I’ll tell you how the story ends
Well, the good guys die and the bad guys win
It was a pale early autumn morning, and the first time Arthur had ever woken up next to someone. Trust Merlin to sleep over, when chambermaids always made a point of gathering their things and slipping out before the sun rose. Arthur didn’t mind; things with Merlin had been--were--different, in so many ways.
Arthur ran his fingers through Merlin’s hair, resolving to get all the soppiness out of his system while he was the only one conscious. Merlin quietly began to stir, and Arthur rubbed his shoulder in warm circles until he opened his eyes. The cold light paled the red around Merlin’s eyes and mouth, making him all soft creams as he lay there, fighting off the last remnants of sleep in tiny shifts and groans.
After watching fondly for a minute or two, Arthur had to rearrange his face into something more neutral, because Merlin’s blue gaze was on him as he yawned into a tired, lazy smile. Merlin turned onto his side, hooked a leg over Arthur, and wriggled his hips and shoulders, worming his way up the bed until he could press his forehead to Arthur’s.
“Hi,” Merlin whispered, breath ghosting over Arthur’s lips.
Arthur looked at him for a moment, willing himself to say something about Merlin neglecting his duties or fetching breakfast, but his tongue betrayed him, and with his heart pounding, he croaked, “Hi.”
Merlin smiled and watched his fingers trail over Arthur’s chest, before clasping his face and pushing their lips together. The kiss was warm and dry at first; almost chaste. Arthur closed his eyes and scooted onto his side too, placing a hand lightly on Merlin’s hip. Their noses were filled with the smells of morning and each other, but then Merlin nudged his hip more firmly into Arthur’s fingers and suddenly their mouths were open and their tongues were sliding together.
At that moment, Arthur wasn’t a prince or a future king, he was just Merlin’s, and the last thought in his head was of his royal duty. They kissed deeply, legs tangling together beneath Arthur’s blankets, and throats emitting low, content groans at the touch of each other so close, so early in the day.
“I have patrol this morning,” Arthur murmured, rolling Merlin over and lying out flat on top of him. He knew it should’ve sounded regretful or disappointed, like he was sorry to leave Merlin behind, but it didn’t; it had a ring of ask me to stay.
Loyal only at the most critical of times, Merlin smiled up at Arthur, then caught his lower lip between his teeth and batted his eyelids in mock-diffidence. “Couldn’t you postpone it, just this once? I’m sure the other knights can survive without you, even if you are the bravest among them.”
Arthur pursed his lips, feigning serious consideration, and Merlin took the chance to dart up and kiss his chin. Arthur tried to look irritated, he really did, but his resolve cracked and he ended up grinning like an idiot and ruffling Merlin’s hair.
“I see you do have a few compliments tucked away in there,” he laughed. “Even if they’re completely self-serving.”
“Hey!” Merlin put on an affronted face, but his heart wasn’t in it. “I’m pretty sure you’d benefit from staying in bed with me, too.”
Arthur narrowed his eyes.
“Sire,” Merlin added, winking and then scrunching up his nose to pull a face.
Arthur kept his expression pointedly annoyed and his eyes fixed on Merlin’s, but beneath the covers he slipped his thigh between Merlin’s legs and ran light fingers over Merlin’s hip bone. These small reminders that they were in bed, not only together but naked, made Merlin gasp and bite his lip again.
“Arthur,” he moaned, craning his neck to kiss Arthur’s jaw.
“Merlin,” Arthur whispered back, mouth pressed against the shell of Merlin’s ear. They both stayed silent for a few minutes after that, kissing in earnest and tickling in all the right places, before Arthur started gently rolling his hips, and they both broke out into moans and groans and small, private yes’s.
Afterwards, Merlin’s muscles went back to being lazily pliant, and he lay there, sinking into the mattress as he ran idle fingers through the sticky mess on his stomach. It didn’t matter if it was Merlin’s mess, or Arthur’s, or bloody Sir Leon’s, it always looked and felt the same--or so Merlin insisted.
“Please, for the love of all that’s holy, never say that again,” Arthur grunted, rolling out of bed and trying to keep all images involving Merlin’s parted lips and heaving chest underneath Sir Leon from entering his head.
He walked towards the window, leaving Merlin lying in bed with the blankets pushed down to skate across his hip bones. By this point, the sun had climbed quite high in the sky, and its beams were cutting through the lingering dust in the air, striking harsh lines across the flagstones. Arthur kept a blanket wrapped around his hips as he pulled the dark red curtains back and blinked into the sunlight.
The first thing Arthur saw when he managed to clear the darkness from his eyelids was the grey sky, somehow brilliantly bright. His eyes raked over the swirling mix of clouds, and he reached for the window latch, wanting to pull it open so he could suck in a lungful of cold, clean air. The lock stuck, and when Arthur glanced down to shake it free, he caught sight of the lower town beyond his window.
“Mhm, Arthur,” Merlin whined, half-joking as he stretched out a hand. “Come back. It’s cold without you.”
Arthur didn’t answer. He stood frozen in the pale light, not quite believing the scene before him; smoke curling fast and thick between thatched roofs, swarms of people running, falling, scrambling to their feet and running again. Some were heading for the courtyard, but others streaked out of the gates of the city and away towards the forest. They didn’t make it. The giant, dark swarm of metal and leather engulfed all those who fled, and devoured them. The word surrounded kept shooting through Arthur’s head, and his fingers shook as he fumbled with the window latch.
“Hey!” Merlin called from the bed. “Come on, Arthur. There’s no point skipping patrol if you’re gonna spend all morning staring out the window anyway.”
“Shut up,” Arthur hissed, his eyes flicking back into the room for a split second. Merlin’s cheekbones were prominent in the soft sunlight and the line of each of his ribs was just visible beneath his bare skin. He looked beautiful and pure and happy, and it made Arthur’s stomach twist horribly. “Just get up. Get up now and get dressed.”
“What?” Merlin’s brow creased and he lifted his head a fraction off the pillow. “Arthur, why--”
“Just do it!” Arthur roared, and as the words left him, he managed to shake the window open.
The sounds of screams came trickling into the room, filling the gap between Arthur and Merlin. The smell of smoke quickly followed, and Arthur watched Merlin’s face change from blissful, to confused, to terrified. All hints of happiness dropped away, but at that moment, Arthur didn’t care.
He didn’t care because the reason he was here, and not out on a patrol, keeping watch for enemies like the ones ripping through his city, was Merlin. The reason he hadn’t been protecting Camelot was Merlin and his smiles; Merlin and his soft words; Merlin and his skin.
Arthur felt sick to the bone.
The next few hours were a blur of blood, flame, battle cries and, eventually, fleeing. They sprinted around the castle, searching desperately for Morgana and Gwen, but they were nowhere to be found. The door to Morgana’s chambers had been left swinging on its hinges, but inside there wasn’t any real sign of panic or struggle. A small pile of mending lay forgotten on the window ledge and the bed wasn’t made, but that was about all that Merlin and Arthur could glean from the room.
Merlin followed Arthur through the wide, stone corridors. He listened as Arthur bellowed instructions to the line of knights in the courtyard, ordering them to run. He said Camelot was lost, and that they needed to get themselves out. They’d done all they could; it wasn’t their fault. Not many of the knights seemed to hear, and even fewer listened. Arthur’s lead, always laying down his own life to help his people, clearly had a hook in each of them, and their defiant shouts could be heard in every corner of the city.
Next, Merlin and Arthur raced to find the king, looking to his chambers first, then the council halls and the hidden, private libraries where Uther sometimes took refuge from the pressures of the Court. There was nothing there but a whirlwind of scattered parchments, a pool of dark red, and an open window, and Merlin found himself doing nothing but standing still and helpless, as Arthur stormed between the bookshelves, calling out for his father with a voice that couldn’t quite seem to stop cracking.
That was when Merlin felt it; the searing jolt of magic twisting through the stonework. It’d washed through him once before, far away, as he watched Arthur and Igraine rush together across an ancient hall, and Merlin knew it at once. He would recognise Morgause’s touch anywhere. It felt sultry, a dark gold rush of determined passion and anger. The fingers of her magic clawed passed them, and on into further rooms, echoing one phrase over and over again: Sister, we can help. Let us find you.
Merlin caught sight of Morgause through a window as they rushed down to the throne room, hoping beyond hope that Uther or Morgana or Gwen or even Gaius would be there. She was standing in the thick of the vicious leather swarm, arms raised above her head and curls billowing out behind her. Arthur saw her too, and he stopped, dumb struck. Merlin had to grab hold of him and drag him out.
He dragged Arthur away from a burning Camelot, panting and wheezing with streaming eyes. He dragged Arthur away from his father, from Morgana, from Gwen--from everything he desperately needed to find. They ran, and didn’t stop until the cloud of smoke had disappeared over the horizon. Then, they made camp deep in the forest.
Hours later, when the darkness of a cold, empty night set in again, Merlin sat beside Arthur on a moss-covered old log. It was twilight; the same time Merlin had come bursting into Arthur’s chambers the night before. He’d shouted about how this had all gone on long enough, and that there were some things they needed to get out in the open, until the only way Arthur could quiet him was by grasping his wrists and kissing him.
That night, they’d been so close, and everything had felt blissfully surreal and happy. Merlin had found a hundred feelings spilling out of Arthur before he could help it, and a thousand secrets were shared between them, although Merlin had still kept a tight grip on the one secret which mattered most.
It all felt as far away as the moon now, and the people they had been were strangers to them. Merlin tried to reach for Arthur and wrap him up in the one blanket they’d managed to take from the castle, stretching out hesitant hands and shifted until their knees touched, but the first hint of contact had Arthur springing into motion. He flinched away, scrambled to his feet and tried, unsuccessfully, to disguise the tension in his shoulders.
“Don’t touch me,” he said, strong and sure but so, so broken. “Just don’t touch me.”
It was exactly four months and nineteen days before Merlin lost his humanity. They were still living in the forest, and the harsh weather had made their skin thick and hard. They’d learned all they could about The New Camelot and Queen Morgause, who was reinstating magic, little by little. Arthur had started referring to it as The Stolen City, but in Merlin’s mind, it would always be What Broke Them.
They fought almost constantly, and it was a cold, lonely existence. Merlin could’ve left. He could’ve walked back to Ealdor and resumed his life there, quietly co-existing among old friends and family, bringing in the harvest every year and watching as village children grew and discovered all the dens and hidey-holes that’d once been his own. Merlin could’ve had another life, not the life destiny had chosen for him, but a life nonetheless.
Arthur could not. As his murdered father’s only son, and therefore, magic’s greatest enemy, his face was known across the whole kingdom. He was hunted. He couldn’t find a patch of land and settle down, he couldn’t try to cross the border, and he couldn’t win Camelot back. He was trapped, in every sense of the word, and that was why Merlin stayed. That was why Merlin was still with him; why Merlin gritted his teeth, and bore the angry glares and the blame Arthur cast in his direction.
Merlin had only tried to leave once, after three weeks of silence, but the look on Arthur’s face had stopped his heart. The resigned acceptance, the wordless nod of I hoped you wouldn’t do this, had loosened Merlin’s fingers around the straps of his pack. He’d stayed with Arthur, and he questioned himself for that every day, but Merlin knew he couldn’t live with himself any other way. Not really.
