Merlin wakes on cold stone, head aching, with a faint sense of something wildly amiss. Opening his eyes, he stares at the shadows that fill the ceiling, then rolls onto his side with a groan. "Arthur?"
After a heartstopping second, Merlin hears movement, then a hand wraps firmly around his wrist. "I'm fine," Arthur says through his own headache, bewilderment and disbelief and a mix of a thousand uncomfortable emotion swirling through the words. Merlin whispers a command for light, illuminating the room and a dusty, tired-looking Arthur.
A tired looking, shocky Arthur. "What the fuck," Arthur says, sitting up, looking around them. "Was that supposed to happen?"
"I--" Merlin frowns, sitting up as well, noticing that Arthur hasn't let go of his wrist. "I don't know. Probably?"
"Is it over?"
Merlin wishes it were over--history tells him what happens next. Ygraine dies, and Uther kills the greater part of Cornwall, and proceeds to do his level best to wipe out all the magic in Camelot, and damn well succeeds. "I don't think so," he says reluctantly, looking around. "It--doesn't happen here, though."
"Oh." Arthur runs a hand through his hair. "That--makes sense, I suppose." Shaking his head, he looks at Merlin. "My mother was a Seer."
"Yeah." Merlin hesitates. "She knew my mother's name."
They look at each other, at a loss for what to do next. "We could go--find--"
"In the King's chambers." He has a feeling that when they leave the room, no matter where they plan to go, that's where they'll end up. "Where your mother--"
"Oh." Arthur looks away.
"We don't have to," Merlin says, tripping over the words. "I mean--I think I can get us free of this. I know I can. It's just memories. We can leave. You don't have to--" See that. Not watch your mother die. Not watch your father go mad. No one should have to see that. "We can leave."
Arthur doesn't answer, and Merlin fights the utterly natural urge to read his thoughts; it's difficult, almost impossible to stop himself, and his magic hates it, hates the separation, and he does, too. Arthur looks up at him, brow creased.
"Don't--" Arthur stops himself, looking uncomfortable, shifting on the floor. "Whatever you're doing, stop. It's--"
"I was trying to--give you some privacy," Merlin says awkwardly, holding his thoughts strictly in his head. It feels like losing a limb, a phantom pain from something that should be there and isn't, making everything unbalanced, wrong.
"I--" Arthur licks his lips, staring at the floor. "I can't feel you. I don't like it."
That's all it takes; Merlin can't summon the will to even try to stop it, not when he feels like he might go mad if he keeps holding back. Moving closer, he breathes out at the flood of Arthur, filling up the emptiness, feeling Arthur's grip shift from his wrist to his hand. Merlin lowers his forehead against Arthur's shoulder, already feeling better, echoed in Arthur's relief.
"Okay," Arthur says, voice wobbly, "this could be a problem." He doesn't seem terribly worried, though, and Merlin smiles against the dusty wool. "You think it's funny?"
"Well," Merlin says after a second, "it kind of is." Curling closer, Merlin sighs, impossibly comfortable even now on this incredibly hard floor in a castle that by some definitions could be considered the most haunted place in the world. Being near Arthur feels more necessary than breathing; it's not hard to see why Nimueh would bring life and death to heel for Ygraine's sake, for this. Ygraine had been like this to Nimueh, bright and brilliant, like coming home after a too long absence and knowing you would never have to leave again.
"Yes," Arthur whispers against his hair. "It feels like that."
After a few long minutes, Merlin reluctantly straightens. "We should--" he starts and Arthur nods, getting to his feet and pulling Merlin up behind him, fingers twining through his, settling as neatly as a puzzle piece falling into place.
The ghosts of various servants run to and fro around them, easily ignorable as they go to the king's chambers. Opening the door, they go inside, where Uther paces helplessly at the foot of the giant royal bed and a priest straightens, looking at Uther over the motionless body of the Queen of Camelot. "She's gone, sire."
