There’s a decent amount of ancient history and additional Arthurian legend in this story, most of which I’ve mangled rather horribly for narrative purposes.
Title: Summer Hasn’t Touched The Clouds That Pass Above
Spoilers: Yes. Particularly for the end of season three.
A/N: Written for bardiegrub who was generous enough to bid for me at qldfloodauction. I hope you enjoy this and thank you so much for bidding.
A/N 2: beta by the always lovely janne_d - sorry for all the pain my punctuation caused you, love.
Summer Hasn’t Touched The Clouds That Pass Above (also at AO3)
Camelot was in an uproar. For once, it wasn’t the sort of uproar that came from invading armies, magical beasts or anything being on fire - no, this was possibly worse (or, at least, harder for Merlin to fix) because this was due to visiting royal dignitaries. Namely, Queen Rhian of Bernicia, who was due to arrive any minute.
Merlin hated it when royal dignitaries visited because they always put Arthur on edge and, half the time, they turned out to be murderous and tried to poison someone. Arthur didn’t need any more pressure at the moment; what with putting Camelot back together and worrying about his father, he was already stretched ragged.
“Merlin!” Arthur yelled from behind his changing screen. “Where’s my red shirt?”
Merlin didn’t know why Arthur bothered with the changing screen since he spent seventy percent of his time parading around shirtless in front of Merlin anyway.
“It’s just -” Right, yes, just like that. Arthur had stepped out from behind the screen, shirtless and trouserless and was holding out one hand imperiously. “Here,” Merlin finished pointlessly.
Arthur snatched the shirt out of Merlin’s hand and stalked over to the mirror.
“You know,” Merlin said, following him, “You’re supposed to let me do that.”
Arthur was buttoning his shirt up all wrong which, as much as Merlin liked to pretend that Arthur was too spoilt to be able to dress himself, was not actually normal. Arthur seemed to be all fingers and thumbs today and Merlin found himself wondering if Arthur might be genuinely nervous.
“You were being too slow,” Arthur said but dropped his hands with a frustrated sigh, turning away from the mirror and presenting his half-covered chest to Merlin. “There’s something wrong with this shirt.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin not-agreed, stepping close to sort out the tangle Arthur had made of his buttons and line them up properly. He rested the side of his hand lightly against the warmth of Arthur’s chest, surprised to feel his heart pounding.
“Are you all right?” Merlin asked quietly. Arthur was more likely to confide in him at night, when he was worn-down and tired, but Merlin still thought it was worth a shot. They’d been getting better at communicating lately.
“Of course,” Arthur said immediately. Merlin held back a sigh. “Only...”
“Only?” Merlin prompted when Arthur didn’t continue.
Arthur shrugged, the movement pulling at the material of his shirt where Merlin was holding it between his fingers.
“My mother was from Bernicia.”
Merlin’s head snapped up. “Really?” he asked, trying not to sound too eager. It was probably creepy to want to learn as much as Arthur was willing to share about his mother. “Not, uh. Not Camelot?” He’d just assumed.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Camelot barely existed before my father brought peace to the area, Merlin,” he said. “Surely, even in Ealdor, you were taught basic history.”
“Yes, sire,” Merlin said patiently, straightening the hem of Arthur’s shirt. “Escetian history. Since Ealdor’s in, you know, Escetia.”
Arthur cleared his throat. “Of course. I know that,” he said shortly, pulling away from Merlin and clicking his fingers. “And where are my trousers? Or do you expect me to great Queen Rhian in my underthings?”
Merlin shrugged. “You could?” he suggested, ducking out of the way before Arthur could swat at him. “But if you’d rather not, here.” He passed over Arthur’s neatly folded trousers. “Just back from the laundry.”
“Thank you,” Arthur said, looking suspicious. Merlin didn’t know why he always had to doubt Merlin’s ability to do his job; just because he didn’t always, didn’t mean he couldn’t.
Arthur was just fastening his belt and Merlin was hovering by his wardrobe, waiting for Arthur to leave so he could magic away the clothes strewn over the floor, when they heard the sounds of horses’ hooves clattering in the courtyard.
Arthur hurried to the window, slapping down the end of his belt impatiently.
“They’re here,” he said and spun on his heel, striding past Merlin and out of the room.
“Oh,” Merlin asked the empty room, “Are they?” before taking off after Arthur.
He didn’t manage to catch up with Arthur before Arthur reached the courtyard because the whole population of the castle seemed to be heading in the same direction.
Merlin elbowed and magicked his way to the front of the crowd, falling in beside Gwen as she watched a small, wooden carriage pulled by two tired-looking horses come to a stop in front of Arthur. It was followed by a group of equally tired-looking knights who straightened up, squaring their shoulders when they saw Arthur’s knights standing on the steps behind Arthur, imposing in their billowing red cloaks.
The driver jumped down, shaking out his cloak as he ran around the carriage and reached for the door. Before he could get a hand to the handle though, the door bounced open and a middle-aged lady jumped out. She was tall and broad-shouldered, her pale blonde hair was twisted up into a bun and her long dress and heavy cloak were dark and simple.
Merlin assumed she was Queen Rhian’s lady’s maid until Arthur’s face split into a grin and he strode forward, clasping her proffered hand.
The woman - Queen Rhian, had to be - smiled at Arthur but shook her head when he tried to kiss her hand.
“Silly boy,” Merlin heard her say quite clearly and was still boggling at that when she grabbed Arthur by the shoulder and pulled him into a hug.
Merlin stared. No one hugged Arthur, especially not in public.
"What's so special about the Bernicians?" Merlin hissed at Gwen in what was maybe not as quiet a whisper as he'd been aiming for, if the swift glares of everyone around them was anything to go by.
Merlin didn’t pay any attention to the glares. He was too busy watching Arthur who, he was sure, had never smiled quite so genuinely at anyone as he was smiling at the Bernician queen.
Gwen ducked her head and replied in what actually was a whisper, "Queen Rhian was Arthur's mother’s sister. Didn’t Arthur tell you?”
“No,” Merlin said, shaking his head, watching Arthur smile at his aunt and feeling something strange in his chest, similar to how he’d felt when Morgause had shown them Igraine.
Gwen was nodding. “Uther liked to keep them on side because of that. Well that and all the coal Bernicia produces, obviously."
"Well, obviously," Merlin said, raising his eyebrows. For a second there, he'd assumed that Uther had been driven purely by sentiment and then he'd worried that the world was going to end.
Gwen giggled, apparently reading his eyebrows correctly. Or at least amusingly.
They earned another glare from the crowd, who all seemed to be straining to hear whatever Rhian was saying to Arthur.
Apparently aware that he was being studied even more closely than was usual, Arthur suddenly straightened up and cleared his throat.
