They're running through the corridors--Merlin's breath rattling in and out of his throat in a rather unseemly fashion, Arthur laughing like a loon and dropping his mud-sodden cloak on the floor as he takes a bend too quickly--and Merlin will admit he spares a moment to think, What the hell are we doing?
He thinks about slowing down; some part of him can't help but feel they should wait for the master of the armoury, who is screaming behind them, to catch up so that they can let him have his say. He's forty, at least, and rotund on his best days, and all he'll really be able to do, after all, is reprimand Arthur in as roundabout a way as possible. Merlin feels they owe it to him to at least listen, considering the mess they've just made of his newly shined inventory.
Don't be foolish, Merlin, Arthur had said when Merlin had suggested speaking to someone who worked in the armoury, while dumping an armful of muddy breastplates and hauberks and (now badly dented) helmets in a corner of the tidy room.
He'd turned and given a jaunty wave to the men who were departing--most of them young, handpicked because they wouldn't think twice about participating in an impromptu tournament in the water-logged fields behind Camelot's west wall--and spared Gawain a quick look, finally muttering, "Oh, sod off already," when Gawain had stared fixedly at the pile of battered armour, a disapproving twist to his lips.
Merlin had looked curiously between them: between the mud-spattered bruise by Gawain's hairline, from where Arthur had accidentally caught him with an errant elbow, and the firm line of Arthur's jaw, set from the moment he'd decided to convince Gawain and everyone else that the tournament was a good idea. Gawain had lowered his eyes first, a tiny smile playing reluctantly about his mouth.
Merlin had wanted to make an excuse, to invent some reason to stay and clean up after the lot of them, but at that moment, Gawain had ducked out the door and down the passageway, and Merlin had had no more than a moment to think Oh, dear before he'd heard the low growl of Balen the armourer's voice, muttering, "What in the world…?" as he followed their muddy tracks into the small storage room where Merlin stood, petrified, against the wall.
"What is the meaning of this?" Balen had asked, eyebrows knitting together above the bridge of his nose.
"Er," Merlin had begun eloquently, shuffling awkwardly and trying, simultaneously, to keep Arthur, who had been standing directly behind him, hidden, and to 'accidentally' reveal him in the hopes that Balen's dangerously twitching fingers, seemingly reaching for a club, would still at the sight of the prince.
Merlin had felt a tug on the back of his tunic, and had made as if to stand aside, certain Arthur would explain everything. He'd smiled uncertainly, eyes fixed on a scabbard lying on a long trestle table in front of him, and said, "Well, you see, Balen--"
That had been when Arthur had started running.
When Merlin first hears that Arthur has been betrothed, his ribs pull inwards with an odd little hitch, and he only allows himself a second--which he needs in order to coordinate spinning in place without falling on his face--before he's running to Arthur's chambers.
He bursts through the doors with a minimum of decorum, and he's surprised to find Arthur standing calmly inside, murmuring lowly to Gawain. Merlin realises, spontaneously, that he had expected Arthur to be rending his garments (and, perhaps, wailing), but Arthur only looks up at him in mild surprise and says, curiously,
"Arthur," says Merlin, the word more a rush of breath than it is actual sound, and Arthur shoots Gawain a sideways glance. Gawain slinks immediately out of the room, giving Merlin a little wave as he goes.
I hear from the scullery maids that your father is to marry you off, Merlin wants to say, but Arthur seems so unruffled that the news is looking more unlikely to be true by the second, and so Merlin says, unsubtly,
"Have you spoken to your father this morning?"
"Yes," says Arthur, cautiously; a beat later his eyes widen, only fractionally, and he says, "Is he well?"
"Yes, yes--" Merlin waves him off with what he knows Arthur will be able to interpret as reassurance, "It's just that I was in the kitchens just now, and the maids and the cooks were gossiping, as usual, and I heard that--"
"Oh, that," says Arthur, nodding as if he finally understands what the fuss is about. "Yes. My father informed me this morning that the arrangements have been finalised on that betrothal he's been negotiating for the better part of a month--Lady Elise, Sir Cormorant's daughter."
Arthur is walking idly about the room, shrugging off an outer tunic and dropping it on the floor with that easy disregard that means he expects Merlin to pick up after him at some point, and Merlin wonders whether it's only a matter of time before Arthur suddenly and unexpectedly hurls himself from the window, like those individuals that Gaius was lecturing about the other day, who suffer from violent attacks of delayed grief or shock, months after a death. He watches carefully, but Arthur shows no signs of the repressed, unspoken, distress that Gaius had assured him preceded most cases of window-hurling, allowing an observant physician to intervene in time.
"I--so it's true, then?" Merlin asks, stupidly, and when Arthur shoots him a look that confirms that Merlin just sounded as idiotic as he'd imagined, he continues, "And--that's fine? I mean--you're fine?"
"Why wouldn't I be, Merlin?" asks Arthur, and his head has that tilt, one shoulder dropped lower that the other, that communicates contempt mingled with curiosity.
"Well," Merlin begins, at a loss as to how to explain something he would have thought was obvious, "Morgana is always saying how she'll never go willingly to some man your father chooses for her, how she'll flee the court before she's treated like a political asset. I just thought--don't you want to choose who you marry?"
This entire conversation, Merlin reasons, is more than a little surreal, with Arthur so calm and Merlin's half-cocked plans to aid and accompany him in his escape, formulated as he ran from the kitchens, rendered so clearly, utterly unnecessary with every measured breath Arthur takes.
Arthur is silent for a long moment. He looks consideringly at Merlin and says, finally,
"Merlin. Morgana is a woman."
"Yes," says Merlin, tilting his tone upwards towards the end of the word, to make it half a question and half a statement.
"Indubitably," Arthur continues, "She is reluctant to be sent off into an undesirable union, with a man whom she will be duty-bound to obey even if she does not agree with him. Once she leaves Camelot, she will have no access to the considerable leeway that my father and I have given her, time and again, because we have affection for her. Her only hope for happiness is with a man who will take her as she is--willful and headstrong, intelligent and invested even in matters that should not concern her."
Merlin nods. He knows all this, but it sheds no light on why Arthur doesn't appear to be even slightly bothered by the fact that he's apparently to be married to a stranger. His confusion must show on his face, because Arthur rolls his eyes, and says, slowly,
"I am a man. And crown prince of Camelot."
Merlin resists the urge to spin one hand in a Get the hell on with it, Arthur, it's clear I don't get it gesture, because Arthur has never reacted well to being rushed. For all his practicality as Camelot's keeper of the law, he has an unusually keen appreciation of drama.
"Merlin, it doesn't matter whom my father marries me off to," Arthur says, reasonably, as if appeasing an overly anxious peasant standing in a field of slightly wilting crops. "In this, my household, and in this, my kingdom, it is I who will get the final say. Always. If my father had negotiated a betrothal with a powerful ally, perhaps the situation would be slightly different, but as it is, he's chosen Sir Cormorant, whose lands are adjacent to Mercia and therefore strategically important now more than ever--but he's my father's vassal, and so his will is subject to my father's as his daughter's shall be to mine. I will never be under pressure to do anything other than what I wish to do."
Merlin widens his eyes, a little--he knows Arthur values Morgana's opinion, despite his protestations to the contrary, and he once walked in on Arthur, alone in his chambers, standing in front of a looking glass with his shoulders squared and whispering, Remember what Guinevere said. You will be a good king. All this talk of subjugation seems to directly contradict what he knows of Arthur, who tries to be exactingly just when he listens to supplicants in his father's court, regardless of their standing or gender or past.
Arthur catches sight of Merlin's face, and he sighs heavily.
"I'm not saying that this is what I'm hoping for, Merlin--that my wife will live in unhappy submission to me. I'm only saying that my father's choice of bride is not of the same consequence for me as his choice of husband will be for Morgana. With any luck, the Lady Elise and I will see eye to eye, or grow to see eye to eye, and the union will be happy and prosperous. It's not as if I'm harbouring a secret passion for anyone else, which would presumably be the main reason why I would try to avoid a political match--and I trust my father picked Cormorant not only with practicality in mind, but also with a thought to my happiness."
Three years in Camelot have taught Merlin that even if Arthur questions his father's judgment, at times, he still trusts him fairly implicitly. It's paradoxical, but Merlin long ago accepted it as one of the many quirks of Uther's and Arthur's complicated relationship.
"But Arthur--" Merlin says, not a little anguishedly.
Merlin thinks of Frida, the girl in his village who had heard her wedding announced with tears in her eyes and disappeared before the day was through, taking Brego, the pimply boy with a pompous name, with her. He thinks of Arthur's diffident but undeniable vitality, and realises with a start that after years in Camelot's court, after such a long period of getting to know the ins and outs of its people and its politics, he'd come to expect that no stranger of consequence would arrive to disturb what he knows. He thinks, now, that he'd perhaps expected Arthur to marry Morgana, or maybe Sir Gawain's sister, or someone known, familiar. While he's never stopped to question his assumptions about how that might take place, the thought has always been in the back of his mind, like a bloodied animal after one of Arthur's hunts, which Merlin always registers but never fixes his gaze on, for fear of catching sight of something he does not want to see.
"Merlin," says Arthur, and his voice is kind, as it always is when he realises that Merlin has no frame of reference for what he's about to say, even though he will later deny that he was attempting to be considerate. "This is actually a fairly good thing."
"How?" asks Merlin, because though he's never been in love himself and though he's in no danger of Gaius arranging a match, love- or otherwise, for him, he can't understand why Arthur isn't angry, or upset, even though Merlin, who has no direct stake in this, is finding that he clearly is.
It doesn't help that even after years together, Arthur is still guarded, mindful of propriety even in private, and though the clues are always there when Merlin looks for them--pinched brows and half-second smiles and curled fists, all things that Arthur has wordlessly taught Merlin to look for--Merlin wishes that, this time, he could ask Arthur to simply say what he means. That is not, however, how things work between them. Theirs is a language of impish looks under cover of sobriety, of clenched jaws masked by indifferent speech, but Merlin knows better than to undervalue the tiny cues that Arthur gives grudgingly, but not unknowingly.
"Well," says Arthur finally after looking at Merlin intently for a moment, trying, as always, to make sure he isn't missing something. "First of all, my father has set the wedding for a year's time. A hundred things could happen in a year, Merlin. Sir Cormorant could lose his lands to someone else, rendering the match valueless, which he would know; the Lady Elise could be--I don't know--overtaken by some horrible disease of the flesh? Sir Cormorant would understand that that would invalidate the agreement… even though it shouldn't, of course. Father could find a more auspicious match, and find a way to worm us out of this prior arrangement, granting Cormorant more lands to ease the sting. And even if none of this came to pass, and the match actually took place--well, Merlin, being betrothed actually frees me, in many ways."
"Being betrothed means you'll have to be married, Arthur, for life, even if you can make yourself forget it for now," says Merlin, snappishly, because he rather feels Arthur is missing the bottom line, here.
"Merlin," says Arthur, and though his voice is still patient, this is what Merlin has come to recognise as the dangerous sort of patience, which says, How much more time will I have to invest in order to get you up to speed? rather than, Allow me to explain this.
"As long as a match hasn't been arranged for me, Merlin? I have to behave in such a way that fault cannot be found with me. No father will turn down a match with a man who stands to inherit a kingdom, but the terms can be negotiated further away from Camelot's interests if I'm seen to be without honour, or if I'm seen to be disrespectful of tradition, or even if people feel I'm overly dismissive of women's virtue. As long as I'm waiting for my father to arrange a marriage, my sole responsibility in matters of state--discounting war--is to make an alliance with Camelot seem as attractive as possible. That means that there must always be… strictures on my behaviour."
"And this will change now?" asks Merlin, still not sure how this makes the news that his father has traded Arthur away seem more palatable.
"Now," says Arthur, grinning in a way that Merlin has never seen before, and which he can only describe as wolfish, not least because of its unfamiliarity, "Well--the Lady Elise and I will marry at year's end, a match her father will not wish to break unless I grievously violate the terms of his and my father's understanding."
Merlin has always resented this side of Arthur, which speaks about court dealings in such a detached and lofty way, with a tone that suggests that Merlin will never be able to understand. The worst part of it is--Merlin doesn't. He's not really sure he ever wishes to, either; then again, over time Arthur has indicated that he might not ever want Merlin to. Sometimes Merlin thinks that's what makes Arthur so inscrutable at times like this, what makes him say, I'm ever so sure Merlin has no idea what you mean, Lady Sebille, his voice dismissive but his body turned imperceptibly into a shield between Merlin and the worst of court savagery. Merlin tries to remind himself of this now, and takes a deep breath before he says,
"So you're saying that now that you're to be married, you're finally free to… what? Bed more women?"
"Among other things," Arthur says, still in that reasonable, far-away tone.
"That doesn't make any sense," Merlin sputters, the urgency he'd felt when he'd been running to Arthur's rooms, and the confusion he'd felt upon arriving, morphing into a heavy, dull, anger.
"Merlin, look," says Arthur, eyes fixed on Merlin and voice wavering with a little of the frustration that Merlin is certain he must be feeling, no matter how highly he values duty. The fingers on his left hand clench. Merlin looks at them pointedly and refuses to look away until Arthur blinks slowly and deliberately, in a way that means, Yes, yes, so you've seen that; fine.
"A prince who isn't betrothed, and who acts foolishly, becomes an undesirable prospect. He appears to be unready for kingship, or unready even for marriage, a bond in which he'd be responsible for the duty of only one person, rather than that of thousands. A betrothed prince who acts foolishly, though--well, he's only a young man who's allowing himself one last burst of freedom, a boy who's full of vigour, or whatever foolish-sounding attribute you wish to saddle him with as an explanation when gossiping. And if he makes … a mistake? Well, he won't be the first king with a natural child, or the first husband to come to a wife with indiscretions and ask her to accept him as he is. And what that means, Merlin, is that this year will be the freest I've been since I turned old enough to have my behaviour stand for Camelot's."
Merlin shakes his head, a little dazed, because Arthur's voice suggests that he's angry, but Merlin cannot tell whether it's at the current situation or at the teenage years to which he is alluding. He knows that Arthur values him as a friend--as the closest friend he has in Camelot, even, despite their differences in rank and age and upbringing--and some part of him understands that though Arthur may not fully believe what he is saying, he does believe that others do, and that the latter is significant. He's not deflecting Merlin's concerns, but rather telling him that they're not precisely applicable.
"I see," says Merlin, slowly, eyes fixed on Arthur's brow, hoping to catch the telltale furrowing that means Arthur has more to say and merely needs some careful prodding.
"You don't," says Arthur, his forehead clear of wrinkles but his smile fond.
"I don't," Merlin agrees, with a shaky smile of his own. "But I suppose what I'm saying is… I'm with you in this? Whatever 'this' is."
"I know that, you idiot," says Arthur, voice communicating a sort of appreciative disgust that Merlin has come to interpret as utter acceptance.
"Good," he says simply, and nods.
It is very small things, at first.
Arthur begins passing on supervision of his patrols, first to Gawain or Tristan, but eventually to other knights, no less qualified but less close to him. Merlin walks past a few unfamiliar faces by the portcullis one day, and ducks into Arthur's room with an armful of fresh linens to find Arthur, Tristan, Gawain and Rivalen playing at dice. Arthur is laughing, head thrown back and eyes narrowed into slits, and Merlin narrows his own eyes at the scene before Tristan notices him, shouting, "Merlin!" and waving him over with a cup brimming over with ale.
Gawain pushes the chest he is sitting on to the left, legs braced against the floor, and hooks his foot into a small stool, dragging it so that it's at Arthur's side. Merlin puts the linens down on the bed and sits.
The rules of the game are familiar--Arthur is shaking a small dicing cup in one hand, and he places it, brim down, on the table before he lifts it to peek inside, saying, simply, "Seven."
Rivalen nods, seemingly satisfied at the firm sound of Arthur's voice, and Tristan looks carefully at Arthur's face before leaning back and nodding as well. Gawain spares one quick look at Arthur's face and immediately looks to Merlin, who fidgets and tries his hardest not to give away that Arthur is lying--he'd winced almost imperceptibly upon looking under the cup. Merlin focuses on keeping his breath even and his face impassive, but he can feel a hot flush climbing up his neck, and Gawain laughs sharply, pointing at Arthur--
"You're lying, sire."
Arthur looks at Merlin, rolling his eyes so markedly that it's a wonder they don't come out of their sockets, but then, instead of handing over a token to Gawain--the acknowledgement of being caught in a lie, in the game Merlin knows--he lifts a battered tankard to his lips and drinks and drinks and drinks until he drains it.
Gawain laughs again, a delighted, hiccoughing laugh, and Tristan and Rivalen turn to look appraisingly at Merlin.
"Oh, for pity's sake," says Arthur, looking back at them sternly before jutting his chin out towards the pitcher of ale and motioning to Merlin to serve him. "New game."
A few days after catching Arthur drinking in the middle of the afternoon--Merlin had tried to elicit some sort of explanation, but Arthur had only shrugged, stumbling sloppily into bed and laughing as Merlin undid his boots--Uther asks Merlin to bring Arthur to the king's quarters. Merlin has to spend over an hour scouring the castle for Arthur, growing increasingly mystified with each room he enters only to find it empty, and increasingly frustrated as the hour creeps towards dinnertime.
He's about to give up, tell Uther than Arthur has probably gone riding, when he passes a stairway leading to the north watchtower and runs up the curling steps on a whim. He pants his way to the top, and bursts onto the landing to find Arthur sitting against the arrow-slit window, one leg bent and the other stretched against the wall.
"Arthur," says Merlin, about to continue with a sharp Your father asked for you an hour ago before he looks carefully at the way Arthur is sitting, curled into himself and the stone behind him, and sputters, "Are you--are you reading?"
Arthur looks at him, chin raised and eyes steady, as if this is a perfectly normal occurrence, and the haughty tilt of his head almost makes Merlin want to back down.
"What in the world are you doing, Arthur?" he asks again, more distressed than if he'd found Arthur sobbing behind his bedcurtains. He's convinced that there are a hundred things Arthur is not telling him, a thousand thoughts about this impending wedding that he'll share with Merlin eventually. It's just a matter of time, Merlin tells himself calmly as he goes about his daily chores, fighting the urge to approach anyone else about it. But while whiling away the time dicing with his friends had seemed understandable, this--this reading--is so beyond the comprehensible that Merlin has to physically grip the wall to stop himself from striding over and shaking Arthur violently by the shoulders. He manages to stay still only because he knows for a fact that Arthur does not respond well to that sort of thing.
"As you've clearly ascertained," says Arthur evenly, not even bothering to close the book resting on his knee, "I'm reading."
"Yes, but--" Merlin stops, taking a deep, shuddering breath and trying hard to remember that a book is just a book is just a book. He marches jerkily towards the corner in which Arthur is sitting, lowering himself gracelessly to sit beside him. He peeks around Arthur's hand, and Arthur helpfully lowers his arm to allow Merlin to see what he's reading, though he says nothing.
Merlin expects to see a history, or a volume of Camelot's annals, but it's one of those extravagantly illustrated anthologies that Geoffrey is always complaining about--commissioned by the rich as gifts to the king, combinations of prayers and religious poetry and romances, more generic than any of the gift-givers believe--and Arthur has it open to a poem about Orpheus.
Merlin scans a few lines quickly, then moves his eyes to Arthur's face. Arthur looks straight ahead at the page, giving nothing away, and Merlin is eventually forced to look back at the book. Orfeo's lute so lightly lilted, he reads, brain slow and stupid, before Arthur finally appears to take pity on Merlin's panicky confusion, because he says, simply,
"I like romances."
Merlin nods as if this makes sense.
"The tutors used to read them to Morgana and me after our lessons, when we were very young. I know there have been new ones come from France recently that are very popular--the women in court are always speaking about them--but I haven't had time to read in years. I have fewer patrols now, so I thought today would be as good a time as any."
Merlin nods again, curling his bottom lip between his teeth, and says, "I see." He means something closer to, You don't "have" fewer patrols, Arthur; you're purposefully fobbing them off on others to give yourself time to behave strangely, and I, for one, would appreciate it if you would stop it.
"Merlin," says Arthur, his cadence measured and his voice oddly weary, "I've explained this, haven't I? That this year is something to be taken advantage of? I can tell you're--anxious, or whatever this is, but there is no mystery here, or hidden purpose: I'm simply doing what I told you I would."
"Reading romances in the north watchtower," says Merlin matter-of-factly, confusion making his tongue feel fat and clumsy in his mouth.
"Among other things," answers Arthur, shrugging.
Merlin scoots back so that his back is against the wall, Arthur's side warm against his. He still doesn't believe a word of it, but he'll readily admit that while drowning sorrows in ale amongst friends seems like a reasonable response to the frustration he is still certain Arthur is feeling, reading romances in solitude seems less likely a reaction, given what he knows of Arthur. Guinevere, maybe--she'd once told him she liked seeing troupes perform for Uther, because it made her feel as if she were elsewhere, for the time that the performance lasted--but Arthur, who prefers to face the impossible head-on, rather than dwell on the impossibility of escaping it? He's unlikely to find comfort in avoidance, this Merlin knows for a fact.
A small part of Merlin wants to entertain the notion that Arthur is really doing what he claims to be doing--making what use he sees fit of his time, until he has to share it with someone in marriage--but the rest of him, loud and stubborn, insists that the explanations Arthur is offering do not make any sense. It's almost as if Arthur is taking leave not only of his duties, but of himself, and Merlin, who prides himself on knowing Arthur, doesn't know what to make of so much incongruous information, or of the strange feeling of loss that seems to have taken up residence in the pit of his stomach.
"Merlin," says Arthur suddenly, interrupting Merlin's musings, closing the book on his lap with a dull thud and turning so that he and Merlin are both facing the stairs. Merlin tilts his head, expecting further exasperated explanation, but instead, Arthur says, "I've always wondered--"
Merlin starts slightly at the odd tone; he's never heard Arthur say "I've always wondered" seriously, only as a precursor to "how an idiot such as yourself…" Arthur continues in a quiet, sober voice, though, seemingly oblivious,
"How come you know how to read?"
Merlin smiles uncertainly. He's… happy, he supposes, to be asked, but he and Arthur haven't precisely made an art of direct exchange in the past. Merlin wonders briefly whether this sort of conversation between them falls into the "other things" part of this year's activities that Arthur keeps alluding to; that would be something new that would not be so terrible, if he's honest.
Arthur is waiting, clearly expectant, and so Merlin says,
"My mother taught me."
"Well, yes, I figured that much--" says Arthur, his exasperation walking them back towards more familiar ground, but Merlin, so eager a minute ago to see signs of the Arthur he knows, interrupts him and barrels on over the sound of Arthur's voice, suddenly unwilling to give up this odd interlude in the cool, cramped, space of the watchtower landing.
"Before my father came," says Merlin, carefully avoiding saying Before my mother married my father, and seeing Arthur register that, "my mother lived with Gaius in the city."
"Gaius was attending your father by then, I think, but he hadn't been formally appointed court physician--" in the past few years, Merlin and Arthur have discovered that before Uther had a resident physician, he had a resident sorceress, but they do not make reference to this, by mutual agreement-- "and he had more time at home, I think. He saw more people from the city, and he… I think he hoped my mother might serve as his clerk, at least as long as she remained unmarried?"
Arthur is looking at the book again, but Merlin can tell by his stillness that he's listening.
"He taught her to read, and to write, and to do sums. Some herb lore, too, I think. My mother always said to me, in Ealdor, that she loved reading poetry best, but I think Gaius had other ideas about what she should be spending her time reading. She was sometimes allowed in the castle, though, when Gaius came to see your father, and Geoffrey usually let her read in one of his rooms off the library, as long as she sat where he could keep an eye on her."
They both snort--trying to pull one over on Geoffrey, no matter how small, had become a bit of a pastime for them when Arthur had been recovering after the questing beast. They'd spent weeks trying, unsuccessfully, to move the library's books around while he wasn't looking. Merlin thinks, now, that an injured Arthur in his better moments, when he wasn't furious at being unable to train and spar with his knights, had been not unlike the odd, carefree, Arthur of the past month. The thought makes him pause.
"Anyway," he says, finally, "then I came, and my mother and Gaius thought it would be better if I were raised in Ealdor, in the countryside." Where a city widow would draw less attention than a woman with no husband would in Camelot, Arthur's eyes say. As that was certainly part of the reason, Merlin says nothing and allows Arthur to draw his own conclusions.
Not correcting assumptions has allowed him to survive two years without ever telling Arthur a lie, something he swore he would not do again after the beast.
"She took parchment and quills and ink with her, though," he continues, "And Gaius gave her two or three books of poetry; she used to read them to me, when I was young. I really liked looking at them, and I eventually learned to read, and write, using them."
"And did these books have romances?" Arthur asks, sly and smiling in an unfamiliar, but oddly recognisable, way. The late afternoon light is giving him deep shadows around his eyes, and a playful dark outline about his mouth, like a masked man at a ball.
"They had romances," Merlin confirms.
