Merlin stopped when he heard the rustle from the trees just off to his right. The path he was on wasn’t traveled often but it was well-worn from age and time. He hadn’t expected to come across anyone--at least anyone he’d want to come across--so he froze in his tracks.
There’d been rumblings in Ealdor about a battle between King Cenred and Prince Arthur over the past few days, rumors that had floated in with a rare traveler but were never confirmed. Merlin’s mother hadn’t wanted him to leave the village for Merewald, but winter would be upon them sooner rather than later and they needed to trade what little they’d managed to produce before the bitter cold set in.
Merlin had left before light touched the horizon with a cart full of goods, and had already been there and gone. He was very nearly home and he didn’t want any trouble. He strained to hear more noises but only silence greeted him.
He pushed his cart into a patch of brush at the side of the path to conceal it, and took a tentative step toward the surrounding woods. He knew he should just continue on his way--nothing good could possibly come of meddling--but he wanted to know what had made the noise. Something was drawing him in, but he didn’t want to be caught unaware and hoped it was only an animal that had made the sound.
He slowly made his way through the brush that bordered the path and took a few steps into the woods. His eyes scanned back and forth but he saw nothing so he took a few more steps. And there--the flash of red cloak. He quickly pressed himself against the nearest tree, hoping to hide himself as best he could, and silently cursed his bad luck. He kept his eyes on the bit of red but even after Merlin had managed to steady his heartbeat it still hadn’t moved. He reasoned with himself that it couldn’t possibly be a scout since the person wearing the cloak was making no effort to hide.
Merlin decided to move away from the tree and closer to the red cloak; he knew the move was foolish but he felt compelled forward. When the figure hadn’t moved, Merlin had felt a tremor run through him. Something was horribly wrong.
As he got closer he saw the body was slumped against the tree, the blond head tipped down as in sleep, but Merlin knew the man wasn’t asleep at all and feared the worst. When he got close enough to take a good look at the man’s face, all he saw was blood; it was flowing from a wound at the man’s hairline and had covered nearly the entire right side of his face. Merlin slowly reached out and pressed his hand to the man’s armoured chest to check for the rise and fall of his breath. When Merlin felt a faint movement he moved his hand to the man’s chin so he could turn his face and get a better look at the injury. It didn’t seem deep, and head wounds always bled horribly, so Merlin was hopeful the man would be all right.
Merlin moved to lightly shake the man’s shoulder, hoping to wake him up, but the man didn’t respond, didn’t even moan in argument. Merlin took the corner of the man’s cloak and used it to wipe away as much of the blood as he could. When he could see more of the man’s face Merlin gasped in shock. He recognized it; it was a face from his youth, older now, but still recognizable.
Merlin’s mother had taken him to visit his Uncle Gaius, in the fall of the year he had turned thirteen. He had seen Arthur riding through Camelot, glorious and beautiful and aloof. Gaius worked for the king, as the court physician, and had introduced them when Arthur nodded at Gaius in greeting. Arthur had seemed wholly uninterested, bored, and Merlin had remembered stumbling over the only word he said to him: ’Sire.’
It had been humiliating and he’d seen the slight trace of a smirk that turned up the corner of Arthur’s mouth when Merlin tripped over the single word. For the rest of their visit he only saw Arthur from afar, but the first moment had been frozen in his memory and he well knew he would never forget it--or Arthur.
“Sire,” Merlin said as he shook Arthur’s shoulders again. “Arthur. Wake up.”
Merlin thought he heard Arthur groan and he took it as a positive sign.
“You’ve got to get up, Sire, I can’t carry you.”
Not even a groan answered Merlin that time. Merlin looked up when he heard movement again. It was distant but assuredly heading in their direction.
“Sire.” Merlin tried again as he shook Arthur more fervently.
The shout startled Merlin enough that he fell back from Arthur and scrambled at the ground beneath him. He tried to get enough balance to reach out to Arthur, to pull a shield down around them, the same shield he’d always used when he was with Will and his mother was calling for them to come in from their play. They’d never wanted to come in for washing up or bedtime and for as long as Merlin could remember he’d only have to touch Will and think of making the two of them invisible to his mother and they became so. Merlin hoped it would work now because the voice called out again, angry and close.
“Pendragon! Hiding in the woods like a coward?”
Merlin looked at the prone figure in front of him and thought the owner of the voice very foolish indeed if he thought Arthur a coward. Arthur looked anything but, even sagged against the tree and as white as snow. Merlin knew there were those who were simply noble, brave, and others who were arrogant and foolish--Arthur was clearly the former and the owner of the voice the latter.
“To the right. Go!”
Merlin’s eyes widened when he saw a group of men crest the slight rise no more than twenty yards from the tree where he and Arthur sat hidden. A deep, horrid fear started to build up in his chest. If his magic failed him they’d both be dead, surely. Merlin closed his eyes, moved his fingers against Arthur’s chest, and focused all of his concentration on keeping the two of them hidden from sight.
The shushing sound of the mens’ boots through the leaves grew closer and closer but Merlin kept his eyes shut, kept his thoughts in check, and tried to steady his breathing. He didn’t know if the spell cloaking them would work beyond sight; perhaps the men would hear Merlin’s harsh breaths and pause long enough for Merlin’s magic to falter and reveal them.
“‘He’s not here, Sire.”
Suddenly the leaves rustled just to Merlin’s left, so close, only a breath away from his feet.
“The trail ends, just here. It makes no sense, Sire.”
Merlin opened his eyes at the whinnying of a horse just above him. It took everything in him not to gasp out loud when he tilted his head back and saw an enormous beast of a black horse hovering over him, carrying a rider equally beastly and dark.
“He can’t have disappeared. Look again. He simply covered his tracks.”
“But Sire, the blow he received--he couldn’t have gone far.”
Merlin watched the man above him grow angrier by the moment. He could feel the man’s evilness down to his very core and knew without a doubt it was Cenred. Ealdor, and many other villages, had suffered greatly under his rule. Merlin had never seen him before, never knew his face, only his dark deeds and the consequences that nearly broke the backs of his people. Merlin wished he could send the man flying from his horse but he had to keep Arthur and himself hidden. All his magic had to be for the two of them.
Merlin silently seethed as Cenred ordered his men to look as he held his place at Merlin and Arthur’s side. Cenred’s closeness made Merlin’s stomach roil in fear and he was nearly shaking with exhaustion; the magic running through him and into Arthur was draining his strength, he’d held the shield around them for far too long and he felt himself fading.
Finally, after what felt to Merlin like hours, Cenred ordered his men in another direction and they stopped combing the area around him and Arthur. Merlin continued to hold up the shield out of sheer fear and caution. When he thought he had waited long enough he let it drop as he took in an enormous, gasping breath and tried to gather both his strength and his wits.
He knew he had to get Arthur out of the woods and somewhere safe. Ealdor was the only thing that came to mind. Home and his mother; the only true safety Merlin knew.
Arthur wasn’t small by any means, and his armour looked like it weighed more than a bloody horse. Merlin was already exhausted and he doubted he could pick Arthur up or even drag him back to his cart. He figured the best option was to bring the cart to Arthur.
Merlin continued to check the woods around him as he went back for the cart. He didn’t trust Cenred not to retrace his tracks and come back toward them. But, in time, Merlin managed to get the cart back to Arthur.
It was a far from easy task, but Merlin was able to get Arthur onto the cart after some maneuvering. He looked horrendously uncomfortable but Merlin figured it best to move him as little as possible and to get him back to Ealdor as quickly as he could.
“Merlin!” her voice called out once she saw him trudging toward her. “What happened to you? You should have been back hours ago.”
“I’m fine, Mother. Fine,” Merlin said as he pushed away her examining hands.
“Are you sure?” She made another grab for him but he got her hands in his own first and pulled her over to the cart.
“This is what kept me.” Merlin found himself whispering and didn’t know why.
“Gods above,” Hunith said as she withdrew her hands from Merlin’s to reach out for Arthur’s forehead. “It’s Prince Arthur, isn’t it?”
“What happened to him? And why is he here? Merlin.” Hunith’s exasperation came out in her voice and Merlin didn’t blame her. He was forever getting himself into the kind of trouble that only a mother could sort out, and managing to wheel home the injured Prince of Camelot in a rickety old cart was just this side of completely and utterly impossible.
“All those rumors of a battle between Cenred and Camelot were true,” Merlin said. “I came across him slumped against a tree bleeding like stuck pig, what was I to do? Leave him there? You know what Cenred is like.”
Hunith sighed. “Of course you were right to help him, but Merlin, he brings only danger with him.”
“I’ve hidden our tracks,” Merlin said as he crawled into the cart to hoist up Arthur’s upper body. “Can you lift his feet, I can’t get him on my own.”
Hunith moved to the edge of the cart and hooked her arms under Arthur’s knees to help Merlin carry him into the cottage.
“Are you sure none of Cenred’s men followed you?” Hunith was struggling under Arthur’s weight but she still managed to give Merlin a worried look.
Merlin looked at her and gave a quick nod. “I’m sure.” Hunith was well aware that meant Merlin had used his magic to keep their path hidden and said nothing more on the matter.
“Lay him on my bed,” Hunith said as she walked them toward the back of the cottage.
“Mum, no. My bed is fine.”
Hunith shook her head. “We need room to examine him, to take off his armour. Yours is far too small.”
Once they had laid Arthur out on Hunith’s bed as best they could, Hunith went to work. She ordered Merlin to fetch her water and cloths so she could get Arthur cleaned up. She had already pulled off his cloak and was working her way through the intricate ties and belts of his armour when Merlin came back with a bowl and strips of cloth. He simply handed over the bowl and waited for his mother’s orders; he knew to keep out of her way until she asked him for help.
Between the two of them they managed to divest Arthur of his armour and mail until he was left only in his white linen tunic and trousers. Hunith’s gentle hands pushed up Arthur’s tunic and moved over him to check for more injuries, but aside from the head wound all they found were the beginnings of harsh bruises blooming across Arthur’s skin. Merlin cringed at the one on his side, already dark and painful looking. Arthur would be in great pain when he awoke.
“It doesn’t look very deep,” Hunith said once she’d wiped away most of the blood on Arthur’s face and was able to get a better look at the wound. “I’ll need to stitch him up, but I’m more worried he hasn’t woken up yet. How long has it been since you found him?”
Merlin looked up at her worriedly. “I don’t know, if felt like days.”
“I worry there is more damage than we can see.”
Merlin moved to his mother’s side and touched Arthur’s arm; his skin was burning. He looked over at his mother and she nodded, aware of what Merlin was fearing. He hoped a fever wasn’t setting in. Fevers killed. Merlin had seen it more times than he would have liked. Hunith laid her hand on Merlin’s shoulder and gave it a soft squeeze before she stood to go fetch a needle and thread.
Merlin stood aside as he watched his mother carefully stitch up Arthur’s wound. It didn’t take very many stitches and Hunith’s were small, precise. Merlin doubted Arthur would bear much of a scar once it had a chance to heal.
Merlin hoped it had a chance to heal.
“Sleep in my bed, I’ll stay up with him,” Merlin said.
“You’re already exhausted, get some sleep. You’ll do him no good in your state.”
Merlin reluctantly agreed to taking a few hours of sleep while his mother kept watch over Arthur. He hoped that when he woke Arthur would be conscious once again.
Arthur twisted and turned and mumbled words Merlin couldn’t decipher as the fever overtook him. His mother had been reluctant to let him sit up with Arthur on his own but he had insisted. The dark circles under her eyes made him even more persistent as he pushed her toward his bed with promises that he’d wake her if Arthur took a turn for the worse.
Merlin had no idea what a turn for the worse would look like though. Arthur looked wretched as it was, and Merlin could hardly imagine him looking any worse. Before sending his mother off to bed the two of them had managed to peel Arthur’s sweat-soaked tunic off of him. Merlin took small consolation in the fact that Arthur’s eyes had opened for the briefest of moments and he had weakly struggled against them when they lifted him into a sitting position. But his consciousness was short-lived and he soon passed out again. Merlin took it as a good sign, however, unwilling to let himself believe he was grasping at hope where maybe none was to be found.
When Arthur started moaning softly, Merlin moved to sit down on the bed beside him and took hold of his hand. The gesture seemed to quiet him so Merlin kept his hand firmly wrapped around Arthur’s. Merlin turned the hand over in his own and idly traced the lines of Arthur’s palm with his fingers, the skin burning to the touch and callused from swordwork. Arthur’s fingers were long, the nails blunt, and some looked as if they had been bitten. Merlin smiled to himself at the thought--Arthur seemed somehow softer because of it. Younger than his years, maybe, although Merlin didn’t think he was much older than himself. Maybe nineteen, twenty at the most. When Arthur’s face would relax in sleep for a moment he looked terribly young and Merlin wondered what it was like to have such a heavy burden at such a young age.
Merlin knew the burden of a secret, but it was just him and his mother in a very small world. Arthur had the weight of an entire kingdom resting on his shoulders. Merlin knew he couldn’t compare keeping his magic secret amongst the few inhabitants of Ealdor to having the burden of a kingdom depend on his strength and courage. He gently wrapped Arthur’s fingers back around his own and placed his other hand on top. For the moment, he’d bring what little comfort he could to Arthur and hope for the best.
“He feels cooler, though he still hasn’t woken,” Hunith said as Merlin let go of Arthur’s hand and pulled away to stretch out his stiff neck and shoulders.
Merlin touched Arthur’s forehead and though it was still covered in a thin film of sweat, it was indeed vastly cooler to the touch than it had been in the night. He had no idea how long he had slept but the sun was high in the sky and the day no longer brand new.
“Let’s see if we can’t get some water into him,” Hunith said.
Merlin nodded as he got up to fetch some fresh water from the well. It seemed like everyone else was out and about, and Merlin hoped no one bothered to engage him in conversation because he wasn’t sure he would be able to act normally if they did. He imagined himself breaking down halfway through a conversation and simply pointing back at his home as he shouted, ’The Prince of Camelot is in there.’
Ealdor was a small, isolated place where nothing of note ever happened, so any little thing that was out of the ordinary was immediately noticed. Merlin just needed a bit more time to tend to Arthur before he let the rest of the village find out what was going on. And if Arthur spent any time at all there, they would indeed find out. Merlin only wanted to get Arthur healthy before they did.
When Merlin got back he poured out a cup of water and brought it over to his mother, who had taken his place at Arthur’s side.
“Give me the cup and then prop him up a bit so I can try to get him to drink,” Hunith said.
Merlin handed over the cup and sat down on the bed next to Arthur’s shoulder so he could work his arm under it and pull Arthur up a bit. Arthur’s skin was still so warm, but the burning heat of fever was gone from it.
Merlin watched as Hunith held Arthur’s jaw in one hand as she used the other to place the cup at Arthur’s lips and try to gently pry them apart enough to tip some water into his mouth.
“Come, my dear, you need to drink.”
There was no response from Arthur and the water simply trickled out of the corners of his mouth, over his chin, and down his neck. Merlin sighed in frustration. Arthur hadn’t had any water in over a day; if they weren’t able to get some into him soon it would only hinder any sort of progress in healing he might make.
Merlin saw the worry in his mother’s eyes when yet again the water just trickled away from Arthur’s mouth when she tried a second time.
“Do you think there’s anything you can do?” Hunith asked.
Merlin knew what she was asking but he had no idea how his magic could help Arthur. He was used to using it for foolish purposes: silencing his footsteps when he snuck out in the middle of the night to get up to some mischief with Will, or repairing whatever the two of them had broken while carrying on inside the cottage after his mother had told them to take their roughhousing outside. Never once had he been required to use it in such a way and he wasn’t sure he knew how. The only reason he had been able to hide himself and Arthur from Cenred’s men had been because he’d done the spell before, and he felt it was luck alone that made it so successful.
“I don’t know. I don’t think so.”
“Try, love,” Hunith said as she reached for Merlin’s hand. “Remember when you were but a babe and were able to magic things into being simply because you desired them? Just concentrate very hard on Arthur waking and maybe he will.”
“I can’t simply wish it so.”
“Maybe you can. Your magic is a wondrous thing, Merlin. You have no idea of what you’re capable.”
Merlin shifted on the bed so he could prop Arthur’s back against his chest. He wrapped his right arm around Arthur’s shoulders and brought his left hand up to his forehead to hold Arthur steady against himself. He closed his eyes and thought only of Arthur waking, of seeing his eyes open, and of his hands reaching out for the cup of water his mother held in her hand.
Magic always sparked through Merlin in sudden bursts; one minute he’d feel normal and the next every fiber inside him would unfurl and he’d feel as if he were growing beyond the reaches of his own body. He’d feel enormous, unbound. At times he felt out of control, as if the magic were taking him over, but never in a way that frightened him. Instead it emboldened him, made him feel invincible.
As he held Arthur in his grip he felt that familiar burst. For a moment he surrounded Arthur, engulfed him, until, finally, he felt Arthur move against him. It was faint, a half-hearted struggle at best, but he felt it.
“That’s it. Open your eyes, love,” Hunith said.
Arthur turned his head of his own accord and Merlin felt Arthur’s hair brush against his cheek.
“Wake, Arthur,” Merlin whispered in his ear.
“It’s working, Merlin.”
Merlin opened his own eyes then and looked up at Hunith, who was smiling at Arthur.
“Drink,” she said as she once again held the cup up to Arthur’s lips.
Merlin leaned forward so he could see Arthur’s face, to see for himself that his eyes were open. The blue that greeted him was shocking; glossy and fever-bright. Merlin never knew such a color blue existed.
“Keep holding him up or else he’ll choke.”
Merlin turned his eyes away from Arthur’s at the sound of Hunith’s voice. He shifted his shoulder to push Arthur further up into a sitting position and kept his hand steady on Arthur’s forehead to hold him still.
Arthur drank willingly, but that was all he managed to do. The effort seemed to exhaust him and his eyes slipped shut again before Hunith could even pull the cup away from his mouth. Merlin felt his body fall lax against his own and he sighed.
“I had hoped he’d stay awake much longer.”
“But we got some water into him, that’s what matters. You did well, sweet boy.”
Merlin kept holding Arthur as he brushed his hair away from his forehead with slow strokes. He could still feel his magic holding him to Arthur and he didn’t want to let him go quite yet. Hunith got up to get more water in case Arthur woke again, but Merlin stayed on the bed with Arthur settled against his chest.
“What will we do once he wakes for good?” Merlin asked. “How do we explain his presence?”
“We’ll tell the truth--you found him injured on your way back from Merewald and brought him here to heal. We need not say any more than that.”
“But people will wonder who he is, they’ll ask questions.”
“Of course they will, but there’s nothing to tell. There’s no reason we should know who Arthur is and we can just pretend to speculate along with them. Let them gossip, it will do Arthur no harm and it will keep them busy.”
Merlin had stopped stroking Arthur’s forehead as he spoke with his mother, and Arthur shifted against him and made a rather agitated sound so Merlin placed his hand back on his forehead. Merlin’s touch seemed to settle him and he grew quiet once again.
“You calm him.”
“What?” Merlin looked up at his mother.
“You calm him,” Hunith repeated. “I think your presence does him well. He can sense your compassion and hope for his recovery.”
Hunith smiled at him and Merlin simply shrugged. He didn’t have as much faith in his mother’s beliefs as she did but he hoped that what she said was true. He wanted to be of some comfort to Arthur and hoped he would soon be no longer needed in that regard.
On the morning of the third day Merlin awoke to find Arthur looking at him from the bed. He had fallen asleep in a chair as he watched over Arthur. His mother told him he no longer needed to keep such a vigilant eye on him, but Merlin didn’t feel like he could leave him entirely alone.
“Who are you?”
Arthur’s voice was gravelly from lack of use.
“Why am I here?”
“You were injured and I found you. I brought you here to tend to your wound.”
“Your head,” Merlin said as he pointed at the bandage wrapped around Arthur’s head.
Arthur’s hand automatically went up to his head and he winced when he had the misfortune to make contact very near his stitches.
“To be honest I don’t really know. I found you already wounded and I don’t know how you came about being so.”
Arthur was quiet for a moment as he took his time looking around the room. Merlin stayed silent by his side.
“Do I know this place?” Arthur asked.
“No, you’ve never been here before.”
“Where is here?”
“We’re a very small village, I’m sure you’ve no reason to be familiar with the name.”
Arthur looked confused and more than a bit lost. Merlin wasn’t sure what he should be telling him to make him feel more at ease. He wished his mother was there to help him. She had gone to Will’s to help him clean and to probably make him a week’s worth of food. Ever since Will had lost his mother Hunith had taken it upon herself to become his surrogate. She always made sure to chastise him as she directed him in his cleaning, just to be sure Will didn’t think it charity. Will hated being pitied, which Hunith well knew.
“I wish my mother were here,” Merlin said, hardly realizing he’d said it out loud.
“Yes, my mother, Hunith. We live here together, it’s just the two of us. Right now she’s at my friend Will’s cottage, no doubt haranguing him to no end because he’s a terrible pig that never cleans up after himself.”
