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‘Merlin!’ calls Arthur from across the hall.

 

Merlin looks over at him, and Arthur says something in a tone that is casual enough, but it has all the knights seated either side of him at the long table guffawing.

 

Freya leans over hesitantly, about to translate, but Merlin puts a hand upon her arm.

 

‘No,’ he cuts in, shaking his head. ‘Sorry, Freya. But I don’t want to understand that.’

 

Queen Ygraine’s raised eyebrow, sharply directed at her son, tells Merlin all he needs to know.

 

Freya does look somewhat relieved, but she says, ‘It wasn’t malicious, or anything like that. But – certainly typical of the Prince.’

 

‘So nothing worth hearing?’ replies Merlin. ‘I can’t say I’m surprised. He’s never said anything of any importance, and I didn’t expect him to have started by now.'

 

Freya’s cheeks go a little pink as she suppresses a laugh.

 

‘He must be under instruction from Uther to gain your attention. I’m not certain, but I think he thinks he’s being friendly.’

 

Merlin rolls his eyes.

 

‘Why is he bothering now? Besides the obvious problem of him being a clotpole, we have no shared interests whatsoever.’

 

Freya shrugs. ‘Apart from wanting peace in your respective homes?’

 

‘Our fathers will see to all of that. It doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend to be interested in becoming one of his friends or awful knights.’

 

‘That – ’ says Freya cautiously, looking past Merlin, ‘may not be what you’re supposed to be interested in.’

 

‘What do you mean?’ Merlin asks her, before reluctantly twisting in his seat to look back at Arthur.

 

To his surprise, the Prince of Camelot is still watching him, a tempestuous demeanour about him, which shifts to something lighter when Merlin turns around.

 

Within Arthur’s blue eyes there’s a spark of… interest, perhaps?

 

Oh, no.

 

That’s not what Merlin was expecting, and... Well, he’s not falling for it.

 

He’s willing to be polite to Arthur, but if he humours him too much over anything, the Prince will only take the opportunity to humiliate him. That’s just who Arthur is.

 

Merlin nods awkwardly at Arthur, before turning back to Freya, who has been drawn into conversation with the lady beside her, her Standard tongue sounding perfect; not that Merlin can really tell.

 

Merlin pretends to listen, determined not to look back at Arthur. He needs to nip this potential interest in the bud before the Prince gets ideas. Merlin can understand Arthur wanting to assist his father in uniting their houses, but there has been no suggestion of it being through the respective heirs, and therefore Arthur is just going to have to think again.

 

Freya and the lady laugh together, and Merlin smiles politely at them, feeling lost. His mother and father are seated on either side of Uther, further along the banqueting table, and there are no other speakers of the Old Tongue anywhere near him.

 

Still focused upon Freya and the lady, Merlin is drawn out of his uncomfortable listening when someone clears their throat to his other side.

 

He looks back, and subtly conceals a groan when he sees that Arthur has managed to oust the former occupant (a rather stuffy-looking Count) from the seat beside him, and has taken his own place there.

 

Arthur speaks then, the only word recognisable being ‘Merlin’, and then it’s all just one long, (probably smarmy), indecipherable sentence.

 

‘Sorry,’ says Merlin, in a gracious tone. 'Can’t understand you, so you’ll have to bugger off, won’t you?’

 

Arthur just smiles, lifting a hand to gently tug at the fabric of the sleeve of Merlin’s blue tunic. His voice is soft when he speaks again, and then he gestures up, indicating... Merlin’s... eyes?

 

...His eyes?

 

‘Oh,’ says Merlin, understanding. ‘Yes, I’m wearing blue. Like my eyes. Well done you.’

 

He’s keeping his voice clipped but polite, but Arthur doesn’t look deterred.

 

Arthur smiles brightly, before motioning to the feast in front of them; the shining dishes and goblets laden with food and drink, with a questioning intonation to his mystery words.

 

Merlin looks over the food, and then nods.

 

‘Yes, it’s a lovely spread,’ says Merlin, smiling and nodding. ‘It's not as though we have plates back home; we're forced to smear food on the trees and lick it all off the bark. Then we roll around in the dirt for a few hours, chanting. Everything you’ve already imagined, I’m sure.’

 

Arthur obviously buys his cheery expression, because he carries on chatting away.

 

‘Where’s an evil sorceress when I need one?’ sighs Merlin, when Arthur finally pauses. ‘At any other time I hear these things happen to you, but I don’t suppose there's one about to miraculously try and seduce you now, is there?’

 

Arthur tilts his head then, questioningly.

 

Merlin grins at him.

 

Arthur gets Freya’s attention with a rather impatient gesture.

 

Freya, calm and collected as ever, listens to him before informing Merlin;

 

‘The Prince says you are looking well.’

 

‘Does he?’ replies Merlin unhappily.

 

Arthur speaks again.

 

‘He says you grew up very handsome,’ says Freya.

 

‘What did he really say?’

 

Freya smiles softly. ‘You’d better thank him, at least.’

 

Merlin swallows.

 

‘Like this,’ says Freya, and then slowly pronounces the saying.

 

Merlin repeats it as clumsily as he dares, but Arthur beams at him all the same. Arthur’s next sentence is mostly directed at Merlin, but Merlin notices how stiffly he behaves in comparison when speaking to Freya. It’s getting rather claustrophobic, stuck between them both.

 

Unbothered, Freya simply translates.

 

‘He says he and the Knights will be sparring tomorrow, and wishes for you to join them,’ she says.

 

Merlin looks at Arthur incredulously.

 

‘What did he expect me to say to that?’ he asks.

 

Freya shakes her head. ‘No,’ she says. ‘He’s inviting you to come and watch.’

 

‘Oh,’ says Merlin. He looks at her. ‘Sparring?’

 

‘Yes.’

 

‘Hm, a load of loudmouths throwing their enormous weight around,’ he says, shrugging before turning to smile sweetly at Arthur. ‘It might be fun to watch Arthur get whacked on the head.’

 

Arthur smiles in return, and beyond him Merlin catches sight of his father and the King watching the pair of them. Uther seems pleased, and Balinor’s hasty-looking comments in his ear do not distract him.

 

Merlin feels his heart begin to sink.

 

 

{}

 

 

Later that night, Merlin goes to the chambers assigned to his parents, hoping to ask about his suspicions.

 

As he approaches the door, he can already hear his parents speaking in the Old Tongue. Usually, he prefers to respect their privacy, but something about his father’s tone makes him stop and listen.

 

‘ – don’t want him trapped,’ Balinor is saying.

 

‘Nor I, but there must be something to these prophecies surrounding the pair of them,’ says Hunith, quietly.

 

‘Does that mean we have to abandon our only child here? Honestly, the idea of just – handing Merlin over to Arthur makes me think of leading a lamb to the slaughter.’

 

Merlin’s heart leapt at this. So there had been talk of him and Arthur marrying.

 

‘Balinor, you’re worrying far too much; and underestimating your son, if I may say so. If Merlin does not want to marry Arthur then that is the end of it, and if he does, he knows his own mind, and he’s a powerful young man. He would not be defenceless, nor friendless. Practically everyone takes to our son, which is something Uther certainly can’t boast about.’

 

Balinor grunts.

 

Hunith laughs under her breath. ‘But I don’t think we need worry about Merlin. He never really liked Arthur and if that hasn’t put him off then Uther will.’

 

‘Yes, what do we do about Uther?’

 

‘Ygraine won’t let him go too far.’

 

Balinor sighs. ‘The irritating thing is, I know it would be – preferable if Merlin and Arthur liked each other. Or if Merlin liked Arthur, I should say.’

 

Hunith laughed again. ‘Oh, yes, Arthur really was trying his best, wasn’t he?’

 

Merlin backed away from the door, and hurried back to his chambers as quietly as he could.

 

He had wondered once or twice if the prophecies concerning him and Arthur might imply marriage between them, but he’d always shaken the possibility off as ludicrous. This was firstly because Arthur was a clotpole, and secondly, during his family’s other visits to Camelot, Uther had always seemed to be entertaining a potential bride for Arthur, and he’d always just assumed that eventually one of them would stick.

 

Previously, Uther had certainly never seemed interested in having Merlin as a family member, but then, he’d barely ever seemed to notice him half the time. In fact, it had been an incident during their last visit, three years ago, which had probably changed this.

 

One day, Merlin had interrupted Arthur’s torment of a servant boy, which Arthur had not taken at all well.

 

According to Freya’s translation, Arthur had called Merlin an interfering little Lord’s boy, who ‘obviously spent too much time with his nose in a book to grasp the concept of the respect a prince and his knights deserved’. There had also been some critiquing of his ‘woefully lacking’ physicality, and his big ears.