Arthur looks at him directly then, and Merlin shifts awkwardly against the stone floor and fights not to move his gaze elsewhere. He's completely at a loss as to what to do--he and Arthur have never spoken this way, not quite, though they've said more meaningful, and more intimate, things to each other in the past. There was a time when Merlin, much more open after growing up a world away in Ealdor, would have tried to initiate just this sort of conversation, but learning about Arthur with time--and eventually coming to know that what little Arthur gives away obliquely, he gives only to Merlin and Morgana and Gawain, and mostly to Merlin alone--has taught him to amass information through other means, to expect and value other forms of exchange.
Arthur just keeps looking at him as if this is something they do commonly, though, the look in his eyes almost daring Merlin to look away, and that--a challenge issued silently--Merlin is much more familiar with. He keeps his eyes on Arthur's.
Finally, Arthur shifts and looks away as if satisfied, bringing his knees up and propping the book on them once more. He drops his left knee so that the page is visible to Merlin, and Merlin sits stiffly beside him, watching him turn one page, and then another.
"I learned to read Latin and English from reading annals," says Arthur, eyes on the page, "but Morgana and I learned French from anthologies like this one. She was better at it than I was, and she used to tease that I couldn't understand half of what I was reading."
Merlin can see it clearly, the two of them sitting in the room where Guinevere has told him they used to have lessons together. He wants to hear more, but he also has to bite his tongue to keep from asking, for the seventh time this month, what on earth has gotten into Arthur. He thinks he would enjoy these unexpected glimpses into the parts of Arthur he does not (yet, he tells himself) know much more if he could just be certain that Arthur was happy. If only Arthur would explain, Merlin would be content to join him in reading romances in whatever strange location Arthur came up with next.
"What?" asks Arthur, brows knitting in slight confusion at Merlin's lingering look.
"Nothing," says Merlin when he finishes searching Arthur's face, which is open and unguarded in a way that Merlin has seen only once or twice before. He's always been very fond of this particular expression, which makes Arthur look years younger, and he suddenly hopes, rashly, that he will be able to see it more often during what is shaping up to be a very strange fourth autumn in Arthur's service. His throat is dry with the cold air that's whistling through the arrow-slit, and he swallows twice as Arthur looks at him, bemused.
Up until this moment, Merlin had completely forgotten his original reason for coming here--Uther's request, his stormy face when Merlin had paused halfway through his search to say he still hadn't found Arthur--but when it flits across his mind now, he dismisses it and settles back against the wall, against Arthur's warm flank, as if he had not remembered it at all. Arthur shoots him a small smile, gone an instant later, and Merlin fixes his gaze on the pink curve of Arthur's lips as he smiles back.
When Arthur tilts the book again, Merlin reads with him.
A week later, heavy November rains flood the field behind the city walls and Arthur promptly decides he wants to hold an informal tournament in the mud with the castle's younger knights.
Merlin looks up from folding undergarments to find Arthur staring at him expectantly, completely unfazed by Merlin's heavy look and already gesturing towards the door.
"Well, hurry up, Merlin--we'll have to go get those men who patrol the market, those idiots who spend time with Sir Caradoc's sons, and we'll have to make it to the armoury before Balen does, and we'll need to find someone to judge the entire thing, Morgana perhaps. Or you know what? Never mind--you'll do. It's not as if you can fight, obviously."
Merlin listens with half an ear and looks out of the window at the field, at its clumps of dark mud and patches of raggedy grass, the earth broken and upturned as if someone had fenced off the entire field and used a large spade to create a giant pigs' sty.
His mind wanders, briefly, to Balen's workshop, to the lines of glittering breastplates and flawless helmets arranged against the armoury's walls.
He spares a thought for Sir Caradoc's sons, who were solely responsible for upending a platter with an entire suckling pig on it at the last feast, after drunkenly approaching Morgana and having her threaten to maim them both with her meat knife.
He thinks about his constant, gnawing, worry that all may not be entirely well with Arthur, turning this last thought over in his mind once, twice.
Then he looks at Arthur's smile, at his open face, and says, "Yes, all right then--let's go."
A man arrives from Sir Cormorant's household in time for the midwinter feast preparations, and Merlin makes it a point to treat him with disinterested reserve bordering on disrespect.
This obviously amuses Arthur, who makes it a point, in turn, to request the most pointless things from Merlin, as often as possible, whenever he's in Sir Blaise's company. He always has a half-smile on his face when he does so, as if he's willing Merlin to join in on a joke, but though Merlin appreciates what Arthur is doing--recognising Merlin's petty dislike of Sir Blaise, trying to call him on it playfully, making clear that Sir Blaise is harmless with every request for sweets or wine or extra pillows--it's hard not to feel a little ill will when he's the one who has to traipse all over the castle in order to fulfil each request.
"Merlin, do we have any more of those candied figs, the ones that were a gift from the Lady Soredamors' household?"
Merlin scowls darkly at Arthur; he knows perfectly well that a few of the figs are still sitting in a dish in the kitchen, where Merlin fetches them from when Arthur requests some under the pretense of enjoying them, so that Merlin can have them under the pretense of clearing them away--Arthur is not overly fond of most sweet things.
"I'll go see, sire," says Merlin, tightly, thinking already of the way the syrupy figs, which Sir Gawain's sister seems able to procure only at midwinter, will disappear into Sir Blaise's fat face, never to be seen again.
"On second thought," says Arthur, eyes glinting knowingly as Merlin makes for the door, "perhaps some of that dried fruit that arrived yesterday would be best."
Merlin glowers. He's happy to spare the figs a sad fate at Sir Blaise's fat hands, but the dried fruit will have to be found and unpacked before he can bring it to Arthur's rooms, and so far today he's already fetched wine--from three different storehouses--and some extremely heavy shields for Sir Blaise's half-hearted perusal. He's stoked the fire when it was already blazing and carried two extra braziers into Arthur's already warm rooms; he's brought Guinevere in for a conversation about cloth that Sir Cormorant wishes to send to Morgana for her birthday, brought Arthur's new destrier to the courtyard so that Sir Blaise could admire it from the comfort of a window, and spent half an hour looking for the castle steward and the minstrel, whose services Arthur had inexplicably wanted at the same time.
It's not even afternoon yet.
Sir Blaise is of a portly middle age, and Arthur's goading--because Merlin is certain that that is partly what it is; Arthur's never quite outgrown a desire to rile Merlin, despite the increasing affection with which he has learned to do it--should not be something that amuses him, in his more advanced years. He seems thrilled every time Merlin returns with something new, though, and ruefully amused when Arthur immediately thinks of something else for Merlin to procure. He and Arthur are getting along famously, as if there weren't twenty years and a marriage negotiation unspoken between them.
He's been sent to inspect Arthur for an extended period of time, of this Merlin is almost sure. He's hardly left Arthur's side, and Arthur, for all his strange behaviour leading up to the visit, has been a consummate statesman since Sir Blaise's arrival--not his finest role at the best of times, but it is clear that Arthur really is trying.
Merlin doesn't know how to take this: he's relieved to have Arthur's more familiar guises back in regular circulation, but he can't interpret what Arthur's seeming cooperation with the entire process could possibly indicate, other than… cooperation. Merlin is decidedly less in support of cooperation than he was in favour of the odd behaviour, and that is saying something indeed.
By the time he returns with the dried fruit, Sir Blaise and Arthur have seemingly turned their tastes to cured ham, and Merlin barely restrains himself from slamming the platter down in front of them, choosing instead to slink out of the room respectfully before gouging a hole in the stone wall immediately opposite Arthur's doors with a hastily muttered spell. He repairs the damage as quickly as he can, darting nervous looks around and behind him, and makes for the smokehouses with the thought that Sir Blaise will only be around for a month (but Merlin's own head will remain lopped off forever if he's careless in Uther's castle) firmly in his mind.
Uther outdoes himself that midwinter, having the kitchens bring in game from every forest within Camelot's borders, and allowing the steward to order in new draperies for the hall, made of finer velvet than many of Arthur's clothes and emblazoned with dragons stitched in glinting gold thread.
Neither Merlin nor Gwen can fully understand what's happening--if the wedding's already been agreed, it seems foolish to attempt to impress Cormorant's representative--but Gwen says she remembers something similar happening years earlier, when a possible betrothal between Arthur and the king of Bernicia's daughter had crumbled into nothing, and so Merlin simply chalks it up to some other royal custom the importance of which he will never want to grasp. Morgana comes in while the two of them are discussing it and says something about making clear to others what it means to be in Pendragon's favour, regardless of whether they enjoy or lack it. Merlin nods sagely, but his mind has already skipped ahead to the leftovers Gwen is bound to secure for them at some point, and he does not listen carefully.
Merlin is seldom in Arthur's company in the week leading up to the feast, though he sees him wagering against Gawain at the archery range, and laughing with Rivalen as the two of them ride into the stables, shaking snow from their cloaks. Part of it is that Merlin and the rest of the servants are too busy beating tapestries outside windows and laying rushes in each of the castles' larger rooms for Merlin to lounge about in Arthur's chambers as much as he usually does, but Merlin is able to admit that the rest of it is a childish churlishness, because Arthur continues to seem so at peace with something Merlin is beginning to suspect he will simply have to learn to accept as well.
Midwinter morning dawns sharp and bright, silver sunlight melting snow slowly off the trees, and Merlin calls for a bath to be drawn for Arthur before heading to the tailor to pick up a tunic that he had dropped off for mending a few days before. He walks briskly to Arthur's rooms, determined to make the most of the morning together--on each midwinter day for the past three years, the two of them have helped to bring the new Yule log in for burning in the hall--but when he gets there to wake Arthur up, Arthur is standing silently at the window, already dressed in his hunting leathers.
He turns when Merlin enters, smiling quickly at him before saying, "Go get your things--pack enough food for three days' ride, and fetch the winter bedrolls from the storerooms."
Arthur's saddlebags are already sitting on the bed, apparently stuffed with Arthur's usual care, if the loaf of bread tangled in a pair of hose is any indication.
"But--" Merlin says, glancing between the bed and Arthur's winter boots, already laced on his feet, then looking down at the tunic in his own arms-- "Don't we-- I mean-- the feast?"
"Oh," says Arthur, waving a hand airily in a way that's disturbingly reminiscent of the two months before Sir Blaise's arrival. Merlin is oddly glad to see it. "Yes, the feast. Don't worry; we won't be missed."
Merlin begs to differ. While he'll grudgingly admit that Arthur had been right about Uther and others in the castle looking benevolently on his recent activities, he can't think missing a feast that Uther has spent a small fortune preparing, and at which Arthur's betrothed's representative is the guest of honour, will be similarly filed away under 'minor escapades'.
"Arthur, don't be ridiculous," says Merlin, regretting it almost instantly--Arthur and accusations of 'ridiculous' do not mix well, and Arthur's face turns petulant halfway through the word.
"Oh, for crying out …" Merlin groans. "You know what I mean. The entire castle has spent a week preparing everything, it's not as if we can just ride away a few hours before the feast begins and expect no-one to ask where we are when it does!"
"Merlin," says Arthur, clipping each syllable as if discussing this is an unnecessary hardship, rather than a logical necessity, "Do you want to stay here, and serve me and Sir Blaise tonight as we both get progressively more drunk and our capacity to try your patience with stupid requests increases accordingly?"
"I knew you were doing it on purpose--"
Arthur raises an eyebrow threateningly.
"No," says Merlin, getting the sense that Arthur wants him to stick to the question at hand and piping down accordingly. "Not really, no."
They sneak away like children, hugging the wall as they make a run for the stables, where Gawain is waiting with two saddled horses and a scowl the size of Albion on his face.
"I hope you know what you're doing," he mutters lowly to Arthur. Merlin rather gets the sense he ought to be helping to make Gawain's argument, rather than taking the reins to his usual roan from his hands, particularly as he's most likely the one who will have to pay for Arthur's folly with time in the stocks. It's been a while, but Merlin doesn't remember it as being particularly pleasant. He's intoxicated by the bright winter sunlight and the sound of the horse stamping its hind leg gently against the stable's hay-scattered ground, though--at least, this is what he tells himself--so he simply says, "Thanks, Gawain," and hoists himself up, throwing a bedroll over the horse's flank.
"Yes--thank you, Gawain," says Arthur, slapping his horse's rear with one open palm before he even swings his leg over the saddle. Merlin has a feeling that they're flat-out making a run for it before someone is able to report to Uther, but the thought of three days' riding with Arthur after the last week's humdrum--and if he's honest, the thought of Arthur insulting Sir Blaise as badly as their absence no doubt will--is too good to pass up.
"Through the West Gate, Merlin--try to look like we belong there," he says.
Merlin noses his horse forward, tucking behind Arthur as the two of them ride out of the stables at a steady clip into the sharp winter wind, Gawain shaking his head resignedly in the distance behind them.
They make it out of the gate without incident, and when Arthur turns his face up into the weak winter sunlight and twists to smile widely at Merlin as they coax their horses into a canter in the fields outside the city, Merlin feels something airy and almost sweet rising in his chest. It's happiness to be riding down an empty road at Arthur's side, he thinks, something they've done dozens of times before and will do hundreds of times after this. Despite everything that's happened since August, Merlin is sure of this much.
They're about three hours' ride out, though, about to reach a point where turning back in time for the feast will become impossible, when Merlin's conscience gets the better of him. He sits there fidgeting in his saddle and eventually Arthur looks pointedly at him until Merlin is forced to break the companionable silence.
"Er," he says, shifting his gaze from Arthur's sharp eyes to the drops of water sluicing off the needle-tips of a nearby spruce, "Arthur. I-- won't Sir Blaise be insulted that we've just made for the woods on midwinter morning as if his being there for the feast didn't matter at all?"
Arthur looks at him incredulously, as if he can't possibly believe Merlin would give a toss about what Sir Blaise thinks, and it's all Merlin can do not to say, Of course I don't--I just give a toss about you! About you, you idiot. By the immediate softening of Arthur's features, it's clear that something of Merlin's exasperation must show on his face, and that Arthur may even understand its source.
Arthur turns slightly in his saddle and sighs before saying, his tone managing to strike a chord that communicates both a sullen contriteness and a childish glee, "Well, I can't think he'll like it, obviously."
"No," agrees Merlin, and he can't help his lips from curving into a satisfied little smile. Arthur gives a huffing little laugh at the sight of it.
"But it's not as if he'll advise Cormorant to break the betrothal based on my insolence, or anything like that," he reminds Merlin, and his voice is almost gentle.
"No?" asks Merlin, injecting his voice with a little insolence of his own, because there's no point hiding what he's obviously hoping for if Arthur has already noticed it, and if he's willing to be gentle with Merlin's juvenile fancies--which involve imagining Sir Blaise suffering from increasingly inventive illnesses--besides.
"No," says Arthur, his eyes crinkling as he looks at Merlin. His voice is certain, and not at all regretful.
In that moment, it's as if the woods become devoid even of their background noise--crackling twigs and falling drops of melting snow, small deer's hooves skittering away from the sounds the two of them are making on the road--and as if it's just Merlin and Arthur sitting astride their horses in the middle of a thousand trees for the hundredth time, enjoying the easy and uncomplicated companionship they've been nurturing since Merlin arrived in Camelot.
It's been three years of fighting, and killing, and surviving by the skin of their teeth, but also of bed linen changes every other Monday, and of the same type of weak cheese for lunch every day for three months straight, back in Merlin's second year, and the latter experiences have had as much a role to play in allowing them to sit side by side now, saying nothing, as the harrowing panic of the former once did. Merlin knows he's been able to do this--open up a space where Arthur can be more himself--from the very first, but he's happier to be able to do it now than he can ever remember being before.
Arthur doesn't move his gaze from Merlin's face, and he says, his voice quieter but laden with meaning--he's relieved, Merlin hears, and delighted to be outside; the changes that the next year will bring are not far from his mind,
"You know, I'd never have dared walk away from something like this before now, because now I know my father will be lenient when he wouldn't have ever been before. He's already shown that he's more than willing to grant me some small freedoms, though I knew I was trying my luck when I made the first small deviation from what I know he's expected of me for years. I don't know what he'll say when we get back--if he'll be furious, or amused, or displeased but willing to bear it silently. But whatever it is he says, I'm glad to have done it, even if just this once, and I'm glad-- I'm glad you've come."
He looks quickly away from Merlin and around at the trees that surround them, taking in a deep, shuddering breath of cold air, and it is at that moment that Merlin finally gets it.
The past week, with its tapestry-dust and the feeling of close quarters even within the castle, whose corridors and chambers have always seemed endless to Merlin, has been like a stifling, interminable experiment in waiting. Waiting for the venison to arrive, and then the rabbit. Expecting the travelling bards to call, and counting down the hours before the lavender could be collected from the storehouses to scatter on the floor. A single week of pre-wedding midwinter feast preparations has seemed never-ending to Merlin, and it's only now, with the smell of cold forest wet in his nose, that he understands that this is what it must have been like for Arthur, always.
Years Arthur has waited, knowing that Uther's final ruling on a bride could be around a corner, or that Uther's death could come unexpectedly, that Arthur's life could change for the better or the worse without him having any say in it. Merlin had ridiculed him for his shoddy rationalisations after the betrothal announcement. But he suddenly understands how knowing--finally knowing--what's coming could indeed, as Arthur had said to him months ago, be freeing.
He huddles in his cloak, looking around at the evidence of this, at Arthur's petty thievery of time, and finally sees it for what Arthur had told him it could be: the manufacturing of little, enjoyable uncertainties in the face of a certainty long-awaited but no more liked for its coming.
"Arthur," he says, voice low and wondering like a fool's, and Arthur looks at him, nose scrunched up and eyes narrowed in the cold, his face smoothing out at the sight of dawning comprehension on Merlin's.
"Merlin," he says, drawing out the word in a mockery of Merlin's own tone, and Merlin rolls his eyes, reaches his hand out to a nearby branch, and flings a shoddily formed snowball straight at Arthur's face in retaliation for the teasing.
It's all fun and games until someone's cloak gets wet enough to soak through to the skin. Merlin huddles under the tiny outcropping of rock they've chosen for their campsite, shivering down to his bones and trying to get a fire lit while Arthur clomps around, pretending to be dryer than Merlin as he gathers more firewood for the night.
Merlin strikes a flint at another, trying to get a handful of dry leaves that Arthur had found who knew where to catch a spark. His hands are numb, though, and each clunk of the rocks against each other resonates its way painfully to his shoulders. Finally he casts a furtive look around and thinks at the kindling, Burn, and chuckles lowly in satisfaction when it does just that.
"Merlin," says Arthur quietly from directly behind him, and Merlin jumps two feet in the air and whirls around, flints held out at the ready like a defence. Arthur looks at him oddly, but his attention is less on Merlin's flailing and more on the fire crackling merrily behind him and on the stones in Merlin's hands, and Merlin can feel his heart doing its level best to leap out of his throat, an uneven thump-thump-thump thundering in his chest.
"Yes, Arthur?" he asks, but the sound comes out thready and querulous, the sort of sound a very old woman might make. Arthur looks at him incredulously for a second before he bursts out laughing, sharp barks of delighted surprise.
It takes Merlin a moment, but he forces himself to laugh, too, his terror receding at the sight of Arthur wiping tears from his eyes, and at the admittedly humorous memory of the sound that has just escaped from his throat.
"I've always suspected you had something of the castle matron in you, Merlin--"
"I'm freezing!" Merlin protests, and Arthur shakes his head, letting the matter drop but with a glitter in his eyes that makes clear that Merlin can expect him to never forget about this.
The two of them take their cloaks off, using rocks to pin them flat against the rock next to the fire, and Arthur shoves firewood into the burning pile until the fire is crackling as high as Merlin's knee, vicious but necessary in the face of the fading light.
"Whose idea was this again?" Merlin asks, just to make a point, because while riding out into the distance had seemed all well and good in the early morning, it seems fairly ridiculous now. Merlin had stupidly marvelled at their luck at meeting no-one on the roads earlier, but he thinks now that they couldn't have expected anything different, on the day of the longest night of the year, with the snow crunching steadily beneath their horses' hooves. No-one in their right mind spends the night outside at this time of year unless it's necessary. Then again, Merlin reflects, he and Arthur have an uncanny ability to goad the other on even when it's a stupendously bad idea.
"Didn't hear you complaining earlier," says Arthur reasonably, evidently thinking the same, but he sits down to untangle his hose from the loaf of bread Merlin had seen earlier, breaking it in half and handing it convivially to Merlin with a little apologetic shrug of his shoulders.
It's white bread, nothing like the coarse brown loaf Merlin is used to eating, and he says, "Mmh, thanks," because while it's not leftover venison in game sauce, it's a small luxury nonetheless. He knows Arthur will have thought of that when he was shoving the bread unceremoniously in his bags.
Arthur nods. They sit there, not saying much--it's as common for them to talk as it is for them not to, these days, but their silences are never heavy the way their early sniping sometimes had been. Arthur always has someone speaking to him, anyway, and even for Merlin, the castle is almost always too noisy. As a result, Merlin knows that Arthur sometimes just wants him to listen, and sometimes wants him to prattle on about nothing to give both their minds time to wander. This doesn't seem like one of either of those times, though, so Merlin stays silent.
"What will your mother be doing?" asks Arthur, suddenly, and Merlin pauses before answering,
"She'll probably stay with Will's mother, and there'll be a celebration at the manor house nearby--they'll send some salted meat and bread to Ealdor, maybe."
Arthur nods, distantly, his face getting a pinched look that Merlin associates with anyone making mention of Will. He thinks it's Arthur trying to be respectful.
After a moment Arthur picks up a stick from the ground and bats at Merlin's shoulder with no provocation, and Merlin only gets half of "Oi," out before he's picking up a stick of his own and lashing at Arthur's leg. Arthur parries the blow, obviously, and manages to get Merlin in the side of the head before he can get his own stick up again. It's the most childlike Merlin has ever seen Arthur act--not the most immature by far, but the most unreservedly young--and Merlin's head spins with the dizzy wonder of Arthur's face, seemingly stuck on an unfamiliar, but superb expression that Merlin decides to label 'Unconvincing Sobriety While Brandishing Stick'.
Merlin's next blow barely glances the side of Arthur's broken-off branch, and Merlin feigns a stab before launching himself at Arthur, going for the element of the completely unexpected rather than for finesse. Arthur makes as if to dart aside, but it's too late--Merlin slams into him, and they both slam into the tree beside their makeshift shelter, which gives a deep, timbery shudder before dumping what seems like a wagonload of snow onto the bedrolls and the fire, soaking the first and dousing the other.
Merlin glares balefully up at the purpling winter sky, trying to draw breath back into his lungs, and Arthur looks at him with a sort of unconvincing anger before the two of them brush themselves off and try to amend what had already been a woefully inadequate camp, even before the snow. Arthur gets the fire going again, forced to start it on the last dry patch of earth under the stone overhang. Merlin kicks ineffectually at the snow around the area before settling both bedrolls on the newly cleared damp ground, sparing a desirous thought for the blazing fires of the castle's halls, but not willing to risk an attempt to dry the furs by magic.
Arthur steps back from the fire as the last of the violet light disappears behind the trees, and Merlin hands him a strip of cured meat and a handful of dried fruit as he comes to sit next to him on the bedrolls.
"Sorry," Merlin says, and Arthur shrugs unhurriedly as he shoves the entirety of the fruit into his mouth with one hand.
They have a wineskin with them, and they each take a couple of shuddery sips before placing the pouch back in Merlin's pack and lying down next to each other by unspoken agreement. Arthur has put Merlin closer to the fire, and Merlin turns his back to him before risking a single whispered word to stoke the flames higher, disguising it with some flailing about that Arthur apparently takes to mean I'm dying of cold--it sort of does--because he says, "Oh, for the love of--" and unceremoniously shoves Merlin along on his bedroll.
Merlin goes willingly, not surprised when Arthur shakes out his own set of furs and spreads them over them both, curling his chest into Merlin's back and doing one of the many things he only ever does under cover of darkness: his palms cup Merlin's shoulders and rub vigorously up and down his arms, not doing much other than sliding Merlin's wet tunic up and down against his elbows, but Merlin appreciates it. He pushes back into Arthur and Arthur curves forward, rolling them both closer to the fire.
"Merlin," says Arthur, finally, and his voice sounds like the memory of venison and fires and like present regret. Merlin resents the last. He's wet and the two of them are likely to freeze before the night is over, but Arthur has spent the day looking and sounding happy and unencumbered by obligation, and Merlin would happily suffer cold or anything else to give Arthur respite when he needs it, no matter what from.
"This is..." Arthur continues, almost uncertainly, and Merlin interrupts as Arthur's breath ghosts over his neck,
"Awful but sort of brilliant nonetheless?"
Arthur goes very still behind him, then relaxes against Merlin's back, one hand creeping forward to almost, but not quite, rest on Merlin's hip. There'd been a time when Arthur had always been shoving Merlin about, but with more responsibilities has come a greater sense of reserve, and Arthur rarely touches anyone when he's not sparring, now. Merlin is the only almost-exception, and though he would never say it, he loves it.
"Yes, I suppose that's a good way to put it," Arthur says finally, and Merlin nods decisively, saying nothing. He'll only let Arthur fall asleep, he tells himself as his own eyes do their best to shut against his will, the fire flickering behind his eyelids, before he gets up and uses magic to dry them both off.
