They've been riding hard all day. Mercifully, the skies are clear of rain, but the chill of the wind is beginning to bite and their pace is flagging. Even Gwaine's constant flow of ribaldry is beginning to run dry and Merlin has started dropping none-too-subtle hints about dinner. Arthur urges them on for a while longer, but they're still several leagues from the Northern borders and it's becoming apparent that they're not going to reach the village by nightfall. With a sigh, he pulls on his mare's bridle, calling the whole party to a halt.
"We'll camp here for the night."
It's as good a place as any, a small clearing in the woods that will afford space for a fire, room enough for all to sleep around it – necessary as the temperature will likely drop further as night falls.
Arthur sends Gwaine and Percival to hunt down some fresh meat for their supper. Merlin busies himself making a fire, Lancelot quickly offering to help him collect wood. Arthur frowns a little at this. It seems that ever since Lancelot rejoined them, the two of them are always to be found together, whispering in corners, exchanging knowing looks, as thick as thieves. When Lancelot isn't exchanging significant looks with Gwen, that is. Although Arthur has to admit the hopeful, adoring looks Lancelot sends in Gwen's direction – and the ones he's seen her send him in return – are very different from the conspiratorial winks he's seen Lancelot exchange with Merlin. And yet were Arthur to be pressed on which of the two made him most uncomfortable, he knows what his answer would be. As little sense as that makes. Why shouldn't his idiot manservant and his best knight be friends, after all? He's told Merlin enough times that he cannot be Arthur's friend. Although in reality friendship has sprung up between them regardless, without waiting for permission or heeding the 'should nots' and 'cannots' forbidding it.
Merlin has the fire blazing in no time. He might be a terrible manservant in many ways, but Arthur can't deny that he has some kind of indefinable knack for lighting a fire; he's sure he hardly saw Merlin rubbing the flint for a spark before the sticks caught. In the sudden blaze of light his blue eyes look almost golden. Arthur crosses to the fire and squats before it, allowing himself a moment to bathe in the warmth as he cricks his neck, the day's riding catching up with his muscles. He winces a little as he feels a click in his shoulder. Merlin smirks up at him.
"Saddle sore?" he quips.
"Hardly." Arthur pulls a face. "I'll have you know I only stopped because I didn't think I could stand any more of your whinging."
"I'm touched, sire." Merlin has a goofy grin on his face and Arthur can't help but smile in return.
"Honestly, Merlin," Arthur teases. "It's like riding with a child, 'are we nearly there yet?', 'how much longer', 'I'm bored, Arthur.'"
"I don't sound anything like that," Merlin says plaintively, scuffing his boot in the fallen leaves on the forest floor.
"I think you've just proven my point, Merlin," Arthur says with a hint of triumph as he catches Lancelot and Elyan barely bothering to conceal their laughter. Merlin's cheeks pink a little and Arthur feels a spreading warmth in his chest as he watches him.
There's a sudden loud cracking sound and four pairs of eyes narrow and look around, the knights' hands flying instinctively to their swords, still buckled to their hips.
"Just the fire," Lancelot says, "This wood must be full of lice."
"Do you think we're safe here?" Merlin asks suddenly, quietly. "The reports didn't say how far out these bandits, or whatever they are, were coming."
"Scared, Merlin?" Arthur mocks, but his heart isn't quite in it. Merlin's eyebrows are drawn together and he looks pensive rather than terrified. His fears are more likely for the nearby villagers than for himself.
The reports had started coming in just over a week ago. Villages harried by groups of black-clad men demanding food, some looking for tribute for a lord by the name of Escar. A young woman, a local healer, snatched while out picking herbs. Escar was not a name which had ever made an appearance in any of Geoffrey's scrolls of nobility. He was almost certainly just some power-hungry opportunist who saw the fall of Cenred and Uther's ill-health as an opportunity to gain a hold over those weaker than him, and had persuaded a few bandits, mercenaries and swords for hire to join him in his cause. Arthur had narrowed down the location of Escar's stronghold to somewhere to the west of the Haruld pass, had ridden out with the intention of questioning the villagers more closely, scoping out the situation and making their presence felt. A flash of red cloaks and bright steel as a show, a warning that this territory was defended by its sovereign.
There had been some protest in the court about Arthur going himself rather than sending a band of knights – he was king in all but name, after all, since his father's condition had deteriorated. Arthur had insisted, however, he should be the one to confront Escar, to reassure his subjects. What kind of leader would he be if he hid in his castle while Camelot's citizens were subject to these outrages? What sort of message would that send to the kingdom's enemies? He'd caught Merlin's eye after this speech, and been gratified to see a look of shining-eyed approval on his face. Not that Merlin's approval meant anything more than anyone else's, naturally.
The sound of laughter and the stomp of boots causes Arthur to look up, on his guard, but it's only Gwaine and Percival returning with their kill.
"Grub's up, lads," Gwaine announces, ruffling Merlin's hair as he passes. Arthur's eyes narrow at this. It isn't that he has any desire to come into close contact with Merlin's unwashed locks himself, of course not, but something in him envies Gwaine the way he can be so quick, so casual in his touches, so free with his affections in a way that one born into royalty can never be.
"Rabbit?" Merlin looks up hopefully.
"Squirrel," Gwaine says apologetically and Merlin pulls a face.
"For goodness sake, Merlin, you've eaten rat before," Arthur reminds him. "Don't be so fastidious. Honestly, who do you think you are, Morga-" He cuts himself off, schooling his expression. It's been months since she was last seen. His... sister. It's hard, still, to think of her. He tries to avoid it, if he can. To untangle all of the betrayals of the last few months is not something he has the time or the energy to do.
Merlin's face dims and the knights don't meet his eyes. Elyan and Gwaine finish skinning and skewering the meat in relative silence – relative, because Arthur's not sure Gwaine knows how to be actually silent, it's a miracle he manages to catch even a squirrel. Eventually the chatter starts up again, a low hum of noise over the continued crackling of the fire, muffled chuckles as Gwaine teases Percival for something and then tries, fruitlessly, to get Lancelot to join him in expounding on the ample charms of the newest serving maid in The Rising Sun.
Merlin takes the opportunity to scoot closer to Arthur on the pretext of serving him some more of the meat. Arthur knows it for a pretext; Merlin never willingly serves him, not while they're away from the castle like this. Indeed, Arthur has insisted on not being served before; there's something a bit ridiculous about it when it's burnt squirrel on a stick out in the woods and they're all drinking from the same wineskin, prince and knights and servant alike.
Merlin doesn't bother to ask if he's alright. Knows, of course, exactly what it is that is playing on Arthur's mind.
"You're worried about her."
"I don't know where she is, Merlin, there have been no sightings these last couple of months. The patrols..." And there have been patrols. Not in the size and frequency there were when she went missing before, and more wary, knowing Morgana to be hostile. But not an enemy to be hunted down. Not that.
"Maybe she doesn't want to be found."
"Really, Merlin, that hadn't occurred to me." Arthur nudges Merlin with his foot. Merlin nudges back. Things have been more companionable between them recently. Arthur wonders if that is something else to blame on Morgana. There was something, this past year, keeping the two of them at a distance. It's another of those things Arthur doesn't like to probe too deeply, for fear of what he might find if he does. "I'm not sure I want her to be found," he admits. If only she were to go far away from them all, self-imposed exile, then he won't have to deal with what to do with her if he does find her. He's not sure if he should say that, though. It sounds like weakness, where his father would be strong, would burn all traitors with no consideration for personal feelings of any kind. Although his father has been changed by Morgana's betrayal, it's true.
