The feast was the annual celebration of Arthur's coronation, and it was grand as always. Ribbons and flowers adorned the halls, the jewels in the golden goblets glittering and gleaming. The long tables were full of knights in their bright red capes and the ladies in their vibrant skirts, merrily singing and making toasts, each and every voice calling "Long live the king!"
This year, like every year, it was a spectacular sight to see. And this year, like every year, Arthur was spectacularly drunk.
"More wine!" Arthur demanded, waving his empty goblet in the air, "More ale! More cider! Come on Merlin, don't let my cup run dry!"
Merlin moved forward and poured wine into the goblet, frowning when Arthur downed it in one big gulp.
"Don't you think you've had enough, sire?" Merlin asked politely. Arthur glared.
"I don't know who you think you are, Merlin, but what you are is the servant to the king, and might I remind you we are celebrating me tonight. You know what that means?"
Merlin sighed. "More wine?"
"More wine!" Arthur cheered, prompting everyone else in the room to cheer with him, along with another chorus of "Long live the king!"
Arthur smirked at the praise. Merlin rolled his eyes.
An hour and four half-goblets later (Merlin didn't dare fill them all the way, and Arthur was too drunk to notice), half the knights had disappeared with giggling ladies on their arms, and the other half were lying slumped at their seats, goblets of wine knocked over and drool hanging from their slack lips. Arthur, in serious danger of falling off his seat, was staring intently at a spot on the tablecloth, eyes narrowed.
"This spot," he slurred, "It is unacceptable. I am the king and I demand it be removed. Merlin, get your arse over here and clear it immediately, or it'll be the stocks for you. Merlin!"
"Come on, Arthur," Merlin said, summoning infinite patience as Arthur glared and tugged on Merlin's neckerchief. "I think it's time for you to go to bed."
"Merrrrrrlin," Arthur whined, as Merlin grabbed hold of Arthur's arm and hoisted him up. " 'M not drunk, 'm just...'m the king, Merlin, you can't tell me what to do."
"Of course not, sire," Merlin agreed, ducking under Arthur's arm and looping a supporting arm around his waist. "Wouldn't dream of it."
"Good," Arthur said, satisfied, "You know your place."
"Certainly I do, my lord."
Arthur smirked the whole way back to his chambers, where Merlin dumped him onto his bed and set to work undressing him for bed.
"Merlin," Arthur giggled as Merlin began unclasping Arthur's cloak, "Are you trying to ravish me? Your king?"
"No, Arthur," Merlin said. They'd had this conversation before, whenever Merlin had to undress Arthur when he was too drunk to do it himself. Usually it ended in Arthur saying something about how Merlin wouldn't know what to do anyway because he's a fool, and then passing out and snoring like a donkey.
"Why not?" Arthur asked, wiggling his hips. "I am your king, do you not find me irresistible?"
Merlin chuckled nervously, pulling away Arthur's cloak and flinging it aside. He didn't answer until he got to work on the plates of Arthur's armor.
"I would not dream of ravishing you, sire. You're too much of a prat for that."
Arthur was silent for a moment, allowing Merlin to tug off his breastplate and set it aside. For a moment Merlin thought he had fallen asleep, until Arthur spoke again, his voice soft.
"I wish you would," Arthur said morosely. Merlin stilled, then set back to work, certain he'd misheard.
"Wish I would what?"
"Ravish me." Arthur giggled. "I'd let you. You wouldn't think so, but I would." He giggled again. Merlin's pulse sped up. This part of the conversation had certainly never happened before. "I'd let you strip me just like you are right now, only you'd be doing yourself too, and then you'd get in bed, right on top of me, and you'd take your hands and spread my knees and-"
"That's enough," Merlin cut in, desperate to stop that train of thought right there before he let it continue. That's one conversation he does not want to have while only one of them is sober, let alone a king.
"I think about it," Arthur went on, "Almost every night. By the time you've left my chambers I'm already hard, and when you leave I-"
"Arthur!" Merlin said sharply. "I don't want to hear this."
Arthur lifted his head, blinking sadly up at Merlin. "You don't like me," He said. He sounded heartbroken.
Merlin sighed. Arthur's armor was off and in a pile near the bed, so now he moved to Arthur's boots. "I do like you," He said, "But there's no way that can actually happen."