Merlin's eyes flicker to Nimueh and stop there. Face washed of colour, she stares sightlessly at the bed, and Merlin feels something stretching between her and into darkness; something bright, something fading and twisting, an overextended thread that's the bond between them, and Nimueh's pouring everything into it, but it's not enough. No one is that strong, even her. Softly, almost apologetically, it snaps.
Something snaps in Nimueh, too, her brightness dimming, dying like a gutted candle, leaving nothing but darkness behind.
In Ygraine's chambers, Merlin had watched her create that tiny dark ball of light, the shape of something forming in her mind, and remembers Nimueh's smile when she looked at it.
No living sorcerer can.
She'd known--somehow, she'd known what would happen when the bond broke between them, what she would become. She wouldn't be sane. And what she planned to do could not be done by someone who was.
"Bring her back," Uther says, voice raw, edged in disbelief. "You--you--you gave her that child. You can do this."
"It doesn't work that way," Nimueh says dreamily, mind forming a spell unlike anything Merlin has ever seen, twisting impossibly together, Ygraine's vision filling her mind completely. "A life has to be taken for one that is given. You knew this could happen."
"Then take the boy in trade," Uther shouts desperately. Arthur goes still, and Merlin thinks, hopes, for a second, no, he didn't, he wouldn't-- "Take that misbegotten creature and do with it what you will, but bring her back."
Nimueh looks up then. "No."
Uther unsheathes his sword, more clumsy than Merlin's ever seen him, the tip resting in the vulnerable hollow of Nimueh's throat. "Do it," Uther says, voice raw with rage. "Give me my wife back!"
With a roar of rage, Uther turns around, eyes fixing on the cradle in the corner, a frightened maid beside it. Merlin feels Arthur's hand tighten as Uther storms across the room, looking down into it with neither love nor understanding, and more than anything, Merlin wants to rush between them, block Uther from the sight of that baby with his own body. "I'll kill it, and you as well," Uther chokes out. "All of you, for what you've done to me."
Nimueh smiles, rising lazily from the chair and crossing the room. "You'll love him," she breathes in a terrible promise. Her hand brushes against his shoulder, a love spell twisted out of recognition spun between her fingers and draping Uther in glittering magic like cobwebs. "More than your own life, more than your kingdom, more than your very soul. And every hour of every day, you will see your wife in his face and remember her and feel as you do now, a grief that will never heal and never ease, never soften. That's your price, for the son you took from her, and for the son I gave her that you could not. You will love him, and he will be the wound that will never mend for all the days of your life."
Stepping back, Nimueh looks at the still figure on bed as Uther collapses, hopeless, horrible sobs ripped from him like he's being torn apart. "I'll keep my promise, Ygraine," Nimueh whispers. "He will be protected. Even from me."
The room fades away, but Merlin doesn't notice, cradling Arthur in his arms, shaking as if he'll never stop, and Merlin curls up around him, helpless to ease a loss so much worse than death. No son should learn this, know this to their bones, how much they were hated by their own father.
Everything after is almost a coda; they wander the castle without stopping, watching guards dragging sorcerers and innocents through the bailey, thrown into the dungeons, serfs conscripted from the fields and worked until their bodies littered the ground for others to climb over and finish their tasks. Uther watches from a window, eyes flat and blank, as the wood begins to fill the bailey, as the dungeons echo with the hopeless screams of those who will feed Uther's fires.
Nimueh chants, small and pale in the back of the most crowded cell, the iron ripping apart her magic and her mind at once, but the spell doesn’t need magic, not yet; three days unmoving and sometimes seemingly unbreathing, her head lifting only when the first cell opens and the first ones are dragged away.
"What's going on?" someone says frantically. "What is he doing?"
Nimueh looks up as the screaming begins, horror-filled, pain-soaked, terrible to hear. Nimueh smiles, a faint glow surrounding her as she reaches down, casually jerking the iron from her flesh when the first death begins to fuel the spell she built, reaching for the terrified, pain-mad men and women being thrown to the greatest fire that Albion had ever seen, weaving the fragile threads of a Seer's vision into an unbreakable chain, creating a path that no one living would ever be able to do other than follow.
