Title: Before the Sun Breaks Another Day
Authors: accordingtomel & adelagia
Summary: Three months after her disappearance, Morgana returns to Camelot with a hidden agenda, but she's not the only one keeping secrets, and a series of unintended revelations forces her, Merlin and Arthur on an intertwined journey of revenge, redemption and love.
Pairings: Merlin/Arthur; Leon/Morgana (elements of Uther/Morgana, Arthur/Gwen)
Spoilers/Warnings: Everything up to and including 2x13
Word Count: 10,724
Disclaimer: Not ours. No money is being made. Please don't sue.
Authors' Note: YAY! We're finally finished! It's almost hard to believe! *squee* We've been working on this for over a year, which a crazy notion in and of itself, but it feels AMAZING to have reached the end, at long last! In an effort to keep this authors' note somewhat coherent, we want to discuss a few of the things we're particularly excited about. For one, the fact that this thing developed so organically. We had this idea in the beginning of where we wanted the fic to go, but as the characters developed and the storylines progressed, we went through massive changes in the story, because our original plan just didn't work any longer. We're both quite pleased with how that all turned out, though, and we feel that this fic was better because we allowed the characters to dictate it instead of the other way around. And obviously, we're both thrilled about Leon's role in this. Originally, we had him playing a very small role, and then somewhere along the line, he became a significant aspect of the fic, which was incredibly exciting. Our only regret about starting this before series 3 began filming was that we couldn't include Gwaine, since he is awesome! Anyway, we also need to send out a most sincere thank you to our wonderful beta/Brit-picker, ravenflight21, for being awesome and for committing to something when she probably had no idea what kind of investment it would involve. (Though in all fairness, neither did we, at the time.) Also, we need to say a HUGE thank you to the amazing people who were reading along as we posted – including the anon comments I can't respond to –providing us with encouragement and support and laughing and crying in all the right places. Your feedback was such an immense joy, and we thank you for that!
Morgana's eyes trailed after Arthur as he exited the room, only turning back to Merlin once she was confident he'd truly left them alone. After pushing the bedroom door firmly shut, she swept across the room, tugging a stool over to Merlin's bedside.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, eyeing him curiously.
Merlin shrugged, shifting in the bed. "Much better than I should be, at this point."
"Yes, I can see that," Morgana said before she could stop herself, and it was almost endearing the way her words caused Merlin's face to flush, from the bottom of his neck right to the tip of his ears.
"Erm, well." He scratched awkwardly at the back of his ear, ducking his head.
"I'm just pleased that your recovery is going well," said Morgana, and she meant it. Recent events had opened her eyes to many things about which she'd previously possessed little to no knowledge, and it was forcing her to re-evaluate the way she viewed the past several months. By no means did it excuse the fact that Merlin had attempted to poison her, but at least now she felt better equipped to understand his perspective. Their relationship was certainly not fixed yet, but it was in the process of being repaired, which was a significant step forward. And if Merlin was open to what she'd come to speak with him about, it would only speed up that recovery.
"Thank you. Gaius says I'm healing remarkably quickly," said Merlin with a shy smile.
She smiled back, warm and sincere, before taking on a more serious expression. "Look, Merlin, I wanted to say thank you. For taking care of Arthur, I mean. But also for believing in my visions and trusting in me. After I- well, after I threatened to kill you, you could have easily turned me away, but you didn't, and for that, you have my deepest gratitude."
"You had every right to react how you did, considering what I..." He trailed off, casting his gaze down to the bedsheets he was twisting between his fingers. "What I did - what I was forced to do - was an unspeakable betrayal. But you need to know, Morgana, that I never wanted to hurt you, and had there been any other way, anything at all, I would have done it."
For so many months she'd permitted the anger and betrayal she felt towards him grow and fester, every reminder of his presence in her life like another stab to the heart. Never before had she been able to consider the possibility that perhaps there had been justification for his actions, nor would she have permitted him the opportunity to even try to explain. But somewhere along the way - between returning to Camelot, to discovering Merlin's secret, to seeking his assistance to save Arthur's life - the fury had melted away, the sting of her perceived betrayal dissipated, and she found that everything she thought she'd known had been spun on its axis once again.
"I know, and I believe you," she said at last, finding, rather unsurprisingly, that she truly meant the words.
"Really?" He sounded surprised.
"Well, if you'd told me this a couple months ago, I might not have." Morgana smiled ruefully at him, memories of their last conversation on this topic floating back to her. "But things are different now. So yes, I believe you."
The look of genuine relief and joy that spread across his face convinced Morgana that she'd made the right decision, and they sat smiling at one another for several moments.
"Merlin, I need to ask a favour of you," Morgana said then. She saw little purpose in putting things off, especially when Merlin was still recovering, and the sooner she asked for his help, the sooner she would know if she needed to come up with another plan.
"All right. Well, I'm not sure what you need from me, but I'll do the best I can," he said easily.
Was it really that simple with him, that she could apologise and it was as if nothing had transpired between them in the first place? How Morgana wished she had Merlin's graciousness and forgiving spirit. Of course, she recognised that Merlin must possess extreme patience and a lenient heart to deal with Arthur on a regular basis. She knew with absolute certainty that if she'd ever had to spend more than a few days in Merlin's shoes, the kingdom would be without an heir to the throne very quickly.
"I can't stay in Camelot any longer," she admitted, glancing down at her hands. "While I believe Uther truly does love me, and there are so many important people in my life here, I cannot remain under the same roof as the man who blindly persecutes and slaughters my people. At least not now, considering everything that's happened over the past several months."
Merlin nodded solemnly, lips pressed into a thin line. "I understand, and I don't blame you," he said with genuine sincerity, "but what were you hoping I could do to help?"
In truth, she had the whole plan worked out, right down to the last detail. It would permit her to leave Camelot with legitimate cause and remain gone for several months, if necessary. All she needed from Merlin was one small favour, and everything she'd planned hinged on his assistance.
"I would like to visit Princess Elaine in Shalott for at least a couple of months, if not more than that."
"All right," Merlin said slowly, confusion showing plainly on his face.
Leaning forward, Morgana lowered her voice out of habit as she spoke, even though it was clear that they were the only two occupants in the room. "What I need from you are forged documents inviting me on this extended visit. Her father, Bernard, is the king of Shalott, and is an open supporter and friend of Uther. There should be no reason for him to reject Elaine's request."
