"My crown is called content, a crown that seldom kings enjoy."
When he first learned of his magic, Arthur promised Merlin one day he would be revered throughout the lands of Albion, above any knight or lord, on par with the king himself, because If it weren't for you, I'd be dead a dozen times over. Don't argue with me, I can have you killed.
And so, on the day of his coronation, Arthur brought magic back to Camelot with the smoke from his father's funeral pyre still black as pestilence in the air. The day after his coronation, Arthur brought Merlin before the court, much to Merlin's alarm, and proceeded to make Hunith weep sporadically with pride for the better part of a week.
"I know you think you're being very noble with all this, but a simple pardon for all the illicit prince-saving would have sufficed," Merlin said later, after the cheering crowds had dispersed and Arthur had more or less dragged him back to his bedchamber.
Arthur still wasn't clear on why he had to move halfway across the castle into a whole new room, but his father's council—his council, he kept reminding himself—was adamant. It was only after Arthur threw what Merlin called a Royal Hissy Fit at the idea of living in his father's quarters that he'd been allowed to select his own. It seemed being authoritative was more difficult when one's advisors had bourn witness to one's childhood tantrums.
Arthur rolled his eyes. "You're pardoned. There. Happy?"
Merlin shrugged. "I suppose. Does that mean I can take off this ghastly robe now?" he asked, squirming to free his hands from the overlong sleeves. The robe—and the scepter, which, if Arthur was being honest, was mostly a joke—made Merlin look small, a pale and lonely thing adrift in a sea of fine blue velvet (to match his eyes, Arthur had thought as he instructed the seamstress, before being immediately overwhelmed by the urge to go out and slaughter something). Arthur made a mental note to have it taken in as soon as he grew tired of watching Merlin struggle.
"That robe is symbolic. You are to wear it for all official functions," Arthur said slowly, as though speaking to a small child.
"I look like an idiot," Merlin whinged.
Arthur smiled. "So, nothing new, then."
Merlin huffed. "I see the crown has done nothing to impair your rapier wit, sire."
"And the title has done nothing to make you less of an ingrate," Arthur replied.
"Yes, that's another thing," Merlin said, flinging himself into the chair nearest the fire in a flurry of excess fabric, "isn't it a bit… pretentious?"
Arthur dragged his chair closer to the flames and settled in. "It's stately. Regal, even."
Merlin let out a high-pitched, derisive noise. "It makes me sound like a pompous ass, and that's your job. High Sorcerer of the Realm? What does that even mean?"
"It means you are important," Arthur said, more seriously than he'd intended. But Merlin needed to understand that this was the only way Arthur knew of making it clear to the world, just as it was clear to Arthur, that Merlin was more than a weapon in the hands of a ruler, more than a shield or a sword to bring warring regions to their knees. He was the fuel that kept their king burning bright in the darkest, most hopeless of nights.
Merlin turned, finally, and stared at Arthur, a flicker of confusion in his expression.
"It tells the world your place," Arthur said stiffly, suddenly uncomfortable beneath Merlin's gaze.
"And that place would be?" Merlin said softly.
Arthur frowned. "Here. At my right hand." He paused in deference to the last shred of self-preservation he had left when it came to Merlin. "With me," he said, and cleared his throat.
Merlin's eyebrows shot up into the vicinity of his hairline. "Oh."
"Yes. Well," said Arthur, feeling awkward and wondering why, as king, he couldn't have awkward drawn and quartered.
"I suppose it's not so bad," Merlin mercifully interrupted. "The title, I mean. Perhaps I'll grow into it," he offered hopefully.
"Is that what your Hunith said about your ears?" Arthur asked, cocking his head to one side, innocently.
Merlin grinned like he'd just been told a brilliant secret, the way he did frequently and to Arthur's utter confusion. "Ah. And here I was hoping you might be less of a prat once you finally got to wear the big crown," Merlin said without even his usual token annoyance.
"You were not," Arthur replied, daring Merlin to contradict him.
Merlin smiled softly and suddenly grew very interested in his hands. "Perhaps not," he said quietly, sliding his eyes towards Arthur.
