There was a chill wind blowing in from the coast as Major Arthur Pendragon stepped off the coach at Camelot. Travelling post was not his idea of comfort, but after some of the conditions he had endured in France, even a threadbare cushion in a post-chaise seemed a luxury in comparison. He sighed as he shouldered his bag and walked along the coast path to the house. He had hoped his father might send a servant to meet him. Perhaps he had mistook the day or time, perhaps Arthur's letter had gone astray. He swallowed down his sense of misgiving, remembering how his father's letters had become more erratic of late.
It is a curious feeling to return to one's home after a long absence. Arthur could not help but wonder whether he would be as a stranger to his father, to Morgana, to their neighbours in the parish. Worse, he could not seem to shake the memories that assailed him of the last summer he had spent here. Everything around him from the hedgerows to the pebbled beach below seemed to conspire to remind him, when he had spent the past seven years doing everything in his power to forget.
His shoulder twinged as he reached up to ring the bell; each scar was a painful reminder that he was not the same impetuous young man who had left seven years and a half ago. He was a man grown, now, nearing thirty, battle hardened and world wise; a leader of men.
Arthur had expected that he might not recognise the servant who answered the bell, but he hadn't imagined that it would not be a servant at all. Morgana drew back the door and gave a gasp, before throwing her arms about his neck.
"Arthur!" she cried. Arthur inhaled deeply, savouring the familiar scent of violets and home. He felt a pang of relief that at least there was something unchanged. For a minute or more he was a boy again, home from school for the holidays, perhaps. When she drew back again the years rushed in on them. Arthur took in the lines around her eyes, the slight hardness to the twist of her mouth that had not been there, once. He knew that she saw the weariness in his face, the way he favoured his right shoulder, for she drew him into the parlour and rang for tea immediately.
"Where is father?" he asked, when the absence could be ignored no longer. Morgana sighed and clasped her hands in her lap.
"Arthur," she began, and he knew it could not be good news. "Uther has not been... quite himself, of late."
"I know that," he said, trying to temper the impatience in his voice.
"He has been becoming more and more erratic in his views, his actions. His spending – I have done my best to curb it, but there's no curbing Uther when he gets an idea into his head. I've had to dismiss half the servants, we're making do with just George and Cook, but – oh, Arthur, I fear we will lose the house."
Arthur started at this.
"His anti-magic rants, too, have been becoming more and more savage," she continued, shaking her head. "Just last week he kept the vicar here for upwards of half an hour practically frothing at the mouth – he believes there are French sorcerers hiding out on the beach. I half thought I ought to call for Doctor Gaius. I am so glad you're here, Arthur, perhaps you can talk some sense into him."
Arthur thought this unlikely. Of the two of them, it was always Morgana who had best been able to twist Uther Pendragon around her little finger, while Arthur bore the brunt of his heavy expectations. Morgana had been seven years old when she had come to stay with them after the deaths of her parents. Arthur had, after an initial period of wariness, long thought of his father's ward as a sister. It was only when he'd gone up to Oxford that he'd begun to understand that that was perhaps closer to the truth than he'd realised -- that Morgana was in fact Uther's natural daughter. He'd never confronted his father over his suspicions, nor had his father volunteered any such information. Of course he'd never spoken to Morgana about the possibility, but she was a clever and practical young woman, not overburdened with feminine delicacy; there was every possibility she'd worked it out for herself.
Uther himself appeared dressed for dinner, seeming overjoyed to see his son and not as unwell as Arthur had feared. He seemed older, more frail, white of hair and slow of gait, but hardly the madman Morgana had described. He asked Arthur a dozen questions about his last campaign, the prizes taken and promotions won. Arthur was at ease on the subject of his men and his equipment and talked at length, while Uther offered his opinions on the character and intelligence of the generals and how he himself would have organised the campaigns better to end the war sooner.
"I might invite one of my men here to dine next week, if that's no trouble to you, father. A Captain Smith, he lives nearby, in Ealdor."
"Captain Smith?" Uther frowned. "I wonder that we do not know him, if he lives so near. We do not dine with as many families as we used, but war rather limits one's social circle."
"Captain Smith won his promotion through the ranks, for extraordinary valour in combat, father."
"His father was not a gentleman, I take it? Has he any family?"
Elyan's father had been a blacksmith, but Arthur knew his father's tendency to set too much store by rank, and hardly thought it wise to mention the fact.
"He has an elder sister. Their mother died when he was still a boy and the father while we were in France."
Arthur did not feel it prudent to mention, either, that he had half made his mind up already to marry Elyan's sister, if she proved in person to be at least half as kind and sweet-tempered as her letters to Elyan indicated that she would be.
"Very well, very well. I know young people must have other young people to talk with," Uther said, waving a hand. "I suppose it won't do for you to call on Miss Smith before you call on the new neighbours, though. I don't know what the neighbourhood is coming to what with Smiths and dragons --"
"Dragons?" Arthur exclaimed.
"Yes. The new tenants in Tintagel House. The old baronet would be turning in his grave at the thought of dragons in his pastures."
"Uther, the dragons helped turn the tide against the French, everyone says so," Morgana said in an attempt to appease him. "Arthur, is it true that Napoleon surrendered to a Dragon Lord?"
"I – believe that is the case, yes," Arthur said, although the words left a sour taste in his mouth. He had his own reasons for mistrusting dragons.
"Anyway, you must pay your respects to the lady, I suppose. Morgana and I have visited, and she's genteel and well bred enough, if you overlook the magic. Elderly widow, don't recall the name. Some distant connection of Gaius', I believe."
"Lady Emrys, Uther," Morgana supplied.
Arthur dropped his fork with an audible clatter.
"Are you acquainted already, Arthur?" Uther's brows knit close as he regarded his son.
"N-no. Not with the lady herself. She had – has, I suppose – a son. He – sometimes visited with Gaius."
"Oh, that boy. You were rather fond of him, as I recall."
"I don't recollect that I was, particularly," Arthur said. "We were somewhat thrown together, that's all."
An obvious lie. He could feel Morgana's questioning gaze on his face. Of course, she knew nothing about what happened, she'd been away at school at the time. He hoped with all his heart that even now she would not divine that they had been anything more than former friends who had quarrelled.
"What was his name?" Uther asked.
"Merlin," Arthur said, hoping that his voice did not waver on a name he had not heard spoken aloud in seven years. "Merlin Ambrosius."
The first time Arthur Pendragon met Merlin Ambrosius, he found himself on the receiving end of some harsh words regarding his unseemly and ungentlemanly conduct. Just turned one and twenty, and in the company of some of the faster fellows from Corpus Christi, Arthur had been making some sport with the stable hand at the coaching inn who had muddled his instructions. Merlin, passing by, had paused to give Arthur a piece of his mind, while Arthur's traitorous friends sloped off. Arthur did not take kindly to being thus upbraided, and had some choice words to say about Merlin's parentage and claims to gentility. Merlin had answered that if Arthur was an example of a gentleman, he should be ashamed to call himself one.
The next day he discovered that not only was Merlin a gentleman, he was, in fact, one of higher rank than Arthur. For all the prejudices that existed around magic and dragons, a Dragon Lord was still a Lord, and even a Dragon Lord's heir, such as Merlin was, then, ranked higher even than a Pendragon. He enquired after Merlin's room and apologised, biting his cheek the whole time. He was taken aback when Merlin merely chastised him again, pointing out that his manners ought to be better with those he assumed were more lowly, that it was not right in a gentleman to go around lording it over those who could not answer back.
Arthur fumed throughout breakfast, and was mortified to discover that he and this impertinent personage were to be sharing a coach all the way to Camelot.
Cooling his heels in London while waiting for his discharge, Merlin Ambrosius, Lord Emrys, stared at the letter from his mother in disbelief.
I hope that you don't mind that I've gone ahead and signed the lease, my dear, but I wanted to have everything ready for your return. The pasture is perfect for the dragons, I am sure Aithusa will be happy here. And it is so convenient to be settled so near Gaius, who has already taken the liberty of introducing me in the neighbourhood. I find old Cl. Pendragon to be a reserved sort of man, but his daughter, or his ward, I believe, is a charming young lady.
I look forward to your arrival; be sure to send a telegram as soon as you are returned to England.
Your affectionate mother &etc
Lady Hunith Emrys
Camelot, of all places. Where everything, everything, would remind him of him. Merlin took comfort, at least, that there was no mention of the younger Mr. Pendragon. Most likely he had settled elsewhere. But if Arthur should visit. If he should be married, now, and bring his wife, perhaps children! Merlin did not think he could bear that.
At least it was only a lease. He felt sure his mother could be persuaded to give the place up by Michaelmas. He had enough money put by that he could suggest purchasing a property of his own, preferably somewhere in the North. Derbyshire was reckoned nice. Or perhaps Scotland. He wondered that Kilgarrah had agreed to the plan, although he knew the old dragon would not consider sparing Merlin a little pain and embarrassment if it suited his own purposes. He'd had enough pain in the past seven years to be wary of the dragon's counsel.
True, the war had brought glory to dragonkind in many ways, and the French summarily defeated, with no small reward for Merlin, personally, but whether this prize was worth all it had cost him, Merlin couldn't say.
His heart sank further as he re-read the letter and his notice fell on the words charming young lady. It was not as if he had not told his mother that he did not intend to marry. But few men wish to marry at nineteen, and older now and with some means, she might well expect him to have changed his mind. Or expect Miss Le Fay to change his mind for him. Merlin sighed. He loved his mother dearly, but how could he expect her to understand his feelings on this subject? He did not feel drawn to women, did not think he would be able to fulfill his duties as a husband. A widow, perhaps, with children, someone requiring only a comfortable home and companionship, happy to be left alone. But he would never be so cruel as to pretend love, and there was no question of him actually feeling it.
How could he, when he had never stopped loving Arthur?
On the day following his homecoming, Arthur managed to shut himself up in the library and review the family finances. They were, indeed, as Morgana had intimated, in a somewhat dire state. Arthur himself was possessed of sufficient income for his own needs, and was happy to do what he could to save the family home. But he was wary, knowing his father's current state of mind, of putting too much capital at his father's disposal. The solution, arrived at in furious whispers between Arthur and his sister, and presented later to their father in the most persuasive light, was that they should shut up the house, dismiss the remaining servants (except George and Cook, who were indispensible) and spend the season at Avalon. Arthur very carefully avoided too much mention of money when discussing the matter with his father, whose pride would hardly allow him to retrench publically. It was presented instead as being for the good of his health, the waters at Avalon being most beneficial for those of an rheumatic disposition.
Arthur was glad for his own reasons not to be staying too long in the neighbourhood. It would be three weeks at most, greatly reducing the chances of his having to spend more than an half hour's visit in the company of Merlin's mother.
