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The Very Important Quest

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Arthur’s woken by the sound of his curtains being dragged open, and it brings him to consciousness with a vague sense of confusion until he realises it’s because the sound isn’t accompanied by Merlin’s usual chirped greeting. He recognises the sound of footsteps scuffing against the stone, though, and he cracks an eye open at last, squinting in the direction of the window.

Merlin’s facing away, standing over one of the enormous chests that holds Arthur’s clothes, and the set of his shoulders is odd.

“What are you doing?” Arthur mumbles without bothering to lift his head, still prone on his belly with most of his face pressed into the pillow.

Merlin’s body jerks, somewhere between a wince and a startle, at the sound of Arthur’s voice. “Nothing,” he says. “The usual.” Merlin’s voice is scratchy, and he turns around to walk towards Arthur with the same shuffling gait Arthur heard before. “Are you awake, then?”

“Yes, no thanks to you,” Arthur huffs, flopping over onto his back. His bedding slips down and the air is cooler than he expected; he fumbles with sleep-heavy hands to drag the blankets back up over his bare chest. Merlin watches the movement and seems to get caught in a blank stare. It gives Arthur the opportunity to notice that his eyes are bloodshot.

“What’s wrong with you?” Arthur asks sharply, and Merlin blinks, meeting Arthur's eyes instead. “Are you actually unwell, or have all the years of dropping yourself on your head finally caught up with you?”

Merlin’s face twists in a grimace. “If it’s blows to the head we’re talking about, I think that you should worry far more about things catching up than me,” he grumbles half-heartedly. When he bends over to pick up one of Arthur’s discarded cushions off the floor, the movement seems to take more effort than it really ought to.

Arthur snags another cushion from his bed and throws it. Merlin teeters when it hits him but manages to straighten again without mishap. He looks at Arthur with an injured expression, rubbing his head. “Ow,” he says.

“I hardly think a cushion merits an ow, Merlin,” Arthur tells him, sitting up and swinging his legs out of the bed. “Where’s my breakfast?”

When Merlin blanches—mouth twisting again—Arthur’s inkling turns into full-blown understanding. He lets a smirk sweep over his face, and saunters over to where Merlin’s standing with the cushion clutched to his belly, head uncharacteristically bowed.

Arthur claps a hand onto the back of Merlin’s neck, and he almost stumbles forward with the force of it, unsteady on his feet. “A bit too long at the tavern last night, was it?” Arthur asks loudly.

“Not my fault. ’S those bloody knights of yours,” Merlin mutters, wincing.

“Merlin,” Arthur begins expansively, letting go of Merlin’s nape after one last squeeze and strolling over to the window. “I don’t know why you insist on besmirching the honour of such noble men in the name of excusing your own excesses.” He peers out into the white-stoned glare of the courtyard, curling his toes on the cold floor.

Behind him, Merlin snorts. “This is Gwaine we’re talking about.”

Arthur’s mouth twitches and he can’t help but huff in understanding, though for some reason the thought of the two of them carousing on into the night—a wilfully irresponsible Gwaine encouraging Merlin to get deeper into his cups—isn’t as amusing as it really ought to be.

And that’s a hint of unpleasantness that Arthur really doesn’t want to have creeping into his morning routine. This is, after all, the only time of day when he can just forget the weight of responsibility that he knows will bear down on him as soon as he steps outside his door. Merlin’s blithe disrespect and self-importance has become something Arthur finds supremely comforting.

It's the thought of Merlin and Gwaine—or any other of the knights; they’ve all been as thick as thieves of late—gleefully sharing company in Arthur’s absence sends a needle of insidious ill-feeling into his thoughts. He shoves it away irritably and turns his back to the window.

“That’s no excuse,” he says, more harshly than he means to.

Picking through Arthur’s clothes, Merlin doesn’t even look up, but Arthur notes his shoulders tense. That, too, is comforting in its own way—a process they’re both familiar with—and surely Merlin takes some comfort in it as well, otherwise he wouldn’t have stuck around for so long.

“Get on with it, will you?” Arthur adds irritably. “And have a maid fetch some breakfast.”

Even looking slightly green about the gills, Merlin manages to get Arthur dressed competently enough, though he’s a terrible conversationalist during it. He lets Arthur carry on expounding on how wonderful he feels after a full night’s sleep without a single retort. When the maid brings a tray of steaming food—why it's never steaming when Merlin brings it, Arthur wants to know—he allows Merlin to sit on the chair opposite, and, despite how mouth-watering it smells, pushes over his generously-laden plate of bacon.

By the time Merlin’s put away more than half of it, he’s starting to perk up again, responding to Arthur’s comments on his eating habits with barbs of his own. Arthur’s quite thoroughly enjoying himself until there’s a knock on the door. At Arthur’s acknowledgement, his father’s manservant steps in. Arthur’s heart drops like a stone in his chest at the sight of the man’s grave face, but the servant only says, “Sire, the King is asking for you.”

Merlin is silent and still; Arthur barely glances at him as he pushes away from the table. He’s only half-finished his breakfast, but he’s not hungry anymore. “Clean this mess up, will you Merlin?” he instructs. Merlin meets his eyes and gives a tight nod.

Arthur’s not wearing his cloak, but he might as well be; a heavy weight drags behind him all the way to his father’s room, cinching around his throat.

*

Uther has never been a talkative man, and the periods when he’s verbal are becoming shorter and further between. A few muttered words in the space of a half-hour see Arthur lingering by his side, neglecting the morning’s duties. The thought that this might be the last opportunity he has to speak with his father weighs solid and heavy in Arthur’s throat during every visit, and the longer he looks at his father’s sunken, pale features, the more Arthur’s recollection of the proud, stern man Uther used to be recedes. Part of Arthur wants to leave, wants never to return to this room to witness this slow wasting. He beats that feeling back down, scathing.

At last Gaius arrives, giving Arthur a sedate and faintly sympathetic look from the door, and Arthur feels a guilty relief. He suspects that Gaius engages in conversation—such as it is—with Uther as well, and the knowledge makes Arthur grateful and resentful all at once. As Arthur rises, Gwen steps in through the door as well, a stack of clean linens balanced in her arms. More maids shuffle in behind her, bearing pails that are steaming faintly, and Arthur chooses to beat a hasty retreat rather than witness his father’s bath along with all the other humiliations of his condition. Gwen smiles slightly at him on his way out, and he grasps her wrist briefly, out of the sight of the others; their wordless greetings and farewells have become comforting rituals.

When Arthur gets down to the practice field, it seems obvious that none of the men had expected him to join them—Sir Leon is overseeing the sparring of most of the newest knights, those called in from their noble households in the past few months—while the rest of them, layabouts that they are, are lounging in the grass near the equipment tables. Naturally, Merlin is sprawled amongst them, an even more audacious shirking of duties. Knights fulfil their duties by choice, but servants are under obligation.

Merlin has always behaved as if the prerogatives of a knight apply to him in that respect, though. More often than not Arthur finds it amusing, but this time, seeing the group of them talking and laughing amongst themselves instead of working makes his jaw clench in irritation. Perhaps if Arthur were not feeling like the kingdom were moments from collapse, he would be more tolerant of this moment of leisure, but as it is he can barely restrain himself from shouting.

The sight of Merlin in particular—head thrown back in laughter as if he hasn’t a care in the world—makes something unpleasant clench in Arthur’s chest. It shouldn’t feel like betrayal—not when Arthur himself has been making such an adamant show of carrying on like he’s not bowing under the pressure of it all even when they’re alone—but it does. How dare Merlin exhibit such careless joy. Arthur thought he understood.

But Merlin’s obliviousness is something Arthur can take advantage of now, as he strides forward. Merlin is leaning back on a braced arm. Arthur hooks a foot around his wrist and yanks, sending Merlin to the ground on his back with an oof.

The other knights, Gwaine, Elyan and Percival—Lancelot is dutifully on the field with Leon, at least—scramble up, standing uneasily.

“Perhaps if you’ve nothing better to do, you could go help muck out the stables,” Arthur suggests to them, “unless you’d prefer doing drills until suppertime?”

Gwaine looks like he’s going to speak, but a glare from Arthur snaps his mouth shut again. The three of them sketch inept bows—it’s amazing they’ve learnt any sort of honourable swordsmanship at all—and turn tail onto the field.

Arthur looks down to see Merlin staring up at him, jaw clenched with either obstinacy or anger: Arthur doesn’t care which. He nudges Merlin’s side with the toe of his boot. “Get up. If you haven’t brought my armour, it’s the stables tomorrow for you as well.”

“As well?” Merlin lets escape, pitch high and outraged. But at least he has the wisdom to close his mouth before any other unpleasant-chore-garnering retorts escape.

Arthur’s armour is laid out on one of the nearby tables, and he feels immediately calmer and just a little contrite for giving in to his irritation. Merlin helping him into his chain mail soothes him a little more, as if the heavy enclosure of it will prevent his mood from escaping further out of his control.

“How is the King?” Merlin asks softly, when Arthur has been motionless and quiet for a few minutes. It’s as if he’s picked up on Arthur’s calmer mood from that alone, and Arthur wonders how he ever doubted Merlin’s perceptiveness.

“As well as he was yesterday,” Arthur says. Merlin catches his eye briefly, giving Arthur a small, rueful smile as he finishes tightening the buckles of Arthur’s vambraces.

“Your sword, Sire,” Merlin says, presenting it to Arthur laid across his open hands.

“About time,” Arthur gripes, taking it and buckling it on himself.

“Arthur,” Merlin says, “go easy on them.”

And just like that, Arthur’s ill-temper clenches tight again. “Things are not easy, Merlin,” he says sharply. “I don’t see the value in pretending they are.”

Merlin’s lips press tight and he takes a deep breath. Arthur heads him off at the pass: “Those stables won’t muck out themselves.”

Merlin’s glare is all the more annoying because it’s rich with the weight of all the arguments they’ve had about this before; if he were just being lazy and resentful it would be easier for Arthur to brush off. As it is, he feels the weight of Merlin’s gaze between his shoulders as he heads onto the field.

*

Arthur shouldn’t be surprised that Merlin brings with him a distinct odour of manure when he finally barges into Arthur’s room that evening. He’s at least had the courtesy to half-heartedly scrub his face, and his hands are clean, which is just as well, as he’s about to put them all over Arthur’s clothes.

Merlin keeps his head down, as if unfastening Arthur’s tunic requires the deepest concentration, and Arthur finds it hard to look at him—instead he stares intently at the far corner of the room over Merlin’s shoulder. He feels weary enough from the day of teeth-gritting tension that he can’t really tell if the stilted silence is because Merlin’s being stand-offish, or if he’s just as tired as Arthur is.

Though, it’s probably a mixture of both. By the time Merlin’s done undressing him, Arthur is suitably mollified, and when Merlin turns away to let him climb into the bath, Arthur decides that he’s had enough of silence and it’s time for a peace offering.

“You know, Merlin, it’s been a while since you’ve smelled so foul.”

Somewhere out of sight, the sound of Merlin fussing with Arthur’s clothes ceases. “It’s been a while since you’ve had me muck out the stables,” Merlin replies at length, tone neutral.

It’s as close as he’ll get to confronting Arthur about his belligerent moods of late, which have been helpful in controlling a kingdom still reeling from a thwarted coup, but rather less of a boon to Merlin in the everyday. Arthur sinks down lower into the water, drawing his knees up. The temperature is exactly as hot as he likes it: almost too much with the first immersion, but rapidly soaking down to his bones.

Merlin’s tidying noises start up again, and Arthur eases up again to reach for the washcloth. As pleasant as the water is, he scrubs himself down perfunctorily, and by the time he levers himself out again—Merlin hurrying forward, fumbling with his drying sheet—the temperature is still reasonably warm.

Arthur takes the sheet from Merlin and wraps it around himself. Merlin stands a few paces away and looks at him warily.

Arthur sighs. “Go on, then,” he tilts his head towards the bath. “I assume you do know how to bathe yourself.”

Merlin’s brow tightens—but with a familiar air of amused provocation that lightens the weight sitting in Arthur’s chest.

“Unlike you, I was taught how to care for myself at an early age,” Merlin says.

“And I’m sure you do. Care for yourself, I mean,” Arthur replies. “Daily.” He lets a hint of a smirk curl his lips, lending the innocuous words a more salacious meaning before he continues breezily, “Which, I suppose, explains your wretched punctuality.”

Arthur’s smirk blooms as Merlin’s eyebrows shoot up. Arthur knows—and doesn’t resent, which is saying something—that Merlin believes the two of them close, but often it seems as though in Merlin's mind Arthur lives on some sort of pedestal of chaste nobility. It gives Arthur a thrill to trot out comments that he suspects Merlin thinks unbefitting him. He’s not popular with his men for nothing: many nights spent in inns and around campfires immersed in indecent conversation have seen to that.

In fact, discovering this new thing that managed to make Merlin’s jaw drop like a scandalised maiden has probably been one of the best things to happen since Morgana. Especially as it’s particular to Arthur; he’s seen how companionable Merlin is with Gwaine, and there’s no way Merlin’s ears could be still delicate after this long.

“Don’t—” Arthur commands when Merlin starts reaching for Arthur’s sleeping clothes. Merlin stops abruptly and stares as Arthur walks towards him. “I can dress myself.” Arthur picks up his hose and pokes his finger into Merlin’s back—the extent to which he’s willing to touch Merlin’s filthy clothes—and manages to propel him towards the bath. “Get in.”

For all that he can dress himself, Arthur feels no urgent need to; instead he snags the pitcher of wine and a goblet from the table and sprawls out naked on the fur in front of the fire: the heat could dry him off. Behind him he can hear Merlin’s faint grunt of exertion as he lowers himself into the bath, and the dulcet splashes as he washes.

Arthur props himself up with his elbows behind him, stretching out to get the maximum heat coverage. Merlin builds a good fire. It’s too hot and bright to stare right into the flames, so instead Arthur lets his eyes slip half-closed and watches the wetted-down hair on his legs and belly slowly spring back to dryness. By the time he’s drained the goblet a second time, Arthur’s feeling very relaxed indeed. He’s not entirely sure how long he’s been sprawled there, but the sound of Merlin’s splashing has become more incidental than purposeful.

Arthur glances over towards the tub. Merlin has indeed finished washing, but instead of getting out he’s stewing in there, sitting with his arms wrapped around his knees. His hair is drying in bedraggled tufts, and it makes his ears stick out even more than usual.

Arthur would say something about them—point it out, just so Merlin’s aware of how ridiculous he looks—but he caught Merlin’s stare when he first turned around, and Merlin flicked his eyes away instantly, shifting his troubled gaze to the other end of the tub.

“Shall I toss some herbs in there with you? Maybe a potato or two? I doubt there’s enough meat there to feed anyone,” Arthur says, raising an eyebrow.

Merlin purses his lips and slants Arthur a look without bothering to face him. “No.” He unwraps his arms and stretches out his legs again, wincing a little like it pains him. “You can light a fire under me, though.” He cups his hands around his upper arms and rubs briskly. “It’s cold.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Yes. Bath water does that, strangely enough.” He shifts his weight to yank the drying sheet from under him, then bundles it up and holds it aloft, miming that he’s about to throw it .

Still, it takes a feinted toss before Merlin finally understands Arthur’s intent; then he scrambles to his feet in the bath, catching the sheet when Arthur throws it and only just preventing it from falling in the water.

