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through this life, and into the next (this is a marriage of equals)

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Merlin catches the first glance of him through a crowded room.

 

He is Arthur Pendragon, crown prince of Camelot, knight of the realm, and soon to be Merlin’s betrothed. Arthur is a flash of red and gold in a sea of grey, faceless courtiers, like a ray of sunshine on a cloudy morning. His hair shines golden, brighter even than the crown that sits slightly lopsided on top of it.

 Arthur Pendragon - hyraeth

One of Camelot’s many nobles steps forwards and blocks Arthur from Merlin’s view momentarily. There are so many people between them, so many people in this room, that Merlin has trouble breathing because of it. The crowds at the solstices in the forest might be greater, but that’s people spread among the trees, not pressed between stone walls until all air is gone. To make matters worse, his parents seem to have abandoned him among theses strangers, making him feel lost and alone and all of three years old instead of his actual eighteen summers. Observing Arthur had at least distracted him somewhat. And when someone shoves him from behind, Arthur is right back in his view - only this time he is looking back. Suddenly nervous, Merlin brushes his hair out of his eyes. It is not light and golden like Arthur’s but dark and unruly, a black mess that always makes his mother tut at him.

 

As Arthur won’t stop staring at him, Merlin decides to look his fill, too. Arthur appears to be wearing armour, chainmail and a breastplate, though Merlin can’t tell whether it is ceremonial or actually meant for battle. Given King Uther’s general opinion of magic and magic users, Merlin would guess that it’s the latter - even though it wouldn’t make much of a difference. There’s plenty of spells that armour can’t protect you from, unless it’s been spelled itself. But that’s why they are here after all: to prove these suspicions and fears wrong and foster better relations between the people of Camelot and the druids.

 

Though why it had to be a betrothal of all things, Merlin still doesn’t get, despite his father’s repeated attempts to explain. Or perhaps the problem is rather that Merlin still doesn’t see why it has to be his hand that bridges the gap.

 

As if summoned by his maudlin thoughts, his parents appear on either side of him and half-guide, half-push him towards the dais at the end of the room, where King Uther is already waiting. Merlin feels rather like a lamb being led to the slaughter. The King’s lips might be smiling, but his eyes are cold but for a ferocious light burning within them that scares Merlin. It reminds him of the madmen and -women who are driven by the demons in their minds to do unmentionable things. They are sometimes brought to the druids for help, though seldom with success. It seems as though his father sees the same thing, because his hand tightens around Merlin’s elbow for a long moment, as if in silent warning.

 

When Merlin and his parents finally reach the dais, Prince Arthur is just approaching it from the other side, on his arm a tall, beautiful girl with hair as black as Merlin’s but neatly combed and braided. Her hand rests gently on Arthur’s forearm, but somehow Merlin gets a feeling that she is the one steering them, not Arthur. Perhaps it is the rather mulish expression on Arthur’s face that wasn’t there yet when their eyes caught earlier and that vanishes as soon as King Uther turns towards Arthur and his escort, to be replaced by a masque of indifference. The girl, who must be Princess Morgana, the King’s ward and possibly Arthur’s lover if the rumours are to be believed, curtseys to the King and then steps aside, leaving Arthur standing alone in front of dais, king, and people.

 

Merlin finally has a chance to take in the rest of Arthur’s outfit, most of which isn’t worth note, except for the vibrant, red coat of the knights of Camelot that flows around his broad shoulders. It makes Merlin feel better about his own coat at least, which has already gained a few condescending looks from Camelot’s more fashionable courtiers, even though it’s the closest thing to luxury the druids ever afford. Merlin’s coat is dark green, like the moss in the deepest shade and light enough not to overheat in this stifling room, even though that means it isn’t warm enough for winter, which makes it rather impractical. But it’s soft and beautiful, resplendent even in Merlin’s biased opinion, and he can still smell the earth and leaves of the forest if he buries his nose in the folds of the hood. The hood is worth a mention if only for the protection it offers, allowing Merlin to hide his face somewhat.

 Merlin

This becomes especially important when a nudge from his mother makes him realise that instead of staring at Arthur standing alone he should have stepped forward to join him. The hood hides his flaming cheeks when he finally takes the last few steps towards Arthur, stumbling over his own feet in his hurry to correct his fauxpas. Princess Morgana is so kind as to at least attempt to hide her a smile behind a hand, but Arthur - because there’s nothing princely about that prat Merlin has decided - doesn’t even bother trying to hide his smirk and eyeroll. Merlin glares back at him and ignores the voice in his head that tells him it probably doesn’t look as menacing as he’d like it to, what with his cheeks flaming red-hot in embarrassment. Arthur seems to agree because he just grins angelically - Merlin hears some besotted sighs behind him, one of which sounds frighteningly like his mother and thinks uncharitably that these teeth are really too crooked for the smile to be considered attractive by any means.

 

And no, he doesn’t think they’re cute, not even a little.

 

Arthur doesn’t seem to be deterred by Merlin’s glare. He just steps forward and offers Merlin his arm and Merlin has no choice but to step forward, too, and take it. He makes sure to grip it tightly enough that Arthur has to feel it, though, and hisses:

 

“I’m not a girl, you prat!”

 

“Oh, really,” Arthur hisses back, still grinning maddeningly and looking as though he’s enjoying himself. “Could have fooled me with your lashes and stumbling over your petticoats.”

 

They’ve turned around fully towards the dais now, so Merlin can’t talk back at Arthur anymore and is left to wonder whether that comment about his lashes was an insult wrapped in a compliment or perhaps a compliment wrapped in an insult after all. Someone clears their throat and Merlin finally looks up towards Uther who has moved towards the edge of the dais. Next to him stands Merlin’s father, uninvited, Merlin is sure, going by Uther looking as though he has just bit into a lemon. Merlin entertains himself with thoughts of Uther trying to push his father off the platform in a fit and thus misses the first words of Uther’s speech. He only tunes back in when he hears Uther talk about a promise:

 

“Tomorrow our sons will be handfasted in promise, a promise that will hopefully lead to their hands and hearts being joined as one in a year and a day, a promise that will unite Camelot and the druids to the indisputable advantage of both.”

 

Merlin is strangely aware of his hand still clutching Arthur’s arm and how strong and warm that feels even through the multiple layers of cloth separating them, Arthur’s clothes and Merlin’s glove a barrier between their skin that will only get removed tomorrow for the ceremony. But for tonight this is as intimate as their touches are going to get - and Merlin really shouldn’t feel disappointed about that.

 

His father has started to speak in the meantime, after Uther was finished, but Merlin tunes him out. He already knows all of his favourite phrases - he’ll surely say something about unity and the land - and frankly Merlin’s mother is the better speaker out of the two of them. But Balinor is the dragonlord, so he gets to give the speech here.

 

Merlin regrets not listening almost immediately, though, because it means he is not in the least prepared for the cheer that suddenly rings out behind them. Merlin is so startled by it that he almost loses his balance and the only thing that’s stopping him from falling on his butt - or his nose, knowing his luck - is Arthur’s arm, which he is still clutching like a lifeline, suddenly very grateful for how sturdy it is. Apparently his grip is a little too tight, though, because Arthur lets out a tiny wince. Merlin is just about to let go of his arm in contrition, but then Arthur swings them around without warning to face the druids and people of Camelot gathered in the throne room and Merlin has to grab for Arthur with both hands like a fainting maiden in order to, well, not fall before Arthur’s feet like an actually fainting maiden.

 

Arthur doesn’t seem to notice anything awry; he’s just smiling at the still cheering courtiers. But there’s a tiny uptick of his mouth that Merlin is convinced is a badly hidden malicious smirk at Merlin’s clumsiness - which was totally Arthur’s fault for not warning him!

 

Then Arthur puts his other hand over Merlin’s hand, both of their thin, ceremonial gloves muting the sensation but the heat still slowly seeping through to warm Merlin’s fingers, caught between Arthur’s arm and palm. The cheers grow even louder and Merlin’s heart skips a beat when Arthur turns slightly to smile at him, squeezing his hand gently. Merlin just stares back at him, not quite sure how to react and thinks: “Perhaps this isn’t going to be too bad after all.”

 

But then Arthur’s gentle squeeze turns painful and and his friendly smile turns into a hiss: “ Mer lin, smile, you idiot ” and Merlin bares his teeth at him in a smile that only becomes slightly more believable when he directs it towards the still cheering crowd - honestly, aren’t they tired of this yet? - and thinks:

 

“This year and a day can’t pass quickly enough.”

 

scene breaker

 

Once the cheering finally subsides, Merlin thankfully gets kidnapped by Princess Morgana before he can do something he’d regret like turning Arthur’s shiny hair purple. Morgana draws him away into the crowd for a dance, refusing to listen to Merlin’s objections that he doesn’t know any courtly dances, just a reel or two. Morgana waves her hand dismissively, as though his arguments are simply some annoying flies, and says: “I’ll teach you then,” as if it was going to be that easy.

 

It turns out that is is that easy - Morgana is a great teacher, gentle, but firm, quickly taking the lead whenever Merlin stumbles and quick enough on her feet to salvage the dance whenever Merlin turns around the wrong way - which is often.

 

At first she only gives him instructions and directions - “turn left, Merlin, no, the other left, no towards me - oh stop bothering, it’s time for the next figure anyways,” but when she seems reasonably sure that Merlin has the steps at least somewhat down, she actually starts talking to him:

 

“Arthur’s my brother - in everything that matters,” she amends at Merlin’s quizzical noise, “and he can be a terrible prat, but he’s a great big puppy really and his bark is way worse than his bite, so don’t give up on him just yet, okay?”

 

Merlin blinks and is glad that the dance takes them away from each other for a few steps again because he didn’t expect that and doesn’t quite know how to react. Unfortunately he hasn’t figured that out by the time they’re moving together again and so just blurts out:

 

“What, no ‘hurt him and you die’ speech?”

 

Morgana’s smile doesn’t change in the slightest and her voice is still even and friendly when she retorts: “I don’t have to, do I?” but Merlin still hurriedly shakes his head, sure that he’d at least lose a limb if he didn’t. And it’s true anyways - he might entertain thoughts of turning Arthur’s head into that of a donkey, but not of ripping it off entirely.

 

Morgana’s smile is as brilliant as it was before, but this time it warms instead of chills him.

 

“So you’ll give him a chance,” she says and it sounds more like a statement than a question, “oh I know you are going to be brilliant together!”

 

It’s just one of those phrases people say, but coming from Morgana’s mouth there’s no denying her conviction and Merlin can’t help believing her, despite his own misgivings. She just sounds so sure.

scene breaker

 

The night passes in a blur of unfamiliar faces and unfamiliar dances - Merlin dances twice more with Morgana, then she introduces him to her handmaiden Gwen, who is an equally gifted dancer but is too shy to give him orders at first, until Merlin makes such a mess of a figure called the bread basket that involves them weaving under and through each other’s arms that they need Morgana’s help to get untangled again. After that Gwen gets over her propriety long enough to tell him how to move, even if she still apologises frequently for it.

 

Merlin even dances one memorable, painfully awkward dance with Arthur. It mostly consists of them stepping on each other’s toes and fighting over who is the lead. But there is a moment or two where their eyes meet over their joined hands and their steps are almost perfectly in sync and everything else just fades into the background. Morgana’s words keep echoing in Merlin’s head: “You are going to be brilliant together.”

 

For now though, they are mostly awkward together.

 

scene breaker

 

The day of the handfasting dawns bright and friendly, which is a good thing, because unlike the welcoming celebration the night before, the ceremony is going to take place in the courtyard, to allow not just the courtiers, but all people of Camelot to witness their prince being promised to a druid.

 

Merlin is currently getting ready with the help of his mother and father. There’s not much to prepare admittedly, but tomorrow they will leave Camelot and Merlin with it. Any longer and either Uther or Balinor would snap, Merlin thinks - his money would be on Uther snapping first, Balinor has Hunith to knock some sense into him after all - so Merlin is glad for any time he still gets to spend with them in private. They don’t talk about anything important - all the heavy, hard stuff has already been dealt with, everything Merlin needs to know about Camelot, about Uther’s hate of magic, everything his father could warn him about and prepare him for. Hunith’s words of advice were a little less ominous, but all the more embarrassing. She took great delight in telling him what to expect and how to prepare for his future relationship with Arthur, pun intended. Even Merlin’s loud and desperate attempts to fend her off with assurances that they’ll just figure it all out as they go weren’t enough to deter her. Merlin feels his cheeks flaming again even in memory.

 

All too soon it’s already time to put on his gloves. These have been specially made for this occasion, embroidered with symbols of love, and trust, and fertility. Merlin slowly pulls them over his wrists, thinking about how he’ll pull them off again in just a few minutes, how Arthur will take off his own gloves, too, and how they’ll touch their hands together, skin to skin for the first time. It’s ridiculous how that thought makes Merlin’s pulse pound in his veins; there is no reason for being so nervous. It’s not as though he’s hiding any disfigurement beneath the gloves, and unless it was hidden with magic, neither is Arthur.

 

If Merlin is quite honest with himself, though, then he has to admit that the nervosity is at least part anticipation. He wonders whether Arthur’s hands will be soft or calloused - he’s a knight after all, but he’s still a prince -, how warm they’ll feel under Merlin’s fingers, whether they’ll be cautious or confident, trembling like Merlin’s are currently or calm. Mostly he wonders if Arthur will want to do it again - hold Merlin’s hand, skin to skin. It’s technically not allowed - the rules of Camelot are so much stricter than Merlin is used to - but they’ll be handfasted after today and apparently that means that people will look the other way as long as they are discreet about bending the rules a little.

 

His mother’s hand, wrapped in her own gloves, covers his and drags him out of his thoughts.

 

“It’s time, cariad,” she says, smiling softly, if a little sadly. This hadn’t been his mother’s idea, and she’d fought tooth and nail for him and his freedom of choice. Merlin is pretty sure that she was the one to argue the arrangement down from a marriage to a handfasting, giving him an out if he needs it. With his mixed impression of Arthur so far, Merlin thinks he might be glad for it in the end.