Arthur looked at him like he was touched in the head, and Merlin supposed he appeared just that, rattling off a pile of nonsense about pigs and cleaning and Will. He really really wished his mother was there to help him not act like a complete simpleton.
“Look, Arthur, I’m obviously terrible at this but if you have more questions just ask me. I can answer questions, that I can do.” Merlin paused a bit to think it over. “Or maybe not, I mean if I don’t know the answer I won’t be able to answer you, so I guess that’s a bit of an overstatement.”
Merlin was prepared to keep rattling on when the sound of Arthur’s voice stopped him.
Merlin looked at him. “What do you mean?”
“I’m asking who’s Arthur?”
Arthur’s face was blank.
“Do you not remember your name?”
“Of course I remember my name, I’m not an idiot.”
And just like that the Arthur Merlin remembered from his long ago visit to Camelot came back. The innate self-assurance and imperiousness were there even though it was obvious Arthur really couldn’t remembered his name. Merlin almost smiled, but a stricken look came across Arthur’s face.
“You didn’t remember though,” Merlin said quietly.
“No.” Arthur paused and looked up at Merlin, his eyes full of questions Merlin didn’t know how to even begin to answer. “No, I suppose I didn’t.”
Merlin leaned forward and touched Arthur’s leg. “Don’t worry about that, we’ll worry about it later. Right now you just need to get well. And eat something, you need to eat some proper food.”
Arthur dutifully ate a few bites of the stew Hunith had made earlier in the day. His stomach so long empty couldn’t handle much, but he ate what he could as Merlin moved about the room pretending to straighten up when all he was doing was staring a hole through Arthur.
“Subtlety is not your forte, is it Merlin?”
Merlin dropped the spoon he was holding. “What?”
“Subtlety. You’re doing a very poor imitation of it.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I’m very busy.”
“Stirring an empty bowl?”
Merlin saw Arthur raise an eyebrow and he looked down at the bowl he was holding. It was indeed empty, and Merlin had been stirring it.
“Yes. Well. Not with this obviously, but there are other things I’m very busy doing.”
“Oh, just eat.”
Merlin was rewarded with a small smile--more of a smug little grin, really--but Merlin decided it was a good sign anyway. He continued to pretend to work as both he and Arthur kept an eye on one another, neither one of them doing a very good job of not being obvious about it.
“You’re up, and eating. How wonderful,” Hunith said as she came through the door and noticed Arthur had a bowl of stew sitting on his lap.
Arthur gave Hunith a tentative smile.
“My mother,” Merlin said as he nodded in her direction.
“Hunith,” she said as she sat down on the bed next to Arthur and took his hand. “And I’m so happy to see you feeling better. We’ve been worried about you, Merlin and I.”
“Mainly mum though, I’ve been busy stirring,” Merlin said.
Hunith looked at Merlin with a puzzled frown but once Arthur noticed what Merlin had said he broke out into surprised laughter. Merlin let his own laughter join Arthur’s.
“What on earth, Merlin?” Hunith shook her head. “You’re always saying the most nonsensical things. Stirring indeed. You wouldn’t know a spoon from a chicken.”
“That sounds about right,” Arthur said. Merlin grinned at him and picked up his spoon to start stirring again.
“How much has he eaten?” Hunith asked Merlin as she took Arthur’s bowl from him.
“Enough. For now.”
“Well, we need to get you healthy and back on your feet so you can go home.”
Arthur frowned. “Yes, home. I don’t think I know where that is though.”
“Arthur’s memory,” Merlin said when he noticed Hunith’s expression after hearing Arthur’s confession. “It’s not--something’s wrong. He didn’t remember his name.”
Hunith turned from Merlin back to Arthur. “Oh, you poor boy. We’ll figure it out and get you all sorted, no need to worry.”
“That’s what Merlin said.” Arthur gave her a half-hearted smile.
“Well he does have his wise moments. They’re very infrequent, but they are there.”
Merlin laughed at Hunith’s teasing.
“You should rest now, Arthur,” Hunith said as she got up from the bed. “We’ve got to build your strength up.”
Arthur nodded his assent and let Hunith fuss over him and pull the blankets up to his chin. Merlin noticed Arthur watched her with not a wary expression but a slightly lost one, like he had never had anyone fuss over him before in that way. The thought made Merlin incredibly sad.
Gaius had told him of Arthur’s mother’s death and the reasons for Uther’s crazed hatred of magic, but Merlin had never thought how it might have affected Arthur. Merlin didn’t have a father of his own, but he had his mother, who was gentle and kind and showed him every day that she loved him more than anything else in the world. Merlin couldn’t fathom having a man as cold as Uther had seemed as the only source of parental love in your life.
“Hunith?” Arthur’s voice brought Merlin back from his thoughts.
“I couldn’t remember my name yet both you and Merlin called me Arthur. How did you know that was my name?”
Hunith glanced over at Merlin and left it to him to answer Arthur’s question.
“When I found you wounded you were part of a battle. Like I told you, I’m not sure how you came to be wounded but whatever the reason it must have made you wander away from the rest of your men. You were not wearing King Cenred’s colors--”
“Ealdor is a part of his kingdom.”
“And I’m his enemy.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Then why help me if I was in a battle against your king?”
“You were wounded. I would’ve helped any man in the same position. I don’t want to see a man suffer, no matter his allegiance.”
“But my name, I don’t understand--”
“Cenred’s men came looking for you, they were calling out the name Arthur.”
“So you assumed--”
“That it was you, yes. And I hid you.”
“I still don’t understand why you’d risk your life to protect mine. You could have been hurt, or worse, Merlin. You went against your king.”
“Cenred is not a good man, he is no king I want to give my loyalty to.”
“Speaking like that of your king, it’s treason.”
“And who’s to tell him?” Merlin asked, his gaze focused on Arthur.
“I wouldn’t know,” Arthur answered.
“Being a king doesn’t make you a good man, and whether or not it’s treason I can’t follow a king such as Cenred.”
Arthur only looked back at him and Merlin wondered what this talk of kings was stirring in him, or whether it was stirring anything at all. Merlin hoped if he continued to talk about things familiar to Arthur his memory would be sparked. Merlin wasn’t sure how they should proceed now that they knew Arthur’s memories were lost.
“Nor would I,” Arthur finally said.
Merlin felt like Arthur’s response was a long while coming, like it was warring inside of him to come out. Knowing what he did about Uther he suspected some deep seated loyalty to him was what kept Arthur from answering right away, whether he knew it or not. Loyalty to a king was one thing, but loyalty to a father was something altogether different--something innate, Merlin imagined.
Merlin left Arthur to rest and nodded at Hunith to indicate they should go outside where Arthur wouldn’t hear them.
“What should we do? He doesn’t even remember his own name. I thought once he was well he could just go home,” Merlin said once they were both outside.
“Why can’t he?” Hunith asked. “You and I both know his home is in Camelot, what’s to stop him from going there?”
Merlin wondered that too; really, what was to stop them from sending Arthur home, or at least sending word to Gaius that he was in Ealdor? But there was something gnawing at Merlin, telling him to keep Arthur in Ealdor, to keep him near until he was able to find his own way back.
“I don’t know, but it doesn’t feel right. I think he should stay here.”
“Merlin, every day he stays here puts all of us in more danger.”
“I told you, I took care of that.”
“What if your magic fails you in this? What would Cenred do to us all if he came to know we had kept Prince Arthur here?”
“I know. I know.” Merlin started pacing a bit. “But isn’t there something telling you that to send him home would be worse?”
“If we sent word to Gaius he would tell Uther and arrangements would be made to retrieve him. We wouldn’t be sending him out there alone.”
Merlin sat down on the old stump they used as a chopping block. “I suppose you’re right. We’ll send word to Gaius.”
Hunith knelt at his side. “But it still doesn’t rest easy with you, does it?”
Merlin shook his head. “I don’t know why it’s so, but I want him here with me. With us. I feel as if we’re meant to do something we haven’t yet.”
“He’s on the mend. What more could we possibly do, my sweet boy?”
Merlin looked down at the hand Hunith laid on top of his own and shrugged his shoulders. Nothing. There was nothing more they could do. It would be foolish, and dangerous, to keep Arthur in Ealdor but logic didn’t exactly seem to be at work for Merlin where Arthur was concerned.
“It will take us awhile to get word to Gaius. I believe I heard Chadrick saying he was to go to Amsden the day after next, maybe he could pass on a letter to someone there. You still have some time.”
Merlin nodded. He did have time, but not enough.
Merlin watched as Arthur got washed up and dressed. He was finally well enough to get out of bed. And the first thing he’d done when he had was demand a bath. ’Who do you think you are, the King of Camelot?’ Merlin had asked. Arthur had only frowned in disappointment as he asked, ’You haven’t a bath?’ Merlin had laughed in his face as he set a bucket of water and a washing cloth down in front of his royal highness. ’There. Your bath.’
Arthur had been wholly unamused.
“You really ought to thank my mother. She had the most awful time getting the stains out of your tunic. You were something of a disaster.”
“Was it really bad, my injury?”
“Not as such, well aside from the stitching up and complete loss of memory,” Merlin said. “Plus you bled like a stuck pig. That was fairly disgusting.”
“Every word you say makes it all sound infinitely better.”
“I do have a calming effect on people.”
Arthur laughed. “If Hunith hadn’t assured me I was perfectly sound physically I’d have been in a panic listening to you.”
“You’re rather delicate for a man trained for battle.”
Instead of coming back with a retort Arthur looked thoughtful.
“I wonder what kind of warrior I am.”
“Obviously not a very good one. You got yourself here, didn’t you?”
Arthur ignored him. “Am I a knight? Did I have a shield with my coat of arms, anything with my mark upon it?”
“I found nothing on you aside from your armour. I imagine you left it behind on the battlefield when you were injured.”
Merlin noticed Arthur grow pale.
“What if I’m a coward? How did I get far enough away from the field of battle to be on my own? Was I running away?”
“Arthur, you had a head wound. You were disoriented, nothing more. I doubt very much you were running away from anything.”
“But the possibility is there.”
“Of course it is, but I’d stake my life on you being anything but a coward.”
“How do you know that? How can you be so sure?”
“I don’t know, I just am.”
Arthur looked at Merlin and gave him a small smile.
“Thank you, Merlin.”
Merlin waved away Arthur’s words as he pulled on his arm.
“Let’s get you outside, the sun is shining for a change and we can give the village gossips something to natter on about.”
“I don’t want anyone nattering on about me.”
“Well you’re going to have to get used to it. We’re a small village, we’ve nothing better to do but gossip, even about someone as boring as yourself.”
Arthur laughed at that and allowed Merlin to drag him outside and into the village.
They answered a great many questions, as was expected, as Merlin walked Arthur around the village and showed him what little of it there was to see. Everyone wanted to know where Merlin had found Arthur, how he’d been injured, did he really not remember his own name? How odd, was he mute too since Merlin was doing all the talking? On and on the questioning went as Merlin looked at Arthur from time to time with a, ‘I told you so,’ look on his face.
“That was awful,” Arthur said as he stood next to Merlin and watched him knock on Will’s door.
“They’re good people,” Merlin said, “at least there’s that. Nothing malicious will be said about you, they’re only truly curious about your welfare.”
“Everyone did seem kind,” Arthur agreed.
“Will, it’s me! Not my mother,” Merlin said as he pounded on Will’s door again.
“I’d rather it be your mother,” Will said when he finally pulled open the door. “I like her.”
“Of course you do, that’s why you complain to me every time she comes over here and forces you to clean up your filth.” Merlin pushed his way past Will and dragged Arthur along behind him. “This is Arthur. I found him in the woods.”
“You make me sound like a pet squirrel.” Arthur scowled.
“Who has a pet squirrel?”
“What were you doing in the woods? And why did you bring him home?” Will asked as he ignored Merlin’s question.
“I was coming back from Merewald--”
“You’ve had him for four days and you didn’t tell me.”
Will looked furious and Arthur scowled again and muttered, ’Not a pet squirrel,’ under his breath.
“Well he was unconscious for three of the days so you didn’t miss much.”
“I don’t care about that, I care that you didn’t tell me.”
“We were waiting to see if he’d even wake up. We kept him a secret from everyone.”
“Do I need to be here for this conversation since neither one of you are actually including me in it?” Arthur asked.
“I could’ve helped you both,” Will said, ignoring Arthur entirely.
“I know, and I’m sorry. Don’t be mad.”
“I’m not mad, Merlin, just disappointed.”
“You sound like my mother.”
“Take that back,” Will said as he wrapped an arm around Merlin’s neck and pulled him down. Merlin struggled against him as they both laughed and started to tussle. They ended up in a pile on the floor.
“You’re both idiots, I see,” Arthur said as he stood looking down at them with his arms crossed.
“He’s a boring one, isn’t he?” Will asked Merlin.
“We haven’t talked much but I suspect so. He seems rather insufferable.”
“I’m going back,” Arthur said as he headed for the door. “Hopefully Hunith is home and I can have an actual intelligent conversation with her.”
“Yes, you do that.” Merlin smiled up at Arthur.
“Yes, run along and go have fun with Merlin’s mum,” Will said as he made shooing motions at Arthur.
Arthur left in a huff and a slam of the door, which only made Merlin and Will laugh again.
“Wherever it was you found him, can you bring him back?” Will asked.
“He’s the Prince of Camelot!” Merlin blurted out.
“He’s Arthur Pendragon.”
“Merlin! You idiot! What’s he doing here in Ealdor? If Cenred finds out he’s here--”
“Which is why we kept him a secret.”
“But you just paraded him around the village.”
“We didn’t tell anyone who he is. He doesn’t even know who he is.”
“What do you mean?”
“He’s lost his memory, he had no clue what his name even was. I lied to him about how I knew his name.”
“Why would you do that?”
“I don’t know!” Merlin threw up his hands. “I honestly don’t know. I feel like I need to do something, that Arthur and I need to do something, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Mum is upset about it and is sending word to Gaius so King Uther can send a party of knights to fetch him back but I don’t want him to go yet and it’s all a complete mess.”
“Merlin!” Will had to practically shout over Merlin’s rambling.
“Well you wanted to know.”
“I did, but I thought you’d maybe take the time to take a breath or two during the telling. I thought you were going to pass out.”
“Will, I’m serious.”
“So am I. Wouldn’t want you to swoon.”
Merlin scowled at Will, then heaved a great sigh as he let himself fall onto his back on the floor.
“I don’t know what to do.”
Will criss-crossed his legs and stared down at Merlin. “Who’s your mum sending word with?”
“Chadrick. He’s going to Amsden to trade and she hopes he can find someone there to get it to Camelot since it’s so near the border.”
“Let your mum give him the message so she’s satisfied and then you or I can catch him right before he goes and tell him she changed her mind.”
“He’s not going to believe either one of us, not since we stole his sheep that one time.”
Will laughed. “That was a good one.”
Merlin gave him a crooked grin. “It really was. The best part was him running around shouting for it.”
“Magda! Where’s my Magda!” Will shouted.
“He was practically in tears.” Merlin laughed.
“And then your mum ruined it all by making us apologize.”
“We would never have gotten away with it anyhow. We were eleven, and horrible liars.”
“You never know, Chadrick isn’t very clever himself.”
Merlin chuckled. “Poor Chadrick.”
Merlin sat up and looked at Will. “It’s worth a try.”
“I don’t know what it is, Will, but I need to keep him here for a while.”
“Even if we don’t succeed it’ll still take at least a week for the message to get to Camelot and another for King Uther to get a party of knights here.”
“I need more time than that.”
“How do you know that though? Maybe two weeks is enough.”
Merlin just shrugged in response. He couldn’t keep repeating himself; he didn’t know the answers and it was useless to keep saying, ’I don’t know,’ again and again.
“Does this have something to do with your, you know--” Will said as he wiggled his fingers at Merlin.
“What, Will? You mean my magic? You can say it out loud, you know. It’s just the two of us here.”
“Well you never know when there might be someone lurking about.”
“Do you frequently have that problem? People lurking about your cottage?”
Will shoved at Merlin’s knee. “Hey, I’m being a good friend here and looking out for you.”
“I know you are, and I appreciate it.”
“Whereas you, on the other hand, are a horrible friend.”
“This is very true.”
“I should probably give up on you and be friends with Magda instead.”
Merlin leaned in closer to Will and gave him a serious sort of look. “Should I be worried about your affection for a sheep?”
Before Merlin knew it he was knocked back to the floor with Will on top of him. Will was trying not to laugh at he punched Merlin in the side.
“What Magda and I have is special. Don’t you dare sully it, Merlin.”
“I won’t! I promise!” Merlin tried to get out between bursts of laughter as Will kept hitting him. “The two of you will have beautiful children one day.”
Will stopped hitting Merlin and shoved him away as he laughed at him.
“You’re an idiot, Merlin.”
Merlin gave Will’s shoulder a shove.
“That’s what people keep telling me. And yes, it’s definitely the--” Merlin said as he wiggled his fingers at Will the same way he’d done to Merlin. “It’s responding to him and I don’t know if I should try to stop it or try to understand why it is. It’s what made me go to him in the woods and help him. At first it was curiosity but once I was at his side I had this overwhelming urge to protect him, and that feeling has been growing ever since. I was worried about him and I can’t understand why I should feel that way. I don’t even know him.”
“And for good reason, he’s the prince of Camelot. You know Camelot, Merlin, it’s where they burn people like you at the stake.”
“I know that.”
“Then why are you willing to let this take you over? Why are you so willing to put yourself in danger? I don’t care about Cenred at this point, I care what will happen to you.”
“As does my mother, and I hate having the two of you worry. All I can say is that you shouldn’t, and before you ask, no, I haven’t got a reason, I just feel it. I know somehow that things will be fine.”
“You’re asking a lot of us, Merlin, to take all of this on a gut feeling of yours.”
“Which is why I’m so grateful you are.” Merlin tried to give Will his best innocent expression.
“Presumptuous, you mean.”
“Yes, maybe a little presumptuous too.”
Will grinned at him and Merlin was thankful to have him on his side.
When he opened the door to the cottage he was greeted with the sight of his mother showing Arthur how to make bread. Or at least that’s what Merlin hoped was happening.
“Just roll it. Gently.” Hunith instructed. “You don’t need to beat it about like that.”
Arthur seemed unimpressed with the advice but he followed it anyway. Merlin grinned as he stood in the open doorway with crossed arms and watched the proceedings. Arthur was covered in flour, the sight made even more hilarious by the fact that there wasn’t a speck of flour on Hunith. Merlin wanted to ask Arthur if he had perhaps mistaken the flour for water and tried to bathe in it but he held back and just enjoyed the look of intense concentration on Arthur’s face as he kneaded the dough exactly as Hunith instructed him. He looked like a little boy and something inside Merlin flipped over at the sweetness of him. When he glanced over at his mother he caught her looking at him knowingly; she too was utterly charmed by Arthur and his mess. She gave Merlin a wink and a smile before she turned back to Arthur.
“You’re doing wonderfully,” she said as she laid her hand on his shoulder.
The smile Arthur gave her in return was so brilliant that Merlin swore the warmth of it rivaled that of the sunlight shining at his back through the open door.
“At least you seem to be managing to keep the flour on the table and not all over your head,” Merlin said as he walked all the way inside and closed the door behind him.
Arthur gave him a look that Merlin was coming to realize was his, ’you really are the biggest idiot, aren’t you?’ look.
“I’m sure you weren’t any better your first time,” Arthur said.
“Perhaps not, but then again I think I was six.”
Arthur surprised Merlin by laughing out loud, his head thrown back in amusement.
“You’ve got me there, Merlin.”
Merlin smiled and walked closer to the table. “How do you know this is your first time making bread?”
Arthur looked over at him and raised an eyebrow. “Look at me. Do I look like a person who has done this before?”
“Fair enough. Carry on with your mess.”
“Your mother is a patient woman,” Arthur said.
Hunith patted Arthur on the shoulder and said, “You’re easy to be patient with, such a sweet boy.”
Arthur stopped what he was doing for a minute to look at Hunith, and Merlin saw the little motherless boy Arthur had been and all the ways his father must have failed him. Arthur seemed to be drinking in Hunith’s praise like the dried, scorched earth took in rain. Merlin could see the way that small piece of praise affected him and it cracked Merlin’s heart. He wanted to go to his mother and beg her to heap all the love and kindness she could manage onto Arthur, to heal, in some small part, that little lost boy he had been, and still was.
Hunith seemed to realize what was happening inside Arthur too because she ran her fingers through his hair and quietly repeated her praise and added, ’such a darling,’ before going over to the fire and tending to their supper. Merlin marvelled at the way Hunith’s instincts always told her when she was needed and when not to make a fuss. He had always envied his mother that.
“Well are you ever going to be done kneading that dough so it can rise? We won’t have bread until next week at the rate you’re going.” Merlin teased.
Hunith looked over her shoulder at him. “You well know that bread is for tomorrow, stop teasing poor Arthur.”
Arthur pointed at himself and mouthed, ’stop teasing me.’ Merlin ignored him and picked up a small handful of flour from the table to throw at Arthur. Arthur was about to toss some back at Merlin when he sneezed, making the both of them laugh.