He’s naked and standing right there, so Arthur looks him over, to measure the full lay of the land, as it were. There’s always an element of surprise when he glimpses Merlin without clothes. His clean-shaven jaw and odd, fey face make him look still as young as the day he arrived in Camelot, but his limbs aren’t as skinny as his baggy clothing tends to suggest. They’re not even as skinny as when Arthur first saw him naked—not that Arthur keeps track of how many times he has, of course—but lean with spare, wiry muscle.

The hair on the rest of Merlin’s body is as dark as the hair on his head, and when Arthur’s view is obscured by the sheet passing briskly in front of it, Arthur remembers himself and looks away again. He fills another goblet of wine then feels abruptly too bored to sit upright savouring it; he gulps the entire thing down in a few mouthfuls and then flops onto his back in the fur.

He keeps his eyes sullenly closed. A new, odd mood teases at the edges of his relaxation. The fur tickles against Arthur’s neck and Merlin is making clothing noises again. The wine makes Arthur’s senses reel like drunken dancers in the warm dark behind his closed eyes.

“Arthur.”

Arthur slits his eyes open. Merlin—dressed again—is crouched next to him, looking down into his face, expression somewhere between solemn and fond. Arthur doesn’t want to look away from it, but doesn’t want to acknowledge it either, so he settles for no response at all, just continuing to stare back impassively through sleepy eyes.

Merlin rests his hand lightly in the crook of Arthur’s elbow—just his fingertips, really—and says, “How the mighty have fallen,” in a low voice, barely above a whisper and rich with amusement.

Arthur swings his other arm up to bat bluntly at Merlin’s head, but Merlin catches Arthur’s wrist before the blow lands, and then the next thing Arthur knows is that Merlin is threading his limp hands through the sleeves of his nightshirt. It happens too fast to protest, really, so instead of fighting, Arthur just closes his eyes again. At least that way, later on, if Merlin brings up the fact that he dressed Arthur like a babe, Arthur can pretend that he didn’t notice anything of the sort happening.

He doesn’t think Merlin would say anything, though: even though Merlin is chuckling under his breath now as he manoeuvres the shirt over Arthur’s head to drag it over his shoulders and down his chest. Even though Arthur is sure he’s not imagining Merlin’s hand rubbing his belly briefly—like he really is a colicky babe—and murmuring, “There, Your Highness.”

Merlin will instead let this sit, quiet and unspoken, between them.

*

Two days later and Arthur is feeling very little warmth towards Merlin at all. He has woken late, has had to dress himself, and has had to stick his head outside to shout for a maid for a full five minutes before one comes running. She curtseys in response to his demands for breakfast, and Arthur tears through the food with all the grace of a rabid dog. Some of his irritation is appeased by violent chewing, at least.

By the time Arthur stomps all the way to the physician’s chambers, he’s already missed the first duties of the day, and is finding himself questioning just why he’d stopped ordering Merlin to muck out the stables in the first place. The sound of agitated conversation from behind Gaius’ door turns a bit of Arthur’s irritability—the bit that was twisting unsettlingly in his stomach—into self-righteous annoyance. Merlin’s not shut up here on his death bed: he’s just typically disorganised.

When Arthur bursts into the room, Gaius and Merlin stop talking immediately to look up at him. Gaius is standing by his work table with his hands on his hips, and Merlin is in the middle of the room, halfway to the door, with his travelling pack at his feet. He looks startled by Arthur’s unexpected entry, but when he sees Arthur notice the pack, his eyes narrow mulishly.

“Merlin,” Arthur greets with dangerous cheer, strolling towards him. “Should I assume you’re on your way to my chambers to fulfil your duties? Because you ought to know—” He stops directly in front of Merlin, just half a pace too close for comfort, looking directly into Merlin’s stubborn face. “You’re at least two hours late. And—” Arthur nudges the pack by his foot without breaking his gaze. “—You won’t be needing this.”

“Sorry,” Merlin says breezily. “Apprenticeship duties call. Gaius is sending me on a mission.” Merlin doesn’t step away from Arthur’s looming, just smiles the challenge right back into Arthur’s face.

Arthur glances over at Gaius. “Is this true?”

Gaius makes a face as if he ate something unpleasant and regrets it very much. “I’m afraid so, Sire—”

“Send someone else,” Arthur commands, turning away as if this conversation doesn’t even merit his time. Which it doesn’t. Merlin isn’t going anywhere, and that’s that. “Merlin, hurry up, you’re needed in the armoury.”

“He can’t send someone else. Only me,” Merlin blurts out before Arthur makes it halfway back to the door.

Arthur shoots a skeptical look in Gaius’ direction, but the old man says nothing to counter Merlin’s words. Arthur turns back to face Merlin fully, folding his arms over his chest.

“Is that so.”

Merlin nods firmly. “The forex flower. Very rare. Only grows on the slopes of the Northern Mountains, on the western side, and only effective if it’s culled during the first snow of the winter.”

Arthur lifts an eyebrow at Merlin’s defensive tone. “And you’re the only one who can pick it.”

“I’m the only one who’s trained in how to find, identify and cull it, yes,” Merlin says, drawing himself up. “Training someone else would take too long; we’d miss the harvesting window.”

Arthur looks to Gaius again. “Just what value is this plant to Camelot?” He thinks of his father, of course—he has faith that Gaius has tried everything he can to heal Uther, but there’s still a stubborn little spark in him that refuses to believe that his father’s mind is weakened, gone; surely this is a malady that can be cured by one of Gaius’ seemingly miraculous remedies.

“It is known for its effectiveness in fighting off the worst symptoms of wet lung fever, Your Highness,” Gaius says at length. “Which we’ve heard caused a fatal epidemic in King Olaf’s kingdom last winter. It’s not unheard of for such an illness to be borne along trading routes. If Merlin can obtain this flower, then we may well be able to save many lives this winter.”

Gaius’ gaze is fixed on Arthur, and Merlin’s is too; they’re both watching him keenly. Arthur feels an unpleasant twist of resentment. He wants to petulantly deny them, demand that Merlin stay, but if Gaius’ fears are founded then there is far more at stake here than making sure Arthur has someone to entertain him after a difficult day.

“You intend to travel alone?” he asks Merlin, skeptical. “To the Northern Mountains. In the snow.”

Merlin’s gaze is shifty; it darts from Arthur to Gaius to the door, and then back to Arthur. “If it’s that dangerous, I thought maybe I could take someone with me. Perhaps Lancelot, or Gwaine—”

“No, that won’t do at all,” Arthur cuts him off abruptly, and then begins to pace; he hadn’t meant to speak so quickly, so he distracts them from it with the purposeful movement. “Lancelot is needed here, and Gwaine is the reason he’s needed here—no, he certainly couldn’t be trusted on such an important mission.” Merlin doesn’t say anything, just watches as Arthur strides and blusters. “No, there’s nothing else for it.” Arthur stops in front of Merlin again. “You can’t be expected to undertake such an important mission on your own, Merlin; you’d be a block of ice on a hillside and half of Camelot dead in their beds. No, the only option is for me to accompany you.”

Merlin’s mouth twitches, and as expected, his expression turns put-upon. “There’s no discouraging me,” he declares before Merlin can even open his mouth. “Pack my bags and ready the horses.” And he jogs out of the room before Merlin or Gaius can say another word.

*

Arthur doesn’t exactly relish leaving the contained warmth of the castle for such an extended, boring mission—one not even dangerous enough to merit him wearing armour—and especially not right when the year is waning into winter. Even so, it’s not just because he’s wearing ordinary riding clothes that Arthur feels lighter and lighter with each mile they ride out of Camelot. He pushes aside the guilt of that by critiquing aloud how long it took Merlin to prepare his things, the poor form of his seat in the saddle and just how disappointed Arthur is to be leaving the autumn kitchen fare for Merlin’s fireside cooking.

“Admit it, Arthur,” Merlin says in response to the last, his tone implying that Arthur’s rambling criticisms have affected him not a whit. “If you had your way, you’d be eating my rabbit and bean stew for every meal.”

Your rabbit,” Arthur scoffs after a moment, recovering badly.

Merlin glances over at him, his expression almost pitying. “Oh, because I suppose that the palatability of the rabbit is entirely dependent on who kills it, and has nothing to do with who dresses and cooks it.”

“You know, it’s the strangest thing, Merlin,” Arthur says, his tone wondering. “Sometimes you say things that almost seem to make sense.”

Merlin laughs and nudges his heels into his horse’s sides, speeding up to a trot that takes him past Arthur—almost as if he thinks this is his quest and Arthur should be merely trailing after him. Which is so utterly ridiculous that Arthur doesn’t know how to begin to address it, except by spurring his own mount to an even quicker pace. He stands up in the stirrups and glides neatly past Merlin’s terribly jolty clip, allowing himself a grin as the wind smoothes over his face and Merlin makes a choked sound of indignation behind him.

Then Merlin’s horse snorts and canters past, and Arthur crouches lower in the saddle and kicks after him, and they race their way into the forest.

Ordinarily Arthur would be reluctant to run the horses unless strictly necessary, but the days are short at this time of year, restricting their daily travel time, and it’s not exactly a perilous mission. Racing Merlin on and off throughout the brief afternoon is perfectly reasonable when they’re in no danger of needing to run for their lives.

It’s also reason enough to settle down to camp early: they might as well give the mounts as much rest as possible for the next few leisurely days of riding, and give Merlin opportunity to set up camp while it’s still well light.

They settle in the forest—they’ve nearly ridden all the way through it, but there’s no telling if it’ll rain or not, and it’s easier to string up oilcloths amidst the trees than out in the open—and Merlin spends some time clearing a space in the thick carpet of fallen leaves, exposing the rich, damp soil below to build a fire into. His hands are stained dark from the earth by the time he rocks back onto his heels, and he leaves a smear of it on his forehead when he ineptly wipes the back of his hand across his brow.

Arthur finishes tying off the oilcloth and approaches. “Firewood, Merlin, before it gets too dark to see any,” he instructs, using his foot to nudge closer one of the stones that Merlin had picked up as they wandered on foot to find the best place to camp. “I’ll finish here.”

It’s getting darker quickly: the sky is dimming beneath a low, fleecy blanket of grey cloud. By the time Arthur looks up from setting the stones into the fire pit, the gaps between the dark, bare trees are softened by the white haze of a rising mist. The air feels damp on Arthur’s face, his neck already uncomfortably clammy with it, and he quickly hauls their packs and their saddles under the canopy of the oilcloth. When the damp turns to a cold wet prickle against his cheeks, he hurriedly unties the knots he just secured, rearranging the canopy into a tent—if it’s going to be heavy fog instead of outright rain, then the wet will be coming from all sides. A tent might be crowded, but it’ll protect them from the worst of it.

When Merlin returns with an armful of wood, his head is bowed and hair bedraggled; he shoots Arthur an unhappy look as he kneels down before the fire pit. The light has faded enough in the time that he’s been gone that Arthur can’t even tell from looking at it whether the wood is dry or not.

“Is that not too wet to light?” Arthur asks as Merlin begins to methodically lay the fire.

Merlin shrugs without looking up. “Dry enough,” he says, and leans right down, cupping his hands with the flint into the bed of tinder and bowing his upper body over to shelter it. His head’s so low it looks like he’s telling the wood a secret, and Arthur huffs out a breath he hadn’t realised he was holding as the tinder flickers alight. Merlin whips his hands out of the way with a hiss, shooting a wary look up at Arthur as if he expects to be reprimanded for it.

“Food, Merlin,” Arthur reminds him; the fire is sending merry tongues of flame up around the wood Merlin gathered, but there’s no telling how long it’ll last against the increasing volume of water in the air. “Hurry up.”

“Thought you didn’t care for my cooking,” Merlin says, rising to his feet and going to dig for his pack inside the tent; instead of crawling into it he crouches over awkwardly, arse in the air.

Arthur waits until Merlin has come back to the fire with the cooking pot before answering. “If it’s a choice between your stew and starving…”

Merlin snorts and shakes his head, not looking up from his work. The dark is seeping in more rapidly, now, and Merlin squints and leans in closer to the fire to see properly as he adeptly chops a couple of potatoes with what seems to be an alarmingly sharp knife. Arthur watches for a moment until he can’t stand the dread of expecting Merlin to slice one of his fingers off, then goes to see to the horses.

By the time the fog has turned into definite drizzle the fire is clearly losing its battle against it; Merlin’s expression is grim as he nurses the meal, stirring the pot and poking at the coals constantly. His damp hair is plastered to his forehead and the back of his neck, and he looks even paler than usual.

“Come on,” Arthur says decisively. “I’m sure it’s hot enough to eat.” He digs into Merlin’s pack for their bowls, then thrusts them under Merlin’s nose; Merlin doesn’t respond with a scowl but a sigh, his shoulders drooping.

Luckily Arthur had got the tent up early enough that the ground underneath it is merely damp rather than sodden; they sit on their wrapped bedrolls to eat, perched just inside the opening so they can catch the last of the light. The stew is warm enough, but the pulses are gritty and the chunks of potato still a little crunchy. Arthur doesn’t comment on it, and Merlin is silent beside him; they both stare out into the gloomy twilight as they eat. The dwindling fire starts to hiss as if issuing a final complaint, and steam rises faintly from the dying coals, immediately merging with the solid-looking fog.

Once they’ve eaten they hurry to arrange the tent, racing the nightfall. With the saddles needing shelter as well, it’s very close quarters, so their bedrolls end up flush against each other. Arthur supposes that’s for the best anyway—the damp air is decidedly chilly, and when he shrugs off the heavy wool-and-fur of his cloak and tugs off his gloves with his teeth, the cold rushes in to bite at him.

He can’t help but make incidental contact with Merlin, both of them moving around in such a small space. When the back of Arthur’s hand brushes Merlin’s arm, he realises something is odd. He grabs a fistful of Merlin’s sleeve to confirm, and finds that it is, indeed, soaked through. Merlin makes an indignant noise, but he’s shivering. Clearly his jacket is not as good at fending off moisture as Arthur’s cloak.

“Merlin,” Arthur says, scolding. “Is there a reason you’re still wearing wet clothes? Don’t tell me you didn’t bring any more.”

“Of course I brought more clothes,” Merlin says indignantly. He tugs himself free, and refuses to look at Arthur as he continues in a mumble, “I’m wearing them.”

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Right, well, get out of them.”

Merlin whips his head around to stare. “What? I’ll freeze!”

“You certainly will if you stay in them, wet as they are.”

“I’ll get under the blankets.”

“And soak them too? And how do you think they’ll dry being rolled up all day tomorrow?” Arthur throws his hands up, exasperated. “Honestly, Merlin, have you no survival instincts at all?”

Merlin crawls away from him then sits at the end of his bedroll, hunching over to pull off his boots.

“Merlin,” Arthur says.

Merlin ignores him, not even turning around.

Merlin.” When Merlin still doesn’t respond, Arthur huffs and crawls towards him. Merlin doesn’t even have a chance to take his second boot off before Arthur’s grabbing handfuls of his shirt and yanking it up out of his belt. Taken by surprise, Merlin just squawks and flails; the abruptness of it makes him lose his balance, but Arthur’s still determinedly pulling the shirt off so Merlin doesn’t have the freedom of movement to brace himself. Instead, he falls onto his back, making it much easier for Arthur to keep pulling the shirt up and over his head.

“What—!” Merlin splutters, still throwing his limbs about ineffectually. “You—stop it!”

The second shirt is nearly as soaked as the first, and Merlin’s skin under it is icy against Arthur’s glove-warmed hands. Merlin finally gets himself together enough to fight back when the shirt is halfway over his head; Arthur backs out of the way of his kicking legs. He has to wait until Merlin’s promised to calm down before he can move back in to help, and with a few strategic tugs, Arthur frees him from the predicament of having his arms stuck in the air and face wrapped in wet cloth.

