Nerves are getting the better of Arthur.
He shouldn’t be this worked up, shouldn’t have any fears or doubts or concerns at all. It’s not like he’s never done this before. This isn’t the first time he’s made a prospective partner dinner.
But this is the first time he’s made a man dinner. The first time he’s invited Merlin over for dinner.
And god does he want to make a good impression. They’ve known each other for a few months now, ever since Merlin pulled him out of a snow drift on his fourth day in this small rural cottage town of Alaska. It wasn’t Arthur’s finest moment but they both laugh about it now, in fondness more than embarrassment, at least on Arthur’s part.
The whole cabin smells of the stew he slaved away at, potatoes, and pudding that Arthur somehow managed to not burn—also a first. He’s quite proud of himself and hopes it tastes as good as it smells. If it wasn’t in the middle of winter and food a bit more limited, Arthur would have gone all out. As it is, this is the best he could do.
As long as Merlin likes it, that’s all that matters.
The distant sound of dogs barking breaks Arthur out of his nervous spiral. His heart jumps into his throat.
“That must be Merlin.” And god now Arthur has begun talking to himself. Great, just great. It’s official, he’s definitely gone mental and it’s all Merlin’s fault.
He puts the potatoes down on the table and shucks the oven mits, stashing them in the kitchen cabinet.
“Alright cutlery, wine—ready! Hors d’oeuvres—check.” He takes a deep breath, lighting the final candle as he gives the table one last once-over before throwing on his suit jacket and making his way to the front door.
“‘Thank you for accepting my invitation’—no. ‘I am honored you accepted’—ugh no. ‘Thank you for coming’ hmmmm.”
God, why was he such a mess over a simple dinner? He should be excited—and he was, truly he was—but the nerves were taking over. It was an odd feeling, one that Arthur wasn’t used to. Then again he had never cared about anything in his life more than he did now
He cared about Merlin. Cared what he thought of him, how he acted with him, and doing everything right by him. Arthur catches his reflection in the hallway mirror as he passes and fixes his hair, checks his teeth. It’s crazy how much he wants this all to be perfect. To be perfect for Merlin.
And that scares him.
Damn he doesn’t want to screw this up.
“Good, okay. Here we go.”
A breath, two, and he exhales his butterflies. “Alright Arthur, courage.”
But it’s only confusion that he feels as he opens the door. He expected to find Merlin there, a beaming smile on his face and looking as handsome as always in his hardy fur coat, hood pulled up and cloth over his nose and mouth, his boots and trousers coated in neat glittering layer of frost from his sled ride over.
Instead, Arthur is assaulted by the chaos of barking and pacing and pawing, of snow kicked up. Merlin’s team is there still tethered together, exhausted, laying in the snow whining and panting like they had all just run up the Yukon trail and back. Except a near frantic Kilgharrah who’s barking something fierce, pulling on his lead trying to get to Arthur.
And behind them is Merlin’s empty and overturned sled. But no Merlin in sight.
“Kilgharrah?” Arthur scans the team and the trail beyond, vainly hoping Merlin will pop up out of the snow like a stubborn flower. But the landscape remains horribly vacant. Arthur’s stomach drops, the butterflies turning to stone. “Where’s Merlin? What happened?”
Then his gaze is drawn to the much too still dark-haired husky Freya on her side in the snow drift.
Fear stabs through Arthur and he runs over to her prone body, hushing Kilgharrah when the lead dog whines and noses at Arthur’s hip. He falls to his knees in the snow next to wheel dog, the cold bleeding in through his trousers as he runs his fingers through the fur along her body, searching for any sign of life.
He can feel the barest of movement along her chest and feels the smallest bit of relief. But her breathing is much too shallow, much too spaced between.
Arthur closes his eyes, taking a breath and a moment to silently plead to whatever powers-that-be to please, help her, keep her alive. Merlin will be crushed, he knows, if Freya passes but there’s nothing more he can do for her.
Merlin however, is still out there somewhere. And if his dogs are in this bad of shape, that doesn’t bode well for their owner.
Arthur vaults to his feet with that thought and quickly releases the dogs from their harnesses and leads, giving them calming pats and scratches and reassurances as he goes. Then, with a whispered apology, he gathers Freya’s limp body into his arms.
The snow beneath her is red with blood. Arthur shudders as he straightens.
“Inside now, all of you!”
He ushers the team through the cottage door and gently wraps Freya’s body in a towel before laying her down on his bed with a kiss her brow and another prayer. A pang of guilt stabs through him at leaving her there, but time is not on Merlin’s side. There’s no telling how long he has been out there and with the injuries his team has sustained he could be in worse shape. Arthur needs to find him now.
He throws on his thick coat and exchanges his nicer shoes for snow boots, grabbing his rifle, snowshoes and on impulse, the small sled hanging above the front door. He’s not sure what state Merlin is in, but it’s better to be prepared than not.
Kilgharrah noses at his hip, urging him to hurry with a bark before pawing at the front door. Arthur almost pushes the dog aside and commands him to stay when he pauses, looking down at the distressed dog. He has no idea where Merlin is or if he’s even on the trail at all.
Arthur yanks open the front door, releasing the lead dog back into the snow.
“Kilgharrah, take me to him.”
* * *
Four months earlier:
It’s too bloody cold for anything good to come of today.
Arthur’s sure the day can’t get much worse though, so he’s pleased enough with that notion. There’s little to no wind blowing across the frozen landscape, pristine glittering snow covering every inch of the Alaskan terrain. In any other circumstance—one that kept him indoors with a roaring fire and bundled in a warm wool blanket—he would marvel at the beauty of it all. How the sun glitters off the powder, setting the ground alight with wonder and magic, how the mountain above shines with a softness like billowing clouds rolling over the vast sky. It truly is beautiful and a sight many may never get to witness let alone experience firsthand in their lifetimes. He should feel lucky.
But at that moment he’s much too cold and frankly irritated, stuck hard and fast in a snow drift a half mile from his cabin to do much more than curse the frozen tundra and all the powers-that-be to hell. A frozen hell.
Honestly, he’s not sure why he expected any different.
He knew what season it was, knew what he was getting himself into, but he just couldn’t stay in London a second longer. It was a rash decision, bred from overworking and exhaustion and fed by the pressures of his father and constant family disputes and conflicts. He needed a break.
Even if that break was thousands of miles away surrounded by untamed wilderness and a winter he was sorely unprepared for.
Arthur yanks on his right foot hidden from the knee down in the snowbank. It barely budges and he can’t help the borderline animalistic growl that escapes his clenched teeth.
He really should have stayed in the cabin, counting the knots in the wooden beam above his bed. For the tenth time. Today.
Beats being caught out in the snow on the side of what passes for a road in these rural parts. It’s little more than faint sled and wagon ruts carving parallel lines down the center of the flatter part of the terrain, winding through the trees and tufts of shrubbery that aren’t completely covered yet by snow.
