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sam_storyteller ([personal profile] sam_storyteller) wrote2005-07-21 02:00 am
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Advisor To The King, 1/2

Title: Advisor To The King
Rating: R (Sexual content)
Warnings: Brief mention of character death (Uther, Gaius).
Summary: Arthur is king, and change is in the wind. (Arthur/Merlin, Arthur/Merlin/Gwen)
Betas: [personal profile] girlpearl and [ profile] misswinterhill are to blame. This was a 2000 word vignette until they got hold of it.
Notes: Mild spoilers through 3.05.

Originally Posted 10.24.10

Also available at AO3.


Uther Pendragon died when his son, Arthur, was twenty-six years old. Arthur ascended the throne in the strength of his youth, and the full measure of his mourning. As was always meant to be.

Merlin thought it was rubbish. A man in grief had no business ruling, so as the king's servant he made it his business to see things were attended to properly. It made him indispensable, but it also kept him quite busy; they were exciting times, and before he'd noticed it an entire year had passed.

Arthur was sleeping nights again, eating like a king ought to, and he smiled and laughed where he hadn't, for a long time. He thought before he acted, as much as Arthur ever did. Merlin was well pleased with the prosperity of the kingdom, the general trend of Arthur's subjects to adore him, and Arthur himself. He began to let Arthur rule, really rule, and if Arthur complained about Merlin's nattering and all the boring functions of being a king, well, that was just him adjusting to the role now that he had adjusted to losing his father.

Merlin had quite enough to be going on with himself, between running the castle and running after Arthur, even with Gwen's help. At the end of the day he tended to collapse on his cot in Arthur's antechamber and sleep the just sleep of the deserving.

Life was becoming easier for Merlin, but not by a whole lot.


"I've told you a dozen times, Merlin," Arthur said that evening, as Merlin sat by the antechamber hearth with a boot-brush in one hand and a grease-box between his feet, "I have a boy for that."

"Yes, and that is me," Merlin answered, scraping mud off the sole of Arthur's boot.

"Look, you're no longer the country bumpkin servant my father foisted off on me," Arthur said. Merlin grinned as he began to rub grease into the creases across the toes. "You don't need to scrub my boots."

"I don't mind it, honest," Merlin said, rubbing industriously. "It's soothing. Helps me put my head in order."

Three years ago -- even a year ago -- Arthur would have met that with How hard can it be? There's not much in it, but things were different now. Merlin could smell it the way he scented magic every now and then, circling Camelot, waiting patiently to be let back through the gates. Arthur was still in many ways a sullen boy, but he listened. That made all the difference in the world.

"And what are you thinking of?" Arthur asked, settling himself next to Merlin at the fireplace. He bumped Merlin's shoulder with his own.

"Nothing in particular. That's why it's soothing," Merlin replied, casting him a small smile before he started on the heel of the boot.

"Come on, Merlin, speak your mind," Arthur said, just a hint of command in his voice. "You're thinking so loudly I can almost hear you."

"No, honestly, my head's one big empty echo chamber," Merlin said, giving Arthur really the perfect setup. Arthur ignored it.

"Is it Morgana again? Look, I miss her too, but those rumours come round every few months and they never come to anything. She doesn't want to be found, and after what she did to my father -- " Arthur chewed on his lip. "I miss who she was. Before. You know. I don't want her back in Camelot now."

Merlin ducked his head. "She's dead."

"How are you always so sure of that?"

"It's just a thing -- " Merlin set Arthur's boot down and raised his head, staring at the swords above the fireplace, exhaling. "No, you know what? I don't want to talk about Morgana."

"Fine, neither do I," Arthur agreed. "So? Then? What?"

"Do you ever think," Merlin said slowly, "about, you know, all the stories we tell each other, they're all about adventure and battles and stuff. Enchantments. Dragons stealing princesses and knights getting them back. Do you ever think that none of that's what it's really about?"

Arthur was silent for a while before he finally weighed in on this thought: "What?"

"I just think, you know, the real...stuff, like, all right..." Merlin sighed. "When we actually change things, most of the time I don't think it's in battle. I think people change things quietly, in little rooms. Like we are here. You and me, talking. I think this is where the world is shaped."

