Merlin awoke with the odd feeling he'd forgotten something. Without opening his eyes, or doing anything that might signal to Arthur that he was, in fact, no longer unconscious and therefore available to service his princely (and not-so-princely, if last night had been any indication) needs, Merlin took stock of the previous day.
He'd taken Arthur's favourite boots to the cobbler, and he'd definitely remembered to muck out the stables, even though he didn't really believe Arthur's threat when he said Merlin could still suck royal cock in the stocks, mostly because the angle wouldn't work at all. He'd made sure Gwen had a thorough working knowledge of the unnecessarily fussy system Arthur had devised for storing his weapons so that the next time she and Morgana decided to go for a heavily armed "stroll" in the forest, Merlin wouldn't be forced to lie and say he'd been using Arthur's sword to knock something off a high shelf and suffer a glare on Arthur's part that said, quite clearly, Dear God, I Am Actually Shagging The Village Idiot.
All in all, Merlin couldn't think of a single thing he'd let slide, and that included the commands made by Arthur that Merlin was pretty sure fell well beyond not only the scope of his duty to his liege, but also the realm of polite society. Of course, being from the country, Merlin didn't care an awful lot about what was or wasn't polite, and as long as Arthur was Arthur ("oh, fuck, yes, Arthur"), he supposed he could just consider it unpaid overtime. Merlin smiled at the thought and allowed himself to open one eye, for reconnaissance purposes, and not at all because Arthur liked to sleep with the blankets draped wonderfully low around his hips.
"About time," Arthur said, hovering about two inches above Merlin's face.
Merlin let out a shriek like, "Aggack!" or something thereabouts, and instinctively threw an arm across his face in self-defense. Naturally, in doing so, he managed to elbow Arthur squarely in the eye, to which Arthur responded with an eloquent, "Daaaah!"
"Oh, Christ, sorry," Merlin said, scrambling to sit up as Arthur managed to glare at him through one eye, and how did he do that?
"Do you have any idea how many ways I could kill you right now?" Arthur continued to molest his own face, poking at it with curious fingers, absolutely not at all wincing.
"Um, a general notion, yes," Merlin said, hoping he sounded repentant and not like someone on the verge of hysterical, suicidal laughter.
"Eight. Assuming there are no weapons involved. Or legal maneuvers," said Arthur, finally giving up on poking out his own eyeball for the sake of making Merlin feel guilty.
The sharp edge of his eye-socket, just bellow his brow, was red and irritated, but it was difficult to tell whether this was the result of Merlin's keen survival instincts or Arthur's own inability to stop picking at the metaphorical scab. Merlin made a frustrated noise.
"You big girl, it's not even bruised."
"Yet," Arthur said gravely, as though the darkening of his eye would foreshadow the darkening of Merlin's hopes for the future.
"Well, if it bruises, I'll kiss it and make it all better," said Merlin obnoxiously.
Arthur rolled his eyes, but settled back against the headboard and stretched out his arm the way he so often did when he wanted Merlin to come closer but, thanks to years of paternally-induced emotional constipation, could not just come out and say it like a normal human. Merlin gave a long-suffering sigh and leaned into Arthur's body, his head resting on Arthur's broad and, yes, undeniably impressive shoulder.
"So, what does the day hold for Camelot's fair-haired golden boy?" Merlin asked, wondering if there was any way he could convince Arthur they should go back to sleep until the sun had actually risen, and wasn't just hovering awkwardly around the horizon like a nervous actor waiting for its cue.
"I'm not a—" Merlin gave him a doubting stare. "Shut up. I have a meeting with my father's counsel this afternoon. Something about faulty sheep herding practices in the North. Or at least I think they said 'herding'," Arthur added with a vaguely disturbed expression.
"Ah, the glamour of nobility," Merlin sighed, his hand sliding up Arthur's thigh in a manner that could almost pass for casual.
"And what will you be doing?" Arthur asked, a wry smile curling at the corners of his mouth. "Washing my dirty laundry? Cleaning out the chamber pots?"
"You tell me," Merlin said quietly, tilting his head back so their eyes were level. "That's sort of the point. And you know very well chamber pots aren't part of my duties," he added hastily.
"They are if I say they are," Arthur said, his voice low and not at all intimidating.
"Oh really? Who do you think you are, the king?" Merlin replied, his hand moving even higher on Arthur's thigh until it was no longer technically on his leg at all.
