Arthur has never been good with words. It’s not self-deprecating: he knows his strengths as well as his weaknesses. He’s well aware that his knights admire him on the battlefield, his people respect his leadership, and even his father would look to him for strategies in battle when he was still alive. On the balcony of the royal courtyard or at the head of every hunt, his voice is strong and clear, decisiveness ringing out in every precrafted syllable, but whenever he tries to express how he feels, the words seem to elude him.
“Emotionally stunted,” Morgana used to tell him smugly. “It’s all that inbreeding.”
She’d poke gentle fun at him when his sentences would trail off, his mouth opening and closing like a fish, and provoke him armed with the knowledge that he would be unable to articulate himself. He never could get too upset with her, though, deflating when her eyes sparkled with underlying affection and rolling his eyes at her instead. He misses their playful back-and-forth and the way she dared to challenge him at every turn, and he feels her absence like an open wound; but that was before her pain and hatred had twisted her up into someone unrecognisable. Now even the memories of their youth are tainted, veiled by the bitterness of warmer days. Even in the peak of summer, the chill of her loss follows him, and everything is colder now.
The burden of Camelot’s eyes weighs heavily on him, now more than ever; she is watching his every move. Arthur tries to set an example for his people, schooling his face into a perfect mask of strength and reassurance whenever he’s in public, but most of the time the scrutiny feels like being swept downstream with his pockets laden with pebbles: not quite enough to drown him, but just enough that he has to tread water to stay afloat.
The one respite from this expectation to remain stoic in the face of recent events is Merlin, who always has a smart retort waiting for Arthur on the tip of his tongue. Merlin, who is quieter these days, lost in his thoughts – a mystery Arthur hasn’t managed to untangle.
“Of course, Your Highness ,” Merlin drawls, teasing Arthur with the exaggerated use of his titles. “Anything you need, my liege .”
They don’t talk about it, but Arthur knows that Merlin feels the pain of her betrayal as keenly as he does, catching a familiar expression of torment on his face that Arthur has gotten used to seeing in the mirror lately. He still finds a smile for Arthur when he sees him, though, a flicker of the old Merlin lighting his features and softening the tension that has started to become a permanent fixture on his face, if only just for a moment.
Arthur thinks he might do just about anything to keep that expression alive, wishing he had the words to say something, wanting to let Merlin know… well. He doesn’t know exactly what he wants Merlin to know, doesn’t know what he’d even say to him. That he appreciates him being there for Arthur? That being around him is the only time Arthur feels like he can exhale? That the best part of his day is waking up because it means Merlin will be there waiting for him, balancing his breakfast on a silver tray, just the two of them alone in the sleepy early morning sun?
None of it comes even close to how Arthur feels.
Instead, he just swallows the stone in his throat and overlooks the little things; he puts on his armour without mentioning the spots Merlin has missed in his haste, pretends not to notice when Merlin shows up late for the fifth time this week, and feigns fullness so he can leave an extra slice of bread on Merlin’s plate at supper. Arthur has always been better with actions.
When Merlin approaches him with an air of nervous uncertainty and asks for the week off to visit his mother, Arthur frowns at Merlin’s unusual reservedness, suddenly alert.
“Is everything alright?” he asks with concern, looking up from scattered leaflets spread across his desk. “Is Hunith unwell?”
“She’s fine,” Merlin says quickly, and Arthur’s shoulders relax slightly as his eyes drift back down to his paperwork. “Ealdor holds a festival for the summer solstice every year, and my mum asked if I would be able to come down for the celebrations.”
Arthur hadn’t realised that the summer solstice was already this week. He supposes he isn’t too surprised he’d forgotten; time has been fuzzy for him recently, flying quickly by without his permission while his attention has been otherwise distracted by Camelot’s tense unrest. He knows his people are suffering, on edge after Morgana’s last attack, but any progress Arthur tries to make towards defending his kingdom gets hindered by citizens bringing him new problems that crop up each week, and it feels like he’s putting out different fires every few days.
He realises that Merlin is still standing in front of him waiting for an answer, his eyebrows raised when Arthur has taken too long of a pause.
“Okay,” Arthur says at last, picking up his pen and resuming where his last sentence had left off. “You can start packing my bags for me, then. Have them ready for the morning.”
Merlin had already started to smile at Arthur’s agreement when a look of confusion settles it for a moment, frowning slightly. “Er, why am I packing for you?” he asks.
“Well, I’m going with you, obviously,” Arthur replies, still scribbling away. Feeling Merlin’s quizzical gaze on him, he looks up again. “Will that be a problem?”
“No, of course not,” says Merlin, recovering. “I just thought you might have more important things to do than follow me around.”
If it’s important to you, it’s important to me , Arthur thinks, but does not say. His eyes follow the movement of Merlin’s slender fingers, drumming against his thigh unconsciously. Even when standing still, Merlin exudes a restless energy, constantly moving, like there is something in him bursting to get out.
“Consider it protecting my investment,” Arthur says instead, drily. “As useless of a manservant as you are, I’d hate to have to train someone new to replace you when you inevitably get yourself killed by falling off a cliff or something.”
