A/N: Written for mabonwitch for 2011 glomp_fest.

Disclaimer: Merlin (sadly) does not belong to me. Neither do half the lines Kilgharrah has about "destiny", most of them are edited versions of quotes found on various quote sites. Poem at the beginning is by Ani DiFranco.

Betas: Endless amounts of love to my betas: sugareey-lj, leashy_bebes-lj, hardticket-lj, and isisanubis-lj for all of their amazing and superfast work to cover for my epic procrastination skills! Thanks so much!

Where We Overlap

I build each one of my days out of hope
and I give that hope your name
I know there is strength
in the differences between us
and I know there is comfort
where we overlap

: : :

"Why wouldn't he tell me?" Arthur demands, his irritation echoing off the walls of the vast cavern beneath the citadel. Some disconnected part of his consciousness is aware he's pacing. He hates pacing. No leader worth his salt paced, it made them look ill at ease. "Doesn't he trust me? I could have him charged for treason! I could have him beheaded."

"A man often meets his Destiny on the road he takes to avoid it," the Great Dragon rumbles, it's voice unsettlingly human for a damn great lizard. It lays curled on the spiralled rock across from Arthur like an enormous cat, sail-sized wings folded along its scaled back. The dragon watches the young prince with eyes the size of plates, golden like its hide, head cocked slightly to one side.

If Arthur didn't know any better, he'd swear it looks amused.

"Must you speak in riddles?" Arthur snaps.

The dragon snorts – an impressive gesture, as twin orange-red jets of flame flare briefly out of its nostrils, leaving them smoking as he speaks. "Arthur Pendragon," the dragon says, "your eternal Path lies entwined with the sorcerer Emrys'."


"The one you call Merlin," the dragon clarifies slowly, as if speaking to a child. "You and he are two halves of the same coin."

"Enough with the metaphors."

"Your souls," the dragon reiterates a little impatiently, "are forever bound together, in this life as well as the next. It has been foretold."

"Foretold by whom?"

"One does not question the Voice of Fate."

"You're worse than Gaius when it comes to straight answers," Arthur mutters sourly.

"Perhaps it is not I you should seek answers from," the dragon suggests.

"Perhaps you should mind your own damn business, dragon," Arthur snaps. "Who are you, to preach to me?"

"Who are you to question Fate?" the dragon retorts. "We are not permitted to choose the frame of our destiny, young prince, only what we place inside of it."

"I'm the prince, that's who I am! I can't just – it's Merlin," Arthur explains, more or less to himself. It's not as if he has any reason to explain himself. He doesn't answer to anyone except the king, and certainly not insolent, fire-breathing lizards. "He's my servant, for pity's sake. I can't just... talk to him about it!"

With a sound like a rushing gale, the dragon's chest expands. It ruffles its wings before settling down again with much exaggeration. Arthur realises the damn thing is sighing. "Then I am afraid Albion's bright future is doomed, young prince."

"What?" Arthur asks, distracted. Damn it all, he's pacing again. "Why?"

"Because," the dragon says, levelling a look at him, "Merlin said the exact same thing about you."

: : :

Arthur had known about Merlin from the beginning.

All right, perhaps not that first time Merlin had called him an ass. Their second meeting, though, Arthur had known, just known, that there was something... different about Merlin, something aside from courage that bordered on stupidity.

Arthur had found out exactly what soon enough. Merlin certainly liked to joke about how arrogant, oblivious and overconfident Arthur was, but whatever Merlin thought, Arthur wasn'tblind. He wasn't stupid, either. He wasn't just a prince, wasn't just the son of the king – he was a hunter, a soldier, the greatest fighter in the kingdom! It took a lot more to live up to those standards than just being good with a sword and crossbow.

Specifically, Arthur was more observant than most gave him credit for. He had to be. He watched, he listened, he calculated. Arthur could track prey through a gale and cripple an advancing army with a few well-placed scouts. Merlin must have been mad to think he could keep his secret from him.

The first time Arthur had actually seen Merlin perform magic, it was for something so utterly mundane that he'd almost boxed Merlin about the ear for sheer stupidity right then and there. It was the first hunting trip he had taken Merlin on, shortly after Merlin had been appointed Arthur's personal manservant and had saved Arthur's life (twice!) during that misunderstanding with King Bayard. It had rained the night before and everything from the air to the firewood was damp and humid. Arthur had stood rooted to the spot, out of sight behind a tree near their camp, entranced; when those deep blue eyes flashed gold, a shiver had twisted down his spine and his skin had broken out in gooseflesh so quickly he shuddered, breath catching in his throat.

When Arthur had finally collected himself and stepped back into sight of the camp, Merlin had raised his eyebrow at him, and Arthur had realised his mouth was open, and quickly shut it.

"All right," Merlin had asked, pausing just long enough to make it very clear exactly what he thought of Arthur before tacking on, "Sire?"

No, Arthur had wanted to say. Nothing about this is all right.

Instead, Arthur had dropped the hare he'd killed for supper in Merlin's lap, and slumped silently down onto his bedroll.

Upon returning to Camelot, Arthur should have had Merlin tossed in the dungeons and gone to his father. He had hesitated, although he wasn't entirely sure why. Call it simple curiosity and sheer bewilderment; to think, of all people, Merlin (clumsy, gangly, dim-witted peasant that he was) was a sorcerer!

Not to mention the fact that Merlin had the sheer bollocks to dare practice magic right under the king's nose.

It didn't help that once Arthur became aware of what was going on, he noticed it all the time. Not just because he knew what to look for (the outstretched hand, the splayed fingers, the twin flash of gold), but because, on some level, his body began to recognise it in a way Arthur couldn't ignore, no matter how hard he tried. Even the smallest spell made Arthur shiver, itching under his skin until it turned hot. Hell, sometimes just being around Merlin long enough would do it. It was as if Merlin had so much magic in him that, unable to use it freely, it filled him up until he was bursting with it. At such times Arthur had to make sure Merlin had chores to keep him busy and away from the training fields, or Arthur would find himself twitching at the wrong moment and end up under the blade of his opponent.