"You think so?" Arthur asked, contemplative. Sometimes it was funny, giving him something and watching his clever but not overly speedy brain wrestle with it. Tonight it was more fraught with nerves than usual. Only to be expected, but not easy.

"It just seems like that's where it happens, that's all," Merlin said, shrugging. He inhaled, and the words came out before he'd really gone over, one last time, the wisdom of this. "I think you should lift your father's ban on magic."

"What? Why?" Arthur demanded, turning and throwing a leg over the bench so he was straddling it, facing Merlin. "Why would I do that?"

"Because repression is never really the answer," Merlin replied, staring down at Arthur's boot. "Because not all magic is bad."

"Where are you getting this? Is someone feeding this to you?" Arthur demanded.

"You think anyone feeds me anything I don't want?" Merlin asked, more sharply than he usually addressed his king. "When I tell you something it's because I've seen it, because I know it's true. That's why you have me, to tell you the truth."

"Magic killed my mother," Arthur said, his voice low and dangerous.

"Your father drowned children for being magic," Merlin retorted. Arthur looked like he'd been slapped. "It's time, Arthur. Uther banned magic because he was hurt and frightened. Don't be like him. You're better than he was."

"If I lifted the ban on magic, every two-bit wizard for miles around would invade Camelot. It'd be chaos. I don't even know that the people would support it," Arthur said.

"Some are already here, Arthur. You know they still come here, and at least you'd know who they were. If you lifted the ban on magic, real magicians would come too," Merlin replied, soft, persuasive. "Witches and wizards with real power to offer you, loyalty too if you protected them. We could defend ourselves against other kings who do -- "

"Have I ever failed to defend Camelot?" Arthur asked, voice chilly. Merlin sighed.

"No. But it's been a near thing sometimes, and -- " he hesitated.

He was pretty sure Arthur wouldn't have him killed. He was almost as sure that if Arthur did come after him, he could get away and make it to the border before someone caught him. He was entirely sure he didn't want to live without his king.

"Well, the kingdom's ticking over pretty nicely," he said, after a tense moment. He picked up Arthur's other boot and began to scrub it. "You're kinging along, things basically work, and the castle runs itself more or less."

"What are you saying?" Arthur demanded.

"I'm saying if you hadn't had me you wouldn't have held Camelot. At least three times over," Merlin said, suddenly angry at Arthur's ignorance, furious with Arthur's unwillingness to see, because how could Arthur not have seen? All these years? He must have been willingly blind, and that scared Merlin more than anything else. "If you don't lift the ban on magic then I need to leave. I just want to make sure things don't fall apart when I leave because, believe it or not, I do care about Camelot. But I can't stay any longer, if you don't lift the ban."

Arthur withdrew, just a little, just enough to hurt; Merlin cut his eyes sideways, expecting disgust on Arthur's face. Expecting a blow, even. But Arthur just looked stunned, like he was still trying to work out why Merlin would leave.

"Are you enchanted?" Arthur asked.

"No," Merlin said, scornfully. "Don't you get it, Arthur? I'm a warlock. Those times things just miraculously went our way? That was me. I've spent years defending Camelot with magic, and it's exhausting. Hiding is exhausting, and I'm done."

He scuffed the side of Arthur's boot, waiting for reply. Arthur shifted, almost as if he were nervous, and then he said the last thing Merlin expected: "When?"

"Since I was a child -- "

"No. When did you save Camelot, when I couldn't?" Arthur asked.

"Does it matter?"

"Of course it matters."

Merlin inhaled, trying to even remember the times he'd defended the prince, the king, the country with illicit skills. "Well. When the dragon attacked. I may have, you know, nudged him away from Camelot."

"Nudged," Arthur repeated.

"And when Cenred laid siege, remember all those skeleton soldiers? Stopped them," Merlin added. "I mean, there were a couple of others but it all sort of runs together after a while."

"We barely pushed Cenred back from the gates," Arthur said. "We couldn't have if we'd been fighting two fronts."