“Yes, sire,” replies Merlin with a grin, somehow managing to sound even more insubordinate when using Arthur’s title than when he uses nothing at all.
They’re meant to leave at the crack of dawn, but their departure gets delayed by a petty livestock dispute that apparently requires Arthur’s immediate attention, so the sun is already creeping towards the centre of the sky when they finally set out for Ealdor. Arthur’s feeling irritable as they leave the city, a minor throb banging at his temples as a result of listening to two farmers shout at each other over property rights of a newborn calf; the heat bearing down uncomfortably against the back of his neck does little to improve his mood.
Merlin doesn’t say anything until they have to cross through the woods, somehow knowing, as he always does, when to give Arthur his space, and it’s only when they reach the shaded portion of the journey when Arthur’s headache finally starts to abate. The sensation of the cool breeze whistling through the trees is soothing against their skin, and Merlin starts to speak. He doesn’t talk about anything in particular, just prattling on about interesting things he’d seen this week and gossip he’d heard around the kitchens. Merlin tells him how eager he is to see Hunith again, excitement bleeding into his words when he recounts memories of the solstice festivals of years past, and Arthur allows himself to relax into the comfort of Merlin’s voice.
“I can’t believe you were able to take the week off just to come to Ealdor with me,” Merlin is saying.
“I can do whatever I like, Merlin, I’m the king,” says Arthur.
“Well, yeah, I know,” Merlin replies with an eye roll and a smile so insolent that only he could have managed it. “I just know you've had a lot on your plate lately. After everything that's happened in the last few months, with Morgana’s … you know. And then after Uther…”
“Merlin,” Arthur says impatiently. The sound of their horses’ hooves clopping monotonously against the forest floor seems amplified in the pregnant silence that falls between them.
“I wasn't sure in which capacity you were coming along,” says Merlin evenly. “I didn't know if you felt obligated to come along as a friend, or if you're here for official kingly duties.”
Truthfully, Arthur hadn't really given it a second thought when he’d told Merlin to pack his bags, operating on routine — where Merlin goes, Arthur goes, too. He had informed his council that he'd be leaving for an unexpected journey that morning, making up some excuse about checking on the state of the southern villages, and ignoring the dubious looks his councilmen had shot at each other. More importantly, for some reason, Merlin’s use of the word friend stings Arthur in a way he can't quite put into words.
“Don't be daft, Merlin,” Arthur says with a breeziness he certainly doesn't feel. “I’m here on purely royal business. I’m hardly obliging you; if anything, I’m saving you from your own incompetence. You should be grateful for my presence, Merlin.”
Merlin snorts indecorously. “Oh, please,” he retorts, “as if you could survive without me helping your sorry arse through the day. You’d fall apart without me.”
Sometimes the way Merlin teases him is so unfit for a king it almost makes Arthur forget he is one; but it’s only times like now when it’s just the two of them that Arthur can allow himself to lean into the familiarity of it. Before long he’s reminded of the crown glittering in his rucksack, aware of its presence like the tugging sensation of a phantom limb and weighing him down in more ways than one.
Hunith is delighted to see Arthur again, as is the rest of Ealdor. Their arrival sends the villagers into a flurry composed of a mix of excitement at his unexpected presence and panic at the scanty state of their town. After a few days of travel, the appearance of so many friendly faces is a welcome one.
“Merlin, you didn’t tell us His Majesty was coming with you,” Hunith frets as she pinches her son’s arm sharply, her nervous smile never wavering from Arthur’s gaze when Merlin yelps. “We would’ve done more to prepare!”
“I’ve missed you, too, Mum,” grumbles Merlin, rubbing the sore patch on his arm. “It’s nice to see you.”
“Nonsense, everything looks beautiful, Hunith,” Arthur says smoothly, and it’s the truth.
The townspeople have decorated Ealdor in the warm colors of summer, draping garlands of pale yellow primroses across rooftops in criss-crossing lines overhead as bushes of wood anemone skirt along the pathways, perfuming the air with their sweet floral scent. Nearly every house has wreaths of leafy foliage hung on their front door, or bundles of blossoms cradled in the window sills. Pink pincushion flowers brighten the large clay vases littered about town, offset by the bright yellows of freshly picked daffodils and the baby blues of chicory petals. It all paints a very charming picture, complete with the homely bustle of movement as people hurry through the town centre, carrying baskets of food and ornaments for the celebration.
“I’m very grateful for your hospitality,” Arthur says, and Hunith beams at him.
They mingle with the townspeople, and Arthur greets them all with the practiced grace of a good monarch. He shakes their hands and returns their smiles, privately pleased with himself that from the depths of his memories he’s able to dredge up the names of a few men he’d met the last time they'd visited Ealdor. Before long, evening settles in, and everyone gathers around for the celebratory feast.
The lanterns are lit throughout the plaza but they contribute more to creating a comforting atmosphere than to the function of casting light. The sun hovers lazily at the treetops as warm orange tones bleed across the sky and everyone shuffles around to make room for the person beside them. At Hunith’s insistence, Arthur is seated at the head of a long table, Merlin by his side. Arthur’s golden coronet gleams atop his head in the twilight glow.
