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Arthur Touches Merlin More Than He Absolutely Has To

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"You're a bloody idiot, Merlin," Arthur tries to sound irritated, but his tone comes off more deeply concerned, verging on tearful, than anything else. Merlin spares him a loose smile as he watches the blond prince with foggy vision.

He's currently being carried by a number of knights, who he presumes are taking him back to the palace for treatment. He finds it funny, at least a little ironic, that so many noble men are trying their hardest - risking making themselves vulnerable, open to attack like never before - in order to save his life. He's nothing but a servant - why should any of them care about him?

Mere moments before, they'd been creeping peacefully about the forest. Merlin had been strung along, carrying Arthur's heavy weapons like some sort of a mule, forced to stick beside him as they moved, even despite the growing terror in his chest. He sucked it up, as he always did, and continued along, but stopped abruptly when there came a low growling.

The bushes rustled and, in the time it took Merlin to identify where the sound was coming from, a creature he'd never seen before had come bounding out of the foliage, making a straight line in Arthur's direction. Normally when Merlin panicked, something fantastic would happen. He might stop time, might utter a quick incantation instinctively, ending the creature's attack before it had begun.

Now, though, he was rendered utterly useless. Magically speaking, that is, because once he had assessed the situation and drawn the conclusion that there would be no sparkling blue light pouring from him to save Arthur's life, he decided another course of action.

Flinging the weapons to the floor, Merlin acted faster than lightning. He began yelling, screaming nonsense at the creature, rushing past Arthur and jumping in front of him. The creature's attack hit him, and hit him hard. He fell straight to the floor, feeling blood gushing from just about everywhere in an instant. He didn't know what the creature did, didn't know where it came from nor what it wanted, but as soon as it believed it had killed him it began to retreat.

He cast a quick look around and saw the knights all in a frenzy. Some looked outraged, patriotism overwhelming them, making them shake and contemplate the inane idea of actually going after the creature. Others looked terrified, and Merlin identified more with this crowd; he had never been so afraid in his lifetime.

The large creature shook the earth as it left. Merlin could not say why it did so, why it gave up the fight it would have so easily won, but he was grateful. On the forest floor, face covered in dirt and body feeling soaking wet already, he knew he couldn't look down. No matter what great being he was, no matter his destiny, Merlin had never been the best with gore, and knew if he looked at his wounds he would be a goner.

Even still, when he sought Arthur, the look on the prince's face told him all he needed to know. Arthur looked stunned. He looked like he'd never seen anything like it, like he knew then and there Merlin was going to die, and there was absolutely nothing he could do about it. There was a conflicting vibe emanating from him, like he didn't know which to be more afraid of: Merlin's premature demise, or his complete inability to do anything to prevent it.

"Merlin," he spoke kindly to him at first, though his voice seemed distant with Merlin's fading hearing, "Merlin, you're going to be alright."

The last thing Merlin could properly remember hearing was Arthur shouting demands at nearby knights, something about getting back to Camelot as quickly as possible, and then Merlin's limbs were lifted one by one and their ever-so-long journey began. The entire time, all Merlin had to look at was Arthur watching him, scanning his body continuously for his wounds. There was nowhere else he would have rather looked.

Though he knew not how long it would take to return, he judged later that approximately half way through the trip Arthur sighed, seeming to resign, giving in to something he had been fighting. His gaze seemed to weaken, the steel all but gone from him entirely, and he reached out a hand to brush against Merlin's cheek.

His touch was feather-light. Had Merlin not known any better, he might presume that it was that of an angel, preparing to take his soul up to heaven. However, as he saw Arthur and the way the prince was looking at him, he knew this was not the case. Arthur's hand travelled upwards, brushing his fingers through Merlin's dark hair, pushing it back out of his face. The warlock let his eyes shut, and then the world went black.

When he finally came back to himself, it was much later on. He was sat, bandaged and warm, in a bed. Not his own, mind, for this bed felt soft, incredibly clean, and had three pillows that allowed him to sit up and stay upright without great strain (or, come to think of it, any strain at all) on his back. He looked around the room slowly, blinking the blurriness out of his vision.

There, he began to see, was a figure sat in the corner of the room, watching him. He did not feel threatened by the person's presence, but rather comforted. He squinted, trying to make out distinguishing features, but failed. He only saw who it was when they stood, obviously seeing that Merlin had begun to stir.

