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Arthur has never really understood birthdays; why should people celebrate them when they bring nothing but sullen, angry fathers and a lingering sense of uncomfortable guilt? It doesn’t help that his birthday is in November and the weather is inevitably foul and cold, freezing grey rain sleeting down outside.

His nurse smiles at him and gives him a roughly carved wooden horse for his fifth birthday – his first real present – but her smile trembles and when she turns away her eyes are wet. If his father emerges at all during the day, he leaves the table halfway through breakfast and does not return. The servants seem divided: either they smile at him with pity and pat him on the head, or they behave as if nothing is different than any other day.

He knows his mother was lovely and beloved, knows that the fact that he is here means she is not, and the knowledge makes him feel small and stupid, as if he should have known better than to be born. So he hides like his father and plays with the wooden horse and waits each year for the day to end, vowing that he will become a great knight, the greatest ever, and then maybe his father will love him enough to forgive him.

*

When he is very small, Merlin pays no attention to the detail that other children have two parents where he has only one. His family is his mother, and she is enough; they don’t need anyone else mucking everything up. She is warmth, laughter, arms to wrap him up when he’s hurt or cold, a stern, disappointed face when he lets the goats eat the laundry, and he is content in the knowledge that she loves him as completely as he loves her.

It isn’t until Will’s eighth birthday that Merlin starts to think that maybe something is missing. Will’s mother had died from fever during the winter, and on Will’s birthday his father takes him to her grave so they can lay the last wildflowers of summer on the wooden marker. Merlin doesn’t go with them, but he watches, and he wonders. Birthdays, it seems, mean having a whole family, and for the first time he is unsure that he and his mother really are a whole family, just the two of them.

He asks his mother about his father, but she refuses to tell him anything.

“When you’re older,” she says, smoothing his unruly hair back from his forehead.

He frowns, sticking out his lower lip. “Why?”

The conversation devolves from there, and he ends up running out into the barley field and viciously kicking at anthills, already regretting the things he’d yelled but not quite regretful enough to go back and apologize.

“Will my father visit me on my birthday?” he asks a few weeks later, when his mother has her hands full with the butter churn and can’t box his ears.

“Merlin,” she starts, exasperated and tired, but when she looks at him her face softens. “No,” she says, tucking flyaway strands of hair behind her ears before they can stick to the sweat on her neck. “I don’t think he will.”

Merlin can’t help but hope anyway, all winter and into the spring – his mother thinks he was born sometime in February, but she says the winter is entirely too miserable to celebrate something as joyous as a birthday. They always celebrate on the first of May, when the air is warm and the grass is the particular, peculiar bright green only springtime brings.

His mother cooks his favorite dinner and he makes her a crown of dandelions, and when the sun is just going down she presents him with a brand new shirt the color of new-tilled earth she’s been weaving at night when she thinks he’s asleep. It is a good birthday, his seventh, but he keeps one eye on the door the whole day, waiting. He jumps up and runs outside when he catches sight of a figure coming toward the house from across the fields, but it turns out to be only Will, bringing Merlin a slingshot he’d made himself.

When his mother finally blows out the candle and pulls a blanket over him, Merlin finally admits his father is not going to show up, and decides that he is not going to care about it, is never going to think about his father ever again. He has his mother, Merlin tells himself, closing his eyes, and that’s all he needs.

*

Arthur has grown used to ignoring his birthday. He treats it like any other day, getting up in the morning to review reports before training or patrolling with the knights and meeting with councilors, advisors, supplicants, or whoever else desperately wants to get the ear of the crown prince. His father is always a little paler than usual, drinks a little more at dinner, but Arthur only notices because it is his business to notice his father, to measure his moods and anticipate his directives.

That was all before Merlin arrived, of course. He’s been employing Merlin – against his own will, he would like to note – for barely four months when he comes back, whistling, from a day of patrol to find Merlin standing in his chambers, arms crossed, eyebrows drawn together over a frown.

“Oh good,” Arthur drawls, “you’re actually here for once. Do try to polish my armour adequately this time, will you? Last time there were spots larger than your ears on my vambraces.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Merlin demands, entirely inappropriate as usual.

Arthur raises one eyebrow. “Tell you what?” he asks, pulling off his leather gloves and tossing them on the table. “State secrets? How many times in a day I find myself wanting to wring your skinny neck?”

Merlin waves Arthur’s sarcasm aside with an impatient hand. “Your birthday was last week,” he says, sounding injured about it, of all things. “I had to find out from one of the cooks.”