A thoughtful look crossed Merlin's face before he nodded. "That should be fine, though I may need some assistance with the wording and with obtaining their family crest."
"Of course." She already had what she needed, prepared and ready in her room, with the hope of getting everything going as quickly as possible.
"But I'm not sure I understand how this will help you," said Merlin, scratching at his chin. "If you're trying to get away from such a harsh stance on magic, why go to a kingdom with similar laws? Also, what will you say to the princess when you arrive, unannounced? Surely they'll ask questions as to why you're there and why you intend to stay for several months?"
"They won't ask any questions because I have no intention of actually going to Shalott," she admitted.
Merlin's brows crinkled as he clearly waited for further explanation. So she provided it to him. "I plan on finding the druids and staying with them. They can help train me on how to properly use my magic in a safe environment, free from constraints and the fear of potential persecution. I've only recently come into my powers, and I don't have the control and level of mastery that you've managed to achieve."
"How will you reach them? There's no way Uther will allow you to travel alone."
"No, you're right. But he'll allow me to leave with my former personal guard providing a safe accompaniment."
"You mean Sir Leon?" Merlin squinted, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Does that mean- wait, does that mean that he knows? About your magic?"
There was a pause and then, "Yes, he does. I told him the truth." Morgana held Merlin's gaze, even as she fought down the blush she knew was creeping up the back of her neck.
"About everything?" His eyes widened in surprise.
"Yes. I felt he needed to know." She stopped herself before she could reveal too much. However, at the slightly panicked look on Merlin's face, she amended her original statement. "Everything about me, Merlin. I've held my tongue about your secret. That is not mine to share."
The relief was obvious. "Thank you," he said with a small smile.
Determined not to stray too far from the purpose of her visit, Morgana attempted to refocus their attention on the matter at hand. "Leon will accompany me outside Camelot, where I hope to be met by the druids disguised as Elaine's retinue. However, I will obviously need your assistance to make sure this plan goes off without a hitch. This can only be done by someone with your skills." She gave him an imploring look, hope and anticipation rising in her chest.
Merlin tilted his head, eyes trained on something across the room for a few moments - though it felt more like an eternity - before his gaze flickered back to her. "What if something goes wrong? If you can't find the druids, or Uther figures out the invitation is a fake, or he insists on sending more men with you?"
"You don't have to worry. I can handle the druids and Uther. And you have my solemn promise that no one will ever be able to trace any of this back to you," she assured him. It wasn't likely that he would be plagued with worry over his own role in this plan, considering how blatantly and frequently he used magic to protect Arthur and god knew what else, but she felt compelled to offer the assurance anyway.
"If this is something that will be helpful to you, then I'm glad to do it."
She blinked, unsure if she'd heard him correctly. "You'll do it?"
Nodding, Merlin turned a smile on her. "Of course. It's the least I can do."
There was probably no point in reminding him that there was far less he could be doing. Instead, Morgana nodded, accepting his easy willingness to assist her in this matter, and on a whim, she leaned forward, pulling him into a quick embrace.
"Thank you so much," she breathed into his ear, feeling the heaviness that sat deep within her chest finally start to lift.
"You will come back, won't you?" Merlin asked as she pulled back.
It was, most certainly, the question of the day, and not for the first time did she truly wonder whether she was making the right decision. In fact, she regretted that such an action was necessary at all, but in her heart she knew that if she ever hoped to make any sort of life for herself in Camelot, this was something that was of the utmost necessity.
"Of course," she said, at length, fighting to keep the regret out of her tone. "It will probably feel as though I never left at all. But I know you understand why I must leave for a while."
"I do." He reached out and squeezed her hand.
She nodded and glanced down at her dress, smoothing away an invisible crease from the soft fabric before moving to stand. "I suppose I should be going then. You need your rest, after all."
"Yes. Right. Well, um, bring me what I need and I'll create the documents for you."
With a promise to return as soon as possible, Morgana swept across the room. It wasn't until her hand was poised over the door handle that she heard Merlin call out to her.
She turned to glance back at him inquisitively. "Yes?"
There was a long pause, in which he fidgeted and glanced about the room, before he finally managed to spit out what he had to say. "For what it's worth, I'm sorry about Morgause. I know- I mean, it can't have been easy to do what you did. So I just- I wanted to say thank you, but also to say that I'm sorry. I truly am."
Tears pricked at her eyes instantly, and she sucked in a shaky breath. It still hurt, the pain of losing her sister, no matter how wildly they'd disagreed about the best way to make their people safe. But if there was anyone who might possibly be able to comprehend the enormity of the sacrifices she'd been forced to make, it was Merlin. She smiled, somber but touched all the same. "Thank you, Merlin."
Before he was able to reply, she excused herself from the room, pushing aside all thoughts of Morgause. There was much that needed to be done, now that she knew Merlin was on board, and it required all of her focus.
Over the past several days, Arthur had developed a consistent routine. In the mornings he went on patrol with two of his junior knights, as a way of both training the newest additions and giving the rest of his knights an opportunity to rest from the fight. Besides, being out on patrol gave him something to do, rather than spend his mornings ruminating on Merlin's recovery and twitching to spend time with him instead of attending to his duties like he should. After a quick lunch, Arthur spent a couple of hours in training. Many of the knights had sustained injuries during the fight, so he was taking it easy on them while they recovered. Usually council meetings or open court filled the rest of his afternoon and early evening.
Once the meetings were finished, Arthur spent the remainder of his night with Merlin. He'd been asking the kitchens to send his supper to Gaius' quarters, where he ate with Merlin, and sometimes Gaius. Merlin had remarked on the first evening how it was strange that the cook had sent so much extra food, and so many of his favourites, at which Arthur had simply shrugged and suggested that it must have been Merlin's lucky day. By the third day, they'd shared a knowing smile and Merlin thanked him with a kiss.
As of yet, they hadn't really had an opportunity to explore their newfound intimacy, though it was obvious to Arthur that Merlin very much wanted to, as did he. However, after one particularly awkward conversation with Gaius in which he was informed that Merlin was 'not quite ready for any strenuous exercise' - which also happened to follow one very intense kiss that Gaius had accidentally witnessed - Arthur wasn't willing to take any risks on that front just yet. According to Gaius, Merlin was making an unbelievably speedy recovery, but considering the original extent of his injuries, it was a wonder he'd survived at all.
