Battles had always been Arthur's forte. He was born to the sword, and had spent his lifetime honing every skill surrounding its use. He could see patterns laid out clearly in his mind, start to finish, each move the opposing forces would make, each counter he would pursue. He planned his offensive strategies in detail, to take best advantage of all he had learned in his years behind the sword. The result of his careful preparations had borne fruit a hundred times before, whether in skirmishes or repelling full-on assaults: he was not afraid to die, and therefore he was confident he would win.
It was a successful approach, until it went spectacularly wrong.
The skirmishes with Cenred's men at the border had increased in frequency and size since Cenred's death and the defeat of his tragically transformed army. The power vacuum had given rise to many distinct factions, each intent on proving their right to the territory by taking not only their own kingdom back, but Camelot's lands as well. So it was that Arthur found himself embroiled in what should have been a minor skirmish at Camelot's border with Escetia, fighting from horseback as the latest challenge was put forth.
"Not such a small army, is it?" Gwaine shouted, as he dismounted near Arthur to step into the fray.
Arthur would have replied, but he was busy burying his sword in the chest of an Escetian whose sword had missed Arthur by a fraction of an inch. He unhorsed the warrior, and turned to see Gwaine staggered by a sound blow to his neck -- where armor did not protect him.
"To Gwaine!" he shouted, aware the cry would bring Percival and Lancelot to his side as soon as they were able to break away, because they were closest to the point of battle. He turned his horse and crashed into the warrior who was poised to deliver Gwaine's death blow, trampling him without a second thought. Gwaine dropped to his knees, but waved a hand, signaling that he could carry on.
Arthur gripped his reins and moved to turn his horse, just as a sword crashed into his side, the force of the blow more than enough to cut through all protections, down through skin and muscle and bone. His mail hung open, cut cleanly and useless against any weapon.
Each moment thereafter unfolded for Arthur with sharp clarity, as if he was frozen in time. First, the second bite of the sword, cleaving through what remained of his mail and delving clean into his side, deeper than any wound he had ever experienced before. The pain washed into him, through him, taking his breath with it, and what little sense he still possessed was blown from him when he fell from his horse, and his sword clattered from his hand.
On his back, he glanced up to see the Escetian warrior over him, a triumphant snarl on his face with broken teeth bared, blood trickling down his forehead and matted in his hair. Arthur's fingers twitched toward his sword by instinct and closed around the hilt, but he wouldn't be able to wield it with enough strength to strike a killing blow.
A stunned inevitability rocked him. He would still try, until his literal last breath, but it would not be enough. The Escetian would end it quickly, or he would bleed out here, but it was over. He would not survive.
Two cries sounded behind the Escetian, one a growl of rage, the other a grunt of effort, and the points of two swords emerged from the Escetian's chest. When they withdrew, the Escetian began to topple toward Arthur, and was yanked back violently and tossed to the side. Percival stood there, having thrown the Escetian like a rag doll; Gwaine was by his side, sword dripping with fresh blood, his hand covering the gash at his neck. Arthur spared a moment to be profoundly grateful that Gwaine's wound was not so serious -- not for himself, but for his most reluctant knight, whose head had nearly been separated from his body.
A moment later, Merlin pushed between them and dropped to his knees at Arthur's side. It was amazing how often Merlin was close to Arthur in the heat of battle, despite Arthur's repeated warnings and commands to remain back at the camp, where he could not be harmed. He was a fool, but he was Arthur's fool, and in that moment, Arthur was selfishly glad Merlin never listened to anything he was told to do.
"Arthur!" Merlin cried, fear and grief on his features, as he bent near. Arthur recognized the expression on his face, knew the feeling manifested by the frantic touch of his hands, first on Arthur's wrist, and then on any inch of skin not covered by blood and armor. Arthur had felt that way before, with Merlin, had wanted nothing more than to reassure himself with touch when Merlin was injured, and he knew the feeling for what it was now.
Merlin, Arthur thought, and I wish we had more time.
And then all was darkness.
When sense returned, so did pain. Arthur squeezed his eyes more tightly closed and tried to will it away, but it refused to obey him. Typical. Merlin was all wrong; he was no great king. In fact, he was a rubbish king. Even his own body would not cooperate with his commands.
He became aware of voices, low and urgent, angry. "There's no one else," the first said. Elyan. "The riders won't return with Gaius for a day, and we haven't the time."
"We can't even be sure that dog is a physician," Gwaine replied. "He could kill Arthur. How can we--"
"It's not relevant," Lancelot said, soft and calm as always. "He can do no harm, now. Either he will help, or he will speed the king to his death, but there is no one else."
"Fine," Leon said, his tone clipped. Arthur could sense the strain in his voice. "Bring him in, then."
Arthur realized he might want to be awake for this. After all, a king was not supposed to show weakness, and he had been a king for such a short time. Barely long enough to choose his knights, have a coronation, and go to war. Not a very impressive list of achievements; he hadn't even died in a particularly impressive way. Uther would have been dreadfully disappointed.
He blinked open his eyes, and the pain began to magnify with every speck of light against his eyeballs. Red surrounded him -- the camp tent, fluttering gently in the breeze. Dim light -- torches. It was night, then. He had been senseless for some time. Long enough to cause his knights to descend into arguments over his welfare, which was never a good sign.
Merlin was sitting at the edge of his bed, watching him. "Arthur," he said, voice cracking, and as one, the knights behind him turned.
"Sire," Leon said, coming closer. He crouched at the bedside, close enough for Arthur to see the lines of worry and fear etched on his face. The last time Leon had looked so concerned, Uther had been dying. "It's good to see you awake."
"How long?" Arthur asked, frowning to hear his own voice, rusty like the creak of a weathered hinge.
"A few hours, sire. We feared..." Leon swallowed. "The wound would not stop bleeding."
"The battle?" It was all he cared about, in truth; that the tide was turned, and Camelot was safe.
"Won," Merlin said, his fingers a gentle pressure upon Arthur's wrist. "The Escetians have forfeited the field."
"Decisively," Leon added. "Their leader waits to surrender to you."
"And the pretender to the throne?"
"Not near the battle," Leon said. "If he was in fact in control of this lot, which we don't know."
"Is someone going to get the physician?" Gwaine broke in, loud and unapologetic. He put a hand on Merlin's shoulder, patted once, and Merlin reluctantly rose to his feet to make room for Gwaine. The loss of Merlin's warm touch made Arthur frown. "Sire, there is an Escetian prisoner outside who claims to be experienced with battle wounds. We've sent for Gaius, but your wounds...we feel they should be seen to immediately. Merlin's knowledge of the healing arts is limited, and there isn't time to waste."
"Then bring him in."
Leon glowered at Gwaine, who met his stare with equal anger. Leon turned to Arthur. "Sire, I don't trust--"
"Bring him in," Arthur said again, stronger this time, the rust falling away from his throat. "Merlin, you will stay. Leon and Gwaine, you also. The rest of you, wait outside."
A flurry of bowed heads and rustling capes, and the knights moved out into the camp, leaving only Merlin with him. Arthur closed his eyes for a moment to concentrate on overcoming the pain. No matter how bad his wounds truly were, the Escetians needed to know he was alive, and appeared strong. Word would spread among them that Camelot's king was still breathing, and that could prove to be important, if Arthur's recovery was long.
"Arthur," Merlin said. There was clear distress in his tone, and for the first time, Arthur looked into his eyes.
"That bad?" he asked.
Merlin bit his lip, and his warm fingers were back, curling around Arthur's forearm like he couldn't help himself.
"Help me sit up," Arthur said, bracing a hand against the edge of his cot. Merlin's arm slipped beneath his back, and took most of his weight. Arthur could not even pretend he was strong enough to move on his own power. Merlin shoved pillows and furs behind him, and Arthur hissed at the sudden stabbing pains radiating through his chest and abdomen as he reclined.