Arthur sighs, giving a few more half-hearted tugs before yanking sharply with his right leg again. He squeaks in surprise as the leg comes free but he barely has time to celebrate his victory as his balance is thrown off and he promptly face plants into the snow.
Minus his boot.
God, he really wishes he had thought to grab the snowshoes by the door. He didn’t even stop to contemplate the mechanics and problems that would arise with braving the great outdoors blanketed with a good few feet of snow. And in nothing but a few extra layers and his newly acquired fur-lined boots that the shopkeeper of the port-side trading post said would be best for the harsh winter. He wasn’t wrong, that shopkeeper, only he failed to mention that snowshoes were also a necessity in order to not find yourself stuck fast knee-deep in a snowdrift half a mile from your cabin.
So yeah, it was a goddamn miracle Arthur had made it this far before getting stuck.
There’s no way his day could get any worse, he’s sure.
Oh, but of course the powers-that-be decide to prove him wrong.
Arthur muffles a groan into the snow as the distant sound of dogs barking and the gentle scraping of wood across ice reach his ears. With as much haste as his stuck position allows him, Arthur levers himself up so he won’t be caught in a such a demeaning position. Well, more demeaning than simply being caught in a snow drift which isn’t much but he’ll sew up the tattered remains of his dignity as best he can and make the most of it. Not much else for it really.
“Whoa,” a decidedly male voice calls out before the first dog enters Arthur’s periphery. The rest follow, all four legs of excitement, panting and yipping at one another as they slow down beside him and Arthur’s just thankful they are lashed to the sled or he’d be at the mercy of their affections with no escape.
Arthur makes a small noise that is decidedly inhuman as the sled comes to a full stop just inside of his line of sight.
“You need a hand there?”
The man’s voice is clearly amused and it’s enough to rile Arthur’s hackles. He may be far from home and insanely out of his element here in the vast wasteland of Alaska but he is still a man and not some damsel in need of saving. He can fend for himself thank you very much.
But then the man is pulling down the cloth protecting his face from the winter chill and Arthur gets a glimpse of his features.
He expects a native, perhaps a member of the indigenous tribe that had raised his mother, all darker features and rough around the edges but kind soft eyes. What he doesn’t expect is a pale-skinned young man, with eyes as blue as the ocean framed by a thick brow, long lashes, and cheekbones sharper than a knife. If not for the dark hair peeking out from beneath the man’s hood, Arthur might have assumed the man was as much a foreigner as himself.
That and the obvious skill with a sled team.
The man throws a pair of snowshoes onto the road beside his sled—and now Arthur is sure the powers-that-be are mocking him, laughing from on high—before he steps onto them and lashes them to his boots with surprising ease and dexterity.
Looks aside, Arthur despises the man. The show-off.
“No thank you,” Arthur grumbles, flustered—in more ways than one he realizes. The stranger is staring, and Arthur straightens a bit as though good posture will distract from his embarrassing predicament. “I’m perfectly content sludging my way through this hellscape.”
The amusement disappears quickly from the man’s face and he holds up his hands in mock surrender. “Just trying to help.” Then quieter as though Arthur isn’t standing—trapped, imprisoned—right there he mutters, “Miners.”
“For Christ’s sake, I’m no miner,” Arthur growls, wiggling his feet as though the snow is suddenly going to decide his efforts have been adequate enough and he deserves to be set free. No such luck. He lets out an indignant huff and glares up at the man. “Wouldn’t bother with that lot. Bloody waste of time, if you ask me.”
That seems to placate the stranger and he chuckles lightly. “Not here to bathe in the golden rivers, to find fortune amongst the mountains?”
“And freeze to death in the process? Tempting, but I’ll pass.”
“Much rather get yourself caught in a drift a little closer to town?” quirks the stranger.
“I’m not—” Arthur snaps his mouth shut and groans because he so clearly is.
The stranger stops in front of Arthur in all his snowshoe glory, hands on his hips like one of Arthur’s put upon nannies from his younger years. “Are you going to accept my help now or do I have to force it upon you?” He cocks an eyebrow and Arthur feels both a spark of annoyance and attraction at the glare leveled at him. Damn it. “Either way, I’m not leaving you here until you can prove you aren’t going to die of exposure.”
Arthur is nothing if not stubborn but even he has to admit defeat after struggling in the snow for another minute in order to prove the stranger wrong. Which he doesn’t. Spectacularly. The man is patient at least probably because he’s amused, chuckling as he watches the spectacle that is Arthur making an ass of himself until finally Arthur growls out a reluctant “fine.”
The stranger must be used to digging hapless foreigners out of snow drifts because he has Arthur out and upon arguably shaking feet in no time, grinning like a loon and no doubt ready to regal the townspeople with his heroics and the stupidity of said hapless foreigners everywhere.
“Thank you—”Arthur trails off, realising he never caught the stranger’s name.
“Merlin.” The man holds out his hand and Arthur takes the offering. “Merlin Emrys.”
* * *
Arthur curses the fresh snowfall from the night before almost immediately. He’s forced to don the snowshoes sooner than he had hoped, slowing down his progress along the trail and giving the waning sun more of a threatening air. Kilgharrah runs ahead, nosing at the snow, paw prints, and haphazard drag marks the sled made as the team had towed it to Arthur’s cottage before running back to Arthur to ensure he is still following. The dog is impatient, distressed and unhappy with the slow pace that Arthur has been forced to take with the hindrance of the snowshoes, but there’s nothing for it. If Arthur gets stuck or injured, that’s a death sentence for Merlin. Arthur’s heart aches, worry and fear gnawing at his breastbone and churning his stomach into knots. He wants to throw caution to the wind and plow his way through the snow and find Merlin and get him to safety. But he can’t. He has to grit his teeth and take it one step at a time, cursing this godforsaken land the entire way.
Please let him be okay. Please please.
He’s not sure how long they’ve been out here, the details of the landscape blurring into one another in the dim dusk light until it all looks the same. The trail is barely visible now, just a dim white path bordered by darkening trees that tower overhead. He makes a point to not look too closely at the darker splotches here and there amongst the sled marks, painting the pristine white with bits of deep dark red.
But his mind won’t let it be. Fear is a sapling that’s taken root in his chest, expanding and growing with every second that passes, feeding off the possibilities and endless horrors that he might find at the end of this journey. It grows stronger with every drop of blood, every time Kilgharrah trots back to him to ensure he’s still following. It’s excruciating, the waiting, the unknown, so much so that he’s sure he’ll go mad before they ever reach Merlin.
And Arthur will gladly endure it all if it means Merlin is waiting for him on the other side, alive and well, beaming up at him sheepishly from a simple snow drift he’s fallen into. He would laugh at the irony of it, brush the snow off his hair, and they’d spend the rest of the night cuddled up with a mound of blankets in front of the fire in his cabin.