Merlin watches, sickened, as she weaves the magic of a hundred, a thousand sorcerers into it as neatly as a woman sews a tapestry, creating the protection that would follow Arthur all his life--that would send a young, frightened servant from Camelot to a country far from her home, settling in a village to bear her own son in the safety promised by a Seer, that Nimueh turns from potential into fact that no one can hope to escape. Every death foreseen is added to give it power when that death comes to pass, and Merlin thinks sickly of every time the executioner's axe had fallen, every man and woman that died in Uther's purges whose death was added to it for the long years between Ygraine's death and the day Merlin left his mother's home.
Nimueh looks beyond the guards, meeting Arthur's eyes. "This is how it began," she says, and for a second, the young girl who loved Ygraine looks out, lost and broken and left behind to be both witness to Uther's madness and executor of Ygraine's will. "This is what you are, Arthur Pendragon. This is what you cost us all. And knowing this is the price you pay for it."
They find themselves standing in the bailey, after, and Merlin looks around at the ordinary darkness, feeling the chill of the evening as something distant. Absently, Merlin pulls his coat closer, wondering vaguely why no one's come to search for them.
"That was part of it," Arthur says, looking at the castle with wide, unseeing eyes. "This is the last part of what she wrought. For us to come here, and to see this."
Uncertainly, Merlin reaches out and touches the stone; there's nothing left within. "It's gone," Merlin says, sure in a way he can't explain. "The--this is all that was left. The rest of what she did ended when I came to Camelot."
It's odd, to think of that, to think of Ygraine and Nimueh shaping the future into a single, inevitable path that led to this, to them, to the moment Merlin stepped foot in Camelot, giving him what they'd let the world burn to protect. He wonders how she could have known he'd be strong enough to do it.
"What she did, yes," Arthur says quietly, mouth tight. "But what they all did here--it's not over. It never will be, not as long as I live."
"No, Arthur. No." Pulling him around, Merlin looks into his face, shuttered and dark. "They chose this, they chose it. Not--not you."
"That doesn't change what was done for me." Arthur looks away as Merlin draws him closer, trying to press his own certainty into Arthur's skin, make him believe it. "How can anyone live with--with knowing--"
"You're not theirs," Merlin whispers frantically. "You're not. No matter what they did, it wasn't for you, it was for themselves and what they wanted to have come to pass. It was never for you."
Arthur nods blankly, disbelieving, and finally, he lets Merlin tug him back toward the wide stone archway that leads down to the cove. The quiet seems indecent when Merlin can still hear the echoes of long-forgotten screams filling his head, their boots loud on the gravel of the broken stone path.
They don't linger in the cove, going back up the uneven rock without even stumbling; Merlin's body remembers the path from Nimueh's memories. The horses wicker softly in welcome, and when Arthur lets go of him, the hurt is almost physical.
"God," Merlin says, leaning against the horse. "That's--"
"Come on," Arthur says, already mounting but looking no happier. "We'd best get back before--" he stops, frowning.
"I don't know," Merlin says, scrambling onto the horse's back. "I think they're alright. The knights, I mean--" Merlin shrugs helplessly.
"I had a meeting with--" Arthur trails off, then rolls his eyes. "Right, let's assume all of this was to get us here and start from there. Merlin, can you--"
"Find them, of course, just a second." Closing his eyes, Merlin hunts out the sparks that are the knights, as familiar to him now as they are to Arthur. Frowning, Merlin sits back. "Huh."
"They slept all day," Arthur says blankly, outrage vanishing suddenly beneath unwilling amusement. "Do remind me to mock them for this."
"I doubt," Merlin says dryly, "that you'll need the reminder."