She's his sister. That's the one thing that makes his gut twist more than any other. But that's the one thing he can't blame on her. That's his father's guilt, completely. And sometimes, sometimes when he thinks of it, he understands how she feels, how she must hate their father for it.
"She used magic, Merlin."
"Yes," is all Merlin says, his expression giving nothing away.
"She..." Arthur doesn't finish. There are just so many things.
"We've all done things we're not proud of," Merlin says. And isn't that the truth? Arthur can see himself, not a season past, holding a sword to a child's throat. It's not a memory that fills him with princely pride.
"I know," he says, looking sidelong at Merlin who is staring intently into the fire, guilty shadows in his night-dark eyes. Arthur can't help but wonder what Merlin, of all people, can have done that can cause him to look so haunted.
"Sometimes, if there's something... something you'll do anything for."
Arthur wonders, fleetingly, whether Merlin still has feelings for Morgana. It's a sore subject to think on, like poking a bruise, and he doesn't know why. Arthur feels his throat tighten and blames it on the smoke from the campfire. Merlin blinks once, twice and then he looks at Arthur and just for a second it's hard to breathe.
Then he hears Gwaine calling Merlin's name from across the fire, quizzing him on the words of a bawdy song. Merlin ducks his head and grins, face flushed in the firelight, before answering him. Arthur coughs before getting to his feet and moving a little away from the heat.
The attack comes with no warning. An arrow whizzing past Lancelot's ear and embedding itself in a tree is the first sign that something's wrong. The knights are on their feet in no time, swords drawn, eyes trained on the dark shapes emerging from the gloom all around them. There's the sudden clash of metal on metal as their assailants advance. Arthur's mouth twists into a determined smile; the bandits should have stayed on horseback, cloaked in shadows, they've no chance in a swordfight against Camelot's best knights. There are more of them, he thinks, but that's no advantage when pitted against years of training and battle experience. When he can spare a glance for his men, he does, Percival and Gwaine are holding their own against three of them; Lancelot has wounded another. With a fierce jab of his sword against his own assailant, Arthur looks for Merlin and sucks in a breath as he glimpses him, pressed against a tree with a fierce-looking man almost upon him. Arthur opens his mouth in a roar, delivering a final sword thrust to dispatch his opponent, preparing to go to his manservant's aid, when a branch in the tree above cracks, falling on the bandit's head. Arthur's eyes meet Merlin's for a second, his relief at this dumb luck that seems to accompany his servant countered with something almost like an apology.
"Sire!" Lancelot's voice rings out across the clearing. "Man down." He looks and sees Elyan slumped on the ground, clutching his leg, while Percival stands over him, fending off further attack. There are but two of their attackers remaining, and those two fall back on a barked command from somewhere beyond the trees. Arthur allows himself a small smile in victory, when once more there's the unmistakeable hiss of an arrow. This time it hits its target, not one of the knights, but Merlin, defenceless and separated from the group, looking towards him and not seeing the arrow until it has buried itself in his shoulder.
"No!" He hears himself shout, legs moving on instinct, running towards Merlin before he has a chance to think. No. This cannot be happening. Not Merlin. But Escar's men, if indeed that's who they are, are there before him; Merlin slumps into their waiting arms and they drag him off before Arthur has a chance to reach him, hoofbeats loud as they gallop away.
"Merlin!" The anguished cry is not his own, which surprises him for a second. Gwaine is there, sword in hand, ready to chase down the bandits on foot. Too late, Arthur knows, forcing himself back into the role of king, strategist, warrior. He stops Gwaine with a firm hand to his shoulder. Gwaine shakes him off, mouth open to argue, but Arthur doesn't give him a chance, striding over to where Percival now has Elyan propped against a tree.
"How bad is it?" Arthur demands.
"Just a flesh wound, sire," Elyan hisses through clenched teeth. Lancelot is there. kneeling beside him, cleaning the wound with the last of the boiled water, a strip of cloth from one of their packs ready to bind it. He looks up at Arthur and although he says nothing within Elyan's hearing, it's clear that he doesn't think the wound as superficial as Elyan claims. Arthur gets to his feet, thinking fast.
"Percival," he decides, "You'd best camp here for the night and make for Camelot in the morning. He'll need Gaius' attention." Arthur turns to Elyan, dropping one hand onto his shoulder. "I'm sorry, but we ride out immediately. We can't afford anyone slowing us down. You and Percival can tell Leon where we're headed. Tell him to send reinforcements." Elyan nods, grimacing.
Arthur untethers his mount and spurs her on after the men who have taken Merlin, despite a whinny of protest, Gwaine and Lancelot keeping pace with him. The clatter of the horses' hooves and the wild pounding of his heart beat in time a desperate rhythm, I will find him, I will find him. They don't get far, however, before the trail is lost. Arthur pulls to a halt at a fork in the road. It's not quite pitch black yet, but he can't see the right path in the dark and the fog all around them. He swears, loudly, as Lancelot and Gwaine debate between them the most likely direction. Arthur scowls as he dismounts, punching the nearest tree in frustration.
"There's no choice. We'll have to wait here and pick up the trail when the sun's up."
"Sire!" Gwaine doesn't give him a second's pause, quickly dismounting and coming after him. The honorific sounds strange coming from his least respectful knight. "Respectfully request permission to continue riding after Merlin."
"Request denied," Arthur snaps. Does the fool honestly think he would leave Merlin to the mercy of these barbarians if there was any possibility of continuing? One look at Gwaine's angry countenance and he has his answer. Worse, Lancelot, bridle still in hand, is standing shoulder to shoulder with Gwaine. He says nothing, and Arthur doesn't think he will openly defy him, but he makes his allegiance clear. Discovering that his knights are loyal to his manservant above their prince is a sting, salt water to the wound of losing Merlin in the first place. He wants to tell them that he knows, that it is costing him everything he has not to ride blindly after Merlin's kidnappers, to have to think this through.
"But..." Gwaine protests.
"Enough!" Arthur rounds on his knights. "Do you think I would stop if there was any possibility of continuing? Tell me, Gwaine," he grits his teeth as he says his name, "Have you somehow developed the ability to see in the dark? We don't know which way they're headed, one wrong turn and we could be leagues in the wrong direction. Not to mention that we're a man down, two, since I ordered Percival to stay with him. And we have no idea how many more of them there are."
"We've faced worse odds before," Gwaine argues.
"I'm not willing to gamble the odds when it's Merlin's life at stake!"
"And you think waiting until dawn won't put his life at risk?"
"If they wanted to kill him, they could have cut him down where he stood. They've obviously taken him for a reason. Perhaps they knew his worth to me and took him as bait, to lure us into a trap." The words come out without him having a chance to think first, leaving a raw ache of guilt and helplessness in his chest.
"I hardly think that's likely, is it?" Gwaine snorts.
"What's that supposed to mean?" Arthur demands, taking one step closer, one hand straying dangerously close to the sword buckled to his hip, the fury and frustration seeking an outlet.
"I mean," Gwaine says, not backing down an inch, "You don't exactly treat Merlin as if he's important to you. Sire." The word is all but spat out and damn the sword, Arthur's going to punch him right on his smug, insolent face for daring to make assumptions about Arthur's feelings, daring to say something that stings with something so much like truth.
"Gwaine!" Lancelot remonstrates, and Arthur gets the feeling that if he'd dared, Lancelot would have included his prince's name as well. "We're all worried about Merlin but squabbling amongst ourselves is hardly going to bring him back, is it?"
Arthur coughs and nods in Lancelot's direction.
"You're right," he acknowledges. "There's nothing we can do now. I'll take first watch," he says, settling himself on a log to forestall any further objections. "Get some sleep, we ride at first light."