The argument Merlin wanted to voice was written all over his chiding expression, but for once, he held his tongue. That alone worried Arthur more than all the pain, more than the worried faces of his knights. Arthur sighed out as Merlin arranged the blanket over him, his fingertips ghosting against the bandage wrapped across Arthur's belly. For the first time, Arthur considered the actual wound. It was still bleeding; a slow ooze of red was spreading over the pristine white. The pain told him clearly how large the wound was, how deep.
Belly wounds were usually fatal, in Arthur's experience. Arthur was nothing if not a pragmatist. He had seen too many men die from complications of even the simplest cuts, but Gaius could do miracles, or so it had always seemed to Arthur. He could hang on that long, at least, and in the meantime, he would put on a show for the Escetian men, one that even their leader could not deny.
Over Merlin's shoulder, Leon and Gwaine approached, bearing a strange man between them. His clothing and armor was Escetian, and his face was streaked with the dust of the battlefield. Many men's blood saturated his clothing and stained his skin.
"Your majesty," he said, bowing, sufficient respect even without Leon's firm hand on his shoulder.
Arthur nodded to him, and Leon cut the ties which bound his hands. Merlin shifted to the side, but made no move to leave him, and the Escetian knelt by his bedside. "Water," he said. "For my hands."
"Stop wasting time," Gwaine growled.
"No," Merlin said. He rose quickly and ran to the table, bringing back a bowl and towel. "Gaius says cleanliness is important." He offered the bowl to the physician, whose gratitude showed in his eyes. He washed quickly; the towel turned dark red as he finished with it.
When he turned his attentions at last to Arthur, his manner was quick and efficient, much like Gaius's ministrations often were. Arthur turned away from the sight of his own wound, exposed to the air. He caught and held Merlin's gaze. Merlin, whose agitation was tempered with an eerie calmness, much as if he knew his king needed it of him. Merlin was always there to provide what was needed.
It was strange that at this moment, Arthur should want nothing more than to reach out a hand for him, to draw Merlin back to his side, to draw him down into his arms. There had always been something about Merlin, his devotion, and Arthur had thought there might be time, one day, for such indulgences. Someday, when the business of running a kingdom was not foremost on his mind. Someday, when the situation with Gwen was settled.
The searing pain tearing its way through his body told him that someday was no longer an option for him, and he gasped, lifting his chin. The Escetian physician carefully rewrapped the wound and looked up at Arthur. "Sire," he said. "There is nothing I can do. It would not be beneficial to sew the wound, as I would only seal in corruption. The wound must be cleaned every few hours, until it begins to heal. Once that begins, only time will tell."
"Your honest opinion," Arthur said.
"You are strong," the Escetian said. "You may yet survive it, but I have rarely seen men live long after such a blow."
"You do not know our king, then," Leon snarled, and Merlin reached out a hand, an automatic gesture, to calm Arthur's longest-serving knight. Leon quieted and stepped back a pace, though muted fury remained in his eyes. The sight of it tugged at Arthur's heart. He had never realized how much his knights loved Merlin, and how much sway his servant held over them.
Then again, this was Merlin, and it should not have surprised him at all.
"I am sorry," the Escetian said, his head inclined in the way men have of accepting their fate. He probably expected to be put to death for bringing bad news. "In a day or so, we shall see if the wound festers, and all will become clear."
"Thank you," Arthur said. He straightened his spine. "You may go." He nodded to Leon, whose desperate fury was not tempered at all by the way Merlin had interrupted his anger with a touch. "Take him back to the prisoners. Make sure he is not harmed, and that none there suffer."
"Sire." Gwaine and Leon removed the Escetian, but they were not rough with him.
Merlin was back at his side immediately, drawing the blankets up and fussing until Arthur slapped his hands away. "Merlin, make yourself useful, if that isn't too much trouble for you, and find some broth."
"You're hungry?" The hopeful look on Merlin's face was almost too much to bear. Arthur forced himself to narrow his eyes for proper effect.
"Tell me, why else would I ask you to rouse yourself from this comfortable perch and set about getting my dinner?"
"All right," Merlin grumbled, with a reproachful look, but the worry did not leave his eyes.
When he had gone, Arthur gave in to the deep desire to slide back down against the hard mattress, one hand across the wet bandage. His own blood came away on his fingertips, as if seeking to flee what was left of his body. He was not hungry, and it didn't matter; he couldn't keep his eyes open. Slowly, he succumbed to the need for sleep, and darkness overtook him.
Two or three times over the course of the night, Arthur woke from fitful sleep, and always, Merlin was there -- standing, sitting, ever nearby regardless of who else might be keeping vigil. Arthur caught Gwaine in the throes of a dream, one hand on Arthur's shoulder, fingers twitching as he battled unseen foes in his sleep. He watched Gwaine for a while, wondering at the fierce loyalty Gwaine freely gave to him, and where it had come from. Even now, he felt undeserving of it, of Gwaine's steady presence among his most trusted advisors.
Merlin sat at the foot of the bed, watching Arthur watch Gwaine. He was entirely silent; only his eyes glittered in the dark, as if he was waiting for something, some signal to rise, or speak. Arthur held his stare for a long moment, comfortable in the silence, until sleep took him again.
When next Arthur woke, Lancelot was there. Merlin was at Arthur's other side, rewrapping a fresh bandage tight around Arthur's ribs. His hands were trembling, and his nose was red.
Arthur sighed. "Are you dampening the bandages, Merlin?" he asked, his voice even rougher than before. It was startling, even to him. "I'll have you know, this level of incompetence is going to be frowned upon by Gaius when he arrives. I'll have to make a full report, of course."
"Of course." Merlin tied the ends of the dressing together with the gentlest touch imaginable, so light Arthur couldn't even feel it. Merlin reached down and produced a cup, and his hand slipped beneath Arthur's head to lift it, bringing water to his lips.
It was delicious, cool and wet against his aching throat, better than the best wine. Merlin's fingertips pressed against his skin, not quite carding through his hair, but as near as. When he lowered Arthur's head, Arthur was almost disappointed by the absence of his touch.
Sleep had given some clarity to the direction of Arthur's thoughts. As if he could see the flame of his life burning down past the candle marks, he knew there was not much time. So many things he had left to do; so few of them were truly important.
"Merlin," he said, meeting Lancelot's eyes. "Leave us, for a moment."
Merlin nodded. When he got to his feet, he exchanged glances with Lancelot before making his way out.
Arthur shifted his attention to Lancelot, who looked very much worse than Merlin had. The bruises of sleeplessness were beneath his eyes, and exhaustion was plain in the set of his shoulders. "Have you not slept since the battle?"
"It's not important," Lancelot answered, leaning forward. "How do you feel?"
"That's a question best left unanswered," Arthur said. A litany of complaints awaited the beginning of his report to Gaius, carefully cataloged and stored away for that moment. His right arm was numb, his back and right leg were on fire, and a deep, wrenching pain radiated through his chest and belly. His body felt like a limp piece of cloth. Strength was ebbing away from him with the night. "What is the status of the camp?"
"Leon has it all well in hand," Lancelot answered. "He does well, in command."
"So he does." Arthur sighed. Without further preamble, he said, "Lancelot, there is the matter of Guinevere to discuss."
Tension tightened Lancelot's body. "Sire, I--"
"You are an honorable man, I know. That is why I'm giving you permission to act upon your heart's desire."
"You cannot mean it," Lancelot said, his face ashen.