"Guinevere?" He asked groggily, watching as the figure - yes, indeed, it was his friend - grew nearer. There was a gentle smile on her face, one of true and undisputed joy. She looked almost as though she might cry.

"Oh, Merlin," she flung herself down to hug him, then pulled back just as quickly, thinking she might inadvertently hurt him further. "Sorry."

"It's alright," Merlin assured her, smiling, then furrowed his brow as he shook his head in confusion, "What happened?"

"You took the hit for Arthur," she reminded him, tone somewhere between incredulous and admiring. Was he brave or an idiot? "You almost died, Merlin."

"Well, I didn't," Merlin tried to lighten the mood, which was quickly turning dim and dismal, rather like he had died and yet was somehow attending his own funeral, "I suppose I have Gaius to thank for that."

"Yes," she let herself laugh a little, sounding breathy and yet upset still, "Yes, I think you do, as well as Arthur. If it wasn't for him, you'd have died out there in no time, or at least that's what Gaius says. Speaking of, I'd better go and let him know you've awoken; he demanded I waste no time chit-chatting if you did, and to report straight to him."

She bent down and kissed him gently on the forehead, then vanished out of the door. As the door closed lightly behind her, Merlin was left only with his own thoughts. Arthur had been the one to save his life? Perhaps not medically speaking, perhaps only physically in transporting him to Gaius, but did that mean Merlin was now indebted to the prince? As if there was more he could do for him, without breaking his own back.

Merlin smiled softly, but his mind still felt like a ruin. He wondered what Arthur's reaction would be to his wellness, whether he would insult him further or embrace him and celebrate his return to life. He shuffled back, getting himself lower and more comfortable into the unfamiliar amount of pillows, and began to drift off again.

In his dreams, however, he recalled the most peculiar of sensations. He remembered how it felt when Arthur had touched him, as though he were afraid he might break him in two. He thought of the lost look on the prince's face at the idea of losing Merlin, and he pondered whether or not Arthur would treat him like that again.

Whatever was going on?

**

Things are back to normal. Arthur, it turned out, was relatively unfazed by his near-death experience, and once Merlin was just fit enough to return to work, the prince put him to it. In a matter of days Arthur was jostling him about, ordering him to clean his armour and fetch his sword, dress him for battle and help him mount his horse. It seemed nothing at all had changed - almost, but not quite.

One evening, following a hard day of Arthur's training and Merlin's various other servant activities, the warlock is back where he's used to being, tending to the prince in his chambers. Arthur, as he always does, has seated himself at the table, and is awaiting Merlin's arrival with that evening's food.

Once Merlin stands before him, a steaming bowl in his hands, his expression seems to shift. He says nothing, however, as Merlin places the dish before him, and as he begins to eat the meal he is pleasantly silent - an unusual occurrence, Merlin comically notes. The warlock begins his round of tidying a little as the prince eats, busying himself by brushing down Arthur's bed and such.

"Merlin," Arthur sounds as though he's posing Merlin's name as a question, as opposed to an introduction to an undoubtedly long way of insulting the man, "Do you eat?"

"Do I eat?" Merlin repeats the question, then chuckles. "What sort of a question is that, sire?"

Arthur seems to note the contradictory mocking tone and formal title, and raises a displeased eyebrow to Merlin, who merely stands still and stares over at Arthur, safe across the room. He does not apologise, but also does not continue.

"I ask because you're always so... thin," Arthur casts his eyes down Merlin's body, and the latter begins to feel somewhat self-conscious when the prince's lip quirks, seeming disgusted. Shuffling on his feet, Merlin feels watched, and so he begins to break into an inexplicable nervous sweat. "Do you eat?"

"Well, I eat when I can, sire," Merlin explains plainly, "though not everybody can afford to feast once a week. Respectfully, I say that, of course."

"Of course," Arthur impersonates him, sounding snide. "Well, then, respectfully, I order you to join me."

"Join you?"

"Dine with me," Arthur elaborates, giving him a pointed look, gesturing to the empty space across from him. "Join me in a feast for two."

"I'd better not," Merlin declines, shaking his head and smiling nervously, though still managing to sound venomous as he quips, "Wouldn't want to ruin your meal with my... thinness, sire."

"Nonsense, Merlin," Arthur pushes his chair back, taking Merlin by surprise, and stands. He begins to make his way over to the warlock, effectively locking him in the corner, "Please, I ask that you come and dine with me. It won't take long; you'll be home in time for supper."

