Characters: Arthur/Merlin, (Arthur/Gwen, Gwen/Lancelot)
Warning: spoilers for Season 3, strong imagery, strong language. I took out most of the slash of my original story but there are strong feelings and some description of sexual activity so just be aware!
Disclaimer: I do not own the BBC version of Merlin; BBC and Shine do. I am very respectfully borrowing them with no intent to profit. No money has changed hands. No copyright infringement is intended.

Arthur was a wild wind, terrible, unavoidable. Stomping in, throwing back the doors to his rooms, the wood banging against the stone with a sharp crack that seemed to thunder down the hallway, he seemed to be in a rare furious state. He pitched the sword he'd been carrying onto the table; it bounced, gorging a long, deep scar into the surface and then Arthur swept the goblet Merlin had yet to empty onto the floor.

This was bad. Merlin had never seen him so out of control. Something had changed in the last hour and not for the good.

He must have known Merlin was there. It was pretty obvious what with him standing by Arthur's bed, smoothing down the coverlet, in plain sight. There was a pile of washing in the corner waiting for Merlin to take to the laundrywomen and the lunch dishes were on the tray. He'd just been about to take care of it when Arthur came in.

He didn't know what to do. Usually he could jolly Arthur out of it if he knew what was wrong but it didn't look like Arthur was in any mood to talk. And sometimes trying to make the prat feel better with a wry comment or idiotic grin that he'd perfected for such occasions might only made things worse.

One deadly glare at Merlin, and Arthur turned his back, placed his hands firmly on the hearthstone and started down into the firelight. Even from where he stood, Merlin could see Arthur's jaw ticking furiously and the stark white of clenched fists. Breath ragged, too, as if the man was trying to regain control and failing – which only seemed to fuel his anger.

So Merlin said nothing, closed the doors to keep out unwanted eyes and went back to his chores. He wanted to be there when the storm broke. Arthur would need someone, even if the prat himself didn't know that just yet.

It took a long while. Merlin sat there, polishing Arthur's chainmail, trying to remain as unobtrusive as possible, waiting for any sign of anger abating. But there were only the sounds of hard breathing and a knife cutting into the fireplace mantle, the cheerful noise of fire-song a sharp counterpoint.

"Did you know?"

Merlin flinched at the pitiless, driving flatness of it. The rage kept in check by sheer will. He looked up to see Arthur glaring at him. But there was hurt there, too, a kind of incomprehension in Arthur's eyes that he buried with frowns and fury.

"I… I don't know what you mean. Know what?"

"Did you know that Lancelot was fucking her?"

The world seemed to stop. Arthur was never one to swear and for a moment, Merlin couldn't even think about what he was saying, too shocked to do more than gape at him.

"All this time and she was going behind my back." His hands were shaking and the weapon there gleamed deadly in the firelight. A sharp reminder of just how angry Arthur was. "Telling me lies. Making me think we had a future together and instead she…."

Too fast for thought, Arthur's knife flew past Merlin's ear and thudded into the door behind him. Deep enough that Merlin knew it would take more than a little strength to remove.

"In front of the whole court, I told her that I loved her, that I'd give up my throne for her. And she's made me look a fool."

"Arthur…." Merlin was trying to think of what to do, what to say. He'd told Arthur once that he'd had some reservations about their relationship but they'd seemed so happy that he'd gone along with it, even helped them get away from the court for some quiet time together, bury whatever feelings he'd had for Arthur deep and be the friend they both needed him to be. It should have been enough.

Now, that had all turned into ash.

He started again, "Arthur…."

The room tilted as sword-hardened hands reached for his throat, pulled Merlin into the air. His feet scrambled for purchase, neck burning with rough, relentless fingers squeezing, squeezing.

It bloody hurt but worse was the desperate urge to breathe. He was panicking, too, as Arthur held him up, shaking him a little. The man didn't seem to recognize him, looked at him as if he were the enemy, as if he'd been the one to betray him, not Lancelot. In another lifetime, he could hear the bench hitting the floor and the hoarse snarl of Arthur's fury.