 

His father is already waiting by the door, face carefully schooled into a neutral expression. He wants this even less for Merlin than his mother does; she at least has some hope that he might actually find love in this arrangement. With his father’s opinion of the Pendragons as dismal as it is, it is no surprise that he only expects the worst. On top of this, Merlin is sure his father harbours some guilt because he feels that it is ultimately his fault Merlin is in this situation. Merlin thinks that’s nonsense; it’s not as though his father chose to become a dragonlord, and even if he had, obviously no one could have foreseen that it would lead to Merlin getting betrothed to the Prince of Camelot one day. It’s a twist of fate that no one could have predicted or prevented, so there’s no point in looking for somebody to blame. Well, except for perhaps the seers, who had been extra nutty in the lead up to this, talking about coins and halves, fate, destiny and chicken of all things. Merlin has long since given up on trying to make sense of their predictions; one of the first lessons he learned was not to try to form his life after a prophecy but to let his life form the prophecy instead.

 

It will be up to him to build his destiny now, in this year and a day that he’ll share with Arthur. And a year and a day from now he’ll have to decide whether he wants to share the rest of his life with Arthur - and hope that Arthur will feel the same way.

 

scene breaker

 

The courtyard is packed when Merlin and his parents get there. All of Camelot seems to have squeezed in among the stone walls and Merlin’s breath catches just from looking down at them and how tightly squished together they all are. This is taking place under the open sky, but somehow Merlin can get even less air than in the courtroom.

 

“Breathe, cariad,” his mother whispers next to him, but Merlin can’t and he’s getting dizzy, cheering faces blurring together into a screaming mass. Like in the throneroom, Arthur’s face is the only one that stays sharp and clear and Merlin tries to focus on him and not to fall down the last few steps out of the castle. Either he truly looks like he’s going to faint or Arthur is more of a gentleman than Merlin expected, in any case Arthur steps forward to meet him at the bottom of the stairs, offering a hand. Merlin somehow finds enough air to hiss: “Still not a girl,” but is secretly grateful for the support. Arthur hisses back: “Still pretty enough you could have fooled me” but he does keep Merlin steady when he stumbles on the last step because he still can’t decide whether Arthur is really good at back-handed compliments or really bad at honest compliments.

 

The king is already waiting for them, Morgana behind him next to Gaius, Hunith’s brother and Uther’s court physician, who has orchestrated this whole arranged marriage Merlin is caught in now. Both Gaius and Morgana are holding several bands dyed in different colours, which will be wrapped around Merlin and Arthur’s hands during the actual handfasting. Uther is giving a short speech, but Merlin can’t hear any of it over the roaring in his ears. Arthur tugging on his hand unobtrusively gets him to move forwards, but Merlin still feels like he’s wrapped in cotton somehow, everything fuzzy and muted except for Arthur’s hand in his.

 

And then even that’s gone.

 

Merlin is still trying to kick himself out of his daze, when Arthur’s hands touch his again, this time sans gloves. Arthur’s fingers are gentle as they tug on Merlin’s gloves and together, with Merlin’s clumsy fingers more hindering than helping, they get Merlin’s gloves off, too, and touch hands skin to skin for the first time. There are no sparks and the earth doesn’t move, but Arthur’s hand is warm in Merlin’s and that is more momentous somehow.

 

Morgana steps forward and starts wrapping the first band around their joined hands, while Arthur intones the first line of the vows:

 

“You cannot possess me for I belong to myself,
But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give.”

 

As Gaius ties the second band around their hands Merlin echoes Arthur and adds the second verse, the words flowing smoothly over his tongue as though it’s not even him speaking them:

 

“You cannot command me, for I am a free person,
But I shall serve you in those ways you require
and the honeycomb will taste sweeter coming from my hand.”

 

Arthur repeats the lines and this time the earth does move - or at least the magic in the earth reacts, responds to Arthur’s vow. The magic rises up around Merlin, within Merlin, invisible but palpable, tangible almost, so strong that he’s sure everyone else must feel it, too. But neither his father, nor Gaius, the only two present whom Merlin knows to have magic, react in any way. Behind Arthur the princess Morgana let’s out a gasp though and when Merlin looks over Arthur’s shoulder at her, her eyes are wide and flitting around him and Arthur, as though she is able to see the magic swirling around them.

 

By now the magic has formed a thick wall around the two of them; when Merlin looks at anything that isn’t Arthur it’s as though he’s looking through thick, milky glass, or up through water from the bottom of a lake bathed in sunshine. Looking at Arthur is like looking at the sun in comparison, the magic’s golden glow reflecting off his skin, bright and beautiful and Merlin fears that his eyes are shining golden in return, which Uther would surely not approve off.

 

Through it all Arthur seems to remain oblivious, though, his hand steady in Merlin’s, his face impassive, as if he can’t see, can’t even sense magic itself reacting to their vows. And this isn’t even the full set of vows that is exchanged at a marriage ceremony; these are just the reduced vows used for a handfasting - Merlin honestly fears that the earth might actually move when, if there will be a wedding after the coming year and a day.

 

The last bands are tied by their parents, Uther and Hunith passing through the wall of magic as if it isn’t even there. Only Balinor hesitates as if he senses that something is obstructing his way, but even he moves forward after only the fraction of a second - if Merlin hadn’t been looking for a reaction, he’s sure he would have missed it. With the final bands securing them together, Arthur squeezes Merlin’s hands and together they recite the last line of their vows:


“And beyond this, I will cherish and honor you through this year, and into the next.”

 

On the last word the magic rushes inward and into them and finally Arthur seems to feel something. His hold on Merlin’s hand tightens until it is almost painful and his next draw of air is almost a gasp. His eyes are wide in wonder in the short moment that Merlin stares into them before he slams his own close because now he is sure that his eyes are glowing gold - Arthur’s certainly are. But at least he is facing Merlin’s parents who demonstrably do not have any issues with magic, unlike Arthur’s father, whom Merlin is facing.

 

The magic is churning inside of him and Merlin wonders whether it feels the same for Arthur, whether he also feels like a pot of boiling water about to bubble over, like parched earth hit by the first rain of spring, like he can move mountains without breaking in a sweat, like he’s going to explode if he can’t let out some steam soon. But before he can do that he’ll first have to survive the rest of the ceremony. There’s another short speech from each of their fathers and then Merlin and Arthur awkwardly turn to bow for the gathered crowd, with their hands still bound together. To the sound of cheers they then slowly crab-walk up the stairs into the castle, placing each step carefully so that neither stumbles and falls, sure to pull the other down with him. Arthur nods to the guard at the entrance and then leads them down a corridor and up a flight of stairs and down another corridor until Merlin is utterly lost and they are standing in what has to be Arthur’s chambers.

 

Merlin doesn’t have time to look around, though, because Arthur immediately starts tugging on the bands tying them together. But the knots have tightened up so much that he can’t open them and his increasingly frustrated tugging just pulls them tighter and tighter. Merlin feels the magic yearning for an outlet inside of him and stills Arthur with his free hand.

 

“Let me?” he asks and when Arthur shrugs, probably expecting Merlin to tug in turn at the bands with his free hand, Merlin breathes out and lets the magic go. Arthur gasps and jumps away from Merlin. The only reason he doesn’t fall on his shapely bum is because Merlin’s magic has unraveled the bands and coiled them up neatly on Merlin’s still outstretched hand, so Merlin really doesn’t see how Arthur gets to be scandalised. Arthur’s wide-eyed shout: “You’ve got magic?!” doesn’t really make it any better and Merlin only barely stops himself from rolling his eyes and saying “Duh”. Instead he replies: “Yeah, and so’ve got you right now, probably,” which in hindsight isn’t much better either.

 

Arthur actually takes another step away from him, eyes narrowed in anger now.

 

“How dare you? I don’t have magic; I’m normal!”

 

“No, not like I have, that’s true, just from the ritual,” Merlin hurries to explain, trying to appease Arthur even if he’s seething about the “I am normal” inside.

 

“You’ve put a spell on me?” Arthur demands and this time Merlin actually rolls his eyes.

 

“Oh for - Prince Arthur, I assure you, you haven’t got a single spark of magic within you and I didn’t put a spell on you either. Our handfasting ritual just called up the magic of the earth and the land around us and that was released through us because we were the conduits. I promise there will be no lasting side-effects and you won’t be tainted by any dirty magic. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’d rather go for some company that doesn’t think I’m disgusting.”

 

Merlin gives himself just a short moment to enjoy Arthur’s gobsmacked expression before twirling around and striding out, gratified that he has gotten the last word at least.

 

scene breaker

 

Unfortunately getting the last word means that Merlin forgets to ask about the way to his own rooms, or at least the rooms he has been staying in with his parents, which in turn means that Merlin gets horribly lost. The Princess Morgana finds him as he’s desperately roaming the halls of the castle and takes pity on him - after laughing at his expense for a completely unnecessary amount of time, if you ask Merlin. At least she also agrees that Arthur had been a dick and that Merlin’s reaction had been justified, and even a bit admirable - “There’s not enough people who dare to tell Arthur ‘No’, Merlin. It has given him far too big a head, really.” - if a little rash and with unfortunate consequences.

 

But Morgana doesn’t just laugh at him, she also leads him back to his parents, who have packed up their remaining possessions and are ready to move back to the druids’ dwellings in the forest, leaving behind Merlin all on his own in Camelot. Merlin isn’t ashamed to admit that he clings a little to his mother when they hug goodbye. This isn’t the first time he is leaving what he used to call home behind - he and Hunith used to live in a little village called Ealdor until Balinor returned and took them with him to live with the druids - but it is the first time he has to do so all on his own.

 

There is no ceremony to bid his parents goodbye. Merlin guesses that Uther is only counting down the seconds until Balinor has left his castle again and is loath to do anything that might prolong his stay even a little. It’s just Morgana calling for the horses to be readied and then leading Merlin and his parents through the castle and the lower town to the grand gate in the outer wall. To Merlin’s surprise Arthur is waiting for them there with the horses, along with a cart filled to the brim with delicacies and luxuries that Merlin knows the druids usually don’t have access to.

 

Arthur politely greets them, making no reference to Merlin’s earlier outburst, and gives them a summary of all that the cart carries. Unlike Merlin’s first impression it is mostly useful luxuries, like parchment, ink, and quills or thick wool blankets, though there are also one or two bolts of the fine fabric Morgana seems to prefer - because apparently “everyone deserves something that’s just pretty and feels nice,” according to her. They will feel nice if the summer gets hot, Merlin presumes, so she’s not wrong.

 

Merlin’s father tries to give some token protest but Arthur and Morgana are having none of it.

 

“You’ve given Camelot a most precious gift; this is the least we can do to start repaying it,” she says and at first Merlin doesn’t even get that he is supposed to be the ‘precious gift’ she is talking about. Then Morgana nudges Arthur with her elbow and asks sweetly: “Don’t you agree, Arthur?” and Arthur’s eyes dart towards Merlin before he turns a rather interesting shade of bright red which Merlin would appreciate more if he weren’t sure he has turned a matching shade of purple.

 

“I can tell you’ll be in good hands here, cariad,” his mother interjects and winks when Merlin turns to her.

 

“Come visit us, if you can,” Balinor adds, “all of you.”

 

Morgana graciously accepts the invitation for all of them and indeed carries the entire conversation through all of the last round of hugs and kisses until Merlin is waving his final goodbye after his parents. He’s just thinking how much he appreciates her help when she turns towards Arthur with a sugary sweet smile and says: “You’ll show Merlin to his rooms, won’t you, Arthur? He got terribly lost earlier, the poor dear; you should really care better for your promised!”

 

And with a quick kiss pressed to each of their cheeks and a swirl of perfumed cloth she is gone before either can protest, leaving Merlin and Arthur to awkwardly stare at each other.

 

Forget about appreciating her, Morgana is a terrible witch and Merlin hates her.

 

scene breaker

 

Arthur does indeed bring Merlin to his rooms - which are of course right next to Arthur’s own. Not that it makes any difference, because Arthur still ends up ignoring Merlin for the next two weeks. Merlin tries not to let it get to him, spending most of his free time either with Morgana and Gwen, who has lost most of her shyness around him, or in Camelot’s library under the watchful eye of Geoffrey. He also tries to visit Gaius at least every other day to see if he needs any help. There’s usually something to hack or grind, and Merlin in turn gets to complain about his magic to someone who will listen. It has been churning inside of him ever since the handfasting ritual, restless and spilling over at inopportune moments. Merlin’s room is full of fragrant flowers and glittering gems, as if he had a fervent admirer, when it’s really just his magic gone awry.

 

So all in all Merlin is not lacking for company despite Arthur’s disregard, but when he finally happens upon Arthur in the corridor in front of their rooms, he can’t hold back a slightly sarcastic “Fancy meeting you here!”

 

Arthur ducks his head abashedly and his ears are turning red, so he at least seems to be aware of how much of an ass he’s been. So Merlin - because he actually wants to get along with his promised - tries to diffuse the tension a bit, joking: “I might have thought you were dead, had not Morgana assured me that you were just sulking.”

 

Unfortunately that seems to have been the wrong thing to say, because Arthur’s face darkens until he’s glaring at Merlin. Weirdly enough it’s not the sulking part which he takes offense to, as Merlin would have guessed.

 

“Oh, Morgana ,” Arthur mocks, “if Morgana said it, it must be right. You’ve been spending an awful lot of time with her, haven’t you?”

 

Merlin shrugs and nods: “Yes, I have. She’s been showing me around and keeping me company. But I don’t see what’s it to you?”

 

“What’s it to me? You are promised to me , not her! Guess you are regretting which Pendragon you were handfasted to, aren’t you? It’s obvious which one you like better!” Arthur has built himself up into a bit of a rage in a few short sentences, Merlin is quite surprised to see. And a little annoyed, to be honest, because really, how come Arthur thinks he is the wronged party here?

 

“Well, if we had spent any time together I might have actually gotten to know you and perhaps even like you!” Merlin returns snidely. Seriously, Arthur ignores him for two weeks and now is, what, jealous?

 

They just glare at each other for a few long moments before Arthur seems to come to a decision, standing up straight and declaring imperiously: “Then it is decided: You will spend tomorrow with me and not Morgana. We’ll see which one you’ll like better then!”

