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Merlin wakes to utter darkness. His neck aches, the back of his head damp with partly-clotted blood, and when he tries to move he finds he is weighted down by a length of chain that stretches an unknown distance into the blackness of his prison. There is cold iron around his wrists, his magic dimmed to a faint flicker that does little more than stir the air when he attempts to free himself, and its sudden, appalling absence is so shocking that Merlin reacts before he can help it, emptying the contents of his stomach onto the stony floor.

 

There’s a shuffling sound a little to his left, then a familiar hand finds his wrist and grips it tightly. “Finally,” Arthur says, and in the dark his voice is thin and tight with relief, completely unlike his usual arrogance. “You’ve been out of it for hours.”

 

“Sorry, sire,” Merlin manages, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. His heart seems to be caught on a hook at the base of his throat, making it hard to swallow. He has no magic. He has no magic. Nausea roils in his gut. “What happened?”

 

There is a brief pause, as though Arthur is weighing up just how much bad news his manservant can handle. “How much do you remember?”

 

“Not a lot,” Merlin admits. A routine patrol, an ordinary ride, interrupted by an equally ordinary ambush. “There were bandits.”

 

“There were bandits,” Arthur confirms. There is something grim in his tone which tells Merlin this is not the whole of it. “There was also a sorcerer.”

 

Merlin sighs. “Of course there was.”

 

As it turns out, there was also a magical beast, and there was also a sacrifice.

 

“Us, as it happens,” Arthur says. Now that he’s more awake, Merlin can hear the bitterness underlying his words; Arthur does not enjoy being taken off-guard, and he despises being helpless. “Apparently the beast has a taste for human flesh—of the royal variety.”

 

That explains the chains, though not the darkness. “Let me guess,” Merlin says, levering himself slowly into a sitting position. “It lives in a cave.”

 

“Something like that,” Arthur replies. His fingers ghost up Merlin’s arm, touching his neck, the back of his head, and for the first time Merlin registers his own tremors, the way his body is shaking so hard that Arthur can obviously feel it. “Merlin? Are you all right?”

 

“I’m fine,” Merlin says, although he isn’t. Arthur makes a sceptical sound but doesn’t ask again, and Merlin doesn’t blame him. They have more pressing problems just at the moment.

 

Both of them agree that the first step in their escape plan has to be getting rid of their bindings, but this is easier said than done. As best they can discover in the darkness of the cave, they have both been shackled to the same length of chain, which runs through an iron ring driven deep into the rock face before linking back to their wrists and ankles. 

 

“We’re going to have to pull it loose,” Arthur says, like this is somehow an achievable goal. Maybe if they weren’t both chained to the wall; maybe if Merlin still had his magic. “Perhaps it’s only a few inches deep—if so, our combined weight should be enough to dislodge it.”

 

Merlin agrees half-heartedly, but although they pull at the ring with what remains of their strength, it doesn’t budge. Arthur keeps trying for a few moments longer, unwilling to give up, but Merlin sinks to his knees on the floor of their prison, breathing shallowly through his mouth to avoid the smell of sick. The stone beneath him is damp and unyielding, and he already knows in his bones that they cannot get out. The darkness seems to have swallowed them up, its smothering weight like that of a slavering mouth. 

 

 

+

 

 

There is no way of telling time in the cave; Merlin only knows that it passes. Somewhere there is the sound of water dripping, and it seems to become louder as the minutes wear on, combined with Arthur’s harsh breaths and intermittent swearing. It could be Merlin’s imagination, but he has a vague impression that the light has changed: instead of things being easier to see as his eyes adjust, it has become harder to discern one shape from another, as if everything is faintly blurred. 

 

“When the beast comes,” Arthur says, and Merlin notes that it has become when, now, not if, “you’ll let me handle it. All right?”

 

“Whatever you say, Arthur.” Merlin has his cheek pressed against the cave wall, the stone rough against his skin. The world feels like it’s spinning around him, but it’s hard to be sure in the dark. “If you’d rather be eaten first, I’m not going to stop you.”

