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Drawn from the Heart

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~***~

Merlin was quite an accomplished artist. It wasn’t a secret per se, but it also wasn’t a well-known fact around Camelot. Gaius was, of course, privy to the knowledge, as was Gwen and Lancelot. Gwaine had caught glimpses of Merlin’s work but--as he usually proved to be too much of a distraction--Merlin would usually pack his supplies safely away for another day upon his arrival.

Drawing was Merlin’s main stress relief, but he found that he had less and less time to indulge in it as his duties piled up for both guardian and master. However, Gaius was shrewd enough to give Merlin the leeway he needed when things became too much. When Merlin’s brow began to creep downward while his shoulders climbed up to his ears, and his jaw tightened even as his mouth drooped, Gaius would make a short list of herbs for Merlin to collect and block out a long afternoon for him to find them. He’d keep the Prince at bay and usually, Merlin returned at sunset with a clear brow, settled shoulders and a smile on his face. If his hands and face were smudged with black marks and his bag was lighter than it should be, Gaius refrained from saying anything about it.

Time was one obstacle to Merlin’s art, money was the other. While charcoal sticks were cheap and easy to obtain, parchment was not. Growing up, he practiced on a smooth wooden board that would be scrubbed clean with a piece of stale bread before another drawing was layered over it. Few of his childhood efforts survived. Hunith had a portrait of herself and one of a teenaged Will, drawn shortly before Merlin’s departure for Camelot. Naturally, there were no self-portraits of Merlin as he had only the vaguest idea of what he actually looked like. The blurry reflection in a basin of water was hardly the sound basis for an accurate drawing.

Merlin had a few small portraits kept safe in his room in Gaius’ suite, but parchment was costly and he dared only keep the very best of what he drew. There was Gwen, painstakingly drawn to capture her at her most beautiful: a moment bright with love and laughter...and if Lancelot was the focus of her gaze, no one knew it but Merlin. Gaius leaned intently over a bubbling cauldron on another precious scrap of vellum that Merlin had “liberated” from Geoffrey’s stores without the archivist’s knowledge. Gwaine smirked up from another bit of precious parchment, a flagon of ale clutched in one elegant fist, while Leon gazed solemnly from yet another. Lancelot, Percival and Elyan also inhabited the pages he kept pressed between two unassuming wooden boards at the back of his desk, carefully flattened under the weight of a heavy book, the curling edges kept firmly under control. All the people in Camelot that Merlin loved best were in that precious pile of parchment…all except for Arthur.

It wasn’t that Merlin never drew the Prince; in fact, he was the focus of the vast majority of Merlin’s work. It was that Merlin had yet to complete a drawing of Arthur that met his own exacting standards. There were times that he would spend countless hours on a single drawing only to end up scrubbing it away in frustration when Arthur refused to form correctly under his feverish fingers.

Merlin always convinced himself that something was always just a tiny bit off: the curve of Arthur’s nose wasn’t quite right or the slant of his jaw too sharp; the angle of his eyes was too pronounced or the pout of his generous lips just wasn’t generous enough; his hair was too wavy or his eyebrows too straight. Merlin just couldn’t make a version of Arthur perfect enough to keep.

At least, this was what Merlin told himself...but it was a lie. The truth was that there was never anything off about any of Merlin’s drawings of Arthur. Merlin knew his prince’s face better than any other living person’s. He could sketch that face perfectly in five minutes or less, blindfolded and underwater if needs be. No, the truth was that Merlin couldn’t bear to look on his creations once they were finished because they reminded him too much of what he wanted but could not have.

The Arthurs Merlin drew all loved him. They loved him in a way the real Arthur never would, in a way he probably never could. Sometimes, Arthur’s face was softened with a simple friendly regard, and sometimes it was a deeper devotion that shone from the dark depths of his charcoal eyes. Sometimes there was the playful promise of delight to come, and sometimes, it was the hot glow of urgent lust.

All of Merlin’s Arthurs loved him, but it was the ones that knew him, the ones that accepted him for all that he was, those were the Arthurs that Merlin found excruciatingly painful to bear…and yet, they were the ones he drew most often. It was that gleam of knowledge, an open, trusting love that knew the warlock to his very soul, that unmanned Merlin and made him weep for what could never be.

 

Some days he would lie in the grass with one of his drawings and Merlin would stare at him, meeting the Prince’s gaze and reveling in the love that he saw there. He would pretend for a few precious moments that this really was Arthur. He would let the warmth of his prince’s devotion wash over him, heating the chilled spaces in his soul. Merlin would allow the charcoal Arthur to soothe the constant ache in his chest, ease the needy want in his gut, and speed the sluggish beat of his perpetually wounded heart.

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It never lasted for long, though. Inevitably, the black and white of reality would slam back into Merlin’s awareness, and he’d wipe the parchment clean with a teary swipe of his magic. The real Arthur didn’t look at Merlin with love and trust. These days, he barely looked at Merlin at all. He would certainly never gaze on Merlin with both knowledge of what he was and affection for who he’d become, for who they could become.

In the wake of Morgana’s betrayal and his father’s collapse, Arthur had become increasingly withdrawn. Snappish, impatient, and ruder than he’d been even when they first met, Arthur would no longer allow anyone close to him, not even Merlin.

The forced separation had begun gradually, almost innocuously. First, Merlin had been excluded from things involving affairs of state- council meetings and audiences. Merlin could easily explain that away as perhaps members of the council taking issue with his constant presence. Next, he’d been banished from attending to Arthur at training. This confused Merlin, but decided he that Arthur must have had his reasons and let things lie. Then, he was excused from accompanying the prince on his increasingly infrequent hunting expeditions. Knowing all the strain that Arthur was under, Merlin did his best not to take it personally.

However, when Arthur began dismissing him the moment Merlin brought him his evening meal, Merlin didn’t see how he could possibly not take it personally. The evenings had always been their time: the time for Arthur to tease Merlin, the time for Merlin to listen to Arthur’s complaints and soothe his concerns. It was the time for them to say nothing at all, to just relax together with a jug of wine and a roaring fire. It was the time for them to just be…well, them. It was when they were no longer Prince and servant, but simply Arthur and Merlin with little to no interference from the outside world.

Merlin knew that their evenings together had been as much a refuge for Arthur as they had been for him. No matter what was going on, they’d always spent the hours after supper together. In wartime and peace, chaos or tranquility, plenty or pestilence, in all the time they’d known each other, Arthur had never pushed Merlin away…until now.

And Merlin had no idea why. He’d wracked his brain over and over again trying to figure out what he might have done to offend his prince, but the answer remained a mystery to him. All Merlin knew was that this special relationship between them was suddenly gone, and he missed it...terribly.

For want of the real thing, Merlin started spending more and more time alone in his room, drawing Arthur and gazing at the impossible emotions he created from charcoal dust and animal skin, wishing and longing for them to be real. It was no kind of substitute for Arthur’s company, but it was all Merlin had.

In retrospect, it was easy to see how Merlin had fallen into the downward spiral of morality that he had. He was only one side of a coin; Arthur was the other. He needed Arthur to feel complete. And once Merlin could no longer have him, well...something had to take his place.

It had started innocently enough, just a frustration at the lack of color in his drawings. Even in the depths of night, the real Arthur’s hair gleamed gold and his eyes glinted a rich, vibrant blue. All cats might be gray in the night, but Arthur never was. So Merlin didn’t see any harm with altering his drawings just a little, concentrating on the pale places between the heavy black lines and filling them with gold and blue, beige and pink. Even Arthur’s mail began to take on a silvery glint that made Merlin smile for the first time in weeks.

But then Merlin found the harsh black lines distracting, and began to use his magic to warm them, too, blending the shading and shadow into colour and light.

Next, Merlin found the flatness of the image dissatisfying. Again, he used his magic to add the illusion of depth, just a bit. Arthur’s image rose up in low relief against the fine vellum of the page he was drawn on. The following day, the relief rose a bit more, and the day after that Arthur’s face and shoulders projected into the page in three full dimensions.

It still wasn’t enough to ease the pain in Merlin’s soul.

Even with his magical drawings for company, Merlin continued to ache for Arthur, the real Arthur. But the acting King continued to dismiss him each night after dinner had been brought, pushing him further and further out of his life. The pain of separation it caused Merlin was excruciating. Finally, one evening, while gazing at his latest drawing of Arthur, a pang of longing hit Merlin so hard and fast that it took his breath away. He couldn’t bear the anguish any longer; he just couldn’t! Without even realizing it, Merlin’s eyes burned a fierce gold and Arthur’s image glowed in response. Then suddenly, it began to move.

Startled, Merlin dropped the page as if burned him and stared at Arthur as his portrait fluttered to the floor. The drawn Arthur tilted his head and stared up at him. Merlin blinked, and Arthur’s lashes dipped in response. The image stayed flat on the page, but when Merlin backed away, Arthur’s face turned to follow him.

No! Merlin thought in a panic, This…this is too much, too far. It’s not right…

And then Arthur’s eyes met his own. They were so real and life-like that his heart leapt and all of Merlin’s powers of reasoning stuttered to a halt. It had been so long since those rich, jewel-blue eyes had met his in more than a fleeting glance that even this simulation was a balm to his flayed soul. Like a dying plant soaking up water, Merlin drank in the love and understanding he saw on that face, wishing beyond anything that it could be real. But Merlin found that even this wasn’t enough to comfort him. He couldn’t help but want more. He needed to touch Arthur, to be able to put his hands on him without him flinching away from Merlin as if his fingers burned. And even moreso, he craved Arthur’s hands on him; and once the thought had formed, Merlin found that he needed that physical comfort like he needed air.

Driven to the brink by desperation and longing, Merlin couldn’t hold back any longer. He reached out his hand and whispered words in the Old Tongue. He immediately felt the hum of magic flow from him to the Arthur looking back at him from that scrap of parchment, and watched in both fascination and horror as Arthur’s portrait slowly began to rise from the page.

The doppelganger grew until he stood a full six feet, broad with the same muscle that made the real Arthur so impressive. Once his feet had formed, the conujured Arthur stepped away from the parchment that had spawned him and reached out to enfold Merlin in his eager arms. Merlin stood rigid in his creation’s embrace, stiff with conflicting emotions. A sick sense of revulsion at what his own desperation had wrought warred with the most intense longing Merlin had ever felt in his life. Arthur was warm around him; he could feel each heated puff of Arthur’s life-breath against his neck. And when Merlin tentatively reached up to stroke Arthur’s face, the skin was soft and yielding beneath his questing fingertips.

A small, pained whimper escaped Merlin’s lips as he succumbed to the temptation, throwing his arms around the Arthur he’d summoned. Burying his face in Arthur’s neck, he was content to just hold him and bask in the warmth of his touch. He trembled, and Arthur soothed him with soft strokes of his big hands, sweeping over Merlin’s back from shoulder to his waist. However, when he felt the soft press of lips against the sensitive skin beneath one ear, he felt the longing return twice as powerful as before.