Merlin feels it before they see it, like a cold wind or a long sigh before a much needed rest; Arthur stops, feeling it when Merlin does. "Arthur," he says, useless as it is, because Arthur's eyes are flickering to the village, spurring his horse, and Merlin follows; they both know what they'll find.
Five knights wait, bewildered, on an overgrown road, dazed and fully-dressed, horses beside them, surrounded in the long-burned houses of the village that died in Uther's fires the week of Arthur's birth. Pulling up, Arthur turns his horse in a tight circle, studying the overgrown land, empty of industry, dead fields and burned out dirt beneath the cold light of the moon.
"Sire," Gawain says, sounding shaken. "I don't understand--"
"Is everyone alright?" Arthur says harshly. Falling silent, Gawain nods. "Good. We're leaving."
The knights seem almost relieved; without argument, they mount their horses, noses turned south, while Merlin looks for something--anything--
"There won't be," Arthur says softly, reaching for Merlin's horse's bridle and turning it, leading him from the village.
"It--" Merlin looks back helplessly. "I didn't know."
"You weren't supposed to," Arthur says grimly, looking down pointedly, and Merlin sees their saddlebags have returned from wherever they left them. A part of him wants to open them, but he already knows their own things will be there and nothing more.
"I didn't--I should have." Somehow, this is the worst of it. A haunted castle, how mundane, memories caught in stone, fine, a secret history written into their minds, yes--but a village, a people, a serving girl, a room. "It felt real," Merlin says, looking back. "It felt--how can I--"
"How can I protect you from what I do not even know is not true?" Merlin shouts back, not caring if the knights hear him, not caring if his words carry to Uther's own ear. "I don't--"
"You will." Letting go of the bridle, Arthur reaches for his hand, fingers tight. "What you don't know, we will learn. We have time, Merlin."
Merlin thinks of Nimueh, of Taliesin, of the power that rippled through them, the expert ease they brought magic beneath their will. "When she was my age, she could bring life and death to heel," he says, frustrated. "She could change the fate of a kingdom--"
"And destroyed herself to do it. We won't make their mistakes," Arthur says, blue eyes dark, and Merlin wonders if it's the memory Ygraine that makes him imagine sparks like molten gold, like a dusting of falling stars in an endless night. "We've only started; it won't be the same for us. We'll do better."
Merlin's hands clench on the reins. "How do you know?"
"I remember--I remember her. I remember everything," Arthur says bitterly. "The life she lived, the queen she was, the man she married, the woman she loved, the son she bore--and the lie she told. There was another way. But not one that would bring me what I needed most. Not to be the king she saw."
Merlin closes his eyes, remembering Arthur's murmured denial when Ygraine showed Nimueh the path they must take--"No, it wasn't."
"What--what did she see?"
Uther, tossing bodies like kindling onto burning pyres; Nimueh in that tiny cell, weaving the future together to guide Arthur through every danger that an unprotected child could face, binding Uther to his son's safety with his own pain--sending a woman to a village far from Camelot and the laws of magic--and far from the exiled Druids who had been waiting, too, and not just for the promised king.
"She knew what you would be. The Druids told her, the place you would have with them, the destiny you had stretched before you. It wasn't this. Not then. She changed that, too. She hid you where they could never go, took from you what you should have been. So I could rule the world." Arthur looks at him hopelessly. "Tell me again, that this wasn't for me. Everything--everything that's happened--it was all for me."
The journey back goes almost impossibly fast, though they slow the pace, giving the unnerved knights the days they needed for the village memories to fade into something softer, less edged in magic and fear. Sleep spells are simple things; Merlin casts them each night as the sun sets, easing the knights into pleasant dreams that will teach them the story they will tell. The village was gone, burned away, the people lost. Uther will ask no questions; Tintagel will remain nothing but a blackened memory to commemorate Uther's grief.
He can't give Arthur the same kindness, a memory rewritten and purged, but he can give him other things, and sometimes, sometimes he can make him forget. For a little while.