Usually they would eat, and then they would update each other on everything that'd happened in their days. Somehow, despite the fact that Merlin had been temporarily relieved of his duties, he still was up to date on all of the castle gossip (which Arthur suspected was Gwen's doing). In spite of the numerous hours they'd spent with one another, the topic of Merlin's magic had yet to make its way into any of their conversations, though not for lack of effort on Merlin's part. It wasn't that Arthur didn't want to talk about anything, or that he was in denial. He knew it was something they would have to seriously discuss sooner rather than later, but the fact of the matter was that for now, he simply didn't care. Merlin was alive and getting closer to a full recovery with every day that passed, and at present, just being with him was Arthur's entire focus.
It came as quite the shock when Arthur returned from one particularly long council meeting to not only find Merlin in Arthur's room, but sitting on the floor, of all places, a pile of heavy armour sitting at his side, which Arthur knew had not been in his room previously, and rag in hand. Arthur's mood shifted instantaneously from calm to irate.
"Merlin," Arthur said slowly. "What the hell are you doing?"
Merlin glanced up at Arthur, the picture of perfect innocence. "What does it look like I'm doing? I'm polishing your armour."
"Let me rephrase the question. Why are you sitting on my floor, polishing my armour, when I very distinctly remember telling you that you had the next two weeks off to recover? And for that matter, how did my armour even make it up here in the first place?"
The look of guilt that briefly flashed across Merlin's face told Arthur more than any words could - he'd carried it here on his own, probably all in one trip. It shouldn't have come as any surprise to Arthur that Merlin would choose one of the most inopportune times to put some actual effort into behaving like a half-decent servant, but he'd only just regained consciousness five days ago. No matter how quickly he was reportedly recovering, surely he was not ready for actual work just yet.
"Yeah, I know you told me to take two weeks. But I was feeling better this afternoon, so I dismissed Henry for the rest of the day," Merlin said with a little shrug, as if this was nothing significant.
"Wait, what? You-" Arthur sputtered, pointing at him. "Merlin, you can't just dismiss another servant from their duties. You don't have the authority."
"Well, there was no point in having both of us here," said Merlin, ever helpful. He ducked his head and resumed polishing the vambrace still resting on his lap.
Arthur's eyes narrowed and his mouth gaped as he stared down at his obstinate servant, wondering not for the first time if perhaps he'd experienced a more severe knock to the head than first believed. "Have you gone completely mad? Of course there's no point in having you both here, because you should be in bed, resting, like Gaius instructed. Does he even know you're here?"
"Gaius is too cautious for his own good sometimes," Merlin said by way of response, which essentially told Arthur what he already suspected.
"I assume that's a no, then?"
The responding shrug was ambivalent at best. "He had to see a few patients in the lower town, so he's gone for most of the afternoon and likely the better part of the evening. There was no way I was just going to lie in bed by myself the whole time, so I thought I would come here and at least try to be useful."
Folding his arms, Arthur glared at the long line of armour resting at Merlin's side. "Contrary to what you might think, over-exerting yourself while you're supposed to be recovering from very serious injuries isn't exactly my definition of useful."
"Arthur, I think you're over-reacting here. I'm just cleaning your armour; equipment you need to ensure your safety, I might add."
"While sitting on the hard, stone-cold floor, Merlin." Arthur threw his arms up in the air. "Surely that can't be comfortable for your bony arse, especially in light of everything?"
A sly smile slipped onto Merlin's lips. "Noticed my arse, have you?"
"Don't change the subject," Arthur said, folding his arms, but he felt some of the initial frustration melt away, though only slightly, and only temporarily. "And would you get off the damn floor, please?"
"Arthur, this isn't that big of a deal," Merlin protested as he clambered to his feet, tossing aside the vambrace and rag he held in his hands.
Arthur's eyebrows knitted together, anger flaring again. "It is to me."
"Why? It's not as if I'm hauling buckets of water back and forth for your bath or carrying sacks of potatoes around the castle for the kitchen," he argued, with every bit of the disrespectful insolence Arthur had grown accustomed to over the years. Merlin took a deliberate step forwards and folded his arms to mirror Arthur's stance.
"That's the damn point. You shouldn't be carting around heavy equipment as if you're perfectly fine, when you're not. If you can't do the job yet, then you shouldn't be here."
"But I can do the job. The vast majority of it, anyway. Your armour is lighter than you think. You can call in another servant to do some of the heavy lifting tasks, but otherwise I'm fine."
Arthur gaped at him, disbelieving. That would be fine if he could actually trust Merlin to do what he said, but he knew better than that. "I might be gullible enough to fall for that if I could trust you to hand off those tasks to someone else. But I know you, Merlin, and you'll either decide far too early that you can drag my bathtub across the room unaided, or you'll do something reckless like use your magic publicly. Which will put me in quite a damn predicament, so I'd rather just avoid the whole mess altogether, if you don't mind."
For a few moments, it looked as though Merlin was actually considering Arthur's words. It was possible that he might have said enough to convince Merlin to back down on this. Of course, as soon as he caught the spark in Merlin's eyes, Arthur resigned himself to the fact that he was sorely mistaken. "Have you ever considered that maybe I'm not an invalid and am perfectly capable of performing most of my regular duties?"
That claim was laughable at best, but Arthur decided to let it drop in favour of trying to make Merlin understand where he was coming from.
"And have you ever considered that maybe I don't want to see you re-injure yourself because you're too damn stupid to just take a few extra days off?"
Merlin scowled deeply at Arthur. "I'm sorry if you think I'm stupid for wanting to serve you, sire," he ground out. "But I was bored and I missed you, though why, considering how much of an insufferable arse you are, I have no idea. I wanted to be useful, Arthur, so shoot me for it." He held both hands up in a mocking gesture of surrender.
Scrubbing a hand down his face, Arthur allowed his arms to fall down at his side. "Merlin, it's not just about this, it's about you constantly throwing yourself in harm's way for my benefit, and I'm bloody sick and tired of it."
"I hardly think that bringing you breakfast or changing your sheets counts as 'throwing myself in harm's way' for you," said Merlin, incredulous.
Arthur buried both hands in his hair, tugging at his scalp in frustration. Why did Merlin insist on being so stubborn about every single thing, ever? "That's not the point."
"Then what is? That I was sitting on the cold floor?" He gestured wildly towards the spot that he'd just vacated. "Fine, I'll sit at the table next time, or better yet, in your bed. I don't understand why you're ready to take my head off for showing up for work, like I'm supposed to."