“Oh yes, poor poor Arthur,” Merlin said with a grin.
“It’s for the best, love,” she said to him when she noticed him watching her so closely. “It’s not safe for him to be here, nevermind us.”
“I know, mum.”
Merlin bore Hunith’s hug and hoped she’d forgive him in the end.
Merlin was standing next to the cottage and looking up at Arthur as he mended the roof. He had to shield his eyes against the sun to see Arthur properly, but when Arthur moved to the side of the roof in order to look down at him he stood between Merlin and the sun. Merlin found he had to swallow a bit before he could speak again. The way the light glowed around Arthur was disconcerting; he looked golden from head to toe and Merlin felt a stirring deep inside himself that had nothing to do with his magic and everything to do with Arthur alone. He wondered if he could blame only his magic for wanting to keep Arthur beside him.
“What are you going on about?”
“Besotted,” Merlin said. “You. You’re besotted.”
“Why am I besotted? And with whom?”
Arthur looked so indignant that Merlin had to smile.
“My mother, obviously. You’re fixing her roof.”
“She asked me.”
“Only once. She’s asked me at least a dozen times.”
“That’s because you’re a lazy sod and a terrible son.”
Merlin laughed at Arthur’s teasing, which seemed to please him, because the smile he graced Merlin with nearly left him reeling all over again.
“Come down here and say that,” Merlin said, feigning anger.
Arthur laughed, full-bodied and carefree, and Merlin was struck with the desire to make him do so every day of his life.
“I’d have you on your knees before you could fight back.”
The thought left Merlin strangely breathless. “Try me,” he said, his voice all but a croak.
Arthur seemed to realize what he had said because a furious blush bloomed on his cheeks--color that couldn’t be blamed on the sun. They stared at one another for a moment as a painful awkwardness set in, neither one knowing what to say to the other. Arthur finally broke the silence.
“Of course a slight wind could knock you over so it wouldn’t be much of an accomplishment on my part.”
Merlin laughed nervously, it sounded far too loud to his ears.
“I’m much stronger than I look.”
Arthur looked down at him, his face thoughtful rather than flushed with embarrassment as it had been.
“I don’t doubt you are, Merlin,” he said quietly before turning away from Merlin and going back to his work.
For some reason Merlin didn’t want Arthur to turn from him, he felt bereft without Arthur’s eyes on him.
“There’s a pond, not far from here,” Merlin said, his voice rushed. “Come with me?”
Arthur looked over his shoulder at him. “I need to finish this for your mother first.”
“Take a break, she won’t mind.”
“Unlike you, Merlin, I’m not disgracefully incompetent and unreliable.”
Merlin saw the small smile that turned up the corner of Arthur’s mouth.
“But how do you know that? You could very well be the village idiot for all we know. Incompetent at basically everything, and wholly unreliable.”
“That’s your version, and a very fanciful one at that.”
“Still, come with me.”
“Come up here and help me get this finished and I will.”
Merlin grinned and climbed up the ladder to the roof.
“Do you need me here for moral support?” Merlin asked.
Arthur just shoved a bundle of straw at Merlin as his answer.
“But you’re doing such a fine job,” Merlin said. “I don’t want to ruin it.”
“Ruin it. Please.” Arthur laughed. “I want to witness you doing something useful at least once in my lifetime.”
Merlin shoved at Arthur’s shoulder but went to work. He’d been teasing Arthur about the number of times Hunith had had to ask him to get to the repairs on their roof, but it had still been a fair number of times so he figured it was the least he could do to help. He still smiled, though, at the thought that it had only taken one asking for Arthur to get himself up on the roof and to work. Even though he had no memory of his life before he was wounded, the person he was shone through, clear as day. Merlin could see it in everything Arthur did--the man he was on the cusp of becoming.
Between the two of them they finished fixing the roof, though by the end of it both of them were covered in sweat and bits of straw.
“The pond will definitely be welcomed now,” Arthur said as he reached over to pull a piece of straw out of Merlin’s hair.
Merlin laughed as he brushed his hands through his hair and a few more pieces rained down around him. “Yes, it will be. Can we finally go now?”
“So impatient.” Arthur shook his head.
Merlin ignored him and started down the ladder. “Let’s go.”
Arthur followed him down and Merlin took off running. He didn’t know why he did it but he just felt so full inside all of a sudden that he had to either run or explode into a thousand pieces. He looked back to see Arthur right behind him.
When they were almost to the pond Merlin started shedding his clothes; first his tunic came off, and then a boot as he hopped around on one foot, and Arthur laughed at him as he finally gave up and fell to the ground.
“Such a clumsy clod,” Arthur said.
“Clumsy or not, at least I’ll get in the water first,” Merlin said as he shimmied out of his breeches and tried not to think about the fact that he was about to be all but naked in front of Arthur.
Arthur laughed and kicked off his boot. “That’s what you think.”
Merlin was the first to get down to his smallclothes and he took off running toward the pond. He lept into the air and landed with a splash, the coldness of the water nearly overwhelming him. He came up gasping, only to find Arthur still sitting in the long grass surrounding the water. He was halfway through removing his boots and laughing at Merlin.
“It happens to be just the right temperature.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Merlin sunk his feet into the mud at the bottom and pushed himself backward, away from the shore and Arthur, and into deeper water. He kept his eyes on Arthur, though, as he removed his tunic. Merlin had seen Arthur unclothed when he and his mother were tending to him when he was ill, but seeing him now made Merlin realize how badly he’d wanted to see him healthy and whole.
Merlin had always known he didn’t feel the same way as everyone else did, as the other village boys who were forever caught between either mocking or mooning over a pretty girl. He had listened to the talk, laughed at the boys when they tried to hide their interest behind gruff teasing and childish behavior, but he’d never felt the same. It wasn’t until Will’s cousin had come to live with him for a short time that Merlin knew for certain in what ways he was different from the rest of the boys.
Alstan’s parents had been taken by a fever sickness when he was sixteen and Will’s family had insisted on taking him in. Merlin and Will were thirteen at the time, and the moment Merlin saw Alstan’s blue eyes and kind smile he knew it wasn’t delicate feminine lips that would ever tempt him into a kiss, or soft curves that would make him to want to sink down on top of them. Seeing Alstan, Merlin knew it was a mouth like his own and the flat, hard planes of a man’s chest that would make him ache.
It had terrified him; he was different in so many ways already, so many powerful, dangerous ways, that adding just one more made Merlin feel as if he didn’t belong anywhere in the world. That he never would. And he wondered what it was about him that made him so apart when all he wanted was to be like everyone else. Every night he prayed to the old gods, wanting them to take away everything that made him different and replace it with things that need never be hidden.
But one night, very close to Alstan’s leaving, everything changed. Will, Alstan, and Merlin were hunting in the woods, which at thirteen was more of a code for, ‘sleeping outside under the stars and away from our mothers’ than actual hunting. They were building up a fire for the night and Will wandered off to gather wood when Alstan sat beside Merlin.
“You watch me,” he said. It wasn’t a question.
Merlin froze, fearing what would come next.
Alstan’s eyes searched his. “I don’t mind.”
“Not everyone would feel the same.”
Merlin nodded. He knew, he did; it was yet another thing he hated about the way he was.
“I say this not to frighten or shame you, only to warn you. I want you to be careful,” Alstan said.
“I am ashamed though.” Merlin admitted.
“Others may try to shame you, but that is their failing. You are allowed to be as you are.”
No one had ever spoken to Merlin in that way and he felt hope inside of him for the first time. Maybe he wasn’t made wrong, maybe he was exactly as he should be.
“Are you--” Merlin tried to gather the courage to ask Alstan what he hoped was true.
Alstan waited patiently even though Merlin could tell he knew what he was going to ask.
“Are you like me?”
Alstan shook his head and Merlin’s heart turned to lead inside his chest. So foolish to hope.
“I wish I could say I was, if only to help you, but I’m not.”
“Then how did you know?”
“I had a friend.”
“He was like me?”
“And still my friend, as Will will be to you if you ever want to tell him, and as all true friends will be.”
Merlin doubted that was so, not about Will, perhaps, Will would accept and take in stride anything Merlin threw at him. But others? Merlin couldn’t imagine such a thing.
Alstan took Merlin’s hand in his--the first time Merlin had ever been touched with affection by a man. It felt right. Alstan gave his hand a small squeeze.
“It will make sense one day. You’ll find your fit and you’ll belong. Trust me, Merlin.”
Will had come stumbling back through the woods then and Merlin had let go of Alstan’s hand like it was on fire. He didn’t believe him at the time, he remembered wishing he could, but the idea that one day he’d find out where he belonged was an absolutely foreign concept to him.
Now, however, as he looked at Arthur--the breadth of his chest, the way the sunlight settled all over him like a blanket--Merlin thought maybe he had found where he belonged. The way he had to press his hands against his stomach in a mad attempt to keep himself from bursting apart at the seams at the sight of Arthur told him all he needed to know.
This moment was the reason Merlin had saved Arthur in the woods; he saved Arthur because Arthur was meant to save him too.
Arthur’s roaring shout shattered Merlin’s thoughts, and he looked up and smiled as Arthur flung himself into the water like a small boy with no sense of self preservation, or of the dangers that lurked underneath.
“Gods!” Arthur shouted as he surfaced and started flailing around in the water.
“Cold enough?” Merlin echoed Arthur’s earlier question.
Arthur kept moving around as he tried to warm himself back up.
“It’s like ice. How are you just floating there like you’re not completely numb from the neck down?” Arthur asked. “I can’t feel my feet. Or my knees.”
“Your knees?” Merlin laughed and swam over to Arthur’s side.
“Yes, they’re apparently very sensitive to cold.” Arthur’s voice was haughty and it made Merlin start laughing again.
“You sound like an old woman,” Merlin said, and was quick to push Arthur’s head underwater before he had a chance to argue.
Arthur spluttered and spit out water when Merlin let him surface. Merlin was expecting to get shouted at but Arthur started laughing instead. It didn’t stop him from throwing his arm around Merlin’s neck and dragging him to his side.
“An old woman, is it?” Arthur asked and Merlin could hear the smile in his voice. He didn’t have long to think about how perfect Arthur’s voice sounded, though, because a second later he was beneath the water himself.
Once Arthur let him up they started tussling with one another and splashing water everywhere. Merlin’s side hurt from laughing and he was certain his nose was dripping water and snot and every other foul thing but he didn’t care. He was happy.
He had found where he belonged.
“Had enough?” Arthur asked as he turned his head to look at Merlin.
“I’m wrinkled,” Merlin said as he held out his hand in front of him.
“Who’s the old woman now?”
Merlin laughed. “I’m going to toss your clothes into the water.”
Arthur stopped floating and looked up at Merlin. “You wouldn’t dare.”
Arthur huffed and started swimming for the shore.
“Don’t you trust me?” Merlin asked with false innocence.
“Not one bit, no.”
Merlin knew it was in jest but Arthur’s words sliced through him, painful and sharp.
Arthur waded out of the water and sat down beside Merlin. He must have noticed the way Merlin’s mood changed because he looked at him and shook his head.
“That’s a lie,” he whispered.
Merlin turned to face him. “What?”
“I lied, I trust you.”
Merlin closed his eyes and tipped his head forward, tried to shield his face from Arthur’s sight.
“I don’t even know you, not really,” Arthur continued, “but I know I trust you.”
Merlin dug his fingers into the earth and tried to still his heart. Just like that, Arthur’s words had revived him and he was dizzy with the implications.
“It scares me,” Arthur said into the silence between them.
Merlin looked up and saw in Arthur’s face what it had cost him to admit to his fear. He knew it wasn’t in Arthur’s nature to admit anything of the sort. For a prince to feel fear, much less admit to it, was unacceptable. Merlin felt his throat tighten.
“Me too.” Merlin’s voice was a croak as it forced itself out of his throat. “You scare me too.”
“Why? You know who you are, you’re at home, you’re not lost and alone. You have all the power, there’s nothing for you to fear.”
“There’s a world of things to fear, it doesn’t matter where you are.”
“It feels new to me, I don’t know why. Shouldn’t I know what it is to fear?” Arthur looked so confused that Merlin wished his magic had the power to take the feeling away from him.
“Just be happy that you don’t.”
“What are you afraid of, Merlin?”
Merlin shook his head. “Nothing. It’s not important.”
“It is to you,” Arthur said. “Tell me, I want to know.”
“It’s too difficult to explain.”
Arthur turned away from Merlin then, looked back out at the water. “I understand. You don’t know me, you don’t want to tell me these things.”
“No, that’s not it,” Merlin said as he reached out to touch Arthur’s arm, to make him turn back and look at him. When Merlin’s fingers made contact with Arthur’s skin he felt a surge of magic run through him, and he pulled his hand back at the same time Arthur jumped away from the touch.
Merlin looked from his fingers to Arthur’s face and saw.
Arthur had felt it too.
“I trust you too,” Merlin said, his voice quiet.
Arthur’s eyes were still on Merlin’s fingers, like he couldn’t believe they’d just touched him. He didn’t look afraid, simply curious, and Merlin wanted to breathe a sigh of relief. Merlin squeezed his hand into a fist and wrapped his arms around his legs.
“What are you afraid of?” Arthur asked as he moved his gaze to Merlin’s face.
“It won’t make sense, it sounds foolish.”
“I don’t care.”
Merlin sighed, closed his eyes. “Sometimes I feel like I don’t fit inside my own body, that I’m all wrong. That’s what frightens me the most, that I’ll never be right.”
“I don’t even know my own body, so I guess we’re even.” Arthur’s voice was light, teasing, and Merlin knew that maybe he didn’t entirely understand what Merlin was saying, but it didn’t really matter in the end.
“And what sort of buffoon doesn’t know that?” Merlin grinned.
Arthur shrugged and laughed. “I have no idea.”
Merlin pulled his legs closer to his chest and pressed his face to his knees to hide his smile. Arthur was so beautiful, in all the ways that truly mattered, and Merlin was in a world of trouble. But, surprisingly, that only made him unbearably happy.
They sat in companionable silence for a while as they let the sun dry them off. Merlin couldn’t stop himself from glancing in Arthur’s direction from time to time simply to see the look of peace on his face. Merlin suspected it was a look that didn’t often appear on it.
After some time Merlin heard Arthur sigh, and he turned to look at him just as he laid down on his back, his arms spread.
“Do you think it’s strange?” Arthur asked. “That I’m not trying to find my way home?”
Merlin laid down on his back next to Arthur. He reached out his fingers toward Arthur’s hand on the pretext of spreading his arms out as well. His fingers were within brushing distance of Arthur’s, and Merlin could feel the ache in them to reach out that final wisp of distance to make contact.
“Do you think you’re unhappy there?”
Arthur turned his head to look at Merlin. “I don’t know. I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure, can I?”
“Sometimes people need to put distance between themselves and who they’re supposed to be.”
Arthur smiled at him. “That doesn’t make any sense at all, Merlin. I don’t think even you have any idea what you just said, you’re only trying to sound intelligent.”
“And it’s not working?”
“Not really, no.”
Merlin smiled back at Arthur. “I know what I’m talking about.”
“Well, as long as you do. I still haven’t a clue.”
“I have a gut feeling this is a common occurrence for you, not having a clue.”
Arthur laughed out loud at that and grabbed at a patch of grass so he could tear it out and toss it in Merlin’s direction. The grass scattered over Merlin’s face and he had to spit some stray blades away from his mouth.
“I have a gut feeling I’m quite brilliant, actually.”
“Well, as long as you do.” Merlin grinned.
Arthur chuckled low in his throat and Merlin could feel the slight brush of grass next to his hand as Arthur slowly ran his own hand back and forth across it.
“I know I should leave and that I should be asking you questions, because surely you have an idea of what kingdom your own King was fighting that day, but something always stops me. Every time I’m about to open my mouth to say, this is it, this is the day I’m going, the words get all clogged up in my mouth and I can’t speak them.”
“I don’t mind, that you stay. I want you here,” Merlin said, then quickly added. “We want you here, my mum and I both.”
“Your mother is wonderful. So kind and patient. Being with her calms me, but it makes me sad too and I don’t know why.”
Merlin wanted to say, ’I do. I know why having someone care for you like a mother pains you, but he couldn’t force himself to say it.
“There’s not a reason for everything, Arthur.”
“There you go, Merlin, trying to act wise again.”
Arthur’s hand started to move against the grass again and suddenly Merlin realized his world had shrunk to a small patch of earth next to a pond in the middle of a wood. Merlin wiggled his fingers to greet the blades of grass.
“See that you don’t.”
Merlin’s fingers kept reaching out for the grass until he realized he and Arthur had stopped talking and were only staring at the motion of each other’s hands as they moved slowly back and forth and apart from one another.
“You can stay as long as you want,” Merlin said quietly. “Maybe all you need is time.”
“What if I need more than that?”
Merlin turned his gaze away from Arthur’s hand and to his face, only to find him staring back at him intently. The blue of his eyes was almost shocking to Merlin.
“Then I hope you find what you need,” Merlin answered him.
He hoped that he was what Arthur needed.
And Merlin was exhausted anyway, far too tired to speak. He felt that bone-deep tired that water and sun and fresh air always brought forth--that dizzy, headachey tiredness. That combined with the words spoken with Arthur made him feel full and lazy, trudging through an in between world and not quite ready to come back to real life.
Once or twice Arthur walked close enough that their hands brushed against one another and Merlin wondered if it was intentional, or only a mad sort of hope to think it was.
Arthur broke the silence when they were close enough to home to see Hunith standing outside next to the cottage.
“Your mother.” Arthur pointed at her like Merlin didn’t know who he was talking about and it made him smile.
“Yes, that would be her.”
Arthur seemed to realize what he’d said and he pulled his hand back to his side and blushed. Merlin wanted to press his face against Arthur’s cheek--to taste his skin to see if his blush tasted of strawberries, to inhale him to know whether or not he smelled like the sun--but Arthur called out to Hunith and the moment was lost.
“You’ve been at the pond, I see,” Hunith said as she ruffled Arthur’s still damp hair. Merlin envied her freedom to touch him.
“Merlin took me, but we finished the roof first.”
“As I can see, and you did a fine job.”
“I helped,” Merlin added lamely.
“Only just.” Arthur teased.
Hunith laughed and ushered them both inside the cottage to feed them. Merlin followed behind her and Arthur, and wondered if he’d find himself in another moment with Arthur like the one they’d had by the pond.
“There will be music and dancing,” Merlin added.
“And many pretty girls waiting for you to take their hand.” Hunith smiled at Arthur.
Merlin felt his face heat when Arthur glanced in his direction at the mention of dancing and girls. When Arthur saw Merlin looking back at him he quickly turned his gaze away.
“I don’t know if I know how to dance,” Arthur said. “I’ll most likely stomp on their feet. I doubt they’ll be much pleased with me.”
Hunith laughed and cupped Arthur’s cheek. “A handsome boy like you? They’ll forgive you all kinds of sins.”
“I want to see Merlin dance,” Arthur said, trying to ignore Hunith’s compliment. Merlin often noticed that Arthur took compliments poorly, like he didn’t believe they suited him. “I’ll bet he trips over his own feet before he can even ask a girl to dance.”
“I happen to be a very talented dancer.”
Arthur laughed. “I’ll believe that when I set eyes on it.”
“Merlin always dances with Eda, and don’t they look lovely together,” Hunith said proudly.
“Eda?” Arthur asked.
“The two of them always dancing and making eyes at one another,” Hunith said. “Since they were barely knee high, and weren’t they adorable too?”
“Who’s Eda?” Arthur asked again, his eyes fixed on Merlin.
“A friend,” Merlin answered. “She’s a friend.”
“Oh, is that what you’re calling it now?” Hunith asked, her eyebrow raised.
“Do you need more water, Hunith?” Arthur said as he got to his feet so quickly he nearly knocked over the bench he was sitting on in his haste to grab the bucket and head out the door. “I’ll fetch you some.”
“Arthur!” Merlin called out after him, but he was out the door without a backward glance. “Mum, why did you say those things to him? You made it sound like--” Merlin stopped in the middle of his sentence.
“Like what? How did I make it sound?”
“Like Eda and I are more than friends, that we’re courting.”
“And why should that bother Arthur? Or you?”
“I don’t know,” Merlin said in frustration. “It shouldn’t, but it does.”
Hunith sat down next to Merlin on the bench and took his hand in her own. She reached up with her other hand to stroke his hair and he leaned into the touch.
“Arthur is a lovely, beautiful boy,” she said. “But he’s the Prince of Camelot and will soon be far from here.”
“I know that.”
Hunith leaned in and kissed Merlin’s temple. “I don’t want you to be sad,” she said quietly. “You’re my little boy and I couldn’t bear to see your heart broken.”
Merlin felt his face flame with heat at what Hunith’s words implied and he looked at her, shocked. He had no idea she knew, but when he saw her eyes it was clear she did, not that her words hadn’t already told him so.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Merlin tried to lie but had to stop when he realized he couldn’t do so. He had already lied enough to her about Arthur, he couldn’t do it again.