The day in question, four months after leaving Camelot, when something inside Merlin was finally lost forever, was no more unusual than any other day. It was a morning consisting of foraging for food, then following Arthur through the undergrowth as he search for a fresh trail; something they could hunt. Merlin had set about gathering wood for the fire while Arthur scouted the forest, but afterwards, it was always difficult to call up the details. Merlin was grateful for that, because he never, ever wanted to remember, but there was no doubt in his mind that Arthur could picture it perfectly; he knew neither of them could ever truly forget.
Merlin was crouching down with his arms full of dead wood and dried logs. His senses had improved tenfold since they’d left Camelot, and he was vaguely aware of Arthur stalking through the trees on his far left. The afternoon gloom was just beginning to set in, and Merlin had almost collected enough logs to head back towards their camp when it happened.
He heard a small shout from Arthur’s direction. Merlin turned, every hair on his body standing up, and he stared towards the familiar gleam of golden hair several hundred yards away. The cry hadn’t come from Arthur, but someone near him, and as Merlin listened, he heard the rush of feet sprinting through the trees between them--sprinting towards Merlin.
The voice called again, and Merlin realised it was young, perhaps a child’s, shouting in desperate fright. “Ma,” it called. “Pa! The prince! The dark prince! I’ve seen him, ma. He’s here!”
The Dark Prince. Merlin had seen that name in thick, angry, block letters every time he’d ventured near a market in search of food. The words were written, harsh and unmissable, beneath countless sketches of Arthur, dotted throughout the kingdom. They always made him look cruel and cold, and Merlin knew at once that if The New Camelot heard so much as a whisper of Arthur’s presence in the forest, the hunting parties would triple and the villages would hold no refuge for them. Even the nothing they had would be lost.
“The dark prince!” The child’s voice yelled again, this time much closer to Merlin. “We must tell, we must tell! Ma! Pa!”
Merlin acted without thinking. He dropped the bundle of firewood in his arms and prepared himself, moving forward as the rustle of the child grew closer. He could tell from the voice that it was a young boy, perhaps five or six, and that it would only be a matter of seconds before they came face to face. Merlin stood in silence, staring at the bushes in front of him, waiting, waiting, waiting for something to come bursting through.
And, at last, it did.
The boy hurtled between the branches, and at that exact moment, Merlin stuck out his hand. He thought stop just as he shouted it, and thanks partly to the contact of his outstretched arm, partly to the tiny swell of magic that’d seeped through his palm, the boy did stop--for a whole of two seconds.
Then, inexplicably, the boy stumbled backwards, losing his footing on legs that were too young and too unprepared. His blue eyes opened wide and shocked, raking across Merlin’s face as he fell. Once the boy hit the ground, he didn’t get up again. He didn’t move.
“No,” Merlin croaked, dropping to his knees and running his fingers through grubby blond hair. “No. No no no.”
Merlin’s filthy hands traced gently around the boy’s head, until they met with the sharp edge of a rock just below his crown. A shuddering gasp hissed between Merlin’s teeth as his heart was swallowed up by empty shock. He cradled the boy’s head, just holding, not daring to lift, and felt tears building behind his eyes.
At some point during those long, unbearable minutes, Arthur burst through the bushes, too. Merlin didn’t look up at him, but could just make out the shift of his boots in the dirt as he moved closer. When Arthur’s palm touched lightly on the back of Merlin’s neck in a soft, concerned weight like Merlin hadn’t felt in months, the horror of the moment ended. Merlin’s life seemed to resume, as best it could.
There may have been questions.
Arthur might’ve whispered, “Is he?”
And Merlin could’ve replied, “Yes.”
Honestly, he didn’t register anything until Arthur muttered something about a proper burial.
Thereafter, Merlin refused to eat. What was left of Arthur’s heart had split apart at the sight of Merlin, so appalled and afraid and angry with himself. It’d been an accident, a mistake, brought about by too little sleep and too much stress; by the bitterness of what they were left with, and the rushing panic of losing that, too. Arthur understood. He wished he could say he didn’t, but he did. Merlin’s clumsiness had been a joke between them once before, but it never would be again.
Another cold, silent night passed, and Merlin showed no sign of recovering from the boy’s death. Arthur felt his own icy exterior begin to melt away. He’d been frustrated for months, unable to forgive himself for losing Camelot. He’d wanted to shout and claw at the world, but it just so happened that Merlin was his world, and so he was the one who had to suffer for everything. He’d taken the blame without a word, and maybe even started to believe it.
Arthur tried to bandage these open wounds as best he could. Merlin flinched away from him now, after so many weeks of Arthur being cruel and cut off, but eventually he found that a low murmur and a tentative hand on Merlin’s back while he fluttered on the edge of sleep could work wonders.
“You need to eat something,” Arthur whispered, when they were perched side by side on the floor, beneath their flimsy tent.
Merlin simply shook his head, keeping his lips pressed together into a tight line. He hadn’t looked Arthur in the eye for hours--something Arthur hadn’t realised he would miss until it was gone. Merlin’s eyes stayed fixed on his grubby fingers, but when Arthur ducked his head to look at Merlin’s face, he saw the dirt of his cheeks streaked with dried tears.
“Merlin,” Arthur sighed, putting the bowl of watery stew aside and pressing their foreheads together. “Please.”
“I--I can’t,” Merlin croaked, voice hoarse from crying. “I can’t, Arthur.”
“Come on,” Arthur gripped the nape of Merlin’s neck, vaguely aware that they hadn’t touched like this, or spoken like this, in what felt like a lifetime. “For me?”
Merlin made a choked sound that wanted to be a laugh, but couldn’t quite break free of his throat. “I thought that you...” he mumbled, then closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “If I hadn’t--that morning. If we. Then. M--maybe...”
Making a soft hushing sound, Arthur rubbed along the base of Merlin’s neck. He was reluctant to take back the past six months, and he didn’t suddenly feel the happy warmth Merlin’s smile had once lit up in him, but the feeling that this was Merlin’s fault had never quite been a genuine one. He was just Arthur; not saying what he meant was sort of what he did.
“S’okay,” Arthur whispered at last, wiping a tear from Merlin’s cheek with the back of his finger. “S’fine.”
“I’m so sorry,” Merlin sobbed, his voice coming loud and thick in the soundless forest. “I’m so, so, so, so fucking sorry. I can’t--I can’t do anything and I’m just. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry--”
“Merlin, Merlin,” Arthur tried to speak over him. “Merlin.”
“It’s okay,” Arthur raised his voice a little more and stroked his fingers roughly through Merlin’s hair.
“No, it’s not!” Merlin scowled, his mouth still set in an angry, determined line. “It’s not okay.”
For a moment, Arthur let go of Merlin. He pulled back and surveyed Merlin’s whole face, taking in the dark shadows beneath his eyes and the red scratches on his cheeks, and he knew that Merlin didn’t just mean the little boy. He meant them; he meant everything.
“No, you’re right,” Arthur said quietly, his face softening when Merlin finally met his gaze. “It’s not okay.”
Days and days passed, swiftly becoming weeks, and then nothing but a swirl of stiff muscles and sleepless nights; an endless stream of guilt slowly dimming and melancholy draining into apathy. Arthur lost count after Merlin stopped muttering numbers under his breath every morning, but it didn't matter--nothing mattered anymore.
They were hungry. The final dregs of winter were whipping through the forest, and any stores they'd managed to build up and carry had gone. There was nothing left to hunt, no berries left to pick and Arthur's stomach had never felt so empty. He still couldn't bring himself to look at Merlin all that often, but when he did, he was struck by the gauntness of Merlin’s features, the way his limbs shook at times, and the tremor in his long, pale fingers.
Arthur knew he must've lost weight, too. His muddied shirt hung even looser from his shoulders, and when he washed, he could see the light outline of his ribs through the water. Sometimes, there were odd moments when Arthur thought he'd like to hold someone, or to be held by someone, because his whole life had fallen away and his own arms alone couldn't catch him.
At times like that, he noticed how the forest had aged Merlin's face and drawn his movements out to make them long and determined. Sometimes, Arthur's chest tugged in an echo of feelings long passed, and he wanted to say that it wasn't Merlin's fault, but he never did.
"We need to find food," Arthur grunted on the tail end of one of those moments, watching Merlin where he was kneeling in the dirt and building a fire.
"There isn't anything," Merlin answered, his voice loud and harsh on the still air. He didn't look up.
"There must be something. C'mon, Merlin, I'm pretty sure you don't want to starve to death either."
Silence stretched out for a minute or so, and Arthur glanced back and forth between the set of Merlin's jaw and the sure slide of his fingers around two stones. He wondered, his mind wandering unchecked into what Merlin might think or feel, if perhaps they would both be better off dead, after all. Arthur tried to read in Merlin's skin whether he wished he could just starve there between the uncaring trees, but he’d become a stranger to Merlin’s body, and there was no way to tell.
"How desperate are you?" Merlin asked after a few minutes.
"Pretty bloody desperate,” Arthur said through gritted teeth.
Merlin carefully laid his stones down beside the pile of twigs. He straightened out his shirt and turned around on his knees to look at Arthur. "There's a cart on the road," he said flatly. "It's heavy, I can hear it. And it's alone."
Arthur was darting into motion before Merlin had finished. He grabbed his torn leather jacket and bounded quickly up the wooded slope and out of their clearing. He'd long since learned to trust Merlin's ears; late nights on watch, drenched in fear with no shelter and no fire, had attuned him to the sounds of the forest in a way Arthur's hunting trips never had. He was also nimble and fast on his feet now, and he caught up with Arthur in no time.
In a move that would once have held meaning between them, Merlin tapped Arthur's shoulder and signalled for him to circle around to the left. He pointed ahead of them, where the cart was apparently trundling along, and used two fingers to signal the need for silence, stealth and a watchful eye. The old Arthur might've mocked Merlin, or patted him proudly on the back, but this Arthur simply nodded with his mouth set into a hard line. Hunting to stay alive had never been a joke to Merlin, and he'd picked up these commands in record time once stalking a deer was no longer just for fun.
Arthur slipped soundlessly between the trees and crossed the road several hundred yards behind, then hurried back through the opposite side of the forest. He’d always been fast and quiet on his feet, and he found himself drawing level with the cart after only a short time.
It was moving at a snail’s pace, pulled by a plodding, grey pony, which looked as old and worn as the two figures perched behind it, clutching the reigns where they huddled together atop the cart. A quick, assessing glance told Arthur the figures were an elderly couple, wrapped in a moth eaten blanket. Their cart was piled with a few sacks of vegetables and what looked like wrapped cheese and meat.
The right rear wheel of the cart creaked with every half turn, and Arthur wondered how he could’ve missed the sound from where they’d made camp. Merlin’s hearing was definitely better, and every once in a while, there would be a moment when Merlin’s eyes caught something Arthur’s didn’t, or when Merlin’s reflexes were a hair’s-breadth faster, and Arthur would jolt with the realisation that Merlin was actually pretty bloody good.
Merlin had never shown such promise on hunting trips, but this life wasn’t a hunting trip. This was survive or die, and Merlin wasn’t there because Arthur had dragged him, or because Gaius couldn’t find any chores. He was there because...
He was there for reasons Arthur knew only too well. For the guilt they both felt over choosing each other--perhaps, more accurately, over choosing themselves--instead of their duty. For the guilt Arthur had driven into Merlin’s bones, by saying that, in so many words, this was Merlin’s fault, until his eyes had faded into grey. For the guilt of the little boy, who’d taken with him a part of Merlin that could never be given back.
