Pick a dandelion that has gone to seed.
Hold it up and blow hard on it.
If all the seeds fly off, you will get your wish almost at once.
If a few seeds remain, some time will pass before your wish is granted.
If many seeds are left, your wish may not come true at all.
"Well," says Gwaine, dismounting with practised ease, "At least you've picked a place with a good view."
"I didn't pick it," Percival huffs back, frowning as he crouches down to examine his mount's fetlock.
It is a pleasant view, Merlin has to admit. They've stopped on the crest of a hill overlooking a valley, open fields below in a variety of colours, fresh greens and rich, bright yellows. Near them, nestled among the tufts of grass are clumps of dandelions, gone to seed, their fluffy heads bobbing in the light breeze.
"Well?" Arthur asks, turning a critical eye to the injured horse. "We're not actually here to admire the view. We do have a quest to be getting on with, or had you all forgotten."
"Yeah, but since we've stopped we might as well make the most of it," Gwaine says, rolling his shoulders as he settles himself on the ground.
Arthur's not as immune to the beauty of their surroundings as he makes out, though. Merlin can see the glint of care and pride in his eye as he surveys the land below. His kingdom.
Gwaine plucks a dandelion and puffs, trying to blow the seeds off.
"In the Western Isles," says Elyan, "They say that each dandelion represents a wish. If you can blow all the seeds in one breath, then your wish will be granted almost immediately. If not, each seed that remains represents one year until your wish comes true."
"Well, I got all mine off in one blow," Gwaine says, and Merlin rolls his eyes at the unmistakeable innuendo in his voice.
"What did you wish for?" he can't help asking, although he half fears it will be something lewd. Arthur shoot shim a glance, then, which quite clearly says don't encourage him, but Merlin busies himself with opening the pack where he's stowed their supplies.
"A nice juicy apple," Gwaine replies with a grin, and follows it up with "Ow!" as a red specimen of said fruit hits him squarely on the head. "Ok, who threw that?" he demands, looking around, and Merlin holds up his hands to protest his innocence while around him the knights roar with laughter.
"Five seeds!" Elyan complains, looking with disgust at his own dandelion.
"Guess that means the fair Bethan won't be putting out for some time," Gwaine says, clapping him on the shoulder and crunching his apple noisily. Elyan shoves him away with a laugh.
"Merlin?" Elyan hands him a flower and Merlin hesitates a second before taking it. He should think of something trivial, something he can confess to and laugh off like the others, but his attention is caught by Arthur, set a little way apart from his men as he looks out over the valley, and his heart aches with longing. He has only one wish: for Arthur to know him and love him for who he really is.
He closes his eyes and blows, wishing with all his heart and soul.
For all he tries to tell himself that it means nothing, his heart sinks when he opens his eyes to see four stubborn seeds clinging to the plant.
"It's all nonsense, anyway," he says, voice rough. He walks away from them all, ignoring Elyan calling out to him and Gwaine's wild speculation as to the subject of his wish. He takes Percival's horse by the bridle, leaning close and whispering the words to a simple healing spell. The horse whinnies and nuzzles against him, a sort of thank-you, he thinks, although try as he might (and he has), no amount of magic will allow him to communicate with animals.
He hadn't noticed Arthur approach. The men, even Arthur, have started to look to him, now, in matters of healing. A combination of his years as Gaius's assistant and his 'knack' for fixing up minor injuries in animals and knights on expeditions like these. It's nice to have a small show of faith, sometimes, but he can't help feeling frustrated, when it's but a fraction of what he can do. The yearning to have Arthur look to him for advice on magical issues, to have Arthur trust him with the protection of Camelot, only grows stronger week by week, month by month. The thought that it will be years, still, before any of that comes to pass makes his chest ache.
"She'll be fine," he says, rubbing the horse's nose and composing his features into a semblance of a smile. "Just a stumble. A short rest and she'll be able to carry on." This last is a lie, the horse is ready to go now, but why not let Gwaine have his apple and his view, after all? Percival has joined in the dandelion game, keeping close-lipped about whatever he's wished for, although all his seeds have flown off.
"Good." Arthur's looking at him oddly, that same look he gets sometimes, when he calls him wise, or admits that Merlin is a puzzle to him, still. Four years, Merlin thinks, only a little bitterly, then you'll have the answer to your puzzle.
Four years later
It's the first day of summer, dry and mild, the bright blue of the sky dotted with clouds like the fluffy heads of dandelions.
The earth is scorched black in a crescent around them. Merlin stands alone in the centre, heart beating rapidly, the thrum of magic in his fingertips still, as he slowly lowers his hands and turns to face his king's judgement.
This war has been long, and it has not been easy on any of them. Arthur's face is streaked with blood and dirt as he takes one stumbling step forward. Merlin braces himself for anything Arthur can throw at him, hatred, suspicion, violence, rejection. He's exhausted from the battle and weary from the years of hiding. If Arthur is going to cut him down here in the field he doesn't think he has the strength or the will to save himself.
But Arthur just stares at him for a long moment, as though finally he has been granted the answer to a puzzle he has been waiting many years to solve.
He drops to one knee and bows his head.
"Emrys," he says formally, and Merlin shakes his head because this isn't right, he never wanted Arthur to kneel to him, or to call him by some pre-destined title. He's only ever wanted Arthur to see him, as a friend, an equal – to know his power but to know, too, that it is all for him.
"No," he says, and Arthur looks up. "Arthur, please. It's just me."
He's imagined pleading when his magic was discovered, begging for Arthur's forgiveness, his indulgence. He hadn't ever imagined it would be quite like this.
Rising so they are on a level once more, Arthur reaches for his hand and brings it to his mouth. Merlin's sure he's trembling as Arthur's lips brush his knuckles.
When Arthur turns his hand over and drops a kiss to his palm, Merlin feels tears prick at his eyes, because where the first gesture spoke of deference and respect, this one is acceptance and love, and he thinks he would have waited a thousand years for this.