“He’s leaving us,” Hunith said, her voice gentle but firm.
Merlin nodded, swallowed, tried to choke back the words he wanted to say to her. “I know. But I don’t want him to go.”
Hunith didn’t say anything, she simply smiled sadly at him and pulled him closer. Merlin rested against her and closed his eyes as he tried to block out the world and stay just a little longer in that moment; a moment where his mother knew exactly what he was and still loved him just as she always had.
When Arthur came bursting back through the door the moment was broken, and Merlin all but jumped away from Hunith.
“Three people stopped me on the way to the well asking me if I was going to the feast tonight,” Arthur said. “You were right, Hunith, it sounds like a grand time.”
“No doubt you’ll dance the night away,” Hunith said.
Merlin was quiet and Arthur gave him a strange look as he set down the bucket of water.
“Is there something wrong?” Arthur asked.
“No, everything’s fine.” Merlin tried his best to smile as he walked past Arthur toward the door. He had to get out of the cottage and away from his mother and Arthur both. “I’m going to see Will, I’ll be back later.”
Merlin glanced over his shoulder and saw that Arthur was watching him, the strange look still on his face.
“It’s nothing, I just had to get away for a while. It wasn’t anything mum did.”
“The looks you’re sending in her direction say otherwise.” Will nodded to where they could see Hunith and Arthur sitting and talking on the bench outside the cottage. “Or is it the poncy prince that’s giving you a headache?”
“It’s neither. And I haven’t got a headache.”
“You’ve got a rather surly look on your face if you don’t.”
Merlin made a face at Will and hoped it was even more sour looking than the last. It must have only looked ridiculous because Will laughed at him.
Merlin ignored Will as he went back to mending the latch and turned his attention to his mother and Arthur again. He didn’t understand how his mother could sit there and talk to Arthur so calmly while knowing every minute that she’d sent a letter to Gaius that would take Arthur away from them. She didn’t know yet that Merlin had meddled so, for her, Arthur’s leaving was imminent.
It also made him sick to know that he must be so transparent. His mother had never approached him about his feelings like that before, and even though she had gone about it in a very round about manner, he had known what her words implied. If she could see what must be so clearly etched on his face then so too must Arthur.
The thought made him want to run away.
Merlin was thankful Will was carrying on with his work and leaving Merlin be. He was lucky to have a friend that knew his moods so well. Merlin glanced over at Will and saw him staring back at him with a look that asked, ‘should we say something now?’ and Merlin just shook his head. Will shrugged and hopped up to sit beside him on the fence.
“Done with the latch?” Merlin asked as he pointed in its direction.
“Just needed a bit of tightening is all.”
Will sat beside him as they kicked the backs of their heels against the slats of the fence. When the faint sound of Arthur’s loud laughter floated over to them Will glanced in Arthur and Hunith’s direction and scowled when Arthur said something that made Hunith laugh as well.
“Bloody hell, he’s going to be stealing all the girls tonight, isn’t he? Now none of them will dance with me.”
Merlin elbowed Will in the side. “He won’t be stealing all the girls, and you know Wren will only dance with you.”
“But he’s a bloody prince, innit he? Prancing all around with his hair and his flirting. Just look at him and your mum.”
“Nobody knows he’s a prince aside from you, me, and my mother. And way to divert attention away from Wren so I can’t make fun of the two of you and your cow eyes.”
“I haven’t got cow eyes,” Will mumbled.
Merlin mooed at him then and Will gave Merlin a hard enough shove that it sent him sprawling backwards off the fence and into a pile of hay. It caused a ruckus with the sheep, and Merlin laughed as they all started bah’ing and bleating in distress as they ran to the opposite side of the pen.
“Now look what you’ve done! You’ve scared my sheep.”
Merlin reached up and grabbed the back of Will’s tunic to pull him backwards into the pen as well. Will landed with a thump and immediately started shoving straw in Merlin’s face in retaliation. They were so busy laughing at one another and trying to bury each other in a mountain of straw that they didn’t realize Arthur had run over to the fence and was glaring down at them.
“What?” Will asked once he stopped laughing long enough to hear Arthur as he pointedly cleared his throat.
“What do you mean, what? You just shoved Merlin off the fence, he could have been hurt.”
“It’s not a very long fall.” Will laughed.
“He could have fallen on his head.”
“As if that would’ve caused any damage. He’d have been better off landing on that than his scrawny backside.”
Merlin watched the conversation in silence as he noted Arthur’s frustrated embarrassment at having run over to them. He was standing and shuffling back and forth on his feet as he tried to laugh along with Will.
“Bit more padding on his head, isn’t there?” Arthur said.
Will let out a surprised bark of laughter at that as he stood up and started brushing the straw off of himself. “You know what? You’re a bit alright for a poncy pr--”
“Prat,” Merlin shouted over Will’s voice.
Will gave Merlin a quick look of apology before saying, “Poncy prat. Exactly.”
“I’m not poncy.” Arthur groused.
“But you are a prat. Duly noted,” Merlin said cheerfully.
“I didn’t say that!” Arthur was thoroughly indignant by then and Merlin wanted to kiss him. Arthur noticed Merlin staring at him and he blushed slightly as he kicked at the dirt and muttered, “That’s not what I meant.”
Merlin smiled at him. “I know.”
Arthur sighed and held out his hand over the top of the fence. “Just get out of the sheep pen, Merlin.”
Merlin wrapped his fingers around Arthur’s hand and let him hoist him up from the ground. Arthur started brushing straw off of him once he had clambered back over the fence.
“You’ve a habit of incidents involving straw, haven’t you?” Arthur asked as he kept picking at him.
“This is why I kept putting off fixing the roof,” Merlin said in exasperation as he continued to let Arthur touch him as he brushed him off.
Arthur laughed. “Likely story.”
“But a good one.”
Arthur looked like he was about to say something but Will grabbed Merlin by the back of the neck and started to drag him off.
“Where are you going?” Arthur asked.
“Off to spend time with my friend,” Will shouted over his shoulder.
Merlin turned around in time to see a lost look slide over Arthur’s face. He stood alone, set apart, and Merlin wanted to go back to him.
“I’ll be back soon,” Merlin called out to him. “He’s probably only putting me to work.”
Merlin wanted to ease the odd tension of the moment. He felt as though a string were connecting him to Arthur and they were watching it unravel the further away Will dragged him from Arthur’s side. Merlin knew it was a strange thing to feel, but it came over him all of a sudden and he couldn’t stop himself from thinking everything was coming to a head and he was letting it slip away.
Arthur’s quiet soaked into Merlin, and Hunith as well. Merlin thought it troubling that Arthur’s moods had so easily, and quickly, permeated their own. The whole cottage moved with the motion of Arthur’s moods. It was less noticeable before because Arthur was always smiling and laughing, but the quiet was heavy and disconcerting, and very obvious.
“Merlin, carry the mince pie out and help Edward finish setting up the tables and food,” Hunith said.
Merlin almost jumped at the sound of her voice, so loud it seemed amidst the quiet.
“Can I help?” Arthur asked.
“They’ll need our table and benches. You can start carrying those out, if you would, love. Merlin will help you once he’s brought the pie out.”
“I’ll be right back,” Merlin told Arthur.
“I can manage on my own.”
“No, I’ll help, just let me--”
“I’ve got it, Merlin. Go help outside.”
Arthur’s voice was curt and Merlin didn’t like it, but he left it alone. He could tell his mother was watching them and he didn’t want to ruin the evening for her by getting into an argument with Arthur.
“It’s a fine night, we’re lucky again this year,” Merlin said.
Hunith smiled gratefully at him. “A fine night indeed. Let’s enjoy it.”
Arthur nodded and Merlin left to help Edward with the preparations. He figured it was best to put some space between himself and Arthur.
Once the feast began Merlin hardly had a moment to think about the tension that had slipped between himself and Arthur--he was too busy eating and dancing. Every village girl, young and old, needed to be danced with and Merlin was set on doing so. It was the only way he could ignore the fact that it appeared as if Arthur was doing the same.
As the night wore on the singing started to get louder and more off-key, the music faster, and the lights from the bonfires even more dizzying as they spun around him while he danced. Everyone was in high-spirits, laughing and delighting in the festivities.
After what felt like a hundred dances Merlin finally dropped down to the ground to try to catch his breath. He hadn’t noticed Arthur dancing for a while and he felt like he could finally take a break and watch everyone else without having to watch Arthur holding some happy girl in his arms. Merlin knew it was foolish to feel it, but every time he saw Arthur spin past him he had hated--just for that one second--the girl who got to feel his touch.
Merlin watched the dancers and the other villagers that were milling around still laughing and talking and looking as if there was no way the feasting and dancing would end any time soon. He couldn’t find Arthur anywhere among them. He wondered where he could have gone, and as he looked back toward their cottage he saw Arthur sitting alone on the small bench Hunith had left outside their door. Suddenly finding the noise surrounding him almost suffocating, he saw Arthur as a refuge and got up to walk over to him.
“Tired?” Merlin asked as he sat down beside him.
Arthur glanced in Merlin’s direction and shrugged.
“You were busy tonight, every girl’s choice of partner just as my mother predicted.”
“So were you, dancing all the time with Eda.” Arthur’s voice was filled with the same sourness that had occupied it all afternoon.
“Only a handful of dances.”
“It seemed like every dance.”
“Were you watching me?”
“No,” Arthur said in a rush.
Merin took a deep breath and kept his eyes focused in front of him and not on Arthur.
“I was watching you,” he admitted.
He could feel Arthur’s eyes on him but he didn’t turn to look at him.
“Why?” Arthur asked, his voice more quiet than before. Softer.
“I don’t know.”
Merlin felt Arthur shift beside him and he wanted to move closer to him, he wanted to tell him that he did know why he had been watching Arthur but the words wouldn’t come. He chanced a look at Arthur and found him staring off, away from Merlin and away from the feast.
“I lied. I was watching you too,” Arthur said. “I didn’t want you to dance with Eda.”
“Why?” Merlin repeated Arthur’s own question back to him.
Arthur shrugged and looked as if he was going to turn back to Merlin, but he didn’t. Merlin wanted him to turn, he wanted to see his face.
“I lied too,” Merlin said. “I know why I watched you. I wanted to know who you were dancing with, who was taking you away from me. I wanted to be the one getting to be with you. I spent the whole night wanting to talk to you, being jealous of everyone else that did.”
Arthur still didn’t look at him, but he moved the smallest bit closer and their hands brushed against each other on the bench.
“I wanted to be the one holding your hand.”
Merlin almost gasped out loud as he said it, not quite believing what he had admitted. He was terrified and exhilarated and wanted more than anything for Arthur to turn and look at him.
It couldn’t have been more than a breath or two, but it felt like hours on end, and Merlin was about to jump up from the bench and run away from Arthur and what he had done when he felt something soft trail along the inside of his arm. His skin felt alive, completely separate from the rest of his body. The only part of him that mattered was the small small spot where Merlin looked down to find Arthur’s fingers slowly dragging down the softest part of his inner arm, until they came to the heel of his hand and slipped underneath it, to his palm, and then slotted themselves between his own fingers. Arthur’s fingers curled around Merlin’s and they were holding hands, palm to palm.
It felt like magic.
“Like this?” Arthur asked, and Merlin wanted to laugh with relief that the words sounded shaky, on the verge of shattering, just as he felt himself after admitting his desire.
The way he felt when magic was coursing through him. He’d never been able to describe it properly to anyone--not his mother, not Will--but now? Now he could explain it to someone with perfect clarity. Arthur. He could tell him, he could say to him, ‘magic is what it feels like when you hold my hand, the way it feels to be with you,’ and Arthur would know. The first person to ever truly know.
“Yes,” Merlin said, his voice just as broken as Arthur’s. “Exactly like this.”
Arthur tightened his hold on Merlin’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“What do you have to be sorry about?” Merlin asked.
“The way I was with you today. I’ve been cruel.”
Merlin looked away from their joined hands to find that Arthur was finally looking at him.
“Not cruel,” Merlin said.
“But not kind,” Arthur’s voice was low and he seemed to become fascinated with running his thumb over Merlin’s skin. “When I see you with Will I get angry, and it confuses me. I think it’s selfish because I don’t want you to be with him, or if you are I want to be there as well. I’ve only known you a handful of days and yet I don’t like being apart from you. I want it to always be like it was that day by the pond.”
“That was a good day,” Merlin said as he moved his fingers against Arthur’s. They kept squeezing and letting go, twisting their fingers together, testing what it felt like to be connected.
“You’ve known Will all your life, he’s your friend and I can’t compete with that. It makes me angry that I can’t. No matter what I do Will will always have been there first. I’m jealous of that time before me.”
“You’re here now,” Merlin said. “I found you that day in the wood for a reason. We were meant to find one another.”
“I don’t know the person I was before, but I don’t think I ever had a friend like you. I feel like I was very lonely before I came here.”
“That’s why it’s a good thing I found you.” Merlin smiled and Arthur smiled back.
“You really believe that? That we were meant to find one another?”
“I do. I was meant to be your friend, Arthur.”
Arthur leaned into Merlin until his forehead touched Merlin’s temple. They stayed frozen like that for awhile; Merlin shivering as Arthur’s warm breaths tickled across the skin of his neck, and hoping Arthur’s mouth would move just a little bit closer, would brush against his neck like a kiss. Merlin closed his eyes and wondered if Arthur could feel the shaking--they were so close--Arthur’s chest pressed all along Merlin’s arm, their hands still locked. Arthur moved the slightest bit and his nose brushed against Merlin’s cheek. Merlin thought it might have been a mistake but then Arthur moved his head again and it brushed back the other way.
The moment felt endless, but Merlin knew it hadn’t been more than a few seconds between the time he spoke and the moment Arthur’s mouth hovered near his ear and answered.
“And I was meant to be yours, Merlin.”
Before Merlin could respond, Arthur was gone. Once the words were spoken he pulled his hand from Merlin’s grasp, pushed himself off the bench, and ran back toward the bonfires. Merlin wanted to call him back but he laughed instead. He felt the beginnings of a sort of drunken happiness stirring inside himself. He wanted to shout at Arthur for running away but he suddenly felt the need to run too; run back to the light, the laughter. To grab a girl and spin her around the fires until he was dizzy.
All the while knowing he held in his palm the touch of Arthur’s hand and the ringing words of Arthur’s friendship in his ear.
They hadn’t said anything more about the night of the feast--the way Arthur had slipped his hand into Merlin’s, and the words that had followed--but the feeling was still there burning between them. Merlin hoped Arthur felt the same sort of overwhelming happiness that he did. That he looked forward to every morning as Merlin did because it meant that he’d once again get to look at Arthur’s face, hear his voice, his laugh, and that it meant an entire string of seemingly endless hours he could be in Arthur’s company. Merlin hoped, too, that Arthur dreaded the night and the time when he had to close his eyes and let sleep part them from one another.
Merlin knew it was the height of stupidity to feel so wrapped up in the emotions Arthur stirred inside him, that he should focus on the letting go--because he knew his mother would soon question the length of Arthur’s stay and the fact that no one was coming for him--but he couldn’t stop himself.
He let himself fall.
Again and again; every day, nearly every hour.
“Take me to the pond again,” Arthur requested one day.
Merlin thought about seeing Arthur unclothed, wet and beautiful, and he didn’t even answer Arthur, only smiled and headed for the door knowing Arthur would follow.
But when they were at the pond he suddenly felt shy, almost too embarrassed to undress. Now that Arthur had touched him Merlin felt too close to the edge. Most of the time he already felt naked in front of Arthur, exposed like he’d never been with anyone else. There had been times over the course of the last few days that Arthur had looked at him and Merlin sensed the same sort of hunger for more that resided within himself. He felt, in those moments, that Arthur was just as raw as he was, just as full of want. Sometimes Merlin wondered how he could bear his clothes at all; his skin was so flushed with heat, overly sensitive to the touch, every breeze that caused his tunic to brush across his back, his chest, was a form of torture as he imagined it was Arthur’s fingers.
He stood with the bottom hem of his tunic in his hands, ready to be pulled off, but he couldn’t move beyond that. Arthur was sitting on the ground and pulling off his boots when he noticed Merlin was standing still. Merlin could plainly see the confusion in Arthur’s eyes as he tipped his head back to look up at him. When Merlin didn’t give him any sort of explanation he slowly got to his feet and stood facing Merlin.
Arthur looked from Merlin’s hands on his tunic and up to his face. He took a tentative step forward and his arm came out, his fingers reaching for Merlin.
“Off,” he said quietly, Merlin almost didn’t hear him, and his fingers stretched again in Merlin’s direction.
Merlin wasn’t sure if Arthur even knew he had spoken aloud, but when his fingers brushed against Merlin’s tunic his own hands were finally able to move. He pulled his tunic over his head, wanting Arthur’s fingers to touch him again now that it was only his skin that would greet them.
Merlin let the tunic drop to the ground beside him and he dared to reach out to Arthur. He was only going to tug on Arthur’s tunic but he stepped closer to Merlin then and instead of Merlin’s fingers lightly grasping the soft linen his entire hand pushed against Arthur’s side. Merlin let it flatten itself against Arthur so the palm of his hand was settled against Arthur’s stomach and his fingers stretched and curled just a bit around Arthur’s side, near his hip.
“Let me help you.” Merlin found himself saying, but he didn’t move and neither did Arthur.
A sudden bird call and flapping of wings in the leaves above them split them apart. Arthur’s eyes shot up toward the sound and he arched his head back. Merlin wanted nothing more than to step up close to him and run his tongue from the hollow at the base of Arthur’s throat and up his neck to his jawline. His skin looked warm and all Merlin could think about was honey, and the way it spilled sticky and sweet over his lips. He imagined that Arthur’s taste would do the same, that Arthur would spill over him like honey.
Merlin knew he was staring, and Arthur must have felt it because he stepped back from Merlin and let out an echoey, uncertain laugh.
“Bird,” he said inanely.
There wasn’t anything Merlin could say in response so he sat down on the ground to take off his boots. He noticed Arthur had turned his back on him to quickly finish undressing. Merlin wondered if maybe he stared at Arthur’s back long enough that he’d feel the need to turn around, but he never did.
When they got into the water there was none of their roughhousing from the time before. They were circling around one another, somehow caught in each other’s orbits but still acting as if they were unaware of the fact. There was no conversation, no teasing, the only sound was that of their hands cutting through the water, their feet kicking and propelling them away from one another when they noticed they’d gotten too close.
Instead of being relaxing, the water somehow buoyed up their tension, held it aloft and made it unbearably obvious. Merlin felt if only the water would let go of them for just a few seconds, would let them drop and sink to the bottom, they’d resurface and somehow be right again. Washed clean of whatever it was that was pulling them together and at the same time it was pushing them apart.
Merlin knew the push and pull inside him was a nearly overwhelming mix of want and desire, and something he knew very well would turn into love if given the least little time and attention to grow. He wanted Arthur with a fierceness that was physically painful; his bones ached inside him as they had done when he was twelve and had started to grow tall and gangly. He remembered waking up weeping from the pain in the middle of the night wondering why his body was betraying him.
And again it felt like it was betraying him. He remembered Alstan’s words telling him that someday he would find someone who fit, but now he questioned that belief. He could so easily fit inside Arthur, he could curl himself up and live inside him forever.
A perfect fit.
But could Arthur feel the same?
Arthur left like an arrow shot from a bow, and Merlin couldn’t blame him; he’d want to escape the suffocating feeling of the cottage as well.
“I told you to be careful, Merlin.”
“I am.” Merlin’s voice sounded petulant to his own ears, he could only imagine how it sounded to his mother’s. “There’s nothing to be careful about.”
“The two of you go from anger to giddiness to silence in the most alarming way. I know what that means, I know what it feels like. I felt the same way when I was falling in love with your father.”
Hunith never spoke of Merlin’s father and for her to do so now told him that her warning was important.
“I hated him and loved him in turns, I couldn’t control my emotions and I felt hopeless and happy all at once.”
“You loved him?” Merlin asked.
“Of course I did. I loved him with all of my heart.”
Merlin had always known that his mother had loved his father, but she’d never said it out loud, had never admitted to loving him so strongly. But somehow hearing Hunith actually say it made it more real to Merlin, made it a reality and not just a story he told himself to feel better. He wanted to know that he wasn’t a mistake in his mother’s eyes.
Hunith must have known what was going through Merlin’s mind because she cupped his face in her hands and made him look at her.
“With all of my heart,” she repeated. “Until you came and stole it away.”
Merlin gave her a small smile filled with relief. “I love you too.”
“I know you do, which is why I know it must have pained you to lie to me as you did.”
Merlin had to look away from Hunith.
“I’m sorry, Mum.”
“I began to wonder right before the feast why it could possibly be taking so long for a king to come in search of his son, but I knew the answer was right in front of me. My own stubborn, headstrong son.”
Merlin got up from where he had been sitting and started to pace in an effort to avoid his mother’s disappointed eyes.
“I know before it was entirely my doing, that it was only me that didn’t want him to go, but Arthur doesn’t want to go either. He spoke about it, he wants to stay here. He can’t make himself leave.”