"I want to rebuild it," Merlin murmurs, tilting his head back on the thick wool pad by the fire, watching the stars as Arthur's mouth trails curiously down his neck, golden hair twined idly between his fingers. Arthur pauses, a question rippling between them. "I don't know. It's safe now. And I can cleanse it to be sure."
"Hmm." Arthur presses a kiss against his collar, tongue tracing slickly over the bone.
"It's--," Merlin says, catching his breath at the soft scrape of teeth. "I don't know why. But it should be made whole again."
Merlin rolls his eyes, slapping the back of Arthur's head, feeling the ripple of Arthur's laughter trickle over his skin. "I'll restore it, then, when you're king. All of it. It's the place of your birth. For that alone, it should be cherished."
Arthur lifts his head, and Merlin's struck silent at the sight of him, drowsy blue eyes and flushed skin, lips swollen and soft. Merlin draws him into another kiss, breathless when Arthur pulls away.
"It's yours, then," Arthur says, pressing a kiss to the corner of his mouth. "You can do anything you want with it."
Of course, unspoken but crystal clear, and Merlin draws him back down again.
"Nothing was left of them?" Uther asks curiously, looking between his son and the gathered knights; Merlin, off to the side and unnoticed, wonders anew how Arthur can seem so much at ease, answering questions and adding remarks on their journey and it's conclusion, with a mind stuttering in barely-controlled chaos.
"Nothing," Arthur answers, looking a little bored. "It looked like a village fire. Whatever the dispute was, it must have escalated beyond simple pastures, if this was the result."
Uther nods, then hesitates. "There was no sign of anything--else?"
"No." Arthur tilts his head; for a second, Merlin thinks he sees flecks of gold touch the pure blue, a cold anger all the deeper being kept so severely in check; Merlin sees Uther leaning over the cradle again, face drawn tight with anger--it, boy, misbegotten creature, take it, I will kill it. "Was there something I should have known to look for?"
"No," Uther says uncomfortably, looking away. "Of course not. It is merely--a surprise."
"There is little there to keep anyone with sense," Arthur answers idly. "Barren fields, a crumbling ruin, and poor soil for any kind of crops. Better they go elsewhere."
"Yes," Uther says slowly, eyes on his son. "Of course. If that is all, you may go. You must be tired after so long a journey."
"I'm quite used to it," Arthur answers with a flawless bow. "Nothing good could come from there; best it's left to rot out of memory. Sire." Turning, Arthur misses the flash of guilt, the way Uther shifts in his throne, hand almost raising to call back his son.
Merlin doesn't, and he doesn't miss that Uther's hand lowers again, letting the moment pass. They always pass, and they always will; Uther will never be strong enough to love his son and his wife both, and even Nimueh's spell could only force this much from him.
If this is all that he can give his son--this half-life of maybe and almost, love given in careful measures to be withdrawn at the slightest offence--he doesn't deserve Arthur's devotion.
When Merlin arrives at Arthur's chambers, Arthur looks at him, the unhealed wound that Uther is to his son looking out of his eyes.
"I'm surprised he didn't wonder more," Arthur says, picking up a cup only to put it down, restless and flickering between the young prince and grieving son and angry man and sometimes all three. Merlin leans back against the door, thinking of how often he's watched Arthur like this and never understood what it meant. "He barely asked a question, he was so relieved to hear them gone."
He's ashamed, Merlin would tell him; he loves you like he loves nothing else, and you cost him his wife. He doesn't know how to love you both. Little by little, that shame had created a wound in his son that would never heal, giving his son the same endless pain to carry all his days.
Merlin traps the thought behind a smile before Arthur can sense it. Not yet. "You need a bath," he says, wrinkling his nose. "Too many days in the saddle, sire."
Arthur stops, blinking, and Merlin shows him himself--sweat-darkened hair, filthy surcoat, boots long beyond even the most meticulous cleaning, mail stiff with dirt. "And you didn't order me one?"