 

“I’m serious, Merlin.” At the other end of the chain, he can hear Arthur pacing. “It may be our best chance to escape. Or at least survive.”

 

Merlin doesn’t answer. Despite having his magic bound, he can sense the age-old energy of this place, the power that has seeped into every crevasse of the ancient rock-face. Whatever lives here is old, and very strong. Even unchained, even with his magic and Arthur’s sword, Merlin has a feeling that neither of them could best it in a fight. 

 

If it comes down to it, he is more than willing to protect Arthur with his life, but all things being equal he would rather that they both survive. Unfortunately, that means coming up with a way to get them both free and out of the cave before the beast finds them, and right now it’s all he can do to keep himself vaguely upright and breathing. The knot of what used to be his magic feels twisted in his chest, sharp-edged and painful, and the last time he’d vomited he’s pretty sure he tasted blood. 

 

“Gods damn it.” Arthur swears, and somewhere in the darkness Merlin hears the sound of his boot striking something that clatters. “There has to be a way out of this.”

 

“I don’t suppose you thought to slip a hammer and chisel into your shoe, or something?” Merlin offers, in a not-very-hopeful tone. “That might work.”

 

“Very funny.” 

 

“I wasn’t joking,” Merlin retorts, but it lacks his usual bite. “Otherwise, I don’t really see any way of getting out of here.”

 

“You’re just full of optimism and good cheer today, aren’t you, Merlin? I’m so glad I brought you along.”

 

“Believe me, sire, so am I.” Merlin shifts, letting out a small groan as the movement jostles his head. “Being knocked out and chained up in a cave, it’s just what I always wanted.”

 

Their chains rattle—Merlin can feel Arthur stalking towards him, and then gentle hands are cupping his face, probing the wound on the back of his head with blunt fingers. Merlin has stopped shivering now, but, as with hypothermia, he’s not entirely sure that’s a good sign. “Does it hurt?” Arthur asks, voice low. “Are you sleepy at all? Double vision?”

 

Merlin sighs, closing his eyes. It makes very little difference. “Hurts a bit,” he admits. In truth, the pounding of his head is nothing compared to the pain of having his magic restrained. “Can’t really tell if I’m seeing things, though, given how dark it is in here.”

 

“Fair point,” Arthur says, with a hollow laugh. His hands drop away from Merlin’s face, and Merlin wants to catch them and put them back, but Arthur would probably make fun of him if he did. Or maybe not—maybe now that they’re about to die, Arthur would let him, and he’s not sure whether that might not be worse. “They could at least have left us a light.”

 

“Why, so that we could see death coming?” Merlin asks, then wishes he hadn’t. Arthur doesn’t say anything, but he does sit down in the dirt beside Merlin, the warmth of his thigh pressed up against Merlin’s own, and maybe there is nothing more that needs to be said. Some things, after all, are beyond the need for words. 

 

 

+

 

 

Arthur hears the creature before Merlin does.

 

“It’s coming,” he says, straightening up. Merlin strains his ears but can hear very little besides his own breathing, ragged and panicked.

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“Of course I’m sure. I can hear it moving.”

 

The two of them stagger to their feet in concert, Merlin’s hands curling in Arthur’s tunic as he levers himself upright. Arthur tries to shove him back down, but Merlin plants his feet, determined, using his weight to shoulder Arthur back against the wall and shield him with his body. “Don’t be stupid,” Arthur hisses angrily, still trying to push him away. “You can hardly stand, you’re not going to take that thing on alone.” 

 

“Shut up,” Merlin snarls back. “I’m not moving. If only one of us is getting out of this alive, we both know it isn’t going to be me.”

 

Merlin—” Arthur chokes, but then falls silent. The beast is getting closer, close enough that even Merlin can’t miss the low rumble of its growl and the vibration of its feet as it approaches their prison. 