"Yeah, I know," Merlin replied. "I was there."

"Why didn't you tell me?" Arthur asked. Merlin gave him a dry look.

"Uther was on the throne. Ban on magic, remember? You could have me executed tomorrow if you wanted. Nobody'd bat an eye."

"Gwen would castrate me," Arthur said.

"You're the king. Have her killed too," Merlin said. Arthur sucked in a breath. "See? That's the road it puts you on, Arthur. So lift the ban, or have me executed or banished, or I go on my own."

He wasn't expecting Arthur to grab his wrist, or to slowly tug the boot out of his hand. Arthur just held him there in a solid grip; Merlin, for all he was no longer a boy, couldn't have pulled away if he'd tried. He sat there, looking at Arthur, wrist locked in Arthur's fingers.

"Show me," Arthur said. "Prove it."


"Because it'd be like you to pretend, just to get me to say yes," Arthur said. Merlin bridled, but he saw the truth of it; that did sound awfully like him.

He glanced at the fire, which was all but embers, and murmured, "Cume her fyrbryne." The fire flared up bright and sudden, sparks spitting out onto the hearthstone. Arthur started and tumbled off the end of the bench, and Merlin burst out laughing. He knew it wasn't right to laugh; it was mad laughter, not rational and probably not good, but one so rarely caught Arthur off guard.

Arthur bounded up, furious and embarrassed, and crossed his arms. "That's not funny."

"No, I know, I know," Merlin managed, schooling his features and wiping the corners of his eyes. "It's not funny at all, I know that. Believe me. I know it better than anyone."

Arthur pushed his lip out a little, a sign he was thinking. Merlin watched warily, ready to bolt if he had to.

"All those times I thought I saved Camelot..." he began.

"Well, really, did you ever think that?" Merlin asked. "I mean, most of the time you had knights and such helping out, and you know that. You never saved it single-handed."

"I didn't know I had magic helping me!"

"Would you have fought harder if you had?"

"Of course not! I always fight my hardest," Arthur said, insulted.

"So do I," Merlin replied. "This is where you prove you're your own king, Arthur. Maybe this is where you prove you're a good king. In a little room, in the dark, where nobody knows except me. You're the king. You decide my fate. That's fine and all, it's the way life is and I get that, but I'd like a decision."

"I wish I could ban pushy servants who are smarter than I am," Arthur said ruefully.

"I'm going to remember you admitted that," Merlin replied. "So? Waiting on an answer, your majesty."

Arthur let his arms fall, glanced at the merrily crackling fire behind him, and settled down on the bench again, hands clenched between his knees, hunched forward.

"I can't just say, ban's lifted, welcome all ye who enter with magic," he said. "It'd cause utter confusion. Riots. And there are bad people out there, it wouldn't be safe. Besides, my own knights -- some of them are my father's men, still. They'd never stand for it. You have to tell me how to do this, Merlin, I don't know how."

Merlin, very daringly, reached out and brushed a stray curling bit of hair off Arthur's temple. "Well, that's why you keep me around. If I show you how, you'll do it?"

"Yes," Arthur said, though it looked like it cost him something to say it.

"Because it's me, or because it's right?" Merlin asked.

"Happily," Arthur said, "it may actually be both."

Merlin gave him a fond grin. "Well, you got lucky this time, then."


Arthur's reforms swept through Camelot in the following months -- not just the gradual easing of the ban on magic but other reforms as well, on farming and sale of animals, on taxes and trials. People did come to Camelot, but not as many magical folk as Arthur had feared or Merlin had wished for. People came, ordinary people, because if a tax collector threatened your wife you could tell the king and he'd sack him. People came to Camelot because if they were accused of theft, they'd get a chance to defend themselves. And some did come because they were magic, because they'd never been to Pendragon's kingdom and wanted to see it for themselves, but more came to settle its rich farmlands. Merlin, neglecting his duties scandalously, took to riding out to see them, to talk with them and find if he could learn anything. Sometimes he taught, too.

