Merlin wandered tiredly around Arthur's chambers, trying to stay awake, and looked out at the stars to try and gauge the time. It must be nearer dawn than midnight; was this banquet never going to end?
It was the fifth in as many nights and each one had been more elaborate than the last. Camelot was playing host to several powerful barons from the borders of the kingdom and King Uther seemed determined to awe and impress them with Camelot's wealth and might by any means, including killing them with partying.
Normally Arthur insisted Merlin went to all the feasts (Merlin was fairly sure that was because it amused him to make Merlin wear stupid outfits and be bored a lot) but after the third night Arthur had told him to just turn up for a couple of hours and then slip off when he got the chance.
When Merlin had jokingly asked who was going to keep Arthur's cup overflowing, Arthur had given his version of a wince, more a slight flinch around his eyes than anything else, and replied that lieu of Merlin's peerless skill at the task he would simply keep a clear head.
In truth, Merlin was grateful for the reprieve. Even being able to leave early, he was becoming very tired of all the celebrating. Arthur claimed he'd let Merlin off early because Merlin was worse than useless when he didn't get enough sleep and that he wasn't going to put up with that if he didn't have to, but Merlin wasn't convinced. He was starting to think it was much more because Arthur wished someone would do the same for him.
Because it wasn't just the banquets. In the daytime there were hunting parties and luncheons in the gardens, and miniature tournaments that Arthur had insisted weren't to be taken seriously, though Merlin noticed that hadn't stopped him fighting like his life depended on it. If Arthur wasn't discussing something serious with a nobleman at the feasts, he was dancing with his daughter; if he wasn't besting all the other men in the fighting during the day, he was walking groups of ladies through the gardens and making them all laugh like a group of chattering peahens. Merlin was exhausted just watching and he could tell how tired Arthur was from the fact that he had barely mocked Merlin all week and hadn't even made him wear the insane feathered hat with his ceremonial uniform after the second banquet.
And every day, before every event and sometimes after as well, King Uther would send for Arthur and every time Arthur would come back looking a little more tense. He hid it well, but Merlin could feel it when he was helping Arthur don his armour and he could see the tightness in Arthur's jaw and shoulders the rest of the time.
There wasn't anything Merlin could do to get Arthur out of the festivities, but he had sacrificed his dignity and worn the hat anyway tonight, getting a very satisfying double-take and the first genuine smile he'd seen from Arthur all week when Arthur had spotted him.
He'd noticed earlier as well that Arthur had barely eaten at the feast. Not that he'd had much time to, in between talking to everyone, dancing with everything vaguely female and being talked at by his father, but Arthur had only picked at his plate when he did have the chance. Merlin thought maybe the rich food was getting to be too much along with everything else, so instead of going back to his own room, Merlin had raided the kitchen for some plain fare (he'd found the head cook was very susceptible to pleading eyes) and taken it up to Arthur's chambers to wait for him.
Arthur was probably going to yell simply because Merlin was someone he could be angry at with no consequences, but someone had to make sure he ate before he collapsed, or fell asleep in public or worse, lost a fight in front of King Uther. Merlin didn't like to think about what Uther would say about that last one, but it would probably leave Arthur being a bastard for weeks and Merlin would bear the brunt.
Which was why Merlin was pacing Arthur's rooms right now: to make his own life easier. Not because he was worried about Arthur, no matter what Gaius had said the other day. Arthur could take care of himself.
Except for when he didn't.
Merlin had just sat back down at the table when the door flew open and Arthur came storming in, and he jumped up again as Arthur slammed the door.
"Merlin? What the hell are you doing here? And what's this?" Arthur snapped, gesturing at the table.
"I know it's late, sire, but that is bread," Merlin said in his best helpful tone, "that is some cheese, those are apples, and this is roasted pigeon," he added, pointing to each in turn as cheerfully as he could.
"I think I can recognise food without help," Arthur said through gritted teeth, glaring at Merlin. "What is it doing in my rooms?"
"I thought you might be hungry," Merlin said with a shrug and a smile and just like he'd anticipated, Arthur finally lost his temper.
"Thought? Oh, Merlin the court idiot had a thought. Since when do you have a single useful thought in that head of yours?" he yelled and Merlin cocked his head and raised his eyebrows. Thoughtfully. "Do not pull faces at me!" Arthur shouted again, his face going slightly pink. "I don't want you to think, I want you to do what I say, and did I say 'Merlin, please invade my rooms and bring lots of stupid food'? No, I did not. I swear, I have never had such a worthless, annoying, incompetent, thoughtless servant in my entire life!"
Merlin nodded agreeably and waited a moment to see if there was any more coming, but Arthur just threw himself down in a chair, folded his arms over his chest and glared at him again.
"So…" Merlin said innocently after another minute, seeing Arthur cast a quick look at the pigeon under his eyelashes, "do you want me to take it away?"
Arthur closed his eyes briefly and then snapped half-heartedly, "Don't you have anything to drink, even?" and Merlin grinned, collected the mug of ale from the end of the table and stuck it in Arthur's hand.
Arthur downed half of it immediately and started working his way through the food, grudgingly at first and then with more enthusiasm, and Merlin sat down across the table, leaned his head on his hand and yawned.