“Speech!” someone yells from the other end of the table, and others pick up the chant with a clattering of dishes and applause. It wrenches a smile from Arthur’s lips as he pushes back his seat, raising his glass in one hand and silencing the chorus of shouts.
He hasn’t prepared anything to say in advance, but when he opens his mouth, he finds himself giving thanks. Arthur looks out at the sea of people before him, faces turned up towards him in anticipation of his words, and the mixture of the lanterns’ peachy glow and burgundy gloaming feels suddenly like a protective shield, warded against the world outside. He thanks the people of Ealdor for their generosity in welcoming him, and for their trust in him as king. He hears himself talk about Camelot’s tumultuous last year, through the changing regime and uncertainty of waiting for Morgana’s next attack – weaknesses he would never catch himself admitting in front of his own Royal Court – but if his voice cracks slightly, catching on the tail end of Morgana’s name, no one mentions it.
“And most of all, we should remember gratitude for our companions,” he continues, “for it is only through the support of our friends that we can succeed.”
His gaze turns to Merlin of its own accord, who’s already staring at Arthur with such fierce intensity that it knocks the wind out of him just standing in place. Arthur swallows around a familiar lump, throat working hard against the sudden rush of warmth.
“For our loved ones, who keep us grounded to who we are in the face of adversity,” he says, raising his glass higher, and the reflection of firelight burns golden in Merlin’s eyes.
Arthur spends the next few days trailing Merlin around Ealdor as they help out around the village. He asks about the state of the town’s resources, if only just to fulfill his promise to his council and not make a liar of himself.
He sees the way the townspeople greet Merlin, faces lighting up as they clap him on the back with familiarity that can only stem from childhood, and feels a twinge of unwarranted jealousy at the closeness they all seem to have with him. Merlin grins back at everyone good naturedly, pink-cheeked at their words and looking brighter than Arthur has seen him in ages, a spring returning to his step.
Arthur helps out with Merlin’s chores despite Hunith’s scandalised outrage that, god forbid, Merlin would make the king of Camelot do manual labour, but Arthur insists.
“For your generous hospitality,” he says over Hunith’s protests.
It feels good to get his hands dirty; there’s something about the simple satisfaction of farm work, the relief at being able to accomplish a task even as menial as the act of shoveling hay. Before long, Arthur’s shoulders begin to burn pleasantly from the exertion. Despite the tightness in his muscles, Arthur realises that he hasn't felt this relaxed in years.
“Who knew the king was so skilled at shoveling,” Merlin muses, when they’ve covered about half of the ground in the barn. “Perhaps we should put you in Camelot’s stables from now on. You know, for efficiency.”
“Careful, I could have you arrested for slander,” Arthur huffs out. “I'll have you put in the stocks.”
“Ealdor hasn’t got stocks,” Merlin says pointedly, undeniably smug.
“Then I’ll have someone build some, just for you,” Arthur fires back, without heat. “It’ll have your name etched on it and everything.”
“It would be an honour, sire,” Merlin says drily. He rests for a moment, leaning on his pitchfork as Arthur overturns a particularly large clump of hay with a grunt. “You're quite good at this, actually.”
“It's just hay, Merlin,” says Arthur, rolling his eyes. “Not exactly the most mentally taxing task, is it? Besides, it's kind of therapeutic, in a way. Sort of like running drills.”
“It doesn't require a lot of brainpower to lift a pitchfork, even an idiot could do it,” Arthur scoffs.
“Oh, yes, very lucky for you, then,” Merlin teases.
Arthur is struck by the childish impulse to turn and stick his tongue out at Merlin, casting his pitchfork aside and whirling around, but his foot slips out beneath him. The weight of the shovel throws him off balance and he stumbles backwards, hitting the ground with a thump. Luckily, he lands in a pile of hay, which cushions his fall, but it knocks the wind out of him all the same.
Merlin’s laughing himself stupid before Arthur even hits the ground, a full-bellied, side-stitching sort of laughter that rings in Arthur’s ears as he groans, staring up at the wooden slats of the barn roof. There’s hay poking through the fabric of his clothing, prickling at his skin uncomfortably as he catches his breath.
“Very funny, court jester,” grumbles Arthur, slanting his eyes to peer at Merlin, who’s still doubled over and clutching his stomach. “I’m so glad you’ve found this so amusing.”
“Should’ve seen yourself,” Merlin wheezes, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes as his laughter tapers out and sighing contentedly.
“Finished having your fun yet?” Arthur says with raised eyebrows, propping himself up on his elbows.
“Yes,” says Merlin happily, dropping his pitchfork. He crosses over and leans down to help Arthur up, and Arthur clasps the hand offered to him.
“Good,” Arthur replies, and yanks Merlin down into the pile of hay with him.
He’d only planned as far ahead as taking his revenge on Merlin for laughing at him, and realises he hasn’t thought this through as Merlin comes crashing down on top of him in a mess of gangly, flailing limbs. Arthur sputters when Merlin knees him in the stomach indelicately, winding him once more, and unsuccessfully tries to disentangle himself from the overwhelming closeness of Merlin’s body.
“Merlin,” Arthur hisses in a sudden panic, hoping that the irritability in his voice will mask the tremor in his voice.