It was the third day after his return that Arthur went along with Morgana to pay a visit to Lady Emrys. The house at least had no association with his memories of Merlin; back then Merlin had stayed with Dr. Gaius.
"You seem agitated," Morgana observed, as they approached the front of the house. They had taken advantage of the fine weather and decided to walk, rather than have George go to the trouble of hitching up the horses.
"Not in the least, I assure you," Arthur returned. "I only wonder whether I can remember my society manners, having spent so long among soldiers."
"Pssh," Morgana returned, "I do not believe you ever had any manners, Arthur."
They were kept waiting in the front hall long enough that Arthur began to hope the lady of the house was not at home, but eventually they were shown into the parlour.
Lady Emrys, Merlin's mother, was a quiet, unassuming woman, warm in her welcome and solicitous in her enquiries after their father. She offered them tea, and asked about Arthur's time in France as though she were really interested. She seemed more knowledgeable and practical about the realities of war than he had imagined possible in a woman, and a Lady at that.
"You have a son in the Dragon Corps, I understand, Lady Emrys?" Morgana enquired. Arthur would have kicked her if he thought he could have gotten away with it.
"Yes," Lady Emrys practically glowed at the mention of him. She spoke of her son with affection and a mother's pride. Arthur found he was able to bear hearing his name without flinching, and found, too, that he was quite unable to blame or resent the mother for the son's past actions.
"And will he be coming to visit you?" Morgana asked, all innocence.
"Indeed. He has received his discharge and is concluding some business with the Druid Council. I expect him by the end of the week."
Arthur felt justified in feeling a good deal of pride that his hand wavered not at all, even though it tightened imperceptibly on the handle of his tea cup. Still, he calculated, Merlin would likely not arrive before Saturday at the earliest, and the Pendragons would be quitting the place entirely by Thursday next. It wasn't likely their paths would cross at all.
"It will be nice for him to have some society his own age," Lady Emrys ventured, with such affectionate sincerity that Arthur was almost sorry to have to disappoint her.
"I'm afraid Miss Le Fay and I will be accompanying my father to Avalon for a stay of some duration. He has been recommended a course of the waters there."
"Oh that is a pity. Still, I'm sure there will be other opportunities for you to meet."
Not if I can help it, Arthur thought to himself.
Dr. Gaius was well known to the Pendragons and of course he was encouraged to bring his young charge along with him when he visited. To begin with Uther was impressed and distrustful of him in equal measure – he made no secret of his dislike for magic, even then, but the title went some way to mollify him. After their initial meeting Uther took no notice of him whatsoever, insisting that Arthur find some way to amuse the boy.
Arthur had no wish to amuse him. At first it seemed the feeling was entirely mutual. Merlin disliked hunting and country sports, preferring music and spending time with his dragons. He had opinions on everything from poetry to political topics that were decidedly at odds with the views Arthur had been taught to cultivate. Their every conversation left Arthur feeling angry and inadequate and full of self doubt where he had always been proud and self-assured. Merlin was quite unlike any other fellow of his acquaintance.
Their early acquaintance was marked by disagreements, sometimes quite fierce, although neither could fully explain to himself just why the other got so under his skin, every time. After one particularly heated debate, Arthur had found himself with his hand curled around the lapel of Merlin's jacket, almost pressed against him, their breathing ragged and eyes dark with some unnameable emotion, and felt that he was in danger of more than one sort.
The Smiths were their next port of call. Elyan Smith greeted Arthur with a laugh and a handshake before introducing his sister, Guinevere. Arthur bowed and said he was charmed to make her acquaintance. She gave him an assessing look, as if trying to determine whether there was anything genuine beneath the veneer of manners. Arthur liked her for that; he'd met his fair share of silly, simpering girls who sighed over his scarlet coat and made no effort to get to know the man beneath. He'd all but made up his mind to marry, and someone gentle and sensible would suit him very well.
Half an hour's chat, even about the most inconsequential things, only served to cement his initial impressions of Miss Smith's general charms.
With the house about to be shut up and all the furniture covered, it was hardly appropriate to invite them to dine, after all, and Arthur conveyed his (and his father's) apologies. Elyan countered with an offer of his own, for Arthur to stay on for a couple of weeks as their guest. Arthur demurred at first -- he had meant to quit the county entirely, not least to avoid any encounter with Merlin Ambrosius.
"But your father can spare you a little longer, I'm sure. I've invited Lieutenant Du Lac, he's arriving next week, you'll stay long enough to meet with him at least?"
Elyan would brook no refusal, it seemed, and if Arthur had any plans of being in a position to make a proposition of his own before the year was out, he ought to spend some time getting to know his friend's sister, at least, to be sure they were compatible – and to win her heart, if it proved that they were. But with his father's health failing --
"We can do very well out with you for another week or so," Morgana insisted, hitting him on the arm with her fan with surprising force. "We've managed for the last seven years with only quite infrequent visits."
"No buts," she said, smiling, "I'm sure the company will do you the world of good." She smiled – almost a smirk – with a pointed glance in Miss Smith's direction. It seemed his sister's hopes were aligned with his own on that score.
Arthur gave in with a bow, taking comfort in the thought that it was unlikely that the Smiths and the Emryses would move in the same circles.
Arthur rode up to Avalon on the following day to arrange everything for their accommodation there, somewhere respectable but not extravagant. He secured them some suitable rooms, close enough to the amenities to make it possible to walk, but not in the liveliest part of town. Once his own marriage was secured, he ought to start thinking about looking for a suitable match for Morgana. She was not a Pendragon, but she ought to be able to marry well enough – she was clever as well as beautiful. And it would not suit her at all to become a nursemaid to their father in his old age. It struck Arthur for the first time that he had been rather selfish in not making more of an effort these past few years, despite his other duties – Uther would hardly have introduced Morgana in society with his declining health, and she must have lacked sorely for companionship among people her own age. This move to Avalon would be the best thing for all of them, he felt sure.
Arthur urged his horse, Excalibur, into a canter as they came back into the village along the coast path. He found he was rather enjoying the wind in his hair, the smell of the sea breeze. He couldn't help wondering if this was what flying felt like.
Just then an unexpected gust of wind caused Excalibur to rear up. Arthur patted her neck soothingly.
"Easy there," he said, unable at first to discover what it was that had so spooked his mount. A dark shadow passing over caused him to look up and out to sea. There, a blinding white flash above the blue of the ocean was what could only be a dragon. He had seen dragons in flight but rarely, and it was a sight to behold, whatever his personal feelings on the creatures and the ways in which they could lie and manipulate for their own gain. There was a rider on the dragon's back, a sight rarer still, visible from this distance only as a blue coat on a thin frame with a shock of black hair made wild by the sea breeze. Arthur felt a pang in his gut, the ache from an old wound, thinking of a similar encounter seven years before.
A long walk along the coast was not at all an unsuitable afternoon's occupation for two young men, and Merlin and Arthur walked together frequently. They climbed hills and clambered down to the shore, skimming stones into the water and laughing like truanting schoolboys. Merlin talked about his dragons and his hopes of one day having his own farm to rear them. Arthur talked of his military ambitions, the life of an idle gentleman had never appealed to him, even had it been a possibiity on his more modest means. He talked to Merlin about things he had never discussed with anyone, how he longed to please his father, how he missed his mother, his suspicions about his Morgana's true parentage.
On one occasion Merlin brought one of his dragon, a grizzled old green-scaled creature, and flown around the coastline as Arthur watched from the shore.
He swooped in to land on the damp sand with a triumphant flourish.
"You're mad," Arthur said, but he was grinning even as he shook his head. Merlin was grinning, too, as he dismounted, shaking his windswept hair into place.
"They won't be ridden by just anyone. Kilgarrah here delights in telling me he's no pack mule. Still, we must be ready, should we be called upon. It's not just you soldiers who have to practise manouevres you know."
Kilgarrah harrumphed loudly and glared at Arthur with his beady eyes. Then, without warning, turned around and took off once more with a tremendous beating of wings. Merlin seemed unconcerned by his dragon's desertion as he unbuckled the harness from around his middle and straightened his cravat, and Arthur said as much.
"He's not 'my' dragon," Merlin snorted. "Dragons don't belong to anyone. They're not cattle. But they will work with a handler if they choose, and they must obey the command of a Dragon Lord. It's more than just a title, you know."
Arthur, whose magical education had been somewhat lacking, did not know, but he soaked up all the knowledge Merlin was willing to impart like an eager sponge. He wasn't sure when and how he'd progressed from being irritated by Merlin, to tolerating him, to admiring him. It seemed to have happened so fast, there didn't seem to be a time when he had not known Merlin. Had not admired him.
"Has Aithusa settled in with the others?" Lady Hunith Emrys asked as her son joined her for dinner.
"Perfectly well, thank you mother," Merlin replied. He was dressed in the latest fashion, procured while in London. He'd never been a dandy, but he'd always had a weakness for silk cravats, and had indulged his tastes to his heart's content in the capital.
"Is it not an ideal location?"
"The house is lovely. And the grounds very suitable," Merlin said carefully. He hoped to persuade his mother of the disadvantages of their tenancy without revealing the true reasons for his discontent.
"What then?" He should have known his mother would know right away that something was amiss. "Is it the society? You think it will be confined? It is a shame, indeed, that the Pendragons are removing to Avalon so soon, but --"
"I'm sorry, mother, what did you say?"
"The Pendragons gone off to Avalon. Mr. Pendragon is quite unwell, or so I hear."
Merlin's heart clenched painfully until he realised that of course it must be the elder Mr. Pendragon to whom his mother referred.
"That is unfortunate," Merlin said, politely, although in truth he felt no small measure of relief that their meeting had been indefinitely postponed. A weight that had settled on his chest when he'd first read his mother's letter eased somewhat and he sat back in his chair, taking a large sip of his brandy.
"I know Camelot is a little isolated, but it's an easy distance to Avalon, should we have need of a larger town, and London is not so great a distance as all that. Besides, it is really beautiful country around here."
Merlin could not but agree to the beauty of the countryside. He had thoroughly enjoyed his flight with Aithusa along the coastline; although it had been tinged with some sadness at his memories of his last summer with Arthur. He had been overcome enough to imagine he had seen the figure of his former lover by the cliff as he'd circled overhead.
On his mother's advice Merlin headed out on the next day of fine weather to explore the countryside by more conventional means (that is to say, on horseback). He'd gotten as far as the woods a little way beyond Camelot when his horse had been spooked by a snake in the undergrowth and stumbled. Fortunately it seemed there was no damage done – to the animal at least. The same could not be said of his blue coat, unfortunately. Merlin brushed the worst of the mud off and headed back towards the road.