Finally Arthur leaned back and pushed the plate away. "You're a bastard and I hate you," he said conversationally, rolling an apple towards Merlin and Merlin shrugged agreement and bit into the apple to hide his grin. "But I suppose you might not be completely worthless," Arthur said, closing his eyes and yawning as well.
"Thank you so much, sire," Merlin replied and Arthur smirked, still with his eyes closed. "What's all this in aid of anyway?" Merlin asked, curious.
"What, you being a bastard?"
"No, all this partying. What's the point?"
"Ah. That," Arthur said, opening his eyes again. "Well, you remember there was that war with Mercia… you do remember that, right?" he asked with a superior tone and Merlin nodded resignedly.
"Yes, I remember."
"The Barons currently at Court never officially allied with either Camelot or Mercia. Some of them went one way, some the other, some stayed out of it completely. And some changed sides to suit themselves. They all have power enough to be useful and some have things other than armies that would benefit the kingdom."
"Really? Like what?" Merlin asked.
"Iron. Wool. Stone quarries. Areas of coast fit for harbouring ships," Arthur explained through a mouthful of his own apple. "And so my father will woo all he can and intimidate the rest."
"I'd really rather not think about your father wooing, thanks," Merlin said tartly and Arthur shook his head at him but grinned. "So are you taking care of the wooing or the intimidating for him?"
"Both," Arthur muttered, his smile falling away again. "But the first one more literally," he said, drinking more of the ale.
"Did you notice that the Barons all brought along their daughters? Their unmarried daughters?" Arthur said with a fake smile. "My father dangles me like bait to see who will snap the highest and concede the most in hopes of marriage."
"You're wooing all of them?" Merlin said incredulously.
"No, no," Arthur said, wagging his finger. "I have to show attention to all but favour to none, give hope to each but commit to no-one. An easy task, I'm sure you'll agree."
"Bloody hell, no wonder you're exhausted. One woman is tiring enough to try and understand, let alone eight of them," Merlin said, thinking about how hard he found working out what Gwen was thinking.
"Nine," Arthur said, with a bleak grin and Merlin blinked, counting up the visitors again.
"What, Baron Tarsus' daughter Ysanne as well? She's only thirteen!"
"And in four years she'll be seventeen," Arthur said grimly. "He's throwing her at me as hard as any of the others, believe me. He probably hopes that my father will play the game that long. Or that my first wife dies early and childless," he added bitterly and Merlin winced. He tried to think of a different topic but something about the idea of Arthur's marriage being bait in a big game of power was uncomfortably fascinating.
"But… what about Morgana?" he asked after a little silence and Arthur looked confused.
"What about her?"
"Well, aren't you going to end up marrying her?" Merlin said.
"Me… and Morgana?" Arthur repeated incredulously and then started to laugh. "You thought… seriously?" And he laughed and laughed like Merlin had just said the funniest thing he had heard all year, until he was finally doubled over the table and wiping actual tears from his eyes, completely ignoring the annoyed look Merlin was giving him. "Don't be ridiculous, Merlin," Arthur managed at last, still choking slightly.
"What?" Merlin said defensively. "You're both noble, young, good-looking – shut up," he said as Arthur started to laugh again, "– and you're together a lot and all that."
"Oh, well, if we're together a lot we must be destined for matrimony," Arthur mocked and Merlin shifted uncomfortably because he was just a bit sensitive to mentions of destiny lately. He was fairly sure the Dragon talking about sides of coins meant he was going to spend a lot of time with Arthur too, so maybe that was enough for destiny despite Arthur's mocking. "I had no idea you were such a romantic, Merlin," Arthur added, leaning forward and studying him, and Merlin gave him a wary look.
He was right to be wary too because after a brief pause Arthur said, "So, just out of interest, how 'good-looking' are we talking here?" in a teasing voice and Merlin was annoyed to find he was actually embarrassed enough for his cheeks to get warm.
"Oh no. I'm not making your head any bigger than it already is," he said and Arthur smirked smugly.
"That good-looking, hm? I'm flattered," and Merlin sighed in exasperation and threw his apple core at Arthur's head. He caught it, sadly, and Merlin crossed his arms and glared.
"Well go on then. Explain why it's so ridiculous to the idiot peasant."
"Because, my foolish romantic, Morgana and I marrying would be of no benefit to Camelot. My father would never spend either of us so cheaply."
"Oh," Merlin said. It made sense, in a cold and pragmatic sort of way.
Arthur chuckled again, but it seemed less easy than before. "Look at you. So dismayed by the big, bad court."
"Not dismayed, exactly," Merlin said, trying to think of a way of distracting Arthur again. "Just a little… disappointed."
"You see, I had yours and Morgana's children's names all picked out and everything," Merlin said, smiling gleefully as he got a burst of inspiration.
Arthur stared at him for a moment and raised his eyebrows. "Have I mentioned lately that you are very strange?"
"Only twice so far this week," Merlin answered cheerfully and Arthur nodded seriously.
"Merlin, you are very strange."
"Go on then. Thrill me with your naming prowess," Arthur drawled, failing to completely control a smile.
"Well, I thought you would have four," Merlin improvised. "Two boys to start with –"
"Heir and a spare," Arthur said, propping his head on one hand.