Keeping Merlin's secret became a habit after a while. Arthur liked to tell himself it was simply temporary, something to amuse himself. The truth was though, that Merlin puzzled him – for all the snide remarks and rude comments, Merlin actually seemed to care. Not just about Arthur, which was all well and fine (it was his duty, after all) but Camelot itself, its people, even his father, a man who'd have Merlin executed without a second thought, if Uther knew his true nature. Despite this, Merlin continued to talk back, to defy Arthur in public for God's sake, and Arthur... well, let him get away with it. Because Merlin was also – well, it was refreshing for one, to have someone around who treated Arthur like a young man and not like the future king, and to have someone that, despite the magic and the lies, Arthur trusted enough to confide in, but Merlin also, well –

It began so slowly, Arthur actually couldn't actually pinpoint the moment their – relationship, or whatever you wanted to label it – had gone from purely platonic to something... more strained. For the same reasons he knew about Merlin's magic, Arthur noticed how Merlin began averting his eyes when Arthur bathed, how his fingers would never linger longer than necessary while dressing Arthur, how Merlin grew quieter when they were alone, his words to Arthur more clipped or careful than they ever were in public. Every moment close to Merlin became tense, as if Merlin were a lamb and Arthur a wolf, and Merlin was anticipating the pounce.

Arthur didn't know what to make of it. Merlin certainly didn't respect him any more – if he did at all – because he still mouthed off in front of the knights. And they weren't – friends. No, they were not friends by any means. Arthur was firm on that, firstly because Merlin was a servant and secondly because friends trusted one another. And while Arthur obviously trusted Merlin, Merlin did not trust him.

It infuriated Arthur, because as much as he tried to return the favour, to be as distrustful of Merlin as his servant was of him, Arthur still found himself confiding in Merlin, taking him everywhere and relying on his magic even though as far as Merlin was concerned, Arthur was blissfully unaware of it. And it was because Arthur reasoned that if Merlin had wanted him dead, he'd had plenty of opportunities to make it look like an accident – or, more usually, could have just stood aside and let some horrible fate befall the prince – but every time, Arthur walked away unscathed.

Usually because Merlin had saved his life.

Magic was supposed to be evil. Arthur had that fact engrained into his mind by his father since he could remember. His earliest memories of capital punishment
involved wayward sorcerers, druids, bards, magicians and anyone who had associated with them in any way. Uther cared for his kingdom and his people, about this Arthur had no doubts, and while the king had always shown a respectable amount of mercy in the ways of petty crimes, he had no patience for magic and anyone who had anything to do with it. After all, more than half the attacks towards Camelot or her royalty had been by magical means. So, as Arthur had seen it, Uther's intolerance of magic had seemed entirely justified.

Arthur had never considered the possibility that magic might be a means of protecting the kingdom.

What was more, Arthur could understand the reason Merlin would risk exposure to protect the kingdom with his magic, Camelot was his home, too. Merlin had as much reason to protect it as Arthur did. But why Merlin would risk his neck for Arthur specifically was more of a challenge. After all, it wasn't as if Arthur was particularly nice to him. He'd thrown Merlin in the dungeons the first time they'd met. Arthur constantly instigated fights, insulted him on purpose, gave him a list of mindless chores that didn't really need doing every morning, threw him in the stocks every other day, and Merlin still kept saving his life anyway.

Arthur, admittedly, did most of these things because he knew about Merlin's magic. He was pushing Merlin on purpose, hoping that he'd just snap one day and reveal himself. After all, Arthur might have several stone of muscle over Merlin, but that wouldn't matter much against magic, would it? Merlin could defend himself easily if he wanted to. Whenever Arthur snapped, "What would you know about magic?" he half-expected Merlin to finally lose his patience and hurl a fireball at Arthur's head. But Merlin would simply grimace and take it, which only served to piss Arthur off and make him push harder.

And then there was the thing with the dragon.

In watching Merlin (carefully, quietly), Arthur noticed the frequent times Merlin would disappear in the late hours of night. Sometimes he'd vanish for only a few minutes; sometimes, hours. Arthur had enough to do as a prince without following his manservant's every step, but he did eventually piece together a pattern: Merlin would only disappear when something was seriously wrong. Whether it was personal (Arthur would always ask, and Merlin would always skirt the topic, usually with wisecracks), or Camelot was under attack, or someone he cared about was sick – every disappearance coincided with one crisis or another.

One night, Arthur feigned sleep while Merlin shuffled around his room, putting out candles and gathering the dishes from supper. As soon as Merlin slipped out the door, Arthur jumped out of bed, yanked on his boots and followed him.

Merlin took what seemed to be a well-worn path through the castle, twisting and weaving far more than was necessary; a habit, Arthur supposed, formed to confuse anyone who might try to follow him. But Arthur had been born and raised in the castle, had crawled, run and then strutted through its many corridors since his memory served him, and no one knew it better.

Suddenly, they were going down – down, down, down – until the corridors became dark and dank with the smell of mould. Arthur had used to sneak down here, below the dungeons, when he was a boy, peeking precariously around the corner in hopes of spotting the legendary – and last – Great Dragon his father had imprisoned beneath the citadel. The cave had always been empty and eerily silent though, and before Arthur had worked up the courage to go all the way in and shout, to demand the dragon show itself to him (he was the prince, after all), Sir Leon had discovered his little detour and informed the king. Arthur's father had come down on his son like a hurricane of parental anger and worry and Arthur never ventured down to this part of the castle again.

Over the years, Arthur had all but forgotten about it. He knew it was there, but after his father had made him swear on his inheritance never to set foot down below the dungeons again, it had always felt as if Uther was looking over his shoulder and would know if Arthur even thought about it. However curious Arthur was about the dragon, he was not curious enough to risk his father's wrath. He had had other things to occupy his time as he grew older, new duties and responsibilities as he came of age, and eventually the curiosity had slowly faded away.

Now, however, he was not only curious, but had good cause to venture down here. It was his duty, after all, to protect the kingdom – and that included following his much-more-than-a-mere-manservant down into the catacombs of the castle, dragon be damned.

Merlin didn't notice he was being followed, but this wasn't surprising, as Arthur was a superb hunter and Merlin was an idiot. What surprised Arthur the most – more so than his first view of the dragon, which was bloody enormous, ye gods – was Merlin's uncharacteristic and utter fearlessness. He seemed confident down here, in his element, more sure of himself than he ever managed in Arthur's presence.

Merlin had walked forward, torch held out before him, and shouted – "Where are you, you great sodding lizard?"

Somewhere high off and out of sight, the echo of a deep chuckle twisted its way down to them – Merlin, standing in plain sight, and Arthur, back flat against the wall and one eye peering around the chiselled-stone doorway. A great rush of air made the fire of Merlin's torch flare brightly, wind ruffling the curls of Merlin's hair, and there it was – massive and golden, like a moving, breathing monolith, great wings curling around its body as the dragon perched across from the outcrop on which Merlin stood.

The dragon regarded him coolly for a moment, and then yawned. "What is it this time, young warlock?"