 

Arthur doesn’t even wait for a reaction from Merlin; he just turns around and disappears into his room, ignoring Merlin’s splutters.

 

Well, it looks as though he has a rendezvous with Prince Arthur tomorrow.

 

scene breaker

 

The next morning dawns bright and early and with Arthur knocking on Merlin’s door far too loudly.

 

“Get your butt out of bed, Merlin, no lazing about today! The sun is shining, the birds are singing, and swords will soon be swinging!”

 

Merlin groans and pulls his pillow over his head in an attempt to tune Arthur out.

 

This isn’t going to be a rendezvous; this is going to be training , isn’t it? Oh joy.

 

scene breaker

 

At first it isn’t as bad as Merlin fears. Arthur does indeed take him along to the knights’ training, but doesn’t expect him to join thankfully. Instead Merlin gets to sit in the shade, swarmed by tiny adorable pages who keep asking him if he wants a drink or some food before being called back by their knights to polish swords or whatever it is pages do. Merlin gets a feeling these are not the questions they really want to ask, but no one has dared to blurt out the m-word yet. Between the fawning of the pages and the suspicious side-eyes the knights keep throwing at him under the guise of ordering around their pages, Merlin feels like a mixture between an exotic, but dangerous animal, and a courtly lady fanning herself coquettishly. He’s very tempted to summon a fan for himself to kill two birds with one stone, but Arthur is making an effort here - even if it is miniscule and sort of pitiful: really, having Merlin watch him training? That’s his idea of them getting to know each other? - so Merlin is willing to play along a little longer and not make a scene.

 

Merlin has got to admit that he is even having a good time. Because of the pages he wants for nothing, and it actually is interesting to watch the knights work. The druids are a peaceful people; their competitions center around things like who can grow the brightest flowers, the biggest tree, whose protective circle holds the longest, not around war and death like the tournaments of the knights of Camelot. Although Merlin has learned defensive spells and even some that may be used to go on the offensive, fighting and tactics really haven’t been at the center of his training. So it’s interesting to see Arthur taking his knights through drills at first and then having them sparring one on one in a small tournament, which Arthur of course wins.

 

It does feel a little as though this is Arthur showing off - and if Merlin is honest: it works. Even when Arthur is not the one fighting, Merlin’s eyes are drawn back to him, intently watching his knights, following their every move with a calm, serious expression, occasionally shouting encouragements or corrections. He is obviously whom everyone else looks up to, not just because he’s the prince, but because he’s the best of them and because they trust him to not lead them astray. It might not matter much here, right now, but in an actual fight, Merlin imagines that this is the kind of leadership quality that is immeasurable and that can’t be bought or forced.

 

So in that respect, Arthur’s plan even works as far as getting to know each other is concerned: Merlin feels as though he has got a better idea now of whom Arthur is, what makes him tick, where he is comfortable in his own skin - obviously not in the throneroom yet, but definitely here, in the midst of the fry. He’s showing off, yes, but he’s also secure in his skills, not needing to show off. On the other hand, Arthur isn’t really learning anything about Merlin, is he?

 

Well, he hasn’t learned anything about Merlin so far. But that’ll apparently change now.

 

Because after a final round of drills, Arthur sends away the knights and squires and pages and turns towards Merlin with a grin. It’s a good look on him, Merlin thinks and smiles back, expecting Arthur to say something like ‘What did you think?’ when he opens his mouth. Instead Arthur claps his hands and says: “Now it’s your turn! Or are you scared, Mer lin?”

 

On second thought that grin looks rather diabolical, Merlin thinks.

 

But of course he has no other choice but to agree, grinning back at Arthur challengingly and replying: “Oh, I think it’s you who should be scared!”

 

Arthur laughs and sing-songs: “Promises, promises!” and it all feels rather a lot like they are flirting, Merlin realises with a start.

 

Then Arthur puts him in some ill-fitting armour and a helmet which seriously impedes Merlin’s vision and it all starts to feel rather a lot like torture instead. Arthur tries to put Merlin through the same drills he put the knights through, but the armour is too big, the helmet keeps knocking into Merlin’s head, and all of this is entirely new to him , so it doesn’t work out at all. Arthur keeps barking nonsensical commands at him, making Merlin feel stupid and soon enough everything hurts.

 

When Arthur jeers: “How have you survived this long, Mer lin, your aim is worse than a girl’s!” Merlin’s control snaps and instead of using his sword he uses his magic. He hasn’t used it much beyond the accidental bursts resulting in flowers and the like, too aware of Uther’s stance on it. Now it sings in his veins and the magical push Merlin gives Arthur is far stronger than he expects, making Arthur fly through the air. A hurried wave of the hand from Merlin slows and cushions his fall, but the damage has been done. When Merlin steps forward to check that Arthur hasn’t been seriously hurt, Arthur scrambles backwards and shouts, eyes wide and face pale: “Stay away from me, sorcerer!”

 

And Merlin, bones and muscles aching, heart in his throat from his own actions, and altogether frustrated and hurt at Arthur’s actions towards him so far, shouts back: “Yes, I am a sorcerer and you’d better remember it when you next attack me! Now I really wish I was promised to Morgana, congratulations!” Then he throws his borrowed armour and sword at Arthur’s feet, ignores how his expression rather resembles hurt than anger suddenly and storms back up to the castle.

 

This handfasting is such a failure and there’s no way Merlin is going to agree to more than a year and a day. He doesn’t even know if he can stand another year of this.

 

scene breaker

 

Unsurprisingly Merlin’s and Arthur’s relationship sours even more after that incident. It becomes so obvious that Morgana eventually calls him on it. Merlin hasn’t told her any of what happened yet because he’s afraid that she’d take Arthur’s side - Merlin did attack Arthur with magic after all, even if he was provoked - and without hers and Gwen’s friendship and support he might as well move into the tiny chamber off Gaius’ room and become his assistant full-time for the rest of his year and day here.

 

Morgana - once she has pulled the whole story from him - does indeed chide him for his outburst, but she also agrees that Arthur brought it about himself. Merlin only gets a short moment to feel smug about that, though, because quickly enough Morgana makes him feel bad again with just a few words.

 

“You know, this was probably Arthur’s attempt to get to know you. He is a knight of Camelot after all, the best one even, many agree - at least until they allow me to train properly - I’ve always beat his ass yet,” she boasts, before sobering again. “It’s not all he is of course, but sometimes I fear he does believe that himself. Certainly this - training the knights, teaching them the skills they need to survive, proving his worth as a leader - is very important to him and I think he wanted to share that with you. He went about it completely wrong of course; Arthur can really be quite dumb when he wants to be, but in this case I don’t think his aim was to humiliate and anger you.”

 

Merlin bites back the instinctive denial by the hurt and resentful side of him that wants it all to have been Arthur’s fault and really thinks about Morgana’s words. In his memory, Arthur’s actions have all become malicious and ill-intentioned, but when Merlin looks past his own aggravation and offense, he can see that while definitely misguided and ill-thought out, Arthur’s actions weren’t meant to spite Merlin. He remembers Arthur showing off, the wide-eyed attention of the pages and that he actually enjoyed himself during the first part of their outing. Even the one on one training Arthur subjected him to was only inconsiderate, not perfidious. He was used to training the knights, who had already been trained as pages and squires, though that only explained and not excused his actions and attitude. Still, Merlin’s reaction had been less than laudable, too, and apparently Morgana thinks it is up to him to fix this now.

 

“But what do you want me to do about it now?” he thus asks, sounding embarrassingly whiny even to his own ears. “He won’t even look at me, never mind talk to me! And even if he did, what do we even have in common?”

 

Morgana pats his arm and smiles at him a little condescendingly.

 

“Leave the not talking to part to me. I won’t do your work for you, but he’ll at least listen to you once I’m done with him. And as to what to do about it: I think you could both use a day away from the castle, couldn’t you?”

 

That’s all the advice Merlin can get out of her along with the assurance that she knows for a fact that Arthur won’t have any duties to attend to in the castle the day after tomorrow, which leaves Merlin all of one day to come up with something to do with Arthur and to then talk to Arthur about it. This is not going to go well, is it?

 

scene breaker

 

Morgana keeps true to her promise. When Merlin hesitantly knocks on Arthur’s door the next evening and enters after Arthur’s “Come in!”, Arthur is waiting for him at the desk and doesn’t immediately send him back out again. He doesn’t exactly smile at Merlin either, but he at least seems to be willing to hear Merlin out, so Merlin closes the door behind him, though he doesn’t dare to take more than a few steps into the room.

 

“Morgana said you were free tomorrow,” he starts hesitantly, “and I’ve been going a bit mad surrounded by all these people and all this stone and was thinking of going to the forest for a bit. I was hoping you might want to accompany me?”

 

It isn’t quite the confident apology and invitation he’d been meaning to give, but it gets his point across, somewhat, so Merlin hopes it’ll be enough. Arthur’s face brightening at his words seems to be a good sign at least.

 

“Can we go hunting?” he asks eagerly and Merlin shrugs.

 

“Sure, why not. I’m not really good at it, though,” he quickly adds for good measure, not wanting Arthur to be mad about Merlin’s occasional two left feet later on. “I tend to stumble at just the most inopportune moments and scare away everything jumpy around me,” he explains, but to his surprise Arthur doesn’t appear annoyed. Instead he is grinning, laughing almost.

 

“Really, Merlin, how have you survived this far? It is quite a miracle I am starting to believe.”

 

Okay, he’s laughing at Merlin’s expense, but still.

 

“So you’ll come with me tomorrow?” Merlin asks to confirm again. “I obviously don’t know the woods around here and I also thought it’d be another opportunity for us to get to know each other better?”

 

He almost says “a better opportunity” instead of “another opportunity”, but that probably wouldn’t have gone down well. Although Morgana was pretty sure that Arthur was just as aware as Merlin how much of a disaster their first getting to know each other had been, he’d presumably not take kindly to being called out on it. That much Merlin already knows about Arthur: he seems to always strive for being best, never even second best. Though some of Morgana’s comments point towards Uther’s parenting as the source of that, nowadays the one to demand the highest standards of Arthur often appears to be Arthur himself. It’s another small sign that Arthur is more than just Uther’s puppet which gives Merlin hope for their relationship.

 

“I’ll make sure you won’t get lost in the dark, deep woods tomorrow,” Arthur promises mockingly, but his grin is infectious rather than malicious, so Merlin just rolls his eyes and grins back.

 

“I could go down to the kitchens in the morning and ask them to prepare some lunch for us and we could have a picnic?” he offers and Arthur’s face lights up. “Make sure they pack some pickled eggs, would you? And we should rise bright and early to make the most of the day, so be quick about whatever you do alone in your chamber at night!”

 

Merlin’s next breath goes down the wrong path and the resulting coughing fit makes tears stream from his eyes, impeding his vision. But he can still see Arthur’s cheeks turning crimson clearly enough.

 

“I meant washing up!” Arthur defends himself, voice strangled. “Get your mind out of the gutter, Merlin!”

 

“Yes, sire,” Merlin agrees teasingly, voice rough and low from his coughing and face probably matching Arthur’s in colour. “I’ll go and wash myself right now, promise.” He turns to leave the room again but stops just before opening the door, not able to resist one last dig: “You should go and wash yourself, too. Might relax you a little!”

 

One look over his shoulder confirms that Arthur’s face has darkened to a purplish colour now and that he is gaping like a fish, mouth hanging open. Two more quick steps, and Merlin is out of Arthur’s chambers, door closed behind him. Just in time for a high-pitched yell to be heard through the wood: “ Merlin !!!”

 

Merlin can no longer hold back his giggles and quickly relocates to his rooms before someone sees him laughing all alone in the hallway. There he takes Arthur’s advice and washes up quickly - no funny business! - suddenly not as apprehensive about tomorrow as he was before talking to Arthur.

 

He might even be looking forward to spending the next day with the prince. Who would have guessed?

 

scene breaker

 

The cook indeed packs some pickled eggs, as well as chicken and breads and dried fruits and a small skin of wine, for Merlin the next morning. When he mentions that it is for Prince Arthur, she adds some dumplings and even more pickled eggs to the pack. Merlin firmly plans to make Arthur eat every single one of them, too, because he at the very least can’t understand how anyone could eat them. In Merlin’s humble opinion they are utterly disgusting. That Arthur seems to like them so much worsens rather than improves Merlin’s impression of him. At least when it comes to his taste in food.

 

When Merlin arrives at the stables, Arthur is already waiting for him with two horses. They are readied and saddled and Arthur helps divide their lunch between their saddle bags. Then he helps Merlin up on his horse, which involves Merlin holding onto the saddle horn and Arthur grabbing his thigh and boosting him up into the saddle. By the time Merlin is safely seated, his face is hot, only surpassed by the hot brand of Arthur’s hands on his thigh. Arthur doesn’t look at him though, just pulls himself up easily onto horseback and leads them out and away from the castle, so Merlin has a few moments to get his heartbeat back under control. As soon as they are away from the immediate bustle of the castle, Arthur turns back towards him with a gleam in his eye and says: “Race you!”

 

Before Merlin can react in any way, Arthur is off and Merlin has to spur on his horse if he doesn’t want to lose him. He doesn’t even bother trying to truly catch up or even overtake Arthur - it’s obvious which one of them is the better rider, and Merlin doesn’t even know his horse - so he just makes sure to keep close enough that he still has Arthur in his eyesight. Near the edge of the woods, Arthur finally slows down and turns around to wait for Merlin. Merlin has to admit he’s quite the sight - wrapped in the red coat of the knights of Camelot again, sitting straight and tall on the back of his horse, golden hair windswept and cheeks a lively red to match the colour of his coat from the exertion. Even from a distance, Merlin can tell that Arthur’s shoulders have already lost some of their tension, coming closer, he sees that the grip of Arthur’s hands on the reins is more relaxed and that some of the worry lines on Arthur’s brow have smoothed out. It seems as though Morgana was right in her estimation that a day away of the castle would not just do Merlin good.

 

“I win!” Arthur shouts as soon as Merlin is in earshot. For once he looks a few summers younger than his actual age, rather than years older as Merlin would have often guessed him to be within the constraints Camelot puts on him. Sometimes he almost forgets that Arthur is only a little over a year older than Merlin himself.