“Camelot welcomes Queen Rhian of Bernicia,” he said loudly, pulling his shoulders back. He held his hand out to Rhian. “Ma’am.”
“Charmed,” Rhian said, dropping her hand into Arthur’s, her eyes twinkling. Merlin thought he might like her.
He watched Arthur lead the Queen up the steps and wondered if he should hang back and give them some privacy. Then Arthur stopped, turning and scanning the crowd.
“Merlin,” he said pointedly, eyes falling on Merlin. He widened his eyes as if to say don’t show me up today.
“Here, sire, sorry, sire,” Merlin said, scurrying forward and trying to look like he was at least a little chastised.
Arthur twitched his eyebrows at Merlin. Merlin wasn’t sure what that meant but luckily it didn’t seem to mean anything immediate because Arthur looked away from him and said, “Guinevere? If you please?”
Gwen curtsied smartly and followed them into the castle.
“Would you like to rest, ma’am?” Arthur asked Rhian once they were inside. “You’ve travelled a long way.”
“Nonsense,” Rhian said, still smiling at him. “We only travelled from Deva today. My coachman seems to be under the impression that I’m an old woman.” She narrowed her eyes teasingly. “As do you, it seems.”
The corners of Arthur’s lips twitched as though he wanted to smile but wasn’t sure of the etiquette. Merlin had an aunt back in Ealdor; he wanted to reassure Arthur that it was always all right to smile at your aunt.
“Not at all, ma’am,” Arthur finally said, a laugh in his voice.
“Aunt Rhian,” Rhian corrected him then rolled her eyes at Arthur’s pained expression. “Never mind,” she said, “We’ll work on that.” Her smile faded a little. “I would like to see your father, if that’s possible?”
Merlin glanced at Gwen rather than watch Arthur’s expression fall. Gwen was biting her lip in concern.
“He, uh,” Arthur started. Then, “Yes, of course. I’m afraid you won’t find him particularly talkative. Aunt Rhian.”
“That’s all right,” Rhian told him. “Uther and I never had much to say to each other as it was.”
“Right.” Arthur nodded quickly. “Guinevere will show you to his rooms.” He cast a quick look at Gwen who nodded. “Guinevere is... Guinevere was Morgana’s maid and she has agreed to serve you while you’re in Camelot.”
Merlin looked at Gwen, surprised because he hadn’t known that. Since That Thing With Morgana (as he was privately calling the whole affair where Morgana had declared herself Queen, had a castle fall on her and then disappeared), Gwen had preferred to stay out of the castle and work with Elyan at the forge.
“Thank you, dear,” Rhian said, turning to Gwen. She nodded her chin at the staircase. “Shall we?”
Merlin stood beside Arthur, watching as Gwen led the way upstairs to Uther’s rooms. Uther hadn’t left his bedroom for four months and from what Merlin had been able to gather from the things Gaius wouldn’t tell him, he probably never would again.
“She, um. She seems nice,” Merlin said once Gwen and Rhian were out of sight.
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur said, turning away and striding down the corridor.
“Hey,” Merlin said, keeping up with him. “What? I meant that. She seems nice.”
Arthur turned, narrowing his eyes at Merlin. “All right,” he said, nodding. “She is very nice.”
“See?” Merlin beamed. “There’s no need to be so defensive.”
“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur said again, but he was smiling.
Back when Uther was still well enough to sit on the throne, Camelot had hosted a banquet at least twice every month. Under Arthur’s regency, there had only been one so far and that was only because not even Arthur would risk not celebrating Midsummer just because he was stressed.
Merlin couldn’t actually say that he’d missed banquet duties.
Right now, he was standing behind Arthur’s chair, trying to catch Gwen’s eye and see if she wanted to play silent I Spy with him. She shot him a smile but looked away. Okay, apparently Gwen wanted to actually do some work today. Merlin thought about following her lead then decided against it.
Banquets really weren’t very interesting when you didn’t get to eat and Arthur and Rhian were talking together so quietly that Merlin couldn’t even eavesdrop. Merlin didn’t want to say that he missed Morgana, but her arguments with Uther had definitely livened up dinner time.
Sighing, Merlin settled down for another hour or two of courtly happenings. His left foot was falling asleep. He shifted his weight onto his right foot and entertained himself by making Arthur's boot laces tie and untie themselves under cover of the table. Arthur wouldn’t be able to tell that he was doing it and hopefully he’d think the castle rats had taken a liking to his footwear or something.
Annoying Arthur was one of Merlin's greatest entertainments.
“Merlin,” Arthur snapped and Merlin jumped, thinking that he’d misjudged and Arthur was going to send him under the table rat-hunting, before he saw that Arthur was just waving his empty goblet.
“Oops,” Merlin said, picking up the wine jug. “Sorry.”
“Oops?” Arthur hissed then coloured when he saw Queen Rhian watching them. "Please forgive my servant," he said to her, tone turning formal the way it always did when he was embarrassed. "Sometimes he forgets his place."
Rhian's smile was like sunshine. Merlin could see why Arthur liked her; she really did seem nice. "Don't be silly, Arthur," she said and Merlin had to bite his lip so he didn't smile and make this worse for himself, "I think he's adorable."
Hidden from Rhian's view when she turned to say something to Sir Percival, Merlin raised his eyebrows and mouthed adorable at Arthur. Arthur twitched. He obviously wanted to say something rude back, but couldn't because of where they were.
"Adorable," Merlin whispered, leaning down and breathing it into Arthur's ear.
Arthur swatted at him. "You wish," he hissed back.
The banquet went on for another hour and then Arthur and Rhian retired to Rhian’s sitting room to talk some more.
Suspecting that he wasn’t wanted at the moment, Merlin drifted through the castle to visit Gaius.
Gaius had moved to rooms further into the castle for the time being, so that he could always be on hand if Uther needed him. Lonely by himself, Merlin had started sleeping in the servant’s quarters next to Arthur’s room, which did mean that he could sleep in later in the mornings, but also meant that he didn’t see Gaius so often.
It probably wasn’t particularly grown up, Merlin thought, but he missed Gaius quite a lot.
“Merlin!” Gaius said looking pleased and beckoning him in when Merlin knocked on the door.
Merlin looked around the room but it was empty of sick people and there were no weird potions bubbling anywhere so he grinned back and slipped inside. “Hi,” he said, dropping down on the chair that had always been his, back when it had sat at their dining table. “How are things?”
Gaius shook his head fondly. “‘Things’ are fine, thank you, Merlin. How are your, uh, things?”
“Good,” Merlin said, nodding contentedly. He’d been a hell of a lot busier since Arthur had become Prince Regent but he didn’t really think he could complain; he wasn’t the one whose father was a broken shell of a man or whose childhood friend had turned out to be his half-sister and then tried to kill him.