The influx of laboring and landowning classes into Camelot -- or rather, their departure from other kingdoms -- drew attention from the surrounding kings. Very rarely was it welcome attention, but then that was only a matter of setting Camelot's superior strength of arms and surpassing strategy on those who threatened it. Arthur made peace with the insecure grey-hairs and the impetuous kinglings who protested in word only, but he showed no mercy to those who marched on his home.

Even in Camelot, the reforms did not always sit well with everyone. Some whispered that Merlin was behind them (quite true) and that he'd enchanted the king (patently false). Merlin's open displays of magic in the court, while reasonably restrained, were not acceptable to all of the knights, especially the older ones who were either loyal to Uther or fearful of change. Some, apparently, had preferred drowning children.

Arthur might, with a son's steadfast faith, forgive his father's mistakes, but he couldn't brook continuing them. Still, it wasn't easy.

"I am sick to death of these -- these arseholes!" Arthur announced furiously, striding into his antechamber and slinging his cloak off, tossing it carelessly on the table. Merlin followed after, gathering it up calmly and hanging it on a hook. "Knights of Camelot should fear nothing!"

"I'm sure they only think they're protecting the kingdom," Merlin murmured, watching Arthur pace, waiting for the moment when he'd go still and thoughtful and Merlin could help him off with the ceremonial dress hauberk. "Sometimes people act afraid when really they're just being cautious for everyone's good. That's not the case here!" he said hurriedly, when he saw Arthur's expression. "I'm only saying..." he groped vaguely for what he was saying, and ended with, "...people are complicated."

"Why are you defending them?" Arthur asked incredulously, giving Merlin a disbelieving look. "They're talking about you, Merlin, when they say the reforms have gone too far. They think you've enchanted me, you know."

"Yes, I hear that quite often," Merlin said, attempting cheer. He did: whispered in corridors, occasionally spat in his face -- rumours carried to him by the kitchen servants and those who waited the lower tables. "It doesn't matter."

"It should matter!"

"But it's just stupid. Anyway, I've heard it all my life," Merlin replied. "At least now someone's trying to change things. Listen -- listen to me, Arthur," he said, catching Arthur's arm to stay his movement. "Before, people said this kind of thing, your father said this kind of thing, and I couldn't do anything. On fear of death, Arthur, I couldn't talk. Now," he added, stepping back and giving Arthur another game attempt at a smile, "the king's talking for me. That means something."

"Not talking enough, apparently," Arthur snarled. "My knights, my knights, whispering about you. Plotting about you."

Merlin let go of his arm. "Excuse me?"

Arthur tipped his head back, a classic tell that he'd said something he thought he shouldn't. "There was a plot on your life."

"A plot -- excuse me?"

"Listen, I took care of it. But I had to expel Gaheris the Elder and two others besides."

"That's why you banished them?" Merlin asked. "Why wasn't I told?"

"Because I wasn't told until yesterday and there wasn't time before I threw them out of my kingdom," Arthur said. "And now the rest of them are closing ranks. They think I chose you over my own men."

"Well, didn't you?" Merlin asked.

"It was never a choice, Merlin, they were going to kill you!" Arthur shouted.

"Nah. I could've taken them," Merlin replied. Arthur gave him a stunned look, and then he laughed and tossed himself down into a chair. Merlin, cautiously, knelt at his feet and tugged his boots off, setting them aside. "You have to understand it's not really me they hate," Merlin continued. "They're just sad, and old, and frightened. They can't fight like they used to, and they can't fight magic at all. They served Camelot -- they did, Arthur," he insisted, when Arthur began to protest. "As best they knew how. Now they're not allowed to serve the only way they know how. I can see why I make them uneasy. I can see why we frighten them."

"That doesn't make it right," Arthur insisted. Merlin looked up at him.

"No. I suppose not. But at least you know that," he said. "They won't live forever, and they can't argue with you forever. For one thing, I never met someone more stupidly stubborn than you are."

"You watch your tone," Arthur warned, grinning.

"Oh, yes, sire, yes sire," Merlin replied, mock-obsequious, bowing and scraping.