This, oh now this touch was something Merlin had craved in the most hidden depths of his heart almost since their first meeting. This was a secret that no one else knew, his unspoken dream. But this Arthur knew…all of the Arthurs he drew did. Merlin imbued each line that created them with his unrequited ardor. He’d never been able to bear the heavy awareness in the eyes of his portraits and that was why he could never bear to keep them. But now...now Arthur’s awareness was a delight and a blessing because finally Merlin’s desire was reciprocated, reflected back to him from the depths of bright blue eyes. He didn’t have to explain; no words were needed. Arthur simply understood.

Sinking headlong into the fantasy, Merlin simply let go and let himself indulge, to bask in Arthur’s love just this once. He secured the door to his room with a muttered word and a flash of his eyes before they both sank to the bed in a clutch of tangled limbs and fevered kisses. Nothing was said for the rest of the night; Merlin quickly discovered that speech had become sublimely superfluous.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Arthur found it difficult enough to be around Merlin when he was surly and sullen, and it was downright excruciating when his manservant was melancholy and distracted. But for the past two weeks Merlin had been absolutely unbearable to be around. The plain fact was that for fourteen solid days, Merlin’s behavior was undeniably…chipper. He was disgustingly cheerful, seeming unequivocally happy all of a sudden. After months of mutual misery, Merlin’s out-of-the-blue joy was painful for the prince to behold.

Surreptitiously, he watched Merlin as the man busied himself with polishing the row of decorative shields hung above the fireplace, humming as he worked. Since…Morgana…Merlin had seemed every bit as unhappy as Arthur had felt, but Arthur had known it wasn’t for the same reasons. How could it be? They hadn’t been on the run for very long before they’d managed to retake Camelot from his sister--and gods that was still so hard to process--but in those short, significant days Arthur’s entire world had been upended. White became black, left became right, up was suddenly down and Arthur had subconsciously clung to Merlin for strength…not that he’d admit that to anyone. It had been hard enough to admit it to himself.

Arthur knew he wasn’t reacting well to his changed circumstances. He was aware that he’d become snappish and impatient, ceasing to respond to anyone’s attempts to cheer him. He also knew that everyone assumed it was his father’s condition and Morgana’s betrayal that were preying on his mind and stealing his humour. It was a fair assumption. After all, Arthur had lost his entire family in one fell swoop. However, as devastating as those events were, Arthur was certain he could have come through it all with a bit of grace if a third epiphany hadn’t been thrust upon him in the midst of that grim time.

It came to him in the middle of a doomed battle against an unbeatable foe. They’d found his father, sound in body if not in mind, crouched in the dungeons beneath his own castle. But finding the King had been but the first step in their rescue attempt…the easiest step. The more difficult phase of the operation came next, and from the outset, it looked to be an impossible task. Nay, it had been an impossible task. Surrounded by armed men they could not kill, who in their turn were intent on killing Arthur and his pitiful band, their deaths had been all but assured.

Determination had gripped him in that moment. He would make his stand, and if he died, he’d do it well: on his feet, facing down his foe like the warrior his father had raised him to be.

Then the warning bell had rung. In that moment, the sound of that bell was not a call to arms, nor was it an alert to awareness. It was no less than a death knell, and Arthur’s heart had seized in his chest even as his voice cried out to ward off his greatest fear.

“What the hell are those two doing?!

His voice questioned but his heart knew. The bell was ringing. He’d sent Merlin off to stop that bell from ringing. Merlin, idiotic, good-hearted, reckless, loyal Merlin. In all the years he’d known him, Merlin had never failed him. He knew that if there was breath left in his body, Merlin never would fail him. If that bell was ringing, it meant only one thing.

Swift as thought, and sharp as a sword, grief pierced Arthur’s heart. Were it not for a lifetime of training, he would have faltered in that moment. Camelot’s bell was crying out Merlin’s death. More immortal soldiers poured into the dungeon in the wake of the bell, and Arthur had fallen back before rallying his men for one last charge. They were already dead; he knew it, and they knew it. Death accepted, he’d thrown himself forward, and had been grateful that at least he’d get to follow Merlin into the dark with a sword in his hand.

Then the impossible happened. Morgana’s immortal men suddenly just…shredded and were gone. In an instant, their fortunes were reversed; his death sentence was suspended. Standing there with nothing and no one to fight, Arthur almost felt cheated. Merlin was gone and he would not be following. They would leave that dungeon ostensibly triumphant, but he felt as if he’d been defeated.

It came to him in a rush, then...everything that Merlin truly meant to him. He wasn’t just a servant. He wasn’t just a friend. He was the most important person in Arthur’s life, and Arthur hadn’t even known it until that very moment. He loved Merlin with all his heart and soul...and Merlin was gone.

The hours that passed between the realization of his feelings and the discovery that Merlin was still alive were the most painful of his life. When Merlin had finally appeared, grimy and covered head to toe with the chalky white residue of pulverized stone, relief hit him like a punch to the gut. Dizzy and unable to breathe for all the emotions surging through him, he’d sagged into the nearest chair and gone completely mute.

His ability to express himself hadn’t improved much in the intervening months.

He could hardly speak to Merlin at all for days. Every time Arthur even looked at him he was swamped by feelings, completely consumed by them. So overwhelming were his emotions that he’d become light-headed, palms sweating, breath quickening, mouth drying, and vision blurring. Arthur found he couldn’t function at all with Merlin in the same room. He hadn’t known what to do.

Merlin didn’t feel the same way about Arthur; that much was obvious to anyone with eyes. Everything he felt, he wore on his face. If Merlin had ever felt more for Arthur than loyal friendship, it would have been there for all to see.

Shaken from his reverie when Merlin resumed his humming, Arthur let his eyes roam over the familiar lanky figure. There was a speed of motion, a sense of energy and purpose about his movements that had been lacking in recent days. Merlin seemed somehow…renewed.

In the aftermath of the battle for Camelot, Merlin had been moving slowly, carefully, unusually quiet for weeks. Even when he’d started to stand straight again, there’d been an air of sadness that hung over him like a shroud. It seemed his shock and distress over Morgana’s betrayal had gone as deep as Arthur’s had. Arthur had been unable to stop himself from speculating why that was. Had Merlin still been in love with Morgana, as Arthur had known Merlin once was? Had Merlin ever really turned away from his affection for her when warned to do so by his prince? It hadn’t seemed so, but now...

He watched Merlin bustling around his bedroom and glared at the upright line of his back. Even the man’s posture was upbeat and positive today.

“What is wrong with you?” he finally demanded of his manservant.

The beaming grin Merlin turned on Arthur had him squinting it was so bright.

“Nothing, Sire. Nothing at all. Everything is…well…it’s good,” he chirped.

Merlin’s too-blue eyes went distant for a moment, his smile softening in the most disconcerting manner before he continued, “Yeah, everything’s fine…very fine. Why do you ask?”

“You’re humming…loudly,” Arthur grumbled. “It’s exceedingly annoying.”

“Oh! I didn’t realize. My apologies, Sire.”

The sincerity in his voice as Merlin apologized was positively alarming. He’d called Arthur “Sire” without the slightest hint of irony in his voice. No mocking smirk accompanied his words, and he turned back to his dusting without another word spoken. As Arthur stared at him in horror, Merlin began humming again, and seemed to be completely unaware of the fact he was doing it.

Nonplussed, Arthur sat back and tried to remember the last time Merlin had been this happy. Uneasily, he could not. At least not in recent memory, certainly not since Morgana had…no, best not to think about that. Besides, even before his sister’s betrayal, he couldn’t think of a single instance where Merlin had been so content with his lot in life as to sing to himself as he worked. He’d always been more inclined to gripe, even if his complaints were often accompanied by a sunny smile that belied his querulous words.

However in recent months, Merlin had been more inclined to genuine irritability or silent brooding. It was a sorry state of affairs, but Merlin’s quiet withdrawal had suited Arthur’s own dour mood. Oh, he’d missed Merlin’s sunny smiles and chipper insults, but at the same time, it had comforted him that he wasn’t alone in his grim, and cheerless state of mind.

Now though, the cacophonous return of Merlin’s good humour was a definite irritant.

“Will you cease that detestable racket!” Arthur bellowed at him.

“Sorry, Sire!” Merlin singsonged back at him.

Arthur demanded, “What the hell is with you?”

Merlin shrugged innocently. “Nothing, I swear! I feel…great!”

“That’s exactly my point; it’s unlike you. Where has my usually sullen servant gone? What have you done with him?”

He peered at Merlin with suspicion. The infuriating man merely shrugged, and flashed Arthur a saucy grin before turning back to his chores and applying himself with uncommon vigor and enthusiasm. A few minutes later, Merlin began to whistle…tunelessly. Frustrated, Arthur jumped to his feet.

“That’s it!”

Striding across the room, he grabbed Merlin by the arm and spun him around. “Tell me what’s gotten into you. Are you ill?”

He pressed the back of his hand to Merlin’s forehead, and while the skin there was warm it certainly wasn’t feverish. “What’s happened to make you so damned…happy all of a sudden?”

Merlin shook his head, setting his messy mop of hair aquiver. Arthur was briefly distracted by the gleaming sable waves, but jerked his attention back to the guileless grin adorning Merlin’s unnervingly pink lips.

“Really, it’s nothing.”

“It’s something. Tell me!” Arthur insisted.

His expression shifting slightly, Merlin hesitated a moment before offering, “Well, um…it’s, well…I just…an old friend came to visit recently and I guess I had missed him more than I realized.”

“A…friend?” Arthur’s gut twisted. “You actually have friends?

Head flopping up and down like the village idiot, Merlin’s smile didn’t dim in the face of Arthur’s feigned scorn.

Arthur’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Who is this friend?

Merlin’s eyes actually had the nerve to twinkle just then. “Oh, he’s nobody, Sire. Completely beneath your notice.”

“Yes, well, naturally…he must be if he’s friends with you,”Arthur agreed pompously, put out by being so easily distracted and taking it out on Merlin.

Realizing he still had Merlin’s arm in a vice grip, Arthur released him, letting his hand fall away to hang uselessly at his side. A friend…right. There was no way a mere friend could put this much of a spring in Merlin’s step. He’d seen Merlin with his friends. They made him smile, they made him laugh, they occasionally got him so drunk he burst into song but they never had him humming and whistling as he emptied Arthur’s chamberpot for gods’ sake!

Returning to his desk, he made a deliberate show of turning his attention back to the papers spread out on its surface.

So, if it wasn’t a long-lost friend that had made Merlin so happy, it must be something else. But what on earth could not only lift Merlin out of the doldrums he’d dwelled in the last months, but also launch him straight into heights of joy such as Arthur had never witnessed before? Merlin wasn’t a good liar, anyone could attest to this fact and yet…he hadn’t been lying when he’d spun his tale to Arthur. Not lying, no, but certainly not telling the entire truth either; it was more like he was keeping a secret: Merlin’s smile had turned ever so slightly sly for a moment before he’d answered Arthur’s question. His manservant was as bad at keeping secrets as he was at telling lies. It concerned Arthur no little bit that Merlin was trying to keep one now.

