It has been five years and ten days since the death of Uther Pendragon, and five years exactly since Arthur's coronation.
It has been five years and Merlin isn't any less in love with him, Arthur isn't any less of a prat (but only to Merlin, these days), and he still doesn't know about the magic.
It's not illegal, anymore. Over the course of five years, Arthur has loosened the stranglehold of the law, taking it slow, being careful. For as much evil magic as Merlin has had to save him from, he's certainly grateful. But the moment never presented itself, and now, here he is, First Manservant to the King and he has more magic in his little finger than the man Arthur had named as Court Magician.
He's a nice chap, really. Just nice enough that Merlin has never quite been able to tell him just how often the man's spells only work because Merlin picks up the slack. He has to know by now, that he could never have done half of what he takes the credit for, but in quiet deference to the assistance, he says nothing. Or maybe, Merlin thinks, he really just isn't that bright.
Most of the Court thinks they're sleeping together. That's fine; Merlin would much rather Arthur's people think him a bit besotted than stupid enough to put up with Merlin's incompetence, which hasn't changed. No, the only thing Merlin's gotten better at is protecting his King, and that's all he bloody cares about, anyway.
This day, the fifth anniversary of Arthur's coronation, he finally puts into practice something he's been holding onto, waiting for the right time. Merlin has waited with him, of course. He's had a letter ready to send ever since Uther fell ill and he could see, with the bone-deep hum of magical certainty, that his time was coming soon.
Arthur is opening the Knighthood to anyone who can prove themselves, not just those of royal blood.
Gwen has made a fine Queen, as Merlin has never doubted she would - another thing he'd seen beforehand, though it had taken years for him to understand it. She was beloved by everyone, of any blood, and it was to the Queen that the people looked when Arthur told them - nobility is not in the body, but in the soul. It's in a person's actions, in their heart, not in their titles or lands or accidents of birth. Camelot looked upon Queen Guinevere, and they understood.
But Merlin is only one who knows that the King and Queen do not love one another. Not in the way that they once, perhaps, had. Not in the way that everyone believes.
He sits on the rug by the hearth, his back leaning up against two pairs of legs, covered in layers of blankets and bedclothes. Gwen's tucked under Arthur's arm; he's pulled her head in under the crook of his chin, and neither of them tell Merlin to go. They think about a girl, lost to them now, a girl who was too beautiful and too dear to think of without it hurting. Gwen rests her hand in Merlin's hair; Arthur has a foot hooked around Merlin's calf.
No, Merlin thinks, the King and the Queen are too close to be comfortable alone, without his buffer between them. They have loved too deeply and too much. They are not the fated lovers that everyone assumes them to be.
Merlin, for his part, is all too aware that he's well and truly sold his soul to Arthur, a hundred times over now. He hates being near him almost as much as he hates being away, and all of that is far and away from how much, how terribly much, he loves him. Which Arthur still doesn't know about, though half the kingdom surely does. Because if he did, if he knew, Arthur would -
Well. For all his arcane foresight, Merlin honestly has no idea.
He knows that, on some level, Arthur does love him. He certainly appreciates him, enough to overlook his many, many faults, and Merlin can't help smiling incessantly when he returns after even a day of being gone to find Arthur angrily listing the ways that Merlin's absence inconvenienced him. Along with, of course, plenty of regular old insults - because of course, having things done properly for once is both enormously irritating (apparently) and makes it all too clear that Merlin is incompetent and terrible and he should never go away again, ever.
Merlin only ever leaves when Arthur's life is in danger, these days.
So that night by the fire, he doesn't mention that he's sent a letter to Lancelot, who's been doing smithwork in the lower city and teaching the young country boys how to fight. He doesn't mention that he's sure to be there at the tournament, sure to win his proper knighthood at long, long last. He doesn't mention that he knows the sound that destiny makes when it comes calling.
But he does gently steer Arthur's attention elsewhere, because Arthur may not want her in his bed, but he is too noble not to be jealous, and Merlin, who is the opposite of noble, who is all things selfish and lovestruck and kind, wants only ever for Arthur to be happy.
That night, the King is tired and it makes his hands clumsy and ineffective, his muscles slow to respond. Merlin strips him down for the night with a gentle consideration he has been less and less able to suppress, over the years. Arthur, in true proof of his weakened state, leans into it.
"Do you remember when Lancelot first came to Camelot?" Arthur asks, voice rough and sleep-fuzzed and everything Merlin has ever wanted to cradle in his long, long hands.
"Bit hard not to," he says, and he's remembering how careless he was, and how stupid. How little he'd trusted Arthur, and vice versa, and how little they had both done to earn it. He's remembering that even then, in some part of him, he'd known that Lancelot was right. Forging a seal had been wrong, and the right way is almost never the easy one.