"That's better," Arthur said grandly. Merlin stood up, offered him a hand and hauled him up too, turning him around by the shoulders so he could unbuckle his hauberk. Arthur dipped his right shoulder so Merlin could slide it off and lay it aside, the scale-plate gleaming in the dim light. Arthur tried to half-turn and Merlin turned him back, tugging on the laces of the thin underpadding.

"You know I'm different to them, right?" Arthur said.

"Course you are," Merlin agreed.

"I mean, I know I'm my father's son, but -- "

"Just..." Merlin shook his head, even though Arthur couldn't see it. "Stop. Please."

"Do you know the first time I really saw you as a person?" Arthur asked, turning this time -- Merlin let him, pulling the underpadding off his arms.

"I can't wait to hear this," Merlin muttered.

"I asked you if you thought I should marry for political ends. And you said, I think you're mad, I think you're all mad, people should marry for love. And a bunch of other stuff I didn't listen to," Arthur added, waving a hand. "But there you were, this...person, with beliefs and feelings and opinions about me, and I realised you always had been, and your opinions mattered to me. And..." Arthur stopped, then continued, "...that they might not have been very high opinions. I thought I ought to fix that."

Merlin began unlacing Arthur's shirt. Arthur lifted his chin.

"Well, that's nice of y -- wait a minute," Merlin said, stopping and stepping back. "That was two years after I came here. What did you think I was before then?"

"Slightly dim," Arthur told him, and Merlin grabbed his shirt-laces and yanked. "Merlin!"

"It's a sign of how clever you are that you managed to stop being a spoilt brat for five minutes together and think of me as something more than ambulatory furniture," Merlin said. He let go of the laces and began undoing them again. "Though I suppose it's nice that you eventually got round to it."

Arthur shrugged off his shirt without Merlin's help, passing it to him to hang up. He unbuckled his belt and Merlin took the weight of the ornamental (but still very sharp) sword, wrapping the belt around it with the ease of years of practice and laying it on the table.

"What do we do?" Arthur asked. "I mean, I can argue with them forever, but they still won't see reason."

"Bring in new blood," Merlin said. "Listen, you don't need the nobility anymore. Not just the nobility. You've got a solid population of would-be soldiers out there, plus a safe stronghold. The people like you -- well, they think you're a good enough king, anyway," he temporised. "They'll fight for you if you show them how. You don't need the private armies your father did."

"I don't need those private armies turned on Camelot, either," Arthur pointed out.

"Well, so, find the younger ones, get them in line, that'll keep their fathers from taking any direct action. See who comes out of the woodwork when you open it to the lower towns. Gwaine and Lancelot were both good solid contenders, neither of them had a noble upbringing. You could bring them back and make them proper knights, not just your eastern border guardsmen." Merlin smiled at Arthur: shirtless, beltless, just a man under all that ceremony after all. "Crowd out the ones who don't like the way you do things."

Arthur gave him a skeptical look. "The peasantry would fight?"

"If you trained them? Sure. Men and women both. This is their land. You're their king." Merlin's smile widened, because he knew the look he was getting now -- the one where Arthur, with all the imagination his father had wasted on fear, was picturing a possible future, the kind of future that would be worth all the work. Camelot, capable of defending itself on an hour's notice, a court of young knights who would trust Merlin just as much as their king -- the power and brilliance he could add to the glittering strength of his kingdom.

"It's a big dream," Merlin said softly. "It's a bigger dream than any king's ever had before. Don't you want to chase the really big stuff, Arthur?"

"If you hadn't sworn on my sword not to enchant me," Arthur said, "I'd start to agree with the others."

"Well. I swore not to use magic against you. Nobody said anything about words," Merlin reminded him.

"Why do you stay here?" Arthur asked. "You could have any court in any kingdom for the asking. Why here?"

"Should be obvious, twit," Merlin said, and very, very slowly reached out, placing a palm over Arthur's heart. Perhaps a lesser man would have pulled away from the touch, especially since Arthur had only Merlin's word that there would be no magic between them. Arthur stayed still. "I stay for Camelot, because -- I, I stay for Camelot."

Arthur, with a sudden move, grasped Merlin's wrist and pulled it down, tugging him close. His other hand fixed against the back of Merlin's neck, bringing their foreheads together.