Please, let him be okay.
Kilgharrah falls into pace beside him once more, nosing at his hand, urging him forward.
“Good boy.” Arthur gives the dog a few reassuring pats on the head. It helps ground himself as well, keep him focused on the task and not get too lost in the terrors the future could hold. It wouldn’t help any of them to dwell too much. “Bring me to him.”
Kilgharrah noses once more at him before sniffing at the ground. Then without warning, he’s shooting off ahead with a bark and disappearing round the bend. Arthur huffs, trying to ignore the tightening knot in his chest, the band squeezing around his lungs. The trek is hard enough on its own without the added restriction to his air supply.
Focus. The wind slaps his cheeks, icy as it plays with his hair and stirs the forest around him to life. He tunes into the forest, the crunch of snow underfoot, the rustle of leaves in the trees, and he tries to pick out any other signs of life. Signs of Merlin.
Insistent barking breaks through the calm, echoing back to him along the trail. Arthur whips his head up, heart beating rapidly beneath his breastbone.
“Kilgharrah?!” He shouts, unconsciously picking up his pace until he’s running as fast as he can, cursing the clunky snowshoes—the irony—as he sludges through the snow toward the bend in the trail. But he knows, he knows there’s only one reason the lead dog would be putting up such a fuss. “Merlin?!”
Silence falls like night over the trail, leaving Arthur running blind across the snow, heart in his throat.
He rounds the corner just as the barking picks back up. But the darkened trail ahead is empty and Arthur can no longer make out the paw prints in the snow.
Another round of barking picks up from Arthur’s left and he immediately turns and starts trudging in that direction. But the sound is off, like Kilgharrah is nearby but there’s no sign of him.
Snow crunches underfoot, marching to the rhythm of his heart in anticipation of what he might find.
As Arthur steps off the trail and into the thinning trees, he barely avoids falling on his ass as the ground suddenly drops off. He pinwheels his arms, clomping around a bit in the snow before he’s finally able to regain his balance. The barking continues from down below.
“Kilgharrah?” Arthur drops the sled’s lead and squints through the dimming light, trying to catch hide or tail of the qimmiq. There’s the barest of movement from below, lighter shadows shifting in the growing darkness until they coalesce into a more discernible four-legged shape at the base of the slope.
And a darker more human shape lying deathly still near the frozen ravine not a foot away.
Arthur’s heart seizes, his body going as cold as the Alaskan terrain. He’s moving between one breath and the next, feet sliding down the steep snowy embankment before he can even contemplate the dangers or risks involved in jumping headlong into god only knows what. All he can see is the unmoving shape of what he knows is Merlin and the distressed pacing of the man’s lead dog in the snow beside him.
In truth, it’s by pure luck that Arthur makes it down that embankment without losing his balance or injuring himself or Merlin further. He’s running off of pure fear and panic which is a recipe for disaster in and of itself without adding snow into the mix. But somehow he lands more or less upright a few feet from Merlin’s body.
And now up close he recognizes the fur skinned coat, hood pulled up and over the head, obstructing the wearer’s features. But Arthur would know that coat anywhere.
“Merlin?!” Though Arthur doesn’t expect an answer, the silence that follows does nothing to quell the fear in his heart. Snow crunches underfoot as he rushes over to Merlin and crashes to his knees beside his prone form. “Merlin?”
With one gloved hand, he pulls back Merlin’s hood, revealing his slack face, eyes closed, looking to all the world like he had just fallen asleep out beside this frozen stream. Which, Arthur muses, seems like something the idiot might do. Kilgarrah’s wet nose nudges at Merlin’s cheek, tongue poking out to lick at his master’s face.
Arthur pulls the glove off his other hand with his teeth. The cold stabs at his exposed fingers but he pays it no mind, leaning over Merlin to better find his pulse point in the dim light.
He tries not to worry too much at the chill of Merlin’s skin and focuses on the feel of blood pumping through his veins. Ah, there it is, slow but steady.
Arthur breathes out a sigh of relief, nearly slumping back on his heels as the weight of worry and fear abates a bit. Most still lingers, like a stubborn cough that refuses to disappear after a cold but it’s enough that he no longer feels like he’s choking on it.
“Merlin? Come on, this is no time to take a nap. We were supposed to be having a nice dinner together. I cooked for you!” Arthur freezes as he remembers how he set the food out on the table and then promptly ushered Merlin’s dogs into his cabin before locking them inside. He curses the high heavens. “Well, your team is probably enjoying the fruits of my labor now. All because you decided to have a lie in here on the side of the road.”
Just talking to Merlin, berating him like he usually would, is like balm to Arthur’s frayed nerves as he gently turns Merlin over in the snow. Merlin’s body is limp, pliant, like a babe in sleep. In any other circumstance Arthur would find this adorable, but at the moment the worry is overshadowing all else.
Because Merlin didn’t just fall asleep here, no matter the jests. Something happened between the tribe’s settlement merely five miles away and here. Something that caused Merlin to fall, be thrown, or pulled from his sled, down this embankment, lose consciousness.
And if there’s one thing Arthur knows about Merlin, it’s that he’s damn good on a dogsled. He wouldn’t have just fallen unprovoked.
Arthur freezes as he finally turns Merlin onto his back, eyes widening in shock and horror. Kilgharrah beside him lets out a series of distressed whines. The snow where Merlin’s body had lain was stained dark with blood.
“No, no no no no no” Arthur whispers, hands frantically running over Merlin’s body. But he doesn’t need to, he can see the wetness clumping the fur of his coat together near Merlin’s left shoulder, an abnormality in the structure of the clothing.
And the neat round entry wound at the center.
A bullet. Someone had shot Merlin.
Rage and horror slam into Arthur like a steam train, washing into every crevice of his mind, a swarm of angry bees protecting their hive. His world narrows to a point, until all he can see is Merlin and the blood. He barely even registers the blood splattered across the right side of Merlin’s forehead, just more kindling to the raging fire that has quickly spiraled out of control inside him.
With a great force of will, Arthur pushes the whelming emotions aside. He can’t deal with that right now. He needs to focus on Merlin and getting him somewhere safe and warm and out of the elements. That’s priority right now.
“Sorry about this,” he says, though he knows Merlin can’t hear him. Gently, he maneuvers Merlin into a sitting position, mindful of his shoulder and head. He’s sure these aren’t Merlin’s only injuries but he can’t think of that right now. All he can do is be as gentle as possible and hope he doesn’t aggravate anything further.
It takes some finagling and a few curses and apologies, but soon enough Arthur has Merlin leaning over him and across his back. Then he hefts himself up onto his feet, stumbling a bit with the added weight before finding his footing, Merlin settled as comfortably as can be across his shoulder.