"Close enough," Arthur said, just before tackling Merlin in one frighteningly deft motion and swooping down to bite at his neck.
"Filthy cheat," Merlin grumbled happily.
"Physical strength and fortitude is not cheating, Merlin," Arthur declared in his best haughty aristocrat voice.
"Christ, please don't do that, you sound like your father," said Merlin, trying his best not to lose himself in the way Arthur's mouth was lighting his skin on fire with every bite and subsequent lick.
"Do not ever compare me to my father again when neither of us is wearing pants. And that is an order," Arthur said, sounding a little horrified and still a lot eager.
"Yes, sire," Merlin said, for once meaning every word of it.
It was a good while longer before either of them managed to extricate themselves from Arthur's hideously opulent and unnecessarily large bed, and by the time they did, Merlin was actually contemplating whether there was a subtle way to ask Gaius exactly how many times it could be considered healthy for a man to come in the span of oh, say, an hour and a half. Of course, Arthur insisted on looking insufferably pleased with himself whenever Merlin mentioned these concerns, so Merlin was forced to accept his own potential death by sex as just another of those really annoying things about shagging Arthur he was going to have to learn to live with.
Arthur left first, giving Merlin a perfunctory hair-tussle and get to work glare on his way out the door. Merlin made a disgruntled sound, but didn't protest, because even Arthur's most withering glare lost a significant portion of its terrifying properties the first time he saw Arthur naked in a context not related to manservantly pursuits or grievous bodily injury. Actually, Arthur had tried one of those glares while naked, and when Merlin laughed at his absurd, completely, completely unfounded insecurity, said nudity had nearly come to an abrupt and unsatisfactory end.
It was a few more minutes before Merlin felt ready to face the rest of the castle. It wasn't as though a manservant sleeping in his liege's chambers was anything unusual, but sometimes Merlin couldn't help but feel that their indiscretions, a term Arthur once used (once and only once, after Merlin explained that twice would lead to an immediate cease-shag), were written all over his face, double under-lined, bolded, with illustrations. It was this paranoia that had Merlin avoiding Morgana in her more insightful moods, because, in addition to being inconveniently perceptive, she was just a crown and scepter short of being as scary as Uther, at times.
Still, even as he wandered towards Gauis's quarters, Merlin had the odd sense that something was… off. It was the same feeling he got when he suddenly realised he was supposed to be meeting Arthur on the training fields, or when he saw one of Arthur's horses trot past because he'd forgotten to put it back in the stables. It just didn't make sense this time though, because for all Arthur's taunting, and it was endless, Merlin was confident he wasn't half as incompetent as he used to be. Even if he was, at this point, if Arthur wanted to be rid of him, he'd have to have Merlin killed for fear of what mid-coitus exclamations Merlin may or may not have been privy to.
"Where have you been, Merlin? It's nearly ten," Gaius said the moment Merlin opened the door.
"Sorry. The Prince was in a mood. It took me forever to get him out of bed," Merlin said, quietly praying the day Gaius realised the half-truth quality of Merlin's excuses would remain in the very distant future, as in preferably never.
"Well, I suppose he has the right to get up on the wrong side of the bed occasionally just like everyone else," Gaius offered sagely.
Merlin gave a vague, assenting hum and excused himself to his quarters, thanking the gods once again that Gaius slept like the dead and never bothered to ask why Merlin's bed was practically dusty with disuse, despite Merlin claiming to retire to it each and every night before sneaking off to Arthur's chambers.
"Merlin, if you have time later this afternoon, I'd be more than happy to continue our discussion about the properties of water spells. I know the book only lists five, but I can think of at least two others you should be aware of if you're determined to start being a traitor to the crown in lakes as well as dry land," Gaius called from the next room.
Merlin opened his mouth to reply, then decided against it in favor of several moments of blind panic followed by a brief but painful flirtation with violent illness. Without thinking, he burst into Gaius's workroom and pelted into the hallway, leaving a confused Gaius to close the door behind him and mutter like someone's concerned mother.
Taking the corridor at full-tilt, Merlin mentally mapped Arthur's morning route. First the armory, then to the watchtower to check on the morning patrol, then—oh god, then he'd probably go straight to the practice fields, because he had that meeting later and would want to get an early start. A cold sweat broke out all over Merlin's body, and he wondered whether he would even make it to the supplies cupboard before passing out in a skinny, imbecile-shaped heap.