Perhaps, although Arthur hardly dared think it, Merlin could be there for other reasons, too. Reasons like the memory of the night they’d spent together in Camelot, all warm blankets and hot skin, and the promises they’d licked and kissed into each other’s mouths. Reasons like how Arthur needed Merlin, because he could pass unnoticed through all the villages and markets Arthur didn’t dare go near. Reasons like the faint chance that Merlin still cared, from the way he whispered when Arthur cried out in the midst of lonely, haunted dreams.
In truth, Arthur had no idea why Merlin stayed, and he tried not to think about it. All he could afford to think about, as he closed in on one side of the cart and watched Merlin closing in on the other, was not slipping on the hard ground, and not breathing too loudly. All he could afford to think about as he watched Merlin give the signal, was how to clamber onto the cart without alerting the old couple sitting mere feet away.
He did it--just, and once Arthur was standing unsteadily on the wooden boards of the cart, he wasted no time in bending down and grabbing one of the sacks of food. Potatoes! Perfect. His stomach felt as though it was eating itself after two days of nothing. Arthur could already taste the hot, thick spoonfuls of stew Merlin would hand to him in a few hours, and it tasted like surviving another day to defy the New Camelot, even if he’d lost all hope of ever having more than that.
Arthur took hold of the sack and tossed it down to Merlin, who was pacing along behind the cart. It was only a small bag, and he caught it with a steady, graceful ease. With an equally swift movement, Arthur turned back and grabbed one of the large blocks of cheese, then passed that to Merlin, too.
Merlin’s eyes lifted to stare over Arthur’s shoulder, then darted down to the wrapped meat in the corner of the cart, and Arthur understood. He dipped his head until Merlin turned and slid back between the trees and heavy undergrowth. Once he’d given Merlin a considerable head start, Arthur spun around and snatched up the meat. He chose to forego silence in favour of speed, and by the time the old man had pulled the cart to a halt and risen to his feet, turning with a shout, Arthur’s heels were disappearing into the forest.
“Got it!” He announced when he burst into their clearing a short time later. “Are they following?”
“No,” Merlin said from where he was already kneeling beside a small fire. He was using Arthur’s hunting knife to roughly score skin from the potatoes, with a pot simmering over the flames in front of him.
A shadow passed across Merlin’s face, but Arthur’s whole body was buzzing with the feeling of thick, cold meat under his arm, and the smell of vegetables cooking. For a few minutes, he let himself smile over this small victory, and not worry about why Merlin’s shoulders were tense and his movements stiff. Arthur had so few reasons to grin nowadays, but Merlin had even fewer. If the image of the little boy, still and lifeless in Merlin’s arms, haunted Arthur most nights, then he could only imagine what it was doing to Merlin.
They ate their fill of potatoes and meat, washed down by water from a nearby stream, and the darkness of night had well and truly set in by the time the fire started to die down. They had half a sack of potatoes, two slabs of meat and all the cheese left, and Arthur was feeling closer to content than he had in a very long time.
“This can last us for a week at least,” he told Merlin, who was staring into the fire. “And by then I’ll have found a decent new hunting ground further south. I think... I think it’s gonna be okay.” He hadn’t said so much at once for a month, but there was a lightness in his heart that made his jaw unclench.
“It’ll go bad,” Merlin said without looking up, his voice flat and his brow creased. “We don’t have a good way of storing this stuff. It’ll go bad, and fast.”
Arthur pursed his lips and glared down at his palms. “I admit we won’t use it all, but having the luxury of picking and choosing what we leave behind isn’t exactly something to complain about.”
For a few minutes, they sat in silence. Merlin’s expression hadn’t changed, and Arthur took his failure to argue as agreement--however reluctant it may be. That was until Merlin cleared his throat and said, “She cried, you know.”
“What?” Arthur’s smile faded and his gut twisted violently.
“That old woman,” Merlin threw a stray twig into the sinking embers of the fire. “When we took the food, she cried. Wept might be a better word, actually. Said something to her husband about--”
Merlin’s voice trailed off and he fell silent, shaking his head and poking at the fire with his foot.
“About?” Arthur prompted, swallowing around a lump in his throat and trying to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach.
“I probably misheard,” Merlin said, running a shaking hand through his hair. He looked so very pale in the dim light. “I mean, she was quite far away.”
“Merlin.” The commanding tone in Arthur’s voice made Merlin look up. It’d been so long since he’d issued an order at all, and now it felt foreign between them; wrong.
“She said,” Merlin conceded slowly, his eyes trained on Arthur’s face. “Something about there being nothing else. Something about how they won’t manage.” Merlin leaned forwards and knitted his fingers together. “She asked her husband what they’d done to deserve such evil.”
There was a very long, still pause after that. Arthur’s mouth had fallen open and he let his gaze drop to the fire. The feeling that washed over him was akin to the bottom slipping away from the world. Arthur’s jaw went numb and the back of his neck prickled, because that, with meat and cheese and potatoes, had been the moment Arthur abandoned his whole sense of self, and hadn’t even noticed.
He’d been so desperately, maddeningly hungry that everything he’d lived by for twenty years had left him, and he’d taken what wasn’t his. He’d stolen, and not from the cellars of the New Camelot, but from her people; from his people. The very people Arthur wanted to protect; the very people he swore he loved, and lived for.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he choked when he could finally breathe again. “I can’t believe we did that.”
“Hm,” Merlin hummed, dropping a few dead leaves onto the dying fire.
“You blame me for this, don’t you?” Arthur’s voice rose and he let his glare melt into something murderous. Even the smallest sound from Merlin seemed judgemental, and he, of all people, had no right to judge.
With a sigh, Merlin looked back over at Arthur. His dark hair was smudged with the gleam of firelight, and his face looked gaunt and tired. “No,” he said, deflated. “I don’t see the point in blaming people for things that are already over and done with.”
Arthur felt the sting in those words, but wasn’t sure whether the look in Merlin’s eyes was pleading for forgiveness, for an end, or just to be left alone. After a moment, he realised he didn’t care either way.
“But we’ve condemned them!” he shouted, pushing himself to his feet. “Bloody hell, that’s... That’s it for them. We’ve just--we’ve just taken it all! How the hell are they going to eat now? How they hell are we going to live with ourselves?”
“We’ll find a way.”
“Maybe you will,” Arthur huffed, raking a hand through his hair. “I’m supposed to be better than this.”
There was another stony silence. Merlin drew patterns in the dirt with a stick and stared defiantly into the fire, his mouth set into a thin line, while Arthur paced back and forth. He kept casting glances in Merlin’s direction, waiting for him to retort. Waiting for him to defend himself, or get angry and shout, or to tell Arthur he was the worst of them all, because he was keeping an innocent man trapped in this life, honed in on every side by blame and guilt and promises from another life and a love that had long gone stale.
No argument came, and Merlin kept his gaze fixed steadfastly on the ground. After a few more minutes of pacing, and once he’d pressed his boots so hard into the earth that he’d started unearthing a broken piece of pottery, Arthur huffed one last time and ducked into the tent. It wasn’t any warmer inside and there was no light from the fire, but at least he was alone.
Merlin sat quietly for a long time, letting his mind whisper its way back to the prince he’d once known. He remembered Arthur’s bright smile as they joked easily in his chambers, lofty and full of clean, warm air in the morning sunshine. He remembered the ruby red burn of goodness that he’d glimpsed in Arthur’s heart countless times, as he set out to face a foe, or lay down his life for his people. Merlin remembered the nervous press of Arthur’s lips against his throat, and the smooth brush of his fingertips as he untied Merlin’s scarf.
That man hadn’t died. Merlin had been by Arthur’s side every moment since they’d first heard the screams of women in the courtyard, and no arrow or sword had pierced his flesh. There were no physical wounds that couldn’t heal, no scratches that had scarred. Arthur had lost himself somewhere between the gates of Camelot and the frosty stretches of the woods, but to say that such a thing was forever seemed too finite, even for Merlin.
It was true that Merlin had changed, too. He wouldn’t have recognised himself months ago, and the burning flame of love and admiration he’d once felt for his prince had sputtered into a mud-smeared glow. Merlin’s fingers and toes were numb, his chest was empty, and sometimes he thought his heart must have fled from too many hours locked in hurt and loneliness. He wasn’t the man he once had been, and neither was Arthur, but sometimes, he thought they could be. Everything lost is found again, after all, and the two of them had been lost, together and yet somehow still apart, for long enough.
Merlin stretched his legs out in front of him, then rose up onto them. A quick glance told him the fire would die out on its own soon enough, and he could hear the steady rhythm of Arthur’s breathing inside the tent--he wasn’t asleep, but he was still. It seemed safe to assume that Merlin could leave and it wouldn’t be noticed. He wouldn’t be missed.
His legs carried him swiftly as his mind raced back over what had happened a few hours before. He could recall the exact place where they’d come across the cart, and he found it in no time. The moon was full in the sky, casting a pale shine down on the bare earth of the road. Tracks, Merlin could see tracks, and his blood was surging out of sync in his veins at the thought of really doing this; of fighting back against the cold life that was dragging them down by their ankles.
It took little more than two hours to return the wrapped cheese and meat to the elderly couple’s hut. They lived no further than three miles from Merlin and Arthur’s camp, and under the cover of darkness, Merlin could finally wave his hand and make his burdens carry themselves through the air behind him. The rush of magic flowing through him and the familiar taste of age-old words on his tongue made Merlin’s shoulders relax. His muscles dropped a tension that he hadn’t even noticed amid the twisting burn of guilt and loss.
He padded back down the road, leaving a tiny white bundle of flowers atop the pile of food outside the old couple’s door, and thought that perhaps, to keep a hold of who he was, he simply needed to exercise his magic once in a while. The irony of the situation didn’t escape Merlin; magic had taken over Camelot, and yet it’d made Merlin more of an outcast than Uther’s bans ever had.
He felt an ache of resentment and betrayal every time he thought about the way his own magic had leapt forwards, trying to connect with Morgause’s as it wove through Camelot. Merlin had spent every moment with Arthur since they’d left, and the lack of opportunity to explore his own powers had worn him down. If such a small tickle of magic could lighten Merlin’s spirits this much, maybe he could find room within himself for happiness, some day soon.
“I took it back,” Merlin said the next morning, lifting his shoulders in a half shrug when Arthur emerged from the tent. “I found their tracks and I returned the meat. And--and the cheese, too.”
Arthur rubbed his eyes and looked down at the sack of potatoes lying at Merlin’s feet. “You did what?”
“They had nothing, Arthur,” Merlin took a step forward, hand outstretched as if to stop Arthur from doing anything rash. “We can walk all day if we eat a good breakfast, and we’ll surely find something. I saw your face last night. What we did, taking that food, it was wrong, and I needed to fix it.”
With a slow nod, Arthur sank down to sit on a log. His expression was unreadable, and he ran a hand along the rough stubble on his jaw. Merlin watched, clenching and unclenching his fingers, and waited.
“I see,” Arthur said at last. He managed to drag his gaze up from Merlin’s boots to his face, and the bright blue gleam of his eyes caught Merlin off-guard. He still had the dark frown of the night before etched into his mind. “The meat and cheese, did you say?”