Kilgharrah nudges at his side, giving a short bark of urgency.
“Yes, thank you, I’m going as fast as I can here,” he snaps, his nerves frayed beyond belief. He glances down at the lead dog and sighs, softening. “Truly though, thank you for leading me to him.”
Kilgharrah yips, nudging Arthur again and Arthur turns back to the new daunting task at hand. The steep incline of the embankment towers above them lit only by the dregs of the day and dotted with rocks, trees, and layers upon layers of snow.
“Now we just got to get him back.”
* * *
It’s when they are extracting themselves from the dogsled after a run into town that it hits Arthur. It’s innocuous and out of the blue, but Merlin’s eyes are crinkled in laughter, his hand resting on Arthur’s forearm so casually and Arthur comes to a realization.
He has never met anyone like Merlin.
Truly, the man is an enigma, one that doesn’t adhere to or even seem to know of the ways of the world beyond this little corner of the Alaskan territory. He is tactile, nudging, hugging, brushing touches against the people around him with no hint of shyness or contempt or shame. It’s a way of living Arthur has never known and can’t entirely comprehend. It’s not surprising, though, seeing as Merlin has lived here his whole life. He doesn’t know anything different.
And honestly, Arthur finds it enormously refreshing. He has never taken part in such things himself, never been given a reason or desire to. His father is certainly not the affectionate type, his sister either. He’s never known anything but cold purposeful touches, to firmly lead him down the path of success or drag him down towards failure.
But with Merlin, he can’t help but revel in the simplicity of gentle fingers on his arm, casual affectionate brushing of shoulders and how he pulls Arthur close when he least expects it.
Arthur yearns for more. He finds himself needing it, like an addict, craving the warmth of Merlin’s skin, the affection of his touch. Thus after they’re initial untimely meeting, Arthur can’t seem to stay away from the young man.
Merlin for his part seems to be fascinated with Arthur.
“Tall buildings? Like how tall? Taller than those trees?” Merlin points to the grove of trees over Arthur’s shoulder just beyond the kennel where Merlin raises his dogs. Arthur chuckles.
“Thrice as tall at least.”
Merlin’s eyes widen, sparkling with awe. “And people live in them?”
“Live, eat, work, gamble, drink. You name it, it’s done.” He pauses, trying to think of a better way to describe a big city like London to someone who has never seen anything remotely close to it before. “It’s got the structural looks of Skagway but with the layout of the Yupik winter village you were raised in,” Arthur explains, latching onto something Merlin will understand. He had taken Arthur to the settlement of the Yupik tribe where he had grown up, they’re communal sod huts situated close together during the winter months. It was coincidentally the same tribe that had raised Arthur’s mother, the whole reason Arthur was here in the first place.
Then again, he can’t help but think it wasn’t so much a coincidence and more of something like fate. If he believed in fate, that is.
“Ah.” Merlin nods, nose wrinkled. “Tall tall buildings, close together. I think I got the gist of it.”
“Not to your liking?”
Merlin shakes his head. “Not in the least bit.”
“Not surprising. This place is the furthest you can get from London,” says Arthur gesturing to the small cabin and farm Merlin calls home out surrounded by trees and wilderness. And though he had initially despised it, Arthur had secretly come to love this small rural corner of Alaska. But he attributes that more to the man walking beside him rather than the territory.
“Merlin!” a man shouts from the direction of the kennel, and Arthur doesn’t even have to look to know its Daegal, Merlin’s farmhand. His voice is not frantic exactly but it’s a near thing. Though, Daegal is a naturally nervous young man Arthur has come to find out.
He’s striding with purpose across the blanketed dog run toward where they have pulled up alongside the fence, none of the usual pups and huskies nipping at his heels. Which is odd, to say the least. The few times Arthur had visited Merlin’s farm where he raises the sled dogs that are so invaluable to the way of life up here, there has always been a few dogs racing about the run, soaking up the cold snowy landscape like they were bred to do.
“Daegal?” Merlin asks, his frown deepening. “Is everything alright?”
Daegal shakes his head as he lets himself out of the kennel and joins them beside the sled. “We lost another one.”
Merlin’s breath hitches. “What? But I just checked on them this morning? They were all there before I left!”
“Struck not an hour after you left while I was cleaning out the kennel.” Anger bleeds into Daegal’s voice, coloring his face. “I was right there and I didn’t even—”
“Who?” Merlin growls.
“Dammit.” Arthur cocks an eyebrow. He’s never heard Merlin swear before, never heard him even speak ill of anyone either now that he thinks of it. Besides the miners that have taken over the town but no one can fault him for that. Even Arthur finds them unruly and rude and he’s used to the folks of London. Merlin sighs, shaking his head. “She was just a pup.”
“I’m so sorry, Merlin.” Daegal lays a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and Arthur finds himself terribly envious of his ability to just touch Merlin so casually. And then feels stupid for feeling envious over something so trivial. “I’m so sorry, it was my fault. If I hadn’t been—”
“No, no don’t you blame yourself. It was not your fault,” Merlin assures, his face hardening. He crouches down beside Freya to run his hands through her dark fur and scratch behind her ears. The dark husky kisses his face in return. “They’re getting bolder, striking in the middle of the day. Jesus.”
“Striking?” Arthur interrupts, sure he heard that wrong. He looks to Daegal before turning his attention to Merlin. The man looks angry and Arthur can’t help the heat that colors his cheeks as this new side of Merlin. He coughs and quickly tacks on, “Did someone hurt one of your dogs?”
“No, not yet, but it’s only a matter of time with their callousness.” Merlin shakes his head, giving more attention to Freya even as his eyes slide back to focus on Arthur. “We’ve had a problem with thieves as of late. A few dogs have gone missing over the last few months.”
A distant bark echoes across the field from the kennel capturing the attention of all three of them. “People are stealing your dogs?” Arthur asks when Merlin finally tears his eyes away from the kennel, satisfied. “Why?”
Merlin gives a shrug as he answers, “Sled dogs are in high demand around here, due to the stampede to the Yukon for gold. They are the easiest and fastest form of travel, especially for those who are not accustomed to the rough terrain and brutal weather.” His frown deepens and begins giving Gili some scratches too when the wheel dog noses at his hand. “But they just treat them like tools, like objects to be used and abused until they have no more use for them. It’s disgusting and cruel and I don’t care how if I never sell another dog, I will not sell to one of those gold seekers. No matter how much they offer.”
“Jesus.” A shiver runs down Arthur’s back but he’s not sure if it’s because of the horrors done to the dogs or the dangerous lilt in Merlin’s voice. A bit of both, perhaps. “That’s disgusting.”
