Another knock on the door woke Arthur the next morning, a knock so soft he thought for a moment he'd imagined it. But it came again, louder, and then: "Arthur, it's me. Can I come in?"
Arthur sat up and looked at the door, wondering what Merlin would do if he refused to say anything, but he didn’t have to wonder for long. The door opened and Merlin, looking exactly the same as yesterday -- down to the wary expression -- let himself in.
"It’s a new day," he said quietly. "Are you going to talk to me?"
For a second Arthur was tempted, so tempted, to go the juvenile route of pointing out that it was not, in fact, a new day. But that wouldn't have accomplished anything.
"When we leave Morgana's," he said, not quite looking at Merlin as he climbed out of bed, "saddle the horses. We'll leave immediately. We're going to finish what we started."
The gathering in Morgana's room was even more difficult than usual, and Arthur could feel Gaius sending both of them sharp glances as he examined her; they were neither of them very good actors. But then Arthur had to think that surely Merlin must be an excellent one, to stand by and watch Uther execute so many magicians. And then he had to think about little things: Merlin asking softly if it was really so bad to use magic for a good purpose, Merlin turning his head away, Merlin helping and accepting but never looking pleased about it. Perhaps he was a dreadful actor; perhaps Arthur just hadn't been watching closely enough.
"Merlin," he said, afterwards, "horses," and Merlin stopped walking in the opposite direction to the stables, but he didn't turn around.
"I'll meet you there," he said. "I -- there's something I need to do first."
If he thought that he could foist Arthur off with vague statements the day after revealing that he was actually a lot better at keeping secrets than anyone else Arthur had ever known, he was mistaken. Arthur let him get almost to the first corner of the hall before he started to follow him, keeping a good distance between them and even lengthening it once he figured out where Merlin was headed. So by the time Arthur had crept down the stone stairs and pressed himself against the wall five steps above the ledge, secure in the shadows, Merlin and the Great Dragon were already conversing.
Or rather, Merlin was raging and the Great Dragon was -- from what little Arthur could see -- listening impassively.
"...and now everything's ruined, because he hates me! How am I supposed to protect him when he hates me? How am I supposed to protect him when you won't tell me anything?"
There was a renewed spark of fury trying to gain ground in Arthur, because Merlin's job was to serve him, not to stand between him and the world as though he were a child in need of someone else to fight his battles, and the sheer presumption in the way Merlin threw these words out was infuriating.
"There can be no true meeting of destined souls," the Dragon said, and it sounded so loftily superior that some of Arthur's anger redirected itself, "where secrets stand between them."
"Right," Merlin snapped. "You know what else has a good chance of standing between us? A dungeon. Or maybe they'll just have my head chopped off, like they do with all the other sorcerers; I'm sure I'll do a fantastic job of helping Arthur become a great king once I'm dead."
"Trust runs in more than one direction," the Dragon said, which was the only sensible thing Arthur had heard it come out with yet. Merlin seemed to realise this; he stopped shouting.
"All right," he said. "Perhaps I should have -- all right. But that's not the point! The point is that Arthur almost died because you won't tell us how to kill this thing, and --"
He was cut off by a growling sound that grew louder and louder, and the Dragon pulled itself up until it was erect, eyes glinting, teeth bared. "You presume much, young warlock," it hissed. "Do you think me nothing more than an oracle, to serve at your convenience, just as Uther thought twenty years ago? My destiny is to help you and the Pendragon prince achieve greatness. I will do this, but you will not stand there speaking of killing the only other survivor of my people and expect me to be pleased about it."
Merlin took a while to respond. "I'm sorry," he stumbled. "I didn't think about that, I'm sorry. But it's the only way we can prevent it from destroying Camelot, the only way it will be safe to wake Morgana."
"You will accomplish this thing," the Dragon said, and it almost sounded sad. "But you will do it without my help."
Arthur decided that he had heard enough. He ran up the stairs, his footfalls as light and fast as when he was hunting, and by the time Merlin made it to the stables he was already ordering the tack for their horses and had sent someone to the kitchen for a packed meal.
"If I ask you where you were," he said conversationally, checking his saddle, "will you lie?"
"No!" Merlin sounded upset-bordering-on-angry; it was the exact same tone in which he'd just scolded the Great Dragon because Arthur hadn't emerged unscathed from a fight with an insane magical creature. But Arthur wasn't supposed to know that. "No more lies. I swear to you. Ask me anything."
When Arthur looked at him, Merlin's mouth was drawn into a thin line, but he said, "Yes. Anything."
One servant returned with their food, then, and another appeared leading a horse kitted out for Merlin, so Arthur didn't say anything else. And by the time they were riding down the same road that they'd followed the previous day, the momentum and some of the tension was gone, so it took a long while before Arthur spoke. It wasn't the question he'd thought he wanted to ask, but it was an important one.
"Do you wish I still didn't know?"
"Actually," Merlin said, after a long pause, "when we found out about the circle, for a while I wished it was just me. I wished you were living the same day as everyone else so that I could tell you about my magic and then you would forget, and then I could try again and again and again until I found a way to tell you that didn't sound so --"
"So much like you've been lying to me ever since we met?"