They ride back the very next morning, dry in the dawn light but too stiff from cold to pretend staying out is anything but madness. Arthur gets progressively quieter as they draw closer to Camelot. When they trot into the castle courtyard to find Sir Blaise and Uther standing by a cartful of things, Sir Blaise's chest packed beside him, the blood seems to drain out of his face entirely before he seemingly wills a less-terrified flush back into his cheeks with a shake of his head.
"Father," Arthur says as he dismounts, but Uther is tight-lipped and straight-backed, and says nothing. Merlin scampers off his own horse and takes both reins, attempting half-heartedly to lead the horses to the stable, but unwilling to leave Arthur without first confirming that Uther isn't about to order him to death.
"Prince Arthur got word from a nearby village that--" says Merlin, starting on an excuse before he knows what he's doing, but if Arthur's quelling look were not enough to indicate that this is not the time to speak out of place, the sight of Uther's leather glove, creaking under the strain of being coiled into a tight fist, certainly is.
Surprisingly, it's Sir Blaise who breaks the tension-filled silence, interjecting jovially in a tone that is completely at odds with the scene playing out in front of him,
"No need to explain, I'm sure, dear boy," he says, directing himself to Arthur with twinkling eyes that Merlin, for the very first time, has cause to appreciate. "I know perfectly well that a young man must simply--ride out, sometimes."
He accompanies this latter statement with an odd hand gesture, palm flat against the ground as he points into the distance, eyes oddly wistful.
"The Lady Elise herself has been known to seek a little respite from manor life at some inopportune times," he continues.
As he mutters about not standing on ceremony and the vitality of young people, Merlin's resentment returns with a vengeance, coiling in his stomach at the mention of Arthur's future wife, who will apparently like him better for his need to escape at unpredictable times, which Arthur confides only in Merlin and sometimes Gawain, and which Merlin does not feel is appropriate to bandy about like some desirable public attribute.
"A young man such as yourself, full of vigour," Sir Blaise is saying, and as tense as the line of Arthur's neck is, he can't resist a triumphant look at Merlin at the actual use of the phrase he'd long ago promised Merlin someone would employ at some point, "--it would be a pleasure to remain longer in your company, you must understand. Unfortunately I must return at once; the Lady Cormorant is not well, and your father has been most generous not only with his gifts for the family, but with the use of one of the city physicians."
"I trust Sir Cormorant's wife will heal quickly and well," Arthur says soberly, as another cart, laden with cloth and dry stores and flasks of wine, draws up behind the first. A middle-aged man from the city, whose robes always smell of rosemary and lamp-oil but whom Gaius respects enough to consult with sometimes, is already sitting at the front.
"Please send her, Sir Cormorant, and the Lady Elise my greetings, and tell them I look forward to seeing them at court next summer."
For our marriage, Arthur does not say, but it is implied in the third cart that draws up behind the second, a dark line of Pendragon's favour that is punctuated by the sight of several creamy candles poking out from the flap at the back of the third cart, cradled above a huge joint of lamb. Merlin irritably hopes that someone will nab them on the road while the cartsman isn't looking.
Sir Blaise's horse is brought out by a stablehand, and he clambers up with some difficulty while Arthur and Uther look away politely. Once he is seated, he reaches down to clasp Arthur's arm, saying simply, "Until summer, dear boy," and Merlin watches him ride away with a satisfaction that is only tempered by the sight of Uther's enraged look.
"You were fortunate this time, Arthur," Uther says, quietly and unsuccessfully trying not to draw the attention of those individuals who are milling about in the wake of Sir Blaise's departure, "that you were seen riding out into the woods with this servant of yours, and that your whereabouts were not as much of a mystery as you might have thought."
Uther says this servant of yours the way he might say that lame horse, but Merlin draws his chin up, willing to vouch for Arthur on the chance that he's asked to, though he knows Uther values his word at roughly the half-witted opinion of the rabble, even if he does place a high value on Merlin's loyalty to his son.
"Yes, father," says Arthur, but his tone is strained in a way that suggests that Uther has not seen the last of these small defiances. Uther whirls on his heel and goes back inside, saying nothing further. While Merlin is unsettled by his quiet disapproval, which he has not seen evidence of in years, he can't help but feel a burst of satisfaction when Arthur turns to look at him, smiling as if to say What next?
What actually happens next takes Merlin, who had thought he finally understood the complex court logic governing the past months' foolishness, completely by surprise.
He's walking past the kitchens when he sees it: a small group of scullery maids and a pretty girl from the bakeries, talking animatedly with three of Morgana's and the Lady Soredamors' handmaidens.
"--but it's all properly arranged now, like," one of the kitchen maids is saying, and she's fussing with her hair and holding back her fringe with a battered, glinting, metal pin-- "So I think now's the time to try for it."
Merlin ducks into the doorframe to listen, not necessarily because he thinks they'll have something terribly interesting to say, but because he doesn't think he's ever seen so many women together in the castle just talking, rather than working together, or in the process of moving somewhere to work.
"Don't be foolish, Mayda," says the girl standing next to the first speaker, a handmaiden from the Lady Soredamor's household that Merlin has always liked for her no-nonsense approach to castle gossip. She's shaking her head in slight disapproval, but Merlin can't help noticing that her hair is held back from her round face more neatly than it usually is, and that she's hung a small herb pouch, probably filled with lavender and flower petals, around her neck.
"I'm telling you," Mayda is saying, her voice pitched higher than it had been a minute ago, "that he's more likely to see us now, in these last few months, than he ever has before--always so serious, isn't he? Never has time for anything but patrolling and striding about the castle. But things are different now; they'll be different from now until Sir Cormorant brings his daughter, and you're the foolish one, Annis, if you won't do something to look less plain around him."
The remaining scullery maids titter nervously as Annis flushes, running one hand over her hair, but one of Morgana's maids--Rowena, Merlin thinks her name is--places a hand on Annis' forearm and draws her gently away. Lady Soredamor's other handmaiden joins them as they walk away, and the scullery maids laugh more loudly as they do, talking animatedly to each other as the girl from the bakery draws a pair of tiny earrings from her apron and struggles to affix them as the others look on covetously.
Merlin follows the three handmaidens quietly, hoping to steal a word with Gwen to ask what's going on, but before they make it back to Morgana's and the Lady Soredamor's chambers, Rowena turns to the other two and whispers, urgently,
"You really think Prince Arthur will--that he'll take a favourite now that the wedding is only a few months away?"
Annis shrugs, seemingly despondent, but the third girl lifts her square chin and says to Rowena,
"A 'favourite'? That's a very delicate way to put it, Rowena, but he'll just as likely tumble you once and forget about you when the sun rises. Still, as much as I hate to admit that that awful Mayda might be right, it's true that it's not unlikely that he'll be more willing, now… after the midwinter feast, after everything. And it's hardly as if it would be a hardship for us, is it? He's only gotten more handsome every year, and you never know--you might get a few pretty scarves for your troubles, or a new roof for your parents' house, one that doesn't let the winter wind in through the slats."
"Brimlad, really," says Annis, voice pitched low and embarrassed, and as they reach the door that leads to all the court women's quarters, the third girl stops and levels a hard look at her.
"I'm just telling her the truth, Annis," she says firmly. "Don't pretend that's not how it will be--we all know this is a gamble with our honour that may well pay precious few dividends. Don't encourage her innocence; she'll only get hurt, and maybe thrown from her lady's service, to boot."
Merlin watches them glide down the corridor, talking quietly amongst themselves as he stands at the doorway, torn between taking time to digest what he's just heard and running after them to set them straight--because impending wedding or not, and recent strange behaviour or not, Merlin is certain that they can't be talking about the Arthur he knows.
It turns out that Merlin is wrong, and he finds this out in the most spectacular of ways.
It's not that he'd thought that Arthur had never taken a woman to his bed, he thinks later, or anything as naïve as that. In fact, he knew that Arthur had, because he'd told Merlin as much--but as far as Merlin knew, it had been two older women from the court, one widowed, and never younger noblewomen whom he'd be in danger of being forced to marry, or handmaidens that he'd have responsibilities to as a result. Merlin also knew that Arthur had gone on his first campaign when he'd been fourteen, and Merlin has heard enough tales from Rivalen and Tristan to know that battle camps are far from free of vice. He'd always thought it likely that Arthur might also have had dalliances with peasant girls, or even encounters with one of the less reputable women who often travel with men headed for battle. But as long as Merlin has known him--not forever, admittedly, but a long time, now--Arthur has rationed pleasure, and in the past two years, he's been punctiliously careful with his indulgences. The thought of him taking a string of kitchen maids to his chambers simply because he was to be married in a few months' time had therefore seemed… implausible, to Merlin.
Perhaps he hadn't counted on the impact of the combined efforts of over a dozen opportunistic women, or perhaps his insufficient inexperience with that sort of ruthless castle dealing had been the problem. He hadn't expected Uther's amusement at the seeming display of the effect of his son's virility, as serving maids simpered and bent double as they served Arthur his meals. He certainly hadn't expected Morgana's chastising resignation--disapproving, but resignation nonetheless, and not without a hint of understanding.
"This makes sense to you?" he'd asked Guinevere, the two of them crowded into a corner of the hall and shielding themselves from the attention of passers-by by holding two rounded jugs of watered-down wine in front of them.
"Sort of," she'd said, tilting her head, before seemingly realising that she'd said it out loud and flushing furiously as she hurried away to serve a nearby table.
There had been heavy hints everywhere, Merlin can see in retrospect, but it's not until he stumbles into Arthur's rooms to find him half-undressed, with Annis, the round-faced, sensible handmaiden, of all people, curled under him, that he realises with a sharp shock that he really had been the only one expecting Arthur to do anything other than this.
"Arthur," he says, standing his ground stupidly at the door and holding a bundle of firewood in his arms, even when the vast majority of his muscles seem to be twitching violently with the impulse to propel him in the direction of the door.
"Merlin!" says Arthur, shielding Annis, who is blushing to the roots of her hair and re-arranging her shift, with his upper body. "What is it?" he continues tightly, and when Merlin doesn't answer, he looks pointedly at the door, evidently expecting Merlin to take a hint that could not be heavier if he picked it up and threw it straight at Merlin's face.
Merlin thinks he tries to move, but what happens instead is that his legs stay rooted firmly to their spot on the floor and his mouth opens to say,
"What are you doing?"
Arthur shoots him a look that's half incredulous exasperation and half barely-contained rage, and Annis makes a tiny whimpering noise from where she's coiled behind Arthur's body, the embarrassment evidently too much for her to take without protest.
"What am I doing? What does it--get out, Merlin!" says Arthur.
Merlin feels--an odd sensation in his abdomen, weighty and tugging downwards but also jolting upwards as if he might be sick. His eyes take everything in: the pale slope of Annis' creamy-skinned shoulder, the hangings on the bed, one of Arthur's boots upended on the floor, the play of light near the sconce on the wall. He doesn't know what his own face looks like, but it must be a sight, because Arthur looks almost distressed, as if Merlin is saying something terrible even though no sound is passing his lips.
Merlin half-tries to exit again, but as he begins to turn he finds that he is abruptly, inexplicably, angry at Arthur, who has expected him to take the changes of the past few months in stride without ever speaking to him about them. And Merlin is Arthur's servant, yes, but he's also--he knows this for a fact--Arthur's friend, and he will not take a suggestion (or even an order) that Arthur issues as if Merlin were only the former.
He doesn't move.
Arthur is looking at him with a combination of embarrassment, and anger, and bewilderment, and when he doesn't do anything to react to Merlin's extended stare, Merlin suddenly feels as if he's being filled--literally filled, from his heaving belly to his ears--with a hot, liquid, reckless impulse to prove right his suspicions about what Arthur is feeling, and about what lines Arthur will and will not cross. His eyes feel suspiciously grainy, so he blinks twice before raising himself on the balls of his feet and speaking, addressing soft words to Annis rather than to Arthur,
"I'm sorry, but Arthur--Prince Arthur--he doesn't do this."
Arthur looks at him, tunic rucked up on his stomach and his hair flying every which way, and for a second he makes as if to stand. Then the muscle in his jaw that twitches only when he's half-mad with stung pride jumps violently, and he stops halfway through sitting up and glares at Merlin with an inexplicable intensity.
"Get out," he says past lips white with anger, and Merlin gets the sense that managing to insert 'Prince' in there is the only thing that's saving him from being ordered away for a lashing, whether Arthur means it or not.
Annis has gathered up the courage to peek at him from behind Arthur's shoulder, and it's the look in her eyes--utterly disbelieving of Merlin's audacity, with a dash of speculative doubt creeping in at the corners--that finally makes Merlin drop the wood swiftly on a chest by the door and bow out as quickly as he can, saying only,
"I'm sorry-- I-- I apologise, sire. I don't know what-- I'm sorry."
There are a hundred things he would dare to do to Arthur, and even more that he'd contemplate while standing at Arthur's side, and even more that he's said when he feels Arthur needs to be brought down a notch, but giving the impression that he honestly disrespects his authority while in front of others is not one of them. Merlin has been able to see the king that Arthur will be for years now, and he has treated him accordingly from the moment he glimpsed that man for the first time.
He closes the door quietly behind him, and moves straight away to sit in the shadow of a window alcove that's a few steps from Arthur's chambers' doors. He may know better than to attempt to interrupt again, but that doesn't mean he can walk away as if there weren't a roiling acid uncertainty spinning in his belly, as if this didn't matter. In fact, he intends to go back into Arthur's rooms as soon as whatever happens in there is over and done with--sooner rather than later, he hopes--regardless of what mood Arthur might be in when he does, and to ask exactly what it is that's going on.
He sits silently, tracing patterns in the stonework with his eyes as he waits. When Annis walks out only a couple of minutes later, her dress once more smoothed into place as she creeps noiselessly down the corridor, Merlin feels oddly, bonelessly, relieved, and--even more inexplicably--as if he's just won a not inconsiderable victory, though he has no idea what it might be.
Merlin's plan to confront Arthur is foiled by Arthur barring the door to his rooms immediately after Annis' departure and then by Arthur refusing to speak to him for days afterwards. January fades into a February so bitter that five of the castle windows crack under the strain of the frost, and Merlin goes about his duties mutely, not willing to give up his own sense of entitlement about the entire thing by being the first to break the silence Arthur has imposed.
Arthur has acted out of character when women have been involved before--the sight of him sinking slowly into the murky water of a lake is not likely to be something Merlin ever forgets. But while Merlin will admit that Arthur's judgment had not been unclouded even before Sophia had performed the spell she'd come to Camelot to cast, Arthur's fascination with her beauty prior to that had seemed almost … innocent to Merlin, something he'd been happy to encourage. Arthur had seemed taken with her, giddy over the little trespasses he'd managed to get away with while she'd been there, but it had never been--it had never seemed to Merlin, anyway, to be the sort of sordid thing that the castle's women would discuss and plot about in corners.
In retrospect Merlin is willing to admit that his belief that Arthur would never take a woman to his chambers for something uncomplicated prior to being married was, perhaps, a fancy. With all of Arthur's talk of a few months' freedom, it doesn't escape Merlin that he's not innocent of creating the very expectations Arthur seems to be attempting to shrug off this year any more than Uther is or any of the young knights who look up to Arthur are. He doesn't think that's enough to justify Arthur's unwillingness to explain any of this to him in detail, though--to include him, he supposes--after Merlin has served him--loved him--faithfully for years, always one step behind him regardless of the quest.
The silence between them seems almost palpable, but Merlin is wrapped up enough in his own thoughts that he's able to let a series of wordless days pass without comment. He's trying to make sense of an Arthur who could bring Annis, whom Merlin is almost certain he had never spoken to in anything other than passing prior to that night, to his bed, but also trying to decipher the look on Arthur's face when Merlin had walked in. He is thankful--and feels oddly vindicated--when he thinks that Arthur had evidently put Merlin's confusion first, shuffling Annis out of the room a few moments after Merlin had entered. His gratitude is tempered by his sense of betrayal at having glimpsed a side of Arthur he had been confidently ready to tell others did not exist, though, and by the memory of Arthur's locked door afterwards.
He delivers food to Arthur's rooms and carries out dirty linens for the washerwomen, but it's not until he walks in to find Arthur speaking lowly to Morgana, his face carved with lines of frustrated anger, that he once again feels the desire to come to Arthur's chambers for a conversation, rather than to simply complete the many servant's chores that he's rarely performed as assiduously as he has been doing for the past week.
"--better than anyone, Morgana," Arthur is saying when Merlin nudges the door open with his foot, and he pulls his body back into the corridor and listens, feeling as justified in his eavesdropping as he's always felt, when it comes to Arthur.
"And yet he looks at me sometimes as if he's seeing someone in the future, just as my father sees someone in the past. I've disregarded everything I've ever been told about appropriate relations for--for this, but I do not know if I have it in me to break this last rule. It can't matter that he was surprised. Angry. Whatever it was."
His voice is tight the way it always is when he feels Morgana is dragging something from his throat that he does not want to say; Merlin wonders how much had to be said before it came to this. He's heard Arthur speaking about him--he's almost sure this is about him, anyway--to others a hundred times, but never like this, serious and invested.
"And yet it does," Morgana says quietly.
Arthur makes a frustrated sound.
"He has to learn-- He has to be willing to take things as they are, not as he wishes they were." Arthur sounds exasperated, but also oddly protective, and Merlin isn't certain what to think.
The afternoon is particularly cold, and Merlin has had to stoke Arthur's fires every few hours just to keep them from blowing out in the guttering wind that's funneling down the corridors from the castle's wide doors. He puts the firewood in his arms on the floor and retreats down the corridor to fetch more from the woodstacks in the courtyard, Arthur's words spinning in his head.
When he comes back, Morgana has gone, and Merlin takes the opportunity of shoving kindling into Arthur's fireplace to say, carefully, that if you ask him, the silence has grown to be too much. He apologises for his impertinence, and admits his own fault in the matter. But he also tries to make Arthur understand where he's coming from, and tries to explain his worry that things have not been well with Arthur since the betrothal announcement. He keeps his back to the bed the entire time. He's uncomfortable talking about the entire affair so openly when they normally just shrug off serious disagreements with a few carefully executed pats on the arm or a series of uncomfortable glances, moving on from a quarrel rather than dwelling on it.
Morgana and Arthur's conversation continues rattling around his head like a skittish horse as he speaks. It's true that it's not easy to negotiate the politics of service and friendship together, but Merlin and Arthur have found their ways, and Merlin has to believe they will always be able to do so.
"I think if you would just--explain it to me more fully, though I know you've already tried… well, I think maybe that would help. I'd just like-- I'd like to know for sure, Arthur. But I'm sorry about the thing with Annis, I am."
When he turns to look at Arthur, he's standing in profile, looking out the window and saying nothing. He makes no move to acknowledge Merlin, and Merlin, who had known better than to think that Arthur would let a blow to his pride in front of someone else pass with any semblance of ease--Merlin has seen him tensing at the sight of Annis when her work brings her and Arthur into proximity--simply slips out of the room quietly, saying nothing more.
The twist of Arthur's mouth had made clear he'd think about it, anyway.
It can't be more than a few hours later before Merlin wakes up to Arthur banging around in his chambers, throwing Merlin's cloak at him and saying,
"Get up, already, Merlin; let's go."
Gaius is away, looking after something in town, and for absence of anything else to do Merlin had curled under his bedcovers at mid-afternoon, trying to escape the chill. The light of day has not completely seeped away yet, though the moon is fat and yellow in front of Merlin's window, and the sky behind the clouds is dark blue, almost black.
It's not too late, then, but Merlin struggles to shrug on a jacket and his cloak, blinking blearily at Arthur's shadow outlined against the door.
"Where are we going?" he asks.
At first Arthur seems inclined not to give him an answer for his troubles, but then he blinks twice and says,
"You'll see. Hurry up, Merlin--or have the logistics of putting on your clothes completely escaped you yet again?"
They head down the corridor at a steady clip, but instead of heading to Arthur's chambers, Arthur leads them down a small passageway to the area near the kitchens, which are silent, and from there to a back alleyway leading out of the courtyard and into the town beyond. He pulls his cloak over his head and around his face like a traveller, which looks ridiculous with his golden hair and oddly delicate jaw jutting out from beneath the cloth's shadows, but Merlin shrugs and does the same.
"This way," Arthur says, ducking into a street leading to the eastern parts of the city, and Merlin follows, about to ask where they're going once more when Arthur says, stiffly,
"I'm sorry if you had not expected to see what you did the other night."
"It's fine," says Merlin without thinking, willing to be gracious because he knows how much it costs Arthur to be forthright in his apologies, even if they mostly involve you were rights rather than I was wrongs.
"No, I--I didn't expect you to be… caught off guard, Merlin. And you looked. You looked upset," he says, all in a rush.
I wasn't; don't worry, Merlin is about to say, also automatically, but when he opens his mouth he realises that--well, that he was.
Arthur takes him by the elbow and pulls him down another narrow alley, and Merlin tries to think about what Arthur might want in this part of the city in the middle of the night even as he's saying,
"I think… I think there are things about Camelot that I'll never completely understand, Arthur. And that's fine--it is. I'm not sure I'm even bothered by it. But I do care about--about making sure that you're well. For the… because of the things you'll need to do in the future--" Merlin hasn't seen the dragon in months and months, but there are things you hear that do not fade with time; he can hear Arthur's voice in his head, though, As if he's seeing someone in the future, and so he corrects himself quickly-- "and for yourself."
"Well, you can't bloody well expect me to give you detailed explanations for all the things I do, Merlin," says Arthur waspishly, sweeping an arm out in exasperation and turning them down a final street. "You've always expected--" he stops and tilts his head, seemingly reconsidering; Merlin hears Morgana in the way Arthur tempers his voice-- "I don't need to explain myself to anyone, Merlin, but if anyone has advance notice of what I'm thinking…"
Arthur doesn't finish, but Merlin thinks he meant to say, It's you. He knows that, so when he speaks again he lowers his voice and tries to convey it.
"Arthur… for the past few months, I've had no idea what it was you were going to come up with next. You've done nothing that I knew you enjoyed before, and it's almost as if… as if you're doing things just because you can, or because you've just come up with them on the spot and they seem like a good idea in the moment, rather than because--rather than because you want to."
They're stumbling around in unfamiliar ground: Literally, Merlin thinks, because he has no idea where they are, and with what they're awkwardly trying to say, because they don't make a habit of speaking like this and already Merlin feels uncomfortable. He's sure Arthur is even more so.
"Merlin," Arthur says, drawing it out in that odd way he has. "I am doing things because I can. I told you, did I not, that that is exactly what I intended to do?"
When Arthur pauses and looks at him, Merlin nods cautiously, because he can't deny that Arthur has repeated that half a dozen times, Merlin's doubts aside.
"And yes," Arthur continues, "Every time I come up with something new I think might be a good idea to try, I do it because-- because people have been a thousand times more lenient than I thought they would be. Even my father," he says, incredulously. "When I first told you about this, even I didn't imagine it would turn out this well."
He smiles, looking fairly satisfied with himself. His arm bumps Merlin's companionably, obviously including Merlin in the memory of what he's done so far this year, almost as if to say, Right?
"To tell you the truth, I haven't really known with any certainty whether I'll be able to get away with any of the things I've done so far, but it's almost because of that that I might as well just--do them. Haven't you ever--?"
Arthur is looking at him helplessly, as if he can will Merlin to understand the impulse that has driven the riding and the running and the games and the books--and Annis. Merlin tries his hardest to comprehend. He feels himself reaching, stretching, but the picture he has of Arthur in his head, carefully composed over winters and summers and storms and droughts, simply is not as yielding as Arthur is asking Merlin to make it. Merlin isn't sure he wants it to be--isn't that what friendship is, knowing someone fully?
"I know you, Arthur, and you don't… you don't…" Merlin says at last, biting it out because he feels he has to say it, but trailing off because he's not sure how to finish saying it, or even exactly what it is he wants to say.
Arthur looks at him for a long moment, his eyes shuttering. It's clear that even half-formed, it was the wrong thought to give voice to.
"No-one knows everything about someone else, Merlin." His gaze is steady and he looks at Merlin for a long moment, almost as if he's expecting Merlin to say something in response.
Merlin fidgets, the many things he himself has not said pulsing heavily between them in the darkness.
"Come on," Arthur says finally, knocking quietly on the door in front of them. "We're here."
When the house's owner comes to the door, Merlin recognises her immediately. He does not know her name, but the angular lines of her face are familiar, even though she's not been in Camelot long.
Merlin has always heard people say that she's foreign--not just to Camelot, but to Albion, and she speaks in a halting, gravelly voice that seems to confirm the rumours. She's not spoken of kindly by many of the servants in the castle, but Merlin has heard many of the knights mention her with something like amusement and fondness, and never with dislike or contempt.
When she'd first arrived in Camelot, she'd immediately set up a stall in the market, selling unguents and powders and small metal trinkets, and Merlin and Arthur had been in the city one day when a passing woman had upended the stall as she bustled past, spilling a bucketful of foul water on it as if by accident.
The woman had not apologised. The foreigner had leant to pick up her wares silently and the passing marketgoer had hissed something angrily at her as she crouched down, unintelligible but harsh-sounding. Merlin--everyone around them--had known the woman's ire for what it was: the foreigner kept a house in the east part of the city, frequented by men and inhabited by a series of young women--some drifters, some girls from Camelot--and she'd understandably had a mixed reception from the time that she'd arrived, as a result.