Through gritted teeth, Arthur said, "Did you know?"

His vision was beginning to edge in black; there was pain digging into his skull and vaguely he recognized that he needed air before it was too late. He pulled at implacable fingers, getting them to open just enough to wheeze out, "No!"

"Liar!" Arthur's face flushed hot. His hands tightened again. "You knew. You had to know."

Merlin began to struggle in earnest, his own fingers trying desperately to get Arthur to let go. Stars among the black edges and a high-pitched whine that told him unconsciousness was a moment away. He lashed out, kicking at Arthur, not caring where the blows landed, anything to make him stop.

It must have worked. A sharp cry and Arthur threw him aside, fury giving way to grimaces as he hobbled back.

But Merlin wasn't paying any attention. Curled inward, huddled on the floor, he was just trying to breathe. The cool air bliss in his lungs, his throat raw but at least now he'd be able to stay conscious long enough to reason with Arthur. Or escape if madness remained.

There was still bleak-edged anger lurking there. "You should have told me, Merlin. I had a right to know."

"I didn't know they'd gone that far. I thought…." A cough roughened his reply. "I thought she'd given him up."

Arthur whirled on him, face white, his eyes blue fire. Descending back into fury, his accusation was like a whiplash across Merlin's skin. "So you did know."

"No! Not about that." Merlin scrambled back, half-crawling away and when Arthur didn't follow but stood there scowling down at him, he pushed himself up, back toward the bed and the side-door beyond. A means of escape if necessary but he hoped that Arthur would come to his senses before that.

"Arthur, listen… listen to me." Another cough shook him. His throat felt as if it had been scoured with acid but he ignored it. He didn't have time for potions; he had to fix this somehow before the idiot did something unforgivable.

"I know you are angry." A heated glare but at least the prat wasn't choking him again. "I know you have every right to be. She lied to you and to me and Lancelot isn't… as honourable as we thought but…."

Merlin stood a little taller, twisting his neck a bit to ease the pain there, trying desperately to find the right words. "We can't always choose who we love. Sometimes it just happens."

And how true that was. Merlin would never have chosen a pompous, supercilious prat of a prince but he'd had no choice. Love had taken him by storm, lodged there in his heart. It was a breathless, heady, awful thing; brilliance soaring high when Arthur smiled at him, deepest black when he remembered that he was but a servant who was sometimes an almost friend but never anything more. Forever in the shadows, forever alone.

"I can't believe you are defending them."

The sound of boot heels against stone, angry and deliberate, and Arthur was angling toward him. At least he didn't have a weapon in his hand this time. But still Merlin backed up, just in case.

There was a brief flash of something in Arthur's eyes, almost as if the prat didn't understand why Merlin wasn't as furious as he was about Gwen's betrayal, as if he condoned it behind his back. A kind of bewilderment before it morphed back into ferocity.

"You are taking their side. Against me!"

"Arthur, no, never." Merlin stumbled back, babbling as Arthur stared at him. Danger in the way Arthur kept coming toward him, stalking him.

He didn't know what to do but he couldn't let his friends suffer for loving the wrong person. "I don't think they meant to betray you. It's just… love is bloody ridiculous at times. Sometimes your heart chooses the wrong one and you can fight against it or shout to the heavens or give in and be hurt when they don't love you back."

Rocking back on his heels, Arthur looked as if he'd been slapped. "She did love me back, she told me so." The scowl that had been cutting into skin deepened, morphed into an executioner's mask. "That man must have lied to her, used her. I'll kill the bastard for this."

Things were rapidly spinning out of control. Uther's madness lurked in Arthur's eyes; Merlin knew that if he didn't do something soon, his friends might pay with their lives.

"Arthur, no."