He hadn't got far when he heard a shout,
Merlin turned to see a party of walkers beckoning him over. Merlin nodded to the slim, serious looking young man with the military bearing who approached him.
"Sorry to trouble you, sir, but my sister has injured her ankle and cannot walk any further. Might I trouble you for the use of your horse for an hour? I can compensate you for your time, of course."
The man looked embarrassed to have to ask, but his quick glance back at the lady behind him – presumably the sister – showed his obvious concern for her welfare. At the mention of payment Merlin recalled the state of his clothes and coughed with embarrassment.
"That won't be necessary," Merlin assured him. "I'm happy to provide any assistance to the lady, of course. You must forgive my appearance, I'm afraid my horse took a tumble in the mud. Merlin Ambrosius, at your service."
"I beg your pardon. My name is Smith, Captain Elyan Smith. If you'll allow me to introduce my companions?"
"But of course." Merlin led his horse over to where Captain Smith's sister stood with a fair-haired man with a Bedford crop, who had his arm about her waist. The man looked up at their approach and Merlin felt suddenly as though all the breath had been knocked from his body.
"Captain Pendragon!" Merlin's throat felt dry as he greeted him. "But no – it's Major Pendragon now, is it not?" He almost wished it unsaid again the next moment, unwilling for Arthur to know that he had followed his career so closely – that he knew every command he had been given, every promotion he had won.
"Lord Emrys," Arthur acknowledged, apparently unruffled by this unexpected reunion. His eyes flickered over Merlin's form, taking in his bedraggled appearance. Merlin had never felt more mortified in his life. He saw the way Arthur's arm was still about the lady's waist and wondered whether it would have been possible for them to meet under less favourable circumstances. They must be engaged at the least, he supposed. Wishing to avoid any confirmation of his suspicion, Merlin turned to bow to the lady.
"You must allow my horse to do you the honour of escorting you home," he said, feigning a jocularity he most assuredly did not feel. "I assure you he is in a cleaner condition than his owner, at present."
"Thank you, sir," she said, sincerely.
Merlin held out his arm and between himself and Arthur they had her seated side saddle on the horse. Merlin was entirely indifferent to having the palm of his hand pressed against a lady's back, but the brush of Arthur's fingers against his arm, even gloved as they were, was a different story. It could not have been intentional. Merlin was no stranger to living and working in close quarters with other men, and would hardly have noticed such contact with any of his friends. But he could still remember as though it had been branded into his consciousness just how Arthur's hand felt on his skin with no barrier between them, how Arthur's hand felt on his – He stepped back, flustered, and focussed his attention on leading the horse and following Captain Smith's directions. Arthur hung back and remained in conversation with the lady. Merlin realised that he still did not know whether she went by Miss Smith or Mrs Pendragon but was too afraid of the answer to risk the question.
Everything in him longed to turn around and let his eyes drink their fill of Arthur, but it was impossible. He knew he could hardly bear to see the affection in Arthur's eyes bestowed on another, or see the inevitable indifference in them when turned in Merlin's direction, and he hardly trusted himself to keep his own secret hidden. The journey was utterly wretched. As the gates of a modest but respectable house rose into view, Merlin thought it the most welcome sight he had seen in his life, excluding the cavalry who had gotten him and Aithusa out of a tight spot in Nantes.
His dreams of a swift leave-taking however were dashed. Captain Smith and his sister were most effusive with their gratitude, and while Smith thankfully made no further attempt to offer monetary renumeration for his horse's service, he was most insistent that Merlin do them the honour of dining with them the following evening. Merlin's gaze flickered involuntarily to Arthur, knowing that he would be as loath for them to dine together as Merlin himself, but Arthur steadfastly avoided his eyes and it was clear he would get no help from that quarter. If it had not been for Arthur, Merlin would have had no scruple in accepting the invitation; the Smiths appeared to be lively, sensible people and Merlin himself had always been naturally gregarious and inclined to make new friends from all walks of life. It would cut him beyond measure to have to decline and have them think him above himself.
And so he found himself reluctantly engaged to dine the day after next.
Merlin kissed Arthur for the first time one evening after they'd dined together. It was a rash, impulsive move that startled them both.
They did not speak of it, at first. It seemed too awful and too wonderful a thing to be acknowledged in words. But the next morning they met by the cave as if by appointment and kissed and kissed until their lips were swollen half out of their minds with this overwhelming want. Both knew that it was death to be discovered thus, but it was hard to imagine that this first flush of love that made their hearts soar like dragons in flight could be anything other than good.
It had been his own suggestion, Arthur reminded himself when he had been on the receiving end of one too many of Miss King's false-sounding giggles. He had mentioned to Elyan that it would be pleasant to make more of a party of it – anything to avoid being thrown together too much with Merlin. The more people were present, the easier it would be for Arthur to avoid having to converse with him, or so he had reasoned to himself. Elyan had been rather struck by Merlin's being Lord Emrys, and it hadn't been difficult to convince him that a party in his honour would be more the thing. Hence Miss King and her fluttering eyelashes.
If he'd been a more cynical man, Arthur might have suspected his friend of setting his sights on his sister becoming the future Lady Emrys. Guinevere and Merlin seemed quite cosy, sat together near the pianoforte. It gave Arthur an uneasy feeling in his stomach, wondering what they might be talking of. Half an hour in the company of Miss Vivian King had served only to affirm his preference for Guinevere – she at least had made no efforts to ensnare him, despite their staying under the same roof. Her injuring herself while out walking over rough terrain had been perfectly genuine, or so the whiteness around her lips where she'd pressed them together seemed to testify. Vivian, on the other hand, had pretended to stumble and need the assistance of his arm while on their way in to dinner. Yet he flattered himself that Guinevere was not entirely indifferent to him, and that his addresses – should he make up his mind to pay them – would in all probability not be unwelcome.
Arthur had been listening with only half an ear to his companion's chatter, absorbed as he was with watching Guinevere and Merlin across the room, but hoping for a way to extricate himself, he seized on one word.
"Music!" he declared loud enough for all the room to hear. "Yes I am fond of music. I wonder if Miss Smith can be prevailed upon--"
"Oh! But I play only a little." Guinevere protested shyly. "Lord Emrys, you were just telling me how much you missed the chance to play while you were in France."
Of course -- how many things he had forgotten. They had spent many an evening or afternoon when the weather was inclement holed up in Gaius's parlour while Merlin played the pianoforte. It had been a kind of magic he couldn't possibly object to, the way Merlin's sure fingers coaxed intricate melodies from the ivory keys.
"I confess I would be glad of the opportunity," Merlin said, running his fingers over the keys, a wistful expression on his face. "My mother does not have an instrument, and I have had but few opportunities these past few years. I'm afraid you may find me fearfully out of practice."
He slid into the seat and began to play.
Arthur knew the tune well. It stirred memories within him that he had thought buried for good.
Gaius had been called out to a patient, leaving Merlin and Arthur alone after dinner. Merlin had been playing for some twenty minutes with Arthur struck by the supple movements of his fingers, imagining what other uses those fascinating digits might be put to.
"Merlin!" Arthur said plaintively, moving to sit on the piano stool behind him.
"I hope you're not coming over here with the intention of distracting me, Captain Pendragon."
"Heaven forbid," Arthur murmured into the skin of his neck as he laid hot kisses to the skin beneath Merlin's red cravat. Merlin shivered and closed his eyes, but he played on. "What would it take to distract you, I wonder?"
"Why don't you – ah!" Merlin's breath hitched, "Why don't you find out?"
Arthur fought down a blush at the intensity of his recollections.
Arthur crossed the room intending to engage Guinevere in conversation, hoping to put the memories Merlin's playing evoked to the back of his mind. In doing so, however, he passed closer than he anticipated to the pianoforte. Merlin happened to glance up as he passed and Arthur found himself obliged to make a little conversation, to acknowledge his presence at least. Not to do so would have been noticeably rude, and Arthur had no wish to give rise to comment in his behaviour towards Merlin.
"Do you have something you wanted to request?" Merlin looked up at him and held his gaze -- only for a few brief seconds, but for those few seconds, Arthur felt as though he had travelled back seven years. He had forgotten, he realised, just how blue those eyes were. "You were always fond of Mozart, as I recall."
Arthur became aware of eyes on the two of them, Guinevere's presence at his side. He'd owned up to a slight former acquaintance, of course, impossible not to given the manner of their meeting the other day, but he didn't want to raise any further questions.
"I don't recall any particular partiality," Arthur said curtly. "Perhaps you could play something we could dance to." Merlin cast his eyes down, as if to hide a sudden distress. And well he might – Arthur had meant the words to hurt. Still, he segued into a reel without pause or comment, and Arthur took Guinevere's hand and led her into the centre of the room.
"Arthur, really!" she protested, with a laugh as he whirled her around and Arthur thought there was a slight faltering in the music, but a line or two fudged and the reel continued, Elyan joining in with Miss King and another couple besides. There wasn't quite the room for it, in truth, but they danced themselves giddy and breathless for two or three songs more all the same, until the music came to an abrupt halt.
"You must forgive me," Merlin said, rising. "It's late and I mustn't leave my mother waiting up too late. Miss Smith, thank you so much for inviting me."
He looked sad and resigned beneath his polite smiles. Arthur wondered whether anyone else noticed, told himself he had no business noticing either
Arthur had accepted the invitation to dine at the Emryses when it came, of course, yet when Mr Smith and his sister arrived conveying Major Pendragon's regrets Merlin couldn't claim to be in the least surprised at his 'sudden illness'.
Dinner with the Smiths was pleasant enough. They were both so amiable that Merlin found himself making friends of them both despite everything. He supposed that if Arthur had to marry, he couldn't wish for a better wife for him than Gwen Smith. Much as the thought pained him, he still found he wished for Arthur's happiness, above all else.
"Such a well-spoken young man," Merlin's mother remarked, after their guests had gone. "And the sister is a pretty, sensible girl."
Merlin sighed, knowing full well what his mother was getting at. He wondered, not for the first time, whether he should confess all to her. She would not revile him, he could trust in her for that, but it would pain her. But perhaps it would be better to have it out all at once, rather than endure constant speculation followed by inevitable disappointment, every time they had a dinner guest belonging to the fairer sex.
"I think it very likely she will soon be engaged to Major Pendragon," Merlin said at last. "Mother you must not expect – I do not think it likely that I will ever marry."
"You may change your mind when you meet the right woman."
"I do not believe I shall. That is, I do not think my heart can be given more than once."
"Ah. I cannot fault you for that. I know I could not love another after the passing of your poor father. But I did not know – I suspected there was a girl, the summer you came here when you were nineteen."
"There was – someone."