"Exactly. I thought they could be Prince Imperious and Prince Arrogant – taking after their father of course – and then a girl. With your hair and eyes and Morgana's temper, so her real name would be something very grand but you would call her Princess Fluffy just to be annoying."
"Princess Fluffy?" Arthur said, grinning. "Any more offspring in the… offing?"
"Oh, just the one. I thought that one would be called Merlin. The most intelligent and best of the lot, obviously," Merlin said solemnly.
"Obviously," Arthur said sceptically.
"And then, alas, Princes Imperious and Arrogant die in a tragic and bizarre accident involving a goat, three badgers and a pear tree," Merlin said, pulling a distressed face and placing his hand over his heart, and Arthur choked a laugh through the last of the ale. "I think King Merlin sounds rather fine, don't you?"
"Oh really? Getting ideas above your station?"
"Only for my namesake," Merlin denied. "I am quite content where I am."
Arthur looked surprised at that, something that was only natural given how much Merlin generally complained about his duties. Merlin ducked his head away and stacked up the plates and ale mug, wondering what on earth had possessed him to say it. Not that he wanted to be royalty since watching Arthur had convinced him that wasn't all it was cracked up to be, but he did one day want to be more than Arthur's servant.
He supposed it wasn't really that bad though, and it made it easy to look after Arthur and stop him getting killed all the time.
"Well," Arthur said, "I think you should go be content somewhere else now so I can get some sleep."
"Yes, sire," Merlin said, picking up the dishes to take away. He was pleased to see that Arthur was looking more relaxed and sleepy now, so with any luck he would be in a better mood in the morning.
"Oh, and Merlin," Arthur said as Merlin reached the door, and Merlin turned to find him leaning against the doorframe to his bedroom. "Bring some pie tomorrow night." Merlin nodded with a grin and then he ducked out into the corridor.
The plates could go back to the kitchens tomorrow; right now he was heading for bed and some well-deserved rest.
The next day the entertainment was a picnic in a large, peaceful glade a little way into the forest. It was supposedly for breakfast, but since it didn't start until nearly midday and went on for most of the afternoon, Merlin wasn't sure the term was really accurate. It made a nice change though, and it was less boring from Merlin's point of view too because he had to keep Arthur supplied with food and look after his horse instead of just standing about like he did at the banquets.
Arthur did look calmer than the day before, but now that Merlin knew to look for it, he could see Arthur trying to keep a very delicate balance going with all the visiting noblewomen. He had to watch closely to find the pattern, but Merlin was certain that by the end of the day, Arthur would have spent exactly the same amount of time with each unmarried girl.
Morgana was doing a lot of apparently aimless circulation of the guests too, but she seemed to be having an easier time of it, possibly because it wasn't her prospective marriage on offer.
Merlin would have to ask Gwen whether Morgana did find it easier or if she was just a better actor than Arthur. Though, to be fair, he didn't think anyone else had noticed how little Arthur was enjoying himself. Arthur smiled a lot after all, and made the ladies smile back. But Merlin knew how Arthur looked when he was actually having fun, and this was all pretend. He also noticed just how often Arthur used the excuse of listening to his father's minstrels to avoid talking, and Merlin knew for certain that Arthur had heard all their songs hundreds of times before.
Merlin was pleased to see that Arthur made an effort to be kind to Ysanne, who was clearly too petrified to do more than nod in response to his remarks; in fact, she was the only one there who got Arthur's genuine attention. The more obviously flirtatious the other ladies got (and there was one in an orange dress that Merlin had decided was nearly as shameless as a bar wench) the more fixed Arthur's smile became. It was only a matter of time before Arthur snapped and came out with what he was really thinking.
Merlin personally preferred Arthur when he was sarcastic and honest, but he was certain that these court ladies (and Uther for that matter) would not agree. Merlin was clearly going to have to try and get some of them to back off before that happened.
They finally made their way back to the castle in the late afternoon and Merlin spent the next half hour sorting out Arthur's clothes while Arthur sprawled in a chair and watched, pretending that he didn't want to fall asleep right there. It was annoying because Merlin had to do everything by hand, but then he announced that he was going to get Gwen's advice on cleaning techniques and sneaked back to his room and did it by magic instead.
He gave it another half hour and entered Arthur's chambers as quietly as he could. It wasn't a surprise to find Arthur was fast asleep and Merlin just covered him with a blanket and left him to it.
When he returned just before the banquet, Arthur snapped at him that he had a crick in his neck and that Merlin should have woken him, but his eyes were clearer and the blanket was folded neatly instead of being tossed in a heap on the floor so Merlin counted it as a win and concentrated on getting Arthur's cloak to hang correctly.
He finally stood back with his hands on his hips to look Arthur up and down in a last check.
"Do I meet your exacting standards then?" Arthur said sarcastically. "Took you bloody long enough."
"You look very… regal," Merlin said judiciously. He kept the thought that Arthur also looked ever so slightly intimidating to himself. He'd been going for just that effect, sticking to darker tones and more martial-looking clothes, and he thought it worked quite well. With any luck it would put people off flirting with him so much.
"Regal. Does that mean I'm good-looking?" Arthur said, smirking and Merlin sniffed.
"As much as you ever are, I suppose," Merlin shrugged and added, "You're never going to let me forget I said that, are you?"