Merlin grabbed at his sleeve, pulling him closer. There was sweat on Arthur's face, rage coating his skin, heat pouring off him in waves, looking like a warrior about to go into battle or a brutal prince seeking revenge.

He knew that Arthur might turn on him again but it didn't matter. It didn't matter that Arthur had almost strangled him in his fury, didn't matter that there might be more than just bruises when this was done.

He had to do something before it was too late.

"You saw how she reacted around Lance when we rescued her from Hengist." Arthur tried to jerk out of his grasp but he just tightened his fist around Arthur's shirt, keeping him close. "And Lance kept asking you for permission to leave, away from Camelot, and you wouldn't let him go. Said you needed him here."

"It was all a lie," Arthur snarled, sword-roughened hands gripping him, hard as iron chains around Merlin's arms.

"You saw the way she looked at him," Merlin shouted back. "She loves him and he's loved her for a long time. Longer than you."

It was the wrong thing to say.

Roaring, Arthur picked him up, threw him into the air as if he weighed nothing, a mere toy.

Limbs flailing madly as he came down, Merlin tensed for impact, already anticipating broken bones and agony. But his magic flared, instinctive and subtle, and instead of hitting the floor, he bounced onto Arthur's bed and lay there, panting with effort. In a small corner of his mind, he knew he'd have purple bruises from shoulder to hip soon enough. If he survived this.

Arthur was already there, scrambling up onto the bed, reaching for Merlin again. He didn't know whether the prince was going for his throat or not, but he wasn't taking any chances. As Arthur crawled across the bedcovers, one hand raised toward him, Merlin lashed out, his knee going straight into Arthur's gut.

There was a grunt and Arthur started to collapse to one side, the sounds of pain coarse in the air. Merlin wasn't about to let his advantage go, not when the idiot was so out of control. He dove on top of him, rolling him over until Arthur was flat on his back and with the slight use of magic to tangle Arthur's legs in the coverlet, straddled the prince. His hands were the iron chains now, holding Arthur's wrists tight.

He knew it wouldn't last, that Arthur was so much better at fighting than he'd ever be but he hoped he'd be able to get him to see reason before someone got hurt or killed.

Arthur arched his body, trying to dislodge him but Merlin had already realized what he was going to do and pressed him down further into the mattress. Behind him, he could hear Arthur struggling frantically to get his legs free of the coverlet but he was well and truly caught. Magic had its uses, after all.

"How dare you!" His face flushed with anger, Arthur twisted under him but Merlin wasn't about to let him up. "I'm not some bloody peasant you can manhandle into submission. I'll have you thrown in the dungeons for this. I'll have you flogged. Hell, I'll flog you myself."

"Arthur, please, I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I know you don't want to do this." Another great effort to throw Merlin off and then Arthur lay there, hissing through clenched teeth, wild with anger. "Damn it, Arthur, calm down and listen."

"Why should I listen to anything you have to say? You don't know what it's like to love someone and have them lie to you about it."

No, he was in love with someone who had no idea, who didn't look at him any way but with derision and a kind of remote amusement.

In some ways, he was as angry as Arthur. To the prince, he was a servant and not a very good one at that, no matter what dangers they'd shared, no matter that Arthur had hinted at times of the bond between them. He knew his place and it certainly wasn't sharing kisses in dark corners or having a picnic beside a sparkling stream or soft murmurs and entwined fingers when no one was looking.

Just a bloody servant, hiding in shadows and lies.

At that moment, if he didn't think Arthur might kill someone out of wilful stupidity, Merlin would have kicked his royal backside and then gone home to Ealdor. For good.

And to hell with destiny.

"You condescending ass."

Arthur's eyes widened and then narrowed again, astonishment and then rage growing like an inferno. His face was red with it as he struggled to get free.

"How dare you!"

