Arthur might have been a crown prince and therefore entitled to as much self-delusion as he could manage, but he liked to believe he'd faced some important truths about himself. He knew, for example, that he could sometimes be prone to an excess of temper; he knew that he was inclined to act rashly; and he knew that he spent far too much time thinking about Merlin.
If he wanted to be brutally honest with himself, he'd admit that this last disturbing tendency had started practically from the moment he'd clapped eyes on Merlin: a gangly peasant boy wearing a ridiculous ratty scarf and an insolent smile no one had ever had the stones to lob at him. Good thing, really, that he didn't care to be quite that honest, but still, it had now reached the point where he could admit something had to be done about it. Either he'd have to sort himself out, purge this bizarre attraction – for yes, it was an attraction, and it was undoubtedly bizarre – to Merlin, or simply confront it head-on. Of course, he had no desire to force Merlin into anything unwelcome, but he'd seen the way Merlin looked at him, caught glimpses of him cheering Arthur on as he dueled, felt the warmth of a bond that extended far beyond the simple duty a manservant owed his lord. He knew that Merlin felt a similar pull; the only dilemma that faced them was what could be done about it, and whether choosing to pursue it might lead to complete and utter bloody disaster.
And then there was the equally unsettling fact that Merlin was still, even after all these months, something of a mystery. Oh, certainly, most men of Arthur's station would have said that there was no mystery beneath a peasant's surface worthy of investigation, but Arthur wasn't most men of his station, and Merlin wasn't most peasants. Merlin's spirit, the twinkle in his eye that Arthur caught on rare occasions which said I know something you don't, only made sense if there was a hidden component to his character capable of producing that extraordinary cheek. He had no doubt of Merlin's fealty, but he knew as he knew the constellations in the firmament that Merlin was holding a secret deep inside him, away from Arthur, and that grated upon him more than he cared to acknowledge.
He spent some time mulling over these twin problems, in spare moments between crises and training and the other myriad duties that made up his day, and finally decided that the only solution was to get Merlin alone. Merlin had been most at ease in Ealdor, and while it stood to reason that his home village would have that effect on him, Arthur suspected there was more to it than that. There was something about Camelot, about the formality, perhaps, of court life, that put Merlin on his guard. If they spent time together outside the castle walls, he theorised that Merlin might finally feel inclined to relax and reveal whatever he was keeping hidden.
He did not acknowledge that he himself might enjoy the experience on its own merits, for while Arthur may have been an atypical prince, he was still a prince.
And so when Merlin arrived at his chambers that evening to serve his supper, Arthur put on his most neutral expression and said, "I have a surprise for you, Merlin."
Merlin's face lit up in a genuine smile, and Arthur's breath caught momentarily at the warmth in it. Arthur found Merlin's smiles to be most vexing, primarily because it seemed he had absolutely no defense against them. "What is it?" Merlin asked, still with that gormless grin on his face.
"We're going on an excursion to the royal wood tomorrow. Now that summer is nearly here, I thought it was past time to sample some fresh country air again, sleep under the stars, that sort of thing."
Merlin's smile faded a little, his earlier happiness dissipating. "Oh," he said. "I see."
Arthur frowned; what was the matter with him now? "I take it you don't approve of your surprise?" he heard himself say, perhaps a little more harshly than he would have liked.
Merlin lifted his chin, gaze becoming distant and withdrawn, and Arthur watched him closely as realisation dawned. While it wasn't an option for him to care about Merlin's opinion on the matter, he knew full well that hunting trips were not Merlin's favourite thing, and Arthur hadn't given him much indication that this outing was to be any different. "No, of course, I'm thrilled, sire," he said, with something approaching crisp efficiency. "How many horses shall I tell the stable master to prepare?"
Arthur hesitated briefly before answering. "Two."
Merlin blinked. "Two?" he asked, clearly confused now.
"That's what I said, yes," Arthur said, and Christ, he actually felt a strange thrill in his gut, as though he were nervous about Merlin's reaction.
"You never go into the wood except to go on a bloody great hunting trip," Merlin pointed out.
"Well, I'm changing my habits," Arthur countered, feeling a small prick of irritation – and fine, yes, trepidation – at Merlin's continued resistance. "I simply wish to get away from court for a day or two. I thought you might like to do the same. But if you'd rather not, I'm certainly more than capable of going alone."