"Not in a thousand years," Arthur agreed. "And another glorious night begins, oh joy, oh rapture," he said and strode out the door, Merlin trailing after him.
Unfortunately, Merlin's strategy with the clothes didn't work out quite as well as he'd hoped. Some of the ladies seemed to be less inclined to giggle inanely at Arthur but a larger proportion practically clung to him as soon as he got close enough.
That was really quite annoying.
Perhaps Merlin simply hadn't gone far enough. It was obviously going to be difficult to subtly put women off Arthur when the man himself was making every effort to be charming and when Merlin couldn't actually do anything to make Arthur look bad. And if their fathers were putting as much pressure on them as Uther was on Arthur, probably nothing Merlin did would stop them all simpering at him, but he'd wanted to give Arthur at least a little break. He would just have to try harder next time.
Merlin stayed until the dancing started and then made his way out the back of the hall. He collected food from the kitchens, made his way to Arthur's chambers and set it out on the table. Venison and mushroom pie, because Arthur adored mushrooms however he could get them, more bread, more cheese, more ale. Merlin stepped back to check he hadn't forgotten anything and yawned. He should have brought a book from his room so he wouldn't get so bored. He'd just sit down for a minute (it was so unfair that servants didn't get chairs at banquets) and then he'd go and get one.
The next thing Merlin knew, his neck hurt and he was a little too warm. He blinked open his eyes and found he had a blanket thrown over him and Arthur was watching from a silent sprawl in another chair.
"Ow," Merlin said sitting up and Arthur quirked a smile but said nothing as Merlin rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. "Why didn't you wake me up?"
Arthur shrugged. "You didn't have to stay, you know," he said and Merlin blinked. He hadn't even thought of just leaving the food and going to his own room.
"You might have needed something else," he said eventually, feeling a little unnerved at how seriously Arthur was studying him. He usually only got that look after Merlin had just saved his life; Merlin wasn't used to seeing it when he was relaxed and sleepy instead of when his legs were shaky and his heart was pounding with relief and terror. It made his heart speed a little now, even, just through association.
"Yes, I might," Arthur agreed quietly and Merlin stood up and stretched and started folding the blanket again while he waited for Arthur to give him an order. When Arthur stayed silent, Merlin shot him a glance and found he was still under scrutiny. "What I really need is go forward to the day after tomorrow when all our honoured guests will have left. Can you manage that?" Arthur said and Merlin smiled ruefully and shook his head.
"Then I suppose I'll have to settle for you fetching my mug," Arthur said. Merlin gave him a disbelieving look because the mug was about a foot away, but Arthur's smirk was half-hearted and tired and he found himself collecting it anyway.
"Thanks," Arthur muttered into it and Merlin sat down again.
"I would if I could, you know," he said and Arthur nodded resignedly. "Do you…" Merlin said and hesitated.
"Do you actually like any of them? The ladies here," Merlin asked and Arthur shoved out of his chair and paced over to the window and back.
"It doesn't matter if I do or not," he said, tension holding his shoulders tight, and Merlin cursed his curiosity. He should have just let it go, but after watching Arthur all day he'd wanted to know how Arthur would react if Uther set up his marriage with any of those girls, if he really did dislike them as much as he seemed to or if there was a chance he could be happy with the arrangement. "But I don't think my banns will be called just yet. Not this time, anyway," Arthur added, "my father likes to keep his options open."
Merlin frowned while he thought about that. He could see Uther stringing everyone along for a while, but eventually Arthur was going to end up in a marriage that had everything to do with ambition and nothing to do with his happiness. It was a rather depressing thought. A lonely thought too. Merlin shivered and went to tidy the table.
Arthur came over and leant against it, watching Merlin with his most unreadable look. "You look like you're having thoughts again," he said quietly and Merlin hesitated and then turned to face him.
"I don't think it's fair that how you feel doesn't matter. Everyone says how much your father loved your mother," he said. "I would think he'd want the same for you."
"They married for politics, not love, and got lucky afterwards," Arthur said.
"Well maybe you'll be lucky too," Merlin said, trying to smile encouragingly. As comfort went, it probably wasn't his best, but the other option was telling Arthur that he'd never be lonely because Merlin's path went along with his all their lives and he wasn't sure that would cheer Arthur up at all.
"Worried about my happiness, Merlin?" Arthur said lightly, tilting his head
"Somebody should be," Merlin said hotly, angry suddenly that Arthur was pretending not to care. "You deserve something more."
"Maybe I do," Arthur said with a slow, thoughtful smile and Merlin blinked, realising suddenly just how close they'd ended up standing.
"Right!" Merlin said brightly with a nervous grin as Arthur straightened up, making them even closer, "That's good, that's a good thing."
"So glad you think so," Arthur said with a smirk, watching Merlin's face in apparent fascination.
"Um. So I'll just…" he said, gesturing at the plates on the table. He thought for a second that Arthur was going to stop him, but then he just stepped aside and let Merlin scoop them up. "I'm sure you want your rest now," Merlin babbled, backing away and for some reason that made Arthur's smirk turn into a full grin.
"I'm sure I do. Oh, and Merlin?" he called as Merlin reached to open the door and Merlin nearly dropped the plates as he turned. "Thank you for the pie."