 

Merlin had devoted an equal measure of time to calling Arthur an arrogant, selfish fathead, but Freya hadn’t been willing to translate; although he suspected Arthur had gotten the gist of it.

 

After that, things were all a bit of a blur, because Uther had arrived and broken up the argument. Merlin remembers standing there terrified, as Arthur had, no doubt, complained about Merlin’s actions and Freya had occasionally leapt in to defend him.

 

Uther had just stared at Merlin; like he had only just realised he was there, and had apparently just told Arthur to be ‘less sensitive to the words of a child’. Nothing had ever come of the incident... until now, perhaps.

 

Maybe Arthur has not suddenly taken a liking to him, Merlin realises; perhaps Uther put him up to this. That doesn’t eliminate the problem, however.

 

What had his mother said; that Arthur ‘tried his best’ at the feast today? Did she not feel that Merlin has been doing the same?

 

He knows how Uther is suspicious of magic, and that it would be a good thing to be able to prove to him that this is an unnecessary fear. If the quickest way to do that would be to form a union between their two families, then Merlin doesn’t think he has any right to simply not try.

 

There was always a chance he might have to leave home to fulfil his destiny, but his father had always been convinced that he would train with the druids and then come to live at Camelot to assist Arthur as an advisor. Either way, it’s not ideal; he doesn’t speak Arthur’s language, and now he wonders if his father neglected this part of his education deliberately, to try and put Uther off from seeing him as potential marriage material for Arthur.

 

Arthur can be cruel, Merlin has seen it, but he knows that deep down he at least wants to be a good person. And that does count for something. Even if there’s never any true affection between them, he can always reason with Arthur and create an agreeable relationship for the pair of them.

 

As much as he values his freedom, he takes the prophecies seriously, too.

 

And he can’t bear the thought of letting his family down.

 

 

{}

 

 

Metal crashes together, and the Knights holler and grunt at the impact.

 

Merlin flinches occasionally at the clashes. It’s not that he can’t appreciate the skill behind sparring, he just doesn’t understand why anyone would think it’s fun to take part in, or watch. One wrong move, and there’s a serious risk of broken bones... or a fatal blow at worst.

 

But he has made the decision to put some effort in with Arthur, and so he will do his duty and show the Prince how impressed he is by all the meaningless violence.

 

Arthur, to his credit, is kind of magnificent. He’s extremely talented, and although Merlin is the same height as him now, he can really appreciate Arthur’s bodily strength. It’s sort of annoying, really, that Arthur still manages to seem big and kind of scary to him, as he always did when Merlin was a child.

 

‘He’s quite something to behold, isn’t he?’ says Freya.

 

‘I could destroy him,’ says Merlin matter-of-factly.

 

‘That’s not what the prophecy says you’re supposed to do.’

 

‘I know. I’m just saying; I could hold my own against him, you know?’

 

Freya smiles at him softly. ‘I don’t think you’ll have to, Merlin.’

 

Arthur wins, of course, raising his sword high, and beaming at the small crowd gathered in the training grounds. He spots Merlin and comes over, all sweaty and smug-looking. It’s annoying that this doesn’t look ugly on him.

 

‘Merlin,’ says Arthur. The rest of his sentence is a jovial remark.

 

‘He’s glad you’re here,’ Freya says quickly, in a way that means she’s had to loosely translate a complicated phrase.

 

Not wanting to make Freya have to do all the work, Merlin says, ‘You were very good, Arthur.’

 

Freya relays this to Arthur, who smiles even brighter. He holds out the sword hilt-first to Merlin and says something.

 

‘Do you fight?’ Freya translates.

 

‘Erm, no,’ says Merlin, eyeing the sword suspiciously.

 

‘He wants you to hold it, anyway.’

 

Merlin takes the sword, which is heavy, and the blade point falls to the ground the moment Arthur hands it over. He ignores the snickers from the other knights, who are all behind them, watching with interest, and lifts the sword to get a proper feel of the weight.

 

It’s really not the most elegant thing; it appears to have been designed more for bashing than stabbing. He looks at Arthur curiously, hoping he’s not expected to actually do anything with it.

 

The expression on Arthur’s face; a warm, knowing smile, has Merlin looking away with a blush. And then Arthur moves around behind Merlin; covering his hands and taking hold of the sword himself.

 

Merlin is frozen, and quite confident that he’s very red now, when Arthur starts manoeuvring the sword; holding it straight so that the sunlight glints harshly across the blade, and then round in circles; blocking movements by the looks of it.

 

‘Um, well, this is – I’m learning a lot here,’ says Merlin, awkwardly.

 

Arthur says something directly in his ear, then. His voice is low and teasing, and Merlin knows it’s a question because Arthur puts a little ‘hmm?’ on the end, which vibrates softly against his cheek.

 

Merlin shivers.

 

Arthur pulls away from him slowly, and smirks at him as he bows and addresses everyone.

 

‘So, the – knights have finished now, so they’re leaving,’ says Freya, still wide-eyed after what Arthur did.

 

‘Did you hear what he said?’ Merlin asks.

 

‘No,’ says Freya. ‘I don’t think that was for me to hear, somehow.’

 

Merlin wipes a hand over his suddenly damp forehead.

 

Arthur is putting more effort into this than he’d thought.

 

 

{}

 

 

‘You – saw Arthur spar?’ asks Balinor, at dinner. Their family eats in the private chambers today, and Balinor has paused, watching his son in clear surprise.

 

‘Yes, he was – very good, actually,’ Merlin replies, avoiding his gaze.

 

‘You just happened upon him, then, did you?’

 

‘No, actually,’ says Merlin, clearing his throat. ‘He invited me.’

 

‘Oh,’ says Balinor, seeming dumfounded. ‘That’s – good.’

 

 After that, Merlin spends time with Arthur nearly every day.

 

They go riding together in the forest and take walks around the grounds, and some days Arthur takes him on a tour of Camelot; the citadel and the palace within. Merlin already knows a lot of these places; he spent many a lonely visit here as a child just wandering around. But he smiles at Arthur anyway; shows his interest, and thanks him afterwards for taking him out.

 

Arthur has been kind, too. He compliments him often; calling him beautiful, handsome, lovely and all kinds of things that make Merlin blush and stammer like a fool. He wants to compliment him back, but many Old Tongue endearments do not convert directly into Standard, and can come out a bit weird. So he tells Arthur he’s very manly and strong, which Arthur loves.

 

One thing that isn’t working out quite so well, is Arthur’s annoyance with Freya’s presence. Now, Merlin is, naturally, on edge to defend his friend who’s just doing her job, but he has to admit it’s difficult to get a romantic vibe when someone else has to be there all the time to translate everything. He feels bad for Freya, for it must be awkward for her, and for Arthur, too. Merlin knows he badly needs to start putting time into learning Arthur’s language, although he’s not sure if he should go to Freya for all the lessons, because Arthur tends to sulk if he spends too long conversing with her in his presence.

 

It’s not great, because he and Arthur are trying to get to know each other, but he catches Arthur scowling in Freya’s direction a lot, particularly when she stops to double-check a phrase with Merlin.

 

One day, when they’re in one of the chambers off of Merlin’s parents quarters, Freya is struggling to interpret what Arthur is asking, and Merlin realises what’s wrong. Arthur wants to ask him things about his magic (and probably more, personal things), but he doesn’t want to share these questions with Freya, even if he has to. When Freya pauses to go over a response with Merlin, for even she looks a bit lost as to what Arthur’s trying to say, Arthur gives a great huff of annoyance and storms over to the window, staring out grumpily.

 

Merlin hesitates. He doesn’t want to reward Arthur’s rudeness towards Freya, but he knows he has to do something.

 

‘Freya, would you mind leaving us for a minute, please?’ Merlin asks her, giving her a reassuring smile.

 

‘All right,’ she says. ‘But I’ll be in awful trouble if you two get up to no good, so behave.’

 

Freya.’

 

She leaves, shutting the door behind her with a soft click.

 

Arthur has turned away from the window; looking bewildered that Freya has actually left them.

 

Merlin goes over to him.

 

‘You don’t need to get angry with her,’ he says, and he knows Arthur can’t understand him but that’s not the point. ‘I think I do like you; I think we could make it work together.’

 

Arthur just looks at him, like he’s waiting for something to start making sense.

 

Merlin laughs softly. ‘I know, it’s been mad these last few days. And I know you have a lot on your plate; your father scares me. I promise I’ll try and make things as easy for us as I can. I’ll learn Standard as fast as I can – but I need you to be patient, too.’