 

In a detached sort of way, Merlin wonders what kind of monster it is. This deep underground, the chances of it being something he is familiar with are slim, as are the chances that either of them will know how to defeat it. Still, there is an odd sense of familiarity to the situation, one that only grows as the creature enters the chamber where the two of them are tethered, its progress audible in the slither of scales against stone, the low, hissing breath like a rush of steam. In the darkness, he can see the vivid red of two luminous eyes glaring at them, and he is able to make out the blunt shape of a lizard-like head in the gloom, striated with blue scales that glitter as it moves.

 

It’s not until he hears the second, rattling inhale that Merlin is certain of what they’re facing, but it’s another moment or two before he can quite believe it. He has met exactly one dragon in his life, and that one had left an indelible impression, but Kilgharrah had spent so long trying to get out of the dark that it hadn’t occurred to him to wonder where a wild dragon might live, had it been left to its own devices. He hadn’t thought there were any of them left alive.

 

Then the rattling becomes a roar, and Merlin suddenly realises what is about to happen.

 

“Arthur, get down!” he shouts, flinging himself bodily at the prince just as a jet of bright orange flame fills the cave. It singes the air a mere hair’s breadth above his head, causing his skin to curl with the molten heat, but the tackle was well-timed: he and Arthur hit the ground before the flame can do any damage, the impact knocking the breath out of them both. A painful glare illuminates the cavern, and Merlin has the brief impression of rock walls that are scored with burn marks, some of them so old that their edges have been softened with green moss. He is almost certain he can see the white flash of bones on the floor before the flame winks out, leaving only a brilliant after-image and the impression of a voice, older than stone, a low, deep pressure on his eardrums that makes them feel fit to burst. Dragon-kin, the beast says. Emryssss.

 

Merlin’s ears are ringing, and he can feel his magic clawing to be let out, tearing at him from the inside. Burning alongside it is a fierce exultation. He may not have his powers, but he can do this: he can keep Arthur from dying one last time. 

 

Ω δράκε,” he gasps. “άκουσε με. μην αγγίξεις αυτόν τον άνδρα, τον έναν και μελλοντικό βασιλιά.

 

The dragon lets out a hiss, its eyes flashing red and smoke billowing from its nostrils, but it lowers its head, submitting to Merlin’s request despite the weakness of his command. Pinned beneath him, he can feel Arthur stiffen with shock as the creature backs audibly away. “Merlin, what are you doing?”

 

“Saving your life,” Merlin huffs. The pounding in his temples so loud he can barely hear himself speak—he doesn’t have time to answer Arthur’s questions at the moment. “Ελευθέρωσε μας και δεν θα σε βλάψουμε. Σπάσε τις αλυσίδες μας!” 

 

The dragon’s throat rattles again in answer: this time, the burst of flame is thinner and much more concentrated, more like a stream than an uncontrolled blaze. It strikes the iron ring driven into the rock with a ringing chime that seems to fill the cavern, and the chain gives way before it, falling in two as cleanly as if it had been cut with a knife.

 

Σ' ευχαριστώ,” Merlin says, with the last of his strength. “Φύγε ειρηνικά.”

 

He isn’t sure he even notices the moment when his eyelids close. 

 

 

+

 

 

He wakes up again, briefly, when Arthur breaks the shackles free from his wrists and feet. Without the cold iron to bind him, magic pours back into his body like a flood, choking and drowning, and he writhes for a moment in the dirt, fighting to keep his head above water. 

 

“For God’s sake, Merlin, be quiet,” Arthur hisses, pulling him close and clamping a hand over his mouth. “Are you trying to get yourself caught?” 

 

Merlin hadn’t even been aware that he was screaming, but the effort of holding back the sound is enough to send him under again, white-hot pain searing behind his eyelids. 

 

After that, he doesn’t resurface for a long time. 

 

 

+

 

 

The next time he regains consciousness, it is full dark, and Arthur is sitting a few feet away with his knees curled in close to his chest, watching him. There is no fire—Arthur had obviously thought it too great a risk—but the moon is bright enough that Merlin can make out his expression, or rather, the lack of it, his blue eyes made blank and dark by shadows, greyed with exhaustion. 