Merlin stared at him for a couple of seconds, mouth hanging slightly open. Arthur was about to mention the expression made him look even more idiotic than usual when he suddenly flashed a wide, happy grin. He suppressed it quickly, but the damage was already done: Arthur's heart was thumping about in his chest in a most disturbing fashion. "Oh," Merlin said, feigning nonchalance and being absolutely terrible at it, "well, I suppose I'd better come to protect you from bandits and fearsome beasts and such."
"Yes, I do so depend upon you to save me," Arthur drawled, rolling his eyes.
Merlin's mouth turned up almost wickedly at the corners, and Arthur swallowed and said, "We leave at first light. Don't be late."
Merlin nodded, eyes dancing with such unabashed joy that Arthur found he couldn't look directly at him, the way one's gaze naturally avoided the sun for fear of being blinded. "I won't."
And then he was gone, and Arthur could breathe again.
"Bugger," Arthur muttered, leaning his head back against the chair in relief. He hadn't felt this ridiculous since he'd fallen madly in love with his dancing teacher at the ripe old age of twelve, depositing freshly picked flowers outside her door every morning until the gardens of the castle were completely stripped of them. The thought of Merlin letting him down gently as she had done was mortifying, but he was rapidly reaching the point where the urge to make a fool of himself would overwhelm his good sense.
His only hope was to discover Merlin's secret. Perhaps whatever it was – chronic weeping sores, an unfortunate growth, a hideous birthmark – would cool his ardour.
Arthur sighed. Oh, bloody hell, it was no use. Doubtless Merlin could be possessed of webbed toes or an illicit passion for sheep – and knowing the habits of country folk, both were more than likely – and Arthur would still be hopelessly stupid about him.
Really, this fascination with Merlin was worse than an enchantment. At least enchantments could be broken.
True to his word, Merlin was ready at the appointed time, uncharacteristically prompt and enthusiastic at so early an hour. Arthur took heart from this, and his resolve strengthened.
"You are undoubtedly bewitched," Arthur accused.
Merlin's eyes went wide. "W-why would you say that?"
"Because you usually have all the vigour of a dead slug in the mornings," Arthur snapped, and Merlin seemed to visibly relax. Arthur frowned, but soon was absorbed in the preparations for departure and thought no more of it.
To his surprise, Merlin had already packed everything they needed, from Arthur's crossbow and a full quiver of bolts to a sack stuffed with fruit, bread, cheese and wine. Arthur tried not to think about whiling away a lazy afternoon under a spreading oak, his head in Merlin's lap as Merlin fed him grapes and wine-drenched kisses; that way lay madness. He attempted to reassert the distance between them by complimenting Merlin on his efficiency, the way he would any servant, but Merlin's pleased smile and flushed cheeks caused such a heat to rise in him that he fumbled his first attempt to mount his mare like an untried boy who had never ridden a horse in his life.
They set out under a clear blue sky, not a cloud in sight, and soon after they left the confines of the town, Arthur found himself breathing easier, tension he hadn't been aware of dissipating like a bilious humour after a long illness. The northern border dispute had taken a toll on the court, not to mention his relationship with his father. Even though the treaty was signed, however, Arthur still found himself out of sorts, restive, easily moved by the merest evidence of his father's disapproval, whether real or imagined. He needed this break from the stone walls of the castle, he realised now, as much as Merlin evidently did.
For Merlin's part, he became more quiet as they progressed through the forest. At first Arthur thought it to be unease, but whenever he glanced over at him, Merlin was grinning even more broadly. If they ventured much farther, Arthur was sure his fool head would split in half.
Within an hour, they reached the lake; they continued along the path near the water's edge until it petered out, then dismounted and picked their way through the wood. Merlin had an almost uncanny ability to find the hidden depressions that could break an animal's leg, and so Arthur allowed him to lead. He told himself to remain alert to danger, but he was soon mesmerised by the loping swing of Merlin's hips as he walked. Suddenly, Merlin stopped abruptly, and Arthur went on alert, silently cursing himself and scanning the forest.
When he saw nothing, he hissed at Merlin, "What is it?"
Merlin turned to him; he was already half out of his jerkin. "Hm? Oh, I'm hot. I just wanted to stop for a moment and – " He threw the jerkin over his saddle, then unknotted his neckerchief and stuffed it into a sack while Arthur gaped at his stupid, oblivious back.