Bare-chested, Merlin finally manages to sit up, scooting backwards and away from Arthur, watching him with profound distrust. Arthur watches him right back, working hard to keep his expression unmoved instead of showing the amusement he’s feeling. When Merlin gives a violent shiver, Arthur looks pointedly at his sodden trousers.

And that causes the scandalised expression that Arthur is becoming so fond of; it’s even harder work not to laugh in delight. When Arthur kneels up as if to shuffle towards him, Merlin yelps, “All right, all right!” and begins fumbling with his laces.

Arthur sits back to watch, luxuriating in his victory, taking Merlin’s every indignant huff and mutter as the spoils he deserves.

Of course, it’s only when Merlin’s managed to shuck his trousers down to his ankles that he realises he’s still got one of his boots on, and this results in a exclaimed curse and further fighting of wet cloth as he hunches over to wrestle it off.

His bare back is startlingly white in the near-dark of the tent, and Arthur thinks that bending over that awkwardly shouldn’t result in such a graceful curve. With all of Merlin’s lively griping, Arthur feels as if Merlin’s skin should be warm with the heat of his irritation, but when he reaches out to run his hand down the arc of Merlin’s spine it’s to find he’s just as clammy-cold as before.

Merlin jolts at the touch, and Arthur jolts an instant later, heart in his throat, his thoughts catching up with his actions moments too late. But he can’t withdraw; the unspoken rules of their play forbid it.

Merlin, paused in his boot-wrestling, looks over his shoulder at Arthur. His expression is more curious than affronted, though there’s still an overt wariness to it. Arthur, at a loss for words, just looks back at him. He doesn’t know what to do with his hand—motionless now on Merlin’s back. He wants to move it: he nearly twitches with the unwonted urge to explore the cool, smooth expanse of Merlin's skin.

“Are you planning on skinning me as well?” Merlin asks after another moment. His tone is unflustered—if a little hoarse.

Arthur can finally move; he smacks his hand down on Merlin’s back with a little more force than a friendly pat merits. Merlin cringes away from it and it shakes the weighted look from his features, replacing it with more familiar disgruntlement. Arthur’s sure that the fluttering lightness in his own belly is entirely relief.

“Only if you don’t hurry up and get into bed,” he says, at last withdrawing and busying himself with taking his own boots off. Once that’s done, he kneels up to tie the opening of the tent closed, and when he turns back around Merlin’s finally managed to get himself into his bedroll. In the dark, Arthur can just make out the curled-up lump of him beneath the heavy blankets, damp clothes draped over the saddles at his head.

Arthur crawls into his own blankets. His own extremities feel numb from the cold now, and while the enclosed space of the tent will warm up with their combined breath and body heat in an hour or two, even fully clothed he finds himself shivering a little.

As soon as he stills, he can hear Merlin’s stuttering breath, and though Arthur can’t see past his own nose, they’re close enough that he can feel Merlin shuddering beside him.

Arthur sighs, refusing to feel guilty. Merlin certainly would wind up colder sleeping in wet clothes than getting under his blankets dry. Still, Arthur extracts his arms from the cocoon of his blankets long enough to throw his heavy cloak over the top of Merlin’s blankets—though, on second thought, it’s big enough to cover two men, so Arthur wriggles a little closer and drapes it over both of them.

Merlin doesn’t comment, though he does roll over to face Arthur and squirm closer. In the dark, Arthur doesn’t realise just how close he is until Merlin’s icy nose brushes against his cheek. Arthur untucks his hand again and brings it up to cup experimentally over Merlin’s ear. Merlin’s noisy breathing halts for a brief moment. As expected, that ridiculous protuberance is colder even than his nose was, and his wet hair is practically frozen.

Merlin sniffles pathetically and Arthur sighs, tugging the cloak up higher. The fur collar glides sleekly over their faces until Arthur tucks it above their heads. The enclosed pocket of air soon warms, and sleep comes to Arthur like waves drifting back and forth in a rising tide, washing in at the same pace of Merlin’s easing shivers.

*

It only gets colder the further north they get, and the ride increasingly strenuous as the land begins to slope upward; even if they were warm enough to be in the mood for it, there’s no way they could race the horses on the shaley incline. The journey has become entirely miserable—as well as the constant, misting rain, the narrow zig-zagging path up the hillside means they have to ride in single file—and the gusting wind means there’s no way Arthur can speak over his shoulder with any hope of Merlin hearing him.

Finally they reach the first tier of the mountains; the path straightens out as they complete the climb, and stretches out in a long line along a narrow summit. At least the over-enthusiastic wind means that the visibility is fairly clear ahead; Arthur can see the path ending in the grey slope of another hillside.

But then the wind carries with it another sound that’s not unlike the whistling cry of a gale, but not alike enough for Arthur to disregard it. He shifts his gaze to scan the sky. The racing clouds fill his vision, their movement twisting his senses vertiginously, but he refuses to look away until he spots what he’s looking for: a sinuous black shape that darts upwards amidst the pale grey, then drops directly down like a falling arrow. As if seeing the first has trained his eye, he spots another two of the dark shapes swooping up through the clouds and diving down again.

When he turns around to point them out to Merlin, it’s to find him much closer than Arthur expected; he’s dismounted and come to stand beside Arthur on the narrow path, his shoulder practically brushing Arthur’s knee. If he were on Arthur’s other side, Arthur could have unsheathed his sword and beheaded Merlin without even noticing. He tightens the grip of his legs on the horse and tugs the reins to move away; it grumbles and shuffles aside on the narrow path.

Merlin drags his gaze away from the sky, and looks to Arthur, expression grim.

“Wyverns,” Arthur tells him.

Merlin nods. “I didn’t expect to see them somewhere this cold.”

Arthur grimaces, remembering the sickly heat of the Perilous Lands, and the rotten smell of the wyverns’ breath as they’d swooped towards him, screaming, his sword far too heavy in his hands. “I was hoping we’d be able to shelter in the caverns in these mountains, but I suppose this means they’re already occupied.”

The three wyverns drop out of sight again, and Arthur and Merlin watch in silence for long moments, waiting for them to reappear. After some time and still no sign of them, Merlin says, “They have no fire to keep them warm like proper dragons. They must make their eyries here, to hibernate in the winter.”

“I suppose the covering of snow would make this a safe enough place to bed down and be completely vulnerable for a few months. Though I dread to think just what wyverns consider predators, to guard themselves to this extreme.” He frowns, looking down at Merlin. “Since when are you a scholar in the ways of dragons?”

Merlin shakes his head quickly. A particularly vicious gust of wind has him rocking on his heels; he tugs his scarf up over his nose and mouth—covering half his face like a guilty bandit—before replying. “Not a scholar,” he says, raising his voice over the noise of the weather. “Just an avid reader of Gaius’ bestiaries.” Arthur is missing half his expression due to the scarf, but he recognises the keen playfulness of Merlin’s eyes when Merlin looks up at him again. “I thought it wise to read up on them, considering the sorts of trouble you inevitably get yourself into.”

Arthur rolls his eyes, then takes a tighter grip on his reins and nudges his heels into his horse’s sides, walking on. Merlin’s eyes widen and he hurries to scramble back onto his horse and ride after him.

They proceed with more caution, Arthur keeping his eye on the skies ahead as much as he does the path in front, so they’re barely halfway up the next mountain before it’s time to camp for the night. The cold is becoming hard to ignore, and Merlin looks downright miserable. Arthur doesn’t even gripe about helping him untack the horses and set up a tent under the most sheltered bit of overhang they can find. There’s no chance of a fire, so they share cold pottage directly out of the pot, gnawing the last stale ends of the bread that’s remained remarkably dry in Merlin’s pack all these days.

Merlin himself doesn’t seem to have fared quite as well as the food. Arthur hasn’t seen him properly dry since they left Camelot—it’s a miracle that his clothes dry enough overnight to wear again each morning. And the higher up they travel, the colder it gets. Arthur’s not sure he’s seen Merlin smile since they started the ascent.

When the wind blows in their direction, rain patters on the outside of the tent, and Arthur hopes against hope that the oilcloth holds up at least another night—he’d be more than willing to fight a wyvern for somewhere reliably sheltered to sleep at this point. The low cloud makes for an early, odd sort of twilight, and though the tent is tied shut, there’s enough dim, watery light left to see each other—certainly enough for Arthur to see that Merlin’s fingernails are blue, and that he’s finding it far more of a struggle to get his boots off than wet leather alone can account for.

“Honestly, Merlin,” Arthur says, exasperated. He rises awkwardly to his feet, hunched over so as not to brush the precariously wet skin of oilcloth above him. “Leave those on.” He shoos Merlin to his feet and out of the way, and makes quick work of rearranging their bedrolls, dismantling them in order to lay one oilcloth on the ground and one on top, layers of woollen blankets between.

“Sit,” Arthur commands, and Merlin obeys with a faint expression of bewilderment. That alone chases away any reservations Arthur might have about his hastily-thought-out plan.

He kneels to yank Merlin’s boots off, then orders, “Undress.” And folds his arms to watch as Merlin does so.

Merlin’s jaw is tight, but Arthur suspects it’s less stubbornness and more to suppress his chattering teeth. Once Merlin has got his arms wrapped around his bare, skinny chest, Arthur unclasps the neck of his cloak and throws it around Merlin’s shoulders. Merlin looks surprised for a moment, but voices no protest; on the contrary, he hoists the cloak up to hood his head as well. Wrapping it snugly around his entire body, he tips onto his side on the combined bedrolls and curls into a shivering, cloak-covered ball.

Arthur can see his own breath cloud faintly in the air as he undresses, but instead of thinking about that, he focuses on the smell of wet wool and the leathery, horsey scent of drying tack filling the enclosed space. Undressing in front of Merlin makes Arthur feel a peculiar kind of shyness. It’s not as if he’s not able to do it himself—he’s just not used to Merlin being present without helping. And Merlin doesn’t even pretend not to be there; Arthur can see him peering out of a gap in the cloak, the rest of his face hidden but his eyes fixed on Arthur. Clearly, though Merlin aspires to the privileges of a knight, he hasn’t any of the courtesy. Arthur considers reprimanding him for it, but settles on preserving his own pride instead: acknowledging Merlin’s gaze by staring right back.

The long, woollen winter underclothes beneath Arthur’s shirt and trousers are completely dry, and he strips them off quickly and tosses them to Merlin before practically leaping back into his clothes. Merlin sits up, and the cloak falls down around his shoulders and lower, fur slipping against the smooth skin of his upper arms. Merlin clutches the bundle to his chest. “But—”

“Put it on, Merlin,” Arthur says sternly; if Merlin sits around looking disconcerted and being ludicrously undressed any longer, then all the body heat that Arthur’s been strategically imbuing into the thick knit of the hose and undershirt will dissipate, and Merlin will have to start all over again.

Much to Arthur’s relief, Merlin actually grumbles at that order—though he’s threading his long, gangly limbs into the underclothes even as he does so. And isn’t that a ridiculous sight: they fit Arthur like a second skin but sag loosely on Merlin, even though his knobbly wrists and ankles show below the hems. While they’re much of a height, clearly Merlin is rather more coltishly built than Arthur.

Arthur points to the bedroll. “Get in,” he orders.

Merlin crawls over and the knitted hose sag precariously low over his arse; he hitches them up and glares back at Arthur before wriggling down under the blankets. “I’m beginning to think we should have brought some knights along after all,” he mutters darkly.

Arthur can’t help but feel affronted. “What are you saying, Merlin? You miss the warmth of Gwaine’s beery farts on a cold night such as this?”

Merlin pulls a face. “Just that when they’re around, the ordering about tends to be shared more equally.”

Sharing,” Arthur scoffs, manoeuvring his own way into the bedroll, shivering involuntarily at the first chilly touch of the cold blankets. Merlin’s not that much warmer beside him, when their shoulders brush in the narrow space. “You know, Merlin, sometimes I wonder if you have any grasp at all of the hierarchy of noble blood in this kingdom.”

“Half of your knights aren’t even of noble blood,” Merlin points out, unimpressed. “Not even your favourite.”

“My what?” Arthur is far too dignified to squawk; his voice just comes out at a slightly higher pitch than usual.

“Lancelot,” Merlin says, in a tone that implies that Arthur is slow. “And, servant or knight, you boss around everyone when you’re in a mood.”

Arthur feels defensive, and it’s decidedly unpleasant. “Lancelot is your favourite, Merlin, and don’t think it’s escaped my notice,” he says, in a rush to come up with a suitable retort, then regrets it immediately. He scowls, more at the heat prickling in his own face than at Merlin.

Merlin huffs. “Well, I’ve noticed things too. He is very eager to please you, and don’t pretend you don’t love it. You don’t even have to give him orders half the time. You probably wouldn’t even need to tell him to undress and get into bed before he’d do it for you.”

There’s a long pause. Given Merlin’s tendency to be shocked by even the vaguest hints of suggestiveness from Arthur, Arthur is not sure if he realises what he’s just said. The silence coming from Merlin’s direction suggests he has.

Arthur decides that tried-and-true goading is the best way to lead them out of the impasse. “I fail to see where the fun is in that,” he drawls.

Merlin huffs a startled laugh. “I knew you liked ordering me about for the fun of it,” he says, as if he has any right to feel affronted by that at all. “Just never thought you’d admit it, being the oblivious prat that you are.”

“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur says haughtily, which he knows is one of the better ways to rile Merlin up. “And come here. I’m cold.”

“Good. I hope you freeze,” Merlin says with a certain degree of anticipatory glee, and squirms away in the bedroll until he’s not touching Arthur at all.

It’s as provocative as Merlin no doubt intends, but Arthur can’t help but respond with a degree of outrage anyway—now it’s Merlin’s turn to make an undignified noise of surprise as Arthur reaches for him, grabbing a fistful of knitted cloth and hauling him back in.

“I knew even the simplest kindness would be wasted on you, Merlin,” Arthur declares, trying to yank the woollen undershirt back up and off him. “I suppose, if your dignity won’t allow any consideration for your prince, then I’ll just have to take these back.”

Merlin yelps, bucking and kicking out. He grabs Arthur’s wrists and tries to force him away, but as far as strength goes there’s no competition; he only serves to slow Arthur’s attempts a little. Arthur’s only striving for it half-heartedly, anyway: wrestling Merlin has his body heating like it hasn’t in days; he’s not sure he wants it over so quickly.

“Get off me,” Merlin growls, breathless with the exertion of fighting back. But even though his hands are clamped tight around Arthur’s wrists and knees jabbing up against Arthur’s thighs, he’s arching his chest against Arthur’s like a puffed-up bird, as if he can fend Arthur off with the narrow frame of his ribs as a shield. “You’re nothing but a—”

“A what?” Arthur asks with false nonchalance. They fumble, and Arthur gets the upper hand; his clenched knuckles brush against Merlin’s side below the shirt. Merlin’s skin is startlingly warm; Arthur’s heart suddenly lurches into a faster pace. He ducks his head closer, intimidating with proximity. “Go on.”

Merlin’s chin juts belligerently. “A pompous lout. A common thug. A—” He cuts off with a gasp as Arthur releases a bit more strategic strength, and for a few panting moments they struggle.

When they stop again, Merlin’s still on his back. Arthur has moved his grip from clothes to the bare skin of Merlin’s side, and his knee is braced on the ground between Merlin’s legs. Merlin’s chest heaves up against Arthur’s, breath hot against Arthur’s face.