 

“Arthur?” Merlin turns towards him and tries to sit up, but the movement makes his head spin. In a moment, the prince is beside him, helping him to lie back on the damp grass, and when Merlin’s stomach has stopped trying to climb out through his throat he says hoarsely, “Are we safe?”

 

“For the time being.” Arthur’s voice is low and clipped, but his hands are gentle as he helps Merlin sip from his water-skin. The bandits had taken their weapons, but they hadn’t bothered to strip them, apparently, because Merlin can see Arthur’s flint resting not far off, alongside their discarded chains and cuffs. “We’ll head for Camelot at first light, so try and get some sleep.”

 

He has to know—has to have worked out what Merlin is by now. All of Merlin’s secrets have spilled out of him, littering the night like the dried-up bones in the dragon’s cavern, the truth lying bare between them in a manner that is both tragic and violent. And yet, Arthur gives no sign that there is anything amiss. He settles back down next to Merlin, wiping a dribble of moisture from Merlin’s mouth with his thumb and giving a silent quirk of his lips, his fingertips lingering for a moment longer than is absolutely necessary. 

 

“Go to sleep,” he says again, something like the usual fondness creeping into his tone. “I’ll keep watch.”  

 

Merlin wants to protest, unsettled by the strangeness of an Arthur who knows but is neither angry nor afraid, but his entire body aches with exhaustion and already sleep has hold of him, dragging him down. His magic pulses beneath his skin like a second heart, his breathing slow and even, and against his will he feels his eyes close. 

 

 

+

 

 

The next morning is strange in a different way. Arthur shakes Merlin awake just after dawn, a finger to his lips, and the two of them scramble into the undergrowth just in time to avoid a group of men that is making its way slowly through the trees towards them. Merlin assumes they must be bandits at first, until one of them passes close enough for him to see the tell-tale crimson cloak of Camelot’s guard. Instead of breaking cover to reveal himself, however, Arthur drags Merlin down by the scruff of his neck and holds him there, clamping one hand over his mouth so that Merlin can’t even ask what the hell is going on. 

 

Arthur’s body is warm pressed up against his, his hands rough and calloused. Merlin can hear him breathing softly near his ear, the low, tense breaths of a man unused to being hunted. Merlin can count on one hand the number of times he’s known Arthur to be afraid, but there is something close to fear in the way he sits now, crouched under a berry bush laden with dew, his blue eyes fixed on the booted feet as they tramp past. 

 

At last, when the men are well out of hearing range, the prince lets Merlin go and he gets to his feet, shaking off the clinging ghost of Arthur’s touch along with the dirt.

 

“Those were King Uther’s men, you realise,” he says, brushing a few wayward twigs out of his hair. “They were probably out looking for us.”

 

“Probably,” Arthur says, sounding distracted. He is looking in the direction that his father’s men had gone, a conflicted expression on his face, but he seems in no hurry to chase after them, nor to explain the reason why he hadn’t wanted them to know that they were there. “If we start now, we should have a fair lead on them by the time we reach the edge of the forest.”

 

“Right.” Merlin folds his arms and tries to look stern, though he suspects he merely ends up looking stubborn. “And why do we need to get a head start, exactly? They’re your father’s men—surely they’re not a danger to us.”

 

“Not to me, maybe,” Arthur says. “But to a sorcerer? They’d kill you where you stand.”

 

It’s the first time Arthur has mentioned the word out loud, and Merlin can’t help the way his body tenses, the sudden shock hitting his senses like a fist to the gut. “They can’t—I mean, it’s not like it’s obvious,” he says. “They can’t tell just by looking at me that I’m—what I am.”

 

“No?” Arthur raises a sceptical eyebrow. “Merlin, look around you. Do you see anything that might possibly be a bit unusual? A little bit obvious?”


For a moment, Merlin is nonplussed. He glances around the clearing, taking in the trees, the wildflowers, the...large clump of glistening berry-bushes, laden with fruit, which definitely hadn’t been there a few minutes ago. Now that he comes to think about it, the forest seems to be awfully full of life just here, as though someone—or something—were conjuring it out of the very soil even as he watches, eager and insatiable. 