Even through his clothes, Arthur feels the heat of Merlin’s skin thrumming like hot coals, almost unbearably warm. His proximity softens the edges of Arthur’s heart, and he wonders if Merlin can hear it start to thaw beneath his ribcage. He lets himself sink deeper into the haystack, ignoring the straw scratching at his ears as his worldview shrinks to just Merlin, framed by the hay in Arthur’s periphery.
“Well done,” Merlin says, a little breathlessly. “I hope you’re satisfied with yourself, now that we’re both covered in hay.”
“Never been happier,” Arthur manages, and doesn’t point out that it’s mostly himself buried in the haystack.
There’s a beat of silence where neither of them speak, and the pause feels like all the oxygen has been sucked out of the barn, freezing time in this moment. Arthur watches Merlin’s eyes flick down to his lips then back up, and Arthur feels that familiar stone in his throat start to rise as he holds his gaze intensely.
He opens his mouth, but nothing comes out, and then Merlin is rolling off of him with a huff, breaking the spell and bounding to his feet again. Arthur blinks at the sudden absence of warmth. He props himself up on his elbows, looking up as Merlin extends an arm to help him up for the second time. Arthur expects to see a pink flush across Merlin’s cheeks, embarrassment mixed together with awkwardness in his stance, but Merlin simply looks back at him neutrally, unexpectant and unassuming.
They’ve been here before; Arthur knows that Merlin’s only tied to him by the thread of loyalty to the crown just like anyone else. Merlin doesn’t say what Arthur knows they were both thinking – they’ve never talked about these times, when the thread gets tangled. He just waits for Arthur, hand outstretched, never rushing.
“We’ve still got a long way to go,” Merlin says, and darts a glance at the remaining bales of hay. “Are you with me?”
Arthur takes his hand.
It takes a little while for Arthur to convince Hunith to stop bowing and calling him ‘Your Majesty.’ She jumps a little every time she sees him as though he’s startled her, for which Arthur apologises, in turn causing Hunith to redden in embarrassment at having the king beg her pardon, which sends them into an endless cycle of profuse apologies. It’s only when Arthur insists that she call him by his first name under threat of making it a royal decree that Hunith finally relents, pink-cheeked and pleased.
It’s in expressions such as those that Arthur can see the resemblance between Merlin and his mother. He tells Hunith as much one day when Merlin is out running an errand, and she beams at him.
“I’ve always thought he looked more like his father than me, so that’s very kind of you to say,” she says affectionately, elbow deep in a basin of warm water as she soaps up a dirty plate.
“You must be very proud of him,” Arthur says. “He’s a good man.”
“Thank you, Arthur,” Hunith says, eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiles at him. “I’m very glad he’s been able to find a place with you in Camelot, although I do wish he’d come visit me more often. But I know what a great honour it is to be able to serve the king; I don’t know if I’ve ever thanked you for giving him the opportunity.”
Arthur ducks his head at her earnestness, hiding the flush on his face as he thinks back to his first inauspicious encounter with Merlin. The initial resentment he’d felt for Merlin seems absurd in light of how he feels for Merlin now, the memory of it muted like greywash compared to the full colour spectrum.
“I’m grateful to have him with me,” Arthur says. “And, er, it’s probably my fault that I’ve kept him away from home for so long. I apologise.”
Hunith surprises him with a laugh. “I appreciate that, but Ealdor hasn't been home for Merlin for quite some time now,” she tells Arthur, with only a tinge of sadness in her voice. “I miss him like any mother would when he’s away, of course. But he's different now, when he comes to see me.”
“Yes,” Hunith says with a sigh, looking up at Arthur as she rests her forearms against the edge of the washbasin. “I can tell he misses you when he’s here.”
Arthur must not hide his reaction very well because Hunith just laughs at him softly, a dark strand of hair drifting into her face. He recovers, feeling stupid when he realises belatedly that she’s talking about Camelot.
For a moment, he’d thought – well. Never mind what he’d thought.
“Oh, you shouldn’t look so surprised,” Hunith tuts mildly. “He’d never tell me outright, but of course he misses home when he’s gone.”
“I – Camelot is very lucky to have him,” says Arthur. “I’m only sorry it comes at Ealdor’s expense.”
“Nonsense.” Hunith waves him away with a soapy hand. “I think some part of me always knew that Merlin was destined for greater things than farm life here, and deep down, I know he outgrew Ealdor years ago. He’s always been a bit too big for us here, my Merlin. I just worry about him, you know, he just has this special knack for getting himself into … predicaments.”
“I’ve noticed,” says Arthur wryly, earning a laugh. “He does seem to have a talent for it.”
“Oh, he would drive me mad when he was little,” Hunith says wistfully, drying her hands on a kitchen towel as she balances the stack of clean dishes. “But he was always a good boy, even back then. Helped me however he could, tottering around the farm on his wee little legs like he was grown, and never asked for anything in return.”
