Arthur is seven years old when he takes a sharpened blade from the armoury and stabs Merlin with it.
“Oh,” Merlin says, looking down at the bright red blood welling up beneath his hands.
Arthur’s eyes grow round with horror. He’d only wanted to show the skinny little peasant boy that he could handle a sword, he hadn’t meant to hurt him. Pursing his lips, he glares at Merlin, even as he staggers backwards with a pained whimper.
“It’s not my fault!” he protests, “you got in the way! Stop bleeding all over the floor, it’s only a scratch.”
But just saying it doesn’t seem to make it true, and Arthur gets a tight, panicky feeling like the one he gets when he knows his father will be disappointed with him, but about ten times worse. He turns and runs from the room, shouting for a servant to fetch Gaius, his father, anyone grown up who will be able to make this all better.
A little to the left and it could have punctured a vital organ, Gaius says. As it is, a foul-smelling poultice and a few strips of linen bandages take care of the wound, and Merlin will likely only have a small scar to show for it.
Uther is furious with Arthur, of course. Just because a peasant’s life isn’t worth much doesn’t mean he should be careless with it, is the upshot of the reprimand, as far as Arthur can work out. Said peasant has also apparently demonstrated remarkable bravery and stoicism in the face of injury, and as a reward for this (but also mostly as a lesson and a reminder to Arthur) Merlin and his mother are awarded positions in the royal household.
(Nobody asks whether they want to stay in Camelot, let alone take up positions in the royal household, and what this really teaches Arthur about the value of other people’s lives is debatable.)
When Arthur is ten, he rides out on his first mission accompanied by a handful of experienced knights, commanded by Sir Ector. And Merlin.
It’s not really an exciting mission. They’re there to supervise trade routes between Cenred’s kingdom and Camelot. Arthur has told the other squires he’s going to kill bandits. At least he is (finally) allowed a sword, even if it’s not a full sized one. Merlin keeps glancing warily at it.
Ealdor is Merlin’s home town, and Arthur watches with a strange sour feeling in the pit of his stomach as Merlin is the one greeted with shouts and claps on the back. It’s not envy. After all, it’s not as if he wants to be pinched on the cheek by a toothless old crone and told how much he’s grown, or clasped round the neck by some sweaty peasant boy with filthy hands. Really.
Arthur’s interest in the mission wanes as Sir Ector and the knights discuss grain yields with the peasants. He knows that it’s important that he learn about things that affect the kingdom’s prosperity, but right now he thinks he could learn more by looking at Merlin’s friend’s house.
“What’s this for?” he demands, as he pokes at a spindle.
“It’s for spinning wool. Sire,” Merlin says with a huffed sigh, while the peasant boy with filthy hands glares at him from the corner.
“You can call me Arthur if you like,” Arthur says magnanimously. Neither Merlin nor the sweaty peasant boy look impressed.
“Arthur, please don’t touch that,” Merlin says as Arthur pokes at some kind of gourd. Arthur scoffs. Really, if it’s survived having the peasant boy’s sweaty hands all over it, he’s hardly going to soil it, is he? “Do you want something to eat?” Merlin asks, an odd note of desperation in his voice. Arthur grins. That’s more like it.
He’s not very impressed by the pottage and doesn’t hesitate to say so. The sweaty peasant – Will, Arthur remembers and feels proud of himself for it – glowers even harder.
Merlin is thirteen when he hears about the dragon’s egg from a visiting traveller. He decides instantly that he has to find it. Of course when Arthur discovers him sneaking out of the castle in the dead of night, he decides instantly that he has to follow him and plague his life out.
Arthur is not very sneaky about sneaking out, wrapping himself in a hopelessly conspicuous dark blue cloak and insisting on bringing his sword.
And Merlin thought he was supposed to be the clumsy one. He wonders whether Arthur wants to get caught. Arthur’s confided in him before that his father the king only seems to notice him when he’s done something wrong.
Their quest takes them through a sacred grove. Merlin has to remind Arthur not to touch things, for goodness sake. He cringes at Arthur’s lack of respect for the traditions of the old religion. Of course he’s been brought up not to respect them, and this is Arthur’s problem: he spends half his time trying to rebel against his father and the other half desperate for his approval and following in his footsteps.