 

Instead of shouting back, Merlin waits until his horse has ambled close enough that he can hear Arthur’s little puffs of breath and says: “Congratulations on your incredible victory, sire! Against such a worthy opponent, too, and with no head start at all!”

 

He winks to show that he is just teasing - he’s calling himself a lousy opponent after all! - and Arthur seems to be in a playful mood this morning, too, because he just sticks his nose up in the air haughtily and declares: “This is treason, Merlin! I could have you thrown in prison for this! And you don’t know prison until you have paid Camelot’s dungeon a visit!”

 

“Why don’t you show me around Camelot’s woods first, before we visit Camelot’s dungeons?” Merlin suggests, adding: “I’m not so easy as to go down on the first day!”

 

He usually isn’t this forward, but it’s worth it to see Arthur blushing furiously and spluttering before pulling himself together visibly and saying very, very calmly: “I can’t say I have any idea what you are talking about, Merlin, but I propose we move onto the forest roads now.”

 

“Oh, you propose ?” Merlin is having fun now. “I thought we were already past that stage! Though I guess you technically never did propose, so do go ahead!”

 

Arthur doesn’t dignify Merlin with an answer, he just turns his horse around and disappears into the trees. Merlin spurs his horse into a trot and follows him, giggling all the way. So far this day is looking good. As long as it doesn’t take a sour turn like their last outing did, Merlin is looking forward to the rest of it.

 

scene breaker

 

And indeed the rest of the morning goes equally well - Arthur leads them through the fields and woods around Camelot, stopping then and again to talk to the people working the fields or travelling through the forest. He seems to choose their path arbitrarily, Merlin thinks at first, but then he notices that their route always takes them past whatever farm or small village is in sight, never away from it. After that realisation Merlin starts listening in more closely to what Arthur has to say to his people - it’s not just an exchange of greetings and pleasantries, but talks of grain storage, sowing and the harvest, how everyone has fared over the summer and what plans they have for the coming winter. Arthur evidently came prepared; more than once Merlin sees him hand over small parcels, some filled with tinkling coins, others apparently packed with seeds, some even filled with trinkets for the farmer’s children.

 

These people obviously know Arthur, and not just as their prince, and Arthur obviously knows them, too. He asks after the health of grandmothers, how much the youngest has grown since he last saw her, whether the second oldest wants to come to train at the castle - he won’t be able to become a knight of course, Uther’s rules on the noble descent of his knights are strict, but every knight needs a good man-at-arms, so there’s work to be had for a strong lad there. Merlin listens and watches and eventually starts doing what little he can to help - some whispered words to make the crops grow plentiful, a spell here to stabilise an old rickety stable, a spell there to make the water in a well flow strong and clear again. He also makes mental notes of those he can’t help quickly right here and now, but whom he can come back for - with a potion from Gaius for a chesty cough, a poultice for a wound, a ritual for the young woman who is going through her first pregnancy. Merlin tries to be unobtrusive and discreet about using his magic, but he doesn’t try to hide it entirely. This is part of who he is and how he can be of a help to Arthur and Camelot, and if Arthur truly has a problem with that, they’d better clear that up right now. But even though he keeps throwing Merlin unreadable looks, Arthur neither calls Merlin out on using magic, nor does he make him stop. So Merlin takes that as silent approval and keeps working his spells.

 

scene breaker

 

For lunch they stop next to a field crossed by a little stream. It allows them to water their horses and fill up their water skins for the rest of the day. The earth is warm under Merlin and the sun is bright in Arthur’s hair. They are both quiet as they are eating, but it’s not an uncomfortable silence, like when they first met. In fact, Merlin is surprised at how comfortable he already feels in Arthur’s presence, despite their less than stellar start.

 

He is afraid that won’t last, though, because once they are done eating - Arthur devouring every single pickled egg with delight, Merlin notes - Arthur sits up straight and turns to face Merlin seriously. Merlin straightens up as well in reaction, steeling himself for whatever is about to come.

 

“You did magic throughout the morning, didn’t you?” Arthur asks without preamble and Merlin can’t do anything but nod and agree.

 

“Yes, I did,” he replies and takes a deep breath to explain before changing course. This isn’t the first time Arthur has come in contact with his magic after all - literally. “But first of all, I’ve got to apologise for attacking you with magic during training the other day. I didn’t mean to hurt you - and I hope I didn’t inadvertently, but I still shouldn’t have done it, especially knowing you didn’t expect it. So, I’m sorry,” he ends abruptly and rather awkwardly. To his surprise Arthur just shrugs and says: “Apology accepted. I did provoke you and you left no lasting harm, so, water under the bridge?”

 

Merlin blinks and eventually asks: “Did Morgana tell you to say that?”

 

Arthur ducks his head, but Merlin can still see his ears turning red.

 

“Oh, shut up,” Arthur grumbles, but it’s good-natured rather than mean-spirited, so Merlin let’s it slide. When Arthur looks back up, his face is serious again, though, and thus Merlin sobers up, too.

 

“Seriously, though, what did you use your magic for, earlier? I sure hope you didn’t use it to bring harm to my people, but then what else is it good for?”

 

“What else is it good for?” Merlin parrots, completely stumped. “Is that what you think? That magic is only good for evil? For causing harm and pain? That I am only good for evil?”

 

“No!” Arthur interrupts him, sounding earnest and as though he’s desperate for Merlin to understand. “I don’t think that! Or at least I don’t want to think that, but all I have learned about magic - and all that you have shown me of magic so far! - has proven it to be a powerful, deadly weapon!”

 

“Oh for - I thought we had agreed that was at least partially your fault, too? Apology accepted and all that?” Merlin retorts, more hurt by the realisation that his own actions have reinforced Arthur’s negative opinion of magic than by Arthur bringing it up again, a realisation that makes him lash out in retaliation. “And for your information, I brought no harm to your people, I was helping them! I thought you’d appreciate that at least!” ‘Even if you don’t appreciate me’ remains unsaid, but Merlin is sure Arthur can hear it, too.

 

“How could you have been helping them?” Arthur asks, rather snidely in Merlin’s opinion. “You barely even mumbled anything; there were no stones, or herbs, or rituals, nevermind any bones!”

 

“Bones?!” Merlin asks incredulously. “Do you think I’m some hedge witch who buries her favourite chicken’s bones together with the head of a newt to get rid of her warts? Of course there were no stones, or herbs, or rituals - when would I have set up a ritual? I wasn’t exactly forewarned, was I?” He takes a deep breath and reminds himself that the aim of this day was to fix things with Arthur and make him feel better, not worse about magic. After a deep breath he continues slightly calmer: “No, I just spoke some spells and sent some wishes - to make the crops grow plentiful, to protect homes from lightning and fire, keep children healthy and strong, that kind of thing. Little stuff, not a guarantee for eternal safety and happiness, but a little head start against whatever life may throw at them next. Magic isn’t just a weapon, you know, like a sword, used to maim and kill, but also a tool, like a ploughshare, to serve and to harvest. Magic is only ever as evil as the one who yields it.”

 

Arthur remains quiet for a few, achingly long moments, during which Merlin has to bite his lip to stop himself from rambling out of sheer nervosity. Finally, Arthur speaks up again, more thoughtful and quieter somehow than before:

 

“Can you show me?” he asks, exemplifying, when Merlin just looks back at him in confusion: “The spells you did; can you show me magic that isn’t evil?”

 

“Yes, of course,” Merlin agrees immediately, nodding enthusiastically, glad that Arthur is at least willing to give him a chance. But then he hesitates and has to think about which spell to actually use now. Because while the spells he wrought earlier in the day certainly weren’t evil, they are also not going to yield any immediate results to show to and convince Arthur with. So instead of any of the protective spells, Merlin forms a little nest with his hands and stretches his arms out towards Arthur. He closes his eyes to concentrate and when he next opens them and his hands, a swarm of small, bright blue butterflies flies up and around Arthur and him.

 

Arthur lets out a gasp and when Merlin looks at him, his mouth is hanging open and his eyes are wide in astonishment.

 

“These - these are real ?” he asks, and Merlin nods, grinning widely. “This is magic ?” Arthur exclaims and Merlin laughs: “Yes! This is magic!”

 

Arthur stretches out a hand cautiously, fingers shaking ever so lightly. One of Merlin’s butterflies curiously flutters around it before settling on Arthur’s palm. Very, very slowly and carefully, Arthur draws his arm back, so he can look at the butterfly more closely.

 

“It looks so real,” he says wonderingly and Merlin nods again, explaining: “That’s because it is! Magic can’t just create life, with all other living creatures the rule is a life for a life - for each life you give, another has to be taken in return. But butterflies are mostly made of sunlight, air, and magic anyways, so they are the exception to the rule.”

 

Arthur is still spellbound by the butterfly on his palm and just hums in response which Merlin takes to mean that Arthur hasn’t heard a word he has said. So he just smiles and lies down on his back on the warm earth, looking up at the blue spots in front of an even bluer sky, and thinks how Arthur’s eyes shining with excitement and wonder are really the bluest colour of them all.

 

scene breaker

 

Things are not suddenly perfect after that day. Arthur very obviously hasn’t had any friend that wasn’t one of his knights or Morgana before. So he keeps treating Merlin either as if he was one of his knights or as if he was a servant. The knight part wouldn’t be so bad, if it didn’t involve so much ‘friendly’ slapping and punching which leave Merlin covered in small bruises, because unlike the knights, he isn’t wearing any armour on the regular. That mostly stops as soon as Arthur sees one of them peek out from under Merlin’s clothes. Before Merlin can say anything, Arthur has him stripped out of his top, gloved fingers gentle on Merlin’s bruises. They really aren’t as bad as they look - Merlin just bruises easily and unless he pokes them accidentally with the sharp corner of one of the big tomes from the library, which has been known to happen, they don’t usually hurt either. But Arthur’s face is grim as he asks:

 

“Who has been hurting you? Tell me the truth and I’ll make sure it never happens again.”

 

Merlin laughs, touched that Arthur cares. He’s being unnecessarily overprotective of course, but it’s nice to know he does care. “Well, if you want the truth - it was you, Arthur! I’m just not as used to all the punching and pushing as all of your knights are, that’s all. But it really looks far worse than it is, trust me on that, so stop fretting.”

 

Arthur remains quiet for a long moment, still except for his fingers brushing over the bruises, as if cataloguing them. The leather is warm on Merlin’s skin, but still cooler than Arthur’s skin would probably be. It’s one of the strange things in Camelot that Merlin has been least able to get used to: the lack of skin on skin contact. It’s not something he thought he’d miss, but right now he wishes it wasn’t Arthur’s gloves touching him, but just Arthur, skin to skin. Arthur’s voice draws him out of his thoughts:

 

“My promise still stands: I’ll make sure it never happens again.”

 

And it never does. Arthur stops treating Merlin like one of his knights, probably too afraid to hurt him inadvertently. Unfortunately that means that he starts treating Merlin like a servant - not all of the time, but often enough, ordering him around, expecting him to be at Arthur’s beck and call, to jump at the opportunity to fulfill Arthur’s every waking wish. Merlin makes sure to quickly nip that one in the bud, but all that ensures is that Arthur apparently has no idea whatsoever how to interact with him anymore.

 

It makes for another awkward few weeks, because for all that Merlin likes to believe he’s better at this relationship thing than Arthur is, he hasn’t really had many friends either. Back in Ealdor there was Will, but the druids don’t have many children, and those that lived in the woods near Merlin were in awe of his father, the dragonlord. And they are both obviously brand new to being promised to each other, which Merlin tries to remind himself of whenever he gets annoyed at Arthur’s weird and incomprehensible ways. Somehow they slowly start figuring each other out, mostly helped by their newly established tradition of daily shared dinners.

 

It's all very domestic; sometimes Morgana joins them, very occasionally they can convince Gwen to sit down and eat with them, too, but usually it's just Merlin and Arthur. They tell each other about their days, Arthur talks about training and Merlin regales Arthur with stories about his adventures in Camelot. Merlin’s adventures mostly consist of exciting affairs such as getting lost in the long hallways of Camelot, hiding from Geoffrey between the bookshelves in the library, and pestling herbs for Gaius. But it’s not as if Arthur’s stories get much more varied than ‘Today Leon stumbled over Kay’s feet, not the other way round as usual.” either, so Merlin doesn’t feel as bad about it.

 

Most nights they bid each other good night soon after dinner is finished, but some nights their talks turn serious. It’s those nights that Arthur talks about his plans and fears for when he will be king, how he wants to do things differently from how his father does them, but how he is afraid of not living up to Uther’s expectations and sheer legacy. It’s those nights that Merlin talks in turn about the much more subtle, but no less strong pressures the druids place on him, about the legendary status his father has amongst magic wielders as the only dragon lord still alive and how that reflects upon Merlin. It’s those nights that Arthur asks about Merlin’s magic and it’s those nights that Merlin shows him.

 

The last glowing embers from Arthur’s fireplace become a sparkling dragon that flies once around the dark chambers before hovering in front of Arthur. The blackness of night deepens Arthur’s eyes until they are a shade of blue that more resembles the deepest sea than the midsummer sky. With the sparks of the fire dragon reflected in his wide, marvelling gaze, Merlin feels as though he’s staring into the nightly heavens with their twinkling stars. He’s so busy trying not to drown in Arthur’s eyes that he only sees Arthur reaching for the dragon when it’s already too late.

 

Merlin’s “No! Wait!” has no chance of stopping Arthur from touching the fire dragon and Merlin braces himself for a shout of pain - for the dragon is indeed made of fire, fire and Merlin’s magic, but fire none the less, just as capable of burning Arthur as touching the embers the fire originally came from. But Arthur doesn't scream as the dragon settles on his palm, he smiles - and then asks Merlin:

 

“And what were you wailing around like a fishwife for just now, Merlin?”

 

Merlin gestures helplessly and stammers:

 

“Well, you, fire, you know!”

 

“Oh, were you afraid it would hurt me? I'm touched, Merlin, really.” He even sounds serious, even though he’s obviously trying for mocking instead. “You needn’t worry; it’s just pleasantly warm, tickles a little at most, nothing worse.”