That behaviour, at least, is familiar to Arthur. Beyond their daily bickering and Merlin’s sardonic complaints, Arthur knows Merlin is a hard worker and irreplaceable in more ways than one. It’s why things had never worked out with Cedric or Rowan or Leland or any of the other manservants he’s cycled through: it didn’t matter how proficient they were at their jobs, he always ended up missing Merlin. The feeling is one that Arthur has never been able to express all these years, words crushed by the stone in his throat. But, as Arthur watches Hunith sit down beside him at the table, folding her pruney fingers across his cool hands, that maybe the burning sensation in his throat might be the lump beginning to erode.
“However Merlin may act, never doubt the depth of his devotion to those he loves,” Hunith says gently, blue eyes boring into him. “I am glad that he has found his purpose in serving you.”
Arthur thinks he understands.
On the way back to Camelot, Arthur doesn’t realise he’s being quieter than usual until Merlin points it out.
“You’ve been awfully silent today. Are you feeling alright?” Merlin says when they settle down for the night. “It’s making me nervous.”
Merlin starts lighting the campfire, his back facing Arthur as he crouches by the pit, and soon he has the blaze of a little flame quietly burning through the firewood. Sighing happily, he sits back on his heels with his palms out in front of him, soaking in the heat emanating from the quickly growing fire.
Arthur remains silent as he sets out the bedrolls. After half a moment’s consideration, he places them next to each other instead of in their usual head-to-head formation, and tries not to think too hard about it. He picks the bedding closest to the fire and rolls onto his side, feeling the warmth on his face and imagining the shadows from the flames dancing across his cheekbones.
Once Merlin decides he is sufficiently toasty, he turns his attention to Arthur, quirking an eyebrow up at the sleeping arrangement, but he doesn’t mention it as he steps over Arthur’s prone form. Arthur turns, shifting onto his back as Merlin makes himself comfortable.
“Well?” he prompts.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Arthur answers evenly, his hands folded neatly over his stomach. He surprises himself with the crack in his voice from the day’s disuse, and Merlin smirks at him as he clambers beneath his blanket.
“One might almost be forgiven for presuming you were thinking,” Merlin muses innocently, wriggling around beside Arthur as he works to get comfortable. “Developing complex thought, are we?”
It startles a sound out of Arthur, a full laugh that rises up into the darkness. “Where do you get off, talking to your king like that?” Arthur says, but the amused incredulity in his voice overpowers any annoyance.
“You’ve always just been Arthur to me,” Merlin replies easily, shrugging as he finally settles, mirroring Arthur’s position as he rests his hands on his belly.
As silence falls between them, Arthur is acutely aware of the space between his body and Merlin’s, hyper aware of the point of contact where their elbows bump into one another. Tension hangs low like fog in the twilight as the flickering bonfire crackles. The flames pop as they eat through the firewood, sending up wisps of acrid smoke that mingles with the crisp, clean forest air.
Yet still, Arthur feels like it’s hard to breathe, his heart hammering wildly beneath his chest. He stares up into the cloudless night sky, a deep inky blue scattered with stars, and thinks about every missed opportunity he’s overlooked over the last few years. In every other avenue of his life, Arthur has always sought out the most direct road to avoid the anxiety of uncertainty, but with Merlin he realises that he’s taken the scenic route, and perhaps it’s time to arrive at their destination.
“Do you like your job?” Arthur asks, and the question is like an exhale.
Merlin’s pillow shifts with the movement as he shrugs.
“Of course I do,” Merlin says. “I make sure you get through the day in one piece.”
“What, by making sure my armour’s all polished?” It slips out before Arthur can think it twice, and he wants to smack himself once it’s left his mouth.
To his relief, he hears Merlin let out a huff of disbelieving laughter.
“Right,” says Merlin, as though humouring him. “I just polish your armour.”
“That’s not what I…” is all Arthur manages to get out before his throat closes up again. He coughs, trying to start over. “But what I mean is, do you like working for me?”
“Arthur, as much as you like to order me around, you can’t actually force me to do anything I don’t want to. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t want to be.”
When Arthur turns his head, he’s almost unsurprised to find Merlin already staring back at him, sharp eyes regarding him intently. Arthur holds the gaze, determined to overcome his instinct to turn tail and run at the first sign of intimacy.
“Merlin,” says Arthur through the lump in his throat. “I need to tell you something. Something important.”
Merlin waits, ever patient, for Arthur to dislodge the words from his larynx. He doesn’t rush him, even as Arthur struggles to form a coherent sound.
“Thank you,” Arthur says at last, his voice quiet, and the words are like the glacial rush of water breaking a dam. “I don’t know if I’ve ever said that before, but I should have.”
“It’s alright,” Merlin assures him, but the corners of his eyes crinkle as he smiles, and Arthur watches the creases form crow’s feet. “Like you said, I’m just your manservant.”
“No, Merlin, you’re far more than what people – I – give you credit for,” Arthur insists, bolder now as he finds the stone in his throat disintegrating at its edges. “You’re smarter and more courageous than anyone I know, and no one seems to recognise it. It’s unfair.”
“It’s not meant to be fair,” says Merlin, his tone frustratingly mollified. “I don’t serve you for recognition.”
“Why do you do it, then?”
“I think you know why.”