Arthur falls quiet, and Merlin's hands still on his belt. It's nothing more or less provocative than what they've done for years - Merlin certainly isn't immune to undressing Arthur, but he's gotten used to it - but this, here, feels somehow significant, Arthur's blue eyes deep and fathomless and there's something there, something he's trying to say, but it won't come out. Merlin can read him like a book, but only well enough to know what pages are unknowable.
"Don't think your little trick at the feast actually fooled me," he says, and there's something in his drawl that's horribly fond, horribly familiar, and Merlin can feel every one of his bones aching to open his mouth.
Say it, they urge him, say it, say it, SAY IT--
"Oh, well," he says instead, and ducks his head to focus on pulling Arthur's belt free of its clasp.
"I do think it's rather endearing that you were trying to protect me," Arthur continues, as if the concept of Merlin protecting him is laughable, at best. "But I do know where the pieces of Gwen's heart lie. A piece each with us, a piece with…"
He trails off, and Merlin holds his breath, but Arthur can't bring himself to say her name, so he doesn't. It's not like Merlin doesn't hear it, anyway.
"…A piece with Camelot, and what's left - the larger part, truly - has been far away for a long time."
"Not so far as you think," Merlin says, because he's a right idiot on the best of days and this isn't even one of them. He would say that he can't keep secrets from Arthur, but clearly, he does. It's just that all of his efforts go into hiding those two terribly particular things and there isn't anything left over for lesser truths. "I just mean - he's been in Camelot since your coronation. Sire."
Arthur gives him a look that he reads clear as day, withering but resigned, the look that says I know you're just saying that because you're trying to apologize for being unforgivably stupid and if I were any smarter myself I'd've sacked you for good ages ago but regretfully I'm not so I suppose I'm stuck with you, and also, I'm trying not to smile. It's your fault.
"He was still banned," Arthur points out. Merlin shrugs, and sinks to his knees to get the rest of Arthur's hose off his feet.
"He's been in disguise. I swear to you, I'm the only one who knew," he adds, but Arthur hauls him up roughing by the fabric of his shirt, bunched at the shoulder.
"You could have told me. Did you think I would kick him out, after all he's done?"
"No, but - "
"And Gwen. For God's sake, Merlin, she's been waiting for him for years." The King's eyes were blazing, far angrier about this than Merlin thought he'd ever be, and it's making Merlin's heart hammer wildly in his chest. "Did you ever once think," he continues, taking a step forward - Merlin immediately stumbles back, no, he's not letting Arthur get that close, not with this much bare skin, "how it might feel, to be in love with someone for - for years, for what feels like centuries, to know they were this close and still you couldn't…"
But he trails off, realizing, as Merlin does, a second later, what he'd said.
Arthur clears his throat.
"To not know," he corrects himself, voice hoarse. "That's what I meant. Obviously."
"Obviously," Merlin whispers, his knees halfway to giving out.
"Obviously." Arthur swallows, takes a step back. "Anyway, if you were trying to spare me the heartbreak, I'll have you know that's the most - Merlin, I love Gwen, but I'm not in love with her. I thought you knew that."
Merlin's head is reeling; he doesn't know, in that moment, what he knows and doesn't know. It feels like magic but it's not, just confusion, just regular old shock at hearing Arthur very almost perhaps say something he hadn't meant to say, hadn't meant to reveal. And he doesn't - he can't take it as a sign for what he wants, desperately, for it to be, but Arthur has been King of Camelot for five years. He's married to a woman he knows full well is in love with another man, and specifically pardoned his banishment so he could come back and claim his knighthood and her love. There are no laws prohibiting the practice of magic, only the effects of said magic, and whether they are acts of charity or treason. He has retained Merlin as his manservant, despite the fact that Merlin gives him lip and has done so since the moment they met. He is the King, and thus capable of quashing any rumors before they spread, but the one where everyone assumes that they're lovers, that one, he leaves alone.
"If I'd told you," Merlin says, his voice faint, "I'd have to tell you why he was two inches taller, with red hair instead of black."
Five years, Merlin thinks, is a long time to love someone.
Arthur's brows pull together, puzzled. "You… dyed his hair?"
Oh, for -
"No, you prat," Merlin snaps, taking a step away from the wall, his hands balled at his sides. "He had pale skin and a big forehead and tattoos on his arms that didn't wash off, because I didn't disguise him, I changed him."
After a moment, Merlin adds, "With magic," because if he was going to do this, he was going to be perfectly clear about it.
"Oh," Arthur says, and he doesn't look shocked, or horrified, or (and the most likely, in Merlin's opinion) flatly disbelieving. In fact, he looks rather a bit like that actually answers his questions, rather than calling up more.