Arthur felt his lips quirk involuntarily and looked away to avoid blushing like some maiden in a tower. His eyes landed on the crown, which sat haphazardly on the table because he still hadn't got around to finding a new manservant. He didn't need to anyway, as long as Merlin was still picking up after him, sort of, reflexively. What bothered Arthur was that eventually Merlin would realize his new position did not charge him with care of Arthur's dirty socks.
"I should warn you," Arthur said, trying to sound authoritative, "you aren't meant to be a figurehead. You will have duties."
"Well," Merlin said seriously, "it will be difficult to give up the life of leisure I'm accustomed to, but for you, I suppose I can adjust."
"Shut up," Arthur said, throwing one of his thick leather gloves at Merlin's head and missing embarrassingly. "I expect you to attend council meetings as my advisor, and, if necessary, to turn anyone who dares disagree with me into a toad."
"Why don't I just turn them into a walking cliché?" Merlin asked.
Arthur chose to ignore him. "I want you there when I meet with my knights, as well."
"Only if you get rid of that disturbing table you meet at," Merlin said with a significant look.
"That table was a gift to my father from Sir Ector," Arthur said stiffly.
"It's covered in snakes and… things," Merlin replied.
Arthur sniffed. "It's ornamental."
"It's unsettling. The chambermaids refuse to clean it," Merlin said darkly.
"Fine," Arthur conceded. "But you are responsible for replacing it."
"Yes, sire," Merlin said solemnly.
Arthur thought for a moment. "I want a bigger one," he said.
Merlin nodded. "As you wish."
"A round one," Arthur added.
"Let's not push our luck," Merlin said, but his eyes were bright and warm. "Actually, having me sit in on strategy meetings is probably wise. There ought be at least one person in the room whose idea of fun doesn't include repeated head trauma."
"The High Sorcerer is not above execution, you know," Arthur helpfully reminded him.
"Of course, your highness," Merlin replied without a hint of intimidation.
"And am I responsible for anything other than entertaining you at dull meetings?"
"Well, there's still the matter of your quarters," Arthur said, standing up and walking across the room for no particular reason.
"Oh god, Arthur, don't tell me the council has an opinion on where I live, as well," Merlin practically whined.
"Not particularly. Although, Sir Caradoc suggested you might like a tower. You know, to throw bolts of lightning from. Or something." Arthur frowned.
Merlin snorted. "And did you tell him that I don't actually control the weather?"
Arthur favored him with a pointed look.
"There were extenuating circumstances, and you know it!" Merlin spat defensively.
"At any rate," Arthur continued, wandering towards the decanter of wine, which he strongly suspected hadn't been there when they came in, "you obviously can't continue residing in that sty."
Merlin had the gall to look affronted. "I like my sty—my room."
"Well, it's unworthy of your station," said Arthur, pouring a modest portion of wine into his father's immodest formal goblet. In theory, it was meant to be used only for ceremonial occasions, but he knew it would annoy Merlin immensely. On second thought, he poured a bit more. "And I need you close by."
"Where did you have in mind?" Merlin asked innocently, sparing a glance at the cup that said, quite articulately, Really, Arthur?
"You could stay here," Arthur said, and quickly took a large gulp of wine.
Merlin blinked at him. A silence of epic proportions crept by. Merlin opened his mouth a few times, as though rejecting various possible responses, and, just before Arthur could take a running leap onto his own sword, said, "is that allowed?"
Arthur laughed a little hysterically. "I'm the king, you bloody idiot. I can have you sleep in Morgana's bed, if I feel like it."
"Oh yes, threaten me. That's the way to win my heart," Merlin said dryly.
Arthur rolled his eyes and reminded himself that banishing Merlin now would make him look a bit unstable, particularly after the slightly gushing speech he'd made at Merlin's appointment ceremony. It had involved phrases like 'unerring loyalty' and 'destiny,' and afterward he'd had to bend Merlin over a table just to stop him snickering.