When Merlin reached the field, Arthur was no where in sight, which was either a good or really, so incredibly bad sign. Slowing to the human equivalent of a canter, Merlin approached the rickety, haphazard looking structure that Arthur and his knights used to store their spare equipment: wooden swords and spare padding, nothing worth the risk of stealing. Holding his breath for luck, Merlin opened the door quickly, like ripping off a bandage, and was unsurprised to find Arthur standing in the tiny room with his back to the door, seemingly unaware of the intrusion.
"Arthur?" Merlin said innocently, stepping into the enclosed space.
Arthur persisted in standing still and not acknowledging Merlin's presence, so Merlin edged his way around Arthur's body and tried to look surprised but not bone-tinglingly horrified at what he saw in Arthur's hands.
"You are such an idiot," Arthur said at length, never meeting Merlin's anxious stare.
"Yes. Yes, I am aware," Merlin replied, hoping utter agreement might spare him some of the more physical aspects of Arthur's ire.
"I wasn't. I mean, I knew you were incompetent bordering on deficient, but this… Christ, Merlin, what is this?" Arthur asked, his upper lip curling in disgust.
Merlin swallowed, and it felt like the time Arthur tried to make him eat his own pants.
"I don't know," he said, his voice steady despite all odds.
Finally, Arthur looked up from the book and met Merlin's eyes.
"Don't lie," he said calmly. "You're rubbish at it."
There was no arguing with that assessment, but Merlin felt it prudent to try.
"Seriously, Arthur, why would I know anything about it? I'm an idiot, remember?" he offered obligingly.
"Yes, but you can read. I've seen you do it. And you left this here yesterday when I," Arthur paused awkwardly and looked away. "When I came and found you."
It took all Merlin's self-control not to snort. The "came" part was certainly accurate, but unless the word "found" had some new and exciting definition sufficient to describe Arthur attacking Merlin as he reordered the equipment, sucking his brains out through his cock in the middle of the bloody afternoon, then dragging Merlin back to his chambers for a marathon of activities not on the Official Royal Schedule, then Arthur was fooling himself.
In fact, if it weren't for said activities, Merlin probably would have remembered to take the bloody book of illegal magic with him, which, in point of fact, he'd only had at the field in the first place because Arthur had burst into his bedroom while Merlin was studying and demanded that Merlin accompany him while he trained some new knight from the sticks. In retrospect, the whole thing had been an obvious ploy on Arthur's part, because damn it, he knew how attractive he was when he embarrassed lesser swordsmen, and he'd been wearing his most flattering breeches. Merlin had shoved the book into his bag the moment Arthur opened the door to his room, and since there hadn't been a good time to take it out, the book had accompanied them to the fields only to, apparently, spend the night in the company of non-lethal weaponry.
"It's not what it looks like," Merlin said, hoping desperately that it looked like something, anything other than a book that may as well have been titled How Merlin Got His Head Chopped Off Because Arthur's Arse Is Unnaturally Well-Formed.
"What is it then?" Arthur asked, sounding curious if not at ease.
"It's…" Merlin hesitated only a moment, but it was enough to confirm whatever Arthur had already worked out for himself. He did have eyes after all.
"How long?" Arthur said.
Merlin blinked at him. "How long what?"
"How long have you been… committing treason?" Arthur said, his voice tight and uncomfortable.
"It's not like that Arthur, really. I'd never—you know I'd never—it's just. I was born this way. I don't know why," Merlin explained, feeling more and more resigned with each word. He kept imagining his execution and wondering whether his mother would come, or whether Gwen would cry. In all fairness, it was probably a bit dramatic since Merlin was almost certain he could blow up the dungeons with his brain if need be, and there wouldn't be an execution, but the thought of fleeing Camelot, of leaving Arthur just when he was starting to live up to the expectations of that stupid prophetic reptile in the cellar, it made Merlin feel like a condemned man.
Arthur gave him a curious look. "Then why do you have this? If it's just something you can do, what do you need a book for?"
Merlin scrubbed his hand across his face, already exhausted and overheated in the cramped shed. "Look, I can explain. I can explain everything, I swear, but could we please go somewhere else, first? Anywhere, I'll let you choose, just… Not here. This isn't how it's supposed to happen." Merlin couldn't keep the pleading note from his tone, and part of him didn't want to.