"Because I'm king?" Arthur asked. Merlin nodded, prying Arthur's foot from his boot. Arthur huffed a breath.
"I don't like being king," He declared. Merlin looked at him.
"You're drunk," He stated.
"It's true," Arthur said. "It's...I don't like it."
"I can't do what I want," Arthur said. "I can't walk down the street if I want, or say what I want, or be friends with who I want...like you."
"Like me?" Merlin asked, setting Arthur's boots on the floor beside his armor.
"I can't touch you," Arthur said mournfully, "I can't, I can't hold your hand. I'd like to hold your hand."
He reached out, grasping the air in the direction he probably thought Merlin's hand was, but he was way off in his drunken state, a good foot off the mark.
Merlin reached up to tug Arthur's shirt off. Arthur lifted his arms to help, and it landed next to the other shed clothing.
"Get some sleep," Merlin said, gently pulling the covers over Arthur's pliant body. "Will there be anything else?"
"Mm," Arthur murmured, reaching out a hand. This time he didn't miss, and his fingers found Merlin's wrist and closed around it. Merlin didn't pull away. "Stay with me."
"You want me to stay here?"
Arthur nodded and pulled back the blankets with the hand that wasn't gripping Merlin. "Come to bed with me."
Merlin swallowed hard. Of all the times he'd imagined Arthur inviting him to his bed, he never thought it would actually happen. Besides, Arthur would wake up in the morning and probably kick him out, probably disgusted. He tried to pull away, but Arthur tightened his grip.
"Stay," Arthur insisted, meeting his gaze. His eyes were lidded, but beneath that they were earnest and pleading, and Merlin saw the faintest hint of vulnerability there, behind the bossy king exterior.
Merlin sighed. "Fine," He aquicised. Arthur's answering grin was enough to put to rest any of Merlin's doubts, at least for a little while.
Merlin tugged his hand from Arthur's grip in order to remove his jacket and boots. He moved to the end of the room to stoke the fire and blow out the candles, until the chambers were dark, cast in the low glow of the fire and the ethereal shimmer of the moon. Under cover of relative darkness, Merlin climbed tentatively into bed beside Arthur, moving slowly in case Arthur changed his mind and threw him out.
Arthur didn't. Instead Arthur reached out and tugged him closer, so that his arm was flung over Merlin's waist and his temple pressed to Merlin's shoulder.
"Bossy," Merlin observed.
"I'm the king, Merlin," Arthur shot back, his words slurring. Merlin let out a breathy chuckle.
"I lied before," Arthur said suddenly, "When I said I don't like being king. I do like being king. I love Camelot with all my heart, Merlin. With all my heart!" Arthur said the last three words forcefully, as though he thought Merlin didn't believe him.
"But," Arthur went on, apparently mollified by Merlin's silence, "It does get lonely."
"What do you mean?" Merlin asked. Arthur shifted so that he was lower, snuggling further into the sheets and into Merlin's side.
"Being king is a very lonely job," Arthur said. "Nobody likes me. I mean, everyone loves me, but only because I'm their king. Nobody really knows me. They can't, otherwise they could kill me."
A pang of empathy jolted through Merlin, and he felt the immediate need to pull Arthur closer. "I'm sorry," He said. In the moonlight, Merlin saw Arthur smile with his eyes closed.
" 'S why I like you," Arthur said, "I don't have to hide with you. I can just be me, Arthur. I like being Arthur."
Merlin knew a blush was creeping up his cheeks and was fervently grateful that Arthur couldn't see it in the darkness. He wondered if Arthur would ever confess these things if he were sober. Would he deny them by the time he woke up? Would he even remember saying them?
"I have a question for you," Arthur said, his voice quiet and on the verge of sleep.
"What is it?"
Arthur turned so his nose was pressed into the rough fabric of Merlin's tunic. "When are you going to tell me about your magic?"
Merlin's heart stopped. His eyes flew down to the king in his arms, but Arthur was just nuzzling at his chest as though he hadn't just shattered Merlin's entire world.
"My...what?" He choked out.`
"See? You don't trust me." Arthur pouted.
"How do you know about my magic?" Merlin asked, his voice shaking.
"I knew when you helped me with Valiant. Your hand was outstretched and everything. I nearly had a heart attack, Merlin. You really are stupid, doing that in front of all those people."