When they find the egg, they fight about what to do with it. Actually, physically fight, Arthur’s elbow in Merlin’s ribs and his face full of mud so he’s spluttering trying to breathe. Arthur has two deep scratches on his face and a horrible rash, because Merlin really hasn’t quite got the hang of using his magic for combat. He still isn’t entirely sure that’s what magic should be used for (not like Morgana secretly practising blasting at trees when she thinks no-one can see her out in the forest) but he lets his temper get the better of him sometimes.
Arthur sits back on his heels and grins at Merlin. Merlin blinks at him confused, chest still heaving with anger and indignation.
“You fight like a girl,” Arthur says, and Merlin is left with the distinct impression that this is Arthur’s way of saying he’s not only lost the fight but isn’t even a worthy opponent. He wonders idly whether Arthur has ever actually fought a girl, and thinks again of the smug look Morgana sported when she destroyed yet another target.
Despite this, Arthur lets him take the egg, and doesn’t even mention its existence to King Uther when they get back to Camelot, a little the worse for wear. Uther gives them both his patented stern glare which has grown men quaking in their boots but Arthur stands there, muddied and bedraggled and swaying a little on his feet from fatigue and remains resolutely silent.
Merlin thinks that something about his attitude towards Arthur shifts in that moment, even though he knows Arthur will be back to tormenting him within the week.
“Come on Merlin, what are you afraid of?”
It’s a hot day. Arthur is shirking patrol duties to go swimming in the lake with Leon, one of the newest knights and several of his associates. The water is blissfully cool. Merlin on the shore looks particularly flustered and Arthur thinks he’d benefit from a dip. He says all this, but Merlin only clutches his basket of freshly picked weeds closer to his chest and shakes his head mutely. Who knew he was so conscientious?
“I’ve got herbs to pick. Gaius will be expecting me back.”
Arthur wades closer to shore, until the water is only up to his waist. Merlin steps back until he’s backed up against the trunk of the willow tree which overhangs the lake. His gaze wide-eyed and wary as it lights on the water’s surface.
“What’s the matter, can’t you swim?” Arthur shakes his head sending water spraying everywhere, like a dog, and grins.
“Of course I can,” Merlin says, chin jutting up in defiance.
“What then, afraid you won’t measure up?” Arthur laughs and flexes his muscles. The tips of Merlin’s ears go a bright shade of pink. “Or are you really a girl under those peasant rags?”
Why is he pushing so hard? What does he care what Merlin’s got under his clothes, nothing he hasn’t seen before, anyway. Not like the time he and Leon peeked through the cracks of the stable door and saw Sir Bors with his latest conquest, Jenny the kitchen maid with her top off and her skirts around her waist. That had given him something to think about in the dark of the night. He finds himself wondering idly what Merlin thinks about when he pulls himself off. He’s seen him watching Morgana, sometimes, in the hall when he’s serving at dinner. The thought makes him irrationally angry, and he tells himself that it’s because she’s like a sister to him (although usually visiting lords choking on their own tongues and addressing their remarks to her increasingly expanding chest is hilarious). He narrows his eyes at Merlin, who is looking increasingly guilty and anxious, almost ready to accuse him of something.
“Come on, Arthur,” calls Leon from back in the lake, “what are you wasting time with that servant boy for anyway?”
Arthur feels suddenly embarrassed. He turns back to his friends, and the next time he looks towards the shore, Merlin is gone.
The Druids come to Camelot as part of a meeting of the five kingdoms. King Uther is still largely distrustful of magic, but the opportunity to host such an historic event takes precedence over his personal vendetta.
For Merlin it’s a golden opportunity to speak with other practitioners of magic, to hone his skills.
Arthur has other priorities.
“Lord that was tedious,” he says, snatching an apple from Merlin’s hand and biting into it. Merlin gives one of his put-upon sighs. “Druids have such long names, I can’t remember half of them.”
Merlin arches an eyebrow, thinking that the entire Druid contingent together probably don’t have so long a name as His Royal Highness Prince Arthur Uther Pendragon, Crown Prince of Camelot, Duke of Gedref and Lord of the Western Isles. But he keeps it to himself.
“Still,” Arthur reflects, through a mouthful of apple, “some of those Druid girls are…” he makes a crude gesture which Merlin takes to mean ‘attractive’. He’s not completely sure, he still hasn’t got the hang of all of Arthur’s gestures, especially the hunting ones. It could mean ‘skilled at needle threading’. Somehow he doubts that.
