, and this time he looked Merlin up in down in a way that made Merlin's ears burn.
Merlin thought about correcting Arthur's mistaken assumption, but settled for walking quickly and some ways into the trees before coming to a stop. He wasn't entirely sure how good the dragon's hearing was, but he didn't want to take any chances. So he clumsily pulled Arthur close, and said, "Listen, Arthur, there's a small problem."
Arthur walked him backward until he fetched up against a tree trunk -- what was with Arthur pushing him up against trees, anyway? "Small?" he murmured, and pushed his hips against Merlin's in a spine-melting movement.
"I may have lied a little," Merlin said, and gasped when Arthur leaned forward to tease the spot under Merlin's ear with tongue and -- oh god -- teeth.
"About your magic? I think you lied a lot," Arthur said, his breath warm against Merlin's ear.
"No," Merlin said, and it came out sounding embarrassingly throaty. "I mean, yes, about the magic, but I -- Arthur, there are no other dragons by the sea."
Arthur froze. "Really," he said.
"None that I know of," Merlin confirmed.
"I don't suppose you could summon a few," Arthur said, while stroking his fingertips down Merlin's side and underneath the waist of his trousers.
"I don't really know how," Merlin said.
"Well then," Arthur said. "We'll just have to hope the dragon knows what it's talking about."
"How's that?" Merlin asked.
"Apparently, we have a destiny," Arthur said, and closed his hand around Merlin's cock at that moment. "I don't think it includes being eaten by an angry dragon."
"Oh," Merlin said, and he meant to say something along the lines of, you don't really believe that or that's ridiculous, Arthur, but he couldn't say anything at all as Arthur stroked him firmly and thrust their hips together until he just mewled in a totally mortifying way and Arthur grunted in his ear and he'd think about it later, really.
It seemed the dragon flew even faster the next day, because it didn't take much time at all before they arrived at the coast. Actually, Merlin was beginning to suspect that the dragon had initially dawdled in order to let Arthur catch up with them, and he wasn't entirely certain how he felt about that. He could smell the odd tang of salt on the air before the dragon circled once and landed.
He was a little unnerved to be near the sea again, especially considering what happened after the labyrinth. Arthur, however, didn't seem particularly interested in their surroundings and was instead watching the dragon.
Merlin thought that both dragons must really be snowing them with the whole fate business, because he really couldn't see how this was going to work out well.
The dragon preened for a moment, and then bent its head down close to Merlin. "This is the place?" it asked.
"This area, yes," Merlin hedged, scooting closer to Arthur.
"Then your task is done," the dragon said, and raised its head up and roared.
There was a long stretch where the only sound was the waves crashing on the shore, and then he saw them -- black and green and surfacing from the sea itself, and they didn't look exactly like the dragon but they looked close enough, and they called back. Next to the unicorn, it was maybe the most amazing thing Merlin had ever seen.
"Young warlock," the dragon said.
"Yes?" Merlin said faintly, still not quite able to believe the dragon wasn't going to eat him out of spite, after all.
"It would be better for Camelot if you allowed the prince to sire most of your hatchlings," the dragon said, and bizarrely enough, it sounded kindly meant.
"We'll take that under advisement," Arthur promised smoothly as though it weren't a completely insane, not to mention impossible-to-implement suggestion.
Merlin gave into the urge to kick him in the shin, and then the dragon stretched out its wings again and flew over the water in lazy rolling swoops.
They watched for a moment together, and then Arthur said, "Come on, we'll go to that fishing village down the way and see about horses."
"What, that's it? We're just going to go home? What are you going to tell your father?" Merlin asked, scrambling to follow Arthur as he started down the rough path.
"Well," Arthur said, and his expression was entirely too angelic, "The way I see it, I dispatched the dragon from the land -- which is true, by the way, it just dove into the sea -- and in the process, I saved a damsel in distress."
"You didn't save me, you despoiled me against a tree," Merlin said tartly.
"If you think that counts as despoiling, it's no wonder you haven't hatched any eggs yet," Arthur said. "I'll show you the difference when we return to Camelot."
"I'm never letting you talk to dragons again," Merlin said. "It makes you start saying things just as stupid as the time that Sidhe enchanted you."
"A what enchanted me?" Arthur demanded. "When did this happen?"
"It's a long story," Merlin said, and bumped his arm companionably into Arthur's.
"Just out of curiosity -- you've never enchanted me, right?" Arthur said, trying to sound off-hand and failing miserably.
Merlin rolled his eyes. "Yes, Arthur. Because if I was going to enchant you, I'd obviously still be washing your clothes and cleaning your armor instead of making myself king."
"Well, when you put it like that," Arthur said, letting out a slow breath. "I just wanted to be sure. All the bards say it feels like being enchanted, but I suppose you'd actually know the difference."
"What feels like being enchanted?" Merlin asked, certain that he'd taken a wrong turn somewhere in the conversation.
Arthur opened his mouth once and then shut it, and finally muttered, "You know." And then his hand covered Merlin's awkwardly, and Merlin thought that maybe he did know, after all.