“Yes,” Merlin nodded quickly. “I... I thought this was what you wanted. I thought you wanted to be better than thieves.”
Another few seconds passed. Arthur hadn’t been so unresponsive in the morning since he’d woken up in his own bed, wrapped in a mess of silk pillows and wool blankets. His lips were pursed and his eyes raked up and down Merlin’s body, as if he were considering his response at great length.
“We are better than that,” he said at last, and stretched out a hand towards Merlin, who was so surprised he almost tripped over himself when he reached for it. “Thank you,” Arthur murmured as Merlin’s fingers slipped into the curve of his palm, and then he watched Merlin’s face for a moment longer, before dipping his head and pressing a kiss to Merlin’s knuckles.
After that, things with Arthur went back to curt words and stiff movements, but Merlin couldn’t help feeling that he’d seen a glimpse of something else, something new. The only other sign came while Merlin was trudging wordlessly behind Arthur in a late morning shower; Arthur turned a little as he walked, and his eyes caught Merlin’s. They just looked at each other, open and meaningful, and Merlin’s lips almost quirked into a smile at the thought that maybe he was finding the prince again, out there in the forest, after all.
Three weeks after the cart, Merlin and Arthur were still exchanging the odd, contemplative look. Every now and then, Merlin would turn and find Arthur watching him with eyes that were free of hurt and anger. No ache of blame or guilt flickered between them in those moments, there was just Merlin and Arthur, and the slow, steady drag of eyes over dirty skin and tense shoulders.
They’d discovered that it was best to hunt on the far eastern edge of the forest, where the trees bordered rocky ridges, and they hadn’t seen any signs of a wide patrol for some time. Arthur hunted every morning and every evening, but Merlin only joined him on the evening hunts. He said it was because the darkness made him uneasy, but really, he wanted to be there as another set of eyes. Arthur sometimes asked Merlin to come along in the morning as well, but that was far more rare. They both knew that if either of them were lost, the other wouldn’t make it.
In the morning, Merlin usually scouted the nearby roads and clearings for signs of other travellers. If he found old footprints or the leftover ash of a fire, he could be gone for several hours. Sometimes, Merlin would follow tracks until he came across the group of peasants, or knights, or bandits who’d left them, but most of the time, he only kept up long enough to make sure they weren’t a threat. If Merlin needed to use magic to send them in the opposite direction from Arthur and their camp, he’d do it without a second thought, then hurry back home.
Home. That was something odd that’d happened, too. Merlin couldn’t tell when exactly he’d started thinking of their scrap of tent and scrape of earth as home, but now he did. They were still moving around the forest, but in less of a zig-zagging pattern, and nowhere near as frequently as they had done in the past. Winter chills had made Merlin yearn for the chance to build a hut for them, as something permanent, but he knew Arthur would see that as failure. He’d see it as giving up, and settling for the hand fate had dealt them.
They couldn’t give up. Arthur still held his chin high and his head back, as though ready to bear the weight of a crown, and Merlin still kept his magic buzzing and swirling behind his tongue, ready for the truth, ready to tell Arthur, at any moment. Neither of them felt their futures were done with, even though there seemed to be no way out of the life they’d been condemned to live. The forest had been a perfect imitation of refuge from Camelot’s captors, but once inside, Merlin had seen that the tree trunks were nothing more than the wooden bars of another kind of jail.
One morning, just as Arthur was preparing to leave on his hunt, Merlin managed to summon up the courage to ask something that’d been playing at the back of his mind for days. “Can I go into the market today?”
Arthur looked up from where he was buckling his knife into his belt, and frowned. “Why?”
“To buy food,” Merlin said. The last time he’d visited the market of a nearby village, he’d stolen six apples from one of the stalls, and been chased for half a mile before he finally escaped. Finding each other in the woods again after that had been difficult, to say the least. This time, Merlin was far more confident. “I took some gold from those bandits I saw a few days ago. The ones I told you about?”
“Hm,” Arthur’s frown didn’t lift. “Well, if you’re that sick of meat, by all means go and buy a cabbage or something.” He finished adjusting his belt and straightened up, looking down at Merlin as he spoke. “You’re not my servant anymore, Merlin. You don’t have to ask permission.”
Merlin gave a mute nod and kept his eyes fixed on Arthur’s knees. He listened to Arthur gather the rest of his things, and as Merlin watched Arthur’s back disappear between the trees, he bit his lip. After Arthur had forbidden him from going near a market again, and since Merlin still washed Arthur’s jacket when it was stained with deer blood or dirt, Merlin had thought maybe he was still a servant, at least in Arthur’s eyes, but perhaps Arthur hadn’t seen the things Merlin did for him as a servant’s behaviour. Perhaps he’d thought Merlin was simply behaving like a friend.
The nearest market was an hour’s walk to the north, and although Merlin didn’t dawdle, he didn’t exactly rush, either. A splash of water from the stream and some subtle whispers of magic were enough to clean him up. Merlin was anxious to blend in, and not look as though he’d spent months living in the woods, but he was still too wary to clean his tunic to the point where Arthur might actually notice. Explaining away the disappearance of the largest stew stains might have been a bit much, even for Merlin.
There had been a time when Merlin would’ve savoured a long, quiet walk through the forest, but now his body ached in a hundred places and he’d grown to hate the sight of trees. Heading into a small village was akin to Merlin’s first steps inside Camelot, and he couldn’t help the jolt of excitement in his stomach when the first few straw roofs came into view.
The village was called Cerriglyn, and Merlin had been there once or twice as a boy, when he and his mother ventured out of Ealdor to pick up supplies they couldn’t grow in their small fields. As he picked his way between the outer huts and cottages towards the main street, where the sounds of the village market where already floating through the air towards him, Merlin closed his eyes and drew a deep breath.
The smell of fresh air, so free of moss and damp leaves, was exhilarating, and it spurred Merlin along as he turned the corner and headed into the thick of the crowd. The gold he’d managed to take from the bandits (using some fairly complicated magic, truth be told) was enough to pay for a few cabbages, but when Merlin spotted the woollen blankets on the next stall over, his mind was made up. He grabbed the first one he saw, more interested in the thrill of cold, sharp fright that pulsed through him at the feel of being out and among the people as though he were one of them, than in what he was buying.
With a smile and a nod to the girl selling the blankets, Merlin spun on his heel and surveyed the market. It wasn’t as busy as he remembered, but that might’ve had something to do with the fact Merlin had been only knee-high when he last visited Cerriglyn. Now, he was one of the tallest there, and if he pushed himself onto his toes, he could see down to the far end of the village, where two women were dismounting from horses. They were both dressed in long, flowing cloaks--one a rich purple and the other a deep yellow.
The crowd parted as the two women made their way between the stalls, and a few people even stopped to bow. Merlin’s brow furrowed, and he inched forward, craning his neck to get a closer look. No one seemed to be paying attention to him, and Merlin managed to squeeze passed a few old women and a farmer, until he was hovering a few feet away from the yellow-cloaked figure, with nothing between them but cold air.
She was speaking softly, and he couldn’t make out her voice, but he could see a curl of dark hair blowing in the breeze, free of the heavy fall of her hood. Merlin’s lips parted in a gasp, and at that moment, the woman turned towards him, and he found himself staring into familiar brown eyes.
“Gwen?” he choked, mouth working before he’d given it permission. “Gwen, oh my God.”
Gwen’s eyes widened when they fell on him. She didn’t look away, but her hand grasped onto the purple-cloaked woman behind her, who turned and--yes, it was Morgana. Her eyes darted up and down Merlin at lightning speed, and her grip tightened momentarily around Gwen’s fingers. Then Morgana nodded curtly at Merlin, released Gwen’s hand and swept passed them towards another stall.
“Gwen?” Merlin whispered, trying to fit a thousand questions into a single look.
“Merlin,” came her response, barely a breath on her lips as she turned and began picking through the wooden bowls on the stall in front of them. “We mustn’t look as though we’re talking.”
Merlin nodded slowly, and followed Gwen’s lead in inspecting the bowls. “Are you alright? When we left--we couldn’t find you.”
“Yes,” Gwen said before Merlin had finished. “We’re fine. Things are different... very, very different, but we’re doing just fine. How’s Arthur? Are you both safe?”
“Yes,” Merlin bit his lip and gently set down one of the larger bowls. “Gwen, are you sure you’re alright?”
“I told you, Merlin, we’re okay,” Gwen muttered. “Morgause is very--um, very different, like I said, but, there’s something--”
There was a pained look on Gwen’s face, as though she desperately wanted to say something, but the words weren’t coming. She shot an apologetic glance at Merlin, then moved on to another stall. Merlin tried to follow without looking as though he were following, which proved to be much harder than it sounded.
“I just think there might be something to this,” Gwen told him once they were side by side again. “About a month after you--after you left, something happened with Morgana. She can do things, Merlin, and I’d never have thought it, but it’s alright. She has a sort of freedom, I guess. She says she feels safe now, in a way she hadn’t for a long time. It’s not all bad, what’s happening in Camelot.”
Raising a disbelieving eyebrow, Merlin pressed his mouth into a line, and Gwen gave him a long, assessing look, before leaning in slightly to speak again.
“Magic,” she said, the word barely audible on her tongue. “Isn’t exactly what we were told it was.”
Merlin opened his mouth, trying to push passed the lump that formed in his throat when ever someone mentioned magic. A cough told them they were no longer alone, and they had to idly examine potatoes for several long, painful minutes before the old man behind them finally moved away. As soon as he was gone, Merlin turned desperate eyes back to Gwen.
“It’s alright,” Gwen breathed, touching a hand to his forearm. “But we’ve been worried about you, and--and Arthur. You’re still looking after each other, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” Merlin muttered, but he didn’t quite feel the smile he sent Gwen’s way. “Always.”
“Morgana’s had nightmares, really vivid ones. I’m sure she’s desperate to talk to you, but the guards we came with--” Gwen tilted her head, and Merlin followed the movement to two large, formidable men standing beside Morgana and Gwen’s horses. “--they can’t realise we know you. They’re still looking for Arthur. For both of you.”
“I understand,” Merlin nodded again, because he did understand, and he wasn’t going to put either of them in danger, even if he was dying to say that he knew magic wasn’t always bad, and that Morgause wasn’t the only ruler who could prove that to the people. This was supposed to be Arthur’s legacy, and she’d stolen it from him. “I just... I had to talk to you.”
Gwen smiled, small and sad, but still genuine. “I know.”
They couldn’t stay close any longer without looking suspicious, so Merlin ran his fingers lightly down Gwen’s arm and squeezed her hand tightly, before beginning to step away into the crowd. Her eyes followed him for a moment, and he could almost feel her pleading with him to believe that things weren’t as dire as they appeared. The soft gleam of gold in Morgana’s eyes, and the set of her jaw as Merlin brushed passed her, only confirmed what Gwen had said; that she was finally tasting the freedom Merlin had always longed for.
On his hunt that morning, Arthur managed to catch two rabbits. He had long since grown sick of the smell and sight and taste of hares, rabbits, squirrels and all manner of other small, furry creatures that lived in the forest, but he still needed to eat, so he tracked, killed and cooked them anyway. He usually left the dirty work for Merlin, but since he returned to find their camp still empty, Arthur settled down and started skinning the things himself. It was messy and surprisingly difficult, and Arthur found himself retching several times before Merlin finally appeared through the trees.