"I stay for you. Because I love -- I love Camelot," Merlin finished lamely. Arthur's eyes were closed. "Listen, I know a thing or two about destiny, and I was told -- "

"Shut up, shut up," Arthur snarled, and kissed him.

It was horribly awkward; Arthur's nose mashed against his cheekbone and Merlin bit down out of surprise, which made Arthur stumble back, hands still on him, pulling them both along a few steps until he regained his balance. And just like that, Merlin was pressed against Arthur's body, one of Arthur's arms around his waist, and the kiss was perfect. Of course it was, if Arthur knew nothing else he knew his own body and --

"Clothes," Arthur muttered, releasing his neck to tug painfully at the scrap of cloth tied around Merlin's throat. "Clothes, your clothes -- "

"What I was going to say about destiny -- " Merlin began, even as he was struggling to get his shirt off without breaking contact.

"Shut up about stupid destiny," Arthur commanded. "What is this -- stupid knot -- why do you even wear this thing?"

Merlin reached behind himself to untie the cloth at his throat, and Arthur promptly went to work on his shirt. Arthur was muttering about get you something better and show the whole court, I don't care and Merlin would have to deal with that in the morning, undoubtedly, because Arthur sometimes had the impulse control of a feral cat. Right now, however, Arthur had got his shirt off and was shoving him through the antechamber, into the bedroom.

"Oh, cold, so cold," Merlin yelped, as his feet touched the flagstones in Arthur's bedroom. He hadn't lit the fire in there yet; usually he did that and let it warm the room while he and Arthur sat in the antechamber and talked for a while, but obviously they'd got rather past the point of talking. Arthur was insistent and Merlin had reason to know he was entirely muscle and, yes, all right, Merlin wasn't quite so weedy as he'd been when he came to Camelot, but --

"Make me a fire," Arthur whispered, biting down on the side of Merlin's throat. There was a fwoom! as fire flared to life in the hearth, and Merlin hadn't even meant to do that. He backed up until he was almost standing on the hearthstones and then gave Arthur a gentle shove to keep him there, keep them standing there and soaking up the heat as they kissed. Arthur kissed like he was leading a charge.

"In battle camps, when I was prince, after I was given a command," Arthur said, around a stinging bite on Merlin's lip, "there were men who -- I mean, it's traditional, even if there are camp followers sometimes it's better, it makes the men fight for each other, not just -- listen, do you know how this is done?"

Merlin, who was busy trying to get Arthur's trousers off (it usually wasn't this difficult, but then usually they weren't trying to climb into each others' skin while he did it) shook his head. "I did grow up on a farm," he managed.

Arthur laughed and ran his hand down the small of Merlin's back. "Not quite the same thing," he said. He pulled their hips together, and Merlin exhaled sharply and a stray thought crossed his mind that should have crossed it about five minutes before.

"Gwen," he said, and Arthur froze.

"What?" he asked.

"Gwen, there's Gwen, you love Gwen," Merlin babbled. "She's my friend, Arthur, I can't -- you shouldn't," he added, trying to pull away and getting precisely nowhere.

"There's nothing spoken between Gwen and me," Arthur said, cupping Merlin's cheek, speaking in the same voice he used to soothe nervous horses. Merlin felt he probably ought to object to that on some level. "I've made her no promises."

"But you will," Merlin answered. Arthur's eyes widened. "Come on, you know you will."

"But I haven't yet," Arthur repeated.

"Arthur..." Merlin shoved at his chest in frustration and Arthur let him go, stepping back; he wouldn't stop staring at Merlin's face. "Listen, promise me. When you do -- when there is something spoken between you, we can't. I won't hurt her, Arthur, not even for you."

"I would never hurt Gwen," Arthur said, stepping close again but this time cautiously, arms held at his sides. "And I will never hurt you. So..." he ran a hand through his hair, spiking it up and disordering it, and Merlin felt an unwavering fondness well up in him. Arthur was thinking hard, and Merlin suddenly couldn't think at all.