Merlin gulped guiltily. "You didn't have a problem with it?"
Arthur snorted. "Obviously I did at first. But you saved my life, I was hardly going to execute you."
"And since then?"
"Things changed," Arthur said simply. The tightening of his grip around Merlin's waist spoke for itself.
"Oh," Merlin said, unsure of what to do with this new information. His mind was reeling- Arthur knew, this whole time, and not only that, but he accepted it. Accepted him.
"So when are you going to tell me?" Arthur asked again, sounding about to fall asleep any second now.
Merlin thought for a moment. "I suppose there's no point, now that I know you know."
Arthur frowned. "Yeah, but you don't know I know. You don't trust me enough to tell me."
"Why not just confront me yourself?"
"That wouldn't be fair," Arthur said, "I'm a man of honor, you know that don't you? I thought you'd tell me in your own time, but it's been so long maybe you won't. I don't like it. It means you don't trust me, just like everyone else."
"I do trust you," Merlin said quickly, placing an arm around Arthur's and squeezing. "It's just...you're the king. I was scared."
"I'm also your friend," Arthur said. He sounded disappointed.
"That too," Merlin agreed. "I'm honored to call you that."
"But not to tell me about your magic."
Merlin let out a breath of air and slithered down so that he was lying with his head on the pillows, Arthur fit in his arms.
He brought a hand up to stroke Arthur's hair, running his fingers absentmindedly through the strands and luxuriating in their softness.
"One day I guess," He sighed. "Soon. I'll tell you soon."
"Good," Arthur said.
Merlin smiled and looked down to where Arthur was lying tucked against Merlin. It gave him an odd feeling to be touching Arthur in such an intimate way: Non-sexual, just close, lying together in that world in between sleep and consciousness. In the morning Arthur would probably forget all about this conversation, and life would carry on as normal. Except now Merlin would carry this feeling with him everywhere, a feeling he's starting to identify as longing.
Bathed in the soft light of the fire and the bright light of the moon, Merlin thought Arthur looked like a thing divine. His king, his destiny, his Arthur. He allowed himself this time, this few minutes, to hold onto this image so that he might carry it with him forever, to soothe the ache.
After some time Arthur began snoring loud enough to wake the dead. Merlin gently extracted himself from Arthur's grip, which let him go easier than he expected. He arranged the blankets so that Arthur wouldn't get cold during the night.
Merlin pulled on his boots and jacket and cast a final look at his sleeping king. Maybe he would tell Arthur about his magic soon. Maybe he'll come into Arthur's chambers tomorrow, bearing a breakfast tray, a potion for hangovers, and a confession. Or maybe he'll wait a while, think it over for a few days, and confess at a time when Arthur is calm and relaxed and content, like after a meal during a day of training. Then Merlin might tell Arthur everything just as he's pouring Arthur's second goblet of wine.
Who knows? Merlin thought, as he closed the door quietly behind him and crept down the hall to Gaius' rooms. Perhaps after everything has been laid out on the table, maybe Arthur will not be angry. Maybe he will accept Merlin with open arms and say something along the lines of 'took you long enough.' He might call Merlin an idiot for taking so long to tell him, and Merlin might call him a dollop head for not saying that he knew in the first place.
They might fight, or they might hug, and maybe, just possibly, they might embrace, finally, after so long holding in their true thoughts.
And maybe one day, Merlin imagined as he fell into his own cold bed, maybe when everything has been said and done and every secret has been exposed, they might find themselves tangled up together in Arthur's bedsheets, sharing comfort and body heat. Then Merlin might tell Arthur about this night, the night when Arthur drunkenly described his hidden fantasies and confessed his interest, and he might overexaggerate the poetry that came from Arthur's mouth. He'll insist on his life that Arthur used the words "Eyes like the sea and a smile like the setting sun."
And after Arthur's done denying all that, maybe Merlin will tell him about how Arthur told Merlin he knew about his magic and that he was okay with it, and Merlin's voice might go soft as he describes how beautiful Arthur was in that moment, vulnerable and gorgeous in the fire and moonlight, sleeping in Merlin's arms. Merlin will tell Arthur how he knew at that moment, without a doubt, that he was in love.
Until then, Merlin decided as sleep began to consume him, he will wait. The sun will rise tomorrow and life will go on.