What the hell is the idiot hiding from me now?

What had spawned this sudden about face? What could possibly lift Merlin’s melancholy away as if it had never been? What could make him so damn happy and shiny all of a sudden?

Striking like a hammer from above, the reason hit Arthur with a force that might have knocked him from his feet had he been standing. A lover! Merlin had found a lover.

It made a sickening sort of sense. What else could so quickly ease the pain of lost love but the flush of a new passion? Raising his eyes from where they’d fallen to the floor, he stared at Merlin and knew he was right. Merlin was glowing. He was shining with a light that Arthur had never seen in him before. He appeared to be relaxed yet invigorated as only a good shagging can make a man.

Look at him! He’s practically purring he’s so contented!

Stomach churning, it took all of Arthur’s willpower not to vomit on the spot. He felt himself break out in the cold sweat of shock. Merlin had a lover…a lover who wasn’t Arthur. A lover who made him so happy he whistled through his chores, grinning ear to ear while elbows deep in Arthur’s filth. He’d never seen Merlin so happy. Certainly nothing Arthur had ever done had inspired this level of joy. That knowledge made him ache all over.

Jealousy flared in his gut, rushing through his veins like molten lead: weighty and consuming. He burned with a sudden need to know who. Who was it pulling Merlin away? Who was it making Merlin smile in a way he never had for Arthur? Who had stolen Merlin from him? Who was it that Arthur needed to destroy? He would, he would rip them limb from limb; he’d wipe them from the face of the earth and win Merlin back, he would…

Despair lanced him with a sharp, poisoned tip. Arthur couldn’t win Merlin back because Arthur had never had Merlin in the first place. There could be no winning back what he’d never held.

He stared at Merlin as he scrubbed the stones around the hearth, still humming, completely oblivious to Arthur and his crisis of emotion. No, he’d never held Merlin’s affections, and probably never would, but he couldn’t help wondering what sort of person could? What sort of person clearly did? A tiny knot of determination coiled in his gut. He would know the answer to that question, and no amount of dissembling on Merlin’s part would keep it from him. He would know what it took to win Merlin’s heart. Then he would find out what it took to keep it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

After his first night together with “Arthur”, Merlin swore to himself that he would never abuse his magic in such a way again, and had even meant it...at the time. However, Merlin found that vow much more difficult to keep in practice than it had been making it in principle. He had felt whole again for the first time in months; perhaps ever. He literally couldn’t stop thinking about that feeling, obsessing over it...and, in the end, it had only taken Merlin a day and a half before he caved in to his cravings and brought Arthur’s drawing back to life.

Once Merlin had given up all pretense that he could stop himself from being with his conjured lover, he quickly determined that it too risky to have Arthur in his room again. Gaius might be a deep sleeper, but his hearing was unnervingly keen when awake, and he was awake far later than Merlin most nights. He also knew that there was no way in all the wide world that Gaius would ever approve of the use Merlin was suddenly making of his magic. No doubt he’d arch one intimidating eyebrow, deliver a crushing sermon filled with paternal disappointment, and Merlin would cave and promise to never abuse his power thus again. Such an eventuality was to be avoided at all costs, because he needed Arthur. He couldn’t live without him.

So Merlin took to keeping his supply of charcoal and parchment stashed in the unused anteroom connected to Arthur’s chambers. When Arthur dismissed him for the evening, Merlin would simply scoop up his bag, and head out of the castle with swift steps, eager to reach the safety of the woods beyond the south wall.

There was a clearing there that Merlin had discovered, not too far from the postern gate. Well off the beaten path, it was accessible only by the faintest of game trails. He’d long since used the meadow to practice his magic, and now it served well to conceal his illicit magical trysts from any prying eyes.

The days were growing longer as spring advanced toward summer and if he hurried, Merlin could usually make it to his secret grotto before the sun sank beyond the horizon. He could always summon light of course, or conjure fire to light the space, but he still preferred to draw by the natural light of the sun. There was a quality that couldn’t be matched by any light he could create himself. Warmer than the blue glow of a mage-sphere, but clearer and steadier than the flickering light of any fire, there was no better way to light Arthur’s features as Merlin shaped them with his hands before bringing them to life with his magic.

Merlin grinned as he slipped into the shelter of the trees the evening following Arthur’s suspicious questioning of his mood. He knew he should be more discreet in his joy but he really couldn’t help himself. Part of him knew that what he was doing was morally dubious at best, and that the potential for catastrophe in the worst case was high. It wasn’t sensible, sane, or even remotely healthy behavior but he couldn’t stop now even if he wanted to. And being completely honest with himself, Merlin really didn’t want to.

Merlin knew he would never have the real Arthur. Not in this lifetime, and the likelihood of getting a second chance in another was so remote as to be laughable. So then, why shouldn’t he have this? Who would be harmed by his actions? Gaius would probably answer that it was Merlin himself who would suffer, and he couldn’t deny the truth of that, but did that really make it wrong? Merlin was already suffering the torments of the damned with his hopeless affection for a man who couldn’t stand the sight of him. What harm could he do to himself that Arthur had not already done?

Settling onto a low boulder that he’d planed smooth with magic, Merlin retrieved a sheet of vellum and a stick of charcoal from his bag. As he began to sketch, he knew he was already so far gone that he could not imagine coming to any further harm.Merlin might not be able to have the real thing, but he would have this consolation for as long as he could.

Half an hour later, Arthur’s form reposed in charcoal ease on the page and Merlin set him carefully on the ground before he began feeding his magic into the parchment leaf. Arthur rose smoothly and swiftly, the process of the spell becoming more familiar, more natural with every repetition.

Arthur smiled at him with bright affection this evening, effortlessly matching Merlin’s mood. Trial and error had shown Merlin how to imbue Arthur with emotion so that when he stepped from the page they were both completely in sync with each other. Some nights a lusty passion overtook them, while other evenings saw them reclining in easy companionship. When Merlin needed it, Arthur would soothe him with gentle hands and a sympathetic ear, or he could tease Merlin from the doldrums with gentle, mocking humour. Whatever Merlin gave to Arthur with the skill of his hands, Arthur gave back to Merlin with the comfort of his company.

“Merlin!” Arthur’s voice was deep and warm, curling around Merlin’s name with the prince’s familiar accent.

It had taken several tries for Merlin to puzzle out how to give speech to Arthur’s simulacrum. Once he had the knack of it, it still took some fine tuning to get him to sound like Arthur. His voice, cadence and manner of speaking, it all took some doing but once Merlin had gotten it right…oh, it was worth the time and effort!

His Arthur still didn’t speak much, but when he did, the words wrapped around Merlin and tickled him in all the right places. He said all the things Merlin had always wanted to hear from Arthur, but never had. Words of passion and appreciation, affection and devotion, promises of together and forever shivered across Merlin’s fever-hot skin and he felt the rightness of them all the way down to his bones.

This was how it should be between Arthur and Merlin. Here, lying beneath the trees under a blanket of stars felt so real, so much more natural than the cold, remote silence of the long daylight hours. This was the way they were meant to be--Arthur’s arms wrapped tightly around him, words of love and trust between them. No frosty glares and speculative stares, no hostile snapping and suspicious questions. They were two sides of the same coin, two halves of a whole. Merlin knew what he shared with his conjured Arthurs wasn’t real, but it was right.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

It took three days before he’d had enough. Three days of seeing the spirited spring in Merlin’s step, three days of listening to tuneless whistling and happy humming, and three long days filled with chirpy chatter and bright smiles powered by someone who wasn’t Arthur.

For the next three days he questioned everyone he dared. Everyone--Lancelot, Gwaine, Percival, Elyan and even Guinevere-idenied any knowledge of Merlin’s mysterious “friend”. Frustrated, Arthur finally paid a visit to the court physician to see if he could get any information out of the old codger.

He spent a fruitless forty-five minutes questioning Merlin’s de facto father about his manservant-cum-friend’s recent activities only to come up empty handed. All Gaius could tell him was that Merlin spent most evenings away from their shared chambers, but until then, Gaius had assumed he was with Arthur, as had been their usual wont before all the recent chaos.

Extracting a promise of discretion from the old man, Arthur came away from the conversation more confused and alarmed than ever. Merlin wasn’t just hiding something from Arthur, but from everyone near and dear to him. What on earth was going on?

For the first time in days, Arthur questioned his own assumptions. Surely if Merlin had a lover he would have confided in someone. It could be reasonably assumed that whomever was the recipient of his confidences might be hesitant to share them with the prince, but all of Merlin’s friends had seemed genuinely surprised by Arthur’s line of inquiry. Yes, most of them had noticed an improvement in Merlin’s mood, but none of them had thought to question it until Arthur did. It seemed that, like Gaius, they all assumed Merlin had been spending his evenings closeted away in Arthur’s chambers.

That evening, when he dismissed Merlin for the night, he watched him intently. Had he always stopped off to grab a bag from the antechamber before he left the suite? Arthur couldn’t remember. Usually, Arthur tried his best not to watch as Merlin left him. He might be the one sending Merlin away, but he still always hated that moment of parting. The room always seemed to go stale without Merlin in it. This time, he watched as Merlin slipped from the chamber. He didn’t even glance back at Arthur as he went.

After a few seconds of hesitation, Arthur followed him. He told himself he was all kinds of stupid for doing so. Merlin was probably going to head to the kitchens to grab himself some supper, or he’d return to Gaius’ chambers to dine with his mentor. Arthur was probably just wasting his time…but still, he followed. He just couldn’t help himself.

However, Merlin passed the turning for the kitchen without hesitation, and when he reached the courtyard, he headed toward the stables instead of the physicians quarters. Keeping a discreet distance so as not to alert Merlin to his presence, Arthur stepped inside the stables just in time to see his servant slip out the small door on the far side of the building. Curiosity in full cry, Arthur did the same.

Shadowed by the bulk of the building at his back, Arthur watched as Merlin glanced around before producing a key from under his tunic. Wait...where did he get a key? Arthur felt for his belt and key ring, counted the keys and didn’t find any missing. So where did Merlin get a copy from? It was just one more question he would have answered by the time all of this was over. The list seemed to be growing by the moment.

After Merlin passed through the gate, Arthur waited a few minutes before following. Much as Arthur teased him, he knew Merlin wasn’t stupid, quite the opposite. Merlin might be naïve sometimes, and he was about as subtle as a house afire, but he was surprisingly intelligent when he took the time to think. It had been clear from his demeanour that Merlin was on alert, and Arthur needed to be careful. When he deemed enough time had passed, Arthur continued his pursuit.

Having lost sight of his quarry, Arthur began to track him. It wasn’t terribly difficult. The ground here was soft, and while Merlin was displaying some degree of stealth, he hadn’t gone so far as to obscure his trail. Arthur picked out his long, narrow footprints right away. About a quarter of a mile later, Merlin’s tracks led him to the head of a very narrow game trail he’d never seen before. That in and of itself was a surprise, as Arthur prided himself on knowing the forest around Camelot like the back of his hand. Of all people, how on earth had Merlin discovered a trail Arthur knew nothing of?