 

Arthur looks back down at the small dragon, which has curled up on his palm like a cat. His gaze fills with awe again and Merlin is in turn filled with sudden, unexpected jealousy at what is technically his own creation.

 

“It looks like the dragon on our crest,” Arthur says wonderingly and Merlin starts.

 

“Oh, does it? I hadn’t realised; I had Kilgharrah, my father’s dragon, in mind when I called forth the shape.”

 

And suddenly he remembers one of Kilgharrah’s many, many cryptic predictions:

 

‘The half cannot truly hurt that which makes it whole.’

 

It would explain why the dragon made with Merlin’s magic wouldn’t hurt Arthur, but that can’t be right. Because the two halves Kilgharrah spoke of are the Once and Future King, destined to unite all of Albion and return even from death in the hour of Albion’s greatest need, and Emrys, the mightiest sorcerer who has or will ever walk the earth. And how could that ever be Arthur and him?

 

Arthur’s voice draws him from his increasingly frantic thoughts: “Your father has a dragon?” he asks, sounding both disbelieving and as if all of his childhood dreams have come true.

 

“Well, not ‘has’, per se,” Merlin admits. “Kilgharrah would strongly object to any claims of ownership. But he listens to my father’s call and helps us when we need him. He’s also a bit barmy, I sometimes think his old age has finally caught up with him”

 

Arthur gapes at him and Merlin grins back, ready for the onslaught of questions that is sure to come any second now. Indeed, Arthur soon gathers his wits again and then they’re off . That night neither of them gets much sleep. Nights like this are what Merlin likes best about his time in Camelot and that night in particular is one of his favourites. Arthur’s almost childlike wonder at the existence of dragons or at least one last great dragon reveals a completely new side to Merlin that had been hidden before.

 

Unfortunately, all the nights spent with Arthur also make it clear to Merlin that Arthur is hiding something from him - and not unintentionally, like his fascination with dragons, but on purpose. Something important, something that burdens his mind and heart. And it has something to do with their handfasting and prospective marriage, Merlin is sure of that. Because whenever their talks turn to that, Arthur’s face darkens and he changes the topic quickly. Merlin at first thinks Arthur is unhappy with him , with them , but nothing else in Arthur’s behaviour points towards him counting down the days until their handfasting is unravelled again. Instead Arthur’s secret appears to be connected to his father somehow, which doesn’t really make sense to Merlin either. Uther was the one who pushed for this after all. Of course, it could be resentment at the arranged aspect of it all, but again, Arthur doesn’t appear to have a problem with Merlin, and it’s not as if arranged marriages are unusual. If anything, Arthur should have been more prepared for it than Merlin, with him being Crown Prince of Camelot and all that.

 

None of Merlin’s theories make sense, but he doesn’t quite dare to simply ask Arthur just yet. They’ve been getting along so well, really getting to know each other, that Merlin is loath to do anything that might jeopardise that. He’d ask Morgana, but she made it clear very early one that Arthur and Merlin’s relationship is theirs to deal with. That of course doesn’t mean she won’t meddle to her heart’s content, but it does mean that she will refuse to answer Merlin’s question if she feels like it would force her to choose sides - and still be unbearably nosy and pushy afterwards. Morgana is of the opinion that if they just talked out every single little thing, everything would be fine and dandy. She’s probably right, but it’s easy for her to say - she isn’t the one who actually has to talk to Arthur.

 

So instead of asking Arthur about his secrets, Merlin settles for observing him unobtrusively - not spying, no matter what Gwen said when she caught him hovering near the training grounds one day.

 

scene breaker

 

About three fourths through their one year and one day period, things finally come to a head.

 

Merlin hadn’t even been intentionally observing - fine, spying on - Arthur. He is on the way back from the library, mind full of the book of spells he found buried deep amongst the musty tomes towards the back. Merlin doesn’t know if it just got overlooked during the purges or if someone hid it on purpose, he just knows it’s there and that he’ll have to smuggle it out somehow before someone else discovers it and it ends up destroyed after all.

 

He’s just thinking about how he can convince Arthur of staging a distraction when he stumbles upon the prince and his father. They are just standing around the corner of the hallway Merlin is going down and he quickly ducks back behind the wall again when he sees them. It does make his observing finally feel like he’s actually spying on Arthur, but even the short glimpse Merlin got showed him that the King is angry - angry with Arthur, that is. And thanks to their nightly talks, Merlin knows full well how important his father’s approval is to Arthur and how embarrassed he’d be to know that Merlin witnessed him getting a dressing-down by Uther. So it seems kinder to just wait until they’re gone. He’d go back and take another route, but this is one of the parts of the castle Merlin doesn’t know as well yet and he’s admittedly afraid of getting lost if he strays off the known path.

 

All thoughts of hallways and directions are pushed to the back of his mind, though, when Merlin hears Uther shout: “You’ve been handfasted to him for almost a year now! How hard can it be to question one measly druid boy!”

 

Merlin blanches when he realises that they’re talking about him - the voice of the King so full of hate - and creeps closer to the corner again to hear Arthur’s much quieter response.

 

“I’ve already told you, father, I can’t just question him, if we don’t want him to suspect something. He’s not stupid; he’s going to notice if I suddenly start asking about how many men the druids have. And anyways, I don’t think he knows anything of import; his parents seem to have sheltered him from a lot of it.”

 

Merlin’s first instinctive reaction is indignation - he knows quite a lot, thank you very much, for example that the druid women are usually the ones you have to fear more than the men - before he realises what this means. While Merlin had been observing Arthur to find out what’s wrong with him, Arthur’s secret had been this? Actually spying on Merlin? For nefarious purposes at that?

 

“Oh, so this whole farce will be for nothing in the end then? I just hope you haven’t let anything important slip, Arthur. If you have given them any ammunition without finding out anything useful in return, I swear …”

 

Uther doesn’t finish his threat, but the venom in his voice makes Merlin shudder. He sounds mad with hatred and despite Merlin’s own current rage and hurt at Arthur’s betrayal, he can’t help but feel bad for him. Uther and Arthur’s next exchange removes even that tiny little bit of goodwill, though.

 

“At least you’ll be rid of that monster soon,” Uther says and Merlin only gets that he is supposed to be that monster, when Uther continues: “You’ll just refuse to make the handfasting permanent and if you haven’t messed up otherwise, no lasting harm done!”

 

He’s sounding almost manically cheerful and in comparison Arthur’s voice is oddly flat when he repeats: “Yes, no lasting harm done.”

 

Merlin staggers back as if he’d been hit. It all still feels like an elaborate prank and he keeps waiting for Arthur to jump around the corner and point and laugh at him and ruffle his hair while crowing about how easily Merlin fell for it. But to hear Arthur dismiss him so easily, so unfeelingly… There is an ache in Merlin’s chest that makes it hard to breathe at the thought.

 

He only notices the steps coming towards him when it is already too late. Before he can try to find a place to hide or even just jump back into a less incriminating position, Arthur already  rounds the corner. He starts when he sees Merlin and then darts forward, hissing: “What are you doing here, Merlin?” Merlin glares and is about to hiss something uncomplimentary back, when the sound of more footsteps reaches their ears. Arthur blanches and pushes Merlin into a nearby alcove, pressing in close to him. But Uther doesn’t come around the corner, the footsteps moving away from them. Arthur’s sigh of relief tickles Merlin’s cheek and suddenly he is filled with rage again. The shock of his discovery and the threat of even worse coming had pushed down the anger and hurt for a moment, but now Merlin can’t hold back anymore:

 

“What am I doing here? Don’t you have some other questions to ask me, Prince Arthur? Like how many men the druids have? What strengths they possess? Or, I don’t know, ‘Merlin, I can’t wait to be rid of you apparently’?”

 

Arthur actually takes a step away from him, eyes wide with what appears to be fear, and it’s only then that Merlin realises that his magic is swirling around him like a miniature tempest. His eyes are probably glowing, too, and there’s actual sparks falling down from his finger tips. Two deep breaths get  rid of that at least, but that Arthur has the audacity to be afraid of Merlin when he has been the one with the nefarious agenda all the time only serves to make Merlin madder, which doesn’t help calm the storm in and around him.

 

“Oh stop cowering,” he scoffs, “I wouldn’t hurt you; I’m not you after all.”

 

It is a low blow, but Arthur jerks as if Merlin had dealt him an actual physical blow.

 

“I never meant - you must know,” Arthur stammers, finally insisting, almost desperately: “ Merlin , you don’t understand -”

 

“I don’t understand?” Merlin interrupts him, truly mad now. “Did you or did you not get handfasted to me because your father pressed you to? To spy on me and my people? To find out how to defeat and destroy us once and for all? I think I understand all too well, actually, Arthur ,” he ends mockingly, no longer bothering to hold back the sparks falling from his fingertips, glad for any outlet for his anger and his magic.

 

But this time Arthur doesn’t step away from him. Instead he steps forward, taking one of Merlin’s hands into his, heedless of the fire threatening to burn him. The fear is still present in his eyes, but there’s also determination and a steely resolve that makes Merlin take a step backwards and shut up. Arthur is clearly resolved to explain himself and Merlin can be the bigger man and let him have his say. Merlin doesn’t pull his hand free from Arthur’s grasp, but it’s a close thing. He’s a little miffed at Arthur’s gall to just grab his hand in the middle of an argument, but Arthur’s hand is warm, his grip strong and steady, though not so tight as to shackle Merlin. Arthur squeezes Merlin’s hand and implores:

 

“But you don’t understand, Merlin. Yes, as far as my father knows, what you said is all true. But it isn’t ! I haven’t told him anything! Because I don’t know anything! Think about it, Merlin, please. Have I been interrogating you? Did I ever ask you about any of what my father wants to know? Have I , not my father, but I, given you any indication that what you just heard is true?”

 

Merlin thinks: ‘Perhaps you are a far better actor than I took you for,’ but he doesn’t say so aloud. Arthur appears to be so earnest, almost desperate for Merlin to believe him - and yes, again, perhaps he’s just an astounding actor, but it just doesn’t seem likely. So Merlin tries to remember all of their interactions over the past months. And at first his mind is just full of magic, wide eyes, and soft words, gentle hands and gentler touches, rides into the forest and picnics under the clear blue sky. Those memories remind him of all that he has come to like about Arthur and about the hopes he had had for their relationship. Which at first just makes Arthur’s betrayal even more painful. But then he thinks of all their late night talks, how Arthur wanted to know everything about magic - but only Merlin’s magic, how he came to have magic, what good he can do with it, how it’s not inherently evil, not just a weapon, but a tool for good, simply a part of Merlin. He never asked about the magic of others, which spells the druids know, what power they wield. In fact, whenever Merlin himself started talking about that, Arthur changed topics. Arthur changed topics a lot, Merlin realises. Whenever they got close to anything that Arthur’s father wanted him to find out, Arthur made sure that Merlin told him nothing important. In truth, it’s not Merlin who knows nothing of import - it’s Arthur. And by his own choice at that.

 

So Merlin slowly shakes his head in response to Arthur’s question and asks in return: “Why didn’t you tell me then? You never asked me anything, yes, but you never told me anything either.”

 

“What would I have said?” Arthur retorts, starting to sound frustrated, as though Merlin is being too slow on the uptake. “Oh, by the way, Merlin, our handfasting was a sham and my father wants me to spy on you, so he can finally eradicate your people? Oops?”

 

Merlin glares at him and his magic takes it upon itself to hit Arthur with a punishing sting, making him yelp.

 

“Not in so many words, no! But would it have been so hard to tell me: ‘Merlin, my father is a barmy old dodger blinded by his irrational hatred; if you happen to hear anything suspicious, ignore it; I’m just humouring him!’”

 

“Merlin, my father is a barmy old dodger blinded by his irrational hatred; if you happen to hear anything suspicious, ignore it; I’m just humouring him,” Arthur echoes, and as satisfying it is to hear Arthur call Uther “a barmy old dodger,” that’s not really what Merlin wanted, and Arthur has to know it. So Merlin rolls his eyes and sighs:

 

“Great, thanks for that Arthur, very convincing. But too little, too late, I’m afraid.”

 

He’s about to finally pull his hand free, when Arthur’s grip suddenly tightens to the point of almost being painful.

 

“Is it?” Arthur asks, voice quiet and small, and Merlin, confused, asks: “Is it what?”

 

“Is it too little, too late?” Arthur repeats, defeated expression on his face when Merlin stares at him, his grasp slackening so much that Merlin’s hand threatens to slip free after all.

 

And this time it is Merlin that holds on, maintaining their connection, hand clasping Arthur’s, suddenly afraid of what it would mean to let go of Arthur right now.

 

“I- I don’t know,” he admits, but that just makes Arthur’s face fall further, so he quickly adds: “I don’t, I can’t trust you right now, and I don’t know if I can ever trust you again, but I hope to, I want to! But you have to start talking to me, you have to be honest with me. If we want this to work, if you want this to work, then you have to stop leaving me in the dark. If you can do that, then I believe we can get through this, together . You’re not alone, Arthur, you know. You’re only alone if you want to be.”

 

Arthur remains quiet for long, interminable seconds and Merlin’s heart sinks, sure that this is it, that it’s all over now. But then Arthur gently lifts Merlin’s hand to his mouth and presses a lingering kiss to Merlin’s knuckles.

 

“Thank you, Merlin.”

 hand kiss

scene breaker

 

Things remain awkward for a few weeks, neither knowing how to act around the other. They tiptoe around each other, carefully avoiding certain topics, just trying to find a way of talking with each other again. Right when the tension that neither wants to acknowledge becomes unbearable, Beltane arrives. And they are expected to play a central role in the summer festivities and rituals surrounding it. It is the first time they have to participate prominently at a public gathering. For last year’s harvest festival, a day after their handfasting, standing next to each other and smiling had been enough. Their duties for the other festivals, Samhain and Imbolc, hadn’t been much heavier.

 

But Beltane is the festival of renewal, virility, and rejuvenation. And apparently nothing symbolises that better than Camelot’s newest royal couple.