"I'm dying, Lancelot. Of course I mean it." Arthur swallowed hard, watching gratitude and grief war with one another in Lancelot's eyes. "If by some miracle I survive, and am fit to be king once again, I will not change my mind on this. Guinevere has not been truly free to choose, since our promises to each other were all but made before you returned -- but I will rectify that mistake, and I'm quite certain I will end up the loser in that bargain."
"Sire, I cannot," Lancelot said, more desperately, but Arthur was tired of it, tired of all of it, and he cut the air with a motion from his hand.
"You will. Unless you think your king's command carries no weight?"
"You cannot command this of me," Lancelot said, almost a gasp.
"No. But I can ask it of you, as a friend." Arthur reached out, and Lancelot clasped his hand as tight as he ever had, as if Arthur was not fading before him. As if he could draw him back by this strength alone. "Make peace with it, Lancelot. If Gwen wishes to be yours, then she shall be yours, but she is no longer mine."
"As you wish," Lancelot said. He did not let go of Arthur's hand.
"I had thought to entrust Merlin to you as well, but he will require more management than one man can give," Arthur said, smiling.
"I think perhaps you can safely entrust him to Gwaine's care," Lancelot said quietly. "And I will look after him, as well."
A pang of longing passed through Arthur's heart. He had always suspected there was something between Gwaine and Merlin, or at the very least, that Gwaine cared for Merlin far beyond simple friendship. It had been none of his business; he had tried not to look, for fear he might actually see.
It was complicated, or had seemed so, once. Now, it seemed very easy. Merlin was not his; Merlin had never been his. It was not his right to choose what path Merlin would take. He could only make his feelings plain to all involved.
Arthur coughed, wincing at the way his body ached with each tensing of the muscles. "Gwaine needs no instruction from me on that point."
"No," Lancelot said slowly, "but perhaps he needs permission."
"What? Merlin is..." Arthur broke off, suddenly, understanding entirely what Lancelot was trying to say. He remembered the look on Merlin's face when Arthur had fallen. He remembered his own stirrings of tenderness, when he had understood what a fool he had been. Gwaine, unlike both Arthur and Merlin, was apparently no fool at all.
"It is soon to be a moot point," Arthur said, instead of belaboring a useless regret.
"Sire," Lancelot said, the word laden with fear. "You must not give up."
"Lancelot, my strength is failing. I can feel it. Even now, it is difficult for me to lift my head, much less keep my eyes open. I do not think the further verdict of the Escetian healer is required."
"I won't believe it," Lancelot said.
"That is why you're a knight of Camelot," Arthur said. "Because you have faith. Because you stand true." Arthur squeezed his hand, then released it. "Stand true with me now. And send in the others. One at a time, if you please."
They came in an endless progression, his small inner circle. Percival, to whom Arthur gave a treasured sword. Elyan, to whom Arthur gave land, and who wept, unable to hide his grief. Arthur felt strangely detached from it, as though their pain could not touch his own.
Gwaine did not weep, but his misery was clear the moment Arthur broached the subject of Merlin.
"Sire, should we be speaking of such matters now?" Gwaine said, shifting uneasily. He knelt by Arthur's bedside, worry written plainly in every line of his face. "You should save your strength."
"Gwaine, all too often I have put off 'such things' until it was too late. And now here we are." Arthur winced as he stretched gingerly, adjusting his position in the bed. There was no longer a comfortable position in which to sit or lay, and so he sighed and gave up the effort.
"I haven't thanked you yet," Gwaine said, a useless attempt to change the subject, as far as Arthur was concerned. "You saved my life."
Arthur smiled. "It was little enough repayment for the many times you have shown me loyalty. Even before you thought I was worthy of it."
Gwaine rubbed at his neck in embarrassment, then hissed, having forgotten momentarily about the bandaged wound there. Arthur chuckled. "I know your loyalties have always been with Merlin, out of friendship. But you have been true to your vows of knighthood, and one of the best of my men, Gwaine. Thank you."
"This is all wrong," Gwaine said. "Sire, it should have been my sacrifice, for you -- not yours, for me."
"It was meant to be this way," Arthur answered. "No one can predict the time of their death. Perhaps I was meant to fall. Perhaps you have a great destiny, Gwaine."
"Unlikely," Gwaine muttered. He met Arthur's eyes. "Sire, if there is anything I can do, name it."
"Then let us come back to the subject of Merlin," Arthur said at once, ignoring Gwaine's sigh. "He will need someone to ground him. To take care of him, until he makes a decision about where his path will take him. I am tasking you with this." Arthur swallowed, then said the words he had not even thought to himself before that moment. "He is precious to me. Do this, for your king."
"I would do it regardless," Gwaine said, ever direct. "But I will do as you ask." He clasped Arthur's wrist, his grip strong and careful, and Arthur put his hand over Gwaine's for the briefest of moments before withdrawing.
It was a short conversation, but adequate. Merlin would not be alone, and would not be left without a position or care. Gwaine would see to him. This burden Arthur had not even known he carried was lifted, and he and Gwaine nodded to each other with perfect understanding.
Leon was last, and Arthur found himself considering succession. He had never given it much thought, for all the years he'd obsessed with being the perfect prince. It seemed strange he had not yet had time to consider the idea of heirs, of who would rule once he was gone. His uncle was the logical choice, but Arthur looked at Leon and wished there had been more time to groom him, to groom one from among the knights who would be ready to assume his place, in case something should befall him before he had an heir. Which, of course, it had. His planning skills left much to be desired.
"Nicely done, cabbage head," he murmured to himself, which earned a startled look from Leon.
"My lord?" he asked, his brow furrowed with puzzlement.
"Never mind." Arthur grimaced and turned slightly on his side. The pain was harsher now, more difficult to ignore, and it was starting to consume his mind with tendrils of fire. "Leon, you will need to assume the greater burden. It is you who must return to Camelot and ensure proper succession to the throne."
"Of course, sire."
"I'm entrusting you with this; you, and the others. You must have the scribe draw up the documents for my seal. Agravaine must become king. It is the only way to prevent Morgana from attempting to assert her rights as Uther's child."
"We repelled her once," Leon said, looking for all the world as if he wished he had a chance to do it again, and properly.
"Indeed. And that time may yet come again." A wave of nausea stopped Arthur, and while he struggled to regain his equilibrium, Leon hurried to the tent opening and called to the court scribe. The boy looked terrified as he approached Arthur on the cot. No doubt it was because Arthur looked like death personified.
Slowly, Arthur recited the necessary words, and gave the instructions Geoffrey would need to ensure his wishes were carried out. When it was done, the boy nodded and tucked the document into his shirt for safekeeping.
"Place a detail for protection on him at all times, Leon," Arthur said, satisfied by the determined nod Leon gave in return as he sent the boy out. "You have been an exceptional second in command," he said, clasping Leon's hand. "Do not fail me in this last duty."
"Sire," Leon said, stricken, and for a time, they sat in silence, since there was no more to be said.
"You should rest," Leon said eventually. He clasped Arthur's hand, then withdrew reluctantly.
"Yes. Send in Merlin," Arthur said.
It was likely Merlin had been hovering just outside the entire time the knights had been receiving their orders, because he stuck his face in the tent flap before Leon was even outside, their eyes meeting as Merlin set to work, getting water for Arthur, bringing an extra blanket.
Neither of those were what Arthur needed, however, and so he stilled Merlin's hands with a touch as he pulled the blanket to Arthur's chest. "Sit," Arthur said, and Merlin did, though he fussed a bit more until the blanket was exactly where he wanted it. Which, now that Arthur had time to reflect, was usually how Merlin did things; not clumsily, but carefully, with an eye toward Arthur's comfort. It was stunning, how much Arthur had willfully overlooked.