"Oh, I dare." Merlin leaned down, staring unblinking at him. His breath ghosted over Arthur's skin, his mouth hovering above the tight snarl. For an endless moment, it wasn't permission he sought or even acceptance but he wanted Arthur to see how very angry he was, how he wasn't going to let Arthur get away with this just because he was a bloody prince.

Merlin had had enough. He wasn't going to back down, not this time.

When it came, the kiss was a battleground: messy and horrible and wonderful, lips pressed warm against a mouth still babbling threats, Arthur's protest muffled in wet passion.

He ignored the desperate jerk of Arthur's body, dipped a tongue along the unhappy seam of his mouth, licking, tasting. In the past hours, the prince had had apples and honey and cinnamon but it was a faint thing, almost unwanted. Instead, Merlin drank in the overwhelming flavour of Arthur, rough-edged, iron-metallic and yet somehow beloved. He'd never tire of it, knew he'd never forget it even in the long nights ahead when he'd be alone or imprisoned or perhaps banished from Camelot. Arthur might even kill him for such liberties but he didn't care.

Deepening the kiss, frantic to find all the hidden spaces of Arthur's mouth, he slipped in, tongue eager, knowing that he'd likely get bitten for his presumption but he did it anyway. Heady with the sensations of warmth and liquid desire, it was almost an afterthought to realize that Arthur had stilled, gone limp under the onslaught.

His heart was pounding, breathing heavy and a moan came from somewhere deep within. His kisses became wilder, stronger. Desire, too, was pulling him further into danger but this moment was worth everything that might follow.

Arthur was moving under him, not trying to escape with sharp jabs against hip or chest but a silky upsurge. It felt amazing. Merlin was flying on it, the hunger to delve deeper, to sink down into him. And Arthur wasn't fighting it, wasn't fighting at all… except to return his kisses with increasing ardour.

Without thought, he let go of Arthur's wrists, began to nuzzle into his neck, his fingers following the lines of sinew and wild blood pulsing there. And amazingly, he wasn't thrown aside or derided. Instead Arthur captured his mouth, tongue thrusting upward, passion upon passion, building, building.

Merlin tried not to shout for the sheer joy of it.

He let out a soft groan, dipped back into Arthur's mouth, wanting this to never stop.

But frustrated by the cloth that seemed to surround them both, damnable shirts and breeches and boots, he pulled out his hand from beneath Arthur's shirt, started to undo the prince's belt. All those twists and tugs and nearly impossible with Arthur writhing under him but finally it was free and he tossed it aside, started on his own.

Arthur must have realized what he was doing because he surged up, pulled off Merlin's neckerchief with stunning swiftness and sucked a bruise there, then licked it warm.

Hands busy grabbing at Arthur's shirt, the sound of tearing cloth and Merlin knew he'd have to repair it somehow, eventually, whenever but not now, not when Arthur was busy worrying his skin. Desire spiralling upward until his world was full of it, brilliance and want and heat.

In one small corner of what was left of his mind, he could hear the sounds of boots falling and he toed off his own, then threw his shirt somewhere far away.

Above him, Arthur was groaning, making little appreciative noises that sounded like 'yes' and 'god, Merlin' and 'want you' and it just made him yearn to do more.

Whatever his prince desired – as long as it was with Merlin.

Arthur bit down, worrying at Merlin's lip. Rough, then and Merlin wanted to grin into the kiss but that would take too much time. He'd never thought to have this and now that he did, he never wanted it to end. He wanted to sink into Arthur's skin, meld with him until there was nothing but Arthur and joy and a desire so vast that he would be consumed by it.

For a moment, he couldn't think, could do nothing but feel Arthur moving over him.

It took him almost by surprise. Arthur's mouth was swallowing his moans and Merlin couldn't stand it. The ecstasy was sharper now, whites and sunfire and he was flying apart. Flying apart. He had never felt anything like it. Light pouring into him, blinding him in pleasure. He couldn't breathe, could only feel Arthur and it hurt, the ecstasy of Arthur doing this, touching him, dragging him shouting into brilliance.