“Merlin! Brilliant, you can take over,” Arthur called as Merlin scurried down from the road, carrying something large over his shoulder. “Hang on, you bought a blanket? Not food?”
Frowning, Arthur set the rabbits down and walked briskly over to where Merlin was shaking out and re-folding a large, woollen blanket. It was dark brown and patchy, and Arthur only just resisted the urge to reach out and declare it too itchy because his hands were still smeared with rabbit blood. Merlin didn’t look at him, but instead kept his eyes on the blanket. His jaw was set and his brow furrowed.
“What is it?” Arthur asked, coming to a halt on Merlin’s right. “What happened?”
That morning, Arthur had heard the tell-tale lift in Merlin’s voice, and he’d known how desperate Merlin was to go to the market. Being caught up in a group of people, none of whom were going to try and chase or kill him, would definitely be something Merlin missed. Arthur missed it too, but he couldn’t live any other way now, and so he focused his energies on the hunt, or deciding where they should move next. Distraction was the key for him, but Merlin could venture into Camelot’s towns and villages without fear. He always came back afterwards with a spring in his step and stories to tell Arthur. He’d never returned so quiet before.
When Merlin didn’t answer, Arthur folded his arms and repeated, “Merlin, what happened?”
“I...” Merlin began hesitantly. He clutched the folded blanket to his chest and turned properly until he and Arthur were face to face. “I saw Gwen and Morgana at the market.”
Arthur didn’t move. He just stood there, stock still, watching Merlin’s face. He was shifting back and forth a little on his feet, starting to squirm under Arthur’s gaze. Merlin looked down at the floor, up at the sky and finally back into Arthur’s eyes again. They stared for another few moments, before he finally spoke.
“They said they’re alright,” Merlin said, lifting one shoulder and letting it drop awkwardly. “Gwen said they’d been worried but that they were being treated okay. She--well, I didn’t get the chance to talk to Morgana, because we had to be careful, but um, Gwen told me she’s actually doing better. She said Morgana has more... More freedom? Or--or something.”
Pursing his lips, Arthur nodded, trying to make his brain reel through all the things Merlin had just said. In the back of his mind, Arthur had thought that maybe Morgana had lost her life to the New Camelot. She’d always been one to rally against authority, and it didn’t seem as though Morgause, who had ended Uther’s life and now hunted Arthur relentlessly, would be very merciful to the cousin of a Pendragon. The news that Morgana was still alive, still under Morgause’s control and not fighting it shook Arthur to the core.
“Are you sure?” he asked, his voice a hoarse shadow between them. “Are you certain they’re alright? It wasn’t just a--”
“I’m sure.” Merlin’s expression was layered with the same concern and fear as Arthur felt, but his voice didn’t waver. They exchanged another look, long moments dragging by, and there was something in Merlin’s face that suggested he’d faced a whole new loss since waking that morning.
Arthur’s head spun, and he stepped back, watching Merlin duck inside their tent with the blanket and emerge a few moments later, empty handed. Arthur let a wave of worry and unspoken ifs wash over him. He felt the full, gut-wrenching force of a hundred thoughts he’d never dared let himself think; thoughts like farmers were never this well stocked under my father, thoughts like the borders were never patrolled this vigilantly when we ruled, thoughts like villages could never afford their own meeting halls while I was overseeing finance.
It was a fear altogether unspeakable, impossible, and Arthur turned to Merlin, just so he could hear another voice tell him that it wasn’t true. “You don’t think--” he started, quietly, then shook himself and tried again, louder this time. “You don’t think it’s better, with all this... All this magic. You don’t think maybe they don’t need us.”
Arthur was very careful not to phrase it as a question, but when Merlin looked up, his eyes soft and his mouth sad, Arthur knew it didn’t matter. He knew Merlin could read everything he was trying to hide.
“No,” was all Merlin said. “This isn’t how it’s supposed to be.”
Arthur nodded, grateful. Everything was turned so completely on its head. He’d trained his entire life for kingship, he’d learned every variation of Camelot’s dialects and he’d lived his responsibilities, breathed for the people, and dreamed of justice. There was nothing else in Arthur’s life, and there never had been.
Blinking furiously, Arthur flung a hand out to his left, finding it hard to stay upright when the whole world was lurching. Cold air rushed between his fingers, still wet with blood, and then, all of a sudden, there was a hand closing around his, and Arthur’s world fell back into place.
Arthur rubbed his temple with his free hand, and then looked up to find Merlin beside him, their fingers tangled together. The look in Merlin’s eyes was imploring, and he tugged gently on Arthur’s hand, brow creased and head moving in almost imperceptible little shakes. It was a minute or so before he finally seemed to find the words he was looking for.
“Arthur,” he sighed, and they were so close, Arthur could feel the warm ghost of Merlin’s breath on his skin. “I mean it. You’ll be king one day. It’s supposed to be you. It has to be you. This is just a set back.”
Merlin swallowed visibly, eyes glistening, large and earnest, and Arthur wanted to smile. He wanted to brush Merlin’s hair out of his eyes, because in that moment, he felt the last shreds of hurt and anger slip away, as though they’d disappeared beneath the still, flat surface of a winter lake.
“Merlin,” Arthur said, or, at least, thought he said, but then Merlin’s thumb was rubbing across Arthur’s temple, wiping away the smudge of rabbit’s blood left there, and Arthur was cupping his face, leaving a streak of red across Merlin’s cheekbone. They stayed like that, utterly still, for a heartbeat, and then Merlin parted his lips to steal a breath, and Arthur’s eyes were fixed on the smooth, pink wetness of Merlin’s mouth. He felt his breath hitch and his fingers dig a little deeper into Merlin’s neck, before they both moved forward and kissed.
Merlin’s chin was rough from months spent shaving with a hunting knife, and Arthur’s was just the same. It burned a little as their mouths moved against each other, but Arthur could hardly feel it next to the red hot heat of Merlin’s tongue, and the thick, heavy breaths passing between them. Arthur kissed desperately, opening his mouth wide and grunting under his breath, clinging to Merlin’s face and squeezing the hand still held between them.
It’d been so long since Arthur had felt anything like this. Almost an age since he’d been pulled in the way Merlin was pulling him, or warmed close to burning by the touch of another. His chest pounded, his shoulders ached, his neck strained and, most of all, his head hurt. He didn’t want to throw blame back and forth anymore, he didn’t want to spend hours hunting, and he didn’t want to gather their things and walk for miles to another clearing. He wanted to move effortlessly together with Merlin. He wanted something simple and special and his; Arthur just wanted this.
And he had it. For a few long, perfect minutes, Arthur had Merlin. He could run sticky fingers through Merlin’s dark hair, and push forward, bending Merlin backwards with the force of a single kiss. For a few minutes, Arthur had Merlin to touch, Merlin to hold, Merlin to make moan and huff and grin. Then, with one last slow, pressing kiss, Merlin pulled back. He was a mess of flushed skin and his cheek was smeared with blood from Arthur’s fingertips, but he was smiling, more open than Arthur could ever remember seeing.
“Come on,” Merlin mumbled, releasing Arthur’s jacket and stepping carefully away. “The rabbits. We need to eat.”
Quite how Merlin heard about the pig was a mystery to Arthur. All he knew was that, about ten days after seeing Gwen and Morgana in the market, Merlin burst into camp after his morning scout, shouting about an escaped pig three miles to the south. He said it was a prize beast, but that the farmer had given up the search after losing another three chickens in his absence, and insisted Arthur grab his things so they could go and hunt it down.
Merlin finished by whining, “I really miss pork, Arthur.”
“If pork is what you want, Merlin,” Arthur said, perfectly calm and not spluttering at all. “Pork is what you’ll get.”
They trudged through the forest, neither leading, but instead walking in perfect step with each other. Merlin fiddled distractedly with the dirty pockets of his breeches and Arthur kept his eyes to the sky, checking they were heading south in a straight line, and also to the floor, looking out for tracks. It wasn’t long before they came across a well worn dirt path, clearly leading down into the farm. Arthur’s whole body itched to investigate, but Merlin tugged on his sleeve and pointed in the opposite direction. Arthur followed him soundlessly.
As they worked their way through the bushes and unkempt fields above the farm, Merlin’s grip slipped from around Arthur’s wrist, and found his hand. Their palms pressed together for a moment, and then slid apart again, until only their fingers were linked. The touch made something flutter in Arthur’s chest, and he chanced a glance at Merlin, who was still crouching low and staring ahead as though nothing had changed.
The dynamic between them hadn’t shifted too much; they’d been equals for a long time, but there were a few differences since they’d kiss in the clearing. The hurt had gone, Arthur had felt it leave, and now there was an echo of tenderness between them. The cold open air that’d once kept them apart now brought them together, under a small, almost-comfortable cocoon of certainty and trust. Arthur could finally let himself acknowledge that he was in this with Merlin, in every sense, and not against him, or because of him, or in spite of him. Arthur even found himself able to acknowledge that long-forgotten ache of wanting, which he hadn’t quite managed to shake since he’d seen Merlin’s pink tongue dart out across his lips.
Quite unsurprisingly, Arthur and Merlin were deep into another wood and several hours older by the time they caught sight of the pig. Arthur was in the lead, but his mind was wandering in the direction of how warm it’d been under the new blanket the night before, with Merlin’s back pressed to his chest. He felt the way Merlin’s muscles tensed where their shoulders were pressed together, standing at the foot of a tree, and he followed Merlin’s gaze across a small, muddy bog until he caught sight of the pig’s brown, hairy hide.
Arthur pulled his hunting knife from his belt, not exactly missing Merlin’s tut or the skeptical arch of his eyebrows, but rather choosing to ignore it. He motioned for Merlin to move around on the left, and once he was gone, Arthur stalked silently out from his hiding place. He moved gracefully, planting each foot beside the other with confident ease as he edged his way around the bog. The pig snuffled at a tuft of green in front of it, but did little to acknowledge Arthur until he was no further than an arm’s reach away.
“Merlin,” Arthur hissed, not taking his eyes off the pig. “You ready? He’s gonna make a run for it.”
“Ready,” came Merlin’s whisper from the bushes. Arthur could see his dark hair poking up out of the corner of his eyes, and he had to blink several times to stop himself from laughing out loud at how utterly ridiculous this was.
“Alright,” Arthur said, more to himself and the pig than to Merlin. He stared down at the creature, flexed his fingers and shuffled his feet out until his thighs made an arch; bracing himself. It was standing on a rock, awfully close to the bog, and although Arthur had his hunting knife clutched ready in his fist, he was reluctant to try stabbing straight at the pig in case he missed it and broke the blade.
After a moment, Arthur cursed under his breath and shoved the knife back into his belt. “Gonna jump for it,” he told Merlin, probably a little unnecessarily.
“Could’ve guessed as much.” Alright, Arthur probably deserved that one. “Get on with it.”
Arthur shook his limbs out one last time, gulped audibly, and dove for the pig, which, of course, squealed and darted out of his way. He felt the rough hair at the end of its tail slip through his fingers, and then Arthur couldn’t really feel anything except a shooting pain in his forehead and a lot of cold, thick mud against his stomach. He’d managed to hit his head on the flat outcrop of rock, and the lower half of his body was slipping into the bog.