Merlin nods, giving the dogs one last scratch behind the ears before straightening up and facing Arthur. “Someone took Mordred not a month ago and sold him off to the highest bidder by the docks.” He glances over toward the dark swing dog in the middle of the team, eyes drawn in anger at the memory. “By chance, I happened to be in town when the new traveler was hooking him up to head north and tried to have him returned to me. Ended up having to pay a few months earnings just to get him back.”
“I can help,” Arthur says, his mouth running off in the face of Merlin’s problems before his brain can catch up. Merlin looks at him with brows raised. Arthur swallows and trudges on through the hole he’s now dug, “I’m a right good shot with a rifle if you need another pair of eyes to keep watch.”
“It would be good to split watch further, Merlin,” Deagal breaks in, hopeful. The bags under his eyes and weight drawing his shoulders down add further truth to his words.
The silence stretches between them as Merlin contemplates and Arthur has to bite his tongue in order not to take it all back. He knows he’s deft with a rifle, had practice as a shotgun messenger on his father’s coaches in the Americas when he had been sent as the family business ambassador. It seems like a different time now, a time when he would have done anything to please his father, to slide into his good graces.
Arthur shakes the thought and the bitter feeling it brings and focuses back on Merlin just as the other man nods.
“Okay,” says Merlin, pulling his rifle from the sled’s pack and tossing it to Arthur. Arthur moves quick, just barely managing to catch the gun, stumbling back a step to keep his feet. The corner of Merlin’s lip curls upward, a sparkle glinting in his eye.
“Let’s see what you’ve got then.”
* * *
It takes much too long to get Merlin back.
Just getting up the godforsaken embankment with an unconscious is a lesson in patience and perseverance that Arthur never thought he’d endure without his father cracking the whip. Kilgharrah’s nervous pacing doesn’t help much, but he gives off encouraging barks every so often and Arthur grits his teeth, digging in as he plows his way up.
At long last he crawls one handed over the edge of the embankment, Kilgharrah at his back, nudging uselessly. He lets Merlin’s limp body slide off his shoulders as gently as he can with shaking arms, laying him out in the snow before collapsing beside him to catch his breath. The sky's alight in washes of color obscured a bit by the trees overhead but he can still make out the green blue and pink lights dancing across the sky. Arthur tries not to think of the irony of it, how he could lose the person he loves most beneath the sublime swirling lights. He can’t, he won’t. Not now, not after he just found him. Arthur refuses to let him go so easily.
That thought drives him forward, to yank his cravat off and use it to staunch the bleeding as best he can, to maneuver Merlin and strap him onto the inadequate sled he had dragged along and then, with Kilgharrah leading once more, to sludge his way through now biting winds and relenting snow back to the cabin.
Warmth and barks and tongues and wet noses welcome Arthur when he finally stumbles through the door with Merlin in his arms, bone weary and exhausted. He ignores the sled team in favor of following Kilgharrah as the lead dog clears a path for him through the sea of fur.
The ghost of dinner still lingers in the air, mixed with the permeating odor of wet dog and blood. The last scent puzzles Arthur for a beat before he spots the dimly lit bed and the dark still body of Freya laying upon it just as he had left her. A pang shoots through him at the sight. Merlin loves all his team, more than any normal human would, but Freya he has a particular fondness of. A love that goes beyond just man and dog. He’ll be devastated to lose her.
With care, he sets Merlin down on the other side of the bed and lights the candle on the bedside table. Soft light washes over the room, illuminating the mess the team has made of the cabin. Bits of food and crockery liter the floor, a few articles of clothing amidst the chaos. But Arthur can worry about that later. For now, he has to focus on Merlin.
If for nothing but his own sanity, at least.
He carefully sets Merlin down opposite of Freya on the bed, arranging his prone body into a more comfortable position. Only then does he become aware of how horribly dim it is in the cabin without the moon or lights in the sky lighting his way. He fumbles for the matches on his bedside table, finally managing to light one and then the few lanterns he has around the room. A few things crunch and squish underfoot as he makes his way around the cabin and finally, soft light washes over the space and Arthur can take it all in.
It’s no worse than he expected after having left three tired hungry dogs and a fully cooked meal unattended in his cabin for a few hours. Bits of food and crockery liter the floor, his dress shoes and jacket and a few of his belongings thrown into the mix. The kitchen table looks as though, well, three dogs had a feast.
But he can’t be mad at them for his own doing. There’s nothing for it and nothing he can do about what has already been done.
Merlin, that’s what he can fix.
In the light, the blood on Merlin’s coat is a little more starling. His coat is soaked, and as Arthur gently peels it open, he can see Merlin’s other layers haven’t fared much better. But it’s when he gets down to Merlin’s bare skin that Arthur’s breath hitches in his throat.
He’s seen his fair share of wounds, living in a large city in close quarters will do that. So he knows it could have been worse, that the shot was thankfully a through and through. But that doesn’t ease the tension nor knot of worry around his lungs. If anything, seeing the wound and the blood bared open and real only heightens it all.
Because this is Merlin and Merlin should never be this pale, this bloodsoaked. It goes beyond the laws of nature in Arthur’s mind.
He can’t compare this deathly pale lifeless man to the one he has come to know and—dare he say—love. All smiles and laughter and awe, with his lingering touches and generous heart. So full of life and love and happiness reduced to this cold pale shell. It’s unnatural and Arthur just wants to scream.
But he’s not dead. This wrong can, at least, be set right.
Arthur eventually, reluctantly lets Merlin go, extracting himself from his side to shed his layers and gather a few necessary medical supplies from the kitchen. He fills a pot with snow from outside, setting it above the fire to boil before searching for the cleanest most sterile cloths in the cabin. A few lay untouched in the small drawer in the kitchen and he brings them back to the bed along with his clothes mending kit and a bottle of alcohol. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do.
It’s as he’s making his way back to the bed that his eyes fall on the dark body wrapped in the towel perched on the other side of the bed. Freya. She’s gone, she must be at this point. She was fading when he brought her in.
But Arthur knows he’ll never forgive himself if he doesn’t at least check. He has to know that there was nothing he could have done, that she’s gone. It won’t alleviate the guilt gnawing away at his insides but it may give Merlin peace of mind. For Merlin, it’s always for Merlin.
Arthur is shocked to see her eyes peel open as he gingerly leans over and runs a hand through the fur at her nape. He freezes, irrationally thinking that any sudden movement will scare the soul from her body, but she just gives a pitiful weak huff as her eyes fall on Merlin. Then, slowly, they shift back to Arthur and he knows. He knows in that moment that this is it. She held out, she waited until he returned, until he brought her dearest friend back safe and alive. Her eyes hold his and he can see the gratefulness in them, the trust she has in him to leave her friend in his capable hands. Arthur slowly continues running his fingers through her fur.
“I’ve got him, girl. You did good. You can rest now.” She gazes at him for a beat longer before her eyes slip closed on an exhale, body going still and lax. She breathes no more.