"Just that?" Merlin asks, his voice cracking a bit. "Oh? That's all I get for telling you I'm a bloody warlock?"
"Well, I knew that," Arthur snaps, and just like that, Merlin's entire world turns upside down.
"Oh," he says, his turn now, but he feels faint, dizzy, he feels like everything solid has turned to water. He has to sit down, has to bury his face in his knees and cling to his ankles. Good Lord, Arthur knew.
"How long," he croaks, because this is important, this will determine exactly how long his life has been wasted.
Arthur, who is sinking down to join him on the floor, heedless of his state of undress, sucks in a breath and lets it out slow. "Long enough," he murmurs, which isn't an answer at all.
Arthur stares at him with wide, surprised eyes, like Merlin's anger genuinely confuses him. "Since before my father's death," he says, reluctantly, and Merlin knows it isn't the whole truth. "And long enough before that."
Groaning, Merlin lets his head fall back down. He's changed his mind, he doesn't want to know exactly when. Five years. Arthur has been King for five years, and he's known, all along -
"You knew, and you appointed that half-wit as your Magician?!" Merlin says sharply, his head snapping up so he can glare at his atrocious, traitorous King - his King, who's trying not to smile, making a valiant effort but failing rather badly, until he finally huffs out a laugh.
Merlin honestly can't remember the last time Arthur sounded so happy, and he spares a moment for indulgent despair, in between righteous indignation.
"I knew I already had one," he says, his voice lazy and redolent and horribly warm. "I couldn't risk someone with actual power in that position, God knows I don't trust anyone but you." Merlin's heart is already in his throat, and Arthur reaches up and brushes a lock of dark hair out of Merlin's face, offhanded, like he doesn't know perfectly well how intimate it is.
"Then… why," Merlin gasps, desperation pulling his voice as taut as a bowstring. "Why, Arthur? Why did you…"
"Keep you around?"
Arthur's voice is not what Merlin expects, so he looks at him, and does not see the confident smile of Camelot's King (a smirk, once, and Arthur still smirks at times but Merlin taught him to smile) - what's on his face is something Merlin's never, not in all their years together, seen.
Merlin's breath stops dead in his chest.
"Don't you get it," Arthur whispers, with half a smile that's rueful and cracked open and real. "If I elevated you, if I gave you the title and rank and privilege that you deserve, and believe me, Merlin, there is no one in Camelot who deserves it more - but if I did that." The King swallows, and Merlin watches it almost in slow motion, the words seeming to take ages to reach his brain. "If I did that, you wouldn't be mine any longer."
Somehow, in the years that Merlin has bent over backwards to bring out the best Arthur has to offer - a best that shines, brilliant and pure, a best that's expanding Camelot without war, spreading like fire, starting the quest once prophesized by a Great Dragon, for a mythical land called Albion - somehow, Merlin has forgotten. That Arthur's faults were once those of an egotistical, spoiled brat - to be selfish, to be entitled, to be righteous. Arthur is the most selfless person that Merlin knows, but he is human. And he reserves his humanity for only one.
"Oh," Merlin breathes, the word gusting out into the silence between them.
"Oh," Arthur echoes, his face downcast, his eyes fixed at a point on the floor.
"That's very selfish of you," Merlin continues.
"Yes," Arthur agrees.
"Do you know," and Merlin feels like he's soaring, lighter than air, happiness expanding inside him like a balloon, "I don't think anyone else would believe you if you told them."
Arthur looks up - when he sees Merlin's face, the brightness and teasing inside it, some of his sorrow siphons off. "Oh?"
"Oh," Merlin responds, because he's completely ridiculous and Arthur loves him. He cannot possibly stop himself from smiling, ear to ear. "And rightly so. I went through a lot of effort to make you appear presentable."
Arthur laughs, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. "You did, yes. Pity it's just an appearance."
"Quite a pity! And of course I'm the only one who knows it. You just save it all up, and then you come home to me, and you throw off the royal cloak of being a wonderful, good, patient sort of person - "
Arthur leans in and kisses him, just like that. It feels both entirely new and achingly familiar, like this is something they should have done - should have been doing, over and over again - for years upon years upon years. When Merlin's hands come up and clutch tight to Arthur's (ridiculous, perfect, unfairly handsome) jaw, he feels alive, he feels justified. He feels... warm.
Arthur's fingertips brush his shoulder, almost shy, and the thought makes Merlin scoff in the back of his throat. Apparently, that was Arthur's way of asking for permission, because suddenly the King's hands are moving - taking the hem of Merlin's shirt and yanking it up, trying to get at skin.