Arthur seemed to consider this a moment, but then he tucked the book into Merlin's bag—still half-full of day old bread and lukewarm water—and took Merlin by the wrist.
The walk back to the castle had never been longer, even with Arthur setting a brisk pace. Merlin stared up at its turrets and gleaming stone walls and marveled at how one building could be so lovely and dreamlike, yet cold and unyielding at the same time. He wondered if it would still be this way when Arthur became king.
Once inside, it didn't take long for Arthur to steer them into his chambers and bolt the door.
"Alright," he said, shrugging off his tunic and sprawling out in a chair near the bed, "talk."
Merlin nodded. He'd been planning this speech since the day his mother informed him he was going to Camelot, just in case, but its content and tone had altered significantly since he met Arthur, since he realised who Arthur was. Yet, at the moment of truth, the climax of his own private drama, Merlin realised with sinking horror he'd forgotten his lines.
"Well?" Arthur said, looking impatient as ever.
Merlin swallowed hard.
"Come on, Merlin, you had to have realised I'd find out—that someone would find out, sooner or later. What do you have to say?" Arthur asked. He didn't seem particularly angry, and Merlin couldn't help but think this was a bad sign.
For a full three seconds, Merlin considered distracting Arthur with a ball of fire or a freak windstorm or something and legging it out of the castle, out of Camelot and back to Ealdor, where his mother would box his ears but probably, ultimately, be happy to see him. But no, no, he couldn't do that, not now, not with Arthur looking at him with such confusion, not with the memory of Arthur beneath him, naked and warm with his eyes closed, so trusting it made Merlin's breath catch just remembering it. He couldn't let Arthur think he'd betrayed him, because somehow, that felt like the worst possible outcome. Merlin opened his mouth and suddenly, words started to form.
"I'm here because I'm magic, Arthur, I am, and I can't help it anymore than you can help being a prince. It's not something I do, it's what I am, do you understand? And the book—well, frankly, that book has saved your arse on more than one occasion, or helped me save your arse, or—whatever. Point is, I need it because you need me. I know it may not seem like it, not now, but the dragon seems to think—"
"What dragon?" Arthur interjected, staring at Merlin like he was not only a sorcerer but possibly a complete lunatic, as well. Merlin inclined to agree.
"There's this dragon—look, forget the dragon. We'll come back to the dragon, just," Merlin paused and took a deep breath. Arthur was just looking at him, and while it was better than screaming "Guards! Guards! Sorcerer in the castle!" it wasn't exactly the visceral response Merlin had been expecting. He knelt down and moved closer to Arthur's feet. "Just listen. Arthur Pendragon, you are a complete and utter git. You're rude and arrogant and, frankly, an abysmal dancer, and I think that you are going to be the greatest king that's ever lived, that will ever live, and I'm going to help you. If you'll let me," Merlin vowed solemnly, resisting the urge to take Arthur's hand.
After a moment, a slow, smug smile crept over Arthur's face, and Merlin's heart sped up with anticipation.
"So, this is what it takes to get you to walk on your knees?" he said with a lazy drawl.
"What?" Merlin asked, blinking up at him in dumbly.
"I find out you're a sorcerer and suddenly you develop a sense of rank. Really, Merlin, I'm disappointed," Arthur said.
"Am I to take it this
means you're not planning to have me executed in the
immediate future?" Merlin asked cautiously, resisting the urge to
smack Arthur in the head and remind him that this was, for Merlin,
sort of a life-altering moment, and could he please refrain from
being a complete prick about it at least while it's actually taking
"The immediate future? Well, I'm going on a hunt tomorrow, and the day after there's the midsummer feast. And next week I start training new recruits for—"
"Arthur," Merlin cut in impatiently.
Arthur smiled. "I suppose not."
Merlin put his hands on Arthur's thigh's and saw, perhaps for the first time, the faint outline of the man Arthur was destined to be—maybe even the man he already was, beneath all the obnoxious qualities that sometimes made Merlin want to let him be eaten by large mythical creatures. Arthur bent low, and before Merlin could say anything appropriately cheeky about Arthur being a complete pushover, not to mention obviously besotted with Merlin to be letting him off so easily—
"I love you, you idiot," Arthur said quietly, his eyes still warm and so blue they couldn't possibly exist outside of fairy stories. "And if you really want to be rid of me, you're going to have to do better than a spot of illegal magic."