 

“Oh,” he says, staring. 

 

“I take it that this has never happened before,” Arthur says, folding this arms. “Or are you really so incompetent that you don’t know when you’re performing sorcery?” 

 

“I’m not incompetent,” Merlin says indignantly. “I don’t know why it’s doing that—I mean, obviously it doesn’t usually, or I’d have been caught long before now.” He bites his lip. “I suppose it might be because of the restraints. The cold iron trapped it for a while, but now that it's free, it's almost like it's overcompensating.” 

 

Arthur rolls his eyes, looking put-upon, before he plucks one of the berries from the nearest bush and pops it into his mouth.

 

“At least they taste good,” he says, handing a couple to Merlin to try. “A few of them ought to hold us until we get back to the citadel. We’ll have to get you to Gaius and see if he can do something to fix your—affliction.” 

 

Merlin stops eating, the ripe fruit suddenly turning to ashes in his mouth. “And then?” he says, apprehensively. A small bird pops into existence on one of the tree branches and begins to trill a bright little song that feels completely out of place given the solemnity of the moment. “Are you—I mean, who else were you planning on telling about my—this?”

 

It takes Arthur a moment to parse that sentence, his cheeks going white then red as the meaning sinks in. “No one, you idiot,” he growls, the sound coming from somewhere low in his throat. “Do you honestly think I value you so little that I'd turn you over to the king like—like a common criminal? Do you have any idea what my father would do—”

 

“I was under the impression you hardly valued me at all,” Merlin starts to say, but Arthur is already kissing him, shoving him up against a tree and licking into his mouth like it’s the one thing he needs to live. Merlin whimpers a little—he’s not ashamed to admit it—and spares a moment to be very glad he has something firm at his back. He’s not sure his system can take this many shocks in such quick succession.

 

Then Arthur’s hands are cradling his head again, keeping it from thudding against the bark, and Arthur is gasping against his lips, “I forgot, your head—are you—?”

 

“Fine,” Merlin says, chasing Arthur’s mouth. “Not hurting.”

 

“Really?” Arthur draws back a little, frowning. “Because yesterday you were—”

 

“Completely fine,” Merlin says, which is a lie, but having his magic back seems to have reduced his earlier suffering to something inconsequential. Or perhaps that’s merely the effect of Arthur’s mouth. “Now shut up and kiss me.”

 

Arthur laughs, but doesn’t seem inclined to argue further, and he allows Merlin to strip him of his shirt with practiced fingers, made only a little clumsy by the exigency of need. When Merlin reaches for his belt, however, Arthur catches his wrists and draws his hands away, pinning them above his head until all Merlin can do is squirm and buck as Arthur bites kisses into the length of his neck. Admittedly, he could probably have escaped without much effort, but Arthur seems to have guessed that he likes it like this, likes the weight of that big, broad body against his own and the feel of a heavy cock rutting against his thigh. 

 

“I thought you were dead,” the prince murmurs, nosing at the skin beneath Merlin’s jaw, “back in that cave, Merlin, and then after—you wouldn’t stop screaming, and I thought—”

 

“Clearly not dead,” Merlin tells him, in case there was any doubt, and grinds his hips into Arthur’s own to prove it. “I’m perfectly fine, actually, so if you could just—”

 

Arthur lets out a groan that sounds more like a curse and kisses him again, hot and filthy, muttering something about his manservant getting too big for his britches so he should probably take them off. He tastes of berries and fresh water, the iciness of new snowmelt still clinging to his lips and tongue, and Merlin drinks him in in little sips, straining to get closer. Per usual, Arthur refuses to oblige, pulling away every time Merlin leans in to taste him, and Merlin is aware that he is making small noises of frustration in the back of his throat.

 

At last, Arthur draws away, breathing hard as he rests their foreheads together.