It’s not at all cold in the tent anymore, though the blankets have slipped halfway down Arthur’s back. And even if it was cold, he’s not sure he could bring himself to relinquish his hold on Merlin long enough to draw them back up.

“A what, Merlin?” he murmurs again, voice a low rumble that has Merlin’s lashes fluttering—which should look utterly ridiculous, but Arthur is taken by it. He feels compelled to slide his hand further up Merlin’s side, and then Merlin’s skin is so smooth and warm, so unexpectedly delightful to touch, that he has to stroke back down again. His grip settles at Merlin’s waist, fingers splayed towards the small of Merlin’s back and his thumb brushing lightly down to Merlin’s hip.

Merlin sucks in a sharp breath and Arthur feels his own catch in his throat. Desire pierces his gut like a crossbow bolt. He feels locked into place, every point of contact between him and Merlin suddenly blazing into flame. Blood pounds dizzyingly in his ears. The most disorienting part of it is that it isn’t a new sort of heat: it feels as if it’s been there all along, and he’s only just noticed it now.

It’s Merlin who breaks the tableau. There’s no trace of defiance on his face as he stares up at Arthur, and he doesn’t break Arthur’s gaze as he places his hand on Arthur’s elbow and runs it slowly up to his shoulder, as unmistakably a caress as Arthur’s hand on Merlin’s side. Merlin’s lips part like he’s going to speak, but his gaze has dropped down from Arthur’s eyes to his mouth.

Suddenly, that’s enough, that’s the key: the scant space left between them is unlocked and they’re kissing and kissing, Merlin pushing up just as hard as Arthur is bearing down, each licking and nipping as frantically as the other, their breath huffing and heaving. Heat surges through Arthur’s body, and he presses bodily down, crooking his knee up between Merlin’s thighs, running his hand ceaselessly between Merlin’s waist and his back. Merlin huffs a soft noise against Arthur’s upper lip and his arms wrap around Arthur’s neck to clasp him closer, hold him in place; Arthur groans and slides his hand down lower, pushing it under the woollen hose to the rounded flesh of Merlin’s arse. Merlin arches as if in surprise, and when Arthur tightens his grip and pulls Merlin forward with it, Merlin breaks his mouth away with a gasp.

“Arthur,” he breathes, and the way he says it sounds like it’s the start of something longer, but he never continues, only panting wordlessly against Arthur’s mouth. His eyes squeeze shut and Arthur yearns to kiss him again, to sink them both back into that mindless thrill of pushing and pulling and tasting, but he waits. It’s reassuring, at least, that Merlin’s arms are still locked around his neck, and they’re close enough still to preserve this delicate bubble of proximity; this isn’t over just yet. When Arthur starts to soothingly stroke Merlin’s flank, Merlin’s mouth closes as he swallows, and he presses his forehead to Arthur’s—as if trying to get closer and hold him at bay all at once. A moment later, Merlin’s fingers are unfurling in the soft hair at Arthur’s nape, then tightening and tugging, guiding him forward again.

The kiss lasts longer this time, the desperate heat of before mellowing. Arthur strokes Merlin steadily over the long planes of his back and sides, while Merlin rocks distractedly into the caresses. Arthur is distracted too. Merlin’s hands gently tugging his hair, rubbing his scalp and cupping his neck are blissfully good; it’s difficult to concentrate on anything but enjoying those touches and willing them not to stop.

The pleasure of it is drugging; their kisses become slower, less focused, until Arthur can’t hold himself up over Merlin anymore. Instead he tucks his face in against Merlin’s neck, pressing his lips to the prickly edge of Merlin’s jaw as Merlin continues to comb his fingers through Arthur’s hair and stroke in an endless circuit around his neck, shoulders and back. With their bodies still flush and legs slotted together, Arthur finds himself very warm and profoundly comfortable. Before he knows it, he’s fallen asleep.

*

Arthur’s woken by the cold. The tips of his fingers and toes and nose ache steadily. The first deep breath he takes turns brittle in his chest, the chill catching sharp edges against his throat and making him cough harshly. He sits up to get his breath, and once that’s done he’s able to take better stock of the situation: Merlin’s not in the tent.

Possibly, that’s for the best, because when Arthur remembers the night before he’s glad he’s alone. Surely that didn’t happen, couldn’t have happened. He shares barbs with Merlin, not kisses; and when they touch it’s either in impersonal service or brusque acknowledgement—not lingering, or warm, or tender.

He presses the heels of his palms to his closed eyes then drags his hands over his face. Something’s bumbling around blindly, low in his chest, and Arthur gets the uneasy feeling that it’s waiting to be in Merlin’s presence again before it’ll settle.

Glancing around the tent, Arthur sees that Merlin’s clothes are gone from where they’d been draped to dry, but Arthur’s woollen underclothes are bundled up in a pile on the unoccupied side of the bedroll. Arthur grits his teeth, then unclenches his jaw to bellow, “Merlin!”

There’s no response, which is not uncharacteristic of Merlin by any means, but that doesn’t stop paranoia from lurching into Arthur’s belly. He huffs in irritation, extracting himself from the blankets and replacing their warmth immediately by slinging his cloak around his shoulders. Scooping up the underclothes, he crawls to the opening of the tent, yanking his boots on and buckling his belt before clambering out.

The world outside is a brilliant green and white, and Arthur realises just how mistaken he was to think that cold was what he was feeling in the tent. He’s tugged his fur collar up and is fumbling to pull his gloves off his belt before he’s even stood up straight. He scans his surroundings with keen eyes, though he can see at a glance that Merlin’s not anywhere near their camp. During the night a fog has descended, thick as Merlin’s pottage and just as easy to see through: the world ends in solid white a few paces from where Arthur’s standing. “Merlin!”

The grass crunches underfoot as he walks forward, each blade rimed with ice; the heavy frost has turned the ground into a crisp carpet of silvery green. It makes it even easier to see the path Merlin took out of the campsite, and Arthur stands at the edge of it and scowls. “Merlin!”

“All right, no need to shout.” Arthur whips around to find Merlin walking out of the fog on the other side of the camp. “You’ll wake up him under the mountain.”

Merlin looks damp and bedraggled already, and on seeing Arthur’s frown his faintly friendly expression shutters into an innocuous politeness that Arthur recognises from stately occasions.

“Wake up who?” Arthur asks. It comes out as a demand; Merlin’s presence has unsettled more than calmed him, and even if he can’t name any of the other things making his gut churn, he knows he’s angry about that.

Merlin shrugs, walking past Arthur to duck into the tent. “Nothing,” he calls out with what sounds like schooled blankness. “Just a story my mum used to tell me.”

Arthur strides to the tent and throws the armful of underclothes in without looking.

“Oi,” Merlin gripes. “I hope you’re not expecting me to wash these—”

“No, Merlin, you idiot,” Arthur bites out. “I expect you to not freeze long enough to find this damn flower.”

“But what about you?”

Arthur rolls his eyes; even knowing that Merlin can’t see him, he can’t help it. “Unlike you, I have a fur and wool cloak. And a leather jerkin. And shirt and trousers which must be at least three times as thick as yours, given how quick yours seem to dry each night in freezing conditions.”

Merlin doesn’t answer, but after a moment Arthur hears the sound of him moving about and the whisper of cloth as he undresses. Arthur turns his back to the tent and pinches the bridge of his nose, squeezing his eyes shut before blinking them rapidly open again. “What’s your mother’s story, then?” he asks after another long moment of silence, striving to calm his tone enough to make it a peace offering.

It takes another stilted pause before Merlin responds. “It’s nothing,” he says again. “Just a fancy.”

Arthur grits his teeth, wondering not for the first time—or even the hundredth—why Merlin insists on making everything so difficult. “Tell me.”

Merlin emerges from the tent again, shooting Arthur a wary look before setting to work on untying all the fastenings holding it into shape. “She used to say there was a great sorcerer trapped under the mountains, frozen up in an eternal rage at those who imprisoned him. She used to warn me that if I shouted loud enough, it’d wake him up enough to free himself.”

Arthur huffs a laugh. “Well, I’m sure I wasn’t shouting loud enough for that,” he jokes. Then adds, as an afterthought, “It’s probably a good thing you didn’t tell me that before we left Camelot, or my father would be sending us on an entirely different sort of mission.”

Merlin doesn’t turn around, but Arthur sees his shoulders stiffen. The joke’s fallen flat, then. Perhaps things are worse than Arthur thought; irrevocably broken after last night, and now they have to spend at least the next week in close quarters until they find the damned flower and ride back to Camelot. They’d best make it ahead of the first snowfall on lower ground, or it’ll be far longer on the road.

“It wasn’t even this mountain range,” Merlin says after a moment, shaking the oilcloth out and glancing over his shoulder; Arthur comes forward to take hold of the other side and help him fold it. “I’m sure it’s just something she told me to quiet me down.”

“Perhaps she could give me some suggestions, then,” Arthur tries one last time.

Merlin glances up, shooting Arthur a faint smile. It’s the last that Arthur sees for the rest of the morning; they pack and saddle up in near-silence, and once they’re riding up higher into the mountains there’s no opportunity for conversation, anyway. The fog never lifts, pressing in uncomfortably on every side.

*

“Arthur!”

It’s only a few hours later when Merlin’s hail has Arthur reining his horse to a halt and turning around in the saddle. Merlin’s not even looking at him, though; his gaze is fixed to the side, down the steep, angular valley they’re riding alongside. The shrubby forest—twisted trees wreathed in mist—fills the groove of the valley and peters out as the slopes begin to rise, turning into a deep, luscious carpet of bracken, Closer to them, the slope is both steep and rocky, the fog thinned entirely. Arthur’s hunting sight is keen, and he picks up immediately on what Merlin’s called him to see: something’s moving through the trees carelessly, causing enough ruckus that the foliage shudders and whips back and forth at its passage.

As they watch, a buck bursts out of the sparse cover of the trees far below. It’s frantic, graceless with fear. It gets a few yards into the bracken when, out of nowhere, something five times its size drops on top of it. An instant later the buck’s terrified bellows echo up the mountainside, and the wyvern—for that’s what the predator is: slate-grey, scaled and spined, with tremendously sharp claws—tosses it in the air to resettle it in its maw. The gesture is almost playful, and the buck goes silent instantly, its body hanging at an unnatural angle.

The wyvern’s wings beat ponderously with the extra weight of the deer’s carcass. It rises slowly, banking to retreat over the limb of the mountain that makes the far side of the valley. With a shrieking cry like twisting metal, another wyvern swoops in, and then a third; the two snap at the first wyvern’s kill, bickering like gulls over a fish.

Finally they all drop out of sight in a tumble of wings and red flashes of raw flesh. Arthur lets out his held breath, slowly loosening his fist from the hilt of his sword. The wind has dropped for the first time all day, and the silence is almost eerie.

“I suppose they’re feeding up for the winter,” Merlin says from behind him. Arthur has seen Merlin’s reaction to gore enough times to hear the queasiness in his tone.

Arthur hums in agreement. “And the pickings at this time of year are probably rather slim. Especially somewhere this high. Clever of them to drive it into the open like that; it must be hard to make a kill amongst the trees if you’re hunting from the air.”

“I can’t believe you,” Merlin says, and Arthur doesn’t need to turn around to know the look on his face: downcast eyes and ridiculous pout, like he can lessen his peevishness with a considerable helping of clearly put-upon suffering. “They’re vicious predators who would eat us as soon as look at us, and yet you’re praising them?”

Arthur peers onwards down their path, estimating how long it’ll take them to get to the next summit, and just how much cover they’ll have once they get there. “What’s your point, Merlin? I won’t withhold credit where credit’s due.”

Merlin’s scoff is so sharp that it sounds like it might have done him an injury; finally Arthur glances over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow. Merlin looks like he’s working himself up to a tirade, now, jaw tight and mouth down-turned, his shoulders tight. “If you only— If I—” He can’t even start properly, and Arthur doesn’t even have to roll his eyes before Merlin’s slumping like all the fight’s gone out of him just as quickly as it came.

Arthur feels a pang at the sight of his dejection, but most likely that’s because he was hoping for some bickering: anything to get back to where they were yesterday.

Merlin rubs his hand over his eyes, then meets Arthur’s gaze again, his expression unsettlingly desperate. “They’re hunting,” he says. “And we’re riding directly into their territory, with no cover. They won’t even hesitate—”

“Are you saying the risk isn’t worth the lives of the people of Camelot?” Arthur asks him frankly.

Merlin grimaces. “No, it’s not that—it’s just we don’t—it isn’t—”

“Now is not the time for cowardice, Merlin,” Arthur tells him sternly. Merlin’s vacillation between bravery to the point of self-sacrifice and inexplicable cowardice baffles him. And, judging by Merlin’s wretched expression, he’s not the only one troubled by it.

As Arthur watches him keenly, Merlin drops his gaze. “Of course not, Sire.”

“Good.” Arthur turns to face forward again, urging his horse on. “Stay close to me, now.”

Their mood only becomes more grim as they ride on. The screeches of wyverns carry on the wind. The bare, exposed summit of the next mountain lies ahead of them.

Before they leave the shelter of the cusp of the valley, they stop to eat their midday meal. The fog has cleared as they’ve climbed higher, and while it’s still sharply cold, the sky is a clear, crisp blue and the visibility is—unfortunately—perfect.

“There’s no way they’re going to miss us riding across that,” Merlin comments glumly, squinting in the white sunlight as he stares at the path they’ve been following to the summit. They’re both sitting on their rolled-up bedrolls in the icy grass—this high up and the frost hasn’t melted, even with the sunlight—and their breath clouds in the air.

“Don’t worry,” Arthur says with the usual hint of condescension, clapping Merlin on the shoulder. The gesture is automatic, and Arthur isn’t sure if he’s glad that he didn’t have a chance to second-guess himself before delivering it. “You’re really very fortunate that I’m here to protect you, otherwise you wouldn’t have even made it this far.”

“I know.” Merlin frowns instead of responding with the eye-rolling scorn Arthur was hoping for. “Arthur,” he starts up again after a long moment of tearing his food up in his hands instead of eating it—and then follows it with another choked silence.

Arthur just raises his eyebrows drolly. After a few more beats, Merlin looks up to see the expression; it only serves to make him duck his head again, though he smiles faintly.

“Thank you. For— I mean: you’re right.”

“Of course I am,” Arthur says automatically.

Merlin sighs sharply: a quick, deep breath in-out. His meal is practically shredded, and he sets it aside to rub his hands briefly on his thighs.

“About last night,” Merlin starts. His tone is even and not at all hesitant, and he looks up to meet Arthur’s eyes as he speaks.

Arthur curses the bravery he was questioning only hours before. He holds Merlin’s gaze impassively for as long as he can. When he finds the urge to glance down at Merlin’s mouth too compelling, he cuts his gaze away to stare blindly out towards the summit instead.

“It was nothing,” Arthur tries to declare firmly. The next comes out with more conviction: “A moment of weakness.”

Merlin watches him, frank and calm. Arthur feels his own jaw twitch in defiance. Merlin’s lips tilt in small smile.

“I know that you’re lying,” Merlin says softly, self-assured and faintly taunting all at once. “A prat of your magnitude would never admit to weakness.”

Resentment wars with angry panic, and Arthur isn’t sure he can keep his feelings off his face. He stands up abruptly, brushing crumbs off his clothes and snatching up his bedroll, then turning to his horse again.