Merlin raised an eyebrow. "Who's to say I can't just leave?"
Arthur laughed, but somehow it sounded like a growl. "I'd find you," he said, low and rough, sliding off the chair onto his knees in front of Merlin. "I'd track you down, to the ends of the earth, and I'd bring you back."
And what could Merlin say to that, honestly? Nothing. Not one damn thing, so he didn't. He leaned in and kissed Arthur on the mouth, a little desperately, but hopefully it conveyed the intense, consuming gratitude he felt—not that Arthur was apparently more loyal to Merlin than to his own father, his own king, but because he somehow, against all logic, loved Merlin, despite the fact that he really was an atrocious manservant, and had big, stupid ears, and didn't know a thing about how to behave in court, and did spectacularly illegal magic all the bloody time and—
Arthur sighed into Merlin's mouth and Merlin promptly lost his train of thought.
It took them a good ten minutes of kissing and groping and, occasionally, muttering exceedingly filthy things into one another's ears, to even make it to the bed, but once they were there, and Arthur had Merlin pinned just the way he liked it, Arthur sat up with an odd, contemplative expression.
"Do something," he said firmly.
"Umm…" Merlin twitched a little, but Arthur's knees had his hands trapped at his sides. "I can't do very much when you've got me—"
"Do something with your magic," Arthur said, and Merlin could practically hear the idiot that was obviously intended for the end of that sentence.
"Oh. Oh, you want me to…"
"I want to see what you can do," Arthur said, the strain on his patience evident only in the way his hips kept rolling against Merlin's in an involuntary but rather distracting manner.
"What do you want me to do?" Merlin asked honestly.
Arthur looked around the room, as though a giant list of Magic Things That Can Be Done might appear before him. "I don't know, you're the sorcerer," he snapped. "What can you do?"
Merlin squirmed uncomfortably. He hadn't really planned on going into great detail about this right away, and certainly not with a painful hard-on, but it was clear Arthur wasn't going to let this drop.
"Anything," Merlin said with a little hysterical chuckle.
"Anything?" Arthur replied, his eyebrows darting upwards only for a moment before he got control of himself.
"Well, not anything. Probably. I don't really know," Merlin amended.
"Then what can't you do?" Arthur was frowning now, a little, at the corners of his mouth.
Merlin looked up at him, his gold hair sticking to his forehead and his fingers still tangled, forgotten, in the laces of Merlin's trousers.
"I don't know," Merlin said softly.
He watched Arthur's expression shift quickly from confusion to comprehension to something bordering on alarm, but Merlin severed that line of thinking quickly enough, taking advantage of Arthur's distraction to sit up and kiss him, hard and unyielding, until Merlin could feel the tension in Arthur's body uncurl like a cat asleep on the hearth.
Within minutes, their remaining clothing lay scattered to the four corners of the room, a shirt on the bedpost, someone's trousers caught on one of Arthur's swords, and Arthur had Merlin pinned at the hips, his fingers slick with oil and prying Merlin apart, inch by inch.
"Arthur, come on," Merlin groaned, trying desperately to push down onto Arthur's hand, to feel himself split open and whole, undone by Arthur's touch.
"Hold still," Arthur muttered, watching intently at the place where his fingers disappeared into Merlin's body.
Merlin's cock was so hard he thought it might actually fall off if Arthur didn't touch it, didn't do something in the next thirty seconds, so when Arthur removed his fingers and moved forward, aligning himself with Merlin's body, Merlin shut his eyes with relief, waiting, tense as a bow-string.
And then there were lips pressed softly against the delicate skin of Merlin's eye, and Merlin's mouth fell open, a little, in surprise. Then he felt a kiss on the confused crease between his eyes, another on the bridge of his nose, and finally a kiss on the bow of his lip. Merlin opened his eyes, and Arthur was staring down at him wonderingly, as if in a trance, and for the first time since they'd met, Merlin felt unworthy of Arthur's attention, awestruck in the presence of his king.
"Tell me it's mine," Arthur whispered, his voice calm and otherworldly.
Merlin shook his head, too far gone to work out what was being asked of him.
"Your power, your magic," Arthur murmured, his voice rough, "tell me I can have it."