The dry spell has held overnight and it's easy enough to see the tracks the kidnappers' horses have left. They ride north, urging their horses on as fast as they can manage on the hilly terrain. Arthur leads, face set in a mask of determination, giving nothing away, Lancelot and Gwaine on his heels, not faltering for an instant. They're silent but for essential communication about which direction to ride, none of the banter or pranks of the day before. Arthur almost misses Gwaine's inane chatter – or rather wishes for a situation where it might be appropriate, for Merlin safe and well and back with them again, with his idiot goofy smile and his wide eyes. Arthur feels a sudden sharp pang in his chest and blames the cold.
The trail takes them not to a cave, as Arthur had half expected, from his admittedly limited knowledge of bandit hideouts, but to a small, part-ruined castle stronghold. It's not one-fifth the size of Camelot, true, but it has a castle's defences, the thick stone walls, arrow slits and, it has to be presumed, tunnels and dungeons. Worst of all, it's entirely possible that this is the fiefdom of some legitimate northern lord, that in attempting to breach it, they may incur the wrath of a potential ally, or a potential enemy. Although it hardly looks habitable and Arthur would wager good money that whoever the legitimate occupants were, they are long since fled.
Arthur pulls on his mare's reins to bring her to a halt and closes his eyes to think. He knows what his father would do, say – his servant's life is not worth quarrelling over. If it were up to his father, Merlin would be dead already, several times over, slain first by the poison he voluntarily drank to save Arthur's life. Even Leon would advise caution, negotiation, perhaps. Camelot is vulnerable, still, recovering from the recent attack, under uncertain leadership, at least as far as outsiders are aware. All the more reason to show strength, in Arthur's view, but there's a limit to how much strength they can show when there's only three of them, he knows that. His instinct, nonetheless, is to draw his sword, to fight his way through until he gets to Merlin and... No, he reminds himself, that's the sort of thing Gwaine would come up with.
Gwaine, who grumbles and mutters under his breath and paces in the shade of the trees in which they've concealed themselves as Arthur details the plan to sneak in under cover of dusk. It's torture to have to wait, still, Arthur understands that, at least - but winces, then, at his own thoughts, torture in this context is something he very much hopes is not taking place.
It's going well, better than expected, in fact. They've managed to give several black-clad guards the slip as they wind their way along the castle corridors, pressing themselves flat against the cool stones, hardly breathing, fingers tightening on their drawn swords. Arthur can only hope they're heading in the right direction; it seems logical – he's spent enough time in the past studying plans of castle defences as part of his princely education. Presumably for moments not dissimilar to this, although he can't imagine his father at any point expected him to sneak into a castle to rescue a manservant in distress. Arthur can hardly acknowledge the tight coil of fear in his stomach. He'd do this for any of his knights, any friend, any subject. It must only be because Merlin is such a useless idiot who can't look after himself that he finds himself so concerned for his safety and well-being.
"Sire," Lancelot's hiss alerts him to the presence of steps before them. So he was right. Arthur smiles in satisfaction. They're so close.
Of course, even sell-swords aren't total idiots, and there are guards pacing the corridor at the bottom of the steps. Arthur pauses on the way down, one hand on Lancelot's arm to stop him. He can hear the hum of conversation, a few snatched words, a complaint about someone or other, someone else wondering what might be for dinner, and one phrase that makes Arthur's chest tighten still further, an element they hadn't considered in their plans – the sorcerer. Arthur can only curse silently and hope this sorcerer is nowhere near the dungeons as he takes one step forward, alone, craning his neck to see what awaits them below.
There are but two, from what he can make out. Against three knights of Camelot the odds aren't even a factor, the only question is whether they can take them out before they have a chance to call for reinforcements. The question is duly answered as Arthur fells the first with a single blow to the head with the flat of his sword. The second should shout, but he charges at them instead and is swiftly dispatched by Gwaine.
"This is almost too easy," Gwaine grins, but his grin fades as Lancelot calls from a little way down the passageway,
"Arthur, he's here!"
There's a clatter of boots as Arthur and Gwaine race towards where Lancelot is trying the keys pilfered from the unconscious guard, hardly bothering to be quiet now that they are so near their goal. The door opens with a clang and Lancelot wastes no time, striding into the small cell. Arthur can only stare, hands curling around the iron bars. Merlin is slumped, limp and glassy-eyed, on a pile of straw in the far corner, chained by iron bands around his wrists. A dark bruise blooms on his right cheek, but there are no other visible signs of mistreatment. Merlin looks up, then, and their eyes meet for a brief, breathless moment, and Arthur thinks he can see the ghost of a smile on his lips. His feet seem to be rooted to the floor, though, as Gwaine barges past him and wraps one arm around Merlin, hauling him up into a standing position while Lancelot hacks at his bindings. Arthur swallows down a sudden bitter feeling that can't possibly be jealousy as he lingers, hesitant in the doorway.
"Come on," he says tersely, to cover up his weakness. Gwaine and Lancelot stumble forwards, Merlin supported between them, his legs wobbling as he tries to walk.
They don't get far.
Five or six burly men, all in the same loose uniform of black jerkins and fur, stand facing them down at the door of the cell. There's something a little familiar in their style of dress that nags at Arthur's memory. The leader, a tall man with yellowing teeth and braided hair, dressed in slightly finer furs than the plain, knotted wolf-pelts of his henchmen, snarls in their direction. Escar. So this is the man setting himself up as some kind of bandit lord, terrorising villagers and kidnapping helpless servants. Arthur draws himself up with the full force of his regal bearing. Gwaine steps forward, shoulder-to-shoulder with Arthur, sword drawn, as Arthur allows his eyes to flicker over the rest of their enemies, trying without success to determine which of the new arrivals can be the sorcerer he's heard them whisper of. None of them particularly looks like a sorcerer but it's difficult to tell, appearances can be deceiving sometimes. Behind him, he can hear Lancelot talking to Merlin in a low, urgent voice, though he doesn't know what good Merlin of all people can do in this situation.
He's no sooner raised his sword than there's one pointed at his neck, another at Gwaine's. And for all the new knight's boasting about beating unbeatable odds, the steel pressed to their throats makes clear that this is no bar fight, an all too sharp reminder that when you play the odds, sometimes you lose. Escar grins; a cruel, wide smile that exposes more of his rotting teeth and Arthur flinches in spite of himself as the point of the sword nicks the skin of his throat.
The blood hardly has time to bead around the tip when there is a sudden almighty crack. Dust and then pieces of stone start to fall from the roof of the passageway – little more than a tunnel – that they are standing in. Behind him Arthur can hear muttering, followed by a sharp cry. He realises, then, that this sudden turn of events has proven a distraction to the men holding him and Gwaine at sword-point and leaps back out of reach. Gwaine does the same, springing aside as yet more chunks of stone, larger now, whole bricks, rain down on their captors.
"Fall back!" Arthur shouts, allowing himself a quick glance back at Merlin, who has slumped in Lancelot's hold, muttering and moaning quietly. They're barely back within the confines of the cell when the entire ceiling collapses, crushing the seven-strong band of villains beneath it. Gwaine raises his arm, holding his sleeve over his mouth and Arthur understands why the second the dust hits him and he begins to cough. As it clears, though, he realises that the unexpected subsidence has, in all probability, saved all of their lives.
"Lucky," Lancelot says in a voice that is just a shade too strained and the word reverberates uneasily in the quiet of the ruined fortress. Luck, yes, Arthur thinks. There's a lot of it about, these days.