It would not be the last time Arthur followed Merlin down here. In fact, he made a habit of it – if Merlin seemed to be heading a certain way, Arthur had guards he trusted on strict orders to let him pass – not to follow – and to alert the prince immediately. So Arthur found himself following Merlin down here quite often, sometimes several times a week, always hugging the shadows and lurking in the doorway to eavesdrop on the conversation.

As Arthur had suspected, Merlin's visits almost always coincided with some crisis or another, frequently to ask advice and magical knowledge of the dragon. But Merlin didn't always follow the advice, Arthur came to realise, as in the case of helping Morgana (who also had magic! Next thing, Arthur was going to find out Gaius was a sorcerer, too!) and the druid boy. Even so, Merlin was often saving the entire kingdom from destruction, whether through magic, subterfuge, assassination, betrayal, or some combination thereof. He'd even saved Uther'slife on more than one occasion, despite the fact that the king would have had him burned alive if he'd ever found out how.

Although Arthur had slowly come to terms with the idea that all magic was not, perhaps, inherently evil, he still now had to shoulder the guilt of hiding his knowledge of Merlin's abilities from his father. Whatever reasons Uther had for distrusting magic, Arthur could not condone the idea of killing Merlin for his power. It wouldn't be right. How could Arthur hope to become a fair and just king if he turned Merlin in and, in doing so, murdered such a loyal servant – who perhaps ran his mouth more than he should, but nonetheless had done nothing but risk his life for his prince? Where was the justice in that?

The first time Arthur went to visit the dragon alone, he made sure to have Merlin thrown in the stocks first.

The prince of Camelot had had a rare afternoon to himself. He'd put a guard on Merlin, too, just to make sure his manservant didn't wriggle out of his undeserved punishment early and happen upon Arthur skulking his way beneath the castle.

Arthur had entered the chamber with a torch in one hand and a shield in the other. A sword that he was sure wouldn't do him much good was sheathed at his side – the shield, at least, would provide protection if the dragon proved unfriendly to someone without magic.

He'd stood at the edge of the outcrop and listened. Aside from the distant bubble of the underground stream far beneath him and the drip of condensation, it was completely silent. Peering off into the dark, empty corners of the cavern, Arthur had the distinct feeling he was being watched. The hair on his nape prickled uncomfortably but he steeled his nerves, raised the shield in front of him, and called out.

"I know you're here, dragon," he had shouted, voice stretching deep into the darkness. "Show yourself!"

As the last echoes of his voice were lost in the twisting cavern, he heard it: a low growl, almost a purr, slithering along the walls towards him. Without warning, there was a great scrabbling on the rocky wall above his head, and the dragon dropped down from above. The iron chain locked around the dragon's leg clinked loudly as it landed on the spiralled rock and sat back on its haunches, regarding the prince with what looked like simple curiosity.

"Arthur Pendragon," the dragon had said eventually, yawning hugely to reveal twin rows of large, formidable teeth. "About time."

Caught off-guard by this proclamation, Arthur blanched. "I – what?"

"Young prince, you have been hiding in the doorway for some months now," the dragon said, idly inspecting a claw. "I have been expecting a visit for quite some time."

gaped at it for a moment, then remembered himself and slowly lowered his shield. He took a tentative step forward. "You knew I was here?"

"Unlike your friend the sorcerer, dragons possess very keen powers of perception."

"Merlin is not my friend," Arthur corrected quickly. "He's just a servant."

The dragon cocked its head at him, like an over-sized, scaly bird. "Lies do not become you, young prince."

"And guilty of treason," Arthur added, annoyed. No one had called him 'young prince' since his voice had dropped several octaves when Nature had declared him a man. Though, to be fair, considering Great Dragons were immortal, Arthur was probably very young indeed in comparison. But that was beside the point. "Why didn't you tell him?"

"I am not fool enough to meddle in the affairs of Fate," the dragon told him solemnly. "And I think the more interesting question is, why have you not told him?"

It was like that every time Arthur stole away down to the cavern (after having Merlin safely confined to the stocks) to speak with the dragon. Truthfully, Arthur wasn't entirely sure why he kept going. Speaking with the beast often raised more questions than it answered, and even then, any answers received were always buried in silver-tongued codes that kept Arthur awake long hours into the night. But it was... a relief, really, to talk to someone, even if that someone weighed several hundred stone and breathed fire.

It was less of conversation and more of a chance to rant, though, as the dragon only offered riddles and smart remarks as a way of response to Arthur's plight. The beast kept rambling on about Destiny, Merlin's aid in bringing peace and magic back to Albion, and something about Arthur being the "once and future king" – which may sound impressive when proclaimed by a omniscient, golden oracle but still made no sense whatsoever when you thought about it.

"I don't know where you're getting your information, dragon," Arthur had said on his most recent visit to the cave. "Perhaps, when I'm king, perhaps, magic might... but my father's got a fair point about it, too. Half the attacks on the kingdom are magical! Merlin might not be trying to usurp the throne, but there are plenty of sorcerers who will. They already have!"

"And many would succeed without Merlin by your side," the dragon pointed out, arching an eyebrow that could rival Gaius.

"For all I know, you could be one of them."

The dragon raised itself to its full height so quickly that Arthur took a step back. "Do not dare insult me again, Pendragon. I was borne of the Old Religion, and possess power beyond your wildest dreams. I care nothing for your material wealth."

For all that power, Arthur thought, you also spent the last twenty years chained to a rock. Even the magic of the Old Religion seemed susceptible to the power of good, old-fashioned cold iron. "Then why care what happens to me? To my kingdom? To Merlin, of all people?"

"Merlin's magic and my own draw their power from the same source. He is my kin. And you, Arthur, the Once and Future King, are bound to him – "

"The hell I am. And what does that even mean?"

"Destiny guides the willing, young prince," the beast continued smoothly, as if Arthur hadn't interrupted. "The unwilling," it continued, "it drags."

: : :

Nobody drags Arthur Pendragon around and gets away with it. Arthur has a plan, and as far as he's concerned, Destiny can kiss his royal arse.

Despite Arthur's many provocations over the months, Merlin seems to possess a truly heroic amount of self-control and refuses to admit it. The dragon has been supremely unhelpful aside from serving as someone for Arthur to rant at. The beast refuses to serve as an intervention, as it's apparently of the opinion that Arthur needs to talk to Merlin himself. Well, sodthat, Arthur thinks – Merlin should have come to him.

Arthur decides it's time he forces Merlin's hand, consequences be damned.