That's four whole hours away, Merlin wants to say, but refrains. He narrows his eyes, looking unsure, yet he does not flinch when Arthur's hand reaches out for him, planting itself firmly just above Merlin's waist, his fingers finding a home between his lower ribs. Merlin does not drop Arthur's gaze as he steps a little closer.

"Even through your shirt, Merlin," Arthur shakes his head, seeming sincerely disturbed, "I can feel your ribcage."

Arthur's hand lingers just a beat too long. Their eyes never once break contact but, when they mutually and silently acknowledge that what's happening is slipping into awkward territory, Arthur's eyes leave his and his hand is gone, as though it was never there. There is, however, an imprint left on Merlin, one that he doesn't think will ever let him forget how Arthur touched him.

"Sit, Merlin," Arthur sighs, returning to his seat and once more gesturing across the table, "Don't be such a girl."

This time, Merlin obeys. Feeling as though he were in a trance, captivated by the touch on his side and pulled in by the man, he says nothing as he crosses the room and takes a seat across from Arthur. Meanwhile, the prince has the audacity to look smug, as though he's finally won.

"Good," he says almost to himself, then shuffles a little closer to the table, picking up his spoon and gathering a little food on it, blowing it to reduce the heat and then abruptly reaching across the table to grasp Merlin's chin. He uses his thumb as leverage on Merlin, as though he needs any effort to move the malleable man, and prys his lips open, "Eat."

Merlin furrows his brow, a little lost, but does so anyway. He lets Arthur feed him, as though he were an incompetent child, and only begins to pull back after a few spoonfulls when he realises just how weird this would look should somebody enter the room. That's something he doesn't fancy trying to explain his way out of.

"Better?" Arthur asks him, smile tugging at his lips, but then this smile drops and he reaches back over for Merlin, though his movements are slower this time around. "Here."

He feels once more like a phantom as he gently brushes his thumb against Merlin's lips, seeming to clean up spilled food Merlin hadn't noticed yet. The warlock can only watch the prince as he does this, and there's a sense of emptiness when Arthur pulls back from him, looking satisfied with his amateur cleaning job.

Silence lingers. It swallows them whole, taking the both of them into its terrible depths. Merlin feels like he should say something, yet he has nothing to say. And, as it seems, Arthur doesn't intend to rid him of this awful plight, as he looks perfectly content to remain where he is - seated across from Merlin, looking at him with a pleased expression, just out of his reach.

The world stops for a moment. For a split second, it's the two of them and nobody else, but then there's a knock at the door. A knight Merlin's fried mind can't recall the name of tells Arthur they're ready for him (who's ready for him? Merlin might never recover enough to find out) and the prince is up and about, moving like nothing wildly strange and out of the ordinary had happened.

"Oh, Merlin," Arthur spares him one final look before he leaves, "Clean this up, would you?"

Merlin can only nod. He doesn't know why he feels dejected, doesn't know what he expected would happen between the two of them, can't even dare to put a name to what he's feeling right now. Instead, he smiles an absent smile, assuring Arthur wordlessly that he'll get it done, and then he's left alone, standing feeling hollow, in the wake of - well, whatever that was.

**

He's not quite sure how he got in this position. To be honest, that's the single statement that could sum up Merlin's entire life: how did he manage to get himself here? Here, as a sorcerer. Here, in Camelot. Here, at the servant of Prince Arthur, who never seems quite happy with him, only ever upset and dismayed for a wide variety of reasons.

Still, even he's surprised this time. Normally he has the sense of 'okay, not great, but what was I really expecting?', but now he's truly just at a loss for words. Well, coherent ones, anyway, because as he stands before Arthur as he readies his armour to make possibly the longest drawn-out point in history, Merlin wishes he could be just about anywhere else now.

"See, Merlin," Arthur speaks patronisingly, "This is how you do armour properly."

If Merlin weren't so stunned, he could perhaps express how much he wants to clobber Arthur right about now. The prince is being snooty, as he is pretty much all of the time, but now he's taking it too far. It doesn't feel like a joke, doesn't feel as though he's going to make his point and then crack a smile, and have it as a memory they can return to in the future and laugh about. No, it feels to Merlin that Arthur is deadly serious, and that is perhaps the scariest thing of all.

Arthur reaches out, grasping at the first item he finds which happens to be chain mail that even Merlin knows is meant to go over your head. He holds Merlin's eye for a second, then roughly tosses the item onto Merlin, and the warlock isn't entirely sure the purpose of the action isn't to hurt him.