He could feel himself pouring out, all his dreams, his wants, the love he had for Arthur made tangible in a single moment. His throat raw with begging, he grew boneless as Arthur let him go.

Looking up, he could see Arthur's eyes, a thin rim of blue colour around a sea of black, aroused. He was panting, skin flushed. Beautiful.

He tried to smile, but Arthur just looked at him for a moment, then captured his mouth again, taking him hard and fast. Merlin could taste Arthur's flavour there. Beloved and Merlin knew it would never be enough.

It felt so good, so damn good that he could hardly breathe for it.

There was a moment's stillness as Arthur hovered over him and then Merlin could see the pleasure pulling Arthur's skin tight across his mouth, groaning, his eyes closed in ecstasy; it was the most beautiful thing he'd ever seen.

An eternity of it, a thousand lifetimes of bliss.

And then it was done.

Murmuring something, Arthur collapsed back onto the bed, sprawling across Merlin. His breathing slowed. His hands were warm, still clutching at Merlin, touching him, but as the seconds passed, Arthur sighed into sleep.

Merlin wanted to smile at the sight, his Arthur soft and vulnerable and in his arms. He'd got, at least once, the thing he most desired in the world and it was wonderful and bitter on his tongue.

He knew that when Arthur awoke, there would be recriminations and guilt, perhaps even punishment for daring to love a prince. Arthur could be incredibly foolish at times, ignoring what he wanted for duty and honour and his father's good opinion. And Merlin might have to bear the brunt of it.

At least he'd kept Arthur from killing Gwen and Lancelot. Banishment would likely follow for them but at least they'd be together and happy.

But for a brief moment, he just wanted to lie there and touch the man he loved so much, without arguments or insults, without glares and admonishments to remember his place. Right now, there were no places, no servants, no princes, just Merlin and Arthur.

He must have drifted off to sleep. When he awoke, the sun was setting and Arthur was already getting dressed. As he sat up, looking around for his clothing, trying to think of what to say or do, Arthur turned around and stared at Merlin for a moment, eyes hooded, face pale, all cruel lines and shadows.

"You're finally awake." Arthur's voice was strained, hard-edged and sharp as a blade. A vivid contrast to the joy they'd shared only a few hours ago. "Get dressed and get out."

So that was how it would be. It was if their love-making had never been, a fantasy that Merlin had conjured up in heated dreams only to find cold reality when morning came. He tried not to remember the taste of Arthur's skin or the warmth of his touch.

"I… what?" Blinking, still reeling from Arthur's brusque order, he began pulling on his clothes, his fingers clumsy. "Where are you going?"

Arthur frowned at him, looking at Merlin as if he were a fool to even question a prince's actions. "To see Guinevere and Lancelot."

"No! Arthur, please…." Merlin was already on his feet, almost tripping over his discarded shirt, frantic again. He'd thought Arthur would have calmed down enough to see reason but if he was still of the same mind, Gwen and Lance might pay the ultimate price for their infidelity.

At his protest, Arthur's scowl deepened.

"I'm not going to kill them, Merlin. But you must know that they can't stay in Camelot, not after what they've done."

Relief swept over him. At least his friends were safe enough, even if banishment was their fate. He tried not to smile as he said, "You aren't…."

"No, your technique was crude but effective."

Cold settled between them, frosting the air. As Arthur turned away, his hands busy knotting his belt, Merlin finally realized why he was acting that way. Arthur completely misunderstood what had happened between them.

"My… I didn't do that because of them. I did it…," He was stammering, trying to explain but as Arthur's face hardened, his mouth flat with anger, it was clear he wouldn't listen to anything Merlin had to say, no matter the truth of it.

His shoulders slumped and he swallowed back his protests, knowing they'd be useless. Merlin was already defeated. "It doesn't matter, I guess. You've made up your mind."

Arthur had been readying his sword, about to shove it into his belt but instead he threw it back down again onto the table, the sound like a whip-crack echoing in the room.