Merlin's smile widens. "Now why would I bother when I can do this?" It doesn't even need words; instinct pulls his magic free, sending it to do his bidding, and Arthur watches, enchanted, as the tub materializes, wide and deep, hot water cascading down to fill it from empty air. It's showy and silly and Merlin feels ten all over again and his mother snorting "Show-off" when he learned to slice their winter vegetables mid-air.
"Show-off," Arthur mutters affectionately, stripping off the surcoat with a grimace of distaste. Merlin pushes off the door before Arthur can tangle himself in his own armour, unfastening the leather straps and lifting it so Arthur can duck away. "What, you can't do this with magic, too?"
"I prefer to do this myself," Merlin says, leaving the chain mail on the table for later as Arthur tosses his tunic aside, then shirt, boots toed off and removed with his trousers before settling bruised and tired muscles into the hot water with a sigh so deep that Merlin stops, shirt twisted in his hands at the wave of yearning that ripples beneath his skin.
When he turns back around, Arthur's all but submerged, and Merlin pulls up a stool, leaning against the side, fascinated by the way Arthur melts in the water, mind clearing into the simple body-pleasures of hot water and clean herbs and relaxing muscles that Merlin can feel like they're his own.
Sighing himself, Merlin trails his fingers over the surface of the water, watching each ripple, a little lost in Arthur's pleasure as it uncoils through them both.
I want to keep this, Merlin thinks. I don't want to give this up.
Merlin turns his head, looking at Arthur drowsily. "Hmm?"
"Did you assume you were exempt from a decent standard of cleanliness?" Arthur says sardonically, not opening his eyes. "Take off your clothes. Without magic."
The wash of desire makes him unsteady on his feet; Merlin stumbles a little as he reaches for his tunic, feeling Arthur's amusement slip across his skin like bare fingers. When he looks, Arthur's watching him, and he snaps the lace of his shirt.
"Damn it," he mutters, jerking tunic and shirt over his head at once, working off boots and trousers, not daring to look up again or he'll never get this done. It's two endless, shaky steps to the edge, then Merlin feels Arthur, drawing him in, hand steadying against his hip, water splashing up as he's settled comfortably between long, heavy thighs and against a broad chest.
He wonders if anyone has ever been this happy, feeling Arthur's thoughts focus on him, clear and so bright, that mind. This is worth any price that might be asked of him. Any price at all.
"I love you," Merlin says, unthinking, so natural it almost need not even be said; Arthur's hand checks itself at his waist, fingers tightening on his hip, and Merlin turns his head at the splintering feeling that's fear and love and resignation all three. "You can feel that, can't you?"
"Yes." So low that Merlin wouldn't have heard it if he couldn't feel it, too, thrown between them like a gauntlet, or a white flag. Turning around, Merlin shifts until he can straddle Arthur's lap, looking down at him; this is what Uther taught him, ground into him from the cradle, love like an unending battle, something you had to fight for, something you had to beg for, no matter how small or uncertain the reward.
"It's not like that, not with us," Merlin breathes. Cupping Arthur's face, Merlin kisses him, almost shocked by the blaze of feeling that Arthur has for him and the dark edges that is Arthur's certainty this will be another lifetime of humiliation, hoping and begging for what he needs and never able to have it. No. Not like that. Not with me. Never with me.
Arthur would believe him, if he could; Merlin reaches further, Arthur opening around him, letting him search for whatever he wants, willing to give him this, anything, anything--
That isn't a father, Merlin thinks viciously, looking at the scars Uther's left in his son, wounds that never heal before they're opened once again, rage washing through him anew. Uther, and all he's done to destroy his son, Ygraine and Nimueh, who wove this future that Arthur must walk without care for the man forced to live it, the thousands whose blood was spilled for his sake that will haunt Arthur for all his life. He doesn't deserve you. None of them do.
"I love you," Merlin whispers, cradling Arthur's face in his hands. "I would have chosen you, had I been given the choice. I would have. This is everything."