He looks over at Merlin, who seems to have fainted dead away. He wants to say something, something like, 'Honestly, Merlin, swooning like a maiden in distress', but he doesn't. He wants to go to him, to feel Merlin's heart beating under his own palm, just to make sure he's alright, but he doesn't do that either. He jerks his head and indicates that the others should follow.
Arthur bites his lip as he picks his way through the rubble. They can spare the time to search the ruins for further threats. Three more men are found, but promised mercy on the condition that they do not show their faces in the area again. More, Arthur suspects, have fled before they can be found. There's no sign of the missing girl; perhaps she escaped in the chaos. Their mission, at any rate, has been a success; the nearby villagers will be untroubled by further raids, at least he can be sure of that.
Arthur fights a silent battle with himself to keep his eyes trained on the way ahead, not to look back, not to notice the way his arms feel heavy with the weight he isn't carrying, as Lancelot and Gwaine trail behind with Merlin supported between them once more.
Arthur reaches the horses first, of course, mounting quickly and pretending he doesn't see the half-smug, half-reproachful look on Gwaine's face, the one that all but says, 'I knew you didn't care about Merlin'. And he can pretend, then, that it's only to wipe this look off Gwaine's face that he says what he says next, and not because it's all he's been thinking about since they left the castle.
"Well? Help him on," he says sharply, holding his arms open to indicate that, yes, he does mean for them to lift Merlin onto his horse in front of him. Gwaine stares at him in shock and even Lancelot hesitates, shooting Merlin a concerned glance. Arthur bristles at that; what do they think he's going to do, hurt him further? His glower at his knights is at odds with the gentleness with which he settles Merlin against his chest. Merlin twitches and mumbles, half-conscious, and Arthur tightens his arm around him.
At first Arthur keeps his eyes firmly on the way ahead as they pick their way through the trees, wary of low hanging branches. But Merlin stirs and shifts in front of him, and Arthur gives in to the urge to soothe him.
"Shh, you're safe now." And then, because it won't do to be too soft on the idiot, "I should have known an idiot like you would be the one to get into trouble."
"Arthur?" Merlin slurs, and he blinks into something a little more like wakefulness.
"Yes, Merlin, it's me. Who else would come and rescue your sorry backside?" He scoffs and tries not to think about the answer to his own question.
"No," Merlin frowns, scrunching up his nose, "You mustn't come, you'll find out. They know, you know."
"Know what, Merlin?"
"About me." He blinks, then breaks out into a sleepy smile. "You're so beautiful. Golden. I love you so much, you have no idea..."
He trails off, but Arthur stiffens at once, feeling a hot blush begin to creep over his neck. How in any name is he supposed to respond to something like that? When he finally manages to look down at Merlin once more his eyes are closed, and there's a sheen of sweat on his brow, despite the chill in the air. Of course, Arthur thinks to himself, the boy's delirious with fever. Doesn't know what he's saying. It's a relief, for a spell. But then Merlin starts muttering again.
"Morgana." If Arthur thought he wasn't prepared to hear what Merlin had said before, he's really not prepared to hear anything about Merlin's feelings for Morgana. He urges his horse on, fast as he thinks they can manage to go without jolting Merlin and his injured shoulder too much. "Sorry... had to... to poison her... other way... m'sorry."
Poison? He knows he shouldn't pay this any mind, the ramblings of a sick man. Merlin carries on, though, mumbling about Gaius, Morgause, once calling out "Father, no," in a panicked tone – Arthur didn't think he even knew his father; proof, perhaps, that this is nothing but nonsense. Then Merlin moans his own name once more.
He sounds so distressed that Arthur can't find it in him not to respond.
"I'm here, Merlin," he says, as gently as he can.
"Yes, you're... it's our destiny. The dragon said." Merlin falters, then opens his eyes and looks right at him, but seems not to see him. "Arthur mustn't know," he says, wild-eyed, desperate, "He mustn't know about my magic. Don't tell him, will you?" Arthur thinks his heart stops, just for a second, then a leaden weight seems to settle in his stomach. Merlin is still looking at him, though, eyes pleading, clutching onto his cloak, so he forces himself to reply.
"I won't tell," he says evenly, which seems to soothe Merlin, who settles back with his head against Arthur's chest, his hair brushing against his chin. Arthur swallows, hard.
"Thank you," Merlin says, barely audible.
Arthur can't think. He can barely breathe. It seems like Merlin has just confessed to having magic. But he's delirious, of course, he doesn't know what he's saying. He wasn't even sure who Arthur was, for goodness sake. And yet, and yet...
The damnable thing about it all is that it's not unbelievable at all. It's less the shock of the unknown and more the weight of a horrible certainty, something he's known all along without really knowing it, a truth that he knows he won't be able to unsee, no matter how many plausible denials Merlin makes when he recovers. If he recovers. When.
If the situation was in any way different to what it is, he'd rage and storm and shout, shake Merlin until his teeth rattled, demanding answers. He'd probably feel hurt and betrayed and vow never to trust anyone, ever again. He'd order Merlin to be banished from the kingdom, perhaps, to get out of his sight at once. But he can't order Merlin anywhere. Merlin is here, a solid presence in his arms, each rattling breath reminding Arthur of the terrible fragility of human life. He imagines that pale, slender neck on the chopping block and it's like a physical ache, a silent scream of no, no, no. He can't, won't allow that to happen. The thought of Merlin in more danger is unacceptable. He won't allow it. He can't.
Arthur shakes his head. He's tiring; it's hard to see more than a few feet in front of him in the gathering gloom now, and Merlin is heavy, his weight against Arthur's chest restricting his breathing. And if it's more the weight of so many lies and betrayals and secrets that are now Arthur's burden to bear as well, he's not letting on.
The murmur of a nearby stream catches his attention.
"Here," he calls ahead, and Lancelot and Gwaine look round. "There's running water, not far. Let's make camp."
Lancelot secures his horse and comes swiftly to Arthur's assistance. Arthur lowers Merlin down into Lancelot's waiting arms, trying to ignore the odd sensation of loss, now that he's no longer holding him. Lancelot lays Merlin down, resting against a log, swiftly unhooking his own pack from his horse for Merlin to use as a pillow. Gwaine steps forward, as if he wants to say something, do something, but Lancelot jerks his head at him, a silent communication between the two of them, and eventually Gwaine nods and heads off in the direction of the stream. Arthur hovers, feeling useless as Lancelot swiftly but gently peels Merlin's jacket from him, pulling a knife from his boot and using it to cut at Merlin's overshirt. Arthur's hands itch, restless, he needs something to do, something to stop his mind from dwelling on the things he has heard.
"A fire would be useful sire," Lancelot says, as he prods at Merlin's shoulder wound, as if he can read what Arthur is thinking in the tense line of his stance.
"Of course," Arthur says, quickly beginning to gather fallen wood from around the small clearing; there's enough of it on the ground after the recent winds. He looks across at where Lancelot is frowning. "Is it bad?"
"I'm no physician, sire," Lancelot says apologetically. "It doesn't look too grievous a wound, the arrowhead has been removed already, but if it becomes infected, it could be dangerous."
Merlin moans and jerks away from Lancelot's touch, muttering again under his breath.
"He's been delirious," Arthur says, keeping his voice level as he piles the sticks he's found to make a fire. He strikes the flints together, hands buzzing with warmth as he waits for them to catch. "Do you think that's down to the wound?"