Arthur had stridden forward immediately, however, and instructed the passing woman to help pick up the foreigner's merchandise. As the woman had bent awkwardly at the sight of the prince, Arthur had asked the foreigner what she estimated her losses to be, curling a hand around the other woman's shoulder as if to hold her in place and telling her that she would be liable for whatever goods she had ruined. The foreigner's light-coloured eyes had glinted appreciatively as she looked up at him, but she'd only said,
"Not to worry, my lord; it is nothing that cannot be replaced at little cost. I thank you."
The other woman had been swiftly dispatched shortly afterwards with a warning about carelessness, though everyone had heard the gravity behind Arthur's light-hearted words, and he and Merlin had walked away as the foreigner began peddling her goods once again, calling out the properties of her remaining remedies in her strange, smoky voice.
Merlin had asked, later, why Arthur had intervened; Arthur had answered tersely that a woman's trade was her business, particularly when it was done in a way that kept squalor and brawling at bay. Though they've not had any direct dealings with the woman since, Merlin has never walked by any place where she has been when he's been with Arthur without her saying, respectfully and without fail, "Good day, sire."
She's beautiful, and Merlin knows that everyone in the city thinks it; now, with the light of the house behind her, glinting off her dark hair and making her green eyes look brighter than usual, she also looks as exotic as many people claim she is.
"Sire," she says quietly once she looks beneath Arthur's cloak, and Merlin wonders if the hood really is enough to hide Arthur's preposterously distinctive profile from others.
She twists her body away from the door and makes room for the two of them to go in, and Arthur drags Merlin in after him, saying only,
"Ana," as he passes.
"Arthur," Merlin whispers urgently as the--as Ana guides them down the dark corridor that leads away from the door.
Arthur shoots him a look that couldn't say Be quiet more clearly, so Merlin falls silent--For the moment, he tells himself--and shuffles awkwardly after him.
Merlin can see doors leading away from the corridor, some open, and a larger room in a patch of light up ahead, but Ana leads them up some rickety steps long before the three of them come in sight of the people who are talking loudly beyond the lamplight. Once they are upstairs, they make a single turn before walking into a room, plain but clean if empty save for a table, a chair, and a bed with a hay mattress pressed against the corner.
The hay smells sweet, almost as if the mattress has just been packed.
"I'll return as agreed, sire," Ana says in her oddly lilting voice, and Arthur smiles briefly at her as Merlin turns from his perusal of the room to look at them both.
He shifts, awkward and unsure whether he's supposed to acknowledge Ana's departure or simply help to maintain the fiction that he is not present, as he sometimes must at council meetings and feasts. He's uncertain, but he's willing to take his cues from Arthur as long as they're in someone else's presence; his experiences of late have reminded him of the importance of that much, at least. Arthur makes no sign that Merlin is supposed to be doing anything at all, however, so he simply waits as she leaves, what he's sure is a ridiculously tight smile pasted on his face.
The door has barely shut behind her, though, before Merlin is pointing an accusing finger at Arthur, spit unintentionally flying from his mouth in a rather unfortunate fashion as he demands,
"Arthur, what the bloody hell is going on?"
He's not proud when his voice comes out half in a shriek.
For an instant Arthur looks deeply uncomfortable, but the expression is gone almost as quickly as it appears, and he only says, infuriatingly calm,
"As I said, Merlin--no-one knows everything about anyone else."
For the first time in his life, Merlin experiences the phenomenon he has heard others describe as seeing red. A shadow creeps in from the periphery of his vision until Arthur's face is distorted into a blotchy mass by Merlin's angry squint, and he hisses, only remembering to lower his voice at the last minute,
"No-one knows everything about anyone else? Arthur, I do not know what game you think you're playing at--no, you know what? I do. I get that I embarrassed you horribly the other night, that I spoke out of turn for the millionth time and that I acted like the addled idiot your father claims I am as I stood there, but for crying out loud, Arthur, do you think for a second that bringing me here could possibly tell me anything about you, except that you will stoop as low as to bring me to--to--a house of ill-repute," stutters Merlin, sounding too much like his own mother for his comfort, "to prove a point?"
Merlin is not certain that is solely what this is: Arthur's conversation with Morgana earlier in the day had suggested that there were things Arthur was trying to show him, trying to say. The dim light of the strange room is oddly oppressive, though, and it makes it hard for Merlin to remember to be lenient.
Arthur--Merlin will give him this much--looks a little shocked at Merlin's outrage. He looks dartingly towards the table, then the door, before seemingly drawing to himself whatever ridiculous conviction possessed him to bring Merlin here and opening his mouth to say,
Later, Merlin will think that he would have given anything--anything--to hear the end of that sentence. As it is, though, Arthur is forced to fall silent when they both hear footsteps coming quietly but quickly down the corridor, and the knob turns ominously as Merlin stands there in dread, the door creaking open to reveal Ana and a tall, waifish girl dressed in breeches and a simple tunic.
"Sire," says Ana as the girl stands there, looking at the floor as Merlin wishes he could do the same--bury his head in the floorboards and emerge on the other side, preferably in his bed in Gaius' chambers.
"Ana," says Arthur, reaching to his belt and unhooking a small pouch that tinkles as he leans over to place it gently into her outstretched hand.
It immediately disappears into the folds of her dress, so quickly that Merlin barely manages to see her doing it; it's like the streetside tricks that travelling bands will sometimes perform in the market, to amuse passers-by in exchange for coins to buy a meal with.
Merlin is still standing dumbly, open-mouthed at her smooth sleight-of-hand, when he realises she's talking--
"--the utmost discretion, sire, of course; you know I have always been, and will always be, grateful. And please do remember--my best services are at your disposal."
Arthur nods quickly, but Merlin could swear he sees a flush lurking in the dip of his throat, behind where his cloak is clasped.
"Thank you, Ana, of course," he hears Arthur say.
She nods smartly in reply, bringing her hands together in a soft clap before inclining her head towards Merlin and asking,
"Sire--your servant? I am happy to entertain him downstairs, of course--"
"No," Arthur says quickly.
He looks at Merlin, who gapes at him like one of Gaius' desiccated fish.
She says nothing, simply smiling again before disappearing down the corridor. The door snicks shut quietly behind her, but Merlin cannot for the life of him hear her footsteps as she descends, though he strains to make them out.
"Arthur," he says sharply, and when Arthur looks up, shame-faced--Merlin needs to believe he's shame-faced, because the alternative is too horrible, and embarrassing, to contemplate--
"There is no way--no way, do you understand me?--that I will be staying for… for… whatever this-- for this tomfoolery," he says finally, voice hitching into a yelp.
"This tomfoolery?" Arthur begins with a laugh. At the look on Merlin's face he seemingly decides to eliminate mocking as an avenue of argument, however, and he says, "Merlin, listen--"
Merlin is perfectly aware that it was he who was asking for explanations not a moment ago, but he is also certain that there is nothing that can be explained in this room that cannot be explained to wholly adequate standard in the castle, so he ignores Arthur, trying to remember which way it was that they came as he pulls his cloak around his face again and turns towards the door.
He's gearing up for a dignified but forceful exit when the girl suddenly looks up. Merlin had almost forgotten about her, but in the low glow of the oil-lamp, her features are thrown abruptly into sharper relief, and as Merlin heads towards her and the exit he has the sudden, and very alarming, realisation that she is actually a boy.
It's trying to do too many things at once, Merlin thinks, that actually prevents him from doing anything at all in that moment. He wants to barrel past--past the man at the door; he wants, equally badly, to punch Arthur in the face, or at least to poke him painfully in both eyes; he wants, more than anything (other than the two other things he's just though of, that is), to sit Arthur down on the room's table and demand that he--
"Talk," is what finally wins out. "Talk fast, and possibly until your tongue falls out."
In an ideal world, Arthur would realise the strength of Merlin's conviction and the fragility of Merlin's frame of mind in that moment and do as Merlin is asking, but Merlin has long ago learned that Camelot and Arthur's personality, for all their wonderful peculiarities, are really very far from the ideal. For this reason, instead of bursting forth with the explanation that would, Merlin is sure, do them all a world of good, Arthur gets a mulish look on his face, sets his jaw, and says,
"Now, Merlin--what did I just say about explanations?"
The boy at the door--He's still there! Merlin thinks stupidly--snorts softly, seemingly much more amused than Merlin himself is, and Merlin is of half a mind to tell both him and Arthur exactly what they can do with their amusement when there is an awful-sounding clatter on the stairs, and, seconds later, a voice that Merlin is eerily familiar with says,
"Curs and villains all of them, I tell you, man--" and Merlin shakes his head in amusement, thinking only, Tristan, before he remembers that he and Arthur are in a whorehouse with a stranger--a male stranger (albeit an oddly feminine male stranger, the tiny part of Merlin's mind that isn't busy panicking offers)--and Tristan appears to be coming up the bloody stairs.
Merlin turns to warn Arthur, thinking he may not have recognised Tristan's voice, but the sight of Arthur's pale face, eyes pulled back in a way that would be comical if it didn't look very dangerous for his health, makes it clear that the two of them are very much of the same mind about the sounds produced by Tristan's approach.
"MerlinMerlinMerlinMerlin," Arthur whispers frantically, in a voice that Merlin has never heard from him before.
Merlin can actually see the beat of Arthur's pulse on his neck, where a vein is straining against the skin, and he immediately knows--though he could not have told it a second before--that while Arthur would certainly be able to get away with a visit to a whorehouse without too much explanation, and while Arthur could probably take a man to his bed and count on the castle to turn a blind eye, somehow coming to a whorehouse to take a man to his bed is something that will just not pass muster.
Merlin can think only of Arthur's cloak--pulled so stupidly against his cheeks on the street--as he hears Tristan say,
"Calogrenant, my good knight--kindly cut short your acquaintance with the staircase, or at the very least roll over so that the lovely ladies may pass either side of your hunkering figure, will you? I do believe this upstairs room is empty--o-ho, what luck!"
By this point Arthur looks as if the humours Gaius has described to Merlin may well rush out of his ears in one hissing, seeping, exhalation, and even the boy--the boy, the boy, always the boy--previously so good-natured, looks pale at the sight of Arthur's clear panic.
"Sir Tristan!" Merlin hears Ana call loudly from the corridor below.
She does not sound calm.
There is a thumping, shuffling, sound from the corridor, and Merlin thinks it might be Ana trying to manoeuvre her slight body around the corpulent Sir Calogrenant on the stairs.
"Good sir!" she says, almost panting, and Merlin can hear the desperation in her voice. "I'm afraid the upstairs room is in use--"
It's too late. Tristan is muttering behind the door--something that sounds suspiciously like So we shall have a show, then, if nothing else--and Merlin spares a minute to be fondly disgusted with Tristan as he hears the door emit its earlier creak, in counterpoint to the shuffle of the boy's steps as he sidles out of the way and the wheeze of Arthur's uneven breaths in the corner.
Merlin can say without a doubt that he doesn't think it over in particular detail. He can see the door easing open, Tristan's foot outlined in the square of light that spills into the corridor, but more than either of those things he's intensely aware of Arthur--Arthur, with clear sweat running skitteringly down one temple, Arthur, who's looking at Merlin with a look in his eyes that Merlin would not have thought possible for Arthur to produce: Do something, it says.
It's the heat of the moment that makes Merlin opt for an old favourite: he jabs his hand sharply towards the window, hoping that Arthur will take the hint and move and also hoping to distract the boy's attention. The moment the boy follows the motion of Merlin's fingers, Merlin looks at the beam immediately above the boy's head, muttering a quick Sorry in his head before thinking, Fall, you blasted thing. Fall.
Not his most sophisticated moment by far, but the beam comes down obligingly regardless, knocking the boy out soundly and effectively blocking the way into the room, if only for a moment.
"What in the--" Merlin hears Tristan mutter, but by then he's already turned, grasping blindly at Arthur's wrist and pulling them both towards the window, which he does not have time to open before they both jump out.
It takes them less than half a minute to kick what's left of the windowpane and some of the shards of glass towards the door, and to run first left and then down the alleyway from which they'd originally come, as fast as if they were involved in the worst pursuit of their lives.
Arthur is griping even as they're fleeing--Possibly have been any more conspicuous? Merlin hears--but he's not saying, How come we didn't fall like stones? How did you make the beam come down? Why have we not broken a single leg between us? so Merlin leaves the talking for later and runs and runs and runs, thinking, nonsensically, 'Utmost discretion' better mean what Arthur obviously thinks it means, Ana.
It's not until they're near the entrance to the castle courtyard that they stop, trying to control their breathing so as not to sound like whorehouse-frequenting delinquents and straightening their cloaks and tunics. The cold air on Merlin's hot face seems to funnel his attention from where it'd been dispersed in the air--Are they following? Did Tristan see me? What will Ana say? How will we get back into the castle? What time is it?--sharply into the here and now, and though he still has seven thoughts to contend with, they're all conveniently related for ease of focus: Did you see? Will you ask? What will you do? Did you expect it? Arthur. Arthur. Arthur.
When Merlin dares to look up, Arthur is running a hand through his hair, dust and splinters flying upwards as tiny shards of glass rain onto the cobblestones at his feet. He is not looking at Merlin, but when he cranes his neck upwards to do so, his face is not what Merlin expects--it's composed, a little cool, his mouth is pinched.
What he definitely does not look is surprised.
"Arthur--" Merlin starts. More words do not come.
There is silence for a moment--a heartbeat, time to hear a shout from down the street, a door slamming somewhere beyond the castle's walls--and then Arthur says, slowly and terrifyingly collected,
"Like I said, Merlin. No-one knows everything about anyone else."
Merlin looks at him, unsure of what to say until he isn't, and then he answers,
"But you knew this about me."
"When?" Merlin asks.
Arthur tilts his head, clearly remembering.
"I was almost sure after Kay's house," he says, and Merlin thinks Plate half-upended before I caught it; right.
He remembers thinking he'd been alone in Sir Ector's kitchen, with everyone else--particularly Arthur, who had been three sheets to the wind--drunk outside, on that day over two years ago.
An age ago.
"But I knew for certain," Arthur is saying, talking over Merlin's memory, "At midwinter."
The fire, Merlin thinks.
"And all your entreaties," Arthur says with a dry little laugh, "Arthur, why won't you tell me what's going on? Arthur, why won't you explain everything exactly as it is? A bit hypocritical, wouldn't you say, Merlin?"
It's not the same, Merlin wants to say, except it sort of is. He's been so insistent, but he should have remembered--he, of all people--that everyone has a little something he or she wants to keep private. Certainly Merlin, and--as evidenced by everything that has happened since late August--certainly Arthur, too. His mental portrait of Arthur, seemingly so unyielding despite Arthur's request for understanding an hour ago, is helpless to do anything but expand in the face of the knowledge that Arthur has known about Merlin's magic for so long.
It's selfish, Merlin thinks abruptly, to give him leeway only when it's me who needs it.
Merlin thinks of Arthur's silences, and yet also of all the things he has told Merlin without words since this whole thing began, and he thinks that knowing that Arthur has suspected about the magic all along--and been certain about it for weeks--probably means Merlin should raise no further complaints on the topic of explanations.
"Right," he says finally.
He looks at Arthur; Arthur looks back steadily. They will each clearly have to say many things to the other before they can begin to deal with even the first of the implications of what has happened, but the slouch of Arthur's shoulders and the glow of the moon behind the clouds (not to mention the thought that Tristan might turn the corner at any moment--implausible, but no less terrifying for being so) make it clear that now is not the time to begin. The fact that Merlin is so willing to put off a conversation about his own indiscretions when he's been ceaselessly hounding Arthur to speak about himself for the better part of half a year does not escape him.
Merlin fixes his gaze on the outline of his window in Gaius' rooms--he can see it, from where they're standing--and then glances at Arthur's face--his eyebrows are dust-encrusted, white and outlandish-looking--before he says, firmly,
"All right--let's go."
Arthur looks unimaginably tired, but mutiny flashes on his features for an instant, nonetheless; he hates it when Merlin articulates what they're about to do before he can.
When Merlin spins on his heel and begins stomping back up the castle, trying to shake glass free of his cloak as they go, though, Arthur follows without a word.
The realisation that Arthur knows about him--has known about him--changes everything.
It's a strange way to think of it, Merlin supposes, but in the aftermath of the night at Ana's house--Bandits, Merlin hears Tristan saying to the other knights on the training grounds a few days after the fact, Assaulted Ana's kitchen boy and broke a glass window, taking some of Ana's plate with them, she said; I wasn't quick enough to run after them, unfortunately, and Calogrenant was in no fit state, the sorry oaf--he realises that he's been telling himself for years that his magic, such a large fraction of who he is, is something that Arthur has simply never wanted to see. It's a strange realisation to have, and the discovery that some part of him has always resented Arthur for it is stranger still.
Arthur has clearly been paying attention, though, has been watching closely, has been seeing Merlin exactly for who he is for years. Arthur has since that night told Merlin that it had been a struggle not to acknowledge the truth after Gwen's father had survived Nimueh's curse, and that a clear decision to ignore Merlin's magic until it became impossible to had had to be made after Will's death. He'd said it all in a firm, steady voice that suggested that he will never be able to fully forget the years during which Merlin stayed silent.
Merlin thinks of all the times Arthur must have put energy into sliding his eyes away from something incriminating, and he almost cannot believe he's spent the better part of his time in Camelot believing Arthur simply hadn't bothered to make an effort when it came to this.
Now Merlin realises that his unnecessary fear of being found out has obscured things. In order to spend days together without being paralysed by uncertainty, he has had to believe certain things about Arthur, among them that he has been oblivious despite Merlin's complete lack of skill when it comes to lying and artifice. Arthur's unpredictable behaviour since August has been difficult to comprehend not least because Merlin's own guilt has made the slightest deviation from his carefully constructed view of Arthur seem like a threat. He had told himself that it was impossible to allow Arthur to know him fully while Uther ruled, and he had done his penance for his half-truths by making sure he knew Arthur as well as was possible, and was able to support him in everything, making his dissembling irrelevant to their friendship. Every time that Arthur had hinted that there were things Merlin did not know--perhaps could not know, given that he had based his understanding of Arthur on such unyielding guidelines--the thought that there might not be a way to justify his policy of non-declaration had made Merlin deeply anxious in a way that even he had been hard-pressed to understand.
Things have been strained between them--Merlin tried, at first, to start conversations without quite knowing what to say, to disastrous, tense silence-filled ends--but with the green shoots of leaves insinuating themselves into the branches of trees around the city, with the appearance of the first of the yellow, if weak, spring sunlight, Merlin feels as if making new attempts at knitting things between them together again are possible.
He doesn't know that the right words to say to Arthur will come to him, even after weeks of thinking about it, but now that he knows that Arthur has been watching, always looking carefully, Merlin feels that looking back might be a good place to start.
The first thing he notices is that Arthur's behaviour hasn't really changed that much at all.
He spends more time riding, a disconcerting amount of time fetching increasingly irrelevant books from the library, and spares a greater amount of hours in any given day to speak to Gawain or Morgana, but under relaxed eyebrows his eyes are always vigilant, half fixed on what he's seeing and half focussed on what it might mean for Camelot.
Arthur's seemingly newfound willingness to challenge Uther's expectations had thrown Merlin from the beginning, but in Uther's low, pleased laughter when one of the older noblemen at court hints at Arthur's exploits, Merlin hears that this, too--all that Arthur has been doing, the very things that have seemed out of the ordinary--was expected. Uther wants to see Arthur have a fling of freedom; he likes the long shadow that Arthur's vitality casts on him by association, and needs to know that the weight of the responsibilities that he prematurely placed there has not crushed his son's youth under it. There is no doubt that Arthur has been able to steal moments for himself as the result of this year, but each small deviation has been framed by the greater knowledge that a little inconsistency would give his father pleasure.
Merlin sees Arthur murmuring lowly to Annis by a windowseat one day, sees the other handmaidens' eyes glinting with interest under respectfully lowered eyelids, and can see that the people of the castle need the intrigue and excitement of their prince to counterbalance the gravity and lack of leniency of their king. The girls had hoped for an indiscretion, for exhilaration's sake, but at the heart of it they had trusted in Arthur's stalwart character to dictate the direction of the encounter. This much is clear from Brimlad's hopeful glances when Arthur smiles kindly at her or at one of the other handmaidens, despite her earlier, hardened assertions that the best they could have all hoped for were a few pretty pieces of fabric. Here, too, Arthur has been able to deliver on what was being asked of him by taking a selfish pleasure, but as Merlin watches him flirt easily with the castle's women, he has to wonder whether true indulgence and duty are not mutually exclusive.
He sees that Arthur runs interference for him, that the people in the castle say nothing of their unusual friendship because Arthur has made sure that they do not. Arthur has to negotiate, now, when disciplining his knights for improper relations with the castle's maids, because he himself breaks with propriety every time his knights move aside to allow Merlin to sit down beside him. Merlin may not know court custom, may have taken pride in his ignorance of it in the past, but Arthur has evidently fought to adjust tradition in order to make space for him. Merlin feels not a little ashamed now at the way he had dismissed court dealings before, stupidly assuming that they had nothing to do with him.
Merlin watches Arthur deal justice and punishment graciously, distributing wealth and what wisdom he's managed to acquire from short experience with skill. He watches Arthur pardon a young, repentant thief and levy a fine on an objectionable, influential nobleman during the same council meeting, and he realises suddenly that he's never quite forgotten the sight of Arthur taunting a man in the tilting yard on Merlin's first day in Camelot, despite his belief that he'd long ago dismissed the memory. He's always, without knowing it, believed that Arthur has grown into his duties in spite of his years of youthful indiscretion. Now--well, he wouldn't go as far as to say that Arthur had been actively trying to fulfil expectations then (and, if he had, the thought that his knights might have expected him to torment a man isn't a hugely appealing one), but neither can he fully believe that Arthur somehow shifted from disregard of to awareness of duty at some point after Merlin's arrival. It's abundantly clear that Arthur has been watching carefully in order to spot what his subjects need for much longer than Merlin has known him, and it's also obvious that Arthur has always included Merlin in his notion of stewardship, that he assumed responsibility for Merlin the moment Merlin was placed in his service. Merlin may have helped or protected Arthur without his knowledge more than once, and he may have provided a sort of companionship that Arthur had never fully enjoyed before. Yet he has also added to Arthur's responsibilities simply by being there.
As soon as Merlin begins to look more carefully it's apparent that Arthur is nervous about what his impending wedding will bring, and frustrated at the uncertainty surrounding it, just as Merlin suspected. But he's also completely ready for it: while the news had come as an unpleasant surprise to Merlin, Arthur has always recognised marriage as another of the tasks in his long line of duties to the kingdom. A part of him is looking forward to it, to what it can bring for Camelot, and if it's bought him a year of petty freedoms on top of providing his subjects with greater security, then that's only a bonus.
The riding and the reading and even the wenching--they're small pleasures that give Artur's father, friends, and servants the much greater pleasure of vicariously living the thrill of a prince's youth through him. Arthur is not the sort of man to take easily to unpredictability, however, and the hesitation and uncertainty that Merlin has observed are simply natural consequences of Arthur attempting to deviate from expectations established in his childhood. Arthur is often unsure about the suitability of breaking with custom, even as he's doing it, and in some small way he is always afraid of inadvertently crossing a line that he was not supposed to.
He's happily given the people that surround him the impression that he is still the boyish prince they once identified with, given them the satisfaction of once more looking on him with rueful amusement rather than with awe. Merlin is the only one to whom he has described his actions for what they truly are: a personal experiment in getting away with it, but also a duty to be the young man full of vigour that his people would like to see. He's given others the illusion that there are things at work that they do not grasp--hinted that he may secretly be more mischievous or appealingly insolent than they had previously suspected--but he has stripped the mystery of his actions for Merlin, shared with him not only his slapdash plan for the year but also his uncertainties about it. Merlin has done them both a disservice by assuming Arthur was hiding his motives from him--rather than revealing honestly how shallow and foreign they seemed even to him--particularly as it seems Arthur could not, or did not want to, do the same with others.
There are still things that Merlin does not understand, and certainly things that Arthur could have done better. Merlin is still not entirely sure what to make of the boy in Ana's house, whom neither he nor Arthur has mentioned since--but something tells him that if Arthur has come near genuine indulgence at any point this year, then it was at that moment. There are still questions that Merlin wants answered, but he has to acknowledge that Arthur is not precisely known for his skill with words when it comes to asking for what he needs, and appreciate the fact that he let Merlin come to him in his own time despite knowing about the magic all along. Both thoughts force him to let some things lie, for the moment.
The truth is that the discipline of watching Arthur carefully--truly observing him, not for what Merlin wishes to see but for what and who he is--has made a lot of things clearer. Once Merlin is willing to see it, Arthur's twinned discomfort and happiness at having a year to do the (more) unexpected despite a lifetime of doing otherwise is apparent, and his willingness to include Merlin, to open a space in which they can both take advantage of it, is also obvious.