Merlin gaped at him, too aroused and terrified to formulate an appropriately meaningful response.
Arthur sighed and squeezed his eyes shut, as though bracing himself for a fall. "Tell me, tell me whatever I want, you'll do it. That it's mine. That you're mine," he whispered, hoarse and low, even as his body remained perfectly still.
And suddenly Merlin realised the importance of what Arthur was saying. He'd never thought about it, really, about what his magic could do in the hands of a kingdom. The kind of power he was starting to understand he possessed, it could lay waste to empires, bring men to their knees, conquer lands more efficiently than the blade of any sword, even one in the hands of Arthur Pendragon. But it also had never occurred to Merlin that he wouldn't lay it all at Arthur's feet.
"Of course," Merlin said quickly, emphatically. "It's yours, it's all yours, it's always yours," he chanted, and then finally, finally, Arthur was pushing into him, hot and solid, and Merlin groaned, his body stretching wonderfully.
Arthur kept looking down at him, his eyes burning and his face still so very young, and Merlin realised this was what destiny felt like. It felt like Arthur's fingers tangled in his hair and Arthur's teeth tugging at his lip and their hips snapping to the rhythm of the wardrums that would one day bring all of Albion to its knees before its High King.
"Oh god, Merlin, Merlin," Arthur panted.
This was, if Merlin had cared to think about it, so different from every other time. It was as though before they were merely acting, and now it was all painfully real. Merlin's fingers scrambled at Arthur's shoulder, desperate for anything to hold onto while his body unraveled with every fierce snap of Arthur's hips.
Their mouths collided messily, and Arthur's hand found Merlin's cock, slick and leaking, and he fisted it with each thrust until Merlin couldn't breathe. "Fuck, Arthur, faster, yes," he moaned, too far gone to care that he sounded desperate and slightly insane, caring only for how it made Arthur grunt into his mouth, harsh, jagged sounds forced out of his lungs.
And then Arthur gathered Merlin to his chest, pulling them both upright so that Merlin was straddling his lap, the new angle allowing Arthur to go deeper with each thrust. Arthur grasped Merlin's hips, lifting him slowly and slamming him back down, hard enough to bruise, and Merlin's brain fractured a little at how strong and absolutely capable this man was. When Arthur's head fell forward and his teeth scratched at the juncture of Merlin's neck and shoulder, Merlin came, shouting, twitching, shivering as bolts of almost painful sensation shot through his body, making his toes curl and his fingers pull on Arthur's hair convulsively.
"Oh fuck," Merlin whispered with a sort of breathless awe.
Arthur managed about four more heroic thrusts and then stuttered Merlin's name, like the last breath of a drowning man, and as Merlin felt him coming inside him, for him, kissing him like the world was ending.
"Christ," Arthur muttered some minutes later into Merlin's sweat-sticky skin.
Merlin nodded dumbly. Eventually, Arthur pulled out, but when Merlin tried to move away, Arthur held him in place and pulled him close. With a little shifting and a few poorly-placed elbows, Arthur leaned back against the headboard, with Merlin still straddling him, his head tucked into the side of Arthur's neck.
"This changes things, you know," Arthur said after a while.
"Yeah?" Merlin replied, without emerging from Arthur's shoulder.
"Now that I know you can do magic, having you do chores seems rather pointless. You can probably just wave your wand and—"
"I haven't got a wand."
"Fine," Arthur plowed on, "your hand. Whatever it is you wave."
"I don't wave anything," Merlin mumbled, still too happy and post-coital to bother mounting a serious defense.
"Still, there are other things you could be doing, other places where magic isn't banned, and you could be—"
Merlin sat up, finally. "I'm not going anywhere," he said firmly. "I'm going to stay here and keep magicing your underpants clean just like I always have. Ban or no ban."
Arthur gave him a considering look, but seemed to believe him.
"My father won't always be king, you know," Arthur said quietly.
"Of course not," Merlin half-yawned.
Arthur slid Merlin off his lap and onto the bed so that they lay side by side.
"When I'm king, you can fly around bloody the castle, if you like," he said.
Merlin murmured his assent, already warm and drowsy.
"When I'm king, you'll be free. They won't fear you, my people will never be afraid of—"
"Arthur," Merlin said quietly, made earnest by exhaustion, "I never had any doubt."