Merlin looked almost sick. "It's the lying that bothers you, isn't it. Not the magic."
Arthur closed his mouth on the next thing that wanted to emerge from it, not sure what it was, but sure it was going to make the situation worse. He considered the question: yanked everything that he'd been avoiding into the sunlight and looked it in the face, and realised that Merlin was right. He'd thought he knew Merlin, thought he'd finally found someone he could trust effortlessly, and that had been knocked down in an instant. And if he was quite honest with himself, there was also the fact that Merlin was the walking proof that what his father was doing to the magic-users of Camelot was wrong, and Arthur hated that because --
Well. Because it meant that Arthur should be standing against him, but that was impossible. Nobody could stand against Uther when it came to magic. So that left Arthur...where? In full knowledge that people shouldn't be held accountable for the way they were born, but equally sure that nothing he could do or say would alter the way Camelot was ruled. It left Arthur helpless, and more than anything else Arthur hated things that he could not change.
Arthur realised that he hadn't spoken for a while, and also that he'd forgotten the original question. "I'm -- I'll get used to the idea," he said softly. "Just don't expect me to do it straight away."
This time it was Merlin who nodded and then rode ahead, either seeking his own space or granting Arthur his. It didn't really matter. They rode in silence for long time, long enough that Arthur's muscles started to tense of their own accord; they were not far from Riverbend, only a little distance from the place where the screaming had first become audible yesterday.
"It's what people do that should matter," Merlin burst out with suddenly, breaking the silence. "Not what they have the potential to do. You admitted it yourself, when you found out about Morgana. What matters is what people intend, and how they feel --"
Arthur heard the last remnants of his anger say, "Magic corrupts." But they were his father's words, and he knew that he had no proof of them; just the fact that they had been said so many times by someone he had always, always striven to prove himself to.
"Power corrupts. If you let it." Merlin paused. "And I won't let it happen to you, if you won't let it happen to me."
Arthur closed his eyes, took two deep breaths, and then opened them again. This was Merlin, Merlin, who had saved his life and shown himself prepared to fight to the end in Arthur's service, and Arthur knew that right here and right now he had to made a decision. It had to be enough, or not. He trusted Merlin absolutely, or he didn't.
"Look out!" Merlin cried then, and Arthur barely had enough time to register the way the air had changed before his body threw itself flat along the neck of his panicking horse, his own instincts saving his life. The dragon's arm whistled over his head, and Arthur managed to force his horse backwards in a skitter of hooves that was only just under his control.
"Where did it come from?" Merlin yelled. "I thought it was trapped in the circle! I thought it would be in the same place as yesterday!"
Arthur bit back a curse and slid off his horse, keeping his eyes on the dragon, which was puffing smoke again and watching him right back. "I don’t know how this works, Merlin. Maybe your magic tricks yesterday messed with it, maybe the rowan berries on the sword did something, I don't know. But we have to kill it, and we know steel alone doesn't work."
Merlin looked at him blankly. He really was a moron at the most inconvenient times.
"Magic! " Arthur shouted. "Get off your horse and do something! "
The dragon gave that rattling laugh and Arthur pulled his horse even further back, making sure they were out of swiping range, as Merlin lifted his hand and said the blinding spell again.
"Good." Arthur reached out for the reins, and Merlin slid down with an anxious look on his face as the dragon erupted into rage again.
"No," it growled, "no, all gone, gone into the dark, have to kill --" and another scream.
"Arthur!" Merlin shouted, watching the dragon. "Draw your sword."
"What? It doesn't work, Merlin, we already found that out."
"Just do it, trust me," and Arthur's hand was at his hilt before Merlin had even finished speaking, so Arthur supposed he did.
"Move back some more," Arthur snapped, dragging the terrified horses further away from the thrashing dragon with one hand, balancing his sword in the other. "And hurry up, whatever it is."
Merlin started to speak, his face twisted into concentration, his hand stretched out towards Arthur, and when the blue light erupted it was so bright that Arthur thought it must have been lightning, but it was his sword. On fire with some glowing power, suddenly lighter and warmer in his hand.
Merlin gasped and let his hand drop. "Now," he said urgently, "try now. I'll help."
Arthur watched the way the dragon was moving, trying to find a rhythm, but there didn't seem to be any: it stumbled forward, it lashed out to the side, it was moving closer.
And then the sound shimmered through the air, high and wondrous, like someone singing with three throats and no words, and the dragon went completely still. It lifted its head as high as it could, listing to the side because of the weight of its dead wing, and let out a soft noise. It was completely still. Its neck was exposed. The sound went on and on and on.
Something painful twisted in Arthur's chest, but he was already moving, running into the stillness and then feeling his sword sink deep into the dragon's flesh as though its hide were nothing more than lace.