Merlin shifts and his eyes never leave Arthur’s as he unfolds a hand from his stomach, laying it deliberately at his side. Arthur allows himself a mere moment’s hesitation before he copies the movement, hoping he can summon even a fraction of Merlin’s everyday bravery in the face of the only thing he’s ever wanted for himself. He feels the feather-light brush of Merlin’s touch as the sides of their hands graze each other, his skin aflame where they’re pressed together from wrist to fingertip. Arthur dares to lay his pinky gently across Merlin’s knuckles;somehow the weight of lifting a single finger is heavier than any sword he’s ever wielded.
“You shouldn’t look at me like that,” Arthur whispers, searching Merlin’s face for something akin to what he’s feeling, “or you’ll make me think you want this as much as I do.”
“I do,” Merlin says simply, like it’s the easiest thing in the world. Like he isn’t afraid of voicing his desires out loud for fear of having them snatched away just as quickly.
“Why didn’t you ever say anything?”
“Because you never did, and I was okay with however much of yourself you could give me.” He reaches over with his other arm to press his hand against Arthur’s cheek, provoking a sharp intake of breath. “I’d almost convinced myself that just being your friend could be enough.”
“Merlin,” Arthur breathes out, the way he’s done a thousand times before, hoping that Merlin can hear far more than what the two syllables of his name convey. “You stopped being just anything years ago; you were always more. I’m sorry it took me this long to tell you.”
“For you, I would wait a thousand years,” Merlin says softly, with such openness that Arthur feels like crying.
Then the hair’s breadth of space between them is gone, and it’s unclear who leans in first but they are kissing, Merlin’s calloused hands cupped around Arthur’s face. Arthur’s own arms fly up from his sides, gripping Merlin’s wrists at an awkward angle but neither of them seem to mind, or even notice. Merlin kisses like a roaring fire, wild and all-consuming, and Arthur realises that he has always burned this brightly – all this time, he had just been waiting for Arthur to choose him back. It strips away the ice of Arthur’s guard and where his walls once built a fortress, a small flame begins to flicker inside Arthur’s chest.
He opens himself up, shuddering as Merlin licks a hot stripe into the roof of his mouth, tongue toying at the seam of Arthur’s lips. Merlin’s thumbs fan across Arthur’s cheekbones, his nails deliciously sharp as his fingers drag across his jaw, trace the curve of his ear, curl a fist into his hair. The sensation of Merlin’s hands scratching across his scalp makes Arthur gasp and throw his head back in a full-body shiver, and Merlin takes the opportunity to attach himself to the soft, exposed skin of Arthur’s neck. In one swift movement, Merlin rolls them both over with ease, pushing Arthur fully onto his back as he straddles his waist, biting gentle kisses into the sensitive hollow of Arthur’s throat.
“– wanted you – for so long – ” Arthur manages in bursts, as Merlin mouths his way across his clavicle, sliding his tongue hotly along the collarbone. His hands creep beneath the hem of Arthur’s shirt, grasping at his abdomen in a way that makes Arthur’s muscles clench with want. He allows Merlin to tug the fabric off over his head, briefly mourning the loss of warmth as the chill of the night air hits his naked torso before Merlin is kissing him again, capturing his lips in a fierce embrace.
Arthur’s cool skin is covered by the warmth of Merlin’s palms roving across the hard planes of his chest, trailing over pink nipples pebbled with arousal. Merlin pinches one between his fingers, letting out a pleased sound as Arthur all but whimpers into their kiss, needy. He leaves a searing path down from Arthur’s mouth to his right nipple with just the barest hint of teeth scraping against his soft skin, looking Arthur dead in the eye as his lips close over the stiff peak. Shifting down to rest in between his legs, Merlin sucks Arthur’s nipple with wanton filth, finally releasing it with a pop as Arthur gives an involuntary shudder. His cock throbs painfully in the confines of his too-tight trousers, straining for friction from Merlin’s hard length pressed against Arthur’s thigh.
It’s not the first time Arthur has lain with a man, but it’s the first time he’s ever had a lover pull back, lips kiss-swollen, and gaze down at him with such open adoration that he feels almost embarrassed to be on the receiving end of it, as though he’s intruding on a vulnerable moment. Arthur catches his breath, looking up at Merlin above him, the glittering stars framing his head in a crown that shines more brightly than any coronet Arthur has ever worn, and he commits the image to his memory.
He reaches up and catches the side of Merlin’s face in his hand, feeling disembodied for a brief moment, amazed that he’s able to see him like this, to hold him in ways he never dreamed he’d be allowed. Merlin leans into the touch, turning to kiss his open palm and then sucking Arthur’s fingers into his mouth. The feeling of Merlin’s tongue swirling wetly between his fingers makes Arthur’s cock twitch keenly, pressing painfully once more against his breeches. It doesn’t escape Merlin’s notice, and he releases his hold on Arthur’s hand to undo the fastenings of his trousers. Arthur lifts his hips eagerly to allow the fabric to slide down his legs more easily.
Helping him disrobe is a common part of Merlin’s job description, so Arthur isn’t unfamiliar with Merlin’s hands on him as the draft of cold air hits his skin, but as Arthur watches Merlin sink down between his thighs, he doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to see the act the same way again.