"Untreated, yes, I suppose it could cause delirium." Arthur looks up. Lancelot doesn't meet his eyes. He's a terrible liar, Arthur thinks, which makes the circumstances of his first arrival all the more remarkable. It's like it physically pains the man to tell an untruth. Here, although Arthur has no doubt of the veracity of his words, it's obvious he's holding something back. "I... I wouldn't pay too much mind to anything he says, sire, while he's like this. It's like dreaming, he has no control over it." Arthur wonders what Lancelot has heard already. Wonders if he can convince himself that he's right, that Merlin is only dreaming his fears aloud.
He swears softly at the fire which he still hasn't managed to light, wishing for Merlin's knack with lighting fires. The stones almost fall from his hands as it dawns on him just what Merlin's 'knack' with firelighting might be, in truth. Merlin mutters something in his sleep and then, without warning, there's a spark, and the pile of sticks blazes into life. His eyes, when they flicker open, look golden once more, and Arthur sits back on his heels, heavily. Now he knows the truth of it, it's all too easy to see magic in everything, every piece of 'luck' Merlin's had, every convenient falling branch, every time an enemy has 'tripped'. Arthur closes his eyes, reeling, as he thinks of the 'luck' that allowed them to escape the enemy stronghold that very evening. But surely, even if he has a few spells to help him light fires or polish boots, surely Merlin can't have such power. To bring down castle walls with only a few mumbled words. Arthur looks, then, at his unconscious manservant. Could such a display of magic cause sickness, like this? He doesn't know enough about magic to know if that's how it works. Doesn't know anything about magic, really, except what he's always been told: that those who use it must be eradicated at all costs.
Arthur gets to his feet.
"I'm going hunting," he announces, stalking off into the wood, paying no attention to Gwaine, who has returned with a full waterskin and is setting about decanting some into a tin cup for boiling.
Arthur returns a little later with no answers, but a brace of rabbits.
"These'll want broiling," he says gruffly, dumping the kill on Gwaine's unsuspecting lap. "I don't suppose he'll be able to manage more than a broth."
That Merlin's welfare should be the priority isn't questioned by any of them, although Arthur spares a passing thought for Elyan and Percival and Camelot. Merlin's wound has been cleaned and dressed in Arthur's absence and he's sleeping fitfully. Arthur has a sudden pang of fear for what Merlin might have revealed to Gwaine and Lancelot in his delirium. Arthur eyes them speculatively. He knows that both of them have demonstrated on more than one occasion that they care deeply for Merlin, consider him a friend. But if they knew he had magic? He doesn't think their loyalty would waver, but he doesn't want to take any more risks with Merlin's safety. Not after all he's been through already. Arthur doesn't question when he arrived at the decision that his own care and loyalty to Merlin would not be allowed to fracture under the weight of this new magical revelation.
He sees Merlin shiver, and quickly takes off his cloak, draping it over his sleeping manservant, hands lingering a little on the warmth of Merlin's neck as he tucks the cloak around him. Since their forced proximity, sharing a horse, it almost feels wrong not to be touching him.
"We should build some kind of shelter," Arthur decides, "It'll be cold tonight and..." He finds he can't even finish the sentence, a lump forming in his throat that has no right to be there as he reluctantly pulls his hand away from Merlin's flushed skin.
Arthur stares glumly at the fire. Lancelot has fed Merlin a little of the rabbit broth and together he and Gwaine have carried Merlin into the makeshift tent. Gwaine sits on the other side of the fire, now, whittling away at a twig and occasionally shooting Arthur reproachful glances.
"You know," Gwaine starts, but Arthur doesn't even let him finish.
"Shut up." He thinks he can still feel the absence of the warmth against his chest where Merlin had leant against him. Thinks he knows exactly how far it is between his seat at the fire and where Merlin is lying in the tent behind him, thinks he can measure it in heartbeats if not in feet and inches. The noise in his head won't stop, the cacophony of reproachful voices, all clamouring for a different course of action – his father, Morgana, Gwaine, Lancelot, Gwen, Gaius. And cutting through it all is Merlin, as it is always Merlin, with his questioning and his cheek, his infuriating outbreaks of wisdom and his I love you so much, you have no idea...
Arthur thinks how he looks so young, sleeping. Not like a traitor at all. But then, Morgana never did either, soft footfalls, slinking around the castle, sweet smiles and all the while her heart hurting with a terrible wrong, revenge eating away at her. Merlin plays the fool, Arthur has mocked him for his weakness on more than one occasion, but he must have hidden reserves of strength to bear the weight of so many secrets. To bear the weight of a love for a prince who never notices his devotion, to protect him from not only the dangers of this world but the knowledge of this great destiny. And he wants to tell him sorry, tell him you idiot, if we're supposed to share a destiny, you're doing the sharing part wrong.
"Arthur?" Lancelot's there at his elbow. "Merlin's awake. He's been asking for you."
Merlin tries to sit up as Arthur crawls into the tent, but Arthur frowns at him.
"Don't. Your shoulder. You need rest." Merlin nods at him, unable to mask the relief as he settles back down, lying on his left side. His eyes seem clear enough, now.
"How are you feeling?" Arthur asks.
"Like crap," Merlin replies with a grimace. He seems lucid, at the least. "Have I been out long?"
"Not too long," Arthur assures him and is surprised, when he thinks about it, just how little time has passed since the previous eve, when Merlin was taken. It seems a week, at the least. "You fainted like a girl," he points out and Merlin glares at him. "Lancelot cleaned and dressed your wound for you. You were... not quite with it." He looks sidelong at Merlin, then, as covertly as he can, waiting for any sign of recognition of what he has given away this day. There's none, and Arthur doesn't know whether to be relieved, or disappointed. He knows that now is hardly the right time for a confrontation about the magic, about the many, many lies that Merlin has told to him over the years. And yet there's a part of him that wants to grab Merlin, to demand, you said you loved me, did you mean it, did you, because I think...
Arthur shakes himself and turns away to hide the sudden colour in his cheeks.
"Arthur?" Merlin's voice is so full of concern for him, for him, although he's the one who's been shot and captured and sick with fever. Arthur wonders how he missed this; the magic, all of it, but especially this, Merlin's devotion to him. It shines so bright it takes his breath away and Arthur can't help but wonder whether it was just one more thing he wasn't ready to see.
"I've..." he clears his throat, embarrassed at the gruffness in his own voice, "I've some salve, in my pack, for injuries, do you think it might ease your shoulder?"
"Thank you. You don't..." But Arthur is gone before Merlin can finish the sentence. He crosses to his pack without exchanging a word with either of his knights, although he can feel their eyes on him. He roots around until he finds the salve in its earthen jar, grabbing an extra blanket as well. It was an excuse, really, to get out of the tent but now that he thinks about it it might do Merlin some good.
He pauses at the entrance to the tent.
"Gwaine, you've got first watch."
Merlin's eyes are closed when Arthur steals back inside, but they flutter open when he sits down beside him.
"Hey," he says drowsily.
"Hay is for horses, Merlin. Here, you'll need to hitch your shirt up." Merlin complies, turning so he is lying half on his front. Arthur peels back Lancelot's bandages and surveys the wound critically. The arrow hasn't struck deep and there's no fresh blood, but the skin is ragged and torn where the arrowhead has been pulled out. Arthur uncorks the bottle and hesitates only a moment before he pours a measure of the ointment onto Merlin's shoulder blade.
"'S cold," Merlin complains.
"Stop whining, Merlin. Call this a battle wound? It's hardly a scratch." But Arthur's hands are gentle as he works the ointment into Merlin's skin, mindful not to get it into the raw site of the wound. Merlin sighs, a soft exhale of breath, seeming to echo in the stillness of the tent. Outside, Arthur can hear the crackle of the fire and the low hum of his knights' voices, the distant hoot of an owl.