The last scream was worse than all of the others combined, and Arthur yanked back his sword just in time to roll out of the path of an untidy jet of fire, but it was over very quickly. The wound had been deep and exact, and the magic on the blade must have done something as well, because the scream cut off after a few seconds and the dragon fell to the ground. The force of its fall rumbled through Arthur's feet and then died away, leaving him abruptly aware of the fact that his knee was aching again. He turned around; Merlin was calming the horses, which thankfully hadn't bolted when Arthur released them to attack the dragon.
"What was that?" Arthur asked, and Merlin's mouth twisted as he walked forward to join him.
"Dragonsong. It's an easy spell. It's meant to be soothing for children, it's not -- not for battles."
"You look almost sad for it," Arthur said, and it came out more of an accusation than he'd meant. Merlin turned away from the dragon, his face pale.
"It was mad, it couldn't help being mad. And everyone it ever knew, everyone of its kind, had died."
Arthur wasn't fool enough to take that on face value. He wiped his sword down and sheathed it, and then said, "Did you actually think I'd have you killed, if I found out?"
Merlin gave a long, slow shudder and seemed to sink in on himself, but his gaze and his tone were both frank. "I didn't know. I'm sorry. I thought -- you'd be so angry that you might do something without thinking, or tell your father, and once the king knew I'd never be able to stay in Camelot. Alive or dead, I'd have to leave you."
"You have to trust me more than that," said Arthur, not knowing until the words escaped his mouth how desperately true they were.
"I will if you will," said Merlin. He gave a flicker of a smile, acknowledging the echo of his earlier words, and held out his hand.
Arthur thought about a normal, sunny day when an insolent stranger had talked back to him in the shadow of his own castle and held out one hand in thoughtless greeting. He thought about offering his own hand to Merlin in Hunith's dark hut, holding on tight and realising that there was no man in the world with whom he would rather face death.
He thought: well, I suppose there's my decision made.
Many things had changed; it was stupid to pretend otherwise. But Arthur could choose how much he let those things change him.
He reached out and clasped Merlin's hand.
"Deal," he said, and Merlin's smile grew into something real and bright.
A wild idea struck him. "You, Morgana -- Gwen isn't a sorcerer too, is she?" That, Arthur thought, would really be the last straw.
"No! No, god, no. It was me who healed her father when he was dying from Nimueh's curse." Merlin made a rueful face. "I didn't think that one through very well."
"Poor Merlin." Arthur released his hand and clapped him on the shoulder. "All that magic doesn't leave much room for brains, does it?"
Merlin's smile reappeared. "Let's go home," he said.
The late afternoon sun was touching the castle rooftops by the time they rode into Camelot, and Merlin's slow stories had untangled for Arthur a lot of the mysteries of the past few months. He'd lost count of the number of times they'd saved each other's lives, and decided that it was better not to be counting.
Gaius took one look at the both of them and fumbled a bunch of herbs. "I assume, from your filthy but pleased countenances, that your quest was successful this time."
"It was," Merlin said.
"Well, you can't go to the feast looking like that." Gaius shook his herbs at them. "Let me get you some tea, and then you can go and wash."
"We're not going to the feast at all," Arthur declared. "I'm far too sick and contagious. Inform my father, Gaius."
"Very well, sire." Gaius pointed them into seats and poured them rowan tea from a pot that had been warming by the fire. Arthur drank his as quickly as was prudent and then stood up.
"Good night." Merlin saluted him with his own empty cup.
"What's that, Merlin?" Arthur leaned against the doorframe and lifted his eyebrows. "Are you my manservant, or not?"
Merlin threw Gaius a look and a shrug, and followed Arthur. "I do have a room of my own, you know," he said as they climbed the stairs away from Gaius's door, though he didn't sound upset.
Arthur hadn't even thought about it; they'd spent so many days living close together, as the only ones who knew what was happening, and he'd grown accustomed to this: the night leaking in at the windows, rowan at the back of his tongue, and Merlin.
Besides, this time he had something to prove.
"Smash the bowl," he said, as soon as the door was closed. Merlin made to go over to the table, but Arthur grabbed his wrist and held him in place. "No. Smash the bowl, Merlin."
Merlin stared at him for a long moment, and then turned his head towards the table. He didn't say anything, this time, but his eyes burned momentarily with a deep shade of gold and Arthur almost dropped his hand in surprise. When he managed to look away from the strange, glowing calm of Merlin's face, he saw that the bowl was hovering in midair. Merlin let out his breath in something almost like a sigh; another flash of gold; the bowl flew sideways and into the wall in a single smooth movement.
A light tug brought Merlin's attention back to Arthur. "What else?"
"It's all right." The smile felt fine, on his mouth; not forced at all. "I want to know. I want you to show me. What else?"
An answering smile ducked onto Merlin's face and it looked fine as well. Perhaps it really was all right, between them, or at least well on its way to becoming so. "Well, there's something I've been working on. Lie down." Arthur, to his own horror, felt his eyebrows climbing his forehead in a suggestive manner. Merlin gave a cough and turned pink. "I mean. Lie down and watch the canopy of the bed, I'll show you something."