“I thought you were… you know, with Vivian.”
“I’m through with Five Kingdoms girls,” Arthur says, shrugging. “Druid girls, though. Bet they know a few tricks, eh?”
He smirks and punches Merlin hard on the arm. Merlin interprets this particular gesture as a sign of affection, but he’s not completely certain he’s got that right either.
In the end it’s not Arthur but Merlin who takes up with a Druid girl. Her name is Freya and she’s pretty and nice to talk to. She listens to all his complaints about Arthur, she smiles when he tries to conjure her strawberries but only manages rose petals and she kisses him softly on the mouth.
It’s after that kiss that Merlin realises something fundamental about the reason he’s never been all that interested when Arthur goes on and on about girls.
He takes Freya for a picnic by the lake, magics up a few butterflies which dance in formation and tells her that although he thinks she’s brilliant, he doesn’t really want to court her.
“I thought as much,” Freya says, with a significant look that Merlin doesn’t quite know how to interpret.
Merlin tells her that she’s only the second girl he’s ever kissed, although he’s not quite sure Gwen counts, since she kissed him and it was over so quickly. He tells her how great Gwen is and how she stood up to Arthur a few weeks ago after he was dismissive to one of the kitchen maids and made her cry.
“Arthur can be such a… a prat sometimes,” he says, viciously pulling up a clump of grass and twisting it in his hand.
“It sounds as though maybe somebody has feelings,” Freya says, in a sing song sort of a voice. Merlin shakes his head.
“Oh no, you’ve got the wrong idea. I don’t like Gwen like that.”
“That’s really not what I meant.”
“Oh, do you think Arthur and Gwen…? I suppose she would be good for him,” he says, wondering why he feels quite so forlorn.
“Merlin, I love you but sometimes I wonder whether the prophecies have got the right person,” Freya says, a little exasperated.
“That’s what I always thought about Arthur,” Merlin says. Freya clocks him around the head.
Two weeks and many feasts and speeches later, a new treaty is announced. Merlin hasn’t seen Arthur for a couple of days, which isn’t unusual, it’s not like he’s his personal servant or anything, much as Arthur may act like it sometimes.
Arthur is there in the throne room, standing by Uther’s side, looking utterly miserable. Merlin wants to ask him what’s wrong, but he’s no good at Arthur’s complicated hunting sign language, and anyway there aren’t really signs in Arthur’s hunting languages for feelings, it’s all just left, right, be quiet, stab something with a sword.
Arthur’s eyes find him anyway, and Merlin raises his eyebrows in question. Arthur shrugs almost imperceptibly and gives him a sad, tight-lipped smile.
“…and as a show of good will to our neighbours and to broaden his education, I am sending my only son, Arthur, to stay at the Mercian court for two years.”
Merlin doesn’t hear much beyond ‘two years’. There’s a strange sort of buzzing in his ears. Gwen has to elbow him when it’s time to leave the hall.
The worst of it is the rumours, which suggest that this has less to do with diplomacy and more to do with Arthur having been discovered engaged in some impropriety with the son of one of the visiting Druids.
“Don’t worry,” says Lady Morgana, cool and unruffled as they watch Arthur’s departure from the courtyard. “He’ll be back to using you as a training dummy again in no time.”
Merlin is too bewildered by how bereft he feels by the loss of his own personal bully to be startled at being addressed by her.
“You?” Arthur scoffs loudly as he looks at the tournament lists. He turns around to glare incredulously at Merlin.
“What?” Merlin says defensively, crossing his arms over his skinny chest. Arthur can’t imagine him in a tournament, even if it is a magic one. He’d fall over his own feet before started the first bout.
But then again, maybe not. In the few months since he’s been back, Arthur hasn’t been able to help noticing that Merlin isn’t exactly the skinny, clumsy boy he left behind. There is some definite... definition under that blue rag Merlin calls a tunic.
But of course Arthur doesn’t say this out loud. What he says is,
“What are you going to do, shower your opponents with flower petals? Give them donkey ears?” (At this, Merlin at least has the grace to look a little shame-faced) “Yes, don’t think I don’t know that was you.”
“I’m going to win, that’s what I’m going to do,” Merlin boasts. “I’ve been training hard under Alator.”
“I’ll bet you have,” Arthur says snidely. “I’ll bet you’ve been under him any opportunity you can get.”