"Forgive me if speaking of it pains you, Merlin."
"No. No, but we – you must understand it was an impossible situation. I had hoped, that I might recover, in time, but I find that – that –" Merlin paused to pass his hand over his brow. His mother rose and crossed over to him, slipping her arm in his to give him such comfort as she could.
"Then I am sorry. And I will tease you no more about visiting young ladies. But Merlin, your heart may yet recover. Nineteen is young to devote your entire life to a love that is not returned."
It had been returned. He had been sure of it. But after Arthur's cutting words at the Smiths' party, he was no longer certain. Perhaps he had romanticised their whole affair, his own feelings so strong he could not conceive of them not being returned in kind. He recalled the pleading look on Arthur's face as they'd parted, the way his voice had cracked as he'd called Merlin's name. And yet he had known, even at the time, that he could never come before Arthur's duty to his family, to his country, even when he'd believed himself beloved.
He shook his head to clear it of unwanted thoughts. This was what was meant to be. Kilgarrah had said so, even then.
As the summer drew to a close they became conscious of their time together dwindling away. Arthur had received orders to join his regiment in Hertfordshire and there would be too few of these precious evenings left to them.
"This was my mother's," Arthur said, pulling something small and silver from his jacket pocket. Merlin leaned in for a closer look. It was a locket, with the design of a bird on the outside. "It's a family heirloom, of a sort."
"It's beautiful," Merlin said sincerely.
"I don't have many things left of hers."
"You must miss her."
"I do." Arthur paused. "Merlin, I want you to have it."
"I want you to have it. As a token of the esteem in which I hold you."
"Arthur, I don't know what to say."
"I think 'thank you' is traditional, Merlin," Arthur teased, nudging him in the side.
"Thank you," Merlin said, fastening the chain around his neck and slipping the locket beneath his shirt, out of view. "I only wish I had something to give you in return."
"I only ask that you think of me, when I'm gone off to Hertfordshire."
"Arthur!" Merlin replied, affronted. "How could I not?"
Lancelot du Lac was a gentleman, a fine officer and a good friend. Arthur shook his hand heartily on his arrival, pleased to renew their acquaintance.
Of course Elyan was only too keen to introduce Lancelot to his new friend Lord Emrys. Arthur could hardly feign illness again, not when Elyan and Lancelot both knew he had a strong constitution – he had never let a wound keep him from the battlefield, he could hardly avoid the drawing room on the pretext of a mere trifling cold. And he could hardly say he wished to avoid Merlin's company without casting aspersions on the man's character or raising questions abut his own. And of all things he wished to avoid questions of any kind. He didn't trust in his own ability to dissemble. So they were forced into each other's company, although Merlin seemed to wish it as little as he did. Arthur wondered selfishly why Merlin did not just quit the country, but then he had as much right to be here as anyone else, he supposed.
Dinner was a much more intimate affair than the party of the previous week. Arthur was relieved to find himself seated by Guinevere, with whom he had a quite pleasant conversation, but he couldn't help his attention being caught at times by the discussion at the far end of the table.
"You are not married, Captain Du Lac?" Lady Emrys enquired.
"I am not. Not, you understand, because I do not have a great respect for the institution," Lancelot said in his low, measured tones. "Quite the reverse. If I met a woman to whom I was quite certain I could dedicate my entire life, I should do so in a heartbeat. I do not believe in entering into matrimony for anything less than total devotion."
There were murmurs of approval at this noble sentiment from the assembled company. Arthur suppressed a snort of disbelief.
"Many matches, though, are made for more practical considerations, even now, and yet prove very happy," said Lady Emrys.
"And I mean to cast no aspersions on them, I assure you," Lancelot replied, "But I know I could not be content with anything other than a true meeting of souls."
Arthur turned to his right to say something cutting about his friend's high-minded ideals, but found that Guinevere's attention had been entirely captured by this little speech. Worse, Merlin, too, was looking rather intently at the newest member of the company with a light shining his eyes that Arthur had not seen for years. It made something sour settle in the pit of Arthur's stomach. Merlin leaned in to murmur something to Lancelot that made him nod earnestly.
"I think where two people are agreeable to one another, have the same ideals and enjoy one another's company, it cannot go off too badly," Elyan said. "Damned difficult to get a glimpse of a girl's soul when you've spoken with her for the length of two dances at a ball, eh, Pendragon?"
"Perhaps that should be a conversation for after the ladies have retired, Smith," Arthur said, good humouredly.
"But the heart once given cannot be taken back," Lancelot said, "Therefore it is not a decision to be taken lightly."
Arthur knew this was meant for him – he dimly recalled saying some words back in barracks to the effect that he'd marry the first woman he saw once back on English soil, princess or pauper, as long as she smiled nicely at him. In truth his standards were a little more exacting, but he wasn't seeking the other half of his soul or any such rot.
"Why, Merlin was saying something similar, just --"
"Mother, please!" Merlin interrupted her. His voice was tight and there was a stain upon his cheeks the colour of the wine they were drinking. Arthur startled to see it, and wondered what her words had been in reference to. He felt suddenly angry with Merlin, because he had given his heart, or so he'd said, and he'd soon taken that back again, hadn't he?
"In my experience," Arthur said, a little snidely, feeling his own cheeks heating as all eyes turned to him, "people talk many fine words about love. The topic makes poets of soldiers and farmers alike. But –" Arthur paused, steadying himself. "My advice to you, Lancelot, is that when you find such a person, you marry her quickly, lest she change her mind." Although he addressed Lancelot, he could not fail to see that Merlin blanched at his words. Arthur tore his eyes away from Merlin and took a sip of his wine.
"You find women to be so very inconstant, then?" Gwen asked. Arthur had all but forgotten she was there, caught up as he had been in past injuries. "You have no great respect for our sex, sir, I see."
"On the contrary," Arthur bowed, "It is not the preserve of women alone to be weak minded." His eyes could not help but be drawn to Merlin once more. He'd gone quite pale, Arthur noted, a pained frown marring his features. "So, you see," he went on, adopting a teasing smile, "the lady might just as well be afraid of Lancelot's changing his."
There was a muted laugh at this, and female dignity restored, the ladies seemed to take this as their cue to retire to the drawing room. The men left questions of love and matrimony alone, over their port and cigars, preferring instead to discuss the rumours of French privateers sighted off the coast of Devon, the sorcery laws and Napoleon's trial. Arthur made no further effort to antagonise Merlin deliberately, but he was in no mood to listen to views which were not his own, and defended the current restrictions on magical activity in a manner that might possibly have been called belligerent.
They did not linger more than an half-hour before heading back to join the ladies. Lancelot went first, Elyan close behind. Arthur made to follow them through the doorway when he felt a hand on his arm. He stilled and turned to face Merlin, startled at his sudden proximity. Merlin's eyes were dark with anger, or hurt, or both, and his voice was low and rough as he spoke.
Arthur's eyes flickered down helplessly to Merlin's lips. Were they as soft as remembered? He shivered involuntarily, recalling the first time he had had occasion to feel those lips against his own. How his heart had thrummed against his ribcage, the thrill of it and the fear, too, that he might have misinterpreted all of Merlin's looks, that they might be discovered.
But that was in the past, all of it. By Merlin's own choice. Arthur shook off his arm and stepped away.
"Excuse me, but you can have nothing to say to me, I am sure."
It was hardly civilised behaviour, but Arthur was not feeling very civilised at that moment. He felt sure it was a savage's heart that beat under his starched shirt, that could have desired such things as the feel of another man's skin against his own, the smell of his sweat, the sounds of his abandon – could desire them still.
Arthur stood by the window in the drawing room. It was dark enough that the view of the gardens had dissolved into inky blackness and all he could see was his own sour expression reflected back at him.
Arthur was no innocent – there were houses of ill repute enough in Oxford and he had plenty of comrades who knew their way around them. But there was nothing in what he had previously experienced which prepared him for how wild it was possible for him to be driven by the merest touch from Merlin. Merlin had only to look at him from across the room for Arthur to burn with a desire the like of which he had never imagined. He thought he knew now why some of his fellows had made rash marriages, or borrowed against their expectations to buy jewellery for their mistresses, when at the time he had thought them simply mad.
It had rained, one afternoon, a relentless downpour which had soaked them both to the skin as they clambered up the cliffs from their usual hiding place. Merlin had sneezed twice which was all the excuse Arthur had needed to proclaim that he couldn't possibly venture home to Gaius', even in the carriage, that he was quite ill and must be laid up in bed. Merlin had quirked an eyebrow at the suggestion, as if he knew exactly what Arthur improper thoughts Arthur was thinking. A note was duly sent to Gaius not to expect him back and Arthur set about the task of stripping Merlin out of his wet things. It took rather longer than it had any right to – Arthur chasing each drop of rain from Merlin's skin with his tongue.
Uther was from home that night, so the two of them dined alone on roast chicken and got themselves half drunk on Madeira wine. They were almost able to pretend that it could be like this always, sharing a home and a life together in a way that in reality would never be possible for them. They played billiards after dinner, before Merlin excused himself early, pleading his half-fabricated illness. Arthur's breath caught when Merlin's gaze lifted to meet his as he said the words to bed.
"Oh, Merlin?" Arthur called after him, after glancing quickly around to make sure no servants were within earshot. "Don't lock your door."
Arthur waited until midnight was almost upon them before leaving the sanctuary of his room for the temptation of Merlin's. It had been a long wait, his blood thrumming with anticipation and desire. The floorboards creaked as he crossed to the silent bed and he hoped Merlin would not wake and mistake him for an intruder. But Merlin was not asleep. He sat up, one candle dwindling by the bedside, face flushed with excitement. Arthur climbed onto the bed and kissed him, fumbling with his nightgown to find bare skin, running his hands over every tantalising curve and sharp angle as if mapping out his territory. The plains of his back there to be colonised with kisses, his own empire of desire.
As he settled between Merlin's thighs, hands sliding over sweat-slick skin, Arthur couldn't help but recall that this was reckoned a sin, to give into these animal instincts. He felt himself almost overcome, indeed, with bestial urges, the clamour to claim, mark, devour. But his ruling emotion was one of tenderness, such that he could scarcely contain it. He kissed Merlin's mouth once more, covering it with his own and swallowing his cries as he slid into the hot sheath of his body and took possession of him.
Merlin walked out early the following morning, immediately after breakfast. He had no destination in mind, merely felt that the fresh air and exertion would do him some good, but he was hardly surprised when he found himself following the coast path down to the beach. Soon he found the nook where he and Arthur had liked to sit, sheltered from the sea wind and out of sight of the road. They'd done more than sit, if truth be told, but Merlin wasn't sure he wanted to remember all the kisses they'd shared, the promises they'd made.