"I'll make it right with her," Arthur said, finally. "I promise, Merlin, I'll make it right. Now can we please go back to -- "

A part of Merlin, the part that years of concealment in Camelot had made cynical, wondered just how Arthur proposed to make this right, and whether it was a convenient lie; the rest of him trusted Arthur and wanted him badly enough not to care. He cut Arthur off with a kiss, pushing them both away from the fireplace and up against one of the posts on Arthur's bed. Arthur yelped in surprise.

"That was my head," he said, rubbing the back of it where it had thunked against the wood.

"I thought you were hard-headed," Merlin grinned, covering Arthur's hand with his own. "Thurhhaele," he said, gold flaring in his eyes. Arthur slid his hand away, leaving Merlin's to cradle his head, and kissed him. "Feel better?"

"Much, thank you," Arthur replied. It seemed to have calmed him down, anyway; he locked his arms loosely around Merlin's hips and just kept kissing him, a little gentler than before. Merlin could feel Arthur's body from chest to leg, though, and he could feel Arthur's arousal against his thigh.

"Let me," Arthur murmured into his mouth. "Let me show you how soldiers do it."

"Are you calling me a soldier?" Merlin teased.

"Clearly a terrible one," Arthur answered, but he maneuvered them around the bedpost, up against the edge of the bed. Merlin felt Arthur hook his fingers in Merlin's trousers a split second before he tugged firmly with one hand and pushed with the other, stripping him off neatly. Merlin tumbled backwards onto the thick heap of blankets and furs on the king's bed. A second later Arthur joined him, all bright perfect skin and messy hair.

"How much do you love Camelot?" Arthur asked, kissing his way down Merlin's chest. Merlin wasn't certain where any of this was going, but in this instance Arthur was pretty much the resident expert. Merlin's experience was limited to hasty interludes with a couple of village girls before he'd left Ealdor and one or two lower town women in Camelot -- never frequently or for very long. He hadn't had the time.

"To my death," Merlin said, and felt Arthur's fingers tighten on his hips. "Hopefully no time soon," he added, and Arthur laughed against his hip.

"I am the king," Arthur said. Merlin couldn't help it; his hips bucked up against Arthur's hands. "I am Camelot."

"That is -- that is -- " Merlin tried for that is the tradition but Arthur actually had his head bent over Merlin's cock and he wasn't, really, no he wasn't going to...

Merlin's back arched, eyes rolling up a little in his head as Arthur took him in his mouth. He couldn't breathe. This was brilliant.

"A -- Ar...thur..." he groaned, drawing the syllables out, and felt Arthur laugh, felt the vibrations in his throat. It was too much and it had been far too long and he wasn't sure what would happen if -- "Come here, come up, no, stop, you have to," he babbled, and Arthur raised his face, a faint line of worry creasing his forehead. His lips, Merlin couldn't stop staring at his lips. Merlin tugged on his hair and Arthur went, settling himself between Merlin's legs, oh, that was pretty good too. In fact, in the moment, and blinded to Arthur's usual flaws by the fact that they were both naked, Merlin felt Arthur was quite possibly the best thing he'd ever encountered.

"Hello," Arthur said, propping himself on his elbows on either side of Merlin's shoulders.

"Hi," Merlin answered, daringly running his thumb along Arthur's lower lip. Arthur twisted his hips and their cocks rubbed together; Merlin moaned, which seemed to encourage him to do it again. Rational thought fled; he just kept shifting, pushing against Arthur, nuzzling Arthur's hair as Arthur kissed his neck and talked into his skin -- did the man never cease talking? -- mumbled words Merlin barely heard and couldn't have paid attention to if he wanted. This was so good, better than magic even, and Merlin wanted it to go on forever even as he felt himself dancing along the edge. He gripped Arthur's shoulder tightly, his other hand scrambling at his hip for purchase, to slow him down, but Arthur just kept relentlessly thrusting against him until Merlin gave up even pretending he was in control of this and came against Arthur's stomach, a cry caught in his throat.

Arthur raised his head and kissed him, thrust a few more times with almost indolent pleasure before he stiffened and shuddered and collapsed. Merlin, panting for breath, stared at the bed's drapery and tried to form words. Arthur was heavy and almost uncomfortably warm, but he still made a little noise of protest when Arthur eased off him and slid down to the blankets, lying on his side to stare at Merlin with disconcerting focus.