“Oh, is that all?” Arthur says, sitting to tug off his boots, suddenly feeling irritable and at odds with the world. “It’s not important.”

“It’s your birthday,” Merlin tries to point out, as if Arthur didn’t know that already. “It should be a celebration: another year went by and you haven’t managed to get your prattish self killed yet!”

Arthur glares at him, and Merlin amends himself with a half-grin: “Your prattish, royal self, sire.”

He doesn’t understand, Arthur knows, couldn’t possibly hope to grasp the full meaning of what Arthur’s birthday means. When all is said and done, Merlin is just a simple country boy lost in a city rife with long angry memories.

“It’s not important,” he repeats, and throws his boots at Merlin, successfully distracting him at last.

Months pass, and Arthur forgets the conversation. He should have known better to think that Merlin would ever really drop the subject – he’s better than Arthur’s hunting dogs at keeping his teeth in something – but there are sorcerers and mythical beasts to fight and Cendred is getting cocky about his border with Camelot until Arthur leads a contingent of knights out there and puts him firmly in his place.

He tells himself firmly that the look on Merlin’s face when he tells him that Ealdor is now officially part of Camelot and therefore subject to both Camelot’s taxes and protection doesn’t matter at all, but he knows he’s lying.

Before Arthur realizes it the weather has turned cold again, the wind regaining its bitter teeth. He concentrates on working with his knights, who are growing more numerous and more well-trained than ever, and nearly misses his birthday entirely. It isn’t until he’s looking over a report from the royal granary that he notices the date, and even then its significance almost passes him over completely. He blinks, shrugs, and moves on, covering up the recognition with more work.

Merlin is waiting for him again outside the door when he finally returns to his chamber, long after the sun has set. Arthur sighs explosively.

“What do you want now?” he asks, unlocking the door and waving Merlin in because he knows Merlin won’t leave until he gets whatever it is off his chest and it’s better to have it out behind a closed door. Probably, Arthur thinks, some titchy little village in Bayard’s kingdom is being held hostage by rogue female outlaws and a cockatrice, and Merlin’s cousin has written pleading for help.

Merlin is a terrible influence on him, he reflects darkly, and will more than likely end up single-handedly destroying Camelot’s good reputation.

Merlin fidgets. “It’s your birthday,” he says, as if that’s an explanation.

“I know,” Arthur says tightly. “And I would rather not think about it, if it’s all the same to you.” A year ago he would have dismissed Merlin out of hand, ordered him to get out, but a year ago they hadn’t saved each other’s lives too often to ignore.

“Yes,” Merlin tries again. “But I was thinking, it’s still your birthday, and well, maybe you just needed someone? You know, to be around. So here I am. If you want me,” he adds, a too-careful afterthought.

Merlin, it seems, has been learning more about Camelot than Arthur thought possible. Sly bastard, Arthur thinks, but with no real ire. He’d never admit it, but it is almost sweet that Merlin wants to check in on him. Idiotic and misled, yes, but almost sweet.

Instead of responding immediately, Arthur investigates the contents of the dishes Merlin’s set up on the table. They’re still steaming, he notes with surprise, and apparently Merlin bribed the cooks into making all of Arthur’s favorite dishes.

“Okay,” Arthur says, choosing suspicion over any of the other emotions coiling around and making his throat go tight, because this is getting downright weird. “What do you want?”

Merlin’s eyes go wide with hurt surprise. “I don’t want anything,” he protests. “At least, not for myself.”

Apparently Arthur was right when he guessed about the cockatrice. “So who is it this time?” he asks, pulling up his chair. If he’s going to dash off rescuing Merlin or Merlin’s friends or whoever, he might as well eat first. “Your cousin? Some poor chap you found who’s always wanted to, I don’t know, work for Gaius or Geoffrey or something?”

Merlin looks at him in bewilderment. “What?” he asks blankly. “Who’d ever want to work for Geoffrey?”

Arthur tries and fails to hide his snort of laughter in the potted pigeon.

“I just thought it would be nice if you didn’t have to spend your birthday all alone,” Merlin says, sulky now, and Arthur feels an overwhelming fondness despite himself.

“Well,” he says after a moment, noticing that Merlin is looking with ill-disguised longing at the braised mutton. “What are you waiting for? You brought enough to stuff a horse with, after all.”

They sit and feast in companionable silence, and Arthur finds that he doesn’t really mind the company after all, not when it’s Merlin who’s humming over the food and getting sauce on his chin and laughing when Arthur flicks bits of cabbage at him.