Merlin shivers beneath his hands and Arthur's suddenly aware that really, he has been touching him for far longer than necessary. He doesn't want to stop, though. Now that he's finally allowing himself to touch, he can't get enough of the feel of Merlin's skin beneath his his hands. He lets his fingers trail further down the line of Merlin's spine, moving back up his sides, dancing over his ribs. His skin feels nicely warm, no longer too-hot and feverish. Merlin shifts to lie on his side, facing Arthur, and Arthur mirrors his movement, propping himself up on his elbow as he continues to run his hands over him. They don't look at each other directly, catching shadowed glimpses from the corners of their eyes. Arthur grows bolder, dipping one finger just below the waistband of Merlin's trousers or seeking out the heat of the hollow of his neck. Merlin's breath hitches a little at this and slowly, tentatively, one of his hands comes to rest on Arthur's hip, fingers slipping just beneath Arthur's shirt, tracing small, soft circles on the same patch of skin until Arthur feels himself break out in goosebumps, needing more.
He hears his own breathing become more erratic as he slides his hand up into Merlin's hair, curling a strand around his finger, before sweeping his hand back down once more. His hand resting on the small of Merlin's back, he brings one knee up to nudge between Merlin's, turning into him so that they're closer still. It's now obvious that they're both rock hard. Arthur dares himself to move his hand still lower, running over the backs of Merlin's thighs, sword-calluses catching on the rough woollen material of his trousers.
There's a sudden burst of laughter from outside, Gwaine, damn him. It brings home just where they are and who they are and what they're doing and his hand stills. They could stop now, pretend this never happened. After all, nothing much has happened yet, they haven't even kissed, haven't even looked one another in the eye since it all began. It's just a bit of comforting touch that's got out of hand, so to speak. But then Merlin inhales, a sharp gasp of breath and he's so close that if Arthur tilts his head just an inch, their noses will bump gently together and from there it's the most natural thing in the world to close the last remaining gap between their lips until they're kissing, soft and sweet and tentative, as their hands resume their exploration of each other's bodies. Their tongues slide together, thick and wet and torturously slow. Arthur feels an overwhelming and unfamiliar tenderness for this man beside him and despite all the reasons they shouldn't be doing this he can't help but deepen the kiss, scrabbling for the laces of Merlin's trousers and wrapping his hand firmly around the length of him. Merlin moans and arches into him, needy and compliant as he mirrors Arthur's actions, hands seeking and grasping and squeezing, a frantic flurry of movement.
Arthur pants helplessly against Merlin's mouth as the stroking grows more erratic. He wants more than this, wants everything. To lay him bare and seek out all the hot places of his body with his tongue, to lick and suck until he spills all of his secrets, to leave him wet and trembling with no more reserves between them.
Merlin comes with a strangled gasp, Arthur following him soon after, pressing his mouth to Merlin's to muffle his own groans. Merlin succumbs quickly to sleep. Arthur almost envies him. He reaches for a scrap of material to clean them with and settles back down with one arm thrown protectively over his sleeping friend. It's when he finds himself dropping a soft kiss onto Merlin's brow, the word mine forming on his lips that he realises that for all the revelations there have been today, the most surprising may be the extent of his own feelings for Merlin.
Birdsong wakes Arthur as the grey light of dawn filters through the red material that has provided their roof for the night. He blinks, a momentary surprise that neither Gwaine nor Lancelot has woken him for his turn on watch, followed by a flush that spreads quickly across his cheeks as he remembers the night before, and wonders, now, just how much his knights have heard or guessed about what transpired. He looks down at Merlin who is still fast asleep and rolls his eyes. He nudges him gently.
"Merlin. Merlin, time to get up." Merlin doesn't stir. Arthur frowns and shakes him gently. "Merlin?" He slaps his face lightly but there's no response. "Lancelot!" he roars, "Gwaine, get in here!"
"What happened?" Lancelot asks, as he checks Merlin's pulse, still beating strong, at least.
"I don't know!" Arthur pulls at his hair, making no attempt to conceal his worry. "Last night he seemed... recovered. Lucid. We... talked. But now he won't wake."
"We need to get him to Gaius," Lancelot says. Arthur's mouth sets into a grim line. Camelot is still a day's ride away. Longer, perhaps, with an injured man, and two on one horse.
"Quickly then," Arthur says, "Help me get him onto my horse. You can finish packing up the camp and catch us up."
They carry out his instructions in silence. Even if they had wanted to protest, Arthur's unblinking determination would have proven enough of a deterrent. Merlin's eyelids don't so much as flicker as they move him, and Arthur wishes he would recover enough to confess to further treasons, to siring a passel of illegitimate brats, to having a predilection for women's clothing, anything, rather than this unnatural stillness.
"Not like you to be so quiet, Merlin," Arthur tries to tease but when his voice catches on his name, he cuts himself off.
He remembers a story from when he was small about a wicked sorcerer who enchanted a fair maiden into a deep sleep, only to be awoken by a kiss from a handsome prince. He remembers the faces he pulled at the time, protesting that proper princes fought with swords, they did not go around kissing maidens. But now he thinks how much more was wrong with the story, now with his sorcerer in his arms, sent into a deep sleep after a kiss, not awoken from one.
He spurs his horse onwards.
At noon, they are met by their own reinforcements, a company of knights headed by Sir Leon. Arthur fills him in quickly on their rescue attempt and the mercenaries' demise - not mentioning his suspicions about Merlin's part in their escape – before explaining Merlin's current condition and the need for a swift return to Camelot. Loyalty, good sense and discretion have always been the qualities Arthur values most highly in Leon, and he shows his worth when he asks no questions, signalling for Percival to join them.
"Sire?" The relief Arthur felt on seeing the knights is replaced by a sudden fierce spike of possessiveness as Merlin is taken from him. He knows it is the sensible thing to do, that his horse is tiring, but he doesn't like it, all the same. He watches Percival and Merlin ride off with a heavy heart, before turning once more to Leon with questions about how his father has fared in his absence, how Elyan is recovering from his wound, what new petitions have come forth for consideration and other state matters that don't feel half as urgent as they should.
There are any number of things requiring his immediate attention upon his return to Camelot but most of them, Arthur thinks, can wait until morning. Gwen is there to meet them in the courtyard, Elyan by her side. Her face is lined with worry, an expression that is becoming all too familiar on her face of late. Arthur gives her a strained smile and clasps her arm briefly as he passes, but leaves the explanations to Lancelot. It's not until much later that he considers that doing so may have been symbolic of a larger decision, one he didn't yet know he had made.
A guard approaches to tell him that his father has been asking to see him. With a weary sigh, Arthur follows, knowing this is the one thing that cannot be put off, even if he wanted it to be; a frail king he may be, but a king's orders are a king's orders all the same. Not that Arthur would ever refuse to visit his father in any case; much as his condition breaks his heart, much as he feels that there are some things that may be better off under his jurisdiction than Uther's (the treatment of magic users for one, but he's not thinking about that, not now), he is his father, still, and he loves him.
The audience doesn't last long. Arthur tells him only the basics; that Camelot's enemies were defeated, the Northern villages were safe once more and there were injuries but no fatalities on Camelot's side. He doesn't mention Merlin's name, and if his facade falters as he mentions the injuries sustained, then it goes unnoticed. He doesn't mention his suspicions about Carleon, either. No need to trouble his father with something he doesn't yet have the evidence to back up. The king smiles benignly and tells him vaguely that he's satisfied which is about as close as Arthur can expect to get to approval, even though Uther is much mellower these days and more inclined to praise.