He'd bespelled the little cave, long ago, to make sure that it would be overlooked, a charm of protection and hiding to make sure they were completely safe when they chose to come here together. He hadn't imagined the enchantment would have held so long, especially with him far away fighting overseas, but the lingering tingle of magic was still present, stronger than he'd expected.
Merlin picked up a flat pebble, the ghost of a smile forming on his lips as he recalled a similar stone, Arthur chalking his name on one side, Merlin's on the other. Then Arthur had skimmed it into the water. Merlin wondered how long it had taken the writing to wash away. He closed his eyes and let his head tip back against the cool stone, remembering their last conversation here.
"Father has been discussing marriage again," Arthur said, leaning his head back against the rock, sun's rays falling on his lightly freckled skin.
"Your father is remarrying?" Merlin propped himself up on one elbow, looking at him in surprise.
"No of course not," Arthur laughed. "I mean for me."
"You? But surely -- "
"What? It seems his old friend Godwyn has a daughter, just out. I said I had no intention of marrying just yet, of course."
"Just yet?" Merlin echoed, frowning.
"Well, I'll have to do my duty eventually of course, carry on the Pendragon name." Arthur reached over to catch Merlin's wrist in one hand, stroking it idly. He glanced up. "You've turned quite pale, whatever is the matter?"
"I – I. Forgive me, I find I'm not quite well." Merlin rose quickly to his feet. Arthur sprang after him.
"Merlin? Please, love, what --"
"Don't call me that!" Merlin cried, quite viciously, wrenching his hand from Arthur's grasp. "How can you, in one breath tell me you love me, and in the next calmly tell me you will marry one day!"
"But that has nothing to do with us," Arthur said, frowning.
"It has everything to do with us! Do you think I could bear it, to see you court a woman, marry her, get her with child?"
"None of that would change how I feel about you!" Arthur's fingers gripped Merlin's arms tightly enough to leave marks. "I must do my duty, for my family's sake, you know that."
"Then I'm sorry, Arthur, I can't – please let me go." Merlin struggled free, wiping a sleeve across his eyes. "Here," he fumbled with something beneath his shirt – a medallion on a silver chain. His mother's locket, Arthur realised with a shock of dismay as Merlin yanked the chain free and dropped it in the sand at his feet.
"Merlin! Merlin, please!"
But there was no answer from Merlin, who turned and stumbled as he broke into a run.
Arthur stood on the empty beach staring after him, bereft.
How long passed, Merlin couldn't have said, but he was disturbed by the sound of voices. Looking out from his hiding place he saw Elyan Smith and Lancelot Du Lac pass by. Then, trailing behind them, Miss Smith and Arthur.
"Miss Smith," Arthur was saying, "I have greatly enjoyed visiting with you. Thank you for your kindness."
"It was nothing, Major Pendragon, you were most welcome."
"The company has been... most pleasant."
Merlin scrambled to his feet. This was not something he could bear to listen to: Arthur paying his perfectly proper attentions to Guinevere, just yards from the place where he'd pressed Merlin into the sand, had run his hands over his body and cried out Merlin's name in passion. Not here, of all places. Unmanly tears stung his eyes which he tried in vain to persuade himself was merely the effect of the sea breeze.
Merlin crept out of the cave, hoping to pass unnoticed. He didn't think he had the strength of mind to look either of them in the eye, much less to offer his congratulations as he surely would be forced to do if he waited even a minute longer. Well, Arthur had said he was weak-minded, hadn't he? If being brought so low by love and jealousy was what he meant by that, then perhaps he was right.
His hopes were dashed, however, when he heard a voice call out,
Had it been a polite 'Lord Emrys', he believed he should have kept on walking, but he could not dare refuse anything to the man saying his name in such a way. He paused, shoulders hunching.
"You will forgive me," Merlin choked out, "I did not mean to interrupt your..." He trailed off. "Forgive me," he repeated, "I cannot --"
There was a sudden shout from further along the beach and Merlin froze.
Arthur turned at the sound of shouting, reaching instinctively for his sword and cursing to discover it was not there. A glance at where Elyan and Lancelot had walked ahead showed that they were no longer alone, and whoever their sudden companions were, Arthur would have wagered a good deal of money that they were not friendly.
"Miss Smith," he said urgently, "I must entreat you to get to safety." He turned to look at Merlin. "Lord Emrys will escort you."
Merlin scowled at this.
"Arthur, if you think I'm just going to leave –"
"There's no time to argue! Please." The word was unfamiliar on his lips; used to having his orders obeyed without question he had forgotten just how difficult Merlin could be. After a short pause Merlin nodded and held out his arm to Guinevere, who took it with a worried glance at her brother but no protest.
Arthur stooped to pick up a rock, just in case it should be required and sprinted down along the beach towards his friends. There were two men with them, badly dressed and unshaven. They did not seem to be armed, but one could never be too careful. As he approached, Arthur was shocked to see Lancelot crumple to the ground without being touched. Arthur looked for the telltale smoke of a pistol, but there was nothing, only one of the brigands with his hand outstretched. Arthur stopped, confused, but then he saw the glow of gold fading in the man's eyes and he knew the truth.
French sorcerers. My father is not mad, after all.
His eyes met Elyan's, both of them standing frozen, faced with this unexpected threat. An unarmed man, however much military training he might have, was no match for the unpredictability of an enemy sorcerer and they both knew it. To have survived seven years of war, only to fall defenceless on an English beach was an ill thing, Arthur reflected, swallowing as he raised his arms palm up to show the brigands he bore no arms. He had never been afraid to fall in battle, and yet this sudden threat had his heart pulsing in his throat. The sorcerer who had felled Lancelot raised his hand towards Arthur, a sneer on his face. Arthur tilted his chin. He would not beg for his life, if it came to that.
It did not come to that. The sorcerer flew suddenly back through the air, striking his head against an outcrop of rock. His companion turned and fled along the beach, but got no further than a few yards before being felled in a similar manner. Arthur's eyes widened as he turned to face their rescuer.
He had known of Merlin's magic, of course. His status as Dragonlord proclaimed it. Arthur had marvelled in past days as often over Merlin's skill in making dragons dance from the embers of a fire, or light a room with a sphere of light as he had over his playing of the pianoforte. This, though, this display of power, of ruthless command over a deadly art, he had not expected. It fairly took his breath away.
Merlin strode forward, pausing to catch at Arthur's wrist and ask him earnestly, in a low tone,
"You are not hurt?"
"No," Arthur said, finding his voice, "I am unhurt. Lancelot, though."
Merlin was at Lancelot's side in an instant, feeling at his throat for a pulse.
"He lives. Arthur, you had best fetch Dr. Gaius. I'll stay with him and heal him as best I can but I'm no physician. Ask him for a stretcher to bear him up the cliff. Elyan, the magistrate must know of what has passed here. These two must be detained and answer for their crimes. Do not fear for your sister, she is quite safe in a cave along the beach."
There was no question but to do as he asked. Arthur knew not whether he was more ashamed of his own lack of quick thinking or struck by Merlin's commanding manner, his undeniable competence as he took charge of the situation. He nodded in acknowledgement of his orders and hurried to carry them out.
Merlin hadn't expected Arthur to leave things as they'd been left on the beach, so it was no surprise when he called round later that day. They sat through an excruciating half hour in the parlour with Gaius, taking tea and talking about the latest medical advancements. Gaius read aloud particularly pertinent passages from his scientific journal while Merlin and Arthur waited with no great patience for him to retire to his library. They'd suffered through many similar occasions, long dinners and polite conversations with visitors, all the while burning to be alone with one another, but always before they had been sure of the other's feelings, never since they'd first admitted to their mutual passion had they suffered such agonies of uncertainty.
The instant they were alone, Arthur fell to his knees at Merlin's side, begging his forgiveness and imploring him to listen.
"I've got it all worked out," he said, eyes bright with excitement. "We'll go away together – Italy, Greece, Timbuktu if you like."
"What about your duty to your family?" Merlin demanded, hardly daring to believe this was real.
"Duty be damned!" Arthur cried fiercely. "I love you." He brought Merlin's hand to his lips and kissed it.
"When shall we go?"
"Tomorrow, if you like. We'll go up to London and take a room at an inn while I speak to my lawyer. There's money that's mine, from my mother. My father needn't know a thing about it. What do you say?"
"Yes!" Merlin's face lit up with joy. Arthur's head laid on his knee and Merlin ran his fingers through his soft hair.
That evening Merlin went down to see the dragons for what might very well be the last time. He felt a pang of sadness, but it was nothing to the joy fluttering in his breast at the knowledge that Arthur loved him and wanted to run away with him. Kilgarrah was growing old and would not be flown much anymore. He would be sorry not to see young Aithusa who was almost broken in grow into the fine creature Merlin knew he would become, but if it came down to a choice between Arthur and the rest of the world he had no doubt which he would choose.
"But what of your destiny, young warlock?" Kilgarrah asked after Merlin excitedly spilled the secret of their escape plans. "The time is almost come for dragons and Dragon Lords to claim their due recognition."
"I am not a Dragon Lord yet," Merlin replied. "And there are plenty of others who can lead the dragons to glory."
"War is coming. Change is coming."
"I know." It gave him pause. Kilgarrah stared him down, inscrutable.
"Do you think Arthur will be happy to desert Albion in her time of need? The young Pendragon was meant for a warrior's life. Such as he will never be satisfied if they think they have deserted their duty."
"You think Arthur would be unhappy?" That of all things he could not bear. If Arthur should go away with him and be miserable.
"None of us can know our destiny," the old dragon huffed, "and none can escape it."
"And Arthur's destiny does not lie with me," Merlin concluded, devastated.
He lay awake all night thinking over the dragon's words. In the end it was less what had been said that made his mind up for him and more the overwhelming feeling of dread that crept over him in the twilight hours. Arthur had changed his mind already that afternoon – throwing over his duty for his love. Would he not change it again, in all the years they had before them?
The interview with Arthur the following morning was so painful that he wished never to recollect it. He told Arthur he wouldn't be coming, dry eyed and resolute. Arthur left with a slam of the door, too proud to beg him more than once.
They would not see each other again for seven years.
Arthur left for Avalon the next morning.
Lancelot had been conveyed back to the Smiths' house, his injuries being judged serious but not too dangerous to move him. There he would be most comfortable, it was judged, with friends around him. He had not yet regained consciousness, but Gaius trusted that he would, in time. Rest was to be the cure, and Arthur would only be in the way.
It had been less than two weeks since his father and Morgana had left, but so much had happened it felt an age. Morgana threw her arms around his neck as he was announced, and Arthur felt a pang of guilt for having abandoned her even for a fortnight, while he pursued his own happiness. Or what he'd hoped would be his own happiness.