As Arthur was resisting the temptation to smack him silly, his gaze was caught by the curve of Merlin's newly exposed neck, and before he knew what had happened, his anger had dissipated like so much mist before the onslaught of the sun.
By late morning, Arthur found the spot he'd remembered from previous hunts, a sheltered cove at the southern end of the lake with a wide clearing full of browse for the horses. He watched as Merlin set out a heavy blanket and began gathering rocks to form a fire pit, then stripped off his mail and laid it over the saddle he'd removed from his mare.
"I'll gather some wood," he heard himself say, and Merlin's head jerked up, startled.
"I'm sorry, you'll what?"
"You heard me," Arthur muttered, feeling his face grow warm.
"I did, I just didn't believe you." Merlin's eyes twinkled with barely suppressed mirth, and Arthur had to glare at him, because it was either that or walk over there and kiss him senseless. "Have you ever gathered wood before?"
"Of course I have," Arthur snapped. "I can manage quite well on my own in the wood, and that includes being capable of carrying out the menial tasks associated with survival, thank you very much."
Merlin looked up at him, cocking his head. "When was the last time you stayed overnight in the wood without an entourage?"
Arthur crossed his arms, more than a little incensed. "It was – recently!" he said, some of the wind leaving his sails when he realised he had no idea of exactly when it had been. But it had definitely been recent. Of that he was sure.
Merlin continued to gaze at him speculatively, and now he was actually smiling, the bastard. "Of course, sire," he said.
His lips, Arthur noted, were very soft-looking; the lower one practically invited people to suck on it.
"Oh, shut up," Arthur snarled, heading off in search of firewood.
After that, it somehow became a bit of a pissing match, Arthur determined to show Merlin he was perfectly able to fetch and carry for himself. He even snatched away the tinder kit Merlin had brought because Merlin's eyes widened in such obvious shock when he told him that of course he could start a fire. If he wanted to admit it (which he most certainly did not), he'd been somewhat stung by Merlin's blatant implication that he was a helpless baby, and he was – he was – Christ, he was doing all of Merlin's work for him, that's what he was doing.
Arthur looked up to see Merlin watching him, concerned. "What?" Arthur snapped.
"Nothing, only you're staring off into space and you're about to –"
"Ouch! Bugger!" Arthur yelled, leaping back from the flames.
"–burn yourself on the fire," Merlin finished.
"You might have just screeched, 'Fire!' at me instead of going through the whole damned explanation," Arthur snapped, cradling his singed fingers.
"Here," Merlin murmured, crouching down before Arthur and taking his hand between both of his own. Merlin's fingers were ridiculously long and skinny like the rest of him, but they were well-formed, and Arthur wondered absently if they would be deft and talented, which made no sense considering the clumsiness of their owner –
"Not too bad," Merlin was saying, turning Arthur's hand over to inspect it thoroughly. "Wait and I'll get some salve." His fingertips skittered over Arthur's palm and rested briefly for no good reason on his pulse point before releasing him.
"It's fine," Arthur gritted, because Merlin's gentle touches had caused the most alarming response. "I'm going hunting."
"For God's sake, are you deaf? I'm going hunting, I said," Arthur said, stalking off to grab his crossbow and quiver. "We need something to eat tonight."
"Well, there's bread, and cheese..." Merlin ventured, rising from his crouch.
"And now we'll have some meat to go with it. I'll shoot a couple of coneys for our supper."
Merlin shifted. "I thought I might catch some fish instead. If you liked."
Arthur finally looked up at him. "You can fish?"
"Of course I can," Merlin said, a tad defensively, and a slow smile spread over Arthur's face.
"Well, in that case, I'm sure you wouldn't object to a small wager," Arthur drawled. Merlin's gaze caught and held his, sparking with the challenge, and Arthur's blood raced.
"What sort of wager?"
Arthur pretended to give it some thought. "If, by the time I've shot two coneys, you've caught a greater weight of fish, you win."
"And if I haven't, you win." Merlin came closer, and Arthur's hands clenched into fists at his sides. "But what do we win?"
Arthur honestly hadn't given it any thought, and now that Merlin was within touching distance again, he didn't see how he could be expected to produce any thought at all. He became distracted by the V of milk-pale skin revealed by the loosened laces of Merlin's tunic, the dark smattering of chest hair at the base, and although he swiftly forced his gaze upwards, Merlin's eyes were wide and his cheeks flushed by the time he managed it.