Arthur wonders whether he ought to feign an injury himself as an excuse to visit Gaius's chambers. He forces himself to keep a check on his feelings, at least while under public scrutiny. He is king in all but name, after all. There are altogether too many things that need to be digested, discussed, decided. Being in close proximity to Merlin only seems to lead to recklessness and the inability to think clearly, in his recent experience. He collars the nearest servant, instead, to ask for word to be sent to him of Merlin's condition. Even though there's a part of him that names this cowardice.
Gwaine knocks on his door just as he is about to ready himself for bed.
"Yes?" Arthur tenses, hackles raised, preparing himself for Gwaine to give him a hard time, all the arguments he's just run through in his own head for not running to see Merlin bubbling to the surface in readiness.
"Sire," Gwaine's tone is measured, none of the lack of deference he displayed in the forest. "I just thought you might like to know that Merlin is resting now. Gaius seems to think the fever will burn itself out soon enough." He makes to leave without waiting for a reply.
"Thank you," Arthur says, in time to see Gwaine duck his head in acknowledgement.
Arthur dispatches his morning's duties with as much haste as is seemly, before heading down the stairs to Gaius's chambers, coming to a stop outside the door. Gaius might consider the fever harmless, and Arthur would normally have utter faith in his diagnosis, but what about the magic? What if that is a factor that could make a harmless-seeming fever into something life-threatening? Arthur hesitates as he considers how much he trusts Gaius. There is magic in the old man's past, he is aware of that, but Gaius has always been his father's staunch supporter throughout the purge and in the years since. There's nothing to indicate that he wouldn't turn Merlin in, despite his apparent fondness for him. But then again, there's nothing to indicate that Arthur wouldn't do the same, although he knows in his heart he could never see Merlin suffer for it. He thinks he understands, then, just why Merlin had to hide this, and forgives him for it.
The sound of low voices within catches his attention and he pauses with the door half ajar, straining to hear if one of the voices is Merlin's.
"...magical exhaustion, I suppose, although it's never happened before, to my knowledge. You say it was very powerful?"
"I've never seen anything like it." Lancelot. Not Merlin, then.
"It's possible. My books talk of sorcerers who fell into comas after performing complicated spells. But with Merlin, things often just... happen."
Arthur's doesn't know whether to laugh in relief or to scream and shout. His worries about Gaius turning Merlin in were, it seems, unfounded. But on the other hand, it seems that two more people have been keeping this secret from him and goodness knows how many more. He is prince of a court full of liars and traitors, and those closest to him the worst offenders.
"He was bound when we found him," Lancelot continues, "With iron shackles. They had a kind of marking upon them, a little like Druid lettering."
"Ah, that could be something. If they were somehow aware of his powers and had access to magical items that could be used for restraining those with magical abilities..."
"It might explain why they took him in the first place," Lancelot chimes in.
Arthur decides he can't stand here and listen to any more of their theorising.
"So," he demands, as he bursts in to the room, feeling only the tiniest kick of satisfaction from the way both of their faces suddenly pale, "It didn't occur to either of you to mention to me that my dearest friend is a sorcerer?" Gaius's eyebrows climb further, and Arthur can't think what he's said to shock him further. "You didn't think it might be useful? Even though I had to risk my life and that of my knights to rescue the idiot from warlock-snatching bandits?"
"Sire," Gaius's voice trembles slightly, pleading, "If you only knew how often Merlin has saved your life with his magic." Arthur snorts. He doesn't doubt it. He's had plenty of time on the journey back to Camelot to consider all the instances of 'luck' over the past few years, all the bouts of convenient unconsciousness or sudden inexplicable victories, and attribute the majority of them to Merlin and his abilities.
Arthur rounds on Lancelot, ignoring Gaius's pleading. He has no intention of allowing Merlin to be harmed in any way, but it won't hurt to leave the old man in limbo for a while longer, in payment for his concealment.
"He told you. You." He doesn't mean to sound jealous and petulant but he's afraid that's exactly how it comes out. It's a bitter twist in the tale, to discover that Merlin trusted Lancelot above him. "And you, all of you have -"
"Arthur?" Silence descends on the room as three pairs of eyes turn to look at Merlin, leaning in the doorway to his room, wrapped in a blanket, hair sleep-rumpled, rubbing one hand across his forehead. "I don't suppose you could keep it down, could you? I've got a hell of a headache."
He gives a tentative grin, for all the tiredness that is plainly written across his face. Arthur's heart floods with relief at the sight of him, easing some of the guilt gripping his heart at the idea that Merlin's continued sickness might be his own fault for his lack of restraint in the tent. He crosses the room, no hesitation, not this time, and catches Merlin's hands in his.
"You're awake." He can barely look at him, afraid his feelings are all too obvious to Merlin and their audience. His voice is rough and tender, though, and there's nothing he can do to help that. "You remember what happened?"
"I was shot. I think. There was a dungeon and chains. They were..." He stops himself. "You came for me," he says, with a small smile for Arthur. Then his eyes seek out Lancelot. "And you, of course, and Gwaine. And then... not much after that, I'm afraid." He gives a nervous laugh. "I feel a little saddle sore so I'm going to hazard a guess there was horse riding involved."
Arthur feels numb. He doesn't remember. He doesn't remember any of it. He barks out a sharp, bitter laugh, disguised as a cough. He looks at Merlin, then, but he's not meeting his eyes, his skin flushed pink as he frowns at Gaius and Lancelot. Arthur steps back, drawing himself up. He can't stay. Cannot have the conversation about the magic and the lies and everything else here, with Gaius and Lancelot as well, when Merlin doesn't even seem to remember the way they kissed and held each other like that was the only thing in the world that mattered.
He all but flees to the sanctuary of his room.
Arthur leans his head against the post of his bed. This is such a mess. The more he thinks about the night in the tent the more he fears that he took advantage of Merlin somehow. For all he appeared more than willing, for all his feverish declarations of love, he wasn't in his right mind and Arthur should never have touched him. He feels a sickening sense of shame prickling his skin. How can he apologise for something Merlin doesn't even remember taking place? Perhaps it would be better for everyone if it was never mentioned, and yet... And yet now that he's started to realise how he feels about Merlin, the thought of never sharing that with him again is like a lead weight in his heart.
Feigning ignorance isn't an option, in any case. Even if Merlin himself is unaware of anything he said in his delirium, Gaius and Lancelot know that Arthur is aware now of Merlin's magic. Given the way he behaved just now in the physician's chambers, Arthur wouldn't be surprised if the three of them have packed their bags ready to flee Camelot already. He smacks his head against the bedpost in frustration.
Arthur sends a message to Gaius, soon after leaving his chambers, to say that Merlin is on no account to return to his duties until he is quite recovered. He hopes that the note conveys the 'I can't see you right now but please don't flee Camelot' message he intends. He orders extra ham and fruits to be sent from the kitchens with his compliments, just to be sure, and he has Elyan, whose wound is recovered enough to allow him to walk about the castle but not enough to return to full training, put in charge of bringing him regular reports on Merlin's progress. He tries not to show too much impatience when those reports aren't quite as regular as he secretly would like.
He's busy, in the meantime with the knights' training and matters of state. There is a delegation from Bayard to prepare for, and Arthur can't shake the nagging worry that Escar and the bandits they dealt with may have had Carleon's support, close as they were to the border. There's the continuing search for Morgana, as well, with reports of sightings to the West. Arthur is oddly relieved to discover that it is unlikely she had anything to do with Merlin's capture. And then, of course, there are the smaller issues, the grain reports, the minor skirmishes, a diseased well in an outlying village, a constant parade of noblemen with sons they wish to send as squires or potential knights.