“I would appreciate it if you didn’t go to such lengths to prove you have no faith in me,” he calls out after a moment or two—once he’s overcome an anxiety that Merlin might come up behind him while his back’s turned. “By speaking to me as if it's your last opportunity to every time we’re about to ride into peril.”

“I wasn’t—!” Merlin exclaims, and cuts himself off. Arthur hears him take a deep breath, and then say, with considerably less confidence, “Arthur—”

Arthur steps into the stirrup and hoists himself into the saddle again. “Hurry up,” he says, not looking down at Merlin. “Or I’ll leave you behind as wyvern fodder.”

Merlin huffs out an indignant breath and fumbles with his uneaten food while Arthur’s horse shifts its weight impatiently. Arthur tucks his heels into its sides the instant Merlin reaches for the pommel of his saddle, leading them onward towards the summit.

It’s not a question of if so much as when the wyverns will attack. With their macabre crowing sounding on and off most of the day, Arthur assumes their hunts are noisy affairs that he’d hear approach—if not see, against the clear backdrop of the stark winter sky. And, even as exposed as they are, they’re certainly at an advantage to see where the beasts will be coming from: it’s as if the mountain has once sported an enormous, conical tip that has since been lopped off; what remains is a broad, shallow crater cupping a frozen lake. The path circles around it, steep, semi-grassy slope dropping away on the outside, and on the inside an almost-sheer drop of shale that funnels into the lake.

The path they’ve been climbing deposits them on the south-east side. Merlin’s precious flower is on the western slope; they need to ride single-file on the narrow, precarious path practically to the opposite side before they can begin to descend again.

On the top crust of the mountain, there’s no shelter whatsoever, and the wind beats against them in unpredictable gusts, catching at Arthur’s cloak and sending it billowing out behind him, threatening to yank him right out of his saddle with the violence of it. And it’s viciously cold, too, piercing his clothes and making him half-heartedly wish he hadn’t donated his woollens to Merlin. Worst of all, the buffeting of the wind roars against his ears, eradicating all other sound.

He still hears Merlin’s shout, though very faintly, and that’s the only warning he has before something crashes into him with a force a hundred times greater than the wind.

The impact stuns him instantly, his whole body ringing with alarm like a struck bell, but he has the instinct, at least, to fold into the blow and fall away from his attacker. Arthur topples for what feels like an eternity, then hits the shale shoulders-first with enough force to drive all air from his lungs; his head slams back a moment after, and with that comes an agonising flash of light that blanks out the blue sky and the circling wyverns overhead.

He must only have been senseless for a moment; when he rouses he’s just starting to slide down the slope towards the lake. Below him is a shifting skin of sharp-edged gravel, and when he cranes his head up—hissing at the sharp pain stabbing through the back of his skull—he’s got an instant to see the heaving side of his horse before it crashes down after him. And that eases the sharp agony of Arthur’s foot still caught in the stirrup, but moments later comes the weight and panic of a terrified beast pinning him down.

Within the shelter of the crater, all wind noise is abruptly absent. Arthur can hear the vicious hiss-scrape of the shale grinding and sliding beneath him, the terrified snorting of his horse, and the screams of the wyverns above. The slope is too steep and Arthur’s still too stunned to stop his downward momentum; at any rate, the horse’s desperate thrashing prevents him from extracting himself from beneath it; and they tumble-slide downwards until they scrape to a halt on the icy shore of the lake.

Arthur’s eyes have closed again. He forces them open. He can’t move, but something in his head is reeling, and he can’t orient himself when all he can see is the unvaried blue of the clear sky. Tipping his head to the side is agony, and brings with it the view of a long, smooth expanse of cloudy ice; he's slid out a little ways onto the lake, and the ice burns against his raw cheek. He blinks and squints for long moments, trying to get it to stop tilting erratically, trying to will himself to lift his head properly and look back up the slope. His tongue throbs, and abruptly he is aware that his mouth is full of copper-tanged liquid; he spits ineptly and a flash of red mars the ice—he must have bitten his tongue when he hit his head.

“Arthur!”

Merlin’s desperate shout rings clear above the wracked panting of the horse and the pounding of blood in Arthur’s ears. Arthur works his jaw, trying to find his voice; then it’s forced out of him in an involuntary cry as the weight of the horse is suddenly unbearably magnified. Arthur turns his head away from the lake, and instead of clear sky this time there’s the piercing red gaze of a wyvern, its maw gaping as it gazes hungrily down at him. The horse screams, the wyvern’s savage claws slicing into it like a knife through over-ripe fruit. Arthur grits his teeth and wills strength into his limbs: strength enough to escape the crushing weight, to find purchase on the ice, to somehow reach his sword and stab it into the gullet of the beast. But none is forthcoming.

He can hear shouting. Not cries of terror or pain, but the booming shout of command. The wyvern lifts its head from the feast of Arthur’s horse to look in the direction of the sound. Arthur has only a moment to think, Merlin, you idiot, before the wyvern rears its head back, spines fanning out as it gnashes fitfully at the air and recoils. Then it backs entirely out of Arthur’s sight, and the weight on him recedes; he heaves in great, scraping lungfuls of air. The stench of the horse’s blood and shredded viscera is overpowering. Arthur coughs, then groans wretchedly as the jolt of it wrenches countless hurts throughout his body. He lets his eyes close against the stabbing brightness of the sky.

He flinches at the sharp sibilance of the shale scattering as rapid footsteps approach, but he manages to open his eyes again as Merlin finally skids to a halt next to him. Merlin crouches down and runs his hands over Arthur’s chest, his throat, his head. Merlin’s hand rests against Arthur’s cheek. When he looks at Arthur’s mouth, his body lurches and his eyes close for a moment. When he opens them again, they’re heavy with tears.

“Please, Arthur,” he says hoarsely. “Please, please...”

Merlin’s histrionics are enough to annoy Arthur into putting a little more effort into remaining conscious, but when he tries to say, I just bit my tongue, you idiot—addressing what is clearly the most immediate cause of Merlin’s dismay—he chokes instead, and has to struggle to turn aside to spit again. The worst thing right now is Arthur’s head; he has to close his eyes against the dizziness caused by that simple movement, which has Merlin gasping, “No, no—” until Arthur finally manages to look back up at him and muster a pointed glare.

“Merlin,” he says, voice scraping; the blood’s gone to the back of his throat, and he grimaces as he swallows it down enough to speak a little clearer. “Either get this bloody thing off me, or get away while you still can. Just stop weeping, for god’s sake.” He’s not sure what he did to deserve such a useless manservant, honestly.

Useless as he is, at least Merlin can obey some orders. Arthur squeezes his eyes shut against the wave of guilty relief when Merlin moves to try to shift the horse instead of—very justifiably—fleeing to save his own skin. Though, naturally, he’s completely inept, lacking the strength to move the carcass at all, let alone lift it and help Arthur out from under it. Arthur can’t see what he’s doing; in fact, Arthur can barely keep his eyes open, let alone lift his head enough to watch.

Merlin’s hands and forearms are steaming with gore when he comes back into view, and his eyes are wild. “I can’t,” he pants out. “Arthur, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”

He doesn’t have a chance to finish before the heavy beat of huge wings sounds and a dark shape descends. Arthur sees the wyvern coming from directly above and gasps, “Merlin—!” in fruitless warning.

Merlin doesn’t scramble up and away like Arthur expects him to—he barely pauses. His fist grips tight in the soft leather of Arthur’s jerkin, and he whips his head around. His lips curl back from his teeth in a snarl, and he spits out thick, glottal words that Arthur doesn’t understand. His eyes flare gold.

The wyvern retreats, snapping angry, thwarted sounds at them. In a moment the sound settles to an unsettling, disgruntled trilling, and the liquid flame in Merlin’s eyes fades back to blue.

Whatever Merlin sees on Arthur’s face now leaves him more distressed than when he thought Arthur was dying. Arthur feels an incongruous rush of relief: Merlin’s survival instinct isn’t quite as stunted as Arthur thought it was.

Then again, Merlin’s been living in Camelot—under Uther’s nose, in Arthur’s household—for years, so perhaps not.

“I’m sorry,” Merlin says again, choked. He lets go of his hold on Arthur and struggles to his feet. “Arthur, I’m— I can—”

He backs off, out of Arthur’s sight. Genuine panic flares in Arthur’s chest, which makes things become clear. It seems the fear of Merlin leaving him is stronger than the fear of Merlin being a… being a sorcerer.

“Merlin, shut up,” Arthur barks out, and Merlin stops babbling. Arthur has had enough of being stuck under the stinking carcass of his mauled horse. He grunts with the effort of trying to struggle out from underneath it, while Merlin’s sobbing breaths sound constantly from somewhere out of sight, before slumping back down again in defeat. He catches his breath and swallows down another mouthful of blood, before commanding, “Merlin. Would you get this bloody thing off me.

Merlin’s breath hitches. Arthur has half given up on ever being free again when Merlin speaks: a single, incomprehensible word, and suddenly the weight on Arthur is lifting. Merlin’s still too far away to physically help, so Arthur concentrates on forcing his limbs to cooperate in the escape attempt. He manages to scramble backwards—even as a sharp pain stabs through his ankle—and momentum makes him slide a little way on the slick surface of the ice. The horse’s carcass slumps without Arthur under it, blood spilling out of it onto the ice.

Arthur manages to flop over onto his side and drag himself a little further away from the sluggishly spreading puddle of red. His head pounds, and he pants at the exertion. When he looks up, it’s to find Merlin has backed away even further.

Arthur needs to stand up, needs to face this on his feet, but he suspects his ankle won’t hold him. So he fumbles at his waist—eminently grateful for his thick leather gloves protecting his hands during the rockslide; his face doesn’t feel like it’s fared as well—finally locating and wrapping his hand around the hilt of his sword. Drawing it gives him strength in itself. He plants the point in the ice and hauls himself to his feet.

Merlin is staring wide-eyed at the weapon. As Arthur starts to shuffle forward, he turns and tries to run. Unfortunately, the ice underfoot means he takes a just few unproductive, out-of-control steps before slipping entirely and falling flat on his face.

“Merlin,” Arthur growls in exasperation, and lifts his sword to dig it in half a pace ahead, shifting his weight forward clumsily.

Merlin pushes himself up to his hands and knees and then to his feet again. He can’t seem to get his balance. His feet slip constantly on the ice, and his arms stir the air vigorously as he flails. He’d almost look like a very energetic drunkard, if not for his anguished expression.

Arthur takes another laboured step forward, and his own feet slip a little. He stops dead and holds as still as he can, his body tensing in dread of another fall.

“Would you just—stop,” Arthur shouts in frustration.

Merlin halts—at least, he stops trying to run, and instead turns, teetering; he wobbles enough to go down on one knee. But he’s facing Arthur, at least. And then he throws up his hand, palm out towards Arthur, and shouts out another word Arthur doesn’t understand.

He does understand enough to jerk his own arm up in an instinctual attempt to shield himself. It only results in his losing his balance and crashing, arse-first, to the ice. Pain slams through his body, and he doesn’t quite realise at first that Merlin’s magic hasn’t hit him. When he opens his eyes again, he finds he’s curled on his side, facing the lakeshore. A massive wall of fire is sweeping up the shale slope, at least four times as broad as the citadel gates and half again as tall. As Arthur watches, it dissipates into writhing ribbons of flame that shred finer and finer until they vanish entirely. The whole thing takes a matter of seconds. Through the residual distortion of heat, Arthur sees the wyverns beating frantically at the air, their wings crumbling into ash. They drop out of sight below the line of the summit path with agonised shrieks. All that remains of Arthur’s horse is a charred mound on the lake shore.

Heart hammering in his chest, Arthur swallows down the dizzying awe that’s risen thickly in his throat. “Merlin,” he gasps, levering himself back upwards slowly. He has to stop at sitting. His head hurts rather a lot. “Need I remind you that we are currently sat upon a frozen lake?”

Merlin laughs, startled; it sounds painful. “No, I had noticed.”

“Then kindly stop setting things on fire.” The horizon tilts again, and Arthur squeezes his eyes shut in an attempt to force it still again. “Of course you’re just as incompetent with magic as you are with everything else.” He feels blindly for his sword, seeking the comfort having it in his hand brings.

When Arthur opens his eyes again, Merlin hasn’t moved, but he’s weeping again, his soggy gaze fixed on Arthur’s sword. “Are you going to execute me?”

Arthur grimaces. “Only if you don’t—” he begins caustically, but cuts himself off at the roil in his stomach. The taste of blood is still at the back of his throat, and the smell of burnt flesh acrid in his nostrils. He shakes his head, then regrets it; nausea really does rise as pain throbs throughout his skull. “Just… help me, damn you.”

Merlin crawls towards him at last, then stops in a crouch just out of reach. He lifts his hand ineffectually, then drops it again. His eyes can’t seem to fix in any one place, roving over Arthur’s body. They finally settle on Arthur’s chest. “Are you… Are you hurt?”

“No, Merlin, I’m at the very pinnacle of health,” Arthur says, scathing. As well as being in pain, his arse is going numb. The heat of the skirmish is receding and leaving behind it a great, shuddering coldness. When Merlin flinches at his tone, Arthur recants. “I bit my tongue,” he says, less acidic. “And hit—” He reaches back to touch tentative fingers to where the pain is radiating from, at the back of his skull. Just the lightest contact has him hissing through his teeth. “—My head.”

“And you’ve hurt your ankle,” Merlin adds. He’d not been so panicked that he didn’t notice Arthur was favouring it, then.

“Caught it in the stirrup,” Arthur explains ruefully.

Merlin meets his eyes at last, and though he’s still not smiling, there is some easing in the tight anxiousness of his gaze. “Gaius made me bring herbs and suchlike, they’re in my…” He trails off as he goes to stand, looking to the still-faintly-smoking shore. “…Pack.”

“Surely the wyverns wouldn’t have eaten it,” Arthur says. He can see no sign of Merlin’s horse, either. Which means walking back down the mountainside with an injured ankle. Fantastic.

Merlin’s expression is distressed. “No, I suppose it’s… Well, I hope it’s scattered somewhere down the mountainside.”

“We’ll need to find our bedrolls if nothing else; herbs won’t do us any good if we’ve frozen to death.”

Merlin ducks his head, breathing heavily as he stares down at the ice. After a long moment he presses his lips together and looks up at Arthur, though not quite straight-on. “I can make sure we don’t. Sire.”

Arthur blinks. Abruptly, the massive wall of flame Merlin had conjured isn’t simply awe-inspiring; it’s merely the tip of a mountain of potential. “Just what can you do, Merlin?” he asks, making sure to make his tone neutral inquiry rather than the typical droll humour.

Merlin swallows hard and looks at him directly at last, his eyes bright with intensity. “Anything. Arthur, anything you want—”

Arthur holds up his hand. Merlin falls silent immediately— Arthur can’t stop snorting in amusement at the oddness of that on top of everything else.

“Right, well, can you assist me in getting off this damn lake?” Arthur huffs at last.

Merlin frowns, mouth twisting anxiously, and stares down at his hands. “I—I suppose I could, but do you really want—”

“Your shoulder will do, Merlin,” Arthur says, exasperated. “Honestly, anyone would think it’s you who’s hit his head.”