Arthur always has two horses saddled when he decides to ride out, though sometimes he only has use for one. His eyes seek Merlin's in the hall even when the rest of his attention is focussed on one of the many willing, pretty girls that appear to be multiplying in the castle. Every unpredictable thing he does in public is a small, malice-free joke at everyone else's expense, and Arthur clearly wants Merlin in on it. It is only when they have been alone, at Midwinter and, even, at Ana's, that Arthur has seemed to truly push boundaries, and so Merlin vows to help him do so next time Arthur invites him along. Up until now he rather suspects that he's done little more than provide a reminder of the restrictions that govern Arthur's everyday life, by following along uncertainly and not a little unhappily and by asking as many questions as he has.
Keeping his eyes on Arthur suddenly makes a dozen complex things seem relatively simple, but perhaps the greatest revelation of all is that as soon as Merlin puts effort into observing him, it becomes clear that Arthur never goes more than a few hours without seeking out Merlin, without making time to find out what he's doing, without watching him. Arthur's looks are almost always heavy, even when he's laughing or doing something inconsequential. Sometimes Merlin feels as if they're filled with intent, too, with the sort of focus that Merlin has when he's searching for ways to get Arthur away from a threat.
Watching Arthur makes it obvious that this year is making Arthur happy, and that makes Merlin happy, in turn.
It makes clear that Arthur has always made sure to keep an eye on Merlin, both before learning the truth about his magic and after, and realising this shows Merlin the truth of his own short-sightedness when it comes to Arthur.
It quickly reveals to Merlin that Arthur is still looking at him, still concentrating on him, even now (despite the distractions of this year and despite his certainty about Merlin's magic, despite the fact that there isn't a mystery to decipher anymore and despite the long time it has taken Merlin to realise that Arthur's eyes are on him) and this, more than anything else, makes Merlin want badly to look back.
Rumour has it that Sir Cormorant is fetching a skilled seamstress from the north of the kingdom to make the Lady Elise's wedding dress, and though Arthur explains that his own attire is of less importance, Uther has the castle tailor and his senior seamstress begin fitting Arthur for clothes in late March.
A lengthy discussion about what type of cloth should be used follows--it is mostly Morgana who has to suffer the tailor's hem-hawing, as Uther and Arthur try their hardest to pretend they're elsewhere--and they finally settle on a design that seems, to Merlin, to look like most of Arthur's clothes, excepting a blue trim to match his bride's dress.
Arthur does his level best to ignore the entire process.
One of the seamstress' girls corners Merlin in the corridor one afternoon to tell him that the clothes are ready for the first formal fitting, and will he please ensure that Arthur is in his chambers the next morning, to allow the tailor to work with natural light. Merlin chokes a laugh back when her utterly serious face makes it clear she's not joking, and he raises his hand in a half-hearted wave as she walks off, already thinking of what lie he can tell Arthur in order to keep him in his rooms the next day.
In the end it's surprisingly easy to convince him, as the morning dawns sharp and cold in contrast to the temperate weather they've been having. Merlin stokes the fire with a look, and turns his head just in time to see the familiar parade of expressions on Arthur's face: suspicion, wonder, and then blithe disregard.
"The tailor is coming to fit your clothes this morning," says Merlin, and Arthur steps closer to the fire and nods, not even bothering to put up a fight.
They've managed to speak about it a few times, now. One conversation consisted entirely of variations on I was trying to protect you; I was trying to protect you; I would have protected you; I was protecting you. Another had mostly been conducted in hand-waves.
They both know that this isn't something that Arthur can acknowledge, not if he wants to do his duty within the rules his father has pre-established, so they've mostly spoken around it--unrelated mentions of Merlin's fear and non-sequitur declarations of Arthur's disappointment inserted into other conversations--but there's a bond of trust between them, heavier now, that suggests to Merlin that they will speak about it when it's possible.
The tailor, who is diminutive and whom Merlin has always suspected for a failed player--he accompanies his every statement with flourishes, and his clothes always seem like the sort of thing one might expect to find in a troupe's trunk--flounces into Arthur's rooms with his usual exuberance, and Merlin turns to the window to hide his smile at the heavy roll of Arthur's eyes.
"Your Highness," says the tailor, his nose almost to the ground, and Arthur smiles tightly and says, politely,
The tailor motions to the small army of women who are hovering by the door, and they rush into action. One sets down a roughly hewn wooden box, motioning Arthur onto it with a trembling hand. Hilda, the senior seamstress, clucks at the girl and then heads directly towards Arthur, pins held threateningly between each of her fingers. Arthur's eyes widen in response, but narrow immediately when Merlin laughs at him from the window.
The slide of the fabric as Hilda unceremoniously yanks Arthur's tunic off and replaces it with the one made for the wedding makes Arthur's fine hair stand on end. The sight is made all the funnier by the fact that someone apparently chose to take Sir Calogrenant's measurements, rather than Arthur's, before making the clothes--excess cloth billows on either side of Arthur's chest and the vee of the tunic's neck hangs almost to his navel. Merlin bites his lips to keep from laughing, but his imperfect control over his left nostril makes him let out an unseemly snort, and Arthur glares menacingly from atop his rickety box.
"What is the meaning of this?" asks Froille, shrilly, and one of the girls who trailed in with them says, attempting to sound deferential and mostly succeeding but unable to completely eradicate a slight edge of resentment from her voice,
"Prince Arthur told us to take the measurements quickly, sir, as he was on his way to the stables when we came calling."
Arthur had found business for himself in the stables the moment the girls had entered with their measuring ribbons, and Merlin had seen them struggling to mark the length of his limbs as he fidgeted. Arthur is clearly uncomfortable at the reminder that he'd all but run away from them before they were finished. He begins twisting his neck now in the same way he had then, like a stubborn horse attempting to shrug off a bridle.
"Well, some adjustments are clearly necessary before we can proceed further," says Froille, and Hilda huffs indelicately as he edges towards the door. "Take in the cloth where needed, and mark the new lines for me with pins."
He mutters a quick, "By your leave, sire," and then walks from the room while Hilda passes her pins off to one of her three assistants. Gwen, who worked in Hilda's workshop with her for a period, once told Merlin she had fingers as nimble as Gwen had ever seen, but absolutely no inclination to use them. She walks off in what appears to be the direction of the kitchens, and the three young girls who remain stand around nervously, until Arthur says, "Well?" prompting them all into simultaneous action.
The shy one--Merlin thinks her name is Darlene--stands to the side, handing the other two pins as they fuss with Arthur's tunic. Taite and Eacnung, the two sisters who had been responsible for the original measurements, hand Arthur the set of wedding breeches, and Taite says,
"Sire, if you could?"
It sounds like a request, but it's clearly an order.
Arthur's face flushes as he changes his clothing, but only Darlene and Merlin notice; Taite and Eacnung are too busy looking down, and Darlene says nothing, blushing even more brightly than Arthur at the sight of his embarrassment.
Merlin watches as Arthur forces himself to breathe evenly, clearly uncomfortable with the way the two sisters are darting their hands around him so quickly, passing pins between them. When Taite adjusts the fall of the cloth at Arthur's crotch, her hand running up his inner thigh to pleat the fold into place before attaching a pin, Merlin finds himself saying, loudly,
"Yes, thank you--I can do the rest."
All four of them look up at him, surprised, and the three girls look immediately to Arthur, who nods crisply. Taite and Eacnung shrug, and Eacnung drops a handful of pins into Merlin's hand, probably more forcefully than necessary--one pierces the skin of his thumb. Then the three of them walk out, already chattering about something else.
Merlin shuts the door behind them, turning to look at Arthur, who is looking at him sceptically.
"Do you have any idea whatsoever what it is that needs to be done here, Merlin?" he asks.
"Obviously not," Merlin answers cheerfully, walking towards him and trying to look at what the girls have already done in the hope that he'll be able to continue doing the same.
"Well, then--I know that you've perfected the art of annoying me through long and dedicated practice, but that doesn't mean you need to fend off the competition when other people try for the same results," says Arthur.
He sounds ever so slightly grateful, though he's doing his best to cover it with exasperation.
Merlin rolls his eyes at him and reaches up to pin the cloth above Arthur's left shoulder. Arthur's breath catches ever so slightly and his muscles clench under Merlin's fingers.
"Are you all ri--" Merlin begins, but Arthur nods quickly and Merlin gets back to work, tucking a sleeve back and pinning it in place.
The truth of the matter is that, although he enjoys the sight of other people getting Arthur riled when it's harmless, likes to see him gently mocked the way he's always mocking others, he feels extremely ill at ease when he sees others fussing over him, mostly because it makes Arthur so clearly uncomfortable.
He tries to pin the right sleeve as he has the first, but he jabs a little too enthusiastically and Arthur jumps as the pin pricks his skin.
"Sorry, sorry--" begins Merlin pre-emptively, but after years of practice Arthur is startlingly quick at gearing up for dressing-downs, and he's already muttering,
"Well, I suppose we can all be thankful that there's time to make another set of clothes once you've ruined these, which you clearly will; I'd be grateful if you could avoid maiming in the process, however--"
"Maiming you with a pin, right," says Merlin distractedly, placing his hands flush against Arthur's chest and running them outwards and upwards, trying to get the fabric to sit properly on his shoulders.
He pins the sleeve and brings the edges of the neckline together carefully, beginning to pin it shut but trying to leave a wide enough space for Arthur to shrug out of the entire thing.
He looks up when he's about halfway done to see Arthur frozen mid-diatribe, nostrils flared and chest rising and falling more quickly than usual. Merlin has no idea what gives him the courage to say it, but there's something about Arthur's face that reminds him--
"You know, I don't think I will ever--ever--forget the look on your face when we heard Tristan coming up those stairs."
The memory is funny in a way that the experience hadn't been. And finally saying something about it, Merlin realises, allows him to extend something of an olive branch, too; it's an awkward attempt, but a well-meaning one. If he says something about the way Arthur acted, it's bound to set Arthur off on a rant about Merlin's incompetence in getting them out of there, and Merlin knows Arthur finds that sort of thing cathartic. They'll have to skip around the sharper edges of what happened, but if Merlin can just get Arthur to say something about it, that'll be a start.
Arthur doesn't rise to the bait, though; Merlin straightens up to look him in the eye and finds that his face has gone even tighter, though a tiny smile is stretched across his lips, as if he feels he owes Merlin that much.
Arthur looks down and Merlin realises that his hand is still on Arthur's chest, his fingers curled around some of the excess cloth. He can feel the flutter of Arthur's heartbeat if he concentrates. Arthur is looking at Merlin with that look--all focus, and the sense of intent that Merlin hasn't quite been able to decipher yet--but when he sees Merlin looking back, his eyes lower almost immediately.
If Merlin hadn't just spent weeks documenting the appearance of that look on Arthur's features--at the moment just before he delegates his patrols, or as he redirects to the library on the way to the council chamber, or when the two of them are together and he thinks Merlin isn't looking--he might have dismissed it. As it is, he ducks his head to try to catch Arthur's eye again, tightening his grip on the tunic almost unconsciously.
The muscles in Arthur's neck are tense. Merlin abruptly realises that he knows this because he spends a large amount of his time cataloguing what Arthur looks like: noting the length of his fingers as his hands skirt over a map to lay it flat on a table, tracking the twist of his lips and eyebrows when he's pretending not to be amused, following the curves of his shoulder or legs when he's riding or walking.
Merlin sees Arthur swallow and feels his own throat tighten, and when Arthur firms his jaw and shakes his head quickly, almost as if to clear it, Merlin feels a small shiver go up his spine. Heat blooms in his chest at the same time, and he thinks, Oh.
Arthur's eyelashes are a dusky sweep on his cheek as he blinks, and Merlin takes a tiny step forward, the tips of his toes brushing against the low wooden box as he leans towards Arthur's chest.
Merlin feels a strange tingling in his fingertips, almost as if something has twisted inside him and made him suddenly aware of everything, the way he was on the night with Annis, or in that strange moment as Tristan came towards the door at Ana's.
It has to be him, he thinks, and as soon as he does he knows it's true.
Merlin realises that, in this moment and for the rest of the year, he has the ability to give Arthur something just for himself--just for the two of them--without pressure from anyone or anything; he can give Arthur a pleasure he can own. It doesn't have to be for anyone else to witness, unlike the boy at Ana's, who was probably Arthur's way of showing Merlin something.
Merlin can be just Arthur's.
He crowds a little closer, as much as he can without toppling the box over, and he waits a second, then two, trying to breathe evenly and fighting not to tip his face upwards.
Arthur draws in a ragged breath, and Merlin is about to step back--it has to be Arthur, doing it because he wants it, and not because he thinks Merlin does--when Arthur steps awkwardly off the box, fisting his hands in Merlin's tunic and drawing him forward.
"You're standing on my foot," Merlin says.
Arthur kisses him.
From hearing the knights speak of their exploits, Merlin would have thought all noblemen made a habit of flailing about wildly in bed while recounting their more impressive war stories, but Arthur strips Merlin quickly and silently, his movements precise and almost economical.
He trails his fingers up Merlin's sides, and keeps Merlin's cheek pressed gently against the pillow with one hand so that he can mouth at his neck. Merlin gives a little whimper, and his slight surprise at the fact that Arthur took him up on the offer he didn't dare make out loud--his brain is still spinning, still trying to make sense of everything even as his foot curls into the back of Arthur's knee and traces the muscles in his thigh up to his arse--makes everything seem sharper, better, hotter.
Merlin tugs gently at Arthur's hair so he can look at him, and smiles at the sight of the furrow in Arthur's brow, always the last vestige of arguments that begin, I hope you're not under the impression that I think this is a good idea in any way, Merlin. Merlin presses his thumb against Arthur's eyebrows and slides it upwards, smoothing the wrinkle out as Arthur looks at him steadily.
The glow of Arthur's skin now is nothing like it had been the day that Merlin had found Annis in his rooms. His face, so unfamiliar then, seems utterly known to Merlin now, when he can breathe the soft gasps straight from Arthur's lips. It's as if this part of Arthur, this movement and coiled grace and sweet hesitation, couldn't have possibly made sense until it was Merlin's, and only Merlin's, to see.
"This is good, Arthur," says Merlin, and he means it--means that it's a good thing for Arthur to want, that Merlin thinks it's good, too, that it feels good. It does.
"I think--" says Arthur.
"Please don't," says Merlin.
He doesn't say, The last time you stopped to think you decided taking me to a whorehouse was a solid course of action, but he pulls Arthur down for another kiss and hopes that Arthur will hear it.
You don't have to try with me, Merlin wants to say, so he works a hand between them and wraps his hand around Arthur's cock, stroking to the base and dipping his fingers curiously to play with Arthur's balls.
I'm going to enjoy this for me, but also because you're enjoying it, he wants to add, so he pants in Arthur's ear when Arthur moves against him, the head of his cock smooth and sticky against Merlin's belly and hip.
You can have this as long as you need it and want it; I want it--most of all he wants to make sure Arthur understands this, so when Arthur tenses against him, Merlin moves his hips once, twice, and comes in a messy rush between their two bodies. When Arthur tries to pull away, Merlin wraps a leg around his hips and rolls them over, kissing Arthur repeatedly, a mix of soft lips and more insistent tongue.
After a few minutes their kisses get more languid, and Merlin feels himself drifting off--he even dozes for a moment, head on Arthur's shoulder. He can feel the instant that Arthur decides that he's spent long enough away from his duties, but he lets him pull away a little, to give him the illusion of freedom. When Arthur tenses his stomach muscles to sit up, though, Merlin places a leg over Arthur's, pressing him back into the bed.
He draws him back in with a hand on his neck, and as the sound of men changing the guard in the courtyard drifts in despite the closed windows, Merlin whispers to him that he thinks it'd be a good idea if they went again.
It's not that Merlin wants to be the herald of his own victories, or anything of the sort, but in the days that follow Arthur seems to be in as good a mood as Merlin has seen him all year.
He seems relaxed, and though he can't quite keep a smile on his face that makes him look like the cat that got the cream, it seems to creep out only when they're in private. In front of others, Arthur goes out of his way not to let anything slip: he touches Merlin as he's always touched him--no more, no less--and looks at him as he always has. He's obviously putting effort into keeping this for himself, and Merlin's never been happier to have Arthur--brilliantly dense Arthur--read Merlin's intentions right.
Merlin can hardly fault Arthur for being oblivious when he's been little better himself, failing to see Arthur's small overtures until the two of them were practically pressed against a cliff's edge with no room to do anything else. But he caught on in the end, and if there's one thing he's learned while in Camelot, where a test of will seems to always be waiting around the corner, is that it's better late than never.
They argue as they always have, and after every messy, brilliant fumble, it's Merlin who has to take the linens for washing, but Arthur has clearly been holding back all sorts of impulses--to kiss against walls, and bedposts, and hearthrugs, to laugh freely and to say all sorts of honest and unexpected things.
"How many times have you been to Ana's, then?" asks Merlin on the night at the end of the April tournaments, which Arthur holds mostly for training purposes, but which he can't ever seem to bring himself to lose--not even now.
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," Arthur answers.
His mouth is twitching, and he's teasing--laughing gently, not at Merlin but with him.
"Arthur," says Merlin. He turns his face a little into the pillow when he realises the answer matters to him, in some odd way, afraid some of it might show on his face.
"Merlin," says Arthur, kissing him, but just as Merlin begins to relax into the puddle of sheets beneath him, Arthur says,
"Once or twice."
"With that boy?" asks Merlin, morbidly unable to stop himself from pressing further, but also honestly interested--there is still a part of him that marvels at the things that Arthur has revealed this year, with a sort of straightforward, objective, curiosity.
"No," says Arthur, looping one arm around Merlin and pulling him onto his chest, so that Merlin can't quite see his face. Merlin can feel his cheeks heat, though, and he breathes deeply into Arthur's hair.
"I--that was the first time I asked Ana. For that."
Merlin had thought her offer of her services to be more familiar, and he says so.
"I send her business, sometimes," says Arthur diplomatically.
Merlin raises an eyebrow, and Arthur explains,
"Sparring and discussion in the chambers are all well and good, Merlin, but sometimes the best you can hope is for men to forget what is troubling them."
Arthur's voice sounds like a king's, resigned to the harsher realities of his kingdom but full of love for its inhabitants nonetheless.
"Are there things that trouble you?" Merlin asks.
"Yes," says Arthur, simply, and Merlin frowns. "But I can assure you that whatever they are, my cares are fewer than they were before you ruined my wedding breeches."
Merlin smiles--softly, but not too softly, in case Arthur is setting up one of his elaborate insults--and Arthur brushes Merlin's hair back from his forehead, almost roughly, and says,
"Turn out the light."
Sir Blaise comes back at Beltane, like an overly jovial head of cattle that is brought out only for feasts, and Merlin stores the crystallised fruits away in the back of the castle's larders the moment he sees him rolling off his horse in the courtyard.
His re-appearance seems to please Arthur--Sir Blaise really is the convivial sort, Merlin supposes, and his repertoire of stories is actually fairly funny when you bother to listen. He's been on campaigns for both Sir Cormorant and Uther, but he's the sort of man who seems to draw disaster to himself, so that most of his tales involve outrageous mishaps from which he only escapes by sheer, blind fortune.
"You seem happy," says Gwen, when they're in the gardens gathering flowers to decorate the trees and the spinning-wheels for the feast, and Merlin pats at his hair, trying to obscure the places that make it clear that fingers have run through it, and says,
He aims for cheerful surprise, but Gwen raises an eyebrow at him, smiling. She keeps her eyes on the rosebushes, though--the wonderful thing about Gwen is that she never pushes--and eventually Merlin says,
"Arthur's happy. I think."
Gwen blinks lazily in the sunlight, and threads a rose from her basket through Merlin's neckerchief as she says,
"Yes, I think so too."
Merlin drinks too much that night, and watches in amusement as Gawain attempts to lure the Lady Ragnell onto the part of the courtyard that has been cleared for dancing. She's one of the shyest women Merlin has ever met, in court or elsewhere, but though she blushes to the roots of her auburn hair and does not budge from where she's standing with her handmaiden, she consents to talk to Gawain, who seems hard-pressed to think of what to say when he realises dancing is not on the cards.
Merlin walks by, swaying slightly, and hears Gawain say, "And embroidery--do you enjoy it?"
He widens his eyes to--he hopes--communicate Not an ideal topic, Gawain, but judging from the way Gawain turns to look behind him in surprise, then returns his eyes to Merlin as if to say, What is it? Merlin isn't completely successful in relaying his message.
Gwen and Morgana are whirling in a corner of the courtyard, and even Uther looks surprisingly cheery in a red doublet, holding a tankard of ale in an ungloved hand.
There seem to be more people than usual there for the celebration, and more young people flocking to Arthur, some stringing ribbons on his wrists, some giving him flowers. It's very clearly a pre-wedding Beltane, and when Merlin thinks what a post-wedding Beltane will be like the year after, something surprisingly sour twists out of his stomach and into his throat, and he scowls as he goes to fetch more ale.
The thing is that Merlin has a series of true reasons to dislike Sir Blaise now--while his visit at midwinter had annoyed Merlin at a time that he'd felt shut out and confused, trapped in the castle with its blazing fires and its hundreds of people as snow melted lazily outside, now it's different.
Merlin understands now what this wedding will mean: if not for the court or the kingdom, and if not for Prince Arthur, then at least for Arthur, who laughs low in his belly when he's lying down and who wraps his fingers around Merlin's wrist as he sleeps. Merlin remembers his silly fancy at the break of winter into spring, when he'd vowed to find some petty mischief to help Arthur feel freer from others, and he feels trapped now in the knowledge that the true boundaries are different from those established by the court. They are the ones Arthur has created, those he believes are necessary, and they only leave him a tiny space in which to be himself.
Merlin resents the Lady Elise not for taking a place in Arthur's life--he understands now that Arthur does not necessarily look on that as something negative--but for giving Arthur one more reason to curtail his own satisfaction, by giving him one more subject to protect and one more loved one not to disappoint.
Sir Blaise is a reminder of this--of the hot summer months and the harvest bearing down on them, of the pavilion that will be set up to ward against the August sun's glare. The more Merlin grows to like Sir Blaise as a man, the more he dislikes him as an envoy.
Arthur has spun away from the last group of young men and women who had approached him to pin colour to his tunic, and Merlin keeps his eyes on him as he drops into a chair next to Sir Blaise. Sir Blaise gestures at a pretty girl and says something, pulling a face, and Arthur laughs loudly, throwing his head back and exposing his neck.
When he looks back down, his eyes catch Merlin's, and though Merlin fights to keep his face open and expressionless--him, him, it always has to be Arthur who chooses this for himself--Arthur must see something in his eyes. He puts one hand on Sir Blaise's forearm, ducks his head to say something, and heads away from the party and into the castle, flicking his eyes towards Merlin, then the castle's doors, as he goes.
Arthur is waiting behind the door when Merlin enters, and he pushes Merlin onto the bed in a smooth movement that sends the blood rushing away from his head. He feels dizzy with ale and with the heat of the evening, which has made his shift cling to his skin under his arms and at the small of his back.
"Always looking, Merlin," Arthur murmurs against his skin, and Merlin says, cheekily and a little bolstered by drink,
"Only returning the favour, sire."
"Insolence," says Arthur, pulling Merlin's boots off, then his breeches, and Merlin wriggles his hips to help him along and laughs.
Arthur's mouth is everywhere, almost as if he knows he doesn't have to do much more than be there to make Merlin's head spin pleasantly, but wants to make sure Merlin sinks completely into his kisses. Merlin fumbles, his hands awkward and clumsy, and touches everything he can reach--a shoulder, an elbow, Arthur's belly, his hip.
"I want--" says Arthur, and before he can complete the thought, Merlin stretches against the linens and lets his legs fall open, and says,
"You don't have to ensure I experience every possible pleasure before this wedding, you know, Merlin," Arthur huffs against Merlin's sternum. "There will be other days after that."
Merlin knows that Arthur means that they'll be other pleasures to be had after the Lady Elise comes, but it gives him a small thrill to think that Arthur might be hinting that they can have this--the heat, and the shared air, and the sheets tangled between their legs--for longer than a few stolen months. It's a dangerous thought, and Merlin shoves it away quickly, pressing his hips into Arthur's and breathing sharply when Arthur shifts and takes them both in one of his large hands.
He knows that he's been obvious in his attempts to make a space for Arthur to enjoy himself since coming to the realisation that Arthur, if left to his own devices, would continue to close doors he once enjoyed opening the more he approached his kingship. Merlin brings him fruit the moment it's delivered to the kitchens, and holds Uther off when Arthur has not yet returned from riding: all things he did under orders, once, and now does even when he's asked not to.
Arthur says things like this now, sometimes--I do sometimes do things for myself, you know, Merlin--almost as if he's recognised that Merlin has begun obsessively planning to ensure that Arthur will always have access to fleeting indulgences, if he wants them. It's almost as if he knows Merlin is terrified that he will fail, and wants to assuage his fears.
"You can have anything you want, Arthur," Merlin corrects himself, and Arthur reaches over the headboard to grope for something in the space between it and the wall.
"Can we--?" he says, a small bottle of one of Morgana's perfumed oils in his hand, and Merlin nods against his lips,
Arthur rolls him over onto his stomach, one hand on Merlin's shoulder and one on his hip, and Merlin shivers--the contrast of Arthur's battle-honed efficiency of movement and the ragged things he whispers in Merlin's ear sometimes, like a man who's never had a practical thought in his life, will never cease to be thrilling.