Arthur fingers the parchment in his hands. He's been up since sunrise, dragged out of bed by Sir Leon reporting in from a two-day patrol investigating the recent attacks on small, out-lying villages. Five to seven men at most, according to survivors – the men are the worst sort, the kind that ride in, in the middle of the night, raping and pillaging, setting fire to the homes on their way out. Seven children killed from the last village, alone. They must be mad, Arthur thinks, to run rampant without fear of what Camelot – what he – will do to them when he finds them. And Arthur will find them.

According to his report, Leon followed the trail (into a certain patch of woods Arthur favours for hunting) until the gale swept in, forcing the knights and their mounts back onto the roads in fear of flooding rivers. The bandits will be forced to set up camp on high ground somewhere, Leon reasons, so they won't get far. Arthur is supposed to accompany him back out once the storm breaks.

They might not get far, but all they need to do is get as far as another village. Men like that didn't care for the health of their comrades or their horses – even a formidable spring storm won't hold them back for long. Arthur has to find them before they reach the borders of the kingdom and move on, out of his boundaries, if he wants justice for his people. Arthur knows he can't take on an encampment of armed thugs alone, but he can't risk the lives and well-being of his own knights – their heavy armour and massive war-chargers will sink them, crippling them in combat in this weather.

His father would never allow it, but this isn't the first time Arthur's lied to his father about Merlin.

"We're going hunting," he announces when Merlin finally arrives in his chambers, looking flustered and balancing a laden breakfast tray.

Merlin groans, just loud enough for Arthur to hear, before dropping the tray on the table and nearly upsetting the goblet. "It's pissing outside, if you've somehow managed to avoid looking out a window."

"The rain'll mask our scent," Arthur points out, "and muffle all the twigs you will inevitably snap. Afraid of getting a little wet, Merlin?"

Merlin makes sure that Arthur's looking at him before he rolls his eyes. "It's not raining, Arthur. It's pissing. We're going to need a boat."

It's not far from the truth. Arthur knows the valley they'll be heading for, buried deep in the forest, so narrow that's practically a canyon, carved deep into the crevice between two hills that tends to flood from the spring showers. It'll be humid during the day, freezing cold at night, and muddy enough to turn the small stretch of woods into a swamp. A boat actually wouldbe more useful than a horse.

"You don't have to come," Arthur says, feigning nonchalance. It's a gamble, he knows – if Merlin decides to stay behind now that Arthur's given him the option, Arthur is going to get very muddy for no reason at all. But Arthur also knows that Merlin follows him out of the city whenever he has an excuse, not because he wants to, but because Arthur might need his magic. For such an ungrateful whelp, he seems awfully concerned, but this probably is due to the damned dragon filling Merlin's head with tales of destiny and promises of power. "There's plenty of gear in the armoury that needs a good polish."

Arthur watches Merlin's face scrunch up as he imagines spending a few humid afternoons locked in a musty shed – Merlin will do anything to avoid doing chores, even trudging through a muddy, unfriendly forest during a downpour.

"I'll go and ready the horses, then," Merlin says, sighing.

"No horses," Arthur corrects. "We'll take a coach out of the city, but go on foot from there. Mud's slow going for hooves, idiot."

Merlin sighs again, more dramatically this time. "I'm just coming along to be your pack mule, then, am I?"

"Such a good sport about it, too," Arthur says, smirking. "Be ready in an hour."

An hour later, they're both on board a merchant cart headed out of the city. It is pissing outside, and the merchant on whose coach they're hitching a ride clears out a space inside for Arthur by kicking an unlucky apprentice out to ride on the roof with Merlin. It's another couple of long hours before Arthur calls for the cart to halt on a stretch of desolate road surrounded by large, moss-laden trees, and Arthur disembarks with his soggy manservant in tow. The apprentice merchant quickly jumps inside the cart again before it rattles off, disappearing around a bend.

Arthur jerks the hood of his cloak over his head. It's a good cloak, and will keep everything above his knees dry, but his hair is thoroughly soaked from the few seconds it went uncovered. Merlin, on the other hand, is soaked through his cheap cloak and looks as if he's just climbed out of a lake.

"I hate you," Merlin says. Arthur has to read his lips, because the sound of his voice is lost in the downpour. He adjusts the pack on his back, which looks fairly heavy; it carries two bedrolls, a flint, a change of dry clothes and a couple of flasks, along with Arthur's crossbow and a laden quiver. There's a few knives, too, tucked away inside the bedrolls for cleaning the carcasses. Arthur only has the clothes he's wearing (a leather vest over his tunic, underneath the cloak) in addition to the dagger in his boot and sword on his belt. All the same gear used for hunting – there was no use in bringing an extra sword. Merlin doesn't know how to use one, and certainly won't need one.

Arthur could easily carry some of the gear to make going faster, but he needs to the freedom to move to track properly, especially in this weather. Despite the rain, the air's hot and heavy. Thunder rumbles in the distance. Merlin looks up and frowns.

"Quit whining," Arthur reprimands. He grabs the crossbow and fits it with a bolt before turning off the road and plunging into the woods.

The mute light from beyond the heavy clouds is just beginning to dim before Arthur makes a kill. They need to eat, after all, and the bandits won't have set up camp anywhere near the road. Arthur has a pretty good idea of where, though, as there's little high ground in this part of the woods.

If it was pissing before, it's absolutely pouring now – the sky is one massive waterfall, the rain coming down in cold sheets. The first arc of lightning illuminates the darkening forest and is quickly chased away by a blast of thunder almost directly overheard. Arthur finds his bearings and heads for the river. They already have cover of darkness despite it being early evening, but it'll be best to sleep early and wake up before the sun rises to set his plan in motion.

It's much colder now, the hidden warmth of the sun swept away with the invisible rise of the moon. Oddly enough, Merlin hasn't complained once – or spoken at all, actually – since they first entered the woods. He must be freezing in that cheap cloak; even Arthur has begun to shiver. The water has crawled its way up his breeches, chafing and clammy against his thighs. They didn't pack a tent, nor would a tent help them tonight: they'll need a cave to weather out the night, exactly as Arthur planned.

Arthur leads them to the river and follows it until they reach a felled tree just thick enough to form a makeshift bridge across the water. The river is only about ten feet wide, but very deep, and the rain has engorged it. The water churns below them, bubbling against the bottom of the fallen tree beneath Arthur as he steps out.