"And what should I think? You used sex to divert my attention, very successfully too, I might add." There were so many layers there: hurt, hard fury, bewilderment, despair. Merlin could see Arthur struggling to keep from showing just how betrayed he felt but still it bled through. "But I'll not thank you for it. It was manipulation, pure and simple."

"That's not…." He'd been trying to understand Arthur but suddenly Merlin couldn't breathe for the fury overtaking him. "You prat! You think I had sex with you to protect them?"

"Why else?"

How could Arthur think such things of him? He was sure he looked a sight, breeches half-falling off, his shirt askew and he tripped over his boots again as he surged forward but it didn't matter. He'd be damned if Arthur was going to think him as little more than a whore.

"Because I love you, you stupid clotpole. I've loved you since Ealdor, maybe before that and you….if you think I used sex to manipulate you, you are an even bigger fool than I thought you were." Merlin's throat was raw from shouting and the remnants of Arthur's initial attack but he didn't care. Still shaking, he snarled, "I couldn't stand by and watch you do something you'd regret for the rest of your life and… damn you."

"I didn't need your interference, Merlin."

Leaning forward, his eyes flashing with anger, Arthur seemed ready to go to battle but Merlin wasn't going to let this pass, no matter what happened.

"Oh, really? And if I hadn't, Gwen and Lancelot would be dead right now or you would be. He's a bloody good fighter in case you hadn't noticed."

Arthur bristled, said flatly, "I'm the best fighter in Camelot."

"If that's what you want to believe, fine." Merlin had had enough. Tired of it all, the arguing, the misunderstandings, the love that would never be returned, he just wanted to go and hide somewhere and grieve the loss. One hip against the table's edge, his fingers were busy following the lines of wood grain. It was mindless, and as long as he didn't meet Arthur's gaze, almost soothing. "I guess I'm sacked for good this time. Am I banished, too, or can I still work for Gaius?"

"Wait… what did you say?" Arthur sounded odd but it didn't matter. Merlin would be gone soon enough and then he wouldn't have to listen to him any more.

"That you are going to sack me?"

"Before that." Arthur moved closer, almost within arm's length. "You never mentioned love before, not in all the years I've known you."

At that, Merlin looked up and then away from Arthur's gaze. He shrugged, weary and waiting for dismissal, for more hurt. "Yeah, and if I had, you'd have insulted me for it, reminded me of my place and then laughed about it with your thick friends. The idiot serving boy in love with a prince. An absurdity worthy of the annals of Camelot. Ha, ha."

"You never mentioned love." Why Arthur kept harping on it, Merlin didn't know but he wished he'd stop and just let him go.

"Look, Arthur, I'll just stay out of your way. And we'll never talk about this again, okay?" Merlin scrubbed at his face, pressed fingers to aching eyes. "Please, Gaius is an old man and I'd like to stay for his sake."

"You love me."

Why wouldn't Arthur just shut up? The whole thing was absurd and it was making Merlin a little crazy.

"Does having sex do this to you every time? Because if it does, you probably shouldn't do it all that often." That left Arthur sputtering but Merlin couldn't help saying, "On the other hand, it would explain some things."

"What?" As Merlin looked up, there was confusion on Arthur's face and then he seemed to gather himself together, took another step closer. "Never mind that." Arthur paused, then said sharply, "Have you been with anyone else? Gwaine maybe or one of the other knights? Or all of them?"

Indignation flushed through him. The thought that he'd go off whoring with Arthur's knights or anyone else, that Arthur would think such a thing was appalling. He didn't know whether to laugh or scream at the clotpole for being such an arse.

"I… I don't even know how to… I don't keep a bloody list. I don't…." Stepping closer to Arthur, one finger pointing straight at that damn, beloved, idiotic face, Merlin snarled out his fury. His voice rose with every word until he was almost shouting. "You really don't know me at all. But you want to hear about my extensive love life, find out just how many men I've shagged, how I've been through the entire court and most of the villages? Fine!"