 

Merlin is admittedly a little apprehensive. Things are still so strange between them - it didn’t matter that much when it was just Merlin and Arthur, but now it will affect the whole kingdom. They all depend on Merlin and Arthur to bless the earth, the livestock, the people living in Camelot. Given their track record so far, Merlin is expecting something to go wrong. But Camelot receives their blessings gladly - a little too gladly almost.

 

The first part of the ritual doesn’t need their input - an old man crowned as the King of Winter steps forward and presents himself to the crowd before dousing all of the fires lit in the courtyard. Under the light of the moon and the stars, Arthur as the youthful contender Summer steps forward and challenges the old Winter to a ceremonial duel for the crown of the land. The old man is obviously an experienced fighter, his movements careful but sure. Despite himself, Merlin is drawn into the fight, holding his breath when Arthur is forced into the defense, releasing it again, when Arthur springs forward on the attack once more. The crowd gasps with him, as if they were all one, held captive by Arthur and his opponent, even though they all know how this ends. But Arthur fairly glows in the moonlight, chest bared and glistening. He appears to be literally enchanting, holding them all under his thrall.

 

Finally Arthur deals his winning blow, disarming his opponent and standing tall and strong over the withering frame of Winter, who quickly disappears into the shadows now that his part has been played. The tension gripping the crowd releases with one breath and racks up even more with the next. This is where Merlin’s part in it all starts.

 

The King of Summer has to be crowned - and who better to do it than his promised consort?

 

So Merlin steps forward into the circle, in his hands a crown. Not a real one obviously, not even Arthur’s circlet, never Uther’s crown, but a wreath of flowers that weighs all the more heavily for what it symbolises.

 

Arthur steps towards Merlin as well, and in the middle they meet, Arthur falling to his knees in front of Merlin. His chest is still heaving, his eyes blazing from the fight. For all that the duel was more show than reality, the exertion is still real, as is the pride and triumph at Arthur’s eventual victory. Gaze caught by Arthur’s burning eyes, Merlin wants nothing more than to see this man succeed and stand by his side forevermore.

 

With trembling fingers he lifts the crown of flowers and feels the magic of the land gathering thickly around them, just as it did during their handfasting. To Merlin’s ears it hums with anticipation and he wonders whether anyone else feels this, whether Arthur feels it. Arthur’s face, still staring up at Merlin, is full of expectation, but his eyes are serious, grave almost, as though he is aware of the magnitude of this moment.

 

Placing the crown on Arthur's head feels right, too right almost. It feels real, the magic exploding outward triumphantly when the crown touches Arthur's hair, the crowd breaking into deafening cheers, so loud that Merlin almost misses Arthur's gasp and his tiny, immediately controlled flinch, as if instead of a wreath of flowers Merlin had put the weight of the entire kingdom on his head. And Merlin is pretty sure he actually did. As far as the magic of the land is concerned, Merlin has not just crowned the new King of Summer.

 

Merlin has just crowned the new King of Camelot.

 

scene breaker

 

Merlin doesn't have any time to devote to that realisation, though, because the ritual asks for them to relight the fires now. Two huge bonfires have been set up not too far from each other, for couples and livestock to walk in between, looking for a blessing for the upcoming season. Arthur and Merlin are each required to light one of the bonfires and tradition says that the less time passes by between both catching fire, the more blessed the union of the two people lighting the fires - usually a couple like them, promised, but not yet truly joined - will be.

 

But by now Merlin's fingers are shaking so much that he's afraid to drop the flintstone before a single spark can emerge. Arthur's fingers are steady where they are holding onto Merlin's, leading him towards the stacks of branches and tinder, but when Merlin chances a glance at him out of the corner of his eyes, Arthur's jaw is clenched tightly, moonlight and shadows throwing his face into sharp relief. There is nothing to it, though, they will just have to hope for the best now. Merlin could use his magic to set the bonfires alight, of course, but there are myriad stories of people trying to trick the gods into giving a blessing, and these stories never end well, so Merlin isn't willing to risk it.

 

In front of the yet unlit fires they separate with one last squeeze of hands. Merlin opens his mouth to tell Arthur - something, he doesn't even know what, but Arthur has already turned his back to him, falling down to his knees once more. Biting his lip, Merlin turns away as well, even though it feels wrong to just continue as though nothing out of the ordinary has happened. But Arthur has surely picked up the flintstones already and Merlin doesn't want the people of Camelot to gossip about how their union is cursed just because he didn't move quickly enough. He kneels down as well and feels more than sees the flintstones laid ready for him.

 

Holding onto them tightly, he turns slightly to look for Arthur, who is already looking back at him, expression unreadable from the distance in this shadow. The moon still gives off enough light though that Merlin can see Arthur lift his arms to strike the stones against each other. He hurries to do the same and barely has managed to knock them together before the bonfire explodes in front of him. Merlin scrambles backwards and looks over at Arthur. His bonfire has burst into flame already, too, and, judging from the gasps and yells of the people surrounding them, at exactly the same moment as Merlin’s did.

 

While Merlin is still trying to get back his bearings, Arthur has already gotten up and crossed over to him, offering a hand to help Merlin up. Standing up brings Merlin close to Arthur, who takes the opportunity to hiss into his ear: “Was that you?” When Merlin just stares at him confusion, he adds: “The fires! Was that you, Merlin? Did you use your magic?”

 

“No!” Merlin exclaims, filled with indignation that Arthur would think him capable of putting the entire kingdom at risk of a curse. “I would never! It just happened!”

 

What he doesn’t say is that it did feel like magic - just not wielded by himself, or indeed anybody. This was the magic of the earth, the land, Camelot itself, blessing them by igniting the bonfires. Together with the magic gathering around them during their handfasting and Arthur’s coronation just now, it paints a pretty clear picture of whom the land has chosen as the next King of Camelot. But now is not the time nor place to confront Arthur with that particular realisation. So Merlin just tries to emit trustworthiness instead of appearing as though he’s keeping a secret from Arthur. They do have this brand new pact of not keeping secrets any longer from each other after all. But technically Merlin is not keeping a secret from Arthur, he’s just waiting for the right time to tell him. And yes, that does make him a hypocrite, because it sounds suspiciously like Arthur’s excuse for why he kept Uther’s plan from him for so long.

 

A tug on his hand draws him from his increasingly circular thoughts back into reality, which is still dominated by blazing bonfires and an Arthur that’s frowning slightly in suspicion. Merlin tries blinking innocently, like he has seen Morgana do too many times to count, but it doesn’t seem to have the desired effect because it just makes Arthur frown harder.

 

“Well, whatever happened just now, we are still supposed to be the first people to go through there, so let’s hope your fire doesn’t burn too brightly!” Arthur hisses and Merlin gapes at him.

 

My fire? Your fire is burning just as brightly! In fact, if any is burning brighter, it’s yours!” Merlin fires back and delights in seeing Arthur stuck between pride that his fire is the brightest and the realisation that that is not a good thing when you are supposed to walk past it.

 

“Let’s just stick close together!” is what Arthur settles on eventually, and promptly lets go of Merlin’s hand to wrap an arm around his waist.

 

Merlin hesitates, not quite sure where to put his arm, before settling on Arthur’s waist, too. Arthur’s torso is still bare of course, and as this is one ritual that doesn’t demand gloves, but in fact forbids them, even here in Camelot, there’s nothing to separate them. Arthur draws him close to his side, until they are connected from hip to shoulder. Merlin is highly aware of every place that they are touching, but most of all where his fingers are wrapped around Arthur’s waist. The heat of the fire warms the back of his hand, but Arthur’s skin under his palm feels much hotter.

 

“Ready?” Arthur whispers into his ear and Merlin swallows once, looking at the two bonfires blazing very closely together, before nodding with determination. Then they need no more words, a press of Arthur’s hand moves them forward, a clench of Merlin’s fingers turns them more towards the left - and then they are already in between the two bonfires, a loud roaring blocking Merlin’s ears and the glare blinding his eyes. The heat presses in on him from all sides and Merlin shrinks back, trying to escape it somehow. But Arthur, for whom the heat must be even worse with no layer of cloth protecting him, keeps them moving forward, step by step, until at last they are free again, the heat, glare, and roar of the fire receding until Merlin can see and hear the cheers of the people of Camelot. It was only a few short steps and can’t have taken them long, but it leaves Merlin shaken nevertheless. He for the first time understands why this is seen as a judgement and blessing all in one. He feels as though the fire has laid him bare for all to see and magic has seen him and judged him worthy. It feels as much like a blessing as it does like a curse, a promise and untold burden all in one.

 

Arthur tugging him into a playful bow serves to distract Merlin from his own thoughts. It also stokes up the cheers of the crowd into a roar almost as deafening as the fire they went through and Merlin gladly lets himself be drawn into a hug next. He wraps his free arm around Arthur’s damp back, buries his face in Arthur’s neck and just breathes him in.

 

Magic itself has crowned Arthur king and blessed them both - whatever else may come, will not faze them.

 

scene breaker

 

Despite Merlin’s best intentions, he ends up putting off actually talking to Arthur for several weeks.

 

At first there’s Beltane fires to light all over the kingdom - and apparently that is still their responsibility, even though it’s technically not even Beltane anymore. So they ride out to light every hearth within a day’s distance. Merlin’s hopes that this will give him an opportunity to talk with Arthur are quickly dashed, because this time they don’t ride out alone. They are always accompanied by knights, and often by Morgana and Gwen, so no opportunity presents itself to Merlin.

 

In the days afterwards, Uther demands most of Arthur’s time, to discuss the state of the kingdom, how depleted their grain stores are after winter, which villages survived out of their own power, which needed help, who will be denied help if they keep asking for it. These talks especially always leave Arthur frustrated and short-tempered and Merlin doesn’t want to add to the pile that’s weighing him down.

 

Instead he keeps their nightly dinner talks light, complaining about the diet choices of the druids - “it’s all berries and nuts there, can you imagine? No dumplings, never mind pickled eggs” - and entertaining Arthur with tales of the various maladies Gaius’ patients suffer from - “this noble woman had her maid call Gaius, making it sound as though she was on her deathbed, and when we arrived, she’d just broken a nail! But apparently it was threatening her embroidery, so immediate medical attention was required.” If Arthur asks for it, Merlin also offers the occasional bit of advice, but he doesn’t press Arthur.

 

Eventually everything is set in order to Uther’s satisfaction at least. Late at night Arthur confesses that he would have done some things differently than his father, had he been king already, and Merlin has to bite his tongue not to shout out: “Magic considers you King of Camelot already!” But just shouting it out now, when he has been waiting for the right opportunity for so long already, would be stupid and make his wait utterly pointless. So Merlin bites his tongue and keeps waiting.

 

The good thing is that at least the awkwardness from their confrontation before Beltane is mostly gone. Arthur truly has been making an effort, even when under heavy pressure from his father, to spend time with Merlin, to keep him abreast of whatever is going on and it has been helping. It sometimes actually feels as though they are closer than ever before, and Merlin starts feeling more useful in his future role as consort, confidant and advisor, now that Arthur has started confiding in him and relying on him for comfort and support. The hurt from what still feels like a betrayal might not be entirely gone yet, but it has certainly scabbed over with time and Arthur’s efforts. What also helps is that Merlin now finds himself in a similar situation to the one Arthur was in, which brings with it the realisation that “waiting for the right moment” is more than just an excuse.

 

An opportunity finally presents itself when Arthur isn’t busy with his usual responsibilities for the first time in weeks. He jumps at the chance of spending the day away from Camelot, when Merlin suggests it. Because this much Merlin knows: they shouldn’t be having this conversation in the castle, where even thick stone walls can have ears. What he still doesn’t know, though, despite weeks of worrying about it, is how to break his news to Arthur.

 

What worries him is that he doesn’t know how Arthur will react. Uther is his father after all, and Arthur loves him, despite all of his faults, and won’t want to fight him for the throne. But Merlin doesn’t know how long magic will accept one governing her that holds no love for her and keeps the one she chose as her champion from the throne. Knowing what Merlin already knows certainly won’t make Arthur’s life any easier. But the debacle before Beltane showed them that keeping secrets is not a good idea, even if the intent is only to protect the other. That still doesn’t tell Merlin how best to talk to Arthur, though.

 

In the end it is magic that shows him the way - literally.

 

With no clear plan for the day, they are happy to just amble through the forest for a while, letting their horses choose the path. At first nothing seems amiss, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and their horses are calm. But after a while, Merlin notices that the horses begin to act strangely. They are not going for the light, airy paths, but pressing ever further into the thick of the forest, as if someone is urging them to. But that someone is obviously not Merlin; it makes no difference whether he is letting the reins hang loose or tightens them to direct his horse down another path.

 

“Merlin,” Arthur interrupts his increasingly anxious thoughts, Arthur’s voice tight with tension, too. “You wouldn’t happen to know what’s going on, would you?”

 

Merlin shakes his head, confusion warring with growing panic within him.

 

“No, I don’t-” he starts and then interrupts himself, because perhaps he does after all. Something feels familiar, even if the sensation is currently smothered by his agitation. Several deep breaths later, he is slightly calmer and sure of what he is sensing.

 

“It’s magic,” he tells Arthur, “but it’s not malevolent; it just seems to want to show us something?”

 

“Magic wants to show us something?” Arthur asks, sounding rather disbelieving, but at that very moment they break through the final, thickest line of trees, suddenly standing at the edge of a huge clearing. In the very middle, a large stone commands all attention, a sword stuck in its middle, glittering in the bright sunshine,  blinding them after the twilight of the forest.

 

And suddenly Merlin knows why magic led them here.

 

They dismount and let the horses graze near the edge of the forest, where there is some shade from the sun. Then Merlin leads them towards the middle of the clearing and asks: “Arthur, have you ever heard of the legend of the Sword in the Stone?”

 

When Arthur shakes his head, Merlin steps forward and reaches out to reverently touch the sword before him. The words come easily - this was one of the stories that Kilgharrah told him over and over after all:

 

“Kilgharrah, my father’s dragon, told it to me - and according to him it’s not a mere legend, but the truth - and he should know, he claims to have lived part of it after all. What he told me was this: The Sword in the Stone was forged in a time immemorial. Some say by the gentle folk, the fae; some say it was magic itself that forged it. One thing is certain though - it was hardened in the fire of a dragon - because Kilgharrah himself breathed that fire. Such a blade cannot be broken but by another dragon blade - and Kilgharrah is very adamant that his fire burns hotter than any other dragon’s, so this blade is stronger than all other dragon breath blades. How it came to be in this stone, or who asked Kilgharrah to harden it with his fire, I don’t know, he wouldn’t say. What I do know is why it is stuck in this stone - for stuck it is, to be removed by none other than the rightful king.”