Arthur’s cock springs forth from its fabric enclosure, quivering heavily against his stomach and aching with want. A bead of precum leaks from the tip, and Merlin darts forward to lap it up; Arthur feels his balls tighten at the sensation. Merlin hardly gives him a second to react before he ducks back down, swallowing the rosy head of Arthur’s dick into his mouth until it hits the back of his throat. The whole affair is hot and slick and absolutely obscene.
The feeling of Merlin’s fingers digging into the sides of his arse is the only thing grounding Arthur in his body as Merlin bobs up and down on his cock, practically choking on it as Arthur thrusts up into his mouth, unable to stop his hips from bucking. When Merlin looks up at him – eyes watering, the mixture of spit and precum dripping from the sides of his mouth, and fingers around his balls – Arthur spasms, uncontrollably turned on.
“Stop,” he pleads, “or I’m going to come.”
He drags Merlin up into a searing kiss. It’s overeager and messy, and Arthur tastes the saltiness of himself on Merlin’s tongue, and it’s perfect.
“Isn’t that the point?” Merlin says when he comes up for air, and Arthur kisses the smug look off his face exasperatedly.
“No,” he says curtly. “For one, I refuse to come while you’ve still got all your clothes on.”
Merlin looks down at himself and he hangs his head as he lets out a puff of laughter, soft hair tickling the sensitive section of Arthur’s belly.
“Come on, then,” Arthur says in his most imperious voice, as Merlin starts to shuck his clothes off. “Hurry up .”
“Bossy,” Merlin huffs out, chucking his trousers to the side, and Arthur’s eye is drawn to the erect cock bouncing between his legs, angry and swollen.
He reaches for it without thinking, palming it and running a thumb over the slit, already slick with pearly fluid. With Merlin still in between his legs, Arthur traps their shafts in one hand and gives them an experimental stroke together, eliciting a hiss of approval from both of them. Merlin bites his lower lip as he ruts against Arthur, looking down between them where their pricks slide across one another, glistening with their mingled wetness, the soft skin of their bollocks pressed together. Arthur feels Merlin’s cock pulse against his, the weight of him throbbing wonderfully in Arthur’s hand.
“I – oh ,” Arthur starts, cutting himself off as he feels Merlin’s balls tighten, heady arousal pooling warningly low in his stomach.
“Tell me,” Merlin murmurs and leans down, capturing his lips in an-all consuming kiss. “Tell me what you want.”
“You,” Arthur moans as Merlin’s hand snakes down to accompany his own, rubbing the palm of his hand over their sensitive slits, “need you – ungh – inside me.”
Merlin kisses him soundly again before tearing away reluctantly, only to slide down the length of Arthur’s body again, wrapping his hand around Arthur’s shaft with his other hand around his own. He strokes them both lazily, torturously slow, and Arthur almost growls in frustration. Then Merlin ducks his head low, and then Arthur can’t contain his whine as the flat of Merlin’s tongue runs up and down his length, fingers playing at his balls and thumbing across the sensitive skin of his perineum.
Arthur lets his eyes flutter shut, hands twisted into the sheets, and goes rigid as Merlin passes over Arthur’s hole with an experimental swipe. He pushes Arthur’s legs over his shoulders and eats him out, wet and messy, before pressing a slick finger past his entrance. The sudden sensation of being filled wrenches a rough cry from Arthur’s throat, and his head jerks up to watch Merlin clamped between his thighs, transfixed by the motion of his spit-smeared finger as it slips in and out of his body.
It aches, a pleasurable soreness that spreads as Merlin adds a second digit and then a third, stretching Arthur out until his eyes begin to water and a familiar heat starts writhing in his belly.
“Enough,” he chokes out, bringing his legs off Merlin’s shoulders as he pulls away from his hand, glistening in the lowlight.
He seeks out Merlin’s eyes, so intensely blue they almost look like they’re glowing, taking a second to drink in the beauty of his features, and wonders if he had been blind before this moment. He brushes Merlin’s sticky fringe off his forehead, trailing down to cup the curve of his jaw. “I need – ”
Merlin cuts him off, pulling him closer because he already knows what Arthur needs, knows him better than anyone. Arthur surges forward, reaching for the smooth expanse of Merlin’s body like a single second of separation is unbearable, and straddles Merlin’s lap with his legs around his middle. His dick throbs as it brushes up against Merlin’s, almost painfully hard and leaking at the tip.
Merlin presses his lips against Arthur’s collarbone, mouthing a silent question.
Do you trust me? he asks.
“Always,” Arthur answers.
Arthur lowers himself onto Merlin’s lap, feeling Merlin’s chest heave when he moans as his cock slips past the tight ring of muscle, and the sound shoots straight to Arthur’s groin. He grips Merlin’s shoulders, panting slightly as he gets accustomed to the searing fullness, and rests his forehead against Merlin’s to catch his breath. It takes a moment for the pain to ebb into a dull, pleasing burn, but then Arthur eases himself down to take Merlin’s full length inside him, letting a gasp escape his throat.
“Arthur,” Merlin says, strained, and his name sounds like profanity on Merlin’s lips.