"You're, um, welcome. Sire," Merlin said, feeling progressively more confused. Since when did Arthur thank him for things other than saving his life? He juggled the plates briefly, got himself and them out and the door closed without disaster and then fled back to his room.
Magic, monsters and people trying to kill them both was getting to be almost normal, but whatever that had been at the end with Arthur was just weird.
There was a hunting trip the next day so Merlin got to run errands for Gaius until late afternoon when he went up to Arthur's rooms to sort out his clothes for the final banquet. He'd had an idea about that.
In the cold light of day, Merlin had decided that he and Arthur had both just been tired the night before and that was why things had felt odd, but he was still slightly relieved that Arthur hadn't returned yet and not just because it gave him privacy to get things ready. He went out to the battlements to watch for the party returning and then made his way back to add the last touch once all the horses had swept inside the gates, Arthur near the head.
It was a good while before Arthur appeared and he was frowning with a set jaw when he did. He was also just as messy as Merlin had anticipated; hunting was not a clean business. He caught the muddy cloak Arthur tossed at him with a wince of distaste and then Arthur vanished behind the screen at the back of the room.
There was a small, startled noise and Merlin grinned as Arthur stuck his head back out. "Hot water?" he said in surprise and Merlin shrugged.
"Gaius has a big kettle," he said. True enough, though Merlin had actually heated the basin with magic.
"Merlin, I take back every time I called you an idiot," Arthur said with a delighted grin and vanished back behind the screen. His boots and clothes flew out after another minute and then there were splashing noises and rustling while Merlin piled the soiled garments near the door to deal with later. "Where are my clothes?" Arthur asked after a moment.
"Hanging over the top," Merlin replied, shaking out the long coat he had found in Arthur's wardrobe. It was a deep, dark red with the dragon crest on the back and he thought it would work rather well with the rest.
"I thought I was going to wear the green tunic?"
"It has a stain on it." And, more to the point, it made Arthur look much too approachable.
"I didn't know I even had black clothes," Arthur said, sounding muffled and Merlin grinned smugly. Arthur hadn't, not until Merlin had found the right spell in his book and spelled them pitch black earlier in the day.
"You must have forgotten," he said. He held the coat up ready and helped Arthur into it quickly as he came back out into the room.
"Why black?" Arthur said, pulling the sleeves into place and Merlin frowned, smoothed the coat nice and straight over Arthur's shoulders and adjusted the collar before he stepped back.
"Because people associate it with funerals, not marria…" he started and then ran out of words abruptly. "Oh."
"What?" Arthur asked, looking down at himself.
"Um. You're… that's not quite the effect I was aiming for," Merlin said, staring too.
"Merlin, if you've made me look stupid…" Arthur said threateningly and Merlin raised his hands placatingly.
"No," he said quickly. "You really don't. You look… Well, they're either going to be too terrified to talk to you –"
"Or?" Arthur said.
"Or they're going to swoon at your feet," Merlin said reluctantly, feeling his face heat as Arthur's eyebrows shot up. He was clearly useless at this and he should have just gone and got Gwen's advice about the colours. The ones he'd picked made Arthur's hair and eyes stand out even more brightly than usual and the overall effect was slightly… stunning. Merlin had been trying to produce a funereal Arthur and instead he'd managed to make Arthur look like, like a warrior angel just descended from Heaven. Bugger.
Merlin realised that he was still staring at Arthur and flushed even more because Arthur was watching him back closely. "Sorry," he muttered and Arthur tilted his head and opened his mouth to speak just as someone knocked on the door.
"Your Highness, the banquet is about to begin," a voice called and Arthur shook himself, swept Merlin with an intense look and left, getting halfway down the corridor before Merlin managed to gather the presence of mind to follow him.
In one way, Merlin's second attempt at suppressing flirting through Arthur's outfits was a complete success. The visiting ladies still hung about him like creeping vines, but they seemed much too awestruck to make silly small talk and mostly just gazed at him with overcome looks on their faces. Even Morgana had stared at Arthur for a good minute before she caught herself and turned back to her companions, and King Uther was sitting there watching all of it unfold looking like a cat who'd got a whole barrel of cream.
Merlin could hardly look away either. He was such an idiot; how could he have misjudged that so badly? Arthur was probably going to kill him. When he beckoned Merlin over, Merlin went with heavy feet.
"Yes, sire?" he said, inclining his head respectfully as he stood by Arthur's chair.
"Wait on me afterwards," Arthur murmured and Merlin swallowed hard and nodded. "Good. You are dismissed," Arthur said and Merlin bowed and left as quickly as he could.
He made his usual trip to the kitchens, but he couldn't have said what he'd picked up until he got to Arthur's rooms and started putting it down. He had… nut-cake, wine, fruit, and bread and honey. Maybe one of those would make Arthur sweeter, though Merlin was probably going to end up sacked again before Arthur even ate anything.
He paced restlessly around the room, knowing there was no chance of him falling asleep in Arthur's domain tonight. Maybe if he talked fast enough, Arthur wouldn't sack or horribly murder him and he could escape back to Gaius' rooms and be a proper deferential servant to Arthur so that he could stay and keep Arthur safe from all the random people who wanted to kill him.