Growing increasingly grim with each new discovery, Arthur padded softly down the trail in pursuit of his errant manservant.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Merlin didn’t draw a new Arthur every time. He had a few favourites that he’d preserved with his magic. There were mundane methods for preserving a charcoal drawing, but something of the drawing’s clarity was lost with all of them. His magic kept each line as crisp or as soft as he’d intended it to be.

It had been a particularly rough day. Gaius was more demanding, and Arthur more demeaning than usual. Between the two of them, they’d worn him down both physically and emotionally. Then to top off the day, the prince had practically chased him out of his chambers at the end of the day. He hadn’t even wanted Merlin to bring his supper, which was new. It was just, “Get out, Merlin,” a sneer of derision all too audible in his voice.

He studied the collection of Arthurs he’d already drawn, but none of them looked at him in the way he most craved. Today, Merlin needed something more focused. He needed an Arthur that couldn’t see anything but him. He began to sketch, and when he was done, Arthur gazed so intently back at him that it almost as if he was willing himself to life. With the help of a few whispered words, Arthur fulfilled his promise, slinking from the page with a predatory air.

Merlin trembled in anticipation, revelling in Arthur’s hungry stare. Smiling teasingly, Merlin rolled to his feet and backed away, letting Arthur stalk him. He stayed just out of arm’s reach for a few yards, drinking in Arthur’s grace and beauty, marvelling at the focused lust burning bright in those incredible eyes. Pure unadulterated need for Merlin was smouldering there. He’d never felt so wanted in his entire life. This was Arthur as Merlin had only ever seen in his dreams, and if there was a little voice at the back of Merlin’s mind telling him that this was still just a dream, Merlin paid it no mind.

“If you want this, you need to come get it,” Merlin murmured, his voice low and teasing.

The husky growl of Arthur’s response sent a frisson up Merlin’s spine.

“You’re the one who’s gonna get it, Merlin.”

“Prove it.”

Of course, he let Arthur catch him without too much effort. There was only so much pleasure to be had drawing out the chase when capture was the ultimate goal. Arthur’s strong arms came around him, pulling Merlin flush against his broad chest. Soft lips met, and parted, tongues sliding together in the gap. The kiss was languid, neither man in a hurry; both of them were exactly where they most wanted to be. Exhausted from a stressful day, Merlin was feeling low and slow…and in the mood to be pampered. He made himself pliant, and let Arthur handle him.

His Arthur was only too eager to please. He trailed kisses down Merlin’s throat as he unwound his neckerchief and dropped it to the ground. Hands stroking up Merlin’s back then down his arms, Arthur gently swept Merlin’s arms up over his head and slid his tunic off with sensuous care. Taking Merlin’s mouth again, Arthur’s hands suddenly seemed everywhere. Gasping from the stimulation, Merlin wriggled in his grip, enjoying the slow building fire.

Those busy, brilliant hands deftly loosened the laces at Merlin’s waist and smoothed his breeches down his legs. Arthur turned Merlin in his arms, trailing his lips along in the wake of the falling fabric. Mouthing soft kisses from Merlin’s hip to his knees, Arthur slowly alternated from leg to leg until he was crouched at Merlin’s feet. Feeling lazy and loved, Merlin did little to help as Arthur freed him from his boots, but he leaned into his lover as Arthur slid up his back and reached around to gently palm his hardening cock.

Letting out a soft groan, he bucked into Arthur’s hand and felt it tighten around him. Teeth nipped softly at his neck and worried little marks into his shoulder. Merlin turned his head, seeking and finding Arthur’s lips. He could feel the press of Arthur’s hardened length through the soft fabric of his trousers, and gently he pulled free from Arthur’s hold so he could turn and push them down over his lean hips. Merlin deliberately kept Arthur’s clothes conveniently simple. No tunic today, just a loose pair of soft trousers and nothing underneath.

Arthur stepped free, and eased down to the ground, tugging Merlin down to lay on top of him. A whispered word from Merlin’s lips and the moss beneath them thickened into a soft, luxurious spread. Sword callused hands wandered down Merlin’s back to grip and massage his buttocks; one blunt fingertip teasing the puckered hole that lay between. Those hands had soothed away the tensions of the day, and now were creating an entirely different sort of tension as Merlin felt himself harden further, need and urgency building low in his belly. Reaching down, he lined himself up alongside Arthur’s thick, beautiful cock and wrapped his fingers tightly around them both.

Gasping, Merlin reveled in the soft drag of flesh on flesh for several long strokes before the friction became an issue. He paused to lick his palm wet and smiled at Arthur’s moan of appreciation for the slick slide of his hand around their straining cocks.

“Merlin…gods, Merlin!”

He loved the way Arthur groaned his name in the heat of passion. It wasn’t something Merlin had consciously shaped for his lover, and that made him enjoy the husky sound all the more. There’d never been anything that sounded so sweetly in his ears before.

“Merrrlin…oh, uh, please…let me…”

Mouth pressed to Merlin’s, Arthur pushed him over until their positions were reversed, and it was Merlin spread out on the mossy ground. Then his mouth was everywhere, sliding hot and wet down Merlin’s chest, nibbling along his hip, tongue dragging across his belly. Long fingers circled and stroked his aching cock, tugged gently at his balls and nudged the sensitive strip of skin behind them. And all the while his mouth roamed hungrily over Merlin’s body, worshipping him with a possessive edge to teeth and tongue.

When he finally engulfed the straining length of Merlin’s cock with those burning, possessive lips, Merlin was so keyed up he practically shrieked, his back arching off the ground.

“Arthur! Mmmmm…yes, oh gods!”

Biting his lips, hips writhing, head thrashing side to side, Merlin fought for control. He wanted to enjoy this, but he was right on the edge. Arthur seemed to understand because he simply held Merlin in his mouth for a long, drawn out moment, allowing him to calm down. When he finally brought himself under a shaky sort of control, Merlin settled his hands in Arthur’s hair and held on as his lover continued his intimate worship. It was still over too soon, Merlin’s need was too great to last long under the swirling onslaught of Arthur’s talented tongue. The heat, the suction, the wet stroking proved too much and finally Arthur had the creamy reward he seemed so eager to claim.

Gathering Merlin’s bonelessly relaxed body close, Arthur continued to nuzzle along the length of his neck. Merlin snuggled into his side and curled his fingers lazily around Arthur’s cock, surprised to find it laying quiescent against his lover’s thigh. A quizzical look at Arthur’s face was returned with a slightly sheepish smile.

“I…I uh…finished when you did.”

Eyes widened, Merlin felt the grin stretching his mouth wide.

“Untouched?”

Blushing, Arthur nodded and Merlin laughed in delight. Burying his face against Arthur’s chest, he let himself drift, wishing he’d never have to let this dream go.

However, when the sun edged up over the horizon, he rose and began to dress. When he was finished, he regarded his slumbering lover for a long, lingering moment before closing his eyes and whispering the words that banished him back to the ether from whence he came. Merlin started back to the castle, already making plans for the night ahead.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Carefully creeping through the underbrush, Arthur caught the low murmur of two male voices well before he was within sight of them. He edged forward slowly, using every bit of his woods craft so as to not give away his presence. When the trees begin to thin, he crouched low but kept moving he finally reached the edge of the clearing. What he saw jolted him so badly he snapped upright, and staggered a clumsy step forward. A sharp snap reverberated through the trees as his foot landed on a twig, but luckily the two men in the glade were far too wrapped up in each other to even notice.

Lost to the world, Merlin stood in the center of the clearing wrapped up in the distressingly well-muscled arms of a complete stranger. The man didn’t look any taller than Merlin, but he was big, with the powerful build of a warrior.Or the hulk of a mindless farm drone. Arthur thought disparagingly. He dwarfed his partner, Merlin looking slim and breakable in the brute’s sweaty embrace.

Swallowing convulsively, Arthur fought to bring his suddenly ragged breathing under control. He couldn’t see the man’s face, as it was currently attached to Merlin’s, but the late afternoon sun revealed other details to his horrified gaze. He was blond with lightly tanned skin, and big hands that roamed hungrily over Merlin’s body. Arthur was sure it was just a trick of the light that gave the disgusting creature such a glowing, golden appearance. No one was that….that…shiny. Surely not.

It had to be the sun burnishing the man’s skin, because there was no way that his skin could have such a sheen naturally. And surely no man’s hair gleamed and glinted like that of its own accord. Why Arthur himself was a blond and there was no way he would ever glow like that. It was unmanly for gods’ sake!

Thoroughly sickened, Arthur finally allowed his gaze to focus on Merlin, and though he wasn’t moving, he found himself staggered. Merlin was…Merlin was beautiful. Arthur had never seen so much of Merlin’s milky, smooth skin on display. Now he could see all of it as the brute’s busy hands divested Merlin of all his clothes. He’d fantasized about what Merlin might look like beneath the modest, baggy garments he habitually wore. His fantasies had nothing on the reality.

So often, Arthur’s daydreams began as he stared at Merlin’s hands. Those long, slender fingers and broad palms teased his imagination and hinted at what the rest of Merlin might look like if Arthur ever had the chance to see. Arthur could see now, and the promise of Merlin’s hands was born out in the artistry of the rest of his form. He wasn’t scrawny, as Arthur so often teased him, but rather long, and lean with startlingly defined musculature. Eyes roaming, Arthur swallowed hard (again) when he realized that yes, Merlin’s skin really was that fine-grained and white all over. Sparse black hair dusted calves and forearms, and when Merlin’s lover turned him in his arms, Arthur could see that more of the silky black hair trailed faintly down his hard muscled belly, thickening as it reached the v between sharp, jutting hipbones.

Arthur’s breath strangled him as Merlin’s straining manhood was revealed to his avid, greedy gaze. Once again, reality outstripped fantasy. Arthur didn’t think he’d ever seen such a pretty cock in his life. Thick and long, arousal had flushed his hardened length a deep, dark rose colour from base to gently weeping tip. Arthur’s mouth watered as he wondered what Merlin would taste like if he were to…

The long-fingered hand wrapping around Merlin’s cock ripped Arthur from his fantasy as a savage jealousy tore through him. The intensity of his reaction had him bent double and fighting not to retch. It took everything the prince had not to surge to his feet, run into the glade and rip that man’s hands from his Merlin’s flesh. Everything about this was wrong! Merlin should be his! He was the man Merlin should be wrapped around. It was his hands that should be roaming over Merlin’s body, his lips teasing along the length of Merlin’s neck, his tongue tracing lines over Merlin’s shoulder, and only his teeth leaving marks of possession on Merlin’s skin.

On hands and knees, Arthur shuddered and fought for control. Rational thought battled with raging emotion for ascendency and it was probably only due to a lifetime’s training in restraint and decorum that kept him from murder in that long, tense moment of pain and rage. He turned away from the oblivious couple, and using the rough bark of a broad-trunked tree, pulled himself to his feet. Arthur took one step forward, and then another. Tears that he refused to let fall welled in his eyes and blurred his vision.