 

Arthur says something then, his voice more gentle than Merlin’s ever heard it.

 

Feeling brave, Merlin leans in and gives Arthur a kiss on the cheek. He makes to pull away, but Arthur puts his hands on Merlin’s waist and keeps him there, their noses brushing together.

 

And then Arthur says ‘Sorry.’, and lets him go, and Merlin knows what this means, because it’s one of the few Standard words he’s picked up.

 

‘It’s all right, Arthur,’ he says, and hugs him.

 

The door opens again, and Merlin is about to pull away and ask Freya for longer, but then Arthur says, ‘Morgana.’

 

Morgana, Uther’s ward and quite an accomplished sorceress in her own right, makes a put on, surprised noise, and then says something that has Arthur letting go of Merlin and hissing something back at her.

 

Morgana just looks amused, and carries on speaking. She and Arthur argue for a moment, before Morgana says to Merlin, ‘Arthur is shy. He wants kisses.’

 

Her grasp of the Old Tongue isn’t too bad, but Merlin decides to behave like he’s confused anyway, not wanting to encourage her.

 

Morgana just laughs as Arthur seemingly demands to know what she just said to him.

 

‘You are pretty today, Merlin,’ she says. ‘I tell him.’

 

And she obviously does, because Arthur goes red in the face and starts gesturing towards the door.

 

‘Morgana, I am trying to calm him down,’ says Merlin pleadingly.

 

Morgana snorts. ‘He always needs calm, Merlin.’

 

She exits swiftly, shooting Arthur one last smirk beforehand.

 

 

{} 

 

 

Three weeks later, Merlin is invited to sit with the King and Queen for supper in their private quarters. They’re very grand rooms in this part of the castle, and Merlin feels small and out of place.

 

Uther, who has always been scary to him since he was little, is a bit overwhelming with his questions (even filtered through Freya, who is also dining with them), and looks at Merlin like he’s a very expensive ring he’s got his eye on.

 

But Ygraine is kind. She strikes Merlin as not being quite as open as his mother, perhaps, but there’s humour in her eyes, and she has a way of smiling at him that tells him everything’s all right. It has always been very clear that she has a calming effect on both her husband and her son, and that both of them would think twice before crossing her. She is remarkably strong-willed for someone of such allegedly fragile health; Merlin has never been entirely sure what her ailment is, but both Uther and Arthur are very protective of her.

 

Both of them, for example, always hold her hand if she is going up or down stairs; in fact he’s witnessed the King rush over to her to do so, even ordering servants out of the way so that he can assist his wife himself. One time, he even saw Ygraine irritably wave him away (he thinks they were arguing) and although Uther removed his hand from her arm, he still wouldn’t leave her side until she’d reached the bottom of the stairs. Merlin is certain that this is not some kind of chivalrous act gone into overdrive, because although he’s never seen Ygraine struggle or slip on the stairs, she takes them slowly.

 

Not for the first time, Merlin is glad Freya is with him.

 

‘The King asks if you have anyone – special back in Essetir, Merlin,’ says Freya.

 

‘Oh,’ says Merlin, flushing pink as he addresses Uther directly. ‘No, Your Highness.’

 

Freya translates to Uther, who nods, and Merlin catches they way he glances between her and him, and how Ygraine is watching her husband with a raised eyebrow.

 

Merlin catches Arthur’s name in Uther’s next sentence.

 

‘He says that Arthur has become very fond of you. He wants to know whether you like him.’

 

Merlin swallows and smiles politely at Uther again. ‘Arthur has been very kind to me.’

 

Freya tells Uther this, and then glances back at Merlin. ‘And you like him – yes?’ she asks.

 

‘Oh, yes! Yes, I do.’

 

He can tell that Freya greatly improves upon his own response when she speaks to Uther again, because Uther seems very pleased with what he hears.

 

Ygraine speaks up, giving Merlin an imploring look.

 

‘Her Highness says that she hopes you are happy in Camelot. Everyone wants you to be happy.’

 

‘I am happy here,’ says Merlin.

 

It’s not entirely a lie; Camelot itself is an amazing realm. The castle is vast, the people hardworking, and the surrounding lands are beautiful.

 

He tries a little harder.

 

‘I have always looked forward to coming here, from when I was young,' he says.

 

This is a lie; he hated being dragged here as a child, but Ygraine looks relieved when it’s interpreted for her.

 

Uther says something then that has Ygraine giving her husband a meaningful look, and he stops; giving her an amused, playful look that would have had Merlin running for the hills.

 

The rest of the evening passes pleasantly enough. They discuss Arthur a bit more, and then a little of Merlin’s language learning (where he and Freya cunningly sidestep Uther’s questioning of why Merlin’s parents might not have taught him Standard) and then it's time for everyone to retire.

 

Before he leaves, Uther puts a hand on Merlin’s shoulder and speaks to him.

 

‘You could have a good life in Camelot,’ Freya translates.

 

‘I’m sure I could, sire,’ he replies nervously.

 

Ygraine just gives him a kiss on the cheek and tells him goodnight.

 

Back in his chambers, Merlin turns to Freya as she’s helping him remove his best tunic.

 

‘What did Uther say, when the Queen stopped him?’ he asks.

 

‘Ah,’ says Freya. ‘He said, “Camelot is a good place for children.”’

 

Merlin gulps.

 

 

 {}

 

 

The next day, after his sparring session Arthur comes to see Merlin in his chambers. He’s clearly just out of the bath as Merlin can smell the oils, and he’s flanked by his very upright young manservant called George, who kind of scares him, and one of his Knights; a Sir Leon.

 

Arthur looks exhausted; maybe from the spar or perhaps he didn’t sleep last night, but he takes Merlin’s hand almost straight away, and speaks. He doesn’t even seem bothered by Freya, who immediately springs into action.

 

‘Prince Arthur says that he has greatly enjoyed your company,’ she says. ‘He says he wishes that you would stay here in Camelot forever – ’ She trails off frowning slightly as Arthur has started speaking quite fast now, ‘Uh, something about the throne of Camelot – and the future – oh, and he loves you.’

 

Merlin’s eyes go wide at the obvious lie.

 

‘Well, I suppose one of us ought to say it,’ he mutters, concealing his momentary scorn with an encouraging smile at Arthur, and a little squeeze to his hand.

 

Arthur speaks more freely now; an inviting, yet apprehensive gleam in his eye.

 

‘ – And he wants you to consider his proposal of marriage,’ Freya finally translates.

 

Merlin has been preparing for this all month, and yet it’s still a shock to know that it’s happening. He takes a moment to breathe deeply and think about his words, before remembering that Freya is going to translate it anyway.

 

‘Please thank him for everything he’s said,’ says Merlin. ‘I have also enjoyed our time together – and, and please tell him that I accept his proposal.’

 

Freya hesitates; he’s sure of it, before she translates for Arthur.

 

Arthur blinks, and then grins. He brings Merlin’s hand up to kiss the back of it, and then he kisses Merlin’s forehead. He looks relieved and elated, and Merlin’s heart really goes out to him. He knows exactly how Arthur feels, but he also knows that there has always been far more pressure on Arthur to marry. Merlin hugs him, and hears Sir Leon and Freya speaking, both sounding happy.

 

The King and Queen, and Lord Balinor and Lady Hunith are all together in the throne room when Arthur and Merlin arrive, hand in hand to tell them the news.

 

Uther stands immediately, triumphant as he comes over to clap both boys on the shoulders, nearly flooring Merlin. He says something in warm tones to the pair of them, before stroking Merlin’s hair fondly like he’s still a little boy. Merlin hopes this isn’t the start of Uther Pendragon becoming affectionate, because he’s not sure anything would be worth that. But he reconsiders this as he sees Uther clasp Arthur to him in a hug, and Arthur looks giddy with happiness.

 

Ygraine is next; hugging them both, and Merlin is careful of her slight frame. She takes Merlin’s face in both hands and says what Merlin thinks is ‘lovely boy’.

 

And then Merlin’s parents are standing in front of them. Balinor grabs both their shoulders too; squeezing Merlin’s in a way that tells him they’re talking about this later. He says something to Arthur that has them both laughing, and then pulls Merlin close.

 

This is when it gets difficult; when Merlin realises what he’s giving up. He can’t believe he won’t be living with his mother and father anymore. He fights the thought away brutally; he can’t cry now. His parents will probably make him change his mind, and he can’t; he won’t do that to them or Arthur.

 

Hunith is hugging Arthur, saying quiet words into his hair. And then she’s let go of him, and she looks into her son’s eyes closely. Merlin looks back at her, feeling defiant for some reason, before she embraces him, and all Merlin can feel and smell is his mother.