"You don't have to, of course," Arthur amended quickly. "I won't have you shackled if you—"
"Shut up," Merlin said quietly, crossing the room to where Arthur stood by the window.
"What?" Arthur asked, too anxious and confused to even remind Merlin that telling his liege to shut up was considered poor form.
"I'll do it," Merlin said, taking the wine from Arthur's hand and placing it on the windowsill.
Arthur frowned. "I don't want you to if you aren't—"
Merlin leaned in and kissed him, soft and surprisingly tender, one hand coming up to cup Arthur's face.
"I said 'shut up.' Don't be difficult," Merlin said, the fingers on his other hand clenching Arthur's bicep nervously.
"I am never difficult," Arthur said seriously.
Merlin looked less than convinced. "Does this mean you'll find a new manservant? Because believe it or not, there are ways of getting me into your bedchamber that do not involve dirty laundry."
"I wasn't…" Arthur started to say, quickly realizing he had no idea what defense he was attempting to mount.
"Right," Merlin said, cocking an eyebrow in a manner eerily reminiscent of Gaius.
"You are so…" Arthur trailed off when Merlin leaned in close, pressing his lips to the still-moving corner of Arthur's mouth, and Arthur dissolved, just as he had the first time, every time.
He needed Merlin because he was the king, and Merlin was the trick up his sleeve, the difference between a strategic alliance and an all-out war. But somehow, Arthur knew that was not what made him keep Merlin within arms reach almost every minute of the day (to Merlin's constant befuddlement).
It was the smile Merlin gave him when they were alone, the one that told him in no uncertain terms Merlin was there not because the king needed him, but because Arthur needed him.
Arthur kissed him back, and felt the façade of the crown fall away, stripping him bare, so that when Merlin licked his way into his mouth, Arthur couldn't help but sigh, because he was just a man, after all. And that was the difference between the two of them. Arthur felt like a house divided: a brave, merciful leader and a man with fears and uncertainties. Merlin though, Merlin was only ever Merlin. It was his greatest weakness and the thing Arthur treasured most about him. In Arthur's world, where everyone had an agenda and no one was just what they appeared, Merlin could barely lie to save his own hide, let alone to Arthur's detriment. And furthermore, Arthur fully believed Merlin had never really wanted to deceive anyone in his entire life.
Merlin began backing towards the bed—their bed, Arthur thought with abstract wonder—and his hands tugged at Arthur's shirt impatiently, until Arthur had to stop long enough to untangle himself.
"Between the serving and shagging, I'd have thought you'd know how to take off my bloody shirt by now," Arthur muttered as they both struggled with Merlin's—alright, absurd robe.
"I could vanish every stitch of clothing you own, if I wanted to," Merlin hissed in response.
Arthur smiled and if a faint tremor ran through his frame, then it was just because Merlin was telling the truth.
After a slight delay, and several obscenities on Merlin's part, Merlin's robe gave up and fell to the floor, a puddle of blue against the cool stone floor. And then it was just Merlin's skin and his stupid, sharp bones rising and falling with every breath, as though he had every right in the world to make Arthur's chest clench like a fist and his heart feel too large for his chest.
Kisses melted into bites, and soon enough Merlin was astride Arthur's hips, riding him with his eyes closed and his head tilted back, and sometimes, sometimes when they were like this, Arthur felt he might catch fire, explode with all the want he felt tingling beneath his skin, because he was only human, and surely no mortal form was meant to contain such feeling.
But then Merlin smiled down at him, shaking and slick with sweat, looking at Arthur like he might not be real, and it was all Arthur could do to stay conscious as he came and came, shivering with pleasure, while Merlin stroked himself, fast and deliberate, and doubled over with an aching cry as he was swallowed by his own release.
As they lay tangled in each other, strung out on sex and love and each other's skin, Arthur couldn't keep from touching him, stroking Merlin's hair and feeling his heartbeat beneath the palm of his hand, because Camelot belonged to its king, but this, the curve of Merlin's lips and the ragged exhale he gave when Arthur's fingers traced the notches of his spine, this was just Arthur's, and all the more valuable for it.