"For god's sake, Merlin, because I love you, and I don't want anything bad to happen to you, that's why. So would you just stop arguing with me, for once, and do what I damn well ask? Please?"
A beat passed before the implication of his words caught up to him, and he felt his arms come up slightly, as though about to reach out to snare the words and stuff them back into his mouth. Heat pricked at the back of his neck as he stared, frozen, at Merlin. Maybe if he kept still for long enough, Merlin would just go away. Maybe he could convince Merlin later that this was all a fever dream.
The small part of his mind not consumed with silent hysteria noted with cool interest that he could see the exact moment when his words registered in Merlin's mind. Merlin opened his mouth - likely to continue with his tirade - and suddenly stopped cold, eyes widening in disbelief and his hand falling to his side. "What did you say?"
"Nothing," Arthur said too loudly. He could feel a flush slowly spreading across his face, and willed Merlin not to notice.
"No, no. I distinctly heard you say something," Merlin drawled, an impish grin sneaking up on his face, argument apparently abandoned in favour of pursuing this avenue. He pointed at Arthur. "Did you just- did you say that you love me?"
Arthur tried for a scoff. It came out more like a strangled cry. "I have no idea what you're talking about."
But Merlin was already advancing on him, until there was little more than a foot or two of space between them. "I think you do. In fact, I know you do."
An artful, pithy response failed to materialise on his lips as Merlin's arms looped around his waist, and a mischievous grin filled his vision. This did not bode well for future disagreements. Quite unconsciously, Arthur's gaze dropped to Merlin's lips - pink and full and just begging to be kissed - and he swallowed thickly, trying to ignore the rapidly vanishing distance between them. It turned out to be a more challenging task than he anticipated.
"I think it's your head wound. I think you're hallucinating," he said, failing spectacularly to sound convincing.
Merlin, predictably, ignored his argument altogether. "Did you mean it?" His voice was uncharacteristically coy as he glanced at Arthur through dark lashes.
The response earned Arthur a gentle slap on the arm, and Arthur fought to keep his expression neutral.
"You know what I'm talking about, Arthur. That you-" A pause, and then, softly, "That you love me. Did you mean that?"
The simple fact of the matter was that Arthur could answer that question with just one word. Succinct, and yet wholly inadequate. Then again, he could answer that question with a thousand words and still find them lacking. Merlin wanted it spelt out in great big letters, but how could mere words encompass the depth of what Arthur felt? Besides, there was a much better way of showing Merlin just what he meant.
Arthur leaned forward and pressed their lips together, silencing any further questions. Merlin melted into his embrace instantly, warm hands seeking his skin, each touch sending a jolt of heat through Arthur, searing the sense memories into his mind and body. No matter how many times they did this, Arthur didn't think he'd ever tire of the feel of Merlin beneath his hands, the taste of him in his mouth, the warmth that spread through every inch of his body like fire. He coaxed Merlin's mouth open easily, tongue slipping inside, eager to explore and taste, as one hand fisted in the hair at the back of Merlin's head. The other gripped his hip, fingers digging into the flesh and holding him in place. What began as a soft kiss quickly progressed to something hot and wild, a feral element underlying the movement of their mouths, and Arthur felt dizzy with desire.
They stumbled towards the bed, nearly falling over twice along the way, a mess of limbs and partially shed clothing, moving as one. Arthur pressed into Merlin when they hit the edge of the mattress, and in the next moment, they were collapsing onto its soft surface, lips and limbs still entwined.
A short, strangled gasp flew from Merlin's mouth when, quite by accident, Arthur landed directly on his chest, shoulder digging in until he forcefully shoved away, guilt immediately clawing at his insides.
"God, Merlin, I'm sorry! I didn't mean to hurt you."
"It's all right, I'm fine, Arthur." One of Merlin's hands found its way to Arthur's cheek while the other rested on his chest, fingers splayed across the rough fabric of his tunic.
"Maybe this is a bad idea," Arthur said, rolling over onto his back and staring up at the canopy above his head as he struggled to catch his breath.
"No. No, it's not," Merlin insisted, chest heaving. "I'm fine. Just a bit tender still, that's all."
"Which probably means that now is not the best time for-" he waved a hand around "-this." Much as he wanted it. God, how he wanted it, more than anything he could ever recall wanting. But at the same time, Arthur was not willing to do anything to put Merlin at risk. Never mind the fact that Gaius would probably have him flayed (which, of course, would be treason to the crown, but being the oldest and wisest man in the castle allowed him to get away with a lot of things). Besides, he would never be able to forgive himself if Merlin somehow managed to further injure himself because Arthur was too busy trying to satisfy his own needs.
Merlin turned to stare at him. "I'm not some fragile little flower, Arthur," he said, scowling. "I am fine. Better than fine, actually. I just don't have my full strength back yet."
"Do you have any idea what Gaius will do to me if I hurt you? What exactly are we supposed to tell him we were doing?" Even the mere thought of having that conversation was enough to make Arthur shiver.
"Gaius isn't the one you need to be worried about right now." Merlin reached out and clasped one of Arthur's hands, placing it on top of his crotch. He arched up, pressing his very obvious erection into Arthur's palm. "You've created a bit of a situation here, in case that wasn't obvious, and I refuse to walk all the way back to Gaius' like this. It's very uncomfortable. So either you take care of it, or I will, before I leave. Your choice."
It was, without a doubt, the filthiest form of blatant disrespect Arthur had ever heard. Worse, he liked it. The idea of watching Merlin bring himself off sent jolts of heat down to his already painfully hard erection. But the thought of tasting Merlin, touching him and coaxing moans from his lips, of making him come from Arthur's hands and mouth alone... well, he'd be a fool to pass it up.
Arthur's fingers curled around the bulge in Merlin's trousers, rubbing him through the fabric, and he smiled at Merlin's surprised little gasp. "Don't make me regret this," he said, rolling back onto his side so he could press a kiss to the corner of Merlin's mouth.
"You won't," he said, voice filled with promise.
Sitting up, he pointed at Merlin, then to the head of the bed. "Get your clothes off and lie down. And stop talking about Gaius."
"You started it." Merlin grinned cheekily at him, and pulled the knot of his scarf loose.
Normally, Arthur would do the deed himself - would love nothing more than to peel the clothing from Merlin's body, in fact - but in this case, he wanted to take as many precautions as he could. Thankfully, Merlin wasn't complaining any longer, stripping with a deftness that belied his injuries, and he was settled against the soft pillows before Arthur had even managed to remove his own trousers.