"This," Arthur drops to his knees before him, obviously putting the armour on in the wrong way, and Merlin thinks that might just be exactly the point, "is meant for your shins."

"I know that," Merlin sounds breathier than he had intended, and hopes Arthur doesn't have the same realisation. Thankfully, it doesn't seem that he does.

The prince reaches around the back of his legs, bringing his face closer to the tops of Merlin's legs, making them immeasurably close without actually touching. He ties a knot that's tighter than it realistically needs to be, and then draws back to pick up the other shin-cover (what were they called again?).

The thing is, sprawled on the table is only about half of the armour Arthur needs, because he'd decided to interrupt his own dressing to delight Merlin with this little lecture. Ergo, by the time Merlin's got his torso and shins protected, there's little other armour to go around. This epiphany apparently reaches Arthur shortly after, because he stands for a moment, refusing to look stumped (but, ultimately, looking that way anyway).

"You see?" He tries to play it off cool, stalking around Merlin, circling him like some great beast preparing to devour its prey. "You have to dress a man with elegance, and with precision. You can't have loose armour on him, else it'll fall off. And we don't want that, now, do we, Merlin?"

"No, sire," Merlin doesn't think he could argue even if he wanted to. In reality, he just wants this moment to be over, because he could swear Arthur's getting closer every time he goes around him and suddenly he's feeling very constricted, like there's not enough air for the two of them in the room.

It's when Arthur's hand lands firmly on his shoulder that he feels truly winded. The hit isn't even especially forceful, but given that he can't actually see Arthur when he's stood so far behind him and that the impact was, to put it lightly, completely and utterly, totally unexpected, he thinks this is a fair reaction. He feels unsteady, almost nauseous, but can't quite place his finger on why.

"Good," Arthur's hand trails a little further down - nothing obscene, only to his shoulder blade and perhaps delving a little into the tempting, unexplored region of his mid-back. "I'll expect to feel as though my armour suits me once you're done, then, correct?"

Merlin nods, turning his head to look Arthur in the eye over his shoulder, and feels unbelievably exposed when the prince grips the bottom of the chainmail covering his chest and lifts it, beginning to remove the articles one by one. He doesn't think he's had a full breath since Arthur first touched him, moments ago now, and becomes increasingly worried that he's going to pass out.

It seems to him that Arthur takes his time removing the armour from his body. It feels as though he's peeling away the layers; the sensation is almost intimate, almost like they're preparing for something greater, but once he's left in only his own cloth clothing, he turns back around and the feeling is gone.

He's no longer wearing anything of Arthur's, so the man moves away from him. Merlin's beginning to suspect their intertwined destinies are taking a toll on their physical capabilities to be apart, because as soon as Arthur begins striding away he wishes to call out for him, to tell him to come back, to stand beside him forever.

He shakes his head, ridding himself of these greatly unnerving thoughts, enabling himself to get back to his job. He does, however, take Arthur's note and tie the armour's straps a little tighter because, well, Arthur has a tournament to win - wouldn't want him to feel uncomfortable, right?

**

"This is ridiculous."

Merlin knows he's beginning to sound like Arthur. He doesn't mean to be ungrateful, but it's true. There's absolutely no reason the prince should insist they stay in the same bed, even tonight, because the floor looks plenty comfy to him. He's never had an issue with sleeping just about anywhere, so why should he intrude on the prince's sleeping routine, even if said prince is refusing to take anything else as an answer?

"It's not ridiculous, Merlin," Arthur quips, readying himself for bed, seeming to take muted pride in watching Merlin reluctantly do the same, "It's essential. It's life or death tonight; the cold will kill you if you don't stay with me. My bed is much warmer than yours and, besides, it's more than big enough for the two of us. Why are you whining?"

Before Arthur's final question, Merlin had begun to think the prince had grown a thoughtful streak. After the question, however, he thinks he'd rather die outside than spend the night with such an insolent man. Even so, he bites his tongue, knowing that in some way he's right, because multiple of the town's most reliable sources have predicted that tonight will present one of the harshest, coldest winter nights that Camelot has ever seen.

"Alright," he finally resigns, making sure he sounds put off by the idea and finishes it all of with a hearty sigh, for good measure. "Whatever you say, sire."