“Have you had dinner?” Gaius asked, already standing up and walking over to the fire.
“No,” Merlin said eagerly, sitting up straighter. “Um. I mean. Please?” He smiled winningly.
Gaius rolled his eyes. “Here,” he said, scraping some kind of stew out onto a plate and passing it over to Merlin. He paused before setting it down on the table. “It’s not rat.”
Merlin laughed. “Thank goodness for that,” he said, wondering if he’d ever thought he’d be able to laugh about things like that, back when they’d been living in the caves and Morgana was Queen.
“Do you know Queen Rhian?” he asked, around a mouthful of stew.
“Chew and swallow, Merlin, please,” Gaius said, sounding pained. “And yes, she used to be a regular at Court before she inherited her father’s throne.”
Merlin chewed and swallowed, since Gaius was so fussy then shovelled another forkful of food into his mouth before saying, “She seems really nice. I didn’t know Arthur had any other family.”
“Oh yes.” Gaius handed Merlin a napkin, apparently resigned to Merlin’s table manners. “Igraine came from a large family. She was the second daughter of the King of Bernicia and originally betrothed to Duke Hoil of Tintagel until she met Uther. Her family shunned her for breaking off the engagement and marrying a man who, at the time, had no kingdom of his own.”
“Even Rhian?” Merlin asked, because court gossip was still gossip, even if it had happened over twenty years ago.
Gaius shook his head. “She was the only one who stayed in touch. After Igraine’s death, she wanted to take Arthur back to Bernicia with her but Uther wouldn’t hear of it. Arthur is Rhian’s heir, you know?”
“What?” Merlin asked. “How does that work?” He didn’t like the idea of Arthur having to go off to Bernicia if Rhian died but then, no, Arthur wouldn’t do that.
“Rhian is unmarried and has no children. When she dies, Bernicia will pass to Arthur just as Camelot has -” Gaius cleared his throat. In private, nearly everyone had started to think of Arthur as their king. “Just as Camelot will after Uther’s death.”
“Huh,” Merlin said, leaning forward. “So when Arthur’s King of Camelot and Bernicia, he could unite them?”
Gaius shrugged one shoulder. “Well, they’re a little far apart and there’s the small matter of Mercia lying between them but, technically, yes.”
Merlin thought about the Great Dragon and his prophecy of a united Albion. “Interesting,” he said slowly.
Arthur was slow and relaxed while Merlin helped him undress later - much later - that night. That hardly ever happened and Merlin found himself leaning in, sniffing Arthur suspiciously.
“What are you doing?” Arthur asked curiously, twitching a shoulder but not pushing Merlin away.
“Trying to work out how drunk you are,” Merlin told him honestly, since Arthur absolutely reeked of wine and Merlin’s conclusion was very, very.
“I’m not drunk,” Arthur said with dignity then sat down abruptly on the bed when he tried to toe off his trousers and failed. “Oh.”
Merlin grinned. “Queen Rhian got you soused,” he said, entertained by the high colour on Arthur’s cheeks and the slow sway of Arthur’s upper body.
“She didn’t,” Arthur protested but it was a weak comeback.
Merlin leaned over him and started to unbutton his shirt. “It’s okay,” he assured him, “She’s your aunt, so it’s allowed. Arms up.”
Arthur obligingly lifted his arms. Merlin needed to find out exactly how much he’d had to drink; if it would make Arthur this biddable, Merlin was tempted to pickle him every night.
Once he was stripped, Arthur flopped backwards onto his bed, eyes closed.
Merlin tried not to laugh and ended up at something that was probably close to a snigger. He bunched his hands in Arthur’s nightshirt, wondering if Arthur would notice if Merlin just magicked it onto him.
“Sleeping naked tonight, sire?” he asked politely, keeping his eyes from straying any lower than Arthur’s collarbones.
Arthur cracked his eyes open. “I could,” he said petulantly, but he struggled upright and took the nightshirt from Merlin’s hands, frowning at it for a while before managing to get it on more or less the right way around.
He lay back again, head on the pillows this time and looked up at Merlin. “Aunt Rhian said you’re adorable,” he said. It sounded like an accusation.
Merlin nodded. “Yep,” he agreed. He looked at the clothes lying scattered across the room and sighed. Then he looked back at Arthur. Arthur was staring up at the ceiling, humming to himself, totally oblivious.
With a quiet waggle of his fingers, Merlin had everything back in its proper place and a goblet of water in his hand to place on Arthur’s bedside table.
“You’re not adorable,” Arthur told him when Merlin set the goblet down with a little click.
Merlin jumped. He’d thought Arthur had drifted off to sleep.
“Of course I am,” Merlin told him. “You just can’t see it.”
Arthur’s eyebrows drew together. “But you’re not,” he said, like he was really thinking about it. His eyes dragged over Merlin and Merlin felt weirdly embarrassed, a flush rising up the back of his neck. “Not adorable.”
“What am I then?” Merlin asked, knowing he shouldn’t and surprised by the sudden hoarseness of his voice. He cleared his throat.
Arthur’s drunk gaze was stupidly intense. “You’re -” He rolled onto his side, curling up a little and Merlin found himself leaning forward, knowing it was idiotic but wanting to know what Arthur thought he was. “Merlin,” Arthur concluded, his eyes falling shut.
“Oh,” Merlin said, straightening. “Well, thanks for that.” He glared down at Arthur who was starting to snore. “Very enlightening.”
Arthur coughed quietly in his sleep, arm moving on top of the blanket.
“Idiot,” Merlin muttered, not sure if he was talking about himself or Arthur. He pulled the topmost blanket up, covering Arthur’s shoulder, taking a minute to brush Arthur’s fringe back from his forehead, just because Arthur would complain if his bed hair was too terrible come morning.
“Idiot,” Merlin repeated, definitely talking about Arthur this time. Still, it was nice to see Arthur happy again, even if it was only for an evening. It had been a really long time since Merlin had seen him laugh and known he meant it.
The next morning, Arthur was awake before Merlin, the concept of a hangover apparently completely foreign to him.
“Come on, Merlin, show a leg,” he said, pulling open Merlin’s curtains and letting light stream into the room.
Merlin rolled away from the sunlight and tried to become invisible. He’d known that moving into the room next to Arthur’s was going to have horrible repercussions.
“Why?” he muttered when Arthur showed no signs of leaving.
“Other than because I’m your prince and I wish it?” Arthur asked, voice deceptively mild.
“Yes,” Merlin agreed, “Other than that.” But he sat up and tried to rub the sleepiness out of his face. When he looked up, Arthur was smirking at him. Self-consciously, Merlin smoothed his eyebrows back into place.