It was impossible to keep the incident with the French sorcerers from his father entirely – he insisted on his morning paper, still. But Arthur tried to downplay his own involvement and the extent of Lancelot's injuries. Partly through the wish to spare his father's weak nerves and partly to spare his own embarrassment at his inaction. At having to be saved by Merlin, of all people.
They'd seen each other once more, before Arthur had left for Avalon, when Merlin had come with Doctor Gaius to settle Lancelot into his room at the Smiths'. Arthur had caught his hand and pressed it, had said thank you, sincerely, conscious of his own failure. Merlin had smiled at him a little sadly and looked into his eyes saying earnestly, "I wish you every happiness, Arthur." before fleeing into the night. Arthur had puzzled over it a number of times since, recalling the look in his eyes, the brush of Merlin's ungloved hand against his own.
Arthur and Morgana attempted to divert their father's attention away from the topics of the French and sorcery, each of which alone was guaranteed to raise his choler, never mind the two together. The news that his son had been saved by sorcery was not calculated to produce a happy effect. Instead, Arthur enquired about their time in Avalon – whether they had met with much of their acquaintance, how the water treatments were coming along.
It turned out that they had dined out often, and had generally been in company rather more than Arthur had expected. Uther waxed lyrical about the various concerts and assemblies, seeming most pleased that he had found an acquaintance to chaperone Morgana about, a widow by the name of Katrina Jötunn. Arthur wondered how to delicately enquire whether Morgana had any admirers – were the two of them alone he wouldn't have hesitated to ask outright, but with his father it was always best to couch things as carefully as possible. Something troubled in Morgana's eye suggested that there might be, and that their suit might be unwelcome. Arthur resolved to ask her about it when they would not be overheard.
At last Uther retired and Arthur turned an enquiring eye on his foster sister.
"Anything father has neglected to tell me? Am I to expect an engagement?"
"You should prepare yourself for the possibility of one," Morgana sighed, not sounding the least bit happy about the prospect. Arthur was surprised at how fiercely protective of his sister he felt, thinking that she might be betrothed against her will, or even her inclination. "Oh, not me," Morgana explained, correctly interpreting his frown. "Uther."
"Father?" Arthur half rose from his chair. "Surely not?"
Uther Pendragon had been a widower almost all of Arthur's life, and shown himself to be constant to his wife's memory (in a way he had not been in life, if Arthur's suspicions about Morgana's true parentage were correct).
"Mrs Jötunn," Morgana explained.
"Well, if she's a fortune hunter, she'll be disappointed."
Arthur leaned back in his chair. It wouldn't be too difficult to hint that money wasn't as ready as it had once been. But he was loath to do anything which would damage his father's reputation or Morgana's chances in the marriage market. And any fortune hunter must surely know that he himself had done well enough with the spoils of war, and that he would hardly let his father and sister go without. As for intimating that Uther might not be of sound mind, it could not be done. Nothing would damage the family reputation like the suggestion of madness in the line. Besides, after Uther had been proven right about the French sorcerers, Arthur doubted whether he might not be saner than all of them.
"And what about you?" Morgana asked, an uncharacteristic hesitation in her voice. "You have no particular news from the country?"
"No," Arthur said, giving nothing away. "No, I have no particular news, nor should you expect any."
He wondered for a second whether he should have lied, let her believe that he had come to an understanding, if only to avoid having every Miss of marriageable age fluttering her fan at him as soon as he stepped into the Assembly Rooms. But there weren't so many young ladies of his acquaintance in the country that this could be done without either tarnishing Guinevere's reputation or raising her expectations, and he had no wish to do either.
He did not know what expectations his behaviour towards her may have given rise to. Arthur thought of their conversation on the beach, the look on Merlin's face as he'd interrupted them. If Elyan decided to hunt him down, pistol in hand for breach of promise, he'd do the honourable thing, of course. But he hoped he'd escaped in time. She'd seemed sorry to see him leave, but although she might be disappointed, he didn't think she'd be heartbroken. They'd held affection for one another, he thought, but they hadn't been – how had Lancelot put it? -- two halves of the same soul.
His misgivings must have shown on his face, for Morgana reached over to place a hand on his arm.
"I've been a fool, Morgana," he admitted, letting his head sink onto his hand. He volunteered no more information, and she didn't press, the two of them sitting in companionable silence for the remainder of the evening.
There was much to be done, following the discovery of the French sorcerers on the beach. Once Gaius had assured him that Lieutenant du Lac was out of danger, Merlin set out immediately for London to meet with the Druid Council, the body that regulated and oversaw magic and magical threats.
Meeting with the Druid Council was always a frustrating experience. Magic was not accepted by everyone, and the Council did little to dispel people's prejudices, in Merlin's opinion. The council was comprised largely of old men with impressive beards who took an inordinate amount of time to decide anything at all. Merlin was glad that the Dragon Lords and dragons had been decreed by the old king himself to be affiliated to and yet separate from the Council, otherwise the war might have been over before they received their orders – or worse still, lost. Dragons were intelligent creatures and refused to be subject to human whims except those of their Dragon Lord masters.
He had requested a small contingent of magic users to shore up the coastal defences, to reassure the populace that enemy sorcerers were not marauding along the English beaches attacking innocent villagers. He did not think this was unreasonable, as a basic warning system could be constructed in less than a week, with enough magic users assisting. They could have been half finished by now, he realised with an impatient huff of breath as he waited to be called in for the third time, doubtless to retell the events of the attack once again.
He left the Council chambers two hours later, fuming at the decision. They had decided – as he was resident in the area and one of the most powerful sorcerers in the country besides – that he could handle the majority of the defences himself. They had given him one assistant – only one! -- an inexperienced yet eager-to-please young pup by the name of Mordred.
The coastal defences took up the majority of his time for the next month. After everything that had happened, Merlin decided it was best if he did not meet with Arthur or the Smiths for a while, and they were certainly in no position to be entertaining with Lancelot in need of quiet to aid his recovery. He half expected to run into Arthur by chance, but perhaps he had no wish to revisit the beach or any of their old haunts either.
There was little time for brooding or regrets, however, with several miles of coast to be searched and defended. It might have been a quiet pursuit, but Mordred talked incessantly, moving from the ingratiating to the over familiar. As a guest in his mother's house Merlin hardly had the heart to pull rank on him, except when it came to magical matters, in which he undoubtedly had the most experience.
Magic had faded from the land over the centuries since the days of legend when dragons had roamed free. The earth thrummed with it still, in green spaces and forests and even here along the beach. It retreated and withered in the face of modern machinery – the firing of a musket disturbed the natural magical resonance in the atmosphere. There was enough distrust of sorcery from the higher-ups in the military as to make Merlin and his company quite restricted in their actions during the war. Merlin's work had been mostly to do with the care and riding of dragons, defence against enemy sorcery and such spells as could be hurled at the enemy from dragonback; battle magic was a dying art.
Now that he looked for it, attuned himself to the natural magic residue in the stones and cliffs, Merlin wondered that he could have missed the presence of another sorcerer on the beach on the day of the attack, just yards from where he had been sitting. He had felt his own old magic wrapped around the cave and not thought to look for any other. He had been so absorbed by the turmoil of his heart he hadn't given enough thought to his surroundings – and Lieutenant Du Lac had suffered for it. He wondered that none of the dragons had known of the danger or thought to give a warning, and decided that it was high time he went to speak with them – with one dragon in particular.
Merlin headed back to the pastures, taking a vial of oil and a brush with him. The natural oils dragons would use in the times when they had roamed free were difficult to obtain nowadays. He headed over to the furthest field, which the oldest dragon, Kilgarrah, kept for his own use. Kilgarrah was naturally suspicious of humans, and would only converse with Merlin – or with his father, when he'd been alive. He was not gregarious even among fellow dragons, and Aithusa, Merlin's own favourite, was the only other creature permitted to venture into Kilgarrah's domain.
"You seem troubled, young warlock," the elderly dragon observed, as Merlin brushed down his scales with the oil. It had taken some time to persuade Kilgarrah to allow him to do this. Even now Merlin suspected he only permitted it to give him the opportunity to dispense his own particular brand of cryptic advice.
"It's nothing," Merlin said.
"I am sure that you are not brooding over such a small skirmish as the one which you described to me," Kilgarrah said, snorting a puff of smoke from his nostrils.
"You might have warned me of the danger."
"There was no danger. A puny hedge wizard is no match for one of your talents."
"And if I had not been there? If Lancelot had died?" Merlin scowled. He had almost forgotten that the dragon saw things in terms of destiny and history and that a human life was an insignificant thing to him.
"What happened was only what must happen. We cannot always see the path that destiny has mapped out for us. Besides, I thought my interference was... unwelcome?"
"You told me once, not to go away with Arthur."
"I gave you advice, that's true."
"It's just – I think I should have been happy. That's all." He looked away, biting his lip.
"Merlin." There was enough of a command in the dragon's voice that Merlin could not help but look up at him. Kilgarrah had, since he was quite young, been a sort of mentor to him and even now clearly considered Merlin to be a young and foolish youngling. "You can neither know nor escape your destiny."
"I know," Merlin sighed, resuming brushing the dragon's scales. "You've said."
"Ah, but have you listened?"
Conversations with Kilgarrah were always frustrating, so Merlin found himself in a more than usually melancholy mood at dinner. His mother chattered away to Mordred ("that dear boy" as she referred to him) without making much of an effort to draw him out of his dudgeon. Merlin might have gone through the meal without speaking a word were it not for a name which broke through his gloom.
"I forget there has been no opportunity for you to be introduced, what with the accident and the two of you being so busy these past weeks. I am happy for her to be sure, he's a fine young man."
"What was that?" Merlin asked, a croak in his voice.
"I ran into Miss Smith in Simmond's," Hunith repeated, "I offered her my congratulations on her engagement."
Merlin's nails dug into his palm beneath the table. It was one thing to have every expectation of the event, quite another to hear it confirmed as a reality.
"They are to be married, then? It is quite definite?"
"Oh yes, quite certain," his mother carried on, oblivious to his inner torment. "The banns have been read. It is sudden, to be sure, but no need for drawing these matters out if the young people know their own minds. And him already staying in the house, well, they'll want to have it all settled with no awkwardness."
"I hear his mother will travel down next week and stay with them until the ceremony. Her brother will be groomsman, I imagine."
"His mother?" Merlin echoed, not understanding. Arthur's mother had been dead these twenty years. "I'm sorry, mother, but of whom are we speaking?"
"Lieutenant du Lac, of course, bless you, why whatever --?"
Merlin had risen to his feet quite involuntarily.
"Merlin, are you quite well?" Mordred enquired.