“Because we’re a safe haven. He may not remember who he is, but in his heart he knows he can hide here in this small little village and have no cares but to fetch me things and spend his days trying to make you laugh. Of course he doesn’t want to leave that for the great, dark unknown.”
“I know it scares you to have him here, but don’t you trust me? Don’t you know that I’ll protect you, and everyone in Ealdor? I’d never let them come to harm.”
Hunith rushed over to Merlin and placed herself in front of him so he would stop his pacing.
“How can you even ask that? Of course I trust you, I trust you with my life and the lives of everyone in this village. It’s not their welfare, or mine, that I fear now. It’s yours and Arthur’s.”
“I fear the damage you will do to each other.”
“There’ll be no damage done.”
Hunith pulled him into her arms. “My precious love, you’ve no idea how much damage a heart can do.”
Since Arthur had recovered and moved from Hunith’s bed, he and Merlin had begun to take turns sleeping in Merlin’s bed while the other slept on a pallet next to it. Merlin loved knowing that in the night Arthur was beside him, within reach, and the thought was a constant comfort to him.
That night was his turn to sleep on the pallet. It was coming on a full moon and the brightness of it illuminated the cottage enough that he could see Arthur’s bare foot sticking out from the edge of the bed. Merlin smiled to himself and thought about running his own toe along its arch. Arthur had proven impossibly ticklish just the week before.
The surprisingly warm days often inspired Arthur to toss aside his boots and go barefooted. He and Merlin had been eating lunch in the shade of a tree when Merlin had become infatuated with Arthur’s bare feet. They were dirty as could be but the sight of them made Merlin smile and he had pulled a blade of grass from the ground to drag across the sole of the one closest to him. Arthur had shrieked almost instantly and nearly somersaulted backward in his attempt to get away. Merlin had laughed so hard tears poured down his face. At first Arthur had been predictably indignant, but the sight of Merlin laughing himself sick brought forth Arthur’s own laughter. It also brought forth Arthur’s need to shove his dirty foot in Merlin’s face. Their entire lunch was a disaster after that, but Merlin had never been so happy to go hungry before.
Merlin had just lifted his foot from beneath his blanket when he felt something touch his mouth. He jumped slightly but when he looked up he saw Arthur’s face. Arthur was awake and leaning over the side of the bed, looking down at him. The touch he had felt was Arthur’s finger tracing along his bottom lip.
Merlin knew Arthur saw him look up at him but his focus remained on Merlin’s mouth and he stayed silent. Merlin couldn’t pull his eyes away from Arthur’s face and the way he seemed so wholly fascinated by him, by the way his fingers traveled across Merlin’s lips. Merlin was breathless by then, afraid to draw a breath lest he drag Arthur out of his trance and lose his touch.
Arthur’s fingers moved from Merlin’s mouth to his cheek, and when they’d had their fill of that they moved to his brow. Merlin closed his eyes when they tentatively moved along the bridge of his nose and soon he felt them gently trace his eyelids. Merlin had never been so carefully touched, had never fascinated someone as he now seemingly fascinated Arthur. It felt like Arthur was learning him through touch, trying to absorb the plains and valleys of his face through his fingertips.
Merlin hoped it was fascination alone that drew him in and not a desire to memorize Merlin’s face for when they were parted. He didn’t want to think Arthur was only trying to remember him.
When Merlin opened his eyes it was to find that Arthur’s own were finally on him. Merlin felt the gaze in the way his skin prickled and flushed with sudden heat. Arthur seemed determined to keep looking at Merlin though he still didn’t speak, didn’t say why he was touching him the way he was.
Merlin couldn’t blame Arthur though, he had nothing he could possibly say to him either. Instead he grabbed Arthur’s wrist to hold Arthur’s searching hand over his mouth. Arthur’s palm was warm against his lips when he kissed it. Aware that he could lose the heat of it at any minute, Merlin cupped the back of Arthur’s hand with his own and hoped to trap it there for just awhile longer.
Merlin knew a small whimper escaped him when Arthur pulled his hand away and he almost wept with relief when he realized Arthur had only done so to bring Merlin’s hand up to his own mouth. When Arthur kissed the back of his hand Merlin let out a gasp of air, the breath shocked out of him and he could once again breathe.
It was just the one kiss, but it was enough.
When Arthur moved his lips away from the back of Merlin’s hand, he tangled his fingers up with Merlin’s and lowered both their hands until they were resting against the center of Merlin’s chest. Merlin watched as Arthur laid his head down on the bed and closed his eyes. He knew then that maybe his mother had been right about one thing.
Merlin had no idea before that moment what kind of damage a heart could do.
Hunith had left before either Merlin or Arthur awoke. Merlin knew she was spending the day with several other women in the village under the pretense of taking a day to mend clothes, which they did do, but with a healthy dose of gossiping as well. Merlin smiled to think of how his mother denied again and again that she gossiped at all, and how she was forever admonishing him against doing it himself, while she took such obvious delight in it. Merlin let her believe that he thought her removed from all of it and she let him do so. It was a wonderful little balance they had willingly created with one another.
Although Hunith left early she had left some breakfast lying out on the table for them. Merlin sat across from Arthur and watched him as he sleepily ate a piece of bread. His hair was stuck up on one side and his eyes were only half open.
“I know you’re eyeing that loaf of bread like it’s a pillow.” Merlin teased.
Arthur chuckled, low and groggy, his throat still thick with sleep. “Don’t think I’m not tempted.”
“I think we should run away.”
Arthur smiled. “Where?”
“Into the wood, wherever our feet take us,” Merlin said. “We’ll bring food and not come back until the sun sets on us.”
“I thought the point of running away was to not come back home.”
“But I don’t want to run away from home, I just want to run away with you.”
Arthur’s eyes sought out Merlin’s and held them. Merlin felt all the possibilities of the day run crashing through him like a stampede.
“Promise me the entire day,” Arthur said.
“Until the sun sets.”
Arthur grinned at him. “Well, that’ll require a lot of food.”
“With the way you eat, of course it will.”
Arthur reached across the table to give the side of Merlin’s head a good tap, but the touch was gentle and ended with Arthur’s fingers lightly trailing down Merlin’s face. Merlin wanted nothing more than to lean across the table and kiss Arthur properly. They had been circling each other for days and it was driving Merlin nearly mad.
“I’ll make the food,” Arthur said, his voice quiet and his eyes still intent on Merlin. “I don’t trust you not to poison me.”
Merlin laughed, loudly, so happy he couldn’t contain it. “You’re awful, and I hate you,” he said, not at all able to keep the smile off of his face.
Arthur smiled back, but there was something decidedly settled about it, certain. “No, you don’t.”
Merlin felt himself blush and he looked down at the table instead of at Arthur. He crept his fingers across the expanse of the table between them until their fingertips were just touching.
He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
And those three words meant very much the opposite of hate; not just, no, I don’t hate you, but, yes, I love you and I hope you know that.
“Let’s go then.” Arthur’s words broke the silence between them. “Let’s run away.”
It took them only a few minutes to gather some food together as Merlin mercilessly teased Arthur about his cooking skills (consisting only of the ability to throw food Hunith already made into a giant sack). Arthur only laughed and shoved Merlin away, but Merlin was soon at his side again; hovering and staying close so they kept brushing against one another.
Merlin so badly wanted to drape himself across Arthur’s back, to lean into him and wrap his arms around Arthur’s waist, to press his mouth to Arthur’s ear and tease him endlessly so he’d never stop his blushing. He wasn’t able to make himself do it, but he did stop himself from thinking just long enough to reach out and twist his fist into the soft linen of Arthur’s tunic, right where it billowed out at the small of his back. Arthur moved to reach for something and felt the slight tug of resistance. He looked back over his shoulder at Merlin and his smile was so soft, so absolutely Merlin’s alone, that Merlin leaned down and brushed his lips against Arthur’s shoulder. The touch was too brief, instantly gone, but Arthur let out the smallest puff of contented laughter, so delighted, and Merlin dared to do it again before stepping away from him. He kept his hand fisted in Arthur’s shirt, but he put enough distance between the two of them so he was able to draw in a breath of air.
Arthur finished filling the sack and reached behind him to grab Merlin’s hand, to untangle it from his shirt. He looked back at Merlin and smiled. “Ready?”
Merlin nodded and Arthur made for the door, breaking into a run once they were outside. Merlin looked around to see if anyone saw them as Arthur dragged him along, but as they ran Merlin decided he couldn’t bring himself to care if they did.
Once they made it deeper into the woods behind Ealdor and started to slow down, Merlin held even more tightly to Arthur’s hand. When Arthur stopped entirely Merlin knew his grip had probably turned painful, he was holding on so tightly.
Their breaths were heavy and ragged from running and seemed to envelope them completely. They were the only thing Merlin could hear aside from his own heart pounding away in his chest as they stood facing one another.
“I’m not letting go,” Arthur said.
Merlin felt like an utter idiot but he was so filled with relief that he let out a strange sort of choking noise, like a sob caught up in a burst of laughter.
Merlin shook his head and drew in breaths as deep as he could manage when Arthur stepped closer to him. He looked up and saw Arthur staring at him, his eyes bright and face flushed.
Arthur seemed as confused as Merlin, stuck on his name and not knowing what else to say. Before Merlin could gather his own thoughts to try to say something, Arthur’s mouth was on his own, pressed against him on a rush, and so clumsy and fierce it felt like it had been done on a dare.
And just as quickly it was gone.
Merlin felt himself stumble forward a bit at the loss of Arthur’s lips and the feel of his chest pressed so suddenly against his own. Without thinking Merlin opened his mouth and said:
Urgent and as thoughtlessly demanding as a child, but Merlin wanted to kiss Arthur again so badly everything else drifted away to a place that didn’t matter because it wasn’t Arthur’s lips, or his warmth, against him.
Merlin focused in on Arthur’s face and saw the look of wonder that covered it, like he couldn’t believe Merlin wanted more, that what he’d done could be repeated, and suddenly the sack Arthur had been holding fell at their feet and his hand was at Merlin’s waist. Merlin let himself be pulled closer, back to where he wanted to be.
Merlin let go of Arthur’s other hand so he could hold Arthur’s neck in both of his own hands, could hold him still and steady him so the next kiss wouldn’t be as fleeting as the first. He could feel the pulse of Arthur’s heart beating beneath his thumbs as they settled into the hollow at the base of his throat, and knowing Arthur was just as wrecked as he was made it easier for Merlin to be the one to lean forward. Arthur had started them and Merlin wanted to be sure Arthur knew he wanted them to continue.
The touch of Arthur’s lips was softer the second time, less rushed, but still nervous and crackling with the familiar energy of magic that had amazed Merlin before. He had never known his magic to draw him toward another person like it did with Arthur, it had never reached out for someone like it did for him. It wasn’t only Merlin himself that wanted Arthur, but his magic as well, all of him completely under Arthur’s hold. He was Arthur’s down to his very fiber, down to the very elements that made him alive, made him human.
He felt Arthur’s lips move against his own--tentative and curious, but wanting. Merlin let Arthur drink from his lips because he wanted to give him everything; the shivers that ran through him and the heat that slithered up his spine, all of it was for Arthur.
Though he was the slightest bit taller Merlin raised himself on his toes and sunk down into the kiss, letting himself fall against Arthur just so he could feel Arthur’s hands tighten at his waist before letting go and wrapping around him entirely. Merlin’s fingers tangled in the ends of Arthur’s hair at the nape of his neck as he tried to make the kiss last forever.
They were both so inexperienced and desperate for one another that they’d failed to take a breath and broke apart with mad, breathless laughter.
Arthur dropped his forehead to Merlin’s and his quick, heavy breaths rushed against Merlin’s face. Merlin managed a smile between breaths as he couldn’t stop stroking the side of Arthur’s face, couldn’t stop touching him now that he was so close.
Merlin pressed a kiss to the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “I’ve wanted--”
“Me too,” Arthur said before Merlin could even finish.
Merlin wrapped his arms around Arthur’s shoulders and pressed his face against Arthur’s neck as he hugged him tightly. He just wanted to hold onto him, to just stand there and have Arthur in his arms.
“I keep stopping myself from going because I don’t want to leave you,” Arthur said as he clung to Merlin, his voice rushed like he wanted to get everything out before his own fear could stop him. “Every morning I wake up and tell myself I want to find my way home, but then I look at you and I feel like I’m already home, that nothing could be better than where I am right now. But you frighten me because I don’t want to need you like I do.”
“There’s nothing wrong in needing someone,” Merlin said simply because he needed Arthur as well, in a way that felt elemental.
“I don’t need anyone,” Arthur said almost defiantly, the idea so ingrained in him that the words spilled out before he realized he had said them.
Merlin whispered Arthur’s name, and then, “There’s no weakness in needing.”
“I feel--” Arthur stopped and turned his eyes away from Merlin’s gaze. “I feel I should be elsewhere. That people are depending on me and I’m failing them somehow. I’m being selfish, staying here.”
Merlin sighed; he had been dreading Arthur feeling that way. When he had been in Camelot years ago he had let himself see past Arthur’s bluster and arrogance to see a boy terribly weighed down with the burden of his position. Though they had only met the once, and for mere seconds at that, Merlin had kept an eye on Arthur’s movements as Merlin stayed at Gauis’ side while he fulfilled his court duties. Merlin thought it only fanciful yearnings then, but remembered feeling a kindred soul in Arthur: a boy trapped within his own boundaries and blessed and cursed both with great power he didn’t yet know how to wield.
Merlin tipped Arthur’s chin up so he was once again looking him in the eyes. Looking at Arthur now, standing there in front of him, Merlin felt that perhaps what they were finding in one another was a long time coming. Maybe it had begun on that long ago day in Camelot and only now could they properly continue on.
“Everything will come right, Arthur. I promise.”
He had no right to make such a promise, but he did it anyway. He hoped that if he said it aloud it would become a truth.
He felt Arthur sag against him and he centered his palms on Arthur’s back and held him close. Arthur’s hands were warm at his waist and Merlin thought if only they could stay just as they were, and time could stop, they would be fine. Content in one another.
“For some reason I believe you. I don’t know why.” Arthur laughed a little at that, quietly, kindly. “But I do.”
Merlin pulled back a bit so he could look at Arthur. “And why wouldn’t you believe me? I’m nearly always right.”
“It’s the nearly that concerns me.”
Merlin smiled and kissed Arthur. “Don’t think about it,” he said once the kiss ended.
“So be willfully ignorant?”
“Exactly. You’ll be perfect at it.”
Arthur pinched Merlin’s sides and he let out a noise somewhere between a shout and a laugh as he ducked away from Arthur’s fingers. Arthur managed to get ahold of Merlin again and dragged him back to his side to cut Merlin’s laughter off with a kiss.
Merlin felt his heart thumping in his chest as he came alive under Arthur’s touch. With every kiss the belief he was meant to find Arthur, to stand by his side, grew. He had been having flashes of dreams the past several nights: of battles and knights and Arthur on the throne of Camelot. Merlin had never had such dreams before, it had to mean something. But they had been only flashes, brief moments that disappeared upon waking as most dreams did.
He wanted to know his purpose, and though he knew it was bound up in Arthur he didn’t yet know to what extent. Yes, there were battles and knights and thrones in Arthur’s future--such things were present in the lives of all kings--but how would Merlin fit into Arthur’s story? Would he stand by Arthur’s side?
As Arthur deepened the kiss and Merlin felt his magic continue to sing, he knew one thing for certain--his magic was meant for Arthur. He knew his mother would balk at the idea of him telling Arthur about it. Despite the fact that Arthur’s memories were lost to him he was still the Prince of Camelot and of a land where magic was banned, where those who were magic were burned at the stake. She would fight him tooth and nail and yet he hoped she would trust in him enough to see that what he did, he did with confidence.
Just as Arthur believed in Merlin, so too, did Merlin believe in him. Merlin couldn’t let himself believe that a man who could hold him, kiss him, laugh with him as Arthur did could condemn him to death. He knew one day Arthur would regain his memories, he had seen it in his dreams--Arthur seated on his throne--but with those memories Merlin wanted an understanding of magic in its truest form to permeate through them.
Merlin wanted to twist his magic into the very fiber of Arthur’s memory of his time in Ealdor, and of his time in a small cottage bearing a small family that loved him as their own. How could Arthur fail to see the good that magic could create when it was held by a boy who had kissed his lips and pledged to him his entire being?
If Merlin could tell Arthur of his magic, teach him its beauty, there would be hope for him and all of Camelot.
“Your eyes,” Arthur said, his voice lazy and slow as they came out of their kiss.
Merlin looked at him, but said nothing.
“I always think I see something. Sometimes they’re not blue.”
Merlin had suspected his eyes had taken on their golden hue when he kissed Arthur, the way his magic coursed through him made it obvious, but he had lingered too long over that last kiss and opened his eyes to find Arthur staring right back into them. And although he was going to tell Arthur about his magic he wasn’t prepared to do it then. He wanted to warn his mother, and he wanted to prepare himself so he could explain it properly without frightening or confusing Arthur.
He wasn’t quite sure how he’d perform such a miracle, but he did know he needed a bit more time.
“Trick of the light,” he said as he kissed the corner of Arthur’s mouth. “The sun peeking out from behind the clouds.”
Arthur gave him a strange look, and Merlin knew he didn’t believe him, but he kissed Arthur again and it no longer seemed to matter.
The afternoon itself, and the very woods around them, faded into the distance and Merlin knew what it was to live inside another, if only for a few fleeting hours. They were still clumsy and unsure, but they spent the hours kissing so they would become the opposite. Hours wiled away lying under a tree that was slowly turning to its autumn reds and golds, Merlin’s leg trapped between Arthur’s and their mouths barely parting, even as they talked and laughed between the kisses. Their fingers touching, finding their favorite paths to travel, until they became weighted--too heavy to do anything more than tuck themselves up against a chest, or a crook of an elbow, the small of a back.
When they had eaten all the food they had packed and the sun was sinking lower and lower in the sky Arthur dragged his lips away from Merlin’s and laughed as another slow blush worked itself over his skin. The entire afternoon was beset with moments of absolute comfort and absolute shyness, both. It was as if neither could quite believe they had done what they had, that they had touched and kissed and had finally given in to the pull that had kept them so tightly bound to one another from the very beginning.
There were moments of openness between them that made them brave, bold, and they said things and touched each other in ways that made them breathless. But there were moments when they still held back, could not quite ask for, or reach for, what it was they both wanted.
Merlin had felt Arthur’s hardness against him again and again, matching his own, but as one would press against the other they would move apart in shock and awkwardness. Merlin had spent the day feeling the heavy ache drive him mad with a desperate pleasure mixed with the pain of want.
He knew he couldn’t walk away from their day together that had been so full of revelations, of release, and of giving into the wanting of it all, without stepping past that one final barrier.
When Arthur rolled away from Merlin and acted as if to get up to gather their things, Merlin grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him back. Arthur laughed again, thinking it another joke, the desire for another kiss, which he willingly gave Merlin, but Merlin held him firmly and turned him onto his back.
Arthur gasped when Merlin moved a leg over him to straddle his hips and pressed down, holding Arthur’s hips in place so he couldn’t move away.
“Let me,” Merlin said, his hips already rolling against Arthur’s. “Please.”
Arthur’s fingers dug into Merlin’s knees and he shook his head. “Yes. Merlin--”
Merlin lowered himself until they were chest to chest and he could bury his face in Arthur’s neck and his fingers in his hair. Arthur’s breaths panted in Merlin’s ear as he bucked his hips up against Merlin as he rolled his own hips and pushed down into Arthur. Nothing more than desperate rubbing, heated and needy.
They had been so close to the edge already, spread across a day of feeling raw and exposed, that it took no time at all. The shock of the sudden wet heat spreading across the front of his breeches made Merlin’s face heat up and he kept it well tucked into Arthur’s neck. But his embarrassment faded almost as soon as it flared up when he realized Arthur was just as breathless. Merlin could taste the heat and the faint saltiness of Arthur’s slightly sweaty skin against his lips.
“I’ve made a mess, Merlin,” Arthur said in an oddly calm, straightforward way before he burst out into loud, shocked laughter.
Merlin raised himself up, his hand braced on either side of Arthur’s head, and looked down into his flushed face. Arthur’s eyes were wide with embarrassment, but Merlin could see the happiness behind it and he only waited for Arthur’s boyish rough and tumble pride to kick in.
Merlin didn’t have to wait long. When Arthur saw Merlin looking down at him his mouth turned up in an enormous grin. Merlin laughed and trailed his fingers over Arthur’s lips.
“Proud of yourself, are you?”
“Very.” Arthur’s voice tried for seriousness but the attempt didn’t last long before he laughed.
Merlin knew that he must have thought Arthur beautiful before that moment, but the force of it hit him more in that flash of laughter than in any other, and he wondered who had seen that laughter before him. What girl had felt that laughter rush at her, felt the warmth of that smile flow over her skin like water? Had there been boys before him, or was he the first?
He wanted to be the first.