“Better,” Arthur decided, nodding. He was probably talking about Merlin’s upright state not the status of his eyebrows but Merlin couldn’t be sure. “Come on, you have twenty minutes and if only one of us gets breakfast, I’m happy for it to be me.”
Merlin wasn’t and it spurred him out of bed.
“Twenty minutes before what?” he asked, pulling his shirt off and hunting around the foot of his bed for a clean(ish) one. His washing had got done a lot more frequently when he lived with Gaius - mostly because Gaius remembered which days they had to put it out to be collected.
Arthur clapped his hands together. “We’re going riding,” he said brightly. “Queen Rhian’s request.”
“Great,” Merlin muttered, knowing he failed to inject any excitement at all. When Arthur turned back to look at him, he pasted on a smile and waved a tiny, invisible flag. “Yay, riding.”
Riding with Rhian and Gwen was actually not as excruciatingly boring as riding alone with Arthur usually was. For one thing, Merlin was allowed to talk rather than having to wear Arthur down into a grudging conversation. For another, Rhian liked to do wild and reckless things like stop occasionally and sometimes, to Arthur’s clear horror, dismount and walk.
All in all, it was a lot more relaxing than Merlin had expected.
He should have known it was too good to be true.
Just after lunch, at the point where they were furthest from Camelot and considering starting on the return journey, an arrow shot out from between the trees, heading straight for Rhian’s heart.
Merlin wished he could say that he hadn’t had time to think but that would be a lie. In situations like this, it was as though he somehow created the time he needed to think.
What actually happened was that Merlin saw the arrow, knew it was a shot meant to kill, took a fraction of a second to think about how Rhian was the first person to make Arthur smile since he became Regent, how she’d hugged him in public, and flung out his hand.
A burst of flame rippled through the air in front of him, flying at the arrow and turning it to harmless charcoal, which crumbled in the breeze and dropped to the ground.
There was total silence.
Then, “Merlin!” Arthur said and Merlin thought he was about to executed on the spot until Arthur added, “Duck!”
Instinctively, Merlin ducked. The man who had apparently thrown himself down from the tree above landed heavily across the back of Merlin’s horse, which bucked and squealed and threw them both.
Merlin felt himself fly backwards, landing heavily on his back. It hurt - a lot - but he scrambled up, taking in the bandits who were rushing in from all directions now, surrounding Gwen on her horse and Arthur who was brandishing his sword and Rhian who’d pulled a knife out of somewhere and was waving it around threateningly.
Before he could do something to help, what he wasn’t sure, the man who’d fallen on him threw himself at Merlin again. They tripped but Merlin wasn’t prepared to fall again, not onto his aching back, and he muttered a spell, slowing his fall but not the bandit’s, so he could twist, slamming the bandit face first down into the mud.
He twitched but didn’t move and Merlin brushed his hands on his trousers as he climbed - again - onto his feet.
The others were surrounded. Gwen had dismounted and taken Arthur’s spare sword. She and Arthur were back to back, trying to keep the bandits at bay but they were completely outnumbered.
Merlin had to do something to help and it probably shouldn’t be the first thing that popped into his head but his back really hurt and, well, it was a bit late now to be subtle.
“Hey,” he called. “Get lost, yeah?” He clapped his hands together and all the bandits collapsed, folding down onto their knees and then onto their faces as though they’d all fallen asleep.
Huh. He’d meant to make them forget what they were doing and walk away.
“Merlin?” Gwen said, staring around at the unconscious men. “Oh my god, what did you do?”
“Exactly what I was wondering,” Arthur said, face and expression thunderous.
Merlin would love to stay on his feet and take this on the chin but he back hurt so much that he literally couldn’t do that. He sank down onto the ground and leaned back against the front leg of his horse which, for once, stayed obediently still for him.
“Merlin?” Arthur crouched down in front of him, shaking his shoulder.
Merlin didn’t manage to bite back his sharp hiss of pain and Arthur snatched his hand away quickly.
“Where are you hurt?” Arthur asked, which wasn’t what Merlin had expected him to say at all.
“Um,” Merlin said stupidly. “Did you see the thing I did with the thing?”
“The part where you stopped the arrow or the part where you killed all our attackers?” Arthur asked dryly. “Yes, I have to admit, I did spot those.”
“I didn’t kill them,” Merlin argued. At least, he didn’t think he had. He certainly hadn’t meant to.
“Did you not?” Arthur asked tightly. “Now, tell me where you’re hurt.”
Merlin frowned. “Aren’t you going to execute me?”
“Later, Merlin.” Arthur stopped crouching and folded down so he was kneeling in the mud in front of Merlin. “Is it your back?”
Confused, but in too much pain to really try understand Arthur’s reactions, Merlin just nodded and let his eyes sink closed.
When Merlin drifted back to mostly-consciousness, he was lying in a bed that felt unfamiliar, staring at a ceiling he didn’t recognise.
He tried to turn onto his side but a hard flash of pain shot all the way down his spine from his shoulder to his arse.
“Ow,” he said, feeling feeble.
“I wouldn’t try to move, if I were you,” someone said and then Rhian moved into Merlin’s sightline. “You’re a little bruised.”
“I feel a lot bruised,” Merlin told her then added, belatedly, “Ma’am.”
Rhian laughed. “I think we’re a little beyond that, Merlin, don’t you? When a lady’s seen your magic, there’s no need to stand on ceremony.”
Oh good god, Merlin thought, and actually felt the colour drain out of his face. He couldn’t believe he’d done that; how stupid was he?
“Oh, sweetheart,” Rhian said, sitting on the side of Merlin’s bed. “I’m sorry. Was that tactless? I actually meant to say thank you for saving my life.”
Oh right. That was why Merlin had done it. “Um,” he said, “That’s okay?” Cautiously, he craned his neck, but what he could see of the dark room they were in was empty. “Where’s Arthur?” He wondered if he was outside, building the pyre for Merlin’s execution.
“He went for a walk with Gwen,” Rhian told him. She raised her eyebrows. “Are the two of them... involved?”
Wait? Merlin had just revealed himself to have magic and Rhian wanted to sit around chatting about Arthur’s love life? Although, that made sense, he thought morosely, Bernicia didn’t have Camelot’s anti-magic laws. Maybe she didn’t understand what a big deal this was.
“I don’t think so,” Merlin told her slowly. “They sort of were for a while but I think it dissolved when Arthur became Regent.”
Rhian nodded like she wasn’t surprised. “Well, Gwen took Arthur out for a walk so that Arthur didn’t wake you up and shout at you, so you probably owe her a thank you when they get back.”
“Shout?” Merlin repeated, he felt like Arthur was probably going to do much worse than that to him.