"Eager, are we?" Arthur teased with a satisfied smirk.
"You have no idea," said Merlin.
Arthur quickly shed the rest of his clothes and climbed onto the bed, permitting himself a moment to take in the sight of Merlin, naked and spread out before him. Merlin was a mass of contradictions - dark hair against white skin, a mix of sharp lines and smooth curves, piercing blue eyes offset with a gentle, tentative smile - but his attractiveness was undeniable, and Arthur's only regret was that he hadn't realised this sooner. Merlin was still far too thin for his own good, but Arthur resolved to take care of that, take care of him. His gaze dropped to Merlin's swollen cock, erect and leaking against his stomach, before eventually settling on the gash across Merlin's chest. It was healing quickly, but there were still scars that remained, likely to never fully heal, a constant reminder of the moment when Arthur realised he loved Merlin before nearly losing him.
Reaching out, his fingers ghosted across the lines left on Merlin's pale skin, tracing every dip and curve across his chest as though committing the sensation to memory. He swallowed, tongue thick and heavy, as the thought of Merlin's near death plagued him once more.
"I don't want you to do that ever again," he whispered, his gaze fixed on the fading scars on Merlin's chest.
"Arthur-" Merlin said, his fingers curling around his wrist and squeezing lightly. "It's all right. I'm fine."
But Arthur shook his head. "No, it's not all right, Merlin. You almost died. I nearly lost you. I can't have that happen again."
Merlin's fingers travelled up his arm, rounding the curve of his shoulder, and settled around the back of his neck. "Come here," he said softly, pulling Arthur down, and then rising up on one elbow to meet Arthur halfway. He pressed a gentle kiss to Arthur's mouth, letting his presence anchor Arthur to the here and now.
Even as he let go of his fears for the moment, there was a part of Arthur that knew Merlin was only avoiding a request he would never agree to, but there would be occasion for that conversation later. They had time now.
"You promise me you'll tell me if I do anything that hurts you?" he asked then, as he lowered himself down, covering Merlin's body with his own, face inches away.
"Yes, Arthur. Now, would you please just shut up already?"
Merlin's hands threaded through his hair, tugging Arthur's head down until their lips met. Unlike before, this kiss was slow, exploratory, as though Merlin planned on spending the rest of the day doing nothing but this. His tongue coaxed Arthur's mouth open, slipping inside with ease and familiarity. Their tongues chased one another, darting in and out of each other's mouths, slick and hot. His mouth moved against Arthur's easily, knowing when to pull back and when to delve in deeper. Arthur allowed him to dictate their pace, and he found a strange sense of freedom in relinquishing some of his usual control.
The kiss deepened, hot and slightly desperate, as Arthur began slowly rocking his hips against Merlin's, relishing the rush of arousal pooling in his groin as their cocks brushed back and forth against one another. They were both panting as Merlin moaned into Arthur's open mouth, fingers leaving a trail of heat down Arthur's spine until they found his arse.
"God, Arthur," Merlin rasped, as Arthur pulled back to tongue his way down Merlin's throat, exploring every dip and hollow. His skin was soft, salty, leaving Arthur hungry for more.
He trailed wet, hot kisses down Merlin's chest, pausing only to flick and swirl his tongue over Merlin's pebbled nipples, the contented whimpers and moans spurring him onwards, each noise shooting another spike of arousal through Arthur's body. He pressed a soft kiss to the tip of Merlin's cock before nipping at the flesh of his inner thigh, one hand curling around his balls, rolling them between his fingers until Merlin was arching off the bed, groaning desperately.
Finishing with Merlin's thighs, Arthur placed a series of kisses up the length of his cock, finally casting a questioning glance in Merlin's direction, eyebrows lifted, requesting permission.
"Arthur, yes. Please, yes," Merlin groaned, and it was all the encouragement Arthur required.
He wanted nothing more than to take Merlin apart, to feel him writhing and begging for more as Arthur swallowed him down and led him towards his release.
Settling properly between Merlin's thighs, Arthur wet his lips before leaning forwards. He curled his lips around the tip of Merlin's cock, swirling his tongue across the head before slowly taking Merlin's length into his mouth. It took a few tries to position himself properly, but once he figured out the best angle, Arthur was able to take all of Merlin in his mouth, smiling around the noises of pleasure that came from him in turn.
They started off slowly, until both found a rhythm. Arthur kept his eyes trained on Merlin as he worked his own magic, fascinated by every twitch of muscle, every moan of pleasure, the dark lashes that framed his eyes, black with desire. Merlin fisted his hands in Arthur's hair, holding him in place as he thrust his cock into the heat of Arthur's mouth, breath laboured as he tried to quicken the pace.
Merlin chanted his name reverently, the words a mantra flowing freely past his lips, filled with praise and encouragement, and Arthur knew he was close to finding his release.
Arthur tightened his lips around Merlin's cock as much as he was able, guiding Merlin's hips with his hands until he finally came with a loud groan, words garbled and unintelligible. Arthur pulled back as Merlin's come filled his mouth. Swallowing, Arthur straightened and curled into Merlin's side as their mouths met once more, his cock straining against his stomach. Merlin licked his way into Arthur's mouth as a hand reached out to grasp his shoulder, pulling him in close.
Trailing his fingers down Arthur's arm to his chest, Merlin's hand finally moved to wrap around his cock, his grasp firm yet gentle. He brushed a thumb across the head, pressing into the slit, before tugging once experimentally, as though gauging Arthur's reaction. At Arthur's stilted moan, Merlin began to stroke him in earnest. Despite the awkward angle, it felt glorious, as if Merlin's hands had specifically been formed to do this, and much to Arthur's embarrassment, he knew that he wouldn't last long at all.
Lips brushed against his nose, cheek, and then chin before they pressed against Arthur's mouth, kissing him fervently, and Arthur gave himself up to it all, surrendering to the intoxicating feel of Merlin's touch. He jerked his hips into Merlin's hand, seeking as much friction as he could find, pulse racing and heart soaring in tandem.
"Come on, Arthur. Come for me," Merlin whispered, his voice like silk, husky and liquid, as he twisted his wrist just like that, and it was all Arthur needed. With a stifled cry, Merlin's name on his lips like a prayer, Arthur came, spilling over Merlin's hands and across his stomach as he guided him through wave after wave of pleasure until he was utterly spent.