Merlin perched at the edge of the cot, his worried gaze fixed on Arthur's abdomen, so Arthur decided to take advantage of Merlin's distraction, and for once, he looked his fill. Merlin's face was smudged with dirt; there were tiny flakes of mud in his hair. A small, shallow scrape grazed his left cheek, untended, and dots of blood had welled and dried there. His left hand -- the one resting on Arthur's chest, now -- was bruised, the knuckles slightly swollen.
In short, Merlin was a mess, and to Arthur, he had never looked more beautiful.
He snorted softly to himself. Just like him, to turn ridiculous and sentimental at the time he could least afford it. Or perhaps, this was the only time he ever could afford it. There was nothing left to lose, after all. Time, the most precious of all things, and one of the few things a king could not control, was slipping away from him. Soon, it would be too late.
Arthur reached down and took hold of Merlin's hand, pressing it to his chest. "Merlin," he said softly. He rubbed his thumb across Merlin's wrist, and Merlin's gaze snapped to his face. "You have been a faithful servant to me, and a true friend. It's for this reason I never acted on what I feel for you."
"What you feel..." The look on Merlin's face would have been comical, at any other time. "I don't understand."
Arthur waited the brief moment it took Merlin to work it through, and then he said, "I saw in your eyes today, on the battlefield, that you feel the same. You need not confirm it; I ask nothing of you. I only wanted to--"
"Arthur!" Merlin said, through gritted teeth. He was crying, Arthur realized, in the way angry people have of crying without really being aware, tears slipping down his face unnoticed. "Arthur, you insufferable prat." He wiped his tears with both hands, heedless of the wet mess he made of his face. "You wait until you're dying to say something?"
"Well, it wouldn't do me much good to wait until tomorrow, now would it?"
Merlin peered at him with an expression wavering between anger and anguish, as if Arthur was a particularly annoying conundrum someone had dropped in his lap and told him to solve immediately. Arthur could sympathize. Now that he wouldn't have another opportunity to do so, he found he wanted to catalog each of Merlin's terribly irritating expressions, and all the emotional ones besides. All the times Merlin had called him names, or begged him to listen (something he was particularly inept at; it seemed as though the mere word 'listen' was capable of shuttering Arthur's ears), or seemed on the verge of tears for some hurt the world had inflicted -- Arthur wanted them all back.
It dawned on him, slowly, that he didn't need them. He could remember them all, every nuance of them. Merlin was tender-hearted, and had shown his heart to Arthur even when a lesser man would hide what he felt, would shrink away from telling his king the truth. It was those moments, most of all, which flooded Arthur's mind.
He raised Merlin's hand and pressed a kiss to the pulse at his wrist, thrilling to the sensation of it quickening beneath his lips. Merlin looked stricken; not the best reaction Arthur had ever had to a kiss. "Merlin," he whispered, in an entirely different tone. He reached up with his free hand and slid it around Merlin's neck, pulling gently, until Merlin was close enough, and then he touched his lips to Merlin's, holding nothing back.
Merlin opened to him slowly, as Arthur deepened the kiss, and suddenly Merlin met him with equal hunger. Arthur wanted all of him, or as much as he could have for now, and he curled his hand in Merlin's hair, bringing him even closer. They kissed until Merlin drew back to pull in a ragged breath, and Arthur carded a hand through his hair.
"You have dreadful timing," Merlin said, his eyes shining with the emotion Arthur had ignored for so long.
"So I've been told." Arthur smiled, filled with a satisfied joy, and patted the blankets. "Stay here with me a while."
Merlin frowned. "I don't want to hurt you."
"The knights will see," Merlin said, though every line of his body seemed to be leaning toward Arthur. "They'll know."
"Then let them see," Arthur said. "There is nothing here to see that they don't already know." Arthur caught Merlin's gaze, held it. "I will have you here, on this night."
Merlin nodded slowly, accepting the reality of it, Arthur could see. There was grief in his eyes, but Merlin was strong. He had always been strong. He had always been what Arthur needed, even when Arthur had not been certain what was right.
Merlin lifted the blankets and fitted himself to Arthur's side, in the curve of his arm, awkward in the small space until Arthur shifted carefully and then they were locked together, warm and comfortable. Merlin's head rested on Arthur's chest, and it was as close to contented as Arthur thought he had ever felt. So strange, that it should be now, when he was hours away from leaving this world.
"Don't leave," he said to Merlin, who lifted his head and kissed Arthur fiercely in response.
"I will never leave your side," Merlin said softly, a strange, determined expression on his face.
Arthur nodded and closed his eyes. His strength was fading more quickly. If he slept, he could steal a few more moments with Merlin, and nothing seemed more important, now.
Arthur rose slowly from sleep, blinking his eyes open in the darkness of the tent. The candles had been extinguished, and Merlin's warmth was no longer pressed against his side. He felt its absence keenly.
The wound, however, was worsening. Pain clawed at him from inside his body, searing and incessant. He drew in a harsh breath and lifted his chin to glance down his body. The sudden realization that he could see, that the tent was awash in a strange blue light, triggered a memory for him: climbing the sheer walls of a cave to pluck a tiny flower from its perch.
He turned his head, and found Merlin kneeling beside the cot, a glowing ball of light in his hand and a look of sorrowful apology on his face. "I can't wait any longer," Merlin said softly. "Gaius won't be in time."
Like the thunder of a waterfall cascading toward the rocks, a thousand questions resolved themselves in Arthur's mind -- impossible escapes, injuries he should not have survived, and so much more. He had always suspected both Merlin and Gaius of small enchantments, spells worked for the good of others, and he had turned a blind eye. It was a healer's job to heal, and Arthur would be damned if he'd interfere with it. But this...this was so much more than he had imagined.
He reached out and cupped his hand underneath Merlin's, transfixed by the ball of light. He remembered this -- the sensation of being watched over, cared for, helped in a moment where he could not help himself. Tendrils of light skittered out and wrapped around his wrist, soft and pleasant, and Merlin drew in a sharp breath. Arthur drew his hand back, running his fingertips down the back of Merlin's hand as he did so.
There were a thousand conversations they could have had about this, once. Conversations that ended in Merlin banished, or imprisoned in the dungeons. Arguments that might have ended in Merlin's death, or in Arthur's disgrace for refusing to send him there. Deep down, Arthur knew he would never have allowed Merlin to suffer for this. The hatred of magic Uther had tried to drill into him had simply failed to take root as it should. Arthur had always considered it a spectacular failing on his part.
The beauty of the light captivated him, and the ball of power appeared to be growing in Merlin's hand, slowly filling up with light.
"Arthur," Merlin said. "I'm not certain I have enough power to heal you. Whatever happens...it was worth it."
"What do you mean, whatever happens?" Through the fog of pain, a horrible suspicion began to dawn on Arthur, and he said, "Merlin, no."
In answer, Merlin leaned across Arthur's body and kissed him, slowly, in such a tender and deliberate manner Arthur knew the answer to his question. He reached a hand to push Merlin back, but Merlin was already in motion. He pushed his hands together, and began to speak words Arthur didn't recognize. The sound of them raised the hair on Arthur's neck. Merlin directed the ball of light toward Arthur, and then his hands were on Arthur's body, and his magic -- his magic --
Arthur arched off the bed, a soundless cry arrested in his throat, as Merlin's eyes transformed to a glittering gold, and then a shout did escape Arthur as his body knitted itself together at Merlin's command, at Merlin's will.
He could hear a commotion outside, but all Arthur could see was the limitless blue of Merlin's eyes, consumed by gold. Joy spread through him, and he understood it to be Merlin's joy, Merlin's sense of victory, that Arthur would live.
It was the last thing he knew before darkness claimed him once again.
From deep beneath the waters, he rose, striving toward shore, until he emerged onto land. The world was still around him, no birdsong, no breeze to bend the trees. All was quiet, as if Camelot was listening.