A possessiveness Merlin had never known before surged through him as he bent down to crash his lips into Arthur’s. If he hadn’t been the first he wanted to be the last. He wanted to be the only one Arthur would remember, even after his life and his memories returned to him.
The kiss must have surprised Arthur because Merlin tasted the gasp of his name on Arthur’s lips and the clench of Arthur’s fingers at the small of his back.
When Merlin felt the fierceness of the moment start to wane, he drew out one last lingering kiss from Arthur and buried his face once again in Arthur’s neck. He felt the quick rise and fall of Arthur’s chest beneath his own as they both struggled to regain their breath.
“We’ll never get home if you keep kissing me like that,” Arthur said.
The word, ‘home’ sounded beautiful coming from Arthur’s mouth.
“Do you really want to go?” Merlin asked. “Wouldn’t you rather stay right here? Always?”
Arthur didn’t answer him immediately and Merlin wondered if he hadn’t misstepped, hadn’t gone too far.
“I’d build a cottage,” Arthur finally said, “with this tree right here.”
Merlin felt Arthur shift beneath him as he reached over his head to brush his fingers along the bark of the tree they were lying under.
“And you’d thatch the roof,” Arthur added and Merlin laughed.
Merlin got up on his elbows and looked down at Arthur. “Well if that’s the case then I’m afraid you’re going to get rained on because we’ll never have a roof.”
“Your aversion to roofs is confounding.”
“The grass and straw make me sneeze.”
“And so would the cold you’d get after a thorough soaking from the rain beating down on us through our poor, roofless home.”
“There’s just no pleasing you sometimes, is there?”
Merlin smiled against Arthur’s lips when he laughed and sat up enough to lean into Merlin for a kiss. After the kiss Arthur rolled out from underneath Merlin. When he got to his feet he held a hand out for Merlin to pull him up.
“So now it’s my fault you’re lazy?” Arthur asked as he kept his hold on Merlin’s hand.
“I don’t know who else’s fault it would be.”
Arthur laughed at that and bent down to pick up the sack that had held their food.
“Ever the logical one, Merlin,” he said as they started to walk back toward the village.
“It’s a good thing I found you then, isn’t it?”
Arthur looked at Merlin, a fond smile on his face, and said quietly, “A good thing indeed.”
“Where did the two of you get yourselves off to today?” Hunith asked.
“Just to the wood,” Merlin answered.
“Ah, just to the wood you were. The entire day wasted meandering about in the wood?” Hunith gave Merlin a knowing look and he blushed scarlet and turned away from her scrutiny.
“The food smells delicious, Hunith,” Arthur said a bit too loudly.
Hunith smiled at him. “Thank you, love. Sit down and eat.”
Merlin was mostly quiet as the three of them ate. Arthur kept Hunith busy asking her for gossip that she pretended not to know. Arthur was terribly good at getting it out of her though, and she spent the entire meal time telling them everything she knew.
Later on in the evening Merlin and Hunith took a quiet walk through Ealdor and left Arthur reading through one of the few books Merlin owned that had been given to him by Gaius. Arthur was completely fascinated by the book on herbs and medicinal remedies. Merlin teased him he was only after looking at the pictures, but Arthur surprised him by asking both Merlin and Hunith several thoughtful questions over the course of his reading. And he never once questioned the fact that Merlin even had the books at all, never once wondered how a boy from a village like Ealdor even knew how to read.
Merlin loved how Arthur could surprise him like that.
“Mum?” Merlin asked after they had walked quietly for a few minutes.
Hunith glanced over at him and hummed out a, “Yes?”
“Please don’t be angry, and hear me through to the end.”
“Conversations that begin that way never go well, Merlin.”
“I know, but it’s one we need to have.”
“I’m correct in thinking it’s about Arthur, aren’t I?”
“Do we talk of anything else since I brought him into our lives?” Merlin tried for levity but knew the speed with which Arthur had become the center of their lives was startling.
“Oh darling,” Hunith said as she hooked her arm through Merlin’s and pulled him closer to her side. “If only he wasn’t, all of this would be so much simpler.”
“I know, Mum. Sometimes I wish he weren’t as well.”
Hunith laughed quietly. “No, you don’t wish that at all. You’re bound to him now in a way I don’t think I can understand, but in one that I can see in your every action. You’re my son, and I know you. I know the passion within you, for all things, you burn bright with it. You always have. And I love that part of you so much even though I know that’s the part of you that will one day take you away from me.”
“Mum,” Merlin sighed. “I love you.”
“I know you do, as I love you.”
“I’m going to tell Arthur about my magic.”
Merlin’s voice was quiet and he wondered at first if Hunith heard him at all, but he knew she had when she stopped walking and sank down to the ground.
“Oh Merlin, no.”
“I have to tell him,” Merlin said as he knelt down on the ground in front of her. “I can feel it inside of me reaching out to him every time he’s near me. He needs to know.”
“But when they come for him, when he knows who he really is--” Hunith’s voice broke off on a sob.
“No harm will come to me.”
“How do you know that? How? Arthur is a son of Camelot, do you even know the horrors they’ve done there to people like you?”
“Mum, listen to me. You know Arthur isn’t like that.”
“He isn’t like that now,” Hunith’s voice was harsh, “because he doesn’t know.”
“And he’ll continue to be as he is even when he does know. The memories are gone but the core of him remains. You’ve seen the kind of person he is, you’ve seen it for weeks on end.”
“I have, and that’s why I’m paralyzed with fear.”
“How can you say that, Mum? How can you think so poorly of him?”
“Oh my love, can’t you see it’s just the opposite? He’s a beautiful, kind boy with a noble heart, but it’s that very thing that brings me fear. He shows absolute devotion to those he loves--”
“Yes, he does,” Merlin interrupted, “doesn’t that give you hope?”
“Uther is his father, Merlin. Arthur might love us, but he has spent years seeking out his father’s love and that will always outweigh those that come second.”
“No.” Merlin shook his head. “I don’t believe that. I don’t believe he’d put me second.”
Hunith took both of Merlin’s hands in her own. “Merlin, he has known you for mere weeks, and when his mind was not his own. He has loved his father all of his life.”
“You disregard his honor.” Merlin’s voice was quiet, disappointed. He couldn’t understand how his mother could disparage Arthur as she was.
“I don’t disregard it, don’t you see? Think of how he’ll struggle with the knowledge, with the decision. Do you want that for him?”
“Of course I don’t, but if he knows, if he truly knows he’ll see what magic can be. He’ll find a way to make things right.”
“I hope you’re right, love. I hope so much.”
Merlin squeezed Hunith’s hands. “Trust in me, trust in Arthur.”
“I will always trust in you, but I will also always fear for you. I can’t help myself.”
“I know, and I hate that what I’m doing frightens you as it does but this is something I need to do. I won’t feel whole if I don’t.”
“You know I’ll support you in whatever you do, but know, too, that I will worry for you every moment.”
“I would be disappointed if you didn’t,” Merlin said with a small, conciliatory smile.
Hunith pressed her hand to Merlin’s cheek. “When will you tell him?”
“As soon as possible,” Merlin answered. “As soon as I figure out how.”
“Sometimes simply saying it outright without any fuss at all is the best way.”
“Perhaps you’re right. I don’t know any other way to tell him.”
“You’ll find a way,” Hunith said. “You’ll find a way to defy me and defy the odds.”
“I always was a troublesome, contrary boy.” Merlin hoped his teasing would ease Hunith’s emotions.
“The worst possible boy a mother could imagine.” Hunith smiled and carded her fingers through his hair. “And I couldn’t be more lucky to call you my son.”
And Arthur. Golden as the magic that surrounded him, that sat to his right and to his left, and shielded him from all harm and evil.
Arthur looked at Merlin as though there was no one else, and it was Merlin alone that held all the answers he sought, held all the wisdom he needed.
Merlin smiled, took Arthur’s hand in his own, and said, “The King is right,” and at Arthur’s smug grin added, “but only in this matter, in every other he is still as wrong and as dimwitted as ever he was.”
Arthur’s laughter, and the rest of the table’s, rose up in a happy chorus and Merlin awoke; laughing.
Merlin was able to sneak away from Will long enough to find Arthur alone in the hayloft, covered head to toe in bits of straw and looking ridiculous and beautiful all at once. Arthur hadn’t noticed him climbing the ladder so Merlin took the opportunity to pounce.
Arthur let out a shriek of surprise when Merlin tackled him into a pile of loose hay. Merlin laughed and earned himself a good smack for his efforts.
“You’d beat a man who has come to kiss you?” Merlin asked as he sat straddling Arthur’s hips.
“If he deserves it, which he surely does.”
“So you claim.”
Merlin didn’t give Arthur any time to protest before his mouth was on Arthur’s and they were kissing as if they hadn’t seen one another in months.
They had been doing that lately, over the course of the past two days. Every time they saw one another there was a heat to their gazes, a desperation to reach out and touch, to kiss. And when they were able to do just that it was as if they couldn’t get enough, as if they never would. Each took of the other like it was their last taste. It left them crazed and breathless, exhilarated in a way that was new to them both. They never failed to look at one another when they would finally draw apart with a naked wonder that couldn’t be masked.
Arthur allowed Merlin to press him down into the pile of hay for only a moment before he grabbed at Merlin’s wrists and twisted them both until Merlin was on his back. Merlin laughed as he stretched himself out beneath Arthur and he grinned triumphantly. Merlin wasn’t going to let on that he hadn’t won much of anything since Merlin would willingly give in to Arthur when he kissed him as he did.
Merlin hooked his ankles over the backs of Arthur’s thighs and pushed up into him. Arthur moaned his pleasure against Merlin’s lips. It hadn’t taken them long to grow more bold with one another, to reach their hands out to touch where they wanted. Merlin felt he’d never be sated though, no matter how many hours, days, years he spent with Arthur wrapped around him.
As they kissed, and Arthur’s hand started trailing a path down Merlin’s front, they heard voices down below them and they jumped apart. Merlin laughed at the look on Arthur’s face, like a little boy caught where he shouldn’t be.
“Is that Merlin’s ridiculous laugh I hear up there?”
Merlin quickly straightened his tunic before he popped his head over the edge of the loft.
“Why is it mine that’s ridiculous? You sound like a braying donkey when you laugh, Mereck.”
The old man looked up at Merlin and grinned. “I’d take sounding like a donkey over giggling like a wee little girl.”
Merlin tossed a pile of hay down onto the top of Mereck’s head and the laughter that greeted the gesture did indeed sound like the braying of a donkey. Merlin looked back over his shoulder at Arthur and grinned.
“Did I hurt your poor feelings, Merlin?” Mereck teased.
“You did indeed. And I think an apology is in order.”
“An apology my arse,” Mereck huffed. “You’ll more likely get a swift kick to the backside for taking Arthur away from his work.”
“How do you know I’m not helping him?” Merlin asked.
Mereck snorted good-naturedly. “Helping? That’s about as likely as me growing a second head. Get down here with you now and let Arthur finish up.”
Arthur finally took it upon himself to pop his head over the side and attempt to defend Merlin’s honor.
“He was helping, Mereck, I swear it.”
“Likely story, that one.” Mereck waved his hand in Merlin’s direction. “And are you proud of yourself getting that young lad to lie on your behalf? You’re leading him down a path, Merlin.”
Merlin just laughed at the teasing as Arthur agreed, “He is a terrible influence.”
“See there, the lad agrees with me. Get your useless backside down here and leave him be.”
“Yes, your majesty,” Merlin said with a cheeky grin. Mereck just laughed again and waved at him as he walked back outside.
Once Mereck was out of sight Arthur laughed and grabbed Merlin around his middle and pulled him back onto the floor.
“There you go, getting me in trouble.” Arthur smiled down at Merlin, his eyes bright with unleashed laughter.
Merlin grinned back but he also reached up to touch the base of Arthur’s neck. “I’d like to get you into more trouble.”
Merlin watched as the pink flush blossomed across Arthur’s neck, seemingly spreading outward from where Merlin’s fingers touched him.
“I hope you do.” Arthur’s voice was a bit choked when he said it and Merlin’s insides warmed.
Merlin tugged at Arthur’s tunic and pulled him down into a quick, heated kiss before he scrambled back to his feet and over to the ladder.
“Tonight,” Merlin said. “I have something I want to tell you as well.”
Arthur smiled at him, his hair still a mess from when Merlin first tackled him to the floor.
“Tonight,” he agreed.
“Your mother takes care of so many people,” Arthur commented after Hunith had left. They had collapsed together on Merlin’s bed the moment the door closed behind her. “There’s so much kindness in her heart.”
“She’s the best person I know.”
“Your childhood must have been very happy.”
Merlin could detect a note of bitterness in Arthur’s voice and he wondered where that had come from.
“It was,” he agreed quietly.
Arthur looked him in the eyes. “That’s good. I’m glad of it. It’s good to feel so happy and so loved.”
And there it was, the lostness, the loneliness, Merlin sometimes saw in Arthur. He very rarely let it slip, but it was there in his eyes.
“You were loved too,” Merlin assured him. Though he was certain Uther loved his son he wasn’t certain he ever showed it.
“And now I’m loved as well,” Arthur said. “By you.”
Merlin’s heart beat against his chest like it wanted to escape his body, and he was just about to answer Arthur, tell him, ’Yes, you are,’ when he quickly spoke again.
“And by Hunith. Like you’re both my second family.”
Arthur’s face was flushed a deep pink and his eyes didn’t meet Merlin’s. Merlin could see the embarrassment wash over him and wanted, again, to reassure him, to make everything right for him.
“You are loved,” Merlin said what he had wanted to say before. “By my mother, like family, like a son.”
“And I love her like a mother.”
“But I,” Merlin said as he tangled his fingers in Arthur’s hair and forced Arthur to look at him once again. “do not love you like a brother.”
Something in Arthur’s eyes sparked and he said, “I do not love you like one, either.”
“I dream about us and I am always at your side. It feels right that you are my other half.”
“I love you like you’re the other half of me, and I know it’s too much for me to say, and too soon. I know that. I know it’s too much for you to take in, but tonight I’m only telling you the truth.”
Arthur kissed him then, and Merlin could feel the hunger in the kiss. The way Arthur opened up to him told him he felt it too, felt the same connection between them.
“I feel it too,” Arthur said. “I need to--”
“No, wait,” Merlin said as he pressed his fingers to Arthur’s mouth to stop him from speaking. “I need to say this first, so you know everything, and then you can decide what it is you want to say to me. It might change how you feel after I show you.”
Arthur sat up when Merlin pulled away from him and got up from the bed.
“Show me what?” he asked.
“This,” Merlin said as he turned to his side and lifted his hand toward the small fire which was just barely burning in the fireplace. Merlin whispered a word and it flared into new life from what had been its low, fading ashes.
Arthur looked up at him in confusion then turned his gaze to Merlin’s hand as it continued its sweep of the room. As his hand passed across them unlit candles ignited, and where there were no candles closer to the bed small, flickering flames appeared in the air completely independent of any source. Soon the room was alight with tiny flames.
Merlin let his hand slowly drop down to his side. He had kept a steady eye on Arthur as he had lit up the small cottage around him. Arthur had gone from slight confusion to complete disbelief within a mere moment, if Merlin had blinked he would have missed the change. He stood before Arthur in silence and watched the flames flicker around him, watched them light him up like a warm, golden sunrise. Merlin thought if that was to be the last sight of Arthur his eyes would ever possess it was a beautiful one to cling to.
He wasn’t going to speak until Arthur did. He didn’t want to press him one way or the other, although the waiting felt unending.
Arthur reached his fingers out towards one of the small, hovering flames near him but before he could touch it he drew his hand back.
“Will it burn me?” he asked. “Is it real?”
Merlin passed his own fingers through a flame. Arthur watched as Merlin’s fingers parted it for the just the briefest moment before it pulled itself back together and returned to the shape of a flame.
“It’s real,” Merlin answered, “but it won’t burn you.”
“How is that possible?”
“I don’t know. I bring the flame into being and wish for it not to burn.”
Arthur reached out then, all the way, and let his fingers break apart the flames around him.
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t always understand either, but I’m learning.”
Arthur let his hand drop down onto his lap as he looked up at Merlin.
“You have magic.”
“I’m magic, yes.”
“You said--you,” Arthur stumbled on his words a little. “You said you were learning. Someone is teaching you magic?”
“No, no one’s teaching me. I’ve always had magic, it’s only in the last few years that I’m learning how to control it.”
“It’s a thing to be controlled? It’s that wild?”
“Not wild, no.” Merlin ran his fingers through his hair, he was making a mess of everything. He knew it. “I didn’t mean control.”
“What did you mean then?”
“Before I started to learn the words, the spells, I would let my emotions fuel my magic. When I was very young it could get out of hand because I didn’t know any better. If I wanted something I had it in my hand even before I could do more than simply desire it on a whim. I didn’t know I was scaring the wits out of my mother, that I nearly drove her mad. Maybe it was wild then, I don’t know. There was a passion to it that I didn’t know how to wield.”
“Desire, passion--you make it sound like love.”
Merlin looked at Arthur then, really looked, because, yes, that was exactly it. Magic was love, and with only Merlin’s stumbling attempts at explanation to guide him Arthur had realized that. No wonder his magic yearned for Arthur as it did.
“Yes, like love,” Merlin whispered.
Arthur was quiet for a moment, all Merlin could hear was his own breathing and the thumping beat of his heart. He watched as, again, Arthur moved his fingers through the still flickering flames.
“There is a great danger to it then, isn’t there?” he asked as he slowly turned his eyes from the flames to Merlin.
Merlin wondered if maybe that was the moment he would lose Arthur. When the hatred that had been pressed into him as a prince of Camelot would rear its ugly head and sever him from Merlin forever. Uther’s everlasting lesson that magic was to be feared, exterminated, too deeply ingrained for Arthur to break free from.
“Yes,” Merlin answered. “As there is with all things worth having. And a beauty too. A fierce, endless beauty.”
Merlin moved his hand so one after the other the flames turned into tiny explosions of sparks, flaring from one color to the next. After the colors faded away Merlin let his hand drop back to his side as all turned quiet once again.
Arthur kept looking at him, his gaze far too steady, too intent, for Merlin to bear. He felt examined from the inside out, Arthur’s eyes boring into him and seeing into his very core. He felt naked and exposed, and yet he held firm, returned Arthur’s gaze and waited for him to decide their fate.
Merlin almost jumped when Arthur finally spoke.
“Like the way I love you.”
Merlin felt his throat tighten as he tried to swallow back a sob as a wave of emotion swept over him. He couldn’t speak, but he nodded and hoped Arthur knew that it meant, ’Yes, and like the way I love you.’
Arthur reached out for Merlin’s hand and when his fingers slipped around Merlin’s own he finally felt the breath returning to his lungs.
“I thought you might--” Merlin began, his voice rough, choked. “I thought it would change everything.”
“Of course it changes everything,” Arthur said. “You’re magic, and I have no idea what to do with you.”
Merlin laughed in relief at the confused wonder and amusement in Arthur’s voice.
“I’m still just Merlin.”
“Just Merlin?” Arthur laughed. “You made fire dance in front of me, I doubt you’re ‘just’ anything.”
“Be glad I didn’t set the roof afire like I did the last time I tried that spell.”
“You really do have an aversion to roofs. I can’t understand it.” Arthur shook his head and Merlin laughed as he sat down beside him.
“And one day I shall win the battle, just wait and see.”
“With magic I’ve no doubt you will.”
Merlin felt his heart stutter, just for a moment. The comment was benign in itself but Merlin knew what Uther preached about magic, about the terror of its ways, how it was used to gain ground and power against the will of others, and he wondered if there was something more lying beneath Arthur’s words.
“Magic can be a weapon, yes, but it’s much more than that,” Merlin said as he took Arthur’s hand. “I want to teach you what magic can be when held within the right hands, and the right heart.”
“But Merlin, the power you hold. You can conjure up fire from nothing at all.”
“What matters though is the way in which that power is used. I hope I can help you see that.”
Arthur looked at Merlin like he was considering something, taking his time in speaking his next thoughts. The words he said were like a balm to Merlin’s worry.
“I trust you.”
Merlin reached out and pressed his hand to the center of his back and whatever fatigue, whatever doubt was within them both disappeared at the touch. Their connection once again renewed them, breathed life back into their bodies.
When Arthur turned back to look at him his eyes shone, a brilliant source of light within his dirty, bloodstained face.
“We have won.” Arthur’s voice was tired, but triumphant, and Merlin slid his hand from the center of Arthur’s back to his nape. He slipped his fingers into the sweaty strands of hair. Arthur leaned into him and spoke once again. “You honor me in all you do and I thank you.”
Arthur’s voice choked on the words, the emotion finally seeping in, and Merlin stepped closer, pressed his chest to Arthur’s side. He knew he didn’t need to say it was his destiny to do so, to honor Arthur and the world they fought for, because Arthur knew. They had long since become one creature and few words were necessary when each felt the other’s emotions within his own breast.
But sometimes they still needed to be heard aloud.
“I will always be here.”