It's so simple, as easy as breathing, as thinking, as living; he's so much more powerful than anyone could have ever dreamed when they dreamed of him, a whole world set burning compared to the bonfire that is Taliesin and the torch of Nimueh.
You're not his. Merlin strips away the devotion, the pain-edged memories of the kindnesses Uther gave like poisoned sweets to bind his son to him further, You've never been his, ruthlessly burning away the curdled, rotted sweetness of love that was never returned in kind, You're not theirs, Ygraine and Nimueh and the thousands and thousands that died in agony for Arthur to be born, to live, to rule. You're mine, all your life, all my life, this is the path that was set for you, to come to me, just for me, and Merlin rips away the last of the poison Nimueh left behind as her final gift to the future she had wrought. They thought they would create a king, and they did, but he won't be theirs when Merlin is done. He'll be nothing they could ever have imagined. I'll be everything, everything you could ever want, ever need. Nothing else matters. Give me this.
He won't accept no, he can't, but he wants Arthur to say yes, to take everything Merlin wants to give him: the world, his magic, the destiny Merlin will write for him anew, himself in whole. Magic glitters over them, fragile threads as delicate as a Seer's vision and as easily broken, waiting as Arthur stares up at him, eyes wide, the blue slowly vanishing beneath a flood of startling gold.
Yes. Then, Anything.
"You'll never regret it," Merlin says fiercely, and kisses him, magic rising through his skin, every place they touch, binding them together, threads strengthening as they coil around them like chains, tamping down the instinctive fear, I promise, I promise, I promise, until there's no room left for anything but certainty between them; nothing in this world or the next can keep them apart.
Merlin gasps, distantly aware of the water-soaked rug beneath his back and Arthur's tongue buried in his mouth, the flash of desire drowning them. Wrapping his legs around Arthur's hips, he says, "Please," and Arthur's slick and hot and huge, pushing inside him, rough and desperate and perfect.
Merlin leaves lines drawn in blood down Arthur's back, sucking promises into his skin, leaving himself everywhere they touch, offering Arthur the same, God, Arthur, please, "Harder," the shattering edge of orgasm rising up beneath them and crashing down, terrible and wonderful and consuming everything in its path.
The world shook when it received its promised king; Merlin thinks it must have felt it now, when Merlin took him for his own.
Arthur smiles weakly against his throat, bright, so bright, trembling exhaustion and ecstasy wrapped around them both. It will learn.
Merlin nods, pressing helpless kisses to sweat-damp hair. It will.
Curled warm and close as night falls around them in the warmth of Arthur's bed, Merlin says, We have to be careful, trading slow, drowsy kisses as Arthur moves lazily inside him, Merlin stretched wide and slick around his cock, Arthur's fingers laced through his and pinning him to the bed.
Hmm? Arthur licks gently at the hollow of his throat, lifting his head, and Merlin frees a hand, reaching up to trace a thumb beneath eyes glazed in gold. Ah. That.
"Yes," Merlin says, voice scratchy, pleased, liking Arthur draped in his power, feeling it curl through him protectively, possessively. "That. Though that, I can hide for you." It's everything else he's not sure they can.
Arthur catches his hand. "Don't worry. He won't notice. He never sees me." Mind free of a lifetime of bitterness or even interest, as if they speak of a stranger, Arthur presses a soft kiss to Merlin's palm. "He never has."
No need to ask who Arthur refers to. Merlin hooks a knee higher on Arthur's hip, drawing him deep with a low, pleased moan, loving how Arthur fits inside him, perfect, perfect. But if he does--
"It doesn't matter," Arthur murmurs, lacing their fingers together and pinning Merlin's hand to the bed. Leaning down, Arthur brushes their lips together, kiss-bruised and achingly gentle, radiating everything Merlin's ever wanted from him: love and devotion and unshakable, immovable certainty, focused on him entirely. "If he does, he will no longer be king."
Merlin parts his lips for the next slow kiss, content.