He knew he hadn't exactly been enthusiastic about that plan when the Dragon had first told him his destiny, but Merlin had got used to it now. Well, all right, he even liked it. Liked Arthur, when he wasn't being an arrogant ass, and sometimes when he was being an arrogant ass Merlin just found it amusing. And saving Arthur's life… that wasn't something Merlin liked to do, it was something he just had to do and the idea of him not being around to protect Arthur made it really quite hard to breathe properly.
Having a destiny was a difficult thing.
By the time Arthur arrived several hours later, Merlin was ready to burst. "Look, I'm sorry about the outfit thing," he said hurriedly, swallowing nervously. "I was just trying to help, really, good intentions and all that, it's not my fault you're so bloody…" and he waved a hand at Arthur, biting back the word 'gorgeous' as Arthur actually locked the door behind him. That wasn't good.
"Merlin, shut up," Arthur said pleasantly, stalking forward like a cat on the hunt. Merlin wouldn't normally back down but this wasn't normal so he stepped back. Only Arthur followed him, so Merlin stepped back again and Arthur kept moving forward with this not-quite-suppressed grin that Merlin couldn't seem to look away from and before he quite knew it he'd been backed all the way across the room and into the wall by the bedroom door.
"What are you doing?" he said warily as Arthur halted too, just inches away.
"Getting something more," Arthur said with his grin giving way to a look of complete concentration, one that Merlin only usually saw right before Arthur did something impossible and reckless to win a fight.
Merlin just had time to take a startled breath and then Arthur planted his hands on the wall on either side of his head, leaned in and kissed him and all Merlin's breath left him again in a rush.
He forgot sometimes that Arthur had his own kind of power, but pinned to the wall by nothing other than Arthur's lips on his, Merlin felt it sweep over him like a wave. He didn't even want to fight it; he just surrendered and let Arthur take him over in a fierce, aggressive kiss that felt wilder and better than any spell Merlin had ever done. He tilted his head and responded as best as he could, and then Arthur's tongue was in his mouth and Merlin's arms were wrapped around him as they pressed together because that felt so good that he might fall over if he didn't hold on tightly. He was going light-headed with it and he was pretty sure that the moaning sound he could hear was him and then Arthur pulled away, the bastard, and Merlin made a protesting noise and forced his eyes open.
"Breathe, you idiot," Arthur said, his voice rough and Merlin gasped for air, suddenly realising he'd forgotten to do that for most of the kiss.
"Arthur," he said, his own voice sounding husky and Arthur groaned, his eyes dropping to Merlin's mouth and then he kissed Merlin again, his hands sliding into Merlin's hair and tipping his head to an even better angle. It wasn't as fierce but it was just as wild, like all the arguments they'd had distilled down into a tussle of lips and tongues and teeth and all the joy in the battle, not the winning.
Merlin had just discovered that if he bit Arthur's lower lip and then licked it, Arthur made really hungry noises, and that Arthur's hungry noises made him go all hot and shivery like he had a fever, when there was a loud knock at the door and they both jerked their heads away in shock.
"What?" Arthur snapped, turning his head towards the door, but not releasing Merlin.
"Your Highness, the King requires your presence," a male voice called and Merlin could feel every muscle in Arthur's back and shoulders bunch with anger under his hands.
"All right," Arthur practically snarled and then he manhandled Merlin through the door to his bedroom and shoved him towards the bed.
"I –" Merlin started and Arthur glared ferociously.
"Don't even think about leaving," he said in his most commanding voice before he spun on his heel and marched out, slamming the door behind him.
Merlin just stood there for a moment, still panting for breath, and then he shoved his hands into his hair and sank down onto the bed while he tried to form a coherent thought.
He got up again a moment later though because, well, Arthur's bed, and he really needed to pace. And possibly run. Away.
They'd kissed. He and Arthur had kissed. And that was amazing and terrifying and completely insane, like a sheet of lightning from an empty blue sky. Merlin had never thought, never dreamed there was anything like that between the two of them. Oh, he knew that he worried about Arthur's safety, and that their banter was fun and that being around Arthur made him feel alive in the same way that only his magic did, but… oh.
Merlin really was the court idiot. Was this what the Dragon had meant by halves of a whole?
He wasn't ready for this. He needed to get away, to think. Maybe he could go to his room…
…and if he did that, Arthur would probably never speak to him again. He backed away from the door again and slumped onto the floor next to the bed.
Arthur. Why was Arthur doing this? He'd been watching Merlin a lot lately, but he'd also been under pressure from his father and all twisted up about it. He'd seemed more aggressive than anything else; maybe he was just looking for a release and Merlin was convenient and safe.
Merlin wrapped his arms around himself and bit his lip, doubts and anticipation mixing uncomfortably until he had to get up and pace again just to try and keep calm and not bolt for the door.
It seemed an age before Arthur returned, though from the candle lengths it could only have been half an hour.
Merlin jumped up as he heard the outer chamber door being locked and then Arthur was in the bedroom, locking that door as well. Arthur moved in just as predatorily as he had before, but fast enough that Merlin barely got his hands up in time to brace against Arthur's chest and avoid being pulled straight back into his arms. He'd forgotten how quickly Arthur could move when he wished.
"Wait," Merlin said and Arthur narrowed his eyes, one hand gripping Merlin's arm and the other going around the back of his neck to tug him in.