“He’s older than your father,” Merlin says, aghast.
“Oh, so who was that I saw you with in the stables that time, then?”
And now they’ve come to the crux of it. The reason Arthur’s been so short with Merlin and Merlin’s been so prickly with him.
Stupidly, Arthur had thought that when he arrived home that Camelot would be much the same. That everybody would have been just the same, waiting with baited breath for his return, or at least pining away sadly. But instead he’s come back to find his father’s health failing and his foster sister leading the land into a new, happier, more tolerant era with magic regaining its footing. Leon who he used to shirk off to go swimming with is now in charge of the knights, Lancelot engaged to Guinevere, and worst of all he’d walked into the stables to see Merlin on his knees with some Druid’s cock in his mouth.
“What has that got to do with you?” Merlin demands. “Do you think I don’t know why you were sent away?”
(It had been because he’d been caught in the stables with his cock in some Druid’s mouth. Arthur isn’t entirely blind to his own hypocrisy, it’s just that this is Merlin, and Merlin shouldn’t be – should be – )
“Why can’t you just leave me alone?” Merlin pushes him, two hands against his chest. Arthur hadn’t realised he’d stepped so close. “Everything was fine until you got back. Can’t you see that this tournament is important to me? It’s about magic finally beginning to regain its rightful place in Camelot. Now you’re questioning all the magic rules, disrupting my training schedule with all your stupid questions, you frightened Daegal away with your stupid, relentless...”
“Oh was that his name?” Arthur interrupts, sneering. “Well if he’s that easily frightened, then he’s not the sort of – ”
“Arthur you threatened to have him thrown in the dungeons!”
“Well, I…” Arthur takes a step forward and Merlin pushes him again. Arthur grabs a fistful of his shirt, bunching it up in his fist. It comes to him that maybe it isn’t that difficult after all. That maybe it was Merlin he should have been fooling around with when they were seventeen. That maybe it was him Merlin should be fucking in the stables now. (Or a bed, even, they’re not seventeen anymore). That maybe Merlin had always been his for the asking, but that maybe it was too late now.
Oblivious to this epiphany, however, Merlin is still shouting,
“Is it just some sort of a joke to you? Arthur, I’m serious, would you – ” He twists ineffectually and his tunic rides up, exposing a silver sliver of skin on his ribcage.
“Wait,” Arthur interrupts, “is this mine?” He traces the scar with one curious, sword-callused finger. Merlin stills in his grip. Arthur can feel the increased rise and fall of his chest between his hands. Merlin shivers.
“Y-yes,” he says. Arthur finds himself tracing around the old scar, fascinated by the idea of his skin on Merlin’s skin. “Yes, Arthur, yours.” His voice is low and sure and it sends a tremor of desire through Arthur and he inches closer, pressing the whole line of his body against Merlin’s.
Their eyes meet and hold. They stare at one another for what feels like an age, catching their breath.
“Good, because I don’t like to share.”
“Me neither,” Merlin says, that defiant look in his eyes again and Arthur knows that this is how it will be, if they decide to do this. He will belong to Merlin just as surely as Merlin will belong to him. They will be equals or not at all. Merlin isn’t a shiny new sword to be taken up and cast away.
“Come on.” Arthur pulls him along, back to his chambers.
Nobody stops them or even asks where they are going, even though both of them should be training. There are some advantages to being the prince.
[Merlin and Arthur, 25]
Merlin has at least as many titles as Arthur, these days. There are the official ones, of course. Merlin is known as Lord Emrys, Dragonlord, and Court Advisor on Magical Affairs.
Then there are the titles that never leave the bedroom. Nobody but the two of them ever needs to know that Arthur in a slightly drunken lust fuelled haze took out his sword and dubbed Merlin the Grand Wizard of Cock Sucking. Or that Merlin had sulked for hours because “really, Arthur, the term is warlock, can’t you at least remember that?” And Arthur had had to prove his own prowess at the same act in order to coax him out of it.
Lying in bed, Merlin says,
“I was thinking of a new title for you, you know.”
“King of rimming? Chief spanker?”
Merlin smacks him lazily on the arm.
“How about High King of Albion?”
Arthur turns to him.
“Mmmm. Destiny, and all that.”
Arthur smiles. With Merlin at his side, nothing seems impossible.
“Go on then. Why not?”