Later on, Arthur would never be sure how he made it back to the castle. All he could remember was the pain that consumed his entire being. Still, somehow he made it back to Camelot, to his chambers, and to his own bed for when he once again became aware of his surroundings, he found himself face down on a pillow soggy with salty tears.

The thin, watery light told him another day had dawned. Merlin would be there soon, and Arthur knew with certainty that there was no way he could face him. Forcing himself to his feet, he splashed his face clean, and scrambled into his clothes before he fled his own chambers in an act of cowardice he’d never before believed himself capable of.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

The further away the real Arthur pulled from him, the more enthusiastically Merlin threw himself into congress with his conjured Arthurs. Initially, he had dismissed the magically made man as soon as the sweat from their union had dried. However, once he’d given his Arthurs the ability to speak, once he’d learned how to give his Arthurs more complex emotions, he found himself lingering with his creations. There were even nights where they didn’t make love, they simply lay together, Merlin drawing comfort and strength from the simple act of being close to his conjured lover.

Merlin tried to tell himself that this was dangerous, that it wasn’t real and that deluding himself on a nightly basis couldn’t possibly be healthy, but he just couldn’t seem to stop. There was nothing really compelling stopping him. Nothing that could compare with the time he and Arthur spent in their secret glade, guarded by ancient trees and watched over by the twinkling stars.

His friends tried to tempt him into their company. Gwaine was constantly exhorting him to accompany him to the tavern. Lancelot invited him for friendly dinners in his chambers. Gwen and Elyan tried to coax him to share the evenings in the warmth of their cozy little home. Percival, surprisingly enough, spent much of his free time in the palace library and shyly asked for Merlin’s company. Even Sir Leon had invited him for a moonlight ramble around the lower town a time or two.

They were all so endearingly sweet, and yet Merlin couldn’t tear himself away from his trysts in the forest. Fair weather or foul, it made no difference. If the wind howled, and rain soaked the skies, Merlin would just will it away from his leafy abode. The ground would dry, the trees would still and the rain would stop long before it could touch the space where Merlin and his lover curled together on the soft moss mattress Merlin nightly summoned for their repose. He’d created a lovely, idyllic dream for himself, and there just wasn’t much that could compare. Especially with Arthur’s sour moods growing ever fouler as the days progressed.

The real Arthur of Merlin’s daytime life snapped and snarled at him openly now, finding fault with everything Merlin did to a degree not seen since his first days as the prince’s manservant. There had been a marked increase in objects hurled at Merlin in a temper, though it had to be said that Arthur no longer seemed inclined to slap him round the head any more. In fact, Arthur never touched Merlin in any capacity at all. There were no smacks, or manly punches to the arm, and certainly no friendly shoulder squeezes or playful hip-bumps. The prince hadn’t required Merlin to armour up and provide living pells for the knights in weeks. In fact, he’d taken to dismissing Merlin from the training field as soon as his armour was strapped in place. How he was getting it all off again without Merlin’s assistance was a mystery. He supposed Arthur must be asking for someone’s help, since even a contortionist couldn’t reach all those buckles by himself. All Merlin did know, was that whomever was serving to disarm the prince after afternoon training, it certainly wasn’t him.

Each day saw Merlin becoming less and less essential to Camelot’s prince. Each day that afforded him less time with the real Arthur saw Merlin’s dependence on time spent with the phantom Arthur grow ever more desperate. Merlin stopped bothering to return to the castle on any night. He’d sleep wrapped in his Arthur’s arms, rising early to return to Gaius’ rooms only in time to wash, dress and grab a hasty breakfast before dutifully facing up to another day serving a man who would barely acknowledge his existence.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Jealousy sat ill on the shoulders of the prince of Camelot; Arthur knew this. It was an ugly emotion, unworthy of a knight, let alone a prince. He tried ridding himself of its clutches by distancing himself from its source, but short of dismissing Merlin from his service, there was no way to entirely cut out the man’s painful presence from his life. Much as he loathed to admit it, he’d been sorely tempted to sack Merlin the day after he’d caught him in the woods with his golden lover. However, reason told thim that Merlin hadn’t really done anything wrong.

The sense of betrayal gnawing at Arthur’s gut was entirely of his own making, and well he knew it. Self-awareness, and the cold sting of shame had kept him from dismissing Merlin but it couldn’t smother the pain that knifed through him every time he saw the younger man. His unrequited feelings had been manageable whilst Merlin had been as lost to melancholy as Arthur, but now…now Merlin glowed with contentment, and the light from his happiness singed Arthur, even as it fed the fire of his all-consuming jealousy.

After he’d spied on Merlin and his nameless lover that first night, Arthur had vowed he’d never do it again. His resolve lasted all of two days before Merlin’s dreamy expression and private smiles had driven him to steal down to the woods again to see just what that man was doing to suffuse Merlin’s countenance with such joy.

By the time he’d reached the glade on that second night, Merlin and his brawny lover were already naked and twined together in passionate congress on the unusually luxurious moss that carpeted the forest floor here. Arthur’s fists clenched as Merlin’s incoherent cries of pleasure grew louder and more intense. His cock twitched and hardened as he watched the golden man fill Merlin’s pale, lissome body over and over. And when Merlin’s cries broke, and his lover groaned his completion, Arthur shuddered and felt the liquid heat of his own release dampen the fabric of his breeches. Shame had flooded him then, and he’d withdrawn and made his way back to the castle, vowing once again that it would be the last time he spied on Merlin and his lover.

That time, he managed to resist for a few days before the all-consuming need to see for himself became overwhelming. Once more, Arthur found himself slipping silently through the trees, intent on watching Merlin with his lover. He knew what he was doing was sick but he couldn’t seem to stop. Arthur was more careful than he’d been that first time. He knew where Merlin was going, so he hung back and let a little time pass before he followed. When he finally arrived at the edge of the clearing, he found Merlin on his own.

Stretched out along the ground, all of Merlin’s attention was focused on something in the grass. Arthur crept closer, and saw what looked like a square of parchment laying on the ground. Merlin’s right hand was busy with what appeared to be a stick of charcoal, and it took a few moments before Arthur realized that Merlin was drawing on the page before him. Arthur’d never had any inkling that Merlin had any interest in art. He swallowed down the small hurt that came with knowing that here was yet another part of himself that Merlin had never shared with Arthur. Does he do this often? he wondered as he watched how focused Merlin was on his work.

Focused he might be, but Merlin showed he wasn’t lost to the world around him when Arthur shuffled restlessly in place, inadvertently rustling the branches of the small bush at his feet. He froze as Merlin’s eyes scanned the trees, pausing near but not on the place where Arthur stood partially concealed by the thick trunk of an ancient oak. Clearly, Merlin was more alert to his surroundings when not distracted by his lover’s presence. Arthur deemed it best to withdraw, rather than court discovery, so he didn’t wait to see if Merlin’s golden man put an appearance in that evening.

It wasn’t until his fourth incidence of spying that Arthur finally got an eyeful of the golden man’s face. For once, it wasn’t directly attached to Merlin’s face, nor was it nuzzling Merlin’s hair, pressed against his neck, or worst of all, buried between Merlin’s thighs. No, that evening, when Arthur made his way to their trysting place the lovers were simply lying in each arms, speaking too softly for Arthur to make out the words. The sun was still bright, though low in the sky, and Arthur got his first good look at his rival. It wasn’t a heartening sight.

The man was good-looking…too good-looking. In fact, Arthur had to grudgingly concede that the prat was almost ludicrously handsome. A square jaw and high cheekbones framed a face featuring a straight, high-bridged nose, large eyes that appeared quite blue, and a full-lipped mouth that smiled far too frequently for the ease of Arthur’s heart. He was stunning…if you cared for that brand of story-book handsome. Arthur most decidedly did not.

Still, the two made a horribly pretty picture together. Merlin so pale and slender, his lover so broad and tan, the shiny golden hair of the man highlighted the sable gloss of Merlin’s unruly locks, and his solid earthy beauty made Merlin appear all the more fey and ethereal by contrast. Fey, ethereal, and depressingly out of Arthur’s reach because something he hadn’t wanted to acknowledge became all too clear to Arthur as he watched them that night. Merlin was deeply in love with his mystery man. It had been easy for Arthur to tell himself that the affair was purely physical when all he had seen of the two had been the sweaty grapple of passion. But watching as they lay curled together, exchanging soft words and tender looks, Arthur was forced to accept that Merlin’s affections were most genuinely engaged.

Fleeing the woods in the wake of that knowledge, Arthur returned to the emptiness of his own rooms. Dwelling resentfully on the undeniably handsome appearance of Merlin’s lover, Arthur brooded a while before getting up to fetch his only mirror from the wardrobe. Returning to the brighter candlelight of his outer chamber, he sank down at the table and studied the blurry image reflected back by the polished bronze.

Arthur knew he was good looking because he’d always been told he was. From the time he was a child people had always gushed to him about his looks. They’d praised the flaxen hue of his blond hair, and compared his blue eyes to everything from the summer sky at noon to the shimmering waters of a cold northern loch. They’d heaped so many compliments on the cast of his features as to all blur together after a while. So Arthur knew he was a handsome man, because it seemed to be the one thing that everyone he’d ever met could unanimously agree on. However, as he looked at the wavery lines of his face in the mirror, he realized he didn’t have a very good grasp of what he actually looked like. How exactly did he compare to Merlin’s distressingly comely lover?

He’d never really taken much of an interest in his looks, truth be told. He was lucky enough to possess a fortunate appearance, and until now, that had always been enough for him. His father didn’t bestow much importance on a man’s looks, and didn’t hold with vanity in a son (though he’d certainly had no problem indulging it in his daughter). There’d never been a single portrait painted of Arthur, and he’d never before sought to see himself through the eyes of another. Now, when it finally mattered to him, Arthur found he really had only the vaguest idea of what his own appearance really was.

The image afforded him by the one mirror he owned didn’t do much to help. The thing served to tell him if his hair needed a combing, but it gave little else in the way of visual feedback. His features were fuzzy and dim in the dun coloured metal. His hair was too short for him to discern the colour with his own eyes, though memories of his most recent haircut proved it was quite fair in colour. Looking down, he saw his skin was lightly tanned where the sun touched it daily, and relatively pale where it did not. He was broad of build with strong, well-made hands. Really, if that man was Merlin’s ideal, Arthur couldn’t be too far off the mark, could he?

Both of them possessed blue eyes, and a pleasing face. He might not have the man’s sculpted beauty, but really, he must be more than simply passable if his admirers were to be believed. Were they to be believed? Arthur had to concede that there could be just the slightest element of sucking up in the many compliments he received. He tried to remember if he’d ever been complemented by someone who wasn’t aware of who he was. Depressingly, he could not. In fact, the last time he’d been incognito, it had been Merlin who’d drawn the admiration of the tavern-keep serving them.