"Are you doing this because you're angry at your life?" Merlin said, pushing back to keep Arthur where he could see his eyes.
"Are you doing it because you pity my life?" Arthur shot back harshly.
"No, don't be stupid," Merlin said, forgetting to resist in indignation, and Arthur surged up against him and wrapped him in a hold so strong that Merlin wouldn't have a hope of getting free. Merlin braced himself for another overpowering kiss, but when Arthur leaned in it was to fit their mouths together softly and sweetly and to tease so slowly that Merlin had plenty of time to feel his knees melt.
He vaguely noticed that Arthur hadn't answered the question, but Arthur pulled back and breathed please against Merlin's lips and then kissed lightly along his jaw to nuzzle his neck and Merlin let his head fall back and stroked his hands into Arthur's soft hair. He could deal with Arthur being demanding or arrogant, but he had no defences against Arthur being gentle and he wanted this too much to turn back.
Arthur relaxed his arms a little and slid one hand down Merlin's back, fitting them together more tightly, and they both let out a groan as their hips met. Merlin was aching with desire and he could feel an answering hardness from Arthur pressing against him. It felt so good that Merlin arched into Arthur, trying to get even closer, and that felt even better, so he did it again and again until Arthur was gasping curses against his neck and moving with him and Merlin had to pull his head up and kiss him because he couldn't stand not kissing him a moment longer.
Soon even that wasn't enough and they were tugging at each other's clothes, trying to get to skin. Merlin was used to undoing bits of Arthur's clothing, but this time Arthur was taking off his at the same time, interspersed with wandering hands and hot, messy kisses that made Merlin's hands tremble and laces suddenly become stupidly complicated.
Somehow they both ended up naked and Arthur grinned wickedly at Merlin and wrapped him up again, running his hands right down his back to cup his arse and Merlin whimpered helplessly and clung on, feeling Arthur hot and powerful all down his front. When Arthur let go and turned to throw the bedcovers out of the way, Merlin swayed on his feet and just stared at all that bare skin glowing in the candlelight, not quite understanding how this could be real.
Arthur turned back and looked Merlin slowly up and down and Merlin went hot all over, his mouth drying up at the desire he could see in Arthur's eyes.
"Merlin," Arthur said breathlessly. He reached out his hand and Merlin took it and let Arthur pull him up onto the bed and into another reckless, irresistible kiss. Arthur's skin against his drove Merlin insane; the heat and softness over hard muscle, scattered with old scars for Merlin to trace with his fingers. Arthur's hands were everywhere as well and they rolled half-wrestling across the bed, touching and stroking everywhere they could reach until they finished up with Merlin spread under Arthur's weight, pinned against the mattress and gasping with pleasure.
Arthur panted, biting his lip, and rocked his hips and Merlin moaned at the jolt of bliss it caused and pulled Arthur's head down to kiss him again, needing the feel of Arthur's lips to keep from flying apart. Arthur groaned into his mouth and thrust again, gently at first and then faster and harder, and nothing had ever felt so good, not even magic.
Merlin thrust back, urging Arthur on with hands clutched tight on his hips, and he cried out and jerked wildly as Arthur bit down at the juncture of his neck and shoulder. Arthur leaned up onto one arm, his muscles straining, and slid his other hand down to wrap around them both and stroke even faster, and Merlin could see his face draw tight in ecstasy before Arthur sobbed and ducked his head.
Merlin was crying out almost continually, feeling the ache throb through his belly and up his spine, the heat spiralling up in an unstoppable wave. He could feel the magic rising too and he fought desperately for some control but found none, no way to hold back, and he hit the peak in a rush of pleasure and terror as the unlit torches and fire burst into flame, blazing the room with light.
Arthur's head jerked up at the sudden flare and Merlin could see his eyes go wide, and then they fell closed again as Arthur bucked hard and trembled against him in his own release.
He collapsed back down on top of Merlin and then there was silence while Merlin shook in reaction and tried desperately to put the torches and fire back out. He failed utterly.
After a minute, Arthur propped himself up, looked deliberately around at the burning torches and then at Merlin, who promptly froze and stopped breathing. But all Arthur did was raise a mocking eyebrow and then flop back down. Merlin really wanted to flee but he wasn't convinced his muscles would work yet and Arthur was still lying on top of him so he just lay there with his breath going shallow in fear, waiting for the axe to fall. And when Uther knew, it would be a real axe, not a metaphorical one.
Arthur felt completely relaxed on top of him, but that was probably because he was still wobbly with pleasure too and it was only a matter of time before he found the energy to drag Merlin off to the dungeons. Another few minutes went past and finally Merlin couldn't take it any more. "Aren't, aren't you going to say anything?" he asked.
"About?" Arthur mumbled, shifting a bit and Merlin bit his lip. Arthur was going to draw it out then.
"The torches. The fire," he forced out and Arthur raised his head again, finally sliding off Merlin to lie on his side next to him.
"I'm glad you didn't set fire to the bed," he said yawning. "You don't ever, do you?"
"What?" Merlin said in total confusion.
"Set fire to the bed," Arthur smirked. "Not that I'm averse to a little danger, you understand, just not in the bedroom. Well, not beds-on-fire danger, anyway."