Arthur lay down on one side of the bed and gazed upwards with no idea what to expect. There was a shift of weight as Merlin lay down next to him, and then Merlin lifted one hand and said something in that strange magical tongue and black clouds began to spill from his fingertip, rising and spreading out to cover the canopy like an inky blanket.
"Watch this," Merlin whispered, and then began to speak magic again, a long hesitant stream of words, obviously taking great care over each syllable. And in front of Arthur's eyes the night sky of Camelot began to appear, pinpricks of brightness fading into view as though someone were poking holes in the dark blanket above their heads. He could see the Hare and the Crippled Archer and all of the constellations that he'd had pointed out to him since he was old enough to be awake on the rooftop after dark, the night wind stroking his cheeks and the oldest stories filling his ears. If he was lost anywhere in his own kingdom he could find his way home by these stars.
"That's amazing," Arthur said, and meant it.
Merlin didn't reply, but the pace of his words changed and the stars spilled out of their familiar patterns and began to spin around each other in a dance that was so soothing as to be soporific. Arthur closed his eyes and listened to Merlin creating magic beside him and his last thought before sleep claimed him was: I am safe, and I am home.
The feeling of calm lasted until Arthur woke up unable to feel his right arm because Merlin was lying on it.
"Hey, potato sack." He gave Merlin a good shove and managed to extricate his limb.
"Bugger off," Merlin mumbled into his pillow.
"I could have you flogged for that," Arthur pointed out, but then Gwen knocked on the door and called for him, and he was grinning as he threw the door open wide.
"It's Morgana. There's something wrong with her."
"We'll be there soon," Arthur told her.
"We?" Gwen looked over at the bed and her eyebrows did something extraordinary. "Is that --"
"Yes," said Arthur, and gave the lewdest grin he could possibly muster. "Good morning, Guinevere."
Gwen was still staring at Merlin with her mouth open, so Arthur closed the door gently and then leaned against it and burst out laughing. Fuck, this felt good. It had been a long and turbulent week and he never, ever got the chance to screw around with people's expectations without the knowledge that there would be consequences.
"Oh, very funny," said Merlin, still mostly to his pillow.
"Think about it, Merlin." Arthur couldn't keep the smirk off his face. "Gaius's potion needs one more night, so tomorrow will be the last time we live this day. So today…"
"…is the last one that doesn't count." Merlin lifted is head and looked at him for a few seconds, and then started to smirk as well. Arthur hadn't been aware Merlin's face could do that.
"No dragons to kill, and no consequences," Arthur said, the possibilities exploding and expanding in his head. "What do you want to do first?"
Merlin moved to sit on the edge of the bed, his eyes sparkling, but he said, "First we should make sure that the dragon's still dead. Check that Riverbend hasn't sent Edward to Camelot -- they shouldn't have, if the screaming's stopped."
Arthur gave him a disapproving look -- really, Merlin chose this time to suddenly become the practical one? -- but recognised the wisdom in his suggestion. "Fine, fine." He waved a hand. "Then what?"
Then came everything that Arthur had always wanted to do but couldn't because he was the heir to the throne and so expected to be above such immature pranks: they swapped the sugar and the salt in the table pots and blinked their way innocently through lunch, they tossed water onto the heads of people walking across the courtyard and then waved cheerfully down to their spluttering victims.
"How old are you, your highness," Merlin grinned, "five?"
"Please," Arthur scoffed, "I can come up with far more sophisticated pranks than a five-year-old."
Which was how they spent three glorious hours moving every piece of furniture in Lord Ramsey's room out onto the training field, Merlin enchanting the heavier pieces so that they could be carried easily, and Arthur coming up with increasingly implausible excuses to give to the people who stared at them. They created an impeccable replica of his bedroom's layout in the middle of the field, sent a servant to fetch him, and then hid behind a tree to watch.
A few whispered words from Merlin tied Geoffrey of Monmouth's bootlaces together under the library table and sent him tumbling to the floor when he stood up from his books; another few words unlaced the back of the Lady Charlotte's gown, exposing her petticoat. The scream she gave when she found out had them leaning against the wall, helpless with laughter, and Merlin almost fell over and Arthur grabbed his arm to hold him upright. It was a silly fleeting moment, but when their eyes met Arthur knew -- beyond the slimmest shadow of a doubt -- that his decision had been the right one. This, whatever they had, whatever they were creating simply by existing in the same space at the same time, was too important to risk losing.
"Now what?" Merlin asked, once they could breathe again.
"I have an idea," Arthur said for the fourth time that day.
Merlin must have found something in Arthur's face that gave away what manner of idea this one was, because he gave him a flat look in return. "I'm not going to like this idea, am I?"
It was an amazing, fantastic, genius idea, and wasn't it convenient that Morgana owned a dress in the exact same shade of blue as Merlin's eyes?
"You're mad," Merlin said.
"Think about it, Merlin. When else are you going to get a chance to do something like this in front of a lot of people who will never know it happened?"
"If it's such a wonderful opportunity, why aren't you doing it?"
"Because I'm the prince," Arthur explained, "and you're the manservant."
"It's Morgana's, it won't fit me."