 

“Hold on,” he says, and at first it seems like a nonsense command, but then he’s pulling away and wrapping Merlin’s hands around a convenient tree branch to fix him in place and oh, now it makes sense. Merlin barely has time to wonder what Arthur is planning before the prince has dropped to his knees in the dirt, using both of his newly-freed hands to spread Merlin’s knees wide in front of him. 

 

“Jesus fuck,” Merlin breathes eloquently, watching with wide eyes as Arthur undoes his belt in a few quick movements and takes his cock in hand. He gives it an experimental stroke, and Merlin’s knees falter, only his white-knuckled grip on the tree branch keeping him upright. A helpful vine slides down from he tree and wraps itself around his wrists for good measure, and Merlin keens, wondering how the hell this became his life. “You’re trying to kill me.”

 

“Not as such,” Arthur mutters, before leaning forward and licking delicately at the head of Merlin’s cock, like a cat testing the temperature of a bowl of cream. Merlin lets out a choked sound, and apparently Arthur finds the taste to his liking because he begins to suck in earnest, those pink lips closing over Merlin’s glistening cock-head like it’s a tasty treat. Unable to help himself, Merlin bucks up hard into the wet heat of Arthur’s mouth, and the prince catches at his hips to hold him in place, laving Merlin’s slit with his tongue in a way that makes him want to scream. 

 

“I should have let the dragon roast you,” he gasps, untangling himself with one hand to bury his fingers in Arthur’s hair. “I would have let her kill us both if I’d known you were just going to finish the job.”


“Be quiet,” Arthur grunts, drawing back to mouth at Merlin’s cock again and making him shudder. “Don’t want—patrol to hear—”

 

Merlin can only moan in response, panting helplessly as Arthur takes him into his mouth. “I hate you,” he chokes, as Arthur takes firm hold of him to ensure he can’t move. “I really think I—you need to—”

 

He cuts off with a garbled cry as Arthur, perhaps in retaliation for Merlin’s lack of obedience, hollows out his cheeks and begins to torture him with suction. He laps at Merlin’s cock, lavishing it with his lips and tongue until Merlin’s eyes roll back and he hangs limp from the tree vine, small sounds of ecstasy being wrung from his throat.

 

“Arthur, please,” he whimpers finally. “You have to—I need you to let me come—”

 

“I don’t have to do anything,” Arthur says, smirking up at him with that spit-slick mouth. “You, on the other hand, need to spread your legs.”

 

For once in his life, Merlin does as he’s told without arguing, and is rewarded a moment later when two of Arthur’s fingers find his hole and press their way inside. The burn is almost too much, and Merlin tips his head back with a groan, gripping hold of the tree even harder as his muscles spasm around Arthur’s fingers. He barely has the presence of mind to whisper a spell that will make the passage easier, and Arthur doesn’t make any comment at the magically-induced slickness that suddenly coats his hand, choosing instead to make his feelings known by thrusting his fingers deeper into Merlin’s body. 

 

Merlin fucks himself on them with reckless abandon, desperate for something to reduce the pressure, and when Arthur nuzzles his face into his crotch and tongues at his balls for the second time, Merlin comes with a shout that echoes through the woods, startling a flock of nesting birds from the trees. The vine squeezes once around his wrist and then withdraws, hanging still and innocent against the trunk once more, and Merlin struggles to catch his breath. 

 

“You can let go, now,” Arthur says after a moment, and it takes far longer than it ought to have done for Merlin to remember the branch, his free hand still wrapped around it so tightly the bark has left impressions in his palm. He lets go, sinking back against the tree on wobbly legs, but before he can complete his slide towards the ground Arthur’s arms are wrapped around him and his face is buried in the sweat-slick hollow of Merlin’s neck, tasting the salt of him. 

 

“Oh no you don’t,” Arthur murmurs in his ear, the vibration of his voice sending an answering aftershock curling through Merlin’s body. “I’m not done with you yet.”

 

“I knew you were trying to kill me,” Merlin says, his voice slurred, but Arthur just laughs as he rolls him onto the grass, pinning him down for another searing kiss. 