All right, so it was possible that he wasn’t that good looking after all but at least Arthur knew he had a good body. His shoulders were every bit as broad as those of Merlin’s lover. There was no competing with the likes of Sir Percival for bulging arms, but Arthur knew his were at least comparable with his rival’s. His abdomen was just as ridged and rippled, his waist and hips just as trim, and he was confident that Merlin’s lover had nothing on him when it came to comparisons of their manhoods. He’d seen Merlin’s lover in a rampant state, and while the man was well proportioned, Arthur knew himself to be the more gifted of the two.

All in all, Arthur didn’t compare unfavourably with Merlin’s lover. They were similar enough in aspect that if Merlin could love that man, there was no reason he couldn’t love Arthur just as well. So…why didn’t he? Arthur had to know, he had to know just what was so special about this man. What made him preferable in Merlin’s eyes to the Crown Prince of Camelot? Clearly, more investigation was needed.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

It hadn’t seemed possible to Merlin, but Arthur (the real Arthur) was getting worse as the days grew long and the temperature continued to climb. He wasn’t ignoring his servant any more. Instead he seemed to focus his black temper squarely on Merlin as if someone had painted a target on his back when he wasn’t looking.

At best, every command was a snarl, at worst an outright shriek of rage. He contradicted himself, first piling a huge list of tasks on Merlin, then turning around and banishing Merlin from his princely chambers. First it was “Muck the stables,” then “What the hell are you doing down here? You should be polishing my armour!” Then there was the time he ordered, “Scrub the floor, Merlin,” and twenty minutes later, “What the hell are you doing on your knees? Get up for gods’ sake!”

Merlin couldn’t make a single move without Arthur criticizing it. Arthur kept him claustrophobically close until the moment he dismissed him entirely, chasing him from the room with black insults and hurled objects.

There was no talking to him…for anyone. Merlin seemed to be getting the brunt of the prince’s bad mood but everyone was getting the rough side of his tongue lately. And no one could say why for certain. Arthur wasn’t letting anyone close.

Most were content to write it off as stress. Arthur had taken over the day to day running of the kingdom quite suddenly, after all. If they weren’t ascribing his bad behavior to stress, then they assumed he was still reacting to Morgana’s betrayal or his father’s failing health. Gaius assured Merlin it was all of the above and that Arthur’s dark spirits shouldn’t come as a surprise. The rolling of his eyes clearly told Merlin that his mentor felt he was exaggerating Arthur’s behavior, making a big deal over nothing. But, Merlin knew better.

He might not be the recipient of Arthur’s confidences anymore but he certainly knew his prince well enough to know that all was not well. Yes, he knew that stress, worry, and betrayal had all taken a toll on Arthur, but the prince was getting worse as the days passed. He wasn’t coping, and something told Merlin that something less obvious was eating away at Arthur. However, Arthur wasn’t in the mood for sharing, and that didn’t look likely to change anytime soon.

Feeling pushed out, Merlin was only too happy to continue spending his nights in the forest with his conjured lover. It wasn’t that he hadn’t given the simulacrum some of Arthur’s snark and attitude. There would have been no pretending it was Arthur without that. But he’d given his creation a softened version of Arthur’s famous temper. His teasing was gentle and affectionate. When he called Merlin “idiot” there was no bite to it; it was a term of endearment in his Arthur’s mouth. When they wrestled, his Arthur didn’t leave him feeling bruised and battered. The marks that were left behind were intimate reminders of pleasurable moments, not stinging reminders of Arthur’s brute strength.

Still, it was only a substitute for what Merlin really wanted...and could never have. He reminded himself of that fact every morning when he returned to the castle. Then Arthur reinforced it throughout the day with pointed insults, shouted abuse, and hard metal cups that bounced off the back of Merlin’s neck.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Guilt and shame began to colour Arthur’s every interaction with Merlin. Every time he spied on the lovers, Arthur tarnished his honour and betrayed his friendship with Merlin. It had been hard enough to face Merlin in the daylight after dreaming of him in the night, but it became twice as hard to face him after Arthur spilled his seed on the forest floor while watching Merlin fuck his lover, illicitly concealed from them in the dark.

For a few days, Arthur had managed to feel justified in his surveillance of Merlin with his lover, but it became obvious after a week or so that he was no closer to discovering why Merlin was so enthralled with his lover from the woods. However, justification or no, Arthur couldn’t seem to make himself stop. Every evening, against his best intentions, he found himself creeping through the underbrush to spy on Merlin and his man. Every evening, he returned to the castle shaking with furious jealousy, aching with want and covered in a crawling shame for his sick, voyeuristic observation of the pair.

He compounded that shame by taking his rage and frustration out on Merlin. He could barely bring himself to look on his servant anymore...yet, he couldn’t stop staring. Arthur found himself constantly berating and belittling Merlin for little to no reason. More often than not, he’d simply throw Merlin out of his room, or stalk off in a huff, leaving the poor man bewildered by his strange behavior. Then he’d grow anxious when Merlin was out of sight for too long, and he’d end up hunting him down again so he could hustle Merlin back to his chambers.

It had been bad today. Every little thing Merlin did seemed to bring the image of him ecstatically writhing in his lover’s arms to Arthur’s mind. He’d been ready to scream and smash things by noon. By the time Merlin was bent over the table, clearing away the lunch plates, Arthur’d had enough. He snapped and threw Merlin out, telling him not to even think about returning until the following day.

Merlin had stopped to grab his bag from the antechamber before slamming the door shut on his way out. Arthur was on his knees before the wood even stopped vibrating. Image after image assailed his mind’s eye. Merlin pressed up against a tree, riding his lover’s cock, screaming with incoherent ecstasy. Merlin on his back, long legs wrapped around his lover’s waist, whimpering with need as he was filled again and again. Merlin down on his hands and knees, dwarfed by the broad, muscled bulk of the man looming over his back, huge hands gripping his narrow hips as the brute lunged into him, their flesh slapping rhythmically as Merlin keened at the top of his voice. Slender moon-pale legs twined with thick, gold furred thighs against a bed of moss as Merlin rested against his lover, catching his breath, their skin shining with sweat, the gleam of cum smeared across Merlin’s belly. Merlin’s lush mouth stretched around his lover’s thick cock…Arthur clawed at his head trying to get the images out.

It was happening now, he was sure of it. He’d sent Merlin away, and every time he did that, Merlin ran straight into the bulging arms of his thrice-damned, golden, glorious fucking lover. They’d be together now, bathed in the light of the sun this time, like some kind of fucking benediction. No. No! He had to stop it, had to stop them!

Lunging to his feet, Arthur tore out the door in pursuit of his friend, his servant, his Merlin. He had to tell Merlin, had to make him see. He belonged with Arthur, not some overly-muscled pretty boy. Legs pumping, sweat flying from his brow, Arthur blindly plunged down stairs and through doors until he found himself outside the postern gate. Tearing through it, he was halfway down the path to Merlin’s trysting place before sanity began to assert itself again. His feet slowed and he began to think once more.

How on earth was he going to show Merlin they belonged together? Arthur had been nothing but foul to him for months now. If he’d ever had a chance at winning Merlin’s heart, surely he’d destroyed it by now. What on earth could he say to Merlin, right here, right now that would make him understand how much Arthur loved him? How badly Arthur needed him?

Slowing to a snail’s pace, Arthur’s feet dragged on the ground. There wasn’t anything. There were no words that could magically reveal his heart, his intent, his love. He should stop. He should turn around, and go back to the castle right now. He should leave Merlin and his lover in peace. Arthur knew what he should do, but it’s not what he did. Instead, he crept forward and settled into his hiding spot on the edge of Merlin’s clearing and watched the man he loved wait for the man he loved to arrive.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Merlin threw himself down in the grass as soon as he got to the clearing. Wriggling out of his boots, and rummaging furiously in his bag, he soon had charcoal and parchment in hand. He knew what he needed from Arthur today and it wasn’t an image he had saved in his bag. Right now, he needed an aggressive Arthur, he needed to shout, to claw, to fuck with abandon, dirty and rough. He needed an Arthur he’d never conjured before.

Drawing furiously, he erased the image three times before he had what he needed. Lurching to his feet, he held his hand over the parchment on the ground and growled the words that brought Arthur to life.

Arthur burst from the page, exploding to life so fast Merlin’s eyes couldn’t follow the formation. Blinking rapidly, he was unprepared when Arthur lunged at him, taking him clean off his feet. However, Merlin’s surprise vaporized the instant Arthur’s mouth closed over his. Spoiling for the fight, he bit down on Arthur’s lower lip, and reveled in the angry growl he got in response. Arthur’s hands tore at his tunic, whipping it over his head so fast it caught on one ear, tugging painfully until it came free. Merlin growled and bit down on Arthur’s neck in retaliation.

“Merlin!” His name was a guttural cry in Arthur’s throat.

Big hands snapped his trouser laces, and forced the garment down his legs. Impatiently, Merlin kicked free of the tangle of fabric and locked his legs around the smooth skin of Arthur’s waist. He’d deliberately drawn Arthur naked today, not wanting to waste time ridding him of his clothes. In another first, he’d drawn Arthur erect and ready. With a muttered word and a flash of his eyes, Merlin was slick, open and equally ready. He grabbed Arthur and rolled, forcing the larger man over onto his back and coming to rest on top of him, panting and grinning with accomplishment. When Arthur lunged up in an attempt to return them to their former position, Merlin tightened his legs round Arthur’s waist and shoved him back down.

“Ah ah! No you don’t. You stay right where you are.”

“Why you little-“ Merlin muffled Arthur’s protest with his mouth, savagely nipping at the pouty lower lip. When Merlin judged him sufficiently oxygen deprived, he released Arthur’s mouth and reared upright. Lifting his body high, he slammed himself down on Arthur’s hard cock. They cried out in unison at the painful burn. Reveling in the savagery of the act, Merlin forced himself down until Arthur was buried to the root inside him.

“Arthur!” Whipping his head side to side, the name ripped from his vocal cords. “NNnngg! Fuck, Arthur!”

“Yes! I’m here, love. I’ve got you, fuck! I’ve got you!”

“Arthur!”

Practically insensible to anything but the feel of Arthur’s hands on his hips, Arthur’s flesh stretching him open, Merlin was too far gone to register the shocked yelp and resounding crash that came from the thick brush at the edge of the clearing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

When he saw Merlin was drawing again, Arthur was careful settling himself into a comfortable position. Merlin was always more alert when drawing than when…well, when otherwise engaged. However, this time, Merlin appeared deaf to the world around him. Fingers flying over the page, he was sketching at a furious pace, smudging lines and scraping the image with his nails, wielding his bread-eraser with abandon.

Arthur watched him with intense curiosity. What was it that Merlin was always drawing? Usually, Arthur didn’t stick around when Merlin drew because his servant was much too alert when not distracted by his lover. He’d hear those little rustling noises from the brush, and he’d come perilously close to discovering Arthur in his hiding place a time or two. Today, it was different, so today, Arthur stayed to watch.

There wasn’t much to discern from the movement of Merlin’s hands but Arthur was content to just watch them work. Merlin had the most beautiful hands, and Arthur rarely got the chance to look his fill, too afraid to be caught staring. Mesmerized, Arthur indulged himself, and felt his pounding heart settle, his breathing slow and his body relax in the peace of this place. He could understand why Merlin came here, even when he wasn’t meeting his illicit lover.