"Nonsense." Arthur gestured with the hand not holding up the dress. "There are those bits that -- lace. Lace up. You'll be fine."
Merlin groaned, but took the dress from Arthur. "I'm not letting you dress me, you'll be dreadful at it." His voice took on a doomed tone. "Please get Gwen."
Gwen, once she'd finished filling Arthur's chambers with peals of delighted laughter, was all too happy to lace Merlin into the blue dress.
"We could --" she started, her fingertips in Merlin's hair.
"No," said Merlin.
"Maybe some paint --" and then his lips.
"No," said Merlin.
"Spoilsport," Arthur accused him.
"I'm sure this will cause enough of a stir on its own, sire." Gwen patted something frilly into place at Merlin's waist, and grinned up at him. "I can't believe you agreed to this, Merlin. You look very pretty. I mean -- I don't mean -- you don't look bad in your normal clothes --"
"See you at the feast," Arthur said, steering her towards the door before she could dig herself any deeper. "And don't tell anyone, we want it to be a surprise."
On that account they succeeded admirably. Arthur stored the stunned look on his father's face away to be treasured in future moments of boredom, and even managed to prevent it from becoming an angry one by the simple method of telling the truth: it was just a harmless joke, and surely a bit of laughter was not going to diminish the enjoyment of the visiting nobles?
"It's hardly in good taste, Arthur," his father frowned, but in the next instant his attention was elsewhere and the danger had passed.
The ladies of the court seemed just as taken with the idea as Gwen had been, and as the night progressed the Lady Emilia, displaying incredible single-mindedness of taste, still appeared determined to ambush Merlin with her attentions.
"What a lovely idea, your highness," she gushed to Arthur, rings shining as she waved an expressive hand. "Dressing your servants in such a way, in order to accentuate their true masculinity. So original."
Arthur...really had nothing to say to that. Besides, the joke was losing its novelty, and something about the fact that Merlin looked bemused instead of terrified made Arthur think about the what-ifs: what if the Lady Emilia had been young and charming, what if one day someone who wasn't a crazed harpy took enough of a liking to Merlin that they would pursue him past insults and dresses and social convention?
By that stage in the thinking process, Arthur had come to a decision. "My apologies, Lady Emilia," he said, and took firm hold of Merlin's wrist and yanked until Merlin had to take a few fast steps forward. "But I'm afraid my manservant has other duties tonight."
Lady Emilia looked from Merlin to Arthur and then back again, and Arthur waited until the look of realisation started to fall across her face before he allowed himself to look at Merlin.
"What are you doing?" Merlin hissed, and Arthur wanted to laugh. Just take in a deep gulp of air and then shout it all out again, let it bounce off the walls. Merlin's wrist was thin and warm and his skin was fluttering at the juncture of jaw and neck, some tiny muscle moving beneath the surface, and Arthur pulled him even closer.
"No consequences," he murmured, and then took Merlin's chin in one hand and kissed him hard.
It was a gamble, but only for low stakes; Arthur knew he could laugh it off with no effort at all, claim it next to the pranks and the dress as something that had only happened because it was fun to create waves when nobody would ever hold you accountable for them. And Merlin would forgive him because that was what Merlin did, that was what they did for each other: forgave the liberties and the mockery and the secrets because they knew that there were more important things.
Oh, Arthur knew exactly what his excuses would be, and in the first few moments of his mouth moving against Merlin's motionless lips, he lined them all up and readied them for battle. But just as he began to pull away, one of Merlin's hands flew up to the back of his neck and held him with their faces barely half an inch apart. Arthur couldn't focus well enough to see the expression on Merlin's face, but Merlin said very fast, "No, it's fine, no consequences, I just, I just wasn't expecting," and that was all Arthur needed to kiss him again, properly and deeply. He buried one hand in Merlin's hair and the other in the fabric at his waist, making a good show of it, because he could hear murmurs rising into exclamations all around them and his father would notice soon if he hadn't already and this, this, standing here tasting wine on Merlin's mouth and throwing away every lesson he'd ever been taught about propriety, was a brilliant and impossible thing, and Arthur was going to wrestle every piece of brilliance he could out of this bedamned circle of Morgana's.
"Right," Arthur said, when his need to breathe again was approximately equal to the level of shocked noise around them. "Right, then."
Merlin looked around and then back at Arthur and said, in a tone that was very close to being a command, "We should go and get the rowan tea from Gaius. Um. Right now."
"Are you sure?" Arthur had caught sight of Gwen's expression, and he kind of wanted to go over there and watch her flounder through her attempt at polite conversation about the fact that Arthur had just kissed Merlin in front of the entire court -- god, just thinking about it made Arthur's mouth hurt with the force of his smile -- but Merlin's hand had moved from his neck to his arm.
"Yes," he said. "I'm sure."
Come to think of it, watching Gaius react to the sight of Merlin in a dress promised to be highly entertaining, so Arthur threw Gwen another of those lewd smiles and they left the feast to the crescendoing astonishment of a room full of people. It was an excellent end to an excellent day.
"Merlin…" Gaius's expression was so dumbfounded that it outstripped even Arthur's wildest expectations.