He has to go back to help Merlin – who can manage to overbalance, unburdened, on a dry, level road – across, grabbing his hand and twisting their slippery fingers together. Arthur quickly pulls him over the log, teetering dangerously, before gravity can get a good hold on him. They stumble into one another on the other side, which is a small triangle of earth at the base of a sheer, barren outcrop of rock that rises out of the forest. Gnarled trees hang off the ledge some thirty feet above, casting twisted shadows on the small, dark mouth of a cave.

Merlin blinks away the rain as he looks up. His fingers are still tangled in Arthur's and are bone cold. Merlin notices the pause; his eyes flicker to their joined hands and he quickly lets go. Arthur, flexing his fingers, wordlessly leads them into shelter.

"Cosy," is the first word Merlin speaks after dumping his pack. It squelches at it hits the ground. The treated leather encasing the bedrolls is water-resistant, but not water-proof. They'll be sleeping on rough stone tonight. "I don't suppose you thought to stash some dry wood in here, eh?"

Arthur keeps his back turned so Merlin can't see the smirk. Why, Merlin? It's not like you need it.

The cave isn't large. Narrow and just deep enough that, with their sides pressed against the back wall, they can stay out of the rain even if it comes down at an angle. They'll have to sleep side-by-side, but it's that or one of them learns to breath underwater. The rush of water from the river, invisible in the darkness but only a few feet below outside the mouth of the cave, echoes around them, audible even above the sound of the rain.

There's another flash of light, illuminating their meagre camp and casting dramatic shadows. Merlin's silhouette looks bigger than he is, somehow, and Arthur blinks as darkness crawls back in and thunder crashes overhead.

"Lovely weather we're having," Merlin adds when Arthur doesn't reply, kneeling and yanking off his boots; water splashes out, turning the dust on the floor into mud. "There's no way we'll get a fire going in this. Hope you weren't too hungry."

Arthur narrows his eyes. So we're going to play it that way, are we? "We'll eat in the morning."

"I was more concerned with freezing to death."

"We'll keep each other warm enough." Arthur strips off his damp vest and tunic, hanging them both on the jagged wall above him to dry out. Shaking wet hair out of his eyes, Arthur sees Merlin unpacking the bedrolls. "What are you doing? Those're soaked."

"Afraid of getting a little wet, sire?" Merlin says, smirking and tossing one to Arthur. "If it's too damp for your royal backside, feel free to sleep on the floor. I wouldn't mind a pillow."

Arthur ignores the jibe because he's staring at the bedroll in his hands. It's true – the fabric isn't even cold, but dry and warm. Sneaky bastard.

When Arthur doesn't reply, Merlin crawls over in the growing darkness and lays out his bedroll beside Arthur's. He collapses without ceremony, breath escaping in a sigh that seems to go on for a long time, too long to be real. But then again, it might have just been the rain.

Arthur awakes abruptly when the rain begins to let up.

Thunder still rumbles quietly outside, but with more distance than before. The lightning has passed with the rain sometime while they slept. It's still raining, but the downpour's been replaced with a steady drizzle. Arthur rolls to his feet silently, stepping carefully over Merlin to retrieve the tunic and vest hanging on the wall of the cave.

Arthur nearly drops them in surprise; the garments aren't even damp. They're completely dry. Warm, too.

Curled atop his own bedroll, Merlin sleeps on. His waterlogged clothes still cling to his skin in a way that surely has to be uncomfortable. The stupid sod, he won't even dry his own clothes! Doesn't he realise that makes it more suspicious?

Arthur nudges Merlin with his boot, perhaps a bit harder than is necessary. "Get up."


Merlin flails on the ground for a moment, scrabbling in the darkness before his brain catches up with current events. Arthur is standing over him, arms crossed over his chest.

"Wuzgoion?" Merlin says through a huge yawn. There's a pause, and, much more clearly: "Arthur? What's wrong? Are you all right?"

"Get up," Arthur says again, turning away. He sheaths his sword, tucks his knife into his boot and heaves the crossbow over his shoulder. Merlin's concern might be more touching if Arthur isn't constantly reminded of how Merlin is lying through his teeth with every word. "Take your dagger and the quiver. Leave the rest."

There's a scuffle as Merlin scrambles to his feet behind him. "What? Where are we going?" Arthur ignores him and Merlin speaks again, loud enough to echo. "Arthur, what's – bloody hell, it's the middle of the night! Is something – "

"Get up and shut up before you wake the entire forest, will you? I pay you to follow orders, not question them."

"But – "

Despite the darkness, Merlin pauses as Arthur's eyes snap to him, feeling the heat of his gaze. He gathers the quiver and sticks the small dagger in his belt. It's old, but well-made, and kept sharp. It won't do much against a sword, Arthur knows, but he's of the opinion that no man should ever be in want of a knife, even if he doesn't know how to use it.

Hopefully Merlin's more adept with using magic than he is with a blade. Arthur's only actually witnessed a handful of spells Merlin's cast. Usually, Merlin's too quick or stealthy about it and Arthur just sees the effects. Well, not this time. This time, Merlin will only have two choices: reveal himself, or let Arthur die.

Arthur's fairly sure Merlin won't let him die. Mostly. Perhaps he should have lent him a decent cloak? Oh well, too late for that.

Merlin seems to take the hint, though, and silently follows Arthur out into the drizzly darkness. Arthur leads the way slowly, partially due to the pitch-blackness of the night and partially to make sure Merlin doesn't make any unnecessary noise. Without heavy rain drowning out every sound of the forest, Arthur can already hear the first hints of the encampment he knows is above them, perched on the side of the very outcrop they took shelter in: the idle shuffle of hooves and the muffled jangle of tack.

Going around the base of the outcrop is dangerous enough during the day in good weather, and practically suicide in the dark while the river is flooding out of its bed. Arthur keeps one hand fisted in Merlin's sleeve to make sure his manservant isn't swept away into the river, the other in front of him, following the rocky wall around until it turns away from the river. As they follow the curve, the wall of rock eventually becomes a muddy incline and then, eventually, a steep but passable slope strewn with trees and thickly covered in ferns that will be handy in muffling their footsteps.

It's not until they're halfway up the hill that Arthur can see the first tents. The tip of the outcrop faces east and the sun is rising behind the clouds, casting a foggy silhouette of the camp. The horses are tethered on the other side of the camp, snorting softly beneath the thick canopy of a tree. There're only six horses, but enough tents to house at least a dozen men, probably more – more than Leon's report led Arthur to believe. This alone should make Arthur rethink his plan, turn back and return with his knights, but he's here now and there are those men, those bastards who have been hurting his people. And he's got Merlin, after all, who is all he really needs. Twelve men versus a sorcerer? They don't stand a chance.