They lay side by side, unmoving, for a while, smiling at nothing and everything. When Arthur felt the use of his limbs come back, he cleaned them both up, and then settled back under the covers, curling up against Merlin's back and wrapping an arm around his waist. It didn't particularly matter that it was early evening, and they both still had things to attend to. All that mattered was that they were here, together, and there was nowhere else he wanted to be. Arthur buried his face in Merlin's neck, pressing a series of light kisses against his skin as the sound of Merlin's contented sigh filled his ears.
"I did, you know," Arthur said softly, when their breathing had slowed and it seemed as though sleep was on the horizon.
It took a moment before Merlin's tired voice drifted back towards him. "You did what?"
"Mean it. What I said before."
Several beats passed in silence as Merlin's chest rose and fell in a steady rhythm, and Arthur vaguely began to wonder if he had fallen asleep. Closing his eyes, he settled in to try (and) to have a brief nap as well, when suddenly a voice cut through his drowsy haze.
"I love you, too, Arthur. Even if you are a huge dollophead most of the time."
Maybe it was the stress of the last couple of weeks, the emotional impact of finally being able to be with Merlin, or the hazy afterglow of sex, but hearing those words filled Arthur with a deep sense of contentment, and for the second time in a week, he found himself nearly moved to tears.
Scolding himself for turning into a sentimental sap - he was not a girl, and would not permit himself to melt into a puddle of liquid every time Merlin made his stomach flip - Arthur pushed down those feelings long enough to say, "Merlin?"
"Do shut up."
Merlin chuckled softly. "Yes, fine. Whatever you say, sire."
Under the dull light of a pre-dawn sky, the courtyard was a flutter of activity, with servants bustling to and fro under Uther's stern commands. There wasn't actually that much to be done, all things considered, but everybody wanted to look busy while Uther had his eye on the proceedings, and in fairly short order, Morgana's horse was laden with the supplies for her journey to Shalott, half of which she would no doubt have absolutely no use for.
Morgana moved away from her window as the activity died down, fastening the brooch on her travelling cloak. She wasn't taking many personal possessions with her, but the room still looked emptier somehow, her presence leached out of it. She trailed her fingers along a bedpost; she would miss Camelot this time around.
It had been easy fooling Uther into thinking Merlin's forged documents were a cheery invitation from Princess Elaine for an extended visit to Shalott; after all, Morgana had done it several times over the years, cultivating friendly relations and goodwill, and making another trip there now was nothing out of the ordinary.
What hadn't been easy was convincing him to let her go without the usual cortege. Even though he believed the immediate threat posed by Morgause was gone, there was no telling what other dangers there might be, and he said as much. Through sheer persistence and no small amount of sweet-talking she'd worn him down, but even so, he was still averse to letting her leave the castle. It was a reluctance borne of love, and as overbearing and misguided as it was, she knew it was Uther's only way of showing his concern; he wasn't an affectionate man by nature, nor would his royal status publicly allow it, and over the years, fear had become its only outlet.
Understanding Uther, however, was not the same as indulging him. There were days when she loved his company, and others when every word he spoke seemed intended to stir up her anger; she had heard more than enough from him in the past few days, whether in triumph at having defeated Morgause or in bitterness that he still had yet to eradicate the world of her kind, to know that staying on at Camelot indefinitely would only lead to trouble again. As it was, she could barely stand it anymore, surrounded at every turn by Uther's twisted ideals and constrained to show impassivity at his words, or worse, to give encouragement, as his council was forced to do.
It was affirmation, Morgana told herself, that she had made the right decision in leaving. If she did not, sooner or later she would crack, and all her intentions to forge a peaceful future would end up in shards on the floor like everything her magic had destroyed in the frenzy of her nightmares.
She needed the time and tutelage for that, too. Magic was dangerous in the wrong hands, she knew, but she hadn't even had the chance to mould hers yet. But the longer she let her magic remain unfettered and uncontrolled, the higher the chances of unexpected mishaps, and the last thing she wanted was for her emotions to get the better of her again while she still had no means of trammelling her magic.
There was a light knock on her door, followed quickly by Merlin poking his head in. "Still here?"
"Should you be out of bed?" Morgana asked, her arms darting out as he came in, afraid he might topple over at any moment.
"I'm fine; I feel a lot better now," Merlin said, his cheeks reddening slightly as though embarrassed for some reason. "Er, I didn't know when you were going. I wanted to come and say goodbye."
His words slanted upwards, as if asking permission, and Morgana reached out to squeeze his hand, unutterably glad that they had made their peace with each other. Friends were hard to come by in these times, and forgiveness even more so, but she had found both in Merlin, despite everything they'd gone through. There was still a long way to go before reaching the same level of confidence and familiarity they'd once had in each other, but they were moving in the right direction, at least.
Seized by a sudden wave of sentimentality, she asked, "Come with me?"
For a moment it seemed as though he might actually consider the offer, but Merlin shook his head reluctantly. "Arthur needs me here," he said, crooking a smile. "All those dirty socks, you know. Won't wash themselves."
"He's lucky to have you."
"That's what I keep telling him," Merlin said, and stepped forward hesitantly. "You'll be all right?"
"I'll be fine. Sir Leon is accompanying me part of the way, and I've asked Gwen to stay behind to help Gaius while you're recuperating," Morgana said, "so maybe you should look poorly for a little longer; corroborate my story?"
Merlin grinned. "I will crawl back into bed at once and moan a lot."
"I'm sure Arthur will be only too happy to look after you," she said, giving him a meaningful look.
He blushed, but laughed softly. "Erm, take care of yourself, all right?"
"I will; don't worry," Morgana replied.
She gave Merlin a quick hug, and he loped out of the room, the ghost of his smile spurring her courage along. If he had managed to carve out a life for himself under Camelot's laws, all the while protecting the land and the people he loved, there was no reason she couldn't do it, too. Camelot was her home; she would come back to it before long, and with any luck, strong enough this time to face her own abilities and circumstances without fear.
Morgana stepped out into the corridor, closing her chamber doors behind her, and strode down into the courtyard, where Uther and Arthur were waiting to see her off. Uther met her with a smile, though concern was visible in his eyes.
"Are you sure this is wise?" Uther said in a low voice, not for the first - or indeed, sixth - time. "I can spare more guards; dozens, if you want them."