Rhian sighed. “This stupid law of Uther’s has you really scared, doesn’t it?” she asked. “I don’t understand this at all. I’d kill to have a sorcerer in my court, especially one as powerful as you.”
Merlin couldn’t quite manage a smile, but he tried. “Thanks,” he said, because she’d been trying to make him feel better and not a lot of people usually bothered with that.
Arthur and Gwen didn’t get back to what Merlin had discovered was an abandoned groundkeeper’s cottage until the sun had already set.
Gwen glanced at Merlin, flashed him a reassuring smile then gave Arthur an unsubtle little push in Merlin’s direction.
Merlin wished she hadn’t. He’d managed, through quite a lot of painful wiggling and a lot of help from Rhian, to get himself sitting up, his back supported by a couple of pillows, but if Arthur really did want to murder him, Merlin didn’t feel up to running away.
“Hi?” Merlin said when Arthur reached him and just stayed standing up, glaring down to him.
“Hi?” Arthur echoed. He planted his hands on his hips. “That’s what you have to say?”
Merlin tipped his chin up. He didn’t know what Arthur wanted him to say. “Yes,” he said firmly. “It’s the way people great each other, Arthur.”
Okay, so he was maybe mimicking the way Arthur usually spoke to him there, but he felt wrong-footed, scared and possibly, stupidly, a little bit embarrassed by the fact that he couldn’t even get to his feet for this argument.
Arthur sighed and sat down on the bed, right where Rhian had sat earlier. Merlin thought about having that square of blanket marked off as the Royal Quarter or something.
It was possible that Merlin was feeling a little bit hysterical.
“How’s your back?” Arthur asked - rather solicitously for him, Merlin thought.
Merlin tried to shrug, remembered why that was a bad idea and nodded instead. That hurt a little bit too, pulling on his lower back somehow, so he stopped after a second. “All right,” he said eventually. “Sore.”
Arthur nodded. “You are a terrible horseman,” he said.
“Hey,” Merlin argued, even though that was technically true. “No one expects a falling bandit.”
Arthur sucked on his lower lip and Merlin wondered, definitely confused, if he was trying not to smile.
“Arthur,” Merlin said at the same time that Arthur said, “Merlin.”
Arthur stopped, waving a hand at Merlin. “Go ahead.”
“I was just.” Merlin twisted his hands together. “Can we talk about this?”
“About what?” Arthur asked. Merlin didn’t tell him because he suspected that Arthur was working himself up to something. He was right. “About the fact that you have magic which you’ve attempted to hide from me for the past four years? Or about the fact that you cavalierly and recklessly used it in front of witnesses? Or shall we talk about the fact that if you had fallen even slightly differently, you could now be paralysed. Which would you like to talk about, Merlin.”
Merlin hesitated, momentarily distracted by the idea of paralysed. “Um,” he said. “All right. Maybe we don’t have to talk about any of that.”
“Yes, we do.” Arthur’s eyes were blazing. He shot a look over his shoulder but Gwen and Rhian were studious and politely pretending to be deaf, talking to each other and clattering a lot of firewood together. “Of course we have to talk about it, Merlin. I have to work out what I’m going to do with you.”
“Your father had a handy solution,” Merlin said, but couldn’t hold the false brightness in his voice.
Arthur winced. “Don’t,” he said. “If I haven’t had you executed by now, I’m certainly not going to do it now.”
“I don’t think you’re allowed to execute people for being a bad servant,” Merlin pointed out then stopped when Arthur’s glare turned truly angry.
“No, Merlin,” he hissed, leaning forward. “I haven’t had you executed at any point during the past two years since I worked out that you have magic.” He sat back, still glaring. “Contrary to what you apparently believe, I’m not actually completely blind.”
Merlin stared at him. He felt like the inside of his head had switched off. Just closed down and shut up shop. “Two years?” he asked quietly. He wasn’t sure if he was terrified or relieved. He really hadn’t enjoyed lying to Arthur.
Arthur nodded shortly. “Since my father called the witch finder to Camelot.” Merlin gaped at him. “A few things that had been troubling me fell into place.” He passed a hand over his face. “My first thought was to hand you straight over to him. Obviously, I didn’t.”
Merlin waited, but Arthur didn’t offer up any explanation as to why not. “Thanks?” he said. He hurried on before Arthur’s scowl actually set fire to anything. “And sorry. I really am sorry. What’s -” He tried to not to sound as worried as he felt. “What’s going to happen?”
Arthur shook his head. “I honestly don’t know.” He looked over his shoulder again. “I’m not worried about Rhian or Gwen but... Merlin, it would have been much easier if you’d killed those men earlier. As it is, they’ll be able to tell anyone who’ll listen that Camelot’s Prince was riding with a sorcerer.”
Merlin bristled. “Did you kill them?” he asked, forgetting to be worried in his annoyance.
“Well, no.” Arthur looked down. “They were already unconscious. It didn’t seem... I was tempted.”
Merlin worried at his bottom lip with his teeth. “I’m glad you didn’t,” he said. “I’ve killed a lot of people, Arthur, but I do try not to.” He’d kill to protect Arthur or Gaius or his mum or Gwen, but that was probably it. He wouldn’t kill to protect himself from anything but certain death.
For a moment, Arthur’s expression softened. “That still doesn’t tell me what we should do now,” he pointed out. He sounded exhausted all of a sudden. “Guinevere and I talked about it all afternoon. She thinks you should go away.”
“Where to?” Merlin interrupted. “I need to be here.” He bit off the with you but wondered if Arthur heard it anyway.
“Ealdor?” Arthur suggested.
Merlin made a face. “There’s nothing to do there,” he said.
“There’s even less to do if you’re dead,” Arthur told him firmly. “In fact, I think that might be the perfect solution.” He stood up, ignoring Merlin’s spluttering - and his inability to stand up quickly and follow.
“Actually,” Rhian raised her voice, proving that it actually was impossible to hold a private conversation in a very small room, “I have another solution.”
She walked over to Merlin’s bed, followed by Gwen.
“What other solution?” Arthur asked suspiciously. It was clear that he wanted to tell her that he liked his solution but Rhian ignored him.
Rhian knelt down by Merlin’s bed. It made Merlin very uncomfortable - she was a queen, she shouldn’t do that. “Merlin,” she said seriously. “Bernicia could benefit from your help. Our crops are failing and we’re under pressure from our neighbours, Deira, to join with them. If I don’t find a solution to feed my people soon then I may have to agree.”
Arthur made a soft sound, as though he hadn’t known about that.
“I-.” Merlin swallowed. To leave Camelot - He didn’t want to leave Camelot and he didn’t want to leave Arthur.
“You’d be free to use your magic however you wished in Bernicia,” Rhian assured him.