They've never done this before--Arthur had stolen Morgana's oil in plain sight of Merlin, when the maids in Morgana's rooms were flustered with Beltane preparations, but he had said nothing for days afterwards. Merlin had not wanted to press, but he has been waiting for the night when Arthur would want this, and he spreads his legs wantonly and arches into Arthur's touch.
Arthur's fingers are slippery when his hand cups Merlin's arse, and though he's a little clumsy at first--he goes too fast, and Merlin feels all the breath rush out of him in a gust--he adjusts his movements quickly, rolling Merlin onto his side, whispering,
"Are you-- Is this--" brokenly in his ear.
"Yes," Merlin says, when Arthur tilts him forward with a hand on his shoulder and his fingers brush something inside Merlin that makes something unknown, sharp but heavy, spark up his spine. "Yes to everything."
Arthur eases inside him slowly, carefully, so unwilling to make anything but a perfect show of this, and Merlin opens his mouth against the bed and pants hot breaths against the sheets, unable to control a short little keen from escaping his lips when Arthur reaches around to take Merlin's cock in his hand.
"Faster, faster," says Merlin, but what he means is At whatever speed you want, and Arthur seems to take it as it is meant, because he keeps his thrusts slow and languorous, licking a stripe up Merlin's neck and panting little groans into the base of Merlin's skull.
"What do you want?" asks Arthur, rolling his hips, and Merlin's fingers scrabble against the corner of a bedpost as he answers,
"Whatever you-- I want what you want. What you want."
"What do you want?" asks Arthur again, as if Merlin hasn't answered, and Merlin, who wants to ask nothing of Arthur but seems to be getting everything he does not want to say without ever having to open his mouth, says,
"This. This. You. I want you."
Merlin spends the next few days in a pleasant haze, serving Sir Blaise with a good-natured ease that has Sir Blaise asking Arthur,
"New manservant, sire?" though Merlin is not sure if he's making a joke or asking in perfect seriousness. He's strange enough for both.
Sir Blaise's departure is set for the end of the week, and the castle steward has already begun overseeing the loading of the carts--five this time, and Merlin mutters lowly to Gwen, They're only coming in four bloody months--are they really going to eat eight joints of meat before then?
Sir Blaise will be taking someone from court with him, too--some sort of complex custom that involves the bride's house welcoming an individual from the groom's court to show hospitality and good will. Merlin, without being prompted, has nominated Caradoc the younger, who has taken advantage of Arthur's newer, looser definition of discipline to the utmost, and has become unbearable as a result.
"Good riddance, I say," says Merlin cheerfully as he serves Arthur lunch in his chambers.
And probably well deserved, he thinks uncharitably about Caradoc's arrival in Cormorant's manor. He wishes they could send both of Sir Caradoc's sons there. Forever.
Merlin's suggestion is--surprisingly--not as popular as logic would dictate it should be. Two days later, when Uther asks for dinner to be laid in one of his larger antechambers, no decision appears to have been made on whom to send. Gwen and Merlin are asked to serve, and when they arrive, they're surprised to find Lucan, Uther's manservant, setting the table alone.
"King Uther wants the three of us only," he says shortly--Lucan is rather taciturn--and Merlin raises his eyebrows at Gwen, who whispers,
"I think this is about Sir Cormorant's request. Morgana says Uther wants to send someone able to negotiate for Camelot, not just a visitor, because Sir Cormorant's lands apparently produce more grain and fruit than what he contributes to the court, and because he's looking to split his land between his older sons. Uther thinks that'll weaken the defences against Mercia, and Morgana says she agrees."
Merlin nods, squirreling the information away. He and Arthur have not discussed this except in jest, when Merlin was suggesting ways to fool Caradoc the younger into volunteering, but Merlin has been trying hard to pick up information about this betrothal, and about the court in general, where he can.
When Uther walks in from his private rooms, only Arthur and Morgana are with him. A few moments later Lucan leads in Rivalen and Gawain, and two of Uther's senior counsellors--Sir Ector and Sir Anselm--follow, bearing sheaves of parchment affixed with Uther's seal.
Gwen raises her eyebrows at Merlin, See? before the two of them head towards the serving table, where Lucan morosely hands Gwen a tureen of soup and passes Merlin a ladle.
Lucan does most things morosely.
They have to keep darting outside to collect the plates left there by the kitchen staff; Uther gave strict instructions that only Lucan, Guinevere and Merlin were to be in the room, and the kitchen has had to prepare two meals, because elsewhere in the castle, Sir Blaise is being entertained by Sir Tristan. Merlin would actually pay--actually pay (if he had anything to pay with, that is)--to gaze upon the spectacle that that will no doubt turn out to be.
He doesn't get to hear everything as they fill and clear plates on the table, but he does gather that Uther is worried, particularly with the wedding so close, and that Sir Ector doesn't think Cormorant's accounts match up entirely. No-one thinks Sir Cormorant's plans to split his lands are a good idea, and Sir Anselm suspects foul play from Sir Cormorant's second son.
"If the lands are divided between Piculet and Dacnis as Cormorant intends, the mountain pass from Mercia will be left vulnerable," says Uther as Gwen and Merlin are bringing in the rabbit, and from the discomfited looks that pass around everyone at the table, Merlin gathers that this is completely undesirable.
"We need to use the opportunity of Cormorant's invitation to the fullest--we must send an envoy that is able to broach these topics with him, and to put forth Camelot's desire in the matter forcefully, but with care."
"Sir Cormorant is eager to split his lands equitably, sire, and he must make the divide at the pass if both pieces of land are to have access to water," says Sir Anselm.
"Then we must make it clear to him that if he is able to wait but a few years, his daughter's position in this court may well facilitate… the arrival of further resources to divide amongst his sons. Passing his current lands to Dacnis as they are would make sense then, Anselm," says Uther.
"Rivalen, Gawain," he continues, turning his attention to the other end of the table, "You are called here today because I believe that either of you would be able communicate Camelot's interests in this matter. If you are fostered with Cormorant as Camelot's envoy, you must tread very carefully--give no indication that we are committed to increasing Cormorant's lands more than we already have, but suggest that we might if it appears that he remains committed to dividing the lands he already owns. Make discreet enquiries where you can--someone in the steward's rooms will probably be able to tell you how much grain Cormorant's lands are producing, and I want the amount compared to the levy he pays and what he has declared. I do not want him aware that we are interested--it will only cause bad blood before August--but I want you to return with the information we need. It's a task that will require great delicacy, and I--"
Uther drifts off, then firms his jaw and turns to Arthur.
"I am still not entirely convinced we should not send you, Arthur. You wouldn't be able to stay, of course, but we require someone who can get the information and assurances we need without giving insult."
Please, don't let us have to ride back to Cormorant's manor with Sir Blaise, thinks Merlin, his mind already picturing the amount of food that will have to be carted just for four days' ride if that's the case. Gwen shoots him a sympathetic look.
"Father," says Arthur, and his voice is very measured, his tone formal. Merlin looks up.
"I wonder, father," says Arthur, "If what we need is not for me to go, but to send someone else who knows this business well, who can act with diplomacy while being able to exert the influence of the royal court to get answers--"
"Yes?" says Uther, squinting from one eye the way he always does when Arthur is raising any sort of new idea with him.
"Perhaps, father--well, I think we have someone extremely suited to the role, particularly if we can send a different person to be fostered, as well. This could be a shorter visit, surely, simply to perform the tasks you have outlined, and we could--father, I think we should send Morgana."
"I'm sorry?" says Uther, looking bewildered, and Arthur repeats,
"I think you should give Morgana leave to go."
"Don't be ridiculous, Arthur," says Uther, glancing around the table, no doubt uncomfortable to be disagreeing in front of others.
Merlin follows his eyes and sees Morgana's knuckles clenched tightly around her utensils, her hands pale from the strain.
"Father," begins Arthur, reasonably, "Sire. You need someone that Cormorant will perceive as non-threatening, but who is wily enough to obtain information that Cormorant's household will not want to part with. You want a royal envoy to communicate your desire that Cormorant not pass his lands on to his sons in parts, without expressly letting him know that it is the king's wish that is being communicated, and without giving indication that you might grant him further lands in the future, though you want both ideas suggested. It's not as if you require a martial man--a clever one will do much better. Morgana has ever been your ambassador in your own court, and properly chaperoned--I suggest Rivalen accompanies her, and remains to be fostered; we can send a small guard with them, and they can accompany Morgana upon her return--I am certain she would be more successful in increasing Camelot's gains elsewhere than anyone else we could hope to send."
Merlin almost can't believe what he's hearing, but he sees straight away that what Arthur is saying is being heard, is having an impact, precisely because it's so unexpected. Sir Anselm and Gawain are already nodding, and Uther's face is hard, but his eyes are assessing.
"Guinevere could accompany Morgana as her handmaiden," Arthur is saying, and his voice is coaxing, "She's shown herself to be loyal and extremely reliable in difficult situations--" Gwen flushes with pleasure, her cheeks dark as the red of Morgana's formal dresses-- "and as you yourself have told me, father, Morgana can be formidable when properly motivated. I am certain she would do her duty to Camelot admirably, especially if she is well accompanied."
Morgana has said nothing--her eyes are on the table, but Merlin can see how tense her shoulders are, how hard she's trying to give the impression that she will be happy with whatever decision Uther makes.
"The Lady Morgana, sire," Sir Ector is saying tentatively, "May well be able to speak to the Lady Elise in private, or to the Lady Cormorant--she could, perhaps, speak to Sir Piculet's wife, and find out if her husband's intent is malicious, as we suspect."
Sending Morgana to collect women's gossip doesn't sound anywhere near as glamourous as what Arthur is suggesting, but it's clearly the right thing to say. Merlin can see the idea growing on Uther as he nods once, then again.
"There is merit in the idea of sending someone they will not expect, but whose diplomatic skills will be a match for theirs," he murmurs, and Morgana's shoulders tremble at the praise. She stays silent, though.
"Very well," says Uther suddenly, coming to a decision as impetuously as he always seems to. "Rivalen, if you are willing, I would have you accompany the Lady Morgana and remain in Cormorant's manor thereafter."
"Of course, sire. It is my pleasure to serve you."
"Morgana," says Uther, and Morgana finally looks up, her face composed. Merlin darts a glance at Gwen, whose mouth is slightly open as she watches. "What do you say?"
"Your highness," she begins, her voice clearer than usual, "It would be my honour and my pleasure to do my duty to my king, and to Camelot."
"It is settled, then," says Uther.
Merlin can see the doubt that remains at the back of Uther's eyes, but the king does not give voice to it.
Uther motions for Lucan to serve him more wine, and he turns to address Sir Anselm,
"You will record the figures for comparison for the Lady Morgana, and discuss with her what she should look for in Cormorant's books."
Sir Anselm and Sir Ector say something in reply, but Merlin can't spare any attention for them because when he looks up, Morgana is staring straight at Arthur, her eyes bright. She holds his gaze for a long moment, her bearing proud and the look in her eyes speaking volumes, before she turns back to her food.
A smile flashes on Arthur's face for an instant, and he jerks his head towards Merlin, who comes forward with the wine.
Merlin wants to whisper something as he bends forward, but he wouldn't know what to say even if he could. The fact that Arthur was willing to suggest that someone else carry out a request the king had clearly intended for him, the fact that he was willing to champion Morgana for the task--it almost defies belief. Merlin has never known Arthur to think of Morgana as anything other than a sister to be protected, someone to be kept away from danger at all costs. He remembers Ealdor, where Arthur had allowed her to carry a sword by his side--they all remember Ealdor--but the four of them had been so young then, so blissfully ignorant of consequence.
After Arthur is married, he will pass into a new role, a role in which he may be able to grant Morgana a greater voice in the court. But by giving Morgana the ability to prove herself to Uther now, in a test that the king cannot dismiss, Arthur is clearly giving her the chance to earn more weight for her voice, and to do so through her own skill. He's pushing aside his concern for her, giving Morgana an opportunity despite his inclination to take the responsibility for Camelot on his own shoulders, and Merlin guesses that that is as much a sacrifice for Arthur as it is a pleasure.
He doesn't think he'll remember, years from now, what he and Gwen served, or even much of what she says to him--whispering excitedly by the serving table, wondering what visiting the border with Mercia will be like when she's only left Camelot two or three times--but he knows he will never forget the sight of everyone exiting the room after the meal.
Uther and his counsellors head for his chambers, and Rivalen to the stables to check the horses, but not before Gawain gives him a small pat on the back. Merlin, Lucan, and Gwen are clearing the tables when Morgana and Arthur walk out behind everyone else, and right before they exit the room, Morgana's hand shoots out, her fingers curling around Arthur's wrist.
She doesn't say anything, but she doesn't take another step--her fingers tighten, and Merlin can see the places where her fingertips are digging into Arthur's skin.
"I can't think of anyone better," says Arthur lowly, though she's said nothing, and something unnamed but clearly significant pulses between the two of them as they stand by the door.
"Come on then, Merlin," says Arthur impatiently after a minute, as if he's already called several times, and Merlin scurries to follow him out.
Three days later they wave Morgana and Gwen off, each on her own horse though a cart has been prepared for them to ride inside if necessary. Guinevere looks ecstatic--she's fighting to keep the grin from her face, but her success is minimal at best--and Morgana is calm and collected as she allows Arthur to help her onto her horse.
"I will return soon, Your Highness, with all that you require," she says to Uther, and he nods at her as she turns her horse, fear and pride warring in his eyes.
With Morgana and Rivalen gone, and Tristan mysteriously absent--rumour has it he's using the last of the cooler weather to seek out unknown places, which everyone understands to mean 'unknown women'--Arthur's free time is split almost equally between Merlin and Gawain.
Merlin counts only daylight hours--most nights, he and Arthur kiss slowly and continuously under sweaty sheets, and he can't think that either of them spares a thought for Gawain then--but there is a slow, hazy quality to the daytime, too, with the three of them riding out almost every other day, to terribly important locations where Gawain and Arthur spar with staffs, or where the three of them skip stones over still water.
Merlin has had a pallet in Arthur's rooms since being appointed manservant to the prince, but for the first year it remained hidden under an odd collection of Arthur's things--a jacket with a sleeve ripped off, some parchment, a spare helmet--and Merlin did not discover it until much later. They're happy for the excuse of it now, though, and it remains prominently displayed in the corner, clearer of litter than it has ever been since it was moved in.
Morgana returns in late June. She, Arthur and Uther sequester themselves in the king's chambers for several hours: when Arthur finally returns to his rooms, Merlin is half-asleep on the pallet, and Arthur shifts him awkwardly onto his feet and deposits him on the bed.
They kiss lazily, Arthur reaching a hand between them to stroke Merlin until he comes, and in the dizzy afterglow Merlin rolls onto his belly and lets Arthur inside him, heat pressing against his skin and Arthur's weight pressing him against the sheets.
To Merlin, the thought of the wedding seems farther away every day, though everywhere he can see evidence of it looming. Chambers are being prepared next to Morgana's, and another small set of rooms is being cleared next to Arthur's. New flowers are being planted in a privy garden behind the courtyard, and the castle carpenter has been commissioned to carve a wooden lattice to surround it.
Summers are always easier than winters, though, and it's hard to remain worried about anything for long when the sun is shining and food is plentiful. There hasn't been a single (natural) drought since Merlin's arrival in Camelot, and when cooler springs blaze into the bright sunshine of summer and the trees and the fields begin showing signs of bearing heavy fruit and golden grain, people are always happier. Arthur rarely has disputes to resolve, or skirmishes to settle--this June is no different.
Gawain and Arthur spend long hours playing chess in Arthur's rooms, until they grow tired of the castle's warm, still air, and Gawain says, "Let's go hunting."
The two of them practically race to the stables, and Merlin follows slowly, stopping to fetch cheese and bread and to let someone know where they're going. When he gets down to the courtyard, his horse is saddled and Gawain and Arthur are already on theirs; Gawain is holding the reins so that Merlin can mount his roan straight away.
As soon as they pass the city boundaries Arthur and Gawain break their horses into a thundering gallop, and Merlin feels every jolt down to his bones as he attempts to keep up. The trees are a bright green blur against the clear blue of the sky, and Merlin feels a rush of exhilaration and terror as his horse stumbles slightly, then regains its footing.
"West woods or north forest?" whoops Gawain from his horse, and Arthur shouts back,
"You decide, Gawain."
Gawain digs his left heel into his horse's flank and steers them north, and Arthur lets him take the lead, keeping his horse a few feet behind.
They crash through the undergrowth and slow their horses down only when the trees get too thick to ride between, but Arthur allows Gawain to pick their course, and follows silently behind him. He rides up to Merlin's horse and runs a warm hand down Merlin's back; he moves away only when Gawain looks around, motioning ahead with one hand. They dismount and tie their horses to a tree near a pool of water, and Merlin follows as quietly as he can as Arthur hands Gawain a crossbow and falls into step behind him.
Merlin has never seen Arthur give someone else such a clear lead while hunting or while on the training ground, and Gawain seems surprised, too, but pleased. He leads them skilfully around a clearing and Merlin begins to see the trail he's following--four years on he's still as hopeless as ever, but he can see where the leaves have been crushed by hooves as animals have passed.
Gawain keeps glancing back at them, and Merlin assumes at first that Arthur has shared with him his philosophy that Merlin must be kept in sight at all times if disaster is not to befall everyone involved. But Gawain's eyes are seeking out Arthur's, not Merlin's, and as they continue to creep forward quietly, Merlin realises Gawain is looking around for approval.
It's the same thing Merlin has seen Arthur do with his father--show off a skill to please him, with an acknowledgment that anything done well is owed to the man who passed on the art in the first place--and it doesn't take Merlin long to understand that Gawain is looking behind to a man he already sees as his king.
Merlin is abruptly proud of something he had little to no hand in, proud of Arthur, and as he watches Arthur give almost imperceptible signs of encouragement, small nods and hand gestures to press Gawain forward, he realises in a rush that he's looking at Arthur differently, too.
His desire to enable Arthur to take small liberties for himself is still there, as is the stalwart, steady throb of his loyalty and love for him, but between the two of them, spreading outwards, is a warm satisfaction at seeing Arthur happy, at simply being beside him. The feeling is more knotted than it's been in the past, tied up with yearning and possession and want, and Merlin puts a hand against a tree to steady himself, waving Arthur off when he turns around inquisitively.
Gawain and Merlin both followed a king here. But Gawain will lead them from the forest towards a wedding that he will rejoice at, as will the rest of Arthur's subjects, while Merlin will follow reluctantly, and try his hardest not to grieve.
They ride home in golden sunlight, a young boar thrown over the back of Gawain's horse and handfuls of mushrooms for Gaius crammed into Merlin's saddlebag. At the edge of the woods, Arthur plucks an unripe apple from a tree, and lobs it hard at Gawain's head as he rides ahead.
Merlin looks towards the distant shadow of the castle, and back at the small white flowers blooming on the trees, and laughs long and hard when Gawain almost falls off his horse.
It doesn't take Merlin long to conclude that being in love is not as carefree an experience as bards would have you believe.
He supposes the circumstances aren't ideal: they're hardly village sweethearts, courting without a worry in the world except for household concerns or the outcome of the harvest from a small parcel of land. All of the kingdom's cares together are Arthur's, something that becomes increasingly clearer as August approaches and Arthur takes up more and more of his usual duties.
There'll be a period after the wedding when everything will be complicated, Merlin supposes, as places are found for new additions to the court and as Arthur settles into a husband's responsibilities. Arthur seems set on completing all the preparation for Camelot's harvests before the hectic month leading up to the wedding arrives, before the Lady Elise comes to court at the beginning of August for what everyone will pretend is a natural, straightforward courtship. Merlin rides out with him every day in July to record the progress of crops around the kingdom. They make note of the villages that have been fortunate so that those whose crops have failed can benefit from redistribution in the long queues that form outside the castle's granaries every year.
The two of them linger in the empty fields on their way back to Camelot, reluctant to return too quickly. Sometimes, as the dusk falls, they dismount and splay out on dry fields, staring up at the clouds as dust settles in the back of their throats with each hot breath. If a careful look reveals that no-one is around, sometimes Merlin kisses Arthur, and Arthur lets him, holding him by the hips and murmuring Merlin against Merlin's mouth.
They're not village sweethearts, and if cares and responsibilities rest even on Merlin's shoulders, there is no counting what that means for the man he has been appointed to serve. Merlin, once so eager for city life that he had walked towards Camelot for days and days with nothing but the clothes on his back, feels now that he would gladly give up Camelot's luxuries and excitements in an instant if it would buy him one truly uncomplicated month with Arthur in one of the kingdom's sleepier hamlets. But he understands that he can feel that only because he has never truly been part of royal life--he has only ever made his place with Arthur, and not truly with the prince. When he looks at Arthur's eyes as he discusses peasants' concerns with them, though, he sees in his gaze the ownership and love of the land that would make it impossible for Arthur to ever want to escape. His people and his birth and his loyalty tie Arthur to the complex life that Merlin has come to resent as fiercely as Merlin's devotion tethers him to Arthur's side. Merlin wishes they could make time for themselves alone, and yet cannot help but love Arthur all the more for his commitment to his kingdom.
They are hardly village sweethearts.
"I know you're not overly fond of monitoring the progress of wheat maturing in the fields, Merlin, but if you insist on looking as if I'm riding you towards a funeral every time, you might as well stay home."
They're both tired and cranky from riding all day, and Merlin's thighs ache from gripping the saddle since dawn, but Merlin merely shuffles parchment into his saddlebag and doesn't rise to the bait.
Arthur is angry because they've just been to three villages where bandits took away most of the planting grain at the beginning of the season, and where the villagers will now struggle to make ends meet as a result. It is very unlikely that anything could have been done about it, since the villagers themselves hadn't reported it--patrols rotate through the different populations, and both good developments and misfortunes are missed every year; it's impossible to be everywhere at once. Arthur always feels, senselessly, as if he could have done something to prevent suffering, and this year the recriminations he's raining down on everyone, from himself to the villages' fitter men, are much worse than usual.
"There's plenty of surplus grain in the storehouses, Arthur," Merlin says calmly, "And they've got more than enough people to fetch it if they need it."
Arthur squints up at the sun and says nothing. He doesn't like having the wind taken out of his sails when he's complaining, but lately he's been better about letting Merlin speak sense without petulantly accusing him of idiocy. They're both … milder towards each other, now, and both are finding it easier to acknowledge their familiarity with the other. This has cut back significantly on arguments where they simply kept going for stubbornness' or appearances' sake.
"Let's not go home tonight," says Merlin, impulsively, and he tells himself that no part of him wants to test whether Arthur will put him above other things.
Arthur looks at him oddly, but says, "Fine?"
"We could go swimming in the waterfall east of here, in the forest where you, uh, killed that stag last year."
"You mean the forest where a spear that I'd thrown extremely poorly suddenly seemed to redirect to exactly where I wanted it to go in midair?" asks Arthur, placidly.
"There were very strong winds that day, Arthur, as I said then," says Merlin, shrugging and fighting a smile, "And sometimes a man just gets lucky."
"Lucky to be saddled with you? Yes--lucky like an arrow to the thigh, maybe," says Arthur, but he's muttering, low, distracted, and indistinct, and he's turning his horse towards the forest already, looking at Merlin hotly.
"We could race there," says Merlin when he catches sight of Arthur's gaze, trying not to think about how tired both their horses are.
"Let's," says Arthur, but when the horses understandably refuse to canter for more than a few metres, he settles for heading towards the trees at a slow trot, bumping his leg against Merlin's as often as he can.
The sun is creeping towards the horizon by the time they pull themselves out of the water, but the day stays hot enough for them to dry while sprawled on a warm rock, and they put their clothes back on reticently. Merlin oversees the lacing of Arthur's breeches, kissing the skin behind his knee and then his belly as Arthur tugs the cloth over his legs, and they eat the bread and cheese and fruit that they have left while sitting next to the water, squinting against the glare of the sun's reflection.
Merlin watches the sun sink beyond the trees, tries not to think of the duties waiting for Arthur back at the castle. He fidgets slightly, torn between wanting to stay here, clutching wet earth under his fingertips and watching the light play on Arthur's face, and between suggesting they head back, as he knows they probably ought to.
"Merlin," says Arthur, quietly, and Merlin turns to look at him straight away.
If Arthur says he thinks they should go back, Merlin will ride next to him as dusk falls, and brush their fingers together, and count them lucky for the few hours they've already spent away. He eats quietly, and after a moment Arthur says,
"There's nothing that won't keep."
Merlin says nothing, but he smiles, and he can feel his muscles uncoiling. He wonders if Arthur saw him tensing, how he knew what Merlin was thinking. The thought that he'd understood exactly what it was makes Merlin feel warm.
Merlin sends a flurry of leaves and petals skating over the water with a look as they finish their meal; they swing upwards in a spiral before he lets them scatter into the wind. The foliage falls gently onto the water, floating for a few minutes before sinking, and Arthur says, quietly,
"I see this forest's unusually strong wind has decided to make a re-appearance."
"Maybe the wind is content," says Merlin, and though he can see Arthur's lips quiver with the urge to laugh at him, he refrains from doing so and simply says,
His eyes are soft.