It becomes a sort of tradition with them, unspoken; Merlin is there the next year as well, without the food but with plenty of wine and conversation, and Arthur finds himself thinking that maybe, maybe birthdays aren’t all that terrible after all.

*

Merlin has lived in Camelot for nearly four years when he comes back to his rooms after a too-long evening spent loudly celebrating his birthday with Gwen and Hob the farrier’s apprentice and Alys and Brom from the kitchens and finds a lumpy package wrapped in rough undyed cloth on his bed.

He squints at it, puzzled, before deciding however strange it is, it seems to be for him, and reaches for the wrapping.

It turns out to be a beautiful leather pack, stuffed with a plain, sturdy red woolen cloak and a simple dagger he almost cuts himself on. He gapes at the presents, strange and completely out of place among his own things, stunned beyond words at the generosity, the enormity of them. It takes him a moment to piece his thoughts together again, but when he does he gathers the gifts up in his arms and storms off – he knows exactly who brought them here.

“Arthur!” he shouts, barging into the prince’s chambers without bothering to knock. “Arthur, what is this?”

Arthur is only-half dressed, his tunic hanging from his fingers, but he makes no move to put it back on. “It looks like a pack,” he says, guarded.

“It is,” Merlin says, shaking it at him, “a leather pack which I have seen in the marketplace, I know how much it costs. And,” he announces, dropping the pack and displaying the cloak, “a good cloak in Camelot colours, and a dagger.” He glares at Arthur. “Am I even allowed to own a dagger?”

“Don’t be an idiot,” Arthur says, “of course you are.” He looks amused, unsurprised, and utterly at home. Merlin is suddenly, uncomfortably aware that he’s standing in Arthur’s chambers late at night, yelling at the crown prince who is clearly undressing for bed, and that he is, maybe, just a little drunk.

“Why?” he asks, more feebly, already losing the threads of the righteous argument that had driven him up here. “I’m... I mean, I’m just a servant.”

Arthur sighs and drops the tunic in favor of picking at a loose thread on one of the curtains on his bed. “You’ve earned them.”

Merlin stares at him, then at the gifts. “You’ve never given me anything before,” he says, barely managing to keep it from sounding like an accusation, trapped somewhere between wonder and incomprehension.

“Yeah, well, don’t let it get to your tiny head,” Arthur huffs, shrugging his shoulders. When Merlin makes no motion to leave, he scowls. “Are you going to stand there all night?”

“Er,” says Merlin, blushing. “No. Sorry.” He collects the pack and carefully puts the cloak and dagger back inside it, brushing off imaginary dirt from them as he does so (imaginary because he’s scrubbed these floors himself, he knows there’s no dirt on them, but he can’t help but make sure).

He’s at the door, letting himself out, when he remembers something.

“Arthur?” he says, and Arthur grunts from where he’s half-hidden behind the bed. “Thank you.”

There’s a pause, so long that Merlin is about to give up and just leave, and then Arthur says, quietly, “You’re welcome.”

*

Arthur shouldn’t swell with satisfaction when he sees Merlin wearing the red cloak he gave him even when the weather’s far too warm for it, shouldn’t have to worry about hiding a pleased grin when he catches sight of the dagger carefully tucked through Merlin’s belt. He shouldn’t notice that Merlin has been taking extraordinarily good care of the leather pack – probably oiling it with supplies stolen from the stables – but he does, and that’s all there is to it.

Merlin is just exceptionally noticeable all around, really. It starts with his ears: inescapably noticeable, Arthur thinks. His hair is a disaster; also noticeable. He’s tall, taller than most of the peasants and castle workers, taller even than Arthur, though Arthur will never admit it. He has a madcap grin which twists his face into an endearing sort of mischief, and his eyes crinkle into little crescents when he laughs.

Merlin is noticeable in a more deadly way, too, in a way that will win him a visit to the chopping block in the central square if he isn’t careful – and there’s a contrary idea, Merlin, careful. They’ve fought spectacularly about it, threatened each other and yelled and given each other black eyes and bruised ribs, and while they’ve reached a truce now it still makes Arthur uneasy, caught between knowingly disobeying his father and protecting his most loyal servant, his friend.

Arthur shakes his head and takes another charge at the quintain, striking it dead center and baring his teeth in savage pleasure when his lance shatters. The winter rains are late in coming this year; he’s taking the opportunity provided by the dry practice yard to train his new, evil-tempered destrier for jousting and he is definitely not thinking about Merlin.