"Merlin, have you gone completely addled?" Arthur asked. "I should have known sex would make you even weirder."
"Me? What about you?" Merlin protested, sitting up. "Aren't you going to tell your father?"
"About us having sex? Hm, let me think…" Arthur drawled looking amused. "No, never, not a chance."
"About the magic," Merlin snapped, driven to it by Arthur's flippancy. He could at least do him the courtesy of taking Merlin's impending death seriously.
"Merlin, you really are addled," Arthur said, sounding concerned and sitting up as well. "I haven't told him before, why on earth would I now? And I thought we didn't talk about this."
"Talk about… what… before… you knew?" Merlin said and Arthur blinked and then laughed.
"Oh, very funny. Like you've been trying so hard to keep it a secret from me all…these… months…" he said trailing off and the smile fading as Merlin felt his face go white. "You stupid, reckless, half-witted, careless ass" Arthur yelled, grabbing Merlin by the shoulders and shaking him. "How the fuck are you still alive?"
"Nobody has noticed," Merlin snapped back, knocking Arthur's hands away. He wasn't that bad at hiding.
"You didn't think I'd noticed!" Arthur shouted and Merlin wrapped his arms around his chest and looked down because that was true enough. "And apparently you didn't trust me after all," Arthur added bitterly and Merlin looked up to find Arthur had twisted half away, his mouth set in an unhappy line.
"I wanted to," he said quietly. "I wanted to tell you all the time. I was scared; your father –"
"I am not my father," Arthur snapped.
"I know," Merlin said. "I know you're not," he insisted, reaching a hand out hesitantly and touching Arthur's shoulder, and Arthur leaned into it the very slightest amount. "But he's been telling you how evil magic is your whole life, and three-quarters of the people who try to kill you use magic, and –"
"And you always save me from them," Arthur said, turning back around and meeting Merlin's eyes and Merlin swallowed hard at seeing the trust he was used to still there. He'd been so afraid he would lose it if Arthur found out.
"Always," he promised solemnly and Arthur nodded.
"Except for the ones I save myself from," he added with a small smirk and Merlin grinned. "You have to be more careful," Arthur went on, serious again. "If someone sees and gets proof, I won't be able to protect you from my father."
"I will," Merlin agreed readily. He'd probably only been careless around Arthur because deep down he'd wanted him to know.
"Swear it," Arthur demanded, holding Merlin's face still with both hands and staring into his eyes. "Don't make me watch you die."
"I won't," Merlin said, catching Arthur's intensity and trying to show how much he meant it. "I will be careful, sire, I swear to you."
"Good," Arthur said, relaxing and letting Merlin go. "And don't call me 'sire' when we're naked," he added and laughed when Merlin blushed in realisation and hastily pulled the blankets up. Arthur pushed him back down, leaned over and kissed him, lightly and teasingly. "It's too late to hide, Merlin," he said and Merlin laughed and hugged him.
"Apparently," he said. "I am glad you know." It would make things so much easier not to have to pretend with Arthur anymore.
Arthur hummed a response and settled in at Merlin's side and after a few minutes Arthur's eyes drifted closed and he dozed off. Merlin yawned but he wasn't quite ready to sleep so he just lay quietly and watched Arthur. He was so much more than Merlin had thought at first; so much braver and more complex than the arrogant bully Merlin had met on that first day. He hadn't believed the Dragon when it told him Arthur's great destiny, but he could see it now; the man Arthur would be, the man he already was in some ways.
And Merlin was going to protect him in any way that he could. He had sworn to be careful and he would hold to that vow – but only so far as it did not endanger Arthur. If it ever occurred that Merlin could keep his secret or save Arthur, there wouldn't even be a choice. Merlin would not lose him. Their paths lay together, and more than anything Merlin wanted that road to be a long one.
The birds outside were just starting their chorus and Merlin knew it would be morning soon. He stroked Arthur's hair gently away from his brow, and Arthur stirred and opened his eyes. He gazed back at Merlin for a few minutes and then his eyes shifted to the window.
"It's nearly dawn," Arthur said, moving away a little and leaving Merlin cold all down that side. "You should probably go before the whole castle rouses."
Merlin nodded silently, not wanting to move but knowing it was best. He wiped off his stomach with a bit of blanket, slid out of the bed and pulled his clothes back on. He looked up from the floor while he was tugging on his boots and found Arthur lying on his side and watching with a pensive look. "You never answered my question, you know," he said and Arthur dropped his eyes. Merlin was fairly certain Arthur cared about him now, but he wanted Arthur to say something.
"It was just for me," Arthur said after a moment. "Not about anger, or my being a prince, or anything to do with the kingdom. I wanted you just for me," he finished, raising his head again and Merlin smiled back softly and nodded acknowledgement. That would do.
They held each other's eyes and then Arthur looked away again and Merlin stood to go. He had just unlocked the door when Arthur spoke again.
"Will you be here again tonight?" he asked and Merlin turned back to see Arthur was sitting up, looking as uncertain as he ever allowed himself.
"Always," he answered and Arthur's smile was like the sun rising.
Merlin carried that smile all the way back to his own bed and fell asleep dreaming of Arthur and him walking down a road together while the Dragon flew in circles overhead, shining in the sunlight and laughing for joy.