 

Here, Merlin tightens his grip on the sword’s hilt and pulls with all his strength, until his muscles are screaming at him in protest, but the sword doesn’t budge. Releasing it again, Merlin continues, ever so slightly out of breath now:

 

“No man or woman on earth can move this sword other than the chosen king. No power on earth can remove it from this stone, not even magic.”

 

To demonstrate, he steps away from the stone and stretches out a hand, closing his eyes to concentrate. When he opens them again, they are glowing golden and the earth underneath their feet starts to shake. But despite straining until his stretched out arm is trembling and his forehead is breaking out in cold sweat, all Merlin’s magic manages to achieve is to lift the rock a couple of inches off the ground with the stone still firmly stuck in its middle. The impact of the rock hitting the ground again makes Merlin and Arthur stumble back a few steps, their horses neighing in distress at the edge of the clearing.

 

“See?” Merlin pants, truly out of breath now. “There’s only one man who can wield the Sword in the Stone.”

 

There’s a moment of silence and then Arthur actually laughs.

 

“And you think that’s me? A promised king supposed to wield a sword stuck in a great big stone?”

 

His voice is full of disbelief and mockery even, but Merlin tries to ignore that, reminding himself that unlike Merlin, Arthur hasn’t had any magical forewarning - or at least none that he could hope to understand. So Merlin just replies calmly:

 

“I know you are. Magic has given you her blessing, several times now. Remember our handfasting? How the magic gathered around us and went through us? That’s not normal; that’s not how it usually happens, not even when another magic user is involved. Or Beltane? How quickly our fires burst into flames and how brightly they burned? All of that was magic showing her favour.”

 

“But none of that has anything to do with me being a promised king!” Arthur returns almost desperately, adding: “And anyways, all of that wasn’t just me; it involved you, too!”

 

Ignoring the latter part for now because yes, Merlin is aware and no matter how hypocritical it might be, he’d rather not think about what that means, Merlin tries to formulate an answer to the former part that will satisfy Arthur.

 

“Remember Beltane and how I crowned you King of Summer?”

 

At Arthur’s impatient nod, he continues: “It might have just been a wreath of flowers, but it felt much more significant than that. It felt like I was crowning you for real, in front of those who really matter, your people, and magic agreed. As far as the magic of the land is concerned, you are its king. You will be able to pull this sword free, Arthur.”

 

Arthur silently steps forward, fingers gliding slowly over the hilt of the sword before gripping it tightly. But Arthur still hesitates, instead of pulling out the sword, he asks:

 

“But what of my father? What does this mean for him? Or what if you’ve got it all wrong, Merlin, and this sword is actually meant for him?”

 

“I don’t know,” Merlin admits. “I believe the prophecy spoke of you, that you are the one to yield this sword, but what that will mean for your father’s fate, I can’t say. Only time will tell. And as to whether I’m right that this sword was meant for you - there’s only one way to find out: pull it free.”

 

Arthur studies him intently for a long moment, as if to judge whether Merlin is telling the truth and Merlin tries to keep his expression as open and honest as possible. It seems to work because Arthur finally breathes deeply and pulls .

 

For the fraction of a second Merlin thinks that nothing is going to happen, his heart caught in the icy grip of fear. Then the sword starts to move, pulling free of the stone in a shower of sparks and a clangour that rings in Merlin’s ears. With a last cascade of sparks, the tip slides out of the stone and Arthur draws the sword free, raising it triumphantly towards the sky. The sword and his golden hair shine in the sunlight and for a moment Merlin thinks he sees the fiery outline of a crown resting on Arthur’s brow. He’s looking every bit the legendary king he’s going to be, and Merlin is helpless to do anything but sink to his knees and bow his head in reverence.

 

A hand on his shoulder makes him look up again, up at Arthur, whose face is still illuminated by a strange glow, making him look at once old and young, as though Merlin is seeing his past, present, and future all at once. Arthur squeezes his shoulder once and then lets go to offer Merlin his hand.

 

“You don’t kneel to me, Merlin,” he says, “not you.”

 

Merlin takes the proffered hand, but instead of using it to pull himself up, he first presses an impulsive kiss to the back of Arthur’s hand.

 

“I do it gladly,” he says, voice thick, before clearing his throat with embarrassment and finally letting Arthur pull him up.

 

“Do you believe me now?” he asks when he’s standing upright once more, still holding Arthur’s hand, the two of them so close together that they feel like their own little island in the sea of green surrounding them. Arthur hesitates before he answers, his words coming slowly, as if he’s choosing them carefully:

 

“When I touched the sword, I felt something - and when I pulled it free, the feeling only got stronger. It felt right, like it was meant to be - and it felt like something bigger than me, all around me, within me agreed. I do believe you, Merlin, and I’m sorry I ever doubted you.”

 

“Don’t be,” Merlin interrupts him, “it’s a lot to take in, I know that. I don’t know if I would have just trusted my own word on this.”

 

He squeezes Arthur’s hand to assure him that he harbours no hard feelings because of Arthur’s initial disbelief and finally Arthur nods. Then he suddenly perks up and Merlin almost takes a step back, when Arthur’s full focus is turned on him.

 

“Speaking of you , Merlin, are you sure you told me the whole story earlier? Because I haven’t forgotten that all of magic’s blessings that you insisted pointed towards me being the one the legend spoke of involved you, too! Nor have I forgotten that you conveniently forgot to answer that particular part of my questions earlier. Wasn’t the trust supposed to run both ways?”

 

With a sigh, Merlin finally lets go of Arthur’s hand and sits down on the warm grass.

 

“It’s not that I don’t trust you,” he explains to Arthur, who has sat down next to him and started polishing his new sword almost absentmindedly. “It’s just that I don’t believe that part of the legend to be about me.”

 

“Sounds familiar,” Arthur interrupts him, eyebrow raised in not so silent judgement and Merlin ducks his head.

 

“I know,” he groans, “it’s just -” he swallows and starts again: “The legend says there is one who will stand beside the king, you, Arthur, forevermore.”

 

“Is that such a problem?” Arthur asks, and Merlin can hear the hurt he’s trying to hide.

 

“No, no!” Merlin exclaims. “That’s not the issue, believe me, I’ll be by your side as long as you want me there! But this person the legend speaks of is supposed to be the greatest sorcerer of all time, Arthur, how could that be me?”

 

Arthur turns to face him head-on, putting aside the sword carefully, releasing it from his hold for the first time since he pulled it free from the stone, Merlin realises. He takes both of Merlin’s hands into his.

 

“You know I know nothing about magic besides what you taught me, but you’ll just have to trust me here. You told me that I’ll be a king of legend, perhaps the greatest that will ever live, and now I’m telling you that you’ll be a sorcerer of legend, perhaps the greatest that will ever live. Because if this sorcerer is supposed to stand by me, then it cannot be anyone but you, Merlin, because I’d not have anyone but you by my side.”

 

“Oh,” Merlin whispers, his heart hammering in his chest. Words are failing him right now, so he just pulls up Arthur’s hands towards his mouth and presses a lingering kiss to each of them. Instead of breaking the quiet between them, Arthur copies Merlin’s actions, pulling Merlin’s hands towards him in turn, pressing a kiss to Merlin’s knuckles. With a start, Merlin realises that this is the closest they’ve come to actually kissing each other. In between all of the fights and awkwardness, they’ve been dancing around each other, tension ever growing, but never gotten this far. And suddenly Merlin is filled with a desperate desire to kiss Arthur, to be kissed by Arthur, but something is holding him back still.

 

“What do you want to do now?” he asks instead, not entirely sure himself what he is referring to, but Arthur doesn’t ask for clarification.

 

“I don’t know,” he replies, “I can’t just ride back to Camelot and seize power. My father - he’s still my father , Merlin; I might not agree with all he does, but he’s not all bad, either, and I can’t just defy him, kill him; I just can’t; magic can’t ask that of me.”

 

Merlin shakes his head, sure of that much at least.

 

“It doesn’t; it wouldn’t ask that of you; I’m pretty sure of that. And if you could so easily end your father’s life to take power, you wouldn’t be the man I know you to be, that magic sees in you.”

 

“But what then, Merlin? And what am I supposed to do with this?” He lets go of Merlin’s hand to pick up the sword lying next to them. “I can’t just bring a magical sword into the castle and hide it in my nightshirts, can I?”

 

Merlin bites his lip, wrecking his head for a solution, when his gaze falls upon the stone next to them and suddenly he has an idea.

 

“What if you put the sword back in the stone?” he suggest, quickly adding, when Arthur opens his mouth in obvious denial: “No wait, hear me out! We need some more time, don’t we? And some way of dealing with Uther? Well, this might kill two birds with one stone. The sword would be safe and easy to find for all who’d know where to look for it!”

 

“Why would anyone else look for it?” Arthur asks, evidently not yet convinced of Merlin’s plan.

 

“I’m sure I’m not the only one who knows the legend of the Sword in the Stone,” Merlin explains, “and if word got out that it has been found, it would spread even wider. People would tell each other the legend, the bravest would even go looking for the stone and, if they found it, attempt to pull it free. By the time you are ready to face your father, perhaps it would have even reached his ears. And what stronger claim to the throne is there but one not just supported by blood and heritage, but magic and legend, and the love of your people? You have all of that already, and when you are ready, everyone else will know it, too.”

 

Arthur stays silent for an unbearably long stretch of time before he abruptly stands up and says: “That’s how we’ll do it.” He moves to stand behind the stone again, sword raised, ready to plunge it back in, but then hesitates.

 

“How do I put it back in the stone?”

 

Standing up, Merlin sees what gives Arthur pause: the stone has closed again, no sign of where the sword had been visible anymore. But in this case, Merlin knows what to do.

 

“With my help,” he says, stepping around to the other side of the stone, facing Arthur. “I’ll make sure it is safe,” he adds, putting both hands on the stone. Closing his eyes, he concentrates on all he knows about Arthur, all he loves about him, his unshakable loyalty, his love for his people, his fears and insecurities that he’ll make the right decisions as king, his wonder and joy at Merlin’s magic, his laughter in the dark, his grin in the sun, his hands in Merlin’s. Underneath his hands, the stone becomes warm, and Merlin opens his eyes just in time to see Arthur plunging the sword into the stone. It slides in smoothly, like a hot knife into butter, and Arthur doesn’t stop until nothing but the crossguard and the hilt remain visible. But he doesn’t let go of it immediately afterwards, reluctantly caressing the hilt instead, as if wanting to pull it free again.

 

“Does it have a name, you think?” Arthur asks quietly, almost as if just talking to himself.

 

“Kilgharrah called it ‘Excalibur’,” Merlin recalls and Arthur repeats, gripping the hilt tightly once more: “Excalibur.”

 

There’s a sudden flare of light, as if Arthur’s acknowledgement had been the final word in a spell they’d wrought unknowingly, and then everything is calm and serene again, as if nothing out of the ordinary had or could ever happen here.

 

“Excalibur will be safe here, waiting until you are ready,” Merlin says quietly, scared of disturbing the tranquility of the moment.

 

“Ready to defy my father,” Arthur adds, and it’s clear that for now this is the issue that burdens him the most.

 

“Yes,” Merlin acknowledges, whispering to himself: “Though there’s one matter which I hope you’ll defy your father on very soon.”

 

But Arthur hears him and in a few quick strides is standing next to Merlin again, taking a hold of Merlin’s hands to press them to his heart.

 

“If you are talking about the upcoming end of our year and day together, Merlin, then I can assure that if you’ll have me, I have no intention of giving you up, whatever my father may say to that. If you’ll have me, I’ll gladly extend our promise from a year and a day to eternity.”

 

This time there’s nothing holding Merlin back and he only lets go of Arthur’s hands to throw his arms around Arthur’s neck and pull him close enough to press their lips together fervently. After a second of surprise, Arthur’s arms come up around Merlin’s back, too, one going around his waist, holding him close, the other sliding up into his hair, to angle his head so that their lips slide together more smoothly. Arthur’s lips are slightly chapped and there’s a hint of stubble that rasps against Merlin’s skin, but his hands are warm and his arms are strong and Merlin easily loses himself in the sensation of kissing Arthur on fresh green grass under a clear blue sky.

 

scene breaker

 

Time flies by after that day.

 

Before Merlin knows it, their year and a day is almost over and it’s time to officially decide on whether they’ll make their marriage permanent or cut ties. By that time any doubts Merlin might have harboured about their marriage have been firmly eradicated by Arthur. They’ve been acting like newlyweds, even though they’ve been handfasted for almost a year now and are technically not actually wed yet. Their days are still mainly spent apart, but sometimes they catch each other in deserted hallways and sneak furtive kisses and caresses in between more serious duties. Their evenings are still spent together, though, with their talks after dinner becoming increasingly physical. Merlin now knows the shape of Arthur’s lips, the softness of Arthur’s hair slipping through his fingers, the strength of Arthur’s back under his palm. And Merlin now knows the touch of Arthur’s fingers trailing down his spine, the width of Arthur’s thighs underneath him, the whisper of Arthur’s breath caressing his ear.

 

Their nights are still spent alone, though. Arthur is very strict about that, always sending Merlin off at some point, with kisses and soft touches, but still back to his lonely, cold bed, for which Merlin resents him somewhat. But when one of the many servants of Camelot comes to stoke his fireplace in the morning - despite Merlin’s countless assurances that he is quite capable of that himself - he’s invariably glad to not give them even more reason for gossip. The castle was already alive with chatter, when the King and Prince had a shouting match in the King’s Chambers and somehow everyone firmly believed that it was about Merlin. They are not wrong, of course, but it’s still brought on much more whispering and giggling in Merlin’s vicinity than he’s comfortable with.