They sleep tangled under a low-hanging branch, and though the night is unusually warm, that doesn't stop Merlin from curling into Arthur's chest, nose against Arthur's neck as Arthur's hand strokes idly down his back. In the morning, they have to make haste to return to Camelot before they're due to depart for the next village, but not even the sight of men carrying in new draperies for the Lady Elise's rooms is enough to wipe the smile from Merlin's face.
Merlin doesn't know how the notion gets into his head, but he knows what leads him to dismiss it.
He thinks, looking back on it, that it was probably the well-honed instinct for avoiding disaster that he and Arthur have developed over the years that started it. So much of Merlin's first year in the city had consisted of them jumping from the griddle into the fire and back again that the two of them had begun to look for danger even where there hadn't been any. Arthur had stopped travelling without knives strapped to his boot, and Merlin had spent more time learning spells in his cramped bedroom than he had spent sleeping.
The prosperous years since, in which assassins and petty criminals alike seem to have lost heart with each of Arthur's unlikely survivals, have made Merlin complacent. The promise of a better life under Arthur's rule has spread, whispered guiltily but urgently, and the attacks on a man that had previously been seen only as Uther's firstborn have dwindled into nothing. But Merlin thinks it's the lessons learned in those days that make him take notice now, that make him look across the room at Arthur one day and think, Unless you do something, this has no way to end but badly.
He thinks that he wedding bells will leave something broken behind them when they stop pealing (then scoffs at himself for making it sound as if the two of them are protagonists in a miserable bard's ballad). He knows better than to think that anything will prevent the heavy pain of it, but he does think that perhaps there are ways to decrease the damage.
When Arthur tries to talk to him about it one night, no doubt trying to set down lines as justly and kindly as he knows how, Merlin barely listens, already thinking of what he can do to make it easier on himself, on both of them.
"Merlin," Arthur begins, and Merlin gives an interested mmh from where he's polishing Arthur's chainmail.
"Merlin, I wanted to say-- I wanted to ask," Arthur continues, and Merlin looks up at the odd sound of uncertainty in Arthur's voice and focuses his attention on him completely.
"I've been thinking. About--the end of August," and Merlin is suddenly sure he knows what Arthur is about to say, because he's once again taken up every single one of his patrols, and he's settling happily back into a rigid routine that had once seemed completely familiar to Merlin, and now feels foreign and unwelcome. He seems to be tying up loose ends, and Merlin knows that Arthur would not want to hurt him, and probably wants him to be prepared.
"Yes, well," says Merlin, trying to keep his voice light, "Obviously everything will have to go back to--will have to be as it once was. I know that better than anyone, Arthur; don't worry."
Arthur face looks slightly confused--his eyebrows are pulled together in a little knot of surprise--and Merlin's happy to have given the impression that he is more ready for what's coming than Arthur evidently expected him to be.
Arthur looks at him for a long moment, opens his mouth almost as if he wants to say something else. After an instant he snaps it shut and nods.
"Yes--yes, of course. I'm glad, Merlin."
It's that short conversation that does it, probably, that makes Merlin think--truly think, keeping his focus on the thought for a period of time--about everything that is coming, and makes him conclude that he must do what he can to avoid circumstances catching him completely unawares.
Whereas before he'd made an effort to finish his other tasks as quickly as he could to be free for whatever Arthur had planned, in the next few days Merlin lingers over his duties, drawing his time with other people out. He helps Gwen direct merchants who have come in to take orders for cloth for Morgana's new winter dresses. When he smiles at the kitchen maids and makes an effort to laugh at the stableboys' teasing conversation, trying hard to keep himself from wondering what Arthur is doing, he tells himself that he's doing exactly what needs to be done.
He catches Arthur looking at him once or twice, assessingly, but Arthur says nothing. When Merlin comes to him in the evenings he seems pleased when Merlin tells him what he's been doing all day, almost as if he understands what Merlin is trying to do.
When Darlene, who is now being groomed to become Hilda's replacement, asks him to help her bring in a bolt of cloth that has been recently delivered, Merlin says yes immediately, thankful to have something to do. She's surprisingly pleasant when she's not too busy blushing to speak, and Merlin has made an effort to chat with her in the corridors when they have met over the past few months.
The two of them struggle with the tall roll of velvet, not too heavy but extremely unwieldy, and Merlin laughs as she precedes him up the stairs and almost falls over as she walks backwards away from him.
"Very skilful, Darlene," he says teasingly, and she blushes high in her cheeks but does not stammer when she replies,
"Yes, thank you," chuckling through her words.
They stumble their way down the corridor and to the tailor's rooms, and Merlin smiles when Darlene thanks him, brushing her sweaty hair away from her face with one hand.
Merlin turns to leave, but Darlene calls him back. She asks him how preparations for the wedding are going. Merlin tries not to let his face harden at the mention of it, but he doesn't think he's successful--Darlene simply changes the subject swiftly, though, telling him about Froille's latest exploits; the tailor is supposed to be fitting all the knights for new livery, and it's apparently not going well at all.
She does not mention August again.
They're laughing together, leaning against a wall in the corner of the workshop, and Merlin feels light with the knowledge that he's actually enjoying this, that he's happy here, laughing with someone else without his mind immediately turning to Arthur. Darlene reveals that she can impersonate Froille, and when Merlin finally convinces her to show him, she turns out to be so uncannily good at it, hand gestures and all, that Merlin ends up bent double, laughing so hard he has to clutch his stomach.
She's leaning into him, chortling so much between words that she can barely speak, and when she places a gentle hand on his forearm to steady herself Merlin smiles at her affectionately.
"Merlin," he hears from the doorway.
When he turns, he finds Arthur decked out in his sparring armour, a helmet tucked under his arm where he's leaning against the door.
"Sorry, sire," he says, composing himself. "Do you need me for something?"
When Arthur nods Merlin shoots an apologetic glance at Darlene, waving quickly as he ducks out the door and follows Arthur to his chambers.
When Merlin walks in Arthur is already unbuckling his vambraces, looking out the window.
He's surprised when Arthur turns sharply from depositing them on the table, a small scowl drawing his lips downwards.
"Arthur?" Merlin asks, and Arthur sighs once before looking at him directly.
"Merlin," he begins reluctantly, and Merlin's chest clenches with the thought of what he may be about to say.
He doesn't dare say anything himself.
"I know," Arthur continues-- "I know there are certain things I cannot ask you. That I would not like to ask you, that is," he corrects himself.
"Arthur?" Merlin repeats, uncertain.
"But. I would be thankful if you would wait. It-- It would mean something to me, if you would wait for September."
Merlin nods. He doesn't understand what Arthur means, but Arthur seems to be looking to him for reassurance, for confirmation.
"I know that things are bound to change, Merlin, that we have an understanding only for-- No. What I mean to say is: I know that you want to give me something, for this year. That you've wanted to help. And I know that I cannot ask you to extend what-- what you have offered, but I would be grateful if you would wait. Until the wedding."
Merlin scrambles to think what Arthur could be referring to. They'd spent the night before tangled in Arthur's bed, and they had not seen each other in the morning until Arthur had walked into the tailor's rooms where Merlin had been talking with Darlene--
"Oh," says Merlin, understanding what Arthur means, now. He thinks of what it might have looked like, he and Darlene leaning into each other and laughing, her face flushed.
Wait, Arthur is saying. Allow me to have this until September.
And though Merlin had had a plan--a vague one, but a plan nonetheless--to wean himself off Arthur as carefully as he could in the lead-up to his bride's arrival, there is no question that if Arthur asks this of him, if he asks Merlin not to do what he'd intended in order protect himself, Merlin will do it happily.
"Of course, Arthur," he says. "And--I don't. That wasn't what it may have looked like."
This is Arthur, after all, who dislikes change intensely and probably wants nothing about this year to shift until it has to.
"Of course," he repeats. "I want you to be happy, Arthur. Whatever you want."
At the sound of that Arthur's lips turn down for a moment, but then he nods and says,
"Thank you." Then, "Help me get this chainmail off, will you?"
"Have you ever continued to do something that you weren't sure about, even though you knew it couldn't end well?" Merlin asks Gaius when the two of them are gathering herbs at dawn a few days later.
Gaius stops, thinking for a long moment. He never gives advice without mulling it over first, and Merlin feels an intense rush of affection for him as they stand there under the lightening sky.
He misses him, abruptly, even though he's standing right there. They haven't seen anywhere near as much of each other as they usually do, in the past few months. Gaius has had an apprentice for over a year now--a true apprentice, someone with a skill for healing that Uther found himself--and recently Merlin has been scampering to keep up with Arthur, first with his exploits and then with, well, theirs. Merlin's hardly spent a night in his old room in months, though Gaius, like everyone else, seems unsurprised that Merlin has finally begun sleeping where he's supposed to, where he can attend to whatever Arthur needs in the night. Even the dour-faced Lucan, who has slept on a hard pallet with a scratchy woollen blanket at the corner of Uther's rooms for as long as Merlin has been in Camelot, had smiled approvingly at Merlin when he'd learned that Merlin had begun to spend his nights in Arthur's rooms.
"Yes," says Gaius finally, the sound of his voice wrenching Merlin's attention back to the clearing where they're working.
His eyes have shadows in them--dragons and births and deaths, Merlin knows--but he smiles at Merlin, amusement making his face crinkle.
"Doubts again, Merlin?" he asks teasingly.
The two of them have hatched a million future plans, and talked destiny to the ground so often, that Merlin's uncertainties are almost a private joke between them, now.
Merlin thinks of Arthur's face, of the deep grooves on the sides of his face when he laughs, of his flyaway hair and unexpectedly endearing voice in the early hours of the morning.
"No, I suppose not," he says, smiling, and Gaius smiles gently back.
In mid-July a rider comes in from the Mercian border, dusty and mud-spattered, and though his voice is steady when he asks to see the king at once, Merlin can hear the urgency in his voice. He drops the brush that he's holding and pats Arthur's horse's flank once before saying,
He leads the man to Uther's chambers, and after a few minutes Uther calls him in.
"Merlin," he says, and Merlin starts a little at the use of his name. Uther always manages to make it sound threatening. "Fetch Morgana and Arthur at once."
Merlin heads straight for Arthur's rooms; when he sees Gwen milling about at the castle's entrance, he whistles softly to catch her attention and mouths, Uther wants Morgana when she looks up. She nods, and the two of them hurry down different hallways.
Merlin intends to stay and listen--whether through careful eavesdropping or outright artifice, he doesn't care--but Arthur asks him to prepare his horse, and Merlin doesn't want Arthur to emerge from the room in a few minutes only to find Merlin crouched in the corridor with the horse still unsaddled, so he goes reluctantly.
"What do you think is going on?" he asks Gwen as the two of them head back towards the courtyard, and she replies,
"I don't know. Morgana says it looks like Sir Cormorant has decided to split his lands again, despite agreeing not to earlier this year. I can't think Uther is pleased, if he's gone ahead and done it without at least informing him."
Merlin wonders what it would mean, if that were truly what has happened.
He saddles the horse and lays out Arthur's cloak in his rooms, but as he's heading back towards Uther's chambers he's intercepted by a pageboy who tells him Arthur won't be riding out after all, and asks that Merlin unsaddle his horse straight away.
Merlin rushes to the stables and does it as quickly as possible, but then Balen has a question about Arthur's armour, and when Merlin is finished at the armoury, he runs into Sir Anselm and Gawain. They want to know roughly how many sacks of grain will have to be prepared for distribution, based on what Merlin and Arthur observed in their trips around the countryside, and Merlin has to hunt for the parchment on which he and Arthur scribbled it down.
By the time he heads back to Arthur's rooms from the council chamber the sun is sinking out of view, and he fetches food for the two of them and waits for Arthur to come back, certain he'll catch nothing of the conversation in Uther's rooms even if he hurries there now.
When Arthur comes home his face is tight and worried, and when Merlin asks what it is, Arthur hesitates before answering.
"Cormorant has divided his lands," he begins.
He looks at Merlin for a moment and then looks around the room, almost as if he's unsure of what to say next. Merlin nods encouragingly, but Arthur's attention seems to be elsewhere.
"There's been a problem with his sons," he continues, finally. "Piculet wasn't happy with the distribution of the lands. There's unrest; my father isn't happy."
What will happen now? he wants to ask, but when he looks at Arthur, he looks so deeply unhappy that Merlin dare not say anything that might make it worse.
He steps towards him, uncertain whether Arthur wants him near--he is affectionate in private, and much more tactile than Merlin would have expected, but he still resents any attempt at comfort.
Arthur's hand reaches out, though, and Merlin presses close, one leg tucked between both of Arthur's.
"Arthur," he says, but before he can say, It'll be all right, Arthur grabs clumsily at the back of his tunic and brings him forward, their teeth and lips colliding painfully as Arthur angles him for a kiss.
"Mmph," Merlin mutters against Arthur's mouth.
Arthur's tongue is parting his lips and the hand that isn't pulling Merlin in is scrabbling at the bottom of his tunic, so Merlin reaches down to pull his tunic up and off, and Arthur barely waits until Merlin has wriggled free before he's walking him back towards the bed.
Arthur is barely treading the line between hungry and desperate, his fingernails scratching against Merlin's back, and Merlin shifts his hips to get his breeches off and gets to work on Arthur's clothes, unlacing and tearing a few stitches at the hem as he tries to match Arthur's haste.
He kisses Arthur's mouth, then his jaw, but when he moves to kiss Arthur's chest and then his belly, Arthur tucks his hands under Merlin's arms and pulls up, saying simply,
Merlin kisses him, and it's sloppy and uncoordinated, Arthur's tongue catching the corner of his mouth and slipping out to wet Merlin's cheek. Merlin surges up towards him and moans, feeling hot and frantic and scared all at the same time.
Arthur presses him down onto the mattress--he twists roughly at Merlin's nipple, palms his hip, mouths his cock and then moves back up to kiss him as if he can't decide what he'd rather do. Merlin tries to gentle him, but the speed and force of it are exhilarating, and a few seconds in he gives up, going limp against Arthur's arms and moulding himself to the way Arthur is moving against him.
Merlin goes to turn over, but Arthur grips his hips and keeps him as he is, hooking his elbows under Merlin's knees and pushing him up further onto the bed. He bends his head and Merlin tenses in pleasure, almost as if Arthur's mouth is already on him. When Arthur licks a stripe down his cock and nuzzles at Merlin's balls before curling his tongue over Merlin's skin and into him, Merlin gives a little wail and arches up off the bed.
"Arthur," he says urgently, because though it's Arthur that's choosing what to do, it's clear that he's somehow taking his cues from Merlin, doing everything Merlin wants before Merlin can even think to ask for it.
Arthur's hand scrabbles against the sheets and Merlin stretches to reach the bottle of oil, pressing it into Arthur's palm. A second later two of Arthur's fingers join his tongue, and Merlin twists down, moaning; Arthur does the same, his lips trembling against Merlin's skin.
Arthur curls his fingers upward and then moves away, and Merlin pants desperately, eyes unfocussed as he looks up at the beams of Arthur's ceiling.
Arthur is shuffling, shifting awkwardly against Merlin, and Merlin cants his hips and mutters, "Now, now, Arthur, now," trailing into incoherence when Arthur runs an oil-slick hand up and down Merlin's cock, gripping tightly and just right.
When Arthur shifts upwards for a kiss Merlin gives it, impatiently, and when Arthur reaches down, he thinks Finally, unable at first to understand what Arthur is doing when Arthur grips the base of Merlin's cock and scrambles upwards on the bed, one knee on either side of Merlin's hips.
Merlin thinks, Breathe, breathe, doesn't realise he's said it out loud until Arthur chuckles lowly, throwing his head back as he lowers himself onto Merlin's cock, grunting softly as they slide together.
Merlin doesn't know where to look: at the sweat beading on Arthur's forehead, at the soft, pink o of his mouth, at the pull of muscles across his stomach as he moves up and down, at the place where he and Merlin are joined together, sliding slickly against each other with a wet, wonderful sound.
"I can't. I can't--" Merlin pants.
Arthur moves more quickly, one hand reaching for his cock until Merlin bats it away and does his best to touch Arthur with limbs that feel completely unconnected from his body, sparking pleasure making him feel as if he's forgotten how to make use of his joints.
"I can't," he repeats--I can't wait; I can't think; I can't leave you--and Arthur twists his body downwards, laughs, says, almost as if Merlin has asked if it's okay to fall apart under his hands,
"That's exactly what I want."
The castle seems oddly quiet to Merlin the next day. He still feels so dizzy with the memory of the night before that he chalks it up to his own inability to hear or see or even think straight.
In the afternoon, Arthur collects him from the kitchens and the two of them ride out to the fields adjacent to the city and walk aimlessly between the stalks of wheat, weaving between them with their hands joined.
Merlin doesn't really bother to listen for the sound of footsteps approaching; he simply trusts Arthur to look out for them, as he always does.
Arthur is overseeing the maintenance of the city's fortifications, and when he and Merlin are not walking the perimeter so that Arthur can direct the workmen, who continue making repairs diligently even in the unforgiving heat, Merlin finds other reasons to be out of the castle. He picks up what Arthur needs from the merchants in the city, and gratefully does the steward's bidding, picking up accounts from the traders before the harvest arrives.
They leave the castle at dawn and Merlin returns at dusk, scurrying down the corridors straight to Arthur's chambers. Three days speed by, marked only by the wet sound of mortar patted onto the walls and the constant shift from blazing sunlight to cool darkness as Merlin ducks into shop after shop. Each time they fall into Arthur's bed, the night seems to stretch out before them.
Then the sun rises an instant later, and the illusion is gone.
Two days later the heat turns suddenly, sharply unbearable, and when Gawain comes to find them in Arthur's rooms, saying simply, "River?" Merlin nods gratefully as Arthur stands up, peeling his sweaty back away from his chair.
They ride as quickly as they can without breaking the horses, trying to create an artificial breeze through determination alone. Gawain's hair has grown to his shoulders since he had it shorn it at Easter, and he sighs contentedly when the damp curls lift away from his neck and into the wind.
They unsaddle the horses with their eyes already on the water--Merlin cinches the saddle tighter rather than loosening it before he realises what he's doing, the cool water so close he can almost feel it on his skin. When Gawain splashes in with a joyful yell, Merlin hopes he won't break an ankle in his haste.
They float, belly-up, clinging to the reeds to stop themselves from drifting, though the heat seems to have slowed the river current to a lazy, swirling, drift.
None of them suggest it, but they linger in the water as long as possible, and when they finally drag themselves out through the mud, fingers pruned and Arthur's hair slicked down onto his forehead like a drowned rat's, it's clear that no-one has any intention of riding back to the city that night.
"It's almost August," Merlin says wistfully, and Gawain looks at him oddly before saying, teasingly,
"Usually the state of affairs at the end of July, yes."
Merlin waves him off rudely, trying to remember that there's no possible way that Gawain can understand what he means. When he looks up, though, Gawain is inexplicably looking at Arthur suspiciously, almost reproachfully.
Arthur turns his head away.
Gawain shakes his head, and before Merlin can ask what the matter is, he stands up, knees creaking, and unties the woven net with which he'd trapped four fish earlier from the branch to which he'd tied it, dangling the fish in the water to keep them cool.
Arthur starts a fire, shielding Merlin with his body so that Merlin can light it when it becomes clear that Arthur's having no success striking the flints, and they burn the fish on it because none of them are very good at roasting things over open fires.
Merlin scalds his fingers and his tongue on the hot meat, smears grease on his lips and licks it up with the delight of the summer's day bubbling in his chest.
Gawain and the rest of the knights have managed to spirit away a barrel of strong plum wine from the kitchens, and when he brings out a skin filled with it, they drizzle it down their throats like water, passing it between them as they lie on the ground. When they finally stop, sated and content, Merlin turns on his side to watch the last of the fire die out, twigs cracking protestingly in what remains of the fire's glow.
Gawain's eyelids are drooping, seemingly heavier every time he blinks. Merlin is drifting off, too, staring at Gawain across the fire, when he feels an arm creep over his hip and around his waist. He stays as still as he can--he doesn't know if Arthur knows Gawain's awake--and does his best not to tense, or move aside.
Gawain's eyes are alert in the shadows, and he doesn't look away, not even when Merlin forces a small, "Arthur," past his dry throat.
Arthur doesn't move, either--he only nuzzles at Merlin's neck, tentatively, his face hidden from Gawain's. Arthur's arm is tense, though, and Merlin realises he must know Gawain is watching, must be choosing to do this in front of him.
Merlin feels something crumble inside him; he relaxes into Arthur's arms, but thinks, This was something different only as long as it was only ours. This was meant to be Arthur's, shared with no-one else, but in Gawain's steady gaze Merlin feels it reduced to one more thing that Arthur has tried this year, one more thing he has taken up to the entertainment or approval of others, only to be left aside when September comes, whether by necessity or choice.
He understands why Arthur has to do it now, with the wedding so close, regardless of whether he wants to. There is no knowing if anyone has found out about this, despite what they might think, no knowing if someone will decide to tell, if they know, and by showing it freely to Gawain Arthur is taking away its power to be used against them, is turning it into one more thing he tested to see if he could get away with it.
"Merlin," whispers Arthur against his ear, and then says, slightly louder,
"Good night, Gawain."
"Good night, Arthur. Good night, Merlin," Gawain answers.
Merlin looks directly at him, and Gawain smiles kindly, genuinely. Something aches high in Merlin's chest, and he feels a little cold despite the heat and the weight of Arthur's arm, warm around his middle. But he also thinks, unexpectedly, This means someone else will remember.
The knowledge of that is worth much more than Merlin would have thought.
Arthur wakes Merlin up with slow kisses on the Monday that he starts up his regular training sessions again, and Merlin drags himself clumsily from the bed to help Arthur put on his partial armour and his sword belt.
The sun is high in the sky when Merlin hears the familiar sound of Arthur's voice counting off from the courtyard--One. Two, and parry. Three, and feint--and it's odd to hear his higher pitch instead of Tristan's good-natured grumble or Perceval's low, steady, drone. It's not that Arthur hasn't done this at least once a week this year, but the knowledge that he'll do it every day again from now on makes Merlin realise how used he's gotten to the variation.
Arthur eventually moves the knights from the courtyard to the fields, and Merlin brings Arthur's second sword and shield out to him before he asks, trying to avoid him shouting his customary, "Whenever you see fit, Merlin!" over the wall.
He's putting the sword down on the rack when Rivalen jostles his shoulder, stopping to steady Merlin when he sways and saying,
"Sorry, Merlin," with a rueful little twist of his lips.
"When did you get back?" asks Merlin, double-taking at the sight of him.
"Last week," says Rivalen with a smile, but just then Arthur calls loudly,
"Rivalen, we all know your mother won't let you leave the house until she's served you your breakfast and watched you clear the plate, but anytime you'd like to join us …"
Rivalen raises his hand in a second apology to Merlin and jogs up to the ranks on the field, muttering something about shodding horses and inadequate fires at the smithy's. When Merlin continues to stare fixedly at him, Gawain lifts a finger discreetly to indicate Merlin to Arthur, but Arthur only turns around for a moment, waving off whatever Gawain says to him, too low for Merlin to hear.
Merlin watches for a few more minutes, then departs to deliver Gaius' medicines for him. Though the apprentice that Uther brought in to learn under Gaius has proven much more adept at actually making the draughts and unguents than Merlin ever was--he breaks, on average, about two glass beakers fewer than Merlin did a day, which is to say none--Merlin still likes to help where he can.
When he returns to pick up Arthur's armour after completing the rounds, the knights are gone. Merlin is heading away from the field with Arthur's things when he catches sight of Gawain and Arthur standing under a copse of trees at the top of the field.
He's heading towards them when he realises they're arguing, Gawain's face screwed up in confusion and Arthur's set in his characteristic stubborn glower, and Merlin catches,
"Why should I say anything, when nothing good is likely to come of it, Gawain?" on the wind.
Merlin inches closer as stealthily as he can, which of course means that Gawain catches sight of him immediately. For a moment it almost looks as if he'll continue speaking as if Merlin weren't there, but in the end he flicks his eyes away from Arthur and towards Merlin, and Arthur turns, going quiet immediately.
"I came to get your things," says Merlin, unnecessarily, and Arthur looks at it all piled in his arms before he comes forward and takes the shield and both swords, the heaviest things Merlin is carrying.
"Come on then," he says amiably, and they all begin to walk towards the castle.
Merlin glances inquisitively at Gawain, whose typically open face is unusually mulish, but Gawain gives a tiny shake of his head, something in his face somehow communicating, Later. He doesn't say anything out loud.
Merlin is just beginning to believe that he might have imagined the look on Gawain's face in the sparring field when he appears in Gaius' rooms, saying,
"Uh--I need Merlin?" as he stands awkwardly by the door.
Gaius arches an eyebrow at Merlin, as if to say, If this is another one of your mishaps, I don't want to know, and Merlin shoots him an insincere smile, designed to make Gaius as nervous as possible, as he heads towards Gawain. Gaius can see straight away what he's trying to do, obviously--there's no making him sweat for fun anymore--but he laughs and shakes his head, clearly amused, as Merlin and Gawain shuffle out.
Gawain walks slightly ahead of him. He's heading towards the stables with his head down, looking almost as if he's having to convince himself that this is the right thing to be doing. Merlin doesn't push. He follows silently, though when Gawain sequesters them in the stall right at the back of the building, he looks around uneasily and hopes Gawain's Later wasn't, unbeknownst to Merlin, followed by a silent I will beat you violently.