It's not that he doesn't think about Merlin. A good portion of his time is taken up with trying not to think about him quite so much and the rest of the time – well, the rest of the time he just gives in. And sends more fruit. While he's in no doubt just how much Merlin means to him as a friend – more than a friend – Arthur finds himself beginning to realise just how much he's come to rely on Merlin's advice, his counsel.
He manages to side-step conversation with Lancelot, putting him in charge of the guard rota in the lower town. A position of responsibility, not a demotion, but one that keeps him away from the castle. It also means that Lancelot will be in closer proximity to Guinevere; a subtle sort of way of telling them they have his blessing, or a ruse to make people think that it is Lancelot's closeness to Gwen that is the reason for their distance. Perhaps both. Arthur thinks he's beginning to get the hang of this subterfuge lark. It must be catching, he decides, with a quiet, mirthless laugh.
Arthur visits Merlin the first opportunity he gets, and isn't sorry to find him asleep. At least not when it appears to be a healthy, normal sleep, with no sweating or sleep talking. Arthur sits, for what time he can spare, in silence for the most part because while Merlin's confessions may have been made unconsciously, he wants to save his own for when Merlin can hear them. He's hesitant to touch him, not when they have yet to talk about what happened between them, but it's too much of an effort not to reach out, not to set free just a little of this affection that feels like it's filling his heart full to bursting. He goes to squeeze Merlin's shoulder, but thinks better of it, taking Merlin's hand in his instead and raising it tenderly to his lips.
There's a cough at the door and he drops Merlin's hand guiltily before turning to find Gwaine lounging against the doorframe.
"Don't mind me."
"I never do," Arthur says, rising to his feet. Gwaine smirks.
"You know," he says, all casual grace as he saunters in, "I've known Merlin was besotted with you since the time we travelled to the perilous lands. I wasn't sure it was mutual, at the time, but it is, isn't it?"
"I don't see that that's any of your business," Arthur returns stiffly.
"Well, maybe not. But I'm glad all the same. He's a special case, our Merlin." Gwaine gives him a rueful grin. Arthur looks down at Merlin, at the shallow rise and fall of his chest and for once doesn't bother with bluster or obfuscation as he replies, saying simply,
Arthur doesn't even look up from the interminable grain reports he's spent the best part of the afternoon examining when the door to his chambers opens a while before dusk. It's high time the fire was lit, and the servant can best get on with their task without interruption. It's blazing in no time and Arthur allows himself a wry, sad smile thinking of Merlin's 'knack' with fires, when he looks up to be greeted with a shaky, apologetic grin.
"Anything else, sire?"
"Merlin!" He's on his feet in no time, steering his surprised manservant into a chair. "You shouldn't be out of bed; you're supposed to be resting."
"I'm feeling quite well," Merlin assures him, something suspicious in his tone. Arthur notices his hands are still clasped around Merlin's arms and drops them immediately. "Thanks for all the fruit," Merlin says, but Arthur can tell from the way he's biting his lip that that's not what he most wants to say.
"Look, Merlin," Arthur begins, not even sure how he's going to finish that sentence, when Merlin interrupts.
"Arthur, I know you know about the magic. Gaius told me you overheard him and Lancelot." Merlin sits, twisting the hem of his linen shirt between his finger and thumb. Arthur sighs.
"I already knew before then," he tells him. "I just didn't know that they knew. You talk in your sleep," he adds in explanation, when Merlin wrinkles his nose at him in confusion.
"Ah." Merlin flushes. "I feared as much. Lancelot said..."
"Yes?" Arthur, still crouching on the floor in front of him, feels his heart speed up as he wonders exactly how much Lancelot has told him, exactly how much Lancelot knows to be able to tell him. But Merlin shakes his head, cheeks pink as he no doubt imagines what else he might have let slip.
"I'm sorry," he says, sincerely, and Arthur acknowledges his apology with a nod.
"For what it's worth, I'm not going to have you beheaded," he says.
"Comfort to hear." Merlin is still nervous, he can tell.
"Bit difficult to carry out your destiny without a head, I should think." He flashes Merlin a quick, only slightly strained smile, then sighs. "I... I understand, I think. Why you couldn't tell me. One day I'm going to ask you to tell me everything, but I don't need you to. Not right now."
"Thank you," Merlin says, a little misty eyed as he looks at him and Arthur has to look away.
"It doesn't mean I'm not still angry with you. Or that I don't still think you're an idiot. You could have been killed, Merlin, so many times over!"
"I didn't know you cared," Merlin aims for casual but misses completely, his tone too brittle. Arthur's throat feels raw as he can't help but reply,
"Of course I bloody do." He gets up and walks away. He can feel Merlin frowning at him, eyes all but burning a hole in the back of his favourite brown jacket. He clears his throat. "You'd better go and get some sleep. Wouldn't want an incompetent sorcerer-servant setting my bedlinens on fire."
Merlin rises from the chair and heads to the door, giving Arthur an odd look as he pauses on his way out, one hand curled around the doorframe.
"You do know it's not even dinner time, don't you?"
"So, send someone up with a tray." Arthur waves a hand, dismissing him. Merlin pauses a moment longer, hurt unmistakeable in the way his jaw sets, the way he makes to leave without so much as a riposte. Arthur relents, unable to bear being the cause of it.
"Hey," he calls softly. Merlin turns back.
"Hay is for horses," he responds, almost automatically. Then blinks and stills, one hand rising as if involuntarily to his mouth. Arthur can't help but stare at him, a mixture of trepidation and longing, as Merlin's expression transforms.
"You prat!" Merlin accuses all of a sudden, letting the door fall shut once more, "You utter prat!"
"What...?" Arthur gulps, completely unprepared for this confrontation. Merlin marches right up to him, jabbing one finger accusingly at Arthur's chest.
"You... you... cauliflower-brained ass! You kissed me. We kissed. More than..." Merlin breaks off, the tips of his ears going crimson. Arthur feels his heart flutter and fall, certain Merlin is going to accuse him of molesting him. He raises his hands, palms up in supplication.
"I'm sorry. I should never have acted in such a way, I know it was unforgivable, I just..." There's no excuse he can make beyond his own desire and his firm belief that Merlin shared it, at the time. Merlin looks confused, then recovers, a little less angry.
"Three days, Arthur! I thought I'd dreamed it. You let me believe that I'd... that I'd declared my undying love for you in my sleep and that all this was some kind of drawn out humiliating rejection when all along you..." Merlin stops, appears to consider. "Or is this your way of telling me not to expect anything further? Because I think you owe it to me to tell me straight out."
Arthur wants to point out that Merlin of all people is in no position to demand honesty. For a moment, he considers that letting Merlin believe that he doesn't want him might be the most sensible course of action. He loves Merlin. There's no use in pretending he doesn't. But there's no use pretending this will be easy, either, for either of them. He wants to explain all that, to make clear that there's more than love at stake, here, there's duty and destiny and the weight of a kingdom that must always come first.
But of course Merlin knows all that. Maybe better than Arthur himself. And Merlin is looking at him with such hope in his eyes and Arthur can't ignore the way his own heart swells in answer. Can't help but answer his question by reaching up and cupping Merlin's cheek tenderly, swiping one thumb over his still-bruised cheekbone.
"Merlin. I'm not such a – what was it? – a cauliflower-brained ass that I don't know how much you've done for me." Arthur pauses, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth. "You said something about destiny?"
"Apparently," Merlin says, the hint of nervous laughter in the hitch of his breath as Arthur leans in closer, brushing his lips with his own.
"Well," Arthur says, "I can't think of anyone I'd rather share it with."