"That was brilliant," Merlin said, finally. Arthur huffed a laugh and rubbed his knuckles against Merlin's chest.

"There's better," he said, kissing his shoulder. "I'll show you."

"Now?" Merlin asked in alarm.

"No, idiot," Arthur replied. "Now you find me a clean rag, and then we sleep."

Merlin made sure Arthur was looking him in the eye, then said, "Onábýwan manns."

Arthur seemed fascinated by the way his eyes glowed, but as soon as they faded he looked down, running a hand over Merlin's newly-clean skin, then over his own.

"Handy," he said. Merlin smiled. Arthur, apparently not one for basking overmuch, rolled off the bed and shoved Merlin off the other direction, pulling back the blankets and sliding in. "Well, come on. Someone didn't light the fire early enough, you'll catch your death of cold wandering round naked like that."

Merlin crawled under the blankets, heated more from the inside than the outside, and let Arthur pull him up close, sharing warmth. He thought Arthur would probably just drop off to sleep, but instead he rested his hand on Merlin's chest and, after a while, began to speak. It was rubbish at first, Arthur's usual blithering of an evening; sometimes he'd sit in the antechamber at night and just talk over the day, not really requiring much by way of reply, until he'd narrated it out and sorted it in his mind. Merlin sometimes wondered if Uther had done it too -- and, if so, whether Uther had been forced to do it alone, talking quietly to an empty room.

After a while his tone modulated and Merlin, drowsing, woke his sleepy brain enough to pay attention. Arthur was going over military numbers, the logistics of sending his knights to train the various villages should they need to fight.

"I don't know how to send the troublesome ones away," Arthur admitted. "They won't go out to train commoners, they'd know what I was doing, having away with the need for private armies. You were right, they have served honourably. They deserve their pride."

"Have Odart send them home, back to their own lands," Merlin suggested. Gaius had died two years before, and he still felt a stab in his heart when he spoke of the new court physic. Odart was a perfectly nice, quite wise man of middle age, but Merlin missed Gaius now more than ever. "One or two anyway. Rest amongst their own people would probably do them a world of good."

"Do you think the others will leave when they see new knights coming in?"

"I think they'll understand the ultimatum. And if it's their choice then it's a strategic retreat, not a retirement," Merlin agreed.

"How do I even start to open the knighthood to commoners?" Arthur mused. "Gwaine and Lancelot are a good start, I suppose. Gwaine's the son of a noble, they're both well respected. Hey, what do you think of a tournament?" he asked, pushing himself up on one elbow. "An all-comers tournament, open to local village champions. I could offer a knighthood as a prize. I could take on a few for training along the way if they showed promise. Like it just happened to be something I thought of in the moment."

"Good way to see what kind of talent the lower villages can offer," Merlin said. "Plus everyone loves a good brawl."

"This is the knighthood, Merlin, not a wrestling match in the town square," Arthur said sternly.

"Much of a sameness in the end, though," Merlin replied. Arthur cuffed his head affectionately. "You can't now, anyway, there's the harvest on and they can't spare anyone. Hold one for the equinox, after all the grain's been taken in for the winter. That'll give the losers all winter locked up inside to practice their fighting."

"And another in the spring," Arthur said. "That would work. Hm, you're not a complete idiot when you put your mind to it," he added, and kissed Merlin's temple. "Someone ought to make you court advisor."

"The position's been filled," Merlin replied. Arthur settled in again, but he didn't stop staring at Merlin. "What?"

"Well, the best proof is you, isn't it?" Arthur said softly. "A farm boy from Ealdor, advisor to the king."

"I have a few other talents to recommend me," Merlin replied.

"When I'm done with you, you'll have a few more," Arthur promised. He closed his eyes and exhaled against Merlin's shoulder. "We should sleep. Tomorrow you need to start planning the tournament."

"My life to serve," Merlin drawled, but he rested his head against Arthur's, and closed his eyes.

Part Two