Chapter Text

 

‘Merlin, you do realise what you’re doing?’ Balinor asks his son when the family are finally alone together.

 

‘I do, Father,’ replies Merlin. ‘I promise.’

 

‘We knew you’ve been getting along with Arthur recently, but – ’

 

‘You’re sure, Merlin?’ Hunith cuts in. ‘As long as you’re sure.’

 

Merlin looks at both his parents; at their incredulous, anxious faces. They will never let him marry Arthur if they think he doesn’t want to, even if it’s important that he does. He thinks that this may be why Kilgharrah had always warned Balinor against spoiling his son.

 

‘I’m sure,’ says Merlin. He smiles at the pair of them. ‘We’d better get ready for the feast.’

 

It’s not that he doesn’t appreciate his parents’ relentless love and support, but he can now see how necessary this marriage is, and although he doesn’t love Arthur, he is perfectly willing to enter into it. It would also be foolish to waste this opportunity, while Arthur and his parents, particularly Uther, are so enthusiastic about it.

 

Merlin doesn’t know the finer details of the war that nearly happened twenty years ago, but he is aware that Uther and Balinor had both trod the line that might have made their families enemies for good. It’s much easier to see now that the family visits here over the years have been all about healing the many small wounds inflicted during that time. His and Arthur’s marriage could well mark the final sealing of that gap. Perhaps it could even restore Camelot’s relationship with the dragons, although Merlin knows he mustn’t dwell on that unlikely possibility.

 

At the feast, Merlin is seated between Arthur and Morgana. His parents are far away; beside Ygraine, and then Uther is next to her, with Arthur beside him. Freya is sitting even further away, beside Balinor and Hunith.

 

When Merlin sits down, Arthur gives him an approving look and says something in his ear. Merlin just smiles at him, unable to focus and helplessly unaware of what his fiancé is saying. He’s also very conscious of Morgana side-eyeing them with an amused look on her face.

 

Morgana doesn’t speak to him until they’re halfway through the meal, and when she does it’s after she’s had quite a few wines.

 

‘You marry Arthur, then?’ she says.

 

‘Yes, my Lady,’ he replies.

 

On his other side, Arthur is talking to Uther, laughing about something in a way Merlin doesn't see them do very often.

 

Morgana smiles.

 

‘I’m happy, but you will have more.’

 

‘I’m sorry?’ asks Merlin. ‘Oh, I’ll be more happy?’

 

‘No, no,’ she says. ‘Arthur is changing after you. But... when? It’s not important – I will look after you.’

 

Merlin smiles back at her then.

 

‘You were always kind to me when I was little,' he says. 'I remember.’

 

‘You were a sweet baby.’

 

‘You were always beautiful, but – a bit scary.’

 

Morgana pauses, and then just laughs.

 

‘You scary all my family!’ she says.

 

‘At one point, yes.’

 

‘I will look after you.’

 

‘Merlin,’ says Arthur, eyes bright as he asks him something.

 

Merlin doesn’t have a clue, of course, and so he looks to Morgana.

 

‘Sorry, Morgana, you couldn’t help us out here, could you?’ he asks, smiling at her.

 

Morgana nods, and asks Arthur something.

 

The two talk for a little while, Arthur muttering under his breath, before Morgana finally says, ‘He is shy now. What can I do?’

 

She shrugs.

 

Merlin looks back at Arthur.

 

‘Oh, dear,’ he says. ‘Maybe Freya won’t mind – ’

 

‘No,’ says Arthur quickly, putting his hand on Merlin’s where it rests on the table. Merlin then covers that hand with his other one.

 

‘We won’t get very far tonight, then, will we?’ he says, and then moves his hand off of Arthur’s.

 

Arthur keeps his hand over Merlin’s other, however. He says something, looking a bit smug.

 

‘What are we going to do?’ asks Merlin.

 

On his other side, Morgana lets out a snort, making Arthur frown at her.

 

‘He wants to understand, but not say with me – he hates your word lady, yes?’ says Morgana, sounding a little slurred.

 

‘He does?’ asks Merlin, his heart sinking. He’s desperately hoping that Freya will stay, at least for a while, to help him with his language. There are so few people who speak Old Tongue, and even fewer who know him so well. But if Arthur really doesn’t like her, then her staying will be difficult.

 

‘Why do you hate Freya?’ he asks Arthur.

 

Arthur frowns and looks to Morgana, who apparently repeats his question in Standard. But Merlin isn’t too sure of this, because Arthur suddenly looks very annoyed. He hisses something back at her, and then suddenly a full blown, if muted, argument is happening right across Merlin.

 

Arthur and Morgana look quite ready to kill each other, and Merlin has no idea how it suddenly got so heated.

 

‘Please don’t fight here!’ he says imploringly, looking between the pair of them.

 

Arthur looks at him, eyes softening for a moment before Morgana says something in a nasty tone, and she laughs.

 

Arthur squeezes Merlin’s hand gently, and replies to Morgana in a low voice. It doesn’t sound half as unpleasant as whatever Morgana had said, but quite suddenly there are tears in her eyes, and she’s hiding her face into her goblet.

 

‘Did you just... You both went too far, didn’t you?’ says Merlin, sighing.

 

Arthur grumbles something that has the manner of ‘she started it’ about it, and then he goes a rather funny colour, because Ygraine has arrived behind their seats.

 

Ygraine takes one look at Morgana, before throwing her son a decidedly unimpressed look. She tells him something in her gracious, soft voice that has Arthur deflating and looking at his plate in shame. It’s astonishing; he doesn’t even try to excuse himself now.

 

The Queen places a hand on Morgana’s shoulder, and says things to her that get her nodding, before putting her goblet down and reaching for another. A servant rushes forwards and fills the cup with water, and Ygraine squeezes Morgana’s shoulder fondly.

 

Morgana drinks sips from her cup, shooting Merlin a small, watery smile, which Merlin returns encouragingly. Arthur’s hand is still on his, and it twitches slightly.

 

Ygraine places her other hand on Merlin’s shoulder, and he thinks she maybe apologises on her son and ward’s behalf, before moving back to her seat.

 

When Merlin looks back at Arthur, he’s somewhat alarmed to find the King eyeing them all appraisingly, just past him. Arthur also looks to the side and tenses when he sees his father.

 

The three of them finish their meal in silence, after that.

 

 

{}

 

 

On his way to bed, Merlin is stopped by his father standing in the doorway of his and Hunith’s chambers.

 

‘Merlin, please come in here, I need to speak with you,’ says Balinor.

 

Merlin is very tired, but he goes anyway, standing in the fore chamber of his parents' quarters. His mother must already be asleep in the bedroom beyond.

 

‘What is it, Father?’ Merlin asks, sitting in one of the two chairs in front of the fireplace as Balinor takes the other.

 

‘I owe you an apology,’ says Balinor. ‘I thought that by excluding Standard from your education I was protecting you. I – think we may have just made your life rather more complicated.’

 

‘Protecting me,’ says Merlin, nodding. ‘But – this marriage is a good thing, isn’t it?’

 

‘It is! Of course it is, but things are so different now than they were when you were small, Merlin.’

 

‘Tell me,’ says Merlin, sitting up straighter.

 

‘I knew, even before you were born, that a marriage could be a possibility between you and Arthur,' says Balinor. 'The prophecies spoke of a most powerful bond, but back then, the relationship between our two families was still fragile, and it seemed extremely unlikely; especially when Uther was already discussing which princess Arthur might marry. If he had considered you as a future suitor for Arthur at that time, your mother and I would have been very concerned.’

 

‘You never said,’ says Merlin. ‘I mean, I now know that you suspected this, but you never seemed to think I should.’

 

‘I know. I should have discussed it with you and I didn’t. I suppose I was concerned that if you just thought you should marry Arthur you might let him walk all over you and abuse your powers. He was a very... trying child; very easily influenced by Uther, what with his mother being so frail in his infancy.’

 

‘So, if you thought he was such trouble, why did you bring me here all those times, then?’

 

‘The Queen always insisted upon us bringing you if we came, and we thought it prudent to establish some kind of links between you and the Pendragons, even if it was just on a social level. I grew less worried about things after you were born. Arthur showed little interest in you, and when Uther heard we’d had a boy, I learned that he too had wondered if there might be a marriage involved, but he’d assumed that if that were the case you’d have been born a girl. You know the way Uther thinks... he was even less understanding of magic, and dare I say it; people, back then.’

 

‘What changed his mind?’ asks Merlin. ‘He seems so for it all, now.’