“Be at peace,” Arthur whispers. He sends up a prayer for her safe travels beyond before wrapping the towel fully around her and moving her to the hearth to lay amongst her team.
His heart aches. For Freya, for the team. For Merlin.
He knows how much that dog meant to him, how much he treasured her. She had been at his side since she was a pup, raised to compliment him in every way. And she did. She was his constant companion. Every time Arthur say him, Freya wasn’t far behind. Or in front. She was always there. His support, his rock, his most loved friend.
And now she is gone. Arthur’s not entirely sure how Merlin will take the news.
But he can’t worry about that now. Merlin has to be his focus.
Now, Arthur knows he’s no physician. His knowledge of the human body and medicinal science is limited at best. But he knows food and ha basic knowledge of cleanliness so he applies what he knows. He sets his sewing needle to boil in the pot before getting to work relieving Merlin of most his layers. Not all, just enough to get to the wound while still preserving his modesty and to determine that he doesn’t have any other injuries. Though Arthur can’t help but notice how defined his body is, firm yet lean, all hard muscle beneath taut smooth skin from a rigorous daily routine out in the wilderness. Heat spreads from his cheeks down to sit somewhere below his stomach. There it pools like a mockery of his desires at such an improper moment.
Somehow, through sheer willpower and an innate ability to focus on the task at hand, he makes it through cleaning both the head and shoulder wounds, stitching, bandaging, and redressing Merlin in some of his own clothes. Arthur situates him into a more comfortable position, making sure to keep pressure off his shoulder and pulling the bed’s many layers over him to keep him warm.
And through it all, Merlin didn’t so much as twitch.
Overwhelming anxiety and concern sends Arthur into a bit of a panic at that. It’s one he can’t seem to alleviate, no matter the mantra of he’s okay, he’s alive, he just needs to rest he keeps telling himself. Finally, despite his exhaustion, he throws himself into cleaning up the cabin, giving the team pets and scratches as they curl around Freya by the hearth, and throwing Kilgharrah a few bits of meat left in the stew pot the others somehow missed. It keeps his mind busy and his heart from clamoring out of his chest.
That is until he’s hit with a wave of exhaustion so fierce, he stumbles against the bed, shaking arms the only thing keeping him on his feet. But he can’t sleep, he knows he can’t. Merlin still hasn’t woken and god knows what might happen if Arthur doesn’t keep watch over him until he does. He shudders at the thought. No, he can’t sleep, no matter how much his body begs for it. Merlin comes first.
But a rest, just a quick break, he can do that.
Arthur all but falls onto the bed, making sure he sits up against the headboard to better ignore the siren song of sleep as best he can. Just a quick break to gather his energy. He just needs to stop moving for a moment and then he’ll be fine. He’s pulled long nights before, one not too long ago watching over the kennel. Resting his legs, that’s all.
He falls asleep with Merlin’s name on his lips.
* * *
Inside the cabin, the fire is crackling, filling the entirety of the small room with a cozy heat and Arthur can feel the warmth settling into his bones. Winter, unfortunately, shows no sign of stopping even this late in February, the nights still painfully long and the snow piling up so much Arthur has had to dig himself out of the cabin several times in the past fortnight alone. If it weren’t for Merlin and his uncanny ability to defrost Arthur’s heart with a mere smile, he’s sure he would have frozen over long time ago out here.
As it is, Merlin has been able to do more than just that and the broad scope of things has Arthur shivering in equal measures trepidation and excitement. He just needs to discern where Merlin’s heart lies, or where it tends to sway.
Of course, just as he’s settling in with one of the books Merlin had thrust upon him—he was overjoyed upon receiving it though Merlin can never know that for all the show of a fuss Arthur put up—the warmth of the fire seeping through the blanket on his lap, there comes a knock on the door.
There are only a few people that could be and only one Arthur wants it to be but with the time of day—now true evening in actuality—he’s sure Merlin is turning the dogs down for the night and curling up with his team by the hearth. With a groan, Arthur extracts himself from the warm embrace of the blanket and fire, forgoes throwing on a waistcoat and jacket to make himself a bit more decent, and yanks open the door with a telling off on the tip of his tongue.
All that dies away at the sight of a bundled and fully dressed Merlin, pushing the hood of his fur coat off his head, cheeks tinged with pink. Before Arthur can even utter a word, he’s pushing himself inside and closing the door behind him.
“Merlin?” Arthur asks, more than a little startled at Merlin’s haste as he steps aside to make room. “What are you doing here so late? Is everything alright?”
And suddenly Arthur is feeling sorely underdressed as Merlin’s eyes are immediately drawn down to his chest. His shirt is gaping open, revealing his thin undershirt and Merlin’s gaze lingers before taking in the rest of his dressed-down state with wide eyes, the pink of his cheeks quickly deepening and spreading. Quickly enough though, he looks away but Arthur can’t help but feel a small thrill through his embarrassment at Merlin’s reaction.
Hope flares in his chest.
“I um—” Merlin clears his throat, before seemingly coming back to himself and the task at hand and his eyes take on that mischievous sparkle Arthur has come to know so well. Though he groans and makes a show of despising that look, deep down, he has come to revel in it, to cherish it, no matter how unsavory or dull the plan Merlin has concocted is.
He cherishes every minute he gets to spend with Merlin, knowing eventually, they’ll come to an end when he returns to London.
“I want to show you something.” Merlin’s alight with excitement now, nearly bouncing in the entryway. Snowflakes float off him like powder to melt into the floorboards.
“Now?” Arthur asks with a raise of an eyebrow. “I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, dear Merlin, but it is quite dark out. Has been for hours.”
Merlin huffs, snatching up Arthur’s coat from the hook by the door and shoving it at him. “Not where we’re going. Come, I promise it’ll be worth it.”
And god he could never say no when his heart was melting in the rays of Merlin’s beaming smile.
That’s how he finds himself, blindfolded—“It’s a surprise, you clotpole! Of course it’s necessary, trust me”—strapped seated to the front of Merlin’s sled like he has ridden so many times before. But now, unlike the others, he can’t see a thing. The sounds of the dog team’s pants echo back, the crunch of snow under their paws as they race along the trail, icy wind and sharp sting of snow kickback biting at his cheeks. After a moment, he can feel the change in weight, how his body settles backward more and the dogs’ pants grow heavier as they exert more to pull the sled and it’s occupants up a steeper incline. Arthur expects the shift to dissipate as they level out once more, but it continues. They are going up a hill or a mountain, somewhere Merlin has yet to take Arthur and the anticipation in him grows.
And above all that, he can sense Merlin standing at his back, the sled’s wooden backing the only thing separating them. He yearns to be closer, to feel Merlin’s body against him, his warmth, his solid weight.
Finally the sled levels out and after another beat or two, Merlin gives a short low whistle, and a “whoa” signaling the team to stop.