Above, the sky was full of sooty clouds curling up toward the heavens. Their edges were tipped with orange, like the breath of a dragon. Beneath the darkened clouds, golden light shimmered like molten metal, bright and beautiful, the color of magic in Merlin's eyes.
Arthur climbed toward the light, over gentle hills, across rolling country, and eventually he came to a valley bathed in warmth. Merlin stood there, smiling, not as Arthur had always known him, but a bit older - still slender, but clad in finer clothing, with a hint of a beard.
"Just like you, to make me search for you," Arthur said crossly, one hand at the hilt of his sword.
Merlin's eyes flicked to the sword, then back to Arthur, and gold began to fill the blue of his gaze. "Just like you, to bring a sword everywhere, even here."
"Well, I could hardly leave it in the lake, now could I?" Arthur ran his hand across the hilt, and listened to its song in his blood. It was a curious sort of sword. Probably enchanted. That was the kind of day Arthur seemed to be having. But it was a very nice sword, and he didn't especially want to give it back.
"This is the journey up," Merlin said. The way he was looking at Arthur took his breath away, fondness and adoration and power, all inclusive, like the most familiar stranger Arthur had ever met. "The journey back to me. You are meant to go before me to Avalon, my king, but not now. Not yet."
"I don't suppose I can keep the sword, can I?"
"All things in their time," Merlin said, his smile brighter than the liquid sky above them.
Arthur jolted from the dream with a gasp, looking wildly about for Merlin. Where he expected Merlin to be, Gaius stood, watching Arthur with a guarded expression.
With both hands, Arthur reached down to his stomach and tore at the bandages.
"Sire," Gaius began, but Arthur ignored him, because he had reached healthy pink skin where the gaping wound should be. He could still feel the sensation of Merlin's hands on him, and Merlin's magic winding its way through him, saving him.
When he met Gaius's eyes, the old physician lifted his chin and said, "I did arrive rather late, sire. Perhaps the wound was not as serious as your men believed. I--"
"Gaius," Arthur said. Only his name, and nothing more; the tone was its own warning.
Gaius bowed his head and waited.
Arthur sat up, then stood. He got his legs under him, testing for pain, for weakness. Other than a lingering dizziness, he felt fine -- refreshed, as if he'd just emerged from a long overdue nap. He pressed a hand to his side, remembering the agony there just a day ago.
Remembering Merlin's gentle hands, and dreams of fire.
A fierce gladness spread through him at the idea of Merlin's touch, the idea of being with Merlin. It had seemed so impossible the night before, but now anything seemed possible, the world opening up before him. The sheer happiness of being alive, of being without pain, of knowing he could act on all the things he'd held back before -- it was overwhelming.
Even more astonishing was the fact that he owed his second chance at life to Merlin.
Reality settled over him like a smothering cloak, and his happiness dimmed as Arthur remembered Merlin's hands crackling with energy, the blue light surrounding him. Merlin, a sorcerer -- one with enough power to heal a dying man and restore him to full health in a matter of hours. It hardly seemed possible, and yet it was clearly true.
Had Gaius known? Arthur considered it, and knew immediately that he had to have been aware, perhaps the entirety of the time Merlin had been his assistant. But if he had not -- well, perhaps it was best if he could continue to have deniability. Best for Merlin, in particular.
Gaius was watching him with sad eyes, and Arthur couldn't bear it. He suspected it was only a taste of what awaited him. "Where is Merlin?" he asked.
"He is outside, sire, with your knights."
Arthur recalled the shouting outside the tent as Merlin was healing him, and his stomach sank. "With the...have they hurt him?" Arthur demanded, reaching for his tunic.
"No, sire. Quite the contrary; they have taken care of him. He is..." Arthur looked at Gaius intently, until Gaius finally said, "It took a great deal of his strength, tending to you."
"Tending to me," Arthur repeated softly. The words did not begin to encompass what Merlin had done. A thousand questions were running through Arthur's mind, a thousand directions to take, but first he had to show himself, and see to Merlin.
"Gaius, is there a tent for you?" he asked.
"Go there, then, and I wish you a good evening. And make sure I am not disturbed by the men. I know they must be anxious to know my condition, but I will be out in a moment."
Gaius inclined his head. When he pushed open the tent flap, Arthur looked out and saw the glint of fire on metal - knights, clustered about the fire. Gaius spoke softly to them, and a murmur went up, then quieted again.
No one entered the tent.
Arthur tugged his tunic on gingerly, expecting the wound to pull, but there was no pain. It was as if the injury had never happened. This could not be explained away; the Escetian physician had seen the extent of it. Arthur would have to play at being less fit than he was, until such time as that fiction could be dissolved with the healing power of time on the body.
He rummaged until he found a pair of breeches, and pulled them on, fixated now on Merlin, and the extent of his power. He could think of a dozen different times he now suspected Merlin had had a hand in protecting him, or others within the court. Astonishingly, Merlin had never revealed himself, until now. He had been so careful, and now all the knights knew. It would be nearly impossible to conceal what Merlin was now, or to protect his secret. The laws of Camelot were clear. Arthur had been enforcing them all his life.
With a moment of supreme clarity, Arthur realized the direction of his thoughts. He had already accepted Merlin, as he was -- all questions about the extent of his power were beside the point. His decision about Merlin's fate was already made.
Even more to the point, Arthur was the damned king, and he could bloody well shout Merlin's secret to the entire world if he wished. Uther was dead; the only strictures on magic were those he had put in place. They were not Arthur's laws. No one would enforce them, if Arthur did not.
Merlin, however, had no way of knowing what Arthur would do to him for using his magic, and had thrown his life into Arthur's hands regardless, thinking only of Arthur's well-being and not his own. For one agonizing moment, Arthur thought of his pronouncement to Merlin after Uther's death, his gut-deep and grief-driven feeling that magic was pure evil, and his chest began to ache.
"Damn it, Merlin," he hissed, grabbing at a boot. He yanked it on, thinking of the way Merlin had looked as he laid his hands on Arthur, and the brief flash of anger disappeared as quickly as it had come. Gaius had said Merlin had used much of his strength, so it appeared Merlin had nearly thrown away his life twice-over: once by showing his magic so blatantly, and again by giving all he had to heal Arthur. It was fortunate for him that the knights loved him as they did, or else Merlin's head might have been Arthur's recovery present, severed in Arthur's name.
"Idiot," Arthur muttered, viciously tugging at the second boot. An overwhelming desire to see Merlin thrummed in his blood. For a moment, he wondered if a part of Merlin's magic was in his blood, now, a part of him; the thought made him smile, out of nowhere, and he wiped the smile from his face with effort.
When he pushed open the tent flap, the area nearest the tent had been cleared, with the exception of a few knights, and Gaius -- who clearly was as bad at following commands as Merlin -- and Merlin, sitting on a log with Gwaine at his side.
Merlin looked dreadful. Dark circles shadowed his eyes. He was without his neckerchief, and his shirt was loose and unlaced. His skin was ashen down into the line of his shirt, where it disappeared from Arthur's greedy gaze. A blanket lay half on Merlin, half on the log, and he clutched a steaming cup between his hands.
Gwaine's hand rested on Merlin's shoulder. He was speaking to Merlin, words so soft Arthur couldn't make them out. All Arthur could see, all he could focus on, was the way Merlin trembled, the sad look in his eye. He wanted his hands on Merlin, wanted to touch him as Gwaine touched him, to comfort him, to be sure he was well.
It was his responsibility to ensure Merlin was safe, but that did not account for the deep, possessive need to touch him -- a need he now tamped down firmly, with effort. He cleared his throat.
"Gentlemen," he said.