Merlin checks Arthur’s ankle before helping him to his feet. Fortunately, it seems twisted rather than broken, though in the time that Arthur’s been lingering out on the ice it’s stiffened, making it even more painful to walk on than before. Every part of him seems to hurt: his tongue swollen in his mouth, back tender and no doubt bruised, shoulder wrenched, and head—god, his head

Merlin hunches awkwardly to tuck his shoulder under Arthur’s arm, and they hobble painstakingly slowly across to the far side of the lake, since unfortunately the closer side is rather more thawed than it was when they’d last traversed it. Climbing the loose-shale slope up to the path again is the hardest part—even harder than all the tense moments where Merlin’s clumsiness had them slipping madly and nearly falling on their arses again—and Arthur is panting and his head spinning by the time Merlin deposits him on the ground at the top. Arthur winces again at that, the base of his spine bruised from falling on the ice earlier.

He’s passed the stoic point of being hurt and is well into the petulant phase; he’s quite had enough of the pain and disorientation, now. Still, a part of him is grateful for the preoccupation—if he were hale and healthy, he’d have to think about what just happened, and probably come to some kind of decision.

Besides, Merlin’s obedience is something that he gets to enjoy rarely, though he could do with a bit less of the desperation haunting Merlin’s face.

Arthur doesn’t realise he has lain back on the bare dirt of the path until Merlin tries gently to lift his head; the pain of that is sudden and sharp, and Arthur’s eyes fly open, his hand flailing up to fend Merlin off.

“Sorry,” Merlin says, his ridiculous face crumpling and his eyes filling with tears, again. “Sorry, I was just—”

“Merlin,” Arthur says sternly. “It’s all right.”

“Right, yes, of course it is,” Merlin agrees brusquely, dragging his forearm across his face and sniffing wetly. “Let me just tuck this under your head, Sire.”

He eases Arthur’s bundled-up cloak between Arthur’s head and the ground, and Arthur has to admit that it does feel much better.

“You really shouldn’t sleep, Sire. Arthur?”

Arthur forces his eyes open again with some difficulty, his lids sticky. “Shut up, Merlin,” he mumbles. It really is much better when he doesn’t try to move or speak at all.

*

Arthur is slow to wake, and that has something to do with the fact that he’s oddly comfortable. He feels a pang at leaving the comfort of his bed every morning, and on mornings like this, when he drifts out of sleep some time before he needs to rise, he likes to lounge a while in the warmth and softness, at least until he is awake enough to start to feel guilty.

This morning is different, though. It is not guilt, but anxiety, that he’s feeling, and he does not know why, which is most unwelcome when he’s so physically comfortable. His half-awake mind worries at the problem, rejecting one solution after another until his perplexity becomes too provocative to ignore, and he forces his eyes open.

He’s not in his bed, of course. He’s on a mountainside. Which ordinarily could never be mistaken for a well-appointed bed in fire-warmed chambers. However, somehow he is not freezing. And he’s not wet, either, which is doubly surprising considering that he has just opened his eyes to find himself squinting up into low snow-grey clouds that are currently letting drift a fine mist of rain.

From the tone of the light, Arthur deduces that it’s just past dawn. Casting his mind back, he remembers painfully crossing the lake, and then being told—told!—to stay put as Merlin went in search of their gear. And he remembers… everything that came before that. But he can’t remember how he got from lying on the path to lying on a grassy slope, bundled in his bedroll.

Perhaps Merlin magicked him here.

Arthur turns his head without lifting it, but it still sends a stab of pain through his skull, and he draws a sharp breath in through his nose. Merlin doesn’t stir, though, remaining motionless where he lies next to Arthur, wrapped in his own bedroll. Arthur is lying on his back, but Merlin is on his belly, blankets pulled up to his ears. A healthy flush crowns his cheeks, and his eyes move rapidly beneath their lids as he sleeps deeply.

He looks far more relaxed and warm than he has in the past few nights when Arthur’s been chivalrously sharing his body heat, and Arthur can’t help but feel petulant about that. Below the childish sullenness, though, there’s a tangled mess of feelings. Even leaving aside the pain in his head, Arthur doesn’t want to move lest he jostles all of them free. The prospect of teasing them out is almost as unappealing, but with Merlin vulnerable in sleep beside him, Arthur suspects he’ll have no better opportunity.

When Arthur was a boy, he fantasised about uncovering some nefarious plot to overthrow the kingdom from within the court. The young Prince Arthur, possessed of exceptional bravery and perceptiveness when it came to the evils of sorcery, would instantly recognise a conspirator in their midst where others would be blinded by the manipulations of magic. Arthur spent hours imagining how he would unmask the traitor, probably at a crucial moment, perhaps when his father—or Gaius, or his nurse—was in desperate need, helpless in the clutches of the evil witch or warlock. Arthur would engage in some gallant swordplay, or at least deliver a punch or two, and then the sorcerer would be subdued.

Arthur never really thought about what would happen to the sorcerer after that. Uther might shout, Guards! in that commanding, yet dismissive, way of his, calling on his men to drag the traitor away, but the majority of his attention would be on Arthur—making sure Arthur was all right, expressing amazement at Arthur’s unforeseen skills in uncovering and defeating sorcery, and being generally grateful and proud and praiseful.

Like all children—as Arthur came to understand much later—he’d been naive and fanciful. The elaborate fantasies ended the day he was required to stand beside his father to witness his first execution. The idealistic seed of his imaginings had taken root, though—and it had taken him years to realise that he was driven to re-enact his early fantasies not because he wanted to eradicate sorcery, but because eradicating sorcery was a direct path to Uther’s most impassioned regard.

If only, if only the issue of magic were as black and white as Uther claimed. Being of exceptional bravery and perceptiveness on the subject of magic as an adult has merely served to complicate things; Arthur has grown less and less convinced that magic is evil, or that executing all those possessing it—man, woman or child—is right. Yet he cannot help but strive for Uther’s validation still, and knows nothing impresses him more than the vigorous pursuit of sorcerers.

Of course, it’s been months since Uther’s engaged in a coherent conversation with him, let alone dealt out any praise.

It strikes Arthur as an enormous and obvious gap in his childish imaginings that he never thought to cast someone he knew in the role of the traitor. It was always an unfamiliar face, not a servant, nor a knight, nor a councillor. How ridiculous of him to believe that no one whose name he knew could be capable of sorcery.

Merlin has a history of making Arthur realise he’s been nearsighted or foolish in some way, and Arthur seizes on the familiarity of it now. Merlin has always complicated things for Arthur, from the beginning, but it’s been some time since Arthur’s bluster over it has held any kind of genuine resentment. Too much of his world resembled the black-and-white morality of his childhood fantasies before Merlin came along.

A voice that sounds like his father’s suggests insidiously that perhaps Merlin's influence is not as guileless as it seems, but it’s easy enough to push away. Merlin sports fierce conviction in his ideals, but he’s also utterly transparent about it. The memory of Merlin asking are you going to execute me? without a hint of rancour cuts even deeper on recollection. It’s enough to convince Arthur that he knows Merlin well enough—genuinely enough—to be sure that the magic Merlin possesses does not constitute a blanket condemnation of his trustworthiness.

Merlin also has a tendency to get emotionally invested in things and wind up devastated when they go wrong, so when Arthur’s contemplation is interrupted by the slow, drifting descent of snowflakes—that somehow never seem to reach them—Arthur puts his thoughts aside to focus on the immediacy of their—Merlin's really—mission. “Merlin.”

Arthur’s tongue is still swollen, though thankfully not painful anymore. When he pushes it around his mouth to try to work up more moisture, it stirs up the rusty taste of stale blood. He grimaces as he swallows, and says louder, “Merlin.”

Merlin stirs at last, heaving in a deep breath as his brow furrows irritably. His breath huffs out again as he turns his face down into his bundled-up-jacket pillow.

Arthur manages to free an arm from his own thoroughly-tucked-in blankets and flop it out to land on Merlin’s back. “Merlin,” he says sharply.

Arthur isn’t sure if it’s the touch or the particular tone he employed, but Merlin wakes abruptly at that, jerking his head up and staring wide-eyed at Arthur. “You’re awake,” he says.

“Yes, thank you, Merlin, I had noticed.”

Merlin rolls over and sits up, which puts Arthur at a distinct disadvantage. Merlin wrings his hands and watches unhappily as Arthur battles to prop himself up on his elbows.

“I couldn’t wake you,” Merlin says. “Before. How’s your head?”

Arthur doesn’t think he can stand another round of Merlin mothering him, and besides, that’s not why he roused Merlin in the first place. “It’s snowing.”

Merlin looks around them, then frowns. “Are you cold?”

Arthur huffs out an impatient breath. “The flower, Merlin. That needs to be culled at the first snowfall?” Arthur wonders just what constitutes the first—does it need to be within the first few flakes hitting the ground? Or does the window extend to the first time the fall properly ceases?

Merlin blinks as if he doesn’t quite know what Arthur’s talking about, and then a moment later he seems to understand—scrunching his face up and rubbing his fingers against his forehead as he stares at the ground between them. Though troubled, he doesn’t seem to have any sense of urgency at all. “Right,” he says, not looking up. “The flower.”

“Don’t tell me it’s snowed already and we’ve missed it. You dragged me all the way up here, put my life in mortal peril—mortal peril, Merlin, for a flower—and you were too busy sleeping to go and pick it?”

Merlin lifts an eyebrow, and Arthur’s never been more relieved to see it. “What happened to the lives of the people of Camelot being worth the risk?”

“Merlin,” Arthur warns. “The flower.”

“Yes, well, about that.” Merlin stops, glancing at Arthur nervously, his shoulders twitching with a hint of a cringe.

Arthur just glares at him expectantly.

Merlin takes a deep breath and speaks on the exhale. “There sort of… isn’t a flower. Well, there is a flower. There just isn’t a quest. I mean! The people of Camelot are at risk of the epidemic. But the flower is simply a non-essential ingredient in the medicine to treat it.”

“A non-essential ingredient,” Arthur repeats.

Merlin nods, his hopeful smile more of a grimace. “I mean, it’s very good at easing the muscle aches that come with the whole… fever part of the lungs-filling-with-liquid thing.”

“So why exactly are we questing for it?” Arthur asks.

Merlin’s fingers ferret below the oilcloth of his bedroll to rip fitfully at the grass below. He tugs up a handful of it, and begins to shred the blades with his fingernails. “We thought you could do with some time outside of the palace,” he mumbles.

What?” Arthur asks dangerously.

Merlin glances up, and seems alarmed at Arthur’s expression. “Well, I thought you could do with some time away; Gaius didn’t want to take part in it but I managed to convince him—I think I was probably driving him just as mad as you’ve been driving me, and anyway he didn’t have much of a choice because I’d made up my mind to go anyway but then you walked in at just the right time—”

“Merlin,” Arthur says. “Shut up.” His wrenched shoulder aches, and he feels terribly out of sorts with Merlin sitting up taller than him, so he struggles to sit upright properly, grunting and smacking Merlin’s hands away when he tries to help. Once upright, he fights against the swaddle of his blankets to shove them off and away. It’s still warm, very warm, and the unnaturalness of it is abruptly unbearably irritating. He rubs his hand over his face, then winces to discover that most of his right cheek is torn up in a graze. Not only does he still feel terrible, but he’s gone and left Camelot and his father alone for no reason at all. “Is there any other great deception you’ve been harbouring that you’d like to share with me?” he bites out.

“I wanted to tell you,” Merlin says unsteadily, his voice picking up a heartfelt strength as he goes on. “I’ve been waiting for so long to tell you, I just didn’t know… I was…” He closes his mouth, swallows, then looks up and into Arthur’s eyes, imploring. “How could I have?”

Arthur doesn’t have an answer for that, not really—not with the number of times he’s rejected Merlin’s attempts to draw more intimacy into their friendship. His own words—a moment of weakness—sting him when he remembers them now, as much as they must have stung Merlin at the time. And he thinks of the number of times he’s refused to acknowledge that they are in fact friends, rather than master and servant, although their actions tell the tale clearly.

At Arthur’s continued silence, Merlin looks down and says again, more intently, “I wanted to tell you. I never wanted it to happen this way.”

Arthur snorts. “What, saving my life?”

Merlin seems to take heart at the amusement in Arthur’s tone; his mouth curls in a wry smile as he meets Arthur’s eye. “This isn’t exactly the first time.”

Arthur’s eyebrows shoot up, and this time Merlin meets his gaze evenly. It’s Arthur who looks away at last. He sees that the dusting of snow is growing into an unbroken, white blanket across the mountainside. “So the people of Camelot aren’t going to die without the forex flower,” he says at length.

Merlin shakes his head sheepishly.

“We ought to get down the mountain while we still can,” Arthur says decisively.

“But you’re hurt—”

“Merlin, we may not have any wyverns anymore, but we also have no food, and no horses. And I don’t particularly fancy staying up here in your—” Arthur waves his hands at the magical barrier that’s somewhere between them and the snow cloud. “—Invisible tent. In fact…” He manages to get his legs folded under him, and from kneeling he’s able to lurch awkwardly to his feet. “I am just about ready to be sleeping in a bed again. So, if you don’t mind…”

“Well it’s not as if I have a choice, do I,” Merlin says morosely, clambering out of his bedroll. He’s wearing Arthur’s knitted underclothes, and when he stands, he has to use both hands to hold them up at the waist. For some reason, the sight cheers Arthur immensely.

He claps Merlin on the shoulder heartily. “Of course you don’t.”

*

It takes them twice as long to get out of the mountains as it took to climb them—and by that time, Arthur is limping along unaided rather than hobbling with Merlin’s shoulder as a crutch. The graze on his cheek dries into itchy, pebbled scabs, and the tenderness of the back of his head abates, though he’s still struck by sharp headaches at inopportune moments.

The first couple of nights Arthur’s too exhausted to care about anything other than finding somewhere to curl up and sleep; he doesn’t comment as Merlin warms them with a muttered spell, his eyes cast aside. Once they get low enough that the snow stops and they’re left again with a fine mist of rain, Arthur makes Merlin light a fire each night instead. Granted, the fire is still burning by the time Arthur wakes the next morning—despite the complete lack of fuel—but given that their tent was torn beyond repair, he finds himself less bothered by it than he ought to be.

The gradual easing of Merlin’s tension every time he uses magic shouldn’t be heartening for Arthur, but it is; having Merlin watching him like Arthur’s about to turn on him at any moment is miserably wearing, and as Merlin stops cringing every time he performs magic, the tightness in Arthur’s chest loosens—and his curiosity grows.

“It’s just the unnaturalness of it,” Arthur finds himself saying one morning, as they’re picking their way slowly down the sheep path—which is more of a little stream at this time of year, rainwater bounding eagerly down the mountainside past them. “It’s unnerving to see things… controlled like that.”

“Right,” Merlin says blandly. “Unnatural.”

Arthur purses his lips, frowning at the back of Merlin’s head. “You disagree.”

Merlin makes a scoffing noise. Arthur wishes he would turn around. Just then, his foot lands on an unstable rock. He sucks in a sharp breath as his ankle tilts and Merlin turns in momentary alarm, but subsides when he sees Arthur carry on. Arthur tries to catch him before he turns away again: “Well?”

Merlin frowns. “Why is it unnatural?” he blurts. “I was born with magic. Nothing feels more natural to me than calling on the earth or the air—or, or fire. And it’s always eager to obey.”

Arthur muses on this for a long moment, unsettled but unable to pinpoint why. It’s not that what Merlin’s saying sounds so unreasonable. If anything, Arthur can relate to Merlin’s words: he’s always felt a preternatural sort of connection to his kingdom, from the people to the soil they work, whether it’s the result of a lifetime of being groomed to rule, or a more transcendent connection.

But this is Merlin, ingenuous and blundering Merlin. Merlin, with his odd moments of wisdom. The idea of Merlin with this well of untapped power is difficult to encompass. Arthur feels foolish.