Wherever they might be.
“Just stay there for a moment, alright?” Merlin’s voice comes from beside the sled and Arthur tries not to startle. He shifts, and just because he is being asked to stay on the sled, his legs decide to protest their current position.
“Merlin,” Arthur says and it’s nearly a whine but he reigns it in at the last second.
“Patience, clotpole.” And then there are hands on him, releasing him from the sled and supporting him as he stands on unsteady feet in his temporary blindness. Despite the multiple layers they both have donned, Arthur swears he can feel the heat radiating from where Merlin’s hands rest on his waist and forearm. He savors it as they take a few steps forward.
Then Merlin pulls the blindfold away and Arthur’s world explodes into color.
The sky is alight with brilliant shades of blues and greens, pinks and yellows, swirling, flowing, leaping across the dark expanse in some intricate dance mere earthlings are not privy to. Arthur’s aware of how his mouth gapes open, transfixed by the colors that twirl and sway, melding into one another only to break apart once again, more vibrant than before.
“What—what are those,” Arthur stutters out. He can’t take his eyes off the river flowing through the sky. It’s beautiful in its intricacies and yet absolutely gorgeous as a whole. Almost as though it’s not of this world.
Merlin sounds wistful as he says, “The tribes call it qiuryaq. The spirits of our ancestors come to play a several months-long game across the sky. They do it every year, always when the sun makes itself most scarce. Usually the sky is too cloudy here to be able to see them.”
Arthur hums and they fall silent, gazing at the wonders this frozen land has to offer.
It’s beautiful and fantastical, the likes of which men have tried to bottle up and give to their wives and ladies for many a century. But it’s something that can’t be replicated, can’t be produced, can only be witnessed and kept in your heart and mind to cherish for all your days.
And there’s no one else in this world Arthur would rather share this with than with the man beside him now.
Arthur chances a glance over at Merlin, only to find him watching him back, a glint in his eye.
And his heart beats like a caged bird.
He knows, god how he knows that his proclivity for men over women is not of the norm, nor welcoming in polite society. His father had made sure to beat that into him as a small kid, but it did little to put a stop to his sinful thoughts, only forced them down further to eat at his being until he could find sanctuary behind closed doors and away from the prying eyes of the high society he was constantly surrounded by.
But here, where the clawing fingers of social custom and gentility have failed to touch, he feels the chokehold of his father and propriety loosen. For the first time, he feels like he can breathe, like he doesn’t have to hide so much of himself in order to live as he chooses. Like he may for once, be happy.
And that’s all thanks to Merlin.
Arthur leans in before he can think better of it.
Merlin steps back, twisting away with wide, startled eyes.
All at once, Arthur feels the weight of that stare, how it pushes down on his chest forcing him to take stuttering painful breaths. He rocks back quickly, shame and rejection rending his heart down the middle. “I apologize. That was completely inappropriate.”
“Arthur.” Merlin’s voice is soft, soothing though it shouldn’t be.
And suddenly that weight on his chest is too much for him to bare. “There’s just something about you Merlin,” he says, the words spewing forth in a single breath like they’ve been punched out of him. “Something different that makes me feel like I can finally breathe, that warms me from the inside out. I’ve never—” he shakes his head, knowing he shouldn’t say anything more but finding he no longer wants to hold his tongue. He’s been doing that all his life and he doesn’t want to any longer. “I’ve suppressed these penchants toward other men for so long and it’s been difficult at times, but manageable. Except with you. It’s impossible and I don’t—I can’t keep it to myself any longer. I will never forgive myself if I don’t at least say how I feel.”
He looks at Merlin then, his features lit by the soft dim greens and blues of the dancing sky above skin alight with it. He looks ethereal, just as otherworldly in that moment as the sky and it makes Arthur’s heart clench all over again. No matter which way this goes, he knows he will never forget this moment, right here. For better or for worse, Merlin has wormed his way into Arthur’s breast and tattooed his name on his heart.
Arthur sighs, running a hand through his hair, needing something to do to ease the ache spreading through his chest. “I apologize if I scared you and understand if you never want to see me again. It’s wrong and perverted and society will condemn me for it, but I hope you don't and that—” Arthur looks down at the snow, suddenly shy after pouring out his heart. “My attentions aren't unwanted.”
A finger, soft and gentle against his chin coaxes him to look up. Swirling gleaming blue eyes meet his own and his heart stutters at the tender smile spreading across Merlin’s lips. Heat crawls up Arthur’s face to settle in his cheeks.
Merlin reels Arthur in and when he kisses him, it’s off-center and less than graceful but Arthur doesn’t care, couldn’t care in the least bit when Merlin is here, he’s reciprocating what Arthur has been dying for. He inhales sharply, shifting the angle and drawing Merlin closer with a hand to the back of his neck.
They part slowly, Merlin’s eyelashes sprinkled with fresh snowflakes, the colors of the sky reflecting in his eyes.
“They’re not unwanted,” he whispers against Arthur’s skin.
Arthur pulls Merlin back in, threading his hand through Merlin’s hair, relishing in the taste of sweet fresh snowfall on his lips.
* * *
Arthur returns to consciousness slowly. At first, he’s only aware of a soothing touch on his scalp, a gentle moving pressure that nearly lulls him back to sleep. He’s warm, ensconced in comfort and softness that his sore body savors and why should he have to face the cold when he could stay right here, fingers running through his hair?
Somewhere between one thought and the next, Arthur’s eyes peel open and the events of last night come back to him all at once. He doesn’t startle, doesn’t jerk upright in a heart fit ready to burst in his panic. The foot of the bed is in his line of sight, his blanketed legs spread out from where he’s curled on his side on the bed.
And Merlin beside him, his fingers kneading calm affection through his hair to bleed into his scalp. He shifts his head up, wishing to take in Merlin, to assure himself that this isn’t just a dream
“Hi,” Merlin says in way of greeting, voice raspy and weak but it’s the most beautiful sound Arthur has ever heard. Because he’s here and awake and alive.
Arthur does scramble up then, immediately regretting this decision when Merlin’s hand falls from his hair to settle between them. But despite the loss, he follows through, straightening to lean against the headboard with a few pops and cracks of a spine protesting having spent much too long in a slumped position. He’s not sure when exactly he fell asleep and goddamnit he meant to keep watch and ensure Merlin’s recovery, but it doesn’t matter because Merlin seems fine, all things considered. He’s paler than Arthur would like and looks a bit like death warmed over but he’s breathing steadily and talking and awake.
And in Arthur’s bed.
“Hi,” Arthur says to distract from the blush creeping up his cheeks. He coughs. “How do you feel?”
“Uh—” but his words choke off with a rasp. Arthur scrambles off the bed snatching one of the few remaining unbroken cups from the kitchen and dipping it into the now clean pot of water on the counter. He sends a word of thanks to his past self for having that foresight before passing out last night.