Merlin has been in his head far too much since the spring. If Arthur is ruthlessly honest with himself, he knows Merlin has been lurking just behind his thoughts for far longer than that, but he has become remarkably skilled at ignoring that fact. He is the prince; he isn’t supposed to have those kinds of feelings. Merlin is supposed to be just another servant; one in a line of loyal, obedient manservants who do nothing more than make sure things run smoothly and blend into the background seamlessly.

It’s Merlin’s fault he thinks about these things, Arthur knows; Merlin and his insolence, his too-easily outraged sense of justice and chivalry. Most of the time he’s sure Merlin is far more trouble than he’s worth, but at least he’s amusing.

Arthur’s been telling himself for years that pity on the rest of the world is the only reason he keeps Merlin around, but he knows it isn’t true, and maybe, he thinks, maybe it shouldn’t be.

He wants to end early today, get back to the castle and mull that particular thought over before Merlin shows up, but after he finishes with the destrier there are three new men who want to be knights, and one of them is actually good, very nearly beating Arthur before Arthur employs a clever trick the training master taught him in secret, and the fight ends with Arthur’s sword at the other man’s throat.

By the time he reaches his chambers it’s late and dinner has long since finished. He thinks briefly about visiting the kitchens and wheedling the scullery maids into giving him something, but decides it isn’t worth the effort, especially since they’ll probably all give him sad, soulful looks with their best big doe eyes, as if they understand anything about him. There is a drawback, Arthur admits with grim humour, to being a prince with a tragic past.

He isn’t expecting Merlin to be around, even if it is Arthur’s birthday and Arthur has been carefully thinking about not-thinking about Merlin all day. It’s late, and Merlin has been running more and more of Gaius’s errands as well as working for Arthur lately; he’s bound to be exhausted.

“You look like hell,” Merlin observes from the chair he’s ensconced himself in, and Arthur gives him a dirty look, closing the door behind himself.

“You try riding an excitable young charger all afternoon and see how pretty you look at the end of it,” Arthur retorts. “It’s not as bad as it looks.”

Merlin makes a sound of clear disbelief. “Really,” he says, unfolding himself from the chair and coming over to examine Arthur’s bandages. “Because it looks like it tried to bite your arm off.”

Arthur shrugs to cover the tremble that runs through him at Merlin’s touch. “More of a nibble, really. Just his way of showing affection.”

Merlin is unwrapping the bandage now despite Arthur’s subtle attempts to pull away. “A nibble?” he asks, one side of his mouth turning up in a sly smile. “Well, in that case I’m sure you won’t be needing any of these salves I brought up from Gaius, will you?”

Arthur looks at the table then, to see a line of remedies, all labeled in Merlin’s careful script, arranged in front of covered dishes. His arm really does ache, and he’s sure he’ll be feeling the bruises from testing the new knights tomorrow. “Fine,” he sighs theatrically. “If you really must play the mother hen, by all means don’t let me stop you.”

Merlin doctors him while Arthur stares fixedly at a point on the wall just above the fireplace, setting his jaw against the ideas Merlin’s nimble fingers inspire, resisting the urge to grab Merlin’s wrist and pull him closer, guide his hand elsewhere.

They eat afterward, and though the food is good Arthur can’t concentrate on it, distracted by the line of Merlin’s throat as he swallows, by the shadows the fire throws across his body. They don’t speak much, slipping into an easy silence which gives Arthur far too much time to think. When he finds himself staring at Merlin’s reddened lips, wanting to lick the taste of wine out of his mouth, he decides that enough is enough.

“Why are you here?” he asks, dragging his finger along the rim of his goblet. Merlin looks up, guarded surprise in his face.

“Because you are a miserable royal prat who forgets to eat and would rather ignore his wounds until they get infected and his limbs drop off,” he says.

Arthur frowns. “No I’m not,” he argues. “But that’s not what I meant. I meant why do you come here every year?” He’s going to add more, say things like why do you stay here when my father could kill you or are the rumours about you and Gwen true or even was the stable hand right when he said that about you and the visiting knight from Mercia but the words stick; he isn’t even sure he really wants to know the answers.

“I’ve told you,” Merlin says inscrutably. “You shouldn’t spend your birthday alone.”

“So you’ve appointed yourself in charge of monitoring my birthday.”

“Yes,” says Merlin, and he’s earnest now, leaning forward, and now Arthur wants to lean forward too, meet him in the middle and— “It’s not your fault, Arthur, what happened. It shouldn’t stop you from enjoying life. And,” he adds, serious, as if to seal the discussion, “it’s my job to look after you. You know I’d do anything for you.”

He goes on, prattling about something, but Arthur stops listening. He stares at Merlin, unable to blink, to tear himself away and behave like a prince, and Merlin stutters, stops, hesitant.