That is, of course, assuming Merlin pulls his head out of his arse before one of them gets in a well-aimed blow.

Aside from the constant patter of drizzle against the tents and the occasional whinny, the camp is completely silent. Even the birds are still hidden away in the trees, sleeping through the last of the rain. Scattered around the camp are various items of value, mostly weapons and leather sacks spilling over with cheap jewellery, but one thing that stands out is one of the steeds. It's a massive blood-bay stallion, the prize stud of one of the breeders in the northern valleys. Arthur knows, because he was considering breeding his mare to it. These are definitely the bandits he's looking for.

Arthur looks back and sees Merlin looking at the camp, then questioningly at Arthur. Arthur holds a finger to his lips and nods towards the nearest tent. Merlin looks like he wants to argue, but smartly holds his tongue.

There's a man slumped under an up-turned shield outside the tent, standing watch. Or sitting, rather. And quite fast asleep – it is a mistake he will not live to repeat.

Arthur manages to deal with the watchman before he wakes, carefully guiding the body down to the ground with his hands to avoid waking the men in the tent. Arthur leaves Merlin outside with the crossbow, half-hidden behind a tree; there's two inside, and the second wakes just as Arthur's sword dispatches with the first.

There's a startled moment as the man registers Arthur in the tent, and then a shout before Arthur silences it with his sword. Outside, one of the horses begins to neigh loudly from the fuss, and by the time Arthur stumbles out of the tent, he finds himself surrounded.

Where Merlin went, Arthur has no idea. Still hiding, probably. Ten – no, eleven men encircle him, all in various degrees of alertness and dress. They're all armed, though, most of them with swords, though one or two carry small morning stars and at least one of them has a crossbow, already loaded and aimed at his chest. Well, it's now or never, Arthur thinks. Comeon, Merlin.

"Look at what we have here," one of the men says. Arthur's eyes lock on him, and identify him as the current and probably unofficial leader of the party – such men have no honour, and any sort of authority is easily overridden by the sword of another, if one only has the bollocks to take it. "You look lost, friend."

Arthur twists the sword in his hand and ignores him, keeping his eyes flickering between the men, watching their movements. Overhead, thunder rumbles, closer than before. Come on, Merlin, any time, now...

Arthur's attention is brought back to the man swiftly as he takes two steps forward and swings a sword under Arthur's chin. The blade clangs against his own, blocking it only inches from his throat. "You should know better than to try to steal from a thief, son."

Before Arthur can say a word, though, there's a deafening crack of thunder directly abovethem, barely masking the whistle of air beside Arthur's ear and a fwup! as, out of nowhere, a crossbow bolt buries itself deeply in the man's neck.

There are more shouts now, from all around him. The men are backing up, their eyes on the trees and the skies. Arthur doesn't bother to look, but silently seethes. Merlin might be an idiot, but Arthur has to admit that he's also the sneakiest little shit he's ever had the fortune of knowing. Arthur knows Merlin can't manage to hit a cow from two feet away, but he expects Arthur to believe he can do that?

But it's always like this, and Arthur shouldn't have expected it to be this easy. Merlin always manages to make himself scarce during a skirmish and, somehow, still always manages to be in the right place at the right time – there to throw Arthur a sword when he's disarmed, to wallop an enemy over the head with a handy lump of wood, and not to mention the way daggers, arrows, pikes and any manner of sharp, deadly instruments headed for Arthur always seem to veer out of the way just in time.

Two more men drop from well-aimed bolts before one of the men left standing attacks Arthur with a harsh cry, and from there on in, the fight becomes a blur. This isn't going to plan atall, but what can Arthur do? He's busy fighting two, three of the men at a time, and the other four or five are... well, not bothering him at the moment, preoccupied with whatever distraction that Merlin is conducting out of sight.

The thought that, once again, Merlin's going to avoid revealing himself is infuriating. Arthur's blows gain a renewed fervour as he fights, his sword cutting through his opponents as easily as it cuts through the rain. The clang of steel against steel reverberates between the trees with the growing thunder, occasionally punctuated by the whistle and thuwt! of a bolt embedding itself in something solid. Wherever Merlin is, the bandits can't find him, not without taking their eyes off Arthur long enough to let in that crucial blow, and so the fight weaves through the trees as the men scatter. Arthur is pressing forward with his frustration, and the men in melee with him, all while trying to dodge arrows and his blade.

Four men are engaging him now, the others dead or still searching for Merlin. Arthur finds himself at the very tip of the outcrop. The rain has stopped, but the clouds are churning deep shadows over his head, licked with lightning and rumbling. Some thirty feet below, the overflowing river rushes around the very cave in which they'd made camp. Arthur has realised, too late, that in pushing so far he's put his enemies out of range of the crossbow. Merlin must be moving, but whether or not he'll get to Arthur in time is still up for debate. Four-to-one on such a narrow point, Arthur quickly finds himself with his back against the edge of the small cliff.

Beyond the men, Arthur glimpses Merlin moving between the trees. Merlin sees him looking, and hesitates. Behind him, another man raises his arm, bloody from a bolt in one shoulder but still clinging to his sword. Arthur shouts and Merlin turns, and Arthur watches him raise his hand, sees the man fall –

Arthur's been in enough battles to know, like his knights, the pain always comes as a surprise. Soldiers like Arthur grow up listening to stories of great warriors who fight through the pain, ignoring their grievous battle wounds and running on the rush of bloodlust until their enemies are defeated. Arthur learned long ago what the sting of steel is really like, that there's no fighting through pain like this. It's blinding, crippling, the shock of hard, cold steel cutting soft, hot flesh. He can feel the blood spill out of the wound, draining him, leaving him light-headed and stumbling. He wonders if Merlin's watching, but he can't see, there's suddenly not enough light and damn, that really stings –

"Arthur – !"

As the shout reaches Arthur's ears, another one of the bandits, one without Arthur's blood on his blade, charges forward. His shoulder connects with Arthur's chest and Arthur staggers backwards. One moment, there is earth and stone beneath him, and the next, just sky.

The last thing Arthur sees is the lightning: a massive, branching, barren tree of white-hot light surging up into the sky. The clouds twist and recoil from the strike, burned away by the heat. The thunderclap falls like a hammer, and then, very abruptly, the world goes quiet.

: : :

The first thing Arthur notices is that there's no more pain.

Cool, mist-like droplets tickle his skin. He feels, against all logic, quite comfortable. That can't be right. One bandit had slashed a long gash in his thigh, another had – well, shoved him off a small cliff. Arthur knows he must have fallen at least thirty feet and the only available landing had been rock. There should be pain, so much pain, – hell, he should be –

– dead.