As one, the knights all rose -- all but Gwaine, whose hand went to the hilt of his sword, even as his eyes tracked Arthur's movements toward the fire.
"Sire," Leon said, and there was relief and joy in his voice as he reached out to clasp Arthur's hand. "It is good to see you on your feet."
He clasped hands in turn with Lancelot, Elyan, and Percival, their warm greetings cheering him, even though he could still see wary strain on their faces. Best to get that part of this over with, then.
When he turned to Merlin, Gwaine's hand tightened on the hilt of his sword. Arthur ignored it, and said softly, "Merlin. A word in my tent, if you please."
Merlin met his eyes, and Arthur nodded encouragement. Like an old man, Merlin seemed to gather himself, but Gwaine's hand on his shoulder was heavy, and Merlin turned questioning eyes to his friend.
"Perhaps you should have that word with him here," Gwaine said tightly. "Where he is safe. If you catch my meaning, sire."
"This is not your concern, Gwaine," Arthur said, more than willing to take up this challenge, if Gwaine pressed it.
Lancelot fixed him with the kind of hard stare Arthur was more accustomed to seeing from his father. It was disconcerting on Lancelot's gentle features. "Sire, I believe this is our mutual concern. You are my king, and I would gladly die for you, but let us face facts: you could order Merlin to his knees this moment in order to separate his head from his body, and he wouldn't lift a finger to stop you." Lancelot met his gaze steadily. "It would fall to us to intervene on his behalf, and I tell you now, with all due respect, that I could not allow you to harm him."
"Nor would I," Gwaine said, but he was far less calm than Lancelot. Fear and alarm were written all over his face; they blazed in his eyes with shocking intensity.
Arthur looked at each of the knights in turn, and last to Leon. Each wore identical expressions of wariness, coupled with worry.
"Sire," Elyan said gently, "Merlin has...well, that is, he...I believe he saved your life. We are in agreement that for this, Merlin should go free. No matter that...well, no matter."
I would never hurt him, Arthur wanted to say, and How could you think it of me, but the fact was - it was the law, a law he had never overturned, and had in fact embraced from the moment of his father's death. He had thought about Merlin's death himself, had turned over the gut-wrenching possibility of it and concluded that he could never take Merlin's life, though it was not something he had known until that moment. They were no less honest with him than he was with himself.
"Oh, for pity's sake, I'm not going to run him through," Arthur said, unable to keep the scorn from his voice, and winced to see the tension ease in Lancelot's shoulders. "You cannot seriously think Merlin is in any danger."
"Gwaine." Merlin's voice sounded from behind them, and Merlin pulled roughly on Gwaine's shoulder, making a space for himself between Gwaine and Arthur. "This isn't your affair. Or yours either, Lancelot. This was my choice, and I knew what I was doing." He leveled that cool blue stare on Arthur, swaying on his feet, and said, "Arthur, I have trusted you all these years to know what the right course of action is, and I won't stop now simply because it's my neck. You are my king, and I have served you faithfully, even...even in this," he said, and Arthur could hear the shadow of death underlying every word. "I submit to your judgment."
"Merlin, don't be daft," Gwaine hissed, but Merlin shook off his cautioning hand, his eyes only for Arthur.
Arthur gestured toward the tent. Steady on his feet now, Merlin nodded in assent, and disappeared into the tent. Arthur looked at each of the knights, tension flowing from them like water over stone.
"You have my word, I am not going to harm him." He met Gwaine's stare until Gwaine finally -- wisely -- bowed to Arthur's honor, and looked away. To Leon, Arthur said, "See that we are not disturbed. There is much to be said and decided here tonight, but it is between Merlin and me."
"Sire," Leon said, standing. "We are all very grateful you stand among us now."
"Thank you, Sir Leon." Arthur smiled, though his heart was not in it. His heart, in fact, was behind him, in the tent, waiting. "Thank you all."
"Sire," came the murmur of several voices in response.
Arthur turned, squared his shoulders, and pushed open the tent flap, tying it behind him.
In the half-light, a few candles guttered, their light nearly spent. Arthur did not trouble himself with them. Instead, he lit four new candles on a candelabra and set it on the great table, beside the sword Merlin had utterly failed to clean after the battle. The blade would have to be honed, and the metal examined for rust.
Arthur swallowed hard, thinking of the way Merlin's time had been occupied this night. He was a dreadful servant, but that was because he was in no way a servant at all.
Merlin knelt near the heavy chair which served as Arthur's throne when he was gone to battle. His head was bowed, and the fine trembling Arthur had observed in him was still there, but subdued, as if Merlin was working very hard to hide it. No doubt hiding things from Arthur, concealing them with every fiber of his being, was second nature to Merlin now. The idea of it, of being tricked and lied to, brought another brief wave of anger, but Arthur squashed it immediately. Arthur was no fool, and he could certainly understand why Merlin hadn't said anything to him while Uther was alive.
The fact that he had concealed the enormity of his power after Uther's death was a bit more troubling. With regret, Arthur thought of the soldiers Camelot had lost in its various battles, the dead and dying Merlin could have saved with a simple wave of his hand.
It was complicated, and Arthur knew it. For a moment, he tried to imagine what he would have said, if given the option to use magic to avert a battle, and found he was utterly without an answer. This in and of itself would seem to justify Merlin's decision not to tell him of his powers. If Arthur could not even be sure how he would have reacted, Merlin was right to have waited until such time as he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt what reception this news would bring.
Merlin shivered, but was otherwise still under Arthur's measuring gaze.
Arthur's first instinct was to tell Merlin to get up, to face him, but he considered what Merlin was saying. It was not in the silence; it was in the fact of his silence, the offer of his neck. It was what Merlin had always done, thrown himself bodily at all the problems facing Arthur.
"Thank you," Arthur said. "For healing me."
Merlin flinched, and his flinch was like a blow to Arthur's face. He fought not to recoil, fixing his steady gaze instead on Merlin, on the arch of his back, the strength in his body, even given over in submission to Arthur's will. Merlin, who had never left Arthur's side in the most dangerous situations, even when ordered to do so.
"Don't you want to ask me?" Merlin's voice was soft, but there was a core of iron behind it.
"What is it you think I should ask you, Merlin?
"Whether I've ever used my magic on you."
My magic. Even said so casually, the words still sent a chill down Arthur's spine. Arthur folded his arms across his chest. "I already know the answer." Merlin's shoulders tensed then, impossibly tighter, so tight he seemed ready to shatter, despite his calm. "Given the way you harangue, insult, and argue with me, I should think it's very clear. Why would anyone waste that much time on words when you could just...." Arthur waggled his fingers in the air, aware Merlin could still see them, even though his head was down. "Obviously you relish telling me how wrong I am far more than you desire to convince me with magic."
Merlin nodded once, and exhaled softly. The tension in his shoulders didn't decrease; if anything, his shoulders rose closer to his ears. "Well, then, don't you want to make me swear my loyalty to you? Pledge my magic to your aid?"
Now it was Arthur's turn to sigh. He stepped closer, and then walked around Merlin, who didn't move. His sword caught his eye again, crusted with the blood of his enemies. Arthur moved away from it, left it where it was.
"And what is it you would swear, Merlin?" he asked. He crouched down behind Merlin, one knee on the ground for balance. "That you would give your life for mine? That your magic is mine to command?" He leaned in, close to Merlin's ear, and said softly, "I'm your king. I already know."
"Arthur," Merlin began, and quite suddenly Arthur had had enough. He knelt on the ground behind Merlin, close enough to slide his arms around him, one low across his belly, one high against his chest. Merlin startled, but made no move to pull away. Arthur pressed a gentle kiss to the nape of Merlin's neck, a trail of devotion where Merlin expected the sword to fall.