In the bushes, Merlin started shouting, and there was a lot of rustling and squealing. With a groan, Arthur pushed himself up, only just refraining from rubbing muddy fingers to the sore spot on his head. He kicked his legs out, sending large globs of mud splattering across the forest floor. His breeches were sopping wet, as was the lower half of his tunic, which clung to his stomach and made him shiver. Merlin was still shouting, and Arthur only just realised the word Merlin was repeating was, in fact, Arthur’s name, at the last moment.
He turned just in time to see Merlin burst out of the bushes, chasing the pig back towards the bog. Arthur lifted his hands, caught between trying to frantically motion for Merlin to stop, and actually shouting stop, neither of which was really going to make a blind bit of difference. Merlin lunged for the pig just as it skidded passed Arthur’s knees. It wriggled free of Merlin’s skinny arms and somehow managed to struggle through the pool of mud, to emerge on the other side. Arthur watched it disappear into the undergrowth, then turned his eyes to Merlin.
“You,” Arthur said, offering his hand and pulling Merlin to his feet. “Are very lucky I like you.”
Merlin shot him an annoyed look from underneath a face full of mud. He was plastered from his eyebrows down to his knees, and the thin fabric of his tunic was sticking to his chest. Arthur stared for a moment, mind suddenly flashing with the image of Merlin’s pink, peaked nipples as Arthur kissed them in his chambers, or as Merlin scrubbed cold water over his chest while he washed in the stream.
“This isn’t my fault,” Merlin said, and Arthur was a little taken aback by the dark tone of his voice. He didn’t want to argue.
“I know,” Arthur reached up and tried to wipe away the worst of the mud on Merlin’s cheeks. “You almost had him. I--I let him get away.”
“I guess we’re not eating pork tonight,” Merlin sighed, rubbing his muddy left hand on the back of his breeches, then reaching up to press gently at the sore spot on Arthur’s head. “You’re bleeding.”
Arthur sucked in a sharp breath, but didn’t pull back. “Hm, afraid you’re right about the not eating,” he said, and then, a beat later, he reached around and rubbed his own muddy palm on the back of Merlin’s breeches.
“Oi!” Merlin squawked, stepping back, scandalised.
“You should be glad to know you’re good for something,” Arthur winked, grinning at Merlin, and they both erupted into laughter. Merlin’s eyes seemed to sparkle even more blue, and Arthur felt a strange pang, realising just how long it’d been since they shared something so light and natural together.
As Merlin began to sober, Arthur reached out, his gaze fixed on the full, pink line of lips in front of him. Gently, he brushed his thumb over the mud on Merlin’s chin, rubbing it away, and then he leaned in to kiss Merlin. It was one of those fingers-in-hair, feet-knocking-together kisses, and afterwards, Arthur could see the flush on Merlin’s cheeks, even through all the mud.
Their hips grazed lightly against each other, and there was a sudden curl of heat in Arthur’s stomach. It was an echo of something possessive, primal, and before he knew what he was doing, he found himself tilting his head and saying, “We’d better be off.”
It didn’t take half as long to walk back to their clearing. The chill spring air against wet mud made them shiver and hurry forward, eager to get back and wash. Merlin squelched along behind Arthur, carrying both pairs of their boots, because Arthur insisted that leaving a muddy trail all the way back to camp definitely wasn’t a good idea. When they finally did get back, there was a brief argument over who should go out and find food while the other washed, until in the end they agreed to just wash at the same time, because nobody was going to give in any time soon.
Merlin dropped their muddy boots down behind Arthur, then sat at the edge of the stream and started pulling off his socks. He put a hand inside each of them separately and held them under the water, using the other to scrub the dirt away. He wished he could use his magic to stop them smelling, but Arthur was right there with him, so he had to make do. Next, he moved on peeling his tunic off over his head, seeing Arthur do the same out of the corner of his eye, and then they both reached for their breeches.
Sitting naked at the side of a stream in early spring was possibly one of Merlin’s least favourite experiences ever. He started shivering, although he did his best to hide it from Arthur. It wasn’t awkward, being next to each other like that --after everything they’d been through, there weren’t many states in which Merlin and Arthur hadn’t seen each other--but it made Merlin’s skin tingle, having Arthur’s long, pale legs stretched out across the pebbles beside him. He was still all muscular thighs and smooth curves; nothing like Merlin’s odd, pokey angles.
Of course, Arthur had lost weight, but he still had a slight golden glow to his skin, as though it shone through from the muscles underneath. They leaned over and washed the mud from their clothes in silence, the only sound being Merlin’s occasional mutter of circular motions, Arthur or no, you need to really dig into the fabric. By the time both of their tunics and breeches were done, Merlin was having to bite his lip and forcibly stop himself from staring at Arthur’s fingers.
The few times Merlin did allow himself to glance over at Arthur, it was to find Arthur looking back at him, expression thoughtful. It made Merlin’s stomach twist, remembering the wet heat of Arthur’s tongue against his, but also the cold bite of all the things Arthur had snapped at him over the past months. He didn’t know what to expect, and although he longed to rediscover the Merlin and Arthur they’d once been, he couldn’t be sure of anything.
That was why Merlin jumped when he slid forward into the flow of the stream, and heard Arthur’s voice finally break the silence. “Merlin,” he said, and it really was impossible to tell what he was thinking from just that one word, no matter how hard Merlin tried.
“Do you remember when you bathed me?” Arthur asked, his voice soft and suddenly a lot closer.
“Yes,” Merlin swallowed, lips barely forming the words. “I remember.”
He didn’t dare turn around. He just sat completely still, watching the clear water run over his toes and ripple around his ankles, washing the dirt away. If he listened carefully, Merlin thought he could hear Arthur shifting on the bank behind him. It wasn’t until he felt the press of wet fabric against his back that Merlin let out a breath.
“Can I...” Arthur breathed. He’d dipped his wet tunic into the stream and scrunched it into a small, tight shape, and was now pressing it to Merlin’s back.
Merlin nodded, sinking his teeth so hard into his bottom lip that he was sure he tasted blood. Arthur moved the tunic in big, slow circles, applying just enough pressure to nudge Merlin forwards. Merlin closed his eyes and tipped his head back, trying to ease some of the stiffness out of his neck. Arthur made a small humming sound and started to rub cool water into the nape, making Merlin shiver.
Just as Merlin leaned into the touch, Arthur squeezed the damp fabric, making droplets of water trickle down Merlin’s bare skin. They teased along his spine, twisting around into the curve of his hips, and a few even slid down to the swell of his arse, disappearing just where sensation ended beneath the flowing water. The tickle of it made Merlin groan, and his head dropped forwards, giving Arthur easier access to his neck.
Merlin felt Arthur’s other hand fall onto his shoulder, thumb rubbing the tense muscles in a soothing pressure, and he pushed back a little further, mouth falling ever-so-slightly open.
“Arthur,” Merlin murmured, for no reason other than to say the name; to try and show his appreciation in some way.
Merlin had only bathed Arthur once, on that warm autumn evening before they kissed for the very first time, and it was something neither of them had ever mentioned again. It had come before kisses, it had come before sex, and Merlin remembered the swell of something in his chest as he ran the damp cloth over Arthur’s back. He remembered an overwhelming rush of love; of need to be there for Arthur, to hold him.
Despite all the moans and heady rushes that had come after, Merlin had known that bathing Arthur was better than kissing him; that it meant more that just the press of lips against lips. That evening was a secret they’d each locked away with everything their old lives had held, and the way Arthur whispered it there, beside the stream, as he leaned forwards to lick softly at Merlin’s shoulder, had to mean something.
“Arthur,” Merlin said again, louder this time, as he heard the plop of Arthur dropping his tunic into the stream so he could wrap both hands around Merlin’s biceps. He pulled Merlin backwards, making his arse scrape over the tiny stones of the stream, and then he sucked kisses into the skin between Merlin’s shoulder and neck. Merlin let himself be manoeuvred until he was lying across Arthur’s warm chest, coarse hair tickling the sensitive wet skin of Merlin’s shoulder blades.
When he opened his eyes, Merlin found himself looking up at Arthur’s chin, bright red in the chill air. His nose was red, too, as Merlin followed the lines of Arthur’s face up to his eyes, which were shockingly blue as they stared down at him. Wriggling a little in Arthur’s arms, Merlin’s made a keening sound and pushed up, searching for Arthur’s lips. A moment later, he found them, as Arthur bent down and kissed him, chaste, on the mouth.
“Mhm,” Merlin hummed, snaking a hand up to grasp the nape of Arthur’s neck and pull him in, and as Merlin pushed himself up, he felt the hot, hard press of Arthur’s cock on his lower back. Already half hard in the cold water, that was all it took for Merlin to fill properly, and he moaned into Arthur’s mouth at the sensation of it. Arthur moaned back, fingers digging into Merlin’s biceps as Merlin rubbed down onto him again.
Merlin’s feet scrabbled at the pebbles on the bed of the stream, desperate to push himself up so he could turn and put his knees on either side of Arthur’s thighs. He slipped once or twice, but Arthur caught him, smiling, and the flush that bloomed on Merlin’s cheeks was from laughter rather than chagrin. He placed his hands firmly on either side of Arthur’s neck, then eased himself into Arthur’s lap, knees pressing into the stones in a way that Merlin knew would bruise, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to care.
Arthur gasped, his breath catching, and he kissed Merlin’s chin. His lips moved back and forth along Merlin’s jaw, muttering half-words over and over as they went. With a sigh that became a whimper, Merlin let himself fall into the feeling of Arthur, pressed against him and around him, wet and warm and brilliant. It felt like going home, in an odd, otherworldly kind of way. It felt like finding a part of himself Merlin hadn’t seen for a very long time.
He slowly let himself down, taking some of the pressure off his knees until most of Merlin’s weight was pushing onto Arthur’s thighs, and then they were eye-to-eye for the first time.
“Merlin, I--I miss--” Arthur started to say, his words getting tangled in messy inhales and exhales until Merlin pressed a finger to his lips, because he knew and he didn’t want to talk, he didn’t want to think, he just wanted to be there, with Arthur. Doing this.
“S’okay,” Merlin whispered, his throat feeling suddenly dry. The stream was still cold, but his body was more interested in the heat of Arthur’s stomach and groin, where they sat so very, very close to Merlin’s own. He put a tentative hand on Arthur’s skin, just covering his navel, and Arthur let out a rush of breath, muscles twitching beneath Merlin’s fingers even as Arthur’s shoulders relaxed visibly.
Merlin swallowed and swiped his tongue along his lower lip, making Arthur’s eyes go dark and predatory. He swept forward, placing a hand on Merlin’s lower back and holding him steady while they kissed with abandon. They moved in unison, heads pushing forward and pulling back in sync, and Merlin almost forgot about the hand he had pressed low on Arthur’s stomach, until one particularly passionate kiss made them squeeze closer together, and suddenly the hot head of Arthur’s prick was sliding over Merlin’s stomach.
“Oh,” Merlin said around Arthur’s tongue, and quickly ran his fingers down until they were teasing their way around Arthur’s cock. The skin was soft and slick with water and precome, and Merlin tightened his fist for a moment, feeling Arthur gasp against him.
“M-Merlin,” Arthur managed to stutter, after a few long minutes of Merlin stroking him, painfully slowly. “Wait. I-I want... In you.”
A wave of heat washed its way up the back of Merlin’s thighs and into his stomach, making his cock throb. “Ngh, God,” he said, tightening the hold of his fingers in Arthur’s hair and dragging him into a desperate kiss. “Yeah. Okay. Y-yeah.”