When Merlin awoke it was with a gasp of shock and a strangled sob, so real had the dream felt that he nearly wept with longing for the Arthur and Merlin they would become. They were still so new and had so very far to go, and Merlin wanted that feeling back. He wanted to feel Arthur’s heart beating inside his own chest as he had in the dream, he felt empty and alone absent it.
Merlin looked over the edge of his bed to see Arthur lying on the floor at his side, still sleeping peacefully unaware of all that was before him. Merlin was desperate to feel the touch of Arthur’s skin he had left in his dream, so he scrambled to the floor and slotted himself behind Arthur, wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in the nape of Arthur’s neck. He could feel Arthur startle awake and almost as instantly fall back asleep when he realized he was still safe.
Merlin held Arthur more tightly and wished he could control time, that he could speed up the world until he and Arthur had settled into one another and were whole.
Hunith looked back and forth between them as they all sat around the table in silence and broke their fast. Merlin gave her a small nod and a smile to indicate all was well despite the quiet. She still kept a wary eye on Arthur as he ate.
“Does anything need doing that can’t be put off until tomorrow?” Merlin asked Hunith.
“Are you trying to get out of a day’s work, Merlin?” Hunith teased as Arthur let out a quiet snort of laughter.
“No,” Merlin said. Though he tried to act offended he could only grin at his mother and Arthur. “I want to bring Arthur to the cave.”
Hunith seemed surprised by Merlin’s answer, but she shook her head. “No, there is nothing that cannot be done tomorrow.”
“The cave?” Arthur questioned.
Merlin smiled reassuringly. “It’s not. Remember, you trust me.”
Arthur’s eyes found Merlin’s as he answered, “I do.”
“Will and I used to come here,” Merlin said as he led Arthur into the mouth of the cave. “We would hide when there was work to be done.”
“Somehow I don’t find that at all surprising.”
Merlin looked back over his shoulder to find Arthur smiling at him and he grinned back.
“I know I’ve shocked you terribly.”
Arthur just chuckled and followed Merlin further into the cave. As the light from outside dimmed Merlin brought forth the same tiny flames he had the night before to light their way.
“I practice my magic here, where it’s safe.”
“Is it outlawed in your kingdom?”
Merlin shook his head. “No, magic users are free to practice here but that freedom comes with a cost.”
“I don’t understand.”
“If it’s known that you have magic it’s your duty to use it for the king.”
“Isn’t that how it should be?” Arthur asked.
“If the king were worthy of it,” Merlin said. “King Cenred is anything but. He abuses his magic users and they in turn abuse their magic. The magic they breed becomes evil and profane the longer they are under his rule. He defiles magic.”
“How can anyone fight against that kind of evil?”
“It may not seem so but I believe good will always win out in the end. I have to believe it because I believe in my magic.”
“Would you use your magic to serve someone you thought worthy?”
Merlin looked at Arthur: imagined him on his throne, brought forth the images of him Merlin had seen in his dreams, those beautiful and exhausting moments of glory.
“I would,” he answered. “I would give over all of my magic, everything within me, to him. Willingly.”
Arthur looked away from him suddenly and just before he did Merlin caught a look of shame in his eyes. Merlin reached out and grabbed Arthur’s hand.
“What is it?”
“I need to tell you,” Arthur started to speak but stopped. Merlin could see his thoughts warring inside of him.
“Tell me then.”
Merlin felt Arthur’s fingers tightened around his.
“I lied to you.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know who I am. I’ve known for weeks.”
Merlin dropped Arthur’s hand. “Your memory returned to you?”
“It came back in bits and pieces, slowly at first, but then in a rush, like a wave. I’m sure there are still things I don’t recall, but yes, it came back almost entirely.”
“If you knew--” Merlin’s voice trailed off as he looked at Arthur before gathering his thoughts and speaking again. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why did you stay?”
“I didn’t say anything because I wanted to stay. I wanted to stay with you, and your mother. I wanted to stay in Ealdor. For just a little bit longer.”
“But why? If you knew who you were why would you want to stay? You’re a prince--” Merlin’s voice caught on the word, ‘prince’.
“I know where my duties lie, and I love Camelot with all of my heart. I’m sure one day I will die for her, proudly, but I wanted to know what it was like to be ordinary, just for a little while.”
Merlin laughed, though it lacked humor. “As if you could ever be ordinary, even if you tried. You’re every inch a prince.”
“That is twice now you’ve called me a prince, but I never once said I was.”
“It seems we’ve both been lying.”
“You knew who I was?”
“I recognized you the moment I found you in those woods. I saw you once before, many years ago when I was in the care of my uncle, Gaius.”
“Gaius is your uncle?”
“I don’t think so, not really, but it is what I’ve always called him.”
“You’ve been to Camelot before?” Arthur seemed excited about that knowledge for some reason. “Did our paths cross?”
“How is it I don’t remember you? I can’t believe meeting you and not remembering.”
“You were fairly obnoxious. A bit of a prat, actually.”
“I wasn’t,” Arthur argued, though he seemed amused by the idea that he had been.
“You were. You sat upon your horse and looked down your royal nose at me. I thought you quite spoiled.” Merlin smiled at the look on Arthur’s face. “But beautiful too,” he added. “You confused me entirely.”
“Did you fall in love with me then?” Arthur teased him, but Merlin saw beyond that to the piece of Arthur that waited for his answer and yearned for it to be so.
“Maybe a little bit,” Merlin conceded, but before Arthur grew too pompous he said, “I think I was more in love with your horse though.”
Arthur looked at him in disbelief before breaking out into a loud bark of laughter, the kind Merlin loved, where he threw his head back and laughed wholeheartedly.
“You’re something else, Merlin,” he said once he was able to control his laughter. “I see I’ll forever be on my toes with you.”
Merlin latched onto the word, ‘forever’, and felt his heart pick up speed. The moment Arthur had confessed his memories had returned there was a piece of Merlin that worried that confession was part of Arthur’s goodbye, despite his belief they were meant to always be at each other’s sides. But now he made it sound as if it would be anything but a goodbye.
“Forever?” Merlin asked, and he cursed his voice for sounding so uncertain, so breakable.
Arthur heard the break in his voice though and Merlin wasn’t even able to draw in a shaky breath before Arthur had him by his biceps in a grip tight enough to bruise.
“You must know it is,” Arthur said, almost shaking Merlin to make his point.
“But you’re the Prince of Camelot and I’m magic, I know what becomes of people like me in your kingdom.”
Before Merlin knew it Arthur had shoved him away. He stumbled back but was able to catch himself before his back slammed against the cave wall.
“Why did you tell me that you were magic?” Arthur asked angrily. “Why did you reveal that to me if you knew and thought so lowly of me, thought I could do you harm? How could you put yourself in danger like that?”
“You’re a stupid, foolish boy, Merlin. You’ll get yourself killed playing so fast and loose with so little sense. How could you be so careless around someone as dangerous as me?”
Arthur’s voice echoed through the cave and Merlin felt his words bounce around him, hitting him again and again. But they didn’t pierce him as they ought to have done because he knew Arthur’s anger wasn’t his truth.
Merlin walked over to Arthur and grasped his wrists, forced him closer. Arthur half-heartedly fought him but when Merlin let go of his wrists to wrap his arms around Arthur he did the same in return.
“I told you because I trust you, as you trust me. I knew who you were, every moment you were with me, and I told you just the same because I’ve come to know your heart and what a good man you are and I willingly put myself in your hands.”
“Then how could you doubt me?”
“I don’t doubt you, Arthur. I don’t. I only thought I’d have more time to show you my magic before having to tell you that you’re meant to hate and fear it. And I was going to tell you, I was always going to tell you.”
“That you told me scares me,” Arthur said and Merlin could feel his fingers closing into fists at the small of his back, clutching at the cloth of his tunic. “So much harm could come to you.”
Merlin turned his head and pressed a kiss to Arthur’s neck, just below his ear. “I’m stronger than I look,” he whispered in Arthur’s ear.
“That doesn’t lessen my fear.”
Merlin understood Arthur completely, he felt the same way. Arthur had fought in battles and was well-trained, but Merlin still feared for him, for what he had seen in his dreams. Though they were victorious in those battles it did not mean they would always be so.
“I want to show you all the things I can do, all of my power, so you don’t need to fear for me any longer.”
“I already feel it though, whenever I hold you like this. You vibrate with it, and the way I warm to your touch like you’re a flame.”
Merlin tangled his fingers in Arthur’s hair and used his grip to pull Arthur into a hard kiss--fierce with longing and relief and the taste of the beginning of everything.
Arthur responded in kind and grabbed at the back of Merlin’s thighs to lift him up. Merlin’s back hit the cave wall as he wrapped his legs around Arthur’s hips. He was already hard and aching, his cock pressed against Arthur’s stomach as they kissed open-mouthed and gasping for breath to feed the burning.
“This,” Arthur said, “between us. I don’t understand it. I don’t know how--”
“It burned to life so quickly?” Merlin asked, his lips hovering over Arthur’s.
Arthur nodded but didn’t say more, only kissed Merlin again. And Merlin supposed there wasn’t really an answer to the question anyway. There was no explanation for the two of them unless immense words like fate and destiny were used.
The lights flickered around them as almost all of Merlin’s magic flew at Arthur, wrapped around him and pulled him closer. Merlin’s fingers tugged on Arthur’s tunic. They’d slipped underneath before, had felt the smooth heat of Arthur’s skin, but Merlin wanted it gone completely. He wanted his own gone as well so there was nothing between them, and he would know what it was like to feel that heat against his own skin.
Merlin unwrapped his legs from Arthur’s hips and dropped his feet back to the ground. Arthur stepped back just enough to get his own hands on the front of Merlin’s tunic and it was all fumbling hands and crossed arms until Merlin laughed and shoved him away so they could remove their own tunics.
Once Arthur’s was off, Merlin stepped up to him and laid his palms flat on his chest, feeling the warmth of him and the soft bristle of his chest hair. Merlin brushed his thumbs back and forth over Arthur’s skin as Arthur ran his own palms over Merlin’s bare arms to his shoulders and then his neck. Merlin leaned down and kissed the base of Arthur’s throat, then down his chest so his kisses followed the trail his fingers left behind as they explored Arthur.
Merlin dropped to his knees when the path of his fingers led him down to Arthur’s waist. He wrapped his arms around Arthur and pressed his face against Arthur’s hip, the skin taut beneath his lips. Merlin moved his hands over Arthur’s backside--firm and fitting fully in his hands as he held onto Arthur and moved until his lips brushed against the hardness of his cock. Arthur hunched over Merlin and gasped as he mouthed at it through his breeches. He choked out Merlin’s name when he pressed his face against Arthur’s cock and inhaled the scent of him.
“You’re driving me mad,” Arthur whispered as he tangled his fingers in Merlin’s hair.
Merlin leaned back to look up into his face. “Isn’t that the point?”
Arthur let out a short, surprised burst of laughter and dropped to his knees to kiss Merlin fast and hard, the taste of wanting in his mouth.
Merlin pulled away from Arthur’s kisses and stood up. “Come with me,” he said as he gathered up their tunics and then offered Arthur his hand.
Merlin led him even further into the cave until they came to a wide open cavern with a high ceiling. Arthur looked up in wonder as he took in the sights around him.
“I have all the things I need here,” Merlin said as he brought Arthur into the cavern to a small table laden with pots and the remainder of Merlin’s books that weren’t back at the cottage. “Gaius sent the books to my mother when your father--”
“When my father purged Camelot of magic,” Arthur finished for him.
“I won’t tell my father about Gaius.”
“I know you won’t,” Merlin said as he ran a reassuring hand down Arthur’s arm.
“I always wondered though, about Gaius. He seemed to know things others couldn’t explain. I wanted to ask him, so many times, but I never did. I didn’t want to put him in that position.”
“You wondered about magic, even though it was banned?”
“Of course I did, I doubt there’s a person in Camelot that doesn’t. The surest way to create interest in something is to ban it.”
“I just wondered,” Merlin said. “I’m curious about your life. I want to know, well, I want to know everything.”
Merlin ended with a small laugh which Arthur shared.
“Not nosy at all, are you Merlin?” Arthur teased.
“No, not even a little.”
Arthur laughed again at Merlin’s haughty response and moved closer to his side so he could lay a kiss against his neck.
“There are spells in this one,” Merlin said as he opened up a book and showed Arthur a page. “Others have medicinal remedies.”
“Like the one back at your home.”
Merlin smiled. “Exactly. There’s magic in those pages as well. Magic can heal, and that’s why I have so much faith in it. For all the harm it can do it can still heal that harm and that’s what I believe in.”
“My father, he has so much hate.” Arthur fingered the pages of the book in front of him. “I tried to feel the same but I just couldn’t. I don’t want to hate.”
Merlin turned and wrapped Arthur up in his arms. “You’re a good man, Arthur,” he whispered, his mouth against Arthur’s ear. “You aren’t any less of a son to your father for rejecting his hate.”
“I feel as though I am. I let him down by not being exactly what he wants.”
“You’re strong, in mind and spirit, you’ll make your own way and that strength of character will honor your father more than the weakness that comes to those that are easily led.”
Arthur looked at him, really looked. The wonder was clear in his eyes. “How do you have such faith in me? I’m barely able to have faith in myself.”
“I’ve been told I’m rather foolish by more than one person.”
“You’re the most foolish person I know.”
Merlin smiled because the way Arthur spoke it made it sound like his own version of a declaration of love. He hooked two of his fingers into the waist of Arthur’s trousers and tugged.
“Come here,” he whispered as he moved him toward a pallet that was tucked away against one of the walls of the cavern.
“You sleep here?” Arthur asked.
“Sometimes I lose track of the hours.”
Arthur followed Merlin down onto the pallet and laid himself at his side. Merlin hooked a leg over Arthur’s hip and pressed in close to him.
“I want to lose track of them again, with you.”
Arthur smiled at him as he laid his hand on Merlin’s neck and kissed him. It started slow, sweet, but they were both still charged and vibrating with energy from before and it wasn’t long until that same heat reignited.
Merlin rolled Arthur onto his back and stretched out over him, kissing him, his fingers almost scratching at Arthur as they tried to touch every piece of him. Arthur’s hands were on Merlin’s hips, pushing at his trousers and working them down his hips. Merlin drew in a sharp breath when Arthur’s hand slipped inside them and cupped his backside as he pushed up against him.
They had done that so many times, the moving and straining against one another until their releases offered some kind of breathless relief. But it was never enough. Merlin wanted all of Arthur.
Arthur was kissing a path across his neck, gripping his backside as they ground their hips together, when Merlin wrapped his hand around Arthur’s neck and tipped his head back so he’d look up at him.
Merlin looked down at Arthur until he held his gaze and when he had it he whispered his name. A flush worked its way down Arthur’s neck and across his chest and Merlin knew Arthur realized exactly what he meant.
Merlin sat back on his heels as he straddled Arthur’s hips and got to work on the ties of his breeches. Merlin’s fingers shook as he pulled them loose and moved off of Arthur so he could remove his boots first. He looked out of the corner of his eye as he felt Arthur shift beside him and saw him sit up to remove his own as well.
They were both silent, careful and shy next to each other, but Merlin could feel the warmth and energy fill the cavern around them. It was nearly too much and Merlin was thankful for the stone walls that held it so firmly in place, kept it all from bursting apart.
If it were any other time Merlin would have laughed at the way he and Arthur sat hunched over themselves, embarrassed of their own nakedness. And though Merlin wanted to see all of Arthur, to touch him and know his body like he did his own, it felt almost impossible to reach out across that last bit of space between them. He felt awkward, but powerful too, and he didn’t know exactly what to do with himself. Finally he had what he’d always wanted, the kind of love he knew he was made for, and the fear of what it all meant would have crushed him if not for the touch of Arthur’s fingers on his knee.
Merlin looked down to see where they met, Arthur’s fingers and his knee, the tentativeness of the touch and turning to look at Arthur and seeing the concentration on his face, his devotion. Merlin had never loved before like he did in that very moment. It was pure, and beautiful, and for all of his days Merlin would remember it as such.
Arthur’s fingers grew bolder and moved down to trail along the inside of Merlin’s thigh. The shock of the touch when his fingers wrapped around Merlin’s cock had him gasping and grabbing at Arthur’s wrist.
Merlin tried to control his breathing as he held onto Arthur’s wrist and moved with the up and down motion as Arthur stroked his cock. Merlin was unable to hold on when there were layers between them, the touch there but never quite real, it was impossible for him to last longer than a few strokes when it was skin on skin.
When Merlin cried out he felt the heat of his release against his bare skin and the press of Arthur’s lips at his temple; his quiet voice telling him it was all right, hushing him with a soothing shush, and his breath warm on his cheek.
Arthur turned his head and looked down at where his hand still held Merlin’s cock, their faces still close together, touching cheek to cheek, and Merlin angled his own head to press a kiss against Arthur’s skin. He didn’t care where, he only cared that he kissed him. Arthur’s hand never left him, kept stroking him slowly and getting slick with his seed.
“It’s like you were made for me.” Arthur’s voice was filled with a kind of wonder that made Merlin feel as if maybe he was. Maybe he’d been born to find Arthur. “Were you?” Arthur asked.
Arthur moved so he was looking at Merlin, could see his eyes, and though his question seemed in the realm of impossible the way he looked at Merlin made him think he really wanted to know. That Merlin could answer all the questions of the world for him.
Merlin nodded. “Yes. I think maybe I was.”
Arthur looked at him as if he had expected that answer all along, and it was that look that made Merlin pull Arthur down on top of him, made him move and stretch beneath him until Arthur was covering him completely. Chests, thighs, cocks--all naked heat and perfectly fitted to one another.
Arthur started rocking against Merlin, his hips moving into a rhythm, and Merlin let his legs fall apart, let Arthur fit himself between them. He felt Arthur’s cock slide against the underside of his own, felt it slip against his bollocks, and he lifted his hips until it brushed up against his opening and shivers ran up his spine in anticipation of what Arthur could do to him.
Merlin held his arm out at his side, reached toward the table where he knew there was a vial of oil that would smell of sandalwood and the sun on a hot summer’s day; that would smell like Arthur. When the vial hovered above the others on the table then slipped into the palm of Merlin’s hand he closed his fingers around it, letting the heat of his skin warm it.
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered as he pressed the vial into Arthur’s hand.
Arthur held onto both the vial and Merlin’s hand as he kissed him, hard and fast, like he was trying to reassure Merlin, and himself, that they’d be all right. Merlin kissed him back, hoping he knew no reassurance was needed, that Merlin had never been more certain.
“I’ve never been--” Arthur said in a choked voice. “Only women. I don’- -”
“I’ve never been with anyone at all.”
Arthur’s surprised puff of laughter made Merlin smile.
“We’re a pair then, aren’t we?”
Merlin touched his hand to Arthur’s cheek. “I think we’ll figure it out.”
Merlin put his hands on Arthur’s chest and guided him back until he was sitting on his heels between Merlin’s thighs. Merlin sat up as well and pulled the stopper from the vial Arthur held in his hand. He tipped some of the oil into his own palm and starting stroking Arthur’s cock.
Merlin was shocked by the heat, he had never expected Arthur to feel so hot to the touch and so solid in his hand. The angle was unfamiliar to Merlin, having never touched anyone but himself, and yet he understood then what Arthur had meant when he’d said it felt like Merlin was made for him. Merlin felt the same about Arthur. And the thought of how Arthur would feel inside of him, moving and filling him, made his bollocks tighten and his cock grow just as hard as it had been before Arthur had pulled his own release from him.
Arthur’s sharp, quick breaths were loud in Merlin’s ears mixed with his own. He felt so tightly coiled that he began to shake, unable to gain control of the adrenalin rushing through him.
“Your hand too,” Merlin said as he moved his slick fingers along Arthur’s.
Arthur poured some oil into his palm and Merlin was pleased to see his hands were an unsteady as his own. When Arthur was done he let the vial drop to the side of the pallet and Merlin watched as the oil spilled across the ground, the scent of it rising up around them, and he knew he’d never again be able to smell it without feeling the heaviness of desire fill his cock.
The touch of Arthur’s fingers under his bollocks, finding their way and just brushing against his opening, had Merlin lying back down. He felt his entire body stretch out, open up, for Arthur. He raised his hips up and the tip of Arthur’s finger slipped inside him. He almost pulled back from Arthur’s touch, from the shock of feeling Arthur inside him, and Arthur did pull his hand away as if he’d done something wrong.
“No, more,” Merlin gasped as he reached between his legs for Arthur’s hand, to guide him back.
When Arthur tried a second time he was bolder, slipped more of his finger inside, and Merlin arched beneath him. He felt himself stretch around Arthur, try to take him in further, but Arthur was surprisingly slow, patient, and Merlin thought it a kind of torture. He knew the slowness, the gentleness, was necessary that first time but it didn’t stop him from wanting to feel everything immediately.
Though Arthur was treading unfamiliar territory his touch was knowing, and Merlin wondered if he’d done the same with those women that had come before him, if Arthur had been slow and patient with them as well. Driving them mad, making their muscles strain and tremble in anticipation. Merlin cursed them for being before him, for having Arthur first and taking what wasn’t theirs to have, but he knew it was their bodies that had taught Arthur to touch as he did. It was the experience of them that made Arthur sure enough to move past awkwardness and fumbling even if Merlin’s body was a new world and an experience unto itself.