"Whatever the winner decides," Arthur said, as firmly as he could. "Is it a wager?"
Merlin hesitated, then lifted his chin and nodded. "Done," he said, holding out his hand to Arthur, who stared at it stupidly for a moment before taking it. The touch was brief and yet still enough to cause a worsening of Arthur's condition; it was all he could do to walk away rather than tighten his grip and haul Merlin closer. As it was, Arthur was quite proud of the fact that he released him and turned on his heel, slinging the quiver over his shoulder as he stalked off into the forest.
Three hours later, Arthur had missed sixteen rabbits and four deer. It was easily the worst afternoon he'd spent hunting since he'd been a young boy too weak to span a bow, and it was all Merlin's bloody fault. The only hope was that Merlin had proven too incompetent to catch any fish, thus allowing Arthur to cancel the foolish wager.
He spied Merlin sitting beneath a willow by the water's edge, his long body curled in a lazy slouch against the trunk. It was impossible to tell if he'd had any success; Arthur decided to approach as quietly as possible so as to find out just how much humiliation he was in for and prepare himself accordingly.
Like a bandit he crept closer, hiding behind tree trunks until he was only a few yards from shore. It was then, as he poked his head around an oak, that he saw the basket lying by Merlin's side. The basket which was stuffed with wriggling fish.
Arthur hung his head briefly, then took a deep breath as he prepared to meet his fate. He was a crown prince; he could bear his obligation with dignity, or at least a close approximation of it.
He took a step forward, then stopped, frowning, when Merlin raised his hand and waved it at the lake. What the bloody hell was he doing?
Suddenly there was a flash of silver and a fat fish leapt from the water and landed in Merlin's basket.
A fish leapt into Merlin's basket.
Right after Merlin waved a hand at the water.
It took a few stunned seconds for him to process this, his mind refusing to draw the logical conclusion. When it finally did, he felt sick and furious and strangely hollow all at once.
Merlin was a sorcerer. Merlin had been lying to him. If his father found out, Merlin would die.
His next thought, even more strangely, was you stupid bloody git, because really, Merlin was inviting execution to – well, to take the piss out of Arthur, and that was the most idiotic reason for courting death he could imagine. On the other hand, Merlin had been doing that from the day they'd met, so it wasn't anything new. And then there was the fact that Merlin had saved Arthur's life twice – and now that he recalled his other brushes with death, it occurred to Arthur that this was probably a conservative estimate. Briefly, he reviewed everything he knew of Merlin, words and deeds, and none of his behaviour suited a threat to the realm. Further, he could have killed Arthur or his father a dozen times over, a hundred; he'd certainly had opportunity.
Then if his motives were not sinister, why the hell was Merlin here? Why did he stay when he knew his kind were the enemies of Camelot? And why did he serve Arthur with such devotion?
None of these were questions which could be answered by hiding behind a tree, so Arthur squared his shoulders and walked toward Merlin, ignoring the careening of his pulse. Merlin was oblivious to his presence until Arthur deliberately stepped on a branch, and then he leapt up, guilt written all over his face. Really, it was amazing he'd avoided the executioner's axe for this long, and in the ensuing moment Arthur felt – to his utter horror – a wave of proprietary affection wash over him.
Yes, bloody marvelous. Deceiver or no, sorcerer or no, it appeared that Merlin still had the power to turn him into a complete girl's blouse.
"Alright, so what do you want?"
Merlin's head jerked up, his cheeks still stuffed full of fish. "What?"
Arthur sighed. "The wager, Merlin. Are you going to tell me what you want, or are you going to torture me with the anticipation for the rest of the bloody night?" Knowing Merlin, it would probably involve Arthur mucking out the stables in full view of his knights.
Merlin chewed and swallowed, then set down his empty plate and shrugged. "I hadn't thought about it, really," he murmured, looking at the fire. "I wasn't planning to hold you to it."
Arthur frowned. "Why not?"
Merlin's cheeks flushed, and he shrugged again. "Erm, because fishing is easier than hunting, I suppose. It wasn't really a fair bet."
Arthur was on his feet before he knew it. "Not a fair bet? How dare you! I'm the one who set the terms!"
Merlin looked alarmed. "I – that's not what I meant," he managed, rising.