Arthur kissed him again, once, and then again and yet again. He kissed Merlin over and over, tight and chaste on the mouth, as he wrapped his hands around Merlin’s hips and started to ease him up. The shift in position proved to be extraordinarily difficult, because their lips didn’t want to part from each other and the pebbles of the stream were hard and unyielding.
Merlin let Arthur guide him around until the flowing water was on his left, and then lie him down, flat out in shallows. Merlin’s head was hazy and his body started to shake ever so slightly from the cold now that Arthur wasn’t wrapping him up in a swirl of heated touches or a blanket of warm hands. He just lay there and watched as Arthur stiffly rose onto his knees in the water, and shuffled around until he was pressing the tops of his knees between Merlin’s thighs, nudging them open.
As Arthur got closer, Merlin sat up again so that his tongue could explore the droplets running into the dip of Arthur’s collarbone. By now, he could taste only the flavourless cold of fresh, clean water, but it didn’t matter, because beneath his tongue, Merlin could feel the heat of Arthur’s skin, and his fingers traced Arthur’s peaked nipples, making him shiver.
Lightly, Merlin let his teeth catch the skin over Arthur’s muscled shoulder. When he heard Arthur’s answering groan, Merlin bit a little harder, letting his teeth just barely fight the pressure of muscle. The result was Arthur’s hands in Merlin’s hair, twisting until his fingers were locked in deep, and then tugging roughly to pull Merlin’s mouth off him. He held Merlin’s head like that for a moment, and they looked at each other, something silent passing between them. Merlin saw a flash in Arthur’s eyes, and the guilt of feeling that tiny, terrified ache in his stomach ebbed away. Merlin saw, in that instant, that Arthur was just as afraid as he was.
“Come on,” Arthur whispered, voice rasping and shooting straight to Merlin’s cock. “Let me.”
With that, he eased Merlin down onto his back again, cradling his head against the stones and trailing his fingers along Merlin’s cheekbone and down his neck, stopping to toy with a nipple, then moving on to the crease of his thigh, until he finally, finally reached the tight clamp of Merlin’s arse cheeks.
The tease of it made Merlin writhe where he lay, and he tightened his thighs around Arthur’s for a moment, before taking a deep, shaky breath and loosening them again. He could barely keep his eyes open in the face of so much desire, with the solid touch of Arthur’s hand cradling his head, and the tickle of water running in small, curling patterns along his ribs. As Merlin arched, eyelids drooping closed, he felt Arthur’s hand slip away to rest in the pebbles beside his head, and Arthur’s lips touched, firm and insistent, against his own.
“Arthur!” Merlin gasped, fingers digging between the stones as Arthur’s fingers slipped between his arse cheeks. “Arthur, Arthur. Y-yes.”
Merlin shifted his thighs apart a little further, and curled his legs up to wrap around Arthur’s back. Once he felt his heels connect, Merlin opened his eyes, blinking up at Arthur through a haze of water droplets and heady need. Arthur was smiling, small, dirty and heated like nothing Merlin had ever seen, as he pushed the very tip of his finger against Merlin’s hole. It made Merlin whine, loud and mindless, and push down, ignoring the scratch of stones against his back.
“Merlin,” Arthur muttered. He kissed Merlin’s cheek and started to say, “You’re so--”, but his next few words were drowned out by Merlin’s whimper as Arthur wiggled his finger, moving in up to the first knuckle. Merlin lost contact with existence for a brief moment, before making a low, desperate sound in his throat and pushing up until his cock rubbed over Arthur’s stomach.
They stayed like that for a long time, joined by breathless kisses, Arthur’s fingers, and the occasional brush of skin against skin when Merlin couldn’t keep his hips still any longer. Their moans fell into rhythm with the trickle of the stream, and Arthur worked Merlin open first with one, then two, then three fingers, all the while pressing kisses to his chin and throat. Merlin managed to catch Arthur’s bottom lip between his teeth a few times, but he was too lost in the bliss of knowing that this was his Arthur--changed, perhaps, but still there; still with him.
When Arthur pulled away from Merlin’s mouth and nudged Merlin’s legs until he hooked his knees over Arthur’s shoulders, Merlin took a moment to breath deeply; steadying himself. He held onto the backs of his thighs and squeezed his eyes shut, letting a tiny bubble of magic ooze all the way down from the deep recesses of his chest to the place, hot and secret, where Arthur was lining himself up.
The water helped a lot when it came to steering away the pain. It slicked their skin and Merlin could focus on the cold twists of it when everything became too much, but he didn’t want any hurt from this. What he did was the smallest of tweaks; just a numb tingle for a few seconds, while Arthur’s cock pushed passed the tight ring of muscle. It was completely and utterly missable, obvious only to Merlin, who felt its familiar rush beneath his skin.
Arthur certainly didn’t notice anything, anyway. He was groaning and pressing hard against the back of Merlin’s thighs, sliding in until Merlin felt coarse hair against his skin. They both let out a long, heavy breath, staring at each other, and then Arthur licked his lower lip and pulled back out again, starting up a steady rhythm of give and take.
Merlin released his thighs in favour of grabbing for Arthur, no longer in control of his own movements. His stomach twisted and he arched his back as Arthur hit a golden spot inside him; it made Merlin gasp and writhe, desperate for air. He reached for Arthur again, his eagerness renewed, and didn’t feel safe, didn’t feel sure, until his fingers were knotting themselves in damp blond hair.
“Ah,” Merlin said, over and over, like a chant. “Yes. Arthur--I-you. God, yes. Ah!”
Something that could’ve been a smile ran through the depths of Arthur’s eyes, but then he was pressing down to kiss Merlin on the lips, licking and bruising and wet, and his stomach was brushing against the head of Merlin’s cock. Merlin whimpered into Arthur’s mouth, all hints of reserve gone, and tried, unsuccessfully, to thrust his hips up as over-exertion finally started to win out against his yearning.
“Please,” he panted, licking along Arthur’s lip. “Please, just--please.”
Arthur grunted something indistinct and lifted himself off Merlin’s chest, somehow managing to balance on one hand while wrapping the other around Merlin’s cock and tugging. It only took four strokes and one particularly hard thrust for Merlin to cry out, come, cough, and dig his nails into Arthur’s thigh, all at once.
Half a moment later, Arthur was moaning loudly, chin stretched forwards to reveal a long, flushed neck, as he hit his own climax and filled Merlin with hot stickiness. It was a sharp contrast to the freezing cold water flowing around them.
They shared a few moments of silence, the only sounds being that of the stream and Arthur breathing raggedly into Merlin’s ear, before the comfortable weight was lifting off Merlin’s chest, and they were both straightening out, blushing and grinning sheepishly as they ran their hands over the red marks on their bodies. Arthur had to brush several of the smallest pebbles out from where they’d embedded themselves in his knees, and Merlin had thin, stinging scratches everywhere.
Over the next few weeks, while he was around Arthur, Merlin started slipping the odd bit of magic into ordinary life. Nothing obvious, nothing wholly undeniable, but nothing too inconspicuous, either. It was all noticeable, as long as Arthur was looking.
For example, if Merlin had to start the fire, he’d kneel down with his back to Arthur and whisper forbearnan under his breath. He didn’t pretend to fetch the tinder box and replace it, but he never let Arthur see his eyes glow, either.
If Arthur asked Merlin to hand him his hunting knife, or his jacket, Merlin would wait until Arthur had turned away, then make it float over to him, coming to rest just by his ankle before he turned around again. Arthur usually frowned for a moment, glanced at Merlin, then picked it up without a word.
The riskiest one was probably when Arthur complained about the lack of firewood, and Merlin made three branches drop to the floor just behind him. Although that title could equally be given to those nights in the tent, when Merlin let a thin thread of magic reach out and pull Arthur a little closer to him. It always made Arthur sigh, and that always made Merlin’s stomach flip with a sudden warmth that had nothing to do with the wool blankets or the quick onset of spring.
Merlin wasn’t afraid of Arthur, and he hadn’t been for a very long time. He’d lived through Arthur dying to tell him a thousand things that he had no words to say, and he’d survived when Arthur hated him. Things got better, they always did, and Merlin wasn’t worried Arthur would cast him aside or send him to the pyre. That all seemed so stupid now, so foreign and far away; the idea that Arthur had ever held the power to kill Merlin, that he’d ever held any power over Merlin at all, besides the ability to make his blood rush south or his thoughts cloud over as though Arthur had just huffed a breath over the glass pane of Merlin’s mind.
They didn’t move as often now. The days were getting longer by degrees, but they were both so weary. It felt like an endless winter; like they’d never had lives before the forest, and like they could never have lives after it. For all his words with Kilgharrah, and for all Merlin had believed in a bright future with a golden king and a secure position at Court, this life had become his new destiny. Now that Arthur was with him again, in both mind and spirit, Merlin could almost be described as happy.
Of course, he yearned for the life they’d once shared. He yearned for days spent on the sweltering hot training field; for evenings filled with silly banquets and dull speeches; for nights with his book of spells, learning how to shine Arthur’s armour and banish pixies, both at once. Merlin wondered how Morgana and Gwen passed the time, now that Morgause was queen. He wondered if Morgana still sat beside the throne, and if Gwen might one day rise to be much more than just a handmaiden, as Morgana had always said she could.
Arthur didn’t mention Camelot anymore. He didn’t mutter about betrayal, or evil, or tyranny in his sleep. He didn’t pause when they passed the weathered carvings of “Find the prince” in the trunks of trees. Once or twice, Merlin did notice the way Arthur’s voice caught when he commented on the lives of every day villagers who ambled passed their hidden camps. He would ask if the things Merlin saw around him were all that different from where he’d grown up in Ealdor. When Merlin told him, honestly, that things were much better than he could remember, Arthur only nodded and started them on their way again.
It was odd, but peaceful, as though finding each other again in the ripples of the stream had been enough to calm the fire in each of their hearts. Things would never be perfect, but when Merlin found that he could lean into Arthur’s shoulder and let his magic warm them as they sat beneath the stars, he knew it didn’t need to be. If either of them could step back in time and change everything that had happened, they would, but life was finally reaching the point where they could both accept that such a thing was impossible, and move slowly on.
The number of patrols was rapidly dwindling, either because Morgause knew her hold over the kingdom was getting stronger with each passing day, or because Arthur and Merlin had managed to avoid them in that part of the forest for long enough to convince them there was no one hiding between the trees. The reason for it didn’t really matter to Merlin; he was just glad to see a few of the dark lines on Arthur’s face softening, and relieved to be able to hear the crack of a twig or the rustle of a leaf without his heart stopping in fright.
As they gradually relaxed into a new routine of fewer patrols and less frantic moves, they also began to let go of the stiff rules of survival they’d lived under for so long. Not only did Merlin let his magic slip out now and then, dancing in the corners of Arthur’s senses and pushing gently at his consciousness, but he also let himself make noise again.
They laughed together once in a while, and chased each other through the undergrowth, shouting loud enough to frighten away the birds. They skimmed stones across lakes, and at night, when they were closed off in the tiny, warm bubble of their tent, Merlin moaned without restraint, and endless endearments tumbled passed Arthur’s lips.