Merlin, who seemed to have collected himself during the walk to Gaius's rooms, managed to look only slightly embarrassed as he held out his hand. "We need the rowan tea."
Gaius closed his mouth and gave them the bottle. "I don't want to ask any more questions, do I?"
Arthur smiled. "Probably not."
If he was honest, Arthur wasn't expecting anything to happen, not even when Merlin followed him back to his room -- that was almost routine, by now -- and then stood there with his edges softened by torchlight and an uncertain look on his face. Arthur didn't expect anything from this day except dreams, impossibilities, bright moments of joy and mischief that would never be recreated, and suddenly it seemed like they'd spun themselves something serious out of the jokes.
Merlin looked at him and Arthur wanted him so much it almost hurt, wanted to bite down on his lip and taste blood, wanted to find the magic in his fingers and coax it out.
"Turn around," Arthur commanded, and Merlin did.
He undid the tiny hooks at the back of the dress one by one, a widening arrowhead of skin appearing inch by inch as the fabric sprang apart. When the last hook was open Arthur drew two fingers down the line of Merlin's spine, from the nape of his neck to the top of his hips; his mind was soaring, lost in this sense that he could do whatever he wished because none of it would matter, that anything was possible and permissable. It was breathtaking -- literally, perhaps, because he could swear that Merlin was holding his breath in, and when Arthur turned him around again, the skirt sweeping to a halt a few seconds after Merlin himself, he released it. One warm puff against Arthur's mouth, and Arthur didn't even think before he leaned forward. The first kiss was at an awkward angle, so Arthur tried again, and then again, each brief contact better than the last as Merlin began to respond. This time, however, it was Merlin who pulled away first, looking determined.
"Arthur. This is different, this, between us, this has -- consequences. I won't pretend it doesn’t."
Then his eyes dropped and he was aiming that clear, Merlinesque intensity straight at Arthur's mouth, which was almost certainly inadvertent and definitely the filthiest thing Arthur had ever seen. Arthur had to swallow twice before he could manage to say, "All right."
Arthur didn't even bother to answer that. This time Merlin opened his mouth immediately, but just as they were really starting to get the hang of the kissing thing, he jerked back again. "Are you sure you're not just getting confused because I'm in a, a you know," indicating the dress, which was now bunched around his waist.
This was getting tiresome. Arthur grabbed Merlin's shoulders, feeling the glide of pale skin over collarbone, made sure Merlin was looking him straight in the eye, and used the dangerous voice. "Do I look confused?" he said, and then added, "Merlin," all deliberate enunciation and it must have worked because Merlin's eyes widened and his muscles went taut under Arthur's hands.
"Oh god," Merlin said weakly, "you can't, I, you don't, stop talking like that," and then he practically threw himself back at Arthur, and Arthur tripped backwards and fell onto the bed because his excellent warrior reflexes had been stamped into pieces by the boots of insistent desire, and things got rather violent from there.
There was the fact that between Merlin's practised hands and Arthur's familiarity with his own clothing, they had Arthur undressed very quickly, but there were layers and ties and things to this bloody skirt that seemed almost impossible to remove. Arthur was on the verge of spitting with frustration when the dress tore itself into pieces; no magic words, just a tight smile and those golden eyes and dear god, Arthur was going to have to work out a way to avoid exploding with lust every time Merlin's eyes did that.
"Doesn't matter," Merlin gasped, rolling them over until they were pressed skin to skin amongst the silken rags, "it'll be back in her wardrobe tomorrow, good as new."
There was the matter of finding angles where Merlin's bony elbows weren't digging into Arthur's ribs, and the matter of making someone's rhythm fit with the way someone else was moving their hips, and all of the other things that kept this real; kept it possible, not a dream at all.
There were Merlin's clever hands and the way he smiled up at Arthur, wide open and wondering, and there was the way Arthur found himself gasping when Merlin's mouth drew blood to the surface of his neck.
There was the fact that it was a summer night and being this close to another person pushed the heat into levels that were uncomfortable, but Arthur made the quick decision not to care that his sheets were sticking to his skin and that the air was thick with their mingled breaths and Merlin's body was a thing of overheated crevices and ungraceful movements. It was a bit awkward and a bit messy but all of it was good -- a better end to the day than anything Arthur could have imagined -- and that was all that mattered.
"Hold on," he murmured into Merlin's shoulder, and then kept his hand moving faster and faster and his eyes glued to the way Merlin's slick mouth made sounds that didn't belong to any real or magical language that Arthur could recognise. When the smash came, he was so absorbed in enjoying the view that he thought for a moment it had come from Merlin's throat, but then Merlin was breathing hard and Arthur's hand was sticky and over on the table the blue bowl was --
"Please tell me you did that on purpose," Arthur said, trying to gather enough of his thoughts to be properly unnerved.
Merlin turned his head and looked at the shards with an expression that started out smug, then dissolved into an artlessly delighted grin. He directed it at Arthur and said, "Mostly?" and Arthur had to lean down and laugh into Merlin's mouth.