Then Merlin abruptly ceased drawing and leapt to his feet. Arthur tensed, not knowing what to expect. Had Merlin discovered him? His heart began to pound again as he watched in frozen apprehension. No, no, Merlin wasn’t looking his way, he was staring down at the ground, at the parchment drawing laying at his feet. Merlin held his hand out, palm facing down, an angry growling noise emanating from his throat. It took a few seconds for Arthur to realize Merlin was speaking. The strange, foreign words sat ill in Arthur’s ears.

He still didn’t understand what Merlin was doing until the man appeared. Appeared…no, he didn’t just appear, the man exploded from the drawing at Merlin’s feet. The sudden burst of movement was so swift and unexpected that Arthur’s body locked in place, just ceased being for several long moments. His eyes continued to register the scene in front of him, the naked, blond man tackling Merlin to the ground, but Arthur’s thoughts stopped churning, his heart stopped beating and his breath stilled in the strangle-tight confines of his throat.

The couple was wrestling now, tumbling over each other in the grass, the man from the drawing was tugging and tearing at Merlin’s clothes while it seemed Merlin was intent on eating his partner alive if the way he was mouthing at the man was any indication. The “man”…was it even a man Merlin coupled with? And Merlin…he was…he was a sorcerer! A fucking sorcerer!! He’d conjured a living breathing…thing! Out of a bit of charcoal and parchment!

Arthur wasn’t aware of the moment his heart began to beat again, nor was he sensible to the resumption of his body’s breathing activities but he was well aware of the moment they leapt out of control and nearly killed him with their furious rush. Eyes continuing to register the scene before him, he was dimly aware of Merlin impaling himself on his lover’s flesh, but his agonized shout of, “Arthur!” pierced through the swirling chaos of Arthur’s thoughts like a lance. He tried to focus. Merlin shouted his name again, and even as Arthur opened his mouth to respond, the conjured man beat him to it. He gasped out his acknowledgement of Arthur’s name! Then Merlin screamed his name a third time, and Arthur staggered as comprehension hit him. His ankle twisted under him, and he yelped in shock as he went down with a crash.

Stunned, Arthur lay in a tangle of cloth, twigs, leaves, branches, and his own limbs. He knew he should untangle himself, get up, and get away before he was discovered--for surely Merlin had to have heard that racket--but Arthur found himself curiously immobile. He wasn’t sure what to feel let alone what to do. Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin could conjure men from drawings. Merlin had been conjuring the lover Arthur was so jealous of. Yet, Merlin’s conjured lover was…Arthur. And probably most stunning of all, Merlin loved his conjured lover, which meant…Merlin loved Arthur...didn’t it?

Merlin loved him…but Merlin had lied to him. Merlin had been lying to him for years. He’d been lying about, well, everything! There’d never been any indication he had feelings for Arthur, no wait, he should be concerned about the magic. Yes, that’s what Arthur had to focus on, Merlin had magic, and quite a lot of it from the looks of things. He was a lying, evil, conniving sorcerer...who loved Arthur.

He could still hear the sound of that love echoing around the clearing. Clearly, the furiously coupling men just out of sight had not heard the commotion Arthur had made as he keeled over from shock at the dual revelation he’d been hit with. Their grunts, growls and shouted imprecations were punctuated by the obscene wet sounds of pumping flesh and slapping skin. Arthur didn’t hear his name again but he didn’t have to. The hated golden man fucking the traitorous sorcerer he loved was…him.

A stray thought, is that really what I look like? distracted him for a moment before he wrenched his mind back to more important matters. Arthur sat up, shaking his head as if he could knock loose the shock and confusion that so impaired his thinking. His heart sang with elation! His gut churned with betrayal. He could have Merlin! He could never trust Merlin. Arthur felt torn in two. Struggling upright, he kicked free of the brambles tangling his legs. The sound of tearing fabric heralded his freedom, and he lurched out into the clearing to confront the source of all his joy and anguish.

“Merlin!”

Ignored, Arthur stalked closer to the writhing couple and roared, “MERLIN!”

That brought a reaction. Merlin and his magical lover jerked apart with almost comical haste, but there was nothing about the scene Arthur could find amusing. He wanted to confront Merlin, but instead found himself staring at his copy with an unwanted fascination. It couldn’t be real, this thing on the ground, it wasn’t real, wasn’t a man. So…what was it? Was it a spirit? A demon who consented to wear his shape? Then why the imperfections in the copy? Arthur had seen all there was to see of his double and he knew there were differences between them. Wouldn’t a spirit be able to copy him exactly? According to all the warnings he’d been fed his whole life, a demon would copy a man exactly down to the skin, but this man was not an exact match…so what was he if not demonic? He turned his attention to the mage who’d conjured it.

“Merlin…what?”

Unable to form a more coherent question, he stared into Merlin’s horrified face and silently begged for answers.

“Arthur…I, I don’t…I can’t…I’m sorry!”

“You’re sorry. You’re sorry? Sorry for what exactly? Just what the hell are you doing? What is that thing?”

Pointing furiously at his doppleganger, Arthur advanced another step forward. To his surprise, it wasn’t Merlin who answered, it was his double. Only his words were directed at Merlin, not Arthur.

“Merlin, who is this? Who is he to question you?”

“Who am I? I’m Arthur Pendragon, Prince of Camelot, that’s who! Who, or rather what the fuck are you?”

The creature hissed in anger, and launched himself at Arthur. They went down in a snarl of limbs, and somehow Arthur’s copy wound up ascendant.

“Imposter! Lying knave! How dare you try to impersonate me?”

Arthur heard the impact of his copy’s fist with his jaw as much as he felt it. Bone crunched and the shock reverberated through his skull, stunning him for a moment. Wriggling his jaw side to side, Arthur focused his gaze on furious blue eyes and gathered himself to attack. However, before he could release his coiling muscles he heard a shout, and his attacker vanished into thin air. Blinking, he sat up and looked around. The clearing was empty save for he and Merlin.

“Arthur! Are you all right?”

Merlin was down on his knees in the grass beside him, gentle fingers running through his hair and over his face. He shoved Merlin away, and awkwardly scooted backwards before rolling to his feet.

“Where is he?”

“Gone. He’s gone.”

“Where? How? What did you do?”

“I..” trailing off, Merlin looked confused for a moment. Then he squared his shoulders, lifted his chin, and looked Arthur in the eye. “I unmade him.”

Arthur knew he was gaping.

“What?”

“I’m the one who makes him, so when I want him to go, I unmake him.”

“What the hell? What does that mean? What the fuck was that? Some kind of demon?”

“No!”

“A sprit then?”

“No! Arthur, he’s not…no, he’s not a spirit.”

“Than what is he?”

Merlin shrugged, looking hapless.

“I don’t know exactly. I just…I just put my magic into the drawing and make him. He’s…I guess you could say he’s just magic…pure magic. I don’t summon a spirit, I just…he just forms from my will, my intent. He’s whatever I want him to be.”

“Your magic.” Arthur could feel his lip curling. “You’re a sorcerer.”

Merlin nodded, but didn’t speak.

“How long?”

Looking down at the trampled grass where he and his magic lover lay only moments before, when Merlin said, “Just a few months,” Arthur knew he was referring to how long he’d been conjuring the simulacrum.

“No. How long have you been a sorcerer?”

Blue eyes jolted up at the question, full lips forming a surprised O.

“Always.”

“Always.”

Merlin nodded.

“What the hell does that mean, always?” Arthur scoffed.

“I’ve always had magic. I was born with it.”

“That’s impossible!”

Shaking his head, Merlin’s mouth turned down, but his eyes hardened with familiar defiance.

“Yes, so I’ve been told. And yet, impossible or no, here I am. I was born with magic, Arthur. I didn’t choose it. There was never a choice for me. I can’t turn it off. I can’t be anything but what I am, Arthur. I am magic.”

Shaking his head in negation, Arthur backed away though Merlin had made no attempt to rise from his knees. It was all too much for Arthur, too much to process. He turned on his heel and stalked away.

He didn’t return to the castle, nor did he make for the city. Instead, he headed deeper into the wood, shunning all contact. Torn apart by the conflicting emotions warring for ascendency, he knew wasn’t fit to be around anyone in that moment.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Watching Arthur storm off in a rage had become all too common a sight, Merlin reflected sadly, especially in the last few months. He sighed, rose to his feet and began gathering his scattered belongings. Shoving them all in his bag, he hefted its small weight and looked around the clearing with regret. Would he ever see this place again? Or would the next sunrise see him bound on his knees in the castle’s courtyard neck bared for the kiss of the headsman’s ax?

Common sense told Merlin he should run. He shouldn’t even return to Camelot, should just turn his feet away from the city, and go. Or barring that, he should return to his room, gather his meager belongings and then leg it out of Camelot before Arthur gathered his wits enough to send the guard after him. Every minute he delayed could cost him his life. And yet, when had he ever listened to what common sense had to say?

Arthur hadn’t killed him right off. That gave him some hope that Arthur wouldn’t summarily order his execution upon his return to Camelot. Merlin wouldn’t run. He’d been forced to hide all of his life, but he’d be damned if he’d run now. Arthur would either accept him for what he was, or he’d face the consequences of Arthur’s rejection, whatever they were. He might yet walk away from Camelot, but he’d never run from Arthur.

He went straight to Arthur’s room, rather than his own. With no idea of when Arthur would return, Merlin stopped along the way and fetched a simple meal of bread, cheese and fruit. He snagged a full flagon of wine as well. It was likely they’d both need alcoholic fortification before the night was through.

Once the table was arranged, Merlin carefully laid a fire in the grate. The warm temperature didn’t really warrant a fire but Merlin lit it anyway. Settling down beside the crackling flames, he pulled the preserved drawings of Arthur out of the bag one by one and burned them. When the last one was in his hands, he whispered the words that brought it to life. He laid a kiss on a quiet Arthur’s lips and then dismissed him forever. It took only seconds for the last of the pile of parchment to curl and blacken in the fire. Whatever happened when Arthur returned, Merlin knew he couldn’t keep pretending. He’d have the real Arthur from now on, or he’d have nothing.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Darkness had begun to fall by the time Arthur stopped walking. As his feet shuffled to a stop, he looked around to see where his fugue had led him. Snorting without amusement, he recognized the place. He stepped lightly through the thinning trees, and stopped at the base of a steep slope.

A crumbling castle that was once home to the kings of Camelot was perched on the ridge above the forest. He’d not been back since he used the derelict building to house the rag-tag band of refugees that helped him retake Camelot. Climbing the slope, he stepped through the ancient archway into the echoing silence of a ruined hall.

There was a ghost of a smile on his face, thinking of how much had changed in those few months. When last he was here, he’d imagined himself in love. Then only a day later he’d realized where his true feelings had lain, and the bit of his world that had seemed stable fell to pieces along with the rest of it. They’d rescued his father and ousted Morgana from control of the city. Camelot was retaken but nothing would ever be the same again.