 

At least the inhabitants of the castle seem to be firmly on his and Arthur’s side. Morgana has gleefully told them that theirs is obviously a match of true love and that nothing can keep them apart, not even the wrath of a king. The rumours are actually surprisingly accurate, when Merlin thinks about it, if a little embarrassing in how zealously they are being spread. But it’s nice to know they have the support of the people and Merlin knows it eases Arthur’s mind, the unavoidable confrontation with his father always in his thoughts.

 

First comes their wedding, though. Because, yes, of course they decided to make their marriage permanent. Which had been the reason for  the shouting match between Arthur and his father. Arthur didn’t give Merlin any details, but Uther makes it abundantly clear that he is not happy with Arthur’s decision. He refuses to take any part in the preparations for the celebrations - which ironically enough works in Arthur’s favour. He’s the one that is visibly working towards a permanent alliance for the good of the kingdom - the druids are still spoken of in hushed, awed voices, their powers legendary, if sometimes somewhat exaggerated, though Merlin isn’t going to tell the people of Camelot that. And Arthur is going to marry one of them! And then they are star-crossed lovers, too! The king that tries to keep them apart doesn’t feature well in the talks around Camelot’s hearths in comparison.

 

So Merlin and Arthur are busy with the preparations for the wedding. Even with Morgana’s and Gwen’s immeasurable help, there’s still a lot to be done by the two of them. Invitations have to be sent out, sleeping arrangements organised, the feast planned, and a million of little things that keep coming up and have to be dealt with immediately. Merlin almost forgets that this is his wedding they are planning amidst the chaos of it all. But when the guests from all around Camelot and Albion start arriving, it is impossible to ignore any longer.

 

Arthur’s side of the guests is mostly royalty - the nobles of Camelot who don’t live in the castle, plus of course the Kings and Queens of the surrounding kingdoms. Merlin immediately likes Queen Annis of Caerleon best - and not just because she is one of the few who doesn’t bring along a princess. It’s as though they are all hoping that Arthur is going to change his mind at the last minute and marry their daughter instead of Merlin. When Merlin grumbles as much one of the few nights they still manage to get dinner together, Arthur just shuts him up with a kiss and says: “Of course they are, I’m a great catch after all!” Merlin pinches his side in retaliation and relishes Arthur’s high-pitched yelp. It gets him a glare, but then also some more non-verbal reassurances in the form of kisses, so he doesn’t regret his actions. It also helps that most of them are complete airheads who’d bore Arthur within an hour. Princess Elena of Gawant is one joyous exception to the rule, but within minutes of making her acquaintance it becomes abundantly clear that she cares more about her horses than Arthur’s marital status and that her father is well aware and resigned to the fact. She is obviously here to visit Camelot’s apparently fabled stables, not to witness a wedding, and Merlin can respect that.

 

Merlin’s side of the guest is much less exciting in comparison - or at least he thought so prior to their arrival. Because despite Arthur’s offer to prepare rooms for them in the castle, the druids decide to settle on the plains outside the castle, erecting a village of tents in the span of an afternoon. They are the talk of Camelot even before Merlin’s parents arrive. Technically they should have been the first to arrive because they were riding the fastest animal of them all - but Kilgharrah had always had a taste for the dramatic. And what was more dramatic than arriving after everyone else, huge black wings darkening the sky, making the people of Camelot duck and scream and more than one foreign king lose his crown, before landing in the courtyard of the castle with a blast of wind that knocked two guards on their butts. By the time Merlin, who had run outside at the first screams, reaches them, his parents have already dismounted and Kilgharrah has curled up like an overgrown, terribly smug cat. Who could kill a regiment with his fire.

 

“Oh Merlin, there you are, cariad! Kil was so excited to see you again that he insisted on landing here instead of further away from the castle!”

 

Merlin’s mother embraces him, chattering away about their travels and who of the druids came to witness his wedding - “almost all of them! Everyone who could make it this far at least!”. She is the only one who has ever dared to shorten Kilgharrah’s name and he just preens whenever she does. Sometimes Merlin wonders which of his parent’s is the true dragonlord - the one who has to speak another language and command to get Kilgharrah to do his bidding, or the one who gets him to do everything she wants with just a few words and a pat of her hand.

 

“Greetings, young warlock,” Kilgharrah’s voice booms across the courtyard and Merlin disentangles himself from his mother’s embrace, returns a quick hug hello from his father, and then faces the visitor that’s guaranteed to turn Uther purple with apoplectic rage.

 

“Hello Kilgharrah, I didn’t know you were coming,” Merlin says pointedly, because a little forewarning that a huge dragon was going to attend his wedding would have been nice. But Kilgharrah ignores his dig, instead directing a big-toothed grin at something behind him.

 

“And that is your promised, I assume? To be honest, I thought the Once and Future King would be a little … taller!”

 

Merlin turns around, and indeed, there’s Arthur, face a carefully controlled image of calm belied by how wide his eyes are. He doesn’t even seem to have heard Kilgharrah’s belittling of his stature, too occupied with the presence of a dragon in his courtyard. He’s so distracted that he doesn’t even notice Merlin stepping towards him until Merlin touches his arm.

 

“Arthur, this is Kilgharrah the Great; Kilgharrah, this is Crown Prince Arthur of Camelot,” he introduces them to each other and Arthur actually sinks down into a low bow.

 

“It is an honour to meet you, my lord,” he says, manners apparently stronger than shock, and Kilgharrah lets out a booming laugh that makes one of the poor soldiers who has only just dared to get up, stumble backwards and fall down again.

 

“Well said, young princeling, and well met indeed. But I am no lord, just Kilgharrah will suffice.”

 

“Then you must call me Arthur,” Arthur replies, unflaggingly sticking to the rules of etiquette, even though technically Kilgharrah hadn’t addressed him with any title of deference.

 

“Oh Arthur ,” Kilgharrah rumbles and Merlin is sorely tempted to kick him, even though he’ll hardly feel it. “I see that my Merlin truly has found the other side to his coin.”

 

Merlin groans and sees Arthur turning towards him in confusion, mouthing: “the other side to what ?”

 

“Just ignore him, alright?” he hisses back, adding: “I think he’s gone a bit funny in his old age.”

 

“I heard that, young warlock,” Kilgharrah booms and Merlin snarks back: “Oh good, your ears are working still at least, even if what’s between them has gotten a little slow!”

 

He can practically feel Arthur’s appalled look, but Kilgharrah just laughs and Merlin finally darts forward to hug him as best as he can. Kilgharrah might be barmy and incredibly annoying if he wants to be, but he’s still been part of Merlin’s life since he was very small. He’s almost like a grandfather - not that Merlin would ever tell him so. It’d go terribly to his head.

 

“Now that you’ve had your entrance and shocked everyone appropriately, including poor Arthur, go find a more comfortable place to rest, won’t you?” Merlin says, as he lets go of Kilgharrah and steps back to stand next to Arthur again. Just as Kilgharrah prepares to take flight once more, he remembers something else important: “And don’t eat too many sheep, please!”

 

“Sheep?” Arthur echoes, suddenly no longer sounding as awestruck.

 

“Sheep,” Merlin confirms, adding: “What did you think dragons survived on? Love, air, and magic alone?”

 

scene breaker

 

The day of their wedding dawns bright and beautiful. Today is Lughnasadh, the day of the harvest festival, their year and a day carefully timed so that they’d receive double the blessing on their wedding day. Merlin wonders whether it would have been double the curse, too, if they hadn’t decided to make their handfasting permanent but to cut ties instead. But thankfully they won’t have to find out.

 

Merlin has spent the night with his parents, under strict orders from Morgana that the two grooms may not meet each other before the ceremony. Arthur has been held captive in his chambers by Morgana and Gwen who helped him to get ready, just as Merlin’s parents helped their son. Unlike before their handfasting, the preparation wasn’t filled with fearful, but instead joyful anticipation.

 

But now the wait is over and Merlin is about to be married. To Crown Prince Arthur of Camelot. Not just for a year and a day. Forever.

 

Perhaps Merlin is a little more nervous than he thought.

 

A warm hand grabs his and Merlin turns to face Arthur, who has stepped up next to him. He’s wearing his chainmail, polished to perfection, the red coat of the knights of Camelot flowing behind him, and for the first time since Merlin met him, the circlet denoting his status as Crown Prince of Camelot. His eyes are bluer than the sky, the sea, and the brightest sapphire, and Merlin blurts: “You look amazing.”

 

Arthur ducks his head but not quickly enough that Merlin doesn’t catch sight of a blush colouring his cheeks crimson first. But then Arthur says: “You do, too.” and it’s Merlin’s turn to blush. He’s quite glad that they are still just within the castle walls and that no one is witnessing them acting like children with their first crush right now. But in a way Arthur is actually Merlin’s first crush and now he’s about to marry his first crush and - “I’m glad you are here,” Arthur interrupts his thoughts, adding: “I’m glad we are here, together, I mean. It didn’t look like we’d be here in the beginning, but I’m glad we are.”

 

“Me too,” Merlin agrees, squeezing Arthur’s hand. “I was so sure that we wouldn’t be standing here today a year and a day ago, that I wouldn’t want to stand here, now, but I do.”

 

“Isn’t that what you’re supposed to say later?” Arthur teases and Merlin elbows him gently.

 

“Shut up, you know we are going with the old vows. But we really do need to get going now or I’m afraid either your father will skewer Kilgharrah or Kilgharrah will cover your father in flames.”

 

Despite his displeasure at the day’s proceedings, Uther of course wasn’t able to withdraw from all his duties, especially regarding his role in the ceremony, if he didn’t want his people to turn completely against him. In contrast, Kilgharrah had fairly demanded that he’d be included in the ceremony and no one had dared to tell him no. Now he was sitting just next to the dais the wedding would take place on, looking terribly smug.

 

There’s a loud cheer when Arthur and Merlin finally step out of the castle and Merlin grins and waves with his free hand, holding even more tightly onto Arthur with his other. What a difference a year and a day makes. Their handfasting was met with cheers, too, but those had been rather lackadaisical in comparison to the heart-felt cheers going up now. Merlin himself is feeling much more enthusiastic about this ceremony as well.

 

The ceremony itself is not much different, just expanded to include the whole wedding vows instead of just the initial half. Morgana is again the first one to step forward and wrap the first band around their joined hands, while Arthur starts:

 

“You cannot possess me for I belong to myself
But while we both wish it, I give you that which is mine to give.”

 

His voice is steady and firm, full of conviction that what he’s saying is true. Repeating the lines, Merlin tries to put as much conviction into his voice. When Gaius steps forward with the second band, Merlin says the next lines, thinking of late night dinners, magical dragons flying through the dark, and Arthur’s wide-eyed delight.

 

“You cannot command me, for I am a free person
But I shall serve you in those ways you require
and the honeycomb will taste sweeter coming from my hand.”

 

Like this they go back and forth, while Uther, Hunith, and Balinor step forward one after the other to tie their hands further together, until a rainbow of colours connects them and Merlin wouldn’t be able to let go of Arthur’s hands even if he’d wanted to. But a year and a day has been a long time, longer still for the changes it has wrought on his life. And while Merlin might have wished for release back then, he can’t imagine letting go now. The second half of the wedding vows has been said by couples for centuries, but it feels as though they’ve been written specifically for Merlin and Arthur, putting into words the obstacles they’ve overcome and the bliss they’ve found over the past year:

 

“I pledge to you that yours will be the name I cry aloud in the night.
And the eyes into which I smile in the morning.


I pledge to you the first bite from my meat,
And the first drink from my cup.


I pledge to you my living and dying, equally in your care,
And tell no strangers our grievances.


This is my wedding vow to you.
This is a marriage of equals.”

 

When Arthur says the last two lines, Merlin believes him. It wasn’t so from the start - Merlin feeling wildly out of place in Camelot, Arthur unsure of how to even treat, never mind accept Merlin as his equal, all the miscommunication and misunderstandings that kept them apart at first - but now the statement rings true: This is a marriage of equals .

 

And then finally, Kilgharrah also gets to play his part in the ceremony. He of course can’t tie a band around Merlin and Arthur’s hands, but instead he raises his head and breathes across their joined hands. The air from his lungs is hot and humid, though more magic than flames, and it stirs up the colourful mess around their hands, until it all slowly starts to glow. There’s a low murmur going through the crowd, whispers and quickly hushed squeals, but Merlin can’t pay attention to that. The magic that has been gathering around them again, thick and thrumming with energy, seems to have been set alight by Kilgharrah’s breath. Where before it had just been discernible to Merlin, the magical flames dancing over their hands are now visible for all. Out of the corner of his eye, Merlin sees Uther opening his mouth, face purple with rage, but Morgana stops whatever he might be trying to say in its tracks by firmly stomping on his foot. In the whispers of the crowd that Merlin can understand, the talks of blessings easily drown out the few mentions of curses.

 

The only reaction he cares about, though, is the one of the man standing next to him. Arthur has been astonishingly accepting of magic considering his upbringing in private - barring that hiccup at the start of their handfasting period - but this is the first time that he’ll have to react publicly to a display of magic, under the scrutiny of his father at that. But if Arthur rejects this, this offering and blessing of magic, and with it Merlin, then... - Merlin doesn’t even want to think of the possible consequences.

 

But when he finally dares to look at Arthur’s face, Arthur is staring right back at him, eyes wide, but full of wonder, not fear. His hands are still grasping Merlin’s tightly, not threatening to let go. And his gaze is steady and filled with love, eradicating the last remnants of apprehension and insecurity that had still plagued Merlin.

 

Together they say the last line of their vows, their voices joined as one, carrying wide and far over the sudden hush that fell on the crowd:

 

“And beyond this, I will cherish and honor you through this life, and into the next.”

 handfasting

With these words, the bands tying their hands together unravel as if touched by unseen hands, and the magic gathered around them explodes in a display of fireworks that draws all attention upwards to the sky. All attention but for Merlin and Arthur’s, that is. For instead of staring up at the fires in the sky, Merlin has thrown his newly freed arms around Arthur, caught in Arthur’s embrace in turn.

 

Under the bright display of magic’s joy at their union, their lips meet in a soft kiss that encapsulates all of their vows and everything beyond that they haven’t found words for yet.