 

‘I’m not entirely sure. He started asking after you a lot more in his letters over the last few years. He’d check we hadn’t arranged a betrothal for you, and then stated in a few messages that Arthur missed you; which I thought very odd as I well remember how your last encounter went on our previous visit here.’

 

Merlin snorts as Balinor continues.

 

‘And then on your coming of age he wrote, insisting that we all visit here again.’

 

‘So he just – decided me and Arthur should marry?’

 

‘Not entirely. During our first week here, Uther requested that I summon the Great Dragon. I did, and to my surprise, he came.’

 

‘Kilgharrah came here?’ Merlin asks, shocked.

 

Balinor nods.

 

‘In the night. He said that you and Arthur were far too important to ignore, which Uther immediately latched onto. We discussed the prophecies, Kilgharrah talking in riddles as ever, but, finally he admitted to us that your marriage is highly desirable. When the possibility that you two could have children together was mentioned – Well, all Kilgharrah had to say was “it’s possible” and then Uther’s mind was made up.’

 

‘Even if that’s uncertain?’ says Merlin. ‘And that it would require magic?’

 

‘Apparently so.’

 

Merlin shakes his head.

 

‘...We’re not having children right away.’

 

‘You’re certainly not!’ says Balinor. ‘You’re both to understand each other long before that subject comes up, Merlin. Do not allow Uther or Arthur to push the issue. Your mother and I have discussed this with Ygraine and she agrees with us. I would encourage you to speak with her, and tell us immediately, if either of them bother you about it.’

 

Sighing, Merlin says, 'You know I wouldn't be careless about something like that.'

 

Balinor nods, his expression dark.

 

'I do know, but when politics are involved in a marriage, one can be so easily convinced to consider things they normally wouldn't.'

 

Merlin considers everything he's heard for a moment.

 

‘So... you didn’t teach me Standard deliberately – to protect me from Uther,' he says.

 

‘Yes. A foolish and irresponsible negligence on my part. You did speak some Standard, when you were very small, but then your education took over and there were few Standard speakers in your group. Your mother was lonely, being a stranger in a community of Druids, and so she ended up speaking Old Tongue at home too. When things between Essetir and Camelot worsened, I thought we might be in for another potential war, and Uther was always so dismissive if he couldn’t understand people, and so I sought to make you almost invisible to him.'

 

'You didn't think a marriage could one day happen?'

 

Balinor scratches his nose awkwardly.

 

'Like I said, it just seemed unlikely,' he says. 'I was... also very worried about Cenred hearing of any betrothal plans. If he believed you and Arthur were betrothed, even if you weren't, he could have made things very difficult by deliberately attempting to drive a wedge between our family and Uther's, maybe even as an excuse to go to war.'

 

Merlin snorts.

 

'Because he was actually ever brave enough to take on Camelot?' he says sarcastically.

 

'He could have been at the time,' Balinor says sternly. 'What with all the bad blood then, the dragons had vanished from Camelot, as you know. Arthur was young, and Ygraine was very weak. Uther's reign wasn't looking quite so stable. Who knows what Cenred would have tried?'

 

'Yes, but why would mine and Arthur's betrothal be a reason to start a war? Cenred has nothing to do with us.'

 

'He likes to consider us "his people" when it suits him, and if he believed we were willing to part with you for a political match, he may have looked into whether you'd make a desirable spouse for himself.'

 

Merlin shudders.

 

'Ah, yes, I think I understand now,' he says.

 

Balinor chuckles grimly.

 

'Forgive me, I hadn't been planning to tell you that. Didn't want to give you nightmares.'

 

'Ugh, well, it doesn't matter anyway. I am marrying Arthur.'

 

'You are. I confess I – never considered that you might actually fall for the prince and wish to marry him.'

 

Merlin nods, feeling uneasy.

 

'It's how it's supposed to be, right?' he says.

 

'Of course,' says Balinor, before leaning out of his chair to kiss the top of Merlin's head. He sits back down, a warm but serious note to his voice. 'We will keep in very close contact with Camelot. And Arthur is clearly very taken with you. You won’t be alone, Merlin, I promise.’

 

 

{}

 

 

The wedding is planned quickly, scheduled for the end of the month, and marking two days before Lord Balinor and Lady Hunith will leave for home, without their son.

 

Merlin quickly realises that he didn't quite think things through before agreeing to marry Arthur. He's going to become a prince, and while he has always lived with great privilege, he's quite underprepared for all the pomp and circumstance of his soon-to-be status.

 

For one thing, he’s to have an entirely new wardrobe of clothes befitting a royal, and he knows that there are all kinds of strange rules about how the clothes must be cut, fitted, and worn.

 

Since understanding the changes coming his way, Merlin’s been secretly ferreting his own clothes from home out of the laundry, and stashing them in the chest beneath his bed. He hopes that when it’s acceptable for him to be casual, no one will be too bothered by his still wearing them. He’s willing to pick out any insignia of the House of Emrys remaining in the garments if it’s necessary, but he will never part with some particular items (unless they fall apart through wear and tear) if he can help it.

 

Three days after Arthur proposed, Merlin goes with his mother to see the royal tailors, Martin and his wife, Lis. The main purpose is for his wedding clothes, but they will also make the garments for his everyday wear.

 

They get him to remove his shoes and stand on a little wooden platform in the centre of the chamber. Hunith and Lis chat away in friendly tones, while Martin helps him remove his jacket. Martin chats away at him fruitlessly, but does so with such warmth that smiles are constantly forced onto Merlin’s face in response.

 

Martin measures Merlin everywhere as Hunith and Lis look through several different rolls of material. They keep looking between Merlin and the fabrics and each other, and it makes him nervous.

 

When Martin’s finished measuring him, he and Lis bring some of the fabric rolls over, unravelling some to hold them up against Merlin’s face, or pushing his sleeves up to compare them with the skin there.

 

Martin keeps gesturing around his own face, and then back to him in a way that causes Merlin to fidget.

 

‘They’re talking about how pale I am, aren’t they?’ Merlin asks Hunith.

 

People have always commented on his appearance. He remembers the last time their family visited King Cenred’s palace, and a group of noblemen had laughed at him, and apparently told his mother how ‘virginal and fair’ he was. And his mother, bless her, had asked how they functioned being so easily distracted by underage boys. Their family was asked to leave, after that. It was brilliant.

 

Hunith giggles.

 

‘They think you’re very striking,’ she says. ‘They just want to make the most of your features.’

 

Merlin huffs. He doesn’t have all that much in the way of the ‘features’ Camelot favours. He’s skinny and pale, and lacking in chest hair; not like Arthur, with his broad shoulders and overall decidedly masculine appearance. Merlin’s dreading their wedding night already.

 

He looks back up at the other three, who are engaged in a deep-sounding conversation.

 

'Sorry, Merlin,’ says Hunith, turning to him. ‘I've realised we've forgotten to ask Ygraine about colours.'

 

'Colours?' asks Merlin, perturbed.

 

'Yes, cariad, the appropriate colours. I don't really understand it, but we don't want any mess ups with that sort of thing.'

 

'Wouldn’t they know?'

 

Merlin looks at Martin and Lis, who have continued (presumably) discussing the subject between each other.

 

‘Just stay there. We won’t be long.’

 

Mother – ’ he groans.

 

‘We won’t be long!’ calls Hunith, already out of the room with Martin and Lis close behind her.

 

Merlin sighs, looking about him. He understands his mother’s concern. She was born poor and without status, and since her marriage has always been looked down upon for it. And it’s not that she’s ashamed; it’s that she’s expected to be. Even Uther, who Merlin knows genuinely liked her from their first meeting, has put his foot in it by mentioning her past from time to time.

 

There are footsteps, and Merlin looks up expecting them back, but instead finds Arthur lounging in the door way, eyeing him.

 

'Ah, good day, Merlin,' he says, coming over to look up at where Merlin’s standing on the platform.

 

'Arthur, somehow I think this is violating protocol,' says Merlin, raising an eyebrow at him. ‘But – good day, to you too.’

 

Arthur says something that involves the words ‘lovely’ and ‘good’, and brushes a hand over Merlin's shirt.

 

'They’ve only measured me, clotpole,’ replies Merlin, rolling his eyes. 'I don't have the new clothes on yet.'

 

'Clotpole?' Arthur repeats, frowning.

 

'Yes, it's a - oh, never mind. Why are you here?'

 

'Hmm?' asks Arthur, teasingly.

 

'Why - are - you... here?' says Merlin slowly, gesturing around the room on the last word.

 

Arthur’s response is short, looking him up and down approvingly, his gaze travelling up Merlin’s legs and torso, deliberately languid. They didn’t see all that much of each other yesterday, and it seems as though Arthur rather felt the separation.