"You can't renege on a wager. We shook on it!" Dimly, Arthur was aware that the level of his rage was out of proportion to the offense, but he couldn't seem to stop himself. He seized Merlin by the arms and pulled him closer so that they were nearly nose to nose. Merlin's eyes were huge in his face, startled and slightly terrified. And well he should be terrified, Arthur thought, letting the fury rise; he was a sorcerer, for Christ's sake, and he wasn't taking the least amount of care to avoid getting himself killed.
"Alright, then, fine," Merlin said, voice surprisingly steady, "but I don't know what to ask for."
Arthur's fingers tightened on Merlin's arms. "I can think of something."
Merlin's eyes widened even further. "Wh-what?"
"Ask me," Arthur said, leaning in, "not to tell my father about you."
Merlin froze, so still Arthur would have thought he'd turned to stone if he couldn't feel the warmth of Merlin's skin under his hands. "You –"
"I saw you fishing," Arthur growled. "You have a very interesting technique."
Merlin's eyes closed briefly. "I'm sorry," he breathed. "I'm sorry I –"
"Ask for it," Arthur hissed, shaking him once.
Merlin frowned. "Arthur, I don't –"
Another shake. "I have pledged to obey the terms of the wager, on my honour," Arthur said. "Do you understand now?"
Merlin's gaze searched his face for a long moment, and it was all Arthur could do to meet it, to allow him to find the truth he knew had to be written there. "Arthur," he said finally, "to fulfill the obligation of our wager, I ask that you not tell my father about me."
"About your magic," Arthur forced himself to say.
Merlin shut his eyes again and nodded. "About my magic."
Arthur released the breath he wasn't aware he'd been holding, and Merlin's eyes opened. "Arthur, I –"
"Shut up," Arthur snapped, and kissed him.
"Arthur, Arthur," Merlin whispered, lips trailing along Arthur's collarbone.
"I thought I told you," Arthur said, hands possessive on Merlin's arse as they ground together, "to shut up."
"Mmm," Merlin said, kissing Arthur's chest, "can't seem to help myself, really." He knelt between Arthur's legs and began kissing his way further down his body. "But if you really want me to stop talking..."
Arthur tipped his head back and groaned, his fingers weaving through Merlin's soft, dark hair.
Arthur was on the verge of sleep when Merlin murmured in his ear, "You're taking the whole magic business much better than I thought you would."
"You have a talent for stating the obvious," Arthur muttered, cracking one eye open and glaring at him.
Merlin snorted. "I'm just wondering why you – I mean, is it because –" he lifted the hand that had been resting on Arthur's chest and waved it "–erm, because you–"
"Oh, for God's sake," Arthur sighed, rolling to his side to face Merlin. "You can't stop fishing, can you?"
"Well, you're certainly not obligated to answer," Merlin said defensively.
"No?" Arthur drawled, running a finger down the centre of Merlin's chest. "Is that beyond your talents, then?"
Merlin gaped. "I would never use it for that!" he exclaimed, clearly offended.
"But you would use it to catch fish, apparently."
"And oh, I don't know, save your life about a dozen bloody times," Merlin snapped.
Arthur's hand stilled. "That many?"
Merlin appeared to think about it. "Alright. Perhaps ten."
Arthur frowned, nonplussed. "Well. That's –"
"Don't get any big ideas," Merlin sniffed. "I also use it to polish your armour, wash your tunics –"
"Oh, you –" Arthur rolled over atop Merlin, pinning him as Merlin laughed freely up at him. It occurred to Arthur then that he hadn't heard the true sound of Merlin's unfettered joy until now.
"I knew you were keeping a secret from me," he heard himself say, and Merlin's laughter died. "And I – didn't like it."
Merlin looked stricken. "Arthur, I wanted to tell you – you have to know –"
Arthur took Merlin's face in his hands. "Tell me now," he commanded.
Merlin took a deep breath. "I've always had this power," he murmured, "but until I came to Camelot I didn't know what it was for. Now I do. I was meant to serve you, to help you, to protect you; it's my destiny."
"And this?" Arthur asked, sweeping his thumb over Merlin's well-kissed lower lip. "Is this another part of your destiny?"
Merlin buried a hand in Arthur's hair and pulled him down. "I don't think so. I think – this is for me."
When they parted, Arthur pressed his mouth to the skin over Merlin's heart and told his own secret. Merlin's arms tightened round him, and together they drifted off to sleep while above them the stars followed their inexorable path across the sky.