It’s cold, and it’s muddy, and Arthur sometimes wonders if he’ll ever be warm and dry again. He’d like nothing better than to be by the fire at home, talking with his father and Morgana, waiting for Gaius to bring them a glass of brandy to end the evening, but every passing day makes that seem like more of a ridiculous dream. The letters from Morgana say that there’s almost no one left at the manor these days, that she’s begging Uther to turn it into a hospital.
If Morgana is doing that much, he can haul himself from his crouch in the trenches, put away his thoughts, and bring his men some comfort. They’ve taken losses, they’re cold and worn and too far from leave in both directions, and Owain was taken to the doctors a few hours ago and they don’t expect him back.
The grim knowledge of that sends him walking the trenches talking to those he has left, crouching low and awkward to avoid being seen. Most of them are content with a few words, a brief smile they pretend isn’t false. Lancelot shows a picture of his sweetheart back home, Leon a letter from his cousin Elena, training horses in the countryside. Gwaine makes jokes that aren’t quite as funny as everyone wishes they were about Arthur owing him a drink when they make it home. Arthur’s made these rounds before, down the line of his men, and they all know what to say.
At the end of the line, though, is Merlin—well, Private Emerson, that’s what Arthur should think of him as, but he keeps being stubbornly Merlin, from the first day before he realized Arthur was in command till now, when it’s simply the only way Arthur can think of him. He gives Arthur the same bright grin he always does, the one that makes him look like a fool, but he's busily cleaning his gun, running a cloth over the pieces with expert hands, even though his fingers must be nearly numb with the chill. “Captain Penn. Boosting morale?”
“Got sick of sitting where I was,” he says with a shrug, and sits down next to Merlin. He has a knack for finding the driest places to sit. “Keeping your equipment in good shape?”
Merlin’s grip on the barrel of his rifle is white-knuckled, and Arthur watches the way he forces himself to move again, slow and deliberate. His voice sounds wrong, just a shade off the bravery and cheer he’s trying for, when he speaks. “My life relies on it, doesn’t it?”
“Don’t do that to yourself, Private—Merlin.” Merlin keeps working, picking his speed back up and keeping his eyes on his gun, and Arthur drops a hand on his wrist to stop him. Both of them freeze, and Arthur withdraws his hand. No one is watching, but, well ... “Tell me about where you come from, then. Who’s waiting at home?”
By some miracle, it’s the right question. Merlin looks up, though at the cloudy sky rather than at Arthur, and he smiles. It isn’t his idiot-grin, or a smirk, or anything else Arthur recognizes except perhaps, once, something he saw after he’d had a letter from Morgana and was missing home fiercely, and Merlin had found him to pass on a message. “My mum, and our house. She’s got ... we’ve got a rose garden, I’ve been tending it since I was walking. My uncle taught me when I was a child, and she always told me it was my job. I spent years buying and bartering every beautiful rose we could afford, and she never stopped me, even when we could have used the money. I wish you could see it. They’d be putting on their spring growth, right now, and I’d be keeping an eye on my new crosses.”
Arthur thinks of a little cottage in some anonymous countryside, a riot of roses all around it, Merlin in the middle of them, a woman inside calling him in for dinner. The picture seems to fit him better than the one in front of Arthur right now, Merlin’s dirty, too-thin face and a gun in his lap, the cleaning forgotten while he daydreams. “My mother loved roses,” he says, for something to say. “Our gardener stopped caring for them after she died, though. I think my father asked him to stop. Maybe when we make it back I’ll invite you to come take care of them.”
“You mean you’ll hire me to do it, Lord Arthur,” Merlin says, a glimmer of humor in his tone. He’s never cowed by Arthur’s rank, military or otherwise. Mostly he seems to think it’s a joke, and if he’s feeling better enough to joke, then Arthur’s done him some good.
“Perhaps I will, you’ve proven yourself not entirely useless.”
To further confirm he’s doing a little better, Merlin rolls his eyes, finishing his cleaning at last and putting everything in its proper place. “Such high compliments, Captain. Are you sure you’re feeling quite well?”
Arthur plays at affront. It’s an easy rhythm to fall into with Merlin, who he should talk to least of his men by logic but who always seems to be at his shoulder. “Are you implying that I am anything less but at the pinnacle of my abilities?”
Merlin laughs, a short, cut-off sound, mindful of who might be listening. “Not implying, no.”
Before Arthur can answer, there’s the sound of shelling far down the line, and Arthur heaves himself to his feet, already shouting orders. At least this time he has the image of a rose garden, the sound of a laugh, and the thought of something that might come after the war to get him through.