Merlin glanced up at Arthur, wondered if Arthur would ever be able to make that promise about Camelot. Arthur looked away.
If Bernicia really was going to be Arthur’s one day though, maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to help out there.
“I don’t know much about crop magic,” Merlin said slowly. “But I could. I could probably learn?”
Rhian smiled. She squeezed his hand. “Thank you,” she said.
Merlin nodded then shook his head quickly. “But please get up,” he said, “You don’t have to. Please don’t kneel for me.”
“You’re the most powerful wizard I have ever met,” Rhian told him. “It’s a sign of respect.”
Merlin just kept shaking his head. “Please don’t.”
“Very well.” Rhian got to her feet, still holding Merlin’s hand. “Thank you, Merlin,” she said again. She let go of him and turned to Arthur. “Thank you, Arthur.”
Arthur nodded jerkily but didn’t say she was welcome. “We should get some rest,” he said. “We’ll have to make an early start in the morning unless we want Gwaine starting a small war with someone because we didn’t come home.”
It was clearly supposed to be a joke but only Gwen smiled. Merlin curled forward, careful of his bruised back, and rested his chin on his knees, thinking about a future far away from Camelot.
The ride back to Camelot was slow and silent, nothing like the easy, pleasant outing that the journey out had been.
Merlin’s back was less painful than it had been last night but he still felt stiff. He did his best to think about that rather than the thoughts swirling in his head. He’d barely slept and when he had, his dreams had felt empty, like leaving Camelot was going to mean leaving everything that mattered.
Unconsciously, he let his horse trot closer to Arthur’s.
Arthur shot him a look when their horses’ necks brushed, when Arthur’s horse turned to nose at Merlin’s. Arthur’s eyes were bloodshot, his skin pale as though he hadn’t slept much either.
I’m sorry, Merlin thought desperately, but couldn’t bring himself to say.
They met a small party of worried-looking knights a couple of miles outside Camelot.
“Where have you been?” Gwaine asked, riding up next to Merlin while Arthur talked to Lancelot and Leon.
Merlin shrugged then winced. “I fell off my horse,” he said. He made a face, wondering if he could fool Gwaine. “It hurt.”
Gwaine frowned, leaning in close. Merlin braced himself. “Well,” Gwaine said, “That was really fucking stupid.”
Merlin laughed, startled and then felt guilty when Arthur looked over at them, his face still so serious.
“Everything okay with him?” Gwaine asked. He took Merlin’s reins out of his hands, leading their horses along together. Merlin thought about protesting but didn’t.
“Yeah,” Merlin lied. He felt guilty suddenly. Gwaine was his friend, not just one of Arthur’s knights. “I’m going away for a bit, I think.”
“Where?” Gwaine looked surprised and maybe sounded a little bit hurt. Merlin felt even worse.
“Queen Rhian’s having some trouble up in Bernicia,” Merlin said, which was true. “Arthur thought maybe I could help.” Which was also true, but still a complete lie.
“Oh.” Gwaine looked from Merlin to Arthur’s back and back to Merlin. “That’s a pretty big honour, you know,” he said, reaching across and hooking an arm around Merlin’s neck. “Though I’m shocked that Prince Possessive is letting you go that far without him.”
Merlin thought about arguing that Arthur wasn’t possessive but didn’t have the energy. “Queen Rhian’s his aunt,” he said easily. He reached out for his reins, tugging them in Gwaine’s hold. “You know, I could probably ride my own horse.”
“Yeah.” Gwaine nodded. “You probably could,” but he didn’t let go and Merlin let him steer them both back to the castle.
He was going to miss Gwaine, he thought. Along with, oh, everyone else.
Word hadn’t got back to the castle yet about anything that the bandits had seen but Arthur told Merlin not to be complacent, that he still needed to leave for his own protection.
That was all Arthur told Merlin, all Arthur had to say to Merlin from sunset that day to sunset the next, while Merlin packed his things and confessed to Gaius and Lancelot the real reason why he had to go.
He and Rhian were due to leave the next morning. Merlin wasn’t any happier about it now than he had been earlier. If Arthur weren’t so insistent on Merlin leaving, Merlin wouldn’t have gone. Possibly everyone was about to find out about his magic, but at least he’d still be at home with the people he cared about while it happened.
As it was, Arthur was disappointed in him, Arthur could lose face amongst his people for harbouring him, Arthur hadn’t asked him to stay. So Merlin was leaving.
He left the last of his clothes folded on his bed and knocked carefully on Arthur’s bedroom door.
“What?” Arthur called, which Merlin chose to hear as a come in and welcome, Merlin and pushed the door open.
“Hi,” he said, feeling nervous in front of Arthur for the first time in, actually for the first time ever, probably. “I just wanted to-.” He stopped, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He just wanted to spend some time with Arthur before he was forced to never spend time with Arthur again, oh god.
“Come in, Merlin,” Arthur said. He was slumped back on his divan, an arm over his face and didn’t bother to look more alive even after Merlin had closed the door and come over to sit next to him.
“I’ve been thinking,” Arthur said, after an uncomfortable silence.
“Okay,” Merlin said, “About what?”
Arthur waved the hand not shielding his eyes from the world. “Oh, about you. About how anyone can be as stupid as you and live.”
“Hey,” Merlin said, feeling like he should stand up for himself but feeling that, actually, maybe Arthur had earned the right to insult him this once. “I’ve managed it so far.”
Arthur laughed softly. “There is that,” he agreed softly. He dropped his arm, turning to face Merlin and Merlin was startled to see that his eyes were shiny, his pale eyelashes clumped together in damp triangles.
“Arthur,” Merlin said, automatically reaching for him then dropping his hand half way across the divan, embarrassed.
“I’ll, um.” Arthur cleared his throat. “I’ll miss my aunt quite a lot.”
“Right,” Merlin agreed. “Yes. Of course.”
His arm was lying on a cushion, close to Arthur’s. He nudged the back of his hand gently against the back of Arthur’s, just because. He didn’t expect any reaction. He definitely didn’t expect Arthur to turn his hand over and squeeze Merlin’s. The angle felt awkward but the way Arthur was squeezing Merlin’s fingers felt important.
“I’m sorry,” Merlin said quickly. It was suddenly easier to say.
“Yes,” Arthur agreed, “I know. It’s not -” He turned suddenly, cutting himself off by pressing his mouth against Merlin’s.
Merlin froze. He hadn’t... He actually hadn’t considered this as a possibility, not ever. Arthur was his best friend and a very attractive man but Merlin hadn’t ever thought anything like this would happen between them.
He opened his mouth under Arthur’s and pulled on Arthur’s arm, needlessly trying to pull Arthur closer since Arthur was already scrambling across the divan and curling his arm around Merlin’s shoulders, deepening the kiss and sliding his tongue between Merlin’s parted lips.