Arthur jerks awake, eyes snapping open, and as the consciousness flows back, so does the pain. The shock is so intense and he nearly blacks out again. He closes his eyes against the unexpected light and bites down hard on the inside of his cheek. When the nausea subsides, Arthur forces himself to breathe slowly and deeply before opening his eyes again.

The scenery his eyes take in confuses him; for one, he's on the wrong side of the river. He's resting on a thick bed of ferns with his back propped against a tree, facing the outcrop and the cave, a dark spot in the base, some twenty yards away. Which is impossible, he thinks, because there's no way he could have fallen that far. Unless –

Arthur turns his head, wincing at the stiffness of his neck. Merlin is sitting on his knees beside him, eyes cast down. The misty rain, reflecting the filtered light of the sun, clings to every wayward strand of his messy hair, surrounding him in a sparkling halo. Arthur stares at him for several long minutes before words return to him.

"Merlin," Arthur begins to say. His voice is hoarse and his throat burns with the effort.

Before he can try again, Merlin speaks. "What were you thinking?" he whispers, without looking at Arthur. "You could have – you almost – "

Arthur just looks at him and thinks that Merlin is right: he shouldbe dead. But he isn't.

Because you'd never let that happen, would you? Not if you can help it.

He almost says it, but stops himself. So preoccupied with his own frustration and a selfish desire to make Merlin admit it, Arthur hadn't stopped to think about the consequences for Merlin. It was cruel, Arthur realises, what he put him through. But it's too late to take it back.

Well, it's now or never, Arthur thinks.

"Merlin," Arthur says again. "What happened?"

"I killed them," Merlin says. He sounds surprised by the words; his voice is eerily blank. "I killed them all."

Arthur blinks and refocuses to see Merlin's staring at his own hands and shaking. Guilt isn't a familiar sensation for Arthur, and this somehow makes it worse. He reaches out and spots of lights erupt in his vision as the pain lances along his arm and side.

He must've cried out because Merlin starts and turns to him. "Don't move," he mutters, hands probing the tender flesh of Arthur's shoulder. "You dislocated an arm in the fall, and broke a couple of ribs." Arthur winces as Merlin's palm rests lightly on his side, finding the offending breaks. "Prat."

"That's ridiculous," Arthur manages. Merlin just stares at him. "A dislocated shoulder? Broken ribs? I got thrown off a cliff! What about my leg?"

"And whose fault was that, then? Charging into an enemy camp on your own. Real heroic, up until the bit where you got tossed into the river." Merlin sees the look Arthur's giving him, reminding him he's in dangerous territory and to mind his words. Merlin just rolls his eyes. "It wasn't so bad. You just lost a lot of blood and passed out, you must not remember – "

"Oh will you cut the crap already?" Arthur snaps. "We both know I should be dead."

The silence that follows is consuming. Merlin isn't looking at him, can't meet his gaze. Somewhere overhead, a brave sparrow whistles.

"I – " Merlin begins, and stops.

Arthur would fold his arms, if he could move them. He just looks at Merlin, and waits.

"You need to understand, I never – I was born like this," Merlin says, quietly. "I never had a choice."

He can't even say the word to Arthur's face. Arthur lets out a short, breathless huff and then winces at the pain it causes in his side. "You had a choice," he says finally. Merlin looks up sharply, but Arthur finishes before he can say get going. "You chose to lie."

Merlin shuts his mouth and is quiet a moment, brow furrowed as he thinks of a reply. It's the truth, Arthur knows, however harsh.

When Merlin finally does speak, the words come so quickly they spill from him in a rush, running over one another so that they barely have time to register. "Gods, Arthur," Merlin says. "I'm – sorry. I'm sorry. I didn't know what to do. You know your father and – his views, and I was – scared, all right? I couldn't just tell you, what if you'd – even if you didn't, what if you'd – what would I have done, if you'd sent me away? Who would protect you? I couldn't risk it, couldn't risk you – I know I – "

"Merlin – " Arthur attempts.

" – should've told you, I mean, it's not that I didn't trust you – I do – but I was, I don't know, and anyway, it just always seemed like the wrong time to – "

"Merlin – "

" – and then you'd have to lie to your father, and I know you wouldn't want – I couldn't put you in that position, y'know? Because if you told him, he'd – and if you didn't, you'd - and, well, I just, I mean I really – "


" – love you, and – what?"


The brave sparrow whistles again, louder this time, and follows it with a series of chirps. Arthur hardly notices, his ears still ringing from Merlin's words. "What?" Arthur says again.

Merlin flushes, and it would be amusing, except amused is the absolute last word to describe what Arthur is feeling right now. Shock isn't exactly right, either, neither is he really surprised. No, if anything, the last piece of the massive puzzle that is Merlin has finally clicked into place, revealing the big picture.

"Wait." Merlin blinks as he speaks, still red in the face but looking suspicious rather than embarrassed. "Aren't you angry?"

"Angry?" You just told me you love me. "Because you saved my life?"

"No, I meant," Merlin pauses, brow furrowing again. He fixes Arthur with a suspicious look. "You're just taking this rather well, is all. About the – you know."

Magic! Arthur wants to shout, but his ribs scream in protest as it is just talking. Say the word! Even now, Merlin is hesitating being forthright. It is, if possible, more infuriating than before. "I am angry," Arthur says finally. "I'm angry that you didn't trust me enough to tell me."

Merlin looks at the ground, twisting his fingers together. "I told you, I'm sorry, I just – "

"Yes, I heard you the first three times. I just – if you'd just have told me. I mean, I just thought you were just doing it because of, well, you know," Arthur says lamely, looking away, "that stupid Destiny crap the damn dragon's always rambling about."

Merlin's head snaps up and stares at him. "Dragon?"

"Yes, dragon. You know the one, bossy, incorrigible, wouldn't know a straight answer if it bit it in the arse? A bit like you, in other words – "

Merlin moves so fast that before Arthur realises what he's doing, the back of his head connects with the tree and new pain blossoms from his jaw. When the throbbing dies away and Arthur looks back up, Merlin's on his feet and massaging his fist.

"You complete pillock! You knew? You knew! How long have you known?"

"You hit me," Arthur accuses, but too is far too shocked by this realisation to have any real malice behind the words.

Thunder cracks directly overhead. "How long?"

Arthur winces at the noise, but answers quickly. He can feel Merlin's fury through his magic, twisting angrily in the air around him. "I had my suspicions from the beginning," he admits. "But I knew for sure after the ordeal with King Bayard and the poisoned chalice."