The position is clumsy and awkward but Arthur’s world has narrowed to the singular sensation of bottoming out and he squeezes reflexively, feeling Merlin’s cock twitch in response as his own erection smears beads of leaked precum across his belly. He starts to move, bracing himself against the earth, Merlin’s chest, anything that will support his weight, fucking them both desperately into the ground.
The campsite is quiet, save for the fire spitting crackling embers, the monotony of the crickets chirping, and their mingled breaths – ah, ah, ah – amidst the sticky smack of Arthur’s arse slapping against the cut of Merlin’s thighs as they edge into a quicker rhythm. Merlin drives into Arthur roughly, a red flush spreading across his pale chest and down to where he’s burying his prick to the hilt again and again. Arthur leaves angry welts across Merlin’s back with his fingernails as his hands grasp at everything, needing to be everywhere all at once. He rolls his hips against Merlin’s shuddering form, crying out when Merlin twists the angle of his thrust, jerking against the motion as Merlin slams into his prostate. He moans obscenely into Merlin’s mouth between hot, frantically messy kisses that are all clashing teeth and tongue.
“Love you,” Arthur gasps out as Merlin thrusts into him again, and that’s all it takes to send them both over the edge.
Arthur sees sparks like fairy dust beneath the darkness of his eyelids as he comes, riding out his orgasm with Merlin’s warm lips rasping hotly against his ear in a language he doesn’t understand. The words flow around the curve of Arthur’s naked back like a caress, inexplicably corporeal, and he paints the smooth lines of Merlin’s chest in hot, white ribbons.
In the afterglow of his release, Merlin slumps forward with an exhale, pushing Arthur onto his back on the forest floor. He doesn’t seem to mind the sticky mess trapped between their sweaty bodies but he rolls over on his side, easing himself out. The sudden emptiness causes Arthur to feel a keen sensation of hollowness and he opens his eyes to, impossibly, a forest glittering with golden lights. The space is aglow with aurelian sparks that drift and sway in an imperceptible wind, swirling around the air which is abruptly thick with the weight of an otherworldly presence. The entire spectacle is dazzling, radiant, and unmistakably magical.
Wordlessly, Arthur raises a hand, fingers lighting on a pale sparkle as he feels Merlin go rigid beside him. He almost expects it to burn, sizzling against his skin like an ember, but all he registers is a faint warmth, tingling as it absorbs into his touch.
He turns his head to see Merlin watching him, beautiful features contorted in an expression of fear and painfully earnest hope.
“Sorcerer.” The word rattles like a stone in his throat.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin says. “I never wanted to lie to you.”
“Did you ever plan to tell me?” Arthur asks, heart hammering in his ears.
Merlin laughs, and the sound is biting. “Would you have taken it well?” he responds drily. He brings his arms closer into his body, withdrawing from where their bodies were joined just moments ago. Arthur feels the space between them grow, far wider than the physical distance, and feels cold.
Arthur is quiet, turning this over in his head as he waits for a rush of anger to fill his senses, but it never comes. He tries to recall his every interaction with Merlin in the past decade, and the lies Merlin has told click together like pieces of a puzzle. He sifts through the conflicted turmoil bubbling in his chest and surprise rises to the top; fury is conspicuously absent, but hurt rears its ugly head.
Merlin’s expression is sober as he considers Arthur, the wrinkle between his brows creasing as he tries to formulate a response. After a pregnant moment, he exhales all in a rush.
“When you love someone as deeply as I love you,” begins Merlin, “the thought of saving them becomes second-nature. When they are in danger, every part of you feels it as though their pain is your own, like their presence is a fifth limb. When magic comes to you as easily as breathing comes to them, it isn’t even a question of whether or not to use it in their name. When you love someone as deeply as I love you, you realise that, even if they’ll hate you in the end, it will be worth it. ”
Arthur hadn’t even registered that he was going to kiss Merlin before he did, pulling him closer by his wrists, Merlin’s heat dissolving the frost that had already started to form over Arthur’s heart. The anxiety of that uncertainty isn’t gone, Arthur realises, the problems don’t disappear. They just transform over time, evolving as he does, but now he has Merlin by his side. Even magic can’t make the fear dissipate entirely, and even now Arthur feels the wretched tug beneath his ribcage, like the beginnings of a new stone forming in the pit of his stomach. This one would sink him, but only if he let it.
He feels a surge of joy wash over him when Merlin kisses him back, and Arthur realises that he doesn’t care about the details, just desperate to bridge the horrible, empty cavity between them. Uther had raised him to fear sorcery, to believe that there was no greater danger. But Arthur knows now that his father must have been mistaken, because he has never felt more safe than when he is with Merlin.
“Idiot,” Arthur breathes when they break apart, into the space where their breaths mingle. “I could never hate you.”
“So you’re not angry with me?” Merlin’s voice is tinged with forced levity, almost not daring to hope.
“I probably should be,” Arthur admits. “But the way you are… perhaps I should have known.”
“The way I am?” Merlin prompts, and Arthur brings a hand to his face, fingers resting gently on Merlin’s angled cheekbones.
“How could you be anything else but magic?” Arthur says softly, and Merlin’s golden eyes are brighter than all the stars in the sky.