Arthur kissed him like he might never get another chance, which Merlin wasn’t going to think about right now. He reached up, tangled his free hand in Arthur’s hair, holding him close.
Eventually, Arthur pulled back, dropping his head down to breathe hard against Merlin’s neck. His breath was warm and moist and Merlin tipped his head back, wishing he had the grace and coordination to pull off his scarf so he could feel Arthur’s cheek against his skin without making Arthur move away.
“Arthur?” he asked at last, when Arthur had caught his breath but still hadn’t moved.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, sounding wretched. “Fuck.”
Merlin’s heart jumped in his chest, something about hearing Arthur swear over him making him feel strangely content.
Merlin used his grip on Arthur’s soft, fine hair to tug Arthur’s head up. Arthur’s cheeks were flushed, eyes bright with something other than sadness now. He felt himself smile, unable to look away from Arthur’s lips as they mirrored his.
“Fuck,” Arthur said again and then his mouth was back on Merlin’s. Their hands were still clasped together but now Arthur was using his free hand to tug on the bottom of Merlin’s shirt, pushing it up and sliding his palm over Merlin’s belly.
Merlin groaned in surprise, pushing his hips up automatically, only realising that he was hard when his erection brushed the inside of Arthur’s arm.
Arthur pulled away from him again, staring down at him wide-eyed. “Merlin,” he said very seriously. “Can you get rid of our clothes?”
For a second, Merlin thought that Arthur was actually enough of a princely prat that he was going to make Merlin undress him so they could have sex. Then he realised when Arthur meant.
“Oh,” he breathed, “Probably.” He’d tried it before but he and Will had been giggling too much for it to work but he didn’t feel much like giggling tonight and he knew it would work.
He closed his eyes, thinking about how much he’d like to be naked right now, to have Arthur naked right now, both of them naked so they could be in bed, naked, together.
He opened his eyes when Arthur made a startled sound, looking around and, oh. Apparently he’d taken that a little far. They were naked, very naked. They’d also moved from the divan and onto Arthur’s bed.
It was a very comfortable bed.
“Oops?” Merlin said, looking down at Arthur who looked half-stunned and half really, really turned on.
“You’re impossible,” Arthur told him firmly, like he was decreeing it, then pulled Merlin down on top of him, spreading his legs so Merlin fit snugly between his thighs.
This was what was impossible, Merlin thought dizzily, getting his hands on Arthur’s chest, tracing soft skin and the shapes of firm muscles while they kissed. Arthur’s chest hair crinkled under Merlin’s fingertips and Merlin had never realised how much he wanted to feel that until he already was.
Merlin would have been happy to lie here, kissing and learning all night, but Arthur clearly had a goal. His hands moved to Merlin’s hips, urging them up and Merlin went with it, getting his knees under himself and leaning over Arthur so they didn’t break their kiss. It pulled a little against his still-bruised back but it was bearable. Merlin could bear it for this.
Arthur’s hands were moving all over Merlin now, curling briefly around his hip, sliding around the back of one thigh, fingers soft on the side of Merlin’s arm where the muscle was taut from holding himself up, thumb firm on the dip just above his bellybutton.
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured against Arthur’s lips. He wanted to tell Arthur to get a move on, but he also, for what had to be the first time ever, didn’t want to aggravate Arthur, just in case he stopped all these wonderful touches.
“I’m starting to feel we should have been doing this every day since you came to Camelot,” Arthur answered and he sounded so serious and genuinely put out that Merlin had to laugh, pressing his face into Arthur’s chest so they didn’t bump teeth or anything.
Arthur’s arms wrapped around Merlin’s back, holding tight and Merlin stopped laughing. It wasn’t funny. If they had been doing this every day since Merlin came to Camelot then this wouldn’t be their one and only time.
Merlin hated that he’d got this and was going to have to give it back.
“Merlin,” Arthur said again, softer.
“Mm,” Merlin whispered and then Arthur was rolling him over, pressing him down into the bed.
Arthur’s hands had more of a purpose now, stroking up Merlin’s thighs and then - Merlin bit back a moan - one curling around Merlin’s dick, the other holding his balls, squeezing lightly.
Merlin turned his head on the pillow, muttering Arthur’s name, embarrassingly lost in just that little sensation. It had been so long and it had never been Arthur.
“I was going to -” Arthur broke off, clearing his throat. “I was going to ask you to fuck me,” Arthur said and Merlin felt his dick twitch. “But I really. Merlin, I really need to -”
“Yeah,” Merlin interrupted. “Yes.” He gritted his teeth, trying not to come just from Arthur’s ridiculous, endearing babbling. “Do you have anything we can use?”
Arthur frowned. “I don’t -” he started to ask and Merlin had to wonder if he’d ever done this before. He didn’t ask though, not right now, just reached out his hand, smiling when a jar of something from somewhere zipped into his hand.
“Exactly how powerful are you?” Arthur asked, watching as Merlin rested the jar on his own chest and twisted the top off. It was some kind of oil, sweet smelling and not too thick. He wondered vaguely if it was from the kitchens. He didn’t think that he’d just created it out of thin air - probably not, anyway.
“Shh,” Merlin advised because if summoning lubricant from the ether was enough to impress Arthur, he probably didn’t need to know about the time that Merlin had killed Nimueh or commanded a dragon or... Well, none of that was sex talk, anyway.
“Did you just shush me?” Arthur asked, sounding torn between laughter and annoyance.
“Yes,” Merlin agreed easily. He shifted around under Arthur until his legs were free and he could drop them open. The oil wasn’t warm but it wasn’t freezing either and the slick feel of it between his fingers made his body tingle with anticipation.
“What are you? Oh.” Arthur fell silent, just watching as Merlin put his fingers between his own legs, circling his hole.
It really had been a long time, but Merlin felt brave with Arthur watching him and pushed the tips of two fingers in straight away.
He gasped. Arthur gasped along with him.
“Oh,” Arthur breathed again. His hand fumbled with the jar, lifting it off Merlin’s chest and putting it down on the bed beside them. “Can I try?”
Merlin moved his fingers minutely just inside himself and nodded.
Arthur’s fingers were thicker than his and Merlin had to pull one of his free before Arthur’s could slide inside. It felt - Merlin had never felt anything like that, his finger brushing against Arthur’s finger inside his body.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered, kissing Merlin’s cheek, his chest, his stomach. His lips brushed Merlin’s dick, just lightly, before he settled between Merlin’s legs, just watching what they were doing.
It probably didn’t take as long to get Merlin ready as they actually spent, but it felt good and that was what this was supposed to be all about, feeling Arthur as much as he could before he...