“Arthur?” he asks, and Arthur would swear he sounds timid except that this is Merlin, and Merlin is never, ever timid.

“Anything?” he says in a husky voice before he thinks about it, and immediately regrets it, horrified. It’s one thing to lust after Merlin in his most private thoughts, another thing entirely to proposition him out loud.

“Well,” Merlin qualifies, his voice cracking the slightest bit. “Within... within reason.” He doesn’t move, doesn’t lean back again; he’s too close, if Arthur reaches out he can touch him, curl his fingers around his neck and pull him closer still...

Arthur presses his back into his chair and looks away, feeling the solid wood against his bones; he carefully folds one hand over the arm, gripping it so he won’t do anything else. “You should go,” he says, trying for a dispassionate tone and mostly failing. “You must be tired.”

“Maybe,” Merlin says, and is his voice closer? Arthur doesn’t dare glance at him to see. “That depends.”

“Depends?” he says, and congratulates himself when his voice comes out evenly, with just the right disinterested inflection. His father’s advisors taught him well.

“Yeah, depends.” Merlin is definitely moving; his voice is closer than ever and Arthur can smell the wine on his breath, feel the air moving against his own face as Merlin speaks. He looks, unable to stop himself when Merlin is right there.

“Arthur?” Merlin says, kneeling in front of him, wrapping his hand around Arthur’s on the armrest, but Arthur can only look, mute, tracing the pale curve of Merlin’s cheek with his eyes. Merlin reaches up with his free hand and cups Arthur’s chin hesitantly, just barely dragging his thumb along the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “I lied,” he said softly. “You can have anything, everything you want, without reservation.” He swallows. “Just tell me what you want,” he whispers, but Arthur is done talking, done resisting.

He hauls Merlin forward, twisting his hand underneath Merlin’s and tugging, pulling him within reach and tilting his head down to meet Merlin’s lips with his own. Merlin is soft, pliant against him as Arthur takes his first taste, but when Arthur bites gently at his bottom lip he comes alive again, overloading Arthur’s senses, pushing past all of Arthur’s defences, one hand tangled in Arthur’s hair, the other running up Arthur’s ribs, seeking, taking whatever Arthur has to give.

They make it to the bed in a haze of kisses, a tangled mess of clothes and limbs and mouths, and Arthur is lost; irrevocably, totally lost to the sharp scrape of Merlin’s teeth and the filthy sounds he makes.

He wakes to the sound of steady rain against the window and Merlin wrapped around him, one arm thrown over Arthur’s chest, possessive. His fingers twitch when Arthur moves, and he grumbles in his sleep. Arthur smiles, because it is smile or fall apart completely from the lightness welling up in his chest, threatening to tear through his skin, and goes back to sleep, listening to the even sounds of Merlin breathing.

*

“I am not going bald.”

“You are, you have a great big thin patch on the back of your head.”

“I do not. Anyway, you’ve got gray hair.”

“Hardly. Ouch!”

“See, here’s one.”

“I’ll give you gray hair.” Merlin tackles Arthur around the middle, both of them falling backward onto the bed.

“Oof,” Arthur says with feeling, pushing Merlin off of his stomach. “You weigh too much to do that.”

Merlin hits him for that, smacks him in the arm with his fist. “Hey,” he says, “you’re supposed to be nice to me today. It is my birthday, after all.”

Arthur smiles, warm and close and familiar, and the wrinkles deepen in the corners of his face. “I know,” he says, smug, propping himself up on one elbow. “Which is why I made Gwen and Lancelot go on that trip to Burgundy instead of making you go.”

“Mmm,” Merlin says, because he’d been able to guess that much almost as soon as Arthur had announced that Gwen and Lance would be leaving instead of Merlin in his best I am king and therefore you will not dare to disagree voice.

“You don’t sound very appreciative of my kingly magnanimity, Merlin,” Arthur says, pursing his lips and looking injured, and Merlin laughs.

“Why don’t you come over here, sire,” he says, pitching his voice low and hooking two fingers into the collar of Arthur’s shirt, “and find out exactly how grateful I am?”

Arthur follows him down obediently, pressing along Merlin’s body with a pleased hum. After all these years, he still kisses as if he can’t quite believe his luck, can’t believe Merlin is really his, and Merlin kisses him back fiercely, reassuring, possessive.

“Happy birthday,” Arthur whispers, breaking away to brush his lips against Merlin’s ear, and the only thing Merlin can think is yes.

“It always is,” he murmurs, “when you’re here.”