 

 

+

 

 

“Your stupidity is going to be the death of you one day, though,” Arthur says later, when the two of them are lying spent and tangled together beneath the oak. It’s strange, being out of doors like this; not that nudity in itself is strange to Merlin, but he has an idea it ought to be more prickly. He suspects his magic might be doing something. “You can’t keep leaping in front of dragons to protect me.”

 

“It worked this time, didn’t it?” Merlin reminds him. “Why argue with success?”

 

“Because it’s reckless, and dangerous, and Gaius wouldn’t approve.” Arthur’s arms tighten around Merlin’s waist. “And if I have to step in to save you from yourself, I will.” 

 

“Mm.” Merlin is too comfortable to really find this threat distressing, especially since Arthur is stroking one hand over his skin, drawing slow circles on his hip that are gradually dipping lower towards his cock. “And how exactly are you going to do that, do you think?”

 

“I haven’t decided yet.” Arthur nuzzles against the back of his neck, and Merlin can feel the echo of a dull pain where the bandits had knocked him out, now reduced to little more than a distant ache. His magic is probably doing something about that, too, but at least it seems to have stopped creating unexpected wildlife for the time being. “Perhaps I’ll keep you locked up in my chambers from now on. That ought to stop you from causing any more trouble.”

 

“I could just escape out the window,” Merlin points out logically. “I could call a dragon and fly off after you. You wouldn’t be able to stop me.”

 

Arthur makes a derisive sound. “You would, too. Perhaps I’ll have to leave you bound and gagged until I can come back for you.” Merlin’s cock gives a little twitch at the mental image, and Arthur, whose hand has slipped idly down to trace the torpid length of it, lets out an interested hum. After a moment, however, he says slowly, “I thought Gaius said that only a Dragonlord can command dragons.”

 

Merlin can’t help tensing a little. “He did.”

 

“Then how—”

 

“Balinor was my father,” Merlin says, rushing the words out as if that might stop the pain. “Now that he’s dead, I’m—I’m the last Dragonlord.”

 

There is a long silence, during which Merlin revises all of the spells he’s ever learned that might be used to facilitate concealment and escape. None of them, he knows, will make it any easier to deal with the sting of rejection, not to mention finally getting a taste of all the things he could have had with Arthur, only to have them cruelly snatched away at the last moment. But Gaius would want him to try, even though the last thing Merlin feels like doing is leaving Arthur’s side.

 

Finally, Arthur lets out a long sigh, his chin coming to rest against Merlin’s shoulder. “We are going to talk about this,” he promises, his voice a warm breath in Merlin’s ear. “And you are going to explain to me what the hell you thought you were doing, coming to Camelot when it’s obvious you’re as magical as that bloody unicorn. But for now…” There is a sliver of regret in his voice as he kisses Merlin’s throat and disentangles himself, handing Merlin his clothes before beginning to pull his own shirt over his head. “We need to get moving. I meant to be well away from here by the time the sun came up, but as it is I’ll settle for being out of range before noon. And then…” He looks at Merlin. “They’ll be waiting, back at the citadel. Father probably has half the guard out searching for us already, if that patrol was any indication.”

 

It was a question, but it was also not a question at all.

 

“Gaius will be worried sick,” Merlin agrees, stretching. He doesn’t miss the way Arthur’s eyes follow the motion of his muscles beneath the skin before flicking quickly back to his face, and grins. Suddenly, he can foresee a lot of ‘accidental’ shirtlessness in his future. “The sooner we get back to Camelot, the better.” 

 

“Are you sure?” Arthur asks, serious now. “You could go anywhere. I won’t try to stop you.”

 

“I know you won’t,” Merlin says fondly. He catches hold of Arthur’s tunic and drags him down for a slow, sweet kiss. “But until you can go on a simple patrol without almost getting fed to a dragon, I'm not letting you out of my sight."

 

"So you're my bodyguard, now, is that it?"

 

"It's a tough job," Merlin says, with a mocking sigh. "But someone has to do it."