Arthur was gaping at him as if he's never seen Merlin clearly before. Perhaps he hadn't but Merlin would be damned if he'd stop now.

"I've loved you for a very long time. I figured you loved Gwen since you told me so often enough and you've never looked at me except as some kind of idiot you could order around and mock. So I found someone else who wanted me for me. But…."Merlin stumbled to a stop. Freya's sad eyes swam before him, a reminder of everything he'd lost and he could feel his face growing wet. An angry swipe of his cheek, a shaky breath and he said, more softly, "She died and I've given up hope of ever having someone who would love me back. And that's it. That's everyone I've ever loved or been with or wanted. Pathetic, isn't it?"

"So you loved someone else? First Guinevere abandons me and now you?" He sounded almost hurt.

But Merlin wasn't about to let him get away with it, the selfish git. He slapped his hand sharp against the table. "That's what you got from what I just said? You really are an idiot." Breathless with frustration, Merlin said flatly, "You were never going to love me. We both know it so don't even bother denying it."

Arthur opened his mouth but Merlin just cut him off. "It doesn't matter anyway. Am I banished or not? Because if I am, I need to tell Gaius and arrange to leave."

Standing there, fists clenched tight, waiting for the clotpole to yell back or make some kind of scathing remark, Merlin was surprised when Arthur reached out, put a hand on Merlin's shoulder. "And if I could love you?"

Merlin shook it off, jerked back out of reach. "Don't lie to me, Arthur. Don't even…. I've sacrificed everything for you, offered my life for yours a dozen times over. I deserve better than your pity." Damn the man for offering him something he'd dreamed of when he knew nothing would come of it. As soon as Arthur found another woman to love, Merlin would be humiliated again. It really didn't bear thinking on.

Merlin said sharply, "Can we focus on whether I'm staying or going? Because I'd really like to know."

"I never thought you'd… I think I could. With you." Arthur was sending him a look full of barriers, but there was something vulnerable and soft in his eyes and the tone of his voice. He'd often called Merlin a girl but it was Arthur who had so many emotions at times he didn't know what to do with them.

Now, Merlin didn't know what to say. It was something he'd longed to hear, vague and half-confused as it was, as only Arthur could be, but he'd been hurt too many times before. He wasn't sure he could survive it again.

"Arthur, don't. Don't think to placate me or give me false hope. That's worse than nothing at all."

"All right, then. But stay here in Camelot. With me. Be my touchstone. Be someone who continues to challenge and wheedle, someone who mocks me and sometimes, sometimes does the right thing. Because I need that."

The 'I need you' remained unspoken but they both knew it was there, hovering between them.

Rigid, his shoulders set, his eyes hooded, Arthur waited. He was close enough for Merlin to see the lines of anxiety around his mouth, the pulse beating fast at his temple; he could see, too, Arthur struggling not to order Merlin's compliance, to let him make up his own mind. The man was a contradiction: fearless in battle but afraid to open his heart for fear of rejection, imperious, annoying yet gentle and kind when no one was looking, and so much beloved.

Merlin turned, throwing his arms around Arthur and gathering him tight against his chest. There was a brief struggle because the prat could never just accept a hug but then a heartbeat later, he eased into it, letting his head fall onto Merlin's shoulder. A slow kiss against Merlin's throat and a scrape of teeth.

"Sometimes I hate you, you know." Merlin said softly.

Arthur stilled, started to pull back. "Do you?"

Merlin just shook his head, nuzzled into Arthur's neck, breathed, "Yeah, and sometimes I don't."

Then smiling, he reached up, caught Arthur's face between his hands and began to kiss him again, gently at first but increasingly filthy, all spiralling pleasure. And when his prat kissed back, giving joy as much as taking it, Merlin knew that everything would be all right after all.

The end