 

Merlin blushes.

 

‘My mother left to look at colours,’ he says quickly. ‘Colours, Arthur; I think I might die.’

 

‘Colours?’ repeats Arthur.

 

‘Yes, you know – ’ Merlin points at all the different fabrics individually as he speaks, ‘...red, blue, gold.’

 

‘Ah,’ says Arthur, indicating the blue roll still beneath the platform.

 

‘Blue,’ says Merlin.

 

‘Blue,’ repeats Arthur, indicating with a hand his own eyes, and then Merlin’s, and the next thing he says, Merlin only picks up on two words; ‘You... beautiful.’

 

‘...Thank you? ...Yes?’ replies Merlin uncertainly.

 

Arthur grins, and then puts his hands on Merlin’s waist, thumbing his narrow sides before bringing himself closer and lifting Merlin.

 

‘Oh!’ says Merlin, grabbing Arthur’s shoulders.

 

Holding him close, Arthur slowly spins Merlin around and off the platform to stand beside him. He keeps eye contact with Merlin, smiling at his little noise, and doesn’t let him go.

 

‘Uh,’ says Merlin stupidly.

 

‘Merlin,’ says Arthur, and kisses him.

 

It’s the first time they’ve kissed on the mouth, and it’s really quite nice, until...

 

‘Prince Arthur!’ gasps Hunith, standing in the doorway and glaring at them.

 

The two boys quickly jump away from each other, looking guilty.

 

Hunith babbles in an unimpressed tone to Arthur, who, although a little pink in the face, starts laughing.

 

Something twists in Merlin’s heart. He’d like to be certain it’s just because they’ve been caught, and that Arthur isn’t laughing at him, but he can’t be. He’s not sure if he did a good job of kissing, however brief.

 

‘And you, Merlin, get back up there, please,’ says Hunith, sounding quite amused herself now. She says more to Arthur, and Merlin recognises a word she said previously.

 

Listening carefully, Merlin gets back on the platform as a still mirthful Arthur sidesteps Hunith and what sounds like one of her infamous lectures.

 

‘Goodbye, Merlin!’ Arthur says over her shoulder, chuckling as he waves to him.

 

‘Stop laughing, idiot!’ says Merlin, still mortified at being caught by his mother.

 

On his way out, Arthur also grins at Lis and Martin, who look bewildered as they quickly bow and watch the Prince go. When they look back at Merlin for an explanation he blushes even harder.

 

A few minutes later, when everyone’s stopped giggling about what transpired and are continuing with the fitting plans, Merlin asks his mother about the word he recognised. She tells him, and he repeats it a few times quietly to himself.

 

‘Out. Out. Out.’

 

 {}

 

 

After dinner, when he’s finally able to retire to his chambers, Merlin invites Freya to join him.

 

They sit by the large window, looking out at the rather glorious, late summer evening. Camelot really can be radiant this time of year.

 

‘I’m so sorry, Freya. I completely forgot to think of your position when I said yes to Arthur,’ he says, once they've settled into comfortable chatter.

 

‘It’s all right,’ says Freya, smiling. 'You've had a lot to think about.'

 

‘Would you… would you stay; at least until I’m better with my words?’

 

She rolls her eyes.

 

‘As if I’d leave you on your own.'

 

He smiles sadly.

 

‘I can’t say goodbye to you. Not yet.’

 

‘Nor I you.’

 

They both grin at each other.

 

‘I think I shall practice my potion making, while I’m here,’ she says, stretching out in her chair. ‘Gaius seems to know a great deal.’

 

‘Don’t tell him that, it’ll go to his head.'

 

Freya laughs.

 

‘It might be good for him, once in a while. Might make him a little less grumpy.’

 

‘I doubt that.’

 

‘You should speak to him, Merlin,’ she says imploringly. ‘I’m sure he’d love to spend more time with you.’

 

Merlin shook his head.

 

‘I don’t think so.’

 

‘And why not?’

 

‘...He’s busy. He is the court physician, you know.’

 

Freya raises an eyebrow at him.

 

You just don’t want to see him because he’ll tell you off for not learning your Standard.’

 

‘No - Ugh, yes,’ he says, sighing. ‘Yes, that’s true.’

 

Freya hums, staring down at the courtyard Merlin’s window is above.

 

‘It is unfair, that,’ she says, after a while.

 

‘What?’ Merlin says, surprised.

 

‘Well, I mean, yes you should have learned your Standard,’ she says, ‘but not one person from Camelot has suggested that any of them learn our language.’

 

‘I’ve been saying that for years,’ says Merlin. ‘That’s Uther for you, though.’

 

‘I suppose.’

 

He smiles at her.

 

‘You’ve always been great, though; coming along for every visit.’

 

‘I enjoy them,’ she says, nodding.

 

Merlin watches her for a moment.

 

‘I think it’s a good idea,’ he says. ‘You working with Gaius, I mean.’

 

‘You mean my potions need working on?’ she snorts.

 

No.’

 

‘They do, though.’

 

‘Your spells are beautiful.’

 

‘But my potions are awful.’

 

‘They’re not!’

 

Freya stares at him incredulously.

 

‘Merlin, my love potion made Stefan fall in love with himself. With himself!’

 

Merlin shakes with silent laughter.

 

‘To be fair, it was quite hard to tell anything different for the first week after that lesson,’ he says. ‘At least it worked in some capacity.’

 

‘But still. I mean, how did that even happen?’

 

‘Well, what did you put in the potion?’

 

‘I don’t know!’

 

They both howl with laughter.

 

‘He – he must have looked at himself in the mirror,’ says Merlin, wiping his eyes.

 

‘But does that even work? A reflection isn’t a person!’

 

‘I’m not that much better, you know! Potions are difficult. Conjuring is definitely the easier of the two.’

 

‘I hate the word “conjuring",’ Freya says, calming. ‘It sounds like trickery.’

 

‘That’s probably because it’s a Standard word the Druids just picked up.'

 

‘And you’re marrying into one of the most Standard families there ever was,’ says Freya.

 

‘Well. We’ll just have to try and shake things up a bit, won’t we?’ says Merlin.

 

The pair smile at each other.

Chapter Text

Merlin wakes up far too hot.

 

The sheets are wet and sticky around his middle, and he groans upon realising he’s had a wet dream. He’s woken up with an erection several times in the last few weeks, but this is horribly reminiscent of the trials of his early adolescence and he’s rather mortified. He tries to wipe away the evidence as best he can, hoping that the stain won’t be obvious to the servants.

 

He blames this occurrence on the memory of being held against Arthur’s broad, firm chest the other day. In fact, he blames Arthur full stop.

 

Thankfully, it’s a colder morning, and so when Freya comes knocking he asks her to order him a bath. They eat breakfast together in his chamber, him still in his nightclothes, and the tub and hot water arrives as they finish.

 

The bath is set up in front of the fireplace, behind a large screen, and Freya goes to answer a knock at the door as Merlin strips off his robe and balls up his nightshirt for the laundry.

 

Sinking into the lightly steaming water, Merlin closes his eyes and rests against the back of the bathtub. He hears the door open and close again as Freya returns.

 

‘The Prince requests that you walk with him to the tournament this afternoon,’ she says from the other side of the screen. ‘I of course said you would.’

 

Ah, yes, the tournament commemorating their engagement.

 

Merlin bites his lip, listening for her tone carefully.

 

‘How did he seem?’ he asks.

 

‘Oh, fine and fair,’ she says casually.

 

‘I meant – was he rude to you?’

 

Freya cautiously sticks her head around the screen, and lets Merlin adjust himself before just coming around to stand next to it. They’ve never been terribly squeamish about each other’s bodies, but then the Druids do tend to live in and around nature, so there's not always that much room to be bashful. And besides, Merlin has always tended to favour boys, even though elements of his once-crush on her sometimes linger.

 

‘Not rude, but not polite either,’ says Freya, pulling a face.

 

‘So, rude,’ he says, raising an eyebrow.

 

‘...I’m going to politely not notice that.’

 

‘I don’t understand why he hasn’t improved. You’ve given us the space, and I’ve agreed to marry him!’

 

‘I suppose my presence is still a necessary bridge to you, though. He has to endure it.’

 

‘You’re not something to be “endured”,’ says Merlin. ‘If he made an effort he’d see how wonderful you are.’

 

Freya preened exaggeratedly.

 

‘You flatter me, and on that note, it’s jealousy, too,’ she says matter-of-factly. ‘You are isolated against nearly everyone here except your parents and me. We can share secrets between the two of us and not even have to leave his company. He can’t share very much with you at all yet.’

 

‘He isn’t disrespectful to my parents.’