He draws out the moments of privacy he has left, taking his time as he dresses and walks about the place. He even stacks some books, which he knows is wholly unnecessary, and he only decides to retire to bed when Arthur sighs. He knows better than anybody that the prince can't sleep with the candles still on, so he finally begins to make his way over to the aptly named king-size bed, and shuts off the burning candles one by one.

Admittedly, it feels strange, to finish putting the candles out only to clamber into bed beside Arthur, but he knows this is what they had finally agreed on doing, so it doesn't feel necessarily wrong, at least not at the very core of it. He settles into the covers, ensuring to cover his whole body, and some foolish part of him tells him this night should be smooth sailing.

Approximately five minutes in, however, Arthur is already fussing about. He's tossing and turning, wriggling and writhing, so much to the point where Merlin finally snaps and tells him, "If you'd sleep better without me here, I can just go."

This stops Arthur. He fidgets only once or twice more, apparently finding a position that's not so bad after all, and he's silent after that. Merlin takes that as a cue for him to stay, at least until further notice, but this peace doesn't last very long into the night.

He thinks he's just about gotten to sleep (finally, after a good hour of trying) and, in his sleepy stupor, he'd apparently managed to tug over just a little too much of their duvet, sending Arthur into another frenzy.

"Honestly, Merlin," he tuts, swivelling so that he lies facing the warlock now, who can just about make out the outline of the prince's exasperated face, "You'd think you wanted me to freeze to death."

"Never, sire," Merlin sounds tired and unconvinced as he says it, which only irks Arthur more.

"Oh, give it back here," he reaches over Merlin and digs his fingers into the fabric of the duvet, ignoring the fact that he could have just as easily tugged the blanket away from Merlin and reduced the amount contact they had.

Unfortunately, Merlin had managed to entangle himself in the sheet and, in effect, Arthur ended up pulling Merlin closer, sending him flying into his chest. The pair froze simultaneously, Arthur still with his arm around Merlin's lithe frame, fingers still holding onto the blanket, and Merlin still pressed closely against Arthur's firm chest.

The thing was, as much as Merlin didn't want to admit it, Arthur's chest was warm. More than warm, in fact, it was blazing hot, as though it contained the flaming pits of hell themselves, and Merlin did not want to pull back. Though he wouldn't protest if the prince withdrew first, he had to admit there was a newfound sense of wholeness that washed over him in this accidental position.

Neither man spoke for the longest time. In the darkness, Merlin could not tell if Arthur's eyes were open or closed, though he wasn't sure if it made a world of difference. Whatever inane feeling he had growing in the pit of his stomach was no doubt deluded, and anything his mind was telling him he hoped for was wrong. He knew that would not and could not happen, and so he regretfully let his eyes fall shut.

Just as he did, however, something changed. Arthur drew closer to him, pressed their bodies even closer, and did something so mad Merlin considered checking his mental state: he kissed him. Actually, genuinely, the prince kissed him, almost like he wanted to. But that couldn't be the case, could it?

Surely there was a reasonable explanation for this. Surely Arthur's kiss didn't mean what everybody else meant when they kissed people, right? Perhaps it was a way to shut Merlin up, even though he hadn't been talking in the first place. Or maybe, just maybe, it was some unique way of warming the two of them up. Oh, lord, Merlin wondered what else they might try to stay warm that night.

"Go to sleep, Merlin," was the first thing Arthur said when they parted. A sinking feeling settles into Merlin's chest, forcing his stomach all the way down to his feet. He pauses for a moment, feeling trapped in Arthur's arms, and it seems the prince senses this. He tries to crack a joke, saying, "You can think of this as saving your future king's life."

There's a grin that appears on the prince's face that Merlin dislikes instantly. It's handsome, certainly, but it's far too proud for his liking. He looks unfazed by their kiss. He wishes to knock Arthur down a few pegs but then realises he's right. More right than he knows, in fact, because it is his destiny to save Arthur's life, after all, and if he were to die from something to simple as a cold, Merlin could never live with himself.

Still, he turns over. Somehow, in the little space he has, he manages to flip and face the other way, and Arthur loosens his hold on him. They exchange no more words that night, and in the morning Merlin rises early, still feeling sick and empty by the time he returns to Gaius, who asks minimal questions, seeing the look on Merlin's face.