... Feeling Arthur as much as he could. Full stop.
Then he was feeling Arthur so much more, Arthur pushing inside him, Arthur fucking him, Arthur’s warm breath gusting over Merlin’s face and into his mouth when Merlin grabbed him, kissed him, even though neither of them were coordinated enough to really kiss properly at the moment.
Arthur was groaning out deep, broken sounds, mixed up with Merlin’s name and that was incredible too, this was all too incredible to actually be real, to actually last. Merlin made himself let go of the tight grip he had on Arthur’s face and his arse to find his own cock, to try to squeeze himself in time with Arthur’s thrusts, but mostly failing at that and just doing what he could to ride the feeling.
“Merlin.” Arthur grabbed his hand, pulling it away from his cock and pinning it above his head, nosing at the underside of Merlin’s arm, his armpit, which should have been weird, but wasn’t. Well, it was, but it was okay. Everything was okay.
His orgasm took him by surprise; Arthur’s fingers brushed the head of his cock and that was all he needed before he was coming, shaking and choking on words that he probably shouldn’t say.
Arthur froze, waiting, clearly not knowing if he could keep going while Merlin shook. Yeah, Merlin thought blurrily, Arthur had definitely never done this with a man before.
“Keep,” he panted, “Keep going, don’t stop.”
Arthur groaned something that was clearly supposed to be agreement and started to really fuck Merlin, selfish now. It was almost too much, but it was great still, and Merlin managed to get a hand flat against the wall behind the bed, to push himself back to meet Arthur’s thrusts, trying to make it great for Arthur too which it was, he guessed, judging by the sounds Arthur was making, by the way that he suddenly froze, mouthing silent curses against Merlin’s shoulder as he came.
Everything was a little surreal straight after. Arthur pulled out carefully, softening cock shiny against his balls, and put the jar of oil on the floor by the side of the bed then lay back down beside Merlin.
Merlin rolled onto his side and looked at him.
He still looked like Arthur, Merlin’s annoying boss and best friend and prince, but at the same time, it was different now, more. He looked like the only thing Merlin ever wanted to look at ever again, which was such a ridiculous thing to think about that Merlin was immediately embarrassed for himself.
He shifted over onto his back, ignoring the ache in his back, the twinge in his arse, surprised when Arthur followed and flung an arm over Merlin’s chest.
“Lights, Merlin,” Arthur muttered sleepily.
Rolling his eyes, Merlin magicked the lights off. “Blankets, Arthur,” he said.
Arthur muttered complaints but he moved, pulling the blankets up from where they’d somehow got shoved to the bottom of the bed and spread them out over both of them.
Arthur’s arm went back around Merlin, putting his head on the pillow next to Merlin. Merlin turned his head, feeling Arthur breathe against his chin, breathing against Arthur’s forehead.
He wanted to say something but he couldn’t think of anything to say.
I’ll miss you, he thought, then made himself close his eyes.
Arthur kept Merlin in bed until he was almost late the next morning. They sat up in Arthur’s bed, curtained off from the world, listening to the sounds of Queen Rhian’s carriage being loaded up outside.
“Suddenly, I’m horribly jealous of that woman,” Arthur confessed against the back of Merlin’s neck, tightening his arms where they were draped over Merlin’s shoulders and across his chest.
Merlin twisted around until he could see Arthur’s eyes, dark blue in the shadows.
"Queen Rhian? But she's like your -" Merlin didn't want to say, she's like a mother figure to you because he was sure Arthur wouldn't like it. But still. She was.
"I'm very fond of Queen Rhian," Arthur agreed, not quite meeting Merlin's eye. "But not as... She's-" He pulled his shoulders back, lifted his chin and said, "I'm fonder of you," all in a rush like that would lessen the embarrassment.
Merlin felt his cheeks go red. "Oh," he managed.
Arthur made a yes, yes gesture with his hands like he admitted fondness for Merlin every day and Merlin should just get over it. "I've put a lot of work into making you a somewhat less than terrible servant; I wouldn't want that to go to waste."
Merlin smiled. "Of course," he said. He hesitated but Arthur had told him something personal, even if he clearly hadn’t wanted to, so Merlin said, “I won’t leave if you don’t want me to. I, uh. I couldn’t. Not if you weren’t all right with it. I’d rather stay here and risk everyone finding out that I’m a sorcerer.”
Arthur looked up, eyes bright. “I’m not okay with it,” he said. He cleared his throat. “But you should go. Regardless of the, uh, the other thing. Rhian needs you.”
“Right.” Merlin nodded jerkily. He wasn’t sure why he suddenly felt so hollow. Rhian did need him. “I’ll go and finish packing then.”
He stood up.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, before he could go anywhere and his hand rose to Merlin’s, fingertips digging into Merlin’s palm, thumb brushing his wrist.
“Yeah?” Merlin asked, distracted by the soft pressure of Arthur’s grip.
Arthur stood up with him, pushing aside the curtains that wrapped around them. “I give you permission to go to Bernicia,” he said formerly. “But I don’t give you permission to stay.”
“Arthur,” Merlin chided because that didn’t solve anything.
Arthur held up a hand, stopping him. “I’ve been thinking,” he said. He narrowed his eyes as though he was expecting Merlin to ask if it had hurt, but Merlin didn’t. “The bandit problem on our northern border is really getting out of control. I think I’ll send some of the knights out to drive them away, far away, from Camelot.”
Slowly, Merlin let himself smile. Yes, that worked.
“I could just stay in Bernicia until the first harvest,” he said thoughtfully. “Just to make sure that their grain is growing right. You’d be able to hunt down all the bandits by then, right? Make sure no one listened to any rumours they might be spreading?”
“Yes.” Arthur was moving closer to Merlin. He was distractingly naked and Merlin didn’t want to leave at all now. “Yes, I can agree to those terms.”
Merlin nodded, relief spreading through him. “I’m sure Queen Rhian will too.”
“Queen Rhian has no choice,” Arthur said. His breath brushed Merlin’s cheek. “If she tries to keep you, I’ll come after you.”
Merlin smiled. He pressed his smile into Arthur’s neck because he was allowed to do that now. “You’d take Camelot to war against Bernicia?” he asked, mostly teasing because he knew that Arthur would do no such thing.
“No,” Arthur scoffed. “The Bernician army has nothing on my knights,” he said proudly. “Plus it snows an awful lot up there. And their accents are quite peculiar.”
Merlin laughed. “All right,” he said, “You’ve convinced me. I’ll come home by Yule.”
“Yes.” Arthur’s arms tightened around him and Merlin relaxed into it, soaking up the feel of Arthur’s body to keep him going for the next couple of months. He let loose a little bit of power, letting it wrap, protective and unseen, around Arthur. “Do.”