"No," Morgana said hastily. "I assure you, my lord, everything will be fine. Sir Leon will be with me, and King Bernard's men are meeting us just outside the city walls. Nothing can go wrong."
"You know I worry about you."
"I do," she said, patting his hand fondly, "but there's nothing to worry about. You trusted Sir Leon to take care of me in the castle, didn't you? His protection is more than I need."
Uther glanced sideways to where Leon was standing, clad in full mail and a thoroughly stoic demeanour.
"It's only a short journey," Morgana went on, soothing as a summer breeze, "and besides, you are king. Your people are your first priority, and you need the men for rebuilding all the places that were destroyed in the battle."
Uther nodded slowly. "Yes, you're right, of course," he said.
"My lady," said Leon, walking towards them, "it's getting light."
"Yes, we should go," Morgana said quickly, seizing her chance while Uther was still somewhat agreeable. Anxiety prickled her spine, but Uther said nothing more, pulling her into a tight embrace, and she returned it with equal warmth.
Striding forwards, Arthur offered his hand and helped her mount the horse. When she was safely astride, his mouth twisted slightly, as if he was struggling to say something. "Are you sure-" he began.
"Don't you start, too," Morgana said.
Arthur lifted his palms in surrender. "I was only going to ask if you're sure you want to see King Bernard again when he was clearly trying to thrust his idiot son at you last time you were there," he said innocently. "Though, of course, if you give him half as much hell as you give me, I'm sure he'll go off you in no time."
"Oh, please," she said from her superior perch, "you love me and you know it."
"Slander," Arthur said, grinning.
She reached down to clutch his hand for a moment, sharing his smile, and then urged her horse on before anyone could change their minds. Leon fell in beside her, and soon the castle was receding behind them, its weight on her shoulders growing smaller and smaller the more distance they covered.
There was no hurry, so they kept a slow, steady pace, talking occasionally of inconsequential matters. A gentle breeze fluttered desultorily alongside, shepherding them onwards. To the sides of the path, trees unfurled their limbs to the dawn, and a symphony of birdsong, at once consonant and discordant, reflected Morgana's inner thoughts. She knew she was doing right by herself to seek the druids' care, but every so often, as she glanced over at her companion, something would twist her heart a little, wind it just too tight for a second.
Becoming friends with Leon had been unexpected, but not unwelcome, and she knew he would always remain a trusted confidant; what romance had sprung up between them, however, was still so wild and new, and as much as she looked forward to taking leave of Camelot for the time being, there was a part of her, too, that longed to stay - for him. He had made few overt attempts to persuade her to stay, knowing her mind, but each time their fingers laced together and their lips touched, she could feel the silent entreaty, and more than once had been tempted to give in to it.
It wasn't fair to Leon, she decided, to leave this thread knotted between them, to have him feel some obligation to her while she went away. They were friends, and that she wouldn't change for the world, but there was so much yet unexplored and unsaid between them in the matters of their hearts. The idea of pursuing something beyond friendship had barely even begun to take shape; she had no claim to his devotion and no right to ask for it while they were apart. She would think of him often, and fondly, but she wouldn't ask for it in return.
The meeting place wasn't far now, and Morgana tugged on her reins, slowing her horse to an eventual halt; seeing this, Leon did the same, but looked at her with a question in his eyes.
"We'll be there soon; do you mind if we walk the rest of the way?" she asked.
"No, of course not," Leon replied, and got off his horse quickly. He offered her his hand as she dismounted, and she kept hold of it, a warm, reassuring anchor, as they took their horse's reins and moved onwards on foot.
"Leon," she said, darting a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, "I want to thank you for being so kind. It has meant so much to me, and I wouldn't be here without you."
He tilted his head curiously at her. "You're not saying goodbye already?"
"Well, I-" Morgana faltered, the difference between what she needed and what she wanted to say pulling the words back before they could even leave her mouth. She took a breath, and forced them out. "I just thought- I don't want you to feel like you have to be bound to me. I know I'm going away at an inopportune time, when we've-" she gestured widely, not sure how to encompass the whole of their attachment "-only just begun. If somebody else comes along..."
Leon shook his head, calm as ever, even slightly amused. "She wouldn't be able to hold a candle to you," he said. "Not even if she set the whole castle on fire."
Morgana laughed softly.
"I'm willing to wait," he said. "However long you need, Morgana; I'll still be here."
"I won't be gone long," she said, squeezing his hand as much to reassure him as to give herself something to hold on to, as she waited for the sweet swell of her heart to wane again. "A few months at most. I'll write often."
He smiled. "And I'll make sure your fake letters make it into the king's hands."
She reached up, her palm moulding to the curve of his jaw, grazing the corner of his smile with her thumb. "I really couldn't have done any of this without you. Sometimes I wonder how I could even deserve you."
"Isn't that my decision to make?"
Morgana conceded the point with a nod.
"Then I will tell you this: it is my honour to serve you, and my privilege to care for you. And I do, very much so. If you take nothing else with you from these past weeks, at least take to heart my regard for you. When you return, you will find it unchanged."
What then was there for her to do but wrap her arms around him and hold him as tightly as she could? Even pressed against his armour, Morgana felt nothing but warmed to the core, blessed beyond measure.
After that there was no need for any more words, and they continued the rest of their short journey, hands clasped, until they came near to the border of the city and a small group of men costumed in the livery of King Bernard's household stepped into view. Even in the uniforms, there was something ethereal about them that made Morgana feel at once comforted and comfortable in their presence.
"We welcome you, Morgana Le Fay," said the druid at the forefront of the group, inclining his head.
She nodded her thanks to them, and turned to Leon. He smiled softly at her, and she lifted herself onto her toes and kissed him goodbye. It was nothing searing, nothing desperate, just a simple, sweet kiss in the understanding that nothing between them would change, even through the next few months of separation.
Leon stood and watched them go as the druids guided Morgana deep into the forest, until its wild foliage obscured her from his view at last. In the canopy above, the sussuration of the wind through the trees sounded like a thousand little sighs, but with Leon's words tucked safely in her memory, Morgana released the last of her doubts to the fading wind, and walked on.
She was only one, but the castle seemed so much quieter without Morgana. This time, thankfully, it was not the quiet borne of grief, but just the curious emptiness of expecting to see someone along the corridor when there's no one there.
Then again, Merlin mused, maybe the quiet was only because Arthur wasn't reeling off a list of hundreds of things for him to do. Arthur had made himself scarce in the late afternoon, and his dinner, long gone limp and cold, would have to be slopped in with the dogs' feed soon if he didn't come back to his chambers within the next ten minutes.