"You're such an idiot," Merlin hisses, and with a snap - he doesn't really need to but Arthur took the all the wind out of his sails, the least he can do is attempt to impress him - his clothes, and what little of Arthur's remained, are halfway across the room.
Arthur sucks in a surprised breath like he hadn't actually thought about the practical uses of bedding a magician.
"Idiot," Merlin says again, because really, it bears repeating. He shoves at Arthur's shoulders, feels a frisson of pleasure at the way Arthur just... lets him, doesn't fight it when Merlin shoves him down instead and straddles his hips. "You know we could have been doing this for years, right?"
Merlin bites at his neck and Arthur makes a softly strangled noise, hands grasping aimlessly at his hips like he doesn't know what to do. "Getting that impression now, yeah.Can't say it ever occurred to me that you might - fuck," he hisses, and Merlin sits up with a satisfied, catlike grin at the rather nice mark he's left just a little too high on Arthur's neck.
Arthur, who felt him mouth there and bite down, and let him do it.
"Then you're an idiot twice over," Merlin mutters. "Thrice, if you count the bit with the Court Magician. Really, Arthur," and he grinds their hips together inelegantly, savors the way it makes Arthur cry out sudden and startled, "I've spent every day since we met telling you how much I love you, you gigantic prat."
"See," Arthur says, his voice still uneven and disjointed, "you say that, and you insult me in the same breath. How was I supposed to - Christ, Merlin - "
"No," Merlin hisses, soft and dangerous with his lips over Arthur's, his hand wrapped tight around them both. "You don't say His name when I'm in your bed, you say mine."
Arthur's blue eyes fly wide open, and he just... gapes, uncomprehending, at the wild fey thing above him that he's somehow managed to unleash. If the way his cock throbs under Merlin's fingers is any indication, though, he isn't complaining. Just speechless.
"And for the record," Merlin continues, "I have saved your life - literally more times than you can count, more times than you ever even realized you were in danger. I tell you you're a prat because that's what you are, and I love you far too much to lie to you, to say what you want to hear, my lord. I have put up with you, despite being a first class warlock in bloody Camelot, not because it's my destiny, not because I care about status and ownership - because I've been bloody mad for you, you massive," he thrusts their hips together, mimicking an act he wants very much to do right at this second but absolutely, positively, is not going to be able to get to, "enormous," and another thrust, right into the motion of his hand on both their cocks, "arsehole."
"Oh, God, you do love me," Arthur whimpers, and comes all over himself and Merlin and Merlin's hand.
"Yes," Merlin breathes, after a silent moment where he comes as well and the roaring in his ears drowns out everything, everything but Arthur. "Yes, I do. And I'm keeping you, so you'd better hire yourself a new manservant, because I fully intend to be much too busy fucking you, or being fucked, to keep up with my duties. Sire." The last is said around a yawn, which is exactly what Merlin thinks of his duties and also the entire past five years, which are frankly quite ridiculous in retrospect.
Arthur blows out a breath like he's too spent to be turned on by that declaration, but acknowledges that he would definitely find it quite titillating at any other time. "You're the bane of my existence, darling. What about doing magic and saving my life?"
Merlin snorts. "Don't be daft, I find the time for that already. Obviously, that's all I can handle in addition to the ludicrous amounts of sex we're going to have."
"Right," Arthur agrees, half-asleep already. "I'll work it out in the morning."
In the morning, Arthur instates Merlin as Court Magician, keeping his predecessor around as an assistant and useful figurehead. Quite useful, because Arthur never really gets around to finding a new manservant, Merlin never really stops doing his job (which, now that he doesn't have to hide his shortcuts, he's quite competent at) and anyway, they're both far too busy. Ludicrous amounts of sex, it turns out, is a fantastic waste of time. Which is to say, it wastes a fantastic amount of time, and neither Arthur nor Merlin can think of a better way to spend it.
"I don't believe it," Gwen says, as all four of them sprawl together in Arthur's rooms in a loose-limbed pile of sleepy royalty and sleepier consorts. "You've been married since you two met, I simply cannot believe it took you this long to admit it."
"Never underestimate Arthur's stupidity," Merlin reminds them, and it earns him a cuff on the back of the head, but for the first time in a long time, they're all laughing, smiling, feeling young and whole again.
Arthur's face fades to a soft smile, then, and his hand strokes down the side of Merlin's cheek. "I had to be," he murmurs, and they're all listening - he knows they can hear him and it doesn't matter, he's speaking to Merlin as if there's nothing else in the world. "If there was even the slightest possibility that you would take it badly - I would have rather had you in my life, and not had you, than.... than the alternative."
Merlin tips his head back, looks up at his king with clear blue eyes.
"I will always be yours."