"You swore that oath to me the first time you offered yourself up in my place," he said, lips lingering on Merlin's skin, where goose bumps rose in the wake of his kisses. "And every time thereafter, when you threw yourself ridiculously into the path of enchantments, and beasts, and other dangers. You have given me all that you are." He tightened his arms around Merlin. "I have accepted it."
Merlin's next words were a whisper. "You know all this?"
"Give me some bit of credit," Arthur said. "Once I realized what power you possess, I understood what choices you have made to be by my side." He laid another gentle kiss to the nape of Merlin's neck, thrilling to the way Merlin's breath quickened at the touch of his lips. "I can't claim to understand it all, but you will tell me all of it, now. Won't you?"
"Anything," Merlin said fervently. "Anything, Arthur."
They were quiet together for long moments, king and sorcerer. Arthur simply held Merlin, binding him to Arthur with more than his arms around Merlin's body. The longing Arthur had felt, to know the strength of Merlin's body against his own, to touch him, to have him understand his importance to Arthur, began to ease with Merlin in his arms, even as the tremors in Merlin's body eased, and finally stopped altogether.
"This isn't how I pictured this going," Merlin said shakily, and Arthur laughed quietly into his shoulder.
"Do tell," he said, biting gently.
Merlin's hands crept back to Arthur's thighs, sliding along until he grasped there, and he leaned back into Arthur, a soft sigh escaping his lips. Arthur moved his hands to the laces of Merlin's breeches, separating them with a patience which brought the return of Merlin's small shivers, but for a different reason entirely, Arthur hoped.
"Is this what you want?" Arthur asked. His desire was a living thing inside him, caught up in the turmoil of revelation and gratitude and wonder, but Merlin's position must seem precarious to him, no matter the words Arthur chose or his reassurances. "Merlin, you must tell me; I cannot -- I won't--"
"Arthur," Merlin said, turning his head to nuzzle at Arthur's cheek. From there it was simple; Arthur met his lips, taking his mouth in a slow, deep kiss.
When he curled his fingers around Merlin's cock, Merlin arched back against him, twisting to allow him closer access.
"This I swear to you," Arthur said, his hand moving faster on Merlin's cock. "No harm shall ever come to you by my hand." Merlin drew in a breath, writhing against Arthur. "While I am king, none shall harm you; you need never fear persecution for your magic."
"Arthur," Merlin said again, so much reverence in the word, and Arthur buried his face in Merlin's hair, pressed against him, body to body. He was blindingly hard; he was close, only from the sensation of Merlin's skin, his cock in Arthur's hand, his trust in Arthur.
"I need no oath to bind you to me," Arthur whispered. "I have been in your keeping all along; I simply was too foolish to understand." He slowed the motion of his hand, tightening his grip, allowing and welcoming the small thrill of possessiveness it brought. "Now you are in my keeping as well."
One more rough stroke, and Merlin threw his head back with a sharp cry, his release coating Arthur's hand. Arthur soothed him through it, nudged at his cheek until Merlin turned his head for more of Arthur's kisses, more gentle this time, expressive in all the ways Arthur's words would never be.
They rested together for a moment, until Merlin began trying to turn in Arthur's arms, his hands reaching. Arthur shook his head; his body was not yet ready, it seemed, and though he was still hard, he wanted sleep most of all -- sleep, and Merlin close at hand. Release would be all the sweeter when he could properly enjoy it, when he could take the time to learn Merlin's body, and allow Merlin to learn his.
There was so much Arthur wanted to know, to share, and that would be just the starting point.
With reluctance, he sat back from Merlin, then rose to his feet. Merlin stood up beside him, like his shadow, and this time, when he reached for Arthur's tunic, Arthur allowed it. Cool air met his skin as Merlin efficiently stripped the tunic from him, his eyes trained on the new pink scar covering most of Arthur's side and belly. His fingers traced it, earning a sharp intake of breath from Arthur; heat from Merlin's touch suffused Arthur's entire body, and a fresh wave of desire followed it.
"When I am rested," he whispered, taking Merlin's mouth again in a deep kiss, "we will have the pleasure of each other, if you wish it."
"I do," Merlin said, his eyes glittering as he met Arthur's gaze.
In turn, Arthur stripped Merlin's tunic off, wiping his hands on it before tossing it aside. "Into bed," he said, pointing.
"I should change the sheets," Merlin said, and Arthur laughed.
"You will have more important things to concern yourself with," he said, brushing his thumbs over the shadows beneath Merlin's eyes. "Sleep, first. We ride for home in the morning. And then there are things we should resolve."
Merlin nodded, but the light in his eyes was bright with its own joy, every time he glanced sidelong at Arthur. Arthur found smiles creeping across his face, unexpected, at each furtive glance. Merlin clambered into the narrow bed, and Arthur fit himself against Merlin, wrapping his arms around Merlin just to be certain neither of them fell onto the hard ground.
"You've been piss-poor at following my commands, you know," Arthur murmured, running one hand up and down Merlin's arm. "You'll have to improve, if you're to be Camelot's first authorized magic user during my reign. You will be fully in the king's service."
Merlin made a sound halfway between a snort and a cough. "Well," he said. "I can try."
"You'll do more than try." Arthur sighed. "Let's begin with something simple. You are never again to put your life in danger to save mine as you did this night. The loss of your life is not an acceptable cost."
"I didn't really think I would die," Merlin said softly. "I just wasn't certain if I had enough power to heal you. I've tried before, you know." Arthur shivered, thinking about when that might have been; he couldn't quite bring himself to ask. Not yet. "Magic demands an equal exchange - a life for a life, a death for a death. An equivalent amount of energy. I just wasn't sure how much I had to give you, or if it would be enough." Merlin paused, and added, "I'm much more powerful than I was when I first came to Camelot. I'm glad what I had to give you was enough."
Arthur stroked his hand down Merlin's back, wondering about the power thrumming under his skin -- how much of it there was, and just how powerful Merlin might truly be. Merlin's explanation had brought a fresh flood of questions and curiosities, but Arthur's eyelids were growing heavy. "There's so much I don't know about you," he said, "and about your magic."
Merlin nodded against his chest. His hand splayed across Arthur's stomach, light as a feather, and so warm. "This is not what I expected of you," he said, a quiet confession.
Arthur curled his fingers around Merlin's arm, holding him close. "I am the king you have helped make of me," he said, and uncomplicated happiness threaded through him at the feel of Merlin's smile against his shoulder.
Morning came all too quickly, battering at Arthur in ways he had always found difficult to appreciate. His loathing of the early hour was tempered, however, by Merlin's warmth pressed against him, and his delight in waking Merlin with slow, deliberate kisses, until Merlin gasped against him, fingers curling around Arthur's shoulder.
"I might have thought this was a dream," Merlin murmured, as Arthur tugged him closer. The color had returned to Merlin's cheeks, and his eyes were bright again.
"Do you dream of me often, then?" Arthur asked, grinning when Merlin rolled his eyes.
"Your arrogance, majesty, is unsurpassed by any in the kingdom."
"Now, now. It's very early in the day for such blatant insolence." Arthur released Merlin with one last lingering kiss and sat up, patting at his stomach. It did still feel like much of the last two days had passed in some sort of feverish nightmare, except for those moments the night before when he had held Merlin in his arms, felt his passion spend against his fingers. Only that, and finding Merlin at his side in the morning light, felt real. "The very moment we set foot inside the castle, I will need a bath."
Merlin sat up behind him, nose pressed to the nape of his neck. "I completely agree," he said, sniffing at him as though he were a particularly nasty bit of laundry. "A good scrubbing will do you wonders."