“Here.” Arthur helps Merlin sit up, taking note of the intakes of breath and grimaces from Merlin with every movement. He’s stiff and tense and Arthur can tell he’s in pain but he drinks down the cup Arthur holds for him before leaning back against the headboard on his good shoulder.
“Thanks.” Merlin says, eyes closing briefly. Fear sparks in Arthur’s chest, thinking Merlin is passing out again, is going to die right here and now, but Merlin opens his eyes after a beat, a soft lopsided smile tugging at the corner of his lips.
So Arthur repeats, “How do you feel?”
“Terrible,” Merlin says.
“I would imagine so,” Arthur mutters low. “You’ve been shot, Merlin.”
A chuckle escapes him, harsh and grating. “Yes, I had garnered as much for myself, clotpole.”
“What happened? Did someone attack you?” Arthur shifts on the edge of the bed, clasping and unclasping his hands, unsure what to do with them. He wants to hold Merlin, to touch him, feel him, but he restrains himself, hesitant.
Merlin ducks his head, brow furrowed. “There were two men just at the bend by the river. They tackled me off the sled and one of them pulled a gun. They were after the dogs, Arthur.” Anger adds weight to his voice, eyes hardening. “I whistled for them to run. They took off and I threw myself at the men. The gun must have gone off somewhere in the scuffle for the next thing I know is I’m tumbling down the embankment and then, nothing. Until just a few minutes ago.”
“Must have hit your head on the way down.” Arthur’s breath shudders out of him, his heart in his throat as he remembers the state he had found Merlin last night. “You were a right mess, Merlin.”
“I imagine I still am,” Merlin huffs. He touches the bandages around his head gently. “I feel like a right mess.”
“Yes well, don’t do that again,” Arthur forces out, trying for joking, but falling flat as his voice shakes. “I don’t think my heart can take it.”
His eyes burn, vision blurring and he can’t cry, he won’t cry he has to be strong for Merlin who almost died .
“Hey,” Merlin’s voice is soft, gentle and suddenly there’s warmth and strength squeezing his hand and Arthur grasps it like a dying man. “I’m here, I’m alright. It’s okay.”
Arthur can feel himself unraveling fast. “No it’s not! You could have died Merlin! If I hadn’t—if Kilgharrah—”
His voice gives out, clogged and choking under the onslaught of emotions.
Merlin’s thumb rubs soothing circles into the back of Arthur's hand. “But you did, you found me and brought me back.” And his hand is being lifted, soft sweet tenderness pressed onto the back in a kiss. He burns with it. “I’ll be forever grateful.”
“You better be,” Arthur says on a wet chuckle. He sighs, wipes his eyes with his free hand and then chuckles again as a golden wet nose nudges his leg. “I would say you wasted a perfectly good dinner but I believe your dogs would disagree.”
Merlin balks down at Kilgharrah. “Did they—”
“I had to put them somewhere when I went traipsing through the countryside searching for you,” he says, voice hitching for a beat before he reigns control.
Merlin presses another kiss to his hand before setting them both down in his lap, intertwined. His tone is low, soft as he asks, “How did you find me by the way?”
“I didn’t,” Arthur admits with a shake of his head. He scratches the qimmiq behind the ear. “Kilgharrah led me right to you. He’s the one you should be thanking. Loyal to a fault, that one.”
Merlin’s eyes suddenly shine with unshed tears and he turns his other hand over. Kilgharrah rubs his head against his fingers, gentle and as Merlin chokes out, “Thank you, boy. I owe you a nice slab of venison, and then some.”
And before he could lose his nerve, Arthur breaks the news about Freya.
There’s tears and apologies, reassurances and sorrow-weighted silences. But Merlin is adamant that it wasn’t Arthur’s fault and Arthur can do nothing but nod in silent disagreement. He knows he couldn’t have done more for her, that she was past saving when she arrived, but that doesn’t stop the guilt from eating at his soul. It’s not something he needs to share with Merlin, though. That’s his burden to bear, his alone.
“We have to go, Arthur,” Merlin demands suddenly, squeezing Arthur’s hand in a painful grip. “The kennel, the dogs, we have to go back.”
“I figured you’d insist,” Arthur sighs. “It won’t be an easy trip there for you.”
Merlin nods, mind far away. “I know, but I can’t—Deagal can’t do it alone.”
“I’ll ready the sled, then.”
It takes him longer than it would Merlin, but he hasn’t had a lifetime of practice so he’s quite pleased with the result given he’s still learning. Though working around the hole Freya’s death left in the team is a challenge on its own. Kilgharrah is forced to share the lead with Mordred, a notion he seems to only barely tolerate.
“Just for this ride, I promise. Just get us there.”
Merlin conveys his approval with a nod as Arthur straps him onto the front, Freya on his lap and really, that’s all the reassurance he needs. Then he takes Merlin’s usual place at the helm.
One breath, two.
“I trust you,” Merlin tells him, low and steadfast.
All at once, his heart settles and he gives a sharp high whistle and they take off.
Deagal is more than miffed when they finally arrive. But he takes in Arthur at the helm and Merlin’s pale drawn face—the ride had been a hard one on him and Arthur was sure he had passed out at one point or another—and he is immediately all worried ramblings and staunch reassurances. The kennel is fine, the dogs are fine, all is quiet.
“I need to see them,” Merlin says, and because there’s no arguing with him, injured or not, Arthur obliges. Arthur unhitches the team, releasing them into the kennel before stooping and gathering Merlin into his arms. Merlin, oddly, gives no protest.
“Oh, Freya” Deagal’s quiet voice follows them from the kennel doors. He’s kneeling by the shrouded body, one corner peeled back revealing her black fur.
“I’m sorry, Deagal,” Arthur says, guilt clawing at his throat.
Deagal closes his eyes, hand to Freya’s brow as he crosses his heart. “I’ll prepare a pyre then.”
Merlin can only nod. He’s clearly worn out and at the end of his strength, but he still meets Arthur’s eyes and they do a round of the kennel, quelling some of the anxiety in Merlin’s chest.
Soon enough, Arthur is settling Merlin into his own bed, changing bandages and checking wounds. And that quells Arthur’s own building anxiety.
“Rest now,” he says, squeezing Merlin’s hand. “I’ll watch over the kennel.
Merlin nods, blinking slowly but he squeezes Arthur’s hand as he goes to release him, tugging on it to bring his face level with his.
This time when Merlin kisses him, he kisses him completely and Arthur swears he feels Merlin’s heart laid bare, open and raw for Arthur to take and do with as he pleases. He holds it gently, lovingly, moving the kiss into something slow and forbidden but wholly theirs nonetheless. And when he pulls back, he leaves his own heart in Merlin’s hands for safekeeping.
And he thinks maybe, perhaps, he has finally found a home.