"Merlin," says Gawain, and Merlin answers, because he senses Gawain needs a minute,
"The truth is, Merlin," he says, and Merlin tries to smile encouragingly, "that I'm not sure we should be discussing this at all. I'm certain Arthur wouldn't want me to say it, and--"
"Gawain, don't tell me anything he doesn't want me to know," Merlin interrupts in a rush.
He wants to know what's happening, but not at the expense of Arthur's trust.
"The thing is," Gawain repeats slowly, "that I'm certain Arthur wouldn't want me to say it, and yet I feel as if it would be better for him--for you both--if I did, regardless of what he thinks."
Merlin nods, trying to convey that he'll hear Gawain out for now (but unwilling to say so out loud), and Gawain lets his breath out in one long rush. He says,
"Arthur isn't very good at saying what he's thinking," and Merlin raises his eyebrows--You don't have to tell me that--as he goes on.
"I just … Merlin, you must know that he has to have a queen eventually," and Merlin thinks, Uther's giddy aunt, please no, because it's clear that Gawain is trying to--to give him a speech that he and Arthur have skipped by mutual agreement.
"--but given a choice, he would choose the sort of person who … understood, which I hope you know," Gawain is saying.
"I think he knows that you know that. But perhaps what-- Well, it might be more important if you knew …. But he's not going to say it to you, Merlin, partly because he thinks you don't want to hear it, which if I'm understanding correctly, you do--"
Merlin doesn't know what Gawain wants him to say. Of course he knows that there's no escaping Arthur having a queen, knows Sir Cormorant and his wife and daughter are due any day now, and of course he would like he and Arthur to speak about it, though he knows they won't. Merlin doesn't know if either of them has it in him to.
Gawain has always been a peacemaker, the sort of man that will take a punch that's not intended for him to stop two other men from fighting, and Merlin is thankful for the fact that he's trying to help them, in his way. What he wants more than anything right now, though, is for Gawain to finish saying whatever it is he wants to say, so that they can both leave and so that Merlin doesn't have to think about this again.
"I don't know what he intends to tell you on Friday, when something you're not expecting happens," Gawain says, earnestly, and Merlin is too horrified by Friday to think about unexpected.
"But what I'm trying to say is-- Merlin, are you listening to me?"
Merlin nods, lying.
"He's afra--he's uncertain," Gawain corrects himself. "He's uncertain about other things, but not about this--not about how he feels, Merlin. Not about this -- about what he wants from this thing between you. But he's not going to be the one to say it, obviously. And in some odd way he's convinced himself that it's … the circumstances, and not him, that you're reacting to, so he won't even tell you about what's changed there, won't risk hearing what he thinks you'll say, though of course you won't. And you should bear that in mind, if things are difficult at week's end."
Gawain is not unlike Arthur: they were both born into privilege, and they're both charismatic and funny, with features that draw peoples' eyes and broad shoulders that inspire confidence. Awkward is not a look that Merlin is used to seeing on either of them, but Gawain looks a second away from running to the forest to live among wild animals if it will get him away from Merlin in this moment.
He's clearly making an effort, though, however misguided, so Merlin tries to disentangle what he's just said, tries to do Gawain's discomfort justice by hearing him out.
Arthur may be uncertain about dozens of things, Merlin thinks Gawain is saying, but not about his responsibilities, though he's unlikely to say it to Merlin outright. He knows Merlin has been with him every moment of this strange year, even before Merlin had any real understanding of it, and he's perhaps unwilling to be the one to say that it all has to change now. He cares--Merlin knows that. And he's possibly afraid that Merlin might disagree with him or say he's upset by it, though of course Merlin won't.
He will be--more than upset--but he won't add to Arthur's concerns by saying it. To do that would go against the very reasons why they'd chosen to do this in the first place. And things will be difficult when the Lady Elise arrives--Merlin can't begin to imagine what he'll do, and he's already thought about asking for Arthur's leave to visit his mother for a few days--but Gawain is saying that Merlin should bear in mind that Arthur cares, that he does not mean to hurt him. It's unnecessary advice, if well meaning.
Merlin already knows.
"Do you see what I'm saying, Merlin?" Gawain asks, his eyes intent, and Merlin says, unable to hide all of his despondence,
"Yes, Gawain--I see."
Gawain's brow furrows.
"But then, why are you--"
"Gawain," says Merlin heavily, feeling that he owes it to him to be honest, considering how hard he's tried to share something with Merlin that he thought Merlin didn't know.
"Of course I know what you're saying. Of course things will change when Arthur gets married, and of course he won't want to say that--he might not even know how to. But I--I love him," Merlin forces out, feeling his cheeks heat and his eyes prickle at the corners. "That won't change, though of course I'll never do anything to make things harder for him than they already are. I know what he has to do."
"Good," says Gawain, sounding relieved, but then his face creases comically and he says, "No, wait--when he gets married…? You won't do--? Merlin, that's not what I--"
He cuts himself off abruptly, then gives a curt little shrug, laughing a little.
"You know, I see why you two have always been such a good match," he says, smiling ruefully. "And I'm certain everything will work out. Thank you for hearing me out, Merlin."
"You're welcome," says Merlin, not quite knowing why he's saying it--but it's only polite.
The smell of mud and hay and horse seems to have filtered into Merlin's clothing in the few (granted, interminable) minutes that he and Gawain spent in the stables. Merlin would normally think nothing of it, but he doesn't need a reminder of the conversation tickling his nostrils when he'll have trouble clearing it from his mind as it is. He scrubs at his face and his neck at the pail Gaius keeps in his rooms, replaces both his tunic and his shift, and heads to Arthur's rooms to air yesterday's clothing, and the bed.
When Arthur comes in, cheeks flushed from whatever he's been doing but smile soft the minute he catches sight of Merlin, Merlin thinks of Gawain, of his earnest, open face. In that moment he feels a heavy, pervasive fondness for both of them, the stupid lumbering oafs, because they both clearly don't want to see him hurt.
When Arthur kisses him, later, the two of them spread out on the bed, Merlin clings shamefully but can't bring himself to care. He wraps both legs around Arthur's; he twines his fingers tight in Arthur's hair; he twists their tongues together.
Arthur is clearly a little bewildered, but pleased. He keens into Merlin's mouth and Merlin screws his eyes shut, mapping the shape of Arthur's shoulders with his hands.
He opens his eyes and commits the planes of Arthur's face, relaxed like this, to memory; he spends a minute admiring the oddly high arch of his foot, and works his tongue into the groove where his leg meets his hip, tracing the curve of the muscle.
He breathes from Arthur's mouth as they move together, skin sliding on skin, silken-soft but sweaty, too, and it's perfect, bittersweet.
Merlin memorises everything, making this one time completely about what he wants, what he needs, about keeping the memory of Arthur's soft sounds locked away for the future, about keeping the feel of his skin stored in his fingertips.
Arthur pushes into him, seemingly as eager as Merlin, whose toes are curling with want, and Merlin thinks, This is for remembering.
The last three days before the Lady Elise's arrival are torturous for Merlin.
He avoids everything and everyone, wanting to hear nothing about what everyone's clearly lying in expectation of, wanting to keep the fiction of constancy alive for himself, if only for a few more hours.
Inevitably there comes a time when he has to come back to the castle, when he runs out of errands to run and herbs to collect (Gaius' shelves are stocked twice over, now, and that's not even Merlin's job anymore).
Merlin tiptoes around the corridors, wary of seeing or hearing something he'd rather not.
When he walks past the kitchen to see Mayda and her friends standing beside Annis, Rowena, and Brimlad, the memory of walking in to see the group of them clustered together just like this at the beginning of the year hits him like a kick to the chest.
He shakes his head a little, to clear the odd sense of disjuncture between the memory and the sight of them now, just in time to hear Mayda say,
"It's a pity, I tell you--it would have been wonderful. I'm sure it would have been brilliant, both the celebration and after--they say she loves to dance, not like the Lady Morgana. She always acts as if she's got more important things to do, and that's no fun. I'm sure the Lady Elise would have made the court much more joyful--you never know, the king might even have smiled."
It's not really an appropriate thing to say, and certainly nothing you'd want to have Uther overhear, but they all seem to agree--even Annis nods in unhappy agreement.
"Still … it was nice while it lasted," says Brimlad, cheerfully, and they all laugh a little.
"And it's not as if they won't find someone else to marry him off to soon enough," adds Mayda, matter-of-factly.
They nod again; one or two of them give heavy sighs.
This is just the sort of conversation he has been daydreaming about overhearing while wandering aimlessly in the city, and he's--wisely, he thinks--extremely reluctant to jump to conclusions. This said, there are very few ways to interpret what he's just heard, other than taking it to mean that Arthur is not getting married.
He walks down the corridors, which are oddly empty of servants preparing for Sir Cormorant's family's arrival. When he peeks into the rooms besides Arthur's to find them empty, the draperies half removed from the walls and the new linens folded neatly into trunks, he spins and thunders down the halls to Morgana's chambers. The memory of what it had felt like, running to Arthur's rooms a year ago when he had thought just the opposite--that Arthur was getting married--is sharp and jagged in his chest, but that only makes him run faster.
"Guinevere," he pants, bracing himself against the doorway, and she looks up quickly from mending Morgana's hose.
"Merlin!" she says, rushing over. "Are you all right?"
"The Lady Elise," he babbles, incoherently, but Gwen only cocks her head and says,
"Yes--it's terrible, isn't it?"
"What's terrible?" asks Merlin, a little louder than he'd intended, and Morgana comes out from behind a screen and says, bitterly,
"That a woman's fate can be so subject to men's whimsy, Merlin, that's what's terrible."
She sits at her looking glass and begins to brush her hair with even, efficient strokes, and Merlin gathers from the stiffness of her posture that as far as she's concerned, the fact that Merlin is a man means he's implicit in the blame.
"I've not been in the castle much in the past few days, Morgana," he begins carefully, and when she turns towards him he looks at her beseechingly, then moves his eyes to Gwen's. "And Arthur and I have not really had a chance to speak."
The latter is a lie--they spoke this morning, and the night before, but Merlin is willing to wait until he finds out what's happened before he focuses on anything else.
Morgana's face softens from ice-locked to merely frosty, and she says,
"Cormorant chose to ignore Uther's advice, which you probably know. He divided his lands equally between his sons, and declared his intentions to have his titles split between them upon his death. Elise's younger brother, Piculet, who we knew had been selling the surplus from his father's harvest for his own profit, betrayed his father as soon as Cormorant had pressed seal to parchment. He's never looked kindly on his older brother, who would have by rights inherited the entirety of the lands and titles, if Cormorant had not tried his best to be just.
He chased Dacnis out of his lands with the help of his brother's own men, whom he has been paying for months, and he has confined his parents, his sister, and his two youngest brothers to a cottage in the corner of the easternmost estate."
Merlin listens, wide-eyed at the thought of so much greed, forgetting for the moment about what this means for Camelot, and for him. He can't believe someone would turn on his family like that, but Morgana appears to be taking the tale completely in stride.
"He's not yet found a new groom for his sister, I don't think. But he's no doubt bound to as soon as he is able. I do not think he wishes to turn his allegiance from Camelot--for our sake, I hope he does not wish to plight his troth to Bayard. However, he knows Uther will not welcome him or his sister--despite the fact that she is completely faultless in the matter--in court when he has overturned the natural order of things so uncaringly."
"So Elise--Uther has decided that the Lady Elise and Arthur aren't to be married anymore?"
"Merlin," says Gwen, a little curiously, "That's been decided from the moment the rider came with the news. Surely Arthur told you?"
Merlin forces himself to smile.
"Well, as I said--we haven't really had a chance to speak."
"You know what he's like," says Morgana, airily, "Hates thinking about injustice he can't do anything about, and he must hate dwelling on Cormorant's misfortune, and Elise's, when their only fault was to love their son and brother. The biggest question," she continues, "is Mercia, of course, and the security of our border with them--something will certainly have to be done about that. But Piculet seems loyal to his king, if false to those he should have been truest to, so perhaps that's something we can afford to think about at a later date."
"So it's back to where we were a year ago," says Gwen with a small smile.
Merlin can tell she knows that something is not quite right with him, from the way her eyes linger on his face.
"And back to the starting board for Arthur," says Morgana, sympathetically but not without a little anger.
Merlin suspects it will be a long time before any of them cease to hear about the Lady Elise.
Like it was a year ago, Gwen says; the starting board, says Morgana.
Neither of them say, But this year has changed Arthur forever. Merlin is sure that they must be thinking it--all three of them are silent with the memory of it.
"Well, thank you for explaining," Merlin says to them, honestly. "I think I'll probably try to avoid being away from the castle for so long, in future--clearly my idea that things wouldn't happen if I wasn't here wasn't as sound as I'd thought."
He forces a laugh; Gwen and Morgana look at him a little oddly.
"And I'm sorry about the Lady Elise, Morgana--I am," he says, before his babbling lets something slip that he would not like to reveal.
There is nothing Merlin wants more than to interrupt Arthur's practice in the field, to march him back to his rooms, to make one last use of this mad year's leeway by ordering him away in plain sight of everyone else.
Except they all know this year is over. All of them except you, Merlin remembers.
He knows Gaius and his apprentice will be at the edges of the city, gathering moss and mushrooms. They've been stockpiling what they can before the dry, hot days suck all the moisture from the air and from the stones.
Merlin turns out of the courtyard and follows the city walls until he comes across them, bent double and surrounded by baskets.
"Gaius," he says quietly but forcefully, and Gaius hurries towards him immediately.
Isen keeps a respectful distance. Merlin will admit he's always liked him more than he otherwise might have because though he's been Gaius' apprentice in medicine for long months now, he has always respected Merlin's place as Gaius' family.
"What is it?" asks Gaius, quietly, and Merlin can read the terrible fear--Has someone seen? Does someone know?--in his eyes.
"It's not that," he says quickly, and Gaius relaxes.
Gaius clenches his hand into a fist to stop it trembling, and Merlin reaches his own hand out to still it, wrapping his fingers around Gaius'.
"I'm sorry; I shouldn't have arrived like that," he says sincerely.
Gaius nods, visibly trying to clear his head. Soon, Merlin thinks, he can tell Gaius that even if Uther should never understand, this battle is not one that they will have to fight with Arthur.
"Arthur didn't tell me about the wedding being cancelled," Merlin says, trying to keep his tone light, unconcernedly confused, but Gaius' eyes sharpen.
"Are things well between the two of you?" he asks.
"Yes," says Merlin. "Yes--I don't think it's that."
Gaius tilts his head, considering.
"You know Arthur," he says, finally. "He finds change difficult. And ever since he was a child, he's resented the thought that things happen simply because he's the prince. He came to accept that that's the way it was, with time, and I think at one point he even expected the privileges that came with it. But something like this, played out so publicly--a betrothal he didn't expect, the consequences of it, which he may not have foreseen, and now this abandonment of plans long-conceived at the last minute, when he's been preparing for it for so long--I'm sure he's very uncomfortable. Perhaps he simply wanted to extend the illusion of normalcy for a little longer?"
Merlin thinks of his long days spent in the gardens, trying to pretend he didn't hear workmen hauling furniture into what would have been the Lady Elise's rooms.
"I suppose I can understand that," he says finally.
Gaius shrugs, as if to say, I can't be certain that's right, mind you.
"I'll talk to him," says Merlin, and Gaius says, plainly amused,
"Yes. That's probably for the best."
Arthur still hasn't returned to his rooms when Merlin finally gets back, but Merlin is strangely grateful for the silence. He even finds himself hoping that it will take Arthur a long time to return.
He changes the linens, polishes Arthur's boots and scabbard and even the bedposts--he's scrubbing furiously at wood that's already gleaming, hoping that expending enough energy will somehow make things clear.
Arthur has known about this for days, and not only said nothing, but kept Merlin in his bed--kissed Merlin in his bed, and wrapped around him as they slept. He's done this despite knowing that the bride that had allowed them to start this to begin with would not be arriving as agreed.
Merlin thinks back to the night when Arthur had come to him so desperate, when they had both acted as if they were starving for the other's touch--the night that man had ridden in from Cormorant's estate, the night that Arthur had found out. Merlin struggles to decide what to think. He wipes savagely at the bedpost for a few more seconds, then sits on the bed, hurling himself backward into the pillows.
Gawain had taken them fishing after that day, too. Arthur had known about Cormorant when he'd let Gawain see, and Gawain, Merlin thinks … Gawain must have known, too, because everyone had known, even the girls in the bakeries. Merlin, who had made such a conscious effort to know nothing about what was to come, was the only one who had managed to avoid the news, which would have been obvious if he'd only bothered to look around.
He's uncertain, Gawain had said. He's not going to be the one to say it. Bear that in mind if things are difficult at week's end.
And things are difficult, Merlin supposes, because the line that had been clearly demarcated in the sand for them to use as a reference has been swept away with the news that the Lady Elise isn't coming. And perhaps Arthur doesn't know what to say to Merlin, now, how to explain that things have to be called off now that there's no wedding to call them off for.
He's uncertain about everything but this, Gawain had said, but that doesn't make sense--surely there is nothing to be uncertain about. Surely there wasn't anything to be uncertain about ten days ago, when Arthur had already known the wedding would not take place, and had known that Merlin knew how things would have to be.
Why should I say anything, when nothing good will come of it? Arthur had asked Gawain, and that doesn't make sense either.
Arthur was right to think that Merlin could not feel happiness at knowing … what? At knowing the betrothal had been called off? That's ridiculous. Has he never stopped to look at Merlin's face when he touches him, when they walk past any reminder of the wedding? And even if that had been the case, it doesn't seem logical that Arthur would say that, for other reasons: Arthur avoids conversations because he dislikes having to say things, but not because he's afraid of saying them.
Arthur is many things, but he is not a coward.
I would be grateful if you would wait, Arthur had asked Merlin.
Merlin thinks, Well, I would have been grateful if you hadn't kept this to yourself.
But that's not true, either--he is grateful that Arthur said nothing, that he bought them a few more days with his silence.
How could Arthur possibly not know--he's uncertain; he won't risk hearing what he thinks you'll say--how much Merlin wants every moment they spend together to stretch out endlessly?
It can't be possible that Arthur is uncertain about what Merlin feels. After every hungry kiss, after every drawn-out, desperate moment in which Merlin has wanted for them to never be untangled, has practically said so directly. But what else could make Arthur act the way he has been?
I know that you would like to give me something, for this year. That you've wanted to help.
Merlin had wanted Arthur to know that Merlin wanted him to have anything he wanted. That nothing made Merlin happier than seeing him laugh freely and unencumbered. That Merlin fell a little more in love with him every time the lines of responsibility seemed to melt from his face. And he doesn't understand how Arthur could have misinterpreted that--
I know there are certain things I cannot ask you. That I would not like to ask you.
Arthur, Merlin thinks, and he feels torn between tears and hysterical laughter. You complete, utter idiot.
When Arthur walks in, two heavy tomes tucked under his arm--Merlin is glad to see that this particular habit might be here to stay--he shoots an inquisitive look at the furniture's gleaming surfaces, at his neatly folded clothes, at the food steaming on the table.
"Where's Merlin?" he asks, seriously, and Merlin offers a dry,
"Your wit, sire; it slays me."
Arthur huffs out a laugh.
Merlin waits until Arthur has finished eating--he ladles more and more food onto Arthur's plate, and watches in amusement as Arthur keeps eating, an uncertain look in his eyes. Merlin waits until he is certain that Arthur could not make an escape even if he wanted to, and only when Arthur is sprawled on the bed, breeches unlaced and chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, does Merlin curl up against his side and say, casually,
"I suppose that, wedding or not, things will have to go back to normal."
Arthur manages to tense every muscle in his body at once, though it's obvious that he's so full that he can barely move.
"You do know," he whispers, and Merlin answers,
"I didn't until today, actually. But I heard it from someone who knew earlier. My choices were limited, you'll understand, what with every other bloody person in the castle knowing what was going on."
Arthur has the good grace to blush. But Merlin does not miss the panic in his eyes, which Arthur, also to his credit, tries valiantly to conceal.
"I've spent days away from the castle in the hopes that when I came back, this betrothal would have been fortuitously dissolved for an unlikely but compelling reason, Arthur. Yet when it turned out that, against all odds, that is exactly what had happened, you thought--what? That you'd let me drive myself half-mad for a few more days, and wait to see how that turned out?"
"I--you've … Half-mad?" Arthur asks.
He's blinking quickly, as if someone has just asked him an extremely complicated question. Then suddenly something--Merlin can't think of another way to describe it--something blooms into life on his face, and he says, quietly,
"You-- you want this. Not just for now."
"Of course I want this," says Merlin, quickly--too quickly to give Arthur too much time to think. "Forever, if at all possible."
Keeping him off-balance is vital if he's to get the whole story, he thinks.
"I thought-- You said that you were doing it for me. So that I could have something. And I've-- I've understandably always thought it was a part of your-- Of this indulgence-facilitation campaign, the praises of which you've sung at every bloody turn since March, Merlin."
"Just because I wanted to make you happy, Arthur, doesn't mean that I wasn't hoping that it could be something for both of us. That it didn't make me happy, that I didn't cherish it for me. That I didn't wish that it might mean something about both of us, to you. That it might mean something."
"I thought that-- that this was something you'd agreed to do only for this year, because of everything," Arthur tells him. "That you wanted to make me happy. That you were happy too, but I thought perhaps-- that when you found out about Cormorant's lands you would … that that would be the end of it. And then I thought that if I showed you that I wanted Gawain to know, that I wanted something more than a year from you-- but you didn't say anything, after."
Oh, Arthur, Merlin thinks. And then, How was I supposed to know that you don't know how to whisper in bed, when I've seen you shout so clearly to hundreds of men over battlements?
"You've been so … reserved," Arthur says, and even as he's saying it Merlin can see he realises the foolishness of it.
Merlin makes a face, thinks that Arthur must be remembering every gasped entreaty, every fingertip-shaped bruise, every morning of Merlin tugging Arthur back into the sheets, unwilling to let him go, every soft look and every desperate handclasp.
"Merlin," Arthur says finally, looking at him helplessly, repentantly.
Merlin understands him, of course: after all, he can't precisely claim that he was much quicker on the draw. He missed all of his cues, too.
He'll admit that he had thought Arthur loved him but couldn't possibly--couldn't ever--be in love with him, not if he was to sit on the throne that has been waiting for him since birth. The thought has made his heart heavy for months. But he hadn't somehow managed to convince himself, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that Arthur didn't love him at all, that he was biding his time until he could stop doing him some sort of bizarre favour.
"Arthur," he says, running his lips softly across Arthur's stubbled jaw. "Do you have some form of grave mental affliction?"
They will never call it making love, though that's clearly, embarrassingly what it is.
Arthur will tumble Merlin into beds, pin him against walls, push him into furs with the stars shining bright and waxy in the sky.
Merlin will mouth at Arthur's neck, will whisper advice into the shell of his ear, will stand at his right hand in battle and curl into his left shoulder in sleep.
As Gawain had predicted, Arthur will, indeed, choose just the right sort of wife, someone who loves his people as much as he does, who knows him for who he is. Merlin will love Guinevere intensely for her blazing smiles and for the diffident way in which she will always wear her crown, and she will love him back.
Every few years, Arthur will take great pleasure in revealing some previously undisclosed habit--a love of radishes or otters or crockery that he has not ever shared with Merlin before. Merlin will never quite know what it is he needs to be kept on his toes for, but he will take equal pleasure in saying, "This doesn't mean I don't know you, Pendragon," and in hearing Arthur grumblingly agree.
For now, though, Merlin thinks of nothing other than kissing. He traces the soft skin under Arthur's eyes, and he grips his jaw between firm hands.
"I want this," he says, and Arthur shivers under him, the hand on his back pressing the two of them together more firmly.
"I love you," Arthur whispers into his ear, his voice pitched low as if he does not want to startle Merlin by speaking.
Three windows crack suddenly behind him, and Merlin fits their lips together, not bothering to disguise the fact that he's doing his best to twine their bodies so that they can't easily be told apart.
Arthur tenses a little at the sound, then lets a tiny whimper past his lips.
"Me too," pants Merlin, "I think--I know I have, for months. I think I've always--"
He mouths at Arthur's collarbones and Arthur snaps his hips forward. He thrusts as if he can't wait another instant, but just as Merlin begins to feel the heat pooling in his spine, Arthur stops, slows down to slide smoothly against him in drawn-out, languorous movements.
Merlin feels as if Arthur is somehow halting the thundering speed with which this year has sped past them--starting on the day that Merlin had rushed to Arthur's rooms to ask about his future wife, culminating in the terrifying, headlong rush towards the end of August, which Merlin had wanted so badly to stop in its tracks.
The late afternoon sun is filtering through the windows, throwing the light of the cracked glass in patterns all along the floor, and this moment--Arthur's breath in his hair, the slide of Arthur's skin under Merlin's trembling hand--feels interminable. A cool breeze is sliding in through the spaces between the windows, and beneath the crack underneath the door: the last of the summer heat will fade soon.
But autumn stretches before them, and then the autumn after that. They have nothing but time.