 

‘They are a respected Lord and Lady. I am close to you in age and position – we share jokes and secrets.’

 

Merlin huffs, looking at his hands cupping the water and letting it drain through.

 

‘Well, the first thing I’ll explain to him when we understand each other, is that he is to change his manner towards you.’

 

‘I appreciate that, Merlin, but bear in mind that Arthur and I sharing a friendship – possibly is not meant to be.’

 

Merlin looked up at her.

 

‘You don’t like him?’ he asks. ‘Wait, of course you don’t. Why would you? He’s always been horrible around you.’

 

Freya holds a hand up.

 

‘I think he’s a very promising young man,’ she says carefully, ‘...who has much time and space to improve. And I think he cares a great deal about you.’

 

Merlin swallows as Freya continues.

 

‘No doubt he’ll be vying for your attention today.’

 

‘It still makes no sense to me, you know,’ Merlin grumbles. ‘I get engaged to Camelot’s heir, and then they hand him the chance to get himself killed!’

 

‘But to kill himself on your behalf,’ says Freya, laughing.

 

Merlin shakes his head. Camelot is very strange, rather like Essetir in some ways, but perhaps more jovial about its blood sports and... well, everything, really.

 

When he’s finished his bath, Merlin dresses himself (in red, to support Camelot) behind the screen, and then Freya helps him fasten everything as usual, and straightens his clothes out. Merlin is forever getting rumples and creases in his outfits. He knows he’s going to have to remember to change out of the close-fitting garments Martin and Lis have made for him if he ever wants to lounge about in his private time once he's married. He hopes Arthur won’t judge him for doing so.

 

He’s also a little concerned about what his bodily reactions (in said close-fitting garments) will be if he sees Arthur sparring again. 

 

Knowing that Freya is nearly always right, Merlin decides to pay Gaius a visit before heading for the tournament. Before he leaves, Freya grabs one of his neckerchiefs, a red one to match his outfit, and puts it on him, explaining that Arthur will want to wear it as his favour.

 

'Camelot's out of their mind,' he moans, and Freya taps him on the head fondly and sends him on his way.

 

In the physician’s chamber, Gaius is holding out a little jar of something to a patient, allowing the small servant boy to apply the salve to a grazed knee himself.

 

The little boy stares at Merlin open-mouthed when he notices him standing in the doorway, and Merlin gives him a small smile.

 

‘How are you, Gaius?’ he asks, and Gaius doesn't jump; simply turns to glance at him and then shrugs.

 

‘The same as ever,’ he says, eyeing him as he dismisses the little boy with a wave of a hand. ‘Not going to speak Standard today then?’

 

Irritation flares up inside Merlin.

 

‘Would if I could, Gaius,’ he says, and pats the boy on the head, as the child has slowed significantly while passing to gape up at him even more.

 

‘Eric, out!’ says Gaius, and the boy finally scampers off through the door.

 

‘Ah, but I know you just told him to get out!’ says Merlin in mock-triumph.

 

Gaius rolls his eyes.

 

‘I will never understand why you didn’t take advantage of some lessons while you could. Heaven knows how many times I spoke to your parents about it. Far too protective, is Balinor.’

 

‘What would I have used them for, Gaius; to speak to Arthur?’

 

‘Well – yes!’ says Gaius, turning to put the salve jar on a shelf and shuffle others around. ‘Merlin, he was always going to be your future, whether or not marriage was involved.’

 

Merlin came closer, glaring at his back.

 

‘I didn’t want to speak to him back then. And he showed no interest in me whatsoever.’

 

‘And did you not think that times might change, hm?’

 

Merlin huffs, before calming himself by drumming on the wooden table with his fingers. Gaius turns back to him.

 

‘Gaius, it’s just that... everyone has always raved about Arthur. He’s handsome, charming, strong; everything Camelot could possibly want. Even the prophecies always spoke about this incredible Warrior-King, and I remember when I first became aware of them and their meaning. On our next visit here, I was ready to meet this amazing young man, and then we arrived and I didn’t recognise him in Arthur at all. And not just on that visit! He was always unkind, or ignored me when we were supposed to be socialising, and I thought I was doing something wrong. Then when Freya first started coming with us, she told me that Arthur wasn’t at all popular with the servants. It was almost a relief, knowing I wasn’t imagining his behaviour.’

 

Gaius deflates a bit as Merlin speaks.

 

‘He’s a lot better than he was,’ he says, and Merlin nods.

 

‘I know – he wasn’t even half as bad as he used to be the last couple of times we were here. I suppose it was partially to do with the age difference. It can’t be fun when you’re already training with swords to have to stay around a child who can’t even sit on a pony yet.’

 

‘And you must realise, Merlin, that he has always had his life planned for him; sometimes to the tiniest detail.’

 

‘Meanwhile, nobody tells me anything. Gaius, everyone – yourself included – tried to get me to befriend someone who blatantly didn’t want me around, and I didn’t understand why I had to, and then why it didn’t work. And it had nothing to do with the fact I couldn’t speak Standard.’

 

Gaius looks a little pained then.

 

‘But you knew of the prophecy?’ he asks, wringing his hands.

 

‘You mean one of the dozen or so prophecies surrounding Arthur and I; of which a grand total of none are fully understood?’

 

‘They... I apologise, Merlin, if you have felt neglected – or hounded.’

 

‘Try both,’ says Merlin, and then sighs. ‘But thank you, Gaius. It’s not just you. Just the other day Father told me all sorts of things I wonder if I should have known about years ago. Actually, I was wrong. You lot do tell me things, but you never seem to speak to each other about what you have or haven’t told me. I know the prophecies are as unclear to the rest of you as they are to me.’

 

It feels like a great weight has been lifted from both of them. Merlin would never have been brave enough to tell anyone this before. Being of age, he decides, although still difficult and full of unknown dangers, is better than being a child.

 

Gaius nods, smiling.

 

‘And now us lot – will help you through everything else. Merlin, I’m absolutely thrilled that you are marrying Prince Arthur,’ he says, placing a hand on Merlin’s shoulder, and then drawing him into a hug.

 

Merlin is shocked. Despite being a slightly dour kind of mentor, Gaius has always been supportive of him. However, he rarely shows such displays of affection. Merlin embraces him back, feeling oddly choked up.

 

‘Thanks – I’m glad you’re happy,’ he says laughingly as they draw away from each other.

 

‘Of course I’m happy. You do realise you’re the great hope of Camelot?’

 

Merlin laughs loudly.

 

Arthur’s the great hope.’

 

Gaius shakes his head.

 

‘No, you both are. My point is that Arthur is already in his station; but his ways are quite fixed. You will be in a position to directly influence him.’

 

Merlin frowns.

 

‘You think he’ll listen to me?’

 

‘He is supposed to. And from what I hear he will desire your council.’

 

‘I wouldn’t be too sure of that,’ says Merlin, shaking his head. ‘I mean – He’s been kind, actually. But I’m not expecting big changes once we’re able to understand each other. This isn’t going to be easy.’

 

‘No relationship is easy.’

 

Merlin raises an eyebrow.

 

‘It’s a political match, Gaius, no matter what the Great Dragon says.’

 

Gaius crosses his arms, looking concerned again.

 

‘I believe you’re an excellent match for the Prince all round, as it happens,’ he says.

 

‘We have nothing at all in common,’ says Merlin sceptically.

 

‘And you were such an imaginative, open child,’ says Gaius, and shakes his head again before looking back at Merlin. ‘All I’m trying to do is encourage you, Merlin. You should be enthusiastic about the opportunities before you, both of state and in your personal affairs. You also have no idea how unlikely this peacetime really is. Once, I thought disaster lay ahead for Camelot.’

 

Sensing the potential for another argument, Merlin just nods.

 

‘I’ll – start lessons,’ he says. ‘Although, you couldn’t recommend a tutor, could you?’

 

Gaius frowns.

 

‘What about Freya?’ he asks. ‘She’s informed me she’s staying. I know she wants to work on her magic, but she’ll get more than enough time off.’

 

‘Well, naturally we’ll practice together, but... Arthur hasn’t really taken to her.’

 

'Odd.'

 

'I know! I can't think what the problem is.'

 

'I'm sure he just wants more time alone with you.'

 

'Yes, but there's no need for him to take it out on her.'

 

'Hm.'

 

Gaius watches him thoughtfully for a bit, and Merlin sighs.

 

'He's been really quite rude to her, actually,' he says. 'It's strange, I mean, I'm sure it's all on his part. It's not that she can't hold her own, but... she's just not stupid enough to deliberately offend him, either.'