**

Merlin tries to withdraw. He really does, and in fact that day he speaks as little as humanely possible, completing his daily tasks for Arthur and reducing their usual banter to an absolute minimum. He feels stupid, as though he's outright professed his love for the prince and received only a crushed heart in return. He wishes harder than he's ever wished for anything to turn back time so that he can avoid that kiss, so they can just go back to normal.

This doesn't seem to be a viable option, however, as the next day, Arthur seems adamant to speak to him. Not only to speak to him, to banter, to playfully joke and take punches - literal and figurative - and, worst of all, to touch. That day, it seems unavoidable, and Arthur seems drawn to him like a horsefly and a horse. Merlin manages to keep his cool, to dodge Arthur, but then he snaps.

It's when Arthur's following him everywhere, as though he were Merlin's servant and not the other way around. He seems to be waiting on him, hand and foot, and Merlin's sick of it. He reaches out to brush Merlin's hair out of his face and that's the final straw.

"Arthur!" He addresses him incorrectly, using his first name as opposed to his official title, but doesn't bother to attempt to rectify this grave mistake, "Could you please stop doing that?"

"Doing what?" Arthur looks taken aback, either by the lack of a 'sire' in Merlin's speech or the sudden outburst, possibly a combination of the two. "What are you on about, Merlin?"

"You! Touching me! Constantly," Merlin can't stop himself shouting now, having had the tension building up inside of him for far too long. "And then you pretend it doesn't mean anything to you. Maybe it doesn't, but it does to me, and I want you to stop messing around with me."

Arthur watches him closely. His brow is furrowed, like he doesn't quite understand, but there's a twitch in his hand that makes him look pensive. Merlin thinks he's processing his words, but he isn't getting there fast enough.

"Don't think too hard, sire," he exaggerates the word, purposefully taunting the prince, though he knows in the back of his mind he'll probably pay for that later, "Wouldn't want you to hurt yourself."

"Merlin-" Arthur looks conflicted, like he wants to scold and apologise to Merlin. "What on earth do you mean?"

Merlin thinks his brain melts then, as he's positive he can feel it dripping out of his ears and staining his already ruined clothes. "Oh, just forget it, Arthur."

He turns to stalk off, find somewhere dark to hide for a while until he cools off. Undoubtedly, he'll calm down, find Gaius, who'll be the voice of reason as always and tell him to apologise to the prince at once, and he'll have to grievously obey. He won't like it, obviously, but he'll have to, and then he'll probably end up spending the afternoon in the stocks, if he's lucky. You don't have to be a seer to predict that much.

Just as he's rushing away, however, a hand catches his wrist. He's prepared to shake it off, to engage in a public shouting match with Arthur and perhaps lose a hand or two in the aftermath as his punishment, but when he looks back at the prince he looks calm, oddly collected, ready to speak in a level manner.

"No, Merlin," he shakes his head slowly, "I mean, how do you know it doesn't mean anything to me?"

"Because it doesn't seem like it does," Merlin still sounds upset at he speaks, though his volume is significantly lower this time, and he sounds regretfully like he's about to cry. "When you... when you kissed me, you told me to go to sleep straight afterwards, like I was some petulant ward you wanted nothing more than to be rid of."

"I was scared," Arthur offers, shrugging. Something about him seems frightened.

"So was I," Merlin admits, but shakes his head, "But I was ready to face that fear if it meant-"

He can't quite finish. The words won't pass over his lips, as though enchanted to stay inside of his mouth forever. He thinks he might choke to death on them if they stay in his throat any longer, and yet he can't force himself to say them, either. He can only stare at Arthur, who looks conflicted. Merlin thinks this has become his resting state lately.

"If it meant we could be together," Arthur finishes for him, and the dreadful feeling in his throat dies. He feels somewhat at ease, as though he could rest lighter, but still can't look away from the prince. It's as though there's something unsaid, something undone, something they're both missing from this entire exchange, this entire relationship.

And then, in a split second, it becomes apparent exactly what that is. Then, when Arthur finally surges forward and, in the light of day, kisses Merlin as though he's unashamed to be doing so, Merlin feels whole again. He no longer feels taboo, like the world's best worst-kept secret, but as something to be cherished and shown off to the world. He smiles into the kiss, feeling any negativity in his core dissipate, and wraps his arms around Arthur's neck, no longer caring who might walk in and see.

"Took you long enough," he says when they finally part. He knows his smile is cheeky and pretentious, but when he witnesses Arthur smiling back at him in the exact same way, he can't exactly bring himself to care.

"Says you."