In the light of the morning, Arthur found himself idly revising his earlier opinion of Merlin's bone structure. Merlin's chest rose and fell in a gentle rhythm, he managed to look intent and curious even while asleep, and his cheekbones were sharp and beautiful and entirely worth losing one's head over. Arthur would have taken the opportunity to check all of the other hidden, wonderful angles of bone under skin that he had discovered the previous night, but the day had been reset as though by the hand of a disapproving chaperone: they were both, to Arthur's disappointment, wearing clothes again.
"Gnnmf. Wha...?" Merlin's awakening lacked dignity -- he flailed around a bit with one arm and his brow furrowed when his hand collided with Arthur's pillow -- but the way his eyes widened as they fell on Arthur was nonetheless enough to make Arthur catch his breath.
"Good morning," Arthur said.
"Good morning." Merlin looked at him in way that was careful, measuring, and Arthur remembered --
This, between us, this has consequences.
As consequences went, Arthur thought, waking up next to Merlin wasn't exactly disastrous.
"Next time, Merlin, let's see if we can manage it without destroying any of my possessions, shall we? You really are a disgrace to my reputation," he murmured. And Merlin's smile was slow and his hands were confident as he pulled Arthur's lips down to his, kissing him as though it were the easiest and most magical thing in the world.
Arthur's hands were discovering just how much better access Merlin's normal clothing provided to, well, Merlin, when compared to the damn dress, when there was a knock on the door that forced both of them to freeze in a way that would probably have looked very funny to an observer.
Which there was about to be. Because the knock was followed, inexorably, by Gwen's polite, "Your highness?"
"Consequences!" Merlin said, scrambling frantically to disentangle himself from Arthur and the sheets. "This time everything counts."
Arthur groaned and let his head thump back onto the pillow. "She'll remember."
"Yes! Now get the door!" Merlin whispered, and fled to hide in the next room.
"Your highness? I'm so sorry to disturb you, but this is very important," came Gwen's voice through the door, and Arthur gave one more groan for good measure before going over to open it.
"What is it?"
"I really am sorry, but it's Morgana. Something's wrong with her."
Everything counts. Right. Arthur pulled an expression onto his face -- which was still tingling with the memory of Merlin's skin flushing under his lips -- and hoped like hell it was concern. "Is she unwell?"
"I -- I don't know. Gaius is with her, but I thought you should know."
"Thank you. I'll be there as soon as I have some clothes on." Arthur gestured down at his loose nightclothes, which Gwen appeared to notice for the first time.
"Of course! Of course, sire, sorry," she said, and looked very glad to leave when Arthur closed the door again.
"Well, Merlin, get a move on," Arthur called. "I'm quite sure you're still required to dress me."
Merlin's mouth, as he jogged across to collect Arthur's clothes from the wardrobe, was twisted into a smile that was probably keeping in a lot of very bad jokes. Arthur was sorely tempted to drag those jokes out, either by making some himself or by finding them inside Merlin's mouth with his tongue, but they didn't need distractions. He contented himself with enjoying the gentle brush of Merlin's fingers against his skin as they got Arthur into his clothes, and then pushed Merlin firmly out of the door before his willpower expired.
"I believe this to be a mild sleep disorder, sire," Gaius was saying as they entered Morgana's room for what would be, please god, the last time. "Not serious at all. In fact, I have a potion which I think will do her some good."
He drew the bottle out of a bag with impressive nonchalance, and Merlin's hand crept around Arthur's wrist and tightened as Gaius poured a small mouthful into Morgana's mouth and they watched her swallow it.
The silence was much shorter, this time: Arthur barely had time to feel his pulse knock twice against Merlin's palm, and then Morgana's eyes opened. Arthur released his breath.
"What --" She looked at Gaius, pulling herself upright, clumsy with sleep. "Gaius, I saw --"
"It's all right, my lady," Gaius said, his hands on her shoulders and his voice very serious. "It was a nightmare. Nothing more. It will not come to pass, I give you my word. Now, how are you feeling?"
"Fine, I feel --" Morgana blinked and looked around the room. "What are you all doing in here? What happened?"
"We were worried about you." Gwen broke away and went to sit on the bed, reaching out to squeeze her lady's hand. "You wouldn't wake up, but Gaius gave you something and now…are you sure you're all right?"
"Yes! Yes, just a little tired still, but perhaps you could bring me some tea?"
"Right away." Gwen nodded and hurried to the door.
"Excellent, Gaius." Uther clapped the physician on the shoulder, spared another glance for Morgana and a nod for Arthur, and then swept out.
"I don't believe this," Arthur muttered to Merlin, "but I'm looking forward to actually having conversations with my father again."
"I'm looking forward to spending this day doing something other than reading books, making potions or going off on dangerous quests."
"Excellent." Really, Merlin just walked into these things. Arthur clapped him on the back. "I need you to sharpen all of my weapons, go through that chest of old clothes that we found last week and work out which of them are worth keeping, clean my boots, and polish my tack in the stables."
Merlin turned and gave him a betrayed look.