Merlin sat on a chair, diligently polishing a pair of boots, letting the time pass. He knew exactly where Arthur would have gone in search of a little piece of solitude, and could picture him as he stood atop the battlements, arms folded across his chest, looking out over the rolling fields and beyond that would someday all be his. He could stay up there for hours if circumstances allowed - if there weren't beasts to be vanquished, sorcerers to hunt down, disputes to settle, Uther's orders to bow to - and with everything unfolding as it had in the last few days, Merlin figured that leaving him to his thoughts for a while was the best course of action.
It was plain to see that Arthur, despite any protestations to the contrary, needed some time to fully process what had transpired between them. For his part, Merlin didn't regret a thing - possibly he would have liked for his magic to have been revealed to Arthur in a safer, more contained, more controlled manner, but there was nothing to be done about that now. And if Arthur was still a bit passively angry about Merlin constantly saving his life by throwing his own into harm's way, there wasn't anything to be done about that either. Arthur didn't know about their destiny yet, but Merlin had been privy to it for a long time now, and protecting Arthur at any cost was quite simply something he was meant to do.
But even if it wasn't, even if the threads of destiny weren't holding them together, Merlin suspected he'd have found a way to hold on to Arthur anyway. Given everything they had gone through, Merlin couldn't imagine serving anyone else, or, for that matter, loving anyone else. In the end, it wasn't up to destiny to decide the affairs of their hearts, or the course of their lives. He remembered the Great Dragon damning Morgana to darkness, condemning her for a future already written in the stars; no doubt she had come close to fulfilling his words, but when it came time, she had looked destiny in the face and, of her own accord, turned her back on it. Merlin's destiny wasn't as harsh a road as hers, and for that he was thankful; he was grateful that it had made his path tangle with Arthur's. Learning that he'd landed in Camelot for a fated purpose was what had spurred his actions in the beginning, when he didn't recognise Arthur for who he was beyond a big-headed, arrogant braggart, but in truth he didn't really need to hold on to that knowledge anymore. He didn't need destiny to tell him that Arthur was worth fighting for, worth dying for. Every beat of his heart told him that much and more.
Losing the light as the sun began its slow descent behind the hills, Merlin abandoned the boots. He picked up the laden salver from Arthur's table and trekked to the kitchen, depositing the tray there and filching something more portable to bring to Arthur.
He wound his way up a series of corkscrew stairs and found Arthur, as expected, leaning over a merlon, staring out into the distance, the fading sunlight gilding his hair. Warmth sparked in Merlin's chest.
"You missed dinner," Merlin said, coming forwards. He unwrapped a square of cloth, offering the bread and cheese he'd secreted inside.
Arthur accepted it with nodded thanks. He tore off a mouthful of bread, chewing thoughtfully, his gaze darting to Merlin more than once. "Have you ever wondered," he asked at length, "what your life might have been like if you'd never come to Camelot?"
"Can't say as I have. Why? Have you?"
Merlin looked at him expectantly. It wasn't often that Arthur got philosophical, and when he did, he sometimes required a bit of urging, otherwise he'd either disappear into his thoughts again or leave off embarrassed, as if he should have been spending his time doing something more worthwhile than thinking.
"And"? Merlin prompted.
"Well, my chambers would be a lot cleaner, for a start," Arthur said, and grinned when Merlin made a groaning noise. He nudged Merlin's shoulder with affection and a bit more force than necessary. He squinted into the orange sky. "Not that it would matter, though, since without you, I guess I'd be dead. Several times over, in fact. Merlin," he said, frowning minutely, "I don't know how to repay you."
"I don't do it for payment, Arthur," Merlin said, wondering if he ought to feel insulted. "I don't want anything in return."
"Really? Because I was thinking of giving you a few days off, but if you don't want them..." Arthur smirked at the wisps of cloud scudding by.
"A few days off?" Merlin huffed. "Is that all it's worth to you?"
Arthur chuckled. "Oho, now we get to the haggling, do we? What's it worth to you?"
"I don't know. Permanent immunity from mucking out the stables, maybe."
Arthur cocked his head, studying Merlin. "No, probably not."
"You, sire, are an arse. Dunno why I put up with you, really."
Arthur's lips pulled upwards, but it was barely a smile. "I don't know either, Merlin," he said, his face solemn now. "When I think of everything you've done - and believe me, I've had plenty of time to put all the pieces together while you were on your deathbed - when I think of all the risks you've taken... Merlin, you know the laws of Camelot as well as I do; there's no mercy. You've seen sorcerers die again and again at my father's hand. Why do you stay?"
"You already know the answer to that, Arthur."
"We do have very good cooks in the castle."
Merlin laughed, thumping Arthur's arm with a loose fist. "Shut up, Arthur; it's you. You know it's you."
"Yeah." He gave Merlin a small smile. "Are you sure it's worth it?"
"If you weren't," Merlin said, answering the question he knew Arthur had intended to ask, "I'd have left ages ago. But you are, so here I am. Here we are. And I'm not leaving, so don't bother trying to kick me out for my own good or anything. I could easily find my way back anyway; I'm what you call magic." Here he wiggled his fingers like a street performer trying to entice coins out of the crowd's purses.
Arthur frowned at the waggly hands. "I'm serious, Merlin."
"So am I."
"If my father finds out about you-"
"He won't. I've been really careful." At Arthur's glare, he amended, stiltedly, "I will be more careful in the future."
"If my father finds out about you," Arthur said again, a little more forcefully this time, and clapped a tight hand to Merlin's shoulder, "I will do everything in my power to protect you. You need to know, Merlin, that- that you're worth it, too. And that your life is no less important than mine; I won't have you trying to throw yours away every time mine is in danger, do you understand? I won't have it."
"I can't promise that," Merlin said, and shook his head with vehemence when Arthur tried to interject. "You're the future king; without you, there can be no Albion. Greatness is your destiny, Arthur. Mine, and what I can promise, is to be at your side every step of the way as long as I live, if you'll have me."
Arthur's hand moved up from Merlin's shoulder to the side of his face; the pads of his fingers, dry and callused from years of learning to master every weapon in the armoury, drew gentle lines of friction across Merlin's cheek. Merlin leaned into the warmth of his palm. With a hushed step, Arthur drew closer and pressed his mouth to Merlin's, sealing the promise on his lips.