"Fine, thank you," Merlin said dismissively; Mordred's solicitousness was something he couldn't quite deal with at present, genuine or not.
Merlin retired in something of a daze. He had no solid plan for the morning beyond needing to see Arthur. To find out whether he was heartbroken by this development, to offer comfort if it was within his power. To offer anything Arthur would care to accept from him.
He would leave for Avalon in the morning.
Morgana's suspicions about Mrs Jötunn proved to be no exaggeration. Arthur could scarce believe how quickly his father seemed to have grown so fond of her. Of course if they had known and cared for one another before, it was a different matter – even after years apart it was possible for a flame to rekindle, Arthur knew that all too well. Uther seemed calmer, too, less apt to fly into rages, he even smiled when he was with the lady. Perhaps he was not mad, merely lonely. Arthur felt keenly the hollow in his own breast which for seven years' action and war had papered over; felt the ache of being without the only love he had ever known, and felt a new sympathy for his father.
The whirl of society was quite dizzying, and Arthur thanked his stars he had settled upon Avalon for their retreat rather than London. There were many bachelors in town more eligible than himself, but there were far more young ladies in want of a husband, and he could scarcely enter a room without speculation on how many thousand a year he might receive, as well as hushed whispers behind fans regarding his figure. He supposed they imagined themselves discreet, but voices carried in the thick of the Assembly Rooms.
Arthur's attempts to cultivate an aloof and forbidding manner where young ladies and their mamas were concerned were too no avail. Morgana informed him with a gale of laughter when they were alone, that he had succeeded only in inviting comparisons with a brooding hero of a certain popular novel, thereby increasing their interest tenfold.
Merlin wanted nothing more than to be alone, to order his thoughts and decide what he would say if he managed to see Arthur. He tried to quash the flare of resentment at his unwanted travel companion – Mordred was of course unaware of his plans and thought simply to provide him some company and see Avalon for himself. But it was difficult, Mordred's attempts to ingratiate himself were trying and Merlin felt his self-control wearing thin.
Knowing that Arthur's father had gone to Avalon for the water treatments, Merlin decided to walk over to the pump rooms in the hope of running into him. He'd tried twice already to hint to Mordred that his time might be better occupied elsewhere, but he either did not understand or did not wish to, and stuck close to Merlin's side all morning. As they lingered outside the pump rooms Merlin had to concede that it was useful to have someone to converse with, it might have looked somewhat odd had he been standing such a long while alone.
At last his patience was rewarded.
"Major Pendragon!" he called out, half amazed to find his own voice sounded clear and steady. Arthur started and looked over, then spoke quickly with his companions – his father and two ladies – before coming across to where Merlin was stood.
"Lord Emrys," he bowed.
"It is good to see you," Merlin said honestly, sure he was making no good job of hiding the way his eyes shone at the sight of him.
"You too," Arthur said, and he sounded so sincere that Merlin almost lost all composure and flung himself at Arthur's feet there and then.
Then, recalling his companion, he coughed and said,
"Arthur this is Mordred Melehan. He's a member of the Druid Council and has been staying with us in Camelot. Mordred, Arthur Pendragon, an old friend of mine."
"What news from the country?" Arthur asked, the warm look slipping from his face as he bowed stiffly in greeting to Mordred, who returned the gesture somewhat more cordially.
"Du Lac is much recovered. You've heard of his engagement, of course?"
"Of course," Arthur said swiftly and Merlin winced. The last thing he wanted was for Arthur to think that he had come all this way to break the news to him and take pleasure in his discomfort. "I think it's excellent news," Arthur said firmly. Merlin scanned his features for signs of heartbreak, but he could divine nothing about the state of his heart from mere observation, and the street outside the pump rooms was hardly a situation conducive to discussion of such an intimate nature.
"I'm glad to hear it. That you think it excellent news. That is -- " Merlin became acutely aware of Mordred standing beside him, of what he must be thinking.
"Are you staying long in Avalon?"
"I'm not sure. I have some business to conduct, I hope there may be an opportunity to catch up with old friends, however," Merlin said.
"There is a ball tonight at the Assembly Rooms, I'm sure it would be no trouble to secure an invitation. And your friend too, if you like," he added, seemingly as an afterthought.
"I look forward to it," Merlin said. Their eyes met and held for a long moment, then Arthur looked away, bowed and left them.
They secured a couple of rooms at an inn. Merlin had suggested that Mordred might wish to return to Camelot, but he seemed so bright eyed about the possibility of attending a ball that Merlin didn't have the heart to refuse him. He sighed instead and sat down to pen a note to his mother, informing her not to expect them back until tomorrow noon at the earliest. He sent Mordred to engage someone to carry it to the telegram office, or to go himself if needed. And yet he did not put his writing things away. His thoughts turned to Arthur once more, to the possibility of misunderstanding between them and the improbability of his being able to lay his soul bare to Arthur in the thick of a crowded ballroom.
He took up his pen again and began to write.
Merlin took a steadying breath as he entered the room. It was fairly bustling with people, and hot besides. His heart sank – he'd be lucky to see Arthur, let alone have two minutes' conversation with him. Mordred dogged his heels, besides, yet another obstacle. The biggest obstacle, of course, had been the two of them and their ridiculous pride. If only they could have at least acknowledged their past connection to one another, perhaps it would not have come to this.
He still had no assurance, scarcely any hope of Arthur feeling the same way he had seven years before. But Merlin had to believe that at the least he would be willing to listen to his apology and explanation and declaration of his own feelings without malice. He patted his jacket pocket, wherein was concealed all of those declarations, committed somewhat rashly to paper. It was a risk, but he had done his best to minimise the damage to Arthur, should it be discovered – no names or places, nothing that could give them away. Were it to be lost, it might easily be supposed to belong to any amorous man or lady within these four walls, and Merlin doubted he and Arthur were the only ones present at an assembly such as this with secrets to conceal.
Mordred, always so eager to please, was sent to procure drinks for the two of them while Merlin used a sly bit of magic to help him scan the room for any sign of Arthur. A cough at his elbow caused him to whirl round, and thank his lucky stars that Mordred had not yet returned with the drinks, for he might have spilt his at the sudden shock of seeing Arthur standing there.
"Lord Emrys, I'm so glad you could make it."
"Ar – er, Major Pendragon. Hello."
"Would you allow me to introduce my father's ward, Morgana Le Fay?" Arthur said smoothly, and an impossibly elegant brunette was offering her hand.
"Miss Le Fay, delighted," Merlin said.
"I've already met your mother, you know," Miss Le Fay said, "So we needn't stand on ceremony, I don't think. Besides, Arthur tells me that you two knew each other when you were younger. You must have a few stories to tell about him," she said in a conspiratorial whisper, meant to be loud enough for Arthur to hear. Merlin could only hope he wasn't blushing.
"Yes, a few, I suppose," he said hesitantly, finding his eyes meeting Arthur's almost without his consciously meaning them to. "I'm not sure how fit they'd be for a lady's ears, however." Merlin expected Arthur to frown at this, instead his smile was almost fond, and Merlin felt his pulse race.
"I know that my brother thinks very highly of you," Miss Le Fay said, encouragingly, and Merlin looked over at Arthur again in surprise. "He's not one for undue praise, but I know he said you showed great courage and resourcefulness."
"Th-that's very kind of him," Merlin said, finding himself unable to tear his eyes away from Arthur. Out of his peripheral vision he could see that Miss Le Fay was giving the two of them quizzical looks, as if trying to fathom something out, and he forced himself to lower his gaze lest he give them both away.
"You must promise me a dance, Lord Emrys," Miss Le Fay said with a smile, so charming in her forwardness it scarcely occurred to Merlin that it was not the done thing for a lady to ask a gentleman to dance, "so we can get to know one another better."
Merlin might have sputtered an acceptance, he could not really be sure, his head was so occupied with Arthur and the warmth in his eyes, so much more than he'd dared to hope for. Just then Mordred returned and introductions were duly made. A man Merlin didn't know came over to claim Morgana's hand for the next dance and Arthur excused himself, saying he'd promised to dance with a Miss Godwyn.
Merlin sipped at his drink, watching the couples from the side of the room. Arthur's partner was a pretty, fair-haired girl who seemed to make dozens of mistakes in her steps. Merlin felt for her; he was no great dancer himself. But Arthur only smiled and guided her right, and Merlin felt a familiar pang in his chest. What was he doing here? Arthur had not married Guinevere Smith, but that did not mean he would not marry. It could as easily be this young lady, or the next. This was what Arthur had wanted, after all, a wife, a family, to do his duty and make his father proud in his domestic achievements just as much as his military accomplishments. This was why Merlin had had to let him go seven years ago and yet here he was, treading the same path all over again.
"Excuse me," he mumbled to Mordred, "I'm feeling a little hot."
Merlin made his way past the dancers to the French doors on the far side of the room. The air was blissfully cool and he took in a lungful as he made his escape. It was a clear, moonlit night and the balcony was mercifully free of courting couples. He gave a despondent smile to the stars as he hung over the railing.
He turned, only to see Mordred looking intently at him. His shoulders sagged, disappointment a bitter taste at the back of his throat as he turned away again.
"Mordred, please, I just need a minute to myself," he said, fatigued.
"If you are unwell, I can fetch a carriage."
Mordred's tone was solicitous, his hand cautious as he rested it against Merlin's back. Merlin ground his teeth together, still unable to work out whether Mordred was sent with the express purpose of plaguing his life out, or whether he genuinely wanted to help but was physically incapable of understanding even the broadest hints.
"Excuse me. I – excuse me."
That was not Mordred's voice. Merlin turned to see Arthur looking at the two of them with an expression of barely concealed hurt and distaste.
"Wait," Merlin called, but Arthur turned smartly on his heel and vanished back into the throng, the music and chatter from inside drifting out once more through the open door.
"What was that?" Mordred asked, bemused, and Merlin realised with a lurch of his gut how it must have looked to Arthur: the two of them out here together, Mordred's hand splayed across his back. His fists clenched involuntarily, and he half wished to push Mordred off the balcony, but like as not his actions had been entirely innocent, he had no idea of the damage he'd caused.
Merlin shook off Mordred's hand and hurried after Arthur. It was fortunate that he did not have a large acquaintance here, or he could hardly hope to have crossed the room without being stopped. As it was he had to give short answers to a Doctor friend of Gaius' and even make his excuses to a Duchess in his pursuit of Arthur. Those delays cost him dear, for he was informed at the door that Major Pendragon had left in something of a hurry.
Merlin debated the merits of ordering a carriage and going after him, but decided he'd made enough of a spectacle of himself already. He thought of the note in his pocket. It was not something which could be entrusted to a servant to deliver – he dared not even attach the name of the person for whom it was intended. After some deliberation, he asked a servant for a pen and paper, and scribbled a hasty addendum to his original missive.