 

'I'm sure he will relax more once you're married,' says Gaius finally. 'And once you two can understand each other better you can discuss this with him.'

 

Merlin nods as Gaius continues.

 

'I'll find you a decent tutor, but you should practice wherever you can. You're very welcome to come to me when I'm not busy.'

 

 

{} 

 

 

On the way back from Gaius’s, halfway between the servant’s quarters and the Great Hall, Merlin nearly bumps into a servant girl. He recognises her as Lady Morgana’s maidservant. She’s immensely pretty, with a brilliant smile she reserves for other servants (presumably her friends) and Morgana, with whom she seems very close.

 

‘Ah, Gwen, isn’t it?’ he says.

 

‘Yes, my Lord,’ she says.

 

He’s not used to being called this. He knows he’s inherited it since his coming of age, and it’s a title he won’t bear long, for it will be invalid upon his wedding day.

 

‘I don’t suppose you know if the training party’s gone to the grounds yet?’ he asks, and Gwen listens anxiously for any word she might understand. ‘Sorry. I don’t know how to say...’

 

He trails off, embarrassed, worrying that he might be keeping Gwen from her work.

 

She's still watching him with polite attention, and she says something that he only catches bits of;

 

‘...My Lord, sorry... I...?’

 

Merlin laughs self-consciously, and Gwen starts to look worried. He hopes she’s not afraid she’ll get in trouble with him.

 

‘Prince Arthur?’ he says, gesturing vaguely down the corridor. ‘I look.’

 

Gwen suddenly brightens up.

 

‘Oh, yes!’ she says, and something else.

 

She offers her arm, which he takes, and notices a bit of a pink tinge to her cheeks. He bets he's a bit red from embarrassment too; it is difficult not being able to understand someone.

 

She chats a little as they walk, at least; Merlin thinks it’s chat. Her voice is so friendly and earnest. He feels quite content hearing her and not fully understanding, because he imagines he gets the gist of it. There’s a remark she makes while waving her hand around, and he fancies that perhaps she’s talking about how big and confusing Camelot can be. And then her tone gets a hint of questioning about it, and he thinks she might be asking why he’s ended up in this area of the castle. He answers her, too.

 

‘I used to sneak through the servant’s quarters when I was little,’ he admits. ‘Sometimes, if the spell went right, I’d be invisible, or in the form of a cat, although not everyone likes cats.’

 

Gwen smiles back at him, as though she too feels like this is an agreeable, if technically impossible, conversation.

 

‘I was visiting Gaius, you see,’ Merlin continues.

 

‘Ah, yes,’ she says, nodding. ‘...Gaius... you...’

 

The rest of her words are garbled to his ears, of course. But he imagines she’s saying how wise Gaius is.

 

They reach the Hall, where Arthur, Uther, Ygraine and Merlin’s parents are talking together. They turn as Gwen and Merlin approach, Balinor and Hunith frowning with interest as Gwen curtsies and speaks.

 

Merlin realises that Gwen must be telling everyone that he was lost in the servant’s quarters while looking for Arthur, and although this at first irks him, he remembers how Arthur had delighted in showing him around during their courtship. This is quite a good opportunity for Arthur to play the gallant hero, if he wishes, and it might look very good in front of Uther.

 

His suspicions are confirmed when Arthur, Uther and Ygraine look from Gwen to Merlin, and then Arthur rushes to his side with the urgency of someone who’s lost a kitten down a drain.

 

Merlin smiles at him, trying not to scoff as Balinor also approaches.

 

‘You weren’t lost, surely?’ Balinor asks.

 

‘If it makes everyone this soppy, then I was,’ replies Merlin quietly. ‘Honestly, look at them, it’s not as though any of them noticed I was missing at the time.’

 

He realises that Gwen is leaving, and is about to thank her when Arthur slings an arm around his shoulders, murmuring something, and Balinor raises an eyebrow at them.

 

‘Yes,’ says Merlin, patting Arthur's arm while pretending to look sheepish. ‘It was so traumatic, coming from Gaius’s to here. I thought I’d never make it.’

 

Hunith stifles a laugh and grabs Balinor's hand as Uther says something, gesturing towards the large doors that lead outside, and everyone starts nodding.

 

‘We out – yes?’ Merlin asks Arthur, who beams.

 

‘Yes,’ he says, and something else that sounds rather patronising.

 

He steers Merlin out through the doors, behind their parents, and as they walk through Camelot he talks and gestures at all the activity going on.

 

Some people stop and watch them as they pass; others bow, but most of the workers are too busy to halt their actions. It seems odd that Merlin is about become their prince. Some of the Druids from Essetir have essentially settled with his family on the Hill where they live, but it's a very free kind of co-dependence, and Balinor has certainly never called himself their lord.

 

The training grounds have now been adapted into a proper arena with raised wooden benches all around for the spectators, who are mostly already there. When they reach them, Arthur pulls away from Merlin and says something, holding his hand out.

 

Merlin looks from Arthur's expectant face to his hand, before Hunith says, 'Neckercheif, cariad.', and Merlin laughs in realisation and reaches to remove it. He hands the red cloth to Arthur, who grins and leans in to kiss Merlin on the cheek, before going off around the spectator seats towards a large tent with several of his knights, who have been waiting in the arena, flanking him.

 

The two families go to the area shaded by a canopy of red and gold. There are two large, resplendent chairs in the centre of these benches for the King and Queen, who take their seats first, as everyone else sits around them.

 

The tent that Arthur went into is located at the other end of the arena, opposite the canopy. There’s another, smaller tent beside it, and Merlin recognises a glimpse of Freya’s green dress through the opening. The medical tent, Merlin realises with dread. He hopes this tournament will be a quick one.

 

Morgana arrives a few minutes later with Gwen, both extremely pretty, and Merlin smiles at the pair of them. Gwen nods back at him cheerfully, and Morgana leans in to him.

 

‘You have seen fight before?’ she asks him.

 

‘I’ve seen them practicing,’ Merlin replies.

 

Morgana smirks and nods out at the arena.

 

‘Ah, well you get ready for this.’

 

The fighting is incredible.

 

Arthur doesn’t take part for a little while at first. There seem to be different levels to it; two knights fighting each other, and then the winner of that pair moving onto a second partner. Arthur is instantly recognisable when he comes out; looking glorious in Camelot’s red, Merlin's neckerchief tied about his arm, and the crowd cheers him particularly loudly when he exits the tent.

 

Seated beside Ygraine, Merlin watches Arthur’s fights closely. He’s good. He’s very good.

 

Merlin sits there with his hands clenched almost the entire way through. A couple of times, when they stop to applaud because Arthur has bested yet another opponent, he catches Uther watching him, clearly not surprised his son is doing so well but pleased that Merlin is so impressed.

 

And Merlin is impressed; very much so.

 

But he doesn’t understand how Uther isn’t terrified for his only child right now. Ygraine, at least, seems to be in a similar condition to him; eyeing Arthur’s every move and sitting still and silent in her chair. Even her clapping is brief, and her gaze scours her son for any injury or faltering during each reprieve.

 

Sometimes, during these moments, Arthur catches Merlin’s eye and they smile at each other, but Merlin worries about distracting him. He can feel Morgana giggling at the pair of them over his shoulder when they do this, and although it makes him blush it does nothing for his nerves.

 

As Merlin watches Arthur confidently swerve a sword and smash his shield against a knight wearing yellow’s side, he supposes that Arthur does appear to be in his element. For all his spoiled behaviour, there can’t be that much that Arthur is actually allowed to do outside of his princely duties. It's good to see him looking properly happy.

 

Finally, Arthur faces the last knight, and after a good long brawl, brings him to the ground.

 

The crowd goes mad at this point. Ygraine suddenly becomes animated, standing abruptly (so that Uther rushes to steady her) and applauding her son loudly, and Morgana seems to forget her mocking tone and does the same, cheering happily. Merlin stands too, relieved, and maybe a little proud.

 

The injured are taken to the medical tent, only a couple so bad that they need carrying.

 

Arthur comes to stand before the barrier separating him from his parents, and Uther says a few words that get everyone cheering again. The King motions to Merlin, who stands and walks to him, before presenting him to Arthur.

 

Up close, it's easier to see the effects of the tournament on Arthur. He's still glowing and gorgeous in his armour, but through a filter of dirt and sweat, and his breaths come deep and heavy. Merlin blushes as he leans over the barrier, and Arthur is panting close to his ear as he kisses his cheek. Everyone's cheering again, and Merlin smiles at him as they pull away.

 

'Well done,' Merlin says. 'Just so you know, I'll do everything to put you off from tournaments when we're married.'

 

Arthur just laughs, unaware, but apparently happy.