"And you think that I – what, protected you because it's my job, or something? Because it was my duty?"

"Well, that and – the dragon kept going on and on about your destiny, or something – "

"Oh, you'll listen to Kilgharrah, though, will you?" Merlin shouts. "I swear, I am going to kill that oversized newt."

Arthur blinks, not sure if Merlin's serious or not. He wasn't aware the dragon had a name, either. "I don't see why you get to be angry. I could still have you beheaded, I'll have you know."

Merlin just stares at him, breathing heavily, and looks for a moment as if he's going to hit Arthur again. "Why didn't you say anything, Arthur?"

"Why didn't you!"

"Gods, you are the biggest prat to have ever existed. Ever. Do you know what I've had to – how many times you could have – why are you smiling?"

"Sorry," Arthur says. He doesn't often apologise, and the word does the trick – it calms Merlin down, just a bit, enough that he's not likely to toss a fireball at Arthur's head now that his secret's out. "You can say the word, you know. I won't flinch."

"Not saying the word is a habit," Merlin admits, deflating further. "It's sort of taboo back home, if you hadn't noticed."

"Could have fooled me, what with you casting spells left and right and using it to shirk your chores," Arthur says, smirking only a little. "Really, Merlin, how stupid did you think I was?"

"I didn't mean – "

"You didn't mean it, right. You're sorry. Whatever." Arthur shifts against the tree and winces. "Can't you do something about this?"

"I didn't want to – I thought, if I did anything, you'd be angry. Angrier," Merlin adds, when Arthur opens his mouth. "I mean, I had to heal your leg, you would have bled to death, and I cushioned the fall a bit, but I didn't want to... do anything else."

Without your permission hangs in the air, and Arthur nods, understanding. Merlin really did know him, and better than most. He appreciates the thought, but really, broken ribs are bloody painful.

"Did you want – ?"

With some effort, Arthur pulls himself to his feet using his good arm and a low branch for leverage. Merlin doesn't help, just watches him warily, waiting for an answer. "Come on, then," Arthur says, propping himself against the tree. Merlin did quite a good job on his leg; there isn't even a twinge as Arthur rests his weight on it. "May as well finish the job."

Merlin reaches out, but stops halfway. Arthur sighs, takes him by the wrist and pulls him forward. "Get on with it."

"I'm just – " Merlin heaves a sigh before pulling his hand free and slipping it underneath Arthur's tunic. "This is really strange, is all. Using... magic. With you – watching." His fingers are cold and light against the hot flesh of Arthur's abdomen, touching just enough to find the offending ribs and resting his palm against them. Arthur makes an undignified noise deep in his throat, and Merlin hesitates.

Arthur's hand joins his, pushing up the hem of his tunic further. He places his hand over Merlin's and meets his gaze. "Show me."

Merlin closes his eyes and inhales deeply. When he opens them again, the deep blue's been replaced by gold, bright and terrifying. Merlin's hand grows warm under Arthur's, and the pain is replaced with tingly warmth that spreads through Arthur, unfurling in his chest, reaching out to his shoulder, racing up his spine and blooming at the base of his skull, leaving Arthur light-headed all over again.

Arthur doesn't even remember closing his eyes, only that when he opens them again Merlin is still there. His eyes are blue again and he watches Arthur carefully for his reaction. He hasn't moved his hand, still warm from the magic. Arthur takes a deep breath, free from pain. It's as if the bones were never broken to begin with.

"So," Merlin says carefully. "Now what?"

Arthur shifts his hand, ever-so-slightly, so his fingers fall between Merlin's and he laces them together. Merlin swallows as Arthur moves their hands across his chest, until the slow, steady beat of Arthur's heart fills in the space where their hands overlap. "Now," Arthur says, "I think we pay that bastard dragon of yours a visit, and demand some answers."

"He's not my dragon, and he doesn't do answers. Not any that make sense, anyway," Merlin says. He sounds breathless, not daring speak above a whisper in case it breaks whatever spell is holding them together. "What did he tell you, anyway?"

"Not much." Arthur idly brushes a thumb across the back of Merlin's hand. "Mostly I think he just tolerated my going down there because it gave him something to feel superior about."

"That does sound like him." Merlin shivers against the touch and bites his lip. "Um. So, we're – we're okay, right?"

"If you ever lie to me again, I'll behead you myself," Arthur tells him. He says it jokingly, but knows Merlin knows he means it. "But yeah, we're – more than okay, I'd say."

"Oh." Merlin chews his lip again, then grins uncertainly. "Good. And fair enough."

When Arthur doesn't let go and just continues to look at him, not sure of what to say now that it's all out in the open, Merlin begins to fret. "You said we're okay. More than okay. So nothing has to change, right? I can still, you know," Merlin jerks his head, "go home and be your – "

"You want to be?" Arthur asks, genuinely surprised.

"Well, aside from the chores and your arrogance, it's not all bad," Merlin admits. "And it does let me keep a close eye on you, in case someone tries to murder you. Or you try to getyourself killed for stupid, prattish reasons," he adds with a meaningful look.

Arthur smirks and looks up, taking an idle step forward as he feigns thinking it over. "I suppose I could allow it," he decides. "But on one condition."

Merlin narrows his eyes. "What – "

He shuts up immediately as Arthur leans forward, quickly, bringing their mouths together before Merlin has a chance to refuse. Arthur feels Merlin go rigid against him, but before he can pull away, Arthur also feels the magic inside of him react. Arthur imagines this is what it must feel like to get struck by lightning: every hair on his body stands on end, shivering as a wave of warmth makes his skin erupt in gooseflesh. When Merlin tentatively parts his lips, Arthur plunges in, and the reaction is immediate. Merlin presses into him, much stronger than he should be, shoving Arthur's back against the tree.

Their hands, still entwined, fall to the side to avoid being crushed. Merlin's other hand has him firmly by the hip and Arthur slides his own up Merlin's chest, under that stupid neckerchief he wears and brushes his thumb across his collarbone and the smooth line of his neck. Merlin answers this by shoving a knee between Arthur's legs. And then Merlin growls into his mouth and Arthur already knows he's lost, knows he'll let Merlin do whatever he wants, knows he'll risk his life and the throne for him, knows he'll keep Merlin's secret, even if it means lying to the king for the rest of his life.

Merlin's mouth is all wet heat, slippery tongue hot with magic as it moves against his own, and Arthur thinks that, for all of his stupid riddles, the damn dragon may have actually been on to something.