Somehow Arthur found himself standing before the round stone table of the ancient kings. He sat down and remembered Merlin seated at his right hand. His right hand…Merlin had always been there, hadn’t he? Since he first entered Arthur’s service, that earnest boy had never once abandoned him, not for anything. He’d drunk poison for Arthur, fought a dragon by his side, and followed him on perilous quests and insane rescue missions.

Merlin had become the voice of his conscience, guiding him to always, always do the right thing, to live his life in a compassionate way, to serve his people as devoutly as he did his honour…could an evil man give such selfless council? Merlin was a sorcerer, bound by the King’s decree to die should anyone discover what he was. Yet Arthur knew that Uther only lived now because Merlin had been the one to stay Arthur’s hand when he’d raised it against his own father.

Were these the actions of a traitor? They certainly weren’t the actions of the self-serving, corrupt man his father would have him believe every sorcerer must be. Had Arthur been in Merlin’s place, could he have saved the life of a man who would see him dead for simply existing? He had his doubts. No…he just couldn’t mindlessly write Merlin off as just another malevolent sorcerer. So what did that make Merlin?

A loyal friend.

That hadn’t changed, magic or no. Merlin had always been, first and foremost, Arthur’s friend. And, given what, or rather who Merlin had been conjuring from his drawings, maybe something more than just a friend. Finally, Arthur allowed himself to take in the many implications of just what Merlin had been doing with his magic. It was a shock to the system to realize that, of all people, Merlin had magic, powerful magic at that, but to think of what he’d been using that magic for…

Arthur couldn’t help the smile that curled his mouth up. Merlin hadn’t tried to take over the kingdom, or assassinate its magic-hating king. He hadn’t made a cushy life for himself in some foreign court where he’d be praised and adored for his power. He hadn’t used his power to influence or control his prince. No. Merlin had stolen away from an increasingly distant master and created a loving alternate Arthur for himself.

Smile fleeing, Arthur squirmed a bit where he sat. The timing of this all couldn’t be a coincidence. Merlin had only begun conjuring his magical lover after Arthur had started pushing him away. He’d acted the arse, and must have made Merlin’s life a living hell. With such a depressing reality, was it really so surprising Merlin created a more pleasing alternative for himself?

Gods, I treated him so badly, it’s no wonder he went running to another man’s arms.

Except, he hadn’t really, Merlin had gone running to Arthur’s arms. And just thinking about that paradox was enough to give Arthur a headache. But…surely that meant there was hope? A small spark leapt in his chest. He’d been watching Merlin for weeks. It had been heartbreakingly clear to him that Merlin loved the man who’d met him in the woods each evening. And that man was Arthur…did it not also follow that Merlin must love him? Could Merlin still love him after the way he’d treated him? Would Merlin love the real Arthur as ardently as he had loved the Arthur he’d created for himself? Could he be content with the flawed reality instead of the perfect fantasy?

There was only one way to find out. Casting a last lingering glance around, Arthur made his way back to the forest and headed for home.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~~*~

Curled up in a chair by the fire, Merlin tried to wait up for the prince’s return. However, he must have drifted off sometime after midnight, because he woke to the soft press of lips against his own. Heavy headed, it took a moment for his eyes to focus on the face hovering only inches from his own. Awareness returned with a snap.

“Arthur!”

“Shh…shh…” Arthur soothed, brushing a lock of unruly black hair out of Merlin’s eyes, “Let me go first, yeah?”

Eyes wide, Merlin nodded.

“I just want to know...why?”

Merlin’s confusion must have shown on his face.

“Why me? You could have made anyone, so why me?”

Taking a deep breath, Merlin let it out with a deep sigh. The time for dissembling was over. It must be patently obvious why he’d conjured Arthur’s likeness to be his lover. Why try to lie about it now?

“Because I love you, you prat,” Merlin huffed. “I love you, and you won’t even look at me anymore.”

Merlin opened his mouth to say more, but Arthur muffled Merlin’s words with his mouth. Finding this a pleasing, if surprising interruption, Merlin returned the kiss with enthusiasm. When Arthur’s hands found their way into Merlin’s hair, he took this as tacit permission to let his own hands roam. He couldn’t help the happy little noise that escaped his throat as his hands settled on the broad expanse of Arthur’s chest. Then, just as he’d decided that deepening the kiss would be a good idea, Arthur pulled back and caught his gaze instead.

“I’m so sorry, Merlin.”

Blinking in shock, it took several seconds for his mind to accept the soft and sincere words coming from Arthur’s lips. When he did though, his heart plummeted. An apology in return for Merlin’s declaration of love. He’d always known Arthur could never return his feelings, but it still hurt to hear it confirmed. He began to muster up some reassurance for his prince, but before he could speak, Arthur continued his apology.

“I’m so very sorry for the way I’ve treated you. I never…I didn’t mean to hurt you, I was just…trying…I was trying to protect myself.”

This admission startled Merlin from his own self-recrimination. “Protect…what were you…from me?”

Nodding, Arthur leaned in and stole another quick kiss.

“I realized I loved you, and well…I didn’t think it possible that you could love me in return.”

Arthur’s crooked smile looked more than a bit rueful.

“You always seemed such an open book. I was sure if you’d felt the same, it would have been there for the world to see.”

Merlin could feel his eyes bugging out. He didn’t think he could have been more pathetically obvious about his feelings if he’d paraded around the palace starkers screaming his love from the top of his lungs. How could Arthur have not seen it?

“Arthur,” Merlin paused, bit his lip and shook his head. “It was there for the world to see. How could you miss it? No one else did.”

The prince shrugged ruefully. “I guess I must be a bit obtuse, because it surely passed me by.”

Arthur’s hand was gentle on Merlin’s cheek, and the meaning of Arthur’s words finally sank in. Arthur loved him! This wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t one of Merlin’s magically conjured fantasies. This was the real Arthur, really declaring his love for Merlin. Eyes wide, and mouth agape, he probably looked a simpleton but he just couldn’t seem to gather himself as Arthur kept speaking.

“I thought your regard that of a loyal friend. I never dared think that you loved me, not the way I loved you. It was only today…when I saw…when I heard you call out my name…” he trailed off, eyes focused elsewhere.

Merlin couldn’t help the blush that crawled up his neck at the thought of what Arthur had seen and heard that day. How on earth was he to explain that? He cast around for the words to try, but it seemed that Arthur wasn’t finished.

“You’ve no idea how insanely jealous I’ve been, Merlin. I…today…today wasn’t the first time I followed you. It was just the first time I actually saw you use your magic…and the first time I heard you call him my name.”

Mortification crashed over Merlin in a heavy wave. Arthur had seen him before, had been watching Merlin cavort with his doppelganger?

“I didn’t realize before today...I didn’t recognize him…didn’t know it was me.”

Merlin stopped Arthur’s fumbling words with a finger to his lips.

“Wait, what? You watched me, but you didn’t know that was…that I…you didn’t realize that was you? Who did you think it was?”

Arthur shrugged self-consciously.

“You said you’d met up with an old friend. I just thought…I thought you’d rekindled an old flame or something.”

“And you kept watching us?

If his eyes bugged out any more, Merlin was afraid they’d fall right out. Fascinated, he watched the colour creep up Arthur’s neck and suffuse his face.

“I...Gods, Merlin! I was so ashamed of myself, but I couldn’t stop. I’ve been following you to the woods for weeks. I…I wanted to know…I needed to know what he had that I didn’t. Needed to know how you could love him so much; why you didn’t love me.”

Merlin couldn’t help the giggle that escaped him. He knew he shouldn’t laugh, but, oh the irony! Arthur had been jealous of himself! The outraged expression coming over his prince’s face just made him laugh all the harder.

“It’s not funny, Merlin!”

“Oh, gods! Yes it is! You were jealous of yourself!” Merlin howled, almost rolling off his chair he was laughing so hard. “You were so jealous of you that you were crawling around in the bushes spying on...yourself!”

Arthur was pouting, but Merlin could see his mouth twitching.

“Shut up, Merlin.”

“Oh, Arthur. How the hell did you not know that was you?”

Another shrug. “I don’t know what I look like, do I? I mean…not exactly.”

Merlin had to concede that. Did anyone really have a clear picture of themselves? For all his arrogance, Arthur wasn’t a vain man. He wasn’t the type to stand over a still pond and fall in love with his own reflection.

He reached out and smoothed Arthur’s fringe back before cupping his cheek.

“Well, you do now, don’t you?”

Leaning forward, he pressed a soft kiss to Arthur’s pouting lips.

“You wasted so much time being jealous of a mirage. If you hadn’t been such a prat, that could have been you I was rolling around the woods with.”
,
Arthur groaned, and turned his head away. “Don’t remind me. Gods, I really am sorry Merlin. I was such a fool.”

“If you promise to make it up to me, I might consider forgiving you.”

One golden eyebrow arched at that.

“Yes, well there is another little matter to consider here, isn’t there?”

Merlin bit his lip, knowing where this was probably going. “Another matter?”

Lips pursed, Arthur pitched a high voice and mocked, “I am an open book!”

“Um…”

“Seems you left a few pages out of that book, eh Merlin?”

At a loss, Merlin couldn’t speak for several minutes, but Arthur seemed content to hold his tongue and let Merlin sweat it out for the moment. When he did finally muster the courage to speak, his words were a cautious entreaty for understanding.

“I wanted to tell you, Arthur. I really did…but…I was scared.”

Arthur’s frown was heavy and disappointed. “You were scared of me? You thought I’d hurt you?”

“No…I thought you’d hate me.”

Merlin was kissed nearly senseless for this baring of his soul.

“Merlin, I could never hate you. How could I? You’ve always been there for me. When others broke and ran, you stood firm at my side. I could love you for that alone, but there’s so much more…I, gods, please don’t make me say it. I already sound like a lovestruck girl!”

Unwilling to torture his emotionally constipated prince anymore, Merlin was the one to lean in for a kiss.

“You love me?”

Arthur just nodded.

“That’s all I need to know.”

Forgiveness and understanding was given and received in the press of their lips, the touch of skin on skin, and the tightening of arms around each other. There was more to be said, and in time, they would say it, but for now they let their bodies communicate what they were feeling. It was the most honest conversation they’d ever had.

Waking with the sun in his face, Merlin smiled to see Arthur curled up by his side. His face was more relaxed than Merlin could ever remember seeing it. It lent a new layer of grace to Arthur’s already beautiful features, and Merlin itched to immortalize them. He slipped from the bed and fetched charcoal and parchment from his bag in the antechamber.

As Merlin swept the last few lines on the page, Arthur opened his eyes and smiled at him.

“You’d better not be planning on taking that sketch out into the woods any time soon,” he teased good-naturedly.

Merlin laughed and set the drawing aside, allowing himself to be pulled back down against Arthur’s side and into his embrace. He tucked his head underneath the prince’s chin and sighed contentedly.

“Eh, it’s just a pale imitation. Why settle for a copy when I can have the real thing?”

~***~