When Arthur eased a second finger inside him Merlin’s toes curled up, the muscles of his legs contracting, drawing them up. Merlin was constantly moving, writhing beneath Arthur’s touch. He closed his eyes to block out the sight of Arthur between his thighs with his kiss-bruised mouth and skin flushed and sweaty. Every touch, every feeling, was heightened, and Merlin stretched out his arm, felt his fingers move through the puddle of spilled oil at his side. He was on the brink of coming again and adding to the dried stickiness on his stomach from when Arthur had taken him in his hand. Arthur had three fingers inside him by then and he felt so open, slick and dripping with the oil that coated Arthur’s fingers.
Just when Merlin thought he’d have to cry out, would have to beg, Arthur pressed the tip of his cock against Merlin’s opening and slowly pushed inside. There was pain and Merlin gasped at it. It felt like an intrusion, so much more than Arthur’s fingers, and Arthur stilled his hips. Merlin felt his hesitation and the way he tried to soothe him, slowly stroking his hands over the backs of Merlin’s thighs.
But Merlin didn’t want him to stop; for all the pain and the frightening strangeness of it, there was a burn rooted deeply within him that started to grow, that ached for Arthur to fill him. He wanted Arthur to sink down into him because it felt like that would be the only thing that could sate him.
Merlin grasped at Arthur’s arms, the one hand slick with oil slipping along Arthur’s skin, to try to pull them away from soothing him so he could hook his legs around Arthur’s hips. So he could hold on and pull Arthur deeper inside of him.
Arthur’s arms came down on either side of Merlin and he wrapped his own arms around Arthur’s back, his fingers digging into the taut muscles and smooth skin. He let out a choked sob as Arthur sunk down into him, filled him completely as he stretched to accommodate him. Arthur whispered his name in question, wanting to know if he was fine, but Merlin only shook his head and held him more tightly, unable to speak in the intensity of the moment. He hoped Arthur knew how right it was, how right they were together.
Merlin rocked his hips with Arthur’s, but they were both so completely on edge that Arthur came almost immediately--quiet and shuddering, his mouth opened and gasping for breath against Merlin’s neck. Warm, wet heat filled him and Merlin kept moving his hips, thrusting up against Arthur in jagged, stuttered movements as he felt himself so close to his own release. So close to the relief from the tightness coiling and tickling inside him, that bottomless drop. When Arthur moved above him, just enough to rub his stomach against Merlin’s cock, it was all he needed to find his own release.
It was only after Merlin was able to calm the rapid thumping of his heart and steady his breathing that he noticed the small flames he had magicked to light the cavern had become huge flares of fire making the cavern almost impossibly bright and hot, like the walls were on fire around them. Merlin blinked at the brightness and buried his face in Arthur’s neck until he could better control the flames. Arthur didn’t say anything but Merlin felt him smile against the skin of his shoulder when the bright light dimmed around them and the air of the caved cooled.
Arthur started stroking his hand down Merlin’s side to his hip and back up again, over and over as he mouthed at Merlin’s shoulder. It felt like his skin was crackling under Arthur’s touch, raw and oversensitive, but he didn’t want Arthur to stop touching him. He reveled in the weight of Arthur on top of him, of the way the insides of his thighs burned from the stretch of them around Arthur’s hips. Arthur’s cock was still inside him and Merlin loved, too, the way he was slowly starting to move again, to push in and out of the wetness of his own release. His cock slick and Merlin open and too exhausted to come again.
There was a heaviness to all of his limbs, and a delicious carelessness to the way he felt. Lazy and unaware of how wrecked he must look, of the way Arthur’s seed was dripping out of him and over the cheeks of his backside as Arthur continued to fuck him. It felt forbidden and himself bold in defiance.
Merlin held onto Arthur’s backside and felt his muscles twitch and strain. He pressed kisses and the sound of Arthur’s name into his skin, bit down against it when Arthur cried out and filled him with more wet heat, his thighs sore and aching.
When Arthur pulled out of him he rubbed at Merlin’s thighs, kneaded them with his strong fingers, and Merlin wondered if Arthur could already read his thoughts. Merlin wondered, in the back of his mind, if he should maybe shy away from Arthur’s attention, play coy, when Arthur became fascinated with the way his seed leaked out of Merlin. But he didn’t. He only opened up his legs wider to Arthur’s curious gaze and searching fingers, and laughed out loud in pure joy when Arthur bit at his backside with a possessive little growl.
Still laughing, Merlin tangled his fingers in Arthur’s hair and pushed him back so he could lean up and kiss him. They tussled as they kissed and Arthur’s laughter quickly joined Merlin’s.
Merlin felt fiercely proud--of his love and what they had done.
Arthur flopped down onto his back beside Merlin. He reached above him and waved his fingers through one of the flames hovering above them and turned to smile at Merlin.
“These got a bit bright, didn’t they?” Arthur teased.
Merlin laughed again. “Maybe a little.”
“Has it ever reacted like before, your magic?”
Merlin dragged the back of his hand over Arthur’s chest.
“No, only for you.”
Merlin rolled to his side. He threaded his fingers through Arthur’s and whispered, ’éadlufu blæcern’. Between their palms grew a glowing light, its rays radiating out from between their loosely laced fingers.
“What did you say?”
“’Eadlufu blæcern’,” Merlin repeated. “It means love’s light.”
Arthur played with Merlin’s fingers, drew their hands apart so more light shone between them, then pressed them back together. Merlin stared at their linked hands, the way Arthur’s fingers slid through his own. Arthur’s long and strong, his own equally long but more slender. Merlin thought he might like to lie exactly where he was for the rest of his life; no worries or cares, only Arthur beside him.
Suddenly Arthur sat up beside Merlin, their hands still clasped together. Arthur made a point of examining Merlin’s hand; running his fingers across the palm, holding it flat between both of his own. He was quiet, contemplative, and Merlin waited for what he had to say.
“You said it was possible,” Arthur finally said, “to learn magic. You said you were learning yourself.”
“I did.” Merlin knew there was more to Arthur’s words than what he was saying.
“Could I-- Could you teach me? Can I learn magic?”
“That’s something you want?” Merlin was surprised by Arthur’s request.
Arthur nodded. “I think so, yes. I want to know what it feels like. I want to know that what my father says isn’t true because I look at you and I can’t believe any of it. I don’t believe it. But I need to know for myself.”
Merlin looked at Arthur and could see in front of him a very young boy caught between two worlds, not knowing to which one he belonged. He wanted to tell him he was of both worlds. Arthur was of wealth and wars and kingdoms, but he was also of earth and magic, and Merlin believed with his whole heart that one day Arthur would unite the two. Neither world could live independently of the other and Merlin knew the time of their union was coming.
“Is it even possible?” Arthur asked. “Do I have any magic in me at all?”
Merlin pressed his hand to Arthur’s naked chest, felt the heart beating inside and the magic beneath all of it. “You’re magic,” he said. “Without doubt.”
Arthur pulled Merlin’s hand from his chest to his lips and pressed a kiss against the palm.
“I know it’s there,” Merlin said. “It calls out to mine. It’s what brought me to your side in the woods that day. I knew I had to protect you, whatever the cost.”
“I don’t understand though. What makes me so special?”
Merlin smiled. “I don’t know either.” He laughed when Arthur quietly snorted at his answer. “I just know that you are.”
“Teach me then.”
Arthur was beautiful in his eagerness, still naked and wrecked and golden in the light of the cavern. Merlin reached out to him with his magic, let himself seek that same element which was inside Arthur. Merlin pulled Arthur’s hand to place it against the center of his chest and he did the same to Arthur.
“Magic is that feeling you have when you sense something and it comes to pass, when you fall in your dreams but never hit the ground--you fly and it’s the most natural thing in the world. When you feel that heat running through your body before a battle, all of that is magic. Close your eyes and breathe.”
Arthur did as Merlin told him and he watched him breathe in and out, felt the connection between their bodies. He doubted Arthur would be able to feel it as acutely as he did but he knew, in time, that Arthur would be able to draw on that connection just as easily as Merlin could.
“Think of me,” Merlin continued. “Think of what it felt like when we touched, when you moved inside of me. Direct all of that feeling into me, imagine it passing through your arm and out through the tips of your fingers into my chest. Into my heart.”
Arthur’s fingers flexed slightly against Merlin’s chest and Merlin covered them with his free hand.
“Fill me up with light.”
Arthur leaned forward though Merlin knew he was most likely unaware he did so. The flames flickered around their heads as Merlin felt the press of Arthur’s fingers grow more insistent.
“Say the words I said to you.”
“Eadlufu blæcern,” Arthur whispered.
My love. My light.
“Imagine that light growing stronger between us, and say it again.”
Arthur spoke it one more time and Merlin smiled, his hand clasping Arthur’s tightly, as a small glow grew between the two of them. It wasn’t as intense as the one Merlin had created, it never would be, but for Arthur to do it at all made Merlin ache with pride. That he was willing to open himself up showed what a noble man he would one day be.
“Open your eyes,” Merlin whispered.
“A rather pathetic attempt,” Arthur said with an amused smile.
Merlin leaned forward and kissed him, so guileless and unaware of what he had just done. He pressed his forehead against Arthur’s.
“Somehow I doubt you’ll ever bow down to me, Merlin.”
Merlin laughed, low and intimate. “No, you’re right, I doubt I ever will.”
They were quiet for a moment, Merlin gently nosing at Arthur’s face and making him smile. But as Arthur’s quiet stretched on Merlin wondered what he was thinking. Merlin leaned back so he could run his thumb down the center of Arthur’s forehead.
“What’s going on in there?”
Arthur looked up at him, his face serious. “Would you ever leave Ealdor?”
“It would be difficult.” Merlin took a breath and continued, hoping he was reading Arthur’s mind correctly. “But I could do it if it meant following you.”
“How could she when she knows where you’re going?”
“She trusts me to find my own way.”
“I don’t know if I can leave her, I don’t know how you could.” Arthur said it jokingly but Merlin knew there was a great deal of truth to what he had said. Arthur had found himself a mother in Hunith and wasn’t ready to leave her.
“She’ll miss you,” Merlin said as he carded his fingers through Arthur’s hair. “Maybe even more than she’ll miss me.”
Arthur laughed at that. “Hardly. Even with your aversion to work.”
Merlin gave Arthur’s arm a good, solid smack. “I’m not lazy.”
“So you say.” Arthur smiled.
Merlin pushed at Arthur’s face and he laughed. But as they grew quiet again Merlin wondered if he’d really been asked to go back to Camelot with Arthur. It didn’t seem possible.
“You really want me with you, in Camelot?” Merlin asked.
“I don’t think I could go back without you.”
“I know you could. You know where your duties lie. Your love for Camelot is too great.”
“But there would always be a piece of me missing, one that stayed behind in Ealdor. The one that makes me love. I don’t think I could love Camelot as well as I should without you within her walls.”
Merlin grasped the back of Arthur’s neck and dragged him in for a kiss. He wondered if he could tell Arthur without sounding like a mad lunatic that he’d never be without that piece, that he had already crawled inside him and set up home with no hope of leaving.
Arthur’s hand trailed across Merlin’s stomach as they kissed and soon Arthur muffled a laugh against his lips.
“You’re a mess.”
Merlin grinned. “And who was it that made me so?”
Merlin laughed at Arthur’s smug, pleased look, and Arthur grabbed Merlin to pull him down on top of him as he laid back. Merlin settled himself on Arthur’s chest, his elbows on either side of Arthur’s head.
“I think it’s my turn to make a mess of you,” Merlin said.
Arthur laughed and kissed Merlin.
“Do your worst,” he said.
She fed them and they went about their day as if nothing had changed. Merlin wondered at the mundanity of their actions; he couldn’t believe how any of them could walk about as if the entire world hadn’t rearranged itself over the course of a single day.
When Arthur went out to fetch wood for the fire Merlin turned to his mother.
“Arthur remembers who he is,” Merlin told her. “He has known for awhile.”
Hunith nodded and continued to knead the bread she had been making.
“You seem rather calm about it.”
“I suspected as much quite a few days ago. He slipped and mentioned Camelot. He wasn’t even aware he did it.”
Merlin looked up at her. “Why didn’t you say?”
“I assumed he had a reason. I didn’t want to push.”
“But why didn’t you tell me?”
Hunith smiled. “I thought I’d let you get there on your own. You’re always insisting that I trust you to know what’s best.”
Merlin made a face at her and she laughed.
They were quiet for awhile as Hunith kept at the bread, and the sound of Arthur chopping wood drifted through the open window.
“He has magic within him,” Merlin said quietly. “I taught him a spell and he did it, it was weak, but he was able to do it. The first time.” Merlin stopped and looked at Hunith, his eyes bright. “Do you remember how I used to try to teach Will and he could never do it, it never went right? Arthur, he-- The very first time, Mum.”
“When will you be leaving me?” Hunith asked, her voice calm.
Merlin looked at her in surprise. “How did you know?”
“I knew the night you brought him here. I was only counting the days.”
Merlin got up and wrapped his arms around Hunith. “I don’t want to leave you.”
“I know,” she said, “but you’re no longer meant for Ealdor. There’s nothing for it.”
Merlin leaned his forehead down against Hunith’s temple. “I’ll miss you. Every day.”
“And every day I’ll worry about you. Promise me you’ll be safe.”
“You know I can take care of myself,” Merlin said as he tightened his hold on her.
“I do know, but I’m your mother and I’ll worry. That’s my job.”
“Arthur will keep me safe, as I will him.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Honestly?” Merlin asked. “I don’t know. I guess we’ll have the walk to Camelot to figure something out.”
“I never did send another message to Gaius, so if your spell holds and keeps them off your track the two of you have as much time as you need.”
“Why didn’t you send word?”
Hunith shook her head. “When I saw the way you were with him I couldn’t bring myself to do it.”
Merlin pulled her into another hug. They stood quietly holding each other and when Merlin looked up he saw Arthur standing in the doorway watching them. Merlin reached out his hand for him and he set the wood he was holding down on the ground and walked into Merlin’s embrace. Hunith let out a surprised, pleased laugh when she felt Arthur’s arms wrap around her as well.
“My boys,” she whispered.
“I’ll keep him safe. I promise you, Hunith,” Arthur said.
Merlin leaned back at smiled at Hunith. “See, what did I tell you?”
“You’ll keep each other safe,” Hunith said as she pressed a kiss to Merlin’s cheek and turned so she could do the same to Arthur.
When their embrace was broken Arthur stayed close at her side. He reached out his hand and brushed his fingers over the sleeve of her dress.
“You could come with us,” he said.
Merlin could have cried at the way Arthur’s voice sounded suddenly very small and uncertain, but Hunith laughed, kindly, gently, and took his hand in hers.
“I think this is a journey meant only for the two of you.” When Arthur looked as if he would protest Hunith added, “You’ll always be welcome here, Ealdor is your second home now.” Hunith looked over her shoulder at Merlin. “And I have it under good authority that one day you’ll make this land yours and all of us will welcome our new king with open arms.”
Arthur’s cheeks reddened. “I think Merlin’s opinion of me is too grand at times.”
“Oh trust me,” Merlin said, “I still think you’re an idiot most of the time. There’s a reason I’m following you back to Camelot.”
Hunith and Merlin’s laughter rang out clear and happy when Arthur gave Merlin’s shoulder a good shove. Merlin was about to shove back but Hunith grabbed each of them by the hand before he could.
“Only happy thoughts today,” she said. “There’s much packing to do before you both go.”
Hunith spent the rest of what was left of the morning packing up Merlin’s things and enough food to last them for days. Arthur spent it making sure the cottage was in order and Hunith had everything she could possibly need as Merlin went to say his goodbyes to Will. Arthur gave his hand a tight squeeze before he left, knowing it would be difficult for Merlin to say what needed to be said.
“Tell him goodbye for me as well,” Arthur said quietly and Merlin nodded as he left him.
“You’re only going to make that worse, you know,” Merlin said from the open doorway.
“As if you could do any better.” Will scoffed.
“I happen to be an expert at mending socks.”
“Only because you--” Will’s voice trailed off as he wiggled his fingers.
“You do know I don’t do my magic like that, right?
Will just grunted and shrugged and Merlin laughed as he walked inside and sat down next to Will.
Will looked up from his mending and into Merlin’s eyes.
“Oh you silly, stupid gob.”
Merlin wanted to laugh but he felt the heat of tears prickling behind his eyes.
“Why couldn’t you find a nice, dumb boy like yourself here in Ealdor to fall in love with?”
Merlin did laugh then, but it was caught somewhere between a choke and a sob. “You knew?”
“Of course I did,” Will said, offended. “I’m your best mate, aren’t I? And I’m not an eejit.”
Merlin was so relieved he didn’t know how to respond other than to tease. “Are you sure about that last bit?”
Surprisingly Will laughed. “Well, I might have heard you and Alstan talking that night by the fire. But I’d have figured it out on my own. Eventually.”
Merlin laughed and leaned into Will’s side. “You are my best mate. And always will be.”
Will pushed his shoulder against Merlin’s and shoved him away. Merlin smiled at the familiar response--gruff but affectionate, as always.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you?” They had been silent for a moment or two and Will’s voice was quiet.
Merlin nodded, unable to say anything aloud. Will glanced at him briefly and gave Merlin a nod of his own; sad but resigned. When Will looked away they resorted back to the quiet.
As they sat Merlin thought about the life he had lived and all that he was leaving behind. It had been a quiet, small life, but it was his, and he had been loved. He wished he could put a spell on Will that would make his loss less acute, that would push him forward in his life; one filled with love--Wren and their children by his side all the days of his life. But there was no such spell so all Merlin could do was wish, and hope that his wish was strong enough to become reality.
Out of the quiet Will’s voice came again:
“Magda will miss you.”
Merlin burst out laughing, filled too full of love for Will to hold it inside, and pulled Will into a tight hug.
“Not that you’d expect good taste from a sheep with less wits than a sack of oats.” Will muttered, squashed beneath the ferocity of Merlin’s hug.
“I do love you, William,” Merlin said as he leaned into the hug and nearly toppled them both off the bench and onto the floor.
“Ack. Enough with that. Save it for your poncy prince,” Will said, but he gave Merlin a good, solid one-armed hug back.
“You could be my manservant, when we get back to Camelot,” Arthur said as he watched as Merlin helped him on with his vambraces. “You could always be with me that way.”
“As if I have the patience to wait on the likes of you.” Merlin grinned up at Arthur.
“Admittedly, you’d be the worst manservant ever, but I’d be willing to overlook that. Occasionally.”
“You just want me to wait on you hand and foot.” Merlin argued.
“The idea does have its appeal.”
Merlin yanked on Arthur’s vambrace and he laughed.
Hunith walked over to them and gave one sack to Arthur and the other to Merlin.
“That should see you through most of your journey,” she said as she pointed to the sack Arthur was holding. “And you can come back for your books and things later.”
They all knew she meant his magical things, those items he’d have to hide in Camelot.
“Gaius will have what I need.” Merlin tried for a smile but the moment overwhelmed him and he grabbed at Hunith for another hug.
“I love you, my sweet boy,” she said as she hugged him back.
“I love you too, Mum.”
“And you too, luv,” she said as she reached out for Arthur once she’d released Merlin from their hug.
Arthur dove at her and wrapped her up in a hug just as fierce as Merlin’s had been, so much so that he lifted her feet from the ground.
“Thank you, Hunith. For everything.”
Hunith only smiled and pressed her hand to his cheek.
“Off with you now,” she said as she gently pushed the two of them toward the door. “You have to get as much use out of the light of day as you can.”
Merlin couldn’t stand the thought of dragging it out any longer. He knew he had to leave then or he’d never be able to go.
At Arthur’s side Merlin walked away from the only home he had ever known; walked away from his mother, his best mate, and everything familiar in his world. The only thing that kept him steady was Arthur beside him and the knowledge that at the end of their journey they’d come to what was only the beginning of their true path together.
Merlin couldn’t stop himself from looking back though, one last time, to see his mother still standing beside their cottage watching them leave. He raised a hand in salute and she returned the gesture. When he turned away from her to stare ahead of him once more he knew she would stay exactly where she was until they disappeared from her sight, and somehow that made his steps easier, knowing his mother was watching over him.
“Will you teach me more, along the way?” Arthur asked once they were far enough away from Ealdor that they could manage to speak without choking.
Merlin knew exactly what Arthur meant. “Of course I will,” he answered as he looked over at Arthur.
A small smile crossed his face when Arthur quietly reached out and wiped away the silent tears that had been slipping over his cheeks since he had looked back at his mother that one final time.
“One day you’ll be able to teach me within Camelot’s walls.”
Merlin smiled truly then; the thought of the world he and Arthur would create within and outside Camelot’s walls filled his chest with hope. He reached out and wrapped his hand around the fingers that had wiped away his tears and looked at Arthur.
“You’ll be amazed by what we’ll create.”