“You sound like a druid,” he says at length, tone skirting the edge of scornful.

Merlin ducks his head, keeping his eyes on the ground. They reach a section of the path where the stream has uncovered a tumble of slippery rocks, and Merlin slows down to pace Arthur within arm’s reach, in case he loses his balance.

When the path evens out again, Merlin doesn’t move away. After a little while he says, “You only think it’s unnatural because that’s all you were taught.”

Arthur doesn’t answer, sensing Merlin’s not finished yet—and he’s right; it takes Merlin just as long to work up to his next statement. “You don’t need to believe everything your father tells you, you know. You should trust in your own judgement.”

“I know that, Merlin,” Arthur returns. “But—thank you,” he says a moment later, tone softening. “I do appreciate the occasional reminder.” He leans in to close the small distance between them, knocking their shoulders together.

They walk a few more paces in silence, and when Arthur looks up, Merlin’s still staring straight ahead, but he’s grinning. Arthur shakes his head. It’s a marvel Merlin managed to keep his magic secret so long, he’s so transparent.

*

Their good mood is fragile, and it sobers as they reach the foot of the mountains again. They’d forgone the villages and towns on their journey from Camelot in favour of the pleasant solitude of camping out, but now they’ve no horses and practically no food, and Arthur’s aches and pains have tightened from days of sleeping on the ground. He doesn’t care about the delay, he’s determined to sleep at least one night in a proper bed—not to mention soak in an actual bath.

Merlin’s response is to mock him for his supposed low tolerance of the outdoors. Which is patently ridiculous, so rather than bothering to argue, Arthur plays along and sends him ahead to secure lodgings at the next town.

When Arthur finally hobbles into the arms of civilisation an hour or so later, it turns out that the town is barely even a village. The single road bends awkwardly around the trailing foot of a mountain, and the bare earth is sloppy with mud and shards of ice from frozen puddles. The handful of houses beside the road are drab grey, made of stone gathered from the hillside, and their thatch roofs drip drearily over their crude doorways, like sodden fringes of hair. Stone stock fences march up the slopes behind the village. There is sheep shit and hoof-chopped mud underfoot everywhere.

The village doesn't even look large enough to have an inn. The few villagers that are about stare openly at him as he goes slowly past, and Arthur tells himself that if he knew the name of the place, he’d feel no qualms at all about ordering them to return to their own damn business.

Merlin is nowhere to be found, of course. Arthur’s almost resolved to limp his way right through the village and out the other side, when he hears his name called.

Merlin jogs towards him from a doorway not two houses behind, and Arthur waits where he is, keeping his weight off his ankle. Merlin’s first act upon reaching him is to attempt to steady him with over-solicitous hands, but Arthur smacks them away irritably.

“Please tell me you’ve found somewhere for us to sleep in this miserable place,” Arthur says, tone coming out more desperate than he intended.

Merlin makes a disapproving face. “I have, as a matter of fact. And I happen to think it’s quite charming. Which you should probably try to at least pretend to think as well, otherwise you might find we don’t have somewhere after all.”

“I’m the prince, Merlin,” Arthur reminds him with no little amount of disdain. “I could command these people to give up their beds if I so chose.”

Merlin grimaces. “Trust me, you don’t want to,” he says under his breath. “Just… follow my lead, all right?”

Arthur bristles at that, and is opening his mouth to tell Merlin just who will be following whom, but Merlin’s already turning and walking away, his boots making vulgar squelching noises in the mud. Under the watchful eye of a few gormless villagers, Arthur follows with as much haste as he can while still preserving what remains of his dignity.

The house Merlin leads him into is somewhat larger than those around it, but Arthur still wouldn’t mistake it for an inn from the outside. In fact, he’d not even mistake it for an inn from the inside, were it not for the bar that runs along the back wall. It takes a moment for his eyes to adjust to the gloom, and then a moment longer to mentally adjust to the room itself.

Given the size of the village, it’s unsurprising that there are only two tables, but he’s certain the space would be far less cramped were it not for the… decorations on the wall. Arthur is not unfamiliar with the practice of adorning the walls of a hunter’s feasting hall with the mounted heads of his kills, but this is something else.

Hundreds of eyes stare glassily out from the walls, deer beside wolves, wolves beside bears, bears beside badgers, hedgehogs, moles—even mice. Amidst them grows a merry vine of knitted leaves in a lurid, heather-dyed yellow, strung around antlers and necks and hung here and there with other small crafted curios. An enormous fire crackles in the hearth, casting moving shadows amidst the creatures that suggest independent movement when caught out of the corner of Arthur's eye.

He snaps out of his horrified fixation on the decor when a woman bustles out from behind the bar towards them, wiping her hands hurriedly on an apron the same garish yellow as the knitted decorations. “Oh My Lord, My Lord!” she says fervently, bounding towards Arthur like a hound on the scent. “It’s an honour, truly an honour. It’s so rare that nobility passes through our little village!”

She seizes Arthur’s hands and for a moment Arthur is convinced she’s about to kiss them. At the last minute, she presses his knuckles to her forehead instead, crouching down in an awkward curtsey. Her skin is damp with sweat and grease, and her grey-and-brown hair is escaping the cover of her bonnet in frantic curls. Right in the centre of the bonnet is the crudely-embroidered face of a badger; Arthur only sees it when she lowers her head.

Arthur blinks, then looks up to meet Merlin’s gaze over her bowed back. Merlin smirks.

“Yes, well,” Arthur says, clearing his throat. He dreads to think of the welcome he’d get if the woman knew who she was really speaking to. “We are simply passing through; I hope my servant has impressed upon you our need for lodgings?”

“Oh yes, My Lord, yes,” she reassures him with far too much enthusiasm. “I’d be so honoured to give you our best room, My Lord—our only room it is, and I have it waiting and prepared for occasions such as this. Oh, it’s such an honour to have a lord visit our humble village, and my most humblest of inns.”

She pauses expectantly, and the dead stares of the mounted beasts seem expectant too. Arthur grimaces. Merlin rushes to fill the silence. “I believe My Lord is struck dumb in gratitude at receiving such a welcome,” he says drily.

“Oh, of course, of course,” she agrees eagerly, still staring at Arthur. Not for the first time on their quest, Arthur fears he’s about to be devoured.

He smiles politely and tears his hands out of her grasp. “The room?”

She leads them up the rickety staircase at the back of the bar, and demonstrates just how little first-hand experience she has with actual nobles—and their servants—by insisting she carry their packs despite Merlin’s protests. As if her acceptance of Merlin’s word that she's hosting a lord even in the face of Arthur’s frankly pitiful appearance weren’t enough. Arthur supposes he probably does have a distinct air of nobility about him despite his filthy clothes and disheveled appearance; it’s very difficult to go incognito when one is a prince.

The warmth in the air increases as they go up, as if the heat from the roaring fire has risen to fill all the empty spaces in the inn from the top down. The heat and the complaints of his still-healing ankle see Arthur sweating by the time they reach the top of the stairs.

There’s a single door. The innkeeper pauses to shoot a last glance of unhinged delight in Arthur’s direction, before plunging a hand into the crevasse of her bosom and retrieving a heavy iron key. She fits it to the lock and turns it smoothly; the door creaks open and she steps back to let them in.

It’s a small room, with a bed (considerably smaller than Arthur’s) occupying most of it. The space is curtailed further by the steep slant of an attic roof; the ceiling on the far side of the room is barely the height of a kneeling man.

The size of the room is only part of the problem, though. When the woman follows them in with the packs, there’s barely enough room to turn around—because all four walls are bristling with mounted deer heads. At least they chose only one animal and stuck to it up here, Arthur tries to tell himself. But it’s difficult to put a good face on things while being stared at glassily by dozens of decapitated stags, their antlers reaching towards him like ghoulish, imploring fingers.

Merlin looks much as Arthur feels, eyes wide as he takes in the veritable forest of antlers.

The innkeeper shuffles about the room, setting down their packs and turning down the bed—which bears a bobbly, knitted yellow blanket—and dusting off the basin by whipping at it with the skirt of her apron. Arthur attempts to take some weight off his bad ankle by bracing his hand on the low bedpost, only to jerk away because it feels sharp and odd: it’s carved into a deer’s head.

“Now,” the innkeeper says finally, making her way back to the door with visible reluctance. “There’s venison stew on the hob when My Lord will take supper, and a spot by the fire for your servant to bed down for the night.”

“Ah, there won’t be any need for that,” Arthur says, too quickly, and Merlin’s expression halts cautiously in the middle of a slide into disappointment.

“My Lord?” the innkeeper queries, her gaze darting to Merlin for the first time since Arthur walked in the door of the inn.

“I prefer to keep him at hand,” Arthur says, tilting his chin up. “Should I have need of him in the night.” He looks over to Merlin as he finishes, and lets his eyebrows twitch up almost imperceptibly.

Merlin’s nostrils flare. The glare he delivers is ruined by the flush blossoming over his cheeks. Just a week ago, Arthur might have thought he was scandalised, but now the intensity of the look and the involuntary physical response raise a different suspicion, which Arthur feels with a clenching in his gut.

“Of course, My Lord, of course,” the innkeeper says. “If there are any other requests you wish to make of me, you need only—”

“Bath,” Merlin blurts. “Er, that is—My Lord would like to take a bath after his arduous journey.”

The innkeeper’s fawning turns to outright simpering: she seems to be in a sudden panic. “If the basin won’t do for My Lord, then I suppose I might… Well, I shall find a worthy receptacle for My Lord’s bathwater.”

She backs out the door hurriedly, and it swings closed behind her, ponderous with the weight of more deer heads mounted on the back of it.

They’re alone in the room, surrounded by the cold, accusing eyes of the hunted.

“If they don’t have a bath, you’re carrying me back up the mountain on your own back and heating up that bloody lake so I can have a proper soak,” Arthur warns Merlin seriously.

Merlin’s mouth twitches. “Oh of course, My Lord, of course,” he says with equal sincerity.

*

The bath is a half-barrel, and Arthur crouches awkwardly in it, determined to at least try to have a soak. Merlin potters around the room, as much as he can in the scant space between the antlers and the furniture. Arthur cups handfuls of water to run over his folded legs, his chest and the back of his neck. But when he lifts an arm to scrub beneath, his wrenched shoulder seizes painfully.

“Merlin,” Arthur calls shortly, the hurt making him irritable. “Come here, would you?”

“Er,” Merlin says after a moment.

“It’s not a complicated request, Merlin,” Arthur says, exasperated.

“I know, it’s just—I appear to be stuck.”

Arthur cranes his head to look over his shoulder—grunting from pain at that, too—to see Merlin standing awkwardly between the bed and the wall, with one shoulder hunched higher than the other and an aggrieved expression on his face.

“What do you mean, you’re stuck?

Merlin attempts to reach out but he can’t lift his arms more than halfway before his jacket sleeves pull tight and stop him. He flails for a moment longer before Arthur realises his predicament: he’s caught on the antlers.

“For god’s sake, Merlin,” Arthur scolds. “They’re not even alive and you’re defeated by them. Could you honestly be any more incompetent?”

Merlin scowls, and mutters a phrase in a petulant tone which abruptly breaks him loose, whereupon he falls face-first onto the bed with the momentum of his straining.

That brief flare of gold in Merlin’s eyes makes Arthur’s heart lurch into a nervous clip. He feels very aware of his nudity, and the cold prickle of air over his wet skin. He carefully scoops up two more handfuls of water to cascade down over his bent knees, concentrating on keeping his thoughts off his face. Then he sneaks a glance at the bed.

Merlin hasn’t moved from his slump. Most of his face is pressed into the blankets, but one of his eyes glints in the low light as he peeps surreptitiously back at Arthur. He doesn’t look away or even pretend he wasn’t watching when Arthur meets his gaze. Without seeing the rest of his expression, it’s impossible to tell if the stare is challenging or wary.

Arthur looks away first. “Get over here and scrub my back,” he commands gruffly, not looking up to watch Merlin’s progress as he obeys.

Merlin’s never washed him before. He has helped him in or out of the tub, dressed him, tended his injuries with a physician’s touch, but never this.

“You’re getting above yourself,” Merlin grumbles softly as he dunks the washcloth in the water and drags it over Arthur’s back. Arthur almost jolts at the shock of the first touch, though he’d been washing himself with the same method moments before. “You’ll be expecting me to chew your breakfast for you, next.”

Arthur pulls a disgusted face. “Firstly, that’s revolting. Secondly, you’d probably chew just as ineptly as you do everything else, and thirdly—oh, ah, there—”

Merlin’s digging his thumb into Arthur’s sore shoulder, seeking knots in the bundle of tight muscles and smoothing them out. Arthur’s head lolls forward as the sheer pleasure of it saps him of strength; he slumps over his bent-up knees.

“Inept, am I?” Merlin murmurs, his breath hot against Arthur’s ear and cool against the wet skin of his neck. His hands still, resting on Arthur’s shoulders.

Arthur nudges an elbow back against Merlin’s belly. “I didn’t say stop,” he mumbles, and Merlin laughs.

“Perhaps we could just seal you up in a barrel and roll you the rest of the way home,” Merlin suggests warmly after a long stretch of silence, his hands still kneading steadily.

Arthur is suffering from an acute case of blissful relaxation, so he’s not really thinking when he says, “Perhaps you could just magic us there.”

Merlin’s hands pause in their movement, with his fingertips barely touching Arthur’s skin. “Is that an order, Sire?” he asks, tone careful.

Arthur grunts and twitches his shoulders in encouragement for Merlin to continue. When he does, Arthur huffs out, “Don’t be an idiot, it’s far too dangerous.” Merlin’s thumbs pressing into the tender angle of his neck take all his attention for a moment, and he almost forgets to add, “Not yet, anyway.”

Merlin’s hand runs up high enough to push into Arthur’s hair, and he tugs it lightly before stroking it back down to Arthur’s sore shoulder again. Arthur doesn’t comment on it, just presses his hot face into his knees.

*

The venison stew is rich and flavourful, and by the time they return upstairs to sleep, Arthur’s feeling far less irritable. His belly is full of meat and wine, his face and hands are clean, and the aches in his muscles are finally starting to melt away.

Merlin helps him undress, and hovers nearby as Arthur clambers with some effort into the bed. Arthur assumes Merlin is standing there battling to suppress his urge to help, but he keeps standing there with the same nervous look on his face even after Arthur’s settled.

“Well don’t just stand there gaping like a fish, Merlin,” Arthur says. “Get in.”

Merlin disrobes slowly. He has had a dip in Arthur’s bathwater and got dressed again, so at least he’s clean, even if his clothes are filthy. He’s still got Arthur’s knitted underclothes on—he keeps them hoisted with one hand at his hip while he hangs their damp clothes out on the bristling wall of antlers.

“Those could practically walk home on their own, by now,” Arthur says, giving the hose a pointed look when Merlin glances over at him.

Merlin doesn’t respond, just finishes hanging the clothes and finally comes over. He hesitates, surveying the bed like it’s enemy territory, before scrambling up and over Arthur’s calculated sprawl and onto the opposite side. Then he worms his way under the covers, head by Arthur’s feet, feet on the pillow next to Arthur’s. The ceiling is only a couple of handspans from his forehead, but he settles down like nothing at all is amiss.

“Throw me the pillow, would you?” he asks after a moment.

Arthur throws it. Violently. Then lies back against his own, suppressing a huff of frustration.

Merlin arranges his pillow and stills, but from the tension in his body, and his silence, Arthur can tell he’s not asleep. When Merlin is asleep, he fusses and snuffles and twitches, like Arthur’s hunting dogs when he would curl up with them in the winter as a boy.