It was a brisk spring morning, after a night of sweat and skin, that Merlin heard Arthur calling for him out of sight. They’d been late setting up camp the evening before, and hadn’t had a chance to scout very far around the clearing where Merlin was now sitting, trying to carve a wooden dragon by hand. Arthur had left with little more than a ruffle to Merlin’s hair, saying something about breakfast, but that couldn’t have been more than half an hour ago.
“Merlin!” came Arthur’s voice again, thin on the chilly breeze. “Merlin, come here!”
Merlin sprang to his feet, letting the block of wood and Arthur’s small hunting knife drop to the floor, and immediately set off through the trees. He couldn’t hear anything to indicate sword play; there were no clangs of metal or battle cries. Merlin couldn’t hear the heavy drop of bodies on the dirt or the scrape of boots over rock, but his stomach still twisted with fear, because Arthur had never yelled for him like that.
“Merlin!” he heard again, and answered with,
“Arthur!” before he could think to stop himself. “Arthur! Where are you? Arthur!”
“Here! Merlin, come on!” Arthur’s voice was much louder now, and Merlin followed it, darting through the trees with a speed and precision he could never have managed a few months before. The smell in the air suggested there was a lake nearby, and, sure enough, when Merlin finally stumbled to a halt in front of Arthur, it was to find himself at the shore of the very same lake he’d sent Freya out onto, not quite so long ago.
“Arthur,” Merlin said again, panting for breath. “What’s wrong?”
Arthur was standing barefoot on the pebbles, watching Merlin with a bemused expression. “Nothing,” he said, shrugging as if it were the silliest question in the world. “I thought you might like a swim.”
“A swim?” Merlin echoed, hoping the pitch of his voice and the curve of his eyebrows would go far enough towards expressing quite how little he liked the idea. “You called me down here for a swim?”
“Well, yeah,” Arthur chuckled, watching Merlin with something close to fondness in his eyes. “It’s actually not that bad.” He stepped backwards towards the water’s edge, pulling his tunic up over his head. “But it’d be better if you’d come in, too. More body heat, y’know.”
“No, Arthur. No, I can’t believe you made me think you were--just so I would--” Merlin ran a hand through his hair, staring blankly at Arthur as he sank slowly back into the water, breeches sticking to his thighs. “I thought you were in danger!”
“I’m fine,” Arthur said, his voice suddenly soft. “Now come on.”
He held Merlin’s gaze, heated, predatory--wordlessly drawing him in, until Merlin huffed a very put-upon sigh and reached down to pull off his boots. The movement drew a whoop of delight from Arthur, who barely took his eyes off Merlin as he cast aside his boots and tugged the torn blue tunic he was wearing over his head.
The water was ice cold when Merlin finally dipped his toes in, and it pushed all the breath from him in one sharp exhale. He froze for half a moment, regaining his composure just enough to slide in ankle deep. The stones beneath Merlin’s feet were smooth, but they scraped at his soles, over-sensitive in the cold. He could feel Arthur’s eyes on him, watching as he edged cautiously into the water.
Merlin gasped when the ripples lapped over his knees, finding their way into the warm creases at the back of his legs and making his breeches cling to his skin. Arthur chuckled, low and content, as he lay back in the water. They shared a look through which Merlin tried to convey, I can’t believe I’m doing this for you, but was pretty sure all Arthur saw was, I’ll do anything you ask, however ridiculous.
Just as Merlin was sinking into the lake, becoming accustomed to the numbness in his toes and fingertips, feeling his nipples tingle and tighten, Arthur did something unforgivable. He kicked his foot up from underwater, sending a thousand droplets arching through the air, and straight down onto Merlin's head. It made him splutter, chest heaving in shocked gasps. Arthur let out a long, loud bark of laughter and waded over to stand beside Merlin.
"You look like a dog," he said as Merlin tried to shake his bedraggled fringe out of his eyes. Arthur grinned and ran his fingers through Merlin's hair, brushing it off his face.
"I--I can't believe you just d--did that!" Merlin stammered, his shoulders shaking violently in the cold. "Arthur, it's freezing!"
"Oh, come on, it's not that bad." Arthur ran his hands down Merlin's jaw and neck to rub along his biceps, trying to warm him up.
The sensation was really quite delicious, but Merlin refused to be distracted. "Easy for you to say!" he said, packing as much contempt as he could muster into the words. "Your hair isn't even damp."
Arthur's mouth twisted into a tight-lipped little smirk, as if he was only moments away from bursting into laughter, but after a moment, it was gone, because Merlin had reached up and pushed down on Arthur's head, forcing him underwater and holding him there. He let go a second later and watched Arthur emerge, coughing, with red eyes and water streaming out of his nose.
"Merlin!" he roared, his expression a perfect mix of anger and amusement. "You are gonna get it!"
By the time the words had left Arthur's mouth, Merlin was already wading back through the water, making for the lake's edge. The heavy drag of water at his breeches slowed him down, but he kicked his feet and flailed his arms, emitting a sound close to a screech as he made his desperate attempt at escape.
Arthur was hot on his heels, and although he'd lost several second to surprise at first, and although the cold was nullifying, he still managed to catch Merlin pathetically quickly. It seemed that all the balance and agility Merlin had picked up in the months they'd spent in the forest was forfeit when he was gasping for breath, chest constricted by a combination of cold and laughter. With Arthur bearing down on him, Merlin was helpless to escape for long, but he tried his best. As soon as Arthur lunged for him, dragging Merlin down by the arm, Merlin wriggled and broke free, shouting frantically just for good measure. Arthur would try to keep hold of Merlin, but laughter got the better of him every time.
They carried on like that, falling together and then breaking apart to fill the air with war cries, until they reached the shore. After that, it became a mad rush across the sands and stones sloping down into the water. They abandoned their shirts and boots where they lay in a pile, and chased each other around the lake, wet breeches dragging on the floor and tripping them up every few paces. Once out of the water, Merlin found it much easier to keep ahead, and he laughed through his shivers, not even noticing the burn of his feet over sharp stones through the numbness the cold had brought them.
There was, however, one particularly large, moss-covered rock, that Merlin failed to notice. The moment he set his foot down on it, he slipped and skidded over, falling hard on his outstretched hands. He scratched the heels of his palms, which erupted in a pattern of tiny bloody specks. It didn't hurt so much as just stung, and Merlin sucked in a sharp breath, settling back on his knees just as Arthur caught up.
"Merlin, are you alright?" was the first thing he said, all echoes of laughter gone from both his voice and his face as he dropped down to sit beside Merlin on the stones. "Did you hurt yourself?"
"Yeah--no, no, I'm fine," Merlin smiled over at Arthur as he took Merlin's hands in his and examined the scraped skin. "Really, Arthur, it's fine. It'll mend in no time."
Arthur nodded, running the pad of his thumb gently over Merlin's palm, soothing the little tickles of pain jumping just beneath Merlin's skin. It gave Merlin an idea--one that scared him, but seemed right, as though being able to run and laugh with Arthur was finally what Merlin needed to be able to turn and face him.
"Arthur," Merlin said softly, closing both his palms around Arthur's hand, and looking him straight in the eye.
There was a tiny crease between Arthur's eyebrows, and he watched Merlin curiously, his eyes edged with a worry Merlin couldn't put down to his fall. He had a nagging thought that Arthur knew what he was about to do, and as Merlin closed his eyes and let magic flow down to the palms of his hands, Arthur didn't flinch.
When Merlin lifted his hands from around Arthur's and opened his eyes, he saw the lingering swirl of his gold reflected in Arthur's shocked blue. His lips were slightly parted, his hair was standing on end and his cheeks were flushed pink. Merlin sat completely still as Arthur's eyes travelled up and down his half naked body. They paused when they reached Merlin's healed palms, and then Arthur looked to his own hand, which had been clasped between Merlin's. He flexed his fingers cautiously, and ran his other hand over the skin of his knuckles and wrist.
Merlin realised, as he watched with baited breath, that he had no idea how magic felt to those without it. He knew the rush of warmth and power that coursed through his own body, and he knew the strange surge of heat when another sorcerer muttered a spell or enchantment in his presence, but as for normal people? Those without powers and without ancient words buried deep in their hearts, waiting to jump up at any moment? Merlin had no idea how the curls of golden light felt to them--did it burn, or was it a cool, distant touch? Did it make their breath catch like it did his, or would they be ignorant of it, if not for the threads of light reaching for them like the searching roots of an old oak, finally given fresh life?
He ached to ask. Merlin was desperate to press Arthur with questions: why wasn't he saying anything? Had he guessed, and was it the way Merlin had pushed magic into their embrace countless times that made it an easy acceptance? Merlin wanted to ask if Arthur was angry; he wanted to tell him that all the good things Morgause's magic was bringing to the world around them had been their role, not hers, and that he knew it was too late to change it, but Arthur deserved to know the truth. Merlin needed Arthur to know him, inside and out, before he could make peace with the life that had, through chances and mistakes, become theirs.
It stood to reason, in the end, that just as Arthur seemed to be building up the resolve to say something--to say anything--was when the armed patrol burst through the trees beside them. It stood to reason because they'd been running and shouting in broad daylight, beside a lake, in a forest where they had come close to being caught upon first leaving Camelot. The men were clad in chain mail, with shields bearing the blue falcon that was the coat of arms for Morgause's New Camelot. They were carrying swords and spears, and the fabric of their boots was soft, meaning they could slip through the undergrowth with hardly a sound.
Arthur rose to his feet, bare chest glistening in the spring sunshine, and pulled Merlin up with him. They stood side by side, hands clasped and heads high as the armed men formed a circle around them. Merlin looked away from cold eyes and blank faces that he'd once known, and now feared. Instead, he faced Arthur, who was tall and golden again at last, after so much time muddied by anger and hurt. Merlin placed his hand gently on Arthur's bicep, urging him to turn away, too, because they were naked and defenceless, but they were still together, and that was just about all that kept Merlin's heart beating.
"I'm not afraid," Arthur said, loud and clear and certain, as much to the men around them as to Merlin. "I'm not afraid to die."
Slowly, he let his eyes travel over the faces of the soldiers, until they came to rest on Merlin's. Arthur's features softened, and he brought his hand up to cup Merlin's cheek as one of the men began barking orders. Merlin’s eyes flicked back and forth, searching Arthur’s for any hint of a wink or pointed stare--something to indicate a plan of escape. Nothing came. Arthur just looked at Merlin, eerily resigned and calm in the face of all their past fears being realised.
Merlin knew, at that moment, that Arthur meant it. He wasn’t just putting on a front to fool his enemies; he wasn’t afraid, and this look they were sharing was Arthur’s way of asking Merlin to trust him, and not to feel fear, either. It took Merlin a few long, tense seconds to dig deep inside himself and find the courage Arthur had taught him over their time together.
He thought of how they’d saved Ealdor with Gwen and Morgana, and wondered if word would reach them that the Dark Prince and his servant had been caught. Merlin asked himself if Gwen would cry, or if Morgana would shout, but just then Arthur squeezed his hand, and Merlin’s world shrunk down to just the two of them again, standing still and cold beside the lake.
"Arthur, I can save us," Merlin whispered against Arthur's palm. "We don't have to--"
"It's alright," Arthur murmured, leaning forward to press a kiss to Merlin's lips. He wiped away a tear that was sliding down Merlin's cheek, and cupped Merlin’s head as he nodded and leaned, shivering, into Arthur’s chest. "Don't."
And Merlin didn’t.