I apologise for the necessity of communicating in this manner. I would not wish to put any of your family in the position of carrying such a letter, but I could think of no other way and I must beg you to hear me out.
What you witnessed this evening was not what you may have thought. I know you have every reason to think ill of me, given the manner of our parting and the coldness of our acquaintance of late -- you must believe that I have always been constant to you in every way.
His hand shook and the ink blotted in a way that would have earned him a stripe or two back in his school days, but he hoped that it would not signify. He folded the two pieces of paper together and used his magic once more to look through the crowds and find Miss Le Fay. She stood with an older lady who must be a chaperone of some kind – of course Arthur would not have left her here quite by herself. He took a second to compose himself and headed straight for her, drawing himself up with all the bearing that befitted a member of the aristocracy.
"Miss Le Fay, I believe you promised me a dance."
The chaperone raised an eyebrow and Miss Le Fay introduced them. The chaperone – Mrs. Katrina Jötunn – seemed mollified by his title and allowed him to escort her charge onto the floor for a cotillon.
"You must forgive my brother's sudden absence," Miss Le Fay said as they took their positions, "he left a message saying he had a sudden headache. Most unlike him, wouldn't you say?"
"I hardly know," Merlin said, throat dry.
"I did wonder whether he might have had some bad news, to leave in such a hurry." She spoke in such a way that did not require an answer. "I believe you saw a lot of him when you were in Camelot."
"I had heard there was a young lady. We all had hopes of him introducing her as the future Mrs Pendragon."
Merlin hardly knew what to say to this.
"I don't know how much you know of it," Morgana continued without waiting for an answer, "But it is my belief that his heart was broken once, long ago, and never quite recovered."
"Miss Le Fay, would you – could I entrust something to you, to be given to Arthur?"
If she noticed his use of his given name, she did not remark upon it. Her eyes sparkled with interest and Merlin wondered whether she guessed even a fraction of the truth, or whether she imagined Merlin to be the messenger bringing notes from Guinevere or even some mythical lost love. Well, he amended, perhaps this last was not so far from the truth.
"Of course," she said. "But it ought to be concealed in something. My glove would do, I suppose?"
"Yes," Merlin said, conscious of the risk to all of their reputations should they not be sufficiently surreptitious. "You do understand, don't you," he said passionately, "that it is a private communication?"
"It shall be delivered into Arthur's hands unopened," she assured him, a hint of frost in her voice at the suggestion that she might be anything less than entirely honest.
"I am in your debt, Miss Le Fay," Merlin said. The song ended and she curtseyed, dropping her glove in such a casual manner that he felt a bumbling fool in comparison, fumbling with the two sheets of paper and folding them into the glove before returning it to her with trembling hands.
Arthur woke from a fitful sleep. Remembrance of the night before came crashing down upon him and he sat on the edge of his bed with his head in his hands. Even while pursuing his plans of matrimony he had never imagined that Merlin would have replaced him with another man. He'd trained himself over seven years not to think about Merlin and what he might be doing at all, and it had been like a shock of cold water to be confronted with the sight of Merlin in another man's arms. Even in his despondency he felt a pang of concern that Merlin could be so careless of his own safety – but then to someone not aware as he was of Merlin's true proclivities, there may have been nothing seeming suspicious in the gesture. The discovery had hurt in a way that news of Guinevere's engagement to Lancelot had most assuredly not.
Arthur railed against himself silently for his arrogance and blindness in the way he had behaved of late.
His gaze skittered across the polished floor landing on an unexpected object, a few inches from the door. Frowning, he rose and retrieved it, the paper crinkling in his hands as he sat back down and unfolded it.
How it had come to be there was a puzzle, but one Arthur put to one side as he began to read, eyes feverishly scanning the pages and devouring the words within:
I can go no longer without telling you of my true feelings. Perhaps it is madness to do so but I cannot be rational any longer.
I came to Avalon with the sole purpose of meeting you and speaking with you. And yet now that I am here I cannot seem to find the opportunity to speak with you on the matters which so scorch my soul. I love you. I have always loved you. These past few weeks have been agony for me, to revisit the places where we once were together, seeing you pay attentions to another.
I do not blame you for being angry with me. We were young when we knew each other before, and foolish. You must believe that I wished nothing more than to run away with you and be with you always. But I was afraid that you would resent not being away from England, that you would grow to resent me. I may have done you a disservice in not trusting in your love for me, but I believed (not without reason) that you might have come to value the demands of your honour above the demands of your heart. Sometimes however much we might wish otherwise, we must put our duty first, and so I did, for the both of us, even though it broke my heart do so.
I have thought of you every day for the past seven years and a half. Since we met again I have been half sick with longing. I believe, I hope that you are not entirely indifferent to me, that you can respect me as a friend, if nothing more, and will not hold this letter against me in any way. I ask you for nothing, I desire nothing but your happiness.
I only need for you to know, without any hope of return, that my heart is – and always will be – yours, and yours alone.
There was a smudge of ink at the bottom of the page but no name. And yet, even unsigned, there could be no doubt who it was from. Arthur read it once, twice more before standing abruptly and throwing his door open.
"Arthur!" called Morgana from along the corridor, all false sweetness. There was a sly look in her eye that made Arthur think she might have had a hand in the delivery of the note. He hoped to Heaven that she had not read its contents. "Wherever you're dashing out to, you might want to put on a shirt, first, don't you think?"
Arthur looked down at himself and cursed under his breath before retreating back into his room. His hands shook as he buttoned his shirt and he decided he had best call George to shave him, lest he cut his own throat in his agitation.
The time taken to dress was sufficient to make Arthur consider how he should proceed. At first he'd thought only of going to Merlin – even in such a dishevelled state as he was. But now that he considered, it was clear that that was impossible. He had no idea where Merlin might be, in the first place, and the second it was hardly likely he would find him alone. It was folly not to be cautious, even now – especially now, when he could ruin all their hopes of future happiness by being imprudent. He had no wish to be discovered, disgraced and hanged before he even had the opportunity to embrace his beloved.
Dressed, Arthur forced himself to eat breakfast, although he noticed the taste of his food not at all. Merlin must have been staying somewhere, and he hadn't mentioned any particular friends, but Arthur could hardly enquire at every respectable inn in Avalon until he found him. And by all that he knew of him, he didn't think it likely that Merlin would wait around for an answer to such a letter.
There was only one place he could be sure of meeting with him: Camelot.
Merlin lingered in the cave by the beach, marvelling at the way the sun lit the limestone until it shone like crystal. He pressed one hand to the rocky wall – saying goodbye, he realised. He could not remain here, that much was clear. If he could not persuade his mother to relocate, he would take a tour of Europe. There was more to the world than the plains and valleys-turned-battlefields of France, he was sure. Aithusa would love to see mountains again, the snowy steppes of Russia, perhaps; they might go East to China where dragons were still accorded places of honour, or West to the Indies. Antigua was reckoned nice, although Aithusa likely wouldn't care for the heat. He would miss the chalky cliffs of England, to which he'd always felt tied, in some way, as if his magic came from the English soil.
He was startled by the sudden presence of another person at the mouth of the cave. He hadn't thought the wards broken, perhaps he'd altered them, somehow, by hiding Guinevere here, or perhaps Mordred had found a way round them. He wouldn't put it past him to have followed him here even against his express command. It could hardly be that he'd overlooked the presence of an enemy sorcerer twice in as many months.
Merlin stood, mouth dry as he realised who was here. Arthur. He didn't sound angry. His hair was wild and his breeches muddy from riding.
"I received your letter."
He couldn't entirely clamp down the rising tide of hope which swelled within him.
"I – Merlin, I'm sorry."
And with that the tide receded, leaving him empty once more.
"Arthur, you don't – I really didn't –" He looked away, jaw tight.
"No, Merlin, please, let me say this. I've behaved abominably towards you. I was so angry with you for so long. I tried so hard to forget you. I thought I'd succeeded, but I was wrong. I was so very wrong, Merlin."
Arthur took a step closer, slowly, cautiously, as though Merlin were a wild, frightened animal rather than a man who had fought against Napoleon's armies, as he had. His hand slid up to cup Merlin's jaw.
"I still love you."
Merlin closed his eyes tight and swallowed hard, as if to rid himself of the emotion that threatened to choke him.
"And I you," he said, daring to lean his cheek into Arthur's gloved hand. Arthur's lips were upon his, then, rough and demanding. He could feel the heat of him through his thin linen shirt, familiar and dear and so long lost. Merlin almost sobbed into his mouth as he returned the kiss with everything he had. It was all just like it had been before – too much like. We've been here before, Merlin realised, and wrenched himself away.
"What is it?" Arthur didn't let go of him, gripping the lapels of Merlin's blue coat as though afraid he'd vanish into thin air before him.
"This – all this – how will it be any different from last time? We're right back where we started."
"No," Arthur shook his head. "We're not. Merlin, we're not. We've done our duty and made our mistakes and we've been given a second chance. Maybe you were right and it wouldn't have worked out seven years ago. But now, now that we know what it's like to be apart we'll make sure it does."
Merlin thought over his words, trying to reconcile them with Kilgarrah's words about destiny. Perhaps this was it, after all. Perhaps this was always how it was meant to be. A second chance, just as Arthur said.
"How can we?" Merlin asked, clutching at Arthur's hands, wanting to believe but hardly daring to do so. "Two close friends, living nearby, remaining unmarried?"
"Why not? If people start to talk, we'll go abroad together, travel all our lives if we have to. I may not be the last of the Pendragon line, after all – I think it likely father may remarry." Merlin started at this. "And you," Arthur continued, "can name an heir, surely? Train a child with magical talent."
Merlin didn't think it would be quite that simple, but then he remembered Mordred, how keen he was to please and how well he got on with his mother and thought maybe.
And even if he had proof that this could lead only to their destruction, Merlin wouldn't have been able to look into Arthur's eyes and refuse him. He'd lain his heart at his feet with every expectation of being refused and cast off, he could hardly let his fears overrule his love a second time.
"My heart is yours," he said, at last. "Whatever happens, I will remain true to you while there is breath left in my body."
"And I you, dear heart," Arthur said, "I swear it."
Arthur reached into his pocket and pulled out a silver chain. Merlin recognised it at once: his mother's locket.
"I hope that you shall never have cause to return it again."
Merlin brought their joined hands to his lips and laid a kiss against Arthur's knuckles, solemn as any vow made in a church. This cave was their own sacred place, consecrated by magic and blessed by their coupling, a fitting venue for this solemnisation of their love with only their own hearts for witness.