Arthur bends his knee up a little to rub his foot against Merlin’s belly.

At the touch of Arthur’s toes Merlin startles, jerking upright, or trying to: his head hits the low boards of the ceiling with a sharp thud. It happens in a whip-crack instant, and then he groans, falling back down onto the bed and clutching his head.

“Dear god, Merlin, what are you doing?” Arthur asks, alarmed.

Merlin moans again, hands moving from the top of his head down to cover his face. “I— What are you doing?” he returns, muffled. “Ow. Ow, ow, ow.”

“You truly are the biggest idiot in all of Camelot,” Arthur informs him.

“At least that’s something I’m the best at,” Merlin says after a moment, half-sullen, half-woeful.

Arthur rolls his eyes. “Stop moaning and get up here.”

Merlin doesn’t mess about this time, just rolls over and slinks up to Arthur’s end of the bed, head hanging low as he crawls. He flops down next to Arthur at last, curled up half on his belly, face pressed to the linens and hands covering the crown of his head.

Arthur sighs in exasperation, and shuffles over onto his side so he can reach better. He tugs Merlin’s protective grasp away and gently runs his hand through Merlin’s hair. There’s a faint lump rising already, but Arthur doesn’t linger on it, instead soothing all around it with his touch.

“There,” he says softly after a moment. But he doesn’t stop touching, carrying on gently stroking Merlin’s head.

The tension in Merlin’s body eases, and his breathing steadies and becomes more natural, but he’s still not asleep. After a little longer, he moves a tiny amount to tilt his head to face Arthur better. Now instead of staring at the excessively large curve of Merlin’s ear, Arthur is staring right into Merlin’s eyes.

Arthur still doesn’t stop, though. Even though there’s a different kind of tension prickling up his limbs and coalescing in his belly.

He soothes his hand down the cord of Merlin’s neck to his shoulder, as Merlin did to him in the bath. He rubs Merlin’s ear gently between thumb and forefinger. Merlin’s breath hitches and he closes his eyes.

“Perhaps you should just go to sleep, then,” Arthur murmurs, a low rumble. He tugs lightly at Merlin’s earlobe, and Merlin’s eyes open again, dark and intent. Arthur wonders if his own eyes look as drugged and smitten in the low light.

“I left my pillow at the other end,” Merlin says without regret.

“You can share mine,” Arthur replies, making no attempt to move over.

They stare at each other for another long, teetering moment. Merlin pushes himself up on his braced elbow, and now Merlin is above him, his breath hot against Arthur’s upper lip, increasing in tempo, and Arthur feels his own speed up too. Arthur lets his hand slip from the side of Merlin’s neck to his nape, and tugs him downward.

The kiss is tentative only for an instant; then it’s an eager rush. It feels a little strange, being the one below instead of bearing down from above, but it’s thrilling, too; when Arthur pushes his chin up to try and exert some control, Merlin just surges down more fiercely, forcing Arthur’s mouth open wider.

Arthur changes his plan of attack, running his hands from Merlin’s neck down his back and under the knitted underclothes, then stroking his hands back up again and rucking the fabric up under Merlin’s arms.

Arthur is dazed when Merlin draws back enough to break the kiss again. “This isn’t—” Merlin says, gasping. “Is this… just another moment of weakness? Sire?” Even as he’s talking he’s moving into Arthur’s touch, but Arthur admires his boldness: he is baring his remaining wariness to Arthur instead of letting the moment carry them away into unknown territory.

Guilt makes a lump in Arthur’s throat. But he can’t lie. “Not weakness,” he admits, and lifts his head up to reach for Merlin’s mouth with his own.

Merlin leans back a little, leaving Arthur straining. “What is it, then?”

Arthur groans, looking heavenward in exasperation. “Do you never leave off?”

Arthur.”

The intensity of Merlin’s tone has Arthur meeting his eyes again. He looks as desperate as when he’d just performed magic right before Arthur’s eyes. There is a great deal at stake here for Merlin, Arthur realises—perhaps for Arthur too, although he has never let himself consider it before now.

“I don’t know,” Arthur says honestly. He takes a deep breath. The next words are forced through a constriction in his throat: “I just know that… I want you.”

Merlin drops down to kiss him again, sharp and biting and not allowing Arthur an inch. “Shut up,” he groans against Arthur’s lips, like Arthur’s said something terribly embarrassing.

Arthur laughs, all the dreadful tension draining out of him. Merlin slumps down to press his flushed face against Arthur’s neck and laughs as well. They clutch at each other like they’re both afraid to move, but the heat in Arthur’s belly has been loosened with relief, and now stirs up giddily. His heart thuds in a fluttering beat, his fingers playing across the blade of Merlin’s shoulder.

Arthur tilts his head a little. Merlin’s hair is tickling against his jaw. “Kiss me,” Arthur whispers.

Merlin doesn’t at first; he just lifts his head to look down at him and smile. There’s not a hint of teasing in it, and Arthur’s face heats under the scrutiny.

“That was an order, Merlin,” he says impatiently.

Merlin’s smile breaks out into a grin. He starts to tease, slowly dipping lower to brush his lips chastely against Arthur’s. When Arthur grumbles and nudges his chin up, the kiss flows from chaste into tender, from the closed press of lips to the gentle stroke of Merlin's tongue.

Arthur can only stand it for a little while before the thing swelling in his chest becomes almost unbearable. He surges up and flips Merlin over onto his back.

“Pushy,” Merlin gripes when he’s got his breath back, but he’s still grinning, lips wet and lush.

“In case you’ve forgotten,” Arthur says haughtily, punctuating his sentence with a smacking kiss, “I am the Prince.”

“In case you’ve forgotten, I saved your life,” Merlin scoffs, but his hands are sliding down Arthur’s back to rest tentatively at the top of Arthur’s arse.

“Hmm,” Arthur hums in acknowledgement. His legs are splayed over Merlin’s thighs, and he rocks his body forward under Merlin’s hands, pressing his hips down against Merlin’s. The thrill of finding Merlin hard chases away the last shreds of uncertainty, filling him instead with a shameless sort of confidence: a moment later, he’s backing down Merlin’s body, shoving Merlin’s clothes aside as he goes.

The skin of Merlin’s cock is hot and smooth, shifting delicately against Arthur’s lips when he nuzzles against it. Merlin’s hands—which had been fidgeting on Arthur’s bare shoulders—suddenly grasp Arthur’s hair, and Merlin squirms his hips up and pushes Arthur’s head down. Arthur glares up at him, but finds him wide-eyed and open-mouthed, hair already a mess from Arthur’s hands and cheeks blotchy and flushed.

“Sorry,” Merlin gasps, hands spasming in Arthur’s hair.

Arthur raises an eyebrow; he’d been expecting impertinence, but instead Merlin’s gaping at him like he can’t quite believe that Arthur’s actually there. Arthur keeps his eyes on Merlin’s face and ducks down again, pressing his lips along Merlin’s cock until he finds the head, then darting his tongue out to lick across the tip.

Merlin grunts and thuds his head back to the bed, neck arched. His legs curl up and press in, clutching at Arthur’s shoulders. “Sorry,” he says again, and when Arthur pushes his thighs apart, “Oh. Please.

“You really are ridiculous,” Arthur murmurs. Unable to keep the fondness out of his voice, he nips at the inside of Merlin’s thigh to distract him. “Come on, here.” He hoists Merlin’s legs up around his neck. His wrenched shoulder twinges.

“No,” Merlin says fussily. “You’ll hurt yourself. Why don’t you— augh, stop it!”

Arthur is tickling the back of Merlin’s knees. They tussle for a moment, Merlin’s feet on Arthur’s shoulders and then shoving at his face. Merlin shouts with laughter, then clamps his thighs around Arthur’s head, arching his hips up for leverage. “Stop it,” he pants. “Before I do you an injury.”

“I’ll do you an injury,” Arthur retorts, bypassing Merlin’s long legs entirely to reach between them and palm his balls.

Merlin squirms. “Oh, that’s, um—”

“Too much?”

Merlin’s face crinkles uncertainly. “No, not…” his legs fall apart again, and he plants his feet on the bed to push his hips up to Arthur’s face, pleading wordlessly.

Arthur huffs in amusement, but obliges by taking the head of Merlin’s cock in his mouth and rolling his tongue around it. A moment later he pulls off to ask, “Like that?”

Merlin groans again. “Why do you have to be all solicitous now?” he asks, exasperated.

Arthur smiles, teasing with his lips right against Merlin’s cock.

Merlin yanks his hair. “Get on with it.”

Infuriation is far easier for Arthur to deal with than tenderness, and so it’s easy now to take Merlin’s cock in his mouth and suck lightly, to close his eyes, sink lower and dedicate himself to the delicate skill of it. Merlin is all restless movement and hitched breaths. Arthur runs his hands up the back of his thighs to his knees again, and pushes them up and apart to get them out of his way. Merlin’s legs go tense and still, and Arthur pulls off curiously to look; Merlin’s planted his feet on the low ceiling, bracing himself back against the bed.

Arthur smirks. “Comfortable?”

“Very,” Merlin confirms, apparently unmoved by Arthur’s mocking. Arthur raises an eyebrow, while Merlin’s very hard cock nudges against his lips. Merlin tightens his fist in Arthur’s hair and frowns, saying, “Come on. Where did you learn cocksucking, an etiquette book?”

“Apparently not,” Arthur drawls, but gets back to it, anyway.

It becomes a game: to figure out how to drag the deepest moans out of Merlin, to find the things that make him thrust up helplessly, to unravel his control and leave him completely flustered and undone. It’s not even a new game; they play it every day, only this is the first time they’ve done it with Arthur’s mouth on Merlin’s cock.

Merlin finishes long before Arthur’s ready for it, his fist tightening in Arthur’s hair and back arching, his hips bucking up. Arthur pulls back, but not quite quickly enough; Merlin’s come spills over his lips, his chin, his cheeks. The smell is thick and potent in the air. Arthur scowls at the mess, wiping a hand across his mouth.

Merlin, chest heaving, takes a few moments to lift his head again. When he looks down at Arthur, he starts laughing, breathless and euphoric.

“What?” Arthur grumbles, still feeling flushed and trembly himself, and becoming a touch resentful.

“The look on your face,” Merlin pants, delighted, then yelps when Arthur grabs his waist and ducks down to wipe his face off on Merlin’s belly, taking the opportunity to bite the soft flesh there as well.

Merlin folds his legs around Arthur’s back, tightening them to draw Arthur in, urging him up with his hands on Arthur’s face. Arthur obliges—he’s got no choice, really. As unexpectedly brilliant as sucking Merlin’s cock was, Merlin’s body pressed all up against his is wonderful as well.

Arthur’s own stiff cock is pushed low against Merlin’s belly, and Merlin curls his hips up to exert more pressure on it. Arthur’s eyes close, and he thrusts. He opens them again when he feels Merlin’s thumb stroke over his lips. Merlin is smiling indulgently, looking very pleased with himself as his eyes dart over Arthur’s face, taking him in.

“What?” Arthur breathes out, at a loss as to what else to say.

Merlin grins and pushes Arthur’s hair back from his forehead, then cranes up to rub his cheek against Arthur’s messy one. “Let go, Arthur,” he whispers into Arthur’s ear, digging his heels into the backs of Arthur’s thighs.

Arthur pushes aside the urge to scoff and point out that barely moments ago Merlin was writhing around making ridiculous noises, completely at Arthur’s mercy. Instead he hides his face in the sweaty angle of Merlin’s neck and hunches his hips forward, closing his eyes and letting his world shrink to Merlin’s encouraging whispers and the friction of his cock against Merlin’s skin. Merlin clasps him close with arms and legs, and in the end it’s that guidance and restriction that tips Arthur over the edge, shuddering and crushing Merlin under him. Arthur’s come makes the space between them slippery, the sudden change in sensation shocking another burst of pleasure through him even as he’s finishing.

“I should’ve known you’d be a terrible lover along with everything else, Merlin,” Arthur pants before he’s even properly caught his breath.

Under him, Merlin huffs in amused indignation. “And I should’ve known you’d approach pillow talk with the same gracious aplomb as you do everything else,” he says.

Arthur lifts his head, and finds Merlin smiling still. Arthur kisses him.

*

The innkeeper looks almost as worried when they ask about acquiring some horses as she had about the bath.

“My Lord, we’re but a humble village,” she says, frowning in dismay. “We used to have an old nag that helped drag our stones from the mountain to build with, but our Artemis keeled over more than five years ago.” She reaches out fondly to pat one of the mounted heads, and Arthur realises the dirty grey muzzle she’s patting once belonged to a horse.

He grimaces. “Surely you must trade with other villages? How do you transport your fleece?”

“Oh, the shepherds herd them to Whitefell, they’re shorn there and the fleece goes straight to market.”

Whitefell is at least three days’ walk away, and not even in the direction of Camelot. Arthur rubs his palm against his forehead.

“Arthur, I can go ahead and bring back horses—”

“Shut up, Merlin,” Arthur cuts him off absently.

“There’s old Cador’s donkey,” the innkeeper suggests hesitantly. “She’s the only beast of burden in the valley, unless you fancy rigging a litter up to a pair of rams…”

“That won’t be necessary,” Arthur says before Merlin can get any ideas. “This Cador—where can we find him?”

*

Cador is a hunched man with gnarled fingers and a face like an old potato. His farm is on the shore of a shallow, marshy lake. The ground squelches underfoot as they walk with him around his house to a small stable at the back. “She don’t take to being ridden,” he tells them. “But you lads are in luck. I’m driving a cart to my sister’s farm in Braeside this morning. There’s a trading route direct to Camelot right near her.”

“Braeside,” Arthur says, relieved to recognise the name. “How far?”

“Right round the next valley, we should be there by sunset,” Cador says. “Just as well my old girl’s not been as busy this last month.”

Arthur blinks. “Busy?”

Cador leads the donkey—a shaggy, obstinate-looking thing—to his wagon, Arthur and Merlin following along. “Aye,” Cador calls over his shoulder. “My sister grows the best vegetables in the entire valley, thanks to my Bethany’s fertilising.”

Up until Arthur saw the cargo he would be sharing the ride with, he was prepared to reward Cador handsomely for the journey. Now he is reconsidering.

“Merlin, by royal decree, you will not allow any of it to touch me.”

Merlin smirks. “And I’m never to muck out the stables again?”

Arthur draws breath for a sardonic response, but gives up. The fact is, whatever mess he gets Merlin into now—figuratively or very literally—he’ll wind up sharing his bed with it.

“Very well.”

Merlin grins victoriously, and holds his hand out with a flourish. “Then allow me to help you up, My Lord.”

Arthur concedes the assistance without comment, and hoists Merlin up onto the cart behind him. At least the manure occupies only the front half of the cart, and Cador has found some old hessian sacks for them to sit on. Cador bellows at the donkey and they lurch off, the cart heaving side-to-side on the uneven road, wheels gouging alarmingly deep into the muddy ruts. Arthur grits his teeth, attempting to get a better seat and resigning himself to being uncomfortable and smelly for the rest of the day.

“Merlin,” he says quietly, as Cador starts singing something incomprehensible and tuneless. “There’ll be not a word of this spoken once we’re inside the citadel. As far as anyone knows, we retrieved the flower with great dignity and returned home without any assistance whatsoever.”

Merlin laughs. “It’ll be our secret,” he agrees, looking far too cheerful. Arthur shakes his head and grins back.