"Everything counts today, Merlin, and your chores aren't going to do themselves. If you finish all of those things," Arthur allowed, "I may let you burn the hat."
"I'm holding you to that," Merlin said.
It worked out well, really; the look of dark satisfaction on Merlin's face as he set the hat alight, combined with the vicious flash of his eyes, made heat curl deliciously in Arthur's stomach. Then there were a couple more hasty spells to remove the scorch mark from Arthur's floor (successful) and the stench of burnt feathers from the air (sort of successful: the room smelt like wet grass for hours instead, which was at least an improvement). Merlin wore his normal clothes to the feast and both of them swore to behave beautifully, a resolution which lasted for as long as it took for Merlin to trip and spill the gravy and for Arthur to get into his first bickering match with Morgana. Not that this was Arthur's fault at all; he'd been feeling disposed to be nicer than usual to her, considering the past week, but she would make a pointed comment about Arthur's ability to be diplomatic, and he could hardly let the insult slide.
Apart from the gravy incident, Merlin seemed to be faring better. He spent some time talking barley, which impressed Arthur's father, spent some more time hiding in a corner chatting to Gwen, and even managed to walk away from the Lady Emilia after spending no more than a few minutes in her company.
Arthur was impressed. "How did you get rid of the old bat this time?"
"Oh, it was easy. I just told her I was flattered by her attentions, but I am required to attend my master in his bedchamber tonight, and he's very demanding."
All in all Arthur considered it a very good sign that despite wanting to shove Merlin up against the nearest wall and kiss him until both of them were gasping, he retained the ability to want to hit him for being such a colossal idiot. He was about to launch into a tirade outlining the many and varied ways this particular demonstration of idiocy was going to end in disaster when he caught the tiny smile on Merlin's face.
"Idiot," he said anyway, and cuffed him lightly over the head. "Don't even joke about it. As glad as I'm sure my father would be to discover that I'm shagging a servant who stands no chance whatsoever of falling pregnant, he'd also likely throw it in my face every time some danger arose and you required rescuing. Which, let's face it, Merlin," he raised his eyebrows, "happens far more frequently than it does with anyone else's servants. You really are an enormous bother. I've no idea why I put up with you at all." But he slid his fingertips along Merlin's leg, under the table, and Merlin's breathing became uneven for a moment.
"And can you imagine if --" Merlin gestured with a piece of bread to where Morgana was holding court with a small group of knights, Gwen standing behind her shoulder.
"Oh, god, no." Knowing Morgana, she would have no qualms about giving Arthur gleeful hell about it for the next five years, or possibly proclaiming them adorable and cooing over them. Arthur couldn't decide which prospect he hated more.
"Gwen would tease me forever," Merlin said darkly. "She'd -- Arthur." Arthur's hand was stopped in its tracks by the firm pressure of Merlin's own. Merlin was looking straight ahead, an embarrassed smile pulling at his lips. "I know you're a terrible show-off, but I thought you'd at least draw the line at molesting me in public," he said, tangling his fingers down and between Arthur's own, "considering we've just been discussing the ramifications."
When they visited Gaius for the tea, he said very little; he looked from Merlin to Arthur, heaved a long-suffering sigh, and shoved the bottle into Merlin's hands. "I see this is to become a habit," he said acidly. "I suppose you could do a lot worse."
Merlin looked at Arthur as the door closed in their faces. "Who was he talking to?"
Arthur didn't care, and said as much.
Merlin shrugged and took a long gulp of the tea as they made their way back to Arthur's chambers, then passed him the bottle. "Ugh. I never want to drink rowan tea again as long as I live."
"Wait until winter," Arthur advised him. "You'll appreciate it the first time you can't sleep for sneezing," but he understood how Merlin felt.
Though a little later, when Merlin was standing near the table turning the blue bowl over in his hands, Arthur decided that he was extremely glad, overall, that the whole debacle had taken place.
"This is the last time," Merlin said, looking down at the bowl.
"I certainly hope so."
His mouth quirked up at the side. "I feel like we should do something special."
Arthur leaned back and settled on his pillows, lifting his hands and linking them behind his head. He maintained the silence until Merlin looked at him, and then he curved his mouth into a deliberate smirk and pitched his voice as low as possible. "Really?"
Merlin opened his mouth and then closed it in a very gratifying manner, his teeth catching on the tip of his tongue, and maybe Arthur was imagining it but the candles in the room might have burned a little higher. Just for a moment.
"Oh well bugger that then," Merlin said in a rush, and dropped the bowl onto the floor.
There was something new about the quality of the light the next morning, and it took Arthur almost a minute to realise that the bright glare of direct sun was absent. Hope surging in his chest, he swung his legs off the bed, ready to stride to the windows and look for clouds.
"Fuck," he said at once, and jerked his foot back. Then he started to laugh.
Merlin lifted his head in an expression of barely-awake concern. "What?"
Arthur bent down and straightened with the shard of pottery in his hand, dull brown along the sides but with the blue glaze shining in the muted sunlight.
"Come on, Merlin," he said, and smiled. "It appears that life has resumed."
~ fin ~