Arthur laughed, surprised by the sheer joy in his heart. Even with the weight of all the unspoken words, the undisclosed secrets still to be shared -- for he had not forgotten any of that -- this morning seemed less burdensome than most others since he had become king. Perhaps it was Merlin's arm slung carelessly around his chest, or his lips touching Arthur's shoulder, to press smiling kisses there.
"Come on," Arthur said, disengaging from that tempting hold. "We'd best be getting to it. We'll need to break camp immediately if we are to set out for home today."
"True." Merlin rolled off the bed and stood watching Arthur for a moment, then set about getting a fresh tunic and hose for him. He laid them out efficiently, long years of practice behind him, and Arthur dressed as if it were a normal day. All the while, he stole glances at Merlin's rumpled tunic, at his stained breeches, and smiles threatened to creep across the entirety of his face, ruining his stoic and kingly demeanor.
"You are a terrible influence," he informed Merlin, when Merlin laced up his trousers with wandering fingers.
"Haven't I always been, sire?" Merlin asked innocently, stealing a kiss before helping Arthur into his chain mail.
When they parted the tent flap and emerged into the early morning light, they found Gwaine standing only a few feet from the tent, still in his mail, sword at the ready. He immediately moved to Merlin's side, eyes raking him head to toe, as if expecting to see him the worse for the wear after a night in Arthur's company. It made Arthur bristle a bit.
"Sire," Gwaine said to Arthur, without even looking at him; his tone was less than respectful. To Merlin, he said in an entirely different tone, "You're all right, then?"
"All right," Merlin affirmed, giving him a brilliant smile.
Gwaine sighed out a long breath, and something twisted inside Arthur, something possessive and ugly he hadn't even known he'd been ignoring. He forced it to silence as he looked between Gwaine and Merlin. Whatever they had shared, he knew Merlin well enough to be quite certain it was at an end, now.
"Sir Gwaine," Arthur said, commanding his knight's attention. "Those matters we discussed...there won't be any need for your oversight of them any longer."
"Sire," Gwaine said, bowing his head, and this time, his tone was entirely respectful. He flashed a grin at Merlin, who was looking at Arthur with deep suspicion, and said, "By your leave."
Arthur nodded, and Gwaine moved off toward his fellow knights, who unlike Gwaine were a respectful distance away.
"Arthur," Merlin said, in a dangerous manner. "Did you auction me off like a horse to the highest bidder?"
"Of course not," Arthur said. "I merely provided for your care."
Merlin's stare blazed hot on Arthur's skin. "You can't be rid of me that easily, you know."
"Oh, believe me, I know." Arthur turned and leveled a stare of his own on Merlin, one so intense that a slow blush began creeping up Merlin's pale skin, reaching all the way to his ears. With a satisfied smile, Arthur turned away toward the cook's tent. Breakfast beckoned, and he was famished.
The business of dismantling camp was a complicated one, but surprisingly quick. The tents and supplies were loaded into carts and sent ahead by late morning, and most of the knights were mounted and ready to depart in caravan. Arthur walked down the line at a leisurely pace to the cheers and applause of his men. It was good to hear, and good to be capable of the simple act of shaking their hands. He felt alive in ways he had never been before, filled with hope for the future.
The Escetian prisoners had been bound together by rope and chain, and were to walk back to Camelot. It was not what Arthur would have preferred, but they lacked sufficient horses, and there were not enough carts to carry the wounded along with the prisoners. Arthur made his way among them, speaking to each of the knights who guarded them in turn. It was his intention that they should not be mistreated. Camelot had shown enough cruelty under its previous king.
Even now, thinking of it pained Arthur in ways his wound never could have, but he was definitively not like Uther, and he would not leave a trail of Escetian dead behind him as a harbinger of his reign.
"Sire," came a voice to his left. Arthur turned and saw the Escetian healer there, the one who had given Arthur a death sentence. Arthur nodded to him, and felt Merlin move closer to him, at his shoulder.
"You seem to be remarkably robust," the healer said, assessing Arthur's posture and manner with a practiced, narrowed eye.
"The court physician of Camelot is a miracle worker, it is true," Arthur said affably. "You should not be too hard on yourself, healer. There are few who possess our physician's skill."
"It is enviable skill, indeed." The healer glanced at Merlin, and then back to Arthur. "I wonder what to make of it."
Arthur regarded him for a moment, then turned to glance at Merlin. He could not have said what he intended, when he met Merlin's eyes; only that perfect understanding passed between them, and in the next moment, Merlin's eyes flashed a molten gold, and the Escetian gasped.
"Make of it what you will," Arthur said, and with another nod, moved on into the crowd of prisoners, looking them over until he was well satisfied with their treatment.
"I'm not sure that was wise," Merlin said, his arm brushing against Arthur's.
"Perhaps not," Arthur said. "Perhaps he will keep it to himself, or perhaps he will tell others, and the word will spread that King Arthur has a sorcerer at his side. Perhaps no one will even believe him."
"Perhaps," Merlin said, his fingers curling around Arthur's in the briefest of touches. The corner of his lip turned upward in a knowing smile.
For the rest of the morning, Merlin busied himself with seeing to the knights and their squires, as had been his custom since Arthur became king. Arthur took advantage of the opportunity to pull Leon aside for a private chat. "Ensure there is always a knight assigned to Merlin, to shadow his every move," he said, eyeing Merlin as he moved among the squires, laughing in an unbearably endearing way. "He is prone to wandering off to put his life in jeopardy. At the very least, I want to hear about it the moment he goes off on his own."
"I doubt he needs protection, sire," Leon said, no tiny amount of awe in his voice.
"True enough," Arthur said, watching as Merlin tripped over his own pack. "But I feel compelled to provide it anyway. It will ease my mind."
"Yes, sire," Leon said, grinning at him in such a way that Arthur knew all was back to normal.
They made ready to depart as the sun was at its zenith in the sky, and Arthur mounted his horse at the head of the column. Lancelot rode forward to his left side, leaving room for Merlin at the right.
"Sire," Lancelot said, nodded. Arthur returned his nod. "Regarding our discussion last night...I understand if you no longer feel as you did then."
"I assure you, Lancelot, nothing has changed." Arthur took a private pleasure in the way Lancelot's face transformed from wary resignation to open hopefulness.
"If you mean it, sire...."
"She will not be unhappy," Lancelot said, a promise of sorts, Arthur imagined.
"See that she is not." Arthur reached out a hand, and Lancelot clasped it tightly. There was bittersweet trust in the sealing of such a promise, for Arthur. There would be conversations yet to come with Guinevere, and explanations Arthur was not yet fully prepared to articulate. But in his heart, he was sure this was the just course. Second chances were remarkably enlightening.
Soon enough, they were on the road, and Arthur sighed with relief at being underway at last. Merlin rode beside him as they traveled, and Arthur made no attempt to stop himself from watching, from wanting; he let his eyes rake over Merlin, let Merlin see everything he felt. For his part, Merlin ducked a wayward tree branch only to collide with another, and nearly unseated himself from his horse while blatantly undressing Arthur with his eyes. Powerful sorcerer, indeed.
Arthur's laughter was long and loud, and the quizzical looks Leon and Lancelot sent his way were more than worth it.
They were within an hour's ride of the citadel when it began to rain, the sky breaking open and unleashing a downpour on the spur of the moment. Arthur blinked up at the sky, which seemed determined to drown them all in the brief distance between the road and a warm bed.
"Shame, isn't it," Merlin said, and when Arthur glanced at him, Merlin's eyes glowed gold like the sun, and the rain seemed to draw back from them, clearing the way for the entire retinue.
Arthur held his breath as the gold retreated from Merlin's eyes, and they returned to a stunning sky blue as gentle rain fell all around them, never touching them.
They rode on toward Camelot. Toward